Rainy Five Points junction Riverside, Jacksonville. Keep Right is a local political instruction as much as a traffic order
As you might imagine, gasoline here is relatively cheap at $2.35 a gallon, (it passed $4 when I was here last June) so it comes as no surprise that the car is king, and gas guzzlers are aplenty. As a result the bus service is frowned upon, considered the transportation of the poor, a last resort. Not for me, it is the transport of choice for longer distances beyond my capabilities on a bicycle. Yesterday I arranged to meet with my friend and fellow Stoke City supporter, Calvin, to have a coffee or four, moan about the state of football at the Britannia Stadium, and generally put the world to rights. Calvin lives in “historic” Riverside not far from downtown Jacksonville. My journey from the beach was some 20 miles, but cost only $1 on the bus to downtown, and 50 cents on the Riverside Trolley to get to the coffee shop at Five Points. That’s about one Pound Sterling. Admittedly I needed two different buses to get home which brought my overall journey cost to $3.50 (£2.20) for 40 miles. I travelled in air-conditioned comfort and was able to relax and read my book, an autobiography by Stoke City legend Denis Smith, which incidentally is very entertaining but clearly was never introduced to a proof-reader before publication. One passage describes team mate Eric Skeels as being only five feet nine inches, but being able to compete with forwards who were five or six inches tall. I should hope he could. I didn’t realise that the Stoke City team in the 1960s and 1970s regularly encountered opposing sides with a couple of Smurfs upfront.

Anyway if any Jacksonville residents are reading this I recommend using the bus more. It’s cheap, comfortable, and you avoid parking fees. Also you can relax and enjoy the journey rather than fight the traffic, plus you’ll be doing your bit for the environment. As usual Calvin and I somehow managed to pass nearly five hours together. I’m not sure where time goes when we meet but it must be a sign of good company. Fire truck in the Riverside downpour 28th May 2009Alas our usual spot outside, perfect for people watching, had to be abandoned shortly after arrival due to a freak downpour which appeared from nowhere, dissecting a hot and sunny day. So we scurried inside and continued our discussions there. Calvin is already a stalwart of this establishment, it is his regular haunt. However the owner recognised me from my last visits, and my coffee was on the house complete with warm handshake. Thankfully the storm passed by the time I had to head back to the beaches, but it didn’t ruin my trip to Riverside in any case. I enjoyed seeing Calvin again. The return was not without drama, a police car with siren blaring pulling over a jeep right in front of me as I waited at the bus stop. I did my best not to look like a gawping tourist and adopted a nonchalant pose, acting like bus stop busts were two a penny where I come from. Actually in Beeston it’s usually police helicopters…

The original plan to spend Saturday night in Tallahassee was axed mainly because it seemed a long way to go and a lot to pay just to attempt the Leon Sinks Trail walk we abandoned last April due to thunderstorms. Instead we decided the better option would be a day in Jacksonville with one of Tina’s kids, followed by a day trip to the Suwannee Valley for a walk on the Sunday.

I woke later than usual after the night on the beers with Jim, and found Tina watching her youngest lad playing video games in the spare room. It was fascinating to see how much the graphics and content had evolved since my days with the plucky Sinclair ZX Spectrum. One game’s hero had a belting 70s drooping moustache and curly perm, delivering wise cracks in a voice reminiscent of Shaft. While the lad and I seemed to enjoy this kung-fu “kick em up” affair in equal measure, Tina disapproved of the violence and at her insistence it was reluctantly swapped for something apparently involving the adventures of a felonious raccoon. Yes really.

Once I was washed, fed and watered, the three of us set off for a more healthy bike ride through the neighbourhood. It was already hot by this time and the distance was a bit much for the 8 year old so we turned back after about twenty blocks. Saturday afternoon in - Photo by L.CWe managed a trip to a few stores to get lunch and search for “Connect Four” and “Checkers” just before the sky turned dark and delivered an almighty thunderstorm. Feasting on spinach pizza and playing The Simpsons “Everyone’s a loser” board game we were unaffected by the inclement conditions. Having won the board game, the lad turned his attentions back to the computer while Tina gave me a good thrashing at Checkers, and like every good Englishman in defeat I sulked.

