It’s been more than a year since I finished the Florida Trail, and I still dream about it often. The palmettos, the sand pines, air plants, mangroves, palm trees, azaleas, and mossy oaks; the armadillos, wild hogs, fox squirrels, and raccoons; alligators, green and brown anoles, fence lizards, water moccasins, garter snakes, pigmy rattlers, leopard frogs, fowlers toads, box turtles; the anhingas, pelicans, wood storks, sandhill cranes, Florida scrub jays, limpkins, spoonbills, barred owls, bald eagles, turkeys, snowy egrets, blue and white herons, and red bellied woodpeckers… just to name a few. The diversity and abundance of life on the Florida Trail is just incredible. Each section hosts its own unique species and ecosystems, truly making each day a brand new adventure. Accessing these areas was usually not an easy task, however. For weeks at a time, I would spend most of my day wading through standing water on the trail, caking my sandals with mud and getting sand stuck between my toes. Even when the hiking was easy, there were clouds of mosquitoes, or hours of direct sun exposure, or half and full days of road walking without more than a gas station to rest and refuel in.
There were blissful days, where I would stop often and at length to photograph the scenery and wildlife around me, strum sweet little ditties on my guitar as I moseyed along, and still be able to make 25 miles on the day. There were other days when time would drag on forever as the rain came down by the gallon, clouding the already dark water and making the mud stickier, obscuring the predators that may be lurking below, and forcing me to move more slowly and deliberately. Most days I wouldn’t see or talk to many people, but the ones I did come in contact with were almost always some really great folks with interesting stories to share, and sometimes some dank food too! I only met two other thru-hikers- Geared Up, who I met in the Keys where we both started with plans of completing the Eastern Continental Trail, and Jewski, a veteran thru-hiker I met near the Aucilla Wilderness Management Area and hiked with for a couple days. I met a fair amount of trail angels, though, like Ryan in Key Largo, Brandie from Clewiston, Kitchen Sink (who was also section hiking the trail) in the Three Lakes WMA, Wayne and Gena in Oviedo, Avery, Murphy, Paolo and the whole gang at Suwannee Springfest, and Courtenay from Panacea. As always, it is not just the trail itself that makes thru-hiking such a fulfilling and rewarding experience, but the community that surrounds the trail too. And to begin where I left off last time, back in the community of Salt Springs in the Ocala National Forest, I shall spin the yarn of one of the best times I had on the Florida Trail with a group of unlikely characters at an unusual sort of place.
The 88 Store in Salt Springs is a bar for bikers (motorcycles, dirtbikes, and bicycles too) and backpackers right in the middle of the Ocala National forest. The Florida Trail passes right behind the bar, and with few water sources or resupply locations along the trail on either side, it is a pretty necessary stop for any passing hiker. With the network of OHV trails within the National Forest, and the long and straight roads that pass by them, bikers of all kinds flock to the 88 store to chill out and cool off too. I had seen the 88 store marked on my map and listed in my data book, but started hustling to get there when a couple day hikers told me there was ice cream and beer there. When I showed up in the afternoon, I was greeted by the group of local old dudes, who were chilling on the porch outside. “Hey son! Did you lose the rest of your band?” Laughs all around. “Why don’t you come up here and play us something good?” Well, alright. By request I played a little Willy Nelson and I was in. The first round of beers were bought and I was told they would keep coming as long as the music did. So, I got a little drunk- an exercise of my recently gained legal rights. And it was a great time. We shot the shit, I strummed and hummed in the background while these old rednecks joked about each others manliness (or lack thereof), responded with empty threats, and then drank some more and laughed about it all. They were the welcoming crew, quick to judge and joke about the various types of bikes that rolled in, and quicker to invite them to sit down and have a drink in the shade of the porch. Once I started running out of songs, or just forgetting the ones I knew because I was quite a few brews in, I announced that I would be continuing on my way and started shaking hands. One of the guys offered to have me join his band at a weekly gig in Salt Springs and make a little bit of money from it, but recognizing that we were both a bit inebriated and that the gesture may or may not be sincere, I simply told him that I had to finish what I started, and walked away from the raucous laughter that echoed from the porch- laughter that probably stemmed from a joke about me having to find the band that I lost before I join another.
