Copyright (c) 1997 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Van Tales Chapter 48 - Nov 24 to Dec 25, 1997 Palmyra, VA to Florida City, FL
Ah, the day after Thanksgiving, the start of the Christmas rush. Shoppers who've waited until the last minute, at least what I'd call the last minute, grab those check books, credit cards, and gift lists and head for the mall. Not yet as frantic as the last week before Christmas, yet there is that feeling in the air of hurry up, shop till you drop. I have mixed feelings about not participating in the Christmas rush. I always enjoyed giving gifts to people, more than receiving gifts in fact. In particular the kids. I like seeing expressions of surprise on their faces. But, dealing with the crush of humanity trying to grab the last few of those super hot items, driving around in circles looking for just one parking space that doesn't even have to be close, or standing in lines at the check-out counter is just not fun. I suppose that's why nowadays I usually make a few things each year to give away and just buy one toy for the Toys-for-Tots program. That's enough Christmas shopping for me.
So instead of joining the throngs of post Thanksgiving shoppers we chose to go to a parade. Actually my father was in the parade along with Brian and our always adorable and highly energetic nephew Stevie. The three of them climbed aboard that spring grass green 1903 Franklin, joining a group of generally much newer cars for an odd parade around a shopping mall parking lot. It's a cute car, one of the real old ones that looks much like a horseless carriage. It's fully open and you sit way up top on these very shallow, black leather seats. The driver is lucky, he has the steering wheel to hang on to. The passenger just has a small knob located at his hip. Going around a corner gives the passenger a real uneasy feeling that he is going to go flying off the side. For a person who religously buckles up, it's a real unerving feeling. The car makes a sputtering putt, putt noise and this day it was smoking a fair amount as my father had just oiled the lifters. It is a car that requires a lot of work, a lot of fiddling, a lot of TLC. Fortunatly my father is more than happy doing it. Brian and Stevie got the benefit of all this work by being able to star in the parade.
Although, one thing I remember from all the parades I participated in as a Girl Scout, when you're in the parade you miss seeing most of it. On the sidelines we got to watch the fire engines, clowns, bands, kids dressed as Christmas gifts, even a few animals dance by. We nudegd our always adorable niece, Leslie, to go grab pieces of candy, balloons, even a wooden ruler being thrown by parade participants. She made out like a bandit and got a good sugar jolt for the day. Natch, we saved some for Stevie. We returned to the house after the parade where I spent time playing aunt with kids. Once I got them into the upper bed of the van, boy was it a tough job getting them out. Poor Nermil and Vanderwat will never quite be the same. I have to admit it's fun playing with small ones for a few days. Kids add a lot to such events as Christmas parades. But, it is nice to get back to being just the two of us once again.
The next morning we headed south to the warm climate of Florida. We didn't get very far, though, only as far as Appomattox Court House about 60 miles south. On April 9, 1865 this was the site of the end of a tragic chapter in the history of the U.S.. General Robert E. Lee of the confederate army accepted the terms of surrender proposed by General Ulysses S. Grant of the Federal Army. As fate would have it they came to this momumental agreement in the living room of Wilmer McLean who happened to have had a home up in the Manassas area that was shelled in one of the very first battles of the war, the battle of Bull Run 1. He moved to Appomattox to get away from the war not suspecting that the war would come to his house once again for it finale. Three days after coming to surrender terms, exactly 4 years to the day after the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter, the soldiers of the Federal Army waited in formation along the north side of the road through the center of town. Their line stretched from the town center to two miles west. They watched and waited as the 6,000 soldiers of the Confederate army broke camp, formed up, and marched up the small rise into town. "Attention" yelled the Federal General. Seeing that they were to be treated with the respect of war hardened soldiers, the Confederate General reared his horse, brought his sword to his boot, and saluted in return. The Confederate soldiers lifted their chins with dignity. They came to a stop opposite the Federal troops and were ordered to lay down their arms. One-by-one they came forward, stacking their rifles in that tee-pee shape, slinging shell cases across the top. Flag bearers tearfully laid torn and tattered flags across the top, the flags having survived years in battle were often cut into pieces as souvenirs. Throughout this the Federal troops remained respectful and quiet. These were their kinfolk, they spoke the same language, lived in the same towns, looked the same. They just happened to get caught up in a terrible conflag tion on opposite sides of the line. It's a credit to the US army that they behaved so well. This confrontatin between Lee and Grant was not the absolute end to the war. There were still other batallions out and about wagin smaller skirmishes throughout the south. But this was the straw that broke the camel's proverbial back. The confederacy had to fold.
