An Unexpected Ending to This Year’s Section of the Florida Trail
I was in high spirits as I left Lake Marian Paradise Resort, after a restful zero day, fun talks with my next door neighbor in the little motel and my son’s win at Daytona.
Most of the hiking had me back in the wide expanses of saw palmettos and tall, long-needled pines, which I enjoy.
I really hiking through that landscape, but at some point you search for other things to think about. I always find something.
A busy road walk was also part of this day’s picture, which I knew I’d experience more of in this section of Florida.
I was now beginning a long stretch of nights camping. This night was at a camp site surrounded by my favorites, saw palmettos, under sprinklings of trees. It had been a camp on this animal conservancy property, but is now maintained by the Florida Trail Association for its hikers.
A pavilion with picnic tables and gallons of water were very much appreciated. I was alone again, which continued the rest of the trip, but I’m totally comfortable with this. This sounds a bit odd, but I don’t feel alone. I’m with me.
Yet, I was surprised to find myself starting to count down my days till heading home. I’m still enjoying the trail and the people I meet, but as the end of a trail or a running race comes into sight, I’m ready to get there. I don’t know how folks hike trails like the AT for 6 months in one go. I miss being with my husband. After 50 years together, he has kinda grown on me.
The highlights of the next day weren’t the surroundings so much as the people I met.
The first was a young man who explained his several days on the trail as a time to pray for his 5 week old son.
Shortly before his son was conceived, he had an intense spiritual experience in church in which he strongly physically felt the presence of St. Joseph, who told him that his son was on his way and that the saint would play a large part in his life. Little Joseph was born 10 months later. This young father is training for some level of being a Franciscan and was praying on this walk in the woods from a 14th century prayer book translated from Latin. I listened, spellbound. A real true, modern day pilgrim. Before we left, he held my hands and prayed for me most sincerely. So very touching. And then we went our separate ways, not sharing any contact information. Didn’t need it.
At the end of the day, I came to Jane Green camp, where a group of trail maintainers had set up camp for the past three weeks.
They were building two fantastic bridges over rivers known to have alligators, as do most bodies of water in Florida.
I especially enjoyed the time I spent with Eugene, one of the volunteers, but forgot to take his photo. He really enjoys the time with fellow workers, being in nature and giving back. He inspired me to volunteer with Ohio’s Buckeye Trail crews in the future, although I’m certainly not a bridge builder! He said there’s work appropriate for everyone.
One thing he really enjoys is building benches to place along the trail for hikers. I greatly appreciated several of them during sunny stretches on a road, often with a cache of gallons of water for hikers under a lone tree.
He also has a lidded jar on one armrest in which he asks hikers to place the stickers found on their clothes that are the seeds of the invasive Caesar’s weed, which he spends a lot of time pulling up at camp sites.
I got an early start to the next day by 7 am. I have become accustomed to starting to break camp before sunrise by the light of my headlamp, setting the alarm at 5:45 am. When you go to bed by 8:00, 5:45 is easy. I knew I had a long road walk ahead of me, 30 miles in all, with one “stealth” camp somewhere around 17 miles.
Just as I left the trail for the road, I had to pass through a gate, on which I saw my name written on a piece of red tape which held down a personal note written on waterproof paper. The note was from someone who I had talked with the previous day, sharing how much he enjoyed the talk and other kind remarks. I was so moved by his sentiments and that he had taken the time and effort to leave this for me. Unfortunately, I forget names like I lose gloves, and can’t put his name to a face. These encounters and conversations have meant so much to me, as much as the trail certainly. I emailed him at the address he provided but haven’t heard back. I hope I read it correctly. If you read this, Matt, please contact me here, at the very bottom of the blog.
It just shows what a ripple effect we can have with what we say and do with others. Our conversation moved him, and I’ll always cherish his note.
The first road, just a couple of miles, was super busy. Not fun but necessary. We were being basically herded around and between great expanses of land owned by a huge cattle and citrus company. No services or clean water were available at all for us, so we sure depended on the generosity of those who hide the water for us.
The first person I met was young, lanky “Tarzan” who is doing the trail southbound. He started up north about when I did in the south and has covered more than twice the distance I have. Go figure, but it makes sense. Sorry I didn’t get his photo. He’s one of the few things or people on this trail I haven’t taken a photo of, him and Eugene, the bench maker, and Matt, the note writer.
Happily, the next paved road was much less trafficked, which meant faster going on the asphalt rather than on uneven grass and weeds beside the road. But it can be very wearing on the feet and legs.
A Trail Angel I hadn’t yet met pulled over in his pickup and had a fantastic offering of goodies in his cooler. I passed on the chips, etc, but jumped on his offer of ice cold water and fruit, stuffing my pockets like a squirrel does his cheeks.
