Clearwater Lake

Getting Away From It All

John McKinney

When the stresses of modern day life become too much, sometimes getting out into the wilderness can be just what the doctor ordered, at least for me. This past weekend myself and 3 friends loaded up the SUV and headed South into the Ocala National Forest. We spent the weekend car camping on Clearwater Lake. A small campground on the southern edge of the Forest.


Getting a late start on our Friday-Sunday trip due to needing to wait until after everyone got off work meant we arrived when the Sun had already set. Personally, I’m not a fan of pitching up a tent in the dark, especially when rain is threatening. Thankfully, the rain held off, we started the fire, and cracked open a beer.

What followed was one of the worst meals I have ever consumed. Leading up to the trip we divided up the responsibility of bringing supplies for and preparing meals. Friday night’s meal was a baked ziti a friend, we’ll call him Kyle, had made a few days prior and then had frozen. The hour or so car ride down was not enough time for this large pan of pasta to thaw, unfortunately. After letting it cook on top of the fire we decided to sample what looked to be a delicious pasta dish…it was not.

Some bites were lava hot, some were ice cold, some were both at the same time. This is not what made it terrible, that would make it a hot pocket. No, what made this horrible was that the wood we had bought must not have been dried out properly which caused it to be extremely smoky. Have you ever eaten cheesy ziti and thought, you know what would make this better? If it had a potent charred oak flavor. Let me tell you right now dear reader, if you’ve ever had that thought, well then you are very wrong. Smoky oak does not complement baked ziti. It was horrendous.

There was one saving grace for this meal. Kyle had brought grated parmesan, nothing fancy mind you. This was just the standard Kraft parmesan you find in everyone’s home. I’m pretty sure it never runs out, at least at our home it never seems to. It always seems to be about 3/4 full. Well on this night, we nearly emptied the entire container. We doused every bite with parmesan. It was the only thing, other than beer, that helped this meal go down.

After our harrowing meal, we spent the next few hours sharing stories and poking fun at Kyle’s poorly executed dinner. What we didn’t know until it was too late was that someone in group harbored a terrible secret. When the clock struck bedtime and the moon was high in the sky he would saunter off to sleep, zip up his tent, and transform into a chainsaw. Sawing logs with terrible fervor and alarming decibels. That’s right, he was a snorer and a rather loud one at that. To make matters worse, I had forgotten one small accessory that I would never make the mistake of forgetting again, earplugs.


Whether it was his snoring that woke me up (for the sixth time that night) or the Sun streaming into my tent, I was up at Sunrise. Deciding to take advantage of the tranquility of the early morning hours, I headed out on a solo hike around the lake. Weaving along the dusty, sandy path through the tall pines I saw wildlife all around me. The tranquil lake lapped into sandy shores that abounded with herons and other large birds. Less than 100 feet in front of me on the path through pines four deer crossed scavenging for their morning breakfast. Not paying me much mind as I crept along the path trying to make as little noise as possible one finally noticed me when I was only about 50 feet from their group. The doe lifted her head, stared at me for a moment, and then scurried off.

It was a beautiful time to be alone with God and my thoughts. The serenity drew me into quiet contemplation about what’s necessary in this life. My phone wasn’t buzzing with notifications for emails, texts, and Instagram likes. I think I checked it once when I took it out to snap the header photo for this post. The silence was relaxing and peaceful.

After breakfast, where we invented a new car camping drink that I have a feeling will be a staple for years to come (Redneck Mimosas, which is Sunny D and any cheap beer), the chainsaw and I went for another hike. It was a great time, allowing us to catch up on life, pray a Rosary, and enjoy the beautiful weather. The rest of the day was filled with a whole lot of nothing. We threw the football around, played card games, and drank some more beer.

That night, we met a group camping a few sites away from us. They were celebrating a milestone, a 60th birthday. This get together included four friends and their family. Each friend had the exact same Jeep just in a different color. They had blacklights shining on their game of glow-in-the-dark croquet. Which, due to their neon shirts, neon painted croquet balls, and bright string-light hats looked like something out of a movie.

They had met building haunted houses for the decade or so prior. Their Halloween parties seemed incredible, they would each create elaborate haunted displays in their homes. One of the friends the previous year created a “rain room” in his home. This was a room that would cause rain to fall on you through pipes on the ceiling as you walked across a short bridge that moved due to hydraulics under the panels. Needless to say, they take Halloween to a level I could only dream of doing.

“Smoky oak does not complement baked ziti.”

If you haven’t been camping in awhile or maybe ever, I can’t recommend it enough. To me, there is nothing like sleeping under stars and waking up in the woods. Car camping is a great way to get comfortable before eventually trying something a little more intense like a weekend in the mountains carrying in all your gear like I’ll be doing in a few weeks. Some, like my wife, have zero desire to camp out where you have to carry everything on your back which I get, it’s not for everyone. I will say though, you’ll feel so accomplished knowing you survived out in the woods with only what’s on your back.

There is so much beauty to explore and enjoy outside our wifi and city streets. Don’t be afraid to go have an adventure. I don’t know anyone who, looking back at moments in their life, fondly recounts all the time spent online shopping, browsing Facebook, or watching Netflix. No, the stories you tell are ones of awe-inspiring beauty seen while exploring mountains, great shared experiences such as “You remember that time when we…”, or harrowing adventures where they almost died doing something stupid. These are the moments worth sharing. They are the moments that will bring you joy years down the road.

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