Our travels began on June 11, five weeks past our original day of departure.
Our route through Florida included six campgrounds in 17 days. Campgrounds included COE Ortona South (B), Colt Creek State Park (C), Magnolia Park (D), Lake Louisa State Park (E), Silver Lake State Forest Campground (F) and Ho Hum RV Park (G).
According to our original plans, this day, June 11 would have ended week-5 of our 2022 travels and the final day at Cheyenne Mountain State Park in Colorado. Instead, we found ourselves on Chokoloskee Island preparing to hitch up on a steamy morning hungover from a hard rain. Drenched in sweat, I performed the regimen of disconnecting water, sewer and electric for the first time in seven months. Instead of the sparsely oxygenated dry air of the mountains, air heavy with water vapor filled my lungs. Just a tad nervous with being a bit travel rusty, I gave Vivian the AOK to back the truck into the exact spot where the open jaw of the hitch receives the king pin. And if we both did our jobs correctly, the powerful thick metal claws will lock the kingpin in place so that the 8000-lb truck may pull our 12,000-lb home.
A couple hours later, we began setting up at our first campground minutes before, and like clockwork a midafternoon storm over the interior of Florida engulfed us. Only 78 miles north of Chokoloskee, the Army Corp of Engineers Ortona South campground would serve as home for the next two nights. It felt like we had gone no further than the end of our block, but it was a decent start to a pared down travel itinerary.
Afternoon storms wasted no time. We quickly set up and with electric and water connected, we could watch the storms roll in from inside the RV. Later that evening, we enjoyed sitting outside with a hint of cool air left over from the storm. On the Caloosahatchee River, the Ortona Lock and Dam is clearly in view from our campsite. Our first evening at Ortona Campground. Our first morning at Ortona Campground. Ortona is one of three Army Corp of Engineer campgrounds in Florida, all on the Okeechobee Waterway. A backend view of our campsite. Army Corp campgrounds are notoriously generous with their RV pad spaces. Surrounding the campground is cattle country. This is an irrigation canal near the campground. An early morning cow pasture view. Cattle are in there somewhere. Sunrise over the Caloosahatchee River. Makes you almost forget that this is one of the most polluted rivers in Florida, thanks to agricultural runoff from Lake Okeechobee. There is wildlife around the lock and dam, including otters (which we did not see) and lots of birds. This is one of several green herons hanging out near the dam. And there were bunnies, lots of bunnies. This was our campsite host, a young marsh rabbit not yet fully grown. A pair of limpkins graced our presence regularly. These two just found a snail, probably an invasive apple snail. Vivian doing a little fishing from the campground pier downstream from the dam. The Caloosahatchee River is the western portion of the Okeechoobee Waterway that meets the Gulf. Ortona lock and dam is one of five on the Okeechobee Waterway. Lockage is free and is mostly used by recreational boats. Promptly at 7 am, the dam crossing is opened to pedestrians. Florida is bisected by the Southern Continental Divide which separates the Atlantic seaboard from the Gulf of Mexico. Consequently, water runs down from the middle to each of the coasts. This includes the Caloosahatchee River. Before locks and dams, the Caloosahatchee ran freely out to the Gulf and was NOT connected to Lake Okeechoobee. Dredging and channeling changed all that. Flowing in a westerly direction, the Caloosahatchee River loses elevation. These boats entered the lock from the east and waited several minutes for water levels to drop 8 feet before the gates opened. Off they go toward the Gulf. Meanwhile, this boat was waiting on the west side for lockage. Water is introduced to the lock from the east side. Within minutes, levels are up 8 feet and this boat will pass through the lock heading toward the Atlantic. Meanwhile, a strange site appeared in our backyard, a very large mat of invasive water lettuce or hyacinth. It broke off some where in Lake Okeechobee and floated its way to the Ortona dam. This thick mat of vegetation can mean death to aquatic life below it. Florida has been trying to control its water since the 1900s as land development and agriculture increased and flood control became a life and death proposition. Despite all its environmental challenges, a water view in Florida is enticing.
Over the next couple weeks, we lingered – like the high price of diesel, like the heat and humidity. Lack of wifi and spotty cell signals kept the news of the world at arm’s length, which was fine because it seems lately the news is coming off like those dark clouds that form every afternoon and threaten us with storms. And more now than ever, current events feel like one gut punch after another.
Don’t abandon me yet because I am going to put all negativity aside and show you what it is that motivates us to travel. Not one moment goes by without Vivian and I feeling grateful to be doing what we are doing, more so now with the high cost of living. So with that, let me share with you the two things that bring us great joy on our travels – art and nature, Florida style.
Beginning with Colt Creek State Park and ending with Silver Lake Campground, 132 towing miles, 4 campgrounds and 11 days while experiencing day time temps above 90 degrees.
Following Ortona, we drove 159 miles north to Colt Creek State Park near Lakeland, one of our favorite campgrounds in Florida. With three nights, we dedicated one full day to simply staying within the park to do a little hiking in the early morning before the oppression of heat and humidity chased us back to our AC’ed home.
