The People, the Places and the Perils of the Florida Trail
No, unlike what most people expect, I wouldn’t say that alligators are a major peril on this hike. The only ones I’ve seen have been at a distance down low by canals or on the other side of a pond sunning themselves. They’re not interested in me.
No, the recent perils I have experienced this past week have been thunder and lightning storms, heavy downpours of rain and unusually flooded trails, due to the previous two.
But before I go into all that, let’s get to a person, one of the most well known and revered backpackers in recent decades: Nimblewill Nomad. This was the name on the sign that I came to on one on my first days in this stretch, on a handmade sign by the trail:
I was astounded! I knew he was renowned among the trail community, but was fuzzy on the details. The AT for sure, and the 5000+ mile Eastern Continental Trail, which I had read about in his book, “Ten Million Steps.” But what else? I was soon to find out, as I left the trail and headed towards the older pick up truck parked beneath trees. What commenced was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had on the trail, sitting there nearly an hour, being totally in this moment as I talked with this most courteous gentleman in his mid 80’s. Nimblewill has backpacked the Appalachian Trail three times, earning the title of the oldest person to thru hike it on his third trek there, at the age of 83 in 2021, in 261 days. I can’t even began to imagine the fortitude that takes, both physical and mental. He has also backpacked all 11 of the National Scenic Trails, and the full Eastern Continental Trail, over 5000 miles from Key West up well into Canada, and many of the long National Historic Trails, all of which I learned from this kind gentleman as he kindly yet bemusedly answered to my ignorant questions.
Then we began talking about how the trail and being beneath the trees is like being in a cathedral for us. He turned and pulled out the book of poetry he has written, called “Ditties,” and commenced to read several of his favorites to me. I had to pinch myself to believe this was actually happening.
But it wasn’t all about hiking and deep thoughts. When he offered me an apple from the depths of his truck, which has been his home the last 25 years, he was amused by how quickly I had consumed it, and a second apple quickly appeared, to later be enjoyed with my lunch.
And that was that. I felt it was now time to move on, and mull it all over in my brain, an amazing experience for which I am extremely grateful.
And now on to regular backpacking stuff, getting into the perils….
What started as a lovely evening camped on the banks of a large reservoir evolved into a thunder and lightening fest around 4:00-5:00 am. My plan to get up at 5:00 to be hiking by 6:30 was pushed an hour later. With fewer hours of daylight, it being January, I need every single hour possible to make the miles I’m intending. Once I got the sopping wet tent packed up in its own special plastic bag, I wasn’t completely alone as I crossed over the long dam of the reservoir.
Because of my delayed departure, I needed to make up some time since I had many miles ahead of me to get to an actual enclosed shelter on the trail. I chose to take some road walks that ran parallel to the trail in the trees, and heard later from a hiker it was a wise choice because everything was completely flooded on the trail there and slow going. I was still concerned about getting through that last routinely swampy section to the shelter before dark, and I’m not walking in a swamp in the dark. So I stuck out my thumb to save myself the final 3 miles of road walking, and finally reeled one in: a FedEx truck!
What made this even more interesting, other than being my first time in one of these, was the fact that the driver spoke no English, having been in the US from Cuba just the past six months. However, I’m very comfortable with this since we’ve lived overseas 18 years and I’ve been in the same situation. So I structured my sentences super simple such as “Wife? children?” He could answer those. Little did he know, giving me a lift could probably get him fired from his job. But in Cuba, a very common form of transportation is hitchhiking, so no wonder he was the only one who offered me the ride. It was practically instinct. This young man was one of the special people referred to in the title of this blogpost.
….into the swampy area that would be uber swamped now, or opt out and go into the nearby town to spend the night, which promised to be both wet and very cold. The downpour that was happening at the moment when we were in a welcome center helped me make up my mind. After bidding goodbye to Forgetful, who pushed on (and later reported long stretches of waist deep water) and a fruitless search for a Lyft or Uber from the nearby town, I was extremely lucky when one of the women at the center offered to drive me the 5ish miles into town.
This photo kinda indicates the humidity at the time:
Adele was another important and enjoyable person in my life this week. My second delightful Hampton Inn on this trip awaited me. Did I regret this decision? Not one bit. I know my physical and emotional limits. I was not going to be stuck in a swamp at 8 PM valiently pushing on to a very cold wet shelter.
