Updated: Apr 15
Wed-Thur, 29-30 March 2023, Bradenton-Port Orange-Homestead FL
If you do nothing unexpected, nothing unexpected happens. - Fay Weldon
Sometimes you roll the dice, to see how things work out. No matter your plans, life will throw surprises your way.
I enjoy hitting other parks on this challenge - monuments, historic sites, state parks, etc. - when they are close to my route. Florida offered up two lesser NPS sites - a Memorial and a Seashore - but they required detouring over two hundred miles. Could I justify driving several hours north, then south again, to add these parks? Maybe if I scheduled a reunion...
Those who read my Underwear by the Roadside will recall the story of Caitlin, the little girl who gave me her lucky coin when the Litterwalk sorely needed an inspiration. Five years later, in 1998, I tracked her down and gave her a copy of the book. Six years after that, as I finished my three-part bike ride across the country, I bicycled through her town and scheduled a talk to her Leadership class as she prepared to graduate from high school. Unfortunately, she took ill that day and missed the talk. As I wrote in *zxWOW! What a Ride (http://bikepaths.com/books/fullWWAR.pdf), "In the end, if you can't achieve 'happily ever after,' you may have to settle for 'to be continued...'"
A few years ago, Caitlin found me on LinkedIn and reconnected. With her now living in Tallahassee, I reached out and suggested a reunion - she could drive down for the day or for a meal. She eagerly agreed, so I made plans for the northern detour. Once again, life intervened - in this case, two people close to her passed away a few days ago, upending her plans. Surprise! we're still in the "to be continued" phase.
I still had two parks to fill the time. De Soto National Memorial lay only a mile from my room in Bradenton, a 26-acre park honoring - or would 'lamenting' fit better? - an early Spanish explorer of the region.
I drove over and watched the park film to acquaint myself with history.
In the early 1500s, Spain sent several conquistadors to subdue the New World, seize its riches and resources, and save the souls of the 'heathen natives' across the seas. A young Hernando de Soto knew he could not inherit anything as the second son of a minor country noble, so he enlisted to seek his fortune across the Atlantic. Eventually he fell in with Francisco Pizarro, who discovered and then conquered the Incas. De Soto returned to Spain in 1536, wealthy from plundering the gold and treasures of the Incan Empire.
Back in the Old World, de Soto could have spent his remaining years in luxury, but he soon tired of that life. Instead, he petitioned King Charles V for the right to conquer La Florida. The king struck quite a deal - if de Soto financed the entire expedition, he would receive the title of Governor, and would split any plundered wealth with the king. With dreams of fame and fortune, he invested all his earlier gains into this new venture.
In May 1539, de Soto landed in Florida, possibly here at the mouth of Tampa Bay. His expedition included over 600 men, 220 horses, and many war dogs. Quickly they subdued the local tribe, but when they questioned them about gold, they said the tribes to the north had stores of it beyond imagination. Leaving a party behind with the ships, de Soto enslaved locals as guides and packers to take him into the unknown land to that next tribe. (Those who resisted were thrown to the war dogs.) When he encountered the next tribe and demanded their gold, they pleaded poverty, but said the next tribe was awash with treasure. De Soto then released the other slaves and conscripted members of the new tribe to guide and porter for him.
After this happened two or three times, an astute observer could figure it out: news of previous expeditions had spread through the land, and the natives knew that the invaders cared only about treasures. What better way to get them to move on than to direct them to the next village? I don't know; maybe trekking though the Florida heat wearing mililtary armor had addled their brains. In any case, the army meandered through present-day Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, Lousiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas for four years, the first Europeans to see this region. At one point, de Soto headed toward the Gulf Coast to meet re-supply ships, but then turned away when he realized that it would finish his expedition in failure.
De Soto died of fever in May 1542, paying the ultimate price for his greed. A year later, the remnants of his force - less than half that had set out in 1539 - finally straggled back to Mexico. The expedition resulted in no gold and no colonies, while the native tribes were decimated by Spanish firepower and European diseases - truly a lose-lose proposition on both sides.
After the film, I took time to wander the waterside trail. In the distance I could see boats and marinas;
on the park land, a Eucharist Monument and a Memorial Cross
towered over the shoreline. I strolled along the one-mile loop trail through the mangrove-studded woods in the morning cool,
finally finishing and pointing my car eastward before noon.
After negotiating heavy traffic in Orlando and stopping for a quick lunch, I rolled into Canaveral National Seashore as the clock ticked down to 4:00. This preserved land (consisting of Canaveral NS and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge) came about as byproducts of the Space Race. When the Kennedy Administration looked for a spot to launch rockets, they settled on a remote stretch of the Florida coast. In addition to land for the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), they set aside buffer land that eventually became the two parks. How neat would it be to come here and see a launch? I thought.
I sunscreened and aloe'd up for a hike on the seashore, then wandered into the Visitor Center to get their recommendations (such as the best place for a sunset photo). Instead, she surprised me with a different idea: "If you hurry, you can make it down to the next beach parking and see today's launch."
