So I went camping this weekend!
If you know me at all, you are probably shocked and appalled. The Ocala National Forest website describes their campsites as ranging from “full-service” to “rustic.” Our site fell somewhere between “rustic” and “bombed out.” I asked Matt beforehand if the bathrooms were really gross. He assured me that the bathrooms weren’t gross at all. I admitted that I was relieved.
“There actually are no bathrooms.”
Everyone in my life expected me to bail at the last minute.
So, yesterday afternoon, never to be one to let others be right, I headed out to Ocala around two-thirty. I didn’t tell anyone I was coming; I was anxious to see their surprised faces when I showed up at the campsite after all.
It’s supposed to be about a two hour drive but at the two-and-a-half hour mark, I still hadn’t passed the elusive “Fire Road 88” and I was starting to get worried because darkness was fast approaching. I’d been driving down a long stretch of nothing on State Road 40 and it was beginning to feel never ending. I was starting to pass signs assuring me that I was headed the right way for Daytona which is definitely not where I wanted to be.
I was beginning to get nervous.
Finally, I saw a few small shops. I careened into the parking lot and hopped out of my car. There was a small and pleasant-looking realtor’s office and I thought, of all people, a realtor should be able to give me reliable directions to Fire Road 88. I tried the door and it was locked. I tried the next door. Bingo.
It opened and inside were about forty or fifty guys in black leather and chains listening to some very, very loud Lynard Skynard.
I began to get nervous again.
As I backed out the door, I ran into something very large and very solid. I turned around to find a towering giant of a man with piercing blue eyes, a very long mullet, a black leather vest, and more than the usual number of tattoos.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said cautiously, “do you live around here?”
He grinned and gestured to a motorcycle parked nearby. “That’s where I live, little lady. Right there on that bike.”
“Do you happen to know where I’d find Fire Road 88?”
He raised his eyebrows and gestured toward the setting sun. “Is that where you just came from?” I nodded and he let out a hacking smoker’s laugh that shook his whole belly and rattled his chains. “Well, honey, you done passed that road a long time ago.”
I grimaced. “I was afraid that you were going to say that.”
A friend of his, matching his stride in black leather and chains but exceeding it in ink, had approached by this time and gazed at my chicken scratch directions through mirrored aviator shades. “Well, looks like you’ve got quite a ways to go before the sun sets, Babydoll, where are you off to anyhow?”
I told him that I was meeting some friends at a campsite. The friend grinned and I found that he exceeded his friend in gold teeth as well. “If that don’t work out, I live around there, you can just come by my house if you want.”
I assured him that I’d keep that in mind.
A few too many moments later, I was on my way, secure in the knowledge that I’d overshot my turn by twelve miles and two very large bikers knew the precise location of my campsite. Nice.
I’d expected Fire Road 88 to be signified with streamers and confetti, or at the very least some sort of sign, but a tiny brown metal sign reading “Gun Range, This Way” and a road sign labelled “State Road 234” were all the assurance I was afforded.
The next portion of the directions informed me that after passing the Gun Range, I had about nine or ten miles to go. I set my odometer. I’d been assured that the path to the campsite would be marked with orange flags or tape of some sort. Thankfully, I soon saw a line of bright orange tape wound around an oak tree.
Sure enough, about half a mile down the road, there was more tape. Another mile, and there was more. I wondered how they’d marked the actual entrance to the campsite. Maybe there’d be some sort of sign. Perhaps streamers and confetti.
One thing that surprised me was the total lack of anything on this road. There was the gun range of course at the beginning but after that was just miles and miles and miles of trees. And then more trees. And then just to break up the monotony, some trees were thrown in. Nothing else. Just trees.
I kept passing this bright orange tape and it reassured me. Its fluorescence kept me going after a long day of driving and too little to eat. But somewhere around the ten mile mark, it just sort of… stopped. I didn’t see any streamers or confetti, there didn’t even appear to be a sign. There just stopped being orange tape. I came to a stop sign and decided this was a sign to turn back.
