Florida Roadtrip 2015

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π day we headed south down I-65 toward Florida. It was Maxwell & Zara's Spring Break, but unfortunately not Alora & Brittan's so it was only the four us. Our first stop was Huntsville, where we visited the US Space & Rocket Center. Werner Von Braun picked the location in because the rolling hills reminded him of his boyhood home in the eastern Reich. Zara was the only one of us who hadn't been there before, but Maxwell is the only one who'd been there recently as part of a school field trip. Seeing the rockets and the history of NASA is still exciting though.

After that we continued down I-65 toward Pensacola. Most people who take a Spring Break to Florida drive to a beach and stay there in once place the whole time. Very boring. (Although some people would likely say, very relaxing). We decided we'd rather apply the model we've used successfully on so many trips West of have a general route, camping gear, and flexibility. The first night our end goal was Keva's family's house in the panhandle. As we drove through southern Alabama I thought of the E. O. Wilson book I read over the winter: Anthill. Fascinating to think that little crazy ants are slowly replacing the fire ants of my childhood in southern ecosystems. Naturally also I brought Roadside Geology of Florida to read along the way.

Zara helps out on stage.

Cara gets into vacation mode at The Fish House.

We stopped for dinner in Pensacola at a place called The Fish House situated right on Pensacola Bay. Smartphones make the gastronomical part of roadtrips a sinch. We'd planned to enjoy local seafood along the way, because it's actually the easiest to work with the kids' food restrictions. Maxwell enjoyed his first of many seared tuna dinners that week. Cara got a big fancy fruity drink to get in the vacation spirit. I decided upon the oysters, because I hadn't tried them since childhood and they were a local specialty. As with many things I haven't tried since childhood, oysters were not as gross as I remembered them. They were actually quite good!

After dinner we headed to Keva's, where we spent the next few hours catching up. Well, Cara and Keva caught up. The rest of us were just meeting for the first time. Their kids are preschool age and pretty hilarious. The older one wore a dog hat snapped around her chin the whole time and did a lot of fetching. Apparently she hasn't taken the hat of since she found it a few weeks earlier.


I started the second day of our trip off with a nice long run to Pensacola Bay and back. Cara, in full vacation mode, was not up yet when I got back. So the kids played some more and the adults chatted some more. We eventually got on the road around lunchtime. This was fortuitous because right there in Navarre was a Whataburger. Whataburger is something of a Texas fast food institution which Richard Spinner first recommended to me on a trip to pick up Brittan from San Antonio a few years back. Maxwell & Zara were on that trip, but this was Cara's first Whataburger. Yum!

Our adventure today was visiting Florida's highest waterfall. I know, a waterfall in Florida? Well, Florida's bedrock is mostly limestone, which means karst topography, i.e. caves, sinkholes and such. Florida's sinkholes have actually yielded a wealth of information on late Cenozoic fauna unparalleled anywhere else in North America. So it's not surprising that Falling Waters State Park has a waterfall which falls from the surface into a sinkhole where the stream continues underground. Pretty hilarious!

Falling Waters

Maxwell sets up camp by the light of the van.

After Falling Waters we had to visit Tallahassee. I mean HAD TO. Zara had been reading up on Florida in preparation for the trip and decided that visiting the state capitol was of primary importance on our journey. Naturally I had to oblige, finding a barbeque place (Piggy's) which advertised gluten free options since we were far from the coast. We even drove by the state capitol building as we headed out of town.

Our second night was our first camping night, and we spent it at a Suwanee River Music Park where apparently they have multiday concert events. There was not one going on at the time and we were mostly interested in waking up close to Suwanee Springs and the fact that they had a large bat house. After s'mores and some nice time by the fire we bedded down for the night.


After breaking camp and checking out the bat house (it was pretty ginormous), we headed to nearby Suwanee Springs on the Suwanee River. Unfortunately, we found it to actually be under the Suwanee River, which had the tannic color of freshly brewed tea. None of us really wanted to get in water that color, so our plan to swim in the spring was dashed. We hiked around and found an old bridge where we took some pictures before getting back on the road.

