The Ocala National Forest’s Centennial Trail is deep, white, sugar sand. It’s a fight to keep pace with Jim, my wife’s boss, and two young vets, Jesse and Lou. I’m riding my Kawasaki KLR250; everyone else is on quads. To tell the truth, I’m a little embarrassed to be seen in the company of these bubblegum-tire, anyone-can-ride off-road machines that require the absolute bare minimum of rider competence. Opening up the nation’s trail system to the inner ear-challenged was the worst idea since talk radio. Normally, I’d have nothing to do with four-wheelers except these are not normal times. Finding riding buddies who aren’t busy or broke is getting harder these days.
The vets have four semi-automatic handguns, an assault rifle and several hundred rounds of ammunition strapped to the racks of their ATVs. They seem to be heavily armed for trail riding. I ask them if they’re expecting trouble in the woods: “No, but if we run into any it’s going to get real noisy!” Lucky for me I remembered to pack a space blanket.
The Centennial Trail circles a military bombing range (why are there no civilian bombing ranges?) and we’re halfway around before I remembered to lower the KLR’s tire pressure. With 10 psi in the rear and 15 in the front, the battle is over: The little 250 floats on top of the sand sweetly.
On the east side of the bombing range, a huge encampment of Rainbow People has set up a utopian society in the forest. Staffed with gray-haired hippies, dirty-footed nature goddesses, holy men and plain old-fashioned nutcases, the Rainbow tribe inhabits the fringes of our society like melting-pot Roma.
Between a multi-colored magic bus and a naked baby languidly tossing dirt clods, a hand-lettered sign points toward the “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.” Come to think of it, we are pretty thirsty. A short discussion on armaments ensues; the military guys decide that two pistols and 60 rounds of ammo will suffice for tea. Hopefully, it’s decaffeinated. Much clicking of safeties, stuffing of clips into waistbands and checking of chambers later we hike down the footpath toward the tea party.
The trees close in and the Rainbow people start hitting us every hundred feet, “Got any cigarettes? Beer? Pot?” Fresh from Iraq, Jesse’s concern is for the tribe. “You have to honor their customs. If they feel insulted, the situation could turn bad on us.” He lays out the plan: Jim, Jesse and I will drink tea so as to not disrespect the tribal elders. Lou will politely decline, feigning allergies. In case the tea party doesn’t go well, the military guys discuss positioning and which males to shoot first. I wish I would have sprung for the heavy-duty space blanket.
The trail clears. Dozens of tents are situated around a huge, central fire pit. There must be more than 30 people. I hear Jesse complaining about the quantity of ammo they’ve brought along. “Less than two bullets per person, Lou; we got a problem here.”
Two pine tree trunks are stacked horizontally atop their stumps, forming a stand-up bar. Atop the bar sit three tattered coolers, each containing a different flavor of room-temperature tea. Entering the clearing, Jesse changes the plan on the fly. “If we start acting weird from this tea, kill everybody.” Lou nods his head. I pray: “Please, God, let the tea be tea.”
These are professional tea drinkers on a closed course. Do not attempt brewing this flavor
The tea turns out to be tea. The bar operates on the barter system; there’s nowhere to spend money. “Give what you can, brother.” Beautiful, young flower-women filter into camp, eyeing the two clean-cut vets. Compared to the bearded old hippies they look like diamonds. Three cups of tea and Jim’s getting his shirt tie-dyed, Jesse is chatting up the ladies and Lou has lost his murderous glare. “This is how they get you,” I thought.
Night is falling and I manage to talk the boys out of the Mad Hatter’s before they go completely feral. Riding a motorcycle in the sand at night is tough work. Two of the quads collide, bending frames and busting a radiator. We pull it together. I’ve stopped hating the quad; adventure is not dictated by the number of wheels on your ride.
We make it home safely, but I’m not sure for how long. Jesse wants to load up the car with beer and cigarettes. “Let’s go back, Lou. If we bring ice, we could be kings.”