Anastasia is a magical place

There is a full moon hanging in a cloudless sky, and it scatters diamond flashes across the surface of the salt run.

A relentless wind sends rows of white surf exploding onto the beach. But beneath the tree canopy – long ago sculpted by the elements into a natural windfoil – a lively fire in an iron ring barely yields to that offshore force of nature.

Across the inlet a long, tall bridge is aglow from stem to stern. And nearer still the old lighthouse continues to beam welcome home signals to nautical wanderers.

On this enchanted night I am reminded of the sheer wonder in the eyes of my children on a similar evening, some two decades past, when we ventured out onto this dark beach and discovered they could create swirls of phosphorous light simply by running their small fingers across the wet sand.

At this magical Florida place of light and shadow and surf.

It’s not just that Anastasia State Park is my favorite place in all of Florida to camp. It’s my favorite campground period. My family has been coming here for more than 30 years. My children grew up here – whooping along its rabbit warren of wooded trails like little savages, exploring amid the dunes, splashing in the surf and sleeping under weather-gnarled trees all a-draped with Spanish moss.

Indeed, spring break camping at Anastasia was an annual event from the time Jenny and Andrew could toddle until well into their teens. Usually it was a dads and kids only affair that eventually came to involve multiple families. We dads had two hard and fast rules: 1. You had to come back with as many kids as you left with and, 2. Extra points if they were the same kids. They played hard into the night and awoke in the morning to the smell of bacon frying. Bleary eyed, they’d stagger out of their tents, one after another, to snag rashers right off the grill.

I don’t care if you’ve been to St. Augustine a thousand times. If you haven’t been to Anastasia you really don’t know the allure of America’s Oldest City. This is where the Tumucuans, to their ultimate misfortune, encountered the Spanish. It is here that laborers quarried the coquina that fashioned the massive fortress Castillo de San Marcos just across the water.

Anastasia State Park is 1,600 acres of woods and estuary and sand. It is four miles of open beach, off limits to cars thank you very much. It is a long narrow salt run – a warm, shallow lagoon protected from the ocean by a dune barrier – home to an impressive variety of shore birds and popular with wind surfers, kayakers, paddle-boarders and fishers. It is 139 campsites – some large enough to accommodate RVs – strewn among tree thickets and sited so close to the ocean that you go to sleep and wake up again to the sound of the surf. It is home to the endangered Anastasia Beach Mouse and bands of four-legged night scavengers that will steal you blind if you don’t lock your food away.

And maybe the best thing about Anastasia is its proximity to so much that St. Augustine has to offer. Just outside the main entrance is the old Anastasia Lighthouse. Climb its 219 steps and you will be 165 feet above sea level with 360 degree views to die for. Right across the street is the St. Augustine Alligator Farm – not just another Florida roadside attraction and not nearly as tacky as it might sound. It’s quite fascinating, really.

If you decide to go see Steely Dan or Jackson Browne or another favorite band from your youth at the St. Augustine Amphitheater you can’t pick a more convenient place to spend the night – the park is right next door and has a path that gives campers direct access to the show.

From Anastasia it is a 15-minute bike ride to the Bridge of Lions and all that Old Town has to offer. A 20 minute ride through a back exit gate will get you to the restaurants and attractions on St. Augustine Beach. If you are feeling ambitious continue pedaling south and you will sooner or later arrive at Fort Matanzas National Monument, Marineland and Washington Oaks State Park. Or head north through the city and over the Vilano Bridge to get to Caps on the Water, Guana River Nature Preserve and Ponte Vedra Beach. If you are too hungry to wait that long, there are several great restaurants closer to the park, including the Gypsy Cab Co., Mellow Mushroom, O’Steens and The Conch House.

But here’s the thing about Anastasia State Park. Once you actually arrive and set up your tent, the temptation to stay – to not go anywhere – is enticing. You can lose yourself and all track of time amid the dunes and under the trees and by the fire and on the trails and along the beach and in the surf and the salt run.

If you value sense of place, Anastasia is one of those special Florida places that lures you in and only reluctantly lets you go.

