Palmetto Paradise

We took big and little highways on the drive from Natchez to Palmetto Island State Park in Abbeville, LA. The country through Mississippi was green and beautiful. In fact each day the grass glowed a brighter and brighter green and the azalea blooms were popping out. Spring was coming to Mississippi.

330px-Audubon_BridgeWe crossed that mighty river into Louisiana at the Audubon Bridge.  This is a beautiful and quite new bridge. It is the only crossing point on the Mississippi between Natchez to the north and Baton Rouge to the south. Our intent was to get around a traffic issue in Baton Rouge. The outcome was the experience crossing the second largest cable stayed span in the Western Hemisphere and travel through a very rural part of Louisiana. Once over the bridge, we followed rural highways which twisted and turned through small towns and along small rivers.

IMG_1810It was almost five o’clock when we arrived at Palmetto Island State Park. The park was pretty and we were happy to see copious stands of saw palmetto for which, I expect, the park was named.

When we got to our site, there was a red truck parked in it. The site next to ours was packed with pick up trucks and a big guy came walking over to us. When I say a big guy I mean big. Very Big. This guy knew his way around jambalaya, pork rinds and beer. He made Larry the Cable Guy look svelte. VBG said they would be moving the truck and immediately began dispensing guidance to Jim about how best to park. Jim told him thanks for the advice but he didn’t need it as his wife was Boss and Chief Parking Officer. (Jim will say anything to get a “helpful” adviser off his back). As we inspected our site, loud music, loud voices and the overpowering smell of something cooking drifted over to us. VBG’s wife appeared, cigarette in hand, along two hyper-yippy kind of nasty looking dogs. Did I mention the two sites were really close together with little vegetation in between? This was not an auspicious arrival.

By now Jim was looking a bit volcanic and muttering darkly. He climbed into the truck to maneuver into our site and VBG, uncomprehending and undeterred, proceeded to direct Jim’s every move with hand signals and shouts. This was not going well.

Suddenly, Jim gunned the motor and, if it is possible to do so with 48 feet of truck and trailer, patched out of the site with gravel spraying and flew off down the road. Standing next to VBG after this abrupt departure, I smiled. VBG said, “Guess he got pissed.” I agreed it seemed like that might indeed be the case. Feeling a bit exposed and with nothing else to do, I started walking. I figured if I headed to the ranger station, I would find my spouse, truck, trailer and dog eventually.

I was all the way back to the main road when the distinctive sound of a Cummins diesel engine roared up behind me. A definitely chagrined and sheepish Jim asked how furious, outraged, indignant or mad I was. Mad? I wasn’t mad. Indignant? I thought it was kind of funny.

We headed back to the ranger station to see if there was another site we could have. The station was closed but tacked to the door was a list of empty sites. We chose a site as far from our first site as possible. In a few brief moments we were unhitched. It was a lovely evening and we sat sipping a beer as the sun set. There was no sound of a radio. No yipping dogs. No loud voices. The breeze rustled through the trees and palmetto. Jim turned to me and said, “I guess I’ll be reading about this in the blog…no more than I deserve.”

When Jim had booked this park, he was told he could only book for two days because they were going to be working on the water system. There were three days blocked off on the online reservation system so no one could book sites. When we arrived on Sunday the park was pretty full, but soon it began to empty as people headed to their next destination and, since no one new could book, there were no new arrivals.

We really loved this park. It was extremely pretty. The campground was u-shaped with 96 sites strung like beads on a broken necklace. The sites were nicely distanced and well demarcated with lush vegetation. This effect was amplified greatly as the park emptied out. The comfort station was very clean and nicely appointed. There was ample hot water and you can’t overstate how important that is. I’ll go almost anywhere and do almost anything if I can have a long, hot shower. There was a laundry at the comfort station with the best lending library for books and  dvd’s we had ever seen.

The weather turned pretty hot and steamy on our third day. The Vermilion River runs through the park and canoes were available for rent. We took a paddle up the river.

The scenery was lush and teeming with all kinds of life. Spanish moss hung from the limbs of live oak and festooned the river. Moss climbed the banks of the river and the trunks of the trees. Fish jumped in the river and I had my eye out for gators. We did actually have a baby gator swim right in front of our bow. It was very atmospheric. It was also somewhat perilous. It had been decades since I was in a canoe. I’m more of a kayak person really. The canoe felt so tippy and Jim and I were not exactly synchronized in our paddling. We hit the bank periodically (snakes!) and spun in circles (gators!). I was greatly relieved when we returned to our putting in place dry and unscathed. I think Dakota prefers kayaks, too. He can see out better. Dakota reaches a zen state in a kayak sitting with his eyes closed in the sun, listening to the water.

