First, I’d like thank everyone who’s taken the time to read my first few posts and my new followers for coming along for the ride. I hope yall enjoy reading about this journey as much as we did taking it. As I write this I long to be back on the open road with no plans ahead of me. We got our second Covid vaccinations yesterday (get vaccinated!) and to say it’s inundated us is an understatement. That being said it’s the perfect time for me to wrap up in blankets and continue the story. So where were we?
Right, the rest station in St. John.
When “planning” the trip, we had anticipated on arriving around Jacksonville, watching the sun rise at the beach, then driving to the southernmost point of Key West where we would watch the sun set.
That was the plan. I’ve learned that when adventuring with Ron, all of our most fun journeys involve a general lack of a plan.
I must have been dreaming of sugar plums or dancing mice when Ron woke me, because for a moment I had no idea where I was. Dawn light bathed the car and the orange lights at the rest stop in front of the car flickered off.
“It’s 6:30!” Ron shouted, just as bewildered as I was. My head swam as I tried to piece together what he was saying. Okay, I’m in my car, and it’s 6:30. Wasn’t that when sunrise was supposed to be?
I sighed in disappointment as I checked my phone and realized in my tossing and turning I must have turned my alarm off.
“Well now what?” Ron asked me reluctantly.
When we started the trip, one thing we were planning on doing was watching the sun rise on the east coast, and set on the west coast. It was something I was looking forward to, so today’s setback broke my heart. We decided to regroup after a restroom visit and an opportunity to stretch out after the cramped night in the car.
Ever my rock, Ron hugged me and suggested that we just get in the car and drive today. He reminded me that we had a few weeks worth of time to make that dream happen, and told me the weather wasn’t looking the best for the Keys today anyway.
We agreed to make our trip to the Keys later, at a time where we could spend a full day enjoying the splendors of the white sand beaches and crystal blue water.
So what do we do instead?
We only had a few definite dates that we needed to be somewhere. We had a check-in at a hotel in Orlando, at an Airbnb in Weeki Wachee, and at Ron’s best friends house before we made our way home. We basically had unlimited free time punctuated by those few dates, so it was agreed that we should see as many places as we could.
For now we set our sights on Sanibel Island, somewhere I heard about through whispers of travelers as a seashell and shark tooth Hotspot. With plans finally nailed down, we were off and back on the road.
Living in northeast Pennsylvania my whole life I had become accustomed to giant mountains and forests bedded with thickets of thorny shrubs. My family had taken a handful of vacations to Florida over my childhood, but never spent very long there and even less time in the parts of Florida not actually targeted at tourists.
This being said I didn’t know just how diverse all of Florida was. From swamps full of knobby kneed cypress, to grasslands spotted with nursing heffers, to orange trees with errant ladders poking up randomly from the canopy.
And we saw it all.
That drive was one of the best parts of the whole trip, truly. It nearly felt like a drive through an exotic country, foreign and new but still familiar enough to feel a sense of ease.
Until we passed a sign for bear country.
Growing up in Pennsylvania however, this was not a problem for us, so we drove on.
Passing through the toll gate to the island, I whispered an apology to my parents who were about to receive a handful of toll-by-plate letters in the mail. As we drove to the beach we set as our destination, we gawked at the giant houses and hotels that lined either side of the street on the island. Sun-kissed women in straw sun bonnets and cotton jumpsuits drove golf carts up and down the road to run errands or pick up their kids.
My god I really cannot imagine having more money than I know what to do with like that.
We rolled into the palm tree enclosed parking lot and hastily stuffed towels into a bag before sprinting to the waters edge. It had been a few days now since we showered last, and the thought of a rinse in the ocean lifter our heels across the hot sand.
I stopped dead in my tracks at the edge of the water.
It’s so cold.
Ron had done the same, and hesitantly inched forward. As we made our way in we laughed and threatened to splash each other with the water before finally submerging to rinse off. The breeze hit twice as hard after my head broke the surface, and we decided perhaps an extended stay in the water was not the best idea. We climbed back out of the water and spread a blanket, sitting back and enjoying the sound of the waves rolling against the beach.
It had occurred to one or both of us, at this point, that we didn’t have a plan for lodging that night. We had brought a tent and air mattress with, anticipating having the ability to camp at a few free sites I managed to locate before we left. I grabbed my phone and began searching for one.
I’ll be completely honest, I don’t for sure know what was going through my head when I picked the camp ground that I did, besides that, well it’s only a few hours away.