The town dwindled into obscurity following the war, which in the long run was good for it as a future historic site. There was no modern development to cover the old buildings and, with some restoration, many of the houses and buildings present at that momentous occasion still stand and are in excellent condition. The big brick court house where the final surrender papers were signed, the tavern where a printing press worked 24 hours a day for 3 days printing passes for the Confederate soldiers, a few law offices, a store, stable, county jail, and private homes all are original from 1865. Unfortunatly the one building that is not original is the MccLean house itself. In the spring of 1893 some investors decided to dismantle the house with the intention of moving it to Washington DC as a tourist attraction. They got as far as tearing it down, that's it. So from then until the 1930s it decayed into a pile of rubble. The house that stands today is a receratin built based upon the detailed drawings made by those very investors prior to the move.
Now that we'd had a look at the end of the civil war it was time to see where it all began, Ft. Sumter. Situated on a manmade island in the middle of Charleston harbor, this fort has an interesting history beyond its role in the civil war. Back during the war of 1812 the British stormed the coast of Virginia, marched and sailed straight up to our capital, invaded, and burned the capital and White House. To guard against this happening again, the US set about building a series of over 40 coastal forts that extended all the way from New England around Florida and on around the gulf. One of these forts was designated to be placed in the Charleston bay where there was no land. For about 50 years they worked on first building an artificial island then builting the walls and ramparts. It was only 90% complete and not even garrisoned when the Civil war broke out. It must have presented quite a sight when it was nearly finished, 3 story tall 20 ft thick walls covered with holes from which would protrude dozens of cannon. Most of the cannon were sitting in the middle of the central parade ground waiting to be mounted on their carriages and pulled into position when the war began.
On the eve of the Civil war, after the state of South Carolina had seceded from the Union, the rebels took over most of the coastal forts. Standing alone at the old Ft. Moultri across the water from the not yet commissioned Ft. Sumter was Maj. Robert Anderson in command of just 85 men. Things were getting nasty. Citizens at Charleston resented having this one incursion of Union forces on their soil. Anderson had to do something. Ft. Moultrie was in such bad shape it was essentially undefensible. There were rumors of cracks in the wall so large you could drive a wagon through. Sand and dirt had grown up and over the wall so high cows could wander over and meander through the fort's parade ground. Anderson decided to move into the new Ft. Sumter. On December 26 Anderson secretly moved his troops into the fort and began a 3 month process of getting those waiting cannon mounted.
People at Charleston were enraged for they felt that the fort rightfully belonged to them. After attempts to get President Buchanan to remove the troops failed a group of southern troops commanded by Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard set up cannon at Forts Moultrie and Johnson facing Sumter. Tensions continued to mount as the date for the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln approached. In his speach Lincoln made it quite clear that he would not permit the southern states to leave even if it meant using force to keep them in tow. We all remember his famous line, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Things finally came to a head in April, 1861. Beauregard sent a message to Anderson demanding his immediate surrender. Anderson replied that he would stay to defend the rights of the federal government but he had only enough food to last until April 15. If supplies didn't arrive by then he'd leave. That wasn't good enough for the citizens of Charleston. At 4:20 AM April 11, 1861 a single shot was fired above the fort as a signal for the other batteries to open fire. The four year long war had begun. The conversation back and forth between Anderson and Beauregard must have been something to witness. Anderson had been Beauregard's instructor at the academy and they had been close friends. It must have been hard to come to blows on opposite sides of the fence.