The rest of the Ocala National Forest was just stunning. Sand pine forests were great for setting up my hammock, and the trail was soft underfoot. Water was sometimes hard to find, but the shade kept me from sweating and reduced my need for as much water anyway. I left the Ocala National Forest by crossing Buckman Lock, where I had to ring a bell and have the locksman escort me across. That evening, while crossing through the Rice Creek Conservation Area on a long, winding puncheon, a violent storm broke overhead and started dumping gigantic rain drops just as the sun had set, and the puncheon ended, leading me back into the swampy water with the rain drops reflecting the light from my headlamp. I moved slowly and carefully to not lose the trail in such low visibility, and after trudging a mile or two, was spit out at the edge of a wide field. Somewhere across the field was one of the only shelters on the whole Florida Trail, but many flashbangs of thunder and lightning were separating us. It was a tough call, deciding whether to brave the lightning and make it to the comfort and safety of the shelter, or to wade back into the swamp where the opportunity to find a campsite was slim at best. Tired, soaking wet, and sore from a day of tromping through the swamps made me yearn for a dry night in the shelter, but my common sense prevailed and I turned around and marched back into the swamp. I found a pair of old cypress trees, hitched my backpack up out of the moving slough into a branch, and set my tarp up at shoulder level. Shins submerged in water, I stood under the shelter of my A-frame tarp and set my hammock up above the flowing water, and changed into my dry clothes after climbing in. I was camping above flowing water! I didn’t die! Wooo! I felt very proud of myself for making what was only a few minutes before a dire situation, into a comfortable camp setup, surrounded on all sides by moving water. In the morning, I passed the shelter after only a mile of hiking, and chuckled, telling myself that my camp was much better. A day of hiking on the Palatka-to-Lake-Butler State Trail and a resupply/pizza binge in Lake Butler, I entered the Osceola National Forest, where the sand pines were all the same age (from logging operations) and the wildlife was abundant. Pitcher plants bloomed around me, red-cockaded woodpeckers flew above, and I even saw a fox squirrel, which startled me, having never seen one before.
Leaving the Osceola National Forest was like entering a totally new trail. Within a day, I was following the Suwannee River, which had many steep rolling hills and sloughs to cross on its banks. Starting in Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park (named after the American songwriter most famous for “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races”- and for the state song of Florida “Old Folks at Home”), this section of trail brought me to many fruitful jams and one really incredible weekend. The first night along the river, I shared camp with a young group of canoers who were paddling to the Springfest roots music festival at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park and Campground, where they would be meeting up with a bunch of friends that love to travel and jam. “You should come!”, they told me. “It’s an incredible festival!”. So on a whim, I decided to try to walk into the festival and offer volunteer work in any form needed. Turns out it was too late for that, but I was determined, and ended up busking outside the entrance, making enough money in just a couple of hours to pay for half of the cost of a ticket for the whole weekend. I knew I had a lot of hiking ahead of me this year, and that enough half off the ticket still didn’t make them cheap, but it the kind of spontaneous, serendipitous experience that calls me on long adventures like this one. In short, the whole weekend was one of the best times I’ve had while hiking on any trail, and I still wear my Springfest bracelet to this day. I met so many people, often just from walking around the camps with my guitar on my shoulder, sometimes landing in the camp of a band that had just played at the festival that night. The jams were not only put on by people who were generally quite technically skilled and versed in music theory, but also went on late into the night, everyone trading songs they knew or just improvising on the spot around some common chords. Before this, I hadn’t played or listened to a ton of bluegrass or fiddle tunes, let alone country music, but being immersed in the oddity that is hippie/redneck culture and getting to see the incredible live performances these groups put on- it has influenced me greatly as a player. After packing up what must have been the most minimal camping setup at the entire festival, I continued my trek along the Suwannee River, bidding my newfound friends adieu. Just in time for the Azaleas to bloom! How blissful it was, walking the undulating hills next to the dark, tannin filled river, the sweet aroma of flowers drifting through the air. After following the river for a few days, nearly walking into armadillos every day and occasionally sinking chest deep into the deep channel of a narrow slough crossing, one of which wrecked my camera when it submerged in the deep water. Then, the Florida Trail had me walking on county roads, through homogeneous young forest where I filled my days with podcasts and playing guitar on the move and made great time without stopping for pictures. I got to see an otter cross the road here, which was so fast that I doubted seeing it for a second, then scolded myself for not being able to get a picture or video. I also met and briefly hiked with Jewski, another thru-hiker for a few days, which was welcome after such a long time without talking to someone for more than 20 minutes.
