January 28, 2013 – Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida

So, the only way I can actually take a whole year off of work is to keep my expenses under control. In some ways, that’s easy. For example, I make the same lunch for myself that I have been eating since I was a kid (a sandwich, Coke, something veggie/fruit-like, and something sweet for dessert). It costs under $2, and it’s exactly what I would eat at home. Plus, when you’re eating that sandwich on a warm beach while thinking about the icy, snowy, and cold weather forecasts at home, there’s not much more you can ask for out of life.

However, there are other aspects of keeping my expenses under control that are not necessarily as easy. One of those things is camping.

Now, don’t get me wrong here – camping can be MUCH better than staying at a hotel. I’m pretty sure nearly every kid from the Upper Midwest has fond memories of camping as a kid, as every Midwestern kid, from all walks of life, camps at some point. There are wonderful things you’ll never forget about camping: the smell of the campfire, the joy of waking up to the sound of birds and nature, the terror/bravery involved in wandering to the toilets after dark without parental supervision, etc. Those are memories that are far different than the memories you get when your parents foolishly leave you at the hotel unsupervised, and you get the family banned from said hotel for the antics in which you engage while they are away (I obviously have no experience in this).

As you get older, there are other wonderful aspects of camping that you come to enjoy, such as the camaraderie that people who are willing to give up a nice, warm, indoor bed for the night enjoy when meeting others of the same, somewhat crazy, ilk. A campground becomes sort of like a neighborhood where people have porches – you say ‘hello’ to everyone who walks by, lest you become ‘that’ neighbor/camper, who has the reputation as a curmudgeon (or worse). You end up spending time with these former strangers, if only for a short but pleasant conversation. Even better while on a trip, it feels like you actually know the people around you, if only for a few nights.

All that said, camping can really, really suck.

For all of the great memories I have of camping, I have a lot of memories that are only considered ‘not horrible’ because of the passage of time (and which are now better deemed ‘things that are not as horrible as they were at the time’). I have spent many a wet day/night in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, eating candy and waiting out storms that never seem to end. There was the night we stayed at the campground somewhere north of Lake Superior, where the Canadian mounties had to kill a bear after it got into a car after some steaks. And, of course, the coldest night of my life ever, spent somewhere on the Yosemite Valley rim.

Of course, if given the option of camping and having a year to travel or not camping and having maybe six months to travel, I’ll take camping any day. And that is why Choppy and I find ourselves here at Gulf Islands National Seashore, miles down the road and worlds away from the resorts of Pensacola Beach, tent pitched and writing this post under the light of a lantern.

imageThis is the road to the campground. That’s not snow, that’s sand. This sand is reason alone to come vacation on the Gulf Coast. When I text pictures like this to friends who are in colder climates, I really should not be surprised when they stop talking to me.

In terms of camping, this is about as posh as I have ever camped. Each campsite has electricity and its own water faucet, and I can hear the sounds of the waves lapping against the white sand beaches of Santa Rosa Island as I write this. The moon is coming up to my left, and the weather is about as perfect as you can ask for.

The campground itself is quite nice – although they’ve put a lot of spaces into a small area, there are plenty of trees and natural breaks to keep people from being on top of each other. The small campers/tents are separated into a different area from the busses and giant campers, so I can’t get too jealous of those who have satellite television and toilets that don’t require a hike to get to.

Perhaps best of all, the campground is devoid of the sort of warnings that probably scare off many a would-be camper that are found all over campgrounds across these great United States. These warnings vary by region, but they all have the same general gist: ‘WARNING: This area is known to be frequented by [fill in dangerous/poisonous/otherwise able to kill you animal here]. Please be aware of this danger, and act accordingly.’ I assume that by ‘act accordingly,’ the people who write these warnings suggest finding a hotel room.

Even the few trepidations I had about camping before getting here were unfounded. I bought a tent that advertises itself as an easy-up tent, but still says two people should put it up. While the internet had assured me one person could easily put it up, until I got to the campground and did it for myself, I wasn’t really sure it would happen (and yes, I probably should have put it up by myself before leaving for this trip, but that’s expecting a level of preparedness that I am never, ever going to achieve when it comes to my free time, particularly when I would have had to put it up outside, in Indiana, in winter). I got everything else up easily as well, most of it being a less-involved version of tailgating (and, sadly, not involving my tailgating satellite television, which would have allowed me to show that tent campers are just as able to watch Sportscenter in this campground as RV campers, thank-you-very-much). Getting set up was entirely eventful free, which is good for me, bad for keeping those reading this blog amused.

imageThis is our campsite. Maybe a bit much for one person and a dog. And also a big reason why my idea of ‘bare minimum’ means a car with absolutely no room to spare.

I was pretty sure I had found camping in paradise. And then, the campground host came by.

Now, the people who had been (note the past tense) set up next to me had, while I took Choppy on her evening walk, moved from the spot next to me to the spot across the way. I had seen them talking to the campground host, and assumed that he had told them there was a reason to move. After all, they are Australian, and probably had not noticed something about the site that was obvious to Americans.

So, I went about making supper before it got dark, pleased with my choice of spot and ability to get everything up and running in a reasonable amount of time. It was sometime after I had gotten out my flashlight and before it was truly dark that the campground host came by on his bike, stopping to have a chat.

After exchanging greetings, I noted his Michigan State hat, which led to a discussion of college football – a topic a Notre Dame alum is never, ever going to pass up a chance to discuss. After our nice, pleasant football discussion (made more pleasant for me as ND beat MSU this year), the campground host casually (far too casually, if you ask me), noted that some campers had seen some snakes recently, and I should be on the lookout for Diamondback Rattlesnakes and maybe Cobra Snakes as well, particularly around this side of the campground. Oh, and Pygmy Rattlers, too (though those probably wouldn’t kill me, he assured me).

As it turns out, I am not camping in paradise.

Now, I would normally more or less ignore this sort of warning. I don’t like snakes, but I’m not terrified of them. And even if others have seen snakes recently, that doesn’t mean I am going to see them.

My bravado aside, though, the Australians next to me moved after hearing this warning, as I learned from the camp host. And the Australians live somewhere with something like 6 of the 10 deadliest snakes in the world, all of which are regularly found in peoples’ garages and backyards. If they are scared by this warning, I probably should be too.

Then again, I really like this camping spot. And I’m all set up. So, as it turns out, I’ll take my chances with the snakes. And hope for the best.