Favorite Ride: July 4th on Florida’s First Coast
The salt in the air greeted me as I pulled up to the beach for some “Here Comes the Sun” action on my Moto Guzzi V85 TT. It was July 4th, 2020, during a global pandemic, and several of us stood spread apart, watching the horizon. As the sun peeked out and turned the sky orange, I felt it appropriate to start my journey with coffee, the fuel that moves the body. Every motorcycle ride since the dawn (pun intended) of mankind has, to my knowledge, started or ended with coffee and food.
Rumbling at idle, the Guzzi tells you its name right away but settles into a nice smooth burble once underway. I had a ferry to catch to get across the St. John’s River before the holiday crowds appeared. There was no mistaking the visceral feeling the V85’s engine provides as I veered onto Florida State Road A1A, a scenic highway that runs down the Florida coast from just below the Georgia line all the way to the Keys. Today I’d be going north to Fort Clinch State Park, a historic site I’ve been meaning to visit.
Skimming past Atlantic Beach to Mayport, known for its naval base, I left behind the usual Florida beachside fare. A1A opened up into sawgrass fields, the stalks swaying gently in the morning breeze. I embraced the faint coolness, knowing that later on I would face oppressive heat and humidity; it pays to ride early in the summer. Soon the road turned to curvy sweeps of interconnecting marsh islands. Pulling into Mayport Village, a fishing town established in the 16th century, I passed casual spots for seafood that I’ve visited many times with my wife and son.
A nice little S-curve leads to the ferry, and I pulled up as the previous ferry, named the Jean Ribault after the French Huguenot explorer who landed close to these parts, departed. During the 10-minute ferry ride, I dismounted and removed my helmet and gloves to air out, welcoming the river breeze. It’s good to close your eyes and just “be.” Several boats were sailing along, save the fishing vessels that were still docked. Soon we disembarked and I continued on A1A.
The sweeping bridge-roads immediately met my wheels, and I revved the Guzzi to gain speed. I love the vantage point this route gives, portside giving views of intercoastal marsh and starboard providing visuals of jetties towards the ocean. A light patchwork of clouds mixed with the morning sun, and there was an omnipresent backdrop of giant ships in the far distance. It’s impossible to not feel a little effervescent in this atmosphere.
Winding north, Little Talbot Island and Big Talbot Island (both state parks) offered weekend recreationalists hiking, fishing and kayaking. Upon crossing the Nassau County line, the scenery changed from open, winding waterways to forest-lined straightaways, with a couple of roundabouts thrown in to make life interesting.
Riding north on Amelia Island, a vacation locale known for its beach resorts, leads to Fernandina Beach and the northern terminus of A1A. I was now within range of Fort Clinch, but first I turned onto Amelia Island Parkway, an enchanting road draped with oak and willow trees that created shadows dappled with midday sunlight. I stumbled upon American Beach, notable for being the first Black-owned vacation spot in northeastern Florida. It was established in 1935, during the Jim Crow era, by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, president of Jacksonville’s Afro-American Life Insurance Company.
My next stop was Fort Clinch, following a winding road that revealed campgrounds with signs warning against swimming with alligators. Soon I was greeted by a wonderfully restored red-brick fort, with cannons facing out towards the sea, an early American flag at full mast and tunnels and walls steeped in history. The fort participated in the early Seminole Wars and later was lost and reclaimed by the Union during the Civil War. Visiting the site on July 4th carried the additional weight of history.
Continuing home in a more expeditious manner via the Dames Point Bridge, I admired the progress of industry stacked high in the form of hundreds of steel shipping containers down below. This was a ride where I stepped out of my routine, explored a new place and noticed — and appreciated — more of what is around me. If any lesson can be drawn from these changing times it’s that a good ride can provide a little perspective.