Next was the Aucilla Sinks section of the trail, which, just as the Suwannee had after leaving Osceola, surprised me at the drastic change in the landscape. The Aucilla River appears and disappears multiple times within an eight mile section of trail, showing itself intermittently in wide, deep holes where the current seems to flow from and to nowhere in particular. The river then flows into a cavern that “sinks” beneath the surface, later emerging from another cavern or hole in the ground. The Aucilla led me to the St Marks National Wildlife Refuge, which is a truly gorgeous section of trail on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. I saw so many alligators, and a few wild pigs too; I gazed across the grassy marsh in the briny delta of the rivers that flowed into the Gulf. The trail briefly retreated away from the coast, but stayed in the forests, where I had to step around many different species of snake, and I found myself in Panacea, staying with a really genuine and kind dude I met at Suwannee Springfest. That weekend just kept paying off, even after the festival was over! We paddled the Wakulla River and shared adventure stories, then had a home cooked dinner of rice, veggies, and redfish he caught himself! I felt reinvigorated by the back to back amazing experiences I was having, and didn’t even care that I didn’t have a camera to document them with, I was so caught up with having such a great time in the moment. Then, I entered the Apalachicola National Forest, and things got a lot harder. The swamps were especially difficult to travel through, with thick, viscous mud trying to keep me stuck in every step- mosquitoes buzzing in clouds around my face and hands, biting through my long sleeve shirt and pants- the increasingly hot making me tired and thirsty, and the former burn areas covering me in wet black soot up to my waist. Still, this was the last big challenge of the trail, and making it through felt like guaranteeing my finish- I even started narrowing down what day I might finish to a two or three day window. A long road walk brought me through Blountstown, where I followed a bike trail for a while, then into the Econfina Creek Water Management Area, which was an awesome hike in a fairly steep and rocky canyon that the creek had formed with a few bridges over it and many excellent hammocking opportunities. Another half day of road walking, then dreamy walking through Eglin air force base with the knowledge that I’d be finishing in just a few days. When I finally reached Navarre beach, I had mixed emotions. I had just received some bad news- my grandma was diagnosed with cancer, and I sat at the bar, looking out into the Gulf for a few hours, drinking a pina colada at the beach bar and trying to cherish so many rewarding memories I had made over the past two and a half months, while struggling with some pretty heavy stuff on my mind.
My last 2 days on the trail were also pretty rough because it rained heavily on the coast, heavy winds buffeting and blinding me as I walked along the beach. It was still beautiful, and I sang beach boys tunes loudly as I marched down the highway. The moment I finished, I turned around and took a bus into Pensacola to pick up a rental car to head to Arkansas, where I would spend a month with my grandparents. I didn’t even take a photo at the finish, I was so preoccupied with being with my family. Despite the ending of my experience on the Florida Trail being associated with such bummer news, I look back very fondly on my time in the Sunshine state. I would sooner do the Florida Trail again than any other trail I have hiked so far; the diversity of wildlife and terrain was so astonishing, the weather so outstanding, the trail so challenging and yet rewarding, that nothing I have encountered since has been the same. Of course, with each new place I explore, I find new and unique things to love about it, but Florida holds a very special place in my heart. Thanks again all of the people who helped me in such selfless ways, to my family and friends for being so supportive, and to the Florida Trail Association for doing such a phenomenal job of managing the trail.