Tag Archives: Florida travel

Submarines, Sand, and Sandpipers

The best state park ever? Maybe.

My fascination with Fort Clinch – which I started to write about when I sang the praises of the maligned sandspur – has to do with many things, probably too long for a single blog post, but I’m going to try.

In September, we did a cross-Florida road trip, which we completely did not plan in advance. Instead, we looked for last-minute campsites a day or three in advance (I freely admit this is not for everyone.) We lucked out toward the end of our trip and scored a few nights at Fort Clinch State Park.

Sign for Fort Clinch State Park, which reads "Fort Clinch Reconstruction  and construction of roads buildings and grounds was performed by Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1420, 1937-1042."
Built by Roosevelt’s Tree Army.
Cathy Salustri

I’d traveled through Fort Clinch while working on “Backroads of Paradise“, but I’d never spent the night. My friend, Jon Kile (who has a pretty nifty website where he writes about his own travels), married a woman from the area, so they’ve been there a time or two, and his rhapsodizing about the park made me think we needed to visit.

Fort Clinch, one of Florida’s first state parks, started life as – big shock here – fort. In the 1730s – when Florida belonged to Spain – the earliest work on a fort started, but only a century or so later, shortly after Florida joined the US, did construction begin on the fort as we see it today. After the Civil War – I’m shortcutting a lot of history here because I assume that’s not exactly why you’re here, but if you have more history questions, check out Fort Clinch’s abbreviated history on the park’s website – the US abandoned the fort, sealing an almost-certain fate of demolition by neglect.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s tree army – the Civilian Conservation Corps – set to work turning the empty fort into one of our state’s first state parks. CCC workers performed backbreaking work – including removing wheelbarrows filled with random debris from inside the fort.

At the edge of Florida (you can see Georgia from the campsites on the beach), the park represents some of the best of Florida’s state parks.

The view from our campsite – and this wasn’t even close to the best view.
Cathy Salustri

When we camped, we scored a beachside campground, so as soon as we settled in, I headed to the beach to check it out. I’ve seen lots of stuff on Florida beaches, but I was not prepared for this:

Yes, that’s a submarine. Surfacing.
Cathy Salustri

At first, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t seeing a whale, but right whales don’t have a fin on top of them. Also, they’re large, but not that large. Apparently, subs surface in this area to get to the naval base, and I’d happened along one. (Note to self: bring telephoto lens and camera on beach strolls)

After that, the deer and the gopher tortoises and sandpipers… well, OK, they were all still pretty cool. I found a gopher tortoise strolling through the dunes…

Out for a morning stroll.
Cathy Salustri

…and even saw a baby one (I know I’m supposed to write “juvenile” but they’re so damn cute) at the Fort.

Of course, the fort itself has some pretty amazing sights, not the least of which is its architecture. We had a great talk about the history of the fort – and the suspicion that, at least for a time, one of Florida’s Black CCC companies (Jim Crow Florida and all, the Black men who worked for the CCC all had to go to the Myakka location) may have visited the park and worked there – with historian Frank Ofeldt, who wore a period military uniform but thankfully didn’t do that dreadful thing where he pretended it was 1860 (pet peeve: historians who like to pretend to be from the time they study.)

I took about 500 photos of the fort’s interior, but this one’s my favorite.
Cathy Salustri

Back on the beach, we found we had a friend at sunset for a couple of nights. Of course, I have no way of knowing if it was the same bird every night – they could have all talked about the weird lady with blue toes and come by, one by one, to see aforementioned toes. Other than that, though, the beach was pretty much deserted.

If there’s a better place in Florida, I haven’t found it yet.

Of course, I say that at almost every beach, and I’m determined to keep looking.

Why I hate Private Campgrounds

Alternate title: Why I only camp on public land

Last fall, I gave a talk about Florida’s public lands. While this involved some research, I’ve done the bulk of the work traveling – and camping – throughout Florida. Of all the times I’ve camped in Florida (not counting trips where I was invited and couldn’t bend people to my will), I can count the number of times I’ve stayed at a privately run campground on one hand: Twice. Once at a KOA in Tallahassee, and once at Port Canaveral’s Jetty Park, run by the Port Authority.

Make that three times. In September, we stayed at a Thousand Trails campground in Clermont. We had some simple, yet compelling reasons: We wanted a campground that would get us closer to the north end of the state, we wanted to stay somewhere with sewer hookups at the site, I wanted to stay somewhere with decent wifi so I could get some work done, and it was free. When we bought our Viking travel trailer from Lazy Days in March, it came with a free one-year membership to Thousand Trails. Thousand Trails campgrounds aren’t exactly the most back-to-nature campgrounds you’ll find in Florida; actually, quite the opposite. 

