21st Century Wilderness Man Greg Johnson Palmdale, Florida
By: Nancy Dale
Born in Arcadia, Florida, Jan 20, 1977, 38 year old Greg Johnson has created a life in the wilds of Palmdale, living in small three room wooden solar powered house, living “off the grid” with a “pitcher pump” for water and an outside latrine.
Greg Johnson has been a man of Nature all his life and is now living his dream. Unlike most young men his age who “visit” the woods, he has adopted Nature and Nature has adopted him. All his life, Johnson has explored the Everglades, hiked in the woods, fished, discovering new adventures that most people only imagine. He is now living a free-spirit lifestyle outside the norm. He has chosen to live amongst wildlife in a deserted wilderness with Fisheating Creek running through his back yard. He swims in the Creek with alligators and moccasins.
Johnson has chosen this way of life and lives his philosophy, “If you take care of Nature, Nature will take care of you.” He has been a day worker cowboy for Lykes Brothers in Glades County further initiating him into the rustic environment. As he says, “Just like a woman, Palmdale stole his heart.” Johnson is a “romantic” surrounded by ancient oaks sleeping under a blanket of stars with the melodious cacophony of crickets lulling him to sleep every night.
Greg Johnson is a Landscape Architect, driving more than 100 miles to Naples where he began his independent business in 2002 when he worked for ranchers living in remote Immokalee, near the Florida panther reserve. Johnson says driving along highway 850, he got rare glimpses of the native cat, slinking along the roadside.
Johnson is an explorer and adventurer. He expanded his vision of Native culture when he moved from Immokalee to Palmdale. He first rented a small lot at Ray Hendry’s Campground furthering his journey of discovery in the small town with a fluctuating population of 300-400 people nestled along the bank of one of the last pristine rivers in Florida: Fisheating Creek.
“When I first settled in Palmdale, I met one of Palmdale’s locals, Ray Hendry, who took me over to the deserted property of long time resident recluse, Lucky Whidden. Whidden is a Palmdale legend. Whidden’s self-made home burned down but the arch above the entrance remained and welcomed friends into “Lucky’s Ponderosa.” “You can still see the remains of the small walkway across the front yard that led to Lucky Whidden’s two room house. When I first visited Lucky’s property,” says Johnson, “I was met with old cars and swamp buggies left behind by Lucky who made a living repairing everything from cars to plumbing, out of his well-equipped garage, every spare part neatly stowed along the walls. Lucky’s small house, by design, had a living room possessing only a sofa, TV, and a little coffee table beside his favorite chair with a well-worn groove where he lodged his beer bottle. One day when the author was visiting Lucky, he pulled out from underneath the sofa a box of old “golden books” saved from his childhood. As we were reading some of the stories, a couple of rugged cowboys came to call on Lucky, bending under the always open doorway to enter. Much to their surprise, they saw Lucky and the author absorbed in the little Golden Books. They made a quick, curious assessment of the scene, quietly tipped their cowboy hats and slowly backed out of the house with slightly strange expressions on their faces. This soft side of the rough and tough image of Lucky’s life may have surprised the equally tough cowboys.
Not far from Lucky Whidden’s property was the historic tourist attraction on U.S. 27, Tom Gaskins Cypress Knee Museum. In 1999, Tom Gaskins, after a long battle with the State of Florida, had to dismantle the Museum workshop and move his family to Transylvania near Venus. He was evicted from a life time lease based on a hand-shake agreement between Tom Gaskins, Senior and Charlie Lykes, Senior. The lease was not honored after Charlie Lykes, Senior passed away. The long time Cypress Knee workshop and Museum made with tall cabbage palm trees was left to return back to the Earth. The author was there on the last day when Tom Gaskins, Jr. loaded the kilns, old Cypress knees, and equipment from the workshop onto a flatbed truck. What remains outside behind the workshop is the treacherous two board, boardwalk and wire grip that loomed over the creek with Gaskins’ characteristically named Cypress Knee statues implanted in the swamp along the walkway. Lucky Whidden was one of the Palmdale residents who fought with other locals and the Attorney General to keep Fisheating Creek open as a “navigable waterway” during long legal battles. Lucky took the battle a step further when he lit an acetylene torch and cut down an obstruction on the river that he claimed had been purposefully felled to block the navigable waterway. The long time heyday of the Cypress Knee Museum and the dismantling of hand-carved welcoming signs along U.S. 27 announcing the approach to the Museum are now all gone. What remains today is the old sour Orange tree right outside the old workshop that produced big juicy oranges. Gaskins enjoyed offering tourists one of the big oranges from the tree and watching them pucker-up when they took a deep bite into the bitter, sour orange.
