Wednesday–January 3, 2001
Location–US331, north of Highland Home, ALR, thence to home of Ed and Emily Rutledge, MontgomeryToday, I return to the trail from a long, much needed rest, after spending Christmas and New Years with family. Though a whirlwind trip, it was good, but I’m glad to be back.
It was almost midnight when my bus finally arrived in Montgomery yesterday, but Ed was right there waiting for me with his usual beaming smile. I should have gotten in at nine last evening, but my plane arrived late in Atlanta, yes Atlanta. I couldn’t get a flight from Columbia, Missouri to Montgomery, my own fault, what with the last minute preparations. My friend, Joanne Murrell, at United National Travel in Florida, did the best she could, considering. What an ordeal, though. I hate good-byes, so the day got me off to a funk right away, what with having to bid farewell to sis and her family. Then the plane from St. Louis departed an hour late; the terminal was a zoo! That got me into Atlanta too late to catch the early evening bus to Montgomery. Zoo number two in Hartsfield, oh, and ditto for the MARTA ride to the bus station. Zoo doesn’t describe the bus station–standing room only, no place to walk. I finally managed to get a ticket and catch the seven-fifteen bus, which didn’t depart until nine, the time I should have been in Montgomery. Ahh, the whole ordeal was worth every hectic minute though, for I had a grand time with family and friends both in Florida and Missouri.
I’m more than ready to get back on the trail again, and here this morning Emily has prepared another grand breakfast for me. As we’re loading to go, I casually suggest to Ed that it would be great if he’d hike along with me again today. Oh yes, that’s all the coaxing needed as he grabs his sticks and fanny pack!
We’re soon back on the trail (roadwalk) south of the bypass where he and Emily picked me up before Christmas two weeks ago. Taking the time off when I did was certainly the right thing to do. It’s cold as Ed parks his SUV in the Snowdoun Baptist Church parking lot. We head out with our gloves and earmuffs on, but it isn’t the bone-chilling cold, as I understand have been conditions here for the past two weeks.
It takes both of us awhile to get the kinks out, what I’ve frequently referred to as “getting the old jitney up to normal operating temperature,” but we’re soon cruising along at a very respectable rate. It’s a real pleasure having Ed along again. I don’t have a clue why he’d choose to come out here on this busy U.S. highway and hike the shoulders with me. Perhaps hiking anywhere, anytime, with most anyone is good enough for Ed. Beats me!
Today, so it seems, is road-kill day. It starts right out with two skunks…oooowee! The skunks are then followed by three deer, an opossum, an armadillo, and finally, a large hawk. The day warms nicely. Soon the gloves and muffs come off and we have a grand time of it popping along, enjoying each other’s company. Ed is a lot like me in many respects. I hate backtracking and apparently so does Ed. Backtracking is what he’ll have to do at some point today, unless he’s able to reach Mack on his cell phone, and Mack is free to come for both of us this evening. So Ed tries off-and-on for Mack, finally connecting, and we’re good to go straight through till Mack comes to get us at sunset.
The highway rolls up and down, and round and about these low-lying hills that precede the Appalachians. The terrain reminds me much of the Ozark Highlands where I was raised. As we roll along, come back fond memories of days gone by. We stop a couple of times to rest, first at a gas station, then at Piney Woods Country Mart, a neat old mom-n-pop country store. Mack comes for us right on cue at sunset, to shuttle us back to Ed’s vehicle. What a great hiking day with Ed, down busy US331. Thanks, Mack. Your help made it work.
I’ll be the guest one more evening at the Rutledge home. They’ve continued taking me in, from many miles north of Montgomery to many miles south, where the drive back tomorrow morning will take Ed nearly an hour. And, of course, Emily has a great evening meal prepared for the hungry hikers on their return!
Thursday–January 4, 2001
Another day of good-byes, first to Emily as I rise from yet another grand breakfast she’s gotten up early to prepare for me, then to Ed as he drops me off after the hour’s drive back down US331. It’s definitely the people along the way, the people one chances to meet on a journey like this journey, “Odyssey 2000.” They’re the reason to go, their kindness, generosity and friendship, the joy and the blessings that come; that’s the payoff, the reason for going. Thanks Ed and Emily, I will always remember the good you have brought into my life, the example you have set with your gentle, kind ways. I will cherish your friendship forever.
