I have a feeling we aren’t in Kansas anymore.
Nope, we are actually in South Florida!
Likely unbeknownst to most, South Florida is not just a dense urban jungle consisting of beautiful beaches, exotic Latin nightlife, and kamikaze drivers.
Yes, there are actually massive areas of wild prairies and (mostly) untouched land stretching across the southern peninsula in between the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
A prime example of this is the tranquil Kissimmee Prairie State Park.
Encompassing an area of about 90 square miles, this flat and open Florida state park resembles western Kansas much more than it does any other typical place in the Sunshine State.
Place yourself in the middle of this park, and you will witness a vast and open plain void of nearly any trees in all directions. The only noise you are able to hear are the birds and crickets of the prairie.
These aren’t exactly the birds and crickets you hear along the coasts in Florida. The sound, coupled with the vistas, can make it hard to remember you are not in The Great Plains.
Early in the Day
After visiting Lake June in Winter and Highlands Hammock State Parks earlier in the day, our tummies were quite pissed. We searched something, anything, to eat. A brief stop at a Five Guys for lunch was followed by visiting a Publix for dinner supplies. The Publix appeared to have been built six days ago.
The road out of Placid Lakes was what I had been looking for all day. I anticipated the 200 mile drive down US 17 from Gainesville to be much less developed than it actually was.
Instead of cruising down a four lane highway through the countryside and occasionally running into towns, we spent nearly the entire trip creeping through a suburban sprawl with endless red lights.
Despite over studying maps of Florida, I had failed to realize how far Orlando’s’ suburban area had spread. It won’t be long before Tampa and Orlando are a singular massive metroplex.
Driving to the Park
Just over two hours after leaving home, we were finally out in the country, on a two lane coarsely paved road. There was nearly nothing around but swampy prairie land with some occasional trees. It was starting to seem too rural to even be Florida!
Most Florida State Parks are located directly off of a major highway. Kississimmie Prairie required a long drive down a county back road before the park even began. After passing Basinger, a former town named on the map that apparently doesn’t even warrant a Wikipedia page, we were almost to the entrance.
A very small State Park sign greeted us at the park boundary, along with a changeover from coarse asphalt to a gravel road. There was no ranger check-in station, no honor pay box, not even a gate! There was however an awning built over a large information sign.
As we began driving down the gravel road, our forward field of view consisted only of the gravel road meeting the sky.
The road quickly became a gravel washboard, causing my extensively traveled CRV to begin vibrating and shaking to the point of absurdity. The vibrating jolts were now causing my head to shake to the point that brain juice was leaking out of my ears and dripping all over my lap.
An excruciatingly tortuous five miles bouncing down the gravel road through the park ensued. By the way, the road was absolutely beautiful.
Lost Track of Time
We reached the end of the devastating road and arrived at the park headquarters. There was just one fairly large white ranch house looking building. Large for a state park ranger station in the wilderness, that is.
I walked casually towards the entrance door and noticed the hours posted were from 8 am to 4pm. My watch read 4:03pm. I had not been paying attention to the time in a couple of hours.
“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME??”
I went to grab the door handle with premature rage and the door swung right open. A young park ranger quickly checked me into our campsite, stamped my passport, and I left.
I thanked him for being there even though I was apparently two minutes past close. After inquiring, I discovered that there was no Passport Stamp for Okeechobee Battlefield.
We slowly maneuvered the car through the campground. After driving in numerous circle, we soon realized that our campsite did not exist. Shit.
I pulled back to the little ranger station and jogged up to the door to ask where the campsite was, but the door was locked. Only 5 minutes had passed since I had left.
Now comes that part where all of you can point and laugh at me. I booked an astronomy campsite so we could view the apparently spectacular night sky over the prairie. This was the primary purpose of the entire trip.
Except I failed to notice the date we would be going on this trip….there was a 98% full moon. In other words….no stars! The moon would be bleaching out the entire sky tonight.
No matter. The whole purpose of the trip was now eliminated, but camping out in the moonlight would be just as dandy. Little did I know that Nature still had more plans.
The astronomy campground area was the most unique campsite I had seen in all of Florida. There were 5 sites adjacent to each other, with absolutely no privacy or dividing lines between the sites. All the other campsites I had been to generally had at least SOME trees or boundary fence, this was just a giant field.
