It’s been three and a half months since we turned east from California to return home to New Jersey amidst the threat of the coronavirus. Instead of sitting cross-legged on the bed in the camper to type, I’m sitting at a desk in the loft room of a cozy little house that we bought. After all of the freedom of the road, we are setting down roots.
But I never finished writing about all of the places we visited, and it’s finally time that I do. The western states contained some of the most amazing sights and memorable experiences of our trip. How can I leave out the best parts of the journey?
When I left off, we were just about to enter Texas, the 11th state of the trip. I was using a combination of camping apps and a paper atlas to determine camping spots, and I pointed us in a direction that gave us a few different options for campgrounds depending on how much we wanted to travel that day. We ended up rolling into Mission Tejas State Park after dark on a foggy night. We had a bit of trouble finding a level site, but we eventually found one that worked and got ourselves set up. I walked the dogs while George hooked up the water and electric, and I found a reconstruction of the first mission church in Texas right in the campground.
When George finished setting up the camper, we walked the dogs some more on hiking trails that were accessible from the campground. I was a little apprehensive taking trails in the dark without knowing where they went, and after hearing an animal rustling in the undergrowth not far from the trail, I was attuned to every sound. We wore headlamps in the dark, and George wondered aloud if the reflective glints we saw on the ground were water droplets from rain or dew. I had a suspicion that they were spider eyes, and close inspection proved that they were!
We found our way back to the camper without incident and spent the night listening to rain drumming on the aluminum roof as thunderstorms rolled through. All of the rain passed by morning though, and before leaving we took the dogs for a hike to get their energy out. In the daylight, we could appreciate the beauty of the huge trees and rolling hills in the pine forests. We explored the reconstructed mission building and walked along a portion of El Camino Real, a road that the Spanish built from Mexico to Louisiana.
The replica mission building was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 20th century, but the original mission was built by the Spanish in 1690. The Spanish were competing with the French to colonize the area, and they built a mission in this location to convert the native Caddo people. (The name Texas is actually derived from the Caddo word for friend, “tejas”.) After a smallpox epidemic, however, the Caddo plotted to overthrow the Spanish, so the Spanish burned and abandoned the mission.
This park was mainly a place for us to stop for the night, but if we had time to truly delve into the history, we should have also visited the nearby Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, which features burial mounds of the Caddo people and a museum about their culture and the impact of European colonization. The Caddo are still around today, but they live in western Oklahoma, where they were moved by the US government in the 1800s. If I’m ever in the area again, I’ll be sure to look more closely at that element of the region’s history and culture.
As it was, though, we had a long day of travel before us. As soon as we finished walking the dogs, we hit the road toward our next destination, which would turn out to be George’s favorite part of the entire trip: Dinosaur footprints!
After riding out severe weather in western Mississippi, we were keen to get out of there and make our way to the Fort Worth, TX area as soon as possible. So we packed up the dogs, crossed the Big Muddy, and took a northwesterly route through Louisiana, the 10th state of our trip.
Our first stop in Louisiana (after I had gumbo for lunch) was Jimmie Davis State Park. We were greeted at the park office by a Christmas tree turned Mardi Gras tree. We may have skipped New Orleans, but we got a little taste of this Louisiana tradition. We were also pleasantly surprised to find out that our America the Beautiful national parks pass was accepted for a discount at Louisiana state parks.
This park is popular for fishing and boating, and since we were there in the off season, we basically had the place to ourselves. There were a couple of campers here and there, but we were alone in our section of the campground and seemed to have the clean and well-maintained bathrooms and laundry facilities to ourselves.
This park happened to have had a direct hit from a tornado eight months before, and signs of the damage were still evident in swaths of trees that had been blown down and cabins that were closed for repair. Seeing the extent of the destruction was unnerving after that morning’s tornado watch in Mississippi, and it made me feel for the residents in the area who were dealing with more severe weather in places that historically had not seen those types of storms.
Despite losing hundreds of trees, the park was still beautiful and had many dense stands of tall pines. We enjoyed walking the dogs through the nearly empty park looking at the different campsites and admiring the cabins, which looked like they were probably perfect lakefront getaways during peak season.
The next day we made our way to North Toledo Bend State Park. This place once again proved state parks – especially in Louisiana – to be excellent camping choices. I was so much happier here than in an expensive rv “resort”. This park had numerous trails and roads to walk the dogs on (trust me, when you’re traveling with an energetic husky, long dog walks are essential), and it was set in a gorgeous pine forest with nice views of the reservoir. I even got my first glimpse of Texas across the water!
