Our trip home took us across Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, Jackson, Gadsen, Leon, and Jefferson counties (and that was simply along Interstate 10). Then, we headed south following U.S. 19 to avoid traffic nonsense on I-75 so we hit up Taylor, Dixie, Levy, Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties before arriving in our home county of Pinellas. 17 Florida counties (out of 67) on our return trip for a wild 8+ hour car ride. We are happy to be home.
We did some adventuring along the way with a visit to Falling Waters State Park in the Panhandle (Washington Co.) to see the tallest waterfall in Florida. Yes, you read that right – a waterfall exists in Florida. It is 73-feet tall and descends into a sinkhole in true Florida style. There are multiple sinkholes to see along a nice boardwalk trail, and wikipedia tells me that they were used as hideouts by Native Americans fighting against Andrew Jackson during the Seminole Wars.
My kids loved trying to throw rocks and leaves into the sinkholes when Keith and I weren’t looking (don’t they know that we are always watching?), running down the boardwalks, and fighting to be the leader of the hike. The other highlight was getting to see a fox squirrel build its nest, and simply being out of the car and not at a rest area/gas station along the highway.
While we were looking for lunch, we got alerts that a tornado warning had been issued for our county and given the previous weeks’ situation with tornadoes and the fact that there is literally no where to go to hide from tornadoes in Florida, I low-key panicked. Luckily, they were spotted about 45 minutes west of us so we quickly ate and got back on the road, refusing to stop for the kids until we were out of the panhandle. I don’t think any tornadoes touched down in the area where we were, but it was still scary. The rest of the car ride home was uneventful. We ate dinner in Crystal River and brought food to Keith’s parents (who were staying in a hotel there for the night), and then finished the long trek home.
Overall, it was a fantastic trip, and I would go back to Gulf Shores again (even though it’s the same Gulf of Mexico we have here in Pinellas). It’s nice to enjoy a change of scenery that is reminiscent of home.
We kicked off 2022 by heading outside to Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores for a bike ride around Lake Shelby, which is 750 acres across. As we drove through the park looking for a good place to begin our adventure, we noted that its infrastructure had to be created by Gulf oil spill and hurricane relief because it was clear that a LOT of money had been poured into making this park look awesome. There were long boardwalks across the water and the main highway so parkgoers could visit the beach, a newly designed playground, and a lodge/meeting space that we didn’t even see (but read about). It’s an immense park and we were excited to explore.
As Keith readied all 4 of our bikes for the trail, I monitored the boys at an excellent playground that blended in well to the overall aesthetic of the park. Both boys loved the challenging ropes course, the variety of swings and things to climb, and the fact that they could run free for a bit to get excess energy out.
Elliot is getting more confident at biking, but he had some trouble getting used to the bumpiness of the boardwalk and the narrow lane he had to stay in while we passed people going the opposite direction. Just when he was finally comfortable with it, the boardwalk ended and he tried to bank a hard left like Henry easily accomplished in front of him. Turns out, he was NOT ready for that yet and fell into the swamp! Keith and I rushed to quickly get him out, and he was fine except for some scratches from the prickly grass.
The paved trail around the lake made for an excellent ride, although each boy managed an epic wipeout when they accidentally rode off the trail, resulting in scrapes and hurt egos. Elliot recovered better than Henry, but all of us finished the 7+ mile trail ride and lived to tell the tale.
We found a random seafood restaurant in town for lunch and managed to hold the boys off from getting cheap souvenirs from a place that had both a pirate ship and giant shark (on alternate sides of the building, naturally) to lure them in.
After siesta time at the rental, we drove to the beach at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge for sunset because I wanted to both end my year and start the next one with sunsets at the beach. A storm was brewing so we couldn’t swim (riptides galore and waves in the Gulf like it was trying to be the Atlantic Ocean), but we played in the soft white sand (Elliot made sand angels since it felt like the consistency of snow) and with a football.
Honestly, the best part of my first day of 2022 was throwing a Nerf football around with my boys in a silly game of monkey in the middle and the ridiculous giggling that ensued. I can’t adequately describe it, but I know that these are the moments I want to flourish this year – the ones of complete joy in the moment.
Elliot said it best when he summed up our beach-time:
We spent the day in and around Fort Morgan. Ate a fantastic breakfast at Tacky Jacks 2, where our waitress never let my coffee mug be empty and the biscuits were light and fluffy. Henry wants to go back and eat more of their French toast. It was exactly what we needed to start our day.
