St Augustine, Florida
What better place to spend my 50th birthday than at the Fountain of Youth. I wanted a grand adventure, something exciting and special that would help me to feel young and daring when hitting the mid century mark, and I began dreaming of exotic locations over a year ago. Unfortunately the dream trips to Europe, Finland and or Peru and Argentina were beyond my reach. After trying to work out a visit to Costa Rica or even a simple visit to Montana for hiking, I gave up. I was sure I was going to turn 50 in a movie theater or a shopping mall. But at the last minute my dear husband suggested a camping trip to the Florida Keys. I was thrilled.
On my birthday we started the trip, and our first destination was St. Augustine, Florida. I usually am not interested in touristy attractions, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to drink from the “Fountain of Youth” on the day I turned 50. We paid our admission, late in the day, and walked through the park. Our first stop was at the fountain; a natural spring that we were told had provided water for the local Indian tribes. I waited in line, took a plastic cup from a provided stack and collected a full glass of the water. My husband snapped a photo of me drinking, while my kids looked embarrassed. The water was awful, horrible, and foul. It had a sulfur taste to it, along with the salty beach water flavor. I decided it was better to grow old, and I poured out the rest of the magic elixir.
We moved on to a demonstration of the matchlock gun that had been used by the early Spanish soldiers. A historian taught us how the gun worked. A matchlock is a complicated machine, using a soaked cord and a small covered pan filled with gunpowder. It is safer than a flintlock if the shooter followed all the correct steps in the right order. I couldn’t imagine following all the steps carefully in the heat of battle. He lit the soaked rope, spoke all his commands in Spanish, struck flint and shot the rifle, with a loud bang and a blast of smoke. Peacocks strutted all over the grounds, beautiful but annoying birds with strange calls. The historian wanted with all his heart to have just a little ammo in the gun, to take out the birds.
After walking the grounds we made our way to the cannon demonstration, shadowed by dark and heavy clouds. Thunder rolled, the sky darkened and a man dressed in red wool covered the cannon with a tarp. He shook his head at us, and pointed to the sky. At that point rain began to fall, and we ran quickly to a covered pavilion, entering just in time. The sound of the rain, the hot air, and the giggles of those of us that were dry together made me feel like I was in another world. The rain was beautiful to watch, and at first cooled the air, but soon the humidity and heat returned.
Of course the visit was fun, and the pictures of the marsh and harbor were beautiful, but the history left a little to be desired. It was Ponce de Leon who supposedly searched for the Fountain of Youth, and yet he never actually set foot in St. Augustine. He was an explorer, and searcher of gold, but not really interested in a myth. He landed on the banks of Florida near Daytona Beach, in 1513, years before the pilgrims had reached our shores.
In the study of history we have to trust our sources, we have to know whether the things written were actually intended to be taken as pure history or as fanciful story telling. I recently read the book “A Voyage Long and Strange’” by Tony Horowitz. He wrote of the Spanish settlements and explorations, and he visited many of the places, writing as a travelogue. He uses travel as a method of introducing history and geography, much like many of us like to do as we travel. Part of visiting a place is learning the history, walking in the steps of famous people and seeing where momentous actions took place that affect the present. Unfortunately we have to be careful of what we accept as truth, like with anything.
The local Indians of St. Augustine were the Timucuan Indians, and it had been rumored by the French explorers that these Indians had lived up to 250 years, and that they were taller than normal. Of course, their true history disappeared as these Indians died out from disease and mistreatment. The tourist attraction we enjoyed was mostly focused on the fountain, a giant globe, the peacocks and the gun and cannons, but a small section had been devoted to the Indian remains that had been found on the property.
That night we found a KOA just across the bridge from downtown, and selected an air-conditioned camping cabin. These cabins are small, usually come with one large bed and a set of bunk beds. The “campers” bring sheets or sleeping bags, but the most important thing was the air conditioner. The heat was stifling, and we just couldn’t imagine tent camping. For supper we drove to the beach and selected a tiny restaurant that had only three indoor tables, and maybe the same number outside, where we enjoyed a good seafood dinner. We walked along the beach and the pier, watching the rough waves. Surfers were having good luck, but swimming was tough. The shore dipped down where the surf had eroded it away. Walking with just my feet in the water, a wave washed over my knees, hit the rounded shore and bounced back over my stomach, drenching me.
The moon was full, and lovely over the water. We walked out on the pier after dark, watched kids playing on the sand with glow sticks, and for a few minutes we sat with the serious fishermen who were set up for the night.
In the morning we ate our breakfast on our little porch looking over the tiny campground pond. I saw a long necked bird swimming, his entire body under water. The head looked a little like a snake, and as we were watching, he tossed up and swallowed a minnow. This was the snakebird, or anhinga.
We stopped at the Castillo de San Marco and explored under the burning sun. After missing the cannon demonstration yesterday we hurried to see the forts version. Several cannon were aimed at the harbor filled with sail boats. A group of men marched past us in heavy hot wool coats, again shouting their instructions in Spanish.
The cannons fired, and wads of bread showered over the harbor waters. In touring the fort I learned a lot about Florida’s history, things I either never really knew or had forgotten. Pedro Menendez landed with his ships at St Augustine in 1565, and claimed la Florida for Spain. After the French and Indian war Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain, and then regained the state after the Revolutionary War. In 1812 Americans living in Spanish Florida and in Georgia started a revolt, planning to add Florida back to the United States. They captured St. Augustine, but lost it when the Seminole Indians stepped in to help the Spanish. Later, in 1821, Spain signed a treaty giving the state to the United States and the fort was renamed Fort Marion. During the Civil War the fort was first captured by Confederates and then taken by the Union. Only recently has the fort been renamed Castillo de San Marco.