I felt, in retrospect, that the last bit of orange tape may have been a tad more celebratory than the others. I felt a distinct flair to the manner in which it was strewn about the tree, it also seemed potentially longer. I felt sure that this was my friends’ understated version of streamers and confetti, their way of saying “This is the place where you will find us.”
I sure hoped so because nightfall was only a half hour away and once darkness fell, my chances of finding the campsite would be reduced to nada.
Upon returning to the last bit of orange tape, it seemed distinctly less celebratory than I remembered it. In fact, it seemed borderline foreboding but I assumed that was my imagination. There was also no real “entrance” here per se, just some tire tracks that one might refer to as a “path” if one were feeling exceptionally generous. The vultures were beginning to circle, so I decided to feel generous. I hesitantly pulled my little 1994 Toyota Corolla into the dirt. The path was narrow, barely wider than the width of my car, and within a few feet of the entrance, the dirt took a decided turn for “non-path-like”. I braked. I reversed. I began to get nervous again.
Fire Road 88 loomed before me. For miles and miles, I could see nothing but solid gold.
Just kidding, trees. Still trees.
The sun was hanging low in the sky and my cell phone had no reception. I decided to head back to the Gun Range and start over with my odometer at zero and see if I could pinpoint a place to start walking. As I pulled out onto the main road, two industrial-size tractors appeared over the hill, like beacons of hope. I slammed on brakes and rolled down my driver’s side window. Two very grubby-looking men pulled up next to my car.
“This is a shot in the dark,” I said hopefully, “but would you happen to have seen anyone camping around these, uh… campgrounds?”
The dark-haired one scratched his head in a way that I’m fairly certain is usually reserved for comic strip characters. “A big group?” he asked.
My face lit up, I think (I couldn’t see it). “Yes!” I replied, enthusiastically. “Have you seen them?”
“Yeah,” he said, slowly, “They’re up yonder, over that hill. Back in the woods aways, wouldn’t you say, Jimmy?”
Jimmy thought he would say that, too.
“My cell phone isn’t working,” I explained, regretfully.
They both laughed. “Not out here in the woods, it sure won’t. Ain’t no way to call nobody out here.”
(That’s called foreshadowing.)
“You wanna go up over that hill,” he told me, “they’ve marked it off with orange stuff, you know, like the guys use around telephone poles.” I didn’t have a mental picture of that because I’m a member of the educated bourgeoisie and I don’t pay attention to telephone poles unless one falls on me, but I nodded to speed things along.
“Can I park by the road and then just walk in?” I asked, hopefully.
He shook his head with a frown. “It’s a long way to where they are,” he warned, “They’ve all got their cars parked up near their tents. You’ll probably want to drive all the way in. Just go about half a mile up, over this here hill.”
I thanked them both and reset my odometer. Exactly half a mile later, I was over the hill and directly across from the same forest opening I’d ventured into before. I decided that if everyone else’s car had made it, mine would probably be alright. I made my way into the woods, thinking of how surprised everyone would be to see me. I’d show those fools. I was especially glad to be saddled with a funny story, to christen my arrival. I’d driven quite a ways into the woods by now and the trees were growing denser. The path seemed to be growing narrower and the dirt seemed to be piled higher.
And then came the fork. I hesitated for a moment, unsure of which way to turn. I stopped and then decided that right would be best. I stepped on the gas.
My wheels spun helplessly in the dirt, digging me ever deeper. I stopped stepping on the gas. I tried to remember that old Aesop’s fable about the cart stuck in the mud and what it was that Hercules had instructed the poor peasant farmer to do to unstick his cart. I recalled it being rather good advice and working well for the peasant farmer. I couldn’t remember the ending to the fable but I thought it was probably something like “And then Hercules lifted the guy’s cart out of the mud.” Thanks, Hercules.
I did recall, however, that Hercules had specifically instructed the dude not to step on the accelerator, or whatever the ox cart equivalent of that would be, because that would make the wheels sink deeper. I shut off the engine and stepped out of the car.