However, it met – on paper – all of our needs, so there we stayed. We made a reservation, pulled to the gate, and drove around to select our site. We found one with three bars of wifi, a small tree for shade, and not too many neighbors. While many of our state parks offer privacy via an abundance of vegetation, not so much at private campgrounds, because apparently the name of the game is to squeeze as many campers into their RV “resort” as possible. 

And these resorts are popular. They offer line dancing, karaoke, food trucks, and kids activities. Those first two things are part of a recurring nightmare I have when I’m stressed, so clearly I’m not the target audience here, but clearly the campground checks all the right boxes for many people. As we attempted to explore the campground over the next few days, we saw countless signs of more land getting plumbed for more campsites, more greenery getting cleared for grass. 

I don’t fault the campground staff, who were lovely. I admit I loved swimming laps in the pools. the My only complaint about the amenities? The paid wifi boasted all the reliability of a 1995 dialup modem. But we had a few days to recharge, and I could get decent wifi at the clubhouse, where I was able to tape my weekly episode of The Florida Spectacular, clear out my inbox, and submit a few articles to clients. 

Black and Tan coonhound sniffing a gopher tortoise
This was the extent of the wildlife we saw while camping at Thousand Trails. Apparently they built the entire campground on a gopher tortoise habitat. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

Barry did glimpse a gopher tortoise one morning, and we saw several trios of sandhill cranes (when it comes to birds that are my height or taller, these are far and away my favorites), but beyond that, that, the Thousand Trails Orlando stood in stark contrast to the past few weeks’ worth of waterfront or middle-of-forests campsites we’d enjoyed: one barren spat of land built on scrub, which I always tell people is something like the desert, Florida-style. For September, it wasn’t unbearable – but we’re Floridians. We slept with the windows open and the fan on, but by 9 a.m. our A/C unit hummed along with the other campers throughout the park.

The last full day of our stay, Barry said he’d found something I’d probably want to see. With Calypso as my bowsprit and Banyan running alongside Barry, we biked to the back section of the park, the one that warned it had no wifi and so we hadn’t bothered to check out the sites there. 

Once we biked passed the rows of RVs bleaching in the scrubby September sun and rolled downhill into Section D, the whole park changed. Trees lined the roadways and offered each site privacy. Instead of gravel or paved pads, the trailers and campers rested on grassy areas. Had we realized the wifi in the barren hellscape where we parked for the past three nights would be so awful, we wouldn’t have thought twice about checking out this wi-fi-less section (as it turns out, I had the same cell reception there as I did the rest of the park, we would have checked out this area and definitely stayed here. 

But that wasn’t the best part. The best part I was yet to see: A dog park.

Saw palmetto and pine trees in the woods.
The dog park was the nicest part of the park, in terms of nature.

Now, the literature all said the campground had a dog park, but given how… barren the rest of the campground was, I’d sort of written it off almost immediately. That was a mistake, because this is perhaps one of the nicest dog parks I’ve seen. Aside from a bench and some comfy patio furniture, the park set aside the nicest area of the property for a dog park. Pine trees shaded the fenced area; to one side, we saw a grassy, tree-lined clearing and, to the other, Lake Hancock. The dogs sniffed and rested and rolled and sniffed some more. As for me? I spent my time staring at what may be some of the last unspoiled privately owned bits of central Florida.

In the distance, we heard bulldozers. 

My Love Affair with the Sandspur

After decades of licking my fingers and pulling them out of my feet, I found a new way of looking at these prickly Florida natives.

After decades of cursing and pulling them out of my feet – and my dogs’ paws – I found myself appreciating the beauty and determination of the sandspur. Photo taken at Fort Clinch State Park, by Cathy Salustri.

I was a kid when I first discovered sandspurs, although I’m not sure if “discovery” is too shiny a word for what transpired shortly after we moved to Florida: I attempted a cartwheel and landed on my butt, which is not at all how I expected the cartwheel to go. I blew my landing not on the soft grass we had back in New York, but a spiky patch of briars that latched into my tender seven-year-old skin with a ferocious passion. 

With that first painful Florida lesson more than 40 years behind me (see what I did there?), I sometimes think of that moment as an allegory for Florida: You arrive here expecting things to be one way, and by the time you realize they’re not going the way you planned, Florida has inserted herself into your most tender bits and won’t let go. Think of us as a stealth state.

My relationship with the sandspur started that afternoon. For the most part, I’d wager it’s a textbook dysfunctional relationship:  Every time I let down my guard, BAM: I stepped on a sandspur. 

Walking back to my car at Fort De Soto, I hold my flip flops in my hand as I cross the hot blacktop to my car. Growing between the parking dividers, a patch of sandspur wait in the shadows. I step on them with one foot and then, before my brain can process what a bad decision my next move would be, I land on them with another. I have no choice but to sit down and pull 20-odd sandspurs out of my feet and then, of course, out of my hands. 