He has only been helping hikers the past 2 weeks, the time when the bubble of thru-hikers usually pass through his area. He gave me his card and insisted I could call him if I had any needs at all. Foreshadowing here.
At loooong last, I came to an intersection of roads where others had said there were good stealth campsites behind trees, away from the view, but not the noise, of the traffic of this new road. All camping was strictly forbidden on the previous road all day long, when on the property of the cattle and citrus company. Exploring behind a tangled web of jungle for the promised grassy area, I only found weeds, stickers and vines, one of which trapped my right foot and sent me sprawling. This has happened before, so I got up and thought no more of it. More foreshadowing.
I finally found a way through the jungle and found a very small space under a low palm tree where I could just fit my tent.
This was truly stealth camping. I felt like I was really in a jungle, but wasn’t worried. It was actually fun to break away from established campsites. No bodies of water nearby, so no alligators. Didn’t see any snakes, checking carefully around and under the log I sat on during dinner. I called Bill and told him exactly what mile marker I was at. Then I zipped myself into my tent as the sun set and the bugs began to attack, as is their habit at that hour. All this with the soundtrack of cars and trucks whizzing past me just 15-20 yards away on the other side of a shield of low palms and scrub brush. Little did they know who lurked in the woods tonight!
Of course, when leaving the next foggy morning, garbed in my bright orange on the new, busy road
I soon saw all the great camping spots under clusters of live oak trees on mown grass. If only I had walked 10 minutes further….oh well, I had my jungle experience and lived to tell about it.
17 miles on this road and then a busy 4 lane divided highway took their toll.
A very interesting incident happened when I decided to stop to eat my lunch and air out my dew laden tent beside the entry drive of the water treatment facility. After propping my wet tent over the light post and putting a few things on a ledge under the sign, I sat a short distance behind the sign in some shade, resting and eating.
When returning to close up shop, I was confused to find seven one dollar bills partially tucked under my belongings.
Certainly not mine, I had my wallet on me. Then I remembered seeing a truck driver sitting in his truck in the drive several minutes while I set out my tent and then sat behind the sign . He must have thought I was homeless. At first, I was amused, since we backpackers sometimes refer to ourselves as hiker trash and certainly look (and smell) the part. But then I was very moved by how kind he was, quietly helping someone anonymously who he thought was in need. Many people are still displaced because of this fall’s Hurricane Ian. This quiet act of kindness gave me much food for thought the rest of the afternoon.
This last day on the trail (what????) continued mostly on the road. I was concerned about my knee and about whether my final 2 day supply of food would make it in time to Christmas, the little town I would be camping at the next night.
Second act of kindness I experienced: Batt6, yesterday’s trail Angel with the fruit, had remembered my voiced concerns about the arrival food shipment. He intentionally brought to me this afternoon 4 baked potatoes, which he had heard me mention a craving for, a bag of sugar snap peas, fruit bars and more. So amazing! I almost asked him to drive me to the next town, given my knee, but I don’t ride the trail , I walk it.
On I went, entering Tosohatchee, a natural area, where I was treated to more water to wade in, actually cooling, and finally my camp. By now I was using one shortened hiking pile as a cane to move about, so I used the dried, stiff center/stem of a large palm leaf as the second pole for my tent.
I then made my decision and called Batt6 and asked him if he could come get me at my tent site in the morning, since a grassy dirt road ran near it. He didn’t hesitate for a second. This retired firefighter of 30 years was born to help others. He said if I still needed extraction in the morning, he’d be there at first light. What a guy. And he came. He walked from his truck into camp on one trail, but I went out the other. When he saw the dry spot from my tent,
he knew this was the place, called me, and I returned
and we slowly walked together to his white truck, always the color of the good guy’s steed.
Batt6 took hours out of his day doing this for me. I couldn’t have walked the 10 miles to little Christmas. It is time to go home. My knee deserves respect. After delivering me to my Orlando airport hotel, he returned home to help two other hikers he had housed the previous night. A big heart, that’s for sure. I wish him all the best in his upcoming thru-hike of the AT. He’ll do great, and he deserves to now be on the receiving end of trail magic.
So that’s where it stands now, folks, I’m going home 3 days earlier than planned. The altered schedule doesn’t concern me, it’s that the pain is in the same spot where I had meniscus surgery last spring. Has it been torn again or is it just very, very irritated because of the added weight of extra water, and added food and miles of walking on pavement? I’ll give it time at home with ice and Aleve and then we’ll see what the good doctor says.
This first third of the FT has been an extraordinary experience, even with all my silly whining about road walks. I’ve been in such amazing, varied environments and met some awesome people, both on trail and off. This is the sixth time I’ve returned home injured after a long distance backpacking trek, and I’ve had countless injuries during my previous marathon and triathlon years. They all eventually healed. This one will heal.
I am grateful.
I’ll be back.
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