Every November I pack my bags, pack the car, and leave my home near Virginia’s Historic Triangle and drive ten hours to St. Augustine, Florida, to find the no-name food shacks and art shops down side roads. I travel under the guise of a writer’s conference where I’ll be running a workshop and then reading Friday evening. But I’m here for the places where local people linger long after vacationers are in bed. I know they’re the best locales to find fine food. I’ve spent most of my life in the heart of tourist country between Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, Virginia, living on the cusp of the very first settlement in America—Jamestown.
Founded by John Smith in 1607, Jamestown has grown into a world class tourist spot, including Williamsburg and Yorktown. In fact the first landing was right up the beach from my high school and people come from all over to see the replica cross marking Smith’s arrival thirteen years before the pilgrims at Plymouth. Smith’s spot sits near First Landing State Park, the beautiful beach and wilderness area commemorating the arrival of Europeans to the mainland.
On my drive south yesterday I skirted by the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, North Carolina, pitched to people as the origin of old-world settlements, where players act out the arrival and the subsequent mysterious disappearance of the entire population of the Island. Andy Griffith tried to learn acting here, not far from where the first child was born in America to European parents—Virginia Dare. When you grow up in the Historic Triangle and the surrounding areas, by God you know some American history.
So heading to St Augustine for me was about avoiding the tourist crap and finding the cool dives in which I thrive; the places not on Google Maps, Wikipedia, or even the Chamber of Commerce’s must-visit list.
The first time I arrived many years ago, however, I read the brochure in my hotel room.
“Saint Augustine was founded in September of 1565.”
It is America’s first European settlement, claimed forty-two years before John Smith sailed up the James, and roughly four hundred and ten years before I was taught that Jamestown was the first settlement. Somebody has been lying to me.
Certainly, in recent years, the books added “British” to the notation for Jamestown, but not when I was young. Back then, we were taught Virginia was where it started. Florida wasn’t on Johnny’s map. In fact, in my youth Disney hadn’t been there yet; Cuba had only been communist a few years, and “buying swampland” and “Florida” were synonymous thoughts. A fort? You think when I was a kid I would forget something like a freaking fort in Florida? Come on. No one told me about this. And as for Little Miss Virginia Dare, well I’m just guessing two of those sixteenth century people must have been attracted to each other and ducked out behind the walls of San Marcos decades before her dad and mom even met.
So I had to see this place, explore the tourist spots, eat in the predictable traps. Florida was no longer a conference location; I was on a journey to rewrite my education. Ten hours after leaving the Farce on the James, I rolled past the school Ray Charles attended, tacky tourist trains, the fountain of youth and other Ponce de Leon locations, and the shrine where Pedro Menendez first landed and proclaimed the territory for Spain, where a chapel was built and the first service celebrated one hundred and nine years before Bruton Parish was built near William and Mary College.
And then I turned the corner on A1A and saw San Marcos. Stark and bold like blocks of brown ice, shaved cliffs, the weight of half a millenium. It was night, and the few lights illuminating the 16th century fort rendered an ominous, subtly imposing presence. It’s the burly friend, quiet, steady, always been there and always will be. You might get around me, it says, but you’re not going through, and I’m not moving. I walked about the walls, along the bay, behind the former moats, and imagined the Old World. This whole town is a tribute to Spanish Europe, filled with people who for the most part have never seen Spain. I walked the streets and learned about the settlers, the missionaries, and the pirates.
When Menendez found this coast, he and other Spanish explorers found gold, making King Phillip the II and Spain the wealthiest nation in all of Europe. Then, with their sister Portugal, they mastered the art of slavery, thus driving their economies skyward while swallowing the people of other continents. In China the Ming Dynasty had just started its decline, Europe was engulfed in religious turmoil with schism after schism during the reformation. All while San Marcos was being built near the eventual Golf Hall of Fame.
Fifteen years before John Smith was born.
I sat on the wall overlooking the harbor that first time. I feel kind of guilty when I see this fort, though, like I want to find some Seminoles and apologize. What a history we have. Jamestown, St. Augustine, Plymouth. All of them “claiming” something for someone. I like to think that out on Roanoke Island, the inhabitants of the Lost Colony looked around one day and said, “You know, this is just wrong. Let’s get out of here.” I like to believe they surveyed their profits, the abundance that is this new world, and realized it cost them their souls.
This fort called San Marcos demonstrates one truth quite clearly: we as individuals are not here for long. If I live a life as long as my father’s, who also loved this town, I’d still not see one fifth of what these walls have seen. But I’ll still recall the words of the fort’s namesake: “For what shall it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world, and lose his soul?”