Thursday, December 24, 2020

North Florida Winter

Twenty three years ago my wife and I were preparing ourselves, our two large dogs and our Gemini catamaran to take off from San Francisco Bay, our sailing base, and go south to the winter heat of Southern Mexico. It was a weekend much like another, whittling down lists, staring down shrinking storage spaces and struggling to figure out what we might need in an improbable new life in an unlikely new place. All while the Labrador and the Husky sunbathed, oblivious, in the weak California sun. A boat drew in to the slip next door, a small crowd gathered with much cheering. We stood there like the wedding guests with the albatross around our necks peering at the unremarkable boat now next door. One of the invitees took pity on our puzzlement and explained the boat had left a few years ago on a tour of the Pacific and had just returned and had got their exact same old slip back! Lucky them was the sentiment. We bent back to our labors pondering the value of being back where you started after such a journey.
Our odyssey ended up in Key West whence we never left, we sold our Santa Cruz home and settled down boat-free to our new life of earning pensions and all the rest of the daily catastrophe of life. That lesson about ending up where you start has never left us and now we plan a road trip we convince ourselves  will be open ended, we will adapt and remain flexible and use our home's wheels to alter our circumstances as needed. All this by way of explanation to justify our arrival in a place we had never previously heard of...the Aucilla River. I have previously traveled Highway 98 across the Big Bend of Florida but I had never explored any of the estuaries and now that we have made a start on that I want more!
This is depressed Florida, not at all similar to the tropical vibrant south, much more similar to the struggling small towns of nearby Alabama, a land of empty store fronts and highly charged political hopes dashed it seems by every party in Washington. I'm not a Trump supporter but I can see why these people are as they haven't got much help from anybody over the decades and even though he failed to follow through on his promise to bring jobs back to this country hope obviously springs eternal. The next President is going to have to respond to this plea or the switch back will be pretty swift I reckon. We have all had enough of bullshit one way or another.
In the absence of dispersed camping in the national Forest my wife said let's go to Apalachicola and in looking for a place to spend at least a couple of nights I searched my iOverlander app, an excellent tool for the armchair traveler incidentally, and the reviews were in on a wild camping spot or two in the Big Bend area. I picked one spot at random and the photos confirmed it could be what we were looking for, a place to stay for a couple of nights without moving. A boat ramp no less.
Parking is free but the ramp is five bucks for a single boat launch so we trundled  down the packed gravel road and found our free spot in the sun. We chose a corner away from the ramp itself close to the water's edge and as it turned out that was the right choice as the trucks and trailers that poured in during the day radiated from the ramp, lined up like they were at the start of a Le Mans style race. They sure drove the approach road like the fish were going to get away...Rusty and I had to step to the side in a hurry as they rattled their trailers down the hard packed gravel road
I think the Ford dealer in Perry must make a killing as almost every one of the trucks was built Ford tough and by our third day we must have seen fifty or sixty trucks and trailers come in around seven in the morning with the last one leaving by dusk when temperatures dropped and I could see my breath in a huge plume of white smoke that swirled around my head and actually obscured my view in the still night air. You'd think the place would have been chaotic but it wasn't at all. I got up before dawn and patrolled the lot with Rusty all by ourselves. The trucks arrived at first light, launched and were left as silent sentinels neatly lined up across the field. The occupants were almost without exception middle aged white men, no families, no picnics as there were no facilities, no noise, no nothing. It was rather unusual but it worked perfectly for us. Arrive, launch, park, disappear. Over and over again with the reverse procedure in the evening and the rest of the time we were alone.
The spot itself was quite lovely and for me totally different from what I am used to...Spanish moss hung everywhere, trees were changing color, the grasses were thick and wet with dew.  Rusty spent his days between walks into the mysterious woods, laying in the sun alongside the van watching the trucks come and go, sleeping, rolling over and shifting into the shade when needed. Internet access was feeble but our booster gave us occasional access if we sat inside the van and were patient. It was a remote and lovely place where we spoke to no one aside from exchanging cheerful waves from some passersby and with one woman a few words as she showed up at the pier fishing with her family and made friends with Rusty patrolling on his long leash. Masks in west Florida are symbols of slavery apparently and social distancing is part of the plot but after nine months of isolation we gave up none of our cautious approach to coronavirus avoidance. No one gave us a hard time over our  Covid eccentricity.
It was a time to slow down and do not very much. My wife did her water colors, I wandered with the camera behind Rusty who found the trails in the forest fascinating and a little overwhelming. The Aucilla Boat Ramp in the St. Marks Wildlife Nature Reserve we rated a find worth revisiting. I'd like to come back and not stand out by virtue of a mask, or to travel unable to sit down in a diner and shoot the breeze with the waitress in the way one did when traveling before the pandemic.
I don't suppose we will be back here. Let's face it there are a ton more such spots along Florida's remotest coastline and I don't want to be like the guy coming back to his boat slip after years away rejoicing in being back where he started. If we are to explore we have to explore and stay one step ahead of the comfort zone. For that I am grateful to the general Gun Season in the National Forest for pushing us forward and discovering new places to enjoy.