Day 43: J. Strom Thurmond Dam & Lake at Clarks Hill & Ocala National Forest, Lake George Ranger District

Road Miles: 389

Total: 4699.6

Trail Miles: 0

Total: 114.9

Sites: J. Strom Thurmond Dam & Lake at Clarks Hill, SC; Lake George RD, Ocala NF, FL

I was up early to start making my way toward south Florida. Even though the campground was full, aside from one family cooking breakfast, it was quiet and peaceful. So quiet that I walked right up on a beautiful bushy-tailed red fox sniffing around the bathroom! I topped off on water after a delightful hot shower, took one last longing look at this beautiful lake and space, and headed out. I stopped back by the visitor center, having more time to explore it. They offer several exhibits on the dam-building process, the local wildlife, and the recreational opportunities on and around the lake. I collected a grip of free literature, then walked down to the lower parking area with its views of the dam and access to the lake. There were a couple of people fishing from the shore, and a group of paddlers having a kayaking lesson.

I got back on the road and headed south, stopping for gas in Wrens. With no specific destination for the day, I saw that Vidalia was in the general direction I was going. Oo! I love Vidalia onions!! I hoped it might be similar to Gilroy, California (aka: The Garlic Capital of the World), and headed that direction, thinking it would be a great place for lunch. To catch the main road into town, I turned east on GA-298 past Zaidee, which is not only a beautiful road, but also apparently a very popular turtle crossing! I saw several of the little guys and slowed, wishing there was a shoulder somewhere I could park and help them across, but there are no shoulders, and although there is little traffic, when it comes, it comes fast. I got to Vidalia and parked on Main Street, searching Google Maps for a local restaurant where I’d hopefully get to gorge myself on all the onions. Unfortunately, there’s not much to Vidalia, and only a couple of fast food restaurants. Because it was Sunday none of the local growers were open either. Sad and now starving, I raided my snack bucket, and continued south. Pop Tarts make a poor substitute for caramelized sweet Vidalia onions.

I stopped for gas again at Hazlehurst, and began looking at routes into Florida. My goal was ultimately to get to Boynton Beach, where I was visiting my college roommate I hadn’t seen in years. I wouldn’t be getting there today, though, so I looked for someplace in between to van-camp for the night. Only 9% of Florida is public lands, a mere fraction of the percentage typical in western states, yet still actually higher than states in the east. Ocala National Forest looked as though it might have some options, so I headed that direction. 

As I got closer to the state line, I noticed thickening smoke in the air, and signs directing personnel to an emergency incident management site. I stopped at a convenience store in Fargo to get some cold water and make sure there were no road closures on my intended route. The woman at the counter told me there was a major fire in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. When I told her I had no idea where that was, she asked where I was from.

“California.”

“How in hell did you end up in Fargo, Georgia?!”

Finally, I crossed the border into Florida, welcomed by signs declaring “ZERO TOLERANCE!” for drugs, complete with graphics of handcuffs. Considering the long-standing association I have with Florida and blow, I found this to be hilarious. I stopped in Lake City, thinking I’d pick up a couple of beers for later, but surprise! Florida has dry counties too. I tried again at Lake Butler, and it was like being in an episode of the Walking Dead. Everyone seemed miserable and borderline aggressive. It was nearly impossible to get anyone to look me in the eye, much less converse, which no one did willingly. I felt as though I was being eyed suspiciously the entire stop, which I made as brief as possible. Slightly rattled by all of this thinly-veiled hostility (although I did observe that this appeared to be the standard operating procedure toward anyone unfamiliar), for safety purposes I decided to look for an actual campground nearby rather than just a place to disperse. The Hopkins Prairie campground on the Ocala near Lake George looked like the only option. The site fee here is $10/night. I hoped my Interagency Pass would get me the typical 50% discount, although really it didn’t matter: $10 is not too much to pay to feel more safe.

I plugged the site into Google Maps, and put town in the rearview as quickly as possible. Not only was I in a rush to get away from the ugly energy there, but I was now also racing sunset. Following the Google Maps directions, I finally turned down a washboard Forest Service road and followed it a couple of miles to the final turn just to find a sign indicating that this was not the access road to the campground. Dammit! By now, the sun had set, and dusk was quickly giving way to darkness. I took pictures of the sign and accompanying map with the correct directions, let fly with a few family-unfriendly words directed toward Google Maps, and started to backtrack. 

When I finally arrived at the campground, it was pitch black. I had no idea if there were even any sites available, so I was hesitant to pay the site fee (the 50% discount does apply here) before continuing into the campground. As I stood in the dark with my indecision, I saw a flashlight approaching me from within the campground, then heard the barks and growls of some not very friendly dogs. “Oh shit,” I thought, “this is the opposite of good.” Here’s a fun icebreaker question! “Would you rather be killed by zombie townies or angry dogs?”

The flashlight was attached to the camp host, who told me to go find a site, and I had my pick: I was the only person staying at the campground that night. He said he and his wife would come find me to collect the site fee, but it would be after 9pm, because they were going to watch the American President, and it started in eight minutes. I drove around the campground, with no idea what sites were where; it was almost as dark as the campground on the Kisatchie in Louisiana had been, and slightly more creepy, since that one actually had some other people in it, and I hadn’t been alone. Finally, I saw a site sign with what appeared to be a relatively flat parking spot at the back end of a loop. I shut off the engine, switched on the fairy lights, and waited patiently for the hosts, who zipped up on a Razor at 9:08pm.

“You picked the worst site!” the man huffed.

“Really? What’s wrong with it? I can’t see shit out here.”

“It’s the furthest one away – this was the last place to look for you!”

Huh. Sounded like the best site to me…! They told me the prairie was to one side of me, and that there was a small pond that supposedly had gators in it directly across the road from my site, “so be careful,” they called back as they zipped away into the blackness.

Awesome. On that note, after staring at the stars from the safety of the roof of the van for a few minutes, I decided I was over this day, and it was lights out.