|Sunday—November 29, 1998
Location—Game Check Station, Miccosukee Indian Reservation, Loop Road and Tamiami Trail
As you can see, I have taken a break for much-needed time to be with family and friends after returning from Canada. Ahh, and in that journey there’s another whole adventure, one that I’ll tell you a little about as we hike along, completing these last 175 miles of roadwalk down into and through the beautiful Florida Keys. For it had dawned on me while early-on in Canada—that upon reaching the Cliffs of Forillon at Cap Gaspe, Quebec—that at that point I would have indeed hiked most-near the entire eastern continent, save this short stretch from where the Florida National Scenic Trail begins near the lands of the Miccosukee Nation west of Miami, down to Key West. So, I’d already set in my mind to return to Loop Road, thence to complete this incredible odyssey by hiking to the monument marking the southernmost point of the eastern North American Continent in Key West.
I have spent the better part of this day leaning back against my pack, which is strapped to the rear fender of Erv Daley’s motorcycle. Erv, a great motorcycle racing buddy of many years just so happened to be heading this way to visit friends, so he’d offered me a ride on his BMW and he now drops me off at the old familiar FT trail marker here on Loop Road. Thanks Erv!
As we get older, I suppose we tend to get more sentimental and more emotional about things. I remember watching that happen to my folks, to many dear friends…and now so-it-seems, to myself. For here I stand, hearkened back to the last time I stood at this very spot. That seems a long, long time ago now, a totally different lifetime. So many things have happened to me since then, things that have changed my life forever. But as I reflect back I realize that it has been only a short eleven months; for I was last here with Jon. The pickup tailgate was down and after we had lingered and talked for quite awhile, I dragged my pack out, shouldered it and snapped the buckle. Then after a good hug from Jon and after much hesitancy and reluctance I stepped down into the submerged treadway to head north into the unknown. By trail, that was over 4000 miles ago, 287 days ago—and the good Lord only knows how many buckle snaps ago. It is so bewildering how the pathway of life winds, how we weave our way as God guides us along. Today I will not be stepping down into it, but I can see as the trail heads north, where I had turned for one last glimpse back at my dear son Jon as he stood by his truck with the most forlorn and puzzled expression of sadness on his face.
I hear the last fading “thrump, thrump” from Erv’s cycle as he heads on west, just as did Jon on that day long ago, leaving me to the silence and to this trail. As I stand here trembling I must go down on one knee to steady myself, and finally to all fours. I crawl to the edge of the road by the old FT sign. Here I peer down into the water where the treadway begins and where this unbelievable odyssey began. As I look, I do not recognize the strange face staring back at me from this watery mirror, such a different face, one that should be familiar but is not. The image fades in and out and floats in a ghostly veil as my tears cascade to break the surface. Ahh, but do I finally recognize the face, after being locked in a gaze of disbelief for such a long time. For it is now I see Jon’s face formed and transformed into mine—looking back at me with that forlorn yet familiar puzzled expression of sadness—to finally sigh, and so-it-seems for just a brief moment does the broken mirror reflects a soft, loving smile. Dear Lord, I pray that someday I will understand.
I stumble along Loop Road in a daze, trying to get back into stride after being away from the trail for nearly a month. I manage to make the 13 miles to the game check station at the intersection of Loop Road and Tamiami Trail where I arrive in the dark and am invited to spend the evening with attendants Dave and Carol Balman from Miami.
“For the test of the heart is trouble,
And it always comes with the years,
And the smile that is worth the praises of earth
Is the smile that shines through tears.”
[Ella Wheeler Wilcox]
Monday—November 30, 1998
Location—Behind Truckstop, US41 and Krome Avenue
I enjoyed a great evening last talking with the Balmans, their friends and many hunters, all the while being fed great quantities of food by the Balmans. The Miccosukee people are proud and gentlefolk. Through the kindness of the Balmans I was able to roll out my pad and sleeping bag in the game check screened enclosure. What a blessing to be provided shelter from the mosquitoes this very first night.
I have been dreading this hike today. Before me awaits a 20 mile roadwalk along busy US41 all the way to Krome Avenue, the very outskirts of Miami. But I find as I hike along the fully-paved emergency lane that I am provided fair distance from the traffic, and the cars and commercial vehicles are moving at a reasonable pace so I’m not taking the buffeting and pounding I had feared. On my journey east this morning I pass many airboat concessions, all managed and run by the Miccosukee people. As I hike along, a particularly interesting and colorful little roadside catches my eye. Since I need water and a break from the sweltering sun I pull off to take a look. As I enter, a young lady and an old Indian gentleman greet me. They are talking with a fellow who appears to be a tourist, so I lounge and look around.
