Friday, March 23, 2012

Road Trip: Jacksonville, Pt. 3 (May, 2008)--Part 3: Fort Clinch, then homeward

"Park campgrounds are full on Memorial Day."

Well, crap. I hadn't thought of that during my planning; I never go anywhere.

It's nearly night and I've got camping gear all ready to set up--and nowhere to set it up.

I backtracked through Fernandina Beach and stopped for dinner before calling a few campsites on the list I'd been given at Fort Clinch Park. No, sorry. No, we're full. No vacancy. You might try so-and-so, just up the road from you.

Back on the road toward Yulee. By now it was pitch black and drizzling. The campsite was easy to find. I pulled up in front of the office; there must have been a sign sending customers around back (I don't remember), so I swung around behind the building. The rain was falling harder as I squished over to the open back door.

"Sorry, we're full-up--and we only allow RV's and trailers--no tents."

That's not a campground. That's a PARKING LOT.

Hell with this.

I asked about motels; there was one in Yulee at the next light, turn right.

Squished back to the Tracker and found my way to the dinky motel's office. Thirty-five bucks, don't care whether it's smoking or non-smoking. Park and open the door to my room.

Imagine every loaded ashtray you've ever seen, and the ghosts of every ashtray you've never seen, all trapped in a dinky motel room. They all greeted me at the door, then flowed around me and enveloped me. If I hadn't been worn down to the dregs, I'd have gone to ask for another room, but I could barely even think straight. It was after 10 and I'd been up and running since at least 6 am.

I unloaded the Tracker, found the air conditioner in the back corner of the room, cranked it all the way up.

The place was reasonably clean, painted a shade of Institutional Green. To the right of the door there was a dent in the drywall that looked like the imprint of a fist and forearm. A single table lamp with no shade, TV, microwave, mini-fridge, wobbly table with two chairs. The bathroom was clean enough, but water trickled out of the faucets like someone had a tourniquet on the pipes somewhere.

All those ashtrays curled up around me on the bed and relaxed with me.

Tired as I was, sleep didn't come easily. The ashtray stink permeated the bedding; the only escape would be out in the rain, which didn't let up all night. I heard what might have been a fight outside around 3am, yelling and slamming doors.

By 4 am I was feeling nauseous. I could taste the ashtrays. The next hour lasted a week, and it was puffing on menthols the entire time.

I gave up on sleep and took a trickle (can't call it a "shower"--I'm not that generous), loaded the Tracker, and bailed out of the Ashtray Hilton, headed for Fernandina Beach.

The fort wouldn't open for several more hours, so I drove through town, past the park and its lucky campers to the end of Atlantic Avenue and parked to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic. There were plenty of clouds, some rain to the north, a single dolphin and a handful of surf-casters. Very peaceful, even the waves subdued, just the fresh smell of salt air.

I headed back through town past the first "Dog Bakery and Boutique" I'd ever seen and took my time on breakfast at a Huddle House.

The park opened before the fort, so I drove along a narrow winding road bordered by thick woods. The parking lot was nearly empty. I hiked a short woodland trail round the fort's western flank, stopping to look at a garden spider weaving her web before making my way to the shore of the St. Marys River and the border with Georgia. Not a soul in sight, the sky much clearer than even an hour before.

Another trail led past the fort's westmost bastion, along the south wall, past the latrine well, and looped around the south bastion, bringing me to the long southwest wall. The top half of this wall (and the upper parts of the bastion I'd just passed) is built of dark red brick. I didn't think much of it at the time, but it turns out that while the fort was under construction before the Civil War, the crews were supplied with buff-colored southern bricks. Once hostilities began, the Feds were stuck with two completed bastions and two walls; they lost the partly-built fort until 1862 (the Rebs abandoned it). They couldn't get southern bricks to finish the job, so dark-red northern bricks were brought in.

This little fort is a must-see--especially if you've visited Fort Gaines, its twin on Dauphin Island, Alabama. Its five walls form a clipped hexagon with a bastion at each corner. The longest wall--the gorge--has the only entrance, protected by a drawbridge.

Where most Third-System forts had guns protected by casemates built into thick solid-brick walls, Forts Clinch and Gaines had relatively thin walls, no casemates (except for storage along a single wall), and an earthen embankment ringing the parade ground. The forts' main armament would be mounted atop these embankments and on top of the bastions.

For all their similarities, Clinch and Gaines aren't identical twins; Clinch has that two-tone brickwork; some pretty hurried-looking masonry (wider mortar joints, less precision in placement); brick laid down where stone should have been; and a functional drawbridge.

It's also much closer to original condition than Gaines, which received a pair of large concrete gun emplacements in the late 1890s. Clinch only got a single (much less extensive) emplacement behind its northeast wall.

Another thing Clinch offers is a view. Climb on top and look around, and all you see is nature in any direction. Fernandina Beach is very close by, but thanks to the dense forest of the park you'd never know it. To the north is the river; to the east, the Atlantic. Gaines has plenty of water and trees around it, but there must be a dozen gas rigs near the mouth of Mobile Bay and out in the Gulf of Mexico.

I spent most of the morning exploring, taking pictures, shooting video. The wrap-up was a big group of WW2 reenactors demonstrating period firearms.

I didn't want to leave, but knew it was time. After a few minutes in the tiny bookstore (more of a camp store) and a dip in the Atlantic (and watching a surf-fisher bring in a 5-foot hammerhead shark), I headed south. Man, I could have used a nap, especially after the Ashtray Hilton the night before.

All the same things as on the ride to Jacksonville a few days earlier: long stretches of roadway that all looks the same bordered by trees that all look the same, passed by the same cars and trucks, passing the same exits in reverse.

The only excitement was a yellowfly biting me while I was trying to take a nap at a rest area (holy CRAP did it hurt). The little shit followed me out of my car and almost all the way to the restrooms. Maybe it found someone more tasty while I was in there; I never saw it again.

I usually stop in Tallahassee on any trip headed that way, but by the time I got to the Monroe Street exit, all I wanted to do was get the trip over with so I could sleep for a few weeks.

I made it to the house well after dark and abandoned the Tracker.

Never even got to use my damn tent.

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