“It's just nice out here."
A rancher I interviewed told me that many years ago as we sat in his pickup truck, watching his "pretty bunch of speckled cattle'' graze next to an old rusty-roofed barn, on a hillside way above a lake where a couple of old men sat in a boat, fishing.
"There's no other way you can describe it, damn it, other than it being nice out here."
But I think I may have had this beat on Saturday in the Withlacoochee State Forest. Considering the sky was so clear you could see the moon at 1 p.m., and there was just enough breeze to move the tops of the longleaf pines — and considering my oldest son had joined me on a hike — well, I might go so far as to describe it as very nice.
Here's another conversation I remember from roughly 20 years ago. While doing a birding story, I asked a state wildlife biologist where in Florida I could go for a good backpacking trip. Her sneering reply: "North Carolina. When I go backpacking, I like to see something.''
Maybe there's plenty of strange and interesting wildlife in Florida, lots of dark, mysterious rivers for paddling. But this is the rap against our woods: They're buggy, flat and tangled with undergrowth. Not pretty.
Since then, the state Division of Forestry has burned the Croom Tract of the state forest many times, on purpose, clearing away medium-size oaks that block views. And is it possible that I've lived here long enough that the big pines have grown bigger? Maybe. On Saturday, some of them looked magnificent.
You might call the result parklike — tall, widely spaced longleafs and a knee-high undergrowth, with purple wildflowers and butterflies exactly the color of sulphur, which may be why they're called cloudless sulphurs.
But it's not parklike if it's natural, and this is the way a longleaf pine forest is supposed to look in Florida: pretty.
It was a refuge that came in handy just then. For a few hours, I didn't have to think about how many foolish people in this state might vote for Rick Scott for governor and believe that his banker opponent is some kind of socialist.
It wasn't easy to get either one of my sons to go with me. They don't like hiking, maybe because I used to push it on them. I once planned what I thought was a moderate hike in the Smoky Mountains, a climb of 2,800 feet. I was proud that my youngest son, 5 years old at the time, made it without much problem. But the fact that he had to sit down in the trail and cry apparently was a problem to him. Surprise, surprise, he now hates the woods.
I won't say which one I persuaded to come along, because I promised not to. But I started by asking if we could spend the weekend on the Withlacoochee River. Earlier in the year, you may remember, I promised to paddle it all, in segments. Well, it's not going to happen, at least not with either of my sons.
No backpacking, either, he said. So we were down to a hike, but it turned out to be a fast one, with him in the lead for 7 miles. Not that I cared if it was fast. I just didn't want to have to push him, and I didn't.
He agreed to dinner too, cooked on a backpacking stove on the highest hill in Croom. Don't listen to what they say; not all of Florida is flat. The mac-and-cheese was delish, the breeze refreshing. My teenage son talked to me in paragraphs, not grunts.
Damn, it was nice.