This year, Santa arrived in the form of an armadillo.
But let’s back up.
On Christmas Eve, we set out from Lake Louisa State Park in Florida to Highlands Hammock State Park, where we had made a camping reservation the previous week for the Christmas holiday. We didn’t have any expectations for this park and had really only chosen to stay there because the campground had two nights available, while many other parks were full.
We pulled into our campsite at Highlands Hammock to a sensory overload of noise, activity, and Christmas decorations. The campground, which had densely-spaced sites to begin with, was crowded with families in full vacation mode. Footballs flew through the air, kids sped by on bicycles, dads unrolled strings of lights, and a jolly fellow manning the grill at an adjacent site sang loudly along with the music blasting from his camper.
The retired couple in the site next to us pulled out all of the stops with their Christmas decorations. A whole lawn’s worth of lawn ornaments was set up around a screened-in pop-up tent that was draped in colored string lights front of their Winnebago. They also projected spiraling sparkly lights onto the side of said Winnebago, which reflected brightly into our camper if we didn’t keep the blinds and curtains closed that night. And theirs was by no means the most festive set-up. All month we had seen campers decorate their sites just like they would decorate a house for the holidays, including everything from trees to inflatable lawn decorations, and the spectacle was greatest on the eve of the day itself. I was reminded of a scene in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” where wizards camping out before the Quidditch World Cup set up extravagant magical tents, causing Harry’s friend’s dad to say: “Always the same…We can’t resist showing off when we get together.”
Things quieted down as the evening grew later, and by the time we took the dogs out for their before-bed walk, the only activities were quiet conversations around campfires.
As we walked through the dark campground, the dogs suddenly began straining at their leashes to investigate something they smelled, and we heard a loud rustle of leaves. I clicked my headlamp on and pointed it at the sound, not knowing exactly what we would see. (The park was home to everything from feral pigs to alligators to deer.) What we saw in the headlamp light was a pile of leaves in a drainage ditch that looked like it was ready to erupt. Something was scuttling noisily around underneath it. We looked through the beam of light as leaves were uplifted and rustled about when all of a sudden little Shrek ears and a tiny snout poked out. An armadillo! It scurried out of the leaves and dashed up the side of the drainage ditch. We restrained the dogs and didn’t follow it, because we didn’t want to harass it or drive it into another campsite with dogs, but we watched until it ran out of the beam of the headlamp. It was so cute! I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas surprise.
Christmas morning brought a beautiful warm day, and we set off on foot to explore the trails in the park.
Our first stop was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Museum on site. It was staffed by a volunteer who enthusiastically told us about the work that the CCC did in the park and how the young men who participated benefited from the program by learning trades and skills.
We then took the Orange Grove Trail from the camp store to connect to the other trails in the park. We were interested in seeing what the park brochure claimed was a 1,000-year old oak tree. As we got farther into the hammock (a term meaning hardwood forest), I was delighted by the increasing number of palm trees surrounding us. It felt like we were in a primeval rain forest.
Bright sun filtered through the green palm fronds in a landscape utterly unlike anything I’ve ever been in before. The trails were beautiful, and I just wanted to keep walking and walking to see more. What I loved most was coming across some of the big oak trees. Not necessarily the oldest, most notable ones, but the ones that were wide enough to walk into and which had entire ecosystems growing on their bark. Resurrection ferns and air plants created dense mats of vegetation on the top side of branches and on side-ways leaning trunks. From the ground I could only look up and wonder what was going on in the canopy above.
The two oldest trees were huge and unbelievably old (believed to be around 1,000 years), but besides their age, I didn’t find them to be as interesting because there seemed to be less going on. In fact, when we rounded a bend and came into view of the oldest tree in the hammock, we weren’t sure if it was actually still alive. It was broken off about 15 or 20 feet off the ground, with a thin shoot of a branch (unless it was another tree growing in the stump) rising from the top. The trunk was almost bare of bark and looked like it was slick from park visitors climbing on it all of the time. It had been stabilized decades ago with metal cables and concrete, chunks of which lay on the ground around the tree as it succumbs to time.
The other, slightly younger tree was in better shape, with larger sections of living tree. It was amazing to see something that had been alive for so long, but it was also amazing to see the trees with so much life going on right now.
One of the most popular trails in the park is the Cypress Swamp Trail, a boardwalk trail through a cypress swamp where alligators are often spotted. I wasn’t really all that interested in seeing an alligator, but I was so impressed by all of the other trails in the park that I wanted to make sure that I saw them all.
It’s called a cypress swamp, but in my opinion, “magical fairyland of wonder” is a more accurate description. The trees rise straight up from the water and shoot up short, knobby “knees” around them. The subdued brown, grey, and green colors were contrasted with light and colors reflected from the sky. The water itself was like a dark mirror. I meant to just walk along the boardwalk quickly to see what it was all about and meet George and the dogs back at the trailhead (dogs weren’t allowed on the boardwalk), but I couldn’t help but linger and feel the magic of the place.
From the dense palm and oak forests to the beautiful cypress swamp, Highlands Hammock State Park showed me one of the most beautiful, natural, and wild sides of Florida.
We enjoyed our visit so much that we reserved another campsite and stayed an additional night. It turns out that the extra day gave us the opportunity to spot an alligator in the park, which was the first I’d ever seen.
I had been vigilant during our time in Florida about Pippin not going near water where gators may be lurking, and seeing this one watching us from the surface of a creek reinforced my intention of keeping Pippin safe. (George says that alligators are cool dinosaurs and can’t understand why I don’t like them.) It turns out that I would soon be seeing plenty more alligators (from a safe distance) at our next Florida destination, but I wouldn’t see another armadillo on this trip in any of the southeastern states or even in Texas. It truly was a special Christmas surprise.