Manatee Springs State Park and a Southern Sea Feast

November 13, Gainesville to Manatee Springs State Park, 55 miles.

After traversing the strip malls of Gainesville all morning, I made it to one of the most beautiful spots of the trip before sunset.

Sleeping on the Hawthorne trail was OK. Something in the bushes by my tent made loud sniffling and sneezing noises all night. At the time, I thought a deer with a cold was rummaging around in the brush, but it was probably an armadillo. They come out at night to eat. The big armored rodents can’t see very well so they rely on their nose for finding food. I suspect the noise was an armadillo or two was nuzzling through the leaves in search of bugs.

My camp site on the Hawthorne trail

I rode into Gainesville and promptly got lost. I was hungry, but I couldn’t find much too eat. After a while I gave up on looking for real food and went into a CVS pharmacy to buy candy. I asked a cop to point me in the direction of a camping store and he said the only one is the Sports Authority on the other side of town. I wasn’t sure if the towns ahead would have stove fuel and I wanted to stock up in Gainesville. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and most stores were closed or had limited hours.

I called my sister and then my mom and had them search the internet for camping stores. Only Sports Authority was open, so for directions and had them reserve the last two fuel canisters for me.

I explored the beautiful University of Florida campus on my way through town. I went from building to building looking for an unlocked door so I could fill my water bottles. It was 75 degrees and the the shade of the live oaks was perfect. The campus is covered in big trees and tall towers.

University of Florida

Blue Bicycle on campus

Manatee Springs is off the Adventure Cycling route, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to see Manatees and swim in the warm springs. I’m sure there was a better route than the one I took between Gainesville and Manatee Springs.

I left town on the busy road that went by Sports Authority. There was lots of traffic and pedaling wasn’t very much fun so I focused on going as fast as I could. I didn’t get out of town until noon and I really wanted to get to Manatee Springs before dark. Much of the route was on incredible straight and boring roads with fast speed limits. I road through tree farms from town to town. They grow trees differently in Florida than they do in the Northwest. The trees are all planted in perfectly straight rows. The trees themselves are also perfectly straight, lending a digital look to the landscape that couldn’t be mistaken for an actual forest.

The sun was beginning to set when I got to the State Park. The air had cooled to 70 degrees but I was hot and sweaty from bicycling in traffic all day. I rode right by the campsites and to the springs. I didn’t see any manatees so I jumped in and floated around on my back. Ancient Cypress trees surrounded the water and huge oak branches draped with Spanish Moss hang over the water. The springs are always 72 degrees, which isn’t warm but it’s not bad either.

Manatee Springs is one of more than 700 springs that bubble up through Central Florida’s limestone. Many of these springs are popular places for divers who like to explore the underwater caves.

I started cooking dinner after I got back from swimming. Once again, I couldn’t get my stove to light. Now I knew the fuel wasn’t the problem, so I started fiddling with it and plugging holes and manipulating it until it lit in a big fireball. It had gotten clogged somehow but the fireball must have burned whatever was clogging it and It lit fine for the rest of the trip.

With water for couscous heating up on my stove, I started to set up my tent. Before my dinner was done cooking my campsite neighbor came over and invited me for dinner. “I’m cooking lots of food and it don’t come from a can,” he said while looking at my can of beans.

His name was Rusty, he owns a dive shop and he had been drinking all day. After eating my dinner I walked over to Rusty’s site. He handed me a beer, introduced me to some of his friends and then went back to cooking one of the better feasts I have ever had. They were mostly remnants of a week-long dive clinic put on by Rusty’s shop. The campground hosts – retired RV nomads – were the only other non-divers in attendance.

Shrimp and boiled crawdads arrived at the table first. It was dark by now and I couldn’t really see what I was eating so I just kept shoveling it in. Then Rusty put a plate of rum roasted pineapple on the table followed by a beef stir-fry. Potatoes and corn cooked in the shrimp and crawdad water came next. Then ribs and cake. Clams were the last dish. Rusty finally stopped cooking and started eating clams. Everyone else was stuffed by then so Rusty ate clams for 20 minutes until they were gone.

I hung around and drank and talked with the divers for a while. They were mostly retired and they all liked to talk, so I didn’t get too many words in. One guy asked me what kind of bike I had. When I started explaining what a touring bike is he cut me off by saying, “You’re speaking Greece to me.” After that I mostly just listened to their banter about alligators, the military, real estate, seafood and so on. It was the first good people encounter I had on the trip and I savored it. As the night went on and the Southerners got drunker, they started saying bubba and the conversation focused on alligator hunting.

Manatee Springs

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