We learned Mardi Gras had been thoroughly celebrated at the park the weekend before we arrived. Apparently, Palmetto has a bit of a reputation as a party park. Vestiges of the celebration remained. We gathered abandoned bling from vacated sites and decorated for our own Mardi Gras.

Palmetto Island is just outside the town of  Abbeville. The drive to town took about twenty minutes. It was a fascinating drive with much to see. On the way to town we passed large fields of standing water with what looked like lobster traps poking up out of the water. This gave us much to speculate about. Were those rice fields? What were the little orange traps? Well, those were indeed rice fields. The twist to this story is that the farmer wasn’t raising rice as a crop, he was raising the rice to feed his real crop—the much beloved crawfish. Crawfish actually can make a farmer some money and rice can’t. Louisiana raises 90% of all crawfish in the country and I bet they eat at least 90% of their crop themselves.   They surely do love crawfish boil.

Another puzzler on our way to and from town we a airfield with a fleet of helicopters standing at attention in a row. Next to the airfield was a parking lot jammed with every color and variety of pickup truck imaginable. After some investigation, it turned out that among the charter businesses operating out of the airport were several servicing the oilfields. We postulated that the many trucks belonged to the workers pulling their shifts out on the rigs.

Abbeville was a more prosperous town than many. Our guess is this was partly due to the presence of oil field workers in the town. It would make sense they would live near transportation to the fields. In town there were some historic old buildings, what appeared to be two local theater groups. Local businesses, lawyers and health services rounded out what was on offer to local inhabitants. There were also a good handful of restaurants.

The plan was to have a big night out in Abbeville. We had eaten out only a handful of times during our entire trip and never for dinner so this was pretty heady stuff. The ranger at Palmetto had a hand out of restaurants and we checked them out. The winner was Shucks. It billed itself as having the best oysters and seafood and looked like a hopping establishment.  It may have been the day after Mardi Gras, but the place was packed. We had delicious oysters and seafood gumbo. It was great fun rubbing elbows with the locals and seeing a bit of Abbeville at night. We drove home through the lush night air and enjoyed one last night at Palmetto Island.

Natchez: It’s Not Just for Nabobs

We headed west across Mississippi to Natchez next. We traveled Route 98 for most of the trip and rolled through softly rolling landscape which was just at the beginning stages of greening up for spring. There weren’t many towns. This was very sparsely settled country. Homes dotted the roadside and, of course, small churches.

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Leaving the highway, we took the State Park Road for about six miles to get back in the woods to the Natchez State Park. This was a smaller park and mostly dedicated to fishing. It had a very nice, large fishing lake. There were two campground loops, but one of them was out of commission because there was a problem with the water system. This was typical of this park. While it was an attractive park, it was not as well maintained as many parks we were used to.

As usual, our first day was dedicated to getting a feel for the park. We explored all over.

On the way to the park office, we came across an impressively large and thankfully dead rattlesnake stretched across the road. A cogent reminder that this country was full of life and sometimes danger. We stopped in at the ranger station to have a chat. There were nice picnic pavilions next to the lake and at the far end of the park were cabins. The remaining campground numbered 22 sites and was quite nice. Our site sat up on a hill overlooking the lake.

This country is so lush and teeming with life. Life and renewal are balanced with death and decay. Just take our rattlesnake. He was stretched out dead across the road and carrion birds were feasting on his flesh. He had lived, killed and feasted and was now food for another creature. In the humid warm air the cycle of life seemed to have sped up. Life burst forth, flourished and when quickly spent, made way for more life.  Even though it was clearly winter, we could almost see the buds beginning to leaf before our eyes. Each day the grass became greener and the azaleas were bursting into bloom.

