HOLIDAY ROADTRIP: DEC 2018 — HEADING SOUTH


LEG ONE: NEW YORK TO NEW JERSEY


NESCONSET, NY to CARNEY’S POINT, NJ — Thursday, 13 December 2018: Decided to get an early start on my holiday roadtrip journey this year because I have plans to attend a Red Wolf Howling at Alligator River National Wildlife Refugee on Saturday at 4pm, and getting there would require me to drive about eight hours after a nine hour workday on Friday, and I would just be exhausted. So I got everything together a bit ahead of time and set off tonite for a halfway point, taking the New Jersey Turnpike south to the area of the border with Delaware near the Wharton State Forest. I left Nesconset at around 8pm and surprisingly there was little traffic and the route was smooth driving the whole way. I made the journey in roughly four hours and checked into my hotel by midnight (where it was 38 degrees Fahrenheit), quite happy with my progress.


NESCONSET, NY: Ran across the firetrucks all decked out in holiday lights while headed to the grocery store prior to departure. I have not gotten to see them for several years as I am always on the road now for the holiday, but it was kind of fun.…

NESCONSET, NY: An extra thought for the holidays as always to my parents and all of those who are no longer here to celebrate the season with us in person, but will always be with us in spirit.…

NESCONSET, NY: Leaving the weasel and friends to guard the house as I set off for the annual roadtrip.…

ON THE ROAD, NY TO NJ: The threat of rain reveals itself with a drizzle as I cross the Verazzano heading west.…


LEG TWO: NEW JERSEY TO VIRGINIA


CARNEY’S POINT, NJ to EXMORE, VA — Friday, 14 December 2018: There wasn’t much of a sunrise this morning, as cloud cover hung low and I spent the day working in the hotel. I had some discouraging news at breakfast when I saw the weather forecast which described the big storm headed into the whole region. Predictions for up to four inches of rain with area Flash Flooding definitely is going to effect my plans. The first thing I did was call the Ranger Station at Alligator River NWR to find out conditions, and learned the howling event is cancelled due to the storm. The dirt roads to access the area will be impassible even if the rain stops. Unfortunately there will not be another opportunity to see or hear the wolves until April because he explained they will be “denning” for winter. That was a major disappointment, but in the end it was just a waypoint stop on the journey. More frustratingly, I am locked into the hotel there with a non-refundable pre-paid reservation, so will still need to get to the Outer Banks in the storm tomorrow. Meanwhile, for tonite the rain has just begun as a slow drizzle, and I decided to stop for dinner just across the bridge in Delaware (I had no “lunch break” during work today, and was quite hungry, and besides, the dining opportunities seemed better here given the timing of my drive southward). I went to Jessop’s Tavern in New Castle, Delaware for an “adult beverage” and a solid meal. The town itself looked quite beautiful even in the dark as I made my way through the historic center and looked for parking. I ended up on the edge of the water, near what looked like it would be a pretty park in daylight. The drizzle continued as I walked a few blocks to the tavern which is a historic building from 1674. The restaurant was pretty packed but I found a place to sit and eat at the bar, which was also crowded. Most of the customers were regulars, which was a good sign, and folks were pretty friendly. I had an excellent meal and tasted a craft beer at the suggestion of one of the locals. A comfortable place and a great meal and I was ready for whatever the road would throw at me. The drive down turned out to be okay, considering the rain. There was not any flooding and it was never too heavy or with sharp shearing winds that could make the drive dangerous. And I was fortunate that the temperatures were warming. I made it from New Jersey south through Delaware, Maryland and into Virginia in roughly four hours — a bit longer than estimated, but as expected due to the weather conditions. Settled into my hotel by midnight again, and glad with my progress, though a little unsure of what tomorrow holds. …


NEW CASTLE, DE: It was raining as I hit the road in New Castle, Delaware …

NEW CASTLE, DE: There was a cool looking park along the waterfront but it was too dark and wet to go out exploring. I thought it might be interesting to come back here during the day at some point …

NEW CASTLE, DE: Along the main street of town …

NEW CASTLE, DE: The historical tavern where I had dinner …


LEG THREE: VIRGINA TO NORTH CAROLINA


EXMORE, VA to THE OUTER BANKS – MANTEO, NC — Saturday, 15 December 2018: It was raining pretty hard overnight as I could hear it coming down in my sleep, and I woke to solid grey skies and the sound of pelting rain outside. I hope the Jeep will be relatively dry (it has had a mysterious leak when it rains heavily with wind, and it is parked outside).I will find out when I venture out after breakfast, meanwhile I need to figure out an alternate plan for a day that was supposed to be spent doing outdoor activities. I decided to make a slow leisurely drive and maybe visit some local museums dedicated to the region — the first one was the Barrier Islands Museum not far from my starting point. There was a light rain coming down as I pulled in to the grounds, and wondered if anyone was there as there was only one vehicle in the parking lot. I walked up to the door tentatively and saw that it was open. There were two nice ladies working there who welcomed me and really took the time to tell the history of the property as well as a bit about the history of the barrier islands, and then we just spent some time chatting about the wilderness areas and opportunities for outdoor activities in the general area — though the rain continued outside. I left with some new knowledge and a few trail maps and decided to try to follow one of them to a location the women had suggested for a short hike with a break in the rain. I followed the map and the GPS but never found the “parking lot,” instead I encountered someone’s private property (it looked like a farm) where the GPS said the refuge should be, and the two “roads” on either side of it led to more private property signs. After a little bit of exploration that did take me into a beautiful woodland area, I decided to leave this for some other day when I could take time out to actually look for and locate the coordinates. I had a long drive still ahead, and so I picked up my route towards the Chesapeake Bridge Tunnel as the rain and fog seemed to come down and envelope the whole landscape. I stopped at the “start” of the Bridge Tunnel and tried to take a photo but the fog layer was so heavy I could barely see the shoreline a few feet in front of me. That scenario would end up repeating all day.