The hike today continues down busy US331, but it is not the least unpleasant, for at the little village of Highland Home, I find to my delight that the shoulder is paved, permitting me to move from elbow’s reach of the fast-moving traffic. This benefit and good fortune stays the whole distance to Luverne, where I check into the St. Charles Motel. Right across the way is a Food Fair market where I decide to deli-it for supper with a hot meal carryout. I’m settled in my room by five-thirty.
Friday–January 5, 2001
I’ve decided to hammer the highway today, for over thirty miles, so I’m out and gone at first light. There’s little traffic this early, and no wind. What a blessing, for it’s bitterly cold from the hard freeze of the night. There’s heavy frost everywhere, and the little ponds and streams all along are iced over, but the cold helps me hasten along. The sun soon comes, and the day begins warming nicely.
Just south of Brantley and on US29 now, a southbound vehicle stops across the way, and the driver gets out and crosses to greet me. Here I meet Evan Carden, Editor, The Luverne Journal. He’s come out to interview me and to get my story. He’d done a great write-up about Luke Denton last year as Luke passed through Luverne on his northbound ECT hike, and Vagabond Rick suggested I stop in and see them, their office being right on the way. That I did the afternoon last, but Evan was out, so I’m surprised to find he’s taken the time this morning to drive the distance to find me. We have a most enjoyable conversation about the ECT, the increasing hiker traffic thereon, the need for a connector trail between Flagg Mountain and Conecuh National Forest, about Luke coming through again, along with his girlfriend, Candi, and about our mutual friend, Rick Vagabond Rick Guhsé.
The hike is very long today, but there is much to break up the time: first the interview, and next a stop at Mama’s in Dozier for lunch, and later the hike beside beautiful Lake Gantt. Oh, and a cold Bud with the guys and gals at the VFW south of Clearlake.
I manage to knock the thirty out by four-thirty and am into Heath/Andalusia and Budget Motel before dark. Here I’m greeted kindly by Neil Patel, from whom I promptly yogi a hiker-trash room rate, and I’m in for the evening. Pizza delivered and Mello Yello for supper.
Checking my email, I get great news from Marty Dominy, who’s been over here in southern Alabama scouting potential trail corridor, and from Jay Hudson, who informs me of the ever-increasing number of folks interested in seeing a trail connecting Porter Gap, the Conecuh National Forest, and the Florida National Scenic Trail. This ECT is soon going to be a bona fide thru-trail, one of the most incredible and beautiful trails in the world.
Oh yes, a fine day for hiking, for enjoying life, for just being alive!
Saturday–January 6, 2001
I’ve decided to go ahead and knock out the twenty-three miles down to Blue Lake Grocery today. Vagabond Rick had told me all about the kind, hiker-friendly owners, Jim and Eunice (“Mr. Jim” and “Miss Eunice”) Grimes. Also nearby is Leroy and Robin Chaney Zinkan’s place. Leroy befriended and shuttled Vagabond Rick around while he was up here last March scouting a route for the ALR, so I’ve been anxious to finally meet all these people. I called and talked with Leroy last evening, and he said to make sure and get back in touch with him from wherever I ended up today.
The hike through Andalusia is pleasant and most interesting. The name “Andalusia” means, “to walk easy,” from the Creek words Ande, “to walk” and Lutier, meaning “easy.” Here is a typical old southern town, streets blocked out nice and neat, and in the center, this old roundabout square. What a peaceful little city, resting on the banks of the Conecuh River. Before the white man came, the Creek Indians inhabited this same spot. Later it is believed that DeSoto settled here.
The streets leading to and from the old square have interesting and historic names. Hiking toward the square I’m “walking easy” on North Three Notch Street and from the square, South Three Notch. The names come from Andrew Jackson’s passage through Andalusia, on his way to the Battle of New Orleans. The story goes, that as he passed he marked his way by carving three notches in the trees along. These Three Notch Streets, having gained fame, are now part of Three Notch Trail.
Just off the square is the old Central of Georgia Train Depot. It has been restored and now houses Three Notch Museum. I find enjoyment in these old places, so I decide to give it a look. Two old gentlemen welcome me as I enter, then follow me from room to room, not letting me out of their sight. Ha, an old relic, looking at a bunch of old relics, being watched by two old relics! Neat place, can’t blame them for wanting to keep an eye on me. I sign the guest register as I leave. Folks sure aren’t beating the door down to Three Notch Museum. The last entry was dated December 8, 2000.