At first glance, the place appears much like any other touristy knickknack place, but as I look closer, do I realize that none of this stuff is for sale. In reality it is more a museum, with stuffed critters on the high shelves and all around, with faded old newspaper clippings and articles tacked to the wall. One particular clipping catches my eye. It is about the Miccosukee Nation and their people. Beside the story is this picture of a young Miccosukee Chief. As I read the article, continuing to glance back up at the faded yellow picture, does it seem that I should know this man, as if we have actually met somewhere long ago. In a moment the young lady comes over and with a full-beaming smile says, “That’s a great article about Chief Buffalo Tiger, isn’t it?” Smiling back—you cannot help but smile back—I say, “Yes ma’am, but who is Buffalo Tiger?” She replies, “Why that’s the Chief right over there!” Ahh, so now I know where I’ve seen the young man in the picture. But that picture was taken many years ago of a man who is now very old! As she tells the story about Buffalo Tiger I become intrigued with the delightful history of it and I ask if I might meet and talk with the chief when he and the young man have concluded their conversation.
To my surprise the Indian girl turns and goes straightaway to the chief, she interrupts him and brings him directly to me. The young man follows along behind. After the introduction I manage to apologize to both for the interruption. It is such an honor to meet this man, but the Chief seems much more taken by meeting me and asks many questions. To my amazement he is really the first during this entire odyssey, the first to look directly at my feet and inquire as to their well being! “You have traveled a great distance, do your feet not suffer?” says the Chief. As I reply, I am thinking, “Ahh, here is a man who understands…who truly understands!”
The highway before me is straight as an arrow with the utility poles continuing to march ever ahead, tapering and merging to a blurred point as the sweltering mirage of heat lifts the road to dance and bounce to the horizon. The hypnotic-like trance caused by the rhythm of my poles clicking the pavement and the constant whoosh of passing traffic is finally interrupted by an eastbound vehicle that catches my eye. It passes but then slows abruptly, to turn full around and return along the guardrail. The passenger window goes down as I stoop to look across at the driver. Oh my, it is the young man who had been talking to Buffalo Tiger. He says, “I really enjoyed the account of your story as you talked with the Chief today. My name is Mark Baker and I am the producer for WPBT, public television in Miami.” I quickly find that Mark has many questions to ask, but since it is getting toward late afternoon I explain that I must keep moving for I have many more miles yet to cover before dark. Mark then inquires as to my planned route to Key West and asks if it would be okay to return and look for me tomorrow. These most tentative arrangements being made we bid farewell and I head on east as my lengthening shadow travels and leaps far ahead…toward the shimmering and shadowy horizon.
“What God is doing you may not know now;
But someday you’ll understand why.
Questions that taunt you and trouble your mind
Will one day have heaven’s reply.”
Tuesday—December 1, 1998
Location—SR997, Homestead, Bel Air Motel
The Miccosukee Nation has an absolute gambling empire going at the northwest corner of Krome Avenue and Tamiami Trail. The searchlights illuminate the entire sky. I guess this corner is the international boundary between their country and the good old USofA. Anyway, I had a devil of a time getting through the traffic at the intersection. Everybody was heading for the casino. I finally managed to get across to the southeast corner where I settled in behind the truckstop. After setting up camp in some bushes on a little mound of coquina fill I gave Nina Dupuy a call; she’s the southern Everglades FT Section Leader. I had talked to Nina many times by phone while planning this odyssey over a year ago, but I had never met her. She made it out later and we had a grand evening talking trail. Back then to my little hideaway behind the truckstop I was quickly lulled to sleep by the steady, monotonous drone of the idling diesel engines.
Here at Krome Avenue I turn south, heading straight for Key West. I manage to get out early, but as soon as the sun catches hold and the humidity gets pumping, the road quickly turns to a frying pan. The trucks are out early too, and the road shoulder is dreadfully narrow, with guardrails that keep vehicles from plunging into the ever-present drainage canals, scant feet from the busy roadway. I haven’t gone two miles when I start picking up change lying along the road. A buck-fifty in all scattered for the better part of a mile. It starts with quarters, then nickels and dimes to finally trickle off with a bunch of pennies. On the roadwalk today I pass miles and miles of truckfarms. All kinds of vegetables, pick your own or buy great quantities at the little makeshift roadside stands. I know I’m still in the United States but I don’t understand the language.
