June 2019

The New World Now: Fresh Looks at America’s Oldest City

Author: Michele Roldán-Shaw

I fell in love with St. Augustine while pedaling a sea foam beach cruiser bike around the old city and out Highway A1A to the Atlantic. I ate Florida “honeybell” tangelos from my backpack and gazed into a campfire after long days of adventuring. I dreamed myself into homes for sale with banana trees.

To me, St. Augustine was like the Lowcountry meets the Caribbean: all the charm of shrimp boats, live oaks and Gullah cottages, but with a Spanish flair. Like the cobbled streets and period homes of Savannah or Charleston over an old Spanish mission site in California. Like the Golden Era of Florida tourism with roadside citrus and seashell stands, mermaids, stucco and live gator attractions merging into the hip world-fusion surf culture of today. Or simply like Florida period, with its leathery snowbirds, tattooed teens, and a worker class that calls you darlin’. Youngbloods blaring Dirty South rap cruise past markers on the Civil Rights Trail in Historic Lincolnville, originally founded as a suburb for freed people of color. Mommies in athletic spandex push strollers through gentrifying neighborhoods, where buckling cracker shacks under Spanish moss give way to trendy real estate with “Hate Has No Home Here” pickets in the yard. A grandparent buys a baby an ice cream cone and a pirate T-shirt in the colonial quarter. The affluent eat dressed up shrimp ’n’ grits at historic garden inns. Centuries fuse and meld.

It’s not hard to imagine what the coast around modern St. Augustine looked like at the time of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon’s first landing in April 1513. When I visited, 506 lovely Aprils later, certain elements were still in place. I was intimidated by roiling blue-black surf under brewing thunderheads at Anastasia State Park, where a spot called “Blowhole” attracts wave-riders from up and down the East Coast. (Red flag surf advisory—I did not go in.) I ran up on gators and toasted my knees under a broiling sun when I kayaked Pellicer Creek, a brackish inlet of cordgrass and piney-wood banks that crosses under the US-1 overpass to become Cracker Branch, a cabbage palm and fern-choked swamp. I got, at brief intervals, bug-bitten, footsore, and rained out. I hiked a little nature trail through maritime woods—sublime if there’s a path cut, pure hell if there’s not—where retirees today walk their poodles, but conquistadors of yesteryear came down with strange fevers as they thrashed about in the pestilent undergrowth. There was no Fountain of Youth.

I always thought the name Florida (Spanish for “flowery” or “full of flowers”) was a tribute to the environment, conjuring happy images of hibiscus, citrus blooms and spider lilies. But actually, it’s a reference to the Easter “feast of flowers,” taking place at the time of the Spaniards’ first landing. They had no love for Florida. To them, this was not an Eden but a noxious hole of insect plagues, dangerous reptiles, raging tempests, savage natives and festering climates—and if you were dropped in the woods there today, you’d probably agree. “A country very difficult to travel and wonderful to look upon,” concluded Cabeza de Vaca in his 1542 narrative of the ill-fated overland expedition that killed off hundreds of his men. “We could not advance without much going about and a considerable increase of toil.” No gold, no life-giving waters, even their half-hearted attempts at crops failed miserably. Reports made to the Spanish Crown were that this land was not worth settling.

However, Northeast Florida was considered a valuable outpost on the route of treasure ships carrying looted Incan gold back to Spain, thanks to the Gulfstream that hurried them on their way—and so began America’s oldest city. At a quarry you can still visit, Spaniards mined coquina shells to build the Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine’s iconic fortification overlooking the Matanzas River. “Matanzas” means slaughter in Spanish and commemorates a horrid massacre here of rival French settlers. The twisted saga of greed, deceit and killing that constitutes early colonization is beyond the scope of this article—but we all know the British won, even if the Spanish left their mark here more than anywhere. Today, atrocities are forgotten. I enjoyed a delicious latte at Relámpago Coffee Lab on Spanish Street (the name means “lightning bolt”), where I sat in the garden patio eavesdropping on two fresh-faced young ladies discussing the future. They would soon graduate from Flagler College, a prestigious liberal arts institution in the old Ponce De Leon luxury hotel, whereupon they planned to travel the world and do awesome things rather than live a conventional life.

