January 3, 2021 – January 13, 2021
Our final days in Florida, spent along the panhandle moving west, were interesting, perplexing, and possibly considered a quagmire* of sorts. The premise of our quagmire is that, as we left Savannah in November, our intent was to explore only the panhandle of Florida and to forgo the rest of the state, thinking then that the panhandle was the best of the places to visit in the state. Now, having spent over a month in the peninsula and 10 days in the panhandle, we find ourselves less thrilled with the panhandle, our initial focus, thereby creating for us a weird, awkward situation, a quagmire. If that’s not enough, the new direction of travel through Florida allowed us to experience the quagmires of the Okefenokee, Everglades, Corkscrew, and Big Cypress Swamps along our journey through the state.
*Quagmire, a word that has two meanings, one a swampy bog and the other a complex or weird situation. As a side, the word was also used as the sir name for Glenn Quagmire who is a character in the adult cartoon Family Guy. For me, I just like saying the word as it has a funny ring to it and as I reflect on our time in the state of Florida finally have a reason to include it in our travel blog.
In fairness to the panhandle we have two things. Thing 1 is we didn’t heed the advice of our Thomasville cousin who highly recommended the area of Tate’s Hell State Forest and the Apalachicola National Forest, the land below Tallahassee and between Alligator Point and the historic town of Apalachicola. Our anxiety over getting camp spots got the best of us, going against our need to slow down, and we found ourselves driving through and beyond the area into the more developed and commercialized Grayton Beach, Destin, and Fort Walton. Lesson learned for us.
Thing two is that our time there was met with a cold front that dropped temperature, delivered rain, and overcast skies to an area where we should have been enjoying the gorgeous beaches.
We did stay at beautiful state parks with good facilities and access to amazing beaches with the signature white sand, clear water, and show stopping sunsets. The wildlife we saw was fun and learning about the native plants and trees was interesting.
And to emphasize, the panhandle west of Apalachiocola is not yucky, but given the culture of our journey, high rise condo complexes, fancy homes, busy streets with colorful places selling beachwear, outlet malls, and all the other commercial stuff, isn’t our thing at the moment. If you are looking for the quintessential Florida beach experience and a nice t-shirt documenting your visit there, then the western panhandle has it all.
We now shift the topic to the need for heat while winter camping as another topic. Our process since losing the heater in the home has evolved. We started with the hot water bottles. You remember those red rubbery looking industrial things that looked like maybe some kind of fake human organ or something. These are filled with hot boiling water to keep you warm. Well, these work wonders for cold weather camping and best if placed in your sleeping bag prior to getting in. The bonus is if you wrap your jammies (Australian for pajamas) around them for a few minutes before putting them on. But their limitation is that they can’t warm the air outside the covers.
Introduce the Mr. Buddy Heater, a propane heater marketed as a solution for tent camping as a safe method for staying warm. Calling it safe is sketchy as you still have an open flame and combustion creating CO as a by product. But they acknowledge all that falling back on their systems to make it safe for use indoors. Our camper is also equipped with CO and propane gas monitors. Locating heaters in South Florida was tough but we finally found one while in Perry and first used it at the Grayton State Park. It works well with the following limitations. First, propane bottles cost money and this thing blows through the gas especially if you need consistent heat. Secondly the operation requires lots of manual effort. It only provides radiant heat, only operates manually with an on/off nob, and has no thermostat. This isn’t as convenient as you get hot, turn it off, cold turn it on. The unit without gas comes in around $100 making it a bit pricy. And finally, it takes up room which is a premium while two adults and a dog share about 84 square feet of living space.
The current solution is an electric heater from Lowes that comes in at a cost of $15. This thing is awesome when plugged into the electrical hook ups at the state parks, doesn’t cost anymore to use, is small, has a blower, and a simple thermostat control. So this has been our solution to staying warm and cozy while staying in state parks. We still travel with the Mr Buddy Heater for any dry camping with no electricity which will likely happen sometime in the future. Picture enhancement courtesy of Toby’s grandmother.
Our direction of travel now shifts from north to west as we leave Perry, Florida and begin moving west along the coast of the Florida panhandle. Our drive from Perry had us passing through a Wilderness Management Area, lots of forest with ever increasing oaks, pines and still more sawtooth palms. There were swamps, farms, convenience stores, and small businesses advertising fresh seafood and BBQ. Eventually we got to a spot where the drive delivered a view of the gulf which was nice to see. We followed highway 98 and 318 as we passed through the small town of Panacea and into the town of Carrabelle where we stopped at a beach front park. Being dog friendly, Toohey played for a bit on the beach and we stretched. We also learned from a sign that the place along with Dog Island were instrumental in the training for the D-Day invasion in Normandy which was a cool history fact. We passed Tate’s Hell State Forest which was an area we pegged in our research with free boondocking sites and where we’d later regret not taking the time to stay and explore.
