Thursday—January 1, 1998
Location—US41, Tamiami Trail, Oasis Ranger Station Picnic Area
Jon, my youngest son, has driven me here to the southern Florida National Scenic Trail (FT) terminus at Loop Road about 30 miles west of Miami. This trail certainly doesn’t lure you in. We stand and look at it; six to ten inches of water over silt-covered porous limestone. The trail begins here just off the shoulder of the road. We talk about whether this is really what I want to do. Jon was one of only a handful of people who knew my plan to attempt an incredible journey all the way to Mt. Katahdin by foot; hoping, God willing, to be there sometime in late September or early October, a full nine to ten months on the trail. Here we linger and talk about it some more. Then finally, fighting tears, Jon and I hug and I step into it. Fifty yards later I stop for the last time to turn and wave goodbye to Jon.
The next eight hours are impossible to describe. I’ve never hiked continually through anything even remotely like this. It would compare somewhat, I suppose, to going to the beach, wading out until you’re up to somewhere between your knees and hips in it, thence to turn and thrash along with it—the only difference being the fact that no tall grass, brush or invisible sharp-edged leg-swallowing holes are there to contend with along the beach. This season has been the wettest in South Florida since 1940. The record was broken before the beginning of the fourth week in December. September, I was told, had been the wettest on record. El Nino was certainly making its mark. Nina Dupuy, FT1 Section Leader had told me the trail was impassable and that it was technically closed. FT1 runs some 38 miles through the Everglades, beginning near the Miccosukee Indian Reservation in the Big Cypress National Preserve to proceed basically north on a beeline to Alligator Alley. I did not know, but certainly I should have suspected, that I was entering some of the most difficult, nerve-wracking and dangerous treadway that I would encounter during the entire “Odyssey of ‘98.”
New flagging leading to the nearly flooded old tramway dike saves me getting lost. I encounter a really scary section at one of the tramway cuts. There are no bridges at these cuts and at this particular one the tannic, coffee-looking water is blasting through with boiling, rolling force. There is no way around, just through! An old blowdown snag is lodged in the cut blocking my passage. As I grope to get through the tangle I lose my balance. I have been taught and have read in most every book I’ve ever picked up on hiking and backpacking that the proper technique in negotiating turbulent water is to release your hip belt and sternum strap and loosen your ladder straps. This allows quick exit from your pack should you stumble or get swept down, time being of the essence for survival. This rule I dutifully follow before entering the turbulence. What is not addressed in this rule, the last item being omitted, is how to hell you’re supposed to continue surviving without your pack! As I grab for a limb on the old snag, it breaks and I lurch into the driving torrent. I am jerked and thrown violently and my pack is thrust away from me into the flush. It is fortunate that I had not cut the excess tail from my hip belt strap, having forgotten that task in the last hectic minutes of preparation. As I lunge for it I am able to clutch this trailing bit of pack stern as we both are swept swiftly along. With luck, I am able to grab other flood tangle and get stopped. My heart is pounding in my throat and my head is spinning. I have no idea how long I cling here heaving my nervously eaten breakfast, but it is a long time. Had I cinched my ladders, sternum and hip belts snugly, this whole life-threatening ordeal would never have happened. Folks who camel full expedition loads on their backs, as most backpackers are inclined to do, may need to heed this rule. It does not, however, apply to me. So now I am immediately set full with anguish and frustration in realizing that I must reassess all the other rules I’ve ever learned or have been taught.
Dragging mud, water and grass step after step, mile after mile totally saps me. I cannot recall in my memory not being able to maintain at least a two-mile-per-hour pace. Here, I’m hard-put to make just one. I hadn’t considered this possible consequence in planning my itinerary for this first day, the intent being to hike the eight or so miles to Tamiami Trail and high ground at Oasis Ranger Station. Toward evening and as the shadows lengthen and the patchy, bleached blazes become increasingly more difficult to follow, and as the treadway keeps gradually but steadily submerging until I’m up to near my hips in it; comes the realization that there is no way I am going to get out of here before dark descends. I become terror-struck as the hot, humid, heavy air of the day drifts and gives way to the cold chill of the evening emerging from the shadows. I hear the sounds of the night beginning and I tremble with fear. I have lost the trail, what little there is of it, along with the occasional coin-sized remnants of blazing. I stumble through the cypress knees, the tangle and the brush. I am rushing now, pell-mell, totally exhausted. I know not in what direction or to where I am racing. As I pause, clinging to one of the gadzillion cypress trees, gasping for air, I realize that if I cannot quickly compose myself and get my wits about me, that this journey is going to be over before it ever begins. As my chest quits heaving and my heart quits drumming in my ears, I am able to slowly coax myself into analyzing my predicament with some degree of rational judgment. I know that Tamiami Trail is running east and west somewhere north of me and if I head in that general direction I will eventually reach there. That is, if I don’t end up going in clear over my head in a gator hole. I begin to tremble again. “Calm down, calm down, if you must stay out here all night it won’t be all that bad,” I try reassuring myself. As I hang my pack on a broken cypress limb I realize this is the first time it’s been off my back, save the tramway incident, since I shouldered it from Jon’s tailgate. I get out my flashlight, my compass, and a Snickers bar for a much-needed boost of energy. The water bottle I’m carrying in my belt pouch is empty, so it is that I break one of my cardinal rules on my very first day. But, has not one of my rules already forsaken me? So what the heck, I dunk my empty water bottle into the murky sink that surrounds me and drink my fill!
With much trepidation I hoist my pack, turn my flashlight on and head out on compass bearing 360. The depth of the murk and slosh I’m pushing along climbs up and down my legs but stays below my belt as I stumble along in the dark. Nighttime in the swamp is a very alien, eerie and forbidding place to be. Grotesque shadows cast by my little flashlight beam and the night sounds of the swamp conger up images as horrifying as the bogeyman, which most surely lurked under my childhood bed. I grope from tree to tree to keep from going down as I trip over the submerged cypress knees. I know that a great distance yet remains to Tamiami Trail, yet it seems as though dark has become near eternal.
For the longest while I think I am seeing things, but I finally realize that way out somewhere ahead blinking in and out and playing hide and seek through the endless maze of cypress trees—there’s a faint light! At first its presence is fleeting, I can see it only momentarily, then it’s gone. Even when I stop I cannot keep its presence fixed. But it is there, and as it becomes more visible I abandon my compass bearing and head straight for it. It is yet another hour, as this elusive light seems to retreat with each unsteady step I take, until finally the night lights at Oasis, which have been my land beacon, guide me as I stumble onto the roadway at Tamiami Trail. I am totally exhausted, in a lather and covered with mud, but thankful to be out of it. I drag myself to the picnic benches over by the public telephone. It is 9:00 p.m. and there’s no one here at Oasis Ranger Station. No cars have passed since I emerged from the bowels of the earth. I set up my little tent and try to dry myself off before rolling in.
So ends this incredible first day of a planned odyssey that I now wonder will ever come to pass. If what I’ve somehow managed to endure and survive today is any indication of what’s ahead, what’s really in store for me, I know I’ll never be up to it. But I am too tired now, to exhausted to care and I’m immediately in dreamland as I fall into deep, restful sleep.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step”
Friday—January 2, 1998
Location—Lost Dog Prairie SE, Cabbage/Pine Hammock
I’m up, out of my tent and moving around at first light, a little stiff but otherwise feeling good. I think my feet will become a problem before I’m out of the Everglades. From the time I stepped into it yesterday until I emerged here at Tamiami Trail my feet were constantly submerged. The Swiss-cheese limestone and the cypress knees, invisible below the gumbo-like silt makes every step a new adventure. The doggies are definitely in for a pounding. I also have a hunch that having all of my clothing and everything in my pack totally soaked all the time may also take a little getting used to, and I haven’t hit the rain yet!
There was very little traffic during the night and only an occasional vehicle breaks the morning silence. A chain link fence encloses a small drainage pond only a few feet from the little picnic area where I pitched. I glance over that way while whipping together a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast and I quickly see the reason for the fence. Gators! They’re no more than twenty feet away from where I bedded down. Over by the public telephone is a small pedestal with a trail register. I head over to sign in/out and see who’s been through. What a wonderful and uplifting surprise to find a note at the bottom of the register page from Jon. He had gone on west on Loop Road yesterday to where it loops back to Tamiami Trail and then came back east to stop at Oasis on his way to Miami. He knew I’d be coming through here! His Note: “Good luck Pop! Love ya, Jon.” The only other entries over the recent past were a couple of folks headed north for Seven-Mile Camp.
My itinerary shows this being a 16.4-mile day into Thirteen-Mile Camp. That distance would be a piece of cake almost anywhere else. But I know, as I look at my map that there is no way to make this distance. A short jog to the left around the landing strip and I’m right back in it again. It doesn’t take much slogging this morning until I’m totally exhausted. As I pass a little four-by-four patch of dry ground between two pine trees, I pull off.
I’ve got a little homemade hobo “handy dandy” wood burning cook stove and I get it out, break off some dry palm fronds and fire it up for some hot lunch. I figure I’d better have my warm meal now, as this may be the last high ground I see all day. Well I must tell you, this odyssey isn’t starting out quite the way I envisioned. For, during the next few minutes I’ve got enough excitement on my hands to last me the entire journey. With noodles cooking nicely on my little stove I move off a short distance to filter some water. When I return, my noodles aren’t the only thing cooking. The little patch of grass around my stove is cooking and my pack, which I’ve laid right next, is also cooking! When nylon really get going you’ve got a very hot and dangerous fire on your hands…literally on your hands. As I slap in desperation at the flames I get the melting, burning nylon all over me. I give my pack a kick into the water and manage to douse my hands at the same time. I stomp at the grass fire and in the process my stove, pot, noodles and all go flying into the Everglades! As I watch my stove go down in flames on one side of the island, I turn to see my pack pop back up on the other side belching black billows of smoke. I slog back over there and give it a stomp back under as it hisses and belches more black smoke at me. I then drag myself, coughing and gasping, back onto the charred patch of ground, collapse against the pine tree and…cry.
I don’t know how long I sit here with my head stuck between my knees, sobbing uncontrollably, but I know it’s a good while longer than I hung on in the backwash of the flood throwing up yesterday. I finally manage to compose myself, but not before my eyes are nearly swollen shut. I begin the damage control check as I look at my hands. Miraculously, they’re okay! Black carbon patches of nylon are vulcanized to my fingers and both my palms but there is no pain or redness. I go to where the noodles are bobbing in the water and retrieve my pot and stove. Back again to the other side of the island I drag my pitifully charred, waterlogged but still smoldering pack back to the equally charred ground. I am soaked and covered with soot. I’m afraid to even look at this mess. I start sobbing again as I flip it over with my foot to see what’s left of the other side.
I find the right shoulder pad completely gone, and the ladder strap burned through, save a few threads. My sleeping bag stuff sack is destroyed and my sleeping bag is little more than a black gooey char the consistency of playdough. I don’t need to unzip my pack to get in it anymore. There’s a saucer-sized hole in the right top. A garbage bag wadded in the top of my pack saved most of the contents. I lost a pair of wool socks and I’ll no longer be able to be seen in public with my other pair of nylon pants. There’s enough left of the burned ladder strap to hold the weight of the pack. I cut up what’s left of the wool socks and manage to construct a halfway functional shoulder pad. I pull out another garbage bag, shove what’s left of my sleeping bag into it, shoulder the whole pitiful mess, point the compass back at 360 and head on north.
I run into three army fellows near Barnes Strand in full (face) camo and at Seven-mile Camp, I meet Gary, his son and friend. Gary has been hiking into SMC for the past 20 years and claims he’s never seen it this wet. I manage to get no further today than the first northwest leg near Lost Dog Prairie. I’m lucky to find dry ground on the southern tip of a small pine island. The entire day, save a few hundred yards has been in twelve to eighteen inches of water and mud. What an unbelievable day. I am so thankful that I am able to go on.
“If you are ready to leave father and mother,
and brother and sister, and wife and child and
friends, and never see them again…then you
are ready for a walk”
Saturday—January 3, 1998
Location—Old Truck Island
It took me over an hour last night, in the light of my campfire, to salvage what was left of my pitiful sleeping bag. It was a synthetic bag, which is basically all nylon. The bag outer fabric and the filament comprising the loft were hopelessly stir-fried together. I used my pocketknife to try and strip away the countless lumps and webs of homogenized goo and petrified char. When I finally completed the bagectomy I seriously considered throwing the whole sad mess into the fire to save it any further misery and embarrassment. But, I needed the dear battered veteran to keep me warm last night, as the temperature really plummeted once the sun went down. By covering my sleeping pad with my towel and my clothing and using the remains of my sleeping bag as a blanket I was able to stay warm and I slept in reasonable comfort. My emergency pack repairs seem to be working fairly well and by making do with what’s left of my equipment I’ll be able to stay on the trail until it’s more convenient to get to an outfitter.
I’m up at dawn this morning. Everything I have is soaking wet. I’m trying very hard, but I don’t know if I’ll get used to this! Cold, cold wet socks. Cold, cold wet boots! My feet are really shriveled up but otherwise they seem okay. I’m off to a clear sunny morning to continue the slog. With water everywhere, there is no treadway to be seen and I’m almost constantly off the trail. By zigging and zagging I am able to keep picking up the little specks of faded orange paint and the small tatters of bleached flagging. But, I get lost many times and must turn and retrace my steps through the wake. Just north of an old sagging and rusted fence line I enter another really scary area. The water and mud keeps getting deeper and deeper and the cover is changing from dwarf cypress to the taller and much larger bald cypress. Once inside this dark, dungeon-like place a lagoon opens, covered with broadleaf waterplants, a sure sign of deeper water. I’m already in up to my hips. Surely I must have missed a turn. Backtracking a short distance I see a waving bleached remnant of flagging. I look and look in every direction, but the little strip of flagging is the last trail marker I find. The patchy blazes have led me right into this God forbidden place and looking at the compass bearing I’ve been running it appears I must go through.
So, with much doubt and hesitancy I head on in. I’m immediately up to my waste in the murk and slime and my pack is submerging. Having my pack in the water is very unnerving. There is an incredible jumble of submerged logs, brush and cypress knees. I keep searching for another paint speck or a little strip of flagging, but there is none. Surely I am lost. I hear a loud splash on the far side of the lagoon. What should I do? I struggle to keep my wits about me. I look again at my compass. I’ve been running a pretty steady bearing just off north all morning, so I decide to stick with it. The water is holding at my hips and I’m getting through. I must concentrate and take much precaution with each step to keep from going down, as the footing is treacherous. The eerie lagoon and the waterplants finally give back to closely ganged cypress. There is no evidence of a path through here anywhere and there still are no trail markings. Finally the bald cypress thins out and my pack begins lifting out of the murk as I emerge from the dungeon-like bog. I am feeling a little less anxious now, but I’ve been running totally on fear the last two days and it’s really starting to take a strain. Fear, it seems, has become my constant companion. I begin zigzagging again in an attempt to find the trail and as I look back…there it is! A small speck of orange paint. I heave a great sigh of relief. Thank you Lord, I’ve made it through and I’m back on trail!
The remainder of the day is uneventful and I settle into enduring the monotony of the pulsing sounds of water as I push rhythmically into it. By evening I arrive at a place that I have dubbed “Old Truck Island.” The little island/oasis isn’t ten yards across, but it’s a mountain in the muck, towering over two feet. One hundred yards northeast of this little island, lie the remains of an old truck, resting on its back in very ungraceful fashion as it attempts to endure the ravages of time. The old truck is noted in the trail mileage data and fixes my position at milemarker 32. In all this day I have covered just 12 miles. As the cool of the evening descends the mosquitoes arrive in waves. These critters usually cause me little annoyance, but with my nerves totally uncoiled I have no tolerance for them. I pitch my tent quickly and roll in. It is my plan to venture out later, get a small cooking fire going and have a warm meal…but I never make it.
The “Odyssey” begins,
There’ll be no turning back.
Lord, make a better man of me,
Before I end this trek.
Sunday—January 4, 1998
Location—Kissimmee Billie Swamp Safari
I am up at dawn. The mosquitoes have launched a full squadron to descend on me as soon as I emerge from my little Slumberjack. It appears another fine day is shaping weather-wise. I break camp and head on north without breakfast to escape the relentless air attack. In a short while I find a small Cabbage Palm Island and pull off to study my maps and trail data and to have some breakfast. The day is warming nicely and the mosquito air squadron has returned to base. I decide to try and make the remaining 6 miles to Alligator Alley plus the 11.5 miles to Kissimmee Billie Swamp Safari before dark.
I am in water to my knees all morning, dragging oatmeal-looking silt and grass the whole way. The flagging and blazing are easier to follow and I am off trail much less. I hit the fence at the I75 Rest Stop around 1:00 p.m., literally hit the fence. It is a chain link barricade ten feet high. The gate, which provided passage before Alligator Alley became limited access is gone, the hole wired shut. Old blazes still remain on the tree on the other side. The rest area is about five hundred yards to the west and the fence fortification appears to continue all the way around it with no way through. I head east along the fence and find an open gate, which provides access to the woodsroad I had been hiking earlier in the morning. I am able to pass through the fence onto the paved service road. Here I heave a long sigh of relief. I have successfully made it through FT1. Nina Dupuy, I thank you my dear friend, you and all the folks with the Big Cypress Chapter, FTA have made a tremendous effort to get this trail through the Everglades. It just appears to me an impossible task.
I am tempted to take a break, get a coke and some snacks at the rest area and make a few phone calls, but there are many miles ahead of me today so I head for the break in the fence on the north side of the interstate. I will be hiking most the remainder of the day across lands of the Seminole Indian Nation, only the second to do so. The trail here is now opening up thanks to Ken Carpenter and the folks with the Seminole Chapter, FTA. Rick Vagabond Guhse was the first to hike this section only a few months ago and he has provided maps and data to get me through. Steve Bowers, with the Seminole Nation, has granted me permission to cross the reservation. It seems my feet survived the endless submersion with little consequence, but to my dismay, as I follow the canal spoil-bank road north I haven’t gone a mile with dry feet, dry socks and dry shoes until I feel hot spots developing everywhere. I pull over and unload on an old blowdown beside the canal. It is here I meet one of nature’s little delinquent troublemakers…sandspurs! I sit square on one, the experience of which, if duplicated and studied under laboratory conditions would most assuredly unlock the secret to solving the Alzheimer’s riddle, for this is definitely an experience that will never be forgotten! My laces are also full of the natty little spike balls. It’s an impossible task to eject them without becoming totally impaled. These little nasties, I truly believe are one of the most aggravating of nature’s little bad guys.