Working a part-time job as ground crew for a banner towing company, I find myself working in fields of sandspur, but these are no ordinary  sandspurs; these are sandspurs on steroids, and – worst of all – they look like a gorgeous field of yellow flowers. Inside each blossom, though, is a sandspur as big as my big toe, which I can say with some authority as I’ve had one pierce by big toe. Despite the 90º-plus heat and hours in the hot field, I wear socks and tennis shoes to work because I do not want these things in my body. I learn later that these are aptly named “puncture vine” (Tribulus cistoides) and are an invasive plant from Madagascar.

My dog, Calypso, mimics the behavior of the dog who came before her, Madison, when she steps on a sandspur: she stops and holds up the injured paw, waiting for me to remove it. As Calypso’s a long-haired dachshund who rolls on anything with unbridled joy, this happens a lot.

Calypso, rolling in something dead and, most likely, a sandspur or two. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

A few years ago, my friend and fellow Florida-phile, Nano Riley, pointed out that sandspurs were, at least, native plants. I tried not to care; they still hurt like hell when they pierced my feet. 

Floridian gardeners know the sandspur – technically, the Southern Sandbur (Cenchrus echinatus L.) – has a green stalk with a violet band where its stem has a leaf growing out. It’s a native Florida grass, and the spur part – the part we’ve all had stuck in our foot at least 237 times – is actually a seed head; it’s part of the flower.

That means that when you pick the sandspur out of your foot and throw it into the grass, you’re planting a new crop of sandspur. It’s ingenious that way, if you think about it. It propagates by making you want to defend yourself against it.

You can’t mow it away – that simply disperses the seeds and, because it’s native to Florida, it doesn’t die in our climate easily. The University of Florida’s Extension Service suggests glyphosate, which may or may not cause cancer, liver, and/or kidney damage. To get rid of the sandspur, you have to yank it out by its roots and throw the whole plant in the garbage – not a landscape pile where the seeds can disperse, because, as I mentioned, that results in a Sisyphean-like situation whereby those seeds disperse, germinate, and then you find yourself pulling even more sand spurs out of the earth next year.

This fall, though, I found a new appreciation for the prickly Florida friend. While on an extended camping trip in September, we spent a few days at Fort Clinch State Park, at the northernmost border of the state. That meant that the weather changed on cue with the fall equinox (this simply does not happen in the southern two-thirds of Florida, or, if it does, it’s an anomaly.)

People love to say we don’t have seasons in Florida, and while I won’t explain, with great annoyance, why this isn’t true, I will say this much: We do. The color changes are far more subtle in the fall, because death comes more gently in Florida – we don’t have a massive dormancy of trees. Nevertheless, the colors do change, and it was on the actual fall equinox, when I’d climbed out of the camper in a bathing suit and promptly climbed back in to change into a sweatshirt, that I sat on the sand, near the dunes, shortly after sunrise and stared at a cluster of sand spur.

While I’ve spent more time than I’d like picking sandspurs out of feet and paws, I hadn’t, until fall equinox, spent much time thing about them. On this morning, I did.

They’re beautiful.

Meditation on a sandspur. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

While the stalks seemed to be dying, the burs themselves had taken on a reddish-violet color, and, set against the sea oats and sunrise, they almost seemed to glow in the early morning light.

I sat there for a long while, thinking about all the times I’d cursed this grass, all the times I’d yanked the plant out by its root, and all the times I’d thought of it as nothing but annoyance.

And then I thought of our bike ride, the day before, where we’d happened upon a field of beggar tick, a “weed” that’s popped up in our landscape with cheerful persistency. Much like the sandspur, I would yank these out by the roots. My husband would take a more lethal approach with an herbicide. We stopped our bikes and stared at the quietly lovely field of wildflowers for a long moment. Finally, he said what I was thinking:

“I guess we should probably stop killing those in our yard.”

I read somewhere that a rose is a weed if it shows up in a vegetable garden, and that thought came to mind as I stared at this field of “weeds.” Photo by Cathy Salustri.

How much time, I wondered the next morning at the beach, had I spent trying to yank something out by its roots and destroy it, simply because I couldn’t see its beauty? I felt oddly violent and somehow xenophobic, except towards plants, and sad.

And so we came back home and stopped killing the wildflowers in our landscape (I no longer call them weeds, because it’s clearly a subjective term). We don’t have any sandspur in our yard, but I wouldn’t kill them, either. We now have more honeybees and birds, and – while we don’t have enough property to have a field of them like we saw at Fort Clinch – the beggar ticks no longer look like scraggly weeds, but like a beautiful part of our landscape.

The trees and grasses and plants aren’t there for my own private agenda, and I don’t get to decide what gets to live and what must die. They have their own agenda – survival – and I have no right, I’ve realized, to impose my will on theirs.

They also have their own brand of beauty.

I just needed to take the time to truly see it.

When I first took this photo, I focused on the bee, not the pretty flower I once called a weed. Photo by Cathy Salustri.