With the lad safely back with his father, Tina and I escaped the apartment to join Calvin (aka Dallas Cowboy) and Margaret downtown in historic Riverside for a few drinks and fine conversation. Having received a tour of their magnificent house (which like every true Stokie Calvin found things to moan about ;-) ), we ventured down to the Five Points region and waffled our way through a couple of drinks at an outside table before the Mexican restaurant owners made the unsubtle hint of switching the lights out and going home. Once again the ladies got on well, no doubt comparing notes about awkward British men, while Calvin and I put the world to rights for a final time.

The following day was my last full one in Florida, so what could be a better send off than a wander down the beautiful Suwannee River? We set off early, but behind schedule, and it was about 20 minutes in that Tina realised she’d left her Walgreen’s plastic poncho behind. This is a sore point. A previous April drenching in Tallahassee caused us to rush into Walgreen’s to get Tina a cheap raincoat. Having paid seven dollars for a piece of plastic Tina was not amused. Imagine then her chagrin when finding she’d forgotten to pack said poncho for the Road Trip, Tina had to buy another Walgreen’s special at Crystal River to counter the threat of distant rumbling thunder. Typically we missed the storms and it went unused. Now the owner of two overpriced plastic garments, naturally I was blamed for not reminding Tina to pack either one of them, and she was adamant that a third would not be acquired en route. A decision that would come back to haunt me later on.

Our destination was White Springs, or more precisely the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. Phew what a mouthful. Unsurprisingly the park was named after the American composer Stephen Foster, who wrote “Old Folks at Home,” the song that made the Suwannee River famous, and not a certain lesser known Stoke City supporting novelist in Norwich. Stephen Foster Center - Photo by T.CAlthough after his recent book launch in the US, it might only be a matter of time. As we approached the town, which in the main was pretty with Victorian architecture, we sped past a homestead set back from the road with a car for sale outside on the grass. I’d have loved to have got close enough to see the asking price because it looked about ready for F.McGuinness & Sons never mind a new owner. I suppose I should explain to those not of Stoke-on-Trent origins, McGuinness’ was once and probably still is Staffordshire’s largest scrap yard, a place I spent some of my youth liberating badges from doomed wrecks, breathing in the heady perfume of old oil, woodbines and Summertime sweat. Anyway I digress. The vehicle in question was somewhat aged, half eaten by rust and had a large suspiciously tree shaped indentation in the front end. A definite “McGuinness’ job” as the Owd Mon would say.

We had a bit of drama at the front gate of the State Park as the ranger hadn’t heard of the trail we wished to do. “Maybe you want the Stephen Foster State Park in Georgia”, he suggested. Oh great there’s two of them. But no it turned out that the Carter Trail I had found online was at this park and it was my mix of Stoke-Leeds accent that baffled him. Adopting my best BBC voice fared a little better. “Oh y’all want the Caaarrrrrrderrr Trail” he drawled pointing it out on the free map. There was more drama as we parked up. A ranger in a truck and a police car pulled up to ask if we’d seen a confused old woman in a floppy hat wandering around with a pile of books in her arms. Apparently she’d escaped from somewhere and needed her medication. We had not seen anyone at all let alone a confused woman in a hat, although I think happily she was apprehended as we started the walk.

The Carter Trail actually looked uninspiring, merely linking a camp site, and it was well away from the famous river. So we set off along a small part of the 1400 miles long Florida Trail that runs alongside the Suwannee. The scenery was as stunning as we’d seen all trip. Suwannee River coloursThe path rose and dipped along the banks of the river, weaving between trees, ferns and bushes. Between the gaps in the forest we caught glimpses of the river, patches of red and orange (mineral deposits?) shimmering through the darker water. Small trails had been created by those diverting from the main path, allowing a steep but short descent to sandy shores and clear photo opportunities. Every so often a more obvious clearing would appear giving a better view down the river. Best of all we had this to ourselves apart from the couple who bravely (or foolishly) abandoned their canoe for a dip around Catfish Hole. After about three miles we reached a spot that gave a good view of the river and was a junction with a trail we could take back through the forest. Suwannee RiverWe sat on the shore eating our lunch enjoying the peaceful location but growing more concerned about the thunder in the distance. I was always advised to “let my dinner go down” as a youth but this was one occasion where getting back on the track as soon as possible was highly recommended despite the risk of indigestion. Shame really as I’d have liked to linger at that beauty spot for much longer.

