Sunday, August 9, 2015

Experience and planning

When the day to depart on your long-planned vacation finally arrives, you wonder what happened to the last three months? Why am I not ready yet? This time we are pretty much ready, taking a week and a half to secure the boat, have the car checked over and the brakes replaced, put up the hurricane shutters in a controlled, intelligent sequence, clean and pack the clothes, go over our checklist many times, and still, two hundred miles up the road I remember I didn't take my iPod. Or the neat little pocket vial of mosquito repellent that we will dearly miss the first evening. It is sitting on the kitchen counter, not far from my iPod, where we will see it first thing when we get home.

Stephen C. Foster Cultural Center State Park, Florida

But, hey we are on the road yet once again, headed north to Georgia and hopefully cooler and drier weather. We didn't actually head out the driveway until 1:00 in the afternoon on Wednesday, a first for us. We planned to only travel a couple of hundred miles and stop at either the Stephen C. Foster State Park or the Stephen C. Foster Cultural Center State Park. The first one is near Fargo, Georgia, 60 miles north of the cultural center at White Springs, Florida. 

A quick check of on Tuesday night showed both campgrounds fairly empty so we weren't worried about just dropping in. The Georgia park, however, has a new rate of $35 a night, almost doubling the cost of the last time we stayed there, even with the twenty percent discount for senior citizens. So, our favorite campground at Stephen C. Foster Cultural Center in Florida wins for our first overnight stop. A quick telephone call to the Florida park from I-75 confirms there is plenty of room, and they'll be at the gate until 8:45pm. Since I'm a Florida resident over 65, it will cost $11 a night. Perfect.

Pull-through camp site at Stephen C. Foster C.C. State Park, Florida

Our trusty 21 foot Sportsmen travel trailer obediently trails closely behind, making us pay a hefty penalty in gas mileage, but all in all, we are again happy to be on vacation. We are doing something we have never done before, striking out without making a single reservation. Our general plan is to have fun, play everything by ear, and head for home when we are either worn out or locked out. Or, perhaps both. There are no campgrounds in any state park system, or Federal campgrounds anywhere in the South, and believe me, there are hundreds, that have space available over the Labor Day Weekend. There are zero openings. Playing by ear may not be the sweetest music after all.

One thing I really don't like about towing the travel trailer are construction zones on Interstates. I'm surprised there aren't accidents every 10 or 15 minutes in the narrow, rough, often poorly marked or illuminated double lane changes and detours. Having an 18 wheeler beside you while you are trying not to scrape your trailer's sides off in a makeshift, concrete canyon isn't fun. I knew I-75 north of Tampa is undergoing a massive widening project for about 50 miles, I decided to take State Road 471 from Lakeland north to Baldwin through the Withlacoochie State Forest as an alternative route. The major flaw in my plan is that I have to drive over 20 miles on I-4 to get to Lakeland and that, plus a short drive through Lakeland on US 98, adds almost an hour to our expected arrival time. No matter, the serene, 35 mile drive on 471 through the forest is only interrupted by one other car during the entire trip. As far as I'm concerned, it is the only way to travel. We picked up the Interstate once again at Wildwood after tanking up. We were far on the other side of the construction zone.

While pulling uphill onto the I-75 on-ramp at Wildwood, our Toyota Sequoia's dashboard lights up like the console of the Starship Enterprise. Now what? We pulled off the side of the ramp and shut everything down and tried again. The bright array of lights stubbornly stays on, but everything works fine: brakes, transmission, windows, everything we can think to test. No smoke or fluids boiling over so there is no outward sign of mechanical failure. The Toyota owner's manual is no help what-so-ever. Well, so much for detailed planning. My garage at home is already closed, so I'll have to wait until morning to find out if they can offer any telephone assistance. We start off again, slowly at first, then getting back to cruising speed after a few minutes when nothing major falls off. At least it isn't raining.

We pull into the Live Oak shrouded park at White Springs a little after 6:00 pm, and after a few minutes are on our way to one of the last remaining campsites. The campground filled with drop-ins in just a few hours after we called, but we did get one of the few remaining pull-through sites – meaning we don't have to back in – and were set up in a matter of minutes. It is hot and humid, just like home, so sitting outside is out of the question. Time for a glass of wine and a piece of chocolate.

Day 2

Good news! The lights are off on the Sequoia’s dashboard as I start the truck first thing Thursday morning. Whatever Gremlins were running around the SUV have left, or at least they're still asleep. We take our time eating breakfast and walking Taz before even seriously thinking about where we are going next. Taz, our twelve year old Golden Retriever, balks at breakfast, and for the first time in recorded history refuses to eat. We suspect something wrong with the canned dog food and open a fresh can from a different style of food. Nope, he's not having any of it. He's ready to go home and he isn't going to eat until we do. We walk completely around the beautiful park under the live oaks and Spanish Moss but that does nothing to spark his appetite.

I've always wanted to paddle the headwaters of the Suwannee River at the Stephen C. Foster State Park, near Fargo, Georgia. [While the city, county and most other names are spelled Suwanee, the river itself is usually spelled Suwannee] We've been there before, once even taking our own kayaks, but between bad weather and forest fires, we've never actually paddled there. We figured we'd spend a couple of days and see if we could rent kayaks or at least a canoe and take a look. We put away the breakfast dishes and slowly head up SR 153 toward Fargo, enjoying the ride and waving at people along the way mowing their grass or checking mail. Southern hospitality is no joke.

We stop at the Suwannee River Visitors Center on US 441 in Fargo, but it is locked up tight. We've passed the attractive, modern looking center many times in the past, but the one time we actually try to visit, it's closed. Several pickup trucks with empty, small boat trailers wait patiently in a neat row by the side of the boat ramp. The Suwannee River isn't very high even after all the rains, but it is better than when we were here during the drought five years ago and the bottom of the concrete ramp was fifteen feet from the water's edge.

Suwannee River Visitor Center, Fargo, Georgia

As I pull out of the drive way headed to the Stephen C. Foster State Park seventeen miles away, my dashboard once again lights up, with at least four different warning lights just as the last bar fades from my cellphone coverage icon. 

NEXT: Finally! Paddling the Suwannee, at:

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