Palmetto Paradise

We took big and little highways on the drive from Natchez to Palmetto Island State Park in Abbeville, LA. The country through Mississippi was green and beautiful. In fact each day the grass glowed a brighter and brighter green and the azalea blooms were popping out. Spring was coming to Mississippi.

330px-Audubon_BridgeWe crossed that mighty river into Louisiana at the Audubon Bridge.  This is a beautiful and quite new bridge. It is the only crossing point on the Mississippi between Natchez to the north and Baton Rouge to the south. Our intent was to get around a traffic issue in Baton Rouge. The outcome was the experience crossing the second largest cable stayed span in the Western Hemisphere and travel through a very rural part of Louisiana. Once over the bridge, we followed rural highways which twisted and turned through small towns and along small rivers.

IMG_1810It was almost five o’clock when we arrived at Palmetto Island State Park. The park was pretty and we were happy to see copious stands of saw palmetto for which, I expect, the park was named.

When we got to our site, there was a red truck parked in it. The site next to ours was packed with pick up trucks and a big guy came walking over to us. When I say a big guy I mean big. Very Big. This guy knew his way around jambalaya, pork rinds and beer. He made Larry the Cable Guy look svelte. VBG said they would be moving the truck and immediately began dispensing guidance to Jim about how best to park. Jim told him thanks for the advice but he didn’t need it as his wife was Boss and Chief Parking Officer. (Jim will say anything to get a “helpful” adviser off his back). As we inspected our site, loud music, loud voices and the overpowering smell of something cooking drifted over to us. VBG’s wife appeared, cigarette in hand, along two hyper-yippy kind of nasty looking dogs. Did I mention the two sites were really close together with little vegetation in between? This was not an auspicious arrival.

By now Jim was looking a bit volcanic and muttering darkly. He climbed into the truck to maneuver into our site and VBG, uncomprehending and undeterred, proceeded to direct Jim’s every move with hand signals and shouts. This was not going well.

Suddenly, Jim gunned the motor and, if it is possible to do so with 48 feet of truck and trailer, patched out of the site with gravel spraying and flew off down the road. Standing next to VBG after this abrupt departure, I smiled. VBG said, “Guess he got pissed.” I agreed it seemed like that might indeed be the case. Feeling a bit exposed and with nothing else to do, I started walking. I figured if I headed to the ranger station, I would find my spouse, truck, trailer and dog eventually.

I was all the way back to the main road when the distinctive sound of a Cummins diesel engine roared up behind me. A definitely chagrined and sheepish Jim asked how furious, outraged, indignant or mad I was. Mad? I wasn’t mad. Indignant? I thought it was kind of funny.

We headed back to the ranger station to see if there was another site we could have. The station was closed but tacked to the door was a list of empty sites. We chose a site as far from our first site as possible. In a few brief moments we were unhitched. It was a lovely evening and we sat sipping a beer as the sun set. There was no sound of a radio. No yipping dogs. No loud voices. The breeze rustled through the trees and palmetto. Jim turned to me and said, “I guess I’ll be reading about this in the blog…no more than I deserve.”

When Jim had booked this park, he was told he could only book for two days because they were going to be working on the water system. There were three days blocked off on the online reservation system so no one could book sites. When we arrived on Sunday the park was pretty full, but soon it began to empty as people headed to their next destination and, since no one new could book, there were no new arrivals.

We really loved this park. It was extremely pretty. The campground was u-shaped with 96 sites strung like beads on a broken necklace. The sites were nicely distanced and well demarcated with lush vegetation. This effect was amplified greatly as the park emptied out. The comfort station was very clean and nicely appointed. There was ample hot water and you can’t overstate how important that is. I’ll go almost anywhere and do almost anything if I can have a long, hot shower. There was a laundry at the comfort station with the best lending library for books and  dvd’s we had ever seen.

The weather turned pretty hot and steamy on our third day. The Vermilion River runs through the park and canoes were available for rent. We took a paddle up the river.

The scenery was lush and teeming with all kinds of life. Spanish moss hung from the limbs of live oak and festooned the river. Moss climbed the banks of the river and the trunks of the trees. Fish jumped in the river and I had my eye out for gators. We did actually have a baby gator swim right in front of our bow. It was very atmospheric. It was also somewhat perilous. It had been decades since I was in a canoe. I’m more of a kayak person really. The canoe felt so tippy and Jim and I were not exactly synchronized in our paddling. We hit the bank periodically (snakes!) and spun in circles (gators!). I was greatly relieved when we returned to our putting in place dry and unscathed. I think Dakota prefers kayaks, too. He can see out better. Dakota reaches a zen state in a kayak sitting with his eyes closed in the sun, listening to the water.

We learned Mardi Gras had been thoroughly celebrated at the park the weekend before we arrived. Apparently, Palmetto has a bit of a reputation as a party park. Vestiges of the celebration remained. We gathered abandoned bling from vacated sites and decorated for our own Mardi Gras.