The paths on the return leg were flat forest roads which on another day might have made a lovely stroll but in this case helped pick up the pace as the thunder got louder. The occasional flash of lightening helped quicken our steps. I suppose it was envitable that we would not escape, and about 20 minutes from the car the heavens opened. Poncholess Tina was offered my gore-tex jacket which she accepted while I took a drenching for the cause. The worst sensation was my boots filling up with water and sloshing my feet around inside them while sloshing hurriedly along the path for the last half mile. Finally we arrived at shelter but with no sign of a break in the storm I scurried barefoot to the car and squatting on a plastic bag made a rescue bid for Tina. Back at the park gatehouse in the steamed up car, I risked a potential indecent exposure charge and made an unglamorous change out of my sopping shorts and undies into the pair of waterproof over-trousers I should have put on in the first place. The wringing wet walking vest had to remain on and Tina kindly proclaimed I looked like a Redneck. She wasn’t wrong. Either that or Tony Pulis. Great, or should that be “triffic”.

Thanks to the bad weather we didn’t stop to take in the pretty White Springs township, other than to discover that neither filling station sold coffee just when a warming drink was most needed. A little past the McGuinness Job (now too wet to see the asking price) and just before Interstate Ten we did manage to find a caffeine source before the two hour uncomfortable journey back to Jacksonville. It turned out to be a decent evening back there, and scrubbed up we went out for our now traditional Last Night Curry. If you are ever in the vicinity check out India’s Restaurant on Baymeadows Road, run by a friendly Sikh family and providers of excellent authentic dishes. So ended the last full day in Jacksonville for another time. If you’d like to see more Suwannee River photos have a look at the Gallery.

Tina was working most of Monday so I arranged to meet fellow Stokie Dallas Cowboy for a morning coffee in downtown Jacksonville in the bohemian area of Riverside. Surely he should now be changing his Oatcake Message Board moniker to Jacksonville Jaguar?! Anyway I took the bus from the beach into town and then the recently introduced “trolley” to Riverside. I shall impart some wise words found on an advert inside the bus…

“Talking loud… saying nothing – don’t cuss on the bus!”

Dallas Cowboy (otherwise known as Calvin) wandered around the corner just as I was approaching the rendez-vous point. Settled down at a cafe table overlooking the famous Five Points junction, we supped coffee, talked Stoke City, and watched confused motorists try to navigate the junction without having a prang. There were a few close calls in a free for all, mainly due to dithering by drivers not aware they had the right of way. Our morning coffee stretched to lunch, and then to early evening. It was around 5:30pm when I finally left, walking back to The Landings along the St John’s River walkway, and then running the last leg to the bus station catching the bus just as the driver was closing his doors. Phew.
Old and new in downtown Jax
One of the many topics of conversation were the new Premiership fixtures out today which of course Stoke City will now be part of. It still hasn’t quite sunk in. But what is beginning to sink in is the enormity of the task in hand and the frightening nature of the fixtures. We start away at Bolton Wanderers on 16th August which is likely to be a Megson-Pulis bore-athon but we might get a point. That is followed by games against Aston Villa, Middlesborough, Everton, Liverpool and Chelsea. I can see us struggling to get a win until 22nd November when we play West Brom at home. They always seem to come unstuck against Stoke. Even more worrying is a recent piece from Stoke’s Director of Gardening Football John Rudge where he apparently said we just need a couple of new quality players. There’s being positive and there’s being downright deluded. I think saying we have a couple of Premiership quality players already and need about ten more is closer to the mark.

Anyway I was glad to meet up with Calvin for a second time during my visit, a thoroughly decent bloke and passionate about Stoke City and playing the game in the right style and spirit. Hopefully our paths will cross in the future. I loved listening to his graphic descriptions of his memories of past Stoke teams when we did have true quality throughout the side and were admired for our football style not pilloried for it. There might have been no cussing on the bus but there was plenty at our table during the day.

Just before I turn in for the night my bus journey made me think of another ludicrous thing about the USA (well certainly round here). So in the continuing series here is number 7.

7. The snobbery about bus use. Buses are seen as a last resort, the transportation for the poor who cannot afford a car, not a useful, cheap and environmentally friendly mode of travel.

Today I travelled around 40 miles. I had a seat to myself in a clean, comfortable, safe, air-conditioned bus and the trolley bus. What did I pay for this service? $2.50 in total. It would have been another 50c but I walked back from Riverside to downtown. You show me a car that could do 40 miles for that price, especially since it’s over $4 a gallon now here. I think a few Americans will start changing their views about bus travel…