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Daycation to Jacksonville, Florida — Off the Beaten Path

Beverly majored in psychology and health science and has a strong interest in improving the mental, spiritual, and physical lives of others.

A Sudden Rain Storm Ended Plans for a Relaxing Day at the Beach But it Wasn't All Bad

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A Day Trip to Jacksonville, Florida Proved to Be a Mixture of Somewhat Fun and Somewhat Stressful

When my brother texted a picture from his vacation out west I began to wonder if I would ever go on another vacation in my life. The last time I had gone anywhere was to the mountains in North Carolina to hike with some running friends along the Appalachian Trail into Tennessee. That was five years ago. The furthest I had traveled since then was to the feed store in Springfield about 45 miles away.

I had thought about crossing over the Georgia State line to visit Aiken, South Carolina or Charleston, but really wanted to keep things low key and avoid human contact as much as possible to avoid contacting the Covid-19 virus and transmitting it to vulnerable parents. That lead me to looking into the beaches along the Florida coast within about a two hour drive of my home. If I went on a weekday they should not be overly crowded. Of course we had a beach where I lived, but it was not the same as going across the state line and venturing into new territory.

I chose Jacksonville mainly because it was close by but also because it had a Trader Joe's which I had been wanting to shop at for ages. All my dairy-free friends raved about their non-dairy selection of cheeses and treats. You might say I had a gut feeling that this was the best place to be!

After going online to check out things to do in Jacksonville which allowed good social distancing, I discovered there were several forts near the area, most of which had been reconstructed since they were built over 500 years ago, but there appeared to be a system of trails that wound through historic sites. If I could go there early I could get some miles in hiking the trails, drive to the beach and relax a bit then shower and head to Trader Joe's and home before nightfall.

Checking the weather it seemed like Tuesday was the only good day to give it a go. There was only a 20 percent chance of rain and the temperatures were in the upper 80s which is cool for August. That only gave me one day to plan, but it all seemed doable. I left at 5:30 Tuesday morning and arrived at Fort George Island State Park by 8:00. The Fort itself was closed, but the trails were open so slathered on all-natural bug repellent and wandered off in search of a trail.

The trails were not clearly marked from the parking area so it took me a while to find the path, but once there, even with my Eucalyptus, Menthol and Tea Tree Oil, the mosquitoes and deer flies were fierce, so broke off a twig from a cedar tree and wrapped the twig end in moss to prevent it sticking my hand as I swung it head to toe like a horse tail to ward off flies. So far things were going exactly as I had expected them to, but not exactly how I wanted. I still had hope that things would get better and at least the weather was nice.

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Trail essentials – Fly Swatter and Biodegradable Toilet Paper

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For Such An Historic Area, There Was Not A Lot of Signage to Let You Know What Was Going On

The trail was about a mile and a half long but there really wasn't much to see. It was all maritime forest with no wildlife other than the relentless insects that sought to make a meal of me. If I ran they seemed to bother me less so tried to finish the trails faster in hopes there was something interesting at the end. There was a place marked Point Isabel which sounded promising so headed there only to discover what looked like an old canal facing the St. John River. There was one man fishing there who seemed annoyed to see me so I didn't stay long. There were a series of white sandy mounds all along the trail which looked for all the world like overgrown golf mounds and to my surprise that may have been exactly what they were. Apparently the whole area was once private property which was then purchased by the state. It was said to have once had a golf course for visitors.

Since all the buildings and gift stores were closed, I suppose I was lucky to even find a brochure in a box by the handicap parking lot on the other side of the road. There was a boat ramp in the back of the building and a blue portable toilet box that would have come in handy had I known it was there. The two foot high concrete wall by what looked to be a canal was actually used to drop off goods by boat in the hey-day of the place and after driving down what seemed like miles of pot hole filled narrow dirt road to get there, I can see why that might have been a wiser choice. By the time I left it took me twenty minutes to get back down the entry road three minutes after the ferry to the beach side had left, but such is life.

On the way back from Point Isabel there was a marker in the middle of the trail as it branched back along the road to the Ribault Club. Mount Cornelia it read. I laughed. Unless I was missing something, there were no mountains in Florida. Curious and thinking it might be someone's idea of a joke, I took the loop road and soon found myself walking on what appeared to be concrete embedded with stones. It was hard to tell if it was natural or man-made but was well worn with deep holes and went up pretty steeply for about 50 feet before making a gradual decline back to brown earth. When I got home I looked it up on Google and found that it actually is listed as the highest point in Florida at between 59 and 65 feet high. I still laughed. Back home we call that a hill, but whatever. It was actually the highlight of my trip on the trail. I now have bragging rights to say I have been on the highest natural peak in Florida. I doubt many others could claim fame to that!