My premonition about my feet has come to pass. The swamp water has basically melted my skin. As long as my feet remained in the cool water, friction was not a problem. But the tough skin and calluses that had developed over the years now just peals right off! Fortunately I have a pair of polypro liners; so I dust my feet good with medicated powder, and put on the double socks. Another five miles and I am suffering again. I drop my pack and remove my shoes once more to find my feet covered with blisters. Now, I almost wish to be back in the muck, but I know that I must adapt my feet to this dry, hot environment. So, I pop the blisters, adhesive tape my toes and duct tape my heels and Achilles. I eliminate the liner socks and find that I do better with just the wool rags. It has been such a joy to be able to move out and do some truckin’, which has no doubt exacerbated the blister problem. I must slow down to reduce the heat and friction.
This little-used woodsroad along the canal this afternoon must certainly be called either Gator Road or Turtle Road. Constantly, and all along ahead of me is the repeated and resounding splash of the gators plunging and diving into the murky canal water, or the huge, basket-sized turtles tumbling from logs or their coquina rock sundecks. I’ve seen some very big gators at Gatorland but nothing to compare to some of these guys. I’m sure you won’t believe me when I tell you that the girth on some compare to a 55-gallon drum flattened out! Well, okay, I’m going to bring my camera along next time!
My shadow ventures out far ahead of me on Snake Road as I head east toward Kissimmee Billie Swamp Safari. As I enter the Gift Shop at Safari Village a beautiful young Seminole girl greets me. I have been advised by Vagabond to make sure and tell the folks here right away that I am hiking the FT. Oh, yes, was this certainly the right thing to do! For, as I inquire about accommodations for the evening the young lady tells me that I will be staying in one of the Chickees, a small, elevated, rustic thatched-roofed hut. And in her words: “You can have it for…well, you can have it for…well–you can just have it!” And so, here at Kissimmee Billie Swamp Safari, my first contact with anyone off the trail since leaving Loop Road, I meet my very first “Trail Angel.” The first as it turns out, of countless hundreds that it will become my pleasure to meet all along the trail all the way into Canada, one of the absolutely magic things about being on the trail! I am able to take a luxurious shower, have a delicious meal in the village restaurant, make a few phone calls and get a much welcome warm and dry night’s sleep.
“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose
the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”
Monday—January 5, 1998
Location—Second Pumping Station, C-1 Canal Road
It is first light and I am sitting alone under the large tribal Chickee at Kissimmee Billie Swamp Safari. No one else is stirring yet and it is quiet. The moisture-laden air of the night has not yet yielded to the morning, its chill still present. I am thinking about these first three incredible days spent in the flood of the Everglades. I submerged at 12:30 p.m., Thursday, New Years Day at Loop Road and did not really emerged again until Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. at the fence at I-75 rest stop. And the trail? The trail was not pleasant by any stretch. In fact, it was grueling. Fully 36 of the 38 miles were submerged. Had the trail been frozen I could have skated most the entire thing. The footing was treacherous, a combination of holes, ledges, voids and cracks in the “Swiss cheese” limestone, interspersed with roots, stumps and cypress knees, all invisible, covered by six to twelve inches of gumbo-consistency silt. Blazes and flagging were difficult to follow, nonexistent at times, requiring almost constant compass use. Orange, it would seem, would be a great color for blazing, but it really is not. What occurs, as the merciless tropic-like sun works intently and relentlessly, is rapid degradation of the blaze patch to little more than splotches which resemble the millions of other chips of bronze-shaded bark on the longleaf pine. And the orange and red flagging? That should work great, wouldn’t you think? But it does not. For the sun and the rain quickly bleach it slate gray to match the millions of lichen attached to each of the gadzillion cypress trees. Only with luck and a breeze does the flutter of the tape show the way.
I was filled with elation on first spotting the rest area buildings at Alligator Alley, only to clutch with disbelief at the ten foot high chain link wall, like an animal in a huge cage, peering at civilization on the other side. What an incredibly agonizing moment as I pondered not being able to get through. I had just passed the trail register, a wooden box-like affair hanging loosely by a couple of nails from a pine tree. The lid was gone, the rusting spiral ring all that remained of the register book. No hikers had been that way for a long, long time.
I stoke up on a fine breakfast at the village restaurant, and upon returning to my Chickee to do damage control to my poor war-torn doggies I’m greeted by many Seminole, both young and old. None can believe from where I have come, the lands of the Miccosukee, their neighbors many miles to the south, and that I have walked through the Everglades to get here. They’ve never heard of such a thing. Most just turn, to glance back occasionally in disbelief as they walk away! Before departing I go to see the two Florida panthers. They have been caged all their lives, yet they pace, as if looking for a way to the wilds and freedom just a pounce or two away. As I stand here looking at these strikingly handsome animals I have a sense, from my recent experience, just how they must feel trapped behind bars. After stopping in the gift shop to thank everyone I head back out on Snake Road.
Today is a roadwalk for many miles almost due east through Seminole Big Cypress Village and the wide and expansive countryside of the Seminole Indian Reservation. Their lands are professionally managed with large cattle ranches and endless expanses of citrus groves. I am in rain off and on for the first time today. Folks along the way gave me all courtesy and I am offered many rides. I was looking forward to seeing the beautiful new Seminole Museum but it is closed on Mondays.
By early evening I reach the C-1 canal and finally head north again. I make the mistake of hiking too long into the evening, for as the evening cool descends I am attacked without warning by clouds of mosquitoes. I hurry on to the second pumping station where there is a wide spot in the canal road and pull off. I throw my pack down and feverishly work at getting my tent set up as I flail helplessly at the angry little spitfires. I quickly grab my pack and roll in, clothes and all. Looks like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich night tonight! As I lay back to swat the mosquitoes swirling around my nostrils I feel something on my leg…and then a hot jolt, as if someone had poked me with a flaming match. I get my flashlight out and look at the floor of my tent in disbelief and horror. The whole place is moving! In my haste to get my tent up I had haplessly tossed my pack into a bed of fire ants. They apparently were all over the bottom of my pack when I threw it in my tent and now they’re all over me! I thought sandspurs were a very nasty thing, but having these little demons all over me is like a living nightmare. At least with the sandspurs I had the option of sitting and pondering my next move. With this army of flame-throwers, I have to move! As I start to unzip my tent screen I notice that it is literally a black mat of mosquitoes! Aww, I can’t go out there, I’ll be carried away. Two more hot pokers jab my leg and my back. I’ve got to stay in here and go after these guys. I start slapping and pounding at them with all my might. And then…my flashlight goes out, I bang and hammer at it in desperation but it is dead from the hours of use in the Big Cypress Swamp. I have little branding irons stuck all over me now. All I can do is fight back as they come after me. The attack is relentless. It is 3:00 a.m. before I finally drift off in total exhaustion. The PBJ will have to wait till morning.
“I will forget the happenings of the day that is gone, whether
they were good or bad, and greet the new sun with confidence
that this will be the best day of my life.”
Tuesday—January 6, 1998
Location—Sugar Cane Field By CR835 East of C-1 Canal
The mosquitoes are still around this morning as I roll out around 8:00 a.m., bur there are fewer to contend with and they aren’t as vicious. I make note of the fire ant bed and give it plenty of room as I finally fix my PBJ sandwich and break camp. The hike today is a full day on the canal spoil-bank road as I head north toward Clewiston. As I proceed I quickly realize that this roadwalk has absolutely no redeeming value, other than the fact there are no vehicles whizzing by. I have entered the land of sugar cane and for miles in all directions the tall green cane is all that can be seen. Daydreaming along I walk straight up on a pigmy rattler and he startles me out of my wits with a surprising lunge. I let him have his ground and pass well to the other side!
As I hike into the heat of the day, and with no shade anywhere along the canal bank the sun is starting to work me over pretty good. I stop, put on my long sleeved shirt and get my towel out to cover my head. Then it’s beat a path down through the weeds to filter some water from the canal. I am hoping to be granted permission to cross U.S. Sugar Corp. lands today to avoid hiking on dangerous CR835, but a call from a construction trailer just off the canal road brings the bad news that they are burning cane and I’ll have to take to the road. I find a spot just off busy CR835, in a cane field, to pitch for the evening. I prepared a warm meal and retreat to my tent just as the first scouts come to check me out. As I zip up my screen the entire mosquito air force is descending. I still have to pulverize a fire ant or two as I try covering myself with my pathetic sleeping bag.
“Only those risking to go far will ever know how far they can go.”
Wednesday—January 7, 1998
Location—Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp, Hoover Dike
Empty sugar cane trucks make an incredible amount of racket. They’re carrying large metal cages on the back of flatbed semi trailers and these guys haul. CR835 is rough and full of patches and has taken an incredible beating from the constant cane truck pounding. This racket starts right after first light this morning and I’m up and out with it. The roadbed is crowned up, very narrow and in some places the shoulders are almost nonexistent. There has been much erosion all along and each step requires attention lest I turn an ankle or stumble in the ruts and washouts. I am walking facing oncoming traffic and when no vehicles are approaching I sneak onto the edge of the road where the going is much better. The traffic that I cannot see from behind is a full lane away and I pay little heed to what is whizzing past me in the northbound lane. What I hadn’t accounted for was the possibility of passing traffic coming up from behind. As an empty cane truck goes rattling past heading south, I start to move back up on the road edge. I assume all the racket behind me is from the southbound truck, but just as I’m taking my last step toward the roadway it happens. A loaded cane truck is passing a slower vehicle from behind and as I turn I can see a flash out of the corner of my eye. At that same instant I feel the percussion. To this day I am unable to reconstruct what happened. The next thing I know I am lying in the weeds way down by the canal ditch and my pack is twisted around at an incredible angle. I lie there for what seems a very long time, afraid to move for fear of what I would discover. No one has stopped and I can hear the trucks roaring by. I reach down slowly, unbuckle my hip belt and carefully roll out of my pack. So far, so good! I finally manage to pull myself up. On closer inspection I find not a bruise or a mark on me anywhere. All the moving parts are working! Thank you Lord! What a lesson learned…and what a way to learn it!
I am seven days on the trail, and with the exception of a few items that I’ve purchased in a little store while walking Snake Road through the Seminole Reservation and the two meals at Kissimmee Billie Swamp Safari, I have relied on what I have been carrying in my pack. So my provisions are getting pretty slim. There’s a store on the south side of Clewiston and I head in for supplies. I am anxious to get to the Hoover Dike for my first look at Lake Okeechobee, but once there I am immediately disappointed to find that the view for the most part is blocked by a wall of Australian Pine, which stretches to the horizon along the dike as I look to the north. I arrive at Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp by late afternoon, pitch my tent on their neatly manicured lawn and head for the bar…Mich. Light $1.25!
The hike in FT2 through the Seminole Reservation was most enjoyable, but for the remaining near 45 miles north of there and into Clewiston it was a matter of knocking it out. Ken, I know that you and all the folks with the Seminole Chapter FT are working very hard to get this section up and going. I sure hope you get it off CR835 soon. I wish you all the best!
“Know’st thou the land where the lemon trees bloom,
Where the gold orange glows in the deep thicket’s gloom,
Where the wind ever soft from the blue heaven blows,
And the groves are of laurel and myrtle and rose.”
[Johann Wolfgang von Goethe]
Thursday—January 8, 1998
Location—Harney Pond Canal RV Park, Hoover Dike
I break camp in the dim shadows of early dawn. My tent is wet with dew, usually the sign of fair weather for the day…but not today. Vagabond and another great friend and FT thru hiker who has helped me immensely in planning this odyssey, Joan Hobson, have both told me that the place to go in Moore Haven is Wilma’s Restaurant, right on the trail. So there I head, and indeed once seated I am kindly served a tank-stokin’ breakfast.
Then it’s back on the Hoover Dike again to pound on north. The vantage from the dike, being at a considerable elevation above the surrounding countryside provides a splendid view of all there is about, with the exception of the lake! Shortly, to the west and approaching rapidly from the horizon I can see an ominous black wall. In moments, becomes visible the huge curtain of water hanging and descending from it and almost instantly the storm is upon me and I am totally engulfed in its rage. Fortunately, for some reason there is no accompanying electricity, just driving sheets of water. There is no retreat, so I push on through it. I am instantly and totally soaked as the pounding rain strikes like millions of darts being hurled at me. I finally bail off the dike to the lee side to cower in the sandspur-laden grass. This anger continues for over half an hour. The rain is not only driving hard but it is very cold and as I lie in the grass I feel the initial stages of hypothermia descending as my inactivity and the cold driving rain cools my body. I manage to get my pack open and pull out my already wet tent and roll myself, pack and all up in it. The storm continues as my body temperature improves. I finally manage to uncoil somewhat from the fetal position and get my pack around for a pillow. Here I remain rolled up in my tent, totally soaked but reasonably comfortable as the exhaustion from fear overtakes me and I fall into deep sleep, to dream of the days of adventure that lie beyond the horizon.
I have not a clue how long the driving rain continued. I finally awake to find the storm gone, save for drizzle and the sky is beginning to brighten from the west. I meet my second Trail Angel today as a
Lockkeeper hails me and hands me an ice-cold bottle of orange drink. By evening I manage to make it to the RV Park on the north side of Harney Pond Canal. Here I pitch my tent under the palms behind their propane tanks. There is a new and very clean bathhouse and I’m able to get a warm shower. I hang and sprawl all my pitiful wet gear in the little screened room adjacent to the showers and manage to work on my journal entries well into the evening. A couple of cool frosties (synonymous with dandy cold longnecks), some Buffalo Wings and a double order of fries really brings the day back around!
“Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul.
Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.”
[Ralph Vaull Starr]
Friday—January 9, 1998
Location—Kissimmee River Dike North Of Okee-Tantie Recreation Area
A long day today, but a short entry. Here I go again, back up on the Hoover Dike. Every year, a group of folks get together and hike clear around Lake Okeechobee on this thing. I have absolutely not a clue why, other than the fact there are some neat out-of-the-way places to party when you pull off in the evening. But you gotta be a better man than me to want to do much partying after a day up here getting whipped around by the wind and having your feet and brains fried by the unmerciful Florida sun! Please forgive me Paul (Paul Cummings, FT3 Section Leader), I’m sure all that do the “Big O” have a grand old time. It just isn’t my bag!
By early evening I’ve covered 17 miles and have reached Okee-Tantie Recreation Area at the Kissimmee River Bridge. This is a beautiful and very popular facility, which I find crowded with RVs and family-sized tents…kids whooping and running everywhere. It’s really out of the thru hikers price range with the fee running the same to roll out your sleeping bag under the stars or roll in wheeling your three hundred thousand dollar mobile palace. I look the place over and then head for quieter, less pricey real estate. It doesn’t take me fifteen minutes to find the perfect camping spot as I head on north on the Kissimmee River Dike. I pitch for the evening along a lovely canal where the bank apron has just been freshly mowed. Here it seems I’ve got the whole world to myself! I douse the fire from my poor, hot, blister-covered doggies by dunking them in the canal as I enjoy my evening meal.
“Because we live in a world that values activity and
noise more than solitude and silence, we may not
understand the life sounds deep inside us which could
give directions to our lives…”
Saturday—January 10, 1998
Location—High Ground by Cattle-Watering Trough, Yates Marsh
As a thru-hiker I’ll be the first to cover new ground today on the Florida Trail. Vagabond has prepared maps to assist me in getting through. Instead of continuing on the dike at the lock, the new trail goes north on Lockkeep Road to cross SR70 and then onto Gache and Platt’s Bluff Road. I’m in cattle country now. As I hike on this old “Cracker” sand road in the interior or Florida I am also hiking back in time. I’m a sucker for nostalgia and I really enjoy these kinds of places. Yates Marsh is mainly fine old cattle grazing lands now owned by SFWMD. I soon leave the sand road and enter the open fields. By late afternoon I am near the campsite as marked on my map. I’m unable to make it all the way back to the designated campsite, as the hammock past an old cattle-watering trough is underwater. I pitch by the water trough on higher ground and have a very attentive audience of about forty of the locals (cows) circled ‘round to hear my poetry recital.
Today was a pleasant hike and the roadwalk presented little traffic. I saw Indian Rosewood trees and Sandhill Cranes along the Kissimmee River Dike. My feet though, are another matter. They are covered with open sores and are incredibly tender and painful. Before rolling in I jot a little note of thanks to Doug McCoy and the Tropical Trekkers for their fine work on this new section of trail; seal it in a ziploc bag and tie it next to one of their bright new orange blazes in a nearby tree.
“The man is richer whose pleasures are the simplest.”
Sunday—January 11, 1998
Location—Canal Bank, Hickory Hammock North
I’m up and out at first light. The cattle are over by the fence on the far side. There is no treadway on the new trail north through the fields and pastures, but the bright orange blazes are very easy to locate and follow. Soon I am in sight of Kissimmee River Lock S65D. I had stopped yesterday at Lock S65E and had a long chat with the Lockkeep and some of the local fishermen. When I mentioned that I would be crossing the river tomorrow at Lock S65D, up came the Lockkeep’s eyebrows! “What time will you be crossing?” He asked, “As best I can figure, right after sunrise.” Was my reply. That’s when the Lockkeep informed me that the gate at the lock is kept locked and that the lady managing Lock S65D is not always the easiest person to get along with. He then opined that shortly after sunrise on Sunday morning might well be one of those times! I am standing now on a canal bank which I can take generally north to the railroad grade and cross the river on the trestle…or I can cross the canal, follow the orange blazes and get the Lockkeep up at sunrise on this Sunday morning! With not a moment’s hesitancy I head toward the railroad tracks!
In a short time I am standing on the east side of the trestle looking across. It surely is a long way to the other side. Trains had passed at regular intervals all through the night and one had just passed again as I reached the grade about half an hour ago. I listen intently for the longest time, for whatever good that can possibly do. I have severe tinnitus and my hearing is most-near shot. I finally convince myself that I really can’t hear a train coming and venture onto the narrow trestle. I am no sooner committed to this ordeal than I hear something. At least I think I do. Half way across there is a small platform where I can step off. I hurry there in a fright and get off the tracks, just in time it seems to avoid the inevitable calamity. When I turn there is nothing, and I hear nothing save the gentle sound of the water lapping at the pilings below…way below, and my heart pounding in my ears. It’s then it dawns on me that if I get caught out here with a fast-moving train coming through I’ll get blown clear into the river! I hasten back onto the tracks and run pell-mell, pack lurching, to the far side.
I was told that new treadway was being cut on the Bassinger Tract, taking the trail from the shoulders of busy US98. But I can find no evidence of any trail work here on the south end so I take to US98 for the roadwalk to Istokpoga Canal.