It was fortunate for me in several ways to be in town that night. One of my two power banks for my phone and headlamp would not charge well. I was terrified of running out of power for my phone for this longer hiking stint, another trail peril. Like almost all long-distance hikers these days, I rely heavily on the app “Far Out” to be alert to sudden turns of the trail, where water sources and camp sites are available and how to get back on trail if I go astray. I am carrying very good paper maps of the FT this year, too, which I’ve been very pleased with. But the phone is vital, and just one functioning power bank wasn’t going to cut it.
Most happily, I was able to buy another power bank at a Cricket store near the hotel. Big relief. To get back to the trail the next day, well, to be honest, to the next road crossing a couple of miles past the shelter, I had a response almost immediately to my request on the Florida Trail Trail Angels Facebook site, a real godsend. Gary (if I remember correctly) was also significant, coming to the Hampton at 7 am and helping me continue on my journey. Two other very useful Facebook groups are Florida Trail Thru- Hikers, and Florida Trail Hikers, to get information on trail conditions, etc.
The hiking was lovely the next few days, some of the places referred to in the title. Thankfully no rain for awhile.
I had a nice 10 minute break by a stream while I let my Sawyer filter do its job. I have a new CNOC bag with a wide end for collecting the “dirty” water and a bottle opening at the other end that connects to the filter which connects to my Smart Water bottle. The cool thing is you can hang it on a tree limb or your hiking pole, and let gravity do its job instead of having to squeeze the dirty water bag, so you can eat your lunch during the process
My feet covered lots more places, including more trails, rail trails, dirt and paved roads and by numerous lakes.
On one of these semi-busy roads, a pickup truck pulled over beside me and I thought, “I sure hope this is a trail angel!” And bingo! It was Tropical Tom, who is quite friendly and perked up my afternoon of walking on pavement. Very happily, I was able to obtain a fresh bottle of water and an orange from him. It’s mostly the interactions with these Trail angels that I prize.
I so appreciate people like this, who are always looking for hikers to help! I definitely need to pay this forward somehow for Ohio’s Buckeye Trail.
On a lovely section of a trail through the forest, I crossed paths with a couple from the Netherlands. We spoke at length about a trail in the Netherlands I’d like to do in the future, and also the GR 5 through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemberg, Switzerland, and France, my first long distance trek. These encounters can often be quite enjoyable. This one certainly was.
I had two very different camping experiences: the first in an area where it was obvious others had camped, but it was just me tonight, and I’m comfortable with that. I got in early enough to have a good 20 minute yoga session as the temperature plummeted. My yoga mat for many poses is the ground cloth that goes under my tent, made of a soft tyvek, called kite tyvek. For most standing poses, I prefer just standing on the ground, if not muddy or sandy.
My next night was in a primitive campsite in a state park, with a few other campers also in tents. Despite a good forecast, there turned out to be several periods of showers. To bide my time as I waited for the opportunity to set up a tent that would stay dry, I hung out in the nearby large bathroom. With two long benches there, it was easy to spread out my stuff and eat my dinner right there. Plenty of seating, if you also counted the 4 toilet stalls and benches in the 3 showers! I felt lucky to have that spot with the electric lights and comforts…. somewhat. I finally gave up and just put up my tent in a light drizzle by the light of my headlamp. But it wasn’t too wet the next morning, although it was cold. This is not what I counted on from Florida! But I am entering northern Florida, which can have a whole different weather system than far south.
Leaving the next morning, I talked by phone with Janie Hamilton, the trail supervisor of this 40 mile section of the FT, responsible for organizing work groups to maintain the trail. She had answered my request on FB to be picked up the next day when I needed to go into a small town for my next scheduled zero day. Because she knows the trail so well, she knew that the campsite where I would be staying this present night would probably be flooded right now. and she offered the cabin she has on her property (right by the trail) as lodging that night, as she often does for thru-hikers passing that way. I was very happy to accept this offer. But first there was hiking to do.
The trail took me along the boundaries of Camp Blanding, primary training grounds for Florida National Guard, and by several lovely lakes with the sound of what must’ve been an artillery range in the distance. Large helicopters and planes also flew overhead occasionally. When I was walking around the lake in the photo below, I found myself scanning the shores for moose, as was the habit on the Colorado Trail and the Appalachian Trail up in Maine and New Hampshire. Nope, it would be alligators here. None spotted.
