As we approach the end of almost two months in Florida, around every bend and behind almost every palm tree, we have found an unexpected surprise. The surprises haven’t always been great or without friction, but they have always had a lasting impression and added in some way to our journey.
Never expecting to spend a lot of time in this state, we are surprised that we somehow enjoyed eight weeks of sunshine, snow birds, grapefruit, and alligators. As I mentioned in the last post, Key West was our goal for 2016 and is where we finally learned to stop worrying and love slowing down. More than that, Florida is where we learned that hand-in-hand with slowing down and the associated planning entropy, come the little unexpected surprises that really make the journey’s memories.
While we haven’t fully embraced the No Reservations route like some of our fellow full-timers, we have limited our planning horizon and learned to go with the flow more than we were. Knowing ourselves, we need to do at least a little planning for the weeks ahead. Therefore, as a compromise between adventurous flexibility and the comfort of a known game plan, we try to have rather broad brush plans for the next six to eight weeks and keep our detailed planning and reservations down to around two to three weeks. Of course this means that holiday weekends become pop-up targets. It also means that we have flexibility to change, opportunities for adventure along the way, and unexpected surprises.
It was while sitting in Key West and looking down the road to the months ahead, we realized that in our drive to slowdown we had failed to secure a place to stay over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. We were leaving the Keys after New Years and had confirmed reservations up to the beginning of the MLK Weekend. However, as is common for full-timer RV’ers, we had forgotten about the holiday and had not taken the precaution of ensuring we were tucked in somewhere for the weekend. We would now be competing with the weekend warriors and snowbirds for a campsite on a winter holiday weekend in Florida. After some preliminary and fruitless research, we came to the conclusion that we had a problem.
After Key West, we planned on visiting both Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve and had made reservations at two NPS campgrounds (Flamingo in the Everglades and Midway in Big Cypress). After getting our National Park fix, our plan had us turning north and heading for the greater Orlando area. We had three nights reserved at Lake Kissimmee State Park (for our LEGO Land stop) followed by four nights Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground. Plans beyond January 12th were a mystery.
We discussed various options after Disney such as returning to the Space Coast; visiting Florida’s Gulf Coast; or beginning our migration north and west towards the Panhandle, New Orleans, and points beyond. We had a lot of leeway, as our only confirmed plans after Disney were with family in Washington, D.C. in early April. Embracing our new easy-going travel mantra, we decided to let things settle for a few weeks and worry about it later.
Placing MLK Weekend on the back burner, we left Key West on the 2nd of January bound for Everglades National Park. While we had heard horror stories about the mosquitos at Flamingo, we had very few expectations about the Everglades themselves. Contrary to what we thought, the Everglades were not a swamp, but a beautiful and diverse slowly moving river of grass. The Everglades and its wildlife mesmerized us. We saw countless Alligators, birds, fish, and turtles, as well as a couple of rare and endangered American Crocodiles and two hungry and thirsty Manatees. We also got up-close and personal with several dozen Turkey Vultures and several gazillion mosquitos! In the end, the horror stories were conservative in the breadth and scope of mayhem and misery those little bloodsucking bastards could inflict. But, in hindsight, we are glad we stayed at Flamingo and wouldn’t trade the experience. If we hadn’t stayed at Flamingo, we would have never explored the southern part of Everglades as much as we did and would have not seen the American Crocodiles. Scratching and suffering from insect-induced PTSD, we left Flamingo and drove two hours north to Big Cypress National Preserve and our reservations at Midway Campground.
Unlike the Everglades, Big Cypress is a swamp, but like the Everglades it did not disappoint. Home to the typical assortment of swamp creatures (Alligators, snakes, et al), it is also the last known stretch of solid habitat for the Florida Panther. Again, we were magically drawn in by its stark beauty and the diversity of its wildlife.
So very different than any of the National Park sites we’ve visited thus far, we were unexpectedly and pleasantly surprised by the beauty and charm of the Everglades and Big Cypress. Both breathtaking and awe inspiring, we all took something away from these jewels of the National Park Service. If we hadn’t decided to slow down, we may have skipped the Everglades and definitely would have skipped Big Cypress…all in pursuit of some arbitrary schedule that we had created for ourselves. Slowing down enabled us to actually absorb both of these wonderful parks.
Leaving the beauty of the Everglades and Big Cypress in the rear-view mirror, we pointed our rig north and passed through the orange groves and retirement communities of south-central Florida, destined for the Land of LEGOs and the World of the Mouse.
Comfortably ensconced at Lake Kissimmee State Park, we set out to explore LEGO Land and begin planning for our stay at Disney. It was during our visit to LEGO Land that I came up with an elegant solution to part of our post-Disney/MLK dilemma—we would extend our Fort Wilderness stay through the MLK weekend. I contacted the uber-helpful and friendly folks at Disney and secured three additional nights at Fort Wilderness. We were now leaving on Sunday, the 15th vice Thursday the 12th. While leaving on the 15th didn’t solve the entire MLK weekend issue, it did give us wiggle room and the opportunity to visit Disney at a more gentlemanly pace. Even with those upsides, we still had Sunday night of MLK weekend to contend with, but dealing with one night of a holiday weekend sounded easier than three. After two days of LEGO Land fun, we moved north to Fort Wilderness.