Hickory Hammock is just that, a long and beautiful hammock of climax-growth stately old knots. The trail to the ramshackled farmstead is the most beautiful section of trail so far. Here I finally meet another hiker on the FT. Steve Barbour from Yellow Gap, TN is out enjoying the day on this magnificent section of trail. After the old farm buildings, the treadway becomes overgrown and pretty much peters out. I manage to stay on trail to high ground near a drainage culvert and pitch for the evening. I snap some palm fronds and build a hasty fire to help ward off the cloud of hungry mosquitoes. My feet are stable—stable meaning they are no worse.
“[God] is always whispering to us, only we do not
always hear, because of the noise and distractions
which life causes as it rushes on.”
Monday—January 12, 1998
Location—High Ground North of Hicks Slough Boardwalk
On arising this morning I must do immediate battle with the mosquitoes. I’ll fix breakfast later. I’m out of here! I immediately begin churning through a quagmire along a new fenceline. The cattle have turned the entire area into twelve to eighteen inches of rolling mud. That’s the only way I can describe it. As I try moving through, the mud just seems to roll up and come along! This persists for over two miles and progress is incredibly slow as I grope along the fence. I can see the trees along Bluff Hammock Road in the distance, where I’ll pull up out of this mudbog, but it takes me over an hour and a half to get there!
Bluff Hammock Road is a pleasant roadwalk. The trail then follows along the Kissimmee River Dike to enter the Air Force Avon Park Bombing Range. There is a stile to cross and a trail register Kiosk. No one has been this way in a long, long time. Here begins the Kissimmee River Section of the FT. And indeed it is a beautiful and secluded place. One majestic boulevard-like stand of oak could just as well be the grand promenade to Tara. And yet it is all Mother Nature’s design! This is one of the best-maintained sections hiked so far. It was a pleasure talking and corresponding with Jim Pace, Section Leader. These folks with the Heartland Chapter of FTA take great pride in their work and it truly shows.
I talked briefly today with two fellows from The Nature Conservancy. They were on the bombing range doing a bird count. This organization is doing a remarkable job all over the globe. The success they have achieved in preserving habitat…even to include vast bioregions, while at the same time working hand-in-hand with local enterprise to maintain and create new jobs in those regions, to me, is a truly remarkable success story. I have found many sour orange trees all along the trail this afternoon and have eaten my fill. Once I manage to get my pucker up they don’t seem to taste all that bad! The trail today has taken me through a veritable wildlife haven. I have seen numerous deer and turkey, along with many snakes, an otter and countless birds. I pull off to overnight at a lovely grassy spot just north of Hicks Slough. I find the mosquitoes much less troublesome and despite the incredible mudbog earlier today my feet are none the worse for wear!
“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings
when the dawn is still dark.”
Tuesday—January 13, 1998
Location—Trailhead Parking Area near River Ranch Resort
All along the trail today are signs of man’s long-past connection to the river. Many sour orange trees, the remnants of long forgotten groves; dwelling foundations crumbling into the earth; old pitcher-pump wells, some, remarkably still working; and an interesting cattle-dipping vat. One is immediately set to pondering how effective that vat had been since the next landmark passed is Tick Island Slough! There’s Fort Kissimmee (long since gone with the river trade), Ice Cream Slough (I guess they dreamed much as do we hikers), Rattlesnake Hammock (no doubt appropriately named), Orange Hammock (more sour oranges) and the mysterious little ghost village of KICCO (an acronym which I finally figure must stand for Kissimmee Island Cattle Co.). And further north; Wildcat Hammock, Sheep Hammock and Buttermilk Slough.
The Florida Trail Guide describes the Kissimmee River Section as “…one of the Florida Trail’s most remote areas.” So, where once there were many farms, groves and villages, thriving and bustling with commerce and activity…today, long since abandoned and forgotten, their scant ruins and remains languish, to molder in the sun. And this old river? Ahh! This grand old river just keeps rollin’ along!
My pitiful feet. It is impossible to keep them dry. They have turned to raw, oozing mush and I am wracked and tormented with constant pain.
“I gits weary and sick of tryin’;
I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’
And Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along.”
[Jerome Kern/Paul Robeson]
Wednesday—January 14, 1998
Location—Godwin Hammock North
I’m back on the road this morning. The trail goes right by Oasis Marina where I again cross the Kissimmee River. I need provisions so into the little mom-n-pop store I go. It’s 50 miles to SR520, so I’ll need supplies for about three days. In case you’re wondering; there’s certainly nothing magic or the least bit exotic about my trail diet. I’ve never gotten into the food-drop thing, but have simply relied on catch-as-catch-can as I trek along. A tad of coffee, a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a chunk of cheese, a can or two of sardines, a little rice or right-angle macaroni and a few Snickers bars, whatever’s available, goes far (no pun intended) in propelling me right on up the trail! And perchance, these little crossroads-store proprietors have an ice cream case…Well, my friends, check out this smile, for it will quickly reveal that I am indeed in hiker heaven, blessed with another perfect day! Oh, and should this ration sound a bit unappetizing and a mite sparse to you, please consider that my weight usually varies less than five pounds on one of these extended jaunts. Most long distance backpackers I’ve talked to loose upwards of 20 pounds!
The roadwalk on SR60 this morning is no fun by any stretch. The eighteen-wheelers are coming at me heavy and hard. I count an average of five every minute barreling down on me southbound. The shoulder is narrow and rutted and I must move along dangerously close to harm’s way. Every ten seconds I brace and bow down against the shuddering blast of the desert-like, sand-driven gale. I have a soft spot in my heart for roadwalks and usually enjoy them immensely; however, this chopping and dicing today is sorely testing my level of joy for it. It takes me nearly three hours to cover the four-and-one-half miles on this brutal grinder. Finally, mercifully the trail turns north to enter the Three/Prairie Lakes—Bull Creek Wildlife Management Areas.
A “Cracker” road leads along for a short distance and then the trail pulls off to follow a fenceline. After no more than 200 yards it becomes painfully evident what will be in store for the next near forty miles…mud and water, with plenty to go around! As I step off into it again, and to my surprise, comes immediate relief to my poor aching feet. The cool mud and water actually feels soothing and I am able to make better time through this mire than was possible along the roadway. I am usually able to tolerate the worrisome presence of mosquitoes as long as I keep moving, but here with my pace slackened, they form a veritable cloud-swirl all around me. Flailing and slogging along, I finally reach Godwin Hammock. I had envisioned a tranquil setting, peaceful and…dry. To my dismay, as I enter the Hammock, I find neither. The entire Hammock is underwater, save one small area in the scrub on the north end. I quickly pitch camp in the twilight caused by the waning hours and the storm of mosquitoes. I roll in and settle for a couple of cheese and peanut butter sandwiches for my evening meal.
“Where you end up isn’t the most important thing.
It’s the road you take to get there.”
Thursday—January 15, 1998
Location—Three Lakes WMA Game Check Station, US441 and Williams Rd.
I am out this morning in the dark and in the gloom. I have been in rain off and on the past fourteen days, but it looks like today may well be the day I really slam into it. I find the trail through Fodderstack Slough and into Kettle Hammock nearly impossible to describe and most nearly impossible to negotiate. What Mother Nature, through her prodding of El Nino, hasn’t seen fit to churn under, the feral hogs and the hunters on quad-tracks have pretty much finished. The sky darks completely down, the wind comes up and the rain sets in with chilling permanence around eleven. I brace and trudge on into it, soaked to the bone.
By mid afternoon I reach the concrete tunnel under the Florida Turnpike and heave a sigh of relief as I pull in out of the hammering deluge…only to find the wind whipping through with such force to nearly pick me up, and in just moments the chill of inactivity starts setting in. So reluctantly I push on through and right back out into it again. The trail is now following a well-crowned and ditched graded road, but even here, much of the road is totally submerged and pure mush. In a short while I come across a pickup mired clear to the axles right in the middle of the road. The driver’s door is open and the water is lapping and pulsing in waves across the floorboards. While in the tunnel I had taken a look at my map and noted that the trail leaves the graded road shortly…to, as the trail guide describes it, “cross through [a] wet area.” A wet area, indeed! I have been in it up to my butt off and on today and this is the first mention of any “wet area.” This seems a pretty good clue that it would probably be wise to steer clear of the place, so I stay on Williams Rd. and hoof it on toward US441.
It is late afternoon now. The rain and wind have been relentless, are steadily gaining in intensity and it is turning cold. I try increasing my pace but I am near exhausted from churning through it all day and I can feel the initial stages of hypothermia descending. What a relief to find the Game Check Station open and still manned at the Three Lakes WMA entrance near US441. Here I meet Paul and Doris Adams. Doris takes one look at me and runs for a towel and some dry clothes. In no time I am dry, warm and comfortable. These kind folks hover over me, give me food and provide a place to stay, dry and out of it for the night. What a blessing! Thank you Lord, for these generous and giving trail angels! And thank you, Paul and Doris Adams!
“The rain keeps constantly raining,
And the sky is cold and gray.
And the wind in the trees keeps complaining,
That [winter is here to stay.]”
[William Wetmore Story]
Friday—January 16, 1998
Location—Crabgrass Creek Campsite
Paul said the hunters usually start early, so he has to get up early. Sure enough, I hear him enter the check station shed just before 6:00 a.m. He must have been up even earlier, for to my delight he greets me with a hot egg sandwich and a brimming cup of steaming hot coffee! Soon comes Doris and these kind folks then invite me into their cozy camper. They have offered the use of their phone so I can call Ron Julien, the FTA liaison with the Deseret folks. Ron has been working on getting permission for me to cross the Mormon property and I was hoping on some word…but no luck. I then try calling Hood Goodrich, FT6 Section Leader. Hood had updated my maps and provided information, not only on the Three/Prairie Lakes FT Section but also on Bull Creek. This data was put together for me months ago as I prepared for my FT thru-hike. I was hoping for an update, but no luck here either. As hunters start coming, I bid these trail angels goodbye and head on up the road. Thanks Paul and Doris!
I am soon on US441. I have a 2.5-mile roadwalk this morning to get back to where the trail crosses north of here. The traffic is light, the roadwalk enjoyable. Soon it is decision-making time. Should I take the chance that permission has been granted me by the Mormon folks and go ahead and enter their lands here at Fontana Lane or continue on north on US44l a fair distance to where a connector trail crosses the Broussard lands? Both provide access to Bull Creek WMA. I know I have permission to cross on the Broussard property. I decide to head on in and take my chances. I vividly remember the old saying, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say!” So, as you read this, I know I am setting a very bad example…just don’t do as I do!
The gate is secure, and on it, a sign with these greetings, “No Trespassing, Tom and Tina.” But this does not deter me and over the gate I go to enter Fontana Lane…at least I think I’m entering Fontana Lane. I haven’t gone a quarter-mile until I see a vehicle approaching. My first reaction is to dive into the bushes and wait until the car passes, but I decide to stay on the little narrow road and take my medicine. I have been told the Mormons carry large calibre center-fire magnum handguns. These folks are the largest single landowner in the state of Florida with vast-reaching cattle and citrus holdings. Apparently they learned the hard way many years ago that the constant, never-ending job of protecting their lands against trespassers and poachers was a job that they had to tend to themselves. So here I stand, thinking, “You dummy, you don’t know if you’re been granted permission. Why did you come in here? All the FT literature and all the kind FTA folks you have talked to cautioned you against this.” The FTA (literally) walks a fine line with these private landowners. It is through their kindness and civic-minded spirit that perfect strangers like me are permitted to tramp around on their property. It only makes sense that there would be certain imposed restrictions. The Mormons have their restrictions. One is; you’re not supposed to be on their land during hunting season! Seems a reasonable restriction, wouldn’t you say?
I am glued in my tracks. I couldn’t move now if I wanted to. Visions of seeing the inside of a cell at the local clink flash through my mind. The car stops. Down comes the window…and I meet Tom. He asks, “Are you supposed to be in here?” To my surprise, Tom is a kind-looking old gentleman with a pleasant countenance, not a gun-wielding, tobacco-spitting cowpoke my mind had wildly conjured up; and his voice is not threatening. I sigh a deep inner sigh of relief. I am less frightened. Stuttering, I manage to get out who I am and where I’m headed. And I tell him that I will turn and leave the Deseret. Tom then explains that I am on his land, not on Deseret; that their land is in the swamp on the other side of the fence and that I probably couldn’t get through there anyway because of the high water. He sizes me up for a moment and then tells me to continue on his road east to the gate where I can cross on reasonably dry land into Deseret. He says it is only a short walk from there to the fence at Bull Creek WMA and that there is no one back there. He then bids me farewell as he drives away. My legs are rubber. I stand in perplexed amazement…trying to get off the adrenaline-pumping and wildly slamming emotional rollercoaster of these last few minutes. In just moments, Tom returns. Apparently he just went to his mailbox. Rolling his window down again as he passes, he waves to me and wishes me a safe journey! What a true trail angel! And what remarkable trail magic!
In a short time I am over the next gate and into Deseret. The woodsroad passes their beautiful hunting lodge and as I bushwhack south I soon find the familiar and welcome orange FT blazes. The trail crosses a stile into Bull Creek where I sign the trail register. From here the trail continues in two directions known as the East Loop and West Loop Trails. I decide to take the Ease Loop Trail, as this is the much shorter route. I remember Joan Hobson telling me that this loop would probably be more difficult to negotiate and that I would certainly run into water. Was she ever right! The trail starts out pleasant enough, passing along a lovely sandy woodsroad through a tall sand pine grove. But soon the trail reveals its true identity as the sand ridge gives way to an incredible bog. At Yoke Branch I really get into it. I thought I had gone through the ultimate bog in the Everglades, but the trail there pales in comparison to this incredible place.
It takes me well over two hours to go less than two miles. I push through a veritable tangle of brush and blowdowns along an old tramway, often submerging to my armpits in the water and slime. I stumble through the invisible obstacles of logs and stumps below as I push away or climb over the flotilla of brush and debris above. My pack becomes completely waterlogged from submersion, cutting into my shoulders as though a ton. The rain comes again in a steady downpour making this dark, forbidding-looking place even more ominous and scary. I try managing my fear and apprehension by exclaiming to myself, “Nomad, you’re already soaked to the bone…So what if it’s pouring!” I must take all precaution with each floating log as the slithering swamp folks have taken to these retreats and I must keep my hands and other vulnerable anatomical parts from harms way. Apparently there are bridges at each of the tramway cuts, but I’m not only unable to tell where the cuts are, but also where the bridges might be. Some I find by bumping into them with my legs. On these I can get down on all fours, keeping my head up out of the water and crawl across. In other places, where I most certainly am missing the bridges I submerge to very scary depths before rising again
I have at least been blessed with fair blazing and flagging through this place and as the trail finally turns I begin emerging from the depths of it. In the next hundred yards or so the water drops from my hips to my knees and in a short distance, as I am again churning through ankle-deep mud, I pass many canoes and johnboats chained and padlocked to the cypress! It is dusk as I near Crabgrass Creek Campsite and I am thinking how difficult the task must be for Hood Goodrich and all the great folks with the Indian River Chapter, FTA to maintain these last two trail sections. I have been a member of FTA for many years. The Indian River Chapter is my home chapter, and although it seems I know all its members personally from reading their great newsletter, I have never attended a single function. Thanks Indian River Chapter for helping to make this incredible journey possible!
What an absolutely bewildering and amazing day this has been. I had reckoned for excitement and adventure on this odyssey, but there is just no way I could have envisioned its coming with such profound intensity, nor could I have foreseen the physical and mental challenge that it would bring!
“All you need in this life is ignorance and
confidence, and then success is sure.”
Saturday—January 17, 1998
Location—Son’s Home, Jay and Theresa Eberhart, Port St. John
I’m batting a thousand with the Mormons, so I decide to cross US192 and head on north on Levee 73. This eliminates a dangerous roadwalk along this busy highway and is a shorter distance to CR419 where I’ll be hiking later this morning. I’ll be able to cross over from the levee a little farther north. Anyway, this is the designated route for the FT. I haven’t gone a mile along the levee when I hear ORVs in the distance. It’s definitely time to blend in and I pull over in the tall weeds. In a moment two hunters emerge on a high point on the levee and stop. From there they pan the area with their binoculars. Both are carrying large, high calibre rifles with scopes. After about five minutes of this it becomes apparent that these fellows are in no hurry. Even though they’re over a quarter mile away it’s only a matter of time before one of them spots me, and I need to get moving. So before I can talk myself out of it I stand up, get their attention and head toward them. Arriving at their location, I am greeted cordially. Neither of them challenges me as to why I’m in here. In fact, both are intrigued by where I’ve been and where I’m headed. I keep the conversation short and head north, counting my blessings on the way. I don’t know if circumstances over the past two days qualify me as living a “Charmed Life” but the description seems appropriate. I head over to CR419 at my first opportunity!
This is a respectable roadwalk today, around fifteen miles, but there is little traffic, the day is clear and cool and there is no wind. Along the way I see Sandhill crane, wood storks, great blue heron, cattle egrets, a covey of quail and many cattle. At the Orange County line it’s decision-making time again. I can continue on north on the county road to SR520 or head east on the trail across the Mormon land about a mile, to enter the southern end of the Tosohatchee Reserve. What to do? Oh yes, I head on east! The hike across the Mormon land is uneventful and I soon reach the fence at south Tosohatchee Campsite. From here the trail is well marked to Taylor Creek. As I near the creek I find the entire area flooded. Proceeding I am quickly submerged in two-and-one-half feet of water and mud. After a hundred yards I can see a rope bridge. Here the water is running very swift and as I stumble in to near my hips I can feel the force of the fast-rushing stream. I have never crossed a rope bridge before, and as I take a glance at this confusion I quickly decide that I’m not interested. The Boy Scouts, I am told, built the bridge. I’m sure it’s fine for their agile little bodies. I’ve got other plans. I grab the lower footrope and try fording the creek, but I don’t get far with this grand idea until the bottom quickly goes where I don’t want to go. Backing up, I realize I’m going to have to get up on this cobweb contraption.
The bridge consists of three ropes, a lower footrope and two handrail ropes; all three lashed together at five to seven foot intervals. The footrope is also tied off to surrounding trees with lateral stabilizers. Once on this bungee I seem to be doing quite well until I get just this side of center. I’m not even over the fast-rushing current yet and the bridge is getting very shaky and unstable. Here there are no lateral stabilizers and the footrope definitely doesn’t want me here! Every time I try putting my foot forward I am violently pitched either right or left. This is scary! I finally find that by crouching I am able to inch my way across. Before I reach the other side my arms and legs are aching and my nerves are totally uncoiled…but I make it! There is another near quarter mile before I finally pull up out of the bog. From here the hike is pleasant to SR520.