As we looked ahead (literally and figuratively) to Texas and our upcoming travels, we decided to head for Dinosaur Valley State Park and explore there for a day or two before going to the Fort Worth area for a Lord of the Rings fan gathering on January 18th.
Before leaving Louisiana, we stopped at a Mexican restaurant and had the first of many, many tacos that we consumed across the south west. It was a sign of good food to come!
Way back in 7th grade, around Halloween, my English class was assigned to write a story beginning with the words “It was a dark and stormy night”. Most kids used it to preface scary or gory tales worthy of Halloween (you know, as the assignment intended), but I decided to use the dark and stormy night to frame a cutesy story about an old mouse telling his grandchildren stories of his adventurous youth by the fireside on a dark and stormy night. Cutesy was really more my speed, and for me, dark and stormy nights always produced a cozy and safe feeling as I listened to rain and thunder from the comfort of my parents’ house. Clearly, I had never experienced a tornado watch in an RV.
The weather was overcast but mild when we left Florida and drove through a small portion of Alabama. We didn’t stop or camp in Alabama, so we aren’t really counting that as a state we’ve visited on the trip. We did have some views of a battleship and the RSA Battle House Tower as we drove around Mobile before entering Mississippi, the 9th state of our journey.
We camped for the night at Lake Perry State Park in Beaumont, MS. It was located in a beautiful pine forest with a scenic lake. A nature trail near the campground had signs identifying different species of trees, and the whole place smelled like pine. At dusk we heard the sounds of spring peepers.
The campground had water and electric, but it was probably the most rustic and no-frills amenities we’ve seen. Loki made friends with a black lab at a nearby campsite and loved chasing it in and out of the water as it fetched toys its owner threw in the lake.
George chatted with the lab’s owners about our trip and mentioned that we needed to bring our camper to an RV service center for a new battery and to repair a leak that had been causing water to come in through the window by the bed every time it rained.
As we traveled, we had heard some information on the radio about strong storms with hail and possible tornados the following night, so we specifically wanted to get the leak taken care of and were looking ahead to where we would be staying. The campers with the lab suggested we look for an RV dealer/service in the town of Hattiesburg, and I used my Weather Underground weather app to see the forecasts for various towns. The weather reports for towns west of Hattiesburg did not show the possibility of tornados, so I figured that we would miss the worst of the weather if we headed far enough west. I found and made reservations at an RV park just outside of Natchez, MS, on the Louisiana border, and on the way we brought the camper to Country Creek RV & Marine in Hattiesburg to fix the leak and to install a new battery.
The RV place was able to take the camper in for the repairs right away without an appointment, but it still took hours before we were back on the road because the caulking on the roof seam took time to cure. It began raining steadily as we waited, and it didn’t let up by the time we were on the road.
We arrived at the RV park in Natchez after dark. The site was nestled in a hollow between two tall hills, which was lucky, because the approaching storms were much more intense than we anticipated. I had initially thought that the worst of the storms were coming from the south and would bypass us by moving northeast, but there was actually a solid wall of storms coming from west of us and heading east. It stretched all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, so there was no chance of driving out of it.
I was nervous about what might happen, so I found it hard to sleep. I woke up to silence in the middle of the night and then again at about 5am. When I checked my phone at 5, it revealed that there was a tornado watch for our county. That meant that conditions were favorable for tornados, but they weren’t imminent, and I spent the rest of the morning watching the radar screen as we rode out the storm.
A particularly loud thunderclap right above us had announced the beginning of the severe storms, but nothing after that quite matched its intensity. I thought about how if I were back home, in a house with a basement, I would have welcomed the steady pounding rain and deep rumbles of thunder. I remembered standing in a doorway back in New Jersey watching as lightening streaked across the sky above the fields around the house and seeing storms light the sky like light shows off in the distance.
As the red line on the radar screen was directly over us, I noted that although this was the worst of it, it hadn’t really seemed much different than those storms I loved watching and listening to at home. I had expected to be rocked by strong winds and pummeled by tree debris, but besides the camper swaying here or there with a gust, we were surprisingly protected in our little hollow.
Around 8:20am, the severe storms passed, and we were left with some continuing rain and the relief of being safe.
