Day Four of the Road Trip started with an early breakfast in the Super 8 motel dining area, and the unusual sight (well for me anyway) of an elderly couple saying grace before tucking in. Without wishing to belittle something which obviously means a lot to them I can’t ever recall the same scene in Britain, especially over a bowl of multi-coloured Cheerios. It was a veritable league of nations in the dining room as French, Dutch, and Asian parties out-numbered the American contingent.

Once on the road it didn’t take long to get to our destination of Merritt Island, 140,000 acres of land that strikes an odd balance between being home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and a huge wildlife refuge that receives thousands of migrating birds every year. Miles away in the distance one can see the huge NASA Vehicle Assembly Building where the space shuttle is attached to its booster rockets and fuel cell. It is said that the NASA logo on the side of the building is the size of a baseball pitch. But we were there for walking today. Merritt Island baby gatorIt was already getting hot as we arrived at the refuge visitor centre to collect maps and good advice. The centre had a short boardwalk trail behind it and being given a tip off by the warden we wandered round to spot the first two alligators of the day. While the gators watched on silently with beady eyes out off the water, the predominant sound was the pig frogs grunting loudly and living up to the name. A solitary turtle completed a decent start on the wildlife front.

A couple of miles up the road were two short trails and we decided to tramp around the shortest and save our energy for the 5 miles Cruickshank Trail later on. It is easy to become blasé about yet another patch of forest and ferns, and while having its own quiet beauty the trail produced no wildlife or surprises of note apart from a sudden clearing where the path crossed a railway line that arrowed away into the shimmering distance. Warm up walk completed it was time to wind our way around the 7 miles long Black Point Wildlife Scenic Drive at a stately 15 mph, eyes peeled for any gators, but mainly stopping to photograph the birds that hadn’t migrated in March. About half way around the scenic drive is the Cruickshank Trail named after Allan D. Cruickshank who was a famous wildlife photographer, writer, and naturalist instrumental in the establishment of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Merritt Island Cruickshank Trail viewEven though the temperatures were now baking around midday we strode out, stopping only once in a shady wooden shelter for a rest , an apple each, and plenty of water.

Although we saw plenty of birdlife, the best time to visit is between October and March when thousands more birds live at Merritt before migration. The alligators were in hiding too, but it didn’t detract from a walk we had to ourselves in an amazing landscape. In fact ironically having completed the 5 miles the largest and most impressive alligator seen up to press was actually in the marshy area next to the car park. Memorable enough in its own right, the creature will live long in my mind due to the conversation it provoked between a young couple and ourselves. Arriving back at the car park I noticed the young woman peering over a viewing deck and dryly commented to Tina that she didn’t appear to be dressed for walking. In fact she looked like she was off to “The Prom” as I believe it is known over here. Is it a real one?!Her short black dress and high heels were perhaps not ideal for the Cruickshank Trail, and the decision to clamber back into her boyfriend’s monster truck some 6 feet off the ground was probably best after she demonstrated a frightening lack of what might be termed ‘alligator awareness’. “Is it a real one?”, she cooed at me as we watched the gator watching us. I was a little taken a back by this and fortunately the gator answered her question for me by readjusting its position in the reeds. “Oh it is real then”, she exclaimed in surprise, adding “So why isn’t it coming up here to eat us?”. Still incredulous, I opined that alligators are naturally afraid of humans but if she cared to get a bit closer to invade its territory I was sure it would make a decent attempt at giving chase. The gator having enough of this conversation disappeared into the reeds, and somewhat bemused we headed back to the car.

Next stop was the manatee observation point for a late picnic lunch and a patient wait for the gentle mammals to appear. Initially there on our own what actually appeared was a crowd of noisy tourists including a woman who seemed determined to give her husband a running commentary of manatee movements even though it was in fact he who spotted the first to break through the water. Butties put down and cameras grabbed, we scrambled up and had five minutes while the manatee teased us with brief glimpses before it headed off no doubt to better feeding grounds. We headed off too, detouring along Bio Lab Road, a rough sandy affair that the warden had told us was “lined with gator all along it”. Despite keeping to the 15 mph speed limit (impossible to do more unless you had 4WD) we saw a grand total of zero gators and paranoia began to set in as the road never seemed to end and the Kennedy Space Center was looming in the near distance. Thankfully we did hit the main road again and had to contend with Kennedy workers putting their foot down as they made for home at the end of their shift.

The first part of the Road Trip was complete as we headed back to Jacksonville for the night and a hastily arranged evening out with a guy called Jim who has been very kind and helpful giving me advice via email about American working life as he has worked in Britain in the past and knows the extent of the potential culture shock. Tina stayed in for some quality time with her youngest son, while I went out for some quality lad time. Over a few beers Jim provided more advice, amusement, and demonstrated the friendly nature of all the Americans I have met so far. We found an initially quiet spot outside a bar popular with the younger set, but soon we were invaded by a group of youngsters celebrating a 19th birthday, including a very drunk off duty Navy sailor who was barely capable of standing up and gave a not so articulate play by play account of the recent Boston Celtics unlikely victory against the LA Lakers. He obviously wasn’t banging on the table hard enough to get his point across because I thought he was describing a baseball game, where in fact, Jim informed me, the Celtics play basketball. The Drunken Sailor did bang the table hard enough to spill his own drink and much of ours. His shipmate, a more sober youth, ushered him away and let on they were off to Scotland with their vessel the following day, not the sort of journey I’d fancy with a hangover that’s for sure.

Right the Plan. Put together with the usual Pointon military precision as fostered by Pointon Snr (aka The Owd Mon), the man of 4am starts, memorised A Roads and marmalade butty breakfasts on Paignton sea front by 9am sharp.* Here’s what we’ll be up to next week. Atten…shun!

17 June – Leave Jacksonville when Tina gets off work around lunchtime. Drive to Crystal River in the west calling in at Gainesville to break up the journey and visit the architecturally interesting University, its pretty gardens, and Lake Alice complete with alligators. Overnight at Crystal River.
More of this?
18 June – Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, and Homosassa (no sniggering in the ranks!) Springs Wildlife State Park for walking trails and manatee observation points. Drive to Tampa in the evening and stay overnight.

19 June – Downtown Tampa attractions. Drive east to Titusville late afternoon (maybe a quick flit via Orlando) and stay overnight.

20 June – Walking trails and looking for alligators and manatee at Merrit Island Wildlife Refuge near Kennedy Space Center. Return to Jacksonville and have the night at the apartment.

21 June – Drive north-west to Florida’s capital, Tallahassee. Do the Leon Sinks Trail in the Appalachicola National Forest and maybe Walluka Springs if time. Stay the night at Tallahassee.

22 June – Return to Jacksonville calling first at either Ellaville or White Springs to do trails along the Suwannee River.

Stand at… wait for it, wait for it… ease! Dismissed.

* Not forgetting of course the obligatory stop at Taunton Deane Services and coffee in a flask.