It is nearing dusk as I reach the highway and most vehicles already have their lights on. I’ve got a roadwalk of about a mile to the St. Johns River and Lone Cabbage Fish Camp. There is much fast-moving traffic but I make it in good order. The treadway north of here for most the entire Tosohatchee is gone. The St. Johns River floodplane is being restored. The mosquito and flood control dikes over which the FT passed have been pushed back under, the trail with them. To get around now involves a long and not-so-pleasant roadwalk. During the planning stages for this trek, my Son, Jay had recommended a canoe trip down the St. Johns (the St. Johns River runs north) instead of the roadwalk…and he has a canoe! That was a great idea and that’s what we’ll do day-after-tomorrow. We’ll leave Lone Cabbage Fish Camp at first light and head north on the St. Johns a distance by river of some 20-miles, to Midway Fish Camp at SR50. From there a roadwalk west will put me back on the FT in the little town of Christmas.
On reaching the fish camp I head for the pay phone to call my son. He lives about half-an-hour from here. So while I wait I have no difficulty putting away a hot dog and a couple of frosties. I also take time to think back over this day. I have now completed another section, FT8, the section known as Deseret. It has been almost entirely a roadwalk. I previously talked and corresponded with Ron Julien, FTA Liaison with Deseret and also with FT8 Section Leader, Wiley Dykes, Sr. The trail through here is either on Mormon lands or otherwise it is a roadwalk. Folks around have told me that, over the years, relations have been strained between the Mormons and those wishing to access or use their lands for one reason or another. My impression from talking with these two gentlemen is that FTA has suffered as a result but is not party to it. I also believe that they are men of diplomacy and that there is a good line of communication between the Mormons and the FTA. I hope my passing has not created a problem for them. Thanks Ron and Wiley! Jay soon arrives and we’re off to his lovely new home. This has been a very fine day!
“Read nature, nature is a friend to truth.”
Location—Winter Home, South Lake, Titusville
Today is a day of rest from the trail and the miles. I’ll be spending the day with wife Sharon, her sister Joyce and brother-in-law Ken who are down from Michigan for the winter, and my younger son, Jon David. This is my first opportunity to see an outfitter since the near-trip-stopping fiasco on the second day. There is a wonderful outfitting store in north Orlando called Travel Country Outdoors. These kind folks have been much help over the years in assisting and getting me into the proper gear. Here I am friends with Mark McLusky who is an expert in the backpack/tent/sleeping bag area. Jon and I head for TCO first thing. Mark and all have a grand chuckle as I relate the story about my bag-burning incident. Looking back now I realize how very fortunate I was to get through that day, and indeed all the days since, with no serious repercussions. I have an inner contentment and faith that the Lord will provide me safe passage and see me through to the end of this odyssey and that is how I go day-to-day. Yet, human nature being what it is, there are always those moments of hesitation and doubt. The trauma caused by the fire and recovering from it was one of those moments.
Mark always has a laundry list of questions before making his recommendation on any particular item of gear. So it is with replacing my dear war veteran, the sleeping bag. Knowing that I’m headed for the southern Appalachians, and being the klutz that I am pretty much limits and settles the choice for my sleeping bag! He pushes away the rack of down bags right away. Down, being a natural insulator is the very best (it seems nature’s way is always the best), however, the drawback with down is its loss of insulating ability when wet. And Mark knows that if it’s possible for the old Nomad to get his bag wet; well we look at the choices in synthetic bags. A synthetic bag will be a little more bulky when stuffed, a little heavier and won’t have quite the equivalent insulation rating as a down bag…but it will keep me “warm-when-wet.” There are many choices and Mark patiently advises me as we work our way through the selection. I settle for a very fine three-season Mountain Hard Wear “Crazy Legs” design. The pack decision is easy. I simply replace my Kelty Redwing, a grand old workhorse. It really isn’t an “expedition” pack, more in the “weekend-warrior” category, with less than 3000 cubic inches of capacity, but it’s lightweight and has an internal frame design which I prefer for bushwhacking. So the little Redwing is the hands-down choice. I have lower back trouble (who doesn’t!) and can’t carry a very heavy load with any hope of lasting long, so I must keep my total pack weight to a bare minimum. Thanks Mark and all at TCO!
My feet have really enjoyed this day off. They are trying to stabilize, but it is day-to-day and at times they are still very painful. I haven’t spent a day with younger son Jon for a very long time…too long, and we have a very enjoyable time together.
“The successful hikers are the ones who find goodness and joy
even in the difficult times, who see beyond the misery to the
beauty of nature and the comforts of trail society. They’re the
ones who know that the rain turns the forest into a magical
wonderland and provides the rainbow that caps the day.”
[Larry Luxenberg, GAME ‘80]
Monday—January 19, 1998
Location—Son’s Home, Jay and Theresa Eberhart, Port St. John
It’s pitch dark when Jay arrives at 5:30 a.m. I load my pack and we’re on our way back to Lone Cabbage Fish Camp at the St. Johns River. As we put in, comes one of Jay’s good friends, Phil Sellers. Phil is pulling his Boston Whaler. Jay thought it a good idea to have a “chase boat” in case we needed assistance along the way. Obviously it had taken little coaxing to get Phil to come with us on the river today, this morning he is full of enthusiasm! We’re in the water, everything loaded, gliding under the bridge just after first light. It looks to be the makings of a perfect day…the sky is bright with stars and there is a cool, gentle breeze to our back. The St. Johns is very high, not at flood stage, but Phil just does have room to squeeze his canopy under the bridge.
It is so calm and peaceful here. As the swift current and the gentle breeze carry us along I take a moment to thank the Lord for this blessing. What a joy it is to be with my son and his very good friend; to be sharing the splendor of this new day. Then the sunrise comes to the river, likened to a symphonic hallelujah. For as the sun and river awaken to yet another day in their eternal lives; each of these ageless friends starts anew. And indeed for each of them it is a new beginning as it has been for all the dawns throughout time. The river and the sun arise to new life, all fresh and clean…the birth of another day! The voices of the water birds and all the other river residents now join in the happy chorus to greet this new beginning.
The most effort it seems we must exert this morning is the task of keeping the canoe to the current and headed downwind. By 10:00 a.m. we’re well over half the distance to Midway. We have seen many beautiful things on the river this morning. One of the local residents came to greet us, then to tarry along with us on effortless wing above, a very large and majestic bald eagle. My chest never fails to swell with pride when I see one of these grand symbols of our glorious free country…America, up there free on the wing! Though we can never experience the freedom, as does that ruler of the sky…we are free indeed!
Phil has dallied nearby the whole morning, hastening ahead only to pull up and try his luck at casting, our only communication being the full-beaming smiles displayed as we pass from time to time! After we drift under the Beeline Bridge, lunch soon becomes the task at hand. We come ashore and haul the canoe up on one of the countless islands in the river. This one has a fine little cabin, complete with screened porch; fully furnished with table and chairs. Here we have our lunch in the most leisurely fashion. The view from this elevated vantage is grand, the full sweep of the river and I relax and enjoy the company of my son and his (and now my) good friend.
The wind is picking up and seems to be swinging around ever-so-slowly from the west as we follow the lazy meander of the channel first east, then north, then west, and even occasionally, south. We continue to make good time and must exert only the least bit of effort for the last two miles into Midway as the wind now comes at us from the west-northwest. We arrive at Midway Fish Camp at SR50 well before 2:00 p.m. where I remain to watch Phil’s boat and the canoe as Jay and Phil return to Lone Cabbage for the vehicles. This odyssey is setting in to be a most-memorable experience!
I am the guest of my son and his wife again this evening and this night. And indeed the good times roll as we enjoy each other’s company.
“All of the loveliest things that be
come simply, so it seems to me.”
[Edna St. Vincent Millay]
Tuesday—January 20, 1998
Location—Mills Lake Park
These last two days have been a most welcome break from the trail. I have had time to spend with my family, time to get my gear straightened out and time to rest my poor aching feet. Jay gets me up a little after six and in just moments I’m sitting at the table in front of a full-spread ham-and-eggs breakfast! Yesterday we enjoyed probably one of the best times together ever as father and son. The day on the river was good for both of us. On the way back to Midway Fish Camp this morning we talk about many things, about the good times and the not-so-good times, all of which go to create, and then either weld or destroy the relationship between a father and son. I was always so critical, always so hard on him as a child. Those days and those times that were not-so-good were of my own making and had nothing to do with him. He knows that now. Jay has always been the one who has made and kept the weld between us over all these years and for that I am so thankful. I have two wonderful sons and I am so very proud of both of them. I think now, after these past few hours together Jay understands that a little better. We tarry long here by the river where we hauled the canoe out yesterday, content in each other’s company, sharing the joy of just being together as pop and boy again. It is very hard to say goodbye, but it is time to go our ways…he to his wife and his work and I to the trail.
Another in the long line of numbers that make up the sections of the FT is now behind me. I have completed FT9, the Tosohatchee section, without passing a single orange blaze. Doug Sphar is the section leader for FT9 and while preparing for this trek I corresponded with him. The Tosohatchee is a pretty unsettled place as far as the FT is concerned, what with much of the thru-trail treadway being lost to floodplane restoration. I became very frustrated and upset with Doug during the planning stages of this hike because of the problems here. But they are not of Doug’s making and I am ashamed now for some of the things I said in my letters to him. The day will soon come I am sure when the orange blazes will again lead the thru-hiker along the Tosohatchee, and when that day comes it will be because of people like Doug Sphar. These are the folks that make up the army of volunteers that work so diligently and with such dedication. They’re the ones that make this incredible trail experience possible for “Hiker Trash” like me. My apology Doug…and thanks!
North of Christmas is Seminole Ranch WMA. Here the trail is well marked and well maintained…and mostly out of the water! The rest of the day is a very pleasant roadwalk to Mills Lake Park in Chuluota; along Wheeler Road, Ft. Christmas Road and Mills Lake Road. The park is a delightful spot, right on the lake. I’m given a campsite close to the bathhouse. Plenty of hot water. I’ve a picnic table and grill and there’s a telephone less than fifty yards away! What do you want for five bucks! Oh, are my feet doing so much better now!
“Examine me, O Lord, and prove me;
try my mind and my heart.”
Wednesday—January 21, 1998
Location—Powerline Easement near Rinehart Road
Chuluota is a quiet, peaceful little town now. In the delightful new book, From Here To There On The Florida Trail, written for thru-hikers by thru-hikers…my dear friends Joan Hobson and Susan Roquemore talk about the little town of Chuluota. Their description, “Chuluota was a Florida ‘Boom Time’ community in the 20s.” But as I pass here today it reminds me of the place where I was raised, a backroads community somehow passed over by time and progress. The trail goes right straight through the little berg. There’s a post office, grocery store, bank and fire station; my kind of trail town. I find now that I could have slept-in a little longer this morning. I need to get some mail off to friends but the post office doesn’t open until 8:30 and it is now only 7:30. I decide not to burn an hour here and head on out. The trail follows an old railroad grade out of town; straight for the Little Econ (short for Econlockhatchee). I can remember when the rails and ties were torn up years ago from the tracks that went through my little hometown.
Personal watercraft are quite the rage here in Florida and the Little Econ is the place to be on the weekends. My son, Jon, has one that will flat move. It’s quite an exhilarating sport. He and friend, Duke had been up the Little Econ just a few weeks ago. The river then was way out of its banks making it possible for Jon and Duke to run all around in the cypress. Jon said they jetted right over the center of the upper cables on the FT suspension bridge! So, as I head toward the river I’m wondering what’s in store for me. I’m prepared to get in it up to my butt again…but what else is new! Much to my surprise the treadway is not only out of the mud and water, but at the suspension bridge the river is nearly three feet below the deck of the suspension bridge. This makes the hike here this morning very pleasant.
By late morning there is more roadwalking. As the trail heads west through the central part of the state it is never far from a large metropolitan area. Here I am hiking just north of Orlando. This section, FT10, is also cared for by Wiley Dykes, Sr., and in a phone conversation with Wiley recently he recommended that I try the new rails-to-trails section just being completed on the other side of the beltway toll road, so over I go. There is construction equipment and material all along. At the neat new concrete bridge just being completed over Howell Creek I stop to chat with the construction workers and fix myself some lunch. These are all strong, tuff young fellows who relish in lugging and throwing railroad ties around. They all have to hear my story when one of them finds out where I’ve come from and where I’m headed. And they all get a hoot out of this bearded old fellow sporting his very cool Adidas and Oakleys!
Well, I’m not one who gets real excited about all this rails-to-trails stuff, but it’s a fine setup here today. As I hike along I pull off for a short break and treat myself to a fountain coke and an order of fries at the trailside MacDonalds! By afternoon I’m in the Spring Hammock/Soldier Creek area. Here’s a lovely section of trail, but the treadway is beat down by folks on mountain bikes and I most near get run over as one fellow comes blasting around a cabbage palm like he’s bent for hell. By early evening I arrive at Longwood Fire Tower. The tower is on well-kept, spacious grounds, so I decide to polish my Yogi-ing skills and try talking the folks into letting me pitch for the night. But after checking a number of buildings and knocking on the door at the residence and finding no one about, I fill up my water bottle and head on up the trail.
It is now late evening and near dusk as I head north on a wide double powerline cut. I find a nice place in the grass, pull off the two-track service road and start setting up for the evening. In just a few moments a couple of young fellows come across the easement from a gate on the other side. They stop and we chat for awhile. As usual I must explain where I’ve come from and where I’m headed. I think it strange when one of the kids says, “I wouldn’t camp here long if I were you,” but I soon dismiss it and put it out of my mind. In my little tent now and asleep for, I don’t know how long, come voices and I am rousted. As a very bright light illuminates the interior of my tent I hear, “Is someone in there?” I reply, “Yes, what do you want?” And then, “Come out of the tent, sir, this is the sheriff’s department.” I roll out, squinting my eyes to the bright light, to be greeted by two uniformed officers. They ask for my identification and if I am carrying any weapons. I am then informed that I’m trespassing on private land and that a warrant is being sworn out for my arrest. Aww, Jeez! Now I understand what the kid was talking about! I try explaining that I am a member of the FTA and that the FT passes up this powerline easement…and that certainly it must be all right for me to be here. The officers would hear none of this, but one does suggest that if I pack up right away and move on that no more would probably come of it. I’ve never broke camp so fast before in my life and I quickly put some distance between me and this unfortunate awakening! I stumble along in the dark for another mile or two and find a place to pitch where I won’t be disturbed again.
What an evening this has turned out to be! But the night is cool and the stars still glisten just as brightly, as if nothing has happened. I am able to calm myself now as I lie back and stare up at the wonder of it all…to again delve into the mysteries of the universe.
For each star there’s a number,
As for each grain of sand.
And for each day that’s coming,
As each…since time began.
Thursday—January 22, 1998
Location—Field near SR44 Trailhead, Seminole Forest
I am up and moving early. This powerline is a weird place. There are houses all along both sides now and the back yards from these homes extend into the powerline cut. So, this morning I am walking, under these huge high-tension lines, right through people’s back yards! I must step over their shrubbery and walk around all the little ornamental pieces of junk and other things that tend to accumulate. This is not a comfortable place to be and I can see people starting to stir as lights come on. So, at the first opportunity I try to get out of here. I go for it where there are no dwellings, and instead of meeting bowser I am greeted by a six-foot high chainlink fence. Once I heave my pack over I’ve got to get over. I’ve never climbed over a six-foot high chainlink fence before. I do manage, but if you’ve never done this little exercise yourself, don’t discount the consequence you may suffer in the process, should you so choose…especially if you’re near sixty years old! What I found out was this. There’s a reason the link-weave at the top of the fence is left open! I never really thought about it before. But since the family jewels aren’t that important anymore…anyhow, the delicate tangle I got myself into doesn’t really make all that much difference. The word, terror, however doesn’t even come close to describing the gripping intensity of the moment!
Once I manage to beat through some brush and tangle I’m out on one of the residential streets that feed to Rinehart Road. Once on Rinehart I am able to head north again. There is heavy traffic, what with folks heading in to work, and after a half-hour or so it’s done a job on my nerves. I soon see a Kroger up ahead and in I go for a few provisions…and free coffee! The trek along Rinehart Road, SR46A and Markham Road is not a fun roadwalk. I gave up on the rails-to-trails through here. That treadway is not cool (Just my opinion!). This area is incredibly congested. I absolutely cannot understand how folks can live through this roar and confusion all their lives. I was hoping to hike the nature trail through the Lower Wekiva River State Preserve, but a sign at the gate reads, “Closed due to Environmentally sensitive conditions.” I finally figure this must mean that Mother Nature has a headache!
Once I get off the busy highway and into the Seminole State Forest, conditions improve dramatically. Here I find some of the most pleasant treadway hiked so far. Bill Taylor, FT11 Section Leader had told me there would be some very enjoyable hiking here and his assessment is right on. The trail is well maintained and very well marked. I had planned to overnight at Sulphur Run Campsite, but arriving here, and even before the cool of the evening can bring on their misery in force, the mosquitoes are attacking me unmercifully. I usually can tolerate their annoyance but these guys have all taken advanced fighter pilot training. I reluctantly head on up the trail. Fortunately there is ample daylight to get me along until I am on higher ground and away from their incessant attack. And what good fortune awaits me as I find the most delightful spot to pitch for the evening, an expansive rolling meadow with interspersed longleaf pine and live oak. I pull in to one of these picture-postcard areas and set up for the evening…with not a single mosquito about!
Most of these days now involve hiking distances in excess of fifteen miles, some as high as twenty or more. My body has adjusted to this daily demand remarkably well. And my feet? After all the crushing and mushing they have endured, after all the abuse, I believe that my feet are going to be okay!
“Escaped from a heap of uncordial kindness to the
generous bosom of the woods.”
Friday—January 23, 1998
Location—Clearwater Lake Campground, Ocala National Forest
No sooner am I on the road this morning than the bucket brigade starts. I stop, get my tent fly out and cover my pack. By the time I reach the register box at the beginning of Royal Trails I am totally soaked. Roadwalks in the rain are usually no fun and busy SR44 is no exception. It’s kind of like being at the airport or on the lake. The wind that invariably accompanies the onslaught is usually running either with the road coming straight at you, or at your back, picking you up and hurling you into the next county. Stir then into this maelstrom the fact that there’s no protection from passing vehicles. Added in now are these separate little monsoons. Semis bring on torrents more in the category of cyclones. At times it’s prudent to just turn from the blast, go down on one knee and wait.
