Having left Tampa, the three of us were now flying solo. We would be heading up the west coast, known as the Nature Coast, of Florida and away from the most heavily built up and touristed parts of the state. Mind you there were still plenty of license plates from northern climes, but the quotient of “real” to “plastic” Florida tipped in the right direction.
Our next stop was Manatee Springs State Park. Manatee Springs is just outside the town of Chiefland. Chiefland is the biggest town in the area, but it is less a garden spot than the largest agglomeration of commercial establishments in the area. Actually, that’s not quite true. At least half the local businesses are defunct. Empty stores and store fronts abound. Homes range from modest ranches to shacks and, of course, the ubiquitous mobile home. It is pretty clear that this part of Florida is just hanging on.
Manatee Springs State Park itself was very nice. As one might surmise from the name, there are local springs and underwater caves and sink holes. These are really popular with cave divers. You couldn’t pay me to dive down into underwater caves. It is dangerous enough that all divers are required to check in before the dive and check out after so the rangers can keep track of lost divers. The springs are also visited by a good number of manatees. Intrepid souls can swim in the spring with the manatees—but the water was only 72 degrees so the souls would need to be cold blooded and intrepid.
Our campsite was nestled into a woodsy area. We had a good amount of space around us and were visited by many woodland creatures. The first evening we had six deer come within thirty feet of our trailer. Perhaps more exotic, several armadillos wandered by. These are the small nine-banded Florida armadillos and really quite cute. Dakota was incensed by the armadillos. Every time he saw one, he exploded into a barking, teeth-gnashing fury. The armadillos were mostly interested in snuffling in the leaves looking for food. They completely ignored him.
On our second day at Manatee we had an excellent hike through the park. The trails were extremely well-maintained and featured frequent signage pointing out local flora. One of the ways they protect these forests is with periodic prescribed burns. This keeps the underbrush from taking over, controls insects and pests and enriches the soil. It means hiking through the woods has a sometime smoky odor. These woods are full of loblolly pines. Their trunks feature rough bark that looks like rectangular scales. They have exceptionally long needles and large pine cones. The forest floor is blanketed with them.
Some of the other trees in the park featured calico patches of lichen and algae. The natural colors of these symbiotic organisms are so subtle and gorgeous. The variegated tones are probably un-reproducible by man or woman, but they beg to be replicated into yarn. During our hike, we watched a Red-Headed Woodpecker hard at work and saw more armadillo.
At the Ranger Station, Jim had picked up a flyer on the Levy County Quilt Museum. The afternoon of our hike we headed over to check it out. This was quite a remarkable place. The museum is the physical home of the Log Cabin Quilters. The group was founded in 1983 and by 1992 they had raised the funds for the building. The building was actually constructed in part by inmates from the Lancaster Correctional Institution—a fact of which they are proud. The group continues to meet every Thursday for lunch and quilting and they provide the staffing for the museum.
Displayed at the museum were historical quilts as well as creations from the members own hands and offered for sale. Jim engaged in a long and lively chat with the three older women on hand as staff. He also made a purchase to adorn our every campsite.
Apparently, this is the only quilt museum in all of Florida and they commemorate their visitors from in and out of state on the long front porch.
The weather was warm and we were enjoying sleeping with all of the trailer’s windows open to the night sounds and air. Our last night was marred by our next door neighbors. These people had a pretty ancient trailer and they decided to run their ridiculously noisy air conditioner all night long. Usually campgrounds are really quiet at night. There are always posted quiet hours and people observe them. Well, our neighbors’ compressor blew loudly all night long. It was beyond irritating. How could they not realize how loud it was? As we packed up the next morning, I found it difficult to be civil when they spoke to us. Campgrounds depend upon people being respectful and polite to each other. It is almost always the case–making it more striking the rare times when it isn’t.