Sunday, October 17, 2010

Camping with the Flamingos: Day 1

Casey had two days off school at the end of last week for parent-teacher conference days, so we decided to go camping. Before Thursday, the Airstream had not moved for over a year for various reasons, the main one being that for several months our weekends were completely consumed by leading music in a Saturday night worship service. Nowadays, however, Flamingo Joe plays drums at a church across town a couple of Sundays a weeks and the rest of us sit quietly in church and try to behave (it’s not easy). So it was high time the Airstream hit the road for adventure.

It was my job to find a suitable campground and though that may sound easy, the person we’re really trying to please here is Joe. Flamingo Joe looks down his nose on campgrounds in general because they are, as he says, “Ridiculous.” He believes that if you are going camping, you should be dropped off along the edge of a wilderness somewhere with your backpack, a bedroll and a snakebite kit and arrange for someone to meet you on the other side of said wilderness a week later. Campgrounds where people pull in their $35,000 -- $150,000 campers and park right up next to some other people and their campers is not his idea of roughing it and I really don’t think he sees the point, which is, of course, forcing parents to spend time with their children where SpongeBob and his silly square pants cannot intrude.

So when looking for a campground I try to select one that is 1) actually in the woods and 2) has more wildlife than our own property. That usually means we camp in state parks.

I started my search for the perfect campground on the Florida State Parks website and was really looking for somewhere only a couple of hours away that maybe had a spring or something else interesting we’d never seen or experienced before. I had decided on Blue Spring State Park, which is over on the St. Johns River, and looked to be 2-3 hours away, but I didn’t make reservations because Flamingo Joe often changes his mind about how far/where/if we’re going at all the day before we leave and since we were going on a Thursday, I thought we’d be certain to get one of the “walk-up” sites even if we drove over without a reservation. Sure enough, on Wednesday, I told Joe where I thought we should go and he said, “Isn’t there anything closer?”

So on Thursday morning (it was really more like noon by the time we had everything packed up and ready), we drove all the way across town to Hillsborough River State Park. It took us 35 minutes to get there. I didn’t think we’d have trouble getting a space because when I checked availability on Wednesday night it looked like there were plenty of spaces available. By the time we got there on Thursday, however, the park had filled up, reservations-wise, for the weekend beginning with Friday night. If we couldn’t get a space for the second night, we would basically have a 24 hour camping trip. And it would be my fault.

So I had to plead with the park ranger and stand there at the counter and humbly acknowledge that yes, I was indeed familiar with the Reserve America site (where I should have actually made reservations), but that I didn’t make reservations because we had decided to come to this state park instead of Blue Spring rather at the last minute. Lucky for me, there is apparently a bit of healthy competition among the various state parks in Florida and when the ranger heard that we’d opted for her park instead of Blue Spring, she found a spot for us that we could occupy for two nights instead of just one, but she made me promise that we would definitely leave on Saturday. “Yes ma’am,” I said, “we will definitely leave on Saturday.”

When I reported to the group that we’d gotten a spot for two nights, I’m pretty sure I heard Flamingo Joe grumble, “We wouldn’t need reservations if we were really camping” as he walked back to the car.

We invited Dez to come along with us on this trip, and 5 people in the camper was going to be a little cramped, so Joe also brought the tent that we bought 5 or 6 years ago, but had never actually used on a camping trip. In fact, prior to this trip, it had been set up exactly twice: 1) for a sleepover in the backyard with the Yak Yaks and their kids; and 2) when a former co-worker of mine took it to Key West and set it up for all of ten minutes before the rest of his group made him take it down because it was so big it took up all the available space on their reserved site.

It’s actually a pretty easy tent to set up, especially since the directions were still in the bag and also because Flamingo Joe was doing all the assembly:

We (i.e., Joe) had the tent up in less than half an hour.

Though it may look like Dez is reading the directions and helping with the tent there, she’s actually reading through the campground rules, two of which Flamingo Joe has already violated -- we’d been on the site for all of 45 minutes. He tied one of the tent’s ropes to a tree, violation of rule number 3, and he put up a tent larger than a “pup” tent on a site that also had a trailer on it. That was violating rule number 5, I think. When informed of these violations, Flamingo Joe muttered, “If we were really camping, we could tie whatever we wanted to trees” as he removed the rope from the tree and staked it to the ground instead. The tent however, stayed up for the duration of our stay and we weren’t cited by the rangers for our violation.