I found out later that tragically, at least 11 people died in those storms from falling trees, demolished mobile homes, and flash floods. I am so thankful that we came out of it safely with no damage to ourselves, our camper, or our truck. Luck was certainly on our side.
This area of the country is experiencing more and more severe weather, so storms like what we experienced are a challenge that residents face regularly.
That dark and stormy night has given me new respect for the places we visit – not just for their beautiful or impressive sights, but for the unique challenges that each place poses to people, plants, and animals who live there. It can be scary out there, and it’s amazing to see how people adapt and thrive in such varied landscapes.
P.S. – The camper repairs were a success! Not only did we stay perfectly dry in that night’s storms, but we haven’t had any more roof issues since then. Also, we didn’t have any mold growth because our camper is made from aluminum instead of more common camper materials like wood or pressboard.
After enjoying the sun-soaked beauty of the Florida Keys and still feeling the pull of mountains, I thought that I’d had my fill of beaches and oceans for a while, but we took a coastal route through the Florida Panhandle to avoid the high speeds and traffic of Interstate 10 and planned to camp near some beaches along the way.
We passed by several communities with evident storm damage, like buildings collapsed by downed trees, and I wondered which storm it had been from and if the residents had ever really been able to recover from the losses.
We checked in to the campground at St. Andrews State Park in Panama City, FL, which is located on a peninsula bordered by the Gulf of Mexico, St. Andrews Bay, and a lagoon off the bay. More than half of the camp sites at this park were unavailable due to prior hurricane damage. Our site was on the lagoon side of the park, and while it was still light out, we walked the dogs around the shore toward the bay and explored a nature trail. The sunset gave off soft golden and pink light, and I loved the effect it had on the edge of the water, which looked silver-white. The trail ended at a closed turpentine still and mill. We couldn’t go in and look around, but it gave a little hint to how the landscape and natural resources had been harnessed for production in the past.
We liked this park and decided to stay for an additional night, so we booked another site and explored some more the next day. Dogs weren’t allowed on the beach, but I took a walk by myself and found that I had actually not had my fill of beaches just yet. The beach here was wide and bordered by tall white sandy cliffs and translucent turquoise waves. When I wasn’t looking at the water, I was looking down at the shells and creatures that washed ashore. Everywhere were broken pieces of what had been gigantic sand dollars, and I even came across puffer fish and sea cucumbers!
The white sandy cliffs were replaced by condominiums and high-rise buildings at the park boundary, so I turned back and retraced my steps as the sun got lower in the sky. This walk back turned out to be the most gorgeous sunset on the beach that I’ve ever seen. The jewel-bright turquoise water was mesmerizing to watch as it rolled onto the shore in colors and texture that I’ve never seen in nature before, and the tall white dunes reflected pink in the sunset as a full moon hung in the blue sky above.
As the sun sank lower, a flock of pelicans glided in and swooped down for a feeding frenzy in the breakers.
After that walk, I needed another look at the beach before leaving, so I returned to the beach the next morning, and this time, I also came across live sea cucumbers. I tossed them back into the ocean and had a feeling of amazement at actually being able to encounter these creatures that I had only ever read about (or seen on the Kratts Creatures tv show when I was a kid!).
In addition to looking for interesting shells and creatures, I gathered trash to throw away. When I bent down to pick up a string entangled in the sand, I found that it was actually a cowrie-shell anklet. I felt bad that someone had lost it, but I claimed it as a souvenir, thinking, with a smile, about how much I had secretly wished I had beach jewelry like that when I was a pre-teen visiting the Jersey Shore.
When I finished my beach walk, we packed up and headed out to the next destination, Big Lagoon State Park in Pensacola, FL.
The time zone changed from Eastern to Central Time as we approached Pensacola. This was an exciting milestone at first, but it quickly lost its novelty when sunset came around an hour early. The Southeast certainly had been a good location to spend some of the darkest days of the winter.
Our campsite at this park was tucked in a pine forest and located conveniently near the bathhouse. Walking through the campground, we saw two other truck campers, which was unusual for the east coast. Up until that point, we had been the only truck camper everywhere we went. That night was breezy, and we were constantly reminded of the trees around us as pine cones dropped with a ping onto the aluminum roof of the camper all night.
The trails in this park were a combination of boardwalk paths and sand.