Anderson's toops held out only a short while. As shells came in one hit the officer's quarters which proceeded to catch fire. He had a choice, fight the fire or fight the enemy. The decision was made for him as the flames crept closer and closer to the powder magazine. At around 2PM the next day he surrendered. Being Beauregard's former teacher and friend and being at the start of a war that hadn't really been declared as yet, Anderson and his troops were allowed to depart for points north unmollested. The rebels took over the fort.
Ft Sumter soon became the thorn in the side for the north. They just had to take it back. So in 1853 they steamed back into the port, took over positions on islands surrounding the fort, and started what is believed to be the longest seige in the history of US armed forces. It started in August of 1863 and continued through January 1865. As the bombrdmet of the fort continued on through the 22 months the walls were reduced to not much more than rubble, yet the confederate troops held on. They only released their hold on the fort in February when they learned of General Sherman's troops headed in their direction. They never surrendered which was quite an accomplishment.
Following the war the fort was rebuilt somewhat, although not to its pervious grandeur. For WWI it was outfitted with a huge concrete structure in the middle of the parade grounds. This was a bunker containing those odd disappearing guns so prevelant along the coast during that war. By WWII it was widely recognized that stationary coastal forts such as this were obsolete and it had become quite a tourist attraction. So it was deactivated as a military estabishement and turned into a national monument in 1948.
The only way to get to the fort is either by private boat or by paying $20 per persom for the 2 1/2 hour tour that takes you out there. Today's Ft. Sumter has rebuilt walls that stand only 2 stories tall. The large concrete battery Huger still dominates much of the center parade grounds. There are a few of the old cannon mounted on the walls and a good museum of civil war artifacts along with the usual book store. You are given only about 1 hour to look over everything, which is not nearly enough time should you decide to also listen to the ranger's talk. It's too bad there 's not an easier and cheaper way to get out there as we would have liked to have had another 30 to 40 minutes. I suppose in summer when there are more than just the one scheduled tour boat you might be able to stay behind to catch the next boat.
Also in the Charleston harbor stands the WWII aircraft carrier the Yorktown, designated CV-10. In all those years living in San Diego we never happened to make one of the aircraft carrier open houses. So we figured this would be our one opportunity. Now the Yorktown would probably be considered to be just a baby carrier compared to the super giant carriers, such as the Enterprise, which ply the waters today. Yet it certainly was big enough to occupy us for the entire day. There weren't many people onboard this day so we essentially had free reign of the entire ship. There are five separate self guided tours that take you to machine shops, the engine rooms, galley, crews quarters, officers' quarters, dentist and doctor's offices, electronic workshop, bakery, store, pilot house, bridge, etc. You name it it was here. There was even a shoe repair shop. I'd always heard aircraft carriers were like mini floating cicties and I now am convinced that this description is accurate.
Moored at the same dock is the destroyer Laffey, submarine Clamagore, and US Coast Guard cutter Ingham. On land there's a mock-up Vietnam Naval Support Base. There was just so much to see we could not get to it all in one day. The museum closes at 7PM and we were the last visitors to leave. Well worth the $10.50 per person admission fee. Oh, one really neat thing they do is have an onboard scout camp. Girl and boy scouts can come aboard, spend a weekend, eating, sleeping, and living in the crews quarters. I suppose they either go to some sort of class type event or they are put to work making minor repairs or some such thing. I sure would have loved that type of camp when I was young.
