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December 5, 2015

By meriwether, Dec 7 2015 12:59AM

It has stood there for 320 years - an enduring symbol of Spain’s once mighty and far flung New World empire. It was an impregnable fortress meant to protect Spanish treasure ships, or galleons, bearing cargoes of gold, silver, tobacco, chocolate, hard woods - all the wealth of the New World - on their voyages north with the Gulf Stream along the coast of La Florida, and then across the Atlantic and home to Mother Spain.

The Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida - the oldest masonry fortification in the continental United States - is a masterpiece of military engineering built in the shape of a star with four projecting bastions and utilizing the soft but durable coquina limestone blocks which are composed of millions of seashells and were able to absorb the impact of 17th century cannon balls. It withstood three sieges at the hands of the British, one in 1702 lasting 50 days, and another in 1740 lasting 28. The British obviously wanted that fort badly, for this was a battle for empire in the New World with the Spanish, British, and French all heavy contenders.

The Castillo was never taken by conquest, but what the British could not take by battle, they did so by treaty. At the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, Spain ceded Florida and El Castillo to the British. But then . . . at the conclusion of the American Revolution 20 years later, the Brits gave Florida and El Castillo back to Spain who hung on to it until 1821 when a young and muscle flexing United States was embarking on its journey of Manifest Destiny.

Wandering through and around El Castillo as I did a few days ago takes you back to the days of the Spanish Main when Spain was one of the most powerful and wealthiest countries in the world. Since we don’t have any medieval castles here in the U.S., visiting the Castillo de San Marcos gives you a sense of that Middle Ages mindset when walled towns and fortresses were a part of the European way of life. It really is a wonderful place to spend a day exploring in and around El Castillo and through all the interior casemates, or arched chambers, where soldiers ate, slept, and tried to make the best of their lives in this distant outpost of Spain’s empire. A favorite pastime must have been graffiti, for the walls are covered with centuries old sketches of ships and scribbled writings that are slowing fading with time, but still clearly visible.

I crossed into La Florida last weekend, and it was a bit of a relief to escape the dangerous riding conditions of South Carolina. I have to give Florida credit - the accommodations they make for cyclists are quite good with dedicated bicycle lanes and berms that provide enough space to peddle along without having to worry about tire tracks on your back.

I have been following mostly A1A down the coast with some pretty hefty tailwinds pushing me along the last two days.Three days ago it was just the opposite. On these tail wind days, I like to listen to the hum of my tires on pavement - it’s kind of a steady and soothing sound, like white noise. Moving with the breeze, the sound of the air drops away, and you can hear things around you that you can’t when you’re battling with the wind.

Not far from Jacksonville and just across the Intra-coastal waterway is the Beaches Habitat For Humanity Affiliate, and that is where I spent the day volunteering on Tuesday. It is quite a large project site with a number of townhouse style of dwellings being built at the same time which will make a nice development when done. Part of the Habitat philosophy is not to build just a single house, but a community which is what they are clearly doing here. I did a little framing in the morning, and my painting skills were called upon again in the afternoon. Warm Showers hosts Michael and Debbie provided a relaxing safe haven for me in their great home in Ponte Vedra while I did my volunteer stint with Habitat.

Today’s ride with those friendly tailwinds took me further south to Daytona where I got in early and walked along the beach, enjoying the powerful surf stirred up by the north wind . . . white crested rollers rushing urgently to the shore, just so they can arrive in order to return seaward and do it all over again.

I haven’t decided how far south in Florida I will go yet. Will I say goodbye to the Atlantic here in Daytona, and face westward toward the Pacific?

Stay tuned . . . Proceeding On.

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