The Deserted Old Spanish Trail

Time and time again, I’ve made the long straight journey from Jacksonville to McClenny. The only accurate scenic view is a river. Besides that, its trees, car shops, corporate stores, and trailer homes. Beaver Street, also known as US-90, was once called the Old Spanish Trail. It runs well over 1600 miles, hitting most of the major cities in the Southern States like Interstate 10. Along US-90 between Jacksonville and McClenney, I kept driving past a building built in Spanish style called “The Old Spanish Trail.”

There was more to the area than you could see from the street. Most of that white parking lot area is now covered over with trees and overgrowth.

Every time I drove past it, it drew me in, as it begged me to explore. This past Saturday, I finally felt it was time. I had nothing else to do. Why not? I packed my camera, notebook, and Gatorade and was off.

The parking lot stretches another quarter mile back, but you can’t see it.

When I arrived, I noticed that the fence was kicked down. At first glance of the building made me realize that vandals wanted to have their way with the place. They did not disappoint. It was vandalized so severely, the outside staircase that led to doors on the top floor was completely gone. Nature did what it did best when there was no one there to tend to the weeds, bushes, and other overgrowths. I drove through the broken fence across broken slabs of pavement littered with grass and weeds.

At the back of the building, it looked like a haunted house. There was trash all over the ground. The railings rusted to the core. Windows left open. Surprisingly, the windows weren’t boarded up like most of the others. The doors had been kicked down. It was pitch dark inside, but with the help of whatever sunlight that breached the windows, it was evident that someone had a field day with the internal structure. The ceiling was falling apart. It appears the stairs were collapsing too. No way in hell I was brave enough inside. My hearing had never been sharper listening for even the tiniest sound of movement. I even had my knife on me just in case something came running out of the doors.

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There use to be stairs here.

Inspecting the rest of the building, it was clear that it was unique in its time. It wasn’t designed like any of the buildings surrounding it. There were archways that you only ever see on old castles and fancy homes. The cascading stairwell on the west side of the building would have made perfect scenery for a wedding. According to some research through google, the Old Spanish Trail served as many things in its prime. Including a grocery store, a haunted house, and a speakeasy. The final owners of the building were forced to abandon it due to costs for it to be made up to modern-day building codes. Now, The Old Spanish Trail’s remaining purpose is to sneak into the imagination of those who drive or walk past it. If anyone is lucky, they’ll be able to tell the tale of the little boy who supposedly haunts the building only seen by three of the previous owners.

Graffiti at its best.

For more on that story and the history of the Old Spanish Trail, check out the Time’s Union article, “Call Box: Spooky tales, colorful past in Jacksonville building.”

Warnings at High Falls State Park

Imagine the feeling o top of the world as you tower on a boulder above a rapid river. Suddenly, your foot slips, you plunge beneath the surface as intense water pressure and gravity forces you to the bottom of the mad river. The temperature of the water is the least of your worries. The half of breath left in your lungs is all the survival you have before fluid replaces the air and you drown. Perhaps your last thoughts are the four warning signs you passed to get to that boulder. Your last feeling is regret for not heeding those warnings.

According to the 11Alive.com investigation article at High Falls State Park, there have been fourteen reported injuries since 2013, three fatalities.

When I recently visited the park, bright red warning signs were outlining the rapid river bank. Honestly, how could anyone miss them? You can barely get a decent photo of the waterfall without one of the many signs in the way. An observant hiker takes note of information boards that are usually located at the beginning of a trail. As I read the board, I notice the same-o same-o about the history of the area, the map of the trail, what committee sponsors the trail, blah, blah, blah. Management of the park posted a warning post stating that anyone climbing on the rocks has to pay a $5,000 fine and do over 100 hours of community service. It probably results in janitorial duties. Yikes.

You see the first few warning signs when you descend the steps leading to the best view of the waterfall and rapid waves. After that, it is obvious what you should and shouldn’t do while hiking the trail. Park management went so far as to create a barrier using twine to rope off the bank’s edge. Honestly, I’m not sure what else could be done to clarify the danger of the raging river. I hope that visitors be responsible and heed to the warnings so the park won’t be forced to put up large fence walls.

It’s cold.

Big Red at Holland Harbor

Being Floridian, my body never needed to adjust to twenty-degree weather. I knew the moment I pressed my fingers against my sprinter van’s window; I’d probably regret getting out. When I looked out across the beach of Holland State Park, at the medium-sized, bright red lighthouse floating above still seaglass teal water, I told myself to Hell with it. I snatched up my Nikon camera, my backpack, and my thick gloves and jumped out of the van. There would be no telling when I would ever get another chance for this, so I took it.

