I just got back from a camping trip. It was such a good trip that I surprised even myself, and I have to think hard to understand how to describe what made it great.
I am finishing up a week of time off from my job. For the first few days of the week, I stuck around the trailer. My allowances to myself were going running in the mornings and spending time working on my bike so I could ride it for the first time this year. Other than that, I kept myself working: writing for FasterSkier and studying up on my botany vocab so I’ll be ready for my new job.
My reward for working during my time “off” was going to be a three-day camping trip at the end of the week. I browsed the Florida State Parks website looking for places to camp. I picked out the St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. It was a long drive – three hours from my home in Navarre – but it was one of the few parks in northwest Florida which offered primitive camping.
I also picked it out because the setting seemed fascinating. The park was on an improbably long and skinny peninsula, Cape San Blas. The first several of the fifteen miles of coastline were home to beach houses. The last were home to the park and over 240 species of wildlife.
The website warned that the primitive sites had no shade and no fresh water. I was excited but nervous, and considering how far I had to travel to get there, I really didn’t want the experience to be less than great. I packed my small backpack as full as I could and set off.
First of all, regardless of whether it’s an ideal camping spot or not, where else can you (legally) stay on the beach for two nights and only spend $11.10? State parks one, rest of the U.S. zero.
I parked in my allotted spot and started off down the Wilderness Trail. The last seven miles of the cape are a wilderness preserve, and it was into this area that I set out. The trail was made of deep sand and the walking was slow. There were scrubby trees on either side of the trail, but it was wide enough that they generally couldn’t provide much shade. The sun beat down on me as I made my slow way along the trail.
After about an hour and a quarter, I reached the second of three trails crossing over from the bay side of the island to the gulf side. I had decided to camp here as I could only set up a tent close to the gulf beach along one of the crossovers – you can’t camp just anywhere in a wilderness preserve. I walked towards the beach and soon left the trees for secondary dunes. I looked down from the trail and saw a perfect flat spot in the last group of trees, so I stopped and dropped my pack in the shade and then continued on towards the beach.
As I crested the last of the frontal dunes and the beach spread out before me, I couldn’t suppress a smile. I couldn’t not laugh. I felt totally free. I ran the rest of the way down to the beach, pulling off my Chacos and my shirt. I walked along the edge of the perfectly clear, shallow water, which rested on top of patterned white sand. There wasn’t a soul in sight, only beach stretching as far as I could see in either direction. It was exhilarating. I had this world all to myself.
That evening I found a sand dollar, pitched my tent, and fell asleep at sunset to the sound of the waves. I was surprised at how exhausted I was now that I could sleep when I was tired rather than when I finished the tasks I had set out for myself.
The next morning I woke up to the sounds of birds chattering back and forth. I took my breakfast – an apple – over to the top of one of the frontal dunes and ate it overlooking the beach. Then I walked along the shore again and saw a school of large silver fish jumping out of the water just fifty feet offshore.
I had absolutely nothing I had to do that day, so I spent it exploring.
First I walked barefoot the four miles down the beach to the end of the island. As I strolled around the water’s edge, sand bars came and went, shorebirds ran in front of me, and the frontal dunes changed from gentle hills to eroding cliffs and back again.
Driftwood and shells had washed up on the beach and, sometimes, coarser sand.
In a few places, channels of water had formed, washing in one side with the waves and then running back into the ocean on the other side of an expanse of sand. In others, there were small pools left behind by the retreating tide. Sometimes there were schools of tiny fish swimming in them, which raced and scattered when my shadow passed over the water. In one of the little streams, barnacles opened and closed as the seawater periodically moved through.
I saw a dead ray on the beach, but only three other people in the four miles.
When I reached the tip of the cape, the shorebirds seemed to multiply. They came in all shapes and sizes. Terns screeched at me. The water cut in towards the interior of the island, providing even more habitat for the many different species. They shared the beach with crabs, but not other people. It was a bird sanctuary sticking out into the gulf. After looking around a bit, I started the walk back to my campsite.
By the time I got back I was hot and sweaty. The shade of the trees was a relief and I rested up during the hottest part of the day, sitting on a dead trunk and reading John Steinbeck’s tales of King Arthur, which seemed out of place but lovely (and infused with a sense of humor – way to go John).
In the afternoon I wandered in the dunes, following the tracks of coyotes and beach mice. I saw small white flowers on spiked leaves and an endless array of dune architecture.
I ate my dinner atop one of the dunes and then went for a swim. The water was perfect and comfortable, the waves were gentle, but I was still nervous for some reason. With no people for miles, what if, I don’t know, a shark came and gobbled me up? This wasn’t likely, but it was the only time the whole weekend that being alone made me wary. Still, I sank into the pleasant water and relaxed.
Finally, I watched the spectacular sunset over the water. The last minutes as the sun sank into the ocean went so fast.
It stayed light even without the sun – the reason we are not working this week is that the moon is quite full. I had no reason to hurry back to my tent, but when I reached it, it was with the weariness of someone whose energy has been sapped by the sun. Once again I slept like a baby, lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves.
The next morning, I had my last breakfast on the beach, waded in for the last time, and set off down the Wilderness Trail back towards the car.
A couple of miles later I reached it, hot, sweaty, very smelly, and coated in a disgusting layer of sunscreen. And completely happy.
I had never been lonely, the whole three days. I had never been bored. I love camping, but this had surprised even me. I don’t know if it was something about the landscape or something about my particular frame of mind, but I had been perfectly content just by myself for three days. The freedom was exactly what I had needed, and I came out of the trip feeling infinitely more at ease with myself and the world than I went in.
Which is the point, isn’t it? I hope that many of my future adventures can be this good.