3-08-2014 Fort Pickens Day

Current Location: Natchez State Park, Mississippi 62 F this evening with partly cloudy skies

Fort Pickens-066This morning (Sunday) we are sleeping in, sort of.  Daylight Savings time kicked off at 2am and it is now 7 and just barely light out.  We thought an early departure would be in order, expecting to travel a bit over 300 miles or so northward today.  Options are plentiful, and I am leaning toward the direct route from Mobile through Hattiesburg to Natchez. 

power station installed in 1903, the generator roomI didn’t want to get on the road, however, before remembering the haunting experience of visiting the actual fort at Fort Pickens.  Just another way of realizing how much can be learned from being on the road.  I had never heard of Fort Pickens, other than bloggers posting now and then about camping here. 

Fort Pickens_019Until I visited the fort yesterday, I didn’t have a real grasp on what the Civil War meant in the state of Florida.  We have seen many references to the war in other sites in Florida.  Somehow I never realized how important Pensacola Bay was to the South, and to the Union trying to control the south by controlling its major ports.

Fort Pickens_024As I have said in the past, I don’t attempt to be either a travelogue or a history book, as there are so many fine resources for this kind of information.  However, if you are like me, being in a place triggers my imagination, and I found myself wanting to learn more and more about how this area was affected by the Civil War. 

Fort Pickens_027The National Park Service had some great books at the fort Visitor Center, and I wanted to stand and read them all, and maybe even buy them, but managed to refrain.  Instead, I found most of the information written by the park service is online, specifically, the role of Pensacola Bay  and the four major forts in the area in the Civil War is summarized here.  I was especially fascinated reading about the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, with troops losing their way in the dunes and scrub, among other human details.

At Pensacola Bay, there are four major forts and a bunch of batteries, most built long before the Civil War, fortified and rebuilt again in the early 1900’s around the time of the Spanish American War, and then rebuilt and refortified again for World War II.

Fort Pickens is a “real” fort, almost medieval in appearance, with bricks fired in the early 1800’s creating thick walls, much like those seen at our visit to the Dry Tortugas a few years ago.  There is even a moat, albeit a “dry moat”.  Fort Pickens_049

A few cannons are on display, with information about the smooth bore cannons and rifled cannons, and 300 pound cannon balls made of iron.  Geez.  Fort Pickens_029

A fascinating thought from the brochure about the Advanced Redoubt of Fort Barrancas across the bay, and also true of Fort Pickens: “This fort is a study in changes.  The construction began with slave labor but was finished by free men.  In an age of brick and stone, its walls were filled with cement.  Although it was designed to last for centuries, it was outdated before the last brick was set.”

Sounds like some of our defense stuff from the current times, I would say. Evidence of this kind of shift in defense is displayed extremely well at Fort Pickens with the “fort within a fort”.  Battery Pensacola (the dark walls in the photo) was constructed in 1898 to withstand the new heavier cannon power that the brick walls of the original fort could no longer handle.Fort Pickens_035

Funniest oops of all was the accidental explosion of one of the powder magazines that blew out a big hole in the north side of the fort and was never repaired.Fort Pickens_036

Fort Pickens_044Another bit of information that was totally surprising to me was that Geronimo was incarcerated at Fort Pickens for a time.  I had no clue, even though I knew that he was brought to Florida and never again saw his homeland.  Somehow history becomes much more real when you are standing in the actual location.  I am reminded again of moments standing at the scene of the Battle of the Little Bighorn on our trip in 2012.

