Monday, April 22, 2019

Plan B

It has been exactly a year since we last used our travel trailer, and we have a dilemma: Do we really want to keep the camper or is it time to sell it and find a different way to spend our summers? We reserved four days at Highland Hammocks State Park, near Sebring, Florida, for the Easter weekend to help us make a decision.

It has been ten years since we last camped at Highland Hammocks, only our second campground when we first started RV camping. We have fond memories of the heavily wooded sites and the friends we camped with back in the beginning of our decade-long adventure. Our first hint things have changed came when we tried to make our on-line reservations and found that even though our desired dates – Easter Weekend – were over two months away, there were only several sites left in the entire campground. The new on-line maps are no longer even close to accurate as far as layout is concerned, looking more like modern art than a real map, and we found ourselves far from satisfied with the new online information. We picked site 12, which appeared to be not far from our first site we really liked all those years before, According to the new map, it also appeared to be fairly private.

Watering hole in the dry season - Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

All we had to do was prepare the trailer for the short 90 mile trip. We decided to pack lightly as nearby Sebring now has all the amenities and stores we would need. Picking Sebring was a chance to spend time sightseeing the area, something we hadn’t done in a while, plus visit with friends who decided to drive up from Miami for a day trip. We would have several restaurants to choose from nearby as the camper gets smaller and smaller as time goes by.

After cleaning and packing, checking tires and brakes, and checking the Toyota Sequoia tow SUV as well, and spending only a day to load the trailer, we were ready to roll. After a pleasant drive through southwest Florida, we pulled into the campground a little before four in the afternoon.

Ranger Laura was friendly and efficient and we were soon on our way from the campground office to our site, which to our dismay, we could not find. We sat looking at the campground map, then looking around the campground as we sat blocking the access road. Site 10 was to our left, and beyond that the next visible marker was site 13. Site 12 had to be somewhere in between the two, but the only markers were the site numbers painted on top of several picnic tables placed close together. A paved walkway to the campground toilet ran alongside the area we assumed to be our site, but not until we tried to back in did we realize we couldn’t even put out our awning without blocking the foot path. It was such a convoluted layout we blocked sites 12, 13 and the footpath simultaneously when I backed into the space crookedly! Back to the park office!

Ranger Laura did her best to find a site available for the next four days to no avail. She called to have a ranger move the picnic table for us, but that wouldn’t have solved our problem. Not only would I not pay $55 dollars to stay there, I would have paid $55 dollars to not stay there.

In the end we did a void and I called our old standby park, still one of my favorites, at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, about forty miles on the other side of Sebring. Only die hard campers or nature lovers stay at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park more than once, but we have a strange affinity for the desolate place and after a quick phone call to the camp office there, we were on our way.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

The ranger I talked to on the phone said the park office would be closed by the time we arrived, so just park in the walk-up site – which is not on the reservation system web site – tell the campground host we’re there and just check in with them to pay in the morning.

We soon roll across US 27 and I decide not to fill-up the gas tank because of the crowds waiting for gas. Towing a trailer through a gas station can be demanding enough without impatient drivers who can’t maneuver past you. I decide there must be more, less crowded, fuel stations on US 98. Wrong assumption. The old general store gas station just outside the park is covered in iron bars and cobwebs. OK, Google, where is the next gas station?

“Continue nine miles to US 441 and turn right,” says the generic, female voice from the electronic device made up of silicone, plastic, and minimal amounts of precious minerals. No choice now, I’m showing less than a quarter tank of gas and the park is still fifteen miles away, one way in, one way out. Towing a trailer rarely gets you over nine or ten miles to the gallon, so experience counts here; go get gas. We pass mile after mile of cabbage fields, one eye on the gas tank and the other on the flatbed trucks filled with boxes of cabbage. To make us feel really at home, we are swarmed with Florida’s famed pest, the love bug, as soon as we turn onto US 441.

We pull into the Metro Fuel Center on US 441 just north of the town of Okeechobee amid pickup trucks towing trailers with air-boats and old Mercury's with no rear windows. After filling the gas tank, we decide to head into town to buy the groceries we planned on buying in Sebring. We call the campground office to get the after-hours access code which I forgot to ask for, but they had already left for the day. All we had to do as get there before the Rangers lock the front gate, which they do religiously at eight PM. If you don’t have the after-hours access code, you aren’t getting in until the park opens in the morning. With our cabinets full, we head toward the campground. We make it with an hour to spare.

As we head up the seven mile, dusty, swirling dirt road, we feel a sense of ease and familiarity. We stop at the camp-host, who politely informs us she won’t be on duty until tomorrow. No problem, we back into our site, just glad to be there. The ever present crows welcome us back. A Florida State Park golf cart driven by a campground volunteer – we know because her over-sized, black ball cap says so - slowly drives through the moss draped hammock, stopping as we wave to get her attention. MJ welcomes us and laughs as she fills out a windshield pass for our site.

"You can stay two weeks at this site and nobody can make you move,” she said as she looks through her massive metal clip-board, filling out little papers and cards.

She didn’t take my name even though I showed her my Florida driver’s license, so I wonder if I could eventually just wander off and no one would notice. I know better in other parks as they write down your license plate number just in case a camper gets “forgetful.” We look around our almost private site, bounded by massive Live Oaks, draped with Spanish moss, and think, nope, no reason to move.

We have dinner – lasagna instead of the traditional spaghetti – and as soon as it is dark, walk under the moss-draped oaks to the edge of the prairie, which we discover with a flash photograph, is filled with grazing deer. Tomorrow night is supposed to be a “Pink” full moon and we can hardly wait. I bet the campers at Highland Hammocks will have to elbow their way to a viewing spot.

