America through the Windshield--Getting to Know the First Americans travel blog


January 1-31, 2012

Ocala National Forest

Our arrival was late afternoon on New Year’s Day. We parked only a few yards from Lake Bryant. The park was in the middle of God’s country. The nearest town had one lonely traffic light, maybe five or six buildings, not convenient (10 miles away), no grocery store, not even a gas station. Our site was extra large, adjacent to three permanent residents in park model (modular) homes. Most of the sites were shady and covered with super tall pine trees and water oaks ladened with Spanish moss. (We learned that the moss is not a parasite, but an air plant. We saw it on wire fences, anything that stays in one place eventually would sport moss bundles.) Our site was only a few yards away from the lake. It was beautiful with a white sandy beach. There were a few houses that we could see from the beach and of course hundreds of acres of forest. Friendly full-time residents and dozens of snowbirds migrate each year to this park and stay here until it is time to return home. There were very few RVers like us, moving around Florida and other states.

We learned that the Ocala National Forest is the largest forest in Florida. It is also the largest Sand Pine and Xeric Oak forest in the world offering 389,000 acres of recreational pleasure for everyone who visits. There were pockets of residential communities and private lands interspersed throughout the forest. We had no idea that this part of Florida has historically been the home of both large and small horse farms. There were times when we would drive for miles and miles viewing acres and acres of white and black board fences both within and outside the Ocala Forest. We spent much of our time driving through, in and around Marion County. We learned that it is the Horse Capital of the World, with the highest number of horses and ponies in residence in America. Over 70,000 acres in the Ocala/Marion County area consists of thoroughbred breeding and training farms. Virtually every breed of horse is raised here with many of the world’s equine champions originating from this region.

Central Florida is full of natural springs. We were amazed to learn that four natural springs of sparkly clear water were located in the Ocala National Forest. In addition, many more are located in private and state parks. The springs provide both recreational areas and all sorts of commercial businesses that include many forms of native wildlife that ranges from mermaids to manatees. More details will be shared in our daytrip logs.

We see so much and do so much when we stay in place for a full month; however, we never made it to Silver Springs, “Nature’s Theme Park”. It is Florida’s original tourist attraction along with another nearby park known for its underwater mermaid swimmers. Some tourist attractions just do not have the same “pull” for us as others. One of the tidbits that we learned about Silver Springs is the fact that the original Tarzan movies filmed here. Tourists now enjoy the springs and seeing the wild monkeys that are descendants of the original monkeys used in the Tarzan movies—oops, apparently a few escaped.

This part of Florida has been experiencing a drought for several years. Winter is routinely the drought season for Florida; however, the drought in this area and around Orlando is worse than the more southerly geographic areas. Everything looks dry, the ground, lakes , trees, pastures, even the animals look dry with everything having piles of dust as a top layer. We always felt dusty after being outside and the car was perpetually dusty since most of the RV streets were primarily sand and gravel.

The nearest grocery store was 12-13 miles away on one of the major highways through the Ocala Forest. The nearest town, Silver Springs had grocery stores, a Wal-Mart, fast food, banks, etc. was 20 miles away. The drive was not a problem for us since we drove hundreds of miles in January as we scoured the area and had many day trips to phenomenal number of Native American sites. We were fortunate and impressed with our early discovery of two publications by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources. The two booklets Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage and Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage proved to be invaluable with the wealth of information provided in concise quick reference formats.

We were somewhat SHOCKED when we were on our way home from Silver Springs when we saw a road sign for “bear crossing”. We learned that this area is home to black bears, alligators, wild boars OH MY! The fact that bears lived nearby did not bother other RV park residents. “Oh, we’ve only had two or three bears in the park this year. We see them crossing the road all the time. Don’t worry they are more afraid of you than you are of them.” Very quickly Brenda decided that she did not want to go for long bike rides on the flat back road trails of Ocala Forest—not her. She is not that adventurous, even though she is a full time camper. Our bikes may have small motors for assist; however, she was emphatic in her belief that she would not need an electrical assist bike because seeing a bear would be the stimulus for her outrunning any little old black bear that might possibly come near.

We knew that the lakes, rivers and streams would have alligators in this locale; however, we learned that the alligators in Lake Bryant never come to the sandy beach available to the park residents. People actually swim in this lake, knowing that there are gators in it. Supposedly, they will not bother you if you are loud, boisterous, in a crowd and NOT in their territory. No, we were not willing to test this theory. The gators could have the entire lake to themselves.