Luckily for us, there ended up only being one other person in the whole area. He was located about 50 feet away, in an old full sized van towing an older motorcycle.
“Welcome neighbor. Welcome!” spoke the man. He was wearing a camo shirt, and short shorts with long gray hair down to his shoulders. He appeared to have some photography equipment, or at least some wires and weird black spheres and an indefinable box.
As we began setting up the tent, sudden gusts of wind conveniently attacked. This was an odd situation for us, as all other Florida camping trips involved completely still air.
The tent was always setup rapidly without wind disturbance, as we raced against the inevitable mosquito time bomb. Today the fabric was flapping everywhere and threatening to sail far away.
In the distant east, Sarah noticed a fire. Smoke was billowing up rapidly over the horizon. It was at least 15 or 20 miles away, but the red glow from the flames was faintly visible.
Perhaps instead of complaining about the moon drowning out our star field, we would be experiencing an insinuating inferno of doom at our campsite. Perhaps I was being too pessimistic.
The fire was certainly worth watching, but was unlikely to affect our area in any way. It wasn’t much longer before helicopters were flying near the fire and the smoke drastically increased.
Only 90 minutes remained until sunset; the day had raced by as they always seem to do on these trips.
The campgrounds and park office were located right in the middle of the Kilpatrick Hammock. A short trail loops around the hammock, about two miles in length.
There was just enough time to complete this trail before dark, if we did not stop while on the walk.
The trail looped around some surprisingly interesting mini-ecosystems. What was an open prairie suddenly became a beautiful hammock of lush sabal palm trees. Just a few feet further down the trail, the landscape turned into a scalded patch of palm trees. The ground consisted of rather tall but a flattened, mushy, thick grass.
A small stream bed meandered through the landscape we were traversing. The stream bed looked like a permanent swamp waterway, but probably one that only sees water after thunderstorms. At this time, it was very dry. In fact, as I write this, the southern half of Florida is in a severe drought.
Back to Campsite
As the sun approached the horizon, we made it back to our campsite. Our stomachs had grown with disdain for our lack of food during the hike.
There were no campfires permitted at the astronomy campsite, so we packed a couple of Pub Subs from Publix for dinner. Hopefully we would be able to withstand the chilly air that evening without a fire…
The sunset this evening was spectacular, by far the best I have seen in Florida away from the beach. As a matter of fact, it was the only sunset I’ve seen away from the beach, Most of the state is so enshrouded in forest that seeing the sun within an hour of sunset or sunrise is nearly impossible.
Despite my foolish failure to take the lunar cycle into consideration for this trip, the view of the night sky was still wonderful. A bright, white full moon lit the open air as well as the magnificent prairie all around us.
There were no street or building lights in the area, in fact no artificial lights of any type anywhere on the horizon. The world around us was plastered with a bright white glow. We were casting the brightest moon shadows I had seen with my own eyes in many years.
The Irony of a Storm
Just one day prior to our departure for this trip, a slight risk of severe weather was outlooked by the Storm Prediction Center for parts of Kentucky and Tennessee…nearly 800 miles away from our planned campsite.
The morning we left, the risk had shifted a bit further south towards southern Alabama, but not enough for me to even notice the change at the time. There was a virtually zero percent chance of precipitation at home in Gainesville, and 200 miles south at the campsite skies were still expected to be completely clear.
The time was 9pm when a strange impulse to check the storm reports for the day interrupted my basking in the moonlight at our campsite.
Just Once! I foolishly thought. After all, there was a decent chance that at least a couple of tornadoes had occurred somewhere within 900 miles of us, so I HAD to know, right?
Much to my dismay, I got in the car and looked at my phone, thus ruining my night vision (although the Moon still wasn’t helping obviously). Most importantly I was wasting time looking at a phone screen while camping.
“What the FVVK?” is probably what I yelled in the car when I pulled up the radar. There was a massive squall line cutting across the eastern Florida panhandle, complete with severe thunderstorm warnings that stretched from the Florida gulf coast into South Georgia!
