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08 June 2011

Starting the Drive North: Along Florida's East Coast

Day 17: Monday, 6 June 2011
Another sultry night in Miami with no air conditioning meant that I woke up in a sweat by 8am (even though I used no blanket and as had almost no clothes on). Ben had his run and we got our things together before he drove us to the Fort Lauderdale Airport. We walked through the overly air-conditioned airport to get to the car rental center (too many places in Florida leave the air conditioning on too high, so the temperature contrast when you go outside is really bad (which can make you sick).

We picked up the car (a pretty new Hyundai Sonata, with only 40000 miles on it), and I drove to Miami Beach. Noa didn't pick up her phone so we just went there hoping she'd be awake in half an hour. And she was - her friend Oscar was able to come down and get our stuff out of the car. We said bye and were on our way. We drove north for an hour or so until we got to Palm Beach, where we picked up our ridesharer, Pat. Pat is in his 60s and is a trained pilot but currently between jobs. He is quite the expert on everything all along the east coast, having moved from city to city in this part of the country for most of his life. He helped guide us to the most scenic drives to take and the cities in which to stop. He also told us about what the cities used to be like. I feel very lucky to have found him - he was able to guide us around everywhere and provide such a great insight into our trip. He also has such an interesting life story - he went to military school, served in Vietnam, and went to the Woodstock (yes, the original 1969 Woodstock) - and was one of 300 people there to see the closing performance of Jimi Hendrix. He had something to say about everything, and he's truly one of the most interesting people you could ever meet.

We drove north from Palm Beach, sticking to the 95 until Cape Canaveral, where I exited to try to see some of the Space Center. Unfortunately you can't see anything without paying $43 for a one-day ticket, which was way beyond my price range, especially for a 1-hour visit. So we sufficed with taking a glimpse inside the Astronaut Hall of Fame visitor center.

We left and continued north, getting off the freeway to pass through Daytona Beach, which is a moderately-sized beach town that obviously looks past its prime. We stopped briefly to see the beach - the sand was packed down very firmly, so much that it was more like solid ground than  a sandy beach. The sand was also tinted red from crushed seashells. The water was cool, and Pat told us that there are no fish to be caught until you go 50 miles out to sea. We continued on, and Pat drove us along the coast through several seaside towns - Flagler Beach and Crescent Beach, which are really cool residential beach areas that I imagine would be great places to have a casual (and relatively affordable) beach house that you could invite all your friends to. Unfortunately the weather was bad - it was overcast, so the whole sky was gray, and the ocean looked just as dreary; more like northern California than central Florida.

We then headed into St. Augustine, which you may know as the oldest city in the United States. It was first explored around 1513 by Ponce de Leon and was founded in 1565 by the Spanish. What you might not realize is that it's a cool and interestingly well-preserved (and renovated for tourists) town that was definitely the highlight of our drive along Florida's east coast. We walked around the center of town, down a pedestrian street filled with stores, candy shops, bars, and restaurants. We then walked around the town, seeing plenty of historic buildings, hotel buildings, and the castle-looking campus of Flagler College. We walked to the bridge and over to the historic fort, the Castillo de San Marcos. Ueli slimbed up the walls of the fort, but I was not able to (once again, I'm way too old). Surprisingly, there were plenty of beat up hippies, goths and punk-types just bumming around the town. I really liked the vibe of the place.

It was getting into the evening, so we drove into Jacksonville, which is less than an hour away. We stopped a Starbucks on Town Center Parkway, so I could check my email. We had no other hosts other than Jennie, a girl from Germany who went to UNF and now works at a nearby bank. She was really helpful, letting us stay at her place even though she wasn't feeling too well and had work in the morning. We left Pat with his friend Joel, who is quite the character himself; he's extremely outgoing, and he operates his own helicopter and flying company that does traffic reports for local TV/radio stations and flies banners above the beach. Ueli and I went to Jennie's, but I ended up going to the wrong apartment complex. It was similar though, a big gated complex with about 20 apartment buildings, not too different from Rachel and Jeff's place in San Antonio.

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