It was the same story when I crossed the bridge out onto the barrier islands near Kitty Hawk, NC. There was zero visibility for the whole drive down the shore, which was frustrating because I could just get little glimpses of details that made me sure I was missing a beautiful and interesting drive, but I was also playing against the clock, because the rain had eased up and I thought I would try to get to the Alligator River NWR in time for the Wolf Howl, just in case they decided to hold it. I did stop eventually at a spot on some causeway where it looked like the distant buildings were coming out of the clouds. Overall it was an interesting effect in that I could imagine what it must have been like for people on a ship coming through the fog and then seeing an tiny strip of land that seemed to be floating on the clouds. Of course I couldn’t capture any of this photographically. In any case, I made it to the refuge in time for the start of the Wolf Howl, which didn’t happen. Instead I took a short walk down one of the interpretive trails through a part of the refugee that was somewhat swamp like and made a few photos with the haunting ambiance of the grey dark skies. Rain and mosquitos combined to make it a short walk and I waited a little longer in case someone showed up for the howl, but no one did and so I went to my hotel for the night. The hotel was the Elizabethan Inn, which was a bit rundown, but fine for the night. The hotel manager recommended a place for dinner that turned out to be nice and local, Stripers Bar and Grill, where I had an early and excellent dinner. Then made it an early night, as tomorrow is a long drive day …


THE DELMARVA PENINSULA, VA: The Barrier Islands museum in located in an old “Almshouse” farm, which was basically a place run by a charity of some sort for women where they worked on a farm. There were separate quarters for white and black residents (it was during the period of the “old south”), and today it is a museum about the whole Barrier Island region and its history. There are many displays focusing on various aspects of the islands and the life styles of people during the previous eras (the focus was on the sea, shell fish and oysters, the coast guard, ship wrecks and salvagers, and then in more modern times the coming of the railroad and tourism. This is the first place I heard the name of Flagler, a wealthy man involved in bringing railroad and tourism down as far as St. Augustine Florida, and who’s name would pop up frequently during this trip) …

A TRAIL ON THE DELMARVA PENINSULA, VA: The very nice ladies who worked at the Barrier Islands museum told me about a short trail not far from there, and I set off into the woods to find it for a quick photo opp, but never actually located the trailhead. It didn’t matter, I still got some nice photos and a chance to explore. (And something to look for when I have more time) …

CHESAPEAKE BAY BRIDGE-TUNNEL, VA: When I got to the Bridge-Tunnel entrance, I stopped at the first overlook (the others are all closed now as there is construction ongoing) and could see absolutely nothing. The clouds were so low there was zero visibility. I could barely see the water of the bay only a few feet in front of me, and the horizon was invisible, the water just blended right into the sky …

CHESAPEAKE BAY BRIDGE-TUNNEL, VA: Interestingly, driving on it in this weather there was no sensation whatsoever of being on the water. The “magic” of this bridge-tunnel only happens when you can see the water, and have a sense of driving on it and then going down under it, and finally back up on top of it. Without the visual cues there is nothing “special” about the drive …

CHESAPEAKE BAY BRIDGE-TUNNEL, VA: Almost towards the very end of the drive, I can begin to see the houses over the top of the clouds in a strange disjointed way that made it look like the houses were floating in the sky. I could also imagine very well how it must have been for sailors back in the day when a heavy fog would fall, and suddenly land would appear. It is a very visceral feeling …

ALLIGATOR RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGEE, NC: I made it to the refuge in time for the “Wolf Howl” just in case they were going to hold it, but no one showed up and I just took a short walk along one of the trails not far from the road. It was kind of misting out, but not actually coming down for a while, though there were a lot of mosquitos, which discouraged me from lingering too long …

MANTEO, NC: At the end of a long day I enjoyed tasting the local craft beers at Stripers while the rain continued into the night …