(I originally wrote this for publication in Gainesville Magazine in 2016.)Unknown-1

 

 

 

 

 

A visit to a mobility revolutionary

THORNHILL, SCOTLAND: If you intend to make a pilgrimage to the final resting place of a mobility revolutionary, best to do it in proper fashion.

Say, perched on two wheels. And self-propelled.

Jill and I were just wrapping up a week-long bicycle tour of southwest Scotland, beginning at the Mull of Galloway lighthouse – perched on rocky cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean – and ending in this tidy little farm town all but lost amid the rolling green uplands and low stone wall-partitioned pastures of the sparsely-populated Dumfries-Galloway region.

It had been a splendid journey along wild coastlines, through picturesque villages, past ruined churches and grand castles.

And on this, the last day, there was one final destination to check off our must-bike to list.

Leaving Thornhill’s town square we enjoyed a brief, exhilarating coast down steep Boat Brae and then crossed the River Nith, not far from a place where tourists briefly climb out of their cars to photograph an ancient Celtic cross that rises in a field amidst grazing cows.

From there we turned onto a single-tracked lane that threads its way among postage stamp sized farms in a land where sheep and cattle far outnumber either cars or people.

Soon we crossed a bridge over a rocky creek….and almost missed it. A simple wooden sign bearing his name:

Kirkpatrick Macmillan.

Not there yet, though. Dismounting we walked several hundred yards along a weedy path to a woody glen where an ancient iron fence surrounds a even older graveyard.

But how to find him amidst scores of leaning, weather-eroded tombstones? Some of them had been there for centuries and were barely legible.

Fortunately, previous visitors had trampled a discernible trail through the carpet of overgrown grass. Just follow the depression and there he is.

What to say about Kirkpatrick Macmillan?

Well, we learn from his tall white headstone that he was the village smithy hereabouts. That he died at the age of 65, in 1878. That his wife, Elspeth passed when she was just 32, and that his progeny died in infancy or early childhood.

There is much more of the Macmillan family history crammed onto that stone. But it is the final line, seemingly an afterthought, that explains why pilgrims like us continue to this day to visit Kirkpatrick Macmillan.

“Inventor of the Bicycle.”

Innovators it seems can be found nearly everywhere. And even simple men who spend their days fashioning horseshoes and plowshares can change the world – often without ever knowing it.

Seems that in the early 19th century there was a new toy that was all the rage. They called it the Hobby Horse. Not a bicycle, exactly, just two wheels and a saddle attached by a wooden frame. You could “make it go” by straddling the contraption and then alternatively running and coasting.

Macmillan apparently saw one in action and had a radical idea: Why not attach pedals and eliminate the running?

Macmillan’s smithy shop, less than a mile beyond the cemetery, is still standing. A display mounted to the wall informs us that his “solution was to hang treadles from the front, driving cranks on the rear wheels by means of long connecting rods…” and to make “the rear wheel big enough to provide a useful ‘gear ratio.’”

His clever idea, in this remote place, touched off what amounted to a worldwide personal mobility revolution.

On one occasion, we are informed, Macmillan “rode his bike all the way to Glasgow and back (about 120 mile) which on poor quality roads must have required great strength.”

“In fact he is reputed to have beaten the mail coach at about eight miles per hour.”

The man never patented his personal mobility machine. Indeed his original vehicle has been lost to history because Macmillan apparently never realized its potential let alone tried to cash in on it.

“Kirkpatrick acquired a reputation for innovation,” the signage poses, “so was he too busy with other inventions to pursue what to us was his revolutionary one?”

Call him the original open source innovator. It would be left to others to take up and improve upon his design. Gradually, inevitably, chains and sprockets and wires and gearing and tubing and ever lighter and more durable materials would transform the toy Hobby Horse into a practical, reliable and increasingly more efficient self-propelled mobility machine.

And what would Macmillan have thought if he could have known that one day – and not all that many many decades into the future – two latter day bicycle innovators half a world away would take the technological evolution of his crude treadle-powered contraption and launch it into the very air on a windswept beach called Kitty Hawk?

