Southern Swing, Part 1

On January 7, 2015 · 2 Comments

I still hate airlines. I don’t fear flying, I simply want to withhold as much of my money as I can from those greedy [censored] until the tight squeeze of market forces compel them to start treating their passengers with a little respect. I’m pretty much at the point where I’ll drive to any destination of a thousand miles or so instead of fly. That sentiment led to another grandiose road trip over the winter holidays. Of course, the handful of readers who follow the 12MC Twitter feed already figured that out. That’s an incentive for the rest of you to subscribe to my Twitter page I guess, or maybe it’s a disincentive. I don’t know.

DC to Florida to Mississippi and Back

We took a rather unusual route to the Mississippi Gulf Coast this time, via St. Augustine, Florida. I know many readers would think of that as a crazy detour. I rationalized it a couple of different ways. First, there wasn’t a completely straight route between the Mid Atlantic and the Mississippi Gulf so the detour didn’t make all that much difference in the larger trip. Was it the most direct route? No, of course not. It wasn’t totally insane either.

Second, there were lots of cool things to see and do in St. Augustine and I knew the boys would love it. My wife actually nailed it on the head, though. "Is this a county counting thing?" she asked. Well, ahem, yes that might have had something to do with it. She was fine with the idea once I confessed the ulterior motive. We’ve been married long enough by now that she accepts my weird hobby even if she doesn’t completely understand it.

We left on Christmas day to avoid the worst of the soul-sucking horror of Interstate 95 traffic and stopped overnight somewhere in North Carolina. That evening, with few restaurant options, I chose shrimp and grits for my Christmas Dinner. That’s a thing, right? The traditional shrimp and grits Christmas Dinner? I enjoyed it anyway, and it reminded me that we were in the South. I washed it down with a Sweet Tea since we were way below the Sweet Tea Line by that point. The next day we continued to Florida and all went smoothly except for some bad traffic for the final forty-five miles of South Carolina. We made it safely to St. Augustine (map) by late afternoon.

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

Castillo de San Marcos

We stopped first at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (map).

Americans often think of Plymouth, Massachusetts (established 1620) or Jamestown, Virginia (established 1607 – and visited by 12MC) as the "oldest" successful European settlements in the continental United States. That’s because people of English descent wrote many of the history books. As a point of fact, that honor should go to St. Augustine instead which was founded by Spanish settlers in 1565.

St. Augustine didn’t incorporate a magnificent fort from its inception. Rival European nations and their privateers conducted raids up and down the Atlantic coast. St. Augustine was sacked a couple of times by the English and threatened by the French. Spain finally had enough after the 1668 attack by Jamaican privateer Robert Searle. Construction of Castillo de San Marcos began in 1672, a full century after the original settlement of the city.

The National Park Service discussed the architecture and construction of this oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S., and its only surviving specimen from the Seventeenth Century:

… It is a prime example of the "bastion system" of fortification, the culmination of hundreds of years of military defense engineering. It is also unique for the material used in its construction. The Castillo is one of only two fortifications in the world built out of a semi-rare form of limestone called coquina… A cannon ball fired at more solid material, such as granite or brick would shatter the wall into flying shards, but cannon balls fired at the walls of the Castillo burrowed their way into the rock and stuck there, much like a bb would if fired into Styrofoam. So the thick coquina walls absorbed or deflected projectiles rather than yielding to them, providing a surprisingly long-lived fortress.

Castillo de San Marcos was constructed in a star shape with four bastions. This allowed defenders to create deadly crossfire for anyone hoping to to attack. The fort never fell during battle, however it changed hands a number of times because of political changes.

  • Florida became a British territory in 1763 as part of the settlement of the Seven Years’ War.
  • Florida returned to Spanish control in 1783 at the end of the American Revolutionary War (Spain had been a supporter of American independence and this was its reward).
  • Florida became part of the United States through the Adams–Onís Treaty in 1821.
  • Florida seceded from the U.S and joined the Confederate States of America in 1861.
  • Union troops seized the undefended fort in 1862 and held it for the remainder of the war and ever since.