At the trailhead register I am pleased to find there’s been some other hikers through this section recently. Most were southbounders lamenting their stories about getting lost. I sign the register and head on in. The rain finally lets up and the storm moves on through. Arriving at a gate, the blazing ends. I check the road in both directions but am unable to find the trail. In the process I find an old trail where blaze marks have been painted brown, indicating where the trail had been. I follow the brown blazes hoping to arrive soon at the new section. The trail here is overgrown and has not been used for a considerable time…and it goes on and on. Soon the brown blazes become difficult to follow and at an intersecting two-track I become hopelessly lost. Out come the map and compass and I “reckon” my way along. Through an ever-increasing labyrinth of mud and brush I arrive at one of the neatest old hunt camps I can recall in my memory; old campers and trailers and various sheds and shacks along with plenty of high rails on which to hang and dress the deer. Here is Tracy Canal. On the map I can now figure my location and in what direction I must proceed to get back to Maggie Jones Road, the current trail location…but I’ve got to cross Tracy Canal. The canal looks a little scary but at the spoil bank cut near the old hunt camp I head on in. I find the bottom to be solid and the water only four feet deep by the far side. As I follow my compass bearing and along old line cuts and two-tracks I pass many deer stands. Some of these are grand affairs. Deer stands are usually pretty spartan with generally no more than spikes to get up and a couple of boards nailed in the crotch of the tree, but here the stands are more like decks, some complete with railings and overhead canopies. Some are large enough to hold three or four hunters, with each able to scout a different direction. At Yankee Stadium, these would be the skyboxes!
The woodsroad I’m hiking now soon brings me to a large field and a fenceline. There’s a gate across the way and I head for it. Here I’m back on Maggie Jones Road and the fresh orange blazes. The trail soon heads back into the forest, past Pooh Bear Lake, La No Chee Boy Scout Camp and then on to Clearwater Lake Campground. For some reason I had been dreading this Royal Trails Section FT11N, but I have had a pure blast here today! Royal Trails is just that…Royal Trails! Thanks Bill Taylor and all the great volunteers with the FTA Halifax/St. Johns Chapter!
Clearwater Lake Campground is a very fine facility, complete with bathhouse and seasonal resident caretaker. I get my tent set up in short order and head out for the little village of Paisley. I’m a trail town boy and this little place is truly classic. It has just what every hiker needs, no more, no less. There’s a grocery store, a post office and a mighty fine restaurant…and that’s it! I arrive to find, to my dismay, that the post office closed just ten minutes ago. Dang! I’ve missed getting some postcards off again. The Paisley Inn is a grand eating establishment and I manage to do the “Grand Order of Hiker Trash” very proud! This has turned out to be a memorable day.
“By now I have learned to listen to silence. To hear its
choirs singing the song of ages, chanting the hymns of
space, and disclosing the secrets of eternity.”
Saturday—January 24, 1998
Location—Buck Lake Campground, Ocala National Forest
One of the calls I made last night from the campground was to a good friend of mine in Rockledge, Florida by the name of Thunder Chicken. We raced off-road motorcycles together for years. One day I told him about the Appalachian Trail and that I had a little place at the base of Springer Mountain where that grand old trail begins. From then on, at every race, he would pick my brain about this Appalachian Trail. Next thing I find out he’s decided to hike it! And in 1997 that is just what he did…a year before me! Thunder Chicken had expressed an interest in accompanying me here but I’m unable to reach him. What a disappointment; for I was so looking forward to a grand time hiking with him for a few days in the Ocala…but alas, it was not to be.
As I head into the forest this morning I meet the first backpackers on the FT. Tented just off the trail and just rolling out to greet the morning are Richard and Maria Nicholl from Boca Raton. They are on a shakedown cruise in preparation for this year’s upcoming thru-hike of the AT. I wish them well as I tell them that I am headed for the AT and that I hope our paths will cross later this summer. As I continue into the forest I am surprised to see the condition of the south forest area. There are quad-trac ruts everywhere with the trail bermed up at every curve. This really breaks my heart because I enjoy off-roading just about as much as any one fellow can and I’ve always been disheartened by the bum rap the sport has received from environmentalist and others, but here’s a damn good example and reason why! The yahoos that have been ripping around in here have literally destroyed the treadway that once consisted of soft pine needles, duff and grass. Soon I also come by a pile of roof shingles and old tires lying near the trail! The forest wasn’t like this in the ‘80s when I last hiked here.
The mess on and along the trail this morning puts me in kind of a funk and I hike along most of the day with my own little stormcloud suspended above. It is late afternoon as I pull into Buck Lake Campground. This is a casual camping area, with sand roads, no resident manager and no signs. I soon realize I’ve made a bad choice in pitching here for the night. It’s Saturday and the weekend crowd is here in force. By midnight they’ve got a signal fire going that lights the entire sky; the whole thing’s off the ground, wheels up, with the roar and hoopla continuing well into early morning.
“A world that’s super-civilized
Is one of worry, want and woe;
In leafy lore let me be wised
And back to nature go.”
[Robert W. Service, My Trinity]
Sunday—January 25, 1998
Location—Hidden Pond, Ocala National Forest
As I greet the morn it is quiet and peaceful. The revelers and the grand flight have crashed. I see why the roaring blaze last night. My little Campmor thermometer reads 35 degrees this morning. I quickly move out and on my way to get the old jitney up to normal operating temperature. This part of the forest is in much better condition, more like I remember from the past. I see numerous Boy Scout Packs and other day hikers today. It’s pleasant seeing others on the trail for a change. Those I chance to chat with most all end up with a somewhat quizzical, hollow grin when I explain where I’ve come from and where I’m headed. That’s usually also the end of the conversation!
The campsite that I have chosen for tonight is a much better choice than last. If fact, it is the nicest spot along the trail so far. Hidden Pond is a lovely little sink with a pure near-white sand bottom. I have the whole place to myself. I can’t resist the lure of the little pool and as soon as I have my pack off…off comes everything else and in I go! The air is cool, but the water is warm and I loll most nearly submerged for the longest time. There is plenty of firewood from old blowdowns lying about and I get a fine cooking and warming fire going. I am able to work on my journal entries well into the evening as I enjoy a warm meal. This has been a grand day. I am pain-free, very content!
“Solitude is as necessary for society
as silences for language and air for
the lungs and food for the body.”
[Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island]
Monday—January 26, 1998
Location—Trailside, North of CR316
This is the day to cross the islands and prairies. The trail reveals only occasional glimpses of Juniper Prairie, but Hopkins Prairie is bold, main stage, front and center! The trail skirts the edge of the prairie on a long sand lead that follows the eastern then northern border. As the coves within the prairie basin undulate into the pine the trail follows, touching all points on the compass, meandering the long shoreline-like margin, first to and fro, then thither and yon. At the points where the piney woods project into the prairie do there open vistas most grand, extending great distances to the far wooded wall which becomes lifted, to then float on a mirage of vapor and haze. There are birds of all kinds and description, most which I do not know. The prairie is alive with activity. And to the prairie, from the surrounding wood come trails of another kind, laid down by the inhabitants around as they journey to the prairie from day to day. Here is one of the most delightful scenes to my eyes so far on this FT.
The islands? Well the islands are an interesting matter. The FT guide may say that I am crossing the south side of Pat’s Island, or the north border of Riverside Island, but there is no abrupt change in the landscape as with the prairies. If fact, I can seldom see even a subtle change as I pass onto an area noted in my guide as an “Island.” There may be very slight almost undetectable changes in elevation or the least noticeable change in the plant community. Perhaps most apparent is the enormity of some of the southern and longleaf pine that reside on the islands proper with the virtual open understory giving to the delightful pine needle carpet. And there may tend to be a little softer give in the sand as the trail makes it way across, but these islands have neither docks nor boat slips!
Toward late afternoon I take to a side trail to head for Store 88. Here there’s a bar, gas pumps and a super-dandy BBQ! I fill up on everything but gas! Late in the evening now and crossing CR316 I pull off in the scrub and pitch for the evening. This has been a “Gift to Hiker Trash” day; most rewarding, and as I pitch my little tent, I am immediately home again!
“When you have a backpack on, no matter
where you are, you’re home.”
[Leonard Adkins, GAME ‘82]
Tuesday—January 27, 1998
Location—Cross-Florida Barge Canal Embankment
As I awaken this morning and bump my upper tent wall, strange little dandruff-like crystals descend in a shower inside my tent! As I roll out and my little thermometer adjusts to the outside temperature, the mercury doesn’t slow down until it reaches 30 degrees. The new and very plush Mountain Hard Wear sleeping bag that Mark has me in is working just great! The morning is bright and sunny and the day warms quickly, but as I near Lake DeLancy the sky “darks over” and as the wind comes up, comes also a cold, driving rain. I am really getting hammered hard, but there is nowhere to pull out of it and I must keep moving to keep my core temperature up. The storm finally passes and the day again turns mild.
I see countless scrub jays today. They’re supposed to be on the endangered species list. Ronnie, my very good friend in Live Oak had so many coming to his feeder, he couldn’t count them. One day he inquired to his neighbor about the nuisance the birds were causing and his neighbor said, “Aww, those are scrub jays!” Don’t you sort of wonder about this entire endangered species hubbub sometimes? Like the spotted owl ordeal. The lumbering industry was all but shut down in the northwest because of the spotted owl. Remember? They said the spotted owl had to have the dark old-growth forests to survive. That area needed to be protected. It needed wilderness designation…and then somebody noticed a pair nesting in a K-mart storefront sign! On Springer Mountain there’s a plaque with these words engraved on it, “A Pathway for those who seek fellowship with the Wilderness.” I have constantly chosen that path. This odyssey is for nine months. Few will enjoy more fellowship with the wilderness this year than this old man! The Juniper Prairie Wilderness is a fine place. There certainly needs to be a balance. I’ve seen areas virtually destroyed (for our lifetime) due to overuse and abuse. But, I think this wilderness thing gets tugged a bit out of whack sometimes. I believe the Nature Conservancy is going about this the right way! While everybody is flying all over the place on this issue, these folks continue on their way with cool heads putting ecosystem protection to work in a way that everyone can benefit. It is truly an amazing thing. I wish I could afford to be an Ordway Associate!
“Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.”
[Sara Teasdale, There Will Come Soft Rains]
Wednesday—January 28, 1988
Location—Near Old Starke Road North of Rice Creek Sanctuary
I was disappointed when I found the Rodman Recreation Area Campground underwater. That was my planned destination yesterday, but as usual, things worked out for the better. For here on the spoil bank next to the canal has been a first class overnight stay. I seem to always enjoy camping by the water (as long as I don’t have to camp in the water!)
I departed the Ocala National Forest yesterday afternoon and since then I have been thinking about my hike there and the way I’m feeling now about it. I’ve also given it a lot of thought again this morning as I head east along the canal. Mother always told me if I couldn’t say something nice to try and keep quiet…but this is really bothering me. So I think I will write about the Ocala, for there is now within me a deep sense of sadness. In my memory are the hikes enjoyed here in the ’80s. Back then the trail was well marked, and groomed to the point of being near a walkway rather than a pathway. Where the treadway wasn’t mowed, it was a wonderful blanket of oak leaves or pine needles. The campsites and facilities were in top-rate condition. There was no trash or unkempt conditions, no evidence of vandalism. That was the Ocala of the ’80s.
I was in the Ocala National Forest part of four days this trip. I didn’t see one USFS vehicle, or a single person with the USFS. That may be coincidental, but I’ve also noted that the FT no longer belongs to the hiker or backpacker. Folks with quad-tracks, motorcycles and horses have found the Ocala National Forest to their liking and especially the Ocala Section of the FT. The trail through this beautiful area was once the “Crown Jewel” of the FT, but this is no longer true. I’ve heard few nice things ever said about quad-tracks or motorcycles, and seldom anything much bad said about horses. But, let me tell you this…If you want to tear up some trail treadway fast, you’d be hard put to do it any quicker or more thoroughly than with a couple of horses! The unauthorized use of the FT through the Ocala National Forest is evident for miles. The beautifully carpeted trail of the past has given way to berms and churned up sand. Trailhead barriers are knocked down, signage destroyed or molested and there it is for all to see. It saddens me, it deeply saddens me.
The canal spoil-bank is a pleasant hike. I am jolted back to where I am on the trail as I flush a covey of quail along the way. They scatter but don’t go far. I don’t think anybody much hunts quail down here. Snakes are hard on dogs and you can’t get through the scrub and palmetto, so the quail pretty much have their way. Dad would have gotten a “double” on that rise. I would have gotten some tail feathers…maybe!
I must cross one of the locks this morning to head north on the trail. As I approach the lock I find the gate secured. No one is in sight, so I push my pack through a crack in the gates and wiggle through behind it. The Lockkeeper is in his office (in the back of the building away from the lock, of course). We talk awhile but he never does ask me how I got across the lock! Heading into the afternoon the trail gets pretty soupy and I run into some slow, hard going through cut-over sections. I find a nice spot to camp just north of Rice Creek Sanctuary near Old Starke Road. A pretty much uneventful day for a change!
I think it not inappropriate to stop a moment here and make these comments: It is obvious Dick Wiseman took considerable pride in being Rice Creek FT14 Section Leader. I sensed this from a phone conversation with his wife, just most recently his widow who called me to respond to the letter that I had written to Dick just before he passed away. Dick left this section of the FT in fine shape. Volunteerism often receives little appreciation or thanks. My gratitude to you Dick Wiseman and to all the folks who worked untiringly by your side!
“Lord help me put away deceit
And live a life that’s true—
And may there be integrity
In all I say and do.”
Thursday—January 29, 1998
Location—Gold Head Branch State Park
When I tried hiking this section back in the ‘80s I got hopelessly lost and never did see Etonia Ravine, so I have been looking to this day with much anticipation, for folks have told about the beauty that is here. It has been describes as a place not like Florida, almost gorge-like with deep sloping walls and the meandering Etonia running most-near clear as so many mountain streams much further to the north. The trail is well marked now and I am soon at the ravine. Indeed, I am not disappointed in what I find. It is certainly an area in striking contrast to anything seen to the south, rugged and picturesque. The only indications that this is a semitropical setting are the cabbage palms and the palmettos. Here is evidence that the typical Florida terrain is beginning to yield ever so slowly to the rolling countryside more predominately northern.
This afternoon is spent on a not unpleasant roadwalk into Gold Head Branch State Park, where there is yet another very striking ravine cut deep into the earth. An interesting observation today: I pass a dog standing, looking at me from his driveway…and he does not bark! He is a sad looking old fellow, though, and he just may not have a good bark left in him.
I arrive at the park by early evening and pitch in the primitive area. I am able to take water from the clear flowing stream nearby to prepare my evening meal. I have traveled over 80 miles in the last four days and my bod and my feet are none the worse for wear. I think all the parts have finally toughed into this program!
“…I think of nature as our compass, pointing the way to the creator.”
[Ray Jardine, Beyond Backpacking]
Friday—January 30, 1998
Location—Bunkroom, Hampton Baptist Church, Hampton
I’m up and going right away this morning…in the wrong direction! I head down a trail to the east and should be going west. I’d rather take a beating than double back on my trail. I’ll even go the long way around just to avid this sort of frustrating unpleasantness. But, this morning I finally relent…turn around and start back. Forty-five minutes later I pass right by where I pitched for the night! This little exercise, so it turns is the harbinger of more to come. For, so it seems, this day is the day to get lost! I finally manage to find my way to the main gate and pay my camping fee. Then it’s out the entrance and down towards Keystone Heights. I make it over the gate into Camp Blanding okay but then promptly head the wrong direction to Lake Lowry. Some MPs get me straightened out and headed the right way toward the fence at Treat Road. I pick the trail up here for a short distance and then almost immediately make a wrong turn again. The trail goes north and I go east clear around Keystone Airport. I finally climb over a fence, enter a pasture and make friends with a bunch of horses. It’s over the fence again on the far side of the pasture and I come out right behind—Hot Dang—the convenience store at the intersection of SR100 and CR18!
So in I go. This is a neat little store. They’ve even got ice cream by the pint! I bypass the old freezer-burned Ben and Jerry’s to find some good local stuff. Oh, Yes! This is turning out to be a great day. From here it’s about two miles north to where the trail ties in with SR100. But the decision was made early on while planning this hike not to go that way. I really believe that I can stay with the best at roadwalking, but the roadwalk up SR100 into Starke and then on to Lake Butler is an absolutely insane place to be. I hiked some of that ten years ago. Thinking about it raises the hair on the back of my neck to this day! Instead, I’ve decided to try the old railroad grade out of Hampton. This old grade goes right into Lake Butler, and if I can make the grade, that’ll save getting beat to death by the traffic on SR100. And Hampton’s right up CR18 from here! Now all I have to do is get across SR100. Here I have completed FT15. Paula Snellgrove is the section leader. Paula, No reflection on you or all the great volunteers who care for this neat section. It was just my day to get lost!
Hampton is a trail town lover’s delight! There’s a little post office and a food store that sells pizza by the slice. A lot of neat old houses and churches; definitely off the beaten path. The main drag goes right straight through. On the west end is Hampton Baptist Church, set back from the road with a sweeping lawn, lots of trees, basketball court, the works. This looks like a great place to pitch for the evening. There’s a hoop game going so I head on over. Here I meet Rev. Charles Vickers. The scrimmage is breaking up so we have a good chat. In awhile I mention pitching for the evening, “…maybe back in the corner by the fence?” I ask. Without a blink he answers, “Sure, you’re welcome to stay but come with me a minute, you may decide you don’t want to stay over there by the fence.” I’m looking over that way expecting some kind of problem, but the only thing I see is a baby calf in a little wooden pen.
We’re heading toward the church shop. The riding mower is blocking the door. Rev. Vickers says, “Come in here a minute and look at this.” He moves the mower aside, as we work around some other equipment and enter the shop. The shop is a pretty typical handyman setup, tool bench, the usual, all kinds of tools and such to keep a good-sized church facility running. Then he motions me toward another door over by the workbench. To this day I still find it hard to believe, for here we enter one of the neatest little bunkrooms I have ever seen! A kitchenette, refrigerator, pantry complete with canned goods, cereal, rice, beans, all kinds of provisions. There’s a bunk, table and chairs, electric heater and off a short side hall, a full bath! Now with a beaming smile, he says, “Wouldn’t you rather stay in here tonight?” My mind is still playing catch up…what with counting my blessings over the pitch-in-the-yard deal he just gave me. “Oh yes!” I manage, “But I won’t be able to pay you much.” Sensing my hesitancy, he says, “It’s here for you, there is no charge. If you would like to make a donation, the church would gladly accept that…and help yourself to the food” “Well sure! I, well…sure!” He shows me how the shower works and as he turns to leave, says, “I hope the calf doesn’t keep you up, sometimes he’s a little noisy.”
“Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.”
[Christina Georgina Rossetti, Up-Hill]
Saturday—January 31, 1998
Location—John Hamill Home, Lake Butler
I’m up at first light. What a great night’s sleep. I tidy up the bunkroom, leave a note of thanks and a small donation for the church and head towards the old railroad grade. Out of Hampton, I cross US301, then head north on SW66 Avenue for about a mile. The old grade is 75 yards to the east. A powerline cut leads there through an old broken-down gate. Looks like I’m in luck. The old grade is being used, and is passable much as a good two-track. The rails and crossties have been removed long ago and the gravel has been graded to eliminate the washboard. So as I enter and look down the old grade I see an almost level, straight, straight, narrow gravel road. The hunters are keeping the grade beat down and the section here has even been mowed. I find the treadway pleasant to hike all the way to Sampson City. The gravel on this section is approximately the consistency of crusher run being of small aggregate and well packed. North of Sampson City the treadway is more consistent with the typical railroad grade fill, being comparable to #4’s or #7’s, much larger rock. A tougher hike, but a few more years and the duff (humus) will settle it in. There’s a one-mile roadwalk on CR225 through Sampson City. Then as the paved road ends it’s back to the well-used and maintained old railroad grade. What good fortune I am having!
I don’t know what to expect at New River. It isn’t uncommon when railroad grades are closed and the rails and crossties removed, for the old trestle structures to also be removed. I had inquired of this at the convenience store in Hampton, but no one knew. To find out I must do a two-mile hike up the old railroad grade from the last place here where I can turn. As I approach the river and still from a distance I can see the crossties on the trestle and I also see someone standing there, I presumed a fisherman. I heave a sigh of relief, for had the trestle been torn down I would now have to backtrack the two miles or try swimming the river. A bad idea. I would then have to detour way north and still do a roadwalk along SR100 the remainder of the way into Lake Butler. As I get closer though I am faced with the reality and sheer horror of it! For I stand here now staring at the charred remains of this once fine structure. The south one-quarter of the trestle nearest me has been burned almost completely away. It’s a ghastly thing. The crossties are completely gone. Short segments of the main sill beams between the trestle piers are all that remain at the top level. There is no way to cross here, as there are large gaps in the burned out sill beams. Some of the individual pilings that made up each pier are also burned mostly away. At the underpinning level, about half way down each pier and some ten or more feet above the river, there are pier stabilizers. Two longitudinal beams interconnect each pier. As I look it appears that at least one of these beams remains intact between each pier, however, most are burned away on one end and are hanging in space.
As I assess this whole eerie sight I at lest feel thankful for a bright, clear day. I can imagine the mood and appearance should I be gazing upon this in the fog and rain. It isn’t difficult to visualize a ghost train careening into space, plunging to the raging river, to meet its final rest with all the wild screeching and grinding of it. I hail the old fellow on the trestle. He is about 150′ away and he greets me with a wave of his arm. I shout to him that I want to try and cross. I describe the appearance on my end and he shouts back that there appears to be at least one sagging beam as far as he can see. As I count the piers I realize neither of us can see the very center. Trusting the center to be the same, I call to him that I am going to try crossing. He shouts that he would wait for me and try to help.
Just getting down to the first trestle is an ordeal as I must climb and struggle through burned rubble and brush. The river is boiling and rolling below as I first move above it and I’m jolted by the first adrenaline pump bringing much hesitancy and doubt. I must remove my pack to move about on the pier stabilizers. Moving across the first tie beam is relatively easy, being yet intact and bolted at both ends. I pass by inching my pack ahead of me and holding it by the straps for stability. I try to concentrate on my feet and block out the dizzying effect of the rushing water below. Here at the second pier I must now move across the lateral stabilizer as the longitudinal beam leading to the next pier is on the other side. This second beam is scary. The burned off end is towards me and there is about a two foot gap. As I swing my pack onto it I see it sag. I try holding onto the pier piling and my pack as I straddle the abyss. As I put my weight onto the beam it creaks and sags much more. Should I commit myself to this or not? It is this moment that I steel myself to the task, whispering under my breath that I am going to cross this thing. I swing onto it, grasping my pack for stability as the beam sags another six inches…but it holds! I must now make my way uphill to the next pier. This whole ordeal is so strange. These beams that once sustained thrusts and forces of many tons as locomotives and loaded boxcars thundered above are now being asked to just hold me and my pack, a combined weight of little more than 180 pounds!
It is now that I realize that the first beam, which was bolted at both ends, and this last one, bolted on the far end were the easy ones to cross, the successful test of which has hopefully prepared me for what confronts me now. For, here I stand looking at the next beam that is bolted on my end and burned off on the far end. There is no way to test the ultimate stability of this beam, but only to inch out on it, totally committing my fate to it in the process. As I inch forward, shuffling my pack along and clinging to it with white knuckles, the beam creaks and sags below me. I stop…it stops sagging. I inch forward. It sags some more. Aww, what have I gotten myself into! I really checked out the bolt holding this beam to the pier before getting out here. But as I look back now I can see where it has pulled, ever-so-slightly away from the pier. I try backing up but I am unable to go uphill backwards and the thought of trying to turn around out here absolutely terrifies me. Besides, I am trembling and shaking so badly I’m sure I’ll go right into the torrent if I try. I realize the fact of the matter. I am in this now and there’s no turning back. Something is definitely going to happen and I pray that it’s good! I can’t stay here much longer waiting and wondering what it is going to be. This ordeal is sapping both my energy and my resolve. So onward I inch. The beam sags no more and I swing my pack and jump up in the same motion across the three-foot gap to the next pier. Thank you Lord. Please let there be at least one beam between each remaining pier…I can’t go back.
It turns out my prayer is answered, for there is indeed at least one beam still hanging between each pier. Many others are burned out on the far end, but the one I have just successfully crossed turns out to be the worst. It takes over half an hour to go this 150′ of nightmarish “treadway.” At any moment my pack and I could have been lost to the raging river below, but I have made it successfully. Once reaching the intact trestle I thrust my pack above me as high as I can reach, as the old fellow, hanging precariously over the edge from above reaches and grabs one of my shoulder straps. I then scale this remaining trestle and pull myself to safety!
Here I meet Quentin Bloodsworth, a wiry and strong old gentleman in his 80s. Quentin lives on the river near here. I ask him why he had come down to this old burned out trestle today. He couldn’t think of a good reason, just that it had been a long time since he had been here. As we walk along now, enjoying each other’s company, we both conclude that the Lord had our paths to cross!
From here, I have an easy and uneventful hike along the remaining distance of this old railroad grade into Lake Butler.
“Ten thousand precious gifts
My daily thanks employ;
Among them is a grateful heart
To take those gifts with joy.”
Sunday—February 1, 1998
Location—Near East Tower, Olustee Battlefield Memorial
Shortly after arriving in Lake Butler last evening I met John Hamill. John lives right across the street from the IGA. We seemed to hit it right off and he invited me to stay at his place for the night. John also fed me a grand supper of corned beef and cabbage; the whole thing topped off with ice cream for dessert! When I told John that he was a trail angel he just got a quizzical look on his face.
John drives 150 miles round-trip to the shipyards in Jacksonville every day, been doing it for years. He’s divorced; has a little boy and child support. He showed me a photo of the lad. The picture is five years old, tattered and faded from constant handling. He never gets to see his son…just has the old picture to look at. I don’t know what happened, didn’t ask him. Got a glimpse into it though. There’s an old Harley shirt hanging on his wall. I asked him if he had a bike. He said he used to but his wife made him sell it. That’s interesting. I’ve had a bunch of motorcycles in my time. Couldn’t tell you how many. My wife even bought one for me once. His bike is gone and so is his wife. I’m still married. Go figure! John’s in his 30s, still has some wildness in him, that glint’s in his eye. But there is patience beyond his years there, too. It’s apparent that he dearly misses his son. When I asked him why he continues to live in Lake Butler and drive to Jacksonville every day his reply was, ”My son lives here!” I sure hope I said the right thing. I told him to continue in his patience and his son will someday come to him.
Frank Orser, FT16 Olustee Section leader, will no doubt be disappointed with me. I blue-blazed a lot of his section. The ditches were full of water on CR231 coming out of Lake Butler. A call to the Suwannee River Management District’s 800 number at White Springs Gauging Station yesterday had the Suwannee at 78 feet, a foot above flood stage. Mr. Bloodsworth said the New River runs into the Santa Fe and the Santa Fe into the Suwannee. I figured all this water was waiting its turn, so I decided to roadwalk CR231 to where the trail crosses at Swift Creek. This turned out to be a very smart move. I arrive here to find the trail totally submerged on both sides of the road and there is evidence of 4WD activity on the south treadway where the trail comes out. Submerged treadway churned into a quagmire by 4WDs makes for treacherous hiking. I have already taken entirely too much risk with these conditions south of here. Each step is a crapshoot. Over 3000 miles of the 3500 still remain. There is much ahead and I don’t want to “bust it” here! As I proceed north on CR231the clearcut areas to the east look very bad. There has been much timbering activity and the whole place is flooded. There’s a timber landing complete with Barco knuckle boom just south of Holder Bay, but this operation is shut down. The trail looks better at FR21 so I head in. This is not a good idea. The woodsroad and planted pine section are both under as much as a foot in some areas. The trail above FR29D proves particularly difficult. Motorcycle and quad-trac ruts slow my pace to a deliberate grind. It’s raining on me off and on every day now. There’s just no place for all this water to go.
Considering the circumstances, the folks caretaking this section have done a remarkable job. They’ve mowed it, blazed it and maintained it as best they can. My hat’s off to you, Frank. Thanks! I really wish I could have hiked more of your section. The piney woods here are very lovely.
“…all the shining angels second and accompany
the man who goes afoot, while all the dark spirits
are ever looking out for a chance to ride.”
Monday—February 2, 1998
Location—Near West Tower, Osceola National Forest
I pitched last evening at the edge of a mature longleaf pine island near East Tower. The Olustee Battlefield Memorial is a very beautiful and well-kept park. They are gearing up now for the annual reenactment of the Civil War Battle that took place here. This is quite an affair and is celebrated with much fanfare. The museum is right by the trail and well worth the time. I’ve always enjoyed these sorts of places. While looking at the mannequins dressed in uniform, in scenes most-like the midst of battle I am able to break the grip of captor time for a few moments and return to those days long past.
The little bit of treadway I attempt to follow today is hopelessly submerged. And I am not helping things in the least by churning along that path. I blue-blaze again along CR250A all the way to CR250. Here I decide to try the FT again…bad decision! It took over three hours to hike four miles to a boardwalk area. And well as you might suspect; the reason for the boardwalk? Yes, this area is likely a problem even during the best of conditions, and these are certainly not the best of conditions! Another very scary ordeal now presents. There is fast-moving water even before I arrive at the boardwalk. The current is surging against my legs. The water is running relatively clear however, and I can see the boardwalk, even though it too is completely submerged. As I step up onto it I slip and almost go down. So it’s down on all fours I go to crawl along. The turbulence is banking water on one side of me and creating a wake on the other. Once across I remain in the water and mud the entire afternoon. Finally, totally and demoralizingly exhausted, I pull up on the only dry patch of ground I can find, a spoil bank in a piney woods some distance yet from West Tower. Yes, even the piney woods are totally submerged!
I no sooner pitch camp and have supper prepared than the sky opens again. The rain and wind become torrential and continue throughout the night. With the combination of noise and bone-weary fatigue I drift in and out of fretful sleep. Sometime during the night the high winds, which are attacking the mature pine in a rage, setting them to loud and mournful complaint, begin coming in ever-increasing waves, setting the grove to shuddering and vibrating. It is then that I begin hearing gunfire in the distance, like shotgun blasts. Bang! Bang!…Bang! As I lie awake now with the wind whipping my little tent as if to carry me away I think it strange that anyone should be out in this storm. It is pitch black, the rain not coming down but being driven across, from side-to-side, in a fashion which would require one to cling to a tree. Then it dawns on me. These blasts I hear are trees snapping and being blown down! As the report frequency intensifies the percussion from each blast also intensifies as the storm comes steadily closer. The hammering blasts become much louder. Bang! Bang!…BANG! I am struck full with terror. The winds are now passing with incredible force, the vibration and shudder working my eardrums much as the ear pop, while ascending and descending mountains. Most surely I am in the presence of a tornado. I now dearly wish for a bunker nearby where I can crawl and hide but I must remain behind this wisp of nylon filament. I am not interested in the “wind’s glad tidings” as was Muir!
I wince and cower as the raging storm makes its presence. The deafening sound of trees snapping and crashing is full upon me. Then it happens…KA-BAM! I am near lifted from the ground by the report and percussion from a snag being blown down with crashing force directly by my tent. I want to run, to escape, but I know that I am now at the mercy of the storm and that I must not move. Lord…Please, have mercy on me!
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the
shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art
with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Tuesday—February 3, 1998
Location—Suwannee River Motel, White Springs
The storm finally passes and at first light I roll out. The pine snag, near a foot in diameter lies parallel with my tent no more than three feet away. Had I pitched my tent there or had I pitched at a slightly different angle the tree would have fallen on me. I had placed my water bottle and cup outside. The bottle was near full, which prevented it from being blown away and my cup also stayed put, perhaps because it now contains an inch of water!
As I finish the day and enter the little town of White Springs, I have completed another section of the FT. The numbers are really clicking off now. The Osceola National Forest is considered FT17. Phil Niswander is not only the section leader here but is a USFS Ranger, Osceola National Forest. Phil, you have a beautifully maintained section! Much moreso than another national forest I have spoken about. You’ve kept the unauthorized use of the FT in the Osceola to practically zero! I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with a number of forest service personnel on my way through. I regret that I had to blue-blaze most of your section, but getting through would have been difficult if not impossible. Considering the conditions, I did try. I want you to know I did the best I could. I’ll be back!
At White Springs I check into the neat and clean little Mom ‘n Pop Suwannee River Motel. Nice folks…cut me a hiker deal! From here it’s over to Catfish’s for a great meal. I make a number of phone calls, one to my dear friends Ron and Judy King who now live near Live Oak. Ron invites me to stay tomorrow evening and we make arrangements to meet along the trail late in the afternoon. Ron and Judy are both great cooks. Gonna be Garveyin’ time!
“Nearness to Nature…keeps the spirit sensitive
to impressions not commonly felt, and in touch
with the unseen powers.”
[Oliyesa, The Soul of the Indian]
Wednesday—February 4, 1998
Location—Home of Ron and Judy King, Live Oak
Coming into White Springs yesterday evening, and crossing the US41 Suwannee River Bridge, I saw a few orange blazes on higher ground where the trail follows the river along and under the highway. Looking over the bridge railing then, I could see the blazes as they quickly disappeared beneath the Suwannee’s flood. It sure looks like El Nino has taken a liking to this part of Florida and may well have moved in for the duration! So it is that I am sullen, and with much sadness do I review my maps this morning to see just which route I want to follow on this alternate roadwalk along the Suwannee River. Ed Wolcott, FT18E Suwannee Section Leader had told me months ago that if the Suwannee River was above 60 feet at the White Springs’ Gauging Station that the FT, which follows the banks of the Suwannee, would be under. He also explained to me that should the river be near 60 feet, to make sure that it was dropping and not rising. This morning the Suwannee River is above 80 feet here at White Springs and the flood has not yet staged! According to my calculations that puts the FT underwater as deep as 20 feet in some places.
On my way out of town this morning I stop at the Stephen Foster State Folk Center. Here presents a grand setting with sweeping, rolling grounds right on the banks of this historic Suwannee River; the river made famous by Foster…with his timeless work and beautiful song, Suwannee! The Center is constructed in true southern plantation style. Those responsible for this fine memorial, and all associated with it these many years should be very proud. It certainly does Stephen Foster proud. I am sure he would approve, I do! I talk with the folks here, sign the guest book and put a pretty good dent in their coffee before bidding them farewell and moving on.
All of these numbers which follow are certainly irrelevant, but I pen them here to set my path. This roadwalk is partial cause for the funk I’m in today. I first pick up CR25A heading northwest out of town. Here I brace into the chilling wind and beginning drizzle coming straight at me. It is with much relief that I come abreast of the rear entrance to the Florida State Agriculture Inspection Station at I75. With not a moment’s hesitation, in I go to warm my trembling body. I am welcomed with the usual puzzled expressions, as I explain this odyssey. The reward for my little engagement is more hot coffee and some energy boosting candy. Shortly I arrive at CR132 and then US129. From here it’s west on CR158. The plan is to meet Ronnie at Mt. Pleasant Church around 4:00 p.m. I arrive in very good order at 3:30; not bad planning. Ronnie comes rolling up right at 4:00 p.m. I am greeted with a grand handshake coming at me on one hand…and a cold frosty from the other! What pure joy it is to see this long-time friend. It is no doubt, and I am sure, that part of the funk hovering over me today and which I’m finding I must fight off each day, is due to the loneliness that has beset me on this trek. And so it is that I am overjoyed to see this very dear friend!
We are soon at Ron’s beautiful new home, where Judy now greets me. And, as I fully expected, no effort has been spared in making me feel welcome and at home. I am shown to my own room, complete with private bath…and for supper, some of the most mouthwatering pasta I’ve enjoyed in ages, prepared by both Ronnie and Judy. And the dessert? Ahh, yes! The ice cream I had Ronnie stop to let me run and get on the way home. And finally, to crown this now absolutely perfect and memorable day, comes in about 8:00 p.m. my younger son Jon and his girlfriend, Terri. We all have such a grand time together again. What a most effective balm and salve to soothe this old man’s loneliness. Thanks Jon, Terri and my dear friends!
True friends are hard to find this day,
Not like in times back when.
So cherish I their love since they,
Shan’t pass this way…again.
[N. Nomad, 2-98]
Thursday—February 5, 1998
Location—Home of Ron and Judy King, Live Oak
A day off, time with family and friends, just what I needed. I can feel my energy level coming up and the stormcloud that was starting to follow me everywhere is dissipating. I’ve had the opportunity to call and talk with two very dear friends that I’ve come to know since planning the Florida Trail part of this odyssey. Both have hiked the entire Florida Trail so each has provided invaluable information. I would not have made it this distance without their assistance. I have corresponded with Vagabond for a number of months, but last evening was the first time that I’ve spoken with him by phone. We had a grand time. Joan Hobson, the sweet lady whom I’ve dubbed as Trail Angel has taken the time to sit down with me in her home and has spend hours, answering questions and helping me with maps and trail data. We had a good long chat. Both of these friends are genuinely excited and full of enthusiasm about my success so far and have wished me continued good fortune. Thank you, my Florida Trail friends! I also had time to get postcards off to many of the section leaders all up and down the Florida Trail who have helped me prepare maps and data for their sections of my journey.