This display shows where I presently am in Florida. I’m proud to say that these feet have now hiked to within just a few miles of the halfway point of this 1100 mile trek from the Everglades in the south to Gulf Shores National Seashore in NW Florida. Step by step, day by day, it all eventually adds up, like so many other things in life.
And this is approximately where I end this year’s section in about 2 weeks :
It was a real pleasure to be Janie‘s guest on her lovely wooded, well maintained property, which I well able to walk right up to from the trail. The little cabin, with its heated outdoor shower and its outdoor “throne” was a real treat, and she has outfitted it to be a nice resting spot for a weary hiker.
During dinner with a friend she had invited, I greatly benefited from her knowledgable advice of upcoming trail conditions and possible high water alternate routes I might be able to take. A campfire capped off this most welcome evening that was forecast be cold yet again, I was ready to turn in, grateful for bed in a heated cabin.
We had decided that night that I would slackpack the next day, meaning carry just the bare bones minimum in my backpack, so I could walk faster with a lighter pack. I’d leave by foot from her home, hike 14 miles, she’d pick me up at a designated trail-road intersection, and bring the rest of my belongings. After grocery shopping, she’d deliver me to the doorstep of my location of my next zero day, a KOA campground where I had rented a sweet little rustic cabin. It all worked perfectly according to plan. The hiking had started and ended easily, on a long straight trail between two towns, the first half paved, the second half dirt.
Meeting up with Janie after the day’s easy hike, we drove just a few miles into the town where I bought my usual fresh food for dinner that night and all of the next day. I love my dehydrated meals, but this is always fun. I couldn’t believe Winn Dixie’s selection of rice cakes though: the only types on the shelves at this time were doctored with caramel, cheese, chocolate, you name it, everything but the lightly salted I preferred. Otherwise, I was happy with everything I found. And the Aldi right next to my campground came through with lightly salted rice cakes. Yay! I start missing their crunch.
My zero day followed its usual course of yoga in the AM, sorting through my gear and drying my tent, and enjoying my fresh food.
This was a midmorning snack: red peppers, beets with balsamic vinegar and a rice cakes (or two…or three). Hiker Hunger big time.
And this was lunch just a few hours later, mixed veggies (brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and carrots with black beans), with sweet potato, my favorite veggie. In a whole food plant based meal, one food most commonly does not dominate the plate, as you would often find in a meat eater’s meal. This is a democracy, and every food brings something to the plate. All so yummy and low in calories. That’s why I get to eat so much with such pleasure.
One last note about my trail food: the following photo shows what I typically eat in a day on the trail. Breakfast is oats, cauliflower, zucchini, sweet potatoes, chickpeas, banana, cinnamon, vanilla, ground flaxseeds, 1 T balsamic vinegar and water. This lunch is butternut squash with something I made called sausage crumbles but no sausage involved, And dinner is a crumbled smoked paprika burger with an added whole grain. My snacks are oatmeal cookies minus sugar and fats plus veggies; my trail mix is a mixture of dehydrated veggies and chickpeas; dehydrated chestnuts; and commercially dehydrated sweet potatoes. All consumed with gusto!! The small packet on the bottom contains a folded dried unscented baby wipe for nighttime cleanliness, 2 chewable fluoride free toothpaste tabs, 1 B12 tablet, 4 amla capsules (2 twice a day) , a tumeric and pepper tablet, and eye drops for my chronically dry eyes.
And that pretty much wraps up my past week on the Florida Trail. I’m still very happy to be out here but I will admit the rain and cold have really been challenging at times. I’m extremely fortunate that I’m having four nights in a row in two heated cabins (1 more tomorrow night at Janie’s) during the coldest nights so far. I’m so very grateful to the people who have helped me persevere through some of these perils, and the lovely places my feet have traversed.
And let’s end with these words by Nimblewill Nomad:
“If you have something in your life that you are passionate about, that’s the secret to aging. I’m an old man, but I’m a young man in spirit and mind because I have a passion for living in the joys that come on a day-to-day basis. And if you’re going to have those things that occupy and consume you, you’re going to take care of yourself. I’ve hiked tens of thousands of miles since I turned 60. I would not be here if I had not had the passion.”
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