During all that time and up until 1933, it remained a military garrison. Only then did the property convey to the U.S. National Park Service.

Saint Augustine Lighthouse

St. Augustine Lighthouse

Our other primary stop that day was the Saint Augustine Lighthouse (map).

Everyone else, it seemed, had a similar idea. The weather was absolutely perfect on the Saturday after Christmas. All the sites were mobbed. We drove onto Anastasia Island and noticed a line of traffic stretching at least a half-mile in the opposite direction, backed up by a traffic light at the end of the bridge in St. Augustine proper. Getting onto the island was easy. Getting back would be a problem. We couldn’t do anything about it so we headed towards the lighthouse anyway. We feared the worst when we were forced to park down the street because the parking lot was completely full. Tons of people mingled around the lighthouse base although few of them ventured to the top. I suppose the 219 steps in the spiral staircase separated the tourists from the lighthouse nerds. From there, 165 feet (50 metres) above the fray, we spotted another bridge several miles away. We enjoyed a panoramic lighthouse view of the Florida coast and discovered a way to avoid the dreaded stoplight. Pro Tip: maybe skip the extra helping of mashed potatoes on Christmas so one can climb to the top of the tower and find the secret escape route.

A lighthouse stood at this spot even during the Spanish period. It was an important structure marking the inlet between two barrier island, Anastasia and Conch, so that ships could enter the Matanzas River and approach St. Augustine safely. This version was constructed in 1874 and continues to remain an active navigational aid. According to Lighthouse Friends, the tower was built using brick from Alabama, granite from Georgia, iron work forged in Philadelphia, and a first-order Fresnel lens crafted in France."

And More

A1A Ale Works
A1A Ale Works

We also visited a couple of brewpubs including A1A Ale Works in downtown St. Augustine (map).

Imagine that. Somehow we ended-up at a fort, a lighthouse, and a brewpub — all things that I "collect" and count. It sounded pretty self-indulgent although we also did plenty of things enjoyed by the other members of the family too. I’ll talk about some of those in the second part.

Chincoteague and Assateague

On October 21, 2012 · 3 Comments

The dirty little secret of the geo-oddities blogger community is that there’s only so much geographic weirdness to go around. We all tend to overlap with our material from time-to-time, and that’s fine. We each apply our own spin on a common set facts to come up with things original and creative.

I’d been trying to think of somewhere to take the kids during their brief Autumn break from school. Right around that same time "Weekend Roady" posted his Extending the Summer in Chincoteague article so I stole his idea. Blatantly. A tip of the hat goes to Weekend Roady for inspiring the 12MC family to spend four wonderful days on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

View Larger Map

The Eastern shore is the commonwealth’s own little exclave consisting of two counties separated geographically from the remainder of the state by the Chesapeake Bay. A 17-mile Bridge Tunnel does connect the tip of the peninsula to the rest of Virginia although that didn’t happen until 1964. This might lead someone to question whether the Eastern Shore is truly an exclave or not. That would also ignore more than three hundred years of prior history extending back to the colonial era when settlers of European descent first arrived here.

The bridge does create an interesting situation if I may go down a tangent for just a moment. It makes it possible for someone to drive 600 miles (965 km) over 11 hours using an efficient route without ever leaving Virginia (map). One will experience the opposite phenomenon in my circumstances. I began our journey in Virginia, left the state within a few minutes, and experienced the odd sensation of re-entering Virginia three hours later (map). Thus, the physical territory of the commonwealth involved but a tiny portion of my road trip on either end. Both situations arise from Virginia’s unusual triangular shape.

View Larger Map

Anyway, let’s get back to Chincoteague and Assateague, and untangle their names since designations can become confusing. They are both part of a chain of sandy barrier islands separating the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. Assateague is on the ocean side, is long and skinny, and extends another 30-miles-or-so northwards towards Ocean City, Maryland. The large preponderance of Assateague Island is protected parkland (e.g., the National Park Service’s Assateague Island National Seashore). Chincoteague sits immediately west of Assateague’s southern tip, protected from the ocean by Assateague. It rests comfortably within Chincoteague Bay.

