Tonight I finally completed the piece on the last couple of days of my Florida visit including the walk along the Suwannee River. (“Drenched down the Suwannee”). It joins the retrospective postings about Days 3 and 4 of the Road Trip around Florida. They can also be found below. (Entitled “St Petersburg and a taste of Cuba” and “Is it a real one?”).

All the photos are up in the gallery now. Enjoy. Start of Road Trip photos

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.

Day Two of the Road Trip started with thunderstorms, and waffles for breakfast. When it rains here it really rains. America doesn’t seem to do drizzle. It was bouncing of the roof with a rapid drumming sound, but happily it stopped before we started our planned walks, giving us a hot sunny day for our wanderings.

First stop was the Crystal River State Park and a 2 mile trail that started at Mullet Pool, a spot for fishing not east European haircut disasters. Many signs warned of alligators operating in the area but they were not to be seen on our route, although I did photograph a number of birds at close range. Incidently I’m sat at a motel pc as we didn’t bring along Tina’s laptop so I can’t edit and upload any photos until back in Jacksonville I’m afraid. After completing the pleasant and scenic walk we headed north to Curtis Tool Lane (honest) and the Crystal River Eco-Trail another 2 mile trail but this time through a varied environment of different ecosystems.

Before we set off we called in a the ranger hut to use the “restroom” and were made welcome by Gary, a magnificently bearded archaeologist with Welsh ancestry who was a friendly font of all knowledge about the surrounding areas of natural beauty and surprisingly the porcelain wares of North Staffordshire. By all accounts it was the tableware of choice of the middle classes around the time of the American Civil War. He used to dig pieces up. We could have talked most of the day but there was a walk to do so we bid farewell and set off round the loop trail. It was a stunning route and we saw birdlife, butterflies, huge grasshoppers, and a had a brief glimpse of deer running across our path. At the end as we ate lunch a woodpecker hammered away at a nearby tree. Best of all though was we had all this to ourselves.

Heading 8 miles south to Homosassa Springs Wildlife Refuge we arrived in time to catch the last manatee programme of the day, in other words a brief talk on the manatee by a ranger who spent most of the time in the water feeding carrots to these incredible creatures. The springs were simply stunning, crystal clear waters allowed some fine photos of the manatee. “The girls” as the ranger called the manatee then headed off to a special pool to receive their big meal of the day, three crates of lettuce and one crate of cabbage. We wandered around the rest of the springs complex which is home to a hippo, black bears, alligators, bald eagles, and countless other birds. Endangered species they may be, well looked after too by State Park Rangers, but there is an uncomfortable feeling about seeing animals in enclosures rather than their native habitat. To be honest I hadn’t realised this was the format of the park, reading it had a 1 mile trail with places to observe manatee.

Our journey to Tampa was largely uneventful other than using a toll road that cost $1, or so I thought. Arrriving at the first toll plaza I scoffed at the paltry sum which Tina insisted would be all we had to pay to use the road. Five toll plazas and $4.75 later we were at Tampa, but it was a cheap price to pay for a 70mph road with very little traffic on it. In keeping with recent times the arrival was later than expected despite finding the hotel first time, so instead of the intended decent meal out we scuttled over to the Publix supermarket to see what culinary delights we might purchase there. So tonight I sat down to veggieburger done to a turn by microwave, and some sort of spinach and feta pastry creation that claimed it could be microwaved, but clearly would have been best in an oven. Alas there were 4 burgers in the packet so I seem to be in for a second helping tomorrow night. At least before then I have a day in downtown Tampa to look forward to.

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.

Yesterday was a bit of an odd day with tension in the air from the outset. I think I suffered from not getting up and having a bike ride. There’s not much else to report. even Hadley Cat seemed in a funny mood and was relentlessly after my feet trying to bite them. So I spent part of the morning looking up kitten behaviour on the Internet. However normal service has resumed today. I had a ride out early on and took a few photos. Here’s one of Jacksonville Beach pier. There’s a couple more in the gallery.

Today has been washing day. Hanging up the clothes in the spare bedroom made me think how ludicrous some things are over in the US. Here’s a brief list:

1. Sunny hot weather yet you are not allowed to hang up washing outside, expected to tumble dry instead.
2. Moaning about gas reaching $4 a gallon yet driving huge 8 mpg SUVs.
3. Too lazy to park and get out of cars there are drive-in banks, chemists, and other stores as well as the fast food outlets.
4. The Presidential Election system.
5. The high cost of medical insurance and the large quantities of sugar rich foods.
6. Arriving at the cashier and paying more than the shelf price because tax is then added.

Rant over. I feel better for that. I also feel better now I’ve booked the hotels and car for our road trip next week :-) Oh yes and it’s an “economy” small car not a SUV!