[As an aside, we ended up at Lake Kissimmee State Park for our LEGO Land visit because it was the closest public park option. We prefer public—Federal, State, or County—parks over private RV parks most of the time. While Kissimmee State Park was perfectly nice, their administration proved to be a little too inept and the commute to LEGO Land a little too long to make us recommend it for anyone else as a LEGO Land Home Base. During our 50-mile LEGO Land commute, we noticed two or three private RV parks close to LEGO Land that would have worked and if we had to do over, we would have researched and stayed at one of those.]
If you have the time and the means, I highly recommend a stay at Fort Wilderness. While I wasn’t surprised by how nice EVERYTHING was at Fort Wilderness, I wasn’t expecting how much I would enjoy it! As mentioned above, we prefer public campgrounds to private campgrounds. We once overheard a rather snobby and well-dressed lady who was Volvo car camping with her be-spectacled, male-pattern balding husband, claim that they were “National Park People.” I thought her statement was funny at the time and chuckled a little under my breath at what she was really saying. While we trend towards the liberal side of the aisle, it was the height of the 2016 election season and I was feeling pretty cynical with both sides. As time goes on though, and our preference to public over private campgrounds becomes more solidified, I guess we are also “National Park People.” Although I hope without the baggage packed up in Ms. Volvo’s comment. Regardless, as we spent more time in the land of gargantuan, swirly Earth-toned, super-sized RVs, we slowly became proud of our National Park loving, boondocking capable, pseudo-dirt bag status. Yes, we are traveling in a nice, late-model Airstream, but we are self-sufficient, we don’t have a bunch of slide-outs, we don’t have every modern convenience, and we don’t have satellite TV or every other imaginable upper-middle class toy strapped onto our rig. Rolling in to Fort Wilderness, while I was expecting to half-heartedly accept, but definitely not enjoy, the bourgeois-ease of Fort Wilderness, I definitely didn’t expect to LOVE it.
Now, don’t misread me, while I liked Fort Wilderness, I really didn’t enjoy Disney World. I really don’t like roller coasters and do not enjoy the crowds. I don’t like how “It’s a Small World” and the other sundry Disney earworms get stuck in my head. But, I really liked Fort Wilderness. I enjoyed how nice everyone was. I loved how easy everything was. I got a kick of how campy all the events were. I even enjoyed the kitschy and hokey Chip and Dale’s Campfire Sing-a-long (not to be confused with Chippendale’s Campfire Sing-a-long, which I imagine has a totally different vibe and would give a whole new meaning to campfire franks and beans.) In a nutshell, Fort Wilderness was fantastic. That “fantastic” comes at a price, but it was an easy and enjoyable vacation from our usual full-timing routine and I give it a thumbs up. So, Fort Wilderness (and my reaction to it) was another unexpected Florida surprise.
On Friday of our Disney stay, Anna and Owen revisited the Magic Kingdom while I got the truck serviced and started working on downstream reservations (utilizing the blazing-fast Fort Wilderness WiFi). While simultaneously researching various options for Sunday night and making further-on reservations in Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, I came across Cedar Key, FL.
Harnessing the power of the Googler, Cedar Key and its four area campgrounds looked intriguing. We wanted to visit the central Florida Gulf Coast, but were also itching to start our trek out of Florida. Cedar Key, located on the Gulf coast north of Tampa, looked like a funky and eclectic island town that might scratch both itches. There wasn’t a ton of information out there, but various travel bloggers called it Key West before the tourists. With my sites set on Cedar Key, I quickly deduced that three of the four nearby campground options were non-starters due to availability. The fourth, however, was a mystery.
Utilizing Campendium.com for my research, I noticed this small, unremarkable county campground at the end of the road in the middle of a Wildlife Refuge. While Shell Mound Campground looked interesting sitting there on my screen, extensive on-line research didn’t yield any significant information or reviews. I couldn’t find a webpage and finally, after trying four different phone numbers, I was able to speak with an actual person.
Other than a curt and gravelly “Campground…” as his greeting, our Shell Mound Oracle was a little short on in-depth information. I asked if they had any sites available for Sunday and Monday nights. The Oracle stated that while they didn’t take reservations, he had plenty of spots at the moment. I asked about cost and the Oracle’s response piqued my interest, “$15 for electric and water, $10 for electric, and $5 for no hook-ups.” Hmmm…Really?
After our Portage, Indiana Jellystone misadventure, we had made a policy of not visiting campgrounds that didn’t post campsite pictures on their webpage. Sans a webpage, did our no picture policy apply to Shell Mound? Given the cost and the fact that we had few options at this point, we jumped in asking ourselves, “how bad could it be?”
We rolled into Shell Mound Campground on Sunday afternoon of MLK Weekend and were immediately unexpectedly and pleasantly surprised. While a little on the rustic side and fairly outdated, the campground was obviously well cared for and very clean. Most surprising though, the Oracle was right, we had our pick of sites.
