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Florida Trail (Extended): Day 1

Posted by on February 2, 2015

On an old closed road, thin but dense borders of twisted and tangled Mangrove roots keep the crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico from splashing over onto the road’s surface. As I lie there on top of my sleeping bag, sweating from the heat and humidity, I let out an exalted sigh. Only 2 days ago, I stood for 4 hours in 30 degree sleety weather trying (and failing) to hitchhike from Maryland to Key West- but now that I am here, only a stone’s throw from the beach, I feel extremely relieved and content. Just as I drift off, I feel the first light drops of rain hit my bare face. Instinctually, I sit straight up and tear open the drawstring of my backpack. I didn’t have time to consider how to most effectively set up my tarp in a way that would fit in this thick knot of arched roots I had crawled into, though I knew the forecast wasn’t calling for a storm, so I simply draped the tarp over a few knotted roots and pulled my gear in close and my guitar in closer. In less than a minute the deluge began and heavy rain drops the size of bumblebees started pelting me, each one easily felt through the thin nylon tarp. While the tarp is impregnated with silicon, and therefore fairly waterproof, I kept feeling the hems of my pants to see if my feet had become exposed, but they never were, it was just the closeness of each drop fooling me into believing I was wet. The shear volume of water that had fallen after 5 minutes caused the tarp to sag, pressing the nylon against me like a second skin, and formed shallow puddles on each of my sides where the rain collected as it dripped from each branch and slid from each contour of my body. I felt suffocated and tried to push the puddles away so I could expose the open air and breath freely, but it was futile. The water saturated every fiber of my clothing and backpack, and soaked my sleeping bag completely through after 15 minutes. Despite this, I was likely still sweating, though it was impossible to tell. Just as suddenly as it had started, the downpour ceased just short of 20 minutes. I pushed the tarp away from my face and took a deep breath; I may as well have inhaled the contents of a bottle of water, the air being still so humid. I haphazardly draped my sleeping bag over my lower body and gazed up at the full moon one last time before drifting off into a dazed half-sleep for the next few hours, swatting away mosquitoes in reality as well as in my dreams.

In the morning, it was a bird that awoke me, chirping softly above in anticipation of the sun. I am no birder, and could not identify it by look or by call, but I knew why it was so anxious for the first rays of sunlight to break the horizon. I wanted to be dry, and so did my winged bunk mate. I wrung out my clothes and stuffed wet gear into a wet pack. Fortunately, though, my homemade guitar case passed its first test with flying colors with not one drop having penetrated its tyvek, duct tape, and dental floss construction. As I walked on the closed road back towards town, the sun fulfilled its unspoken promise and then some. I dried off momentarily, and was wet with sweat again within the hour. A few minutes spent refilling on water at a Burger King and I set off toward Fort Zachary Taylor at the far west end of Key West. I had spent the entire last day commuting on a plane, 2 metro trains, and 3 buses into the late evening to reach the outskirts of town where I could stealth camp with a little more confidence. This morning would be my first time seeing the town in daylight. Frankly, I was unimpressed. It reminded me of a common vacation spot in Maryland called Ocean City, where the beaches sometimes resemble ash trays more than naturally occurring sand bars, only these beaches are more tropical and the sand is imported in some spots because the rocky coral shores don’t cater to the tourists as well. The town is a circus, where low-life dirt bags travel from far and wide to enjoy the warmer weather, and live off the pocket change of the extremely wealthy boating-class that come here to vacation at the marina resorts. High end retail stores and steak-houses sit right next to junky surf shacks, and luxury cars drive beside mopeds and golf-carts. The one thread holding it all together is that most come here to get fucked up on their vice of choice while soaking in the sweetness of paradise. But to my biased eye, I see only faint remnants of what was at one time a remarkably unique and pristine ecosystem. The seagulls help clean up trash, and for that matter I did see a homeless woman helping them pick up litter off the streets. It seems the recent extinction of the Miami Blue Butterfly in the Keys is just a sign of what the future holds for the rest of the indigenous wildlife.

Fort Zachary Taylor State Historic Site was incredible to say the least. I stood alone for a moment at the Southernmost point in the continental US and looked out at the ocean. The waves crashed against the rocky outcrop I sat upon and a warm and unending breeze blew back my hair. I had lunch with a few small crabs- they picked microorganisms off the rocks’ jagged surfaces, and I munched on a couple Clif Bars. I scanned the horizon to see if I could catch a glimpse of Cuba, but it was impossibly far away, even though I was closer than literally everyone in mainland America at that moment(on land, that is). Sailboats drifted by, solitary pelicans flew along the curve of the beach, a coast guard ship rushed by, presumably collecting weather or tidal data, and buzzards seemed to be suspended above the beach, using the warm updrafts to hover in one spot- we were all admiring the view apparently. A state park ranger came and sat beside me without saying a word, so I played him a song (I Can See Clearly Now by Jimmy Cliff), hoping it would convey more than any small talk either of us would be able to muster. Refreshed in body and mind, I threw my pack over my shoulder for what seemed like the millionth time in my life, turned around, and officially began my long walk of the American East Coast.

The rest of day was fairly repetitive, though not boring in the slightest. 360 degree views of open water and all the lush wildlife within it kept me entertained and gave my camera some steady work. I saw many ibis, pelicans, pigeons, iguanas, a large nurse shark, palm trees of numerous varieties, mangroves, exotic looking grasses and shrubs… the list goes on and on. Oh yes, and thousands of people driving by in their cars, fishing from docks and bridges, cycling past me on the trail, and sitting in the shade of a palm or a porch. Today I walked roughly 22.5 miles and sweat about as many liters. Not bad for day 1, eh? Tonight I stealth camp again under the full moon, which I suppose has become a theme of my adventures, as both the walk across America and my jaunt on the PCT started with a night under the full moon. Until tomorrow, sweet dreams and goodnight!

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