There weren’t a lot of hiking trails at this park. We did attempt the nature trail on our second day. The trail began right at the campground but just a hundred feet into the woods, it crossed a deeply ravined creek and the bridge was down and impassable. We decided to attempt the trail from the other end and hiked along the park road to where we had seen another sign for a trail. The woods were quite thick with trees and underbrush. The trail wound through the trees and popped out for views of the lake. We got almost all the way back to the campground when we ran into the same creek and ravine. Again, the way over was no longer negotiable. We retraced our steps looking for another trail and ran into the same problem. Finally, we gave up and left the trail. We wound our way through the brush carefully remembering that impressive rattlesnake. Poor Dakota had lots of logs to jump and brush right at eye level. We finally made our way through the woods back to the park road.tick

On our way back to our site, we chatted with a woman at another site who warned us to check carefully for ticks. Bingo. We embarked on beauty parlor and I found one on Dakota. You can’t kill these things easily. I incinerated it with our flamestick. “Die you nasty little creature!” I found another one on the dinette where Jim had been sitting. He was also quickly incinerated–the tick not Jim. After lunch I headed to the showers. Much to my dismay and disgust, I found my own tick and mine was affixed. Yuck. I finished my shower and sped back to Jim for surgical removal. This third tick was promptly incinerated. These woods are alive with ticks in the summer, but going off trail allowed us to find those winter-hearty souls. I really, really hate ticks.

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Following Tick Day, we decided it was time for some civilization and tourism. Natchez has a really together tourism operation. They have a gorgeously produced 50+ page guide to the city with touring info, restaurant listings and lots of glossy photos. It is available for download and in print at their attractive and informative Visitors Center. We headed into Natchez and parked at the Visitor Center. A very friendly and helpful lady greeted us and gave us our printed edition. We stayed to watch the nicely produced 20 minute film about Natchez’ history.

Armed with a map, we gathered Dakota from the truck and walked up the road to the center of town. It was a sunny and cool day just perfect to be out and about, but Natchez was oddly deserted. It was almost noon on a Saturday, but the streets were empty. The roads were devoid of traffic. Natchez was a ghost town. Where was everyone?

As we walked, we noticed broken strings of colorful beads strewn across the sidewalks and scattered in the streets. An alarming number of Solo cups and beer bottles lay about in drunken profusion. Finally we chanced upon a sign in a shop window advertising the Mardi Gras parade and celebration. It had taken place the night before. Realization dawned, Natchez was sleeping off its Mardi Gras.

People down in these parts take this whole Mardi Gras thing very seriously. Mardi Gras is not some distant bacchanal taking place in New Orleans, it is a multi-week regional build up to days of revelry. We had noticed this preoccupation for quite some time. Local news broadcasts featured special Mardi Gras graphics. Television ads offered Mardi Gras special deals. Every town had at least one parade scheduled and gaudy parade floats sprouted in parking in lots and passed us on the roads as they were hauled into position. The local radio station even had beauty tips for celebrants to help them look their best after days of festivities: stay hydrated with water, always use sun block, be sure to remove eye make-up each night, always moisturize and sooth under eye bags with cool cloths. This Mardi Gras lifestyle is serious business—a girl needs to stay looking her best.

Natchez was picturesque and we strolled the streets taking in the historic buildings. Despite the focus on tourism, Natchez was not “touristy.” These people lived in their history and it was there for tourists, but uncorrupted by tourism. Natchez lies at the banks of the Mighty Mississippi. Natchez proper sits up on the Bluff overlooking the river. Here lived the “Nabobs of Natchez,” the wealthy plantation owners who preferred life in the city to the more remote life on their plantations.

And then there was Natchez-Under-the-Hill. Quite literally down under the bluff, life here was rough and rowdy with saloons, gamblers, longshoremen and women of ill repute.

We fetched the truck, stowed Dakota and parked it next to a barbeque spot, Pig Out Inn, “swine dining at its finest.” This was seriously good barbeque and a perfect coda to our tour of Natchez.

Just before leaving Natchez, we crossed the Mississippi over the bridge into Vidalia, Louisiana. Vidalia did not have much to recommend it. Once across the river, we turned around and, with full bellies, we headed back to our trailer and home.

The next morning we were all hitched and ready to go when the ranger stopped by on his rounds. He seemed surprised we were leaving and it turned out we actually had another day reserved. But, despite what had been a very nice stay (except for the ticks), sometimes a nomad just knows when to go. It was time to move on.

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Media notes: At the Natchez Visitor Center I picked up a book by Nevada Barr titled Deep South. Although the book is fiction, it gives a tremendous sense of the country and given that the author was actually a park ranger on the Natchez Trace, almost counts as nonfiction.