The park was located on the mainland bordered by Big Lagoon with views of Perdido Key. A wooden observation tower was probably the highlight of the park and provided beautiful 360º views. It was really windy, so we had to hold onto our hats, and we watched kite boarders on the lagoon getting lifted high in the air by the gusts.
The views from the tower would be the last beach views we would have for quite a while. Although it was hard to pass up the opportunity to taste the fabled beignets at New Orleans’ Cafe Du Monde, (not that we’re visiting cities anyway on this journey) we decided to bypass NOLA and the Gulf Coast of Texas to head inland and take as direct a route as possible to Fort Worth.
After almost three weeks in Florida, we were ready to take on new states and see where the road would take us.
With the Florida Keys behind us, there was nowhere to go but north. Maybe we would go all the way to the terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia? Or should we begin heading west as soon as possible? We tossed these possibilities around and in the mean-time booked a campsite at Torry Island Campground, located near the bottom of Lake Okeechobee.
This campground had beautiful sunset views, and our site overlooked a pond with lots of birds. I walked the dogs on a trail that had an observation tower at the other end of that pond, which Loki began climbing without hesitation, despite being able to see straight through the metal grate steps. I carried Pippin up (his paws were too tiny for the grating), and we all enjoyed the views.
We were just passing through, so we only stayed one night, but not without a bag full of fresh garden string beans from the nice ladies in the campground office.
We decided for sure that the logistics of going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter were not going to work for us on this trip, so we began driving northwest past fields of sugar cane and sugar mills billowing smoke over the horizon. On the way, George called a member of his extended family who lived in Tarpon Springs, which was on the Gulf Coast in the direction we were headed, to see if she’d be interested in meeting for lunch or dinner the next day. She invited us to stay with her overnight, and when we arrived, she showed us everything from beaches for dog walking to the best restaurants and fruit markets. (Seriously, the best grapefruit I’ve ever had came from that market.)
At Honeymoon Island State Park, the dogs pranced through the sand while we looked at shells and sponges that washed up on shore.
There were a few signs warning of rattlesnakes on the island, and sure enough, we spotted one basking in the sun on the trail back to the parking lot! No worries, though – we held the dogs back and gave the snake space, and it slithered away.
Tarpon Springs is considered the Sponge Capitol of the World. Greek divers began settling there due to the abundance of natural sea sponges, and they’ve developed a thriving industry and culture. The street signs by the sponge docks are written in both English and Greek, and the baklava in the local bakery is amazing!
We happened to be visiting on the eve of the Greek Orthodox celebration of the Epiphany. The Orthodox Epiphany celebrates Christ’s baptism, which differs from the western churches, which instead celebrate the arrival of the three kings on that day. This feast day would be celebrated in traditional Greek style with a ceremony involving a blessing of the waters, a cross being thrown into the bayou for divers to retrieve, and a town-wide festival. It was such a major celebration that the Prime Minister of Greece would actually be attending this year. We did not stay to watch the festivities, but while we were there, we saw crowds gathering for the blessing of the fleet of sponge diving boats.
We left Tarpon Springs with plenty of travel tips from George’s aunt, who had traveled full-time in an RV for years. She gave us a send-off of new ideas for places to visit and helpful apps for finding campsites and tracking the weather. We just weren’t sure exactly where we were heading…
Our direction was determined when we reached northern Florida and I read about a meet-up of listeners of a Lord of the Rings podcast called “An Unexpected Podcast” that would be happening about two weeks later near Fort Worth, Texas. I had been to a similar meet-up a couple of months before and was interested in going, and when George said he wouldn’t mind going with me, we knew that we would be heading toward Texas.
With that destination in mind, we roughly planned out how far we would need to travel each day and began heading westward through the Florida panhandle toward Texas – and the rest of the country beyond.
Mangrove trees, turquoise-blue water, frigate birds flying overhead – they would be the backdrop as we rang in 2020, and we saw them all when we stopped in to visit the visitors’ center at Biscayne National Park. The grounds of the visitors’ center were beautiful, with shaded patios, picnic tables with ocean views, and a mangrove-covered jetty with a walkway that ended with a panoramic view of the glittering Atlantic, Keys, and Miami.
As we strolled around, a snorkeling tour group received a gear tutorial before boarding their boat, and I wished I could have gone with them. Most of the park is water, so snorkeling and boating are the best ways to explore and see what it has to offer. Of course, Loki and Pippin probably wouldn’t appreciate that very much, so we’ll save that for another trip.
