Friday, March 4, 2011


We took advantage of the Presidents Day holiday and headed south to wonderful Tallahassee, Florida to stay with my old friends Larry & Teri for a week of fun & sun.

We left on a Friday the 18th, after work. Big fucking mistake! Northern Virginia is beyond the pale when it comes to traffic. THE WORST!!! It took us 5 hours to get from Annapolis to Fredericksburg – and there were no accidents to explain the parking lot nature of the Alexandria/Dumfries region.
I don’t do sitting in traffic very well and I began whining relentlessly. I wanted to kill myself, or turn around and go back home. And to add insult to injury, they have nearly-empty HOV3 lanes that parallel the I-95 parking lot. It is failed social engineering at it’s most absurd. If you have three people in a car, the taxpayers provide you with an empty three lane highway. Maryland does HOV2 and that would have made all the difference in the world. But NO! Virginia is for lovers & fools and they make you sit and rot in the name of global warming.

So, the start to our little excursion was not very fun. But once we got beyond Richmond, it was clear sailing down busy I-95. We had hoped to make Lumberton, NC, or maybe even Florence, SC, that first night, but settled on a nice motel run by the friendly Patels (Why do Indians own most of America’s aging motels?) in that garden spot, Rocky Mount, NC.
We got up the next morning and were greeted by several very inviting program changes. It was warm, and sunny, and everything was in bloom. And THAT’s what I’m talking about! And the further South we went, the better & hotter it got.

Our timing was perfect for the trip. Florida had been cold and rainy for weeks and we hit it just when the weather broke. We had sun and temps in the high 70s and low 80s pretty much the whole time.

We pushed south, with a brief (and totally misguided) detour to see the hellhole called Florence, South Carolina. Downtown Florence is like looking at one of those joke postcards “Wish You Weren’t Here!”
We quickly bailed and got back on I-95.

We decided to break up the drive around 2, and stretch our legs in Savannah. There were two major festivals underway (book & Irish) and the place was totally rocking out. We took the Old Savannah Trolley tour, which proved to be a terrible blunder. The trolley could barely get around the log-jammed streets and you couldn’t really see much inside the hot, cramped confines of the tin can on wheels. We ended up bailing after the third stop and just walked the sultry streets on our own. Savannah is very cool and people
were walking around with beers in their hands like it was giant block party. Savannah is home to the Savannah School of Design (the largest design school in the country) in the heart of the old city and the students are creatively renovating many of the historic structures. The city founder, Governor Oglethorpe, was a visionary who laid out the city grid so that it was interspersed with small, tree-lined rectangular parks on almost every block surrounded by splendid houses, shops, and churches dating back to Colonial times.
And on every block, there’s a tall tale from long ago. We wanted to stay longer, but the sun was going down and it was time to get back on the road.

We finally got off of I-95 and took I-10 in Jacksonville, and arrived in Tallahassee at 10 o’clock on Saturday night. At that point we were in a state of suspended animation after the 15 hour marathon drive. We felt like we were still bouncing along in the car even when we were sitting on Larry & TC’s lovely back porch. After many Newcastle beers and glasses of red wine, we finally fell into dreamland.

On Sunday we arose to Spring in all of its glory. The trees were in bloom and the whole place smelled like honey. Larry & TC have a really nice house in a Stepford Wives community just north of Tallahassee. Larry recently retired from the Forest Service, while Teri is the Deputy Supervisor for all of the National Forests in Florida. She is temporarily running the three forests in Alabama and works during the week in Montgomery, Alabama, staying in a hotel and then coming back home on the weekends.

We spent our first day kayaking down the Wakulla River, starting in the Wakulla Springs. Most of the rivers in the panhandle of Florida are fed by spectacular Category 1 underground springs, meaning the water is unbelievably clear. And Wakulla Springs is the largest and deepest fresh water spring in the world.
The “Tarzan” movies were filmed there, along with “Creature From the Black Lagoon”. Inna & I rented kayaks from a place called Wilderness World and Larry & TC guided us through 7 miles of pure heaven, filled with gators, manatees, water moccasins, turtles, otters, egrets, herons, bald eagles, vultures, osprey, ibis, limpkin, anhinga, wood ducks, and pelicans (my favorite). We finished up our little paddle near the Gulf of Mexico, where the Wakulla meets the St. Marks River, in a funky oasis filled with biker oyster bars.
Here’s the thing: If you are looking for the old Florida, you need look no further than the area around Tallahassee. It’s dirt roads, shitkickers and trailers, cinderblock liquor stores, dollar stores, seafood stands in the backs of pickup trucks, simple churches in the woods, and goofy roadside attractions galore. It’s my kind of place. And while the people may be a bit rough around the edges, they are amazingly friendly. Everywhere we went, the folks couldn’t have been nicer.
We loaded up the boats and stopped at this amazing dive called the Riverside Café, literally hanging out over the St. Marks River. A local band of hoodlums were playing swamp rock from an outdoor stage and drunken redneck men & women lurched in the sand like fish out of water. It was endlessly amusing.
Birds flew through the restaurant and everyone was having a goddamn ball, pounding cheap beer and eating fresh seafood.