60 Minutes just broadcast a story, on chess,  Chess Instills New Dreams In Kids From Rural Mississippi County, in Franklin County which is the county next to Natchez. This story, too, gave a good sense of the rural nature of this country. It was a heartwarming story well worth watching.

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Highway 98 led us north and west through Mississippi. It was a wide four lane highway with the two sets of lanes separated by a wide median. The road ran up and down gently rolling hills. Dark green pine forests lined the road kept at a respectful distance by broad strips of grass. This is very pretty country. It felt both exciting and exotic to be driving through the Mississippi countryside. We’re in Mississippi!

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Jim had booked us into the Paul B. Johnson State Park in Hattiesburg. Paul B. Johnson (in case data=RfCSdfNZ0LFPrHSm0ublXdzhdrDFhtmHhN1u-gM,5H1Ys5oq8F90gr4ajL2kUkTuUsRpWJFNBs06CPgAC7fqcHZ7BZRUk04BFODScWdn1Ot-H8GNmsraaQxEcCUhF2B3TLtTtpEhXIjzA2IwL_qNQH393jegdb1uRSaqUsEVymVmEkmGoeHpByou are wondering) was the 46th Governor of the state. Our first glimpse of this park left us a bit dismayed. It looked like a moonscape wasteland of mud and tree stumps. We found out later that they draw down Geiger Lake in the wintertime to kill vegetation, but we learned that later.

It may not have been love at first sight, but we fell in love with this park and especially our campsite. We were perched at the edge of the lake and the view from our lounge area was all lake and trees, sky and clouds.

This park was originally created during World War II for the nearby soldiers at Camp Shelby. Originally Geiger Lake was Shelby Lake. During the war, this park provided recreation and relief for soldiers and their families. Camp Shelby is still active and this was another location where at night we could hear the sounds of ordinance used for training. We were told that in the summer this park explodes with activity.

We stayed five nights at Paul B. Johnson. For two northerners, it seemed funny to think of 70 degree temperatures as wintry, but it was winter and the park was pretty quiet.

In the mornings dense fog hung over the lake and we had no visibility out our lounge window. The fog would clear about ten once the sun had a chance to burn it off.  About two days into our stay a big storm was forecast and the park emptied out. We battened down the hatches and were snug in our tin can. For the rest of our stay, the park was a ghost town and we enjoyed wandering around with the park to ourselves.

The people at the park were friendly and when we walked around, we had lots of camp conversations with our neighbors from all over. There was a concentration of people from Illinois, a few from Canada, Louisiana and, of course, Mississippi. For part of our stay, our next door neighbor was a loquacious fellow from just up the road. He and his family came to stay at the park quite often. They had their favorite site. The park was their second home. He wandered over one afternoon and we had a long talk. John was from northern Mississippi originally and managed the parts department at the John Deere dealership in Hattiesburg. He told us a lot about himself. He lived in a double wide until his grandmother died and left him her home. He drove trucks for a time, but didn’t like the life. He asked about us and where we were from and it was clear he had never been up north and had no need to go. He didn’t dislike it, it just wasn’t part of his world. When Jim told him he had taught 8th grade ELA in the South Bronx, his eyebrows arched in surprise and then he exclaimed, “why, you could be my teacher!” Periodically, he would say he should go and leave us in peace and then he would settle in for another round of talk. His son, Walt, was with him. Walt didn’t say much. He would be graduating high school this year and had an opportunity to work at the dealership with his dad in the parts department. It sounded like that was the path he would take. We were sorry when they packed up to return home. They were good people and for a time our worlds intersected.

We did make an expedition to Hattiesburg. I googled the top ten things to see and do in Hattiesburg and the list ran out at about five. There is the University of Southern Mississippi and an historic district and a bunch of big box retailers. That kind of sums it up.

Our experience at this park was the first time we felt like we were having one of those picture perfect Airstream experiences. Our silver bullet gleamed in the sunlight perched at the edge of this beautiful lake and we were part of the scene. We loved walking out and looking back at the setting. A flock of ducks swam and waddled around our trailer and crows flew overhead. They kept us company and provided a soundtrack to our days. We could see and hear fish jump in the lake. At night we watched the sun disappear behind the trees and the sky filled with stars.