As a delivery driver, I continuously fail to remember how much weight I’ve put on. The realization doesn’t hit me until I either have to hike some inclined nature trail or trudge across beach sand. Nothing, I mean nothing, tells you to start dieting like a walk across beach sand. The closer I got to that cherry red hunk of wood, metal, glass, and beauty, the more I cared less about my wheezing and dragging feet. Also, as a delivery driver, I was usually only in a location for one day. It was rare that I would return to that location again within the week or month. I got to see New York City twice. Both times were four months a part.

After struggling across the beach sand, I thankfully made it to concrete pavement. I couldn’t take my eyes off “Big Red,” the unfortunate nickname they gave to the Holland Harbor Lighthouse. According to research, painting this particular lighthouse red was a requirement due to its location on the harbor’s right side. Regardless, if you couldn’t see the lighthouse’s bright light at night, you’d have no problems seeing it in the day. You’d have to be color blind to miss it, seeing as how no other buildings behind or beside it along the coast are painted red.

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Water breakers

I had to rush my adventure visiting the light. I felt the feeling in my fingers disappearing. By the time I had reached the pavement, my fingers were hurting so bad from the cold, they felt numb. My thick gloves prevented me from using my zoom and pressing the shutter button. I was forced to take all of my photos barehanded. Thankfully I brought my beach towel along with me (only God knows why), so I could maybe sit on the beach and enjoy the view. Nope! I reassigned it to keeping my hands warm. Unfortunately, you can’t run from Mother Nature. My fingers continued to burn inside the gloves wrapped in the towel.

I had never heard of water breakers before I studied the Holland Harbor Light. They’re essential for multiple reasons, including slowing down coastal erosion, and prevent waves from battering the lighthouse in rough weather. Most water breakers are built with large boulders, but these breakers, but these breakers are built with slabs of concrete and significant boulders to hold them in place. Mother Nature has been working her magic on it as well. As you head out to the end of the breaker, you’ll notice that two of the slabs have shifted so far that you only have about one or two feet of connected concrete to cross over.

Out on the breakers, the view was could have been nothing short of a fairytale. As a Floridian, I adore great bodies of water. I grew up around every type of body of water (sea, ocean, river, swamp, gulf, etc.) Lake Michigan was a sight to see, the water’s slow swells imitated breathing as the water rose and receded through the boulders. The color of the water itself made it appear as an ocean-sized sheet of seaglass. The coast packed of brown beach sand and tall sea oats nearly hiding the gorgeous vacation beach homes behind them.

Tug boat pushing platform out to sea.

I stood on the breaker, sinking into peace and reflection when a large horn sounds off. I nearly jumped out of my skin and into the freezing water. I turned around to see a red tugboat making his way out of the harbor, pushing some sort of platform in front of him. I watched the precision driving as the tugboat made its way out to open sea. I love tugboats. At this point, my frozen fingers became too much to bear. I gathered up a few more shots of Big Red and Lake Michigan and power walked back to my sprinter van. Other cars pulled into the parking lot. Groups of people hopping out in all smiles loving the frosty air. I could’t wait to crank up my heat on the highest setting before I became Frosty the Snowman.

I may never get a chance to return to Big Red, but if traveling has taught me anything, when you’re in perfect position to explore something, I don’t care if Big Foot is sitting outside the window, take the chance and capture your memories. Tomorrow is never guaranteed.

New Mexico: Winter Damage Creates Beautiful Spring

The entire country is under lockdown during this unfortunate Coronavirus pandemic. As a truck driver though, the show must go on. Whenever my co-driver and I would stop at a truck stop for the night (for one reason or the other), I’d take full advantage and go for walks to explore the area I’ve never been to before. Our last stop was in Las Vegas, New Mexico. At first, I was pissed off because the truck stop wasn’t near anything fun. With Lyft drivers scarce due to possible contraction of the virus, we were practically stuck at the truck stop. There’s only so much one can do inside the truck so that made things worst.

My first stroll around the truck stop, it was about thirty-six degrees outside. My jacket was no match for the cold and wind, I was forced to return to the truck for warmth. After yet another nap to pass the time, I tried again. This time, it was about sixty-four degrees and the sun was out, but setting. The previously boring and desert landscape was illuminated by the setting sun’s brightness. The months of snow in this region damaged the tall weedy grass. The only thing lush in green were spiked grass blades that opened from its root like a blooming onion.

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Almost every ten steps I took, I saw more compositions to create a nice image. Coming from Florida, I’m used to the beauty of greens and life everywhere. Who knew the damage done by winter would create such beauty and renewed hope for the coming of spring? I suppose that’s the amazing thing about nature. It’s as if nothing in nature can be ugly or imperfect. Even the dirt paths covered in large pebbles and crushed weeds look enchanting and alive.