Monday was the holiday, but Larry had a master gardener class in the morning, so Inna & I went for a long hike with Teri in the very nice Brinkley-Glenn city park where a network of trails ran through a long-leaf pine forest interspersed with shady swamps and frog-happy wetlands.
Tallahassee has some really outstanding parks and they are all free and very well maintained.

After our morning walk we hooked up with Larry and loaded up our bikes for a 20-mile ride along the St. Marks Railroad Trail, starting at the south end and riding north from the Riverside Café.
The trail follows the old railroad line that brought cotton to the the Gulf and slaves into the interior to work the plantations. The recently repaved trail was completely empty and took us through old horse and cattle farms and strange enclaves of rundown houses amidst palm trees and sandy roads to nowhere.
Larry had a Green Guides class that night at the Crawfordville Community College, so we didn’t have time for dinner after our bike ride. Instead, Larry led us down to an amazing spot in an eerily-empty golf cart condoland community called Shell Point, overlooking Apalachee Bay.
This is oyster country and reminded me of the Chesapeake Bay, except it’s the ocean.
Larry left for his class as the sun went down and we drove back to Tallahassee, stopping at Fresh Market for some tasty organic foods. We made a great salad and hung out with TC on the back porch, basking in the warm night air. I called home and Momu said it had snowed, sleeted and was miserably cold & windy. We downed another rum drunk in honor of our good fortune. It felt great to be away from winter time in Annapolis.

TC left for Alabama on Tuesday morning. It was hot and sunny, so we decided to head for the water. We took Larry’s three kayaks and went exploring on the Wasissa River, yet another spring-fed river teeming with an amazing assortment of wildlife.
We paddled aimlessly for several hours and then took a meandering slough that led us to the Blue Hole where a giant spring bubbled out of an underwater cave. We went swimming in the crystal clear water filled with colorful fish and I managed to lose my cellphone as I was putting my vest back on in the tippy kayak. Screw it. I never liked the goddamn thing anyhow. Not sure why I even took it with me in the first place.
After our little adventure on the river, we drove over to the nearby Letchworth-Love Mounds Archaeological State Park. It is one of the state’s most significant Native American ceremonial sites, featuring
Florida’s tallest Indian ceremonial mound - 46 feet tall (the Indian version of a pyramid). The people who built the mound are believed to have been members of the Weedon Island Culture, a group of Native Americans who lived in North Florida between 200 and 800 A.D.
We came back home after touring the trippy Indian mounds and just kicked back and read while Larry puttered around his garden before his next Green Guide class. It was nice just chilling without a plan, and the perfect weather made it feel like Eden.