Oh, I know, in our auto-obsessed age too many of our species still consider bicycles to be little more than toys. But we who have traveled countless miles under our own power on our finely crafted machines, who have been privileged to observe the world from a vantage point that few motorists could imagine let alone appreciate, know better than that.

Ours are not toys. Ours are Freedom Machines in the most literal sense. With them we may go where we please without benefit or burden of internal combustion generated power.

Viva la revolution!

(Ron Cunningham is a cycle commuter and former executive director of Bike Florida who lives in Gainesville, Fla. He has cycled widely in the U.S., Canada and Europe and will continue to do so as long as he can manage to propel himself on two wheels.)

Next time try winter camping

Listen, when better to take about winter camping then in the dead of a Florida summer?

How cool is winter camping on Little Talbot Island?

Don’t ask me. Ask the arctic snowy owl.

There have only been a few recorded Florida sightings of that largest species of North American owl, which rarely ventures south of Canada. But a few winters ago one inexplicably came to earth amid the sandy dunes and salt marshes of one of Florida’s last remaining relatively unspoiled barrier islands.

Magically appearing, as though a refugee from a Harry Potter movie.

And thereby provoking a stamped of birders brandishing binoculars, rushing in from miles around hoping to catch a glimpse of a very rare bird in paradise indeed.

“I never dreamed it would get into Florida, which is really, really rare,” Duval Audubon Society member Carolyn Wyatt told the Florida Times Union at the time. “It is very striking and has a bowling ball head.”

For the record, I never did catch sight of the aforementioned bowling ball head. But all the fuss over just another snowbird was enough to disrupt the normally splendid isolation of my favorite Florida winter camp ground.

Every February I book a couple of campsites for a cold weekend at LIttle Talbot Island State Park. It is an annual winter retreat for a select group of Gainesville guys (we used to go backpacking in the mountains but we got old, OK?). We arrive with prodigious amounts of firewood, a year’s worth of exaggerated stories and outrageous lies, warm sleeping bags, assorted tents, inflatable mattresses, bicycles, bottles, braggadocio and bluster.

You know, guy stuff.

Because here’s the thing about camping on Little Talbot Island.

If you do it in August you’re a masochist. Mosquitos and no-see-ums and biting flies oh my. If you go in December, January or February – well the only thing liable to bite is that sharp wind sweeping in off the Atlantic ocean.

Little Talbot – just a short ferry hop from metro Jacksonville across the St. Johns River – is a winter paradise. You can stroll along its five miles of unspoiled beach and hardly see a sole. Or wander the marsh grasses and mud flats that surround the camp on three sides. Or kayak the narrow, corkscrew path of Myrtle Creek. Or hike for miles amid ancient sand dunes and Spanish moss-draped oaks with only your thoughts to keep you company.

All without benefit of bug spray.

And if walking’s not your thing, jump on a bike and try out the new rail-trail that runs nearly all the way to the long George Crady Bridge connecting to Amelia Island. On a sunny day it is a spectacular ride over glistening blue water.

Do all of that and you will begin to understand what possessed French explorer Jean Ribaut, in April, 1563, when he arrived on this shore and promptly declared it “the fairest, fruitfullest and pleasantest of all the worlde.”

There are 40 camp sites on Little Talbot Island. With water, electrical hookups, picnic tables and that all important fire ring. The rest rooms/shower facilities are modern and clean. The campground is separated from the ocean side of the island by a narrow strip of U.S. A1A. But a clustering of dunes and dense tree cover maintains a sense of isolation between the campsites and the highway.

The other thing that makes Little Talbot a great place to camp is that there is no shortage of interesting places to visit in the vast Timucuan Preserve that surrounds the island on three sides. The area is rich in history, culture and breathtaking scenery. Small wonder the Timucuans lived here for thousands of years before being pushed out by the forces of “civilization.”

