I'm sitting on a deck at the back of a restaurant on Apalachicola Bay with a glass of fume blanc, tacos stuffed with lovely crisp fried oysters, and a good book. Six hundred miles, and bliss.
I am in a part of Florida I don't know, the easternmost part of the Panhandle, putting all my trust in my little GPS unit, a Garmin more than two years old. I am following The Voice's instructions to Wakulla Springs State Park, south of Tallahassee, from U.S. 27 onto back roads lined by tall stands of trees I don't recognize.
Here and there I see kudzu creeping up a utility pole or across the undergrowth. I pass a sign offering boiled peanuts, and later, someone selling tupelo honey from the back of a pick-up. Yep, I have come north to get to the South.
The road is mostly straight, and periodically crosses a creek or a river. Occasionally I catch glimpses of men fishing from bass boats.
I have no idea where I am. The directions are given in route numbers, not names, and the signs welcoming me each time I cross a county line mean nothing to me. I just have to trust The Voice, follow its instructions and watch the miles tick off. At the park, I want to take a boat tour of the river that flows from the springs, see the wildlife.
Finally a sign welcomes me to Wakulla County, which reassures me. But when the voice tells me I have arrived, I am in front of a closed and locked gate that identifies this spot as the park's maintenance yard. Fortunately, an arrow on the gate points me to the park entrance, and a mile later, I finally do arrive at my destination.
I am about 30 miles north of Chiefland, Fla., another 70 miles or so to go before I get to Wakulla Springs State Park, my first destination of the day, when a roadside sign informs me that if I make a left and drive another 10 miles, I'll be in Steinhatchee.
I've long been intrigued by Steinhatchee, a small town just upstream from where the Steinhatchee River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, known primarily for the scallops you can gather yourself, so on a whim I make the turn.
A couple miles along this road, a sign directs me to make another left to get to Steinhatchee Falls. Steinhatchee FALLS? Waterfalls, here in Florida, where the highest elevation is a freeway overpass? How can I NOT make the turn and see a waterfall?
The road was once paved, but now it is just well graded, remnants of asphalt occasionally peeking through the gravel. A two-foot black snake is lying in the middle of the road, but on hearing a car approach, it slithers to the far side of the road.
After about a mile, I come to a small parking area and the end of the road. I park my car and walk to the edge of the road. And there is the Steinhatchee River and what passes for a waterfall in Florida.
The river is about 30 feet across, and there is a small waterfall, two feet high, maybe three. Two adolescent girls and a boy, all barefoot, are standing at the top of the falls, casting fishing lines downstream. Their parents are sunbathing on the bank.
Traveling north on U.S. 27 after dark on Friday, I still had the energy for a couple hours of driving, plus a desire to make it as close to Apalachicola as I could before stopping for the night.
But I was on a stretch of road where I had never been before -- north of Tampa Bay, more than 100 miles short of Apalachicola. I passed towns seemingly too small to have hotels, and with no street lights, only a vague sense of what I was passing. I just knew that the sparse buildings along the road weren't lit up, so they weren't commercial establishments. That's not a good sign when you're looking for a place to stay for the night. And I suspected more of the same was all that lay ahead.
My plan was to drive late, then find lodging in some moderately priced chain motel. Since I'd be getting on the road again early, there was no sense spending a lot of money on even semi-luxury. I'd save that for another night -- Biloxi maybe, New Orleans for sure.
This is a gamble I often take on road trips: not making a hotel reservation in advance. I like to stay flexible. The worst that could happen? I'd have to drive all the way into a bigger city -- in this case,n probably Tallahassee -- that has plenty of hotel rooms, but would be well out of my way. On rare occasion, I've lost that gamble, meaning I had to settle for a hotel that was too expensive, too rundown, or far away enough to keep me up, driving past my bedtime. Once in Alaska, the Midnight Sun caused me to lose track of time and I ended up sleeping in a room over a gas station -- and paying way too much for that privilege.
But up ahead on U.S. 27 on Friday, I saw lights indicating the next small town was larger than the ones I had been passing. I saw a car dealership and a Sears, which I took as a sign this town was big enough for a motel or two. And sure enough, up ahead was a Best Western with a vacancy -- plus an in-room mini-fridge, free Wi-Fi, free continental breakfast and an AAA discount. Sold!