The 1947 Rod & Reel Pier, on Anna Maria Island, has a bait-and-tackle shop downstairs and a short-order diner upstairs with a panoramic view of Egmont Key and the Gulf of Mexico to the northwest, and the Skyway Bridge to the northeast. The Rod & Reel closed for five months to be rebuilt, following an electrical fire in September 2013. (Click “HD” for best quality video.)
One hundred years ago most of coastal Florida looked a lot like Ozello looks today. (Click “HD” for best quality.)
Last weekend I drove up to the Panhandle to attend the Fifth Annual 30A Song Writers Festival.
Excerpt from Florida’s Best Bed & Breakfasts and Historic Hotels: “30A” refers to Walton County Road 30A, often referred to as “Scenic 30A”. It dips down off of Highway 98, halfway between Destin and Panama City Beach, to wind along the coast for nineteen miles. Before the 1980s it was simply an off-the-beaten-path route to Grayton Beach State Park, and to the small beachfront communities of Seagrove and Grayton Beach, nestled among the sand dunes and scrub oaks. It has always been scenic. 30A’s beaches consistently rank among the top five most beautiful in the United States. Their blinding white sand consists of powdered quartz washed down over the eons from the Appalachian Mountains. It squeaks when you walk on it.
The 3-day Festival featured 150 singer-songwriters performing in multiple venues up and down the coast. It was sensational! The genre was primarily folk music, with some blues, and some country, but all the performers were acoustic string (mostly guitar) players. I stayed in a charming one-bedroom apartment above a garage called The Carriage House, in Seaside, and purchased a single ticket that gave me access to any of the performances I wanted to see. Of course with that many, you have to pick and choose. I saw fifteen performers—each one terrific, but I’ll list four that I thought were outstanding (and I am dumbstruck that musicians this good aren’t household names): Pierce Pettis—His opening song Little River Canyon (click here to see his performance at Full Sail University), about growing up in Fort Payne, Alabama, left a lump in my throat, and I was hooked from there on. His voice reminds me of Gordon Lightfoot, with a little Tom Waits, and even a bit of Bruce Springsteen, but Pettis’ amazing guitar playing (he must have classical-guitar training) and song-writing skills leave those three in the dust. Mary Gauthier—Her soulful songs were both poignant and humorous. Same for David Olney and Gabriel Kelley.
You’ll notice I’m not posting any photographs of the performers or performances. That was by request of the festival organizers, and I respect their intellectual property. So instead here are a couple shots of Seaside:
In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon three astronauts launched from “Stone’s Hill” in “Tampa Town, Florida” (although the longitude and latitude that Verne specifies is actually closer to Port Charlotte). Eighty-five years later, right across the state, Cape Canaveral’s first test rocket—a Bumper V-2 lifted off at the Joint Long Range Proving Grounds (now Cape Canaveral Air Force Station), and just nineteen years after that Verne’s dream became reality.
There is some “Disney World” influence at the visitor center entrance, but this is not “imagineering”. Kennedy Space Center has the real stuff—real rockets that flew into space, real capsules that carried legends like Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong, a real space shuttle (Atlantis), and you might even see a real astronaut. I opted for the “Mega-tour”, which added a guided bus ride to: the gargantuan Assembly Building—with its 525-foot-high ceiling, Launch Pad 39A—where nearly all the Apollo and Space Shuttle launches took place (we got to walk right up to the rocket exhaust gully), and to the Apollo/Saturn V Exhibit. The Saturn V rocket looks like a skyscraper laid horizontal. Everything here is extra-large—the Assembly Building, the Saturn V, even the Space Shuttle was twice as big as I expected. It was a fascinating visit—educational, awe-inspiring, and even thrilling. I spent an entire day at the Center and didn’t see it all, so I’ll be returning soon.
There is much argument both for and against continuing manned space missions. I have always been a fervent proponent of human exploration, and feel that it is at the core of what we are. And so I believe that a manned mission to Mars is of paramount importance to humanity. I know of only one moment in human history when almost everyone on the planet held their collective breaths, and then simultaneously cheered—July 20, 1969.
The Nevada Test and Training Range, which spreads across the high-plains desert northwest of Las Vegas, occupies 4,687 square miles—making it the largest federally-owned parcel of land in the United States. It encompasses the Nellis Air Force Base, the Nevada Test Site (where from 1951 to 1992 some 900 atomic bombs were test-detonated), plus a seemingly-random assortment of numbered “Areas”. One of these Areas, number 51, includes a vast dry lake bed called Groom Lake. In 1955 the Central Intelligence Agency was looking for a remote location to test Lockheed’s new high-altitude U-2 spy plane. Assistant Director of the CIA Richard Bissell, then assigned to oversee the project, and Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s designer of the U-2 (and founder of the “Skunkworks”), picked Groom Lake. It was nicely hidden by mountains on two sides and would have been perfect except that it was right next to (and usually downwind from) the atomic bomb test site. Nevertheless, under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission (now called the Department of Energy) a temporary base was completed at the dry lake bed by mid-year. They named it Watertown. Interestingly, at first it was not entirely secret. The AEC actually sent out press releases announcing that they were testing a new high-altitude airplane for “weather observation”, but after that the site became an entirely “black operation”. Although there were interruptions—they had to evacuate during atomic bomb detonations, the “temporary base” eventually became permanent, and expanded as subsequent top-secret airplane testing continued there. Next came Project Oxcart—Lockheed’s mach-3-capable Blackbird SR-71 (and its Air Force equivalent the Archangel-12). In the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, all manner of stealth aircraft were developed and tested there, including the Lockheed F117 fighter and the bat-winged Northrop-Grumman B-2 bomber.