 

 

Our Airstream Angel

After five weeks of travel, it was time to leave Florida. Our next stop was in Mississippi and our drive would take us west through Mobile and a corner of Alabama and north through eastern Mississippi to Hattiesburg. If Florida is a state unto itself, we would now truly be in the Deep South.

It is pretty much impossible to drive through Florida and any of these southern states and not think about religion. Churches seem to outnumber other buildings and maybe even people in many places. Every road side in town and in rural areas is dotted with small buildings offering many varieties of faith: Baptist, Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Methodist and churches with colorful names and no apparent affiliation other than the belief in a god, sin and redemption.

Our own religious experience occurred on the outskirts of Mobile. We were back on Interstate 10—the major artery leading westward. Trucks, cars and rv’s streamed westward and eastward in unending lines of transit. As always Fifth Wheels and Class A’s dominated the rv traffic. Every once in a while a Class B or Class C would appear, but they were the minority. Of course, there was almost never another Airstream to be seen. In fact, in our entire trip I think we had only seen fewer than a handful. Once in Florida we passed one going the other way on a two lane highway and we both flashed our lights and waved in happy recognition.

We were motoring along feeling pretty happy and calm. The tall buildings of the city of Mobile were ahead of us. The highway was elevated at this point and we had a grand view. We anticipated the adrenalin surge of urban traffic. Our calm was shattered in an instant with a sign announcing the Bankhead Tunnel and warning any vehicles with hazardous materials to detour immediately. Frost panic ensued. Hazardous materials? That meant us, right? Those two tanks of propane in the prow of our trailer were potential explosive devices. We knew we weren’t supposed to go into the tunnel, but we hadn’t a clue what we should do as an alternative. I grabbed my phone jabbing the Google app in a furious attempt to get some direction.

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Just then our angel appeared. After thousands of miles with barely a sighting of another Airstream, merging upward on the ramp to our right was a glorious silver bullet. Her aluminum shell gleamed in the sunlight. She steamed along and smoothly entered the highway just ahead of us. “Jim, that’s our Airstream Angel and she’s come to lead us around the tunnel!”

 

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We followed our Angel as she took a right onto Route 90 paralleling the Mobile River and then left across the Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge. Mobile sped by to our left and was soon behind us. Just as we finished crossing the bridge, the Angel took a left hand exit and headed north on Route 43. She was gone in an instant, but she had led us to salvation.

 

Navarre and the Emerald Coast

Next up we had three days of civilization planned with a stay at Emerald Beach RV Resort in Navarre, Florida. This section of the Florida Panhandle is called the Emerald CoastEmerald_Coast_Florida. In our westward push, we have traveled from the Nature Coast to the Forgotten Coast and now we have reached the Emerald Coast.

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This was a nifty rv park. The sites were pretty close together, but the people were really friendly and nice. The rv park butted up to the shore of the Gulf and some sites actually had the Gulf at their back door. That would be pretty cool. The dog park also shared some of the beach and we enjoyed watching the sun set over the water and looking across the Gulf to the barrier island.

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Navarre is sort of a bedroom community for Pensacola and the Naval Air Station. In fact the area is packed with military personnel from Eglin Air Force Base, Whiting Field Naval Air Station, Hurlbut Field and the NAS. At night we could hear the report of ordinance going off from training exercises. For the three days we spent in Navarre, our son Alex was constantly in my thoughts. Twice he was stationed at Corey Naval Air Station in Pensacola for training and being so proximate to a place he had lived, kept him front of mind. As we traveled around, I had to wonder if he had been in the same places.

Sometimes Dakota is a very funny traveling companion. Certain things just set him off and Emerald Beach hosted two of them. Next to our trailer was a Fifth Wheel with a statue of an owl out front. Dakota would go crazy when he saw that owl. He actually attacked it one day and was shocked when it turned out to have a bobble head. He was equally upset by a cement statue of a dolphin. Something like that can really tire a guy out.

There weren’t a lot of hiking opportunities in the area, but we did manage to find one the first day. We headed about a half hour north to the Blackwater Heritage State Trail in Milton, FL. This is a 9 mile long rails-to-trails trail which follows the former Florida and Alabama Railroad. The railroad hauled lumber from nearby Bagdad, Fl up to Whirley, AL and later was used to haul airplane fuel to the nearby Whiting Field.