We enjoyed a leisurely picnic lunch, took a look at the educational exhibits in the visitors’ center, and saw an art installation about plastic waste in the ocean before heading back on the road.
We were headed to an RV resort on Long Key, which is located at the halfway point on the Overseas Highway (Route 1).
When we crossed off the mainland and onto Key Largo, my first impression was that it wasn’t much different than most other beach communities we’ve driven through on the east coast, except that there were more shops dedicated to diving and snorkeling. The red and white SCUBA flag was displayed flying on many flagpoles.
The communities on each key were all a little different, but one thing was the same: when you looked past the buildings and marinas, there was always a backdrop of beautiful turquoise-blue water. This was especially evident on the keys with preserved land or which were not built up. I recognized mangrove trees (which I had just seen for the first time at Biscayne NP) on many of these islands as well as many sea birds.
When we arrived at the RV resort, we groaned a little, because it was a dense grid of RVs packed in next to each other like sardines, which isn’t the out-in-nature experience we prefer to have. But because our journey has been spontaneous and reliant on factors like weather and our health, we hadn’t made reservations at one of the local state parks months ahead of time, and we had to take what we could get. (Camping options were also more limited than usual due to business and park closures from hurricane damage.)
The first major plus for this resort was that it had a pool. As soon as we parked and hooked up, I put on my swimsuit and headed over for a swim. It’s not every day that you get to go swimming in December. I made friends with some pelicans, the pool had beautiful views, I felt great swimming some laps, and I got to watch a magnificent sunset over the water (all while George made friends with another Surly fat bike enthusiast who was camping near us).
It happened to be New Year’s Eve, and the resort hosted a party in the rec room with a broadcast of the ball dropping in New York, but we chose to skip the festivities and spend some time outside by the ocean. The crescent moon was a beautiful shade of orange, and we stood out on the edge of the campground for about a half hour watching it set over the dark water.
When 2020 dawned the next morning, George took the dogs for a morning walk but came back minutes later and told me that I had to come see something. He kept an air of mystery about what it was until we approached the fish cleaning station by the resort’s marina and I saw it in all of its round, ridiculous cuteness: a manatee!
A couple who had seen the manatee before had turned the hose on at the fish cleaning station and positioned it to spout fresh water down for it to drink. The manatee was far larger than I imagined (maybe 9 or 10 feet long) and was incredibly cute (in a blubbery, whisker-y, barnacle-covered kind of way). Sometimes it stuck its broad snout out of the water to achieve the best angle to drink, and other times it rolled over and let it pour straight into its mouth. I was in love.
George left to continue walking the dogs, and the people who had turned on the hose left, but I stayed for about 15 minutes watching the blissed out sea cow until one of the resort staff members came over and turned off the hose. I expected him to say that it wasteful to let the water run like that, but instead he gave me an irritated look and told me that too much fresh water would make the manatee sick. I immediately felt horrible for sitting there for all of that time allowing the hose to run, and I guiltily slunk off back to the camper.
I wondered just how sick manatees could get from fresh water, so I did some Googling and came up with a different answer than I expected. I couldn’t find anything supporting the claim that fresh water itself is unhealthy for manatees, but feeding them water does habituate them to dangerous places like marinas where they can be injured or killed by boat propellers. I even found a few websites that stated that it is illegal to feed, water, or touch them because of this. I felt so very bad for being part of the problem, as this manatee was clearly habituated to coming to the marina for water, so I ended up mentioning this info to people the next few times I saw the hose on. I tried not to make it sound like an accusation or anything, because I was really just hoping to spread the word and prevent more people from being taught to give the manatee water when it came around.
If you ever get to see a manatee, please don’t feed or water it!
That night on the pre-bed dog walk, we noticed that the manatee was back drinking from the hose. I turned the hose off, and the manatee sunk below the surface and seemed to hang there, drifting away with the current. At least, I thought it was drifting until I realized that it was turning itself around with almost imperceptible movements of its front flippers. Once turned around, it glided languorously down the inlet to the sea with only the tip of its tail moving to propel it forward. I couldn’t believe that something that large could move seemingly without effort and without stirring the water around it. I think that instead of sea cows, from now on I’ll think of them as stealth cows.