We had two more Nationa Park forts to visit before hitting the Florida state line. The first was Ft. Pulaski. located at the mouth of the Savannah River. This was another of those coastal forts built following the war of 1812 that was taken over by rebel troops at the outset of the Civil War. What is of particular importance about this fort is it was the first to succumb to the new rifled, aerodynamically bullet shaped projectiles flung against it by the Union forces in 1862. It is also important in that this use of new weapons proved that the old style of fortified stationary forts as a mode of defence was now obsolete. Warfare, as it was then known, was to change forever. Within not much more than a day, Union forces were able to knock down major sections of the fort's walls causing a breech wide enough for troops to enter and a direct line of sight shot right into the powder magazine. Rebel forces were forced to surrender. From this point on the use of earthen or brick work forts dwindled. In WW1 huge reinforced concrete gun batteries were often built right in the parade grounds of former earthwork forts. Many were outfitted with those huge disappearing guns. The effectriveness of this was never really tested during the war. During WWII many served as prisoner of war camps. The days of those large forts that traced their origins to the era of knights in shining armor was gone for good.
Ft. Pulaski, named for Count Casimir Pulaski a Polish hero of the American Revolution whose name appears on everything from boats, roads, and bridges, to towns and forts,was begun in 1829. Some $1 million, 25 millioin bricks, and 18 years later it was nearly complete when the rebel forces occupied it at the start of the Civil War. It stayed in Rebel hands until that 1862 day when Capt. Quincy A. Gillmore decided to use the new experimental guns against it. Even though Federal forces occupied it through the end of the war and even made significant changes in the form of additional earthen covered powder magazines and batteries on the landside exterior, its usefulness as a fort came to an end. In 1924 it was declared a National Monument. Restoration began in 1933. Today the fort's walls, interior buildings which include troop and officer's quarters, and even those added exterior earthen works are in excellent shape. Upon entering the fort you first walk through the exterior earthen works. Laid out in a triangular shape that protects the main sally-port, in other words entrance, they are riddled with underground passages, tunnels, and rooms making for a maze begging for exploration. The older section of the fort is shaped much like a squashed octagon. The interior walls are honeycombed with that familiar vaulted ceiling shape that was supposed to lend strength to the walls, at least it used to work. You can climb around on most of the walls, peek into the rooms where an audio presentation describes the use of each, and read lots of descriptive signs. Easily the fort makes for a good 2 to 3 hour driving break.
Ft. Fredrica is located on St. Simons Island near Brunswick, Ga. It is actually a much older site than any of the other forts we'd visited. Founded as a remote village and outpost in 1736 by James Edward Oglethorpe its primary purpose was to act as a buffer against colonial expansion by the Spanish from Florida. If we were to compare it to anything of equal nature today it would be a military town, a town whose primary function is to service the neighboring military base. It was laid out in a neat rectangular pattern with a wide, even by today's standards, road down the middle. Smaller roads paralleled the grand road, three to one side 6 on the other, and one road was laid out perpendicular to all. The small fort, which consisted primarily of a starshaped earthen wall surmounted by a few canon was set by the river's edge at the head of the grand road. Shopkeepers set up their houses and stores along the roads. The town had every type of skill it neaded, baker, shoemaker, candle stick maker, soap maker, locksmith. It also had its share of domestic problems. One sign hints of a big "to do" between the doctor plus wife against their neighbors who happened to have a building sharing one wall. The neighbors moved out, back to Charleston. It was said of Fredrica in its heyday it looked much like any English countrside town except that it lacked a church spire.
Fredrica, the fort and town, did not last too long. 1739 saw the start of a war between Spain and England over the slave trade and land claims in the New World. In 1742 Olglethorp decided to take the offensive against the Spanish at St. Augustine, FL. He was repelled and the Spanish, in retaliation, followed with the plan of capturing Fredrica. He tried to head them off at one point not far from Fredrica, but failed. While in the retreat his men mounted an ambush attack in the middle of a marsh just south of town. It was successful and the Spanish left Georgia soil for good. WIth the threat to Georgia from the Floridian Spanish ended the need for Ft. Fredrica had ended. It was an expensive fort to maintain as many supplies had to be shipped from either Charleston or the motherland. The regiment at the fort was disbanded in 1749 and, being nearly entirely dependent upon the military presense for its survival, the town soon dwindled into obscurity. By 1755 it was completely abandoned.