A half hour bike ride will get you to the Kingsley Plantation, a relic of the days when Sea Island Cotton was king; and the Ribault Club, a fully restored pre-Depression haunt of the rich and famous; and Hugoenot Memorial Park, northeast Florida’s premier birding area; and more. Or if you are really ambitious, take the 17-mile bike ride to Fernandina Beach (or drive if you must) and have lunch at one of the many restaurants in its historic waterfront downtown. And don’t forget to stop at Ft. Clinch State Park on the way and visit its red brick Civil War-era fortifications.

But really, if you go winter camping on Little Talbot Island, you are not going to want to stray too far from the fire circle. Especially after dark when temperatures fall and the cold begins to seep into your bones. There is something about staring into flickering fire and glowing embers on a cold night that stimulates the flow of conversation and facilitates easy camaraderie.

That’s how story telling began, after all. Companions huddled around a fire against the chill of the night and spinning fantastical tales to pass the time.

Some of which may even be true.

(Originally published in the Gainesville Sun in Oct. 2015)

Miles, kilometers and junk food

Yes, I do believe that the metric system is a socialist plot to destroy America.

I’m not sure if I heard that from Rush or from Glen Beck, but either way you can take it to the bank.

Still and all… I have this secret, albeit unpatriotic, vice.

I love kilometers. I lust after kilometers.

For cyclists, kilometers are the junk food of distance measures. Gobble down one and, well, you just want to keep eating those suckers up.

As opposed to miles. Which are what you are obliged to consume because they are “good for you.”

Like Brussel sprouts.

Check it out. If I want to ride a century in the states, that’s 100 miles. That’s a lot of broccoli, pal.

But a metric century in one of those socialist countries? That’s only 62 miles or thereabouts. Like pigging out on Cheese Doodles.

And my wife likes to run a 5K. That’s 3.1 miles. Do I hear the sound of potato chips crunching, dear?

Anyway, that’s why I went to Canada –  Nova Scotia to be more specific – in the summer of 2015 to cycle the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton.

Yeah, there were stunning seascapes to contemplate and admire. And very unFlorida-like mountains to get over (“Low gear, everybody down.”). And wonderfully cool and crisp weather to savor at a time when it’s 104 in the shade back and 100 percent humidity back in Gville.

But it’s all in kilometers, man! Talk about icing on the cake. And none of that sugar-free icing either.

Listen, there’s nothing more thrilling than racing down a steep, winding road off northern Cape Breton’s French Mountain – the sparkling blue water of the Atlantic spreading out on one side, sheer cliffs dropping away on the other – and glancing at the bike computer on my handlebars…

…and realizing that I’m going a freaking 64!

No, not 64 miles per hour, that would probably have killed me. But 64 kilometers an hour. And that’s still pretty freaking fast.

How fast? I’d tell you but Sanford isn’t paying me to write this so I’m not going to bother to do the math for you.

Let’s just say it’s fast. Really, really fast.

Still, the thing about junk food and socialism is that they both have a way of viciously turning on you when you least expect it.

Take our first day of touring on Cape Breton.

According to the cue sheets helpfully provided us by our tour company, Backroads, the first day was to be a relatively short shakedown ride of just 45 kilometers (that’s 28 good-for-you miles in American) from the lovely lakeside community of Baddeck, over Hunter’s Mountain (elevation 500 feet, you figure it out, Mike) and down into the beautiful Margaree River Valley to a pleasant lunch on the shore of scenic Lake O’Law.

But alas, my Gainesville cycling buddy Bruce Stechmiller and I went astray. First taking this wrong turn. And then that one. And then retracing our routes and crossing Hunter’s Mountain not once, but twice. And finally showing up at Lake O’Law long after everyone else (and the food) had decamped for our nearby lodgings.

Before it was all over, our computers were registering 88 kilometers (ask Mike) and I was writhing on the ground at lakeside with severe leg cramps, having not hydrated myself properly for an epic ride of that distance.

As far as Stech and I can figure, this unfortunate kilometer malfunction occurred for two primary reasons.

  1. Florida guys – well, let’s just admit it, all guys – are pretty much incapable of asking directions and unwilling to actually read the cue sheets. And
  2. Contrary to my presupposition, it turns out that you actually can get lost on an island. Who knew?