Gainesville is home to the Florida Museum of Natural History, located on the campus of the University of Florida. There are only 8 parking spots for the museum, all full of course. We parked in a student lot instead and got a parking ticket which apparently if I don't pay off I may not be able to graduate. The museum was excellent as expected. Florida's karst topography has led to a wealth of Cenozoic fauna getting trapped in sinkholes and preserved and the museum highlighted some of the larger and rarer species, from the Columbian Mammoth in the entryway to giant ground sloths and glyptodonts. Cara's favorite, naturally, were the sloths. My cellphone now sports an image of her posing as the sloth behind her does in my background. Maxwell, on the other hand, was more excited about marine fauna, especially the megalodon. Lunch was Burger Fi - a little to high end (Kobe beef), but I did get to sample the local Swamphead brew. Geology, zoology, gastronomy, u.s.w.

Our plan for that evening was to meet my cousin Miriam with her kids, Brandon & Ashlynn, and her brother's daughter Savannah. Miriam is unfortunately going through a divorce so her and the three little amigos are living at her parents' place. Leslie was out of town and Jay too busy to join us, but we were mostly getting together so the kid cousins could spend some time with eachother. Their last common ancestors were Mattie & Robert Fortune, my great-grandparents.


Zara, Savannah
Ashlynn, Maxwell, Brandon

Along the way down I-75 we passed a sign for manatee viewing and I made a snap decision to stop. One of our goals during the trip was to see manatees in the wild, but had planned to do it later in the week on the Atlantic coast. Since wildlife doesn't alway comply with trip plans, we decided it was worth the short detour out toward Tampa Bay. We were not disappointed!! Just outside the power plant in Apollo Beach the manatees gather to enjoy the warm water it provides during the colder months of the year. There were several manatees swimming about and we watched them for nearly an hour. Aquatic mammals are always interesting, perhaps because we humans are semi-aquatic ourselves. The manatees who frequented these waters were identifiable by scars from their run-ins with motorboats, a sad reminder of the ongoing extinction event that is the Anthropocene.

For dinner we met for dinner at an oyster bar on Siesta Key. Having had such luck with oysters the night before I ordered them again and Maxwell decided to join me. Maxwell loves almost every kind of seafood, but after two oysters he reached the conclusion that they were not food he needed to eat again. Zara and Savy hit it off almost immediately, talking, coloring and carrying on. Brandon and Ashlynn, who are somewhat younger, took a little longer to warm up, but Brandon decided Maxwell was alright when he started doing gross things with the oysters he was not eating. Even though Brandon is half Maxwell's age, Maxwell later declared hanging out with him to be one of the funnest parts of the trip. Maxwell, you see, has only sisters, all his first cousins are girls, and all his second cousins are girls except little Kellan King, who is still a toddler.

After dinner and some perfuntory junk shopping we headed out to the white (i.e. gypsum) beach there on the key. The kids and I frolicked in the water while Cara and Miriam caught up. The last time we'd all seen eachother was at my brother Packie's wedding. When Cara & I were dating I would bring her along on family trips to Cape San Blas where the Fortunes were also vacationing. Miriam was in elementary school at the time and Cara and my sister Jaime used to capture her and do her hair. We played on the beach way later than we should have. So late, in fact, that all the local state parks were closed for camping and we were stuck staying at a Motel 6.


We decided to turn a lost night of camping into a win by driving a little further south and staying in Venice, FL. We had heard more than once that Venice Beach was a prime location to collect fossils, including megalodon teeth. We got up in the pre-dawn hours to get there at low tide so we'd have our best chance at fossil prospecting. We did not find any shark teeth. We did collect some fossil bone fragments and part of a fossil crab claw, but those finds were rather underwhelming.

After a breakfast of sandwiches out of the back of the van we hopped on the road again to visit the Everglades. It would be a long day of driving, because we had to drive all the way over to the other side of the peninsula to get to the main entrance to the park. Along the way we saw an alligator or two, but none of the panthers signs warned us might be crossing the road. The prettiest part of the drive was probably through the farm country along 997, where we even saw dragonfruit growing.

Fossil Hunting

It was late afternoon by the time we made it down to the canoe rental place in Flamingo. We got our backcountry permits, rented a couple canoes, and then packed up our gear in plastic bags for the trip across Florida Bay. The plan was to canoe five miles or so along the coast to a campsite on the beach. We left the dock a little after 5 and headed out into the bay, Cara & Zara in one canoe and Maxwell with me in the other. Suffice to say, it was an adventure. Florida Bay is only a few feet deep with a number of different sea grasses covering the muddy limestone. The same limestone present throughout the peninsula is underfoot here as well, it's just not thick enough to be above sea level right now. When humans first came to Florida over ten thousand years ago this area was above sea level along with an area the size of the current peninsula to the west of Florida. A few meters more and the whole of the Everglades will be a part of Florida Bay!

