It’s been almost a full month since I started hiking northbound from Key West, and I have started to become desensitized by the climate and terrain of Southern Florida in the dry season. Walking with wet feet, being chewed up by mosquitoes, having sunburn on sunburn, rationing my food for long stretches of strenuous and hard to navigate swamp walking, and staying vigilantly aware of my surroundings for the presence of alligators, snakes, wild hogs, and rapidly changing weather; all part of the day to day life of a Florida thru-hiker. Even though I have come to tolerate and even welcome these everyday challenges, I find that the difficulties of inconsistent and variable hiking conditions lead to some of the greatest problems on the Florida Trail. I might tromp through knee deep marsh at half a mile an hour in the morning, then follow an old hunters road or a levee into the evening, when I’ll be spit out into a dome of peaceful Oak and Palm trees that sprawl out across the open grass, beard moss hanging from every branch. The next day might be on a busy highway, the next through an open prairie, then on a paved bike path through orange farms, and every once in a while will pass right through a small rural town. I never know what expect, because the maps and data book that are sold by the Florida Trail Association can be pretty nondescript. I rely much more on following the orange blazes that are painted onto fence posts, trees, and light poles, then I do on my map and compass. The data book lists resources like water sources, designated campsites, parking, grocery and convenience stores, etc., but their descriptions are sometimes vague and less than helpful, especially with resupply options. I mainly use the data book as a reference for distance measurement, and mileage planning, like how much farther until the next reliable water source, or how many miles I have walked on any given day. The maps, which are set up as hybrid Nat Geo Topographic maps, highlight the official trail, label roads that cross the trail, and list waypoints from the data book with graphic symbols for each of the resources listed. They do not, by any stretch of the imagination, detail what type of terrain or ecosystem can be found on any section of the trail, merely shading large sections of the trail as marshy when it may only be wet in patches, or dry when it may in fact be a trail of thick and viscous mud. In many ways, the unpredictability of the miles ahead force me to be at my most adaptable.
In the week following my excursion through Big Cypress National Preserve, I spent 3 days walking the levee system that is under the control of the South Florida Water Management District. The roads are perfectly flat and straight as an arrow for dozens of miles, following the canals that are the lifeblood for the sugar cane fields that provide an essential source of commerce for this part of the state. Many ibis, alligators, wood storks, herons, turtles, anhingas, black snakes, and the occasional spoon bill like to hang out at the water’s edge, making for a pleasant distraction from the monotonous and seldom-driven roads. I also played my guitar, sometimes for hours on end, killing time as I walked, working on new songs and old ones too. I was making big miles; 26.5 miles the first day, 25 miles the next, and 27.5 miles the following day, walking into the night with my headlamp on. During that third long day, I approached a large, billowing, black cloud of smoke that rose from a sugarcane field set ablaze. As I turned to follow the edge of the field from the opposite side of the canal, a farmer sprayed the adjacent hill with water from his modified tractor/water tank, and I waved him down to ask him about the reason for the burn. He explained that burning the byproducts of last year’s harvest helps clear the fields of trash and weeds, and helps put nutrients back into the soil to encourage growth in the coming season. I couldn’t help but think that no matter how effective it may be as an agricultural tool, it was certainly not the most eco-friendly way to clean up. As I turned to go, the farmer warned me about the two most dangerous threats I’ll encounter in this part of Florida; first, the panthers, which he yarned about with hands stretched as wide as they could go to exaggerate their size, and second, the high proportion of African-Americans (he used a different, much more offensive term) in towns like Belle Glade and Clewiston, which I would be passing through as I circumvented Lake Okeechobee on its West side following the Herbert Hoover Dike bike path. I laughed and shook my head, and so did he, unaware that he was the one I was laughing at. It was not his blatant racism that made me laugh, for that was just pitiable, but rather, his ignorance of the severely endangered and over-hunted Florida Panther that has literally never attacked a human in our recorded history. The ironic thing about the warnings I receive from local drivers that pull over practically ever day to give me some unsolicited, and typically counterintuitive advice about how to respond to the sight of a predator like a panther or black bear, is that these motorists are exponentially more likely to kill me from negligent or distracted driving than any other threat or danger in Florida. In fact, Florida has the highest proportion of pedestrian deaths of any state. I am often asked by non-outdoorsy-types who have learned of my adventures if I fear for my life or well being while trekking through “high risk” terrain like the boggy swamps I wrote about in last week’s post, but my response is always the same, and doesn’t typically surprise anyone with a sensible rationale: I feel much safer in the wilderness than I do on the road.