I walked a bit further down the path, thinking I might stumble across the campgrounds and ask someone to pull me out. I’d driven quite deep into the forest and I thought I should be near the campsite by now.
“Hello,” I called, tentatively. “Hello? Hello!”
The woods responded with silent mockery. The sky responded by continuing to grow darker. I responded by continuing to grow nervous. I still had my good humor about me at this point, all of this would be rather good for a laugh later, I thought. It wasn’t as though I were lost alone in the middle of a forest teeming with bears, wild cats, and serial killers near nightfall with no cell phone and no car, miles and miles from civilization and with no one really expecting me to show up anywhere.
I jumped in my car and laid on the horn.
Wait, not nothing.
I heard a far off whistle. Could that be them? I tapped on the horn again. “Tweet, twoot,” the whistle sang back. I tried tapping out a rhythm to see if the whistle would echo: “Doot doooot.”
I felt certain this was them. I tapped out a little song: “Dooooot doot doot doot doot… doooot doot!”
I got back out of my car, careful not to lock the keys inside. I grabbed a nearby branch and began furiously digging away at the dirt around my tires. That’s what I would do, I would dig myself out. I shoveled and scraped but the dirt was piled high and once I pushed it away, it only slipped back to where it had been.
This is the point when I realized that I was probably going to die.
I leaned against my car, took a deep breath, and started laughing. I mean, laughing hard. It was the sort of laugh that’s often described in novels as “hysterical.” The kind of laugh that a passerby, had there been such a thing, might have mistaken for a sob. I took another deep breath and decided to head back for the road.
It was a long walk back to Fire Road 88, the uneven ground wasn’t much easier on my feet than it was on my car. It was piled high in places and the dirt shifted like quicksand under my weight. The path was still narrow and the trees were still dense and I began to wonder why I’d thought this was a good idea in the first place.
When driving up and down this road earlier, the few cars that I’d passed– the very few– had been populated by senior citizens, much like the rest of this state. I had a vision that I might flag one down and procure their assistance with my vehicle. I’m not sure what assistance I expected a pair of senior citizens to provide but I thought they might at least be able to give me a lift to the campsite or to a working phone.
As I stepped free of the mouth of the woods, I stopped and squinted down the road to my right. I turned and squinted the other way, to my left. There wasn’t a car in sight as far as the eye could see. The air was beginning to turn cool and I’d left my sweater in the car. I rubbed my arms and started walking toward the Gun Range. The Gun Range, the only place that might have people or telephones.
The Gun Range that was nearly ten miles away.
I wondered how long it would take me to walk ten miles and how long I had left until sundown. I wondered if the Gun Range would even be open. I mused over the day’s unlikely sources of solace: a biker bar and a gun range. I mused over whether or not I’d make it home alive. I’d been so excited to surprise everyone at the campsite but now I was left in the unenviable position of having no one to wonder about me if I didn’t show. I felt sure this was the sort of thing my mother would berate me over later, if she had the chance.
Suddenly, I heard a sound behind me. I peered over my shoulder and far in the distance, but fast approaching, was some sort of vehicle, no doubt inhabited by kindly elders with excellent cell phone reception. Without thinking, I stepped out into the middle of the road and began flailing my arms about. The vehicle was still approaching at a disconcerting speed and as it grew closer, I realized that it was a very large, black pick up truck. I started having second thoughts about the arm flailing. It was now barrelling toward me with no indication of slowing down.
I started having second thoughts about standing in the middle of the street.
I stepped to the side as the truck squealed to a stop, inches from my shoes. A shaded driver’s side window slowly rolled down to reveal two very large men with sunglasses and a penchant for loud country music. They kindly turned it down.
“Um, I’m looking for some friends who are camping out here and I was wondering if you guys had seen them. Are you camping out here, too?”
The driver shook his head. He was brawny with dark hair and even darker sunglasses. “We’re on our way to Daytona,” he explained in such a way that almost visibly revealed the coolers full of Coors Light in the bed of their truck.
