Mixsonian

Deeply Rooted->Tate's Hell

A Deeply Rooted Story
By
Larry Mixson

Tate's Hell

I turned off the lights to go to sleep and then laid in bed for a while listening to the sound of the wind.   Although I was in my bed, I was not at home but in in my camper in the wilderness and was a little on edge about noises I was hearing outside my camper.  This being my fourth camping trip I was starting to feel more comfortable in my new camper, but this trip was a bit different than my previous ones that were all at the more civilized Florida state parks while this trip was in the wilderness in a state forest.  On this trip I decided to try off-grid camping with no water or electrical hookups which shouldn’t be a problem since my camper is equipped for such camping.  Upon looking for an appropriate place, I found the Tate’s Hell State Forest had camping at the reasonable price of $9 a night. 

Tate’s Hell starts at the coastline and at over 212,000 acres, goes twenty some miles inland situated on the big bend of the panhandle of Florida along the Forgotten Coast.  The higher, dryer areas of the forest are scrub oak and pines with dense undergrowth of palmettos and brush while the lower areas have cypress, swamps and creeks that eventually drained into the gulf.  The forest got its name from a man who went into the swamp hunting and became lost for seven days and seven nights, being bitten by a snake and by endless mosquitos, drinking bad water before staggering out and collapsing in front of some people where he said, “My name is Cebe Tate and I just came from hell.”, then he collapsed and died.  Ok, yeah, that is the place I’m going camping.

Unlike state parks which are developed, state forests are wilderness with only a few dirt roads and primitive campsites with no facilities.  Perfect I thought for my off-grid camping trip, so I reserved site #53 on Deep Creek shown on the map off to itself a couple of miles away from most of the sites which were along the Carrabelle River which empties into the Gulf at the town of Carrabelle.   Ok, out in the forest miles from the nearest person, sounds good.

Sign
Sign with bullet holes at road to campsite

State forests have few rules, hunting is allowed in season, collecting firewood is permitted and your unlikely to ever see a forest ranger.  This lack of rules and freedom makes them appealing to the locals who use the forest as their playground for hunting, fishing or driving around in their off-road vehicles drinking beer, Bud Lite seemingly their favorite from the half dozen empty cans I found around the campsite.   Country boys learn to use guns early and love to go hunting or, if no game can be found, shooting road signs in the middle of the night.   My sister who taught high school in the panhandle for a number of years told me that on the first day of the season half of the boys would skip school to go hunting.  My dad who was such a county boy once told the story how as a young man he and his friend Monroe drove to Williston to get a haircut one afternoon.  Driving down the country road at sunset on their way home they looked for rabbits along the side of the road. Upon spotting one, dad would lean out the window with his double barrel 4-10 shotgun and shoot it.  They got five that night and after getting home and skinning them, his mother fried them up for dinner.

Larry with shotgun

With this in mind and knowing I would be out in the middle of the forest alone, I was concerned about unruly boys coming upon my camp looking for trouble.  As a precaution I decided I should dress like a country boy, putting on some old jeans, my widest belt, flannel shirt, boots and my leather cowboy hat.  My outfit may make me look like a country boy on the surface but upon closer inspection my flannel shirt was from Eddie Bauer, my boots were from LL Bean and my hat was from Peru. Ok, if it is dark no one would notice but thinking I might need something a bit more than being nicely dressed, I slipped my 10-inch bowie knife onto my belt.  Now, looking like Crocodile Dundee, I pulled out my knife and said, “You call that a knife?”.  OK, I needed another plan, so I decided to bring my dad’s old 4-10 shotgun, the same one he shot rabbits with that night.  I was prepared, or so I thought.

Dirt road to campsite
Dirt road to campsite

Deep Creek was also deep in the forest.  Upon arriving at the edge of Tate’s Hell on the Gulf coast Highway 98, I turned north on highway 65 and proceeded 15 miles looking for a road named Bucks Siding that would take me into Tate’s Hell and my campsite.  I was using the map app on my iPhone to guide me when the map suddenly went blank. Looking closer I found zero bars, no phone reception. Week if you didn’t know the map app on phones require phone service, no service no map, something you would expect in, well.. Hell.  This presented a problem for the dirt roads leading into Tate’s Hell all looked alike with only a small sign with a number on it, so I had no idea which one was Buck Siding.  Like a good boy scout, I was prepared having an old GPS unit which I got out from under the seat where I had stashed it a couple years ago, placed it on the dash and turned it on.  After few anxious minutes, it synced and showed me where I was and even better, it showed Bucks Siding Road not too far away.  Proceeding to Buck Siding I turned on it and drove two miles down the dirt road into the forest arriving at a small sign #53, Deep Creek..

The campsite was nice, a circular clearing some 75 feet in diameter with a picnic table and firepit, surrounded on three sides by pines with heavy underbrush of palmettos while on the fourth side was small road leading though cypress trees down to the creek.  I parked and setup my camper placing my 4-10 shotgun just inside the camper door.  