Even in the shallow water, the wind blowing against us made enough of a current that rowing was tough in areas without a windbreak. We finally opted for a less straight route hugging the coast to avoid the wind. Because of a misunderstanding Maxwell and I circumnavigated Bradley Key on the windward side of which we probably did our toughest rowing. Because the going was so tough we waited for the girls only to find they had gone through the channel between the Key and the land which we had thought to be too shallow. As darkness approached Maxwell and I rowed hard to find the campsite. All the coast we saw was tree-lined though. As twilght was replaced with dark of night Maxwell got worried, but was reassured by testing the shallowness of the water with his paddle. Worst case scenerio: we get out and walk to shore.

We were far ahead of the girls by this point, but I periodically signalled back to them with a flashlight. They hadn't thought to keep one out of the plastic bags, and so couldn't respond, but Cara later told me it was helpful. Eventually we rounded a cape and spotted open beach. We ran our canoe aground and then got out in the thick mud to drag it up to the bank. It was at this point that the truly viscious aspect of the Everglades enveloped us: the bugs! We quickly started setting up the tents (I made sure they came in our canoe) and put on longer clothes to cover our skin. The bites from that night and the next morning would plague me for the next couple weeks. Cara is much luckier in this regard - hers faded in a day or so.

After the girls arrived and we'd built a fire we finally enjoyed a late dinner of hotdogs before turning in. The adventure didn't end there however. We didn't sleep well with the waves lapping against the canoes propped up against the bank, which was porbably a good thing. Cara heard a metal cup fall and looked out to discover that a single canoe remained on the bank. She quickly alerted me and we both jumped out of bed and into the night. As I pulled the remaining canoe up onto the bank, Cara chased the other out into Florida Bay in her underwear. When she'd managed to pull it back I lifted it up onto the bank as well. And then we slept, figuring that since there was a canoe on either side of the tent we'd get wet well before they floated off again.

Cara chasing the canoe


The Canoers

Sunrise saw the tide out far from the beach but no respite from the no-see-ems as our tent was still shaded by the trees on the little cape. Up the beach a little ways in the direct sunlight was much better, but we needed to take down the tents. We broke camp as quickly as we could, rebagged our belongings and packed up the canoes. Then I had to drag each canoe across fifty feet of sticky mud to the water's edge. This canoe trip was not hurried by the fall of night so it passed much more leisurely. Along the way we saw shark fins, a few fish, and lots of grass. By now Maxwell and Zara were feeling like pros and Cara was proud of having survived her first backcountry camping adventure. Hopefully there will be many more!

We stopped on Bradley Key on the way back for a rest and potty break. The kids took great enjoyment in making jokes about peeing on something that shared a name with their dad. It was around one o'clock when we finally made it back to the dock in Flamingo. There we saw our only salt water crocodile. It seemed to be rounder than the alligators with which I am familiar. Then it was back on the road, headed for the keys.

I couldn't resist stopping at Schnebly Winery/Brewery, which advertised itself as the southernmost in the US. Cara tried the wines made with local fruits like the lychee while I tried their brews. Maxwell & ate salami. It was an interesting experience, but I really don't like beers with added flavors. Especially coconut.

During the planning stages of the trip Maxwell had repeatedly protested what he considered the unnecessary danger of travelling to the keys. His hangup about islands had completely disappeared in the wake of our canoeing adventure though. Thus we passed off of the mainland without protest from the back seat. Driving along overseas highway between the keys really is beautiful. It is a little weird to see boats stopped in the middle of the water with people walking around them. Camping on the keys was a little harder than we anticipated unfortunately, so we ended up booking a hotel in Key West. We dined that eve at the Hogfish Bar & Grill where, naturally, I had hogfish. It was excellent. Key West is kind of a wacky place, which we first experienced that evening. Before dinner I wandered the docks with the kids and we saw houseboats parked with eclectic artwork and plantlife along the docks. And wild chickens, wilder even that the ones one sees in the Maui jungles.

Maxwell inspecting the docks at sunset.


Protecting their chicks...