Traffic is running heavy and fast today, on both US29 and SR137, the shoulders rutted and difficult to hike. I run the road-edge white line as much as possible, but I’m off more than on. While I’m on US29 and just before I reach SR137, a lady driving a huge motorhome lets it get away, crossing the white line onto the shoulder. She’s coming right at me. I sprint for the fence as she commences hauling it back on the road, lurching and swaying, right where I’d been hiking only three seconds before. I’ve been on this roadwalk for over 200 miles now, and I’m very much ready for the woods again.
In the evening, and after quite an eventful day, I reach Blue Lake Grocery. The Grimes work the store from 4:00 a.m. till 6:30 p.m., and they’re both here today. Miss Eunice takes my order for a burger and fries. I make the mistake of suggesting to her that seventy-five cents’ worth of fries (their order price) won’t do it. “Better double it up,” I say. She responds casually, “You best wait and see first.” Over the years, I’ve suffered frequent exacerbation of the common malady known as “foot-in-mouth-disease.” Today it’s out of remission full force. Oh yes, seventy-five cents’ worth of fries served up here by Miss Eunice is about all anybody could or would ever want to eat at one sitting; hold the double order of fries, Miss Eunice, thank you very much! You’re right, Vagabond Rick, me and Mr. Jim and Miss Eunice hit it off first thing!
Leroy has a place cut out for his family on a Conecuh National Forest outparcel, and quite a place it is. He’s been coming up here for over two decades to hunt deer, and is now in the process of moving here permanently from Pensacola. He’s brought in a large mobile home for he and his family, but the old hunting camp right next still stands, pickup campers, showerhouse/toilet, all still there. Vagabond Rick was the first fortunate benefactor of their kindness–now me. And Leroy says, “I want hikers to stop by here on their way through.” Not to worry, Leroy. The hikers? They’ll stop by, oh yes; they’ll certainly stop by!
As I settle in for the night in the cozy little pickup camper kindly provided by these wonderful new friends, I’m thinking, “What a scary-turned-happy day this has been!” God’s hand rested on my shoulder today. I could not feel it, but it was there. A little more magic to weave the spell of magic that is this remarkable “Odyssey 2000-01.”
Sunday–January 7, 2001
Those of you who’ve followed my journal entries for any length of time know how much I enjoy a campfire. Every evening there’s an opportunity I have one going, first for cooking, then for warming, and for just pure enjoyment. Seems there’s an element in society that finds much relaxation and enjoyment sitting around a campfire. I’m of that ilk. So, too, are Leroy Zinkan, his wife, Robin Chaney, and their friends and hunting companions, Jim Garrett and Roy Kellogg. Arriving at Leroy’s yesterday evening, and being shown around, I noticed a fire back in the woods. As I paused to look, Leroy commented, “We’ve got a campfire going most every evening; come on over when you get settled in.” Well, that was all the invitation I needed. Heading right there I was greeted by Jim and Roy. Leroy came soon with Robin to tell me soup was on and to hand me a hot cup of coffee. We had a great time sharing each other’s company, just sitting around the campfire, a mighty fine evening!
The old pickup camper Leroy put me in was very cozy. He’d brought in a little electric heater to keep the chill off, and I slept like a baby. This morning we’re all treated to a deer-hunter (and thru-hiker) kind of breakfast by Leroy and Robin. These are such kind and generous people and this old hunt-camp-turned-homestead, such a pleasant and peaceful place. I’ve been invited to spend another day if I like. That’s a no-brainer…I like! Anyway, I’ve a mail drop (my bounce box) waiting for me at Wing, just a short hike down the road. Today’s Sunday; no need to hurry. I’ll spend the day with all these great new friends, and my mail will be waiting for me in the morning. I’ll have a chance to do some writing and help around with chores.
The Zinkans have two horses, one a beautiful Andalusian. What an interesting and inspiring legend behind this remarkably handsome animal. I’ll share the story with you–in Robin’s words:
“The first Andalusian Stallion in this area was captured by Creek warriors from a Spaniard. Legend is told that the Spaniard, fearing for his life, made his magnificent white stallion a gift to the warriors’ chief, Red Eagle (William Weatherford). The warriors, captivated by the horse, demanded to know his name and where he came from. The Spaniard carved the horse’s name and his birthplace on a poplar tree: Destinado and Andalusia.