The usage sews confusion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains its Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island directly across a short causeway from Chincoteague Island and the town of Chincoteague. Got all that? Assateague is an island. Chincoteague is an island, a town, a bay and a wildlife refuge.

Likely, fewer people would travel to this beautifully remote spot if it weren’t for the wild ponies made famous in the 1947 book Misty of Chincoteague and 1961 movie Misty. Nothing has done more to transform Chincoteague from a fishing village focused on the bounty of the sea into a tourist destination harvesting travelers more than the renowned Misty mystique.

Even so it still manages to hold onto a small-town feel unlike its Maryland and Delaware counterparts further up the Atlantic coast. This can probably be attributed to geographic isolation and government ownership of its beach. Nobody will ever be allowed to build ocean-front hotels, rickety boardwalks or tacky t-shirt emporiums along the ocean waterfront here.

Ponies have occupied Assateague Island since the colonial era although nobody really knows exactly how or when they arrived. I’m a believer in simple solutions. It makes sense to me that people would have plenty of incentive to stash or hide their livestock on a barrier island to avoid paying taxes. The tax evasion explanation seems more plausible to me than the alternate theory of Spanish galleons laden with ponies shipwrecking off-shore. Feel free to come to your own conclusions.

Also "wild" ponies seem a bit of an exaggeration unless one defines wild to mean "mellow ponies without saddles." Take the Assateague ponies five miles inland, drop them in a large field and nobody would bother to give them a passing glance. Stick the very same ponies on an island, combine them with romantic tales of Spanish shipwrecks and an iconic children’s book, and watch tourists gawk. I’m not mocking the phenomenon — I was right there with them pointing my camera as one can see plainly from the short video above — just amused by the situational difference. I’m glad the town earns a living from it and the local volunteer fire department uses the annual roundup as a fundraising activity. I’m not sure Chincoteague necessarily needed to taxidermy poor Misty and put her body on display after she passed away, although who am I to judge? People want to see Misty, dead or alive I suppose.

Pony-watching kept the kids happy. I rather enjoyed the lighthouse (yes, I have a lighthouse thing along with my various other fixations). The Assateague Light is easily accessible, open to the public, and continues to serve as a functioning navigational aid. This one is 142 feet tall (43 m) and sits on a naturally-elevated part of Assateague Island to extend its focal plain. The tower could use a new paint job although it seemed to be in pretty good shape structurally. We could see the tower all over Assateague Island as we biked along miles of flat, paved pathways.

Assateague, since I’m on the topic now, was the name of a Native American tribe who lived along the Atlantic side of the Delmarva Peninsula. They were Algonquians as were many of the people who greeted European explorers and colonists as they arrived on the Mid-Atlantic. I don’t know where Chincoteague came from although I’ll guess it derived from something Algonquian given the common suffix.

Assateague Chincoteague Beach

The beach on Assateague Island is another good reason to come to Chincoteague. Government ownership allows the island to exist naturally so it shrinks and grows and wanders as barrier islands are likely to do when not disturbed by human intervention. This can lead to controversy. Chincoteague first earned a mention on Twelve Mile Circle last year when the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed moving the Assateague Island beach and busing people to it. I don’t know what happened to that idea or whether it’s still being considered or not. I can confirm that we were able to drive through the wildlife reserve and park directly on the beach as of October 2012. I might have to side with the Chincoteague residents on this issue. Taking a bus to the beach would be a hassle.

October air temperatures were fine for lounging next to the ocean. The water itself was a bit nippy although the kids splashed around a bit. Generally the sky wasn’t as angry as this photo implied either; I took this photo for dramatic effect and the clouds quickly parted.

Chincoteague Viewed from the Water

I love traveling during the off-season. We rented a two-bedroom cottage and saved literally hundreds of dollars from what one would pay for an ordinary hotel room during the summer. Mid-October is considered "winter" at the beach, yet this is often the best weather in Virginia: warm, not oppressively hot, and plenty of sun. Another off-season joy we discovered on Chincoteague was the ability to call about pontoon cruises around the island without advance notice. We were on the water later that same day. A two-hour tour on a party boat offers a completely different perspective unavailable to those who remain on dry land.