LEG FOUR: NORTH CAROLINA TO FLORIDA


THE OUTER BANKS – MANTEO, NC to VILANO BEACH, FL — Sunday, 16 December 2018: The sun came out this morning and transformed the world. I could actually see the landscape around me and it was incredibly beautiful. I was up early and went to breakfast at a local place Sam and Omie’s then took some time out to actually go drive a bit along the Cape Hateras National Sea Shore down to Bodie’s Lighthouse. I stopped when I found some sand dunes and went for a walk that took me to the edge of the beach, and the Atlantic’s waves were crashing on shore, still just a tad violently — seemingly the last echos of the storm that passed. Well, there was also some flooding. The Ranger who told me the Wolf Howl was cancelled had spoken about impassable roads (and all the refuge roads were dirt or dirt and gravel) and four inches of rain expected. Here along the coastal road where there were beach houses I could see flooding still this morning. Water spilled over into the road and under the houses which were all raised pretty high on “stilts” — though some of the roads behind my hotel were also flooded, and those houses did not look raised. Anyway, it must have been a significant storm afterall. The sky was clear today, though and the beach was beautiful from my perch in the dunes. If I had more time I would definitely have gotten the permit to drive the beach and I am really considering the possibility of coming back up this way in order to do so on the return leg. I just took some quick photos before continuing to the lighthouse itself where I paused for another photo op before turning around and starting the long journey towards Florida.

According to Google Maps I had about a nine hour drive, but doing the math with adding in some short stops for gas and food, I determined it would be a twelve hour journey. I needed to get started with it so that I wouldn’t be driving until 2am. I headed inland towards the Alligator River NWR again, and didn’t stop to walk the first trail or do any navigation exercises, but did take a short pause to drive down one road into the refuge to the trail head of a short hike. The woods along the edges of the roads were flooded too and I could see that the Rangers had been right to cancel the howl. The sky was a bit overcast as I got to the end of the driveable section and then got out to walk the short trail. The trailhead was at a point where a river and lake kind of meet up, it looked a lot like parts of the Okefenokee swamp, but without so much swamp where the lake itself was. That part seemed like open water. The trail went over a small foot bridge and then seemed to follow the contour of the bank behind the woodline. It was a nice walk and an easy one on relatively flat surfaces. Unfortunately that too got flooded though, and I had to turn back after just a short walk. Though time-wise that was probably a good thing. As I headed back the way I’d come, I saw what I think was an eagle flying high above the trees (it was alone, so i think it was an eagle not a vulture — though i must admit I can’t really tell from a distance). It kept circling back around as if it was curious as to what kind of animal I might be, and after a while it satisfied its curiosity and flew off, and I returned the rest of the way to the Jeep. In the woods I could hear the sounds of the wilderness, screeching sounds of far off birds (I had seen and heard them last night too, but I could not reach the area where they were as it is “closed” in a protected zone, but from far off I could see the whole spot was dotted with the white birds that were shrieking in and almost human way … when I first heard them in the distance yesterday I thought maybe it was the wolves howling!). It was a beautiful and haunting place and I think it was probably due to the clouds coming in and giving it a more desolate look. I got back in the Jeep and on the way out of the refuge stopped to make a few quick photos of what I think was an active hunting cabin. I passed two inbound pickup trucks as I made my way back and wondered to myself if they were the hunters who belonged to the cabin, but never found out.

The drive just to get back to I-95 was long. There were many beautiful spots along the way, and some more causeway bridges including a long one that from one end looked like a “ramp to nowhere” climbing up into the sky to launch cars off into the sky. It was an interesting illusion. I ended up making a quick gas/pee/lunch stop all combined before getting on the interstate (and just ate southern fried chicken at a Bojangles fast food so as not to loose more time), then it was hardcore drive time heading south and racking up the miles. North Carolina suddenly seemed endless, kind of like Pennsylvania was on our Great American Road Trip, but eventually I made it into South Carolina where I had to stop for dinner because things around here close so early I didn’t want to have to end up in a fast food late night place. I went to a local Mexican restaurant that was open in Ridgeland, SC, maybe 20 miles or so to the border with Georgia. From their parking lot I could actually see the stars, which is the first time I am seeing them on this trip! After a decent dinner break I got back in the Jeep for the last 2-3 hours of drive time. I didn’t stop to photograph the “Welcome to Georgia” sign or the “Welcome to Florida” sign either, I just kept focused and drove into the night. My focus paid off, as I made it to Vilano Beach just before midnight…


WAYPOINT: VILANO BEACH/ST. AUGUSTINE — DAY 1


VILANO BEACH, FL — Monday, 17 December 2018: Woke up glad to see palm trees and blue skies. Took a morning walk on the beach before starting work and then again at lunch-time. I even got to catch the twilight sky as it turned color and a flock of shorebirds headed inland to nest, flying in formation just above the silohuetted palm trees. After work met up with my cousin Joe for dinner at the Columbia restaurant, a large elaborate Spanish/Cuban place in the heart of the city where the food was exquisite and the ambiance relaxed and festive. We took a bit of time to just walk around the old town center too. We explored some of the old buildings that were constructed by a wealthy railroad man who’s name I had already heard at the Barrier Island museusm. Flagler seems to have impacted the whole coastal region with his railroads and hotels. Here in St. Augustine he built elaborately decorated mansion-like resort hotels for his wealthy friends and there was a north African themed gambling and dancehall place equally elaborately built across the way. (I noticed this place because the balcony rail was decorated with a berber motif, and I was unsure if it was intentional or a cooincidence, but on closer inspection we saw an arabic inscription above the front door and a few other details, then got the full story from a historical plaque near the entry way. In Flagler’s hotel there was an incredible ceiling rotunda decoration that also had islamic influences — the al Hambra palace seemed to be a major inspiration. Anyway, I couldn’t help thinking how all these psuedo North African and European-style buildings were put up in the middle of “no where” and apropos of nothing, in the old Spanish port town of St. Augustine, when it was not yet developed — a kind of “fantasyland” reminiscient of the much later phenomenon of Disneyland with its own “faux” towns and fanciful architecture, not so very far from here — as if this part of Florida somehow inspired fantastical fantasy buildings that have nothing to do with the locale. Of course now this area is a mecca of mass tourism rather than a playful retreat for the wealthy. Still, the need for fantastical places may be somehow universal. In any case we went walking in the town and it was neither too hot nor too cold and so we were able to stay out quite late and enjoy the holiday ambiance of the horse drawn carriages and the christmas trolley tours and it was fun…