That evening, as I walked onto the bike path of the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, I witnessed a spectacular sunset over the lake, with a group of about 15 Pelicans nesting in a tree out in the water just beside where the sunset painted an order of orange, pink, violet, then dark blue across the sky. The temperature fell quickly and the night grew relatively cold- at least, cold for Florida. I turned my headlamp on and walked for another hour or so, legs just beginning to feel sore, when I arrived at a locked gate. A sign on the gate warned trespassers entering this construction zone that they would be charged with a felony if caught, and the emblem of the Army Corps of Engineers was printed below. I was unpleasantly surprised to have reached this trail closure when the date book and maps had made no note of it, and wondered what I should do. Should I walk back 3 miles to the road, or hop the fence and try to get through the construction area under the cover of darkness? It was an easy choice. I hopped the fence, shut my headlamp off, and followed the path under the faint, pale moonlight. In a situation where taking a risk is inevitable, I chose what I considered to be the least potentially dangerous. If I turned back to the road, I would have to walk along the highway at night, then probably stealth camp on someone’s property, because there was no public land in sight. If I hopped the fence and got caught, I would at least have the opportunity of explaining my conundrum to someone face-to-face and hoping for their empathy. So, as I walked on in the night, now becoming quite sore, but trying not to slow down, I came to a Corps of Engineers building where a single PT Cruiser was parked right on the bike path, and the fence marking the end of the construction zone about a hundred feet ahead of it. I couldn’t tell if there was anyone in the car- there were no lights on and no sign of movement for a couple minutes. To be safe, I walked down the steep side of the hill, to the edge of the lake, then back up along the edge of the fence. I would’ve hopped the fence on the hill, but the gate was the only part not topped in barbed wire. Just as I set foot on the path again, the lights of the car turned on and I am blinded like a deer that unknowingly waits for its death. A younger lady gets out of the car and says with some tone of authority to stay where I was. For a split second, I thought to run, but with my heavy pack and Jello legs, it just wasn’t going to happen. When she came up to me, I told her I was supposed to be on the Florida Trail but that I must have gotten lost, pulling out my map and data book to show her the directions I had been following. She smirked a little bit and said “Oh! Like that WILD movie I just saw in the theater?”. “Yeah, sorta”, I responded, weirdly thankful for the popularity for that film despite my resentment for its over-the-top portrayal of what a long hike is like. She said she still had to write down my information, because the Army keeps tabs on all the people that come through here, but that plenty of birders had been caught before and no one gets in trouble their first time if they’re not damaging property. As she looked at my ID, she shined her flashlight right into my face and said I looked a lot older in person. “Well, that must happen when you’ve been on the trail for a while”, she concluded without me having to interject. She asked me a few questions about how I was able to afford this hike and if I was scared of the wildlife, then gave me permission to go through the fence and onto the open section of the trail as long as I didn’t tell anyone she had done so. I walked about a quarter-mile before I walked down to the edge of the lake and set up my cowboy camp with just my sleeping bag and me under the stars.
The next morning, a thin layer of frost had accumulated on top of my sleeping bag and the sensation of cold woke me up before the sun rose. I threw on a few extra layers of clothes, packed up camp in 5 minutes, and started walking to get warm around 5:30AM. As the sun peeked over the lake around 6:15, I turned to face it, getting a few stunning pictures, and collecting the first warm photons of the day. I walked until about 10AM, shedding layer after layer each hour as the temperature rose steadily, then reached a break in the dike and had to walk across a bridge at the edge of Clewiston to get back onto the path. When I saw the diner, however, I B-lined straight for it. A couple cups of coffee and a chicken-fried steak to start the day, and damn was it good. I struck up conversation with a woman at the diner, who called a cyclist friend of hers after I told her about my struggles with the closures on the bike path, and asked him about any other closures further down the path. He confirmed that there were other closures, and that I may have to walk clear to Moore Haven, another 20 miles from here, before I can legally access the trail again. I sighed, downed the dregs in my last cup of coffee, put a 20% tip on the table, and gave the woman my thanks and my card before setting off again. Shortly thereafter, I spent 2 hours at the local library charging my electronics and working on the video from Big Cypress in last week’s post. In that time, I went to the Corps of Engineers website to try to get more information about where exactly the closures were taking place, but I was unable to find any map or description of the locations of the construction anywhere and am convinced that such a thing is not available to the public. I spent the rest of that day walking on the road, and even walked into the night again to reach Moore Haven and get back onto the dike where I could camp safely. When I went to bed that night, I was 20 years old, and when I woke up in the morning, I bought my first legal beer.
Before I went to the liquor/convenience store to exercise my new rights, I treated myself to the Ultimate Platter at the local Burger King, and drank a tall cup of coffee. The dude behind the counter asked me in disbelief if I slept outside last night when it was close to freezing, and I told him I did, and could not have been more comfortable. He told me flat out that I was crazy, that he could never do that, and gave me a free refill on my coffee saying I needed to warm up. As I walked the mile back towards the dike, I bought one 32 oz High Life to enjoy with my dinner that night, and stowed it in my backpack. I was a little disappointed when the woman didn’t ask for my ID, but I suppose the lady in the PT Cruiser had a point about me looking older than I am. Honestly, the rest of that day was pretty unremarkable. I walked about 20 miles along the edge of the lake, drank my beer with the Nutella and granola wrap I had for dinner, then walked another 5-6 miles before setting up camp. I did get messages and calls throughout the day from family and friends wishing me happy birthday, and was touched to see people I met during my coast to coast trek 2.5 years ago had reached out to me via Facebook. It may not have been the most exciting day of my adventure, but it was a big one in my life. I remember turning 19 while I was on the road in Missouri and how sad it made me that I was alone for most of that day (except for Pete, who I still think is the kindest man I’ve ever met. If you’re out there, Pete, thanks again and God bless you, dude). Now however, I know that I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else and that a birthday spent on the trail is best birthday I could ever ask for. Until next time, take it one step at a time, and cheers!