About halfway to Homestead and clicking along in a total daze I am hailed by a couple of fellows in a little white van. There’s some writing on the side, WPBT Channel 2, and I recognize Mark. Dang, I can’t believe this. He has actually come all the way back out here to track me down, and he’s got a cameraman and a van full of TV gear with him! They pull off by a convenience store and I cross over to be greeted immediately by two beaming smiles as Mark introduces me to Allan Farrell. Well, I’m in good shape now and on schedule to get on down to Homestead by early evening…and I did promise Mark that I would talk with him today. So we find a little shade and I drop my pack. Allan gets right to setting up the TV camera and Mark starts off quite gently with the questions. Oh, and these are new questions besides the usual “where’ya been and where’ya going?” I had misgivings yesterday evening when I consented to talk with Mark today. I got to thinking how I don’t need a bunch of hype and confusion on top of all the clatter I’m already having to deal with, especially this late in the trek. I really want to be by myself now, to try and digest all that has occurred over these last remarkable eleven months. But am I ever surprised, for I find both Mark and Allan to be two of the most laid-back fellows I’ve met since leaving the AT! We have a most quiet and enjoyable time together. They get a mile of footage…plus what seems a mile of me hiking alongside the road. Before parting, I agree to call Mark the day before I arrive in Key West. Seems they want to come all the way to Key West, that roundtrip requiring an entire day, to film me completing this incredible odyssey at the southernmost monument.
Nearing Homestead the playful ribbing from passing motorists begins…”Hey old man, there ain’t no snow down here!” These folks are obviously not used to seeing a backpacker popping along with trekking poles!
“And if, through patient toil, we reach the land
Where tired feet, with sandals loosed, may rest,
When we shall clearly see and understand,
I think that we will say, ‘God knew the best.”
[May Riley Smith]
Wednesday—December 2, 1998
Location—Key Largo, the beach at Neptune’s Hideaway, next by Hobo Bar and Grill, MM103
The folks at Bel Air Motel treated me most kindly last evening with a very special rate for the ol’ Nomad. I’m out early, over to Sam’s Restaurant for a fine breakfast, then I’m on my way south again. I am excited yet very anxious about this day, for I will be hiking the shoulders of busy US1 which will lead me across a scary 23-mile desolate expanse, a literal no-man’s-land by foot—all the way to the first Florida Key, Key Largo. It is interesting that I’m back on US1 again. This will be my second trek o’er this famous byway, having hiked its path on the extreme northern end, clear up in the far reaches of Maine. In between, this odyssey has led me west into the Central Time zone, then all the way back east into the Atlantic Time zone, to finally return and settle me now, back into good old Eastern Time.
Today I’m hiking across the eastern-most reaches of The Everglades: River of Grass, as described in the delightful book written by “The Lady of the Glades,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Here is a vast, mostly untamed area of south Florida’s subtropics known to the Indians as Pahayokee, or “the grassy waters.” This remarkable place is still home to nearly 300 varieties of birds, 600 kinds of fish and more than 40 indigenous species of plants. But today, for the entire day, I will primarily see man’s invasive presence in this grand scheme—hypnotically gazing the highway before me as it merges to a quivering and seemingly endless point on the horizon.
As I hike along, stooping to pick up more change from time-to-time, I keep reminding myself that I will soon be in America’s winter playground, the beautiful Florida Keys. Just before turning the bend and heading southwest onto Key Largo I’m jolted from my dreamy little bubble as my attention is drawn to an old pickup as it comes screeching and grinding to a most ungraceful halt on the shoulder behind me. I stop and turn to see a grizzly-looking chap emerge from the whirl of dust. He greets me with, “Did you hike the AT this summer?” I reply, “Why yes I did, and I’m still going.” With a broad beaming smile now he says, “Well, so did I, you must be the Nomad, I’ve heard about you.” Well, dang, here we go again—so now bracing the blast from the trucks and busses whizzing by I shake hands with Gecko Goat, one of the most notorious members of all the Hiker Trash Fratority! We laugh as we shake hands, only to shake our heads—and reminisce for the longest time. Thanks for stopping Gecko. What a joy finally seeing someone who hasn’t felt compelled to ask me about my ski poles! I’m sure we’ll meet again on up the trail, take care Gecko!
I am rewarded for my hike today in such a noble way. I’m forty-one cents richer, the change in my pocket to show, and now before me is this wide and expansive walkway to hike on through Key Largo. I pull in for the evening right next the Hobo Bar and Grill (how appropriate), here to be greeted by Angie at Neptune’s Hideaway. I’m immediately blessed as I’m offered my own little hideaway under the coconut palms, right on their beautiful, sandy gulfside beach and I quickly pitch my tent for the evening. Then to head over—oh yes—to the Hobo Bar and Grill! This frolic through the Keys is going to be a hoot, I just know it…I can see it all now!
There comes a time reward seems due
Those toughing the trials at hand;
‘Cause from the lot the Lord’s picked few,
To lead the banner and band.
