Skitters, Swamps, and Sand: Spring Break Defined

11 04 2013

“Hey, you got long hair?”  The disembodied voice carried from one shower stall over to mine.

“No…”  I replied.

“Than you prolly wanna use this shower.  It’s better than that ‘un.”

So I moved over, and she was right.  The woman obviously was well-acquainted with them both.  At $18 a night including water and electricity, Shepard State Park on the coast of Mississippi made a good stopover on our travels, as well as a cheap place to hunker down for those caught in economic distress.  That night, we chatted with a bird-watching retired couple taking a two-month sojourn from Oregon to visit relatives in Florida, and the next morning I learned from another long-term camper that there was a vent connecting the men’s and women’s bathhouses that every morning brought over the stench of tobacco smoke from “someone smoking in the boys’ room.”  Camping.  There just isn’t anything like it.

Spring Break is all about breaking from the routine and getting refreshed for the last few weeks of the school year.  Which is why I twisted Brian’s arm, slightly, into taking a camping trip.  I was interested in the Florida beaches on the Gulf Coast and in looking at the map noticed that Pensacola was a mere three hours from New Orleans, where coincidentally the National WWII Museum beckoned.  And so we set out.

We spent the first night communing with mosquitoes at Florida Caverns State Park.  In hindsight, camping in a swamp was not the best idea, even in April.  According to the ranger, massive rains about a month earlier had hastened mosquito season such that it was hard to breathe without inhaling a few of the swarming pests.  We set world records getting in and out of our tent and managed to spend a fairly comfortable night without the whine of insects in our ears, although our spaghetti dinner was doubtlessly enhanced with their protein.  Fortunately, by that point it was dark.  Barred owls and howling dogs (coyotes?) kept us entertained through the long night.  2013-04-08 08.31.42

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The virtues of a swamp do not include mosquitoes.

The next morning we broke camp in record time, leaving the tent to dry on the picnic table while we toured the park’s main attraction, the caverns.  The solitary bat we saw there, try as he might, obviously could not make a dent in the mosquito population.  The tour was thankfully pest-free, and we enjoyed our walk through the cave system as our guide pointed out stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, draperies, flowstone, and other features that made this underground section of the park so much more pleasant and remarkable than the topside.  In our haste to leave, we almost made it out of the park before remembering to go back for our tent.

Ahh, the beach.  A short three-hour drive promised the white sands and blue skies of Florida’s Gulf coast at Big Lagoon State Recreation Area.   We pulled in to the park to see a scruffy sand dune desert: rolling dunes covered with saw palmetto, vines, and more than a few dead tree scrags.  The campground map showed us beachside, so upon finding our site, I climbed over the dune to gaze upon the shore.  A swamp.  Again, a swamp!  Yet when I squinted my eyes, I could just barely make out the white sands of the beach.  A walk on the boardwalk gave us the names of the local flora: sand pines, sand live oaks, sand everything.  And in-between the sand dunes, stagnant water covered with duckweed, hiding, no doubt, the gleaming eyes of hungry gators.  Yet a constant breeze kept flying insects at bay, so all was not lost.

We got back into the car and drove down to the beach, which though quite nice, was only on the lagoon (hence the name “Big Lagoon”).  Back in the car, we drove a few more miles out of the car to Perdido Key and paid a few dollars to drive on Gulf Islands National Seashore, where the dazzling white sand and crashing surf confirmed every preconceived notion we had of Florida’s beaches.   2013-04-08 15.36.25    Breathing deeply, we stretched out on the sands, then walked the surfline for a while, snapping shots of a disinterested great blue heron who obviously was used to the invasion of human-types.  2013-04-08 16.12.24All too soon, we headed back to the campground.  Lulled to sleep by the croaking rhythm of a bajillion frogs, we were awakened early by the chirps, tweets, songs, and squawks of a bajillion birds.  Sleeping in was not an option.

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Morning breaks over the swamp

By 8:15, we were on the road, headed for New Orleans and the National WWII Museum.  The next six hours was spent reading every exhibit, watching every short video, and listening to every audio in the entire museum.  No, that’s a lie.  I didn’t get to take in everything, but we did take our time and see as much as we could.  There’s always next time.

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A victory garden outside the WWII museum

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A half-track similar to the one that carried my father across Europe

Although it doesn’t have the emotional angst of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, it did present a thorough view of the War along with insightful observations (America fought Hitler, the world’s worst racist, with our own segregated army).  Back in the car, we headed out of New Orleans at rush hour, an experience with all the thrills and excitement of an amusement park roller coaster.

Into Mississippi, we found Shepard State Park.  Within seconds, the sand gnats found us.  A glance behind our campsite confirmed the obvious:  another swamp.  Again, world records were set in unzipping and zipping the tent door.  A quick meal of partially-rehydrated vegetable soup, enhanced with insect protein, then the plaintive call of a locomotive every half hour to keep us company through the night.  The next morning, we broke camp in under half an hour, eating breakfast at a rest area down the road a ways.  A long drive home ahead of us, we entertained ourselves scaring the several hundred sand gnats who had decided to journey along with us.

Into Alabama, with only five or so hours separating us from the comforts of home, we came to a brown sign on the highway indicating that Tuskegee Institute was a short distance off the road.  “Shall we?” Brian asked.  “Silly question,” I replied as we veered off the highway: yet another reason why I love my husband.

Not knowing exactly what we were looking for, we passed a cemetery with the obvious grave of Booker T. Washington, etched with “Education is the answer.”  We drove through the impressive campus of Tuskegee University: distinctive, well-kept buildings with a student population still thriving after all these years.  The campus was, however, an island of prosperity amid an ocean of poverty.  The city of Tuskegee had the paint-peeling run-down feel of a scrubby deep South town where laundromats, tattoo parlors, and Quik Cash marts were the only thriving industries.  On the way out of town, we came to Moton Field, training site of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.  We stopped and went through the hangar where exhibits told the story of the famous experiment that proved Blacks were capable of serving in combat operations.  I always feel embarrassed that it took us so long to admit what should have been obvious.

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Moton Field, training site of the Tuskegee Airmen

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Inside the hangar at Moton Field

The rest of our trip home was spent in a state of boredom-induced drowsiness when Brian drove the long highways and wide-eyed two-handed alertness as I drove through the convoluted construction-ridden areas around major cities.  Home again, after three days of camping and some 1400 miles, history and nature seamlessly interwoven on the wings of countless insects, reminded once again of the world outside my classroom, thinking all the while of ways to bring it back within the walls of my school.  Spring Break, indeed.