On Wednesday it was time to head into Tallahassee for an urban walk. We drove to city center and parked in a parking garage before heading off on our walk. Tallahassee is the state capitol, but not very large and easily accessible by foot. Tallahassee is a Creek Indian word meaning “old fields”. It was chosen as the state capital in 1824 because it sits equal distance from Pensacola and St. Augustine, the original seats of power. It’s an odd little town. It seems almost brand new and there are very few tall or historic buildings. The architecture is modern and uniformly white – no doubt because the summers are so friggin hot.
They have a street called Park Avenue which runs for many blocks, bisected by major streets, and is essentially a series of wonderful parks covered in large live oaks, dripping Spanish moss (which isn’t Spanish, or a moss, but rather, a member of the pineapple family).
We cruised through park after park eventually stopping at the spooky National Cemetery that looked like something straight out of a vampire movie – even at high noon.
At the end of Park Avenue sits the sprawling campus of Florida State University. It’s a very nice college comprised mostly of stately brick buildings like the University of Maryland. They were playing the Terps in B’ball later that night in College Park and there were spirit banners all around - “Go Seminoles!”
We hung out for some people watching by a large fountain in the main quad and were treated to many entertaining sights. The school appears to have a lot more women than men – young girls scantily attired and bouncing along like happy puppies. Why the hell didn’t I go there when I was younger? The fraternities and sororities line College Avenue and they are immaculately maintained. I’ve never seen a college so squared away.
We walked back toward the downtown area and stopped to check out a new urban pedestrian mall area with an IMAX theater, outdoor cafes, and performing arts stages before stopping for a yummy lunch at a sushi placed called the Jasmine Café.
After lunch, we headed over to the Museum of Florida History. The museum is free and tells the whole story of Florida from prehistoric mastodons and giant armadillos, through the Indians, Spanish, English, Colonials, Indian Wars, Civil War, Reconstruction, tourism, oranges, and right up to today.
They also had an extensive exhibit featuring original Audubon bird prints. It was amazing how much they packed into such a small museum and we learned a lot in a very short time.
After the museum we walked around the mostly empty streets lined with lawyers offices and lobbying firms, but very few commercial businesses. Without any stores and shops, there really wasn’t much to look at. The legislature wouldn’t be in session until the following week, so the whole place seemed like a ghost town.
We walked over to the historic State House, a lovely old white building circa the 1820s, featuring very cool red and white striped awnings hanging over each window. The old State House is no longer in use but they offer free tours. We walked through many interesting exhibits, exploring Florida’s rough & tumble political history.
One room was set up like it had been for the one of the first Governors. Another featured all of the political buttons, signs, and paraphernalia that colored many of the past elections. Another room told the story of the “hanging chads”. Tallahassee was where W stole the presidential election from Gore. They even had one of the voting machines with a sample ballot. How quickly we forget.
After touring the old Capitol building, we walked out the back door and into a modern plaza in front of Tallahassee’s tallest (and ugliest) high rise building where the legislature does it’s business. We took the elevator to the 22nd floor where there is an observation deck looking out over the city.
The air was so humid, and there were controlled burns going on in the surrounding forests, so it was hard to see very far. But you could easily tell how the city had been laid out atop seven small hills, making it seem much less flat and uniform that the rest of the state.
By this time, our heads were ready to burst and our feet were sore, so we drove back to the Lesko-Cleeland hotel and got happy, grilling steaks and eating a salad filled with assorted greens from Larry’s garden.
On Thursday, we headed for the beach, following the scenic Highway 98 along the Gulf Coast, stopping for the best breakfast I’ve ever had at a rundown dive called 2 Al's,
and then pushing on to historic Apalachicola where we picked up some authentic Florida junk at a wild antique barn called the Tin Shop.
You wouldn’t believe the incredible assortment of crap in this place. They had old diving suits, plastic flamingos, life-sized pirates armed with swords, alligator heads, carved birds, glass balls in nets, seashells, shark teeth, weird yard signs, old coins & doubloons, and oh so much more. It made our heads spin.
We continued on to St. George Island. Half the island is developed like Any Beach Town, USA and the other half of the island is a completely undeveloped state park. We spent the rest of the day walking the empty beach, collecting shells and just chilling by the blue ocean.
The beaches of the Gulf are my favorite. The day was a little cool and quite foggy, so we didn’t go swimming. But we stayed until late afternoon and then did the 1.5-hour drive back home, stopping at the one-of-a-kind “Bird’s Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack” for some fresh Apalachicola oysters and 420 beer. We came back home and packed our gear so we could get an early start the following morning.

After a final meal with Larry, we said our tearful goodbyes and were on the road by 9, heading for Jekyll Island, Georgia. The forecast was for scattered showers all day. We didn’t get wet until we arrived on Jekyll, and even then, it was really nothing more than a mist most of the time. We ate lunch in the historic and very ritzy Jekyll Island Club, all white linen and how do you do.
After lunch, we got on our bikes and rode around the north end of the island. We ended up doing about 12 miles, checking out the historic winter “cottages” of the filthy rich (Vanderbilt, Goodyear, Pulitzer) who once hung out on the island at the turn of the last century.
Jekyll is one of my favorite places. Inna & I may end up having our wedding there. It’s a little slice of heaven, for sure.

We had originally planned to stay the night on Jekyll, but the weather was iffy and we wanted to get back to Annapolis so we could have Sunday to regroup and get ready for the impending daily grind. So we left paradise and headed north through lovely Brunswick and back onto I-95, stopping in the early evening in Walterboro, South Carolina where we ate at a steak house and got a room at the Princess Motel.

We got up the next morning and stopped at the Fireworks Supermarket where I picked up some serious ordinance.

And then it was back onto I-95. Inna drove most of the way until we got to Fredericksburg and then I took over. The northern Virginia traffic jam was in full swing but we managed to get through fairly easily and arrived back in Annapolis at 5.

All in all, it was an ideal vacation. We found sun and warmth. We got away from Annapolis and all of it’s petty village conflicts. We visited old friends. Saw some amazing sights. Played outside in some unbelievably stoner spots. And it was a pretty cheap date. Gas was the biggest expense and it only took six tanks of gas for the entire 2,100 mile excursion. Gas prices were wild. They went up dramatically after Libya caught fire, and ranged from $2.83 – $3.79 a gallon. But we can’t wait to visit Larry & TC again – maybe this fall.

In the meantime it’s back to work and we are left with but fleeting pictures that turn into fuzzy memories ...

1 comment :

  1. That was a nice picture that you took of Letchworth-Love Mounds Archaeological State Park. Thanks for including it. I am happy that you enjoyed your visit to Florida.