An early morning hike in a hardwood hammock is good for the soul. Colt Creek offers miles of trails through pine flatwoods, cypress domes and hardwood hammocks. Colt Creek State Park contains over 5000 acres, land that was purchased by ranch owners in 2006. I believe it is Florida’s newest state park, or at least that which has a campground. The land was purchased because of its importance within the floodplain of the Green Swamp area where water flows into four major rivers. Did we see any of these animals or their tracks? Except for one deer in the distance, this is the closest we came to seeing a four-legged mammal. From the diagram, I believe that is a bobcat’s track! Under a setting full moon, I walked the main road from the campground to one of the small lakes in the park to catch the sunrise. The glow of a rising sun reflected beautifully on the calm water where a small alligator makes an appearance. Another smallish gator (about 4 feet in length) made its way across the marshy water. From the pier, I watched this little gal swim calmly by. She looks so small next to those grasses. The lakes in the park were once lime rock mining pits operated the land owners in the 1990s. Once a cattle ranch, these prairies are prominent throughout the park. The owners of the land used it for beef cattle production, and to grow and harvest pine trees. Small burnt pine trees in patches along the road, perhaps as part of a managed burn. Our home in the campground. A nice evening with cloud cover gave us a reprieve from the heat. Colt Creek contains only 30 or so RV sites, all spacious and level like this one. Not a bad view at Colt Creek.
After a few nights near Apopka, we headed to another Florida State Park, Lake Louisa. Nestled between two small lakes, the campgrounds was quiet and moderately in use. Within a heavily populated area of Florida, this state park is a refuge among out-of-control development. A 3-mile road from the entrance gate to the campground winds through rolling wilderness of open pastures and pine forests. Similar to Colt Creek, the park’s land was once privately owned. Orange groves and a cattle ranch dominated the scenery back then.
From the Lake Louisa SP campground, a boardwalk leads to Dixie Lake. On one side of the campground is Dixie Lake and on the other is Hammond Lake. Minutes after we arrived at the campsite, I stood overlooking Hammond Lake as storm clouds approached. And like clockwork, the afternoon rain soon began. Our pullthrough campsite was private and shaded. You can bring your own tent and rent a campsite for about $25 a night (half that if you are 65 and older), or you can stay in this ‘luxury’ tent for $130. Morning on Hammond Lake. Swim at your own risk in Dixie Lake or any Florida lake for that matter. Those trees
Ten days since leaving Chokoloskee and less than 50 miles away from Lake Louisa State Park, we pulled into the Silver Lake Campground in the Withlacootchee State Forest. Since the beginning, the heat has been relentless and challenging to no end. It forced us into a rhythm of activity; that is to enjoy the beautiful wilderness areas we visit by getting out by 7 am and finishing a hike well before lunch. Consequently, afternoons were spent mostly inside reading and writing. Having scored well shaded campsites, evenings invited us back outside to our ‘front patio’. And while at Silver Lake, diesel was conserved as the truck would not move until we hitched up again to head north 3 days later.
The Silver Lake Campground is part of the Florida State Forest system. It is a beautiful campground that is conveniently located alongside I-75. What comes with that convenience is interstate road noise. There are 3 campgrounds, Silver Lakes being closest to the highway and most accommodating to big rigs. The more primitive and smaller Crooked River is on the Withlacoochee River, quite lovely. The campground boat ramp on Silver Lake. Although the campground itself is quiet and spacious, we had to endure the loud airboat and jet ski noise from the lake one evening. We hear weekends can be brutal in that regard. There are many hiking trails, including the Florida National Scenic Trail in the Withlacoochee Forest. Somewhere on our hike, we stumbled onto Hog Heaven. You take the high road and I’ll take the low road. Low water trail was quite dry when we were there. The largest cypress tree I have ever seen. Hollow inside, it is as large as a 3-person tent with an opening the size of a tent door. I would have gone inside but I didn’t want to disturb the spiders. Oak trees and saw palmetto, classic Florida forest. Makes you wonder how this happened. On the low water trail, we walked high and dry through cypress forests that will eventually refill with water as the wet season progresses. We walked into Crooked Creek Campground to see the Withlacoochee River. Only one campsite was occupied and it was the one with this view. The Withlacoochee is an alluvial stream, one of a few in Florida. ‘Alluvial’ means the river is constantly being reshaped from the movement of sediment that is at the mercy of water current and levels. The 141-mile river flows west by northwest, eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. I cannot get enough of those cypress trees. The Withlacoochee River is a popular paddling destination. The Withlacoochee State Forest is the third largest state forest in Florida. Given its ever changing nature, the Withlacoochee River is also called Crooked River.
Between Lake Louisa State Park and Silver Lake Campground, we spent a few days in Apopka, at an Orange County Park by the name of Magnolia. Which meant we were going urban for awhile. But, we wanted to see Mt Dora, a charming little town known for its art festivals and antiques. Why is it called Mount Dora? At an elevation of 184′, it is Florida’s mountain town.
