The Florida Trail: A Love Letter
In less than two weeks I’ll finish my thru-hike of the Florida Trail at the Alabama border. It’s been an epic adventure spanning one state, two time zones, and for me, about three months. My journey from Key West to the western panhandle has been everything I hoped for and nothing I expected.
Before my hike, I was told the trail would be (very) wet in some areas. I also heard there would be a lot of road-walking. My own knowledge of Florida from childhood vacations consisted of beaches and Disney World. But the Florida Trail I’ve grown to know over the last few months has exposed me to unique landscapes, incredible biodiversity, and wonderful people.
Rivers winding through ancient forests. Miles and miles of prairies, where on clear, dark nights bright stars crowd the sky.
Perhaps the most unique landscape I’ve passed through in Florida are the swamps in the Big Cypress and Apalachicola sections of the trail. The swamps are different in appearance, but in both I waded through miles of knee deep water, and in both I almost lost my shoes in mud that seemed like it would suction them off of my feet. In deep swamp water, it’s tough to walk faster than one mile an hour.
I’ll admit, most of my time in the swamps was spent looking down. Stepping in the wrong place could result to sinking up to my waist in muddy water, so paying attention was vital. But almost every time I looked up I was met with fantastical views. The swamp landscapes were unreal, something I would normally only expect to see in sci-fi movies about other planets.
Getting through the swamps left me muddy, wet and, above all, feeling accomplished.
Alligators, Armadillos, Carnivorous Flowers… Oh My!
The variety of flora and fauna in Florida continues to amaze me. I expected there to be a lot of alligators, and I was right – I’ve seen hundreds of all sizes. Their black, triangular heads poke out of the water as they float lazily down the canals in southern Florida. On hot days they bask in the sun on the edges of rivers. They’re skittish around people, and sometimes they flop into the water with a splash when they hear someone coming.
Aside from alligators, I’ve seen several snakes, including a few Cottonmouths. On one memorable day, I watched an armadillo dash across the trail minutes before seeing a black bear in the distance.
Though I’m far from being a plant expert, some of the plant life in Florida is otherworldly. There’s Resurrection Fern, which looks dry and shriveled on sunny days, but flourishes after rain storms. A few days ago, I saw Butterworts, which are pretty yellow flowers that are apparently carnivorous. They trap insects on their sticky leaves.
Faith in Humanity: Restored
I didn’t expect to be the recipient of trail magic while hiking the Florida Trail, but I’ve been amazed to find kindness everywhere I’ve walked in this state. In the Keys, I met a couple at a campground who invited me to eat a delicious, home-cooked meal with them in their RV. In southern Florida, a trail angel named Mike brought me a sub sandwich and hiked a few miles with me. The owner of a bed and breakfast fed me dinner and refused to charge me for my stay. Most recently, I was welcomed inside of a church on a stormy night and treated to a dinner big enough for two hikers.
Many of the people I’ve met have warned me of the dangers of hiking alone, and I understand why. Whenever I see the news, it seems like people are constantly finding new ways to be horrible. But the strangers I’ve met on my journey have reminded me that people can be wonderful too.
A Work in Progress
The most common complaint I’ve heard about the Florida Trail is the amount of road-walking a thru-hike requires. It’s true that the trail is still segmented in some areas, and walking along the side of the road is sometimes necessary. However, trail volunteers are constantly working to improve the trail and lessen the road-walks. Since I started walking, several road-walks have been rerouted through forests.
Though I initially dreaded long road-walks, they don’t bother me anymore. Some have even been scenic and exciting. Road-walking also creates new challenges, such as finding creative places to camp. Facing these challenges has made me a stronger hiker.
Bring it On, Alabama!
I will cross into Alabama soon, and I’m definitely going to miss the incredible scenery and wildlife I’ve experienced in the sunshine state, as well as the kind people I’ve met. Alabama will bring its own challenges, beauty, and uniqueness, and I’m excited for it all.
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