“Well, do you think you guys could give me a lift down to that bit of orange tape? Can you see it down there? I think my friends are down that way, in the woods. It might be far.”
They looked at each other and shrugged. “Sure, hop in. But you’re gonna have to sit in the middle. Bill, hop out.”
I climbed into the truck and the concept that this might be a bad idea didn’t really occur to me until I was securely squished between these two burly strangers in a non-descript black pick-up truck, which might as well have been descript as Moses for all that anyone would be bothering to describe it.
The driver glanced at me sideways. “You don’t have a gun, do you?”
I assured him that I didn’t and then realized that perhaps I should have been more evasive on that point.
We drove down to the next bit of tape and pulled up to the makeshift entrance. Even the driver seemed a bit apprehensive about the path. It looked more uneven than the path before and by this time, less well-lit. We eased our way in and began our rocky trek through the wilderness.
We drove for quite awhile and I started to wonder if there was really a campsite at all. Suddenly, the driver glanced in his rear-view mirror and asked if I knew these people behind us. I turned around and have quite possibly never been so happy to see anyone in my life. It was the whole gang, or five of them anyway, piled into Aaron’s appropriate-for-off-roading vehicle. We pulled off to the side to let them pass and my new friend lowered the window and honked the horn. I waved frantically out the window and everyone looked terribly confused.
I parted ways with my new friends and the rest of us headed back to my car which Aaron and Eric successfully unearthed and drove to the campsite. Kristin and Sam had caught a ride on the way with Brian so by the time that we arrived, exaggerated tales had begun to spread throughout the campsite about my hitchhiking exploits. I made little attempt to dispel these romantic rumors but quickly embellished with my own narration. It was further explained to me that the correct entrance to the campsite was marked by bright orange flags, such as the kind used by telephone line repair people, as opposed to bright orange tape, which was apparently unrelated.
Some time past two, after nearly everyone had gone to bed, C suggested that we take a walk through the forest. After awhile, he turned his flashlight off so that we could better see the stars. I’d never seen a night sky so bright and lovely. The ground was uneven and walking in the dark took some practice before our eyes adjusted to the lack of light. I stumbled on a poorly-arranged rock and he grabbed my hand. We walked hand in hand for awhile, telling ghost stories and scaring ourselves. We peed behind trees even though there was no one around to see. We stopped to admire the sky and that’s when he kissed me, in the darkest dark with a flashlight newly shut off, and he ended up french kissing my hair. I laughed at him because I’m a jerk, generally.
“Where are you sleeping tonight?” he asked in a voice that I assume he thought was seductive.
I flashed on my torch and swept the light over the campsite. “Somewhere over there,” I said, vaguely. “My tent is somewhere in that direction, well, a little to the left really. There it is. Oh wait, that’s not my tent, that’s Jonathon’s–“
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Oh.” I laughed nervously.
I told him that I didn’t think I should sleep in his tent that night. J and I had decided less than a week ago to cease and desist our romantic inclinations for good and I thought emerging from the tent of one of his best friends the following morning might be a bit, shall we say, gauche.
I retired to my chambers, so to speak, at three but tossed and turned straight through til six. It was too cold to sleep so as soon as it was light enough to warrant emerging, I did so.
By eight, people had begun to awaken and I decided that it was time to hit the road. My friends gave me sage advice for my trek through the wilderness: “Don’t stop, don’t slow down. Just plow right through as fast as you can or you’ll get stuck. And try to stick to the high side of the road. And if you get stuck again, just honk… we’ll probably hear you.”
So I climbed into my car, took a deep breath and stared down the narrow, twisted path ahead of me. And I barrelled forth. It felt like a bobsled video game as I hurtled through the forest, hugging the sides of the roads, this side and then that, stepping on the gas when my tires spun out and ignoring the little hills my car was forced to leap. A very long, terrifying five minutes later, I was out of the woods both literally and otherwise.
And now I am home and I am glad, but I would do it all again.
Well, most of it anyway.