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The Herald, November 25, 1988
Trips lesson: Spend the money, stay in a motel
Camping. It's where man becomes a reptile. His body assumes the temperature of the surrounding environment. All night long. He also becomes a natural scavenger, eating crude food as well as any bugs, dirt, and other stuff which should happen to attach itself to said crude food. It's a joyous American adventure.
When I bicycled to the Gulf Coast and back, I figured camping into the plan mostly for money reasons. A campsite is a lot cheaper than a motel room, plus I felt that camping would "enhance the adventure." After four reluctant camping episodes in 18 days on the road, I decided riding a bicycle all day was sadistic enough without having to sleep on the ground afterward.
Almost without exception, state parks are out in the exact geographic middle of nowhere. The sign pointing to the park is 15 miles from anywhere with a name. After you leave the highway on a bicycle, there is an excruciatingly long ride on the access road before you finally reach the entrance.
Be prepared to camp
From there, you ride through lots of deep sand (if no sand is naturally present, it is hauled in specially to cause bikers to fall over repeatedly.) After the sandpit, you pedal through lots of slippery pine needles to reach your tent site, which in itself always poses a cyclist some puzzling logistical problems. The tent will obviously have to point this way, but that's facing away from that tree over there, which is the only place to lock a bike. You never notice any of this stuff when you arrive in a car.
Also, when you ride a bicycle into a state park, you'd better be ready to camp. You don't just scoot into town for a loaf of bread. Nor do you decide just before dark that it would be much more comfortable somewhere in the next county at a motel.
My premiere bicycle camping experiment came the first night out on my trip to the Gulf. I wheeled into Poinsett State Park, a few miles south of Wedgefield. This is the place where the rattlesnakes get all the publicity, but the bugs reign supreme. The mosquitoes at Poinsett are plenty big enough to operate the grocery store's electric doors. I itched and sweltered all night, but that's camping.
After a couple of nights in motels, I had recovered enough to think about camping again. Although the next state park was well over 100 miles away from where I was, I doggedly set out to reach it. I was hauling about 15 pounds of camping gear, and I felt obligated to use it.
From Darien, Ga., I rode all the way past Maclenny, Fla., and on toward the Ocean Lakes Campground in the Osceola National Forest. The last 10 miles or so, I watched for a store where I could pick up some groceries. No store. All I saw was a sign for the campground, pointing down the five-mile access road. No food. All I had on board was a can of sardines and a candy bar. That was my supper after a 134-mile bike ride.
No panthers, please
A couple of days later, I was watching the Panama City newscast in a motel room. One story was about some naturalists releasing a bunch of live panthers into the Osceola National Forest. The idea was, if these panthers survived, they would later be replaced by endangered Florida panthers.
That's just what I needed. Panthers in the forest. I envisioned myself being sound asleep in my tent, with a smelly empty sardine can beside my head. Now, here comes a hungry panther.
The very thought of panthers in the forest kept me from camping for several days. I rode along the Gulf of Mexico and enjoyed the motels. When I turned toward home, I picked out a state park in Georgia and headed for it ... the Kolomoki Mounds State Park. This time, I would show some smarts and ask around before I camped there.
In the southeastern corner of Alabama, a produce salesman gave me a glowing account of the state park. He and his family loved it. Best of all, the mosquitoes weren't bad and there were no panthers.
Just as the sun was setting, I arrived at Kolomoki Mounds. It was only then that I learned what "mounds" are. I hadn't given the name any thought, because I wasn't very far from a famous little town called Plains.
"Mounds" turned out to be genuine sacred Indian burial mounds shadowed in the setting sun by a huge earthen bluff the Indians once used as a temple for all the burial ceremonies. The state park facilities were laid out around this.
Each mound was numbered and labeled with a sign like "Mound #7 ... no digging." Sure. Like I was about to go rooting around with a shovel after midnight, disturbing sacred bones by the light of a blue moon.
This place probably inspired a Norman Rockwell painting ... the one with freckly-faced kids in front of the drug store with their baseball caps on sideways. The accompanying dialogue goes something like ... "Hey Smiley! I'll bet you my Mickey Mantle card and this glass doorknob that you won't spend the night out at the burial mounds in a tent. I double dare ya!"
Well, I did it. All night long I
imagined that the deceased Indians nearby didn't care one little bit for the
part I was playing in the commercialization of their sacred territory. The
mercury light on the bath house cast strange shadows on the walls of my tent,
and I could have sworn that bears and panthers and Indians were all running
circles around the picnic table.
One last adventure
For some unknown reason, I camped once more before I made it home. This last adventure was staged at Baker Creek State Park in western South Carolina. The four mile access road was a veritable roller coaster of hills and blind curves, and the campsites were all paved with clay and gravel. In the interest of fairness, though, I'll note that the park ranger was a very nice guy. All he could do was smile and wish me good luck.
That evening I huddled nervously in my tent while a mammoth thunderstorm passed just west of the park, whipping some wind through my sleeping bag.
A short while later, I dug out my tiny radio and tuned in the Augusta station. The folks were talking about the weather with more than a passing interest. It seems the storm that narrowly missed me trucked straight into Augusta. It blew a huge restaurant sign over, crushing several cars in the parking lot. Trees were down. Power was out. Store windows were smashed. Streets were flooded.
I'm not likely to ride my bike and camp again any time soon, and heaven forbid I should ever go backpacking. This kid's had enough.
If I ever ride across America, I have already picked out the finest campgrounds in the nation. There's the Ramada, the Holiday Inn, Red Roof, Best Western...
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