Cara loves junk shopping and so our plan was to hit the junk shops along Duval Street after breakfast. We took the hotel shuttle there to avoid the hassle of parking and walked to breakfast. Along the way we saw more chickens. Seeing them up close it appeared that on Key West they have returned to the coloration of the wild jungle fowl of southeast Asia from which they are descended. By the time we reached Blue Heaven for breakfast, we realized that Key West has a special place for chickens in their culture. The restaurant was outside and a cock appeared to be defending the entrance until we realized he was actually defending a hen with her chicks in a stand of bamboo just inside the restaurant. While we ate another chicken walked a tightrope over the bar. The amazing part was the complete lack of chicken poo anywhere. Cara and I could only guess that on a completely natural diet (as opposed to the chicken feed we fed ours), their digestion tract moves at a slower pace.

After getting some souvenirs we grabbed the shuttle back to the hotel. I packed up our things in the room while Cara helped Maxwell and Zara practice with their snorkeling gear in the pool. We were back on the road by noon. Our first stop was Big Pine Key, where we saw a key deer and a blue hole. The former is a pygmy version of normal deer native to the keys but somewhat endangered. The latter is an example of karst topograpy of limestone when the water table is near the surface; basically it's a sinkhole filled with water.

After grabbing a quick lunch we headed to the state park on Bahia Honda Key on the advise of Mark Scherrens, who apparently proposed to his wife Jen in the Keys. It was good advice, because the snorkeling there was fascinating but not to strenuous for the kids - they could always just stand up. Mustaches, however, are not condusive to snorkeling.

After snorkeling all afternoon we were pretty beat and hungry, so we found a place on Marathon Key with live music and seafood. Then things got a little nutty. I drove us back to the mainland and then I fell asleep while Cara drove. Cara was going to just drive past Miami. There is a lot of Miami though. Eventually she woke me up and I took over while she slept. With everyone else asleep I decided to keep going so we could see the sun rise on Daytona Beach.

Zara the Snorkeler


Follow the Leader

I stopped at Starbucks just outside Daytona to get some coffee before heading to the beach and Cara woke up, so we both had a light breakfast. The plan was to drive out onto Daytona Beach, a uniquely Floridian activity, but the tide did not comply. We ended up parking right off the beach and heading out on the beach to play. Daytona Beach fits Cara's ideal of a beach: big hotels right on the beach and big surf to play in. This is the model we both saw on the Atlantic beaches of the Delmarva Peninsula as kids, but I'm not sure I share her opinion that it's ideal. Still, we had a lot of fun walking along the beach in the rising sun and Zara & I played together in the waves. It was the most intense surf she's ever experienced! Then we got Slurpees and Cara did a little more junk shopping.

Our next stop of the trip northward was the oldest city in North America: St. Augustine. This year marks the 450th anniversary of its settlement! We lunched out of the back of the van in a parking deck and then headed into town. Our first goal was to see the Castillo, a colonial era fort that defended the waterway into the city. It was interesting to compare this fort to the one we have visited so often outside Savannah, Fort Pulaski. Both have a drawbridge over a moat whose approach is protected by earthworks, but the scale of the Castillo is so much smaller. Of course, the Castillo had much more success protecting St. Augustine than Fort Pulaski ever did protecting Savannah. Whereas the Castillo held off the British Navy in it's day, Fort Pulaski fell to Union guns during its first engagement. After touring the fort we stuck around for the Spanish colonial firearms demonstration, complete with badly pronounced Spanish commands by the re-enactors.

Next we walked around the old town with its delightfully small streets. Cara got in a final round of junk shopping and we lunched at a little cafe not far off the water. I love places where nature is intertwined in the architecture, where the line between indoors and outdoors is blurred. There is a lot of that in Florida.

That night we pitched our tents for the last time in Florida's Osceola National Forest on the shore of Ocean Pond. There wasn't actually a shore really so much as a place next to the raod where the swamp had been filled with mulched debris. Still, it was a beautiful view of the lake and we found enough dry wood to make a nice fire and welcome the evening. At least, that is, uptil it started raining and we had to run to our tents.

Zara takes aim with an imaginary bow from the parapets of the Castillo.


Morning Sillies

Cara and Zara slept in, but Maxwell and I always seem to wake with the sun. We let them sleep and headed out to explore the forest. Any direction we took off the road seemed to lead to water, so we ended up walking down the sandy clay road chatting about our life and recent adventures. I'm not sure how many miles we covered, but the girls were still not up when we got back. Our noise around the campsite packing things up soon changed that though. It wasn't long before we were all packed up and back on the road, this time headed home.

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