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.

Day One of the Road Trip and it goes to show meticulous planning doesn’t always bring results. All seemed well this morning as bags were packed, Google maps were printed off and the rental car (a Ford Focus for the record) was successfully collected from the Enterprise manager who was rushing around like the proverbial, and sweating bricks as a result. Even a brief thunderstorm and soaking didn’t dampen spirits as the sun came out again before we were due to set off following Tina’s return from work.

Yet somehow the intended departure of around 2pm somehow drifted to way past 3pm. Then getting out of Jacksonville proved more involved than expected. Eventually we did reach the University city of Gainesville, our intended rest stop, although finding Lake Alice added to the time delay thanks to me trying to drive, read a map, and negotiate large junctions simultaneously. However the exercise was ultimately in vain as there was nowhere to park to view the lake. Well not strictly true, there were places to park if you had a special permit. Obviously you can’t visit “on spec”. Indeed closer inspection of the Rough Guide revealed the need to park 2 miles away downtown and walk. So what brief glimpses we saw of the lake seemed very pleasant as we repeatedly trundled past at 20 mph, but we could not get on the observation points to look for alligators. The closest we got was seeing the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, home of the University of Florida Gators football team.

When you reach a junction and it says US19 to the left and that’s the road you want you expect to turn left so I did. Ah but not over here. No I should have proceeded a hundred yards or so further straight on and then turned left. Silly me. So a pretty, yet deserted detour through some decidedly hick settlements where the Confederate cause apparently still burns strong, eventually led us to the desired US19 South, a desperately needed toilet stop, and the town of Inglis. But it was worth the detour to spot the streetname of Follow that dream Parkway. Frightening but true.

Thankfully Crystal River wasn’t that far down the road after that and we were soon in our room at the Comfort Inn some while after my intended arrival time. I clearly still have a lot to learn from the Owd Mon. He’d have been there enjoying his marmalade butties long before then. We in fact dined in style on microwaved veggie curry purchased from a supermarket in the town, watching the Larry King Show on CNN where a lively debate about McCain v Obama was taking place. But the highlight of a day that did not go to plan was a moonlight swim in the motel pool, under the stars listening to the crickets’ and frogs’ night chorus. That’s living the dream never mind following it.

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.