Now, wild boars had been in the park, but not on a regular basis. Occasionally, their tracks are near the far corner of the park. Brenda walks right by this corner. The road that is around the perimeter of the park is exactly one mile. In fact, Brenda walks around this corner at least three and sometimes four times during her hour walk. The locals for wild boars set traps, plus there is a hunting season for boars, supposedly, they are good to eat. I cannot imagine seeing much less hunting and eating a wild boar. It is our understanding that they can be very aggressive, especially if there are babies around. Now, it was becoming very clear to us. No further explanation needed; the trash dumpsters stay locked to deter the wild varmints from coming around to look for handouts. See FACT.

We had difficulty believing that we were purchasing fresh strawberries from Plant City the first week in January. They were everywhere, in the grocery stores, fresh produce stands/markets and in pickup trucks parked alongside the streets. The locals got the meaning but we did not when we read the signs “Plant City Strawberries”. When we asked, we learned that the first strawberries always come from this locale just east of Tampa. For the locals the exciting fact was that the strawberries were extremely early this year. For us the exciting fact was that they were so cheap. In addition, they were so sweet since we often bought them on the day they were picked. We will never again have strawberries this sweet and savory. They were plump, full of sweet juices and practically beet colored through and through with barely any discoloration. We have decided that we should make the effort to visit this well know agricultural area and to personally experience the majesty of this fruit in the field at harvesting time.

We continued to get delicious fresh Florida oranges and orange juice. We learned that apples grow in orchards; however, oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit grow in groves. Who knew? We never considered a significant difference in the terms orchards and groves. Now we know! The quality of the tomatoes grown in Florida also really spoiled us. Getting garden fresh fleshy red tomatoes in January was a treat that helped us to understand better one of the perks of living so far south, especially during the winter months.

Each day we experienced majestic Sand Cranes with their elongated legs, standing three to four feet tall, gray bodies, four plus feet wing spans, heads reminiscent of red headed woodpeckers with their long needle-like beaks. They were graceful and dignified as they loitered under the oaks. When flying they were beautiful with their outstretched bodies, legs tight and long necks aligned for minimum air drag and maximum speed. Their “take offs” and “landings” continuously amazed us as we moved around the campground. They did not appear to be fearful of people but chose to stay near the lakefront or near the banks of the boat canal. Andy was convinced that they would make great friends. His many gestures and efforts to befriend them were never accepted. They always either walked or flew away from him. This little dog never meets a stranger and does not get the fact that some animals will not be his friend.

We were not overly excited when we realized that our Italian made washer/dryer was on the blitz. We have grown to rely on the convenience of the Splendini to use as needed. Moreover, we quickly realized that it was significantly cheaper to wash and dry, even with the adjustment to tiny loads, using it versus going to the laundromats at most of the RV parks. We had been in Ocala only for a few days when the inevitable happened. Our Splendini was not working when the dryer was set. Upon first analysis of the problem, we believed the problem to be the dysfunction of the drying/heating element. We anticipated that after we found a local service man and then scheduled a service call the problem would be resolved. Oh NO, we were wrong! We were fortunate that a most reputable RV sales and service center was in Silver Springs. That was only a half hour away we would not be paying a technician to make a long drive. After conferring with the service manager, we knew that we would be taking the RV to the service center. The Splendini is small and elevated for convenience. However, it sits in a very tight cubicle and is not accessible from the outside or from the closet access panel. Because it was, so heavy and in a difficult working location that it would require two service men to remove it from its cubicle and then pull it out in order to access the back of the washer for service. We knew it would be a long day. We also knew that Andy and Heidy would not be a problem since the weather was cool. They could stay in the car while we ate breakfast. We could take them to a park for outside time. Then they could stay in the car for us to run a few errands. We had a plan and it worked until we realized that even though the part was rather inexpensive the labor would be astronomical for two devoted service men.

We were faced with the need to make a choice and do it quickly. We could pay for the part and the labor or we could buy a new machine and have a machine under warranty. We decided that we would be wise to go ahead and buy the new machine, have a warranty and know that it should not need any repairs or replacement parts in the near future due to age, wear and tear. Done! Decision made. We wanted a new Splendini to eliminate any washer/dryer problems for quite a while. B-U-T there is more!

It was necessary to order the machine from the warehouse or we could replace the machine with a remade one. No—we wanted NEW! Another day at the service center was necessary; therefore, we would need to spend the night in the RV at the service center (with hookups). That would not be a problem. We could eat out again for dinner and possibly get a movie after feeding and walking the pups and getting them settled in. We could get in and out of the parking lot with an entry card. However, we would be out again for an entire day with the pups. We could do this even though it would mean another long day of getting up early and keeping the pups and ourselves entertained. Finally, the second day was over, the Splendini was in place, the bill paid, the service center was closing and we were on our way to the RV Park, Home Sweet Home. The pups were exhausted and so were we. All the effort was worth the product. We have a new Splendini with a warranty and it has a larger tub. We can wash twice as many clothes at once and we control the drying cycle in a routine way. We no longer go straight from wash to dry. We choose the dryer setting after the wash just like one chooses at home!