We wandered around for along time, following along with the self-guided tour booklet an marveling at the fascinating story of the evolution of homeland defense for more than 100 years, all now obsolete with the advent of air power  and missiles.  Large forts no longer protect our harbors and bays, but Pensacola still houses a huge military presence.Fort Pickens_034

With Abby safely napping in the MoHo while we toured, Mo and I took the time to go to the beach together for a bit and enjoy the gorgeous white sands and beautiful waters one last time.  There was so much to do in the area, and we barely tapped the surface.  In spite of our desire to visit Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt, (a fortification before the major fortification, built to slow down the attackers before they get to the real thing) the need to slow down and rest a bit before dinner won out.Fort Pickens_079

We would have loved especially visiting the Naval Aviation Museum, the best in the country I have heard, and if we had been here a bit longer, we may have been treated to a practice performance by the Blue Angels.  Yes, so very much to do.Fort Pickens_084

Our last night in Florida was celebrated in true Pensacola style with a drive across the bridges from the island to the mainland for dinner at McGuire’s.  On a Saturday evening the place was packed, and it is first come first served, no reservations.  In spite of the giant crowds jammed at the door, in the bar, in the gift shop and everywhere we looked, within 20 minutes we were seated at a cozy table.  We even managed a seat in the bar for pre dinner drinks! 

DSC06804McGuires is an amazing place, and with the huge jammed full parking lot, somehow the interior of the restaurant is designed such that it feels like a small rather intimate pub.  I have no idea how they do that.  We had one of the best waitresses ever, who treated us as if she had all the time in the world, and saw to our every need.  Dinner was simple fish and chips, with those fabulous Rueben Egg Rolls for an appetizer.  Mo loved them as much as I did!

I lugged the camera along, but took not a single photo, either of the pub, the people, or the food.  It was just too much to try to take pictures while we were having fun and thoroughly enjoying the people watching. 

90053023Right across from us was a couple on the date from hell.  The girl was adorable, and the guy was a dork, on his phone half the time, and you could tell they didn’t know each other very well.  It was so obviously a first date and an awkward one at that.

Then we noticed a lot of guys dining together, most of them with very spiffy military haircuts, and even a group of incredibly well pressed Marines sat down next to us.  Whew….there must be a LOT of loose guys running around in this town on a Saturday night. Now, of course, I wish I had taken some photos to illustrate all this interesting humanity, but you will just have to use your imagination.

imagesIn spite of the no photos problem, I couldn’t resist stealing a few from the internet, just to give you a bit of a feel for the place.  They even have their own Irish Piping Band, and a St Paddy’s Day run, their own double decker busses and who knows what else.  I guess it is a bit like Irish Disneyland.  Fake but fun. And terrific food!

We both thought it quite fitting that we started our sojourn into Florida with dinner at McGuire’s in Destin, and ended it with dinner at McGuire’s in Pensacola. 


3-06 to 3-08-2014 North and West to the end of Florida

Fort Pickens Campground: overcast and 54 Degrees F  Partially sunny day predicted

Juniper Springs on a rainy dayIt is with a bit of melancholy that I leave behind the magical springs and forests of north-central Florida.  In spite of our need to see as much as possible of the state, and in spite of the amazing wonders we found in many areas, the beautiful campgrounds at the many springs, both state and national forest, and the gorgeous waters were still the best part of the trip.

For much of our travels, we both thought that while we loved biking through Shark Valley, driving the Overseas Highway, meeting friends new and old all along the route, we would probably have no need to return to Florida.  That made me a bit sad, because I knew how much I loved being in some parts of Florida during some parts of the year.

Juniper Springs_027After camping at Alexander Springs, and Blue Springs, and driving through the nearly empty and quiet roads between Orange City and Perry, Mo was echoing my own thoughts.  “Yeah, maybe in a few years we will have to come back”.  As I drove, she was reading about several springs, state parks, and rivers that we didn’t manage to kayak.  Names that aren’t easy to roll off the tongue, Ichetucknee, Appalachicola, Aucilla, Blackwater, Chipola, Choctawatchee, Ochlockonee, Alapha, Oklawaha, Rainbow River, Juniper Springs Run, Steinhatchee River, Waddasassa, Withlacoochee, Alafia….and it goes on and on.

Juniper Springs on a rainy dayThis morning, she said emphatically, “I would be willing to come back here to explore the springs and rivers, we could spend a whole month just doing that, I just don’t want to go back to all that crowded stuff with all the traffic!”  Yes!!  So that bit of nostalgia that I felt as we left Blue Springs on Thursday morning was mitigated a bit as I realized that I will one day return to the Northern Florida I so dearly love.

