Claude Walker | Bicentennial-By-Buttons

"Seminole Road Trip '09": Negro Fort spirits, Egmont Key pier, my freezing chickee

Swamp sunrise

In February 2009, I set off on a 3,636-mile road trip to visit Seminole sites I had never seen (Negro Fort, Egmont Key) and some I hadn't seen in awhile (Dade Battlefield, Castillo de San Marcos). Part of the story is set in Florida's Alachua region and another in Islamorada, places I had passed through many times but never paused to explore.

After battling ice storms for two days in my 2-seater, I crossed the Alabama-Florida border, exited the Interstate and began searching for the Apalachicola River. "Seminole Road Trip 2009" was kicking into higher gear! That was the first of many times I would get terribly lost on Florida back roads in the next few weeks. GPS? Ha! I don't even have cruise control.

I finally stumbled across the river in the general area of a scene in the book where Andrew Jackson's invasion whips through. I was parked on the riverbank in the exact spot where Jackson must have marched. It was also the first of several stops on my tour that I realized I had the foliage all wrong.

My visit to the Negro Fort - now Fort Gadsden Historical Site - was unexpectedly moving. The only person there, I crossed the moat to the spot where the U.S. Navy cannonball hit the powder magazine, vaporizing hundreds instantly. A family was barbecuing in the campground nearby, boom-box blaring. Do they even know of the carnage that occurred on this very spot? Do the residents down the road? I envisioned the people cowering inside this fort, the glowing cannonball, the gory aftermath. In this serene spot along the river, Spanish moss undulating in the breeze.

I recalled an eerie feeling I had on the 50th anniversary of the infamous Lady of Angels School fire in Chicago. I visited the disaster's site at the precise hour the fire had broken out a half-century before. I knew the exact location of the two 2nd-floor classrooms where the most fatalities took place, now a space hovering 20' above a parking lot. Did anyone in the neighborhood now know what happened here then? I watched a drug deal on the corner, and thought of the students and nuns who perished on this very spot.

One can study history through classes, books, film and even Wikipedia, but sometimes the chills only come when you're standing on the exact spot where it went down.

I zipped through Apalachicola, following Jackson's invasion route to St. Mark's Fort (closed the day I arrived due to budget cuts). I kayaked 16 miles down the scenic Santa Fe River (setting for a chase scene in the book) and watched the heads of turtles periscoping above the water. I visited the Dade Battlefield Site and its terrific little museum. I saw where Major Dade went down, and hiked through the palmettos and cypresses, enjoying the shafts of light, hint of turpentine and brazen woodpeckers. This may be how it looked, smelled and sounded to both the concealed Seminole ambushers and unsuspecting U.S. troops who had minutes to live.

My trip out to Egmont Key with my sister, niece and nephew was also a triumph. The book's final scene occurs here (oops, spoiler alert!) so I was delighted to be told by a park ranger that the remnants of a stone dock was the actual spot from which the Seminoles were deported to New Orleans. I tried to imagine the thoughts of Billy Bowlegs, Paul Turtle and thousands of others standing right here, staring across the turquoise water to the lush mainland before heading to a cold, barren reservation.

Then off to the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum had a superb exhibit on Osceola (more chills seeing his actual garb and bronze pipe) and a life-size diorama that helped me finally grasp Seminole stickball. And the boardwalk tour was excellent, with signs identifying various herbs & trees. The gift shop had a nice version of Seminole Wind playing that kept playing in my head.

For more "author immersion", I headed to Billie Swamp Safari and spent a night in a chickee on stilts over the swamp. Nice by chickee standards, it had a thatched roof, metal cot, kerosene lamp and porch to watch the airboats go by. Gator for dinner, a humbling night sky and the haunting sounds of the pre-dawn swamp gave me a good Seminole vibe. It was also the coldest night in the Everglades in years, I was told, and all I had was a scratchy blanket and my Chicago leather. I checked under the cot for snakes each time I entered and outside for panthers every time I left, but it was splendid.

Great kayaking in Lower Matecumbe Key (I did some editing while bobbing around inside a turquoise mangrove tunnel) and a glimpse of historic Indian Key. This is where Paul Turtle befriends the Fugitives, dupes the pirates and invents the kayak paddle. I was disappointed as I headed north. The drive along Lake Okeechobee's shoreline was not what I expected (think severe "water management") and I had a hard time finding battle sites.

But I would not be denied in finding Moultrie Creek, just south of St. Augustine. I knew the infamous treaty had been signed where Moultrie Creek shoots west from the Matanzas River. It took some exploring and even - gulp - asking locals for directions, but I finally found a tiny riverfront trail that led to the confluence. The Treaty must have been signed here. The first of many times the Seminoles were hustled, bamboozled or outright duped by the Americans. In the book, this is also were Paul Turtle meets his first love...romance on the shore ensues.

The last stop on "Seminole Road Trip '09" was Castillo de San Marcos, as noted a family road-trip pit-stop in my youth. Again, an eerie feeling as I entered the room which served as Osceola's cell and from which - legend has it - the emaciated Seminoles escaped. A ranger told me it's all bunk, that the escape took place from a wooden stockade in town, but who knows? I spent hours at the fort, trying figure how to engineer a prison break from a joint like this.

I left St. Augustine, the tour complete, with a parting glance of the Suwannee River (another key scene in the book) as I careened through the Florida countryside. I crossed the Suwannee just as a fiery sun dipped below the piney horizon, a sweet punctuation mark on this journey.

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