WAYPOINT: VILANO BEACH/ST. AUGUSTINE — DAY 2


VILANO BEACH, FL — Tuesday, 18 December 2018: Up early enough to take a beach walk again this morning and was intrigued by the “jelly fish” washed up on the beach.

In the late afternoon work was slow enough for me to take some time for another short walk along the water’s edge and I decided to collect some shells to maybe use to decorate my “Christmas tree” in the forest next week. I was also lucky enough to catch a beautiful sunset behind the palm trees of my little hotel. Anyone passing by while I photographed would surely think it was odd that I was photographing the parking lot, but actually I was focused on the palm trees beyond and the color and texture of the sky. After work I went up to the Reef, a restaurant I had visited last year, and the bartender remembered me because we had had a long conversation about Jeeps. She was the one who told me where to go to access the beach drive. Tonight I was in time for Happy Hour and enjoyed a meal made up of appetizers that were delicious, accompanied by a Manhattan in honor of my parents (i always order one if i see it on the drink menu as a special and this one was made with Templeton Rye and was quite good). After dinner I came back to my hotel and walked across to the beach and just sat on the steps of the over-dune entrance and looked up at the stars while listening to the waves crash gently on the shore. There were the beginnings of fluffy clouds in the sky, but it was brightly lit by the moon. Eventually the clouds began to block out the stars and I went back inside to sleep…


WAYPOINT: VILANO BEACH/ST. AUGUSTINE — DAY 3


VILANO BEACH, FL — Wednesday, 19 December 2018: Slept a bit later this morning and just took a short morning walk before starting work. However, I took a real lunch break and drove down to another part of the beach and then to Aunt Kate’s on the North River for lunch. Before settling in to eat lunch I took some time to walk around the riverside docks and photograph some pelicans that were waiting for food scraps from a lady cleaning fish at Mike’s Place on the dock. A few people were fishing nearby. I noticed what looked to be some kind of oysters or shellfish attached to all the rocks along the shoreline. Aunt Kate’s has an interesting history also tied into Flagler’s story. Apparently Flagler and his friends were on a boat and stopped on this island and asked the family if they could cook up some of the oyster’s his party had harvested and that was the “beginning” of what would become a restaurant/outfitter/guide/boat rental/campground complex of family businesses. It is interesting to see the influence of Flagler on the local economy and even the shape of eventual development of the area. The other interesting thing about this restaurant is that they feature “Minorcan” recipes, often based around the Datil pepper which apparently is only available around here. The Minorcans are descendants of a specific Spanish immigration from the area of Minorca in Spain, and the community has deep roots here and keeps their heritage and identity. I am unsure of the relationship between the Minorcan and Cracker culture, but I think both are probably represented here. The clouds came in during the afternoon and by sunset we could no longer see the sun. I did take a short break from work to stretch my legs, but there was no magic in the sky. After work I went to have dinner at Blackfly on Anastasia Island nearby. To get there I had to drive over the “Lions Bridge” which is a drawbridge and one of the main visual “landmarks” of St. Augustine. After dinner I left the Jeep in the parking lot of the restaurant to take a short walk back across the bridge and towards the lights of St. Augustine in an attempt to get some nice evening photos. Not sure if that worked or not, but the walk was pleasant as it was not too cold out. Afterwards I returned to Vilano Beach and made an early night of it…


