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Florida Trail (Extended): Days 26-40 (Part 1)

Posted by on March 13, 2015

What a wild series of adventures the past two weeks have been. I have traversed through dozens of wilderness areas of varying terrain and ecology, met people from all different places and backgrounds and got to connect deeply with a handful of them, and spent hours every day reflecting on and analyzing the many things I had learned in such a brief period of time. In order to recall my experiences and transcribe my thoughts fully, I have decided to split this post into two parts. The first part, which I will delve into today, will provide a look into what it was like to hike over 250 miles in 2 weeks, including the entire Eastern Corrider of the Florida Trail. The next part, which I will publish tomorrow (assuming I have cell service), will reflect in detail on some eye-opening and profound encounters I had with some of the people I met, and how the lessons I learned from the could be interpreted in my life as a thru-hiker, and all our lives as human beings. In essence, these posts will elaborate on the topic of last week’s post about the balance between society and nature.

Where the Florida Trail parts from the Kissimmee River, it splits into Eastern and Western Corridors, both over 200 miles in length, but fairly different in terms of hiking conditions. The Western corridor begins with a 27 mile road walk with no legal camping areas, and winds primarily through developed rural country, while the Eastern Corridor consists of much more actual trail hiking, but leads one right though high-class suburban Orlando for roughly 30 miles halfway through, also with no viable camping options. I had initially intended on taking the Western Corridor, but I was fortunate enough to meet a woman who has section hiked the entire trail over the years, and highly recommended I take the Eastern Corridor instead for the serenity of the hiking trails over the monotonous, exposed road walks of the Western Corridor. Freshly resupplied, thanks to an impromptu ride from John the van-camper from Virginia, I was dropped off in the parking lot for a hunter’s camp in the Three Lakes Wilderness Management Area, about 16 miles south of the split in the trail, around noon. A hearty shaking off hands, and I set off under a solid grey, windless sky. The prairie surrounding me seemed endless, the tall yellow grass obscuring my view of the horizon. I wandered along the sandy, earthen road, trying to stay attentive for the orange blazes on the trees that signified I was still on the trail. In the grass, however, these trees were few and far between, and at certain forks in the road, it was less than clear which route would lead me where I wanted to go. I ended up taking a wrong turn, and walked a mile through frog-ridden mud puddles in a marshy section of the prairie before deciding to retrace my steps and try again. It is rare for me to be truly lost, as I am always carrying a map and data book with me that give me information about side trails too, but these momentary turn-arounds are bound to happen from time to time. It used to frustrate me; I felt that I was wasting time and energy, and these mistakes were evidence of a lack of experience and skill. Now, I have learned to embrace and even enjoy these unintentional side excursions, as a way of reminding me that the trail and my experience on it, are entirely what I make of them. A few more hours of hiking on the unpaveshunters road, and the trail soon turned off into a patch of sand pines and sparse palms. In the area between Lake Marian and Lake Jackson, I passed by a few empty hunting stands and blinds, noting to myself that turkey season begins soon and that I need to get an orange vest at the next possible opportunity. As the sun went down, I managed to keep my feet relatively dry in my Crocs by the time I showed up to the designated campsite, which had a picnic table and water pump. There was already a hiker there, and he warned me that the area around the picnic table was washing out, and that a matter of inches kept the camping area dry. He introduced himself as “Kitchen Sink”, a name he acquired through carrying a heavy pack full of ultralight gear: everything but the kitchen sink, as the idiom goes. It was a pleasure sharing camp with him, and we had some stimulating conversation. He is an intellectual and political dissident with a lot of hiking experience and an incredibly interesting perspective on the world, but I’ll save the meat of his story for tomorrow. He warned me that the forecast called for rain that night and also over the next few days, so I set up my tarp in the trees over my hammock. It did indeed rain that night, and we both sat in camp a little longer in the morning, waiting for the sun to break through the storm.