In 1989 a (purported) engineer named Bob Lazar (who had built his own jet car) did a TV interview with Las Vegas news reporter George Knapp. Lazar claimed that he had worked for an engineering company called E G & G at a location he called S-4 at Area 51. (I say “claimed” because MIT, where he said he received his degrees, says he never attended the university.) His story was somewhat fantastic. He would fly daily from Las Vegas McCarran Airport, in government-owned 737s with other Area 51 workers (who all went by aliases, per the rules), and spend his day at S-4 working on reverse-engineering the propulsion system in a captured extraterrestrial craft—a flying saucer. Lazar’s story gained some credibility when he befriended John Lear, one of the most experienced and decorated pilots in the world, and son of the founder of the Learjet Company. Lear believed Lazar’s story and went with him in the middle of the night, out to a spot on the side of Highway 375 noted by a black mailbox on the side of the road, where they watched flying saucers being test-flown over the desert. Lazar has since fallen off the public radar screen, but his story spawned one of the most famous conspiracy theories of all time—that the United States Government had UFOs at Area 51.
So, you might think that this would bring droves of UFO nuts in tour buses out to the Nevada desert to see the place, but when Doug Davidson and I drove out to see it for ourselves we came across less than a dozen other people doing the same. Perhaps that’s because it is out in the middle of nowhere—a three-hour drive from Las Vegas to Rachel, the only town near Area 51. The last gas station is in Alamo, an hour from Rachel. Our cell phones lost signal about the time we turned on to Nevada State Highway 375—now officially dubbed the Extraterrestrial Highway. 375 winds over a few mountains, and then opens up to a long-range desert view. In some spots it rolls perfectly straight for fifteen or twenty miles at a stretch. It is desolate out here. Tumble weeds blow across the road. An occasional free-range cow saunters across as well. Gravel Groom Lake Road veers off to the left and goes arrow-straight for twenty-two miles to one of the two (reported) entrances into Area 51. We ventured about half way down Groom Lake Road before turning around and getting back on 375. The “black mailbox” (now painted white) is easy to find. It’s the only mailbox on the side of the highway. We stopped for the obligatory photos, and scanned the skies to no avail. Of course it was mid-afternoon not midnight, and it was Sunday (maybe the UFO pilots take Sunday off?).
Another twenty miles down 375 and we arrived at Rachel, population 54 according to the 2010 Census. There is only one commercial venue in Rachel: The Little Ale’ Inn, a bar-and-grill with an alien/UFO theme. Pat Travis and her husband Joe opened the Rachel Bar and Grill in 1989, and changed the name a year later. Joe has since passed away but Pat still runs the place. Ravenous from travel, I feasted on their Alien Burger, with special saucer sauce (which Susie, our waitress, confessed was really Thousand Island dressing—although homemade!) And a darn fine burger it was! More photos, tee shirts, a book, a secret Area 51 map (price 33 cents), and some chocolate chip cookies and we were back on the road.
Susie had given us directions to the other Area 51 “back gate” entrance road, which runs out from behind Rachel. “Don’t try to go through that gate”, she sternly advised. Ten miles down the road we finally reached the gate. The guard shack and an adjacent building appeared to be unoccupied, but they did have mirrored windows, so who knows? All the “WARNING!”, “US AIR FORCE INSTALLATION”, “NO TRESPASSING”, and “PHOTOGRAPHY OF THIS AREA IS PROHIBITED” signs were posted, but the original “USE OF DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED” sign has been replaced by “MAXIMUM PUNISHMENT $1000 FINE, SIX MONTHS IMPRISONMENT, OR BOTH, STRICTLY ENFORCED”.
Bruce’s newest book: Florida’s Best Bed and Breakfasts and Historic Hotels just released in September.
I feel a bit like Steve Martin in The Jerk: “The new phone books are here! The new phone books are here!” One might think, after eighteen years and nine published Florida travel and history books, that the release of a new book would be ho-hum for me. Not the case—seeing the new book in its finished form is still a thrill. This is my third bed & breakfast/hotels guide, and while some of the historical content repeats information from the previous editions, there is quite a bit that is new. I put a lot of miles on my old Pathfinder over the last year, crisscrossing the state, visiting and photographing bed and breakfasts and renovated historic hotels. There are 140 listings—38 more than the last (2009) edition. Something else that is new: This year Pineapple Press will be producing all of their books (including Florida’s Best Bed & Breakfasts and Historic Hotels) in both print and e-book versions. In addition, I have created an online portfolio (which I will be updating regularly) of over 250 high-resolution Florida B&B and hotel images to supplement the book. Go to BruceHuntBooks.com to access the portfolio, and to find out more about Florida’s Best Bed & Breakfasts and Historic Hotels as well as my other books.
I’ve just returned from Umatilla where friends and family from far and wide packed the First Baptist Church of Umatilla to celebrate the remarkable life of Evelyn “Sister” Sebree. The magnitude of the crowd was a genuine tribute to the number of lives Sister touched in her eighty-three years. I knew it was going to be a joyous, uplifting service the moment I walked in the door and they were playing “Sunny Side of the Street”. Regular readers here will recall my post about Sister on February 15, 2012, Making a Difference in Umatilla.