Why we stuck around Florida for a month: featuring delicious raw bars, freezing iguanas, the new worst smell I’ve ever experienced, miles of serene beaches, and all kinds of sea specimens.
This is Road Tripping in America, a podcast about life on the road. I’m Lisa.
We’re exploring the US in a pickup truck with a camper – we named our setup The Bobs.
If you daydream about long-term travel or overlanding or vanlife – or maybe you’re already on your own adventure – join us for some entertainment from the road. We’re in search of off-the-beaten-path adventures and new experiences.
Today: I’m sending a postcard from the road while I continue to work on the Backtracks series featuring The White Heart of Mojave, a story about a Death Valley expedition in the 1920s. If you haven’t checked that out yet, the first four chapters are already out and the next two are coming next week.
This is series two, episode eleven: A Postcard from Florida.
If I had spent even five minutes researching or had even one conversation with a friend in advance, I would have learned that January and February are peak season in southern Florida and the Keys and that the kind of long, relaxing beach stay I had envisioned was far beyond the reach of our monthly budget. But I didn’t do any of that in advance, so it came as a rude surprise to find that we couldn’t rent a place for less than $10k a month in the Keys last minute, and that even camping would cost $3k for the month, if a campsite was available, which it wasn’t.
Spending a couple months in southern Florida this winter was already plan C, plan A being spending three months in Mexico and plan B being visiting friends in Panama (which would have ended up being plan A/B because combining these two destinations was an even better idea). Plans A and B and A/B are not happening right now, thanks to all the uncertainties around our pal Omicron.
But after hibernating for two months in Wisconsin and upstate New York, we were thoroughly frozen and ready to defrost. We hadn’t slept in Bob the camper for two months because we were in other people’s spaces for two months. We were ready to get back to our own bed and our slower pace of life.
But camping in Florida is different – much different than our preferred style of camping.
You can’t really wild camp in Florida without a self-contained RV, because the entire state of Florida is basically water and so there’s no way to practice leave-no-trace for human waste. And I’m not about to use go-bags on a regular basis – those are for emergencies only! So we have to pay for camping, and it’s not cheap.
Camping ranges from $10/night if you can luck into a national forest to $100/night in the Keys. State and county parks are in the $22-$36 range/night. Private RV resorts are all over the charts.
Free spots are possible to find, but I can’t recommend them for anything other than emergency, last resort, short term places to stay, because they’re a wild scene. Or they require a reservation in advance. Really! Free spots! Require a reservation!
Even when we did decide to suck it up and pay more than we wanted for camping, we often couldn’t easily even do that, because people plan for months or years in advance to camp in the best spots in Florida. People return to the same spot year after year. State Parks are all on reservation.gov and open to reservations up to 11 months in advance, so it’s really hard to find a spot spontaneously, barring a last minute cancellation when you might be able to squeeze in for a day or two here and there. Which we managed to do a couple times and each time we were told how lucky we were to get a spot.
Camping in Florida feels like camping for camping’s sake – which to be honest, I’m not really a fan of! I camp to be closer to natural places, to be alone in the wilderness, to hike and bike, to watch the stars. None of which you can do from the inside of a climate controlled RV parked next to another climate controlled RV parked next to another climate controlled RV in a campground in the middle of a swamp – or worse, next to an airboat launch ramp.
And now it’s time for the “it’s not all bad” part of my postcard. Because it’s never all bad, not even by half. The bad times are just funnier to talk about.
We found an amazing county park at the end of a dead end road where we camped right on the beach, high tide lapping not fifteen feet from the back door of Bob the camper. No one ever came around to collect the camping fee and there was no other way to pay, so it ended up being free, too. The campground was full of charmingly decrepit shelters painted a range of vibrantly cheerful colors like what you’d see on a beach in Costa Rica or Baja. There was a crescent beach that you could walk, and lots of birds, and a protected horseshoe crab nesting site (though we didn’t see any crabs), and a long, long sunset that painted the sky and water bright orange and deep blue for well over an hour. In the middle of the night, the small crashing of the waves faded into a gentle rippling as the tide went out, like little sighing ripples. In the morning, a long flat of sea bed was exposed, almost to the end of the pier, and the exposed areas smelled refreshing and clean and bright.
Then we lucked into a few nights camping at St. George Island State Park and walked eleven miles on the beach, all the way to the undeveloped eastern tip of the island, looking at all the things the sea spit out as if it were an angry toddler refusing to eat. We filled a plastic bag with lighter trash but left the heavier stuff, like full cans of coke, a mangled rope fishing net, a rogue crab trap, a channel buoy marker – we left that stuff behind for the professionals to pick up. From the campground, nestled behind a row of dunes, we could still hear the crashing of the waves, the roar funneled back hundreds of feet by some kind of magic.
The Bobs, recently so clean and sparkling, by this time were covered with sand and pollen – sand everywhere inside and out and no fighting it. Things outside were green and blooming and fresh. Little ferns and little flowers popped up and the songbirds from back up north sang as they hopped from tree to tree, also happy to be here, I assume.
