Saturday, 23 March:

Day Nine - Breaking camp...

A cool and very foggy morning when I stick my head out of the tent 0700 (which is about when the sun finally starts to warm the tent). Smoke from the fire already burning mixes with the fog to hang thick and low over the palmetto and oak scrub around our camp. Heard cardinals and a white-eyed vireo singing from the earliest light. I also heard students trying to move quietly around the site; unusual so early, and a bit confusing, until I saw the decorations on the tent (see yesterday's account). So they get their joke and pictures, and then we get on with the morning.

The sun has quickly dispersed the fog, which drained away almost as quickly as water when the plug is pulled. I drove several of the crew to the showers, a bit over a mile away. Even this early, the showers were crowded and it took a while for everyone to consider themselves 'ready.' I busied myself with my journal, and did spy a Swainson's thrush near the bathhouse.

Breakfast and packing a bit delayed, and a final potty stop being judged prudent (if not necessary), we were on the road by 0945. Then, of course, fuel, junk food and fruit stand/souvenir stops added to the delay. Do we really want to get back to wintry Ohio or not?

We follow US 27 north up the sand-ridge spine of Florida. Once this was solid orange country, now we see abandoned and heavily frost-damaged groves, some grown up to thickets or replaced by pine plantations. By the time we pass through Clermont, home of the 'Orange Tower,' orange trees are scarce. Bad winters and changing economies have taken their toll. At Wildwood, we climb reluctantly onto I-75 again and point ourselves northward. Lunch is delayed until we find a nice place to eat.

1400 to 1545 we make a brief excursion to Payne's Prairie State Preserve. Too hungry to move very far from the bus, we stagger into the parking lot and, sitting on the ground in the shade, attack lunch like a hyena clan (well, maybe not as noisily, anyway). A short walk through the oak woodland along the south edge of the prairie momentarily takes our minds off of where we're headed. The prairie is a seasonal wetland but quite different from the Everglades. Here, water flows in but not through the system, which is much smaller. It can be very productive, however, once possessing a huge population of water snakes; sandhill cranes are often seen around here, though we are not so lucky. We did find a solitary wasp nest and a squirrel treefrog hiding in the shelter of a curved palmetto frond. A pretty orange trumpet vine and a species of greenbrier climbed into trees in several places. And, in spite of visiting here numerous times before, I discover to my amazement that the understory in the live oak forest we are walking through is primarily sweet gum. I don't usually think of sweet gum being that abundant in any one place, let alone the dominant understory tree!

Alas, we must move on, must be home tomorrow night or miss school on Monday. We drive back to I-75 through historic Micanopy; each return to the interstate bring at least one voice, often a chorus, crying "Shouldn't we be going south?" By the time we reach the Georgia line, it is still spring-like in the warm late afternoon sun. Virtually any deciduous tree has at least progressed to the point where its buds were swelling. Fields are brown, but the roadsides are turning green. Fields are being burned in places around here, and the air is a bit hazy; the occasional column of smoke can be seen toward the horizon.

Another Shoney's for dinner. In Tifton, where we also fuel up. A long drive through the Georgia night commences. A brief rest stop on the north side of Atlanta, and then on to Cartersville, where we 'camp' at a Ho-Jo's motel. It is already the wee hours of tomorrow. There will be no more gators this trip, and we will be weeks away from leaves on the trees in one short day.

- EJ