After setting up camp, I asked the kids if they wanted to go for a hike on the Rapids Trail and they both jumped all over the idea. The Rapids Trail started about a half of a mile back up the road, so we piled in the car to drive there and Casey and Mace started talking about what we were going to see on the trail. Casey was excited in general just to be done waiting to do stuff and was wondering how big the rapids would be, but Mace seemed really really excited about hiking the trail. Seeing as how he ends up getting carried for 70% of most of our hikes, I wasn’t sure why he was so excited until we were pulling into the parking lot and he said,

“I wan’ to touch ‘dem.”

“You want to touch the rapids?”


“Baby, we won’t be able to touch the rapids, we’ll have to stay on the bank.”

“But I wan’ to touch da bunny rapids!”

Ohhhhh. Yeah, he was a little disappointed there were no bunny rabbits at the rapids.

There were only some Class 2 rapids, which in Florida is apparently noteworthy:

We hiked along the river on the trail for a while and saw quite a bit of wildlife:

Nice bird, though a bit blurry. How about another try:

Hmmm . . still pretty blurry. I took four pictures of that bird and walked a little further down the trail to shoot another picture before I noticed that I’d actually been taking a picture of this little fellow, too:

He is in all of the pictures I have of that bird. Dez said there was some metaphor for the Christian life contained within that picture, but whatever it is, she’ll have to work it out on her own blog.

The alligator hiding in that picture was the first we saw on our hike, but not the last and definitely not the biggest:

There are two in that picture – the one up on the bank in the sun was at least ten feet long and looked full. The state park people will tell you that there has never been an alligator attack on a human within the park boundaries since the park opened, but those gators are eating something bigger than turtles and that’s all I’m saying.

Our hike went well until Mace fell down, skinned his knee, and then insisted on being carried for the rest of the hike.

Poor Mace, it looks like he’s really suffering, doesn’t it? He seems fine up there, but the minute Joe put him on the ground he just moaned and cried and carried on like his leg was falling off.

So he rode in comfort all the way back to the car.

When we got back to the campsite, it was time to start supper. Our choices were to cook over a fire or fire up the propane stove in the camper. I was fine with either option, so Flamingo Joe made the decision to cook over the fire, I assume to hold on to some semblance of feeling that we were really camping out and not just staying at an outdoor hotel.

Flamingo Joe and his children love fire. By the second night, Dez also loved fire and was trying to burn everything that wasn’t currently being worn by someone. But the thing about cooking over a fire is . . . well . . . a fire is really really hot and you can’t control the temperature and if you’re not careful, you’ll burn your dinner. And we did, but not too badly that we couldn’t eat it.

After dinner, we made s’mores and then commenced negotiations over who would be sleeping in the tent. Joe wanted the boys to sleep out in the tent with him and I fully expected Mace to want to be with him, and Casey to want to sleep in the trailer with me. That’s just our family dynamic – Mace sticks to Joe, Casey sticks to me.

Especially when it’s dark and there are weird sounds in the woods.

But Casey surprised us and was eager and willing to sleep in the tent with dad. So Joe got the air mattresses into the tent with the sleeping bags and went in there with both boys.

Mace lasted half an hour.

Casey lasted about two hours.

By midnight, Flamingo Joe was all by himself in the tent and Dez and the boys and I were in the trailer. Casey brought his deflating air mattress with him and put it on the floor of the camper beside where Mace was sleeping on the table-turned-bed. I thought that would work well because I knew there was a strong possibility that Mace would fall off the table-turned-bed in the middle of the night and I figured if Casey’s air mattress, or Casey himself, was there to break his fall, it would alleviate the guilt I was already feeling for not having Mace sleep with me on the sofa-turned-bed where he surely would have kicked me in the head all night when he wasn’t elbowing me in the kidneys. At 1:30, Casey woke me up to tell me that his mattress was almost all the way deflated and that Mace was about to fall off the table-turned-bed. When I looked, Mace was bent over backwards with his head and torso touching the floor and his bottom and legs still on the bed like he was doing a very precise backbend dismount off the bed. About the time I got up to try to lift him back onto the bed, he completed the dismount, kicking me in the head in the process and falling on top of Casey.

Mace ended up in bed with me and Casey ended up on the table-bed.

Joe stayed in the tent until 5:30 a.m., when he got too cold and/or uncomfortable to sleep and went out to sit by the fire. I was glad to see that he was getting to enjoy an authentic camping experience. Being too cold and/or uncomfortable is exactly the reason I shun authentic camping experiences.

[Tune in tomorrow for Day 2 of Camping with the Flamingos]

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