NASA Wallops Flight Facility

I’d be a liar if I claimed we had perfect weather the entire time. We did experience one gray, rainy morning. This was the only time we left the islands. We stopped at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility visitor center about ten minutes west of Chincoteague. NASA launches sounding rockets and high altitude balloons from Wallops, one of the oldest and most active rocket facilities in the world. The center kept our attention long enough for the rain to clear.

Too soon, and it was time to come back home.

Want to be a Lighthouse Keeper?

On May 24, 2012 · 0 Comments

Lighthouse Keeper is one of those occupations similar to lamp lighter, elevator operator, stenographer and ice delivery person that probably doesn’t offer many career opportunities in the modern world.

It takes a special personality to endure days and weeks of loneliness and isolation. That’s especially true of those stuck on lighthouses perched on rocky crags far removed from the outside world. I’m not sure there are many job duties remaining either. The essential elements have all been replaced by technology and most stations are now completely automated.

I wouldn’t want to be a lighthouse keeper on a permanent basis even if the job still existed. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t mind sitting in a lighthouse for a long-weekend every few months to let myself unwind with some quiet, contemplative time. Maybe that’s why I’ve always had such a fascination with lighthouses. Can that dream ever come true?

It’s actually possible for a private citizen to purchase a lighthouse in the United States although its a rather convoluted process. Get ready, because the Government is about to issue Notices of Availability for the next set of lighthouses to be released from the federal inventory in case you’d like a very secluded hideaway.

Ontonagon Lighthouse
Ontonagon West Pierhead Light, Ontonagon, Michigan
SOURCE: Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

The process is governed by the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

NHLPA recognizes the cultural, recreational, and educational value associated with historic light station properties by allowing these to be transferred at no cost to federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit corporations, educational agencies, and community development organizations. These entities must… be financially able to maintain the historic light station… must make the station available for education, park, recreation, cultural or historic preservation purposes for the general public…

What about private citizens? "Organizations interested in acquiring one of the lighthouses will have 60 days to submit a letter expressing interest in the property and complete a rigorous application process. If no suitable steward is identified, the lighthouses are then auctioned to the general public."

Thus, if the government can’t find a suitable government, nonprofit, educational or community development organization to step-up and become a lighthouse steward, then private citizens will be offered the same opportunity. Auctions take place on the Internet at There are a number of lighthouses listed for sale right now! — that’s assuming you’re reading this message in some proximity to the date I posted this (May 24, 2012) and not at some date in the distant future.

The government has conveyed 84 lighthouses from its inventory through this program since its inception. The new list will add a dozen more in 2012.


  • Ontonagon West Pierhead Light
  • Manistique Light
  • Stannard Rock Light
  • Fourteen Foot Shoal Light

    Liston Rear Range Lighthouse
    Liston Rear Range Light, Delaware River, Delaware
    SOURCE: Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.


    • Liston Rear Range Light


    • American Shoal Light


    • Ashland Light

    View Larger Map
    Butler Flats Light, New Bedford, Massachusetts


    • Butler Flats Light
    • Graves Light
    • Edgartown Light

    View Larger Map
    Edgartown Light, Edgartown, Massachusetts


    • Halfway Rock Light
    • Boon Island Light

    Let’s not get our hopes up too high. Some of these will be taken quickly. The Edgartown Light, for example is on Martha’s Vineyard. Who wouldn’t love an opportunity to own a part of Martha’s Vineyard? It’s also undergone an extensive renovation and is currently maintained by the the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society. I think it’s probably fairly safe to assume that they’ll want to take permanent stewardship. They’re already doing that on a temporary basis.

    More than likely it’s the lighthouses that are horribly ramshackled and incredibly remote that will pass through the gauntlet and make it to public auction.

    Someday, maybe someday I’ll own a lighthouse. I can hold out hope.

    Totally Unrelated

    There’s an interesting article in the Washington Post today on a hobby familiar to many of us: county counting. The person who is featured in the article, Reid Williamson, is also an occasional 12MC reader so that’s pretty cool too.

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