One nice thing about staying in Ocala was the fact that we were close to Leesburg. Leon, Greg’s friend from Towson now lives in Leesburg in a golf course community called the Plantation. It has two golf courses and we were close enough that Greg and Leon could renew their golf friendship. They played together several times and enjoyed seeing each other. Greg also played the local golf course in Ocala a few times. He played more golf while we were in Ocala than he has since we left Baltimore in July.

During one of our trips through farm and horse country, we were shocked when we looked up and saw a blimp. It was not hovering over a golf course. We were not aware of any events that might have a blimp for camera coverage. We watched intently as we realized that it was descending. We soon realized that it was landing at a local airport. We learned that this was a blimp training facility. We continued to see them whenever we passed. We also saw a sign stating that the U.S. Naval Bombing Range was close by. Maybe the blimp served a purpose on the base for spotting targets or troops or could this be where Navy pilots get their training and clocks their flying times for blimps!

We took many day trips in addition to Greg’s golf days. Those adventures will be available in the near future. We continue to eat out about once per week even though we are now full time RVers. We attempt to experience the local cuisine and always ask the locals in the RV campgrounds and clerks where we shop for restaurant recommendations. We have not always felt the need to share stories about restaurants; nevertheless, we must share the story of Stumpknockers. We were befuzzled by the name and needed to ask for clarification during a later conversation to verify that we had understood the name. It was located on the Withlacoochee River and not conveniently located, about 30 miles away from our home base. It was convenient for the locals but not convenient for shoppers and snowbird residential areas. We were advised to go early prior to lunch, middle of the afternoon or after 8:00PM in view of the fact that the lines were often so long that customers had been known to wait for hours prior to being seated. They specialized in seafood and the dish that was the signature dish was fried catfish. Now, Brenda is a connoisseur of Southern fried catfish. She will only eat catfish when she is in Mississippi because it consistently tastes as the catfish she ate as a child. Greg is just learning to eat catfish and even he agrees. We knew we wanted to go; however, the big question was, “Should we order their catfish?”

After looking over the menu and seeing the plates of catfish, we decided that we must order catfish to understand why all of the Snow Birds and locals thought it was so good. We decided to order “all you can eat” since we were convinced that a regular plate would not be enough to satisfy our hunger. We based this decision on the fact that we know when in the Mississippi Catfish Houses (restaurants) a plate can be only three filets or whole fish and never enough if that is all one is eating. Brenda eats that way when we go to a Mississippi Catfish House— all fish, no boiled corn, no coleslaw, no baked beans, no hushpuppies (cornbread batter laced with onion dropped into hot oil that takes the shape of unusual balls when done). We informed the waiter of our decision with “hold the corn on the cob”. Brenda had decided to taste the additional sides since we were not in Mississippi. We were shocked beyond belief when our orders arrived. The “plate” order was our first serving. It was stacked wide and deep with catfish filets (no bones). We had never received a “plate” of this size. It looked more like a platter of Sunday fried chicken for a Sunday “dinner on the ground” after church. We knew immediately that we should have asked the waiter to either describe the “plate” serving or to stop by and show us a “plate” serving.

We had plenty of catfish on our plate, plus catfish to spare. The only thing left to do was to “dig in”. We were delighted with the first bite. This was very different from “home” catfish. It was so hot that it sizzled like a steak. Each filet dipped in a special batter similar to Southern fried catfish but not the same. It was so yummy we were elated that we had ordered it. The looks on our faces were obviously the faces of “first time” customers. Everything was beyond delicious. We would now compare all other catfish to this batter fried catfish. Even though we had tall pancake stacks we never took a bite that was not sizzling right through the last morsel. Each of the sides was equally delicious. Brenda tried them then stuck with the fish eating right to the bottom of the stack. Greg ate it all. We could not eat another crumb. We had each overeaten with only a single “plate”. It was so yummy we were sorry that we could not eat more; however, we were not disappointed in the food. Obviously, we had to go back to eat at Stumpknockers at least one more time before heading to Key West.