Coming back down the pitted road trying to avoid losing a rim off the wheel in the pot holes which mimicked a miniature version of the craters on the surface of the moon I saw all sorts of numbered points of interest signs along the road but no information and nothing to see but grape vines, palmetto fronds, ditches and woods. This too perplexed me and when I looked it up back home it said that it was an audio tour that went something like – once on this spot stood... but now on this site it doesn't.

Somehow I felt a little better that I had traveled past a sign where something important had happened 450 years ago that everyone else had forgotten, but a – tune your radio to – broadcast sign to hear the tour might have been helpful as well. I later found out there was a brochure somewhere that allowed you to scan the information to your phone but considering my phone could not even tell me how to get back to Jacksonville proper, I doubt it would have been any use on the trail markers either. Still, I had seen something and was most proud that I got out of there with only one actual mosquito bite and a bite from an ant which had apparently made its home on the cedar sprig I was using to swat flies and mosquitoes. I guess I would have bit me too if someone kept slapping me upside their face, arms and legs.

Rather than wait for the ferry to get across A-1 to the beach access roads I decided to drive down to the bridge and swing back around to the Mayport Naval Station and travel to Neptune Beach where I could relax before heading to Trader Joe's. I could make this trip work if I stayed in good spirits and I was determined to do so.

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I Have Nick-Named Myself Wrong-Way English and Did Not Disappoint on This Little Venture

I tried to turn Waze on to direct me back to where I was supposed to go. I was pretty sure which road to take but wanted to be certain, but Waze was not working so I headed off in search of a bridge to cross. I don't know quite how I did it but two hours later I managed to find myself at Fort Caroline which I had planned to go to as well, but it was closed. However, on the opposite side of the street was another little parking area with more trails and by this time my legs were shaky from driving and sitting too long so I figured I would get out and walk a bit and try to clear my head of the negativity that was building there.

This parking area was paved and there was actually one other car there. There were no maps but there was a faded metal sign of the various routes. One went to Spanish Pond which I thought might make a good destination point, so started down the wooded steps and bridge as three sweaty family members and their dog came toward me. We said hello and I turned right and started down the trail to what I thought was the pond, unbeknownst to me, the pond was on the left at the bottom of the steps but was so overgrown with grass and reeds that you couldn't see it from the trail.

The trail was better maintained than the pond and had several wooden bridges crossing over a fresh water stream and marshy areas. Again there wasn't much to look at other than trees and dirt and bushes, but there were hardly any biting flies and it had gotten too hot for mosquitoes. I was about to turn around and go back to the car, but decided to push on another half mile or so and came to an actual sign on the trail showing the remains of the Willie Browne home which looked about like the same blocks which held up my 1920s house at home. It was sort of comical at that point. I actually said a little prayer to God to please lift this dark cloud of negative expectations off me and within seconds he did. That was fast. It usually takes a while to get an answer and sometimes days. I was impressed.

My spirits lifted immediately as I bounced along the sandy trail pretending to fly as I pushed off the rounded curves of the trail from one side to the next like a skier doing a slalom course with no skis. I stopped to smell a vine filled with fragrant purple flowers growing along the trail attracting butterflies and climbed up a steep hill that I am sure was taller than Mount Cornelia but who am I to argue. All I know is it was so steep I had to lean forward and push off hard to get to the top and was breathing harder than I had breathed since doing the Bridge Run for the first time back home. That was fun too. I think I need more challenges even if they are just steep hills on a Florida trail. They make me feel alive – like I could do anything if I tried.

There were a few views of the water and a few brown anoles. I actually liked this place and would not mind coming back when the surrounding buildings were open and there were interpreters who could fill you in better on the history of the area. As I started back toward the car a huge towering cloud outlined in silver sun blocked out the incoming light and it started to grow darker as thunder rumbled seemingly unending and growing closer. I made it back just in time to avoid getting wet from the rain, if not the sweat and drove back out in search of highway 10, but could not find the road I needed to turn on and ended up driving into downtown Jacksonville over a huge metal bridge just as the rain started pouring down like Niagra Falls from heaven. I had no idea where I was. I could not read the road signs, let alone see ten feet in front of me. Even the big semi-trucks were traveling the highway at 30 miles an hour. There was no place safe to pull off and wait the storm out, so I just drove blindly – almost literally – until I found a parking lot I could pull into and calm myself wondering why I always had such trouble doing such a simple thing as going to the beach and relaxing!

