I awoke to the sun peeking through the tent zipper, the firm ground pressing my back, the previous day's mascara chipping onto my cheeks. Everything slowly settled back into focus.
I was here. Juniper Springs, a campground in the Ocala National Forest, north of Orlando, nestled between the Ocklawaha and St. Johns Rivers. I was camping. How ludicrous.
It was 20 years ago last I camped. I was eight. It was in Ohio, with a shiny bike and a campground store that sold ice cream. I had my dad to hook a worm and my mom to make eggs. I had nothing to worry about, and so I assume it was fun.
It's hard to remember, really. As time marched on, my tastes and hobbies graduated toward the polished end of things. I developed a deep affinity for air-conditioned shopping malls, for leopard print skirts, for ice cold Diet Cokes and clean sheets and comfortable throw pillows. Nature was something I had to pass to get where I was going.
It couldn't last, of course.
My boyfriend got the camping bug this year, after a decade of blissful, temperature-controlled suburban romance. The outdoors urge only intensified after we watched 127 Hours, that movie in which the guy gets stuck in a canyon and amputates his own arm. Something in that film sparked a survivalist itch in him that had to be fulfilled. We turned off the movie and I agreed to go camping, on the condition that we kept all our limbs, and our friends could come.
He agreed. (Gulp.)
We picked Juniper Springs based on recommendations from friends. It was one of many parks in the nearly 400,000-acre forest, supposedly beautiful, glistening and secluded where you wanted it and civilized where you needed it. The 79 campsites were near running water, near bathrooms and near a general store (hooray!). There were so-called "primitive" campsites, for those who wanted to walk several miles with only the belongings on their backs and really rough it (no thanks).
We got there on a Thursday night, just moments before the park gates closed at 8 p.m. We should have planned to arrive in daylight with plenty of time to spare. Our friends were already there with the fire roaring and the lanterns on, so we were able to set up.
It seemed so dark, so isolated, chilly but refreshing – and yet snug around the fire. The road to the bathroom was paved, not so bad with the help of a lantern. The toilets were clean and bright. Showers were available, but I figured staying dirty was part of the rustic charm. I wish I had brought hand soap, because there was none in the restrooms.
Before bed, we sat around the campfire singing classic songs. Loudly. How fun! We were liberated in our isolation!
Except not really. When the sun came up, we realized other campers were much closer than we had realized. We smiled and nodded, hopeful they didn't mind our rendition of "Foolish Games" at 11 p.m.
I put on my coonskin fur hat and set out on the nature trail. It was well-defined with informative signs explaining local trees and wildlife. The springs – wow, the springs! They were majestic. Thirteen million gallons of water run through the area's springs each day, bubbling from the ground in crystal clarity. It was a privilege to see in person. I only wished it were summer, so I could have jumped in.
We played Frisbee in a field and melted marshmallows in the fire. We sang again because we couldn't help it. We slept on the ground, and it was hard and cold, but we did it. It felt good.
At the end of the weekend, I was dirtier than I'd ever been, but I left with an unexpected feeling.
Next time, I wanted to go deeper into the woods.
If You Go
Juniper Springs Recreation Area is at 26701 East Highway 40 in Silver Springs in the Ocala National Forest. Camps are open year-round and each sleep five for around $20 a night. Make reservations four days in advance. Minimum stay is two nights on weekends, three on holiday weekends. Call 352-625-3147 or visit reserveamerica.com.