We said our goodbyes to Sherry and David on the previous evening, with plans to depart as soon as it was light.  Our travel plans have a bit of wiggle room, now, and are weather dependent, but it still seemed like a good time to make some miles.  The original thought was to leave early, and drive the interstates 75 and 10 west to Pensacola as quickly as possible, hoping to do a 500 mile day, as we have often done out west.

Juniper Springs_014Instead, the weather gods brought us dark, driving rain, and a LOT of dirty laundry that was piling up in the MoHo.  Mo looked at the map and my proposed route and said, “Why don’t we take some of these side roads?”  Well, that would be fine but we surely won’t be making 500 miles doing that.  We backed off from the aggressive plans and decided a leisurely route to Fort Pickens was a much better idea.

I had made reservations previously for three nights, but with our senior pass the cost was only $13. per night, not a lot to lose if we could find a boondock site somewhere along the route. The choice gave us the opportunity to meander along highway 40 to Ocala, and stop to explore Juniper Springs.

Juniper Springs_028In the driving rain, and again with no dogs allowed’’ rules, Mo opted to stay in the motorhome while I wandered in to explore on of the first places in Florida that captured my heart.  Bel brought me to Juniper Springs in March of 2000, during my first visit and we often came here during my Florida trips.  I loved seeing the old mill house, reading about the efforts of the CCC, and loved the beautiful color of the spring.

Juniper Springs is a small spring, with only 13 million gallons a day feeding the Juniper Springs Run, but it is charming and lovely.  It has been altered a bit with cement and rockwork, but CCC rockwork is lovely and doesn’t detract at all from the beautiful springs.  I was surprised to see the old arched rock bridge collapsed and closed off due to erosion and degradation of the limestone.  I have photos that Bel took of me sitting on that bridge and couldn’t resist taking another photo of it in its present state.Juniper Springs_026

juniper7Continuing west in the pouring rain, in northeast Ocala, we found a great laundromat.  After I got over the sticker shock of 2.75 for a tiny machine and 5. for a big one, and 9.50 for the huge ones, I settled in to refresh all our dirty damp river clothes, our clammy bedding and moist towels and wet bathing suits. 

Juniper Springs_024We couldn’t have picked a better day for such meandering, since the rain was heavy and the skies were dark and murky.  Not a day for sightseeing or fighting interstate truck traffic.  After laundry was finished we meandered up to Gainesville where Mo found a Great Clips and got a haircut that she had been wanted for weeks now. I shopped at Publix for a few needed items and we were then again on our way, via Highway 27 toward Perry.

I started looking for possible overnight stops, preferably free ones to make up for the fee we had already paid for Fort Pickens and decided on the Cracker Barrel in Tallahassee, on the north side of town near I-10.  Our approach to town, however, was the easier southern route and using GasBuddy to find a good fuel price led us to the Costo on the east side of Tallahassee.  Perfect, and just across from us, in the pouring rain, we could see a big Super Walmart parking lot. 

Tallahassee WalMart all to ourselvesI called the management, and they said, go ahead and park at the far end of the lot, but we are not responsible for anything.  Ok Sure, we know that.  Looking at that big empty lot in a nice area of town, we thought it seemed a lot more inviting that trying to get through Tallahassee late afternoon traffic to find the Cracker Barrel.  It was a great choice.  We had the entire lot to ourselves, with plenty of parking lot lighting, and a heavy rain making any kind of hassles non-existent.  There appeared to be no security in this lot as well, but there also is no security at Cracker Barrel.

I took a little bit of time to review Erin’s blog about their time in Tallahassee, and would have loved the opportunity to see some of the great art and buildings that she photographed so beautifully.  I would have loved to visit the Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park as well, but the dark rainy skies made it OK to continue west toward Fort Pickens and what was left of our three day reservation.