Garveying is the order of the day. Judy fixed me a whopping breakfast complete with sausage, eggs, biscuits and gravy…and then another round, plus pots of steaming hot coffee. For supper this evening, to stave off starvation, it’s steaks with all the trimmings! There are ten acres here on Ron’s ranch and we spend a leisure good time walking his garden plot and then all around the fenceline to see the fine job he has done with his homestead. We enjoy another great evening together as we chat and catch up on old times.
“Cherish friendship in your breast—
New is good, but old is best;
Make new friends, but keep the old;
Those are silver, these are gold.”
Friday—February 6, 1998
Location—Planted Pine near Corinth Baptist Church
Judy fixes me a heaping plate of biscuits and gravy to get me going this morning, packs a lunch for me to take along…and then sends me on my way with a good solid hug. Ron drives me back to Mt. Pleasant Church where he’d picked me up Wednesday. This is a somber morning. It’s no fun saying goodbye to dear old friends. Ronnie and I have known each other now over twenty years. Our younger boys were also good friends. They grew up together. We went camping together. We ran everywhere together. We had many a cookout and between the two of us we’ve probably helped finance the expansion projects for a couple of breweries. We’ve both moved away now from that quiet little residential street where we were next door neighbors and we seldom see each other these days. That seems so long ago now, like another lifetime. It’s interesting how our individual paths in life can meet, run together for awhile, then part again. We do try to stay in touch. Ron stands in the road as I shoulder my pack and slowly move away. In fifty yards or so I turn and he is still standing there. Dang, this is tough…So long Ronnie, my dear friend, I gotta go.
It’s back to the roadwalk again today as I continue along the Suwannee River. The trail comes out from the river every once in awhile and we hike along together now and again. Near early afternoon I run across “Y’all Come” one of the neatest little mom ‘n pop stores near the entrance to Holton Wildlife Management Area. Milk and bread, ammo and bait, they’ve got a little bit of everything folks here along the Suwannee need. Oh, Hey! And they’ve got an ice cream chest! Look at this smile!
Ed Wolcott helped prepare my maps for the Suwannee River Section, but I got to use them very little. My appreciation to you just the same Ed. I’m disappointed I didn’t get to hike the Suwannee…I’ll be back! I pull off the road at dusk and pitch in the planted pine near Corinth Baptist Church.
“Trail Angels can’t know how much we appreciate
the kind word, the friendly wave, the warm fire, a
cold refreshment…a ride to the supermarket.”
[Susan Roquemore/Joan Hobson]
Saturday—February 7, 1998
Location—Planted Pine near Pine Lake
Today is a roadwalk again as the FT continues along the Suwannee River. As yesterday, the trail comes up from the river occasionally to join the road and here for awhile we go along together. By afternoon I arrive where the FT and Suwannee part ways. I regret missing your section Carol Ann (Schiller, FT19 Section Leader), but the trail was under. The Suwannee just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe some other day! As the roadwalk leaves the river I am moving to a little higher ground. No camping is permitted in the Gilman half of FT20, but I cannot—hard to believe—find any water to prepare my evening meal, so into Gilman I go. Just west of Pine Lake, water is available from a culvert. I pull into the planted pine well away from the woodsroad and pitch my camp for the evening. Here, without bloodhounds, you could not find me and when I depart in the morning you will find no sign where I have been.
“I’ve learned—of all the friends I’ve won
Dame Nature is the best,
And to her like a child I run
Craving her mother breast.
To comfort me in soul distress,
And in green glade to find
Far from the world’s unloveliness
…Pure peace of mind.”
[Robert W. Service, The Learner]
Sunday—February 8, 1998
Location—First Crossing, Econfina River
I fully expected Gilman-Foley to be one of those thru-trail tie-together sections (as are many) linking one FT jewel and the next. Was I ever mistaken! This is one of the most pleasant and remote backwoods roadwalks on the trail! The blazes are bright and dependable and I only dunk my feet once on Madison 5 just before Tower Road. I see not another soul here the whole time. Now I want to know how such a large tract of land like this can be so well managed, with excellent resource use, and be in private hands! You’re supposed to need the government with all its professionally trained experts, and all kinds of equipment to take proper care and get good use from a vast tract of land like this!
By God, it’s nice to see the land respected and cared for. Here is fine silviculture on a grand scale, the crop being planted pine. It is evident that the caretakers and users of this land are all conscientious folks. The small homemade road and hunt-camp signs aren’t torn up and shot to hell. There is no junk or trash, no vandalism anywhere. The two-tracks and trails are not all ripped up by ORVs. How can this be with hunters around! Go look at some of our state and federally managed lands to see the point I’m making. Start with what is professed to be the FT crown jewel, the Ocala.
I may be the only one to hike this entire section this year, but to the owners of this land who manage it so well and to Charlie Donahoe, FT20 Section Leader who maintains the trail so well, please accept my gratitude and my thanks. This is a pleasant and enjoyable section to hike. Keep the pride in it! I camp at the road-fork near Econfina River culverts, just like Trail Angel suggested.
“Behold how gracious and beneficent shines the roseate morn!
now the sun arises and fills the plains with light; his glories appear
on the forest, encompassing the meadows, and gild the top of
the terebinthine Pine.”
[William Bartram, The Travels of]
Monday—February 9, 1998
Location—Second Crossing, Econfina River
Well, today I’ll hike from the Econfina River to the Econfina River! Am I getting anywhere? A little after noon I am at US221, the end of FT20. On crossing the highway and entering FT21 I quickly realize my good fortune in having a compass, watch, good homemade maps, and the ability to use them. For here the blazes dim right out. What few there are, and there are very few, consist of little more than faded patches. I have no idea how long the trail has passed this way, but judging from the condition of the blaze remnants it’s been a long, long time. In addition to having my watch, maps and compass, I have learned to judge reasonably well my rate of progress. The combination of these factors enables me to fix my position, by calculation, fairly accurately as I hike along. FT21 is a veritable jigsaw puzzle of woodsroads leading in every conceivable direction. Without my compass and some basic idea of my location it would be impossible to stay on trail. A wrong turn most anywhere out here would lead me a “fur piece” from where I want to be!
To give you a little flavor for this, follow along for awhile as I negotiate this maze as described in my data sheet. Here we go. “Road forks, watch blazes (there are no blazes).” At 0.2m “Crossroads, trail turns (no blazes).” In 0.1m “Intersection, trail turns (no blazes).” After 1.4m “Road forks, watch blazes (no blazes).” In 0.6m “Trail turns at crossroads (no blazes).” In 0.3m my trail guide—and my watch and compass—tells me I should be crossing a wooden bridge. Eureka! There is a wooden bridge! In another 0.1m the data sheet reads “Crossroads, trail turns (and yet again, no blazes).” At this point, the guide suggests “Use by-pass route shown on map during high water periods.” Oh yes, I definitely want to take this turn, as the woodsroads I’ve been hiking to arrive here where it’s suggested I use the by-pass route have all been run through a blender! But in less than 0.1m I have a choice of going five, FIVE different directions! So looking at my compass once more, and based on where I think I should be in time, I choose one. Twenty minutes and one mile later I finally see it…a faint blue blaze painted on a tree! So now after the last hour hiking nearly three miles and after making seven route changes (make that seven coin tosses), I finally find confirmation that I am on trail, on the by-pass route, and headed where I want to go! Stir in a dark, ominous day of cold wind and rain along with an indescribable treadway of mix and mud and you begin to feel the gravity of the portentous decisions I’ve had to make!
I have been hiking alone today, but on this by-pass and from the woods now comes to join me along the road shoulder the largest set of bear tracks that I have ever seen in the wild. And as I look with amazement upon these hand-sized pits all along, and as the rain flushes them, I realize they are very, very fresh! I peer ahead into the rain and haze fully expecting to see the dark hulking bruin that has just made them. But there is only the wind-driven rain and the roadway of soup disappearing into the murk. I soon arrive at the elevated (out of the mud) Econfina River Bridge. I had planned on pitching here for the evening, but it is here that the bear tracks leave the road, disappearing again into the bog. Putting the river between me and this fellow, a thought which now pops into my head as being a brilliant idea, I decide to cross the bridge and hike until dark in search for high ground where I might pull up out of it for the night. So on I slog into the darkening shadow. In a short distance I find an old overgrown spoil bank. The rain is giving me a break and I decide this is it for today. After breaking off a number of dead lower pine branches and after a fair amount of whittling I have a pile of dry tinder and kindling to set a fire. I soon have a fine cooking and warming fire going to drive the cold, damp gloom from the evening. As I enjoy the fire and my warm supper, I plumb my deep, inner feelings about being on the trail. And I decide to stick with my opinion that there are no bad days on the trail, but in the process I also conclude that it won’t take much to top this one!
“What have I learned by the toil of the trail?
I know, and I know well.
I have found once again the lore I had lost
In the loud city’s hell.”
[Hamlin Garland, The Toil of the Trail]
Tuesday—February 10, 1998
Location—St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge near US98
I had glanced at my maps in the glow of the fire last evening, but I was too tired to concentrate. This morning however, I must study them in detail as the maze of woodsroads continues, and the trail follows along. Upon further perusal I realize that it is decision-making time. The Suwannee is out of its banks and raging. On my way through White Springs the river had not yet crested, and since, there’s been much additional rain. The same conditions exist for the Alapaha, Withlacoochee and the Econfina Rivers. Also recently, numerous bad storms have been reported west of here all the way into Alabama. The treadway conditions are bad to non-passable and getting worse, if that’s possible. So, what should I expect of the Aucilla River, along which the trail passes just ahead of me? The treadway has got to be under along the rises and sinks, making this section doubly treacherous as the trail rises and drops along the riverbank. I was looking forward to this section with much anticipation. I have never seen a river disappear to again surface and again as quickly go below the earth again. The rises and sinks of the Aucilla are reputed to be breathtaking. I had planned a day of less than ten miles from where the FT comes to the river at Riverbend Campsite, and then from there to proceed most leisurely along the river to South Junction. I conclude however, that to try and traverse Section FT21W would be foolhardy. So, again with much dismay I realize, as has happened with the Suwannee on this journey; the Aucilla is not to be.
So the decision is made to head due west on an old improved tramway road instead of north from Fulford Bridge where I had crossed the Econfina River last evening. Backtracking I am soon at the bridge and heading west. I follow woodsroads until afternoon, first past Cabbage Grove Tower, then southeast to pick up the trail as it comes out of the rises and sinks near a limestone quarry. Along today I have had the opportunity to practice my navigation and location-plotting skills. So much for FT21W. Sorry Vic and Carlene Danart, Section Leaders for FT21W. I have been told you have a beautiful section! As I cross the Aucilla River Bridge on US98 my suspicions are confirmed. The Aucilla River is out of its banks and the secondary and tertiary channels are raging. An old-timer at the Spur/Aucilla River Store tells me I would never have made it through. I camp where a virtual river is flowing past an old three-point farm disc on the power line cut heading into St. Marks. Rain has threatened all day, the wind brisk and cold, and as I search for firewood the rain begins again. I abandon the idea of an evening fire and a warm meal and quickly roll in. It’s cheese sandwiches and Snickers for desert tonight. The rain continues hard until dawn.
“And I go on my way rejoicing—
What’s the use to complain or sigh?
Go the route, old scout, and be merry,
For tomorrow you may die.”
Wednesday—February 11, 1998
Location—Allen’s Shell Island Fish Camp, St. Marks
I no sooner break camp, garbage-bag my pack and get my rain jacket on then the sky opens again. The going for the first mile is slow and dangerous along an old spoil ditch. I am in water, mud, roots and rocks clear above my knees most the whole way as I become totally soaked again as usual. Once into the refuge the treadway improves dramatically as it pulls out of it to follow the high, reasonably dry old Aucilla Trambed. Towards late morning the sky clears, the day turns mild and I have a most enjoyable dike-hike into and around the gulf-shore salt marches. The vistas are breathtaking, a sweeping 180 degree panorama to the horizon from east to west across a sea of cordgrass. The marsh is alive with activity from the waters to the sky. Waterfowl abound. Here are gulls, terns, egrets, rails and the little seaside sparrow. In and surrounding the salt and freshwater marshes are alligators, diamondback terrapin, snakes, mink, otter, raccoon, deer and turkey. Today I see a fair representation of all these creatures, especially the alligator and the gull.
Reluctantly I pass the trail junction leading to Stony Bayou and Deep Creek, as it leads immediately into the murk, choosing instead to continue on the higher and drier blue-blaze Swamp Hammock Dike and along the old trambed. An interesting spot today, and appropriately named, is a campsite location known as Ring Dike. Here I find an attached extension to the meandering dike in the form of a huge perfectly-circular ring, perhaps as large as five acres or more. In Tim O’Keefe’s fine Falcon Press Guidebook entitled Hiking Florida, Tim describes the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge as “…probably the best place in Northwest Florida for general bird watching. Founded in 1931 and one of the nation’s oldest refuges, St. Marks encompasses 65,000 acres of land and another 31,500 acres of adjacent Apalachee Bay. It also includes a designated Wilderness Area of 18,000 acres.” This is indeed a vast and unspoiled bioregion with the FT passing right through for a distance of 43 miles. Here is a well-kept secret. For here truly, is the “Crown Jewel” of the Florida National Scenic Trail!
Later in the afternoon and into evening I arrive at the ruins of Port Leon, a little port community on Apalachee Bay devastated and abandoned after the hurricane of 1843. From here the trail turns sharply north on an old rail grade leading to the St. Marks River just across from the little town of St. Marks. I had considered swimming the river, however, once here and seeing its width and swift rushing current better judgment prevails. I manage to hail Willie, a worker at Posie’s Restaurant straight across and soon Allen Hobbs from Allen’s Shell Island Fish Camp comes to shuttle me over to Posie’s.
Walter Beckam’s Posie’s Oyster House is a quaint old seafood establishment. Without a doubt the fare in which one should partake while here is the shrimp basket. It is a grand thing! After stuffing myself with shrimp and emptying their coffeepot I head to Allen’s for the evening. Allen greets me again and I meet his wife Ruthie. The accommodations are very fine, clean and neat. My tummy is full. I am warm and content. What began most iffy weatherwise has turned out to be a fine and most enjoyable hiking day!
“In the past year Florida has experienced flooding,
drought, wildfires, tornadoes and hurricanes and that
doesn’t begin to tell you about our normal weather
which is wet, hot, cold, humid, windy and perfectly
[Susan Roquemore/Joan Hobson]
Thursday—February 12, 1998
Location—Wakulla Field Campsite, St. Marks National Wildlife Reserve
The room in the little strip of rooms where I spent the evening last was luxurious in comparison to my usual accommodations, complete with electric lights, offering precious time to work well into the night updating my journal entries.
So this morning I am out very late. It is near a mile from the fish camp back to the trail and I get a ride right away from a kind old fellow as I hop to his pickup tailgate. The trail north from St. Marks follows the old Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad grade. This old grade has been converted to one of the nations first Rails-to-Trails and the treadway is shared for a short distance with the FT. It is a full lane, fully paved affair. Here is some interesting history dating from near the time Tallahassee was chosen as the Territorial Capitol in 1824, for only eleven years later and fully ten years before Florida statehood, Tallahassee Railroad Company was up and going. The old railroad which was constructed originally of wooden rails, with railcars pulled by mules, continued across the St. Marks River to Port Leon. Over these tracks passed naval stores, products and stores for and from the logging and cotton industries across the south and later, Confederate troops and supplies. Many of the old telegraph poles, complete with pegs and insulators have survived on the isolated Port Leon section.
I manage only a little over nine miles today, tarrying at the canoe rental near the bridge over beautiful Wakulla Run. Back in the St. Marks National Wildlife Reserve, and towards evening I pull up at Wakulla Field Campsite. This campsite is in a lovely meadow, which as usual I have to myself. Water is nearby (Water is always nearby!).
“The hiker has a unique opportunity to experience the
perspective-altering impact inherent in the combination
of solitude, time, immersion in the natural order and the
beauty of the planet…This is about the beauty of
[Jan D. Curran, The Appalachian Trail—A Journey of Discovery]
Friday—February 13, 1998
Location—Marsh Point at Oyster Bay, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
The rain begins again before sunrise and continues heavy and steady throughout the morning and into the afternoon. I attempt to get out and break camp numerous times but all attempts are foolish and futile. The rain keeps hammering hard, steady and cold. Up until now I thought I had taken good protective measure in waterproofing my tent, not only the seams but also the tent fabric. For I had sprayed the entire tent and fly with Textron waterproofing and had sealed the seams with numerous dauber applications of seam sealer. But, alas, and perhaps more to my neglect and poor care in handling the tent these many days am I lying here now in a puddle of water. I am thankful for my little ¾ – ¾ Thermarest which keeps me mostly up and out of it. I am also thankful that Mark at Travel Country Outdoors had the foresight and good sense to put me into a synthetic sleeping bag, for I would be hopelessly and miserably cold now lying here in a waterlogged down bag. I continually mop with my towel, unzip my tent a bit and wring out as much of the water as I can.
I’m finally able to break camp a little after 2:00 p.m. and get on my way. The wind picks up and the day becomes very cold, but the storm passes through. The sky clears to the west, and towards evening the wind dies down. I pitch at beautiful Marsh Point on the east shore of Oyster Bay, Gulf of Mexico and experience a most memorable sunset. As the tide goes out, exposing the black floor of the saltwater marsh, I go down for water to prepare my evening meal. Taking a sip I quickly understand the meaning of the famous quote:
“Water, water everywhere,
Not any drop to drink.”
[Coleridge, The Ancient Mariner]
Saturday—February 14, 1998
Location—Banks of the Sopchoppy River, Monkey Creek Bridge, Apalachicola National Forest
Today, I dearly want to hit a restaurant for some grub and find a store for provisions. So I choose to take Carter Road west to the little town of Medart at US98 instead of following the trail which passes southwest of the village. This turns out to be a very bad decision because I soon meet some very bad, BAD dogs! If barking and snarling dogs have a tendency to rattle you as they tear straight at you from their yards, perhaps the FT and the ECT, each of which entail a fair amount of roadwalking, may not be your bag. I’ve found however, that almost without exception, canines have a pretty predictable game plan. Even the most ferocious looking and meanest acting of the lot usually come to a screeching halt as you turn to challenge them, just when you think you’re a goner, right at the edge of the road. From here they’ll proceed to dog you, growling and snarling, to finally come onto the road after you from behind. Here, as you continue walking backwards, defending yourself, you’re at least moving away from their territorial domain and in the right direction. They then quickly retreat, full of strut and pomp after their incredible display of heroism in successfully warding off yet another deadly threat to their absolute monarchy.