After 187 years an Andalusian Stallion returns to Andalusia, Alabama. The stallion is Corron, a three-year old, and the proud owners are Leroy Zinkan and Robin Chaney. They’re working to fulfill a dream, and that dream is to raise Andalusians, such stunningly beautiful animals that they’ve been described as “the only living work of art.” And where will they raise them? Why right here in Andalusia, Alabama where, according to legend, it all began.
Monday–January 8, 2000
It’s Monday morning and everyone is heading out: Leroy, Robin, children Sam and Michelle, Jim and Roy. Folks, I want you all to know what a great time I’ve had here at the farm Caballos de Andalusia. I am certain I will return to see all of you again. Thanks, dear friends!
I’m soon in Wing at the little post office. Jo Ellen Grissett is the new postmistress, and this is her first day on the job. In the back sorting mail is Earl Bailey, the mail carrier. They’re the only postal employees at Wing. No line here this morning. The Wing Post Office is such a neat little place. With some cajoling I manage to get Jo Ellen and Earl outside for their picture in front of the little Wing ZIP code sign.
From Wing it’s only a mile to the Alabama/Florida state line but I’ve a little over nine miles yet to go. The roundabout way is usually the way of the trail, and that’s the way today. So I head west toward Bradley, a six-mile hike through secluded piney woods along a quiet country road.
In awhile I’m in the little community of Bradley, at Elliott’s Store. Here I meet Earl Bray, the kind old storekeeper. Getting to know Earl doesn’t take long. The warmth of the old stove feels good, and Earl invites me to unload and rest awhile. There’s no pay phone here, but not to worry. “Go in the office; the phone’s on the wall. Help yourself,” says Earl, and so I go. I figure I’ll need two or three days’ provisions to get to Harold, the next convenience store, so I shop around, picking up a few things. “Let me know if I can help you,” calls Earl from across the way. The place is remarkably well stocked, a little bit of everything from groceries to rat poison to “Vee” belts. Oh yes, and good local ice cream! On the faded old bulletin board are a bunch of faded old notes and cards: “Wyman’s Poultry Service. Quality work to clean out chicken houses and spread litter. Professional sawdust hauling.” He’s got a pager if you really get in a bind! Here’s a dandy, “Jack Stokes, Old Hickory Medicine Company ®, quality medicines for 52 years.”
Back at the checkout now (no lines here either), Earl and me, we have a good long talk. The last 75 years haven’t always treated Earl so kind, but he’s managed to make it. He made it through WWII, a decorated veteran of the European Theatre. Fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Drove trucks, called “frame movers”, the big stuff, hauled field artillery and the ammo for them. Speaking softly of those bygone days comes a forlorn far-off glint in his eye, and a hint of a tear. God bless you, Earl Bray, it’s the brave–the few remaining men and women from that war–like you that’ve fought to keep this country free. What a joy talking with you. Thanks so much for your hospitality and gentle kindness, and thank you for this thing called freedom, which we all take so much for granted.
The day really wants to clear and become warm but it never quite makes it. Toward evening now the wind comes up, not hard, but steady from the northwest. Earl has drawn a map showing me a much easier and shorter route to Hurricane Lake Campground along little-known Alabama backcountry byways and I’m headed off, map in hand down Middle Creek Road. As I continue south, and near the Florida line, I begin looking for a place to pull off for the night, but the road all along is posted on both sides. I continue on through dusk and into the last fading light of day.
It’s now I see this figure, moving in the dark shadows of the trees along. I become startled, for approaching is this hulk dressed in dark camo, face painted in disgusting swirled shades of brown and green. Closer and closer it comes, hunched forward, burdened with this huge, dark object strapped and shouldered, and at the ready, a large, scoped center-fire rifle. Near abreast now I hasten my already brisk pace, keeping a good distance. Suddenly I become gripped with fear, for to my absolute dismay does this apocalyptic figure slow and pull up right before me. I keep moving, oh yes, I keep moving! Just then do I hear this most gentle voice greet me with a kind “hello!”, and I meet Gary Booker. The warlike face paint turns out to be no more than a camo head sock, which he pulls down, revealing his bright, warm and smiling countenance. The grotesque contraption strapped to his back, his tree stand. And the gun? Well, it’s deer hunting season here in Alabama, and Gary is just now returning from an enjoyable evening of hunting his grandfather’s old home place. Trying to gain some composure, I return the greeting and we linger and talk.