"Really? There's a launch today?"
"Yes, Space-X is sending a rocket up. I believe it's scheduled to ignite in ten minutes."
I hurried outside, ready to head south - but quickly saw a suspicious contrail in the sky. Heading up from the southern horizon, perched in front of the natural clouds, it ended in a question-mark-like curve. I googled the NASA launch schedule on my phone and got the skinny: a launch window of 4:01 to 6:35. With the gusty winds blowing, they must have launched the second it hit 4:01 - as I was inside speaking with the rangers. So close! NASA's next scheduled launch wouldn't happen for another three weeks, so I missed my chance.
That little escapade had taken my emotions on a yo-yo ride, but I still had the seashore to see.
Given that Apollo Beach Road dead-ended in a few short miles, I decided to drive to the end and work my way back, stopping at the various boardwalks over the dunes. I quickly saw a sign tht surprised me, one I never expected to see in a national park: "WARNING: you may see people engaged in nude sunbathing at boardwalk 5. Avoid this if it offends you."
I drove to the end and took boardwalk 5 to the beach. Sure enough, a 30-something man in the buff passed me on his way back to his car. On the beach, very few people braved the gusty winds that put a chill in the air. I chatted with a woman who said she'd seen the launch, "but it wasn't very noticeable." I wasn't sur
prised, since the official launch viewing area sat several miles further south.
A short walk on the beach called to me
before I moved to the inland side of the spit, walking short nature trails at Castle Windy and Pumpkin Point.
On the former, I startled an armadillo, surprised to see that animal here. As Sue declared during our nightly call, "No way! Armadillos are from Texas, not Florida!" But on the next trail I found another one, quick enough to snap a photo as proof.
Pumpkin Point hosted the Eldora State House, a nice place to pass time while rocking on a chair on the patio.
The final stop was the recommended sunset spot at Turtle Mound. An elevated boardwalk gave me a view from 'on top', looking out at the many islands of the Intracoastal Waterway.
It also afforded a view of the clouds filling the western sky, convincing me that the sunset would fizzle.
Instead of waiting, I headed out to find my room.
The AirBNB in Port Orange rated as the most charming private stay of my year-plus worth of lodging. Phyllis the hostess welcomed my warmly, asking about my adventures. She offered me a plate of cut-up apples, and followed that with chips, salsa, and avocados. She and another guest listened raptly to my stories, and each bought a copy of my Underwear book. A nice, relaxing evening.
Thursday loomed as my long driving day, with hours needed to bypass Miami to get close to Biscayne Bay. I delayed hitting I-95 in favor of checking out Merritt Island NWR, adjacent to the Seashore. The park pamphlet did not specify the individual park boundaries, so I assumed my drive would remain in refuge lands. But surprise! at the gates to KSC, a sign said to turn east for Canaveral NS. It turns out the seashore extended to Playa Linda Beach, with another park road dead-ending on the sand spit. I drove east, seeing the Vehicle Assembly Building and two launch complexes to the south.
The north end of Playa Linda Beach suffered heavy damage during last year's Hurricane Nicole, wiping out boardwalks and dunes, so the road now ended at Eddy Creek. I parked and took the last boardwalk to access the shore. With less wind than yesterday, this beach attracted far more tourists, with boardwalks spaced closer together. I took photos of the revelers and the crashing surf,
and then noticed that his far beach also attracted bathers in their birthday suits.
Across the road from the boardwalk, I wandered down to the boat launch onto Mosquito Lagoon. As I gazed out on the water, I noticed a shape in the water, and then movement. OMG, manatees! I snapped several pics, but they refused to pose for me, giving me not a glance.
On the way back to the mainland, I poked around a bit more. At the drawbridge that connected the Intracoastal Waterway between Mosquito Lagooon and Indian River, I stopped at the Manatee Observation Deck, where I actually took a photo of them. (I can only assume that the first mariner that saw a manatee and spun tails of mermaids from that encounter must have had his fair share of grog.)
I finished with the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a one-way dirt road showcasing the work of the refuge. I noticed an eagle soaring over the wetlands as I made my way through the swampy expanse. Then it was on to lunch and the long drive south.
The day devolved from there. As I neared Miami, the traffic slowed. It worsened once I hit the Central Florida Turnpike - should be called the Slowpike. Every ten minutes or so, over and over again, my GPS would intone, "Added twelve minutes to your route due to traffic." As the delays stretched out, my patience stretched thin. Narrowly missing two accidents didn't help. When the GPS directed me to an exit which didn't exist, then told me to turn around, I nearly lost it. For clarity, I brought up Google Maps on my phone to bail me out. So much for my relaxed, vacation vibe.
I did get to my AirBNB before dark, barely. But when I grabbed my bags to enter the home, I realized I was one bag short. The bag with my aloe gel, a pair of park pamphlets - and my NPS passport book containing stamps from 39 National Parks. I called Phyllis, who had not seen anything I left behind. Guess that means it must have fallen from the car.
Not how I wanted to end the day.