After Attempting to Sit Out a Major Thunderstorm It Was Time To Head For The Beach

As I sat in the parking lot of a shopping center the rains never seemed to cease and I finally decided that if I wanted to make it to the beach at all, I needed to try now. An hour later I found the signs to the Beach. It was still raining but not as badly though there was a lot of wind and lightening.

At Jacksonville Beach there was a large parking lot but it appeared that the only way you could pay was by uploading your license plate number into a pay app and my phone does not have enough memory for the few apps already on it, so I sat there a bit hoping the rain would stop as streaks of lightening shot out the sky all around. There was a road that traveled further down along the beach so I followed it and found a place where you could park for free for two hours but it was still too wet and wild to exit the vehicle. There was a bathroom there so I donned my trusty oversized rain jacket and ran toward the giant wooden door which housed a stainless steel toilet that looked like it belonged in a prison. It was a nice bathroom and I was impressed. They had showers outside. I almost thought about staying in the bathroom until the rain and lightening stopped, but thought that would be weird. As I came out there was a young man with a surf board running in from the beach. He was covered in huge drops of water but still running and trying to protect his face from the rain which in retrospect is somewhat comical when you have just come out of the ocean, but I guess the rain was kind of cold and pelting.

The parking lot there was rather busy with few spaces and I felt guilty sitting there as more traffic came through so drove down a little further and found a larger empty lot and parked there. The lightening had moved further inland, but it was still raining so instead of sitting on the beach or taking a walk along the shore, I ran out to the water and dipped my feet in while taking quick photos of anything that looked interesting to post on Facebook since as we all know, if you didn't take photos and post them to social media then it didn't really happen.

The water at the beach was a creamy green color like it wanted to be blue but was too diluted with yellow to quite make it. Back home our beach water ranged from dark green to brown depending on the season. For some reason the waves here scared me. I don't know if it was because I was alone or because it was so windy and still raining, but I didn't stay long and it was getting time to head home. I had seen what I wanted to see and done what I wanted to do, but it wasn't as fulfilling as I had hoped it would be. There was still Trader Joe's though and since I had not eaten lunch and it was almost time for dinner – I was looking forward to some vegan or dairy free foods and getting my parents something special they could not get back home.

One of the Best Ways to Get the Flavor of a New City is to Stop By The Local Grocery Store

As was typical I got turned around trying to find Trader Joe's. On the map at home it showed it on 3rd Street near Home Depot but unbeknownst to me, Third Street is a really long road! I finally spotted the Home Depot sign and found it was a big shopping square like our outlet malls at home. Trader Joe's was packed and tiny. When I got out the car, this woman with a perfect bronze tan wearing black spandex with her blond hair flowing walked past me making me feel so insignificant I wondered if people like me shopped at places like this. I was checking out the people as they walked out to see if the store was like Aldi where you had to bring your own bag and pay to use the shopping cart. They all had brown paper bags and red shopping carts, so left my reusable tote in the truck, put on my mask and bravely took my smelly, sweaty self into the store.

Inside the store I was overwhelmed. The prices and names of things was all hand written and crammed so that there was no space between PeachesPersimmonsGrapes. I wasn't even sure if the hatch-mark prices which also overlapped were for the item I was looking at or the item next to it. It took a while to find the vegan section which was all of about six-foot wide and contained mostly alternative milks, coffee creamers and yogurt. I got a blueberry yogurt and some soy-based whipping cream I can't ever find back home, but everything else was nothing special or too expensive to even consider purchasing. I felt like I needed a directional signal to merge back into traffic to get back into the aisle and it was so busy you couldn't really stop to look at things or read ingredient labels so got two bags of chips and some date bars and decided I did not fit well with the store clientele who were mostly buying expensive grass fed meat and wine and looked like they had gotten off work while I was in my running shorts and Nine-Line t-shirt with trail dirt on my still wet shoes. It's hard to jump a 16 foot puddle and not step in it.