The site was called Bear Island campground, sounds safe enough right? We decided to head for it after we relaxed for a little while longer, and run out the rest of the time on our parking meter. We did walk up and down the beach a ways, flipping over cracked scallop shells and digging in discarded sea grass. It was late in the day, and a majority of the jewels of the sea had been picked up by beachcombers hours ago, so we returned to the car with our pockets empty.
After a change into dry clothes and grabbing a snack from the trunk, we zipped back down the road, eager to make camp for the night.
As we drove, there was an abrupt change in landscape. Hotels and condos would crowd the road then suddenly just street lamps, then nothing. Ever in a good mood however, we sang into the night as we drove deeper and deeper into uninhabited land.
While the bear crossing signs didn’t really deter us, one set of signs did waiver our constitution. Panther crossing, read a friendly yellow sign. Oh good.
The farther we went the more skeptical of this campsite I became. Very few houses dotted the highway we drove down; I marveled at a school bus stop sign unable to recall the last time we passed a school.
We were about 45 minutes from the campsite when we came up to the visitors center of Big Cypress National Preserve. The campground was on park lands, so I figured we’d at least stop here for a moment to make sure everything was still open. I had also seen that this site offered camping as well and thought we could check it out. We rolled up onto the rv clean out spot and shut the car off for just a few minutes.
The headlights faded, and the sky lit like wildfire.
Darkness surrounded us on every side but up as we basked in the light of tens of billions of stars. We laid bad on the warm hood of the car and just took it all in. For just a few minutes we allowed ourselves to feel very small under the vastness of everything around us.
The cold began to shake us, so we moved back into the car and drove around to where the campsites were.
When pulling up we spotted two cars halfway down the open field, and one person leaning against what must have been a hammock. Tiredness and strain on my eyes must have been playing tricks on me, and the fact that we hadn’t seen another human being for nearly an hour didn’t help the situation. Both this individual and the others nearby with red lights on their foreheads wigged us both out so bad that we didn’t even stop. Looking back on it now we realize that those folks were there for the same reason we had stopped: some good non-threatening stargazing.
With only about 30 miles between us and the campground, we turned onto… a dirt road? Dirt is generous, the road was made of white chalky dust, rocks, and potholes.
“In 30 miles, your destination will be on the right.” The GPS helpfully chirped. There were no offshoots of this road, it just went straight back into uninhabited jungle. Minutes crept by as I carefully made my way down the road, going as fast as I could while still feeling comfortable. Ron pulled out a giant flashlight and idly scanned the roadside for glowing eyes.
“Well. If we’re going to see a panther, it’s probably going to be here.” I said, trying to be vaguely optimistic. I did want to see one of the endangered big cats, just from the safety of the vehicle.
Ron returned an unamused chuckle.
The last street light I remember passing was about 15 miles down the road, shortly before a corral of air boats and monster trucks haphazardly parked by an ‘Airboat Adventures’ sign. Okay so this road is used at least every now and again.
Glancing at the GPS, I noticed we were coming up on a crossroad, and excitedly told Ron about it. I remember saying we could probably use it to get out of the area faster in the morning. As we approached I could see the lights of crossing highway traffic, but my optimism wilted when the road rose higher, and higher, until we were passing under the overpass of 75, not even a maintenance ramp in sight. On we pressed, determined at this point to get there and too tired to turn back.
We finally approached the end of the road, marked by two red reflectors. Following the GPS, we turned left and found a shack that we could only assume was the campsite welcome booth. Obviously at 11:30 at night, the booth was not occupied.
At this point I was hopeful to find the site and possibly a pit toilet or a hole in the ground that I could occupy for a moment, so we agreed we’d return in the morning to check what the fee for camping was. The website I had found the campgrounds on had made it seem like there wasn’t a fee.
The GPS chirped again. “You have arrived!”
There was still road before me, and we had only gone about 200 ft down the road from the shack. With no campground in site yet, we ignored her and pressed on.
The road wove left and right through thickets of grasses and palm trees, fog rising from puddles alongside the road. At least we’re the only ones out here? I thought to myself as I tapped my thumbs impatiently on the steering wheel.
Again, I was wrong. We crept into the campsite well after quiet hours, and slowly passed a handful of other vehicles adorned with night lights and family sized tents.
Now, a sane person would have thought longer about this than we did, turned around, and drove the hell out of there.
We were 30 miles driving access to the main road.
Cell service was spotty at best.
And we had no idea who the people camping near us were.
I do love a good cliffhanger. I’ll leave off there for now, but check out the next post in a few days! What happened with the campsite in the middle of nowhere, and what kind of dangerous animals did we run into setting up camp at our next campsite?