Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Camping In The Ocala National Forest

In the mid-2000's I camped in the Ocala National Forest a few times. I had not camped for years, not since Illinois and my trips down to the Shawnee. One of my younger daughter's friends had moved to the Melbourne area of Florida from Ft. Lauderdale and when she went to visit--about three years in a row, it seems during the 2000's--I'd drive her up there and continue on by myself and go camping.

The place I liked to camp the most was Hopkins Prairie. Oh, there are springs and more interesting areas in the forest, but Hopkins Prairie was a good fit for me--it was off a dirt road, not many people went there, it was semi-primative. It consisted of flat land with a scattering of pines and shallow lakes and lowlands that flooded part of the year. A lot of scrub and palmetto and big flat skies. I had a good time there.

What I liked best was, after living in the concrete and controlled nature of South Florida for so long, it was nice to be out in the woods. To be away from a population center. That alone made me happy. Another factor was that I was all by myself. No wife, kids, neighbors, pets, students, South Florida drivers, tourists and so on. Just me, my tent, my car, my bologna and mustard sandwiches, sardines and crackers, beer, sodas, waters, my camp fire and my whiskey. Alone in the woods, day and night.

One of the times I went, Hopkins Prairie was closed due to flooding and I had to find a new place.

I looked on the map and drove around--again, avoiding the popular places, the springs and creeks that held only developed campgrounds with flushing toilets and showers and running water and trailers and motor homes and families--until I cam across Farles Lake. Farles was a lot like Hopkins, only a little dustier and--to me--not as nice.

Alone, I would hike and search for firewood. I'd write in my journal and think and listen to the wind in the trees. Tend my fire. Walk in circles. Not say a word for the whole day or even more. Fight the ticks and flies and other bugs. Look for wildlife. Roam the woods and my mind. I'd stay up late, get up early.

I did meet some other people.

I wasn't totally alone, as there were always other semi-primative campers or even hikers who came through the woods, or locals just wandering around the area for a short visit.

I met a guy who said he was hiking the Florida Trail. He'd hiked the Appalachian Trail and was camping out in the woods for free. I saw him a few times and offered him some bananas, apples, a half jug of water. Maybe I've written about him before, but I half envied him, living day-to-day with only the concerns of the most basics of life: food, shelter, the trail and weather. But, really, what did I know of his situation.

I met a couple from Canada who were the campground hosts. Met a family down from Maryland--though the guy was Dutch or something--who had a hound dog with them, the dog getting loose and lost and howling in the woods most of the night. I had people walk right into my campsite--a drunk man and his girlfriend who kept going on about the Rainbow Gathering and hippies and such. A guy who sat at my table and discussed car parts and what they cost. Stuff like that.

I was there--the last time I was there--just before a big cold front came down. It was hot when I went to bed and the next morning it was clear, crispy-cold, wind blowing and getting colder. Nice. But a freeze coming . . . I struck camp and drove to the coast and stayed at the Whale Watch Motel in Flaglar.

My tent was leaky and one trip I got no sleep. Well, I slept some. The first night it rained and my tent leaked enough that I went to my car to try and sleep and got very little. The next night I stayed up and drank too much whiskey. Finally I fell asleep in my tent. I slept so deep that I dreamt/thought I was back in my bedroom in Fort Lauderdale and when I woke suddenly in the middle of the night--in my tent, in total blackness, drunk and dead-tired--I had no idea where I was or why and it scared the crap out of me. It took minutes for me to place myself and piece together what I was doing and where and why and it was disturbing enough to me that I could not get back to sleep. I think that was at Farles . . . Ah. But overall, Hopkins Prairie was good to me. Ocala National Forest was good.

And then I went no more. The forest was far enough away--north of Orlando--that making the trip was bothersome if I had no excuse. So, I quit going.

And, really, I haven't been camping since.

I need to go.

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