We do need to take the time to give you more information regarding the name. We learned from a postcard that Stumpknocker describes the behavior of a small fish found in the local rivers. Most of the rivers this far south have Bald Cypress trees growing in the swamps and on the river banks and in the brackish water at the edge of the river alongside the grasses. Bald Cypress trees are most unusual due to their bald stumps or knees that look like knobby roots surrounding the tree. When there are many trees the entire undergrowth is usually covered with these stumps or knees. They are part of the tree that is well rooted in the mud and soils at the bottom of the water. It seems logical once you know the details. These tiny fish with very thin bodies and covered with glistening scales swim near the stumps to hide from their prey and to eat the algae that grows on the stumps. They are rather smart fish and bump or knock the stumps in order to loosen the algae to simplify the collection of the algae. Therefore, these little bream are Stumpknockers.

Staying in one RV campground a full month helps us to become most familiar with the variety of roads and streets that we can consider when heading for one’s destination. With Miss GPS, we know where to go during those first day adventures; however, after a few days we grow aware that we have many roads that will all take us to our destinations. One of the roads that we frequently used had three gigantic nests resting atop super tall electrical poles. It was obvious that the platforms were in place to support properly these voluminous nets. The road had a bridge nearby from which we had viewed a small dam retaining a lake or pond. We drew the conclusion that these nests were for birds of prey. We watched them throughout our stay and eventually saw baby birds fed and watched by parents. We carefully evaluated all of the birds who were on the nests or nearby and discovered that two nests were the homes for two pair of Osprey and one nest was for a pair of Eagles. How neat! We thought it most interesting that they were in close proximity. Maybe it was because the food supply was sufficient to support these three pairs and their offspring.

On this same road, we noticed an unusual entrance gate. We have seen many estates, grand homes, farms, plantations, etc. with grand and not-so-grand gated home sites. We have seen quite a few with cattle gaps versus gates. The livestock cannot get across but vehicular traffic has no difficulties. This entrance did not look like anything we had seen anywhere in Florida or the United States. No, this was rather strange in its appearance. Upon careful inspection during our drive, it became obvious that this grand entrance had been made of a beautiful caramel colored wood that was massive in structure and glossy in its finish. We also saw an unusual feature to the right of the entrance. It was somewhat tall, made from the same wood appearing as a picnic pavilion with a roof but underneath carved animals. Could they be elephants? Yes they were! They were made of the same wood and sported the same high glossy caramel finish. There were at least three or four and they were gigantic, close to the size of pachyderms in real life. The older looking more mature ones had white tusks and they were most pleasing to see. What an amazing thing to see. We never remembered to ask anyone about these beauties so we only have questions and hypotheses. Why would anyone in Florida have a collection of elephants to greet visitors and to amaze those individuals driving on the road? Were they carved in America or shipped to America? What kind of wood would look so magnificent and hold its polished look when exposed to the elements of the weather? What was the significance to the person who placed them in this position of honor? We only know that we did stop on the road to take a few photos and then we politely moved on in order to allow another car to stop and make pictures.

This same road was home to lots of folks living in the country. We continue to be amazed with the fact so many Americans have chosen to live in mobile or modular homes. They appear to be sufficient for winter warmth during the colder spells; but how do these Deep South families manage to tolerate the heat during their long hot summers. Most of them are under oaks or in the shade of trees; but, Florida is a hot sticky place in May, June, July, August, September and lots of other months during some years. We have also grown aware that the tremendous numbers of retirement communities are “55 and up”. That is not our idea of the way to live in retirement, only old folks with all of their aches, pains and complaints.

As in all parts of the country, we have seen pockets of wealth and pockets of poverty. We were told by other campers when we were in Cherokee, North Carolina that the Ocala National Forest has many homeless families and individuals who park in some of the remote parks and in the forest dens staying to themselves and attempting to make ends meet with their meager finances. We have grown more aware of this fact since we have viewed young, old, men, women, singles, partners, small groups panhandling and being told to leave the premises of business entrances. It’s easy to see why they are in this area. The weather is warmer and more stable, and it is very easy to find a place to sleep in the 380,000 acres of National Forests here.

We continue to be amazed eager to learn in each location we call “home”.

FACT: De Soto and the men of his expedition spent months preparing for the many months that they would be traversing the unknown lands of North America. A basic need was food. They expected to live off the land when feasible but knew there would be times when food from the land would be unavailable.

When food shortages were at hand and there was no other way to obtain sufficient sustenance via hunting or looting from the Natives the herd of swine could provide food for the foreign travelers. The swine herded along by this expedition of strange men was a form of insurance against starvation along the Native roads and trails. As the equestrians and foot soldiers were exploiting everything and everyone they encountered throughout the southeast, they continued to herd along the swine. The interruptions along the Florida backcountry of course meant there were times when strays would wander off from the herd. Today’s wild boars are descendants of those Spanish swine of centuries ago. They continue to root and destroy the crops now just as they did during the 1500’s.



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