We drove from there to the city of Apalachicola, one of the world’s leaders in oyster production. This small historic town immediately grabbed our attention as something unexpected and special. We drove through the small downtown area, got out walked a bit along the waterfront to see some boats, the view, and a Christmas tree made of a shrimp net with ornaments made from old bouys and life preserver rings. The businesses downtown seem to be the show stopper with restaurants and small shops in old historic buildings, a place begging for a return trip once things are safer from the cootie virus.
On the way out of town we made a quick dash into the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store for a bag of some fried organic root vegetables (potato chips) to snack on before moving along. The remainder of the drive went through the hurricane damaged Mexico Beach area, with houses still gone evidenced by the foundations left, trees snapped off mid trunk, and then all the new construction, the sign of the future and an economy supporting its return.
Panama City was a city with lots of traffic, large highways, and way more of the wrong energy we were seeking so we hustled straight on through to the other side. We made one last stop at a Publix grocery store before our final 20 minutes to camp. We pulled in, checked in, and set up home in site No. 1 in Grayton Beach State Park. We were exhausted from a few nights of celebrating the new year so decided on an easy dinner and early night to bed.
The next ten nights would include three state parks, the travel distance between each under 15 miles, all along sugary white sandy beaches, emerald blue water, and progressively densely populated beach communities. Our adventures and travels weren’t overly exciting with outdoors, nature, or adventure, but we met interesting people, enjoyed amazing sunrises and sunsets, rode bikes, ran, and walked the beach.
Grayton Beach state park was our first stop and my favorite spot of the three camps as it was the most private and rustic with the Point Washington State Forest located across the street providing lots of trails and gravel bike riding opportunities. We dined at the Red Bar, a nice venture out for us for dinner, other than the one dude who stood maskless over us to proudly explain his Trumpian politics and how he’d wear the grey of the confederacy if it happened today, all this after he simply asked us how we found this place (we assumed restaurant) and I simply returned the question asking him how he found it. He would later apologize for his rants and they did little to change the fact that the dinner was delicious and the place fun and worth a return.
The Red Bar sits in the small community of Grayton Beach which is way quieter with more beach charm than Watercolor, Seaside or the other modern beach communities sitting just east. We found it less developed but certainly not any less expensive.
We left there and moved camp to Topsail State Park, a place that we described as the Landings of state park camps. This, based on the tall pines and manicured grounds and that most campers were Airstreams. We were there at the same time as an Airstream rally. Apparently the Airstream member clubs are a big deal. If you ever see an Airstream and there is a large red number on the front, that is their membership number. It was fun seeing all of them and learning more about the group, as much as they’d let on at least. The park also has lots of trails, more beach, and was very nice.
The park had a large laundry facility so we got that chore done before moving to the next site at Henderson Beach State Park. This place had really nice campsites, large, flat, and private. The beach was the best in terms of white sand and clear emerald water but still no dogs allowed. It was a beach oasis of sorts, sandwiched between large high rise condos sitting beach side to the east and west and a loud six lane highway 100 yards to the north providing lots of customers to mega retail commercial establishments, making for a noisy campsite. The park maintains its natural setting of sand pines, a variety of oak trees, saw palms, and other foliage, indigenous to the state. There is an old WWII radar complex sitting on the property behind a high fence that according to the ranger, that’s all they will tell us.
Our campsite was full of squirrels, a cardinal couple, and other small birds. Our favorite tree was the sand pine as it was way different than most pines, short and curvy. Apparently they are endangered as they require fire for the pinecones to seed and are only found here and in a small section of the Alabama coast.
We ran most days, did a bike ride for exercise through lots of traffic with no views beyond the high rise beachfront complexes, and got our Tibetan Rites on again in a small seldom used and secluded amphitheater. We had unusually cold weather, overcast skies, and rain while there so we spent time comfortably inside the camper with our new awesome $15 space heater. This little bad boy is way more efficient than the My Buddy product, has a fan to circulate the air, and thermostat for greater control, which is great.
As our time here is over, we are set for the next state, next campsite, and next adventure. Alabama, with the university who currently owns college football, the name of the greatest southern rock ballad ever written, and the state that sits as almost a mirror image to its western neighbor, Mississippi, awaits us. And lastly something my children might appreciate, Alabama is also embedded in one of my favorite Groucho Max jokes.
One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.
Then we tried to remove the tusks. The tusks. That’s not so easy to say. Tusks. You try it some time.
As I say, we tried to remove the tusks. But they were embedded so firmly we couldn’t budge them.
Of course, in Alabama the Tuscaloosa, but that is entirely ir-elephant to what I was talking about.Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers
The TWT team is ready to move on from our large extended Florida chapter, west to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Our direction is west but who knows what adventure lies ahead as based on the quagmire this state presented, we don’t dare speculate, but simply wander.