The ranger station for the trail used to be a railroad depot. At first it looked closed and deserted, but Jim peered through the window and the ranger opened the door apologizing that it seemed closed. He was a very friendly fellow and gave us background on the trail and the area. The portion of the trail we walked starts out in Milton and is lined with a few homes and then becomes mostly woods and fields. The day was a little overcast and cool and this made our walk pleasant. The Florida sun is so strong, sometimes a little cloud cover is a relief. We met very few people on the trail.

After our walk, we headed back down Route 87 to Navarre. This highway is lined on both sides with thick pine woods. The highway used to be a two lane road, but is currently under construction to become four lanes. I guess another quiet corner of Florida is about to be subsumed with gas stations and strip malls. There sure are a heck of a lot of gas stations.

We stopped for lunch at a spot we had noticed driving up 87 earlier. Scooters looked like a good local spot boasting fresh seafood. It was a no frills affair. You placed your order as you entered, took a table and they called your number when the order was ready for pickup. It seemed quiet when we entered and ordered, but no sooner had we sat down then a flood of people arrived. The food was outstanding. Jim had a fish sandwich he said was the best he ever had and my fish tacos were delicious. I also tried fried okra for the first time which was pretty tasty as well. Somehow we made our way back there the next day and ate exactly the same thing all over again.

Day two in Navarre was reserved for a little sightseeing. We drove a big loop west through the town of Gulf Breeze which was pretty much an extension of Navarre. Strip malls lined each side of the Highway 98 offering shopping, fast food, more gas stations and an occasional apartment complex. We banked left just before the bridge to Pensacola and drove through Pensacola Beach. What a desecration! This place was so overbuilt and PB-logohideously tacky, it could be hell on earth. The houses were on top of each other and the only thing more unattractive were the monstrous high-rise condos. Garishly-signed bars and plastic-looking restaurants beckoned sunburned tourists to waddle in to over eat and over-imbibe. We had most definitely found the Redneck Riviera!

Two giant towers punctuated the end of this stretch of desolation. The contrast could not have been greater as we entered the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Pristine white sand beaches with small dunes dotted with brush stretched forward as far as the eye could see. We found a dog-friendly beach and wandered out to feel the sand in our toes and watch the waves roll in. The unparalleled beauty and quiet made Pensacola Beach that much more awful by contrast. Someone made a ton of money taking glorious natural beauty and turning it into a human cesspool. The unspoiled beaches were punctuated periodically with small parking lots. Joggers and bikers shared the road with the procession of cars and rvs. We drove for miles through this paradise.  At the far end, the national park ended and human habitation signaled a return to Navarre. The tall buildings we had seen across the gulf from the rv park signaled tomorrow’s equivalent of Pensacola Beach. It is a shame Mammon will lead yet another part of a beautiful state into ruin.

The Highest Waterfall in Florida Wasn’t Really

Falling Waters State Park boasts the highest waterIMG_5173fall in all of Florida. Sign me up! I gotta see this. When we pulled into the park and up to the ranger station at the gate, the ranger on duty surprised us. Rather than the normal enthusiasm most rangers express for their parks, this fellow said, “yep, not much to do here. About a day is all most people can take and then they head out to find something better to do. You might want to check out the town.” Really? This is how you feel about the park you represent? Were you exiled from some plum park assignment elsewhere and now you spread discontent to all your guests? The park web site says, “this park has something for everyone…” The ranger didn’t seem to feel the same way.

Falling Waters is actually one of the highest hills in Florida. Rising 324 feet above sea level, Native Americans inhabited the area until British and Spanish settlers slowly pushed them out. Tall pine forests cover the hillsides augmented by magnolia trees with deep green leaves and dense clumps of saw palmetto and grasses. The area around the eponymous waterfall is punctuated by sink holes nestled in the underbrush and covered with moss. Peering through the foliage which is dense even in winter, it is difficult to see the sink holes clearly and the overall effect is one of decay, danger and mystery. Several streams wind their way through the brush keeping the air moist and humid. It was hard to imagine the earlier settlers making their way through this terrain.

IMG_5169The waterfall is not quite what you might expect. Rather than looking up to view a tall cascade of water, this waterfall is actually underground! The waterfall is formed by a confluence of streams. The water from these streams thunders 100 feet down into one of the sinkholes. To view the waterfall, one stands on a platform and peers through the gloom to watch the roiling water disappear into a deep moss and vine-lined tunnel.