We left camp together, but said farewell soon after when we reached the road; he was taking the Western Corridor, and I decided the take the Eastern. With the rain from the previous night, most of that day was spent weaving in and out of marshes and prairies with sparse sand pines. There were a few very nice boardwalks over the marshes, but you would have to cross through a shallow puddle to get onto the raised section of path anyway, meaning my feet were wet almost all day. That evening, an hour or so before sundown, I was spit out on the highway, and had to walk for an hour on the shoulder before the trail re-entered the woods on the other side of the road. My feet were covered and caked with black, flakey dirt from tromping through a 100 foot section of deep and sticky mud earlier in the day. For you LOTR fans out there, I liken it it having Orc legs. I chatted on the phone with my buddy Ben for a while to catch up and kill time, and to my surprise, was offered a ride by a woman that stopped on the road, despite my filthy feet. When I finally did reach the stile that allowed me to hop the fence, the sun had already set, and I walked for only a few minutes at twilight before setting up my tarp and hammock. I filtered water from a scummy puddle, and even after filtering and purifying it, it was still a dark yellow/brown and honestly looked like urine. To taste, though, it was just cool water, and I drank 2 liters of it that night. In the morning, I packed up and hiked for only an hour or so before reaching “Forever Florida”, a zip-line adventure and Safari park, and was able to charge my phone and ate a delicious cheeseburger from their restaurant that serves and sells meat from their own grass-fed cattle. As I left, it was just starting to drizzle, so I put my guitar in its homemade Tyvek/packing tape case, put my pack cover on my backpack, and threw on my brand new Berghaus Hyper Smock, which they sent to me for free through general delivery at a post office way back in Islamorada in the Keys. Now was a perfect chance to test it out; it was going to be warm and rainy all day, so I could finally gauge its performance in terms of waterproofness and breathability.

I have been very satisfied with this new addition to my clothing system. It works as my wind-resistant, bug-resistant, and waterproof layer, and is also my top layer for when I am washing all my other clothes; all this at only 3 ounces! What a dream!

So, that night, after a full day of walking in the rain, I ended up camping in my hammock above a small dry patch of land between a marshy field of tall yellow grass, and an old abandoned tramway that the trail now follows. I fell asleep quickly, as I always do when I can hear the soft pitter-patter of rain on the tarp above my head, and woke up the following morning to the same gentle sound. As I ate my usual breakfast of Nutella and granola mixed into a tortilla wrap, the rain suddenly started coming down buckets at a time. I considered packing up and pushing through the deluge to make the most of the day, but my sense overtook my pride and I concluded that I would be much more satisfied having spent a day reading classic novels on my kindle while sprawled out in my hammock, than gritting my teeth and feeling the glory of overcoming nature through hiking all day in the rain. I wrote a song on my guitar about how I won’t forget the warm February rain, listened to podcasts on my phone, ate a lot and read a lot. The highlight of my day was when some large mammal, maybe a deer or a hog, charged through the marshy field, hidden by the height of the grass and exposed by its movement. I fell asleep early that night, hoping the rain would be over in the morning.

Thankfully, the rain did cease sometime in the night, and after packing my wet tarp into my backpack, I started hiking through significantly deeper water than I had seen 2 days earlier. Now the puddles had conformed to create softly flowing creeks, and my feet were submerged for a few hours. When I did reach the outlet to the highway around 11AM, the sun was shining brightly across a mostly blue sky. For the first time in over a week, I slipped on my shoes and socks and started the first 30 mile roadwalk that connected two Wilderness Management Areas. This roadwalk was entirely bordered by the Deseret Cattle and Citrus Ranch, so for the remainder of that day and the first half of the next, my only scenery were the cows and orange trees, with the exceptions of one out of place pelican that I can only assume had flown down from the nearby Taylor Creek Reservoir, and a few groups of cyclists that would pass back and forth by me throughout both days. That first night, I walked almost 2 hours after sunset, making it nearly 30 miles on the day, but was cut short when the batteries of my headlamp died, and I had to set up a stealth camp in the dark in a patch of dense woods beside the road. I woke up early the next morning so as not to be detected, and finished the last few miles along the much busier State Route 520. I played every song in my repertoire against the din of the traffic, and charged my phone with my solar panel in the direct sunlight. As I was just about to enter the Tosohatchee State Preserve, getting back onto trail for a few days, I checked my phone and saw that I had 15 text messages and 4 missed calls- far more than I ever receive after having my phone off for only 2 days. I knew something was wrong when all the calls were from my mom and the text messages were from a single group message between my mom, my siblings, and I. I immediately called my mom and asked what was going on. First thing she says is that everything is OK now, but that her boyfriend of a few years had had a heart attack, that she was with him at the hospital, and that he was doing much better. What a shock this was to me, to all of us. The details of the event itself are somewhat unremarkable, but the context of it all is what made this moment so heavy and hard to grasp. The week before I left to begin this hike, my grandfather died and I was on a plane with my dad headed for Illinois in less than 12 hours to help manage his belongings and organize the funeral. Only a couple weeks later, once I was already a few hundred miles into this hike, our family dog, a Siberian Huskey, attacked and killed a neighbor’s goat after getting loose and had to be sent to a breed-specific rescue to avoid being euthanized. Needless to say, I was still feeling a bit of risidual anxiety from these traumatic experiences when I saw the influx of messages on my phone, and had no idea what to expect as the phone rang and I waited for my mom to pick up. Thankfully, he is okay, but we all agreed that we had had enough happen in 2015 already and that we hoped things would pick up from here.