WAYPOINT: VILANO BEACH/ST. AUGUSTINE — DAY 4


VILANO BEACH, FL — Thursday, 20 December 2018: Normally I should have been leaving here today, but I decided to extend my time here rather than move to a random hotel in Palatka. My rationale was that the cost is the same and this area has such wonderful ambiance and the opportunity to just step outside and walk around and be in a beautiful place, as well as the chance to go for walks between work, making these workdays much more pleasant and part of the journey rather than simply holing up in random hotel rooms to work during all the daylight hours and seeing nothing of the places I am in. Of course, having said that, I am not sure I will get to do much walking today as the clouds that came in last night brought a steady rain that is supposed to continue into tonite. Outside it is grey and a bit sad looking, but hopefully I will still get out at lunch time and maybe find a way to photograph this ambiance somehow. I did go out at lunchtime but the rain was heavy and it was kind of cold and very un-Florida like. Still, i went down to a place called “Beaches” for lunch and overheard some locals talking about a plane crash that happened this morning right in the water beyond the island. It was a small Cessna with two people aboard, and the local boat men and fire and rescue all went out from the marina to help in the search. It was terrible weather for flying a small plane and I can’t imagine the pilot’s decision to fly in that storm with the strong winds and no visibility (even if it was an IFR flight, the winds were quite heavy for such a light plane). I don’t know if the occupants were rescued or not, or any other information about it yet, but I hope they survived. By late afternoon the rain let up a bit and I did manage to go for a very short walk on the beach with the waves crashing heavily and a layer of clouds like a real ceiling in the sky. It looked like the sun was trying to break through at some point and maybe tomorrow it will succeed. I found out today that we will have to work the days between the holidays, and did some quick work to book a cabin not far from my campground in Ocala NF. It is owned by the Yearling Restaurant people, and is in the location where the author lived for a while. According to the website there is a fire pit down by the creek that we can use, and on Thursday the bar/restaurant opens and hopefully I will be able to hear the blues that evening…


WAYPOINT: VILANO BEACH/ST. AUGUSTINE — DAY 5


VILANO BEACH, FL — Friday, 21 December 2018: Winter Solstice today, and the sun did make an appearance this morning, though it was still struggling to break through the clouds. I took a quick drive along the beach across the way from the city of St. Augustine and it looks like the sea is still a bit stormy from yesterday, crashing onto the beach with some force. There were a few other trucks out there this morning, but it seems like they were locals shrimping or clamming or doing something with some kind of traps in the water. I was the only one “celebrating” the solstice. There were also a lot of shore birds out. Maybe after a storm is a good time for them to find food. In any case, the sun was nice and big and fighting the good fight to break through the cloud cover. The storm has passed but there is much much wind, gusting over 25 mph today and from time to time I can actually hear it blowing hard outside. I also took a quick ride into town to profit from the morning light and lack of crowds to try to get some daylight photos of St. Augustine. Then made it back to my beach in time for work. In the evening I was supposed to go to a Pirate Boat “Rum Runner” cruise, but because of the wind (which was over 30mph by late afternoon) they cancelled it for safety. I went into town anyway in the evening and walked around a bit photographing the sunset and then the moon over the harbor and eventually found my way into an Irish pub for a whiskey tasting and stayed for dinner. I have been mostly eating all kinds of seafood with local preparations since I have been on the coast, but tonight I ordered corned beef and cabbage because it was on the menu and it did not disappoint. I stayed for a bit of Irish music before heading back to Vilano Beach to make it an early night…


LEG FIVE: VILANO BEACH/ST. AUGUSTINE TO HOPKINS PRAIRIE, OCALA NATIONAL FOREST — Day 1


HOPKINS PRAIRIE, OCALA NATIONAL FOREST, FL — Saturday, 22 December 2018: Up early today to load up and make the drive from St. Augustine to Ocala National Forest. I planned to get there early enough to get my favorite campsite before anyone else arrived, but “best laid plans…” the site was already occupied from the night before (a whole bunch of people braved the cold and wind to camp out around there last night it seems… many of the sites were full including my second choice). I settled on a spot on the other side of the campground that was very secluded and away from the main road. Though it didn’t have the views that my favorite site does, it had a “hide-out”-like ambiance and plenty of privacy, which given the “crowd” at the prairie, would be a good thing. I staked out my spot and paid for it, leaving some things to mark it as “taken” but left to go purchase supplies in Palatka before coming back and putting up my tent. Technically I wasn’t supposed to do that, but practically it made sense under the “first-come” campsite rules. Most of the day was spent setting up camp and getting organized in my new location. It just felt sooooo good to be back in the forest, even if it was damp and unusually cold (for Florida)…


WAYPOINT: HOPKINS PRAIRIE, OCALA NATIONAL FOREST — Day 2


HOPKINS PRAIRIE, OCALA NATIONAL FOREST, FL — Sunday, 23 December 2018: Last night was freezing. In the morning I got up and got the heat going in the Jeep and drove into Salt Springs to get breakfast at the little restaurant there. Good thing too, as they will be closed for the whole rest of the time I am here. After a nice breakfast I went to the Salt Springs Observation trail, which is a short 2 mile roundtrip hike to an overlook on the St. Johns River where last time I saw some alligators. This time I didn’t see any alligators, but did see a guy fishing playing rock music on the river, and then two people paddling kayaks. The music thing bothered me a little because I would like to hear the sounds of nature. Already at camp there were people playing music and being loud generally at several of the other sites, and I really did not get the usual wilderness experience, and here on the river too. Oh well, that is life, I like music, it is just that I like to hear the sounds of nature when I am in the wild. Anyway, that was a very enjoyable hike and I was alone out on the trail apart from the river “traffic” at the overlook. When I returned to the prairie I saw a Black Bear in the middle of the road right by the entrance to the Florida Trail at our campground! He got scared when he heard the Jeep and ran off into the bushes, but I was suprised to see him so close to camp. Later I learned from the campground host that there are a few of them near camp right now because of the acorns everywhere, but they just eat the acorns and don’t bother the people. There are also a lot of squirrels at my campsite, and maybe it was a mistake to put my tent right under the treee, as sometimes they are bombing me with acorns or shells of acorns. But they are so cute. I haven’t succeeded in photographing one yet, though I enjoy watching them frolicking in the twisted vines and branches of the hammock. I saw an eagle flying overhead at one point. In fact it was his shadow i noticed first, then looking up I saw him soaring above the trees, and then he was gone before I could make a photo. After lunch I went out in search of firewood and to check out the “playground” (the area of sand and obstacles where people go to shoot and ride) further along on FR 50, but there were guys in there target shooting and so I left them alone. I came back along FR 46 on the border with the Juniper Prairie Wilderness Area, and then on the way back into camp I was photographing the light on the marsh when I saw an alligator. It is the first time I saw an alligator near camp. I didn’t get to see him close, but took some telephoto photos and it was clearly an alligator. I was happy with my alligator photos and returned to camp, and settled in for sunset and campfire. It was a little bit warmer today than yesterday, but still cold, and I also saw the full moon through the trees (I did not see the meteors at all)…