Gary offers me the use of his grandfather’s place to set my camp for the night. He also offers to take me to Hurricane Lake Campground, yet some distance down the road but nearby where he lives. I choose this option as he remarks, “…and I’ll be hunting here again at first light; you’re welcome to ride back with me.” We no more load and get rolling than Gary points out the state line. “You almost made it into Florida tonight,” he exclaims.
There are no campers at Hurricane Lake Campground. The place is dark, and I have it all to myself. I bid Gary goodbye as we make plans to get together in the morning just before dawn. I’m in Florida tonight, but I’ll be in Florida for real tomorrow morning. What a long, long, time. But I have been patient for the day.
Old Man Winter apparently is not aware that I am in the south, for he is here with me. For sure I’ll need my sleeping bag liner tonight.
Tuesday–January 9, 2001
It’s very cold this morning, and my fingers begin quitting as I hasten to break camp. Gary comes at five-thirty, and we’re on our way back to his grandfather’s place just across the state line. I thank Gary for his help and kindness, then head ever south, crossing into Florida just before six. Two Canadian provinces and fifteen states behind me now; Florida, the last and longest yet remains.
A strange little road, this Charles Booker Road–can’t decide whether it wants to be dirt or paved, so it alternates, first dirt for a few hundred yards, then blacktop, then dirt, then blacktop, and on and on, crossing little streams, then to meander up and down in this most bewildering and unusual checkerboard way. Dawn arrives clear, the sun soon following, its job cut out to warm this day.
I’ve a short hike back to Hurricane Lake Campground, and I arrive again at eight. I’ll be meeting George Brinkman, Ed Walker and Tom Daniels here later today. They’re all members of the Western Gate Chapter, Florida Trail Association. They’ll be assisting with maps, data and other information to help me along toward the main east/west Florida Trail near the Yellow River.
As I stop, does the cold come right up behind me. I quickly decide to climb back in my sleeping bag for awhile, giving the sun a chance to warm things a bit.
Later in the morning, Larry May, the campground host, stops by and we have a long chat. Then in the afternoon come George, Ed and Tom. We talk about the trails I’ll be hiking for the next few days: the Wiregrass Trail, the Jackson Red Ground Trail and their pride and joy, the brand new Juniper Creek Trail.
These great new friends–each filled with contagious enthusiasm, both for the trails and for my coming to hike them–fill me now with their enthusiasm and excitement! I have a feeling these next few days will be enjoyable and memorable hiking days.
And now a word about this Western Gate Chapter, FTA. I just don’t believe you will ever find a more fired-up bunch of guys and gals. What an appropriate name, Western Gate, for indeed the trails they have and are building will soon serve as the “gate,” the key link connecting the Florida National Scenic Trail to a glorious system of trails that, when combined, will form a continuous trail o’er near the breadth of the entire eastern North American continent, crossing in the remarkable span of it, sixteen states, two Canadian provinces and three time zones, for an incredible distance of nearly five thousand miles.
And that key? The key is the spur, a link if you will, connecting the Florida National Scenic Trail to trails now being built in Alabama and Georgia, to ultimately connect to that grand old trail, The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, thence to The International Appalachian Trail in Canada and the Cliffs of Forillon at Cap Gaspé, Quebec Province.
This spur, now most nearly complete to the Alabama state line, is a result of the foresight, inspiration and dedication of members of Western Gate. And most recently, and again as a result of the urging by members of Western Gate, this link has been incorporated into and made part of the Florida National Scenic Trail. Thanks folks, thanks all–the great visionaries with Western Gate–your labors are making possible the dream of those of us who envision such a grand scheme, a trail, perhaps to become known as The Eastern Continental Trail (ECT), stretching from the Caribbean Sea at the Gulf of Mexico in Key West, Florida, to the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cap Gaspé, Quebec.
On that dream, and on that trail now will I sleep soundly tonight.
Wednesday–January 10, 2001
I’m awakened this morning by two vehicles arriving at the lake. Folks from the Florida Fresh Water Fish and Game Commission are down by the boat ramp taking water samples from Hurricane Lake. Soon comes another vehicle to stop by my campsite. It’s Gary Booker. He’s come to let me know how much he’s enjoyed my Web page and to wish me well on the remainder of my hike through Florida.