Downtown Mt Dora is enjoying a boom. Its 2019 population was 14,516, a 17% increase since 2010. The historical Lakeside Inn of Mt Dora is 130 yrs old and the oldest continuously operating hotel in Florida. It overlooks Lake Dora. Bird art inside the Lakeside Inn. The pier in front of the Lakeside Inn has seen better days. Railroads played a central role in Central Florida and compliments of Lakeside Inn, you can sit and watch the trains go by. In addition to Mt Dora, we visited the other little towns, Tavares and Eustis. Here, we toured the Clifford House and got a dose of old Florida history. Inside the museum, I learned of the artist Catherine Haynes Stockwell who painted with two hands – at the same time. More bird art, this time a metal sculpture of an anhinga, displayed near the Clifford House. Magnolia was a nice enough county campground. The campground host greeted us at the entrance.
Although Mt Dora’s small town charm attracted us, what we really came to see was Bowie.
The Modernism Museum is located in downtown Mt Dora. Vivian and I are Bowie fans, and when I saw that the museum was exhibiting objects from his estate, we had to check it out. On exhibit were several pieces created by members of the Memphis Group (1980-87). The group designed postmodern furniture, lighting, fabrics, carpets, ceramics, glass and metal objects. On the right is a photograph of the members. Bowie was an avid collector of the Memphis pieces. David Bowie collected this piece titled ‘Carlton’. Bowie wrote, “…the jolt, the impact created by walking into a room containing a cabinet by Memphis – the Carlton, for instance – is visceral”. Some of the pieces on display at the museum were designed by American sculptor and designer Wendell Castle. You just found the unexpected, a piece by Wendell Castle titled “A New Environment” or “A Room Without Walls”. He completed this installation at the age of 80. All I can tell you about this piece is that I liked the reflection on the curtain. Although Memphis design pieces were on exhibit, this photograph of Bowie sticks with me more than anything. Another piece from Bowie’s estate is this post-Memphis bookcase. Memphis’ colorful furniture has been accurately described as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”. This iconic Memphis piece, inspired by Art Deco and Old Hollywood was created by Michael Graves in 1981. The inspiration for the name “Memphis” came during the group’s first meeting when Bob Dylan’s record “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” had been playing repeatedly in the background. Japanese artist Shiro Kuramata’s work stood out among the others. This chair titled “Miss Blanche” is made of acrylic and weighs 150 lb. What stands out is how he added the roses that appear to be suspended. Look closely at the next image. Through trial and error, Kuramata’s craftsmen developed a method that involved pouring liqud acrylic resin to various heights in a mold, dropping in the roses and holding them with tweezers for 8 hours before repeating the process. I wonder how much those craftsmen were paid! “Floating without any support is best. At that moment, for the first time, design appears.” Shiro Kuramata. How he suspended these feathers is a mystery. David Bowie, a radical pop culture artist was full of surprises and changes, which seems fitting for a Memphis design collector.
And last but not least, while staying at Colt Creek State Park, we spent the morning at the Florida Southern College campus taking a walking tour of its Frank Lloyd Wright designed campus.
In 1938, Frank Lloyd Wright received a letter from Dr. Ludd Spivey, President of Florida Southern College asking him to discuss the construction of a great education temple in Florida. Wright agreed to meet him. On May 8, 1938, Wright visited the Florida Southern campus to survey the landscape. Apart from seven buildings, most of the campus was covered with citrus trees. Wright remarked that he could envision buildings on this landscape that would grow “out of the ground and into the light – a Child of the Sun.” In 1948, the Water Dome became the largest Wright-designed water feature in the world. The fountain is capable of creating a full dome of water reaching 45 feet in the air. We didn’t get to see that as water usage is regulated throughout the day. All of the campus buildings designed by Wright are connected by covered walkways (part of his design) known as the Esplanade. The Esplanade is more than a mile long and features uniformly designed columns that are said to evoke the orange trees that once filled the campus grounds. Wright’s architecture is described as organic, connecting harmoniously to the landscape. Wright designed the walkways with low ceilings with the idea that this would encourage students to move along quickly to their next class, or at least that’s what our tour guide told us. Wright used textile blocks like these on most of the campus buildings. The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel with its 65-foot-tall bell tower became the campus icon. It was the first Wright building to be constructed, 1938-41. Annie Pfeiffer Chapel is the nation’s first college chapel with an architecturally modern design. Its interior is “defined by massive vaulted skylights framing the natural heavens above”. Adjacent to the Pfeiffer Chapel is the smaller William H. Danforth Chapel. Designed in 1954 and completed in 1955, it is the only work on the campus to use leaded glass. Both chapels are in use. Much of the construction took place during the depression and WWII. Consequently, money, labor and certain materials like copper were in short supply. Students were put to work to help construct Wright’s buildings. Wright’s structures require constant repair and upgrades. Among several buildings, Wright was commissioned to design a single-family house for faculty. He delivered a Usonian style design. True to form, Wright’s designs contain lots of shadeless windows, not exactly conducive to Florida’s climate. Due to lack of funds, the College did not complete the construction of the home until 2013. It is currently a show piece.
When people think of Florida, what often comes to mind are sunshine, palm trees, beaches and Disney. But Florida is full of surprises and lots of art and nature. You just have to linger long enough to discover them.
I’ll leave you with this morning shot from our campsite on the Gulf of Mexico.