Time hasn't been kind to the old village and fort. Little remains but excavated house foundations, lumps defining the earth walls of the fort and defensive wall surrounding the village. and a few walls of the old fort and troop barracks. Signs along the path, however, do tell the story of the townspeople using old town records for their basis. Stroll along, use your imagination and you can just envision these pioneer families who left a tough life in England to see what they could begin anew in the new world.
Here we were in southern Georgia, rapidly approaching the Florida state line and the cold weather still persued us. Each night I still needed to pull on a polar fleese jacket over my sweatshirt. I began to wonder, would we ever find warmer weather. Even our days at Disney World were not overly warm. I'd like to blame El Nino, which would actually be the truth, but the execuse of "It's El Nino's fault" is getting mighty old. Seems people are using it for everything from a bad hair day to being late to work. Let's just say it sure takes going way, way south on the N. American continent to find a place where it stays warm in winter.
The day we hit Walt Disney World in Orlando it started to rain. It rainded, rained, and rained for 5 days straight as a cold front sat stationary right over the top of us. However, it made for a great opportunity to visit the parks. It was just before the Christmas holidays, so the kids weren't out of school as yet. That combined with the foul weather made for a very uncrowded park. We started with Epcot center, as we'd heard so much about it, then MGM studios, back to Epcot, and finally Magic Kingdom. Epcot is a huge area broken into 2 distinct sections. Toward the front are pavilions that are sponsored by various corporate entities, Metlife, Apple, Honeywell to name a few. They seem to be a combination of small museum, hands-on play house, and amusement park. We enjoyed this area the most as it had something a bit more intelectually stimulating than just simple amusement park rides. At the back is the World Showcase which are small made-up villages from Norway, Mexico, Canada, France, Morocco, Germany, China, and Japan. They feature mostly shops and restaurants. Although some also have movie presentations about their respective country. It was interesting in some ways yet dull in others. It was fun to see the films from those countries we have as yet to visit and fun to see films from countries we have. But the buildings and their surroundings seemed a bit too artificial, too perfect. They just don't show the litter, cracks in the foundations, graffitti, and other ills you find in the real cities. I guess after having been to many of these places I'd have to say the World Showcase was a might tame when compared to the real thing.
Similarly, MGM studios was a combined museum/amusement park centered on TV and movie ceation. Scattered around you'll come across some of the props and scenes they actually used in the movies. We particularly enjoyed the backstage tour of the animator's workshop. They were working on the final bits of their new movie, Mulan, to be released next summer. This will be a story about a Japanese girl who takes the place of her ill father when the called to join the army by the emperor. They've been working on it for 4 1/2 years with up to 800 animation artists. When you watch a Disney cartoon movie you are seeing 24 frames per second. Each character is drawn 24 separate times by hand to make up that one second. I just imagine the artists must get to know their particular character quite well. Either that or they get quite bored with it. They also get to be real good. The animator assigned to entertain our group whipped out a drawing of a dragon, one of the principal characters, in about 1 minute all the while telling us how he draws it. Without the extra chit-chat he probably would get it done in 15 seconds. There are currently 4 separate animated feature films in work at the Disney studios in Florida and California. One being Mulan. Another should be a must see for adults and kids alike, Fantasia 2000.
We also got to visit some of the sound stages. One was set up for a catered Christmas party for Disney Employees. But, until a few days earleir it had been set up for the filming of what should be quite a spectacular HBO series. It's called, "From the Earth to the Moon" exactly the same title as Jules Verne's first sci. fi. novel. It'll be 13 parts and will cover the entire space program from its inception to the actual moon landing. Executive director was Tom Hanks of Forrest Gump fame. So I expect it'll be quite good. It's scheculted to air in April or May. It'll be one of the few times I will really miss not having cable TV.