After the excitement of meeting a manatee for the first time, we drove the rest of the way down Route 1 to Key West where the highway ended and we were greeted by hens, roosters, and lots of other tourists celebrating the New Year. We were only walking about 3 minutes when I saw the first rooster. And then 3 minutes later we saw another, and then they were everywhere! The chickens are supposedly descendants of domestic chickens and roosters that were set free when cockfighting was outlawed, and boy have they flourished. Key West locals must be must be very laid back to put up with all of the crowing.
Our plan for Key West was to walk around with the dogs and just get a sense of the place. George had recently read a Harry Truman biography, so one of the places we aimed for was Truman’s Little White House.
We also found the Hemingway House, and although George offered to take the dogs so I could go in, the line was out the door and I opted to continue our walking tour.
We had lunch on an outdoor patio, and sometime in between the fish sandwich and the key lime pie, I spotted a chicken crossing the road – in the crosswalk. It may have been a fluke, but I like to imagine that Key West has produced sentient chickens.
We certainly didn’t see everything that Key West had to offer, but it was a fun day trip, and we headed back to the RV resort in the late afternoon/early evening. Maybe next time we’ll time it so that we’re heading west at sunset instead of east, but we were still able to enjoy the gorgeous scenery.
Maybe someday we’ll be back (without dogs in tow) to go snorkeling and visit Bahia Honda State Park or Long Key State Park, but for this trip, we spent one more night at the RV resort (and said goodbye to my manatee friend) before heading back to the mainland.
We came, we saw, and now it was time to head north for the first time yet. We were beginning to miss the mountains. The general plan had always been to drive south and eventually hit the Florida Keys. With that behind us, the next goal would be “out west” (after we traveled the whole length of Florida, that is).
It might go without saying, but swamps aren’t the best place to explore with dogs, and most of southern Florida consists of wetlands as far as the eye can see, so this is going to be a short post.
We had a camping reservation at the Midway Campground in Big Cypress National Preserve, and a stop at the Big Cypress visitors’ center told us that we were only allowed to walk dogs at campgrounds and some dirt roads, so we did very little exploring in the preserve.
The road through Big Cypress cut through a landscape mixed with trees like palm and cypress as well as grassy wetlands that was broken only by small villages of the Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes. From what we could see from the main road, a number of buildings in these villages looked like traditional Seminole chickees (structures made from cypress logs with palmetto thatch roofs).
The campground was a small loop around a pond that was bordered by short trees with air plants in their branches. At least one alligator lived in the pond, so dogs were not allowed on the pond side of the road, and campers were discouraged from leaving dogs outside unattended. This made me nervous for Pippin, and I kept him under close watch and literally on a short leash during our stay.
Mosquitoes hadn’t been bothering us at all during the day, but we quickly learned to get inside the camper at dusk to avoid being eaten alive. (Although sometimes it was worth it to stay out to catch the sunset).
Our pre-bed dog walks are usually a chance to explore, but at this location it was just more loops around the campground – until I looked up. When I did, I saw the most stars I’ve seen in ages. Since Miami is only 50 miles away, we hadn’t expected such a dark night sky, but we were pleasantly surprised, and it was the highlight of this stop.
The next morning was New Year’s Eve, and we packed up and prepared to head to the Florida Keys with a stop at Everglades National Park on the way. As we approached the Everglades visitors’ center, we saw that the parking lot and overflow parking was full, so people were parking on the main road and walking in. If there were that many people there, we figured that we would be better skipping it for the day and trying again on our way back from the Keys.
When we did eventually revisit the Everglades, it was a little anticlimactic. George and I took turns walking the dogs in the parking lot and looking at the exhibits in the visitors’ center. We learned that like Big Cypress, there wasn’t anything we could do with the dogs besides drive down the main park road with them, which the volunteer at the desk described to me as “38 miles of nothing” if we didn’t stop and walk on the trails to specific overlooks or viewing areas. So we learned about the Everglades from the exhibits but didn’t get to explore.
Luckily, our time at the Florida Keys was full of scenery and new experiences, but I’ll save that for a post of its own.
Of all of the things I expected to see in Florida, cow country wasn’t one of them. But after we left Highlands Hammock State Park and passed by miles and miles of citrus groves, we were greeted by a landscape of flat grassy fields accented with trees and grazed by cows (each accompanied by its own cattle egret, it seemed). That is, until we passed the property line of Myakka River State Park. On one side of the park boundary was bare, almost empty land, and on the other was lush palm and oak forests like those that I fell in love with at Highlands Hammock State Park.