WAYPOINT: HOPKINS PRAIRIE, OCALA NATIONAL FOREST — Day 3


HOPKINS PRAIRIE, OCALA NATIONAL FOREST, FL — Christmas Eve, Monday, 24 December 2018: Woke up early to the sun and a merry Christmas eve message from Niki and D in Serbia. It was cold but not as bad as yesterday and the sun felt good. I went to a little pine tree a bit of a ways off from my campsite, and made it my “christmas tree” adding Niki’s gingerbread decoration to it temporarily in honor of the holidays (i was careful not to tie it on too tight or hurt any of the branches or needles of the tree in the process, and will remove it and take it home after the holiday, so no harm done to the tree). Then I had to make a run into town to get firewood, ice and meat for Christmas dinner. Back at camp I set up and then took some time in the afternoon to get in a short walk (only about a mile roundtrip) along a section of the Florida trail that I had never been on before that goes from behind my campsite all the way around the marsh on the other side of the prairie. This was a section I had never explored before and there were some interesting woodland and jungle-y spots including some kind of protected spots that I could imagine being druid shrines or some thing. I guess the Christmas eve magic was inspiring my thinking. Anyway, I turned back at the point where I knew I would have enough time to be back at camp for sunset, and begin my Christmas eve celebration. I got my fire going and opened a bottle of champagne and made a toast to my Christmas tree in the forest (and to those who are no longer here on earth to celebrate with us as well as friends and family dispersed all over). I could see the stars tonite and thought of the magi following the stars to Bethlehem, and though my celebration format was untraditional, it was very much in the spirit of the holiday…