The fog made the view cloudy until the sun peaked out, and then we had our first sightings of oil rigs in the bay/gulf which was totally weird and made us thankful that Florida currently has a ban on them in our waters.
For the rest of the morning we alternately swam in the unheated & chilly pool and hung out in the nice & hot hot tub. And around noon we had some special guests arrive to stay with us through Sunday – Oma & Opa!
We had planned to bring our bikes on the Mobile Ferry to Dauphin Island, but thanks to a fog advisory no pedestrians were being admitted on the boat (biking around the entirety of the Mobile Bay to return home was not enticing at all). So we changed our plans and visited Fort Morgan instead.
It was an awesome experience. First, we went inside its small museum full of items used at or worn by soldiers at the fort during its time of operation, which was from 1813 as Fort Bowyer until 1947. The kids liked seeing real cannonballs and rifles, and it was nice to get some background on a place we hadn’t heard about before visiting this area.
Fort Morgan (& its partner, Fort Gaines, on the other side of the entry point to the Mobile Bay) helped protect the area from forces during the War of 1812, the Civil War (although the “invaders” here were the Union troops), World War I, and World War II. I admit to being not knowledgeable about any kind of military history so I did my best to pay this place the respect its owed and learn what I could (while chasing my kids around).
After being turned over to the state of Alabama as a historical park in 1947 (and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960), the fort has been open to the public for visits. It currently is on the list of the “nation’s 10 most endangered battle sites” by the Civil War Preservation Trust because of shore erosion and crumbling infrastructure.
The fort itself consisted of a series of tunnels, including one you had to walk through to enter. Coming out of the entry tunnel you find yourself in the dry moat with a small drainage creek; this was where soldiers could easily move from one side of the fort to another under cover of walls on both sides. Once inside the fort, we were fascinated by the tunnels made of bricks, covered with the sediments of time. The boys loved climbing giant-sized stairs to the roof where they could see the beaches and try to escape from their parents (which was kind of horrifying, given that the railings weren’t huge and the roof was sloped with rivets in places.
Because Fort Morgan was utilized in so many American wars, it had a couple of cool features that allowed our imagination to run wild. First up – the Battery Duportail, added in 1898-1899 – which created two 12-inch breech loading rifles that served as “Disappearing Guns” in battle. They would rise up out of the ground, fire their explosives, and then drop back down for reloading. Pretty genius move to protect the soldiers from enemy fire.
For World War II, concerns about U-boats infiltrating and barricading the Mobile Bay caused the construction of a circular concrete gun mount (two were actually built, but only one exists today). This allowed firing on a wider area. The fort was primarily used as an ordnance depot for ships during the war.
Turning back time to the terrible Indian Removal Act of 1830, Fort Morgan had a hand in assisting with the removal of 3,500 Muskogee Creek members from the interior of Alabama as a stopping point on their way to Arkansas and then further west. 93 members of the Muskogee Nation died at Fort Morgan from disease and exposer to its extreme temperatures. As I walked around the fort after learning this, I quickly recognized that the fort was not capable of housing that number of people and was horrified with myself that I’d never deeply thought about the places Native Americans were forced to stay as the government forced them off their land. I would have liked to see more about this at Fort Morgan both in its museum and in the fort itself.
The historic site did a great job depicting the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864 through panels utilizing colors (red & blue) to identify boat positions and attacking formations for the fleets, as well as riveting text and artwork. Admiral Farragut led the Union forces to victory, first in the water and then took the fort via a siege. Part of the problem for the Union ships were the torpedos (think land mines, not like torpedos today) blocking entry to the bay. The only ship lost in the battle – The Tecumsah – sank within a minute of being hit. After some time passed likely rendering the torpedoes ineffective, it was reported that Admiral Farragut shouted, “Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!” His action to push the ships through the confusion of battle (& in the hopes that the torpedoes couldn’t explode) decisively turned the battle in favor of the Union forces.
After we finished our fort tour, we played on the beach until the park closed, finishing the last day of 2021 at one of our happy places – the Gulf of Mexico.
P.S. – Since Keith’s parents were with us, Keith & I went out to dinner at a total dive called the Flying Harpoon, where the beer was ice cold, the seafood fried to perfection, and the artwork lining all portions of the walls and ceiling – questionable. We recommend it.