Ultimately we ended up bumming water off a very nice farmer in an authentic straw hat, and subsisting on emergency Snickers bars purchased at a roadside cafe.

And in desperation we finally did break down and ask directions, only to get conflicting advice.

First, the elderly woman in the antique store assured us that Lake O’Law was just down the road about 5 miles. “You can get there in about 20 minutes,” she said.

About half an hour down the road later, the aforementioned straw-hatted farmer told us he thought it was still more like 15 miles away.

So what have we learned from this friends and neighbors? Well, most obviously, both of those “locals” gave us distances in miles, not kilometers. Presumably because we weren’t fellow travelers, if you catch my drift.

I’m just saying, if they had told us in kilometers we probably would have arrived in 10 minutes and made lunch in plenty of time.

But, no, they made us do the ride in miles. Because it’s supposed to be good for us. Like eating cauliflower. We’re lucky to have made it at all.

All of which goes to show you that socialism isn’t entirely bad. Sorry Rush, sorry Glen, but you had to be there.

(Originally published in the Gainesville Sun in 2015)

 

 

My favorite Florida hideaways

You’ve been to Orlando to see the Big Mouse.

Check.

And you consumed an industrial-sized tropical drink in a neon South Beach cafe.

Check.

And you’ve done Bike Week, when the Harleys flock to Daytona like swallows to Capistrano.

Check.

And you say you’ve done Florida?

Not so fast pal.

My Florida is so much more than theme parks and beaches and aging Boomers playing Easy Rider.

It is big and beautiful and mysterious. It’s historic and epic. And of course it’s weird and tacky and ludicrous.

Here are some places you need to “do” if you want say you’ve done Florida.

Ron’s Magical Mystery Tour of Florida in 10 easy side trips.

  1. Solomon’s Castle

Drive down a secondary road in the middle of nowhere DeSoto County until you spot a very small sign pointing you into a wooded glen. There, quirky artist Howard Solomon has built his citadel, which looks to be made from 10,000 rolls of heavy duty aluminum foil but is really cobbled together from old metal newspaper printing plates. Howard filled his fortress with his own sculptures, made from old machine parts, oil drums and other castoffs (Hey, he’s been called the “DiVinci of Debris.” And he dug a “moat” to accommodate an absurdly contrived Spanish galleon with which to guard his kingdom.

Seriously, Disney needs to hire this guy.

  1. Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens

Florida at its best. Historic ruins. Breathtaking gardens. Concrete dinosaurs.

Port Orange’s best kept secret was a sugar plantation that abruptly went out of business when Seminoles, or possibly slaves, slaughtered the owner. The old millworks are still there. Now the 12-acre site is a lovely botanical garden teeming with spreading oaks, azaleas, magnolias, native plantsand an assortment of “prehistoric monsters.” This last because, briefly, in the 1950s, it was called Bongoland and sported a fake Indian village, miniature railroad, Flintstone-esque dinosaurs and a baboon named (what else?) Bongo.

3: Chief Tomokie

The chief is in residence at Tomoka State Park, near Ormond  Beach, in the person of an outrageously kitzy 40-foot sculpture created more than half a century ago by artist Fred Dana Marsh. Here’s the way my pal, Daytona Beach News Journal columnist Mark Lane, describes it: “The statue depicts an Indian legend manufactured in the 1950s. It shows the nude orange Amazon, Oleeta, aiming an arrow at Tomokie with murderous intent. Nearby, warriors are poised as back up. The tribe turned on Tomokie for the sacrilege of drinking the Water of Life from the Sacred Cup, because, well, who wants put up with that?” Who indeed?

Oh, and take along a bicycle. Tomoka State Park is situated on “The Loop,” a popular 34-mile scenic road that may be Florida’s most beautiful ride.

  1. Wewahitchka

Nothing weird about this wonderful little town near the banks of the Chipola River. It is the Tupelo Honey capital of Florida…heck, maybe the world. Here Peter Fonda filmed “Ulee’s Gold,” about – what else? – an eccentric beekeeper. There’s a two-day Tupelo Honey fest in May. Don’t like honey? Take a camera, kayak and pole and visit nearby Dead Lakes, which owes its haunting beauty and great fishing to thousands of drowned cypress trees. And if you think only Gainesville has a Lake Alice, think again. Alice lives in Wewa’s lovely downtown park as well.