Sitting on the waters of Suwannee Sound, we watched the cedar trees sway in the breeze and the local birds and fishermen buzzing to and froe into and out of the Gulf of Mexico. Stunned by the emptiness of the campground, I asked the Oracle if this was typical. In between draws on his well-chewed stogie, his response was something along the lines that they were busier than usual because of the weekend. In a fairly no-nonsense manner, he told me to pick out a site and come back to the doublewide-cum-office and we could settle up.
We slowly perused the sites, which wasn’t difficult due to the diminutive size of the park. Site number 5 looked like the best compromise between close enough to level and far enough away from the buzzing boat launch.
We had heard that with a boat launch in the campground, there would be a lot of noise in the early-morning and late-afternoon as fishermen came and went with their trucks and airboats. We noted the evidence of this traffic when we pulled into the park, counting half a dozen trucks and boat trailers parked near the launch—they easily outnumbered the campers. While we rarely heard the trucks, we pretty consistently heard the airboats as they were launched, recovered, headed-out or in. While they are loud as all get-out (they are powered by airplane engines, after all), they weren’t overly annoying or obnoxious because the noise rarely lasted for more than a few moments and we kept our windows shut and the A/C on for our entire stay. More on why we kept our A/C fired up in a few moments…
With our site picked out, I returned to the Oracle’s lair and settled up our bill. While walking back to the doublewide office, I noticed a big sign above the gate with some useful information; in particular a note stating that Active and Retired Military were entitled to a 50% discount off the already low camping price. With this useful piece of intelligence, I proffered my Retiree ID Card. After including state and local taxes, our daily total was slightly over $9. It should be noted that cash is required as they don’t take credit cards. Even without the discount, the advertised $15 per night for electric and water is a bargain and when combined with the beautiful location makes Shell Mound a diamond in the rough. However, it should be remembered that rough diamonds have their own fair share of flaws.
It was while getting our rigged unhitch and set-up for our stay that I came, figuratively and literally, face-to-face with the biggest flaw in the Shell Mound diamond. Within minutes of being outside and getting a little sweaty from the rigors of unhooking, extending stabilizers, rigging the electric and water connections, I noted a Pigpen’ish black cloud swirling around my body…I had met what we now know are the infamous No-see-ums of Shell Mound Campground!
No-see-ums, or Sand Fleas, or gnats, or tiny biting minions of Satan, whatever you want to call them; they definitely call Shell Mound their home turf. We had previously run into these winged demons in early December while staying on the Space Coast. After three nights at our NASA campground campsite, we moved south looking like victims of some type of medieval pox. With the memories of Calamine slathering and the sweet relief of Banadryl-induced slumber still fresh in our minds, our solution was tons of bug spray, closed windows, and air conditioning. During the day and times of even a small breeze, the No-see-ums weren’t that bad. However, given a little shade, no breeze, or some salty sweat, they were B-A-D. So, when we weren’t in town enjoying Cedar Key, we did occasionally sally forth to walk the dog or explore the Suwannee Wildlife Refuge. But, the majority of our time at campground was spent sequestered in the trailer.
Cedar Key is a small former lumber and fishing and tourist town with a tiny beach area and a bevy of restaurants, bars, and gift shops. Kitschy in the extreme, it had a special low key vibe and artsy funkiness that made it a great visit for a couple of days. Cedar Key originally made its name as a 19th century hub for the export of millions of cedar logs, harvested from the nearby forests, to the world’s pencil makers. Also, it was one of the few parts of Florida that was held by Union forces for most of the Civil War. Later industries included the making of brooms from Palmetto fronds, fishing (both fish and shell fish), and tourism. The citizenry now seem to be mostly employed in drinking beer, catering to tourists drinking beer, and fishing while drinking beer.
We spent three nights at Shell Mound campground and thoroughly explored Cedar Key during our stay. Over 8-miles from the “downtown” area of Cedar Key, two of the camping options would have been better as they are closer (an easy bicycle ride) to town, but both were booked and one of them is adult only. There are miles of paddling options in and around Cedar Key, but we were pretty exhausted from Disney and chose to kick back and relax vice renting kayaks or paddle boards. We ate great seafood meals both days we visited and spent time at a 21+ craft beer and cigar bar. Evidently, the 21+ thing is more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule. When I asked about Owen, the bartender shrugged and said “Whatever…” That statement pretty much sums up Cedar Key, Shell Mound. Beautiful, laid back, low-key, easy going…whatever…
Just like over our past eight weeks in Florida, we took a gamble in Cedar Key and at Shell Mound Campground and were pleasantly surprised with how things turned out. Life is a journey and if you keep an open mind, remain flexible, and maintain a healthy dose of optimism, she may hand you some surprises. Those surprises may not always be what you expected, but they may be exactly what you need. The surprises may not be easy and they may not be sexy, but if you let them they can deliver their own brand of beauty, adventure, and education.
As we travel along on this crazy, Big Big Trip, we are discovering that by slowing down, maintaining some flexibility, and embracing the grey areas, we discover unexpected surprises and enjoy the color and brilliance they add to the journey…those are the things that keep life beautiful, laid back, low-key, easy going…whatever…