There were also several live and very condenced versions of some of Disney's recent and very popular animated films; Beauty and the Beast, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Little Mermaid. And there was a stunt show based on the Indiana Jones movie series. This last one had special significance for me as the company I used to work for, SDRC, did the design and analysis of the infrastructure of the first scene with the rolling ball. It was fun seeing the final outcome of all those drawings I'd see spread across various tables at work. The shows were quite amazing productions considering they last only about 20 to 30 minutes and are replayed 4 to 5 times a day.
After dark we wandered along the back street that was laid out with various house fronts used in different movie and TV productions, i.e. the front yard of the Golden Girls house. We'd heard a story about how a family in Little Rock, Ark had started a tradition of hanging Christmas lights each year. Over the many years they'd continued this tradition they kept adding and adding until they were up to some 2 million lights. It was becoming quite a traffic stopper in Little Rock. So much so the neighbors took the Osborne family to court to get them to stop. It went all the way to the state Supreme court where the Osborne's lost the battle. Disney invited them to come place their lights at MGM. To celebrate they added another 1 million creating perhaps the most amazing spectacle of lights I've ever seen. Christmas music played, different for each section of the back street, as we walked through a tunnel of lights, angels, santas, toy trains, made of lights surrounded us. All of the house fronts were draped in light strings. Even the lawn chairs, bird baths, lawn mowers, and bicycles were outlined in lights. I think only Disney can do something as extravagent as this without having it seem totally tackey as it had in Pigeon Forge. How'd you like to have their electric bill..... ka-ching.
Finally, Disney World Magic Kingdom which is basically an expanded version of Disneyland in Aneheim. After Epcot and MGM we found the park to be a bit dull. I think this might be because we've been to Disneyland so many times. One new experience that was quite something was called Alien Encounter. It was ceated with the help of George Lucas. I won't give away any of its secrets. But just imagine what a combination of Lucas and Disney can come up with.
We came away from Disney feeling completely amusement parked out. It was fun to do once, but I simply can't see wanting to go again for perhaps another 15 years or so, if ever. Partly because it is such a contrived, packaged, artifical environment that merely mimicks the real world. We find the real world to be so much more exciting. It was a sentiment expressed by my sister, Danna, and I have to say she's right. Why see an imitatin when you can see the real thing.
Following Disney we headed back to the coast to visit the Kennedy Space Center. Now here is a place where Aerospace Engineers can get lost for days. They've made so many changes to the visitor's center since my first visit in the 70's. Back then the number of visitors was probably not all that large. Now it appears as if they host millions each year. At the visitor's center you can wander through a garden studded with some of the early experimental rockets and tracking antenna, visit small museums about the current shuttle and mars exploration programs, wander through an imaginary space station of the future while they expound upon the benefits of satellites in our lives. You can even climb aboard a mock-up shuttle, Explorer, and have a look at the forward and aft crew compartments and cargo bay. It was nice to finally have a look at the true size of the shuttle. The drawings and computer models I've seen through the years simply can't give you the true persepctive of size.
Perhaps the best thing to see is one that requires you take the $10 bus tour. Until just last October they had a full standing Saturn V rocket sitting out by the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB). It had been sitting out in the rain, wind, and salt air for 20 years. They just took it down, refurbished it, and placed it, horizntally this time, in a new building dedicated solely to the Apollo moon missions. What a beautiful piece of engineering achievement these rockets were. Somehow the Shuttle pales in comparison. Standing taller than 4 statue of liberties or 2 1/2 empire state buildings it must have just soared into the air. I can just imagine it sitting on the pad, the super cooled propellants, oxygen and hydrogen, loaded into the thin aluminum tanks. Temperature differentials caused the metal to expand and contract, straining at the joints and against the tie-down latches. It must have writhed and twisted as if alive, ready to pounce. And when those five glorious engines ignighted, spewing forth a hugh pillar of flames, rocking the earth for miles round. What an incredible start to man's first tenative steps off our homeworld. I never got to see an Apollo launch and only wish I had had the opportunity to do so.