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I am glad that I took myself out of my disappointment to take these images. I am more disappointed in myself to expect too much. Life is short and no matter where you go, one should see the beauty in it. It is a lesson learned that there doesn’t have to be majestic mountains, exquisite waterfalls, and endless oceans to make a scenery beautiful or worth admiring. A small desert region has just as much beauty to offer, you just have to be willing to find it.

Evening on the Southbank Riverwalk

Living in River City has its perks for sure. With the demolition of the infamous Jacksonville Landing entertainment area, the Southbank Riverwalk is basically all Jacksonvillians have left for entertainment and social gatherings. Granted, Jacksonville is a large city, and there are a million and one places you can go for entertainment, but downtown Jax is the beating heart of the city. There is too much history, and we just lost one of our biggest gems.

 

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The Jacksonville Landing before demolition. (visitflorida.com)

The Southbank Riverwalk sits across the river from the former Jacksonville Landing. It begins at the Friendship Fountain and runs beneath the John T. Asop Jr. Bridge (aka Main St. Bridge) and along the river’s edge until it reaches the Duval County Public School building.

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The Friendship Fountain

 

The Friendship Fountain has been around since my mother was a girl. The aging fountain is still running on all cylinders and is still a treasure to the people of the city. There are about fifteen active spouts that run during the day. On occasions, they sprout high into the air and dance with color projectors attached to towers adding wonder to the spectacle. The fountain is popular for setting a romantic mood near the river and becoming every child’s running track around the 200-foot wide pool of water. Along the outside of the fountain are white arbors with benches beneath for resting or reading. Picnic tables are set up in the grassy area left of the fountain for family events. The Museum of Science and History is only 100 feet away if you want to do something entertaining for the entire family. Further left of the grassy area and the fountain is the River City Brewing Company, a good place to wine and dine yourself. If you have a boat, you can park right outside the restaurant in their marina.

 

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The Friendship Fountain

 

 

St. John’s River

The St. John’s River is the soul of Jacksonville. I would that is why Jacksonville is named the “River City” because the St. John’s River runs directly through the city. As you walk along the boardwalk, you will get the view of at least five of Jacksonville’s iconic bridges; the Hart Bridge, the Matthews Bridge, the John T. Alsop Bridge, the Acosta Bridge, and FEC Strauss Trunnion Bascule Bridge (or train bridge).

As you walk away from the Friendship Fountain, you have two paths to choose, you could either climb the ramp that will allow you to walk across the John T. Alsop Bridge or you take the boardwalk that will lead you beneath the bridge further along the boardwalk. If you take the bridge ramp, you can take awesome selfies at the top of the Main St. Bridge and walk into downtown where all the cafes reside. If you continue on the boardwalk, it will seem like you are preparing to walk underwater due to the boardwalk’s dip. The river is literally at your face and gives the illusion that it may spill over at any moment. Beneath the bridge is a commissioned mosaic art piece of glass and tile along the wall. It, too, is perfect for selfies. If you are lucky, you can catch a pod of dolphins playing and swimming together beneath the bridge. In my experience, night time is much easier to see them. It’s quieter at night, and there are no boats zipping back and forth, so it is safer.

 

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Beneath the Main St. Drawbridge

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“Mirrored River: Where do you see yourself?” commissioned mosaic piece

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Boardwalk leading under Main St. Bridge.

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View of the Acosta Bridge and the Train Bridge.

 

The Boardwalk

Along the boardwalk, you take notice of more than just the pretty views. You can also see the see in full scale, and it’s growing development. There seems to always be construction cranes seen somewhere to show something new being built in the city. Lately, a lot of hotels and condominiums are being constructed. Jacksonville lives and breathes for tourism, so it would make sense. When you come from beneath the bridge, you can see as far west down the St. John’s river as your vision will allow you. Across the water, you can view the TIAA Bank Stadium home to the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars. If you are a coffee fiend, Maxwell’s Coffee manufacturing plant can be seen and smelled no matter how far you are. At some point along the boardwalk, new helicopters will fly above your head as they circle around the bridges and highways for traffic readings. If you get tired, there are fancy-designed benches with triangular umbrellas overhead to keep you cooled off. Near the end of the boardwalk, you get a great look at the Strand Apartments building and its high-class lifestyle through its glass lobby walls.

 

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Benches with triangular umbrellas.

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TIAA Bank Stadium for the Jacksonville Jaguars

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River Taxi

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The Hart Bridge

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Maxwell Coffee manufacturing plant.