But many campgrounds have no hiking trails, or the hiking trails are flooded midway through, or there are various forms of hunting shutdowns impacting the trails (including snake hunting – would you have guessed that that’s a thing?). There are no mountains in Florida, no canyons. Our frustration with the east in general, the lack of public land, the lack of wide areas to range over and to wild camp on, the strict rules about RV types and overtly classist and covertly all other “ist” rules and regulations, they’re all fully present in Florida.
So why the hell are we here?
Well, it’s warmer here than in the majority of the country, even though it’s still a little chilly. There was a mom visit on the books. But why stick around any longer, why not just beat it back to the southwest?
Because of just one thing…the beach.
I never crave the ocean or the beach until I’m on the beach, and then I don’t want to leave it. The last time I was in Florida, for a work project, I drove an hour out of my way to spend 15 minutes on the beach and almost missed my flight home.
When I’m on the beach, I feel like I’m in the only right place, just like I feel when I’m in a canyon or on a mountain.
You need to be very attuned to nature on the beach – to watch for tides, interesting animals, and shells. Looking at shells on the beach is an exercise in beauty, in being here now. It’s my form of meditation. But the beach is also filled with death. Shells are the remains of once living things. You are stepping around a whole bloom of brown and white striped jellyfish washed up on the beach after a storm in the Sarasota bay, or giant clear jellyfish on the beaches of St. George Island. You’re walking through mounds of oyster shells so high that they tower overhead. You’re walking by the dead fish or bird or starfish or sea sponge or horseshoe crab remains. You’re watching pelicans making their impossible looking dives into the water, coming up gulping down an unlucky fish. You’re watching sandpipers do their funny dance with the waves, and plovers too, finding those mysterious things they find to eat in the sand.
It feels like the beach is the boundary between life and death for humans, too. As we sat on the patio at the fantastic Paddy’s Raw Bar on St. George Island (slogan: a sunny place for shady people), there was a great one man cover band playing before Monday night trivia started. We were eating oysters and shrimp and cheeseburgers under a heat lamp, surrounded by locals who were thrilled that it is low season up here, that tourists are few and far between, that they can have their favorite places to themselves for a bit longer. The sign out front said “welcome home, snowbirds.” The band man led a toast every three or four songs, and one of the toasts went along the lines of, every day we’re still above ground is a good one.
Paul remarked that that kind of dry marvel at still being alive is a common refrain here in Florida.
(sounds from Paddy’s)
We could have stayed on St. George Island for much longer, eating and drinking at Paddy’s every day, chatting with our favorite server Sam, an energetic and optimistic person with lots of great ideas for improving and preserving the island, walking on the beach every day to see what treasures and garbage the sea had spit out the night before. But, by now you’ve all probably heard about the southern FL iguana rain – as in, the temps were dipping so low that iguanas were freezing and falling out of trees. It’s still kinda chilly here.
But we’re not ready to leave the beach yet, though we are ready to pause camping a bit longer. Like I mentioned earlier, we were originally going to go to Panama, so instead, we’re going to Panama City, Florida as our plan D (D as in Difficult). We’re going from hibernation to hibernation, but the climate is improving along the way. We’re renting a place a block away from the beach in an area where it’s still off-season and so very reasonable to do something like this. We’ll walk on the beach every day, bundled in our winter jackets if needed. We’ll find more raw bars, bake things in the oven, do more work, get an emergency tooth filling repair, and all the other things we can’t easily do in our camping lives.
The last time we spent a year on the road, I was craving a home base hardcore after about ten months, while also not being ready to fully stop traveling. Now we’re six months in and I’m craving a home base again. Or maybe that’s just because we’re coming off two months straight of being in other people’s spaces and routines instead of our own. To find out, we’re trying this approach – breaking the trip up into home base-style segments, to see whether it’ll better balance out long term road life.
Cheers to the darkest days of winter being behind us! Cheers to every day we’re still above ground!
We’ll be back next week with the next two chapters of Backtracks: The White Heart of Mojave.
Until then, check out our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com, for a transcript and links to photos from this episode and others. If you are enjoying this podcast, please leave us a review or rating on Apple Podcasts or share it with a friend.
Thanks for listening!
(music fade out)
In lieu of a blooper, I’m going to describe the new worst smell I’ve ever experienced in my life, which was the bathhouse at that otherwise lovely beachfront county campground I mentioned earlier. It was one of those smells that you could smell even while holding your breath – a smell that leaks in around the edges of your nose. Maybe it leaks in through your ears? Or is absorbed through your skin? It was a smell that made your eyes and noise run – not just water but run like a faucet. A smell that made your throat and lungs burn for a good fifteen minutes afterwards. The bathhouse smelled like an entire room filled with rotten eggs, rotten eggs for years and years with no relief. Like sulfur gas. Like the deep swamp murk that bubbles up after you step in putrid mud (picture the bubbles too!).
Everywhere around the park there were big signs saying don’t drink the water. Do not drink the water. The smell is the water. The water is so utterly foul that it has permanently dyed the bowls of the toilets with dark indigo and brown streaks. The toilet bowl is filled with murky black water the color of every color of Easter egg dye blended together. There’s no flushing it down – that’s just the water. There’s a black swirl down the sink that traces the path the water follows as you begrudgingly use it to wash your hands. You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to shower in that shower.
The smell is so bad that you can only respect the smell. So that’s what I’ll leave you with today, instead of a blooper. Respect the smell.