WAYPOINT: HOPKINS PRAIRIE, OCALA NATIONAL FOREST — Day 4


HOPKINS PRAIRIE, OCALA NATIONAL FOREST, FL — Christmas Day, Tuesday, 25 December 2018: It was finally comfortable overnight and I slept really well, even though I was up at my bonfire quite late into the night. I was finally feeling relaxed, and could really do with another two days in the forest, but tonite is my last night. I have to be back online to work on the 26th, and on top of that, the Federal Government “shutdown” is effecting the National Forest and they are closing the campground and kicking everyone out on the morning of the 26th. Making the most of my last day I decided to go explore an area of the forest I had never been to before, the Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area, which has links to the Yearling book and is just on the other side of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness where my favorite “Yearling Trail” is. I debated doing that trail again, but as much as I enjoy it, it would be nice to check out someplace new and I only have such a short time. It turned out to be a good decision because the area was very different than the Prairies and hammocks on the other side. Here it was much more jungle-y, kind of the way I would imagine Florida backcountry to look. Upon arrival I was the only one there apart from the woman working the fee station and little store at the entry point. I wished her a Merry Christmas and got a map of the two hiking trails on the property (most people come to swim in the Spring where you can see Manatee if you are lucky). I set off to find the first trail the “Sand Boils” trail, and was not sure what to expect. The woman said that you can actually see the sand bubbling up with the hot water from beneath the surface. Apparently there is something unique about the geology of this area, with a limestone surface and an “aquifier” underground that provides so much of the water in the area (which is full of lakes and marshes everywhere — that old saying about “selling acres of swamp land in florida” has a definite kernel of truth), and so the water actually bubbles up from underground to form these hot springs. I set out through the empty picnic area and could see the green and blue clear water of the spring which almost looked “unnatural” in color, and it was surrounded by palmettos and other brush giving it a feel of “hidden discovery” as I approached — especially because it was empty and I was the only person there. There were, however, plenty of squirrels scampering around. Anyway, I followed the contour of the spring back into the woods to a shaded trail cut through the brush. Lots of palmettos and palm trees mixed with hardwood trees draped in spanish moss and I really just loved the walk. It was a short trail, only .75 miles, and ended on a boardwalk out over a stream with these “sand boils” inside and along the edges where it was true that I could see it bubbling up. It was an oddity, but not all that dramatic. Still I made some photos of it, and was glad for the walk. Upon my return there were a few more people in the park, some walking around but most in the spring swimming and looking for manatees. I didn’t see any, but some of the swimmers did. I debated a few minutes whether or not to do the St George Lake overlook trail, it was a 2-mile out and back trail and the name did not sound all that interesting as I have seen lakes before and didn’t really imagine this one would be particularly unusual, but I hadn’t done much walking yet, and having paid to get in I wanted to spend more time, so I reluctantly set off on the hike, figuring it would at least be a nice walk. It turned out to be magnificent, the true jungle swamp backwoods landscape I had been missing all these years. Like a film set. It went from the normal woods into some thicker palmettos and then into a swampy area with lots of vines and spanish moss (i think they filmed the old tarzan movies here) and very evocative of “jungle”. While I was hiking I hear a motor that was not a typical truck or ATV, and when the machine appeared it was two men working to clear the trail with a kind of combination ATV/backhoe/extended tree ladder for cutting higher limbs. I wished the men a merry christmas and they did likewise and told me I was lucky that they had just cut the trail and had cleared several downed trees and so forth. I thanked them and went on my way, happy to be the “first” person to hike their manicured trail. They had done a very nice job of keeping it “wild” while clearing anything dangerous or really blocking the way. There were still plenty of twisted trees forming arches over the trail, hung with spanish moss and tight palmetto alleys to give the feeling of wiilderness. At one point there was a turn off, and I recalled hearing there were three overlooks on the trail, so maybe this was one, and I took the turnoff down a narrower tighter trail, where at one point there was a kind of “berm” in the middle that I had to climb over. Turns out the “berm” was actually the unearthing of a giant old palm tree, and behind the berm there was like almost a cave or little “shelter” under the root mass between the dirt and tangle of roots and brush above it, and I could totally imagine a hobbit living there! I continued on and could see the water between the trees in a distant clearing and when I reached it, the sight was truly like a pirate cove hideout and it was awesome. I climbed over a tree trunk and down to the water’s edge hidden by the brush and spanish moss, but able to see clearly across the lake. In fact the lake was not really the “feature” here, it was the landscape around it, and I stayed awhile there until a father with his sons came down the path, and I left them the spot to enjoy while I continued on to the main trail and beyond to the other two “overlooks”. At one of them there was a sign explaining that this was the second largest lake in Florida. The other overlooks were nice too, but that first one was the most beautiful in my opinion. After my explorations and arriving to the end of the trail, I turned around and went back. I was very glad for the “cool” weather to do these trails, as during the hot weather they must be very damp and full of mosquitos and humidity, and today I wasn’t even sweaty! There is always a positive side to things, lol. By the time I was back from the trails it was quite late and I had a quick lunch at camp before heading out to do some last photos at the “playground” area. Again there was another truck out there, but this time they were not shooting (or not shooting yet) and so I did just a couple of quick photos, noting how the recent rains had totally changed the landscape here, creating little lakes in areas that were trails or part of the obstacle courses before. I imagine that they are not very deep but probably very muddy with that kind of slick clay that could get you stuck easily and I was in no position to fool around out in that stuff, especially considering the time of day. Sunset was not far off, and I made it back to camp in time to catch a last sunset on the prairie, then a final bonfire under the stars and finally a night warm enough that I didn’t have to wear a hat …