Our camp site at Falling Waters was nestled on a curve of the campground loop. It was a pretty intimate campground with only 24 sites. After so many weeks on the flat Florida terrain, it was a pleasant change of pace to be perched on the top of the hill. There wasn’t a huge amount of space between sites and tall pines circled our trailer. There were only a few hiking trails at the park. Many of them were actually painstakingly built board walks which wound a path between the shaded sink holes. A good portion of the trails had succumbed to the ever encroaching sink holes and were blocked off from passage.

Taking the ranger’s advice, we did check out the local town, Chipley. Chipley made Chiefland look like a metropolis. Chipley did have a historic district. We followed the signs and did see a couple of old houses in fairly good repair, but other than that it was the usual mix of modest houses, some buildings which were downright shacks and the ubiquitous mobile homes. There wasn’t much else to speak of in Chipley. I hate to sound like a northern snob, but I am not sure I could live in a place like this. Of course, a big part of the lifestyle is hunting and fishing, but if you weren’t looking for outdoor recreation, you were looking in the wrong place.

Whether it was the ranger’s initial ambivalence to the park’s attractions or our disappointment at the tallest waterfall in Florida, this was not our favorite park. Some of our estimation might also have been influenced by the tremendous affection we felt for Ochlockonee. But, hey, every park can’t be a home run hit, there have to be some walks to keep the game moving forward.

White Squirrels, Pie Bald Deer and the Forgotten Coast

From Chiefland we headed further up the coast of Florida to our next stop at the Ocklockonee River State Park in Sopchoppy, FL. Despite its frolicsome name, there isn’t a IMG_5079whole lot to the town of Sopchoppy. It sports the requisite number of defunct businesses, an historic and defunct railroad depot, a pizza parlor which looked a little dubious and a supermarket which was, beyond a doubt, odorous and completely dubious.

 

This section of the Florida coast has been dubbed the Forgotten Coast. I don’t think we’ll ever forget it. We really fell in love with Ochlockonee—especially once we figured out how to say it.

The park lies south of Sopchoppy at the intersection of two rivers, the Ochlockonee and the Dead, both brackish rivers flowing out to the Gulf.

The campground at Ochlockonee is not large. There are only 30 sites. They aren’t terribly far apart, but there is quite a bit of vegetation including live oaks festooned with Spanish moss and saw palmetto so it is all very pretty. Our hookups were on the wrong side of the trailer, but this was easily overcome.

Just walking around the park is a delight. The tall, thin pines grow in plentifully rows straight to the sky in the pine flatwoods. There are nice hiking trails both through the forested fields and along the waters. We loved hiking the trails.

The park is home to two exotic inhabitants. White squirrels scamper around the campground and trails. They are not albinos, but a relative of the grey squirrel. Each time we saw one, we shouted with excitement—not a normal occurrence with a squirrel sighting. Much to our disappointment, we never did see the other park exotic. The Pie Bald Deer did not come out to play with us. The ranger at the station said she hadn’t seen one since the previous week so perhaps they were on vacation.

Our campsite next door neighbors were two guys, avid fishermen. We dubbed them affectionately “the hobos.” They eschewed creature comforts, sleeping out in the elements in blankets and sleeping bags. It was pretty chilly at night, but they seemed comfortable enough. One of them had a snore which rattled the aluminum walls of our Airstream. It made me giggle every time he started up. They headed out early each day to fish and were back after dark. On Sunday they retrieved their adolescent daughters. A tent was erected and a higher degree of civility reigned at their camp. The girls were having a super time with their dads. It was really cute.

We took a looping drive around the area just to see what we could see and to find a supermarket with a little less daunting aspect than the  Sopchoppy Grocery. Again, we saw towns where life was tough. Small houses sat next to what could only be termed shacks and abandoned, cratering cabins. Rusted out mobile homes sat derelict in overgrown yards. We did laundry in Crawfordville with some pretty desperate looking folks.

But the natural beauty of the land was spectacular. We fantasized about a small plot of land on the river where the breeze would keep the air fresh and we could hike through the pine flatwoods and maybe even get a dinghy to go fishing. We would have a wide screened in porch encircling the house and spend hours watching the sun rise and fall and the light bounce on the river water.

Our four nights passed quickly. We were really sad when it was time to leave. It is a place I think we would both be happy to go back to.