It’s another cold morning, but the sun is up and already warming the day nicely. I break camp and cross the earthen impoundment that forms Hurricane Lake, thence to begin my hike on Wiregrass Trail. The hike today is off the roadway on beautifully cut and maintained treadway through the Blackwater River State Forest. The trail undulates thither and yon and up and down across red, clay-based sandy domes inhabited by tall majestic stands of longleaf pine, carpeted beneath and all along by tufty-tough clusters of wiregrass. From dome to gently rising dome goes the trail thence to descend down and through tightly woven thickets of turkey oak, to cross seeps and delightful little clear-flowing brooks. Blackwater River State Forest is the largest state forest in Florida and, when combined with the Conecuh National Forest in Alabama, the expanse forms the largest contiguous longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem in the world, a system that once covered over 60 million acres here in the southern coastal plain. Of this grand expanse of pine and grass, less than three million acres now remain. The good news is that, although reduced to 2% of its original size, this ecosystem still supports clusters of red-cockaded woodpeckers and bogs containing five different species of carnivorous pitcher plants. Also, the corner has been turned. Active, prescribed burns, essential to the balance within this ecosystem, are now part of the annual management program, and thousands of acres previously in slash pine plantations are now being converted back to the longleaf pine that has historically dominated Blackwater River State Forest’s sandy soils.
The Wiregrass Trail soon connects to the Jackson Red Ground Trail, which continues through the rolling forestlands of pine and grass. My planned destination today was the second shelter just past Old Martin Road, but I arrive to find vehicles passing right next the shelter, and no water source. So I quickly decide to move along to another spot more remote where water is nearby. Within a mile does the trail descend again to a clear little seep. Here I gather water, then to continue to a small clearing beneath the gently whispering pine. Here I pitch my little Nomad tent, get a fine cooking and warming fire going and settle in for the evening.
Thursday–January 11, 2001
Raindrops on my tent roust me just before six-thirty, and I hasten to break camp and be on my way before the sky opens. I no sooner get on the trail than I must duck under a pine to prevent getting totally soaked while donning my poncho. The remainder of Jackson Red Ground Trail follows mostly old open and grassy woods roads, the rain following along as I approach the end of it at Red Rock Road. Just across begins the Juniper Creek Trail.
I’ve been looking and looking with heightened anticipation to seeing vegetation indigenous to the subtropics and the south. A few days ago, I came upon my first tupelo and bay, and today, here just a short distance south on the Juniper Creek Trail I spot the first scrub palmetto to be seen. My anticipation continues, however, as I look forward with much excitement to seeing my first cabbage palm.
This Juniper Creek Trail is a beautiful trail, professionally laid out and constructed. It meanders up and down and around the countless dune-like mounds and ridges, and crosses many sandy washes and little spring-fed brooks feeding Juniper Creek all along. As the terrain undulates and changes, so too does the striking diversity of plants abruptly change–so the trail goes. To the folks at Western Gate Chapter FTA: certainly you know that Juniper Creek is a treasure chest of natural wonders. And the key to this treasure trove? The key is the trail you have constructed–it unlocks the beauty of this special place for all to see and enjoy. Thanks!
Exiting Juniper Creek Trail, I’m once again on the roadwalk, first crossing the bridge over Blackwater River then on the macadam into Harold. Nearing the little community, I begin looking for the American flag; that’s the easiest way I’ve found to locate the post office. But alas, there is only one building along the highway, a canoe outpost/convenience store–no American flag anywhere. Entering the store, I inquire as to the location of the Harold Post Office. “No post office in Harold anymore; used to be right here in the store, but that was a long time ago,” replied the lady behind the register. Oh my, now isn’t this great! I’d looked up the ZIP code for Harold while in Wing; 32563, that’s the number, and that’s where I sent my bounce box, general delivery. “But I’m expecting a package; it was sent to Harold at 32563. Where the heck did it go?” I exclaim. “Beats me,” says the lady, “Maybe Milton, maybe Holt. Beats me.” Aww, this is just great. All my maps, data and medications are in that box.
I leave the store in a funk-driven drear as the rain-driven drear of the day continues, and as I head west toward Key West, which is way to the east and south of here. There’s much traffic on US90, big trucks, and they’re flying. I must turn and bow down to brace against their repeated flooding blasts. I manage to get away from it for a short distance by moving to the old brick road running along that once carried less frequent and much slower traffic between Pensacola to Jacksonville. At the blinker I finally turn south once again.