Thursday—December 3, 1998
Location—Islamorada, abutment under Hawk Channel Bridge, MM86
No problem blending in down here, beard, long hair and all. Conversation is easy and I could just as easy be local. A little more sun (which will certainly be no problem) and I’ll be a Parrothead for sure! Aww man, I see now why Jimmy loves and lives this place! Changes in latitude bring changes in attitude…ooh yes! I manage to get up, go for a quick swim and then get halfway cranking. I’m moving a little slow, caused by a little too good-of-a-time at the old Hobo Bar and Grill last. I was sloshin’ and healin’ to port pretty bad by the time I got back to beachside. Just had a few beers, that’s it—sure glad I stayed away from Margaritaville!
Within the hour this morning I pull alongside the oceanside Holiday Isle Resort. This is a grand old (but just the lease bit) seedy highrise hotel. Tourists are all about and there is much activity. I can’t resist heading over. On the way I’m thinking, “Nomad, you Hiker Trash bum, you’re going to get your butt tossed right out of this place.” But then I decide, “Ahh what the heck, go ahead old man, go for it!” And oh my, what a beautiful thing. This has got to be what all the snowbirds up north are dreaming of—white sandy beaches, two tropical pools, five restaurants, a full-service marina, all kinds of water fun (the personal watercraft are already buzzing about) and the world famous Tiki Bar (which I wisely avoid).
Well, so far so good, so I decide to go for the finest of the fine…the penthouse Horizon Restaurant! I still haven’t removed my backpack as I enter the classy glass elevator. On the way up I decide not to push my luck so I drop my pack and remove my sweaty headband. As the elevator stops and the door opens I’m immediately greeted by the hostess and just as quickly by the cashier. Both give me a beaming smile and warm greetings. Here I meet Karin Wehner and Erica McDonald. I had figured the place would be packed, what with the breakfast crowd and all, but to my surprise only a couple of tables over to one side are occupied. After propping my pack down the way Karin escorts me in. I can’t believe it, she’s taking me straight to front and center, right to the table by the plate glass window, the finest in the whole place! From here I am afforded the most remarkable view o’er the entire resort and the ocean below. The table before me is set with the finest linen and silver—and comes the waiter directly with a chilled goblet of icewater. The girls continue to smile at me and the waiter is also beaming. You’d think their “ship” had just come in and I was the first mate!
Karin decides to wait on me and she comes to take my order. After rattling off a bunch of fancy menu items I explain that good old bacon, eggs and plenty of fried potatoes will work just fine. Of course by now she’s asked to hear my story, and while my breakfast is being prepared the word quickly gets around to all the help, and definitely to the cook, for Karin soon sets before me a heaping plate of grub, certainly not the style for this kind of fine establishment. Well folks, okay, certainly you know, and it just goes to show how wacky our take on any given situation can sometimes be, how it seems we have not a clue! These gracious and kind folks were happy to see me and they were obviously more than pleased to have me as their guest. In fact, that’s exactly how it all turned out—I was their guest, because they would accept no payment for their service nor for the wonderful breakfast prepared for me. What an amazing time at the Horizon Restaurant! Back on the highway and heading on south, and in a few moments do I turn to look back at the grand old place, to take it all in one last time…and wouldn’t you know? There they stand at the Horizon Restaurant’s penthouse window, waving goodbye. Thanks dear friends, thank you for your kindness and your most gracious hospitality!
As I hike along today enjoying the warmth of the sun…‘tis now I see another one lying by the side of the road; I saw two or three yesterday. Oh my, I know there’s no way you’ll buy this, but please believe me, it’s true. There’s positively no way I could ever make this stuff up. And just what is it that I’ve been seeing lying along the way? Beer cans folks…beer cans. “Big deal,” you say. Well yes, this is a big deal—because these beer cans all have straws sticking out of them—yes, straws! We’ve all seen people pulling on a can of sody pop with a straw, but sipping beer from a straw! See what I mean? Beats me! The Keys—Ahh yes folks, here’s a totally different and most remarkable place. If you haven’t been down here you’ve just gotta get it—then maybe, just maybe, you’ll understand!
What an absolutely blue-perfect day this has been. The Keys are gonna be all I’d hoped for, all I’d dreamed they could be…and then some!
The folks in the Keys quite interestingly, sip their beer through a straw;
They scorch their fish four shades of black, yet eat their shellfish raw.
Indeed they’re as kind as any you’ll find ‘long mainstreet USofA.
They’ll stop to help a stranger along, even give’m the time a’day.
The weather down here? Hey, fine all year—‘cept for the hurricane;
But the locals’ll hunker and ride ‘er out through the roar and the walls a’rain.
No finer place will you find on the face—of this earth, for your holiday.
The weather’s warm and the local charm boasts a paradise for play.
So, come on down…jes’ lounge ‘round, and let ol’ Sol kick in;
Twill warm your heart and your bones’ll start to feel like they’ll work a’gin.