While the entire trip had really been the typical fare of – drive here, get lost, drive there, find out it was closed or wasn't what you thought, run out of time too soon and have to drive two and half hours home in the rain to feed all the animals before dark – I really did get something good out of it.

I learned that signs to guide you and point out the specialness of seemingly mundane things can be a blessing. I was grateful for nature's fly swatter in the form of a cedar switch to keep the flies away when my natural pesticide did not work. I discovered I can pee in the woods like a pro and swat mosquitoes off my butt and flies off my head while doing so. That takes a certain talent. I can by my mere presence make any wildlife that exists, even birds, squirrels and lizards disappear though I did see a few butterflies and the tracks of a gopher tortoise so it wasn't a total loss.

I reasoned that the trails would have been better had I gone with friends and stopped at one of the many benches to contemplate life and the way things were going. I talked to God – didn't yell for a change and in his own way he talked back and sent me peace and happiness even just for a little while and that was nice.

I learned that northerners – I'll be polite and not call them Yankees – act like you are an axe murderer when you greet them on the trail with a friendly hello and move closer to one another in a group like deer in a herd being approached by a mountain lion. Hey, I have power and presence or maybe I smelled really bad, but I tried not to take it personally and continued on my merry way while their teenaged sons made fun of their 40ish years old parents for being old and slow and the dad kept checking his cell phone for reception unaware that service pretty much stunk this far out in the woods. Who looks at their cell phone when they are on a hike in the woods anyway?

Would I recommend going off the beaten path in Jacksonville? Sure! I would suggest one do it when there is no pandemic shut-down and it is a bit cooler though and doing it with friends so you can share the bad stuff as well as the good and get a laugh out of both when you look back on it.

I'd like to go back and tour the plantation home and Fort Caroline and this time take the ferry across the river to the beach and not get lost, though Jacksonville the city is pretty cool looking and unexpected to see after traveling through smaller neighborhoods all around it. It is like seeing Atlanta pop out a few miles away from the beach. It is kind of a shocking contrast.

There are a lot of bridges and on one wrong-way turn I spotted a Sprouts store which I have also heard good things about so may have to return and check that out as well.

All in All it Was An Interesting Trip and Worth Doing Again Once There is Less Angst Going On In The World

On the way home it was dark at 4:30 in the afternoon and kind of eerie. I had no problems finding my way out of Jacksonville and once back in Georgia where the roads were more familiar it was smooth sailing all the way home.

One thing I noted while getting to the trails were a lot of little interesting signs along the way. You had to cross about a half dozen bridges– each leading to a new Island with it's own quaint sign with dock posts and painted pelican. I wished I was able to stop and take a picture of them, but the water from the rivers was almost level with the highway making parking on the side of the road an impossibility.

In route to Florida I was listening to a Christian radio station that played a song about how God sends silver linings to bring hope when skies are dark and gray. Less than two minutes after the song had ended, a bright beam hit me from the driver's side. It turned out to be an enormous silver lining from an even more enormous cloud formation that looked a bit like a bear or a bunny playing with its toes! God has a sense of humor if you are willing to be open to it.

The next day I woke up glad that I went and looking back on the trip as a pleasant one I'd like to do again only this time focus on one thing that didn't require so much travel time between and no Corona virus that shut down historic sites and bathrooms.

I miss interacting with people and going to popular outdoor events and shopping at stores unique to the area, but the path less traveled often offers some surprises of its own. I found a few trails that had interesting terrain. I can claim I climbed a mountain in under two minutes to the summit. I saw an old canal of which mostly had been destroyed. I walked on ground the French and Indians and Spaniards once inhabited to various degrees of friendship and animosity and I saw an old tabby structure with the only sign telling you not to touch but not telling you what its history was. Maybe one day I will go back, but not for a very long time I think. Next time I go to Jacksonville it will be to see the Zoo. I wasn't even looking for it and passed by it three times so it should be easier to find than the old forts, eh?

How Far Away Do You Usually Travel For a One Day Vacation and Home Again

HAs Covid 19 curtailed your travel plans this year? What is the Best Day-Cation You have Ever Taken?

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on August 22, 2020:

It was interesting to follow your Jacksonville adventure. We hate the traffic there.

You might try St Augustine next. There really is an old fort there.

Be careful of that moss you wrapped around your "fly swatter," as it can have mites that bite you.