LEG SIX: HOPKINS PRAIRIE, OCALA NATIONAL FOREST TO CROSS CREEK — Day 1


CROSS CREEK, FL — Wednesday, 26 December 2018: Woke up well rested and before my “alarm” a little before seven a.m., and it was starting to be light, so I got up and started the process of breaking camp. I didn’t even take the time out to eat breakfast, thinking I might find someplace to stop en route. I was pretty efficient getting packed up and was out of the forest and on the road to Cross Creek by 830am. I had booked a cabin (that has wifi) on the property of The Yearling Restaurant as a place where I could work, but also still be in the backcountry somewhat, and possibly go for a walk or two during my workdays so as not to be just sitting in a room staring at my screen. The route was not very long but I did not see any place to stop for breakfast (there were a few gas station mini-marts that had food, but I really didn’t feel like re-warmed fast food, so I kept on driving). Eventually I reached the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic state park, which was the home of the author of the Yearling book, and as I had time (since I was supposed to check-in at 1130am) and no urgent messages from work (no messages at all in fact) I decided to stop and take a look around. The “park” is really a part of the property of the author’s farm. She had moved here in the late 1920s and bought this farmland where she grew citrus fruits and wrote about the local culture. She actually wrote many books and articles based on the lifestyle of the local community (and eventually became a bit controversial with a few lawsuits against her for “defamation”) and seems to be kind of considered a local hero. I walked around the home and citrus grove, which was actually being harvested by workers. There was also an active kitchen garden and hens and ducks and things, that were all being cared for currently — it was unclear to me who the caretakers were — whether state park employees or family members or people hired by the family, in any case the property was well maintained and after a quick glance about the grounds I took off for a short hike down one small trail which was really not even a 1/4 mile, but went thru the jungle-y area to the edge of the marsh where the marsh was encroaching on the jungle itself. After the visit to the park I took a little walk around the “other” park outside which was more of a public space where locals came to launch their boats with parking for the trucks and trailers. This was clearly a very local spot and well trafficked with fishermen and recreationalists. While I was exploring the banks of the marsh I came on two interesting shore birds and made some photos, then did a few more of the marsh before leaving for my lodging at The Yearling. I was a little bit early but the owner was there and showed me around and helped me get the internet setup after a few hiccups, and the whole space was very nice. The cabin was nice and pretty and clean and comfortable, and the best part for me was the outdoor spot down by the creek itself, where there were a bunch of chairs set up around the fire pit overlooking the creek. Across the way there was a house built right on the water’s edge, with their porch up against the creek as if they could fish off it — except that it was closed in with screens to keep the mosquitos at bay. There were several other small houses like that built right on the water up to its edge, and I imagined that maybe that was an old style of building in these parts where people were so reliant on their self-sufficiency hunting and fishing for their food. I sat at the rivers edge during breaks from work and watched the fishermen go by. The creek connects two big lakes, but is itself apparently a good fishing spot. Eventually a boat with a grandfather and his grandson floated down the creek with their motor turned off as the grandfather tried to teach his young grandson to fish. The young boy was not very patient and when I asked them how they were doing with the fishing, the older man said “we are fishing, not catching”… with a gentle laugh and I waved to them as they continued on. The people on the creek were friendly enough when they saw me sitting on the bank they all waved back. Eventually at some point a family came by and installed themself on the same bank and set out their poles to fish. The Yearling owners are nice about allowing the locals access to the creek from their property and it was a nice afternoon for fishing but the family had some trouble with their hooks and lost a few and only left with maybe one or two fish. In the evening I took a short walk around the dirt road that goes behind the restaurant and saw many of the small homes for sale. In one an old cadillac stood parked in the garage and looked like it hadn’t moved in years. I wondered to myself if this was an area where the folks were dying off and their relatives had moved elsewhere and were just selling the old properties. It was hard to tell how much was “old” and how much was “new” — as in recreationalists buying places to rent for the season to fish and so forth. In any case it seemed to still be quite an “authentic” little town. I drove back to the state park for a gorgeous sunset over the marsh, then came back to my cabin and went down by the firepit and made a nice bonfire. I could see some stars through the spanish moss overhead and it was a nice calm relaxed evening…


WAYPOINT: CROSS CREEK — Day 2


CROSS CREEK, FL — Thursday, 27 December 2018: This morning I took a short stroll up on the bridge over the creek in the morning, hoping for a nice sunrise shot, but the way the sun comes in did not really light up the creek in the way I hoped and I came back down to the firepit and watched some of the many squirrels at play for a little bit before getting started with the workday. Work was very slow which made it a good day to take a few short breaks in between and enjoy the hospitality of The Yearling. I had an excellent lunch and got to hear Willie playing his blues while tasting around the menu. I had the chowder, the gator and fried green tomatoes, and a house signature salad that was quite fabulous, then headed back in to the cabin to pick up with work. Later on I took a short break to checkout the Paynes Prairie state park not far from the cabins. This particular preserve is home to wild horses and bison and though I did the short loop trail with the observation tower that overlooks the prairie, I didn’t get to see any of them. We did see what appeared to be bison poop nearby, so they obviously were in the area, just not out in the open during the visiting times. I would have liked to spend a bit more time there but had to get back online to finish up the workday. Afterwards, I hung out at the bar of The Yearling for a little while and chatted with the owners as well as with some of the locals and employees of the restaurant and cabins. The people were very friendly and down-to-earth and there was a great ambiance to the place. After it closed at 8, a few of us went down to the firepit for a little while, adding some wood to keep the fire going before letting it die out sometime before ten. I returned to my cabin and started to read the book “Cross Creek” that one of the owners had very kindly given me as a gift …


LEG 7: CROSS CREEK, FL TO KINGSLAND, GA


KINGSLAND, GA — Friday, 28 December 2018: My last day at Cross Creek today, and the weather was changing. It was overcast and forecasting rain. I had thought about going to “Georgia’s Grand Canyon” to spend some time there hiking and photographing tomorrow, but it has been raining there for some days and as it is all “Georgia clay” it will be muddy (and this is for hiking, not Jeeping, so mud would definitely not be fun). So I kind of made a vague plan to start northward along the general route towards home and see where I might be able to stop along the way (all the places that I have been looking at were either raining or Federal land, and so closed because of the shutdown, or both). With the vague-ist of plans I loaded up the Jeep and said goodbye to my shy squirrels down by the creek, then had lunch at the restaurant again. This time Willie was playing really well and there was quite a group of people eating lunch, and a man with his kids who was into music came with his kokopeli flute and jammed with Willie for a few songs and it was all just kind of nice. After lunch I worked in the backroom bar for a while until Tom and Karen (two regulars) invited me over to chat with them and we enjoyed sharing some conversation until it was time for me to sign-off work, call it a day and get on the road again. I had hoped to get to South Carolina, but the rain started coming down hard and heavy and in a torrential downpour and once it got dark I really could not see when it came down like that and I was driving on I-95 where people were somehow managing to go 70 mph in the storm while I was going about 45 mph. I really felt like it was not safe, so as soon as I crossed the Georgia state line, I looked for the nearest hotel to hole up for the night …