But today two mongrels are out in the road ahead of me and are charging, hell-bent straight down the road at me! I know this is no welcoming committee and that some sort of action is in order, fast! For, it appears now that instead of finding lunch soon, that I am going to be lunch, soon. I turn instinctively, making a mad dash for the ditch and the roadbank. Luckily, there is plenty of junk within easy reach and I grab a four foot piece of plastic pipe. I no sooner turn than they’re right in front of me, two of the meanest Rottweilers I’ve ever seen, charging at me, bearing their teeth from huge heads and jaws. Wielding the pipe stops their advance. I’m able to gain the center of the road again but here the dogs separate, one remaining to block my advance, the other circling my flank. This is not good. No matter which one I face I have a vicious attack coming at me from behind. I must constantly pivot to defend myself. This isn’t working, that last lunge at my legs came too close. I begin spinning around, swinging the pipe wildly. On the second revolution I catch the lead dog square in the jowls with the pipe. This lucky blow seems to gain me a little respect as this older dog, though still snarling like a mongrel from hell, keeps his distance. I continue moving forward, spinning and swinging the pipe as I go. I can see the ground coming at me time and again as I fight to remain upright, turning and swinging to keep these meat grinders away from me. I become uncontrollably dizzy and disoriented but somehow manage to stay up and keep moving. The older dog finally retreats to join his mad accomplice behind and I move away, backing up the road, crouching, holding and motioning with the pipe in both hands, like Sir Lancelot with his sword! Good Lord, what an ordeal!
I soon arrive at US98 and my payoff, Register’s BBQ right at the corner of Carter Road and US98! Here I treat myself to half a BBQ chicken, huge helpings of potato salad and baked beans, two large pieces of Texas Toast and all the sweet iced tea I can possibly drink…but not before saying a very long, heartfelt and most grateful prayer! US98 goes right through Medart. Here I’m able to get some fresh oranges and some boiled peanuts at a fruit stand and on down the road, all the provisions I could possibly need for the next few days at a Petro Station where US98/US319 split. Oh yes, plus good local ice cream for dessert!
Dear old friend US98, we have known each other over a great distance, but we must now part company. Seems we met way down in south Florida near Ft. Bassinger. Our paths first came together there and we have been companions off and on for many a mile. You have been very kind to me with wide, smooth shoulders and friendly traffic. You’ll head west now and I must turn north. So long old buddy!
As I head for the trail crossing at US319 a Deputy Sheriff pulls off the road and stops to question me. It was reported that I’d been seen in town. He wanted some ID. Then he asks, “What were you doing in Medart?” I tell him, “Not much, mainly just spending money, like at the BBQ, the fruit stand and the convenience store…about thirty bucks in all.” This seems to break the ice and it’s then I must answer all the usual questions that everyone else asks. I tell him about the fine welcome I received to his fair city by the dog committee at Carter Road. He tells me they’ve already been picked up once. I explain that’s good to know but that it sure didn’t help me much! As he turns to get back in his patrol car I ask him if he’d mind doing me a favor on his way back through town. I ask him if he’d stop by his friend’s place, the one that reported seeing me in Medart, and find out how much money they’d spent in Medart today!
Back on the trail now I am leaving FT22. The St. Marks, by far is the most beautiful of all the sections hiked! I pitch at dusk on the banks of the Sopchoppy River just north of Monkey Creek Bridge. What a delightful spot, and what a very pleasant evening. There are lighter (pitch) pine stumps all around and I’m able to pull up the heart from a few and get a delightful fire going. And its warm, glowing presence is so welcome, much as the warmth brought by the presence of a dear old friend. As I relax for the evening I’m thinking about the miraculous and safe path…the hand that led me past harm today and about the sad sarcasm I dealt the deputy this afternoon. He was just doing his job, but I now lament that I let it anger me so. I have been trying hard not to permit situations out of my control to affect me like that anymore. And I realize that I obviously need more patience as I search for such wisdom.
“Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under that rule which men call chance
My head with joy is humbly bowed.”
Sunday—February 15, 1998
Location—Woodsroad between FR314 and SR375, Apalachicola National Forest
I enjoy a quiet and peaceful night’s sleep with no rain for a change and am up and out this morning to a clear but cold day. Here the trail follows the Sopchoppy River along steep, undulating banks, indeed a most enjoyable and welcome change from the mud and the flood. If here is even the least indication of what I’ve missed along the Suwannee and Aucilla Rivers, I feel much regret. Just before reaching the first cut-off to FR329 I meet another hiker, Sherri Mother EarthBraddy from Lutz, Florida. In the course of conversation I find that Sherri is not only very active in the FTA, but that she is also good friends with Richard Graham, Section Leader, FT23, the section through which I am now passing. Richard has been most helpful in providing current data not only for this section but for surrounding sections as well. I ask Sherri if she would mind giving Richard a call this evening to let him know that I have made it this far on my FT hike and that I have hopes of traversing most of the remainder of his section here in the Apalachicola National Forest by evening.
I reach the second cut-off to FR329 by noon. Here I take a break and decide to protect my feet from the long stretch of cold, deep water, which I must traverse just ahead of me in Bradwell Bay. Having just forded Monkey Creek, the water there being very cold, I feel I must prepare for the same conditions in the Bay. In the hopes of providing some insulation for my ankles and feet I pull a couple bread wrappers from my pack, punch holes in the bottom, slip them on over my wool socks and loosely tie them off just above my ankles. With this arrangement I hope to create an envelope much the same as with a wet suit, where the water exchange is reduced, in this case within my wool socks. I don’t relish the idea of my feet going numb half way through the Bay. I have read and have been told much about this long, isolated and submerged section of trail. But as I enter the Bay I find it not at all noteworthy as to the degree of difficulty, nor for that matter, even necessarily to my dislike for I have cut my teeth on hundreds of miles of very similar, totally submerged treadway to the south.
I do encounter one problem area, a 200 yard section about half way through that has the bottom literally blown out, creating a high viscosity muck situation. There are many roots and cypress knees making the going particularly slow and treacherous. The wrappers are working fine however, and my feet are doing very well in the cold, numbing water. A lot of folks will go through the Bay this year, but probably in groups of two or more, not alone like us nutso long distance hikers. Three of Sherri’s friends have gone through ahead of me today. Being alone under these high-risk conditions complicates things for the lone hiker. An injury, which under most other circumstances would be managed with relative ease, could prove catastrophic here in the Bay. I finally decide to pull up out of the hiker-created muck slot, move to one side and do much better.
It’s clouding up again as I leave the bay and before I can get to high ground the sky opens and the torrent begins anew. I finally make it to a crowned, grassy woodsroad between FR314 and SR375, but before I can get my tent set up in the deluge my pack and everything in it is totally soaked. It’s going to be PBJs for supper and a long cold night tonight in my waterlogged sleeping bag.
“May your trails be dim, lonesome, stony,
narrow, winding and only slightly uphill.”
Monday—February 16, 1998
Location—The Beehives, FR107, Apalachicola National Forest
I rise and am greeted by a clear but very cold day. Climbing into wet hiking garb from shoes on up is not a pleasant way to start the morning. Even though it has become routine, most-near day in and day out, it is not a task one gets used to if you know what I mean! For me, it is now shaping as a very unpleasant ordeal. I am reaching my limit, growing very weary. I traversed Bradwell Bay yesterday in my running shoes. Thus, somehow I have managed to keep my boots and two pair of wool socks reasonable dry. But I know better than to put them on. And this is the right decision. The section before Porter Lake Bridge I find to be a sad but typical 4WD, mud-choked, churned up woodsroad.
In the past 46 days I have hiked near 800 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail, much of it through submerged, near impassable treadway like this before me now. I stand here and look at it with a feeling of resignation and sadness, for I am just burned out on this kind of trail. The Good Lord has seen fit to keep me injury-free and out of harm’s way. And that is a true blessing. Hiking these conditions is very unpleasant and the task is most dangerous, especially for the lone, long distance hiker who must try to maintain concentration hour after hour, day after day. We all have our limit, and I’m at mine with the mud and water.
To get a feel for this, take a day and go to the beach, wade in up your knees, then turn and start churning through it. See how far you’re happy walking like this. Throw in roots, brush, blowdowns and bottomless bogs of mud…times days and weeks and you’re ready for some other trail. So, at Porter Lake Campground, where the stormclouds are coming in and the rain is beginning again I take my mud-bogging shoes off, go to the faucet and wash the mud and muck out of them for the last time. Here I put on what’s left of my least soggy gear, garbage-bag my pack, don my rain jacket and brace into it. As I head out yet again with my companion El Nino, and into her seemingly endless torrent I struggle with my conscience and inner feelings, for I have deep regret. Dear friends at FTA, I am on the road now and will remain on the road until I’m out of this nightmare. Please forgive me for passing by this trail, for I know you have built it with love and dedication. I could probably make it through if I really tried, but with conditions as they are I just cannot endure any more.
Ahh! But what a great and unexpected surprise, for just as I become consumed by the hopelessly engulfing grip of total gloom and doom, do I come upon this wonderful little northern-like section of trail between SR375 and FH13. The trail leaves the highway to climb a little sand ridge. I cannot resist, so in I go! Here the trail follows along the banks of the Ochlockonee River. The river is in a frightful flood, but the trail scampers along and above the rage, through ravines, along small bluffs; delightful ups and downs. I pass clear running springs, northern hardwoods and my feet remain dry! This is like in the Appalachians! But alas, the sight of scrub palmetto quickly shakes me from this dream-like state and I am back to the present, in the Panhandle, on the Florida National Scenic Trail. I sigh, for it will be weeks and weeks before I’m on this kind of trail for real.
I depart FT23 late in the morning. To Richard Graham, and all who help maintain FT23, my gratitude to you! I continue the remainder of the day along graded and crowned forest service roads. But even these built-up roadways are mostly a sog and underwater in many places. I trudge on. The storm settles into a steady, hypnotically monotonous drench to finally taper to a drizzle by early evening. The drear follows me as I work in the dim, monochromatic light of a dismal cast to pitch for the evening in a clearing near the beehives at FR107. I am able to whittle some tinder, scrape the mushy bark from some kindling, and get a small, smoky cooking fire going. I no sooner have my meal of rice and gravy prepared than my companion who is ever near, returns. El Nino comes again, to stay for the night bringing cold wind and rain interspersed with crescendos of flashing, thundering light, making sleep most fretful.
“Ye whose hearts are fresh and simple,
Who have faith in God and Nature.”
Tuesday—February 17, 1998
Location—Camel Lake Campground, Apalachicola National Forest
Yet another wave of El Nino passes through at dawn and I rise to a clear and cool morning. During the night there has been at least another inch of rain. The elevated, graded, and crowned forest service roads like FR107 are total soup and mush. Ditches are full and overflowing the roadway in many places. Apalachee West, FT24 is blue-blaze time, the right decision for sure. The FT follows near and weaves back and forth across the forest roads as I hike on west. Extensive, almost complete forest burn-over is present all the way to New River. Where I pass the FT treadway intersecting the road, the trail is completely under at near every crossing.
A word here about forest burn-over. Whether acts of nature, arson, or controlled burn make little difference to someone trying to get through. The extensive burn-over areas that I am passing today are all controlled burns, for I see rangers out with their little flame-throwers as I hike along. I break off and try a couple of these short loops that are out of the soup and what I find is treadway that is hard to follow and at times totally obscure. All that remains is a narrow brown meandering ribbon set against the black carbon and char, the remaining treadway, the result of hikers who have pounded down the duff. Being compacted, the treadway is apparently more resistant to the incendiary attack than the surrounding loose humus. So where there appears a narrow brown line I find this most likely the trail. And why most likely? What about the blazes? Well, charred paint is black just like all the rest of the char and where the burn-over has been most intense, the blazes have literally gone…You guessed it, to blazes! So if you’re thinking about hiking Apalachee West in the near future, I’d wait awhile…a long while.
If this dissertation on hiking through burn-over hasn’t convinced you to let it go for another day, try this. Call up all your hiking buddies and tell them about a recent burn-over in your area. Then urge them to go along the very next weekend to hike through this blackened desolation before the rain has a chance to wash off the soot and char. This affords the grand opportunity to not only get totally covered with soot from head to toe, but to see everything nice and black to boot! See how many takers you get on that one! Needless to say, I got back on the service road and blue-blazed it on into Camel Lake Campground. El Nino hasn’t caught up with me yet and the day remains clear, though windy and cold.
“Many potential hikers view the ultimate wilderness
experience as sitting around a campfire cowboy-style
eating stew and drinking black coffee from tin cups.”
[Jan D. Curran, The Appalachian Trail—A journey of Discovery]
Location—Planted Pine by SR12 North of Bristol
Camel Lake Campground is a fine facility. The caretaker graciously provided me a large grassy area complete with water faucet, fire ring and picnic table. I managed to get in early enough, and with the aid of the wind, late afternoon sun and a good fire, I was finally able to dry out some of my gear. Sleeping in a dry bag was a new experience!
I blue-blaze the remainder of the distance to SR12 by hiking FR105, which is the main road leading to the campground. This supposedly all-weather road is even 4WD territory, a churned-up track of axle-deep sand and mud. Once on SR12 and heading north towards Bristol, in a short distance I see the familiar orange FT blazes where the trail emerges from the johnboat passable treadway. I pause here for a moment to fix in my mind the last of the blazes that I will see on what is considered the thru-trail. For although Torreya State Park has an orange blazed loop trail that is part of the Florida Trail System, the Park is not considered part of the continuous trail.
I reach Bristol a little after lunch, just in time to enjoy the fine buffet at Apalachicola Restaurant. Then I head for the Apalachicola National Forest Ranger District Headquarters to see Ronnie Traylor. Ronnie is not only with the USFS but is also FT24 Section Leader. I am disappointed that he is away, but I leave him a note thanking him for the great partnership and cooperation shared by the FTA and the USFS. From here it’s a beeline to the Laundromat to shake some of the crud from my fine hiking wardrobe, then a few provisions from the market and I head north to Torreya State Park. I find a fine pine needle carpeted spot in the planted pine north of town. The shrieking call of the coyote drifts in as the cool of the evening descends but I am quickly asleep and the sound which continues at intervals is far, far away.
“Endurance is the crowning quality, and
patience all the passion of great hearts.”
[James Russell Lowell]
Thursday—February 19, 1998
Location—Torreya State Park
Today is a roadwalk along paved secondary roads as I head north to Torreya State Park. The day remains clear with a mild breeze to my back. The sun soon warms things nicely. What a beautiful day to be alive! The road I am hiking is little traveled, rolling along, undulating through the remote north Florida countryside. To the west is a vast area of land, extending to the reaches of the Apalachicola River and here as I pass, it ranges along with me for miles. This land is now known as The Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, over 6000 acres of pine and sandhill uplands, river bluffs, spring-fed creeks, and steeps and ravines that belong to…me. Yes, to me! For, I am a member of The Nature Conservancy, and this land belongs to the Conservancy. Here we have undertaken the massive project of restoring the Preserve’s native longleaf pine/wiregrass habitat. It is a beautiful thing. This is just one small project among countless Conservancy projects. What a great organization, what glorious and far-reaching goals. I’m proud to be a Conservancy member and to be part of this advocacy, this grand vision.
As I enter Torreya State Park today, I am again walking into Florida history. For it was here in 1828, when Florida became U.S. Territory that the first government road crossed the Apalachicola, providing passage for settlers and commerce to this strange and wonderful new land; to the far reaches of the Panhandle. The seven-mile loop trail, which follows the river bluffs and ravines, is not only part of the Florida Trail System but is also designated as a National Recreation Trail. It is a delightful hike; on what has turned out to be an unusually clear, warm and glorious day!
This isn’t the end of the FT, but it is the end for me. The FT heads west for a very long roadwalk and I head north for Alabama. I look forward with much anticipation to the adventures ahead, but I know I’ll often think back and miss the reassuring guidance of the bright orange Florida Trail blazes! My itinerary was set to do this 825 miles and 25 sections in 52 days. I had allowed generous time for the Suwannee River and Aucilla River sections, but I ended up blue-blazing both to literally blaze past them. It is difficult to believe that after having El Nino as my near-constant companion…that I have actually arrived here two days ahead of schedule.
Another “How does he do it?” screw-up this evening. The public telephone is about a quarter mile from the campground. While calling home from here the sky opens again. I seek cover from the deluge under the ROPS canopy on one of the park tractors. I am thinking how fortunate I am to have my tent pitched and my camp all set, but as the rain continues to hammer the metal shield above me I retrace my mental steps of a few moments ago. Yes, my tent is pitched and my camp all set…except I’ve left my tent wide open! Aww no, and Yup! When I’m finally able, I return to find my sleeping bag totally soaked. Ditto for my pack and everything in it! The park has a first-class recreation hall with probably a dozen or more tables, complete with a wood-burning stove. I’m the only one in the park tonight so I moved in, stoke up the wood stove and spread and hang everything all over the place. I’m up until 2:30 a.m. drying and shuffling my meager belongings. I finally fall asleep on the couch. The great folks who manage Torreya self-profess to be laid back. A lucky thing for me! When I’m discovered here in the morning, my junk hanging helter-skelter and scattered everywhere, they aren’t the least bit upset! But all things always for the better, for this gives me the opportunity to meet and talk with Paul Rice, Ranger and Manager of Torreya. Thanks for your kindness and hospitality Paul; this is a remarkable place you have!
And now a final word about the Florida National Scenic Trail. And that is…my thanks to you, FTA! You’re a great organization. I’m proud to be a member. And to you, volunteers all, who have given and continue to give unselfishly and generously of your time and talent, who have breathed life into Jim Kern’s dream; my deep, heartfelt thanks and gratitude! These last 50 days spent hiking this remarkable FT is destined to become a milestone, a grand memory in this old man’s life. It has made me a stronger, a much better and a more tolerant person. I know that for a fact. These changes are prayers answered. And all of this has been made possible because of your untiring effort and dedication. God Bless You All!
There’s a Trail, this grand ol’ Florida,
Here my journ’ to seek true worth.
‘Cross shifting sand, failed mortal plan,
‘To’rd peace, sheer joy…rebirth!
[N. Nomad, 2-98]