One upsetting piece of news was that all of the South Florida Wildlife and Fisheries campgrounds, which are free and supposed to be pretty nice, were temporarily closed due to fires. We had to work extra hard to find free places to park.
First, we drove out of the Everglades towards Fort Myers. The beaches have crazy fine white sand on this coast. Considering Fort Myers is a quirky cheesy beach town, the price to park was outrageous. We parked in a shopping plaza parking lot, walked the beach, and enjoyed a beer. Afterwards we rinsed off with the “handheld bidet” (shataf). We slept in a tree-lined Walmart parking lot north of town.
Although most manatees have swum south this time of year, people said a few would still be lingering around Citrus County. So we bypassed some famous beaches to get to Manatee country. I think we stopped near Tampa at the gym for a workout/shower.
For the first time, we paid to park. Cody’s RV Park was kooky but cool. The owner makes sculptures out of fiberglass and places them around the park.
In the morning, I couldn’t sleep so I went for a jog the land behind the park. The guy had painted a man-size cut-out of a gorilla and placed it behind a tree. That made me jump.
We went to the spring-fed Weeki Wachi River. It was $32.00 to rent a kayak but we brought our blowup, so we only payed $11.00 to launch and to get a ride back.
The paddle trip was five miles long through crystal clear water. The unexpected treat was when one SUP boarder pointed out a manatee calf munching on seaweed. Edd jumped in to see him with the snorkel mask and then me! We didn’t want upset him. But we drew attention to him and loads of other people started crowding around. I think he was annoyed and swam away. I felt bad.
But I was more concerned that motorized boats are still allowed in this very shallow river. The propellers are the leading cause of death of the manatees. Federal and state laws limit boat speeds in certain areas. But they should do more. No matter how slowly your engine moves, it can be hard to see the slow-moving, grey mammals, even when they’re right in front of you.
Later we saw three adults swimming by us. Their skins was scarred everywhere. They were beautiful.
We stopped at Gulf Island Beach Park for sunset to eat caldo verde with added beans. I’d prepared it a la thermal cooker that morning. We slept in another Walmart parking lot.
We made it to Apalachicola National Forest in the evening and parked at the Whitehead Lake Campground. We met Henry, an older man with an Eastern European accent who lives out of his van. He was the first full-time forest resident that we met; but he wouldn’t be the last!
We were really impressed with the facilites. Stinkless vault toilets that are maintained regularly, fire pits. Big sites. Where are the people?
The next morning we discovered one reason for their absence: the insects, which apparently appear suddenly after April. The mosquitos bite, the flies bite, and the ticks stick to your socks and refuse to die.
We walked for a while on the National Scenic Trail of Florida which passes through the park. Volunteers have built log bridges to make it more accessible, a very nice touch. But after an hour, the ticks were all over us.
So we turned around and drove off to Edward Ball State Park at Wakulla Springs, the deepest freshwater spring in the world, according to Lonely Planet. The water was cold and refreshing. They even do glass-bottom boat tours because the water is so clear you can see manatees, sunken statues from movie sets, and gators. Because it was late in the day, they let us enter the park for free and we felt clean and cool for hours.
That night we stayed at a different campground in the forest called Wood Lake. The flies were twenty times worse, forming clouds around us. We sprayed loads of Deet on our clean bodies but it was futile. The night gave us some relief.
Two other guys were there; one, alias Bullwinkle, was a full-time unofficial resident. The other, Greg, was a conspiracy theorist but a very nice guy.
An older local guy drove up to our site. It was déjà vu from our days in rural Georgia: man pulls up truck aside unsuspecting campers. Has already had a few beers. Drinks a few more in the truck. Ask campers if they know what a “redneck” is. Tells campers how his wife left him.
When he finally left, we hung out with Greg, who is an avid reader and has a dog, taking many pages out of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie. He even named his truck Rocinante.
The next day we kept moving. We saw another B190 like ours near Mexico Beach! We looked for the owner but no one was around. We did laundry, gymed and showered.
We ended up at Escribano Point Wildlife Management Area and stayed there for two nights. It was a clean, organized and free campground on a bay near Pensacola. We chilled out on the beach, knowing that we probably wouldn’t see another one until California. What a lovely way to finish our time in Florida.