We left Palmetto and needed a few solo days as a family before Michael took off for a Sol LeWitt install in NYC, leaving the boys and I parked on the east coast of Florida, near friends in Jupiter. We didn't have a campsite booked when we pulled out, and didn't really have a budget for anything, so aimed for a boondocking site that was mentioned somewhere online, supposedly on the edge of a USAF Bombing Range in central FL. Right up the boys' alley, and so I did my best to navigate us in the right direction. We pulled up at the gate at long last, only to discover that all three camping areas were “Closed for a military event” and that was that. When we asked for any local alternatives, the gate guard mentioned a County Park on the other side of the lake we'd been circling, before allowing that “You can turn around right over there ...” and shooing us off.
We pulled around the bend and out of sight before pulling over to do some Googling and some calling. There's a mighty LOT of Googling and calling on this trip by the way, mostly done by me. I don't know how we'd do what we do without it, though the Atlas is pretty handy too, and lives on my lap when we're driving. But back to the side of the road along Arbuckle Lake in central Florida, just out of sight of the tight-lipped USAF gatekeeper. Michael called the County Park number, and got a very down-to-earth guy named John (I can ALWAYS tell the character and accent of who he's talking to, as he unconsciously mimics every single one), who said that they had plenty of sites for a mere $22 a night, and only a couple spots were currently taken. As I was really hoping not to WalMart it for the next two nights, we headed the long way around the lake (the USAF owned half the perimeter), and several phone calls and a hitch hiker later, we finally found John. Google didn't know where he was, once again telling us “You Have Arrived” in the middle of a deserted road. (A paved one this time, however!)
John chatted, showed us possible sites, offered parking advice, chatted some more, talked about his grandkids and the history of the place, mentioned the gators and their usual hunting spots, pointed out the fence 15' from our door which marked the border with the other side of the USAF Bombing Range from where we'd started, and made us feel right at home. Michael parked, and I raced through inside setup while he chatted with John some more. We seem to have that bit down to a science now … Michael and the boys unhitch, put down the leveling jacks, stow the sway bars and all that, and get the whole camper leveled out. I do the power and water and sewer hookups, and move all the things inside back to their “camped” places that were secured elsewhere during travel.
We kept the cats in the first night, not willing to let them out after dark, though Michael took the boys out on a moonlight wander, which included the sighting of an owl. The next morning we got up for sunrise (yes, really!) and scoped out the lake, the dock, and the humongous wild grapefruits just out of reach over the fence. The USAF fence. Just barely out of reach, mind you.
We mucked around, did a little hike, and let the cats out but kept a pretty close eye on them as the gators were known to stroll past our chosen campsite at times. We had a little point of land between our campsite and the water, which was defined by The Fence, a reedy bit on the lakefront where gators were known to feed, and cypress trees along the third side that bordered the boat ramp inlet. A magical little spot with some benches built into the trees, and piles of lizards scampering through the cypress knees. A veritable cat paradise.
My nervousness about the cat/gator situation was much higher than Michael's, and honestly it's higher than the rest of them pretty much all the time when it comes to the cats. I'm the natural worrier, and wary of rule-breaking, as well as of the cats getting into fights that they very likely might lose. Most places require leashes, which we have and sometimes use, but Sparrow HATES it, while Edmund has learned to tolerate it. We often go against campground rules though and let them wander, after checking with the vibe of the place, and sometimes with our immediate neighbors. The dangers of local wildlife and traffic are assessed, as well as the likelihood of offending others or angering the campground hosts. Most places people seem to gladly turn a blind eye, or more often truly enjoy them, sometimes trying to get the cats to come and have their ears scratched. They never comply, but skitter just out of reach. This place had no rules, just cautions from John about the gators.
So the second night there, Michael gets it in his head that it's a crime to let those massive grapefruits fall off and rot, and he's determined to get one. He knows better than to tell me what he's plotting however (see the previous paragraph) and so the first thing I know about it is him coming in the door of the camper with one of the grapefruit cradled in both hands, and a rather triumphant grin on his face. He explained his process of making sure that our camper was between John and the chosen tree, and how he'd just barely hopped the fence. It was truly the best grapefruit I think I've ever eaten, and chock full of seeds, which we saved. So delicious in fact (stolen fruit and all), that the next day a second one was procured with the assistance of a certain smallish someone standing on his father's shoulders. Ahem.
The second afternoon was a lazy one, and I was sitting outside the camper reading, keeping half an eye on the cats' whereabouts, after scanning the water and not seeing any gator heads at the time. Lost in my book, I suddenly heard the SNAP of jaws at the tip of the point, and saw thrashing and splashing through the bushes. Terrified, I threw down my book, hollered in the camper that there was “a gator that just caught something on the point and I don't know where the cats are!”, before taking off at a hesitant trot towards the point. I quickly found Sparrow, unceremoniously tossed her inside, and went back to hunting for Edmund. It was clear that if he was dinner then that was it, but I called, went as close to the still twitching water as I dared, and then ran the other way, hunting and calling.
I finally found him waltzing slowly up to the camper from the other end of the park, and my heartbeat began to slow a wee bit. It only took about 2 minutes in all, but it was an awful two minutes. I know it's the price I pay for letting them out, and the risk we take, but the alternative is miserable cats as they've never known being cooped up. So be it.
I suspect what did turn into gator dinner was a heron or something like that, though I never went close enough to check for floating feathers.
Lots more photos here.