The line of storms was already on top of Tallahassee. It was clear that the line would have plenty of energy to make its way into the peninsula and through Gainesville. Surely it would not survive travelling much farther south than that though, right?
The updated forecast now showed a 90% chance of strong storms in the Gainesville area, and a 50% chance of a storm *at our campsite*! Compare this to 0 just 24 hours before.
What a completely unsurprising surprise! We drive three hours away from home for the night, and the first storm in several months spontaneously appears on top of our house.
Within an hour of the hysterically frustrating weather realizations, a very tall and puffy cumulus cloud appeared across the prairie to the east, perfectly illuminated in the moonlight. In fact, there were two.
“Was that a flash? Lightning?” Hell yes it was! I took another peak at the radar and it indeed showed two small thundershowers about 11 miles to our east.
The poofy cumulus clouds floated above the prairie and shot out spritz of lightning every couple of minutes for our enjoyment.
They were just far away enough not to pose any threat to us, but close enough to perform an entertaining show. It was nature’s redemption for washing out our star field with the moon.
The night waned on, and we grew weary and beyond ready for bed.
Around 2:30am that night, or morning if you prefer, we awoke to our tent shaking and flopping wildly in the wind. I opened the door to peak outside and found that our moonlight was completely gone.
Scary Looking Clouds
A dark figure was hanging down across the western sky. To the lesser experienced eyes, this might appear to be a tornado preparing to come down. However, it was a roll cloud swirling in the air in front of the approaching squall line.
A bright flash illuminated the air and thunder soon rolled across the prairie. I awoke Sarah and we stumbled out of the tent and into the car.
For some reason I wasn’t in the mood to be insta-fried by lightning in our tent this night.
Luckily, the seats in the CRV recline nearly flat. Need a vehicle for cross-country travels that is fuel efficient, has ample storage, and is as dependable as your own feet? There is no better choice. <Just bring a spare hose clamp>
While lying back in the seat, I watched the very scary looking but virtually harmless roll cloud dance over the prairie. The cloud approached us and soon passed overhead, bringing a brief episode of heavy rain and gusty winds as it did so.
Around forty-five minutes after having dozed off, I re-awoke and saw the back side of a different roll cloud to the far east of our location.
The sky was still a dreary overcast, but the baby storm had moved past. We returned to the tent for the evening…er morning rather.
After daylight broke, we departed for a several mile walk on one of the many trails the prairie has to offer. The trail began at our campsite and went due north through the open prairie before eventually turning towards the west.
After over a mile on the trail, I had a hard time convincing my self that we were still in Florida as opposed to Kansas. The trail was dirt, the surrounding area was nothing but tall brown grass, and even the tweeting birds sounded like the prairie birds of the Great Plains.
Indeed, all perceptions indicated we were in Kansas, but the map still showed that we were in south Florida. Furthermore, a tractor was now rolling down the trail behind us. Why? Why not.
There was a seemingly spontaneous swamp on the left side of the trail, filled with small fish and little critters, but the water level appeared much too low for the presences of any alligators. Perhaps the water was low from the long-term lack of rainfall much of Florida was experiencing at this time, and the gators had found refugee elsewhere.
Ahead on the trail appeared to be at least a partial hammock, as there were numerous sabal palms trees bunched together. Meanwhile on the ground, my new hiking boots were in the middle of a heated argument with my toes.
Apparently I had chosen much too small of a size. Please be sure your boots or shoes fit before partaking on very long walks, or you will deeply sorry afterwards.
We aborted the trip prematurely and made a U-turn to head back to the car. Had we continued going forward, we would have only walked an additional mile or so and completed the entire loop.
I felt like a sorry ass baby at the time, however I knew I would feel even worse later when my toes turned to liquid if I tried to stick the walk out.
The tent was taken down and placed into the back of the car. We didn’t want to roll it up and stuff it into the bag soaking wet.
The prairie trip was over already and it was time to drive down to Lake Okeechobee.
This would be our first time seeing the actual lake. The only other time we had been near the lake was in the middle of the night on a return trip home a couple of years prior, when I first came to Florida.
Have you ever been completely screwed by a weather forecast? Maybe you overlooked a crucial variable when making plans that defeated the purpose of your event? Have you ever felt geographical deja vu?