Yeah, folks done questioned my sanity, but the smartest thing I done,
Was to save the last o’this odyssey for the Keys and the tropical sun.
Friday—December 4, 1998
Location—Long Key, the beach by Long Key Channel Bridge, MM66
Traffic runs all night in the Keys, even the eighteen wheelers—especially the eighteen wheelers. Most folks down here probably don’t notice, but when you’re six feet under, on an abutment directly beneath the bridge as I was last night, the tank battalion rumbling right above, you’re inclined to notice! From a far distance I could hear the heavy artillery haulers coming long before they shook and vibrated my bones. Their assaults began with a low, sort of harmonic rumble, hardly perceptible. Then the slow, ever-building crescendo presented. Finally came the grand crashing and eruption of it in a cacophonous, Richter-seven bombardment—the projectile dropping straight in. Oh but gee, isn’t it so remarkable, and haven’t we all marveled at the incredibly adaptive tolerance that’s built into our mental and biological computer systems! For it was, that after about the forth or twentieth of those microcosmic earthquakes, all caused by the tractor-trailers rumblings overhead, did I drift into the most pleasant and dream-propelled sleep.
I’m awakened this morning by fisherman passing through Hawk Channel. The morning is dawning cool and clear and I’m out to a diamond-crystal haze-free day in the Florida Keys. As I head ever south I am greeted and then caressed by the soft, warm, sun and a most-gentle tropical breeze. Before me now are there such remarkably dazzling jewels of azure and turquoise, a sky so clear and transparent as to make its presence intimately close, so near that I can clutch it, much like a silken veil…and beside and before me to the horizon is the lenticular sea, so remarkably crystalline and pellucid as to appear much as a mirror of the boundless sky.
The hike today crosses the narrow and beautiful keys of the Upper and Lower Matacumbes and the day has turned perfect, another take-it-for-granted day in the Keys. Soon I reach Islamorada. I can use some coated aspirin so over to Eckerds I go. No sooner do I get through the door than the pharmacist comes right away to assist me. “You a hiker?” he says. No rush now, so I give the guy my full pitch; he listens in astonishment. “What’s your trail name?” he asks. “I’m the Nimblewill Nomad,” I respond. He then replies, “Well, I’m Church Mouse, class of ’97.” Glory be! Turns out he not only hiked with but became good friends with Thunder Chicken. Okay, okay, I won’t say it!
The day passes quickly, and turning onto Fiesta Key I soon arrive at Long Key State Recreation Area. On the south end and just before the bridge to Conch Key, one of the local conchs shows me a narrow path leading from the highway to the most picturesque and secluded beach. Here is a serene and peaceful paradise…just for me for the evening. I pitch right on the beach as the sun sets fire to the sea across the beautiful Straits of Florida. No incoming artillery tonight, just the peaceful lullaby played by the rhythmic waves of the sea gently caressing the sands along the beach at Long Key.
“Perhaps the music that only I hear
Is meant for dreamers like me
Who love the harmony of the waves
As they rush in and out the sea.”
Saturday—December 5, 1998
Location—South Marathon, dried-in townhouse near Seven Mile Bridge, MM49
It is another blue-perfect day in the Florida Keys and as my trekking poles click away at the pavement, the miles click away beneath my feet. The journey south today takes me over Conch Key, Grassy Key and Crawl Key, all the way to Marathon. I begin to sense now the end of this journey, for today the remaining miles will drop below 50…less than 50 miles to go in a total of over 4400 miles, less than three days in a total of nearly 300. And as the rhythmic motion of hiking this pavement lulls me into a dream-like state, not uncommon to roadwalking, my thoughts drift back and I return to the days spent with all the great friends I have made and all the memorable times I’ve had…like reaching Katahdin. What an emotional time and so, too, for the ending in Canada.
Oh, that final day in Canada, my 60th birthday, what a grand and memorable time. I was whisked away to the beautiful DeChamplain home in Matane, there to remain the guest of those kind French Canadians for the whole of the weekend. They devoted their entire time to me, they hosted me, lavished me with gifts, introduced me to their friends, entertained and dined me, escorted me around, acted as my interpreters, and even helped me make the transition back into the real world as I shopped for and tried to find a pair of pants and a shirt, clothing that seemed so out of place to me after the meager trail gear I had become so accustomed to over the past ten months. These dear friends then took another entire day to drive me back to Matapedia, PQ and to Pete Dube’s delightful Restigouche Hotel.