I ruminated on these things for days: how fragile life is, the risks and rewards of my retreats into the wilderness, and the imposition of man’s will on the natural state of the Earth. What will my future hold, and in what kind of future will I be existing in, if at all? Again, I will explore these topics more deeply tomorrow, but it is important to note that as I finished the Eastern Corridor, I was largely distracted from my surroundings by my own existential thoughts. That said, I was conscious enough to avoid the large number of rattlesnakes I saw while passing through Tosohatchee. They were never more than 2 feet long, but they were generally not too happy that I was disturbing them on their turf. Like a snake charmer, I would distract them with a twisting figure eight movement from the tip of my trekking pole and simple walk past them each time. In addition to the snakes, I saw many green and brown anoles, hundreds maybe thousands of grasshoppers, a gopher tortoise, and a pair of nesting bald eagles. I made a concerted effort to find a nice pair of trees for setting up my hammock that night fearing a snake bite would be the next family tragedy. In the morning, I stopped at a gas station in Christmas, Florida and chowed on what in the circumstance seemed like the best damn Cinammon Toast Crunch I’ve ever had, then continued on through the Seminole Ranch and Orlando Wetlands Park. As with the day before, the wildlife was abundant and made for many great photos, and the forest was a nice mixture of old growth Oaks, covered in Spanish moss, with sections of nothing but Palm, and generally wet underfoot the whole time. Camped that night in the Chuluota Wilderness Area and mentally prepared for the long day that tomorrow would bring. This would include the 30 mile section of suburban Orlando, where resources would be abundant, but camping would be difficult, perhaps impossible.

The first part of the day was spent roadwalking, and I was able to charge my phone with my solar panel. To my pleasant surprise, a friend of my dad’s got a hold of me and said he might know someone that could give me a place to crash. We agreed to reconnect that night to update each other, and I continued on, now through the Mills Creek Wilderness Management Area. The trail was actually dry for once- yet another pleasant surprise! I was able to move very quickly, and before I knew it, had reached the Little-big Econ State Forest, where I followed the Econlockhatchee River. This seemed like the place to be, as there were many canoers, picnickers, swimmers, and general day-partiers to be seen along the trail. I washed my dusty feet off in the river to try to look more socially acceptable for when I would be passing through town, and went right back to my grueling pace, feeling every pebble and twig through the now paper thin soles of my crocs. There a few rickety bridges to cross, which I wouldn’t expect in such a heavily trafficked area, then finally one long boardwalk that led me nearly all the way to the road. Just before the pavement, though, there was a unavoidable pond of green sludge to cross. I sighed, knowing that the effort spent cleaning my legs and feet was wasted, then waded right through it and stepped onto the road. A mile down the pavement, a cop pulled up to me at a street corner and said, with an air of self-righteousness, exactly this- “so what’s the deal? Are you homeless, or just a traveler?”. I wanted very badly to say “Go fuck yourself, sir”, but avoided the temptation and instead pulled my data book out of my shirt pocket and handed it to him as a simple way of communicating a lot of information. I told him I was living without a home, but not homeless in the traditional sense because I have the means to end it at any moment. He then asked how much cash I carry with me, and I told him hardly any because plastic has made cash obsolete. I suppose that was good enough for him, because he just laughed in a pitiful manner and sped off way over the speed limit. I have a lot of respect for cops- they have kept me safe and gone out of their way to help me plenty of times- but I have no respect for assholes, and this guy reeked like one. At that corner the paved Cross-Seminole bike path began, and I followed it all the way into maintown Oviedo, where I stopped at a Wendy’s to charge my phone and load up on calories. When I left, just as the last rays of twilight were sinking below the horizon, I wondered how late I’d have to walk before finding a decent campsite. I’d already gone 25 miles, and couldn’t go for too much longer. I rounded back onto the bike path and walked past residential neighborhood after residential neighborhood, until finally crossing under the high overpass of a heavily trafficked state route. I walked just far enough to be out of earshot of the highway, and dipped into the woods. Once I set up my hammock, I got in touch with my dad’s friend and he told me that his Uncle Wayne would call me shortly. Wayne agreed to pick me up the next day to take me to his place, where I could shower, clean my clothes, eat a real meal, and sleep in a bed. He asked if I needed anything and the only thing I could think to mention was some way of patching up my crocs so they’d last a little while longer. He said it wasn’t his specialty, but that we would be sure to figure something out. I tried to contain my excitement, but was so giddy and filled with gratitude after hanging up that it took a little longer to fall asleep.