I was hoping to reach the main east/west line of the Florida Trail today at FSR211, but as I hike toward the I-10 interchange, the rainstorm starts throwing fits, passing in waves, bringing buckets of water. I’m soaked, cold and tired as I reach the Red Carpet Motel, and here I decide to call it a day. I yogi a fair hiker trash deal out of Jo the proprietor, call for a pizza delivered and settle in for the night.
Friday–January 12, 2001
I made a call last evening to George Brinkman, and arrangements were made for he and Tom Daniel to pick me up at the intersection of FL87 and FSR211, just south of Yellow River, at noon today.
The day begins overcast, but the rain, which had joined and accompanied me most all of yesterday, has ended. I’ve a very short hike today–only six miles–so I linger in my room, working on correspondence until nearly ten before venturing out to continue the roadwalk south. At FSR211 I’ll reach the main east/west leg of the westernmost section of the FT that begins some forty-five miles to the west at Fort Pickens/Gulf Islands National Seashore. From FSR211 I’ll be given a ride to Fort Pickens, and from there I’ll begin my hike east, then south, on the main FT treadway.
Reaching FSR211 now, I have completed the hike o’er the spur connecting the main FT to the Conecuh NF in Alabama and ultimately to trails that will lead on north. This connector trail is becoming more and more important in the grand scheme of things, as has to do with a trail traversing the breadth of the entire eastern North American continent. Vagabond Rick has pointed up the importance of this trail most eloquently in his outline titled Florida Trail Data, so I’ll let him explain:
“It is fitting that FNST certification be granted for this connector trail to honor the vision and efforts of FTA’s pioneers who long ago developed this trail which has stood isolated from the rest of the FT for so long. A new day has dawned for the Jackson Red Ground Trail which along with the Juniper Creek Trail to the south and the Wiregrass Trail to the north is the gateway into/exiting Florida.”
I no sooner drop my pack and find a comfortable place to sit than come George and Tom. I load up and we head for Jackson Guard, headquarters for Eglin Air Force Base located in Niceville. At Jackson Guard I’ll request permits to enter and cross the reservation at Eglin.
A gentleman has been waiting in the reception area and as I turn, permits in hand, George introduces me to Michael Stewart, reporter with the Fort Walton Beach Daily News. Michael has come to interview me, to hear about this grand scheme, a trail covering the breadth of the eastern North American continent, and about this remarkable adventure, “Odyssey 2000.” He shows much interest, and we spend a good while together. After the interview George drives me to a place where the FT crosses the road. Here waits Debi Houssermann, photographer with the Daily News. We hike down the trail a ways, and she takes many pictures. On the way back to Pensacola, George and Tom drive over and show me some of the route I’ll be taking from Pensacola Beach.
In the evening now, and at George’s home in Gulf Breeze, I meet his wife, Annette. A fine evening meal awaits, and my bed is made. What a chock-full day; I am very tired.
Saturday–January 13, 2001
George has made arrangements for me to meet members of the Western Gate Chapter FTA this morning at Fort Pickens, where we’ll have the opportunity to do some hiking together. So after coffee and a light breakfast, George, Annette and I head for the old fort.
I’ve been told about the beauty of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, but I had not expected, nor had I prepared to see anything quite so stunning and grand. The shimmering aquamarine waters that are the Straits of Florida–the Keys–have always had such a profound impact on me. The crystalline turquoise glow of those waters, lighting the sky with blinding brilliance and color, have always overloaded my senses, throwing them full-tilt.
Oh my, here we go again; it’s full-tilt time once more! As we pass the entrance to Gulf Islands National Seashore and proceed now toward Fort Pickens, and looking to the Gulf, I am presented with the most stunning and breathtaking color, a radiant brilliance, such that I’ve never before seen! The beach is pure white, as if capped with snow, the surging surf the most iridescent beryl gem aquamarine, with the cirrus-tufted sky radiating all in such a way as to complement and play the lustrous colors full about. Traveling on, the sea appears to rise as a dome, crowning the show, and seemingly we must climb to meet it, lest we become cast into its approaching flood.
Folks are awaiting our arrival at the fort. Soon I meet Randy and Susan Creel, Tom Moody and Susan Fishbaugh. Tom Daniel and Ed Walker have also come to spend the morning. With the National Park Service, and here to welcome me, are David Ogden, Ann Folker and Beckie Mims. I must answer many questions. In awhile we all gather before the old fort for a group picture. It is a very happy time.