Our decision whether to keep our camper or not is unexpectedly complicated by the weather. We wake up Friday morning to blustery winds, reminiscent of our first visit here when our camper was brand new exactly eight years ago. It was my first blog about the trailer, and last night was our 470th night sleeping in it. Yes, I’m either detail oriented or just plain anal, but I have all the financial details since I spent my first penny on camping. Another part of the decision making process.

Ilse meets the camp host while walking Taz, and is informed our area is under a tornado watch. The host appears quite worried. The last place you want to be during a tornado watch is a Recreational Vehicle of any type, I don’t care where you are. She tells us if the winds pick up, everyone should go to the campground toilets as they are safe. Pets are welcome as well. We walk over to the park office to find a sign on the door announcing it’s closed due to an emergency. We’ll try again tomorrow, I don’t think there will be any problems with registration or paying, perhaps just the weather.

The irony of our stay here at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is our favorite site, site 20, was devastated two years ago by a tornado. Site 20 and the adjacent site, one hosting a Class C self contained unit and the other a fifth-wheel trailer, were ravaged, tossing the campers around like toys. No one was killed, but one of the women suffered severe back injuries. The only reason we weren’t there at that time was the site was reserved before we could get it. We have wondered about our timing ever since.

The rains begin and I scramble to unhook the Toyota so we can have an escape vehicle the way we did in Georgia when Hurricane Irma tore up our campground north of Lake Lanier near Gainesville. No sooner am I done unhooking the truck from the camper than the rains temporarily subside. I finish putting away chairs, mats, and close the camper door just as the rains start again. Ilse gives our sixteen year old Golden Retriever, Taz, a natural tranquilizer and he promptly lays down to watch the show. So far, it has been quiet here, most of the storm has passed to the north of us. We’re not out of this yet, however, as the latest forecast now says the squall line will pass over us in about three hours. More fun while we wait. We slip a DVD from our local library into the player and pass the time watching a movie we realize we’ve already seen. No matter, we watch it again.

By 5 o’clock it is dark enough outside to turn on the camper lights. The wind has been gusting on and off as two campers across from us arrived and erected two huge tents! They haven’t been watching either of the Ft Myers and West Palm Beach television stations we get, if they had, I doubt they would be setting up tents. Thunder in the distance stirs Taz – no amount of tranquilizers will ever stop that – and the rain begins to slam against the trailer. The temperature drops drastically as the squall line approaches. It rains hard for less than twenty minutes and we have a close-by thunderclap

Gradually the storm passes and we’re left with puddles in the access road but no damage, not even palm fronds laying about. The thunder clap was a singular anomaly, just a reminder of how bad it could be. The winds die down and the clouds begin to break, but not enough to see tonight’s full pink moon. By nightfall, almost every campsite is full as campers arrive for the Easter weekend. There are several campfires burning and everything is quiet in the shire. Tomorrow will be beautifully sunny and quite comfortable as the last cold front of the season is upon us.

Saturday morning breaks with a cloudless sky and 60 degree temperatures. A beautiful day in a park that seems to be on the edge of the universe. Of course it isn’t all that remote – the campers next to us loaded up and drove to town for breakfast – but most of us are content to take in the experience leisurely and enjoy the crows who scold everybody for not leaving enough food on the picnic tables.

I head over to the park office – it was closed yesterday for a family emergency – to pay my fees and see what has been added to the retail offerings of T-shirts and hats. There is an intense conversation going on between the ranger on duty and a couple of visitors when I arrived at the park office. Ranger Frank is furiously thumbing through bird identification books trying to help a lady identify a bird she just saw. He looks up and says, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

“No problem,” I answer as MJ walks around the corner, her baseball cap pulled down, her short grey hair sticking out from the bottom of her cap. We catch up on yesterday’s non-event just as Ranger Frank decides he’s exhausted his incredible knowledge of ornithology without resolving the sighting mystery and decides to move on, so to speak.

After a few moments of keying and paging through computer screens, we are set for our four day stay. It turns out to be over twenty dollars cheaper than Highland Hammocks, so I have absolutely no problem! Out of idle curiosity, I ask MJ where the closest gas station is. She says “Oh, France’s place, just outside the main gate, on the road back to US 98.”

“Do you mean the place that looks like it’s abandoned?” I ask.

“Oh, it’s being rebuilt or modernized or something, but the gas pump and the diesel pump both work fine. I was just there a couple of days ago.”

“Modernized?” I asked. “The place looks just plain awful.”

“Yeah, wait’ll you see what she charges for gas! Apparently the state or the county told her to clean the place up so she’s fixing the store up best she can.”

More local knowledge to add to the blog.

Ilse and I take Taz on a morning walk through the equestrian section of the campground, chatting with campers along the way, including a couple from Ontario sitting on a picnic table in the “red light” section of the campground who have decided, although they love the solitude, they have no need to return to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Ilse and I head back to the camper. The campground is full, except for the equestrian loop, the first time we’ve ever seen this park full.

Another day and a half to go and our dilemma has not been solved.

Easter morning is just beautiful. The weather is cool and sunny, the air crisp and sweet. Campers are already rolling out as Ilse fixes waffles for breakfast. Fifty seven years ago today, Ilse and I had our first “date,” walking through Bitburg, her home town in Germany. Today we walk through a canopy of moss covered oak trees in central Florida, headed for a three mile walk across a flat, shade-less prairie. No crystal ball could have possibly foreseen the future, if it had, it would have picked the wrong campground.


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