CampsiteCampsite

Road to Deep Creek
Road with Deep Creek at the end

I arrived midafternoon on a bright sunny day so after setting up camp I walked down the road to check out the creek.  The creek, like most in in Florida, was a dark tea color due to tannins from the trees in the swamp.  Although dark, the water was clear and you could see the bottom along the edge of the creek for a foot or so before it quickly got deeper and darker and you could not see what might be lurking under the water.  Best not to step into that I thought.  Tea Colored WaterThe next day I read a story in a local newspaper that I had picked up about four boys who went into the forest off of highway 65 where one decided to go swimming in the creek.  When the first boy entered the water, a big alligator rose up out of the dark water, grabbed the boy and drug him under and was never seen again.  Yeah, best not get to close to the water’s edge.

I gathered firewood on my way back to camp which I placed into the firepit ready for a fire that night.  With sun getting low in the sky silhouetting the pine trees as it shone through the pine trees it quickly grew colder and the wind started to pick up, so I went into my camper and fixed dinner.  After dinner I stepped outside panning to light the fire but being windy, I thought it best not to have one and went back inside and read a book.

After reading for a while, I grew tired and decided to go to sleep, it had been a good day, I felt content.  Turning off the lights I laid there for a while in the dark listening to the sound of the wind and the occasional creaking of the camper settling or a small twig hitting the camper blown from the nearby trees, as I faded into sleep.

I was awoken with a start in the middle of the night from some noise outside.  While asleep I heard the wind and twigs hitting the camper, but it didn’t wake me with my subconscious filtered it out as nothing to worry about.  This new sound was something different, it sounded like someone was outside.  Thinking I should look, I tried getting up, but my body wouldn’t move, my legs and arms feeling like they were made of lead.  Putting more effort into it, I slowly got up, lifted the edge of the window shade and peeked out where a saw two persons standing in front of a vehicle.  With the moon about half full there was enough light to see their vehicle was an old Jeep YJ, stripped down, no top, no doors and lights along the roll bar behind the seats. 

This isn’t good I thought, some country boys looking for trouble, getting out of bed I put on my boots and my flannel shirt over my pajamas still in my pajama bottoms, ok, perhaps they won’t notice that I thought as I grabbed my 4-10 shotgun by the door. I open the breach, put in a couple of shells, closed it, checking that the safety was on then putting on my leather hat before stepping out the door holding the shotgun in the crook of my left arm like holding a baby.

Outside I found a man and woman standing there by the firepit, each with a Bud Lite in their hand with the fire ablaze.  Apparently in the time it took me to dress they started the fire with the wood I had put in earlier.   They seemed friendly when they turned to me and the woman said, “Hello how are you tonight.”   I hesitated, not expecting that and before I could reply another jeep pulled up, screeched to a halt and four people got out talking and laughing, each with a Bud Lite in their hands.  They walked over and joined us around the fire in the pit, one saying “Hey Cebe, how you doing?”, and then they all started talking to each other like old friends.

They all ignored me which was fine with me as I didn’t want any trouble, so I stood there quietly holding my shotgun watching them when two of the people walked to the edge of the camp clearing where a vertical line of light appeared, like when you’re in a dark room with the door cracked open and the light from the next room shines through the crack.  The couple turned and walked into the light and disappeared.  I stood there dumfounded, looking around at the others who appeared as if nothing unusual had happened.  Without thinking I walked over to where they disappeared when suddenly many images appeared in semi-circle at the edge of camp. It was like a cyclorama or Imax theater, forty feet across and twenty feet high covered with images of different rooms, gardens and other places.  The images were facing in all different directions, left, right up, down, like a drawing by Escher with people coming and going between the images they seem to be portals to different worlds. 

I was intrigued and reached out to touch an image and my hand went though it which I quickly pulled back.  I considered stepping though one of the portals but wasn’t sure that was a good idea, so I walked back to the firepit to see what the man and woman had to say about it.  When I approached them, the man said, “Should we take him?” and the woman replied, “No Tate, I don’t think he is ready.”   And she reached out and touched me on forehead…I blinked.

When I opened my eyes, I found myself in my camper lying in bed looking Shotgun and hatup at the ceiling not understanding how I got there.  One second, I was standing outside by the firepit the next I’m in bed.  I sat up, the shotgun was standing next to the door, my hat was hanging on the wall, I stretched over and looked out the window and, in the soft moonlight, I could see the wood stacked unburnt in the firepit as I had left it, but when I looked closer, there appeared to be a single glowing red ember in the middle of it.  “I’m not going out there.” I mumbled to myself as I laid back in bed pulling the covers up over my head.

Story is based on an actual camping trip and dream I had on the trip.

Larry Mixson, 01-16-2022