In order to taste the once-wild coast, I spent two nights camping at Anastasia State Park, a barrier island off mainland St. Augustine that’s easily accessible via the historic Bridge of Lions. Campsites are hollowed out of the dense, luminous green maritime forest. From my lawn chair, sipping early morning tea, I watched squirrels chasing and grooming each other among salt-twisted oak limbs bursting with resurrection fern. I went for an eight-mile trudge along a nearly empty beach, just me and the shorebirds mostly—flocks of shrieking terns, a lone egret stalking the shallows, little sandpipers dashing in and out of the waves and pecking at the heads of dead jellyfish.

Just outside the park entrance is Nalu’s Tropical Takeout, the city’s first food truck, where I had wild-caught fish tacos with mango salsa. The owner is a soft-spoken man with a West Coast surfer-bro accent despite being a Florida native. He spent seven years on Kauai’s North Shore before bringing home his love of poke bowls and ahi sashimi, and in 2002 he opened the Hawaiian fusion taco truck, to the delight of local and vacationer lunch crowds alike. He is parked outside the Surf Station, another beloved institution established in 1984 that used to double as a filling station until it started doing enough business in boards and accessories. The boys inside were busy brainstorming jobs you could show up to with no shirt (one of them was shirtless), including lifeguard, personal trainer, and working at a car wash.

After breaking camp at Anastasia, my hair still thick with salt and wood smoke, I headed into the city and took a room at the Florida Motel. This refurbished 1950s motor court has a retro pink mermaid sign, coral walls with turquoise trim, and orange doors accented by potted palms. The interiors of the tiny but immaculate rooms have been completely redone in vintage style, even down to the microwaves and mini-fridges. According to the owner, the motel had declined over the last 20 years into a shabby weekly rental before he and his wife purchased it, then brought in their SCAD-graduate daughter to revision the identity. Now they manage it as an Airbnb rental, with use of the sea foam cruiser bikes included.

At Present Moment Café—a name aptly fitting the theme of my research—I ordered the collard wraps and asked the pleasant young waitress with watermelon hair and combat boots where I could kill a few hours without spending any money. She recommended the downtown shrine, which had its own free parking. “What’s it a shrine to?” I asked.

“Jesus,” she mumbled reluctantly, making the quotation mark gesture with her fingers. “But it’s a really peaceful place.”

How public sentiments change! Five centuries after the Spaniards’ cross-brandishing reign of terror, the girl at Present Moment wants nothing to do with their avatar. But when I went to the shrine, a shady oasis on the Matanzas riverbank with cool breezes rattling palm fronds over a tiny chapel covered in creepers, I found it was actually dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Leche (Our Lady of the Milk) who watches over expecting mothers.

History is all how you paint it: the modern Catholic Church now operating on the spot calls this “America’s Most Sacred Acre” and flaunts vainglorious oil paintings of conquistadors and native Timucuans erecting a wooden cross in ostensible friendship here at the old mission site. No mention is made of slaughters, but a sign claims that slaves and mistresses alike prayed to Our Lady of the Milk. Few care to know that St. Augustine is only the oldest continuously inhabited settlement if you look at it from a European perspective—otherwise the honor goes to Oraibi, a Hopi Nation town in Arizona that’s been occupied twice as long.

A chance encounter led to free lunch and conversation aboard the Curlew, a fine old wooden boat tied to a private pier next to the Bridge of Lions. I had been pedaling my cruiser bike through a lazy beach neighborhood when I saw a man on a skateboard wearing thick leather gardening gloves. “Hey man, what’s with the gloves?” I shouted out, and he circled around to explain that they protected his hands when he fell. Soon he was inviting me to spinach salad and pasta on the 37-foot Curlew, his primary residence, which had been given to him (long story that he told me.) A cultured polyglot of Italian-Chilean descent, he spoke four languages and played alto sax in a psychedelic rock band. He’d lived in various countries and all over Florida and liked St. Augustine for its history. “You don’t find anything else like it until you get up to Savannah or Charleston,” he said. “The rest of Florida is too new to have any unique sense of place.”

His cat Señor Fuzzypants sprung aboard, and later I watched as he disembarked with a bold leap. Sometimes Fuzzypants fell in, the man said, but he clawed himself lightning-quick up the pier.

How happy life would be in St. Augustine! But a perfect April day rocking gently in the stern of the Curlew is hardly real life … I suppose I’ll just go back and visit.

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