By Johna Till Johnson
It seemed like a lifetime ago. And for one of us, it was.
In our third shakedown paddle for the 2014 Florida Everglades Challenge, we were headed across Florida Bay to Key Largo. We had a camping permit for a site five miles offshore, but we decided that would be packing too much into the next morning: we had to break camp, paddle to Key Largo, and disassemble Vlad’s boat, all before noon, when our friend was planning to pick us up.
Instead, we planned to make straight for Key Largo and sort out lodging when we got there. Surely there’d be a motel room… or a campsite… or something.
We’d neglected to take into consideration the fact that it was the busiest season of the year, between Christmas and New Years.
There was nothing available, we discovered. But Vlad remembered a small county park with a boat ramp… if we could find it.
When we reached Key Largo, we managed to miss the park on the first try. We paddled for several hours in the deepening darkness, scanning the shoreline with our headlamps and occasionally asking passersby.
Nobody had heard of the park.
Finally we reversed our route and went back along the shoreline we’d previously traversed. And at 9:00 PM… there it was!
We pulled up onto a narrow cement boat ramp, got out, and looked around. It was a small, quiet park. Bordering it was a small road, with no sidewalks or streetlamps, with houses on the far side.
There was a concrete slab next to the boat ramp, with a picnic table and a trash can, and several large trees. Vlad said there was a fence around the park, but I couldn’t see that far into the darkness.
We quickly found a good spot to set up the tent—near the picnic table but not too close to the trash can, which smelled faintly of fish. Nobody would see us in the darkness… we hoped.
And they didn’t. The next morning, we were treated to a glorious sunrise and a visit from a friendly dog named Wilson (and his human companion). And while Vlad took apart his boat, I discovered some wonderful coffee and key lime pie at the nearby Key Lime Cafe.
It was a fitting end to a wonderful adventure. As I wrote at the conclusion of the post:
And just like that, the trip was over. Only memories remained: sunrises and sunsets, jewel-eyed spiders and pitch-black darkness. Mangroves, mosquitoes, and sandy beaches. And stars. And endless sun, wind, and waves.
Fast forward five years. Vlad was gone. My company had decided to hold our annual retreat at Key Largo.
And I wondered.. was that county park still there? Had it survived the hurricane that decimated parts of the Keys?
On the last day of our retreat I found myself with some extra time before my flight back. So on a whim, I drove down the main road, searching for the park. (I could have just looked up my own blog post, which had the name. But I didn’t remember that I’d recorded the name, since we often didn’t do that to avoid publicizing semi-legal campsites.)
I’d tried several side roads and was on the verge of giving up. Maybe the park was gone, eaten up by development, or demolished by the hurricane.
Then I saw the sign. I turned, and… yes, the road was right there. Yes, there was a mesh fence. And there was my park!
It was just after 8 AM and the park was empty. I wandered around, taking photos. It looked much the same, though the picnic area seemed newer, and the giant trash can was gone.
An SUV pulled up, and out jumped a man with two dogs. We got to talking. It wasn’t Wilson and his owner, but it was much the same feeling: A friendly man with stories to tell.
After they left, I took a few more photos. Then I left, making a U turn just past the Key Lime Cafe. Sadly, the cafe had closed.
But the park was still there: A handkerchief-sized piece of paradise. A memory of adventures past and a promise of adventures to come.