Palmetto Island is just outside the town of  Abbeville. The drive to town took about twenty minutes. It was a fascinating drive with much to see. On the way to town we passed large fields of standing water with what looked like lobster traps poking up out of the water. This gave us much to speculate about. Were those rice fields? What were the little orange traps? Well, those were indeed rice fields. The twist to this story is that the farmer wasn’t raising rice as a crop, he was raising the rice to feed his real crop—the much beloved crawfish. Crawfish actually can make a farmer some money and rice can’t. Louisiana raises 90% of all crawfish in the country and I bet they eat at least 90% of their crop themselves.   They surely do love crawfish boil.

Another puzzler on our way to and from town we a airfield with a fleet of helicopters standing at attention in a row. Next to the airfield was a parking lot jammed with every color and variety of pickup truck imaginable. After some investigation, it turned out that among the charter businesses operating out of the airport were several servicing the oilfields. We postulated that the many trucks belonged to the workers pulling their shifts out on the rigs.

Abbeville was a more prosperous town than many. Our guess is this was partly due to the presence of oil field workers in the town. It would make sense they would live near transportation to the fields. In town there were some historic old buildings, what appeared to be two local theater groups. Local businesses, lawyers and health services rounded out what was on offer to local inhabitants. There were also a good handful of restaurants.

The plan was to have a big night out in Abbeville. We had eaten out only a handful of times during our entire trip and never for dinner so this was pretty heady stuff. The ranger at Palmetto had a hand out of restaurants and we checked them out. The winner was Shucks. It billed itself as having the best oysters and seafood and looked like a hopping establishment.  It may have been the day after Mardi Gras, but the place was packed. We had delicious oysters and seafood gumbo. It was great fun rubbing elbows with the locals and seeing a bit of Abbeville at night. We drove home through the lush night air and enjoyed one last night at Palmetto Island.

The Highest Waterfall in Florida Wasn’t Really

Falling Waters State Park boasts the highest waterIMG_5173fall in all of Florida. Sign me up! I gotta see this. When we pulled into the park and up to the ranger station at the gate, the ranger on duty surprised us. Rather than the normal enthusiasm most rangers express for their parks, this fellow said, “yep, not much to do here. About a day is all most people can take and then they head out to find something better to do. You might want to check out the town.” Really? This is how you feel about the park you represent? Were you exiled from some plum park assignment elsewhere and now you spread discontent to all your guests? The park web site says, “this park has something for everyone…” The ranger didn’t seem to feel the same way.

Falling Waters is actually one of the highest hills in Florida. Rising 324 feet above sea level, Native Americans inhabited the area until British and Spanish settlers slowly pushed them out. Tall pine forests cover the hillsides augmented by magnolia trees with deep green leaves and dense clumps of saw palmetto and grasses. The area around the eponymous waterfall is punctuated by sink holes nestled in the underbrush and covered with moss. Peering through the foliage which is dense even in winter, it is difficult to see the sink holes clearly and the overall effect is one of decay, danger and mystery. Several streams wind their way through the brush keeping the air moist and humid. It was hard to imagine the earlier settlers making their way through this terrain.

IMG_5169The waterfall is not quite what you might expect. Rather than looking up to view a tall cascade of water, this waterfall is actually underground! The waterfall is formed by a confluence of streams. The water from these streams thunders 100 feet down into one of the sinkholes. To view the waterfall, one stands on a platform and peers through the gloom to watch the roiling water disappear into a deep moss and vine-lined tunnel.

Our camp site at Falling Waters was nestled on a curve of the campground loop. It was a pretty intimate campground with only 24 sites. After so many weeks on the flat Florida terrain, it was a pleasant change of pace to be perched on the top of the hill. There wasn’t a huge amount of space between sites and tall pines circled our trailer. There were only a few hiking trails at the park. Many of them were actually painstakingly built board walks which wound a path between the shaded sink holes. A good portion of the trails had succumbed to the ever encroaching sink holes and were blocked off from passage.

Taking the ranger’s advice, we did check out the local town, Chipley. Chipley made Chiefland look like a metropolis. Chipley did have a historic district. We followed the signs and did see a couple of old houses in fairly good repair, but other than that it was the usual mix of modest houses, some buildings which were downright shacks and the ubiquitous mobile homes. There wasn’t much else to speak of in Chipley. I hate to sound like a northern snob, but I am not sure I could live in a place like this. Of course, a big part of the lifestyle is hunting and fishing, but if you weren’t looking for outdoor recreation, you were looking in the wrong place.

Whether it was the ranger’s initial ambivalence to the park’s attractions or our disappointment at the tallest waterfall in Florida, this was not our favorite park. Some of our estimation might also have been influenced by the tremendous affection we felt for Ochlockonee. But, hey, every park can’t be a home run hit, there have to be some walks to keep the game moving forward.