I got an early start the next morning, as I always try to do when stealth camping, and continued to hoof it on the asphalt bike path. I treated myself to some McDonalds coffee in the morning to give myself an extra early boost of energy, then proceeded to walk and play my guitar for the next 5 or 6 hours, which is always easiest when on a straight and flat path such as this one. I passed shopping centers, business districts, wealthy neighborhoods and high-end luxury apartment complexes, and also Big Tree Park, where a 3500 year old Bald Cyprus Tree, “The Senator” was burned in 2012. Around 4, Wayne gives me a call and asks where I’m at. I tell him I’m not exactly sure what to say, so I walked out onto the road and texted him the address of the church that was there, then sat on the steps and waited for him. In no time, he picked me up and took me back to his house, where I took the most amazing shower of my entire lifetime. I spent as much time on my feet as I did the rest of my body, and came out feeling like a new man. At that point, Wayne’s wife Gena had come home and had brought me a surprise- not one, but 2 new pairs of crocs! I was floored by this gesture of kindness; giving a thruhiker a new pair of shoes is like giving a handyman a brand new, all inclusive tool kit. My shoes are the second most valuable piece of gear in my gear system, excepting only my guitar, which is everything to me. We had a lovely dinner that night, shared some great stories, and I played them some music before bed. More on my experience with them tomorrow. When Wayne dropped me off at the same church the next morning, I was refreshed and felt like the happiest man alive.

I finished the bike path by that afternoon, and crossed through the Seminole State Forest into the evening. This forest was unlike any I had been through yet, almost all pine and totally dry. I had been warned about the black bear all throughout Sourhern Florida, but now there were signs at every trailhead and it just looked like bears would live there. Just before nightfall, I reached another section of roadwalk that would take me into the Ocala National Forest, and it started to drizzle. I pushed on into the night to reach the next trailhead, and set up camp at the first decent set of pines I could find that would be conducive to my hammock and tarp setup. The 3-4 days I spent in the Ocala National Forest were the best days of hiking I’ve had so far; totally dry and shaded, not a drop of rain, and water sources readily accessible. There were real (though not dramatic) elevation changes in the sand pine forests, large groups of deer that could be seen running together in the distance, well groomed trails, and very friendly people. The views across the open lakes and wide prairies were stunning, and made for a stunning picture no matter where the camera was pointed. After I crossed State Route 40, the Junipers took over and the trail became all sand, as I had only ever seen on the beach, but I never left the forest. Scrub Jays, which are quite similar to blue jays, but without the crest and only reside in Florida, flew around me all day. Around Hopkins Prairie, a freshly burned area still smoldered and smoked as I passed through it, and a father and son I was hiking with agreed that it was not worth using our water to put out, as this burn was intended to restore the natural wildlife. That night I slept in my hammock under the waning moon, knowing that I would take a side trail to resupply in Salt Springs the next morning. Just before midnight, I was awakened by a loud stomping on the ground and a breathy snort that accompanied it. I knew it was just a deer, but it was close, and I was admittedly a little paranoid about whether it would have reason to attack. Instead of hollering to scare it off, though, I waited to see how long it would stomp and snort at me before it did something about I waited and listened, it gave up and just walked away. 

The act of actually walking through the Eastern Corridor was only half of the real adventure. Much of what made the past 2 weeks so profound were the interactions I had with people along the way, and the hours each day I spent reflecting on my own life the lessons I could learn from others’ lives. Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow!

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