  1. Bok Tower

Another one of Florida’s best kept secrets. This 205-foot, 60-bell, “Neo-Gothic/Art Deco Singing Tower” in Lake Wales sits atop (I’m not making this up) Iron Mountain – at 295-feet one of Florida’s highest points. The tower is a monumental work of art in its own right. The carillon music is sweet. The gardens and grounds spectacular. Gainesville photographer John Moran collaborated on a stunning book about Bok aptly titled “Finding Yourself: A Spiritual Journey Through a Florida Garden.” If you can’t find yourself at Bok you are hopelessly lost.

  1. Falling Waters and Florida Caverns

Yes, Florida does have a waterfall, and caverns you can visit without scuba gear. Best of all, these two state parks are just 25 miles apart, in Jackson County. At Falling Waters you can watch a typical Florida stream abruptly drop 100 feet into a sinkhole and vanish from sight. (If you want to see what Florida will look like after we’ve drained the aquifer, this park is lousy with sinkholes). Then head north to Marianna and tour Florida Caverns, a series of “dry” (air-filled) caves, replete with “dazzling formations of limestone stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, flowstones and draperies.” Of course the highlight of the tour is when the guide turns out the lights, giving you a breathtaking view of….absolutely nothing.

  1. We all want to know what the future holds, right. Florida’s own “spiritualist community.” wrapped around lovely Lake Colby in Volusia County, boasts the Cassadaga Psychic Spirtualist Center, the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp and any number of seers who stand ready, willing and able to read your palm, tea leaves or, for all I know, goat entrails. Even if you don’t buy into that stuff, Cassadaga is a genuine historic artifact and has been ever since 1875, when celebrated “trance medium” George P. Colby founded his spiritualist camp to do readings, lead seances and maybe even bust the occasional ghost.
  2. Sopchoppy

Where to start? Well, there’s the town’s annual Worm Grubbing Festival – this devoted to the art of hammering wooden stakes into the ground and vibrating them until the worms finally surrender. Then there’s the legend of the Wakulla Volcano, derived from long time sightings of strange glows and smoke emanating from a nearby swamp that may be camp fires…or something entirely more otherworldly and sinister. Even if you at not a wormaphile and don’t buy all that X-Files stuff, this one-time railroad town is nestled up against a bend in one of Florida’s prettiest little rivers, the Sopchoppy, and it’s begging to be canoed, fished and otherwise savored.

  1. Little Talbot Island

No tacky roadside attractions here. Just pure natural beauty and vibrant history. Start with Little Talbot Island State Park, with five miles of stunning white sand beach and endless expanses of marshy wetlands. Throw in Kingsley Plantation, once owned by a woman who had herself been a slave. Then see the Ribault Club, a restored Gadsby-era playground where the rich and shameless once wiled away their winters. Stop by the Huguenot Memorial, denoting a brief French occupation before the Spanish cleaned house. An awesome tree-lined bike path will take you to scenic Nassau Sound. And after you’re done with all that, hop the St. John’s Ferry for seafood in Mayport.

  1. Two-Egg

Just to say you’ve been there, that’s all. There are only a couple of rickety shacks left of “downtown” Two-Egg, at the intersection of state roads 69 and 69A in Jackson County. Take a selfie next to one of the “Two Egg” signs (if they haven’t been stolen again). And if anybody’s around, ask them how the town got its name (they still argue about it) and what they know about the Bellamy Bridge Ghost, the Two-Egg Stump Jumper (aka little hairy Bigfoot) and Long Cane Grinding Day (end of October or early November).

Listen, even if you’ve already been to two rodeos and a goat-roping, you’ve never seen anything like these slices of real Florida.

(I originally wrote this for Gainesville Magazine in 2017. Some of the reasons I love this quirky state of ours. Also these are all great places to see while riding on a bicycle.)