What remains of the Museum along U.S. 27 across from the workshop is now taken back by Nature with only a snarly view of this bygone era of Native Florida history cherished by so many in Palmdale and visitors from around the world.
Today, however, there is a new generation of pioneers such as Greg Johnson living in Palmdale. Fortunately, after living there awhile, he met Preservationist Ellen Peterson (now deceased) who offered him a job as “Caretaker” of the little house she built at Whidden’s where Johnson lives today. Ellen Peterson, for many years, managed the Fisheating Creek Campgound. After Ellen’s passing, Johnson purchased the property in 2006. Ellen Peterson was the founder of the “Save our Creek” organization that still exists today to protect the pristine wilderness threatened by creeping urbanization. Johnson is also a Preservationist and member of Save our Creek. He continues to preserve the native Beauty of the land just as Lucky Whidden and Peterson did for many years before him.
Similar to Whidden’s maverick lifestyle, Johnson likes the rough life, the “outlaw” image of living in a little known place on the edge of the wilderness and surviving in Nature. He has carved out a life like the early settlers in the 1800s who poled down the Creek, delivered mail, fished and hunted in the woods and along the banks of Fisheating Creek, or drove cattle through Florida into the vast Palmdale landscape settling with their families into a lifestyle of living off the land.
When Johnson discovered the stories of Palmdale through his explorations of Florida and the 1990’s the fight to save the Creek. Johnson adopted a personal mission to preserve the Creek in its natural state, and to introduce others to an appreciation of its Beauty. He climbs tall oak trees to take town old liquor bottles hanging over branches left by campers who swing from ropes into the creek. He and other young Palmdale residents, Doug and Christopher Kelley join him in keeping trash removed along the creek and hike the area looking for debris to clean up.
Johnson is fortunate to have very supportive parents who encourage his alternative lifestyle. Johnson said his mom wanted him to pursue a college education but he did not want an inside job; he chose to live and work outdoors. Johnson’s parents recognized his dedication to live off the beaten path in Palmdale and helped him to renovate Peterson’s wooden cabin with essential necessities to live there. By choice, Johnson bathes in a bucket of fresh water from a pitcher pump outside the cabin on a wooden table, where he also rinses his dishes after cooking over an open fire or on a small gas stove inside. The cabin is lined with solar panels that provide minimal light, hooked up to cable on the floor to a car battery and inverter box. He has no noisy electrical appliances or refrigeration, only a cooler. Outside he has a pile of firewood for camp fires, cooking, and warmth.
Johnson’s says, “Kids today don’t know how to grow a garden or do minimal labor. We need to teach young people that as a survivalist some day you may not have a house and will have to live off the land.” As one of his Nature hobbies, Johnson takes lots of pictures and shares them with others he reaches out to in his urban travels. He shares his love of the land and stories about his lifestyle with those living in landscaped suburbia.
. For a social life, Johnson remains friends with Arcadia buddies and continues to expand his realm of friendship to all he meets along the way. He enjoys socializing with Palmdale neighbors over a good fresh cooked meal at the newly revived Palmdale Cracker Store exchanging adventure stories and wildlife tales. Johnson offers his help to other residents and shares his knowledge and perspective on what he has learned living “off the grid.” Johnson is reviving the spirit of early America returning to a Native lifestyle, living his dream, and creating his own legend as a 21st Century wilderness man.
Nancy Dale, Ph.D. is the author of true stories of the Florida pioneer “cow hunters” published in five books. Her upcoming book is PRESERVING NATIVE FLORIDA: THE TRADITIONS, THE WILDERNESS AND THE WILDLIFE. Books available: www.nancydalephd.com, Lake Placid Feed and Western Wear, Sebring: Glisson’s Animal Supply, Pure Grit Boot Company, SFSC Museum of Florida Art and Culture, Okeechobee: Fantasy Lighting Palmdale: Gatorama, LaBelle: Labelle Chamber, Labelle Feed Supply