Myakka River State Park isn’t all lush forest – it’s a massive park that encompasses everything from forests to wetlands and prairie ecosystems, and our visit would feature a treetop walk, a boat tour, and even some amateur birding.
After we arrived in the campground and took a look at our site, we drove down the park road to check out the locations of the canopy walk, trailheads, cafe/tours/picnic area, and the birding boardwalk.
There was enough time before sunset to walk to the canopy walk, so we checked it out. The canopy walk is a suspension bridge 25 feet in the air that places you at a level where you can see into the branches of the trees around you. I was delighted that the trees I was seeing were oak trees, whose plant-covered trunks and branches I had found so amazing at Highlands Hammock SP. Here I saw the ferns and air plants up close.
At the end of the bridge was a tower that rose a total of 74 feet above the ground. While George hung out below with the dogs, I climbed the tower to discover that the timing was (accidentally) perfect – the sun was setting over an ocean of palm fronds, and I had a front row seat.
Watching the sunset from the tower reminded me of watching sunsets from the Catfish Fire Tower on the Appalachian Trail back home.
The next day we signed up for an afternoon boat tour on the lake. We figured that it would focus on some element of the park’s ecology, and it wasn’t long before the captain/tour guide made it clear that it was all about alligators. We motored along to the side of the lake where the gator viewing would be best and were entertained (?) by the interesting commentary. (Maybe it wasn’t in good taste to tell the story about a child getting attacked by a gator at Disney…) But it was a nice day, and the sunlight sparkled on the water as we spotted lots of alligators along the shore.
I was surprised to see that birds weren’t afraid to approach the gators and that the alligators themselves didn’t seem interested in herons or spoonbills for lunch. Our guide explained that birds aren’t worth the effort for the gators, so the gators don’t try to eat them. The park actually is a popular place for migrating birds and has a viewing boardwalk for bird observation.
The lake was shallow, and the boat used water jets instead of propellers in order to protect any manatees that might be in the water. That got me hoping that we’d see a manatee, but we weren’t lucky enough on the boat tour. We took a day trip to Oscar Sherer State Park the next day and found out that manatees are often seen in the creek there, so I spent a good deal of time peering into the creek waters at every opportunity in what came to be known as “Manatee Watch 2019.”
Manatee Watch was unsuccessful though, and we returned to Myakka River State Park, where we were camping for a few days. We revisited the canopy walk and did some hiking on the trails and saw lots of wildlife just from the main park road, including birds, alligators, deer, and even wild hogs. Unfortunately, the hogs root around in the dirt and destroy vegetation, and we saw their negative effects in every part of the park. I’d be amazed if any new trees or plants can grow. There were numerous cages set up to capture them, but the guide on the boat tour said that through trapping, the park can only manage to maintain the numbers rather than deplete them.
On our last day at Myakka River, I visited the birding observation spot while a volunteer bird expert was there to answer questions and offer tips on birding. He was set up with a large scope focused on some white pelicans across the water that were wintering in the park, so I trained my binoculars in that direction. I’ve always loved how awkward and prehistoric pelicans can look when sitting or walking while also looking unbelievably graceful when flying. These pelicans were bright white with black-tipped wings and were floating in a large group together.
Then the unexpected happened, when the bird expert walked over to offer me some advice. He asked if he could see my binoculars and then tried to readjust them. I was speechless for a moment as he pulled the barrels apart so that they would be too wide for my eyes, but I caught him just before he spun the diopter (the dial on the right eyepiece that lets you adjust for the vision differences between both eyes) that had been tuned to my eyeglass prescription. He assumed that I didn’t know how to use binoculars. Dear reader, mansplaining is real.
When I had my fill of pelicans and all of the other birds that I could see perfectly through my binoculars, I met George and the dogs in the parking lot to continue on to the next destination of our trip. We had enjoyed Mayakka River SP’s very nice campground facilities and were beginning to see that all of the Florida state parks had great facilities with nice shower houses and laundry machines, but we finally decided to make our way to the Florida Keys. Until this time, we had been unsure about our itinerary, since I was hoping to meet up with friends in late January or early February to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. Trying to work that into this trip just didn’t seem feasible though, so I decided to save that for a trip of its own.
So we left Myakka River State Park and headed south, as always, toward the next adventure.
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.