Pete, as usual, was glad to see me again and to again put me up as his guest…and again he insisted that I stay. So I accepted his kind hospitality for the better part of four days as he, Gaby, Richard and I had a grand time. Bruno and David had invited me to celebrate with them upon the completion of my journey in Canada, so to Bruno and Carole’s house I went one evening to enjoy such a grand time with these kind and generous friends. After resting a couple more days and enjoying Pete’s company, Maurice came from Kedgwick, NB to pick me up and take me to Madeleine’s place in Madawasca. Madeleine then drove me back to the border at Fort Fairfield where yet another dear friend, Rod Newton, greeted me.
After spending the night at Rod’s we headed into Presque Isle, Maine to shop for a junk car to get me back to Georgia. That didn’t take long as Rod helped me come up with a very fine and very cheap clunker…good tires, new battery, power everything, the works, for four hundred bucks! I could have taken a bus from there back to Georgia, but I wanted to take my time heading back south, stopping to see friends and family along the way, and to share the joy that’s come to me, the result of this incredible odyssey…and that’s just what I did, and it worked so well. I stopped first in Portland where Dick Anderson had a huge reception for me at his office. Here I got to meet many of the great folks who are building the International Appalachian Trail in Maine. And here at the reception what a joy it was seeing my dear friend Easy Rider again! He invited me to spend the night at his place and he, Nikki and I had the finest time…and I finally got to hear Easy Rider play and sing. What an incredible talent.
From Maine it was on to Stickman’s lovely home in Freeport, NH and from there back to Graymoor in Garrison, NY to visit Father Fred. The next day I traveled on to Milton, PA to see Ronnie Spotts, an old teenage buddy, and what a joy getting into Hummelstown, PA to see 100# Stormcloud again. From here I drove to Maryland to see dear family members, Mary and Margie who had come all the way to Harpers Ferry to get me for the 4th of July, a wonderfully planned reunion that was not to be because of my stupidity. In Virginia I was able to see Larry Amos, an old childhood chum that I hadn’t seen in over forty years, and he, Mary his wife, and I shared a very happy time. I had missed going into Rusty’s Hard Time Hollow on my way north, so I wheeled in there to spend some time and to get to know this interesting and friendly man. My final stop was back in Hot Springs where I was welcomed most enthusiastically again…and hosted again by Elmer Hall at Sunnybank Inn.
I am jolted back to the day and away from this nostalgic dreaming by an old buggy full of teenagers. They want to have a little fun with the old hobo walking along with the “ski poles.” That’s okay, kids, have a good laugh on the old Nomad! I’m in north Marathon now and the street markers start clicking away, 125th street, 110th street, 83rd street, 64th street, and finally I pass mile marker 50. Just ahead is the Seven Mile Bridge and it’s too late in the day to tackle that thing and the traffic is running hard and steady, so I hang a left onto a street where new townhouses are being built. I find one that’s most-near dried in, no doors or windows yet. No one’s about, this being Saturday, so I head up to find the perfect place for the evening. I had indulged myself earlier, enjoying a fine meal at a local mom-n-pop in Marathon, so my tummy’s full and I’m snug and content. This has been a delightful and most memorable day hiking the Florida Keys.
“Out of the hinterwhere into the yon—
Where all the friends of your youth have gone—
Where the old schoolmate who laughed with you
Will laugh again, as he used to do.”
[James Whitcomb Riley]
Sunday—December 6, 1998
Location—Little Torch Key, Abutment under Torch Channel Bridge, MM28
The hike south today takes me across the Seven Mile Bridge and the Keys of Little Duck, Missouri, Ohio, Bahia Honda, Spanish Harbor, West Summerland and Big Pine. Upon crossing Seven Mile Bridge, one is considered to be entering the “Lower Keys.” As to this island chain, these are the largest and least developed. This area, and on to Key West is the locale sought by the true Parrotheads who want to get away from it all. Here lie the most tropic of the sub-tropics, home to the famed Key deer, the beautiful great white heron, the ubiquitous pelican, the raucous gull, the rare American crocodile and a myriad of other unique and exotic marine, amphibious, and earthbound plants and animals.
There are many different ways to see and experience the Keys. From Miami you might choose to fly, which will require less than an hour of your time, or you might come by car, which would consume less than four hours. You could bicycle your way down, which many do, taking a couple of days; or you might choose to travel by boat; this would get you through here in a leisurely fashion in three or four days. And then you could always choose to walk—yes, walk! That would take you well over a week! Now, having made this comparison, might I possibly offer up the suggestion that what one sees and experiences, especially the flavor of this whole “paradise playground thing,” that while passing this way—the difference between a few hours and over a week—that in that additional time there may be just the least bit of difference in the return, the reward for having spent it? Indeed friends, it is true. You cannot possibly experience the pleasure of meeting all the great folks down here nor gain even the least bit of understanding for what this place is all about. Ahh, for there is such a vibrant, joyful and carefree magic that weaves its spell throughout this far away tropical island paradise. No folks! You could not experience even the least of it by flying or driving or biking or even by boating through. You’ve got to walk this remarkable place to really get to know it, to know the people and the magic of this special little corner of the world known as the Florida Keys.