The Saturn V sits silent now, simply a testimony to the efforts of tens of thousands of peoples long labors. It was an incredible program, completed in such a short time that it's amazing it happened at all. Yet it is also hard to believe that we have as yet to return. Back in the Apollo heyday I would have sworn that by the year 2000 we'd have a permenantly manned station on the moon. Though at this time there aren't even plans for one. There aren't even current plans for a manned mission to mars. Yet, despite our hesitation in pursuing this dream I am firmly convinced that I will see man land on the moon once more within my lifetime, that is if I have a normal lifespan. It is in our blood, it will happen. The one thing that will make manned space activity flourish will be a discovery of some commercially profitable reason for man to be there. Then and only then commercial companies will push the state of space travel as they did airline travel 50 years ago. A reason just simply hasn't been found .... yet.
In one of the displays where various Apollo astronauts gave short talks about different subjects, one man made perhaps one of the most profound comments about the program. To paraphrase, he said that of all the events that happened in the 20th centure the only one that will be remembered in the long run will be man's first step off this planet. Wars, victories, losses, leaders, everything else will be forgotten. It is a destiny altering event that could only be equated to that first ceature that flopped out of the ocean to become an airbreathing animal. It is that important. Man will eventually explore and settle the universe, first our solar system and then farther as new scientific breakthroughs find ways to travel across the great gulfs of space and time. But it all started here, on the wish of a single President, through the efforts of thousands of men and women, through the determination of a nation united for just one purpose. It's a feat our generation should be proud of.
As you can see we really did enjoy the space center tour.
Our final stop before Christmas were the Florida keys. Stretching behond the southern tip of Florida for a good 120 miles lay an emerald string of flat islands all connected by a highway and bridges. The original bridges were actually railroad bridges built by the oil tycoon, Flagler, in 1924. A hurricane destroyed much of the railway and bridges in 1935. Since cars were becoming popular they converted the rail bed and bridges to a road. Those narrow bridges remained in use until the 1980s when a project to replace them with much wider bridges commenced. Now they are nice, wide and even have shoulders suitable for bike riding. I always recall reading the book "Miles from Nowhere" by Barbara Savage. It was written by a couple who rode their bikes around the world back in the late 70s. One of the places they visited was the keys. Their description of riding on the bridges sounded like they were spitting death in the eyes, baiting him to come take them. No more. Those old, narrow bridges they rode are now fishing piers.
Many millions of years ago, when the seas were a bit higher, the Florida keys were actually one large coral reef. As the ocean level dropped the islands were exposed. A little top soil landed on the newly founded islands giving just enough nutrients for trees to take root. Now these flat islands are considered by many to be a great tropical paradise with swaying palm lined white sandy beaches and warm, humid winter days. It's a snowbird's winter getaway hot spot. Many people come to dive or snorkel or fish. Having taken a snorkel trip out to Looe reef, I can understand why. The colors of the fish, all blues, greens, yellows, blacks and even the silver of the infamous baracuda flashed around the colorful coral below my masked face. Huge purple fan corals swept back and forth as the waves flowed over the reef. The corals were all dressed in browns and reds with white sand its between. It was spectacular.
But much of the keys is not overly exciting. Economy for the entire stretch of road is mainly supported by the tourist trade. There are dive shops, shell shops, T-shirt shops, restaurants, hotels, and RV parks scattered along its whole length. And prices, WOW! Campground sites typiclly start at $20 for a spot in the middle of a field and go up from there. Getting one of the precious few sites in the State Parks is nearly impossible unless you make a reservation months in advance. We did get lucky and managed to get a site in Bahia Honda for one night only. The other RV parks are so horribly packed in we just couldn't see staying for very long. They were far too crowded for our tastes. What had originally been planned as a week in the keys wound up being only 3 days as we just couldn't take the crouded situation and the high prices. Christmas eve found us driving back the whole length from Key West to Florida City where we could find a quiet uncrowded place to spend the holidays.
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.