Standing now before the first Florida National Scenic Trail marker, I turn for one last glance to the west, for from this point will I journey no further west. We all gather together to hike the old approach road as we head east past the crumbling batteries of WWI and WWII. We hike such a short distance together, but I take much pleasure and enjoyment in the company of these new friends. After our hike, we all gather at Peg Leg Pete’s Oyster Bar on Pensacola Beach, where I am treated to lunch, compliments of the Creels. Thanks, dear folks from Western Gate, new friends all. Your kindness has brought me much joy.
Back to the Brinkmans’ lovely home, their guest once again, I retreat to my room to work my journal. In the evening we dine at one of their favorite local spots. I’ve managed only two miles of hiking today, but that’s not of concern. I’ll reach Key West in good time; I don’t need to hammer this trail anymore.
I believe the time today was spent most wisely, meeting new people and making new friends. It is the people. Ahh yes folks, indeed, it is the people!
Sunday–January 14, 2001
I can smell the coffee brewing, so I’m up and to the kitchen. George and Annette are getting ready for church. As George comes to pour my second cup, the doorbell rings. It’s Bob and Susan Fishbaugh. I met Susan at Fort Pickens yesterday, and they’ve invited me to spend the day with them; they’re here to fetch me. Plans are to travel east to Grayton Beach, to meet their friends, Edward and Ginger Moore, and to hike some with them. Ginger is the past chair of Western Gate.
I’ve been out in the Florida panhandle before, but never this far west on the Gulf beaches. Grayton Beach has the distinction of being one of the most beautiful of all of the Florida beaches. Now that we’re driving this white sand-washed bit of heaven, I can certainly see why.
The Moores have a beautiful beach home on a freshwater lake overlooking this grand storyland. We spend the day sharing each other’s company, enjoying a hike, and enjoying their lovely place. In the evening and back now at the Fishbaughs’ I delight in being with these new friends and relish in the comforts that being trailside does not provide.
Monday–January 15, 2001
The trail today will be like no other you’ve ever seen or experienced, unless you’re hiking the Florida National Scenic Trail, or unless you’re on this grand Eastern Continental Trail, for today does the path cross over to follow the seashore all along, a mystic ribbon of surf-washed peaceful paradise extending all the way to Pensacola Beach.
If you have not had occasion to enter and wander this suspended realm of silence and surf, where the only horizons are the limits of your tomorrows and yesterdays, where the only moment-to-moment earthly bindings are the mist of the sea blending the sand, surf, and sky–then you must certainly come–you must come taste the salt on your lips and the sand on your feet. Here are the wings of silence and the winds of time. They will lift and carry you to places never before visited or even imagined. There are trails I know well. Some lead into magic mountains, while others lead across the mist of the mind.
Plans are to meet George Brinkman at Pegleg Pete’s, have lunch, then hike together to the north of Pensacola Beach to where the trail leaves the walkway to enter the dunes on the sound. This plan works great, and in the afternoon, right on cue, Susan comes to fetch us and I bid farewell to George, another wonderful new friend.
I spend the evening once more with the Fishbaughs, enjoying the comforts of “home.”
Tuesday–January 16, 2001
All the folks that I’ve met, members of this Western Gate Chapter FTA, are so proud, so fired-up about the part they have and are continuing to play in this grand scheme, a trail the entire width and breadth of Florida. And indeed, a spur they are building that links near the entire breadth of the eastern North American continent. Susan Fishbaugh, a true-to-form member of Western Gate, is certainly enthusiastic, and this morning, as we head into the dunes north of Pensacola Beach, her contagious excitement cannot be contained. The morning brings a cold, swirling mist, but this not-quite-perfect weather does not dampen Susan’s enthusiasm, and I am caught up in the magnetic energy of it.
The trail breaks over and back and across a waving sea of sand-swept dunes as we are guided by the familiar orange FT blazes painted on posts all along. And so the path meanders for over three miles, to the very edge of the sound, which presents its emerald-jewel spectacle even in the somber gloom of the day. This dream-spun hike soon ends back at the Gulf, where I bid yet another dear new friend farewell. Susan, to you and all at Western Gate, thanks!
Crossing the highway, the trail continues on the white sandy beach for better than seven miles, merging to a point on the surf-swept horizon. By late afternoon I arrive at the Hollidome in Pensacola Beach. Here I call Gary and Millie Buffington (Bear Bag and Sweet Pea, AT 2000 thru-hikers), who have invited me to spend time with them on my way through.
In awhile come Gary and Millie with