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The Strand Apartments

 

An evening on the Southbank Riverwalk is perfect for families, couples, soloist, photographers, and even runners. No matter how much Jacksonville grows and expands, the beauty of the River city will always lie at the heart of downtown Jacksonville.

Off the Shore of Fort Clinch

When I first visited Fort Clinch, it was mesmerizing to me. It was an actual Fort, not one of those fake amusement forts you go to for fun. Fort Clinch was the real deal. They had corridors, alleys, hallways, and tiny paths to follow throughout the Fort so that you could get a feel of what it was like to live like a soldier trying to protect your precious country. Once you have toured through the buildings, checking out the beds, the jail cell, and the Captain’s office, you are led out of the Fort and onto the beach.

As a Floridian, a beach is my crack. No matter how many times I’ve seen a beach when I stand before one I am amazed and filled with wonder about everything that goes on beneath all that water. I often hoped for the day I could see tons of shark fins coasting through the water. The Fort’s beach doesn’t have much activity because, without your own boat, you’d either have to pay to get into the Fort or you would have to walk all the way from the adjacent beach.

There were only a small group of people on the beach that day that I went. Everyone played with the dense foam created by the waves. We all climbed over the massive boulders lining the shore. I am sure they were put there as another defense mechanism for the fort. Kids ran around in search for the perfect seashell. I marveled at how the Fort looked from the beach.  Somehow it appeared bigger and taller. The Fort gave this dangerous illusion. It was as if it was saying, “Give it your best shot, but we will never fall!” The canon at the top pointed out at sea were ready to fire.

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I snapped my beach photos but always came back to that view of the Fort and the threat it imposed. The Fort itself might be old, but it was bold, powerful, and still ready to take down anything threatening its shores.

 

Grace Bio, Living in History

The downtown library in Jacksonville, FL recently won Library of the Year for their extreme involvement in local art and culture. I haven’t been there in forever (because I hate downtown parking and one-way streets) so I thought it would be good to be in a new environment while I worked on my screenplays, travel blog, and photoshop projects. I could barely get through the main lobby before I whipped out my Nikon and started snapping.

The library presented a new collection of local artwork called, “Living in History.” Local artists created works that represented anything in history. Most of the work was fantastic, but one took me away. Grace Bio, a local painter whose work seems to stand above the rest with the smooth, bold colors splashed on the canvas creating an image symbolizing the beauty of American History.

My favorite of hers (hard to choose) was the “Offering,” piece. It was as if she painted the Native American woman straight from life. Every detail of the woman’s age, wisdom and grace are right on the canvas for all the world to see. Looking at the woman, it reminds me of one of my all-time favorite Disney films, Pocahontas.

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What I love most is her ability to draw you in not just because of her use of bright colors, but her ability to create an image of something that makes you curious about what other underlying messages she may have hidden in her work. For example, the painting, “Family Tree” would probably mean just that, a family tree, but what other message is hidden? Could it be a plea for African American families to get back to the days of strong family ties? Is it a message of stating that without family, we are lost?

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O, the possibilities!

Regardless of what is obvious or hidden, the fact remains, Grace Bio is talented. Her artwork is a reflection of her passion and her eye to see things in a different light.

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For more on her, check out her Facebook page.

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Grace Bio – Painter, Lightworker

FORT CLINCH: A Memory Built to Last

Florida rolls forward through the hurricane season. After Hurricane Matthew and Irma’s destruction of homes and coastlines, it has become a learned lesson that to rebuild, we must build something that will last. Take a page out of the book of the men who constructed the infamous Fort Clinch in Fernandina. For every brick that held the walls and buildings were built with a purpose. These bricks laid were for the defense and the protection of everything the fighting soldiers held dear.

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When you visit Fort Clinch, before you prepare to enter the fort, you can sense the danger that loomed on the hearts of the regiments. At the entrance of the fort, two lines of large wooden spikes greet you.  What better way to invite you into the chaotic world of military defense than to give you a taste of what enemies faced if they ever tried to breach the fort? After you pass through the brick hall into the parade, the view instantly takes you back. Your first sight is the American flag whipping in the wind that comes from the beach’s shore, a positive reminder to the men to remember why they fight.

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With each room and corridor you explore through, a clearer picture of the fort’s history forms in your mind, the canons pointed toward the ocean, the small beds and cold cement floors the men dealt with, the social hall where they danced and talked, and the many passage ways leading to other parts of the fort.

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The bricks that make up the fort witnessed much danger and happy times between 1847 and 1945. Everything from expanded construction, to surviving three major wars, Fort Clinch’s fortified walls aren’t just years of labor with masonry and dirt; they are the surviving pieces of history that continue to remind us that to defend what we hold dear, we must construct something that is built to last.