CaptureWe chose to drive Highway 20 west, the most direct route to Pensacola, avoiding the meandering route along the coast that we drove on our way south, and the heavily traveled I-10 that was the parallel route to our north.  Turned out to be a great choice, with a well maintained mostly 2 lane highway with a smooth surface passing through small rural towns and north of the great Appalachicola National Forest.

road into fort Pickens subject to overflowArriving in Fort Pickens in late afternoon, we were glad that we hadn’t attempted the entire trip in one day.  We most certainly wouldn’t have made it by gate closing time and would have had to spend the night outside the park anyway.  If you haven’t already checked in, you can’t get in after 5PM when the gates close.

Fort Pickens campground is on a barrier island that is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a national treasure that spans 160 miles from Cat Island, Mississippi, to The Okaloosa Area east of Fort Walton Beach.  There are 12 major areas, including several historic forts, the whitest beaches anywhere, picnic areas, nature trails, and campgrounds. 

Fort Pickens-031There is so much to do in this area and we will only tap the surface with our day and a half at the campground.  The weather is the coldest it has been in years, and the ranger at the check-in office was exceedingly grumpy about that.  She was emphatic about dog rules, camping rules, no car tires on the grass rules, and generally informed me of as many rules as she could remember.  Emphatically.  I think the cold weather and the fact the the campground was jammed full for the next three days had put her in a grumpy state.  I did my best not to contribute to her grumpiness, but internally I was thinking not nice thoughts about how condescending and rude she was. Don’t argue with a cop, right?

campsite at Fort PickensWe settled into our site in Loop C, site 37,chosen for its more open and spacious grounds, and accessibility to the trail where we can take Abby. Mo offered to stay with the animals while I walked over to the beach, actually I drove to the beach parking area and then walked the boardwalk to the beach.  No remarks, here, I was worn out!

Once on the beach, in spite of the chilly winds at the campground, the air was almost still and the temperatures were warm enough I had to take off my vest.  I even waded in the beautiful water.  I caught myself laughing inside and even sometimes out loud at how many photos I took of the water, the gentle waves, the blue line on the horizon, the white sand.  Just how many photos of blue and white and turquoise and emerald do I really need?  Processing photos last night, I did eliminate some, and hopefully after a bit of time I will be able to let more of them go.  Still, if I put them in a slide show, it is almost like I am walking the beach again.Fort Pickens Beach Gulf Island National Seashore

Fort Pickens Beach Gulf Island National SeashoreFort Pickens-015Later in the afternoon, we took Abby on the Florida Nature Trail that leads south to the Battery Langdon, but with Abby along we refrained from climbing up on the battery for the views.

Fort Pickens-046Fort Pickens-032A little side trail called the Blackbird Marsh Nature Trail provided trailside signage of some of the local plants and a loud chorus of birdsong.  Note to self:  carry the binoculars as well as the camera.  I still don’t have the will to carry both the regular lens and the telephoto lens, so no real bird photos.

I spent much of the evening looking at weather pages, paper maps, google maps, and trying to determine our route north when we leave here. 

Fort Pickens-049With all the ice storms and polar plunges and such, I don’t want to get trapped in Missouri in the thick of it, but so far it looks doable and we will be traveling north to Joplin, Missouri beginning Sunday morning.  This time, however, I am not trying to do it PDD style, and we will give ourselves three days to get there.  The Natchez Trace Parkway is part of the plan, and with that area being completely new to us, I am excited about the route.

In spite of the completely full campground, the night was dark and quiet and I slept extremely well.  It is nice to have electricity so we can plug in our little space heater for gentle warmth without noise.  Mo cooked breakfast for us this morning and we are planning our day ahead, including a visit to the beautiful Fort Pickens grounds just south of the campground, and possibly a trip across the bridges. McGuire’s Irish Pub is calling! We experienced a great meal at the McGuire’s in Destin and don’t want to miss out on the Pensacola location.  We are just a breath away of the most western point of Florida.  Tomorrow the Florida part of this trip will be only a memory.Fort Pickens-063