I’m up and out at first light, for I want to get across the Seven Mile Bridge before the crushing traffic of the day begins. I reach the high-most point on the bridge’s center span a little after 7:30 a.m. Up till now it’s been going pretty good…but then it happens, one of the most incredible phenomenon that I have ever experienced in all of my sixty years on this earth. At one time or another I’ve dealt with just about everything Mother Nature could possibly dish out…a grand chunk of which has occurred this past eleven months. I’ve endured all types of conditions…such as the weather; from scorching heat, to floodwater, to driving rain, to sleet, hail, snow and even a couple of tornadoes. But up until now, and though what’s just come to pass is the result of man’s design, I’ve never had anything like this happen to me, ever before! Those of you who’ve lived through an earthquake will surely understand the horrifying fright and the uncontrollable shudder that comes from having the earth literally jump up and down. The ground beneath our feet, and especially huge things made out of concrete are just not supposed to move around, let alone jump up and down!
So here I stand, the first really big truck of the day having just passed, a fully loaded Oakley tanker. As it approached I could hear its rumbling and feel the vibration as it made the climb, and just before it reached me I could feel the concrete literally sink beneath my feet! As the truck passed, the roadway rose abruptly in the most alarming fashion, a sensation most like standing on a trampoline. Well, I’ll tell you folks, this scares the holy-h right out of me! I grab the railing and hang on for dear life! It seems as though I’m halfway to the moon up here already, fearful and scared to death by the height, I’m all by myself on this incredible mass of concrete…and it’s flipping me up and down in the most frightful way! The undulating wave created by the rolling hulk moving south ahead of me seems to take forever to finally settle down.
Oh my, what a nightmarish sensation, what an ordeal! For a brief moment I was sure I was a goner—the whole bridge doomed to collapse, thence to plunge into the Straights of Florida, taking me right along with it in the process. Whew! I suppose you won’t be surprised if I tell you that I recall very little about the remainder of this day.
True happiness is seldom found among the polished stone,
For on the path where most have trod, scant faith has ever grown.
But should we journey o’er the way where less the path is worn,
‘Tis there the most pure radiant light brings forth that glorious morn.
Whereon we rise to greet the day to find our prayers fulfilled.
Pure joy and peace fill full our cup just like our Father willed.
But oh the faith to pass this way, the path few e’er have known;
For ‘till we see God’s face have we—gone long and far alone.
Monday—December 7, 1998
Location—Home of Phil and Ruth Weston, Sugarloaf Key, MM17
There are lots of bridges down here in the keys, and that makes for lots of bridge abutments. I could have found a place along the beach to pitch last night, but pulling off and ducking in under Torch Channel Bridge was just a lot easier. There was the steady hum and gentle vibration from the traffic right overhead to deal with, but after walking all day in the sun and wind it wasn’t long till the next thing I knew it was today.
As I’m out and on my way this morning, hiking into another absolutely perfect day in the Keys, I am filled with such a grand and glorious feeling. For even though tomorrow most likely holds, and will no doubt bring another very emotional time my way, much as on Katahdin and the last day in Canada, tomorrow being the last day of this incredible odyssey; my mind is filled now with such happy thoughts. Thoughts that flood over me in the most blissful and satisfying way, settling me into a mood of total and absolute, perfect contentment, most near nirvana. I am thinking of so many remarkable things that have happened on this journey, things that simply lie beyond the realm of coincidence, there being no possible way the wildest of odds could have figured or played into many of the circumstances.
And just for example, and to make my point. How many millions and millions of people live along the sprawling expanse of this eastern North American Continent? Ahh, but did yesterday Ed Williams’ path cross my path again! If you recall, Ed and Mary Ann were the trail angels that came to Punch Bowl Shelter clear back on the AT in Virginia to bring their magic to Joliet Joe and me. Well yesterday this van pulled off the road into a little wayside. I recognized it right away—and right away did I see and recognize Ed’s smiling face again! Oh, were both of us ever beset with amazement! Ed said, “Nomad, is that you—you still hiking?” Returning his beaming smile, I said, “Yes Ed, yes, it’s me and I’m still hiking!” At that point Ed began rummaging around his van, trying to find a little bit of trail magic to hand out yet again. Judging from his anxious manner, he most surely had never been caught in such a predicament before, not having something to dispense to a weary, hungry hiker. As he continued digging around, I mentioned that it wasn’t necessary to hand me something every time he saw me…this being the third time! But Ed would hear none of that and in a while he finally came up with a bottle of Gatorade, a bag of pretzels and an apple! He then beamed with pride as he handed me the goodies!
My hike today takes me across the Keys of Middle Torch, Ramrod, Summerland and Cudjoe. It’s a very short hike as I’m bound for Sugarloaf Key and the home of Phil and Ruth Weston, friends of my good friend Frank. In a conversation recently with the Westons, Frank had mentioned that I was heading their way. That’s all it took for them to insist I stop at their home before heading out on my final day to Key West. So turning at Sugarloaf Lodge now I’m headed for Bonefish Lane and the Weston place. And oh my, am I soon greeted by such a beautiful home and by such beautiful people! I am ushered immediately to my private room, right beside the swimming pool and right next the bath and shower…where I quickly head, having enjoyed only the salt water baths of the turquoise sea since leaving Homestead. After a grand supper prepared by Ruth and after much welcome and enjoyable conversation with Phil and Ruth, I retire to sleep and dream contentedly about the morrow.
“There is a destiny that makes us brothers;
None goes his way alone:
All that we send into the lives of others
Comes back into our own.”
Tuesday—December 8, 1998
Location—Monument, Southernmost Point, Eastern North American Continent, Key West, MM00
I had promised Mark Baker, Producer at WPBT Channel 2 in West Palm Beach, that I would call him before reaching Key West, so upon arriving at the Weston home yesterday afternoon I got in touch with Mark at the TV studio in Miami. He commented with much excitement that he and Allan would both be seeing me again and that they would be there at the southernmost monument to greet me at the completion of this odyssey. Phil and Ruth both plan to be there too, and I have been invited to return with them again this evening and rest and recuperate for awhile here at their beautiful home on Sugarloaf Key before catching a bus back north. After a whopping breakfast and a cheerful sendoff by the Westons, I’m out and on my way to the end of this little corner of the world, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea at Key West.
It’s another turquoise, blue-perfect day in the Florida Keys—as if there could be any other kind of day in paradise—and I’m out and on my way with a glad, joyfilled heart and a light, brisk step. It seems the journey takes no time at all as I hike along today, for I have become totally immersed in the thoughts and memories from the past eleven months as they flood over me in a tumultuous and triumphant cascade. The Keys of Sugarloaf, Saddlebunch, Shark, Big Coppit, Boca Chica and Stock Island are already little more than a blur in my memory as I turn onto N. Roosevelt Blvd. in Key West. I am at mile marker four now, a little over an hour from the end of it. I soon turn onto Whitehead Street as I head toward that very last street—Oh, but is there such a street so named in every borough and every little berg in this grand and glorious land—but here is the name so appropriate, a street called—South Street.
I have oft heard and have also often read the short little phrase, “The journey is the destination.” But until now did I understand the meaning of those words. They are so true, for as I near and as I see the end of this, do I now realize that the ending is nothing more than that—the end. But what has come to pass during these past 297 days, over these last 4400 miles has brought the joy and true wonder of it. I have been blessed in ways that could not have been imagined, ways that certainly until now, could have been but little understood; blessings both in the knowledge now of the undeniable and unshakable truth that is this grand existence—that comes to fruit only from the universal love of man—my faith in that glorious brotherhood firmly and forevermore restored, and the indescribable grandeur and majesty of Mother Nature’s God-given treasures. Ahh, Her boundless treasures—the magnificent mountains; mountains of all the ages, the spectacular Appalachians, and the rich and fertile lands that sprawl the eastern grand expanse of this continent, the mystifying and majestic horizons of Canada and these Heaven-blessed United States of America.
It is humbling indeed, to have been brought into the light and unto the grace of Almighty God, for we did travel together as constant companions o’er this entire journey, and though I have indeed suffered and tried the earthbound miseries and lonely times of which I’ve written, so it is that in his presence and through his grace have I endured, for his presence here within me was steady each and every day, constant, never once withheld. We have journeyed together and I have experienced the unshakable reassurance and steadfast love of God, and I have been and am now the benefactor of such peace and joy in my life that only comes from within—a gift that is the light of His light, that radiates from His eternal presence deep within my soul.
I falter as I approach the end at the Gulf of Mexico, but my dear new friends of most recent days are here to reassure me and to cheer me home—and to share in my triumph and joy; Phil and Ruth, and Mark and Allan, and a delightful young couple bicycling from Daytona Beach, Milton and Grace Gonzales. Thank you Lord! We’ve done it, we’ve done it. And thank you dear family and friends, thank you all; the wonderful legion who have befriended me, uplifted me and brought your prayers and encouragement unto me throughout this most remarkable and memorable journey—the “Odyssey of ’98.”
“Even his grief’s are a joy long after to one who
remembers all that he wrought and endured.”
[Homer, The Odyssey]