It might’ve started as a vague urge, like the scent of hotdogs roasting over an open fire, a scent that caught in the wind and was attenuated by distance from its source, faint but distinct.
Maybe it was an instinctual need, hunter/gatherer roots buried deep in my DNA that took 68 years to break through my urban upbringing and make itself known.
Perhaps it was the result of spending so much COVID time indoors watching Netflix and getting the COVID Chub, a sensory and physical rebellion that could only be quelled by spending an extended period outdoors.
Whatever the cause, I had a desire to commune with nature, to walk among the trees, to trade concrete for earth beneath my feet. I needed to go camping!
The problem is that I know very little about how to camp. It’s not like you can just find a plot of land, pitch a tent and start a fire, at least you can’t in Florida. There’s a lot to consider, buy and plan before you start applying insect repellent. That’s what I’d been studying for the past year and I’ve put together some videos of some of my discoveries, I’ve even gone camping once to see if I could do it, but that trip was a dry run. This one was the real deal.
About 2 months ago I logged into the Florida State Parks website and reserved a campsite at Wekiva Springs State Park, a drop dead gorgeous tract of tress, meadows, trails and bike path surrounding a natural fresh water spring.
Being a managed park sitting smack dab in the middle of Central Florida, there are rules a regulations you MUST follow to do just about anything. That might sound restrictive, but it’s not nearly so in practice. The rules and regs are there to keep idiots from burning down the place or trashing it out, ruining the experience for others looking to sate their need for nature. Rules include prohibiting open fires except in designated places and in provided fire pits. The reason for this rule is obvious. While Central Florida is a relatively wet area, getting about 50 inches ( about 1300mm) of rain per year, forest fires can and do occur. Often they are caused by lightning strikes, but a fair number are caused by stupid people doing stupid things. Wekiva Springs, being a managed park, often create controlled burns which consume underbrush before it can become fuel for uncontrolled fires. If you take a walk through the park you’ll see trees that bear the charred markings of recent controlled burns.
Anyway, with some book knowledge and more desire than sense, I arrived at my campsite. Having practiced several times beforehand, I had my tent setup, air pad blown up and in place and my sleeping bag unrolled and laid out inside the tent in well under a half hour. It was late afternoon when I arrived so the sun was still fairly high and warm. When I was done with the tent I was soggy with sweat, but I wasn’t finished. I took a brief walk to cool down and check out my neighbors.
The camp area was divided in two, one side for tent, car and small vehicle campers and the other side for land yachts, those huge campers you’ve seen cruising down the highway, often pulling a car behind it. Regardless, each campsite has water, power and sewer hookups, a convenience for tent and car campers, a must for anything larger.
As I walked I discovered that campers are a friendly lot. Unsolicited waves and greetings are common. It’s like people have somehow found their humanity out in the woods and were eager to show it off. Even the dogs were friendly!
Back at my site, I unpacked gear for cooking. I was getting kinda hungry, and curious. See, I’d thought about what I was gonna eat that evening. I’d considered a nice sub from a local market (purchased before I entered the park), or maybe some canned nourishment like beef stew or soups, but I had decided against those options when I found freeze dried food packs in a local Walmart. The variety! The ease! The mystery!! I mean, wouldn’t you want to know what freeze dried chicken fried rice tasted like? Or freeze dried biscuits and gravy??
I have a nice little compact gas camp stove and an ultra compact stainless steel cook set that’s ideal for boiling water. From my research, boiling water is one of THE things you must be able to do while out in the wilds. If you can boil water you can eat and drink without the fear of getting some sort of dreaded disease. AND, with these freeze dried food packs, you can enjoy a gourmet meal while communing with nature! How cool is that?
Setting up my camp stove was simple; screw the stove onto a can of gas. Done! I filled my pot with water (from the spigot on my campsite), lit the stove, and waited about 10 minutes for the water to boil. According to the package all I needed to do was add 12 ounces (about 355ml) of boiling water into the pack, stir, close the pack and wait 5 minutes, stir again and wait another 4 minutes. Stir once more and enjoy!
With the water in my pot bubbling away, I did as instructed, closed the pack and waited. Peering into the pack before I closed it did little to excite my senses. Freeze dried chicken fried rice doesn’t look like much even after you’ve poured the water in and stirred. I hoped it would look more appetizing when I opened the pack again in 5 minutes.
No, after 5 minutes and some vigorous stirring, what I saw in the pack looked more like something that had been eaten, but regurgitated. Still, I had faith in the packaging so I closed it again and waited another 5 minutes instead of the instructed 4 minutes, I figured an extra minute wouldn’t hurt.
This time what I saw when I opened the package was a bit more appealing. The rice, chicken and vegetables had absorbed the water and had taken on forms similar to their original. Similar, but not quite the same. Fresh fried rice is not mushy, but this wasn’t too far off. I dug a spoon in and took out a sample. Steam wafted from the heap of my reconstituted dinner, filling the air with a suggestion of one of my favorite asian meals. I saw chunks of chicken, bits of egg, and veggies mixed in the pile of rice on my spoon.
I took a bite. Hmmmm! Not bad! Could use some soy sauce, but beyond that, not bad at all. I could certainly see it being devoured without complaint by a hungry backpacker after a day long trek.
The package said it held 2 servings. I was surprised to find that it was accurate, there was a lot of food in that pack once the water was added. I ate as much as I could and put the remains in my cooler in the car. ( Another rule is NEVER leave food out unattended. There are bears and other omnivores in these woods and they can get brave and raid your campsite.)
I had chosen mid September to camp because that’s when the local temperature starts to get cooler at night. I was expecting low 70s, maybe upper 60s. I had bought wood and started a fire in the open pit provided in my campsite. Unfortunately the air temperature hovered in the upper 70s all night and the humidity stayed around 80% making for an uncomfortable sleep, even with my battery powered fan going full blast. Around 2am I couldn’t get any rest so I decided to take a shower. The campgrounds provide excellent restroom facilities including hot showers. The shower was refreshing, especially after I finished off with a blast of cold water, but the heat and humidity sucked away any comfort I might have felt and by the time I got back to my site I was just as uncomfortable as when I left for the shower. There was only one thing to do, abandon the tent and sleep in the car.
That didn’t work out either. I tried the driver’s side but my feet kept hitting the pedals and I bumped the steering wheel whenever I turned to get comfortable, so I tried the passenger side. That didn’t work either. The front seats are designed for sitting, not sleeping. The back of my SUV was filled with stuff I thought I needed for camping and I wasn’t going to rearrange it to make a space for me to stretch out in the dark, so I tossed and turned in the passenger seat until sunrise.
With the sun came the prospect of making coffee, which requires boiling water. I know how to do that! I’d brought along a small French press, ideal for a single cup of joe. I was also hungry. I eyed the package of freeze dried biscuits and gravy and it just did not make my mouth water. Still, with my stomach demanding food, I boiled more water, tore open the package, mixed and stirred and waiting. If the chicken fried rice looked unappetizing after 5 minutes, the biscuits and gravy looked downright repulsive! Still, the fried rice turned out ok, and I was curious and hungry in equal measure. After another 5 minutes and some stirring the contents in my package reminded me less of southern breakfast favorite and more of blob of day old oatmeal. However, it smelled enticingly familiar so I took the plunge.
Nope! Nope! Nope!
The “gravy”, while hot, was flavorless. There was chucks of what I assume was the “biscuits” and what tasted like eggs, and there were nodules of “sausages” too. Again, if you’re backpacking and you need protein I’m sure the content of that package I had before me would do the trick, and it would likely taste ok. I guess I’m just too city-fied to make that culinary leap just yet.
So, there I was, tired, hungry and a bit irritable. I took a walk to see if there were any animals roaming about and I was rewarded with several deer and bird sightings. There was a light mist hanging in a glen, muted sunshine making a field of yellow flowers glow. I couldn’t help but smile and take in a lungful of pine scented air. That was why people go camping!
My first real camping trip wasn’t a complete bust, I enjoyed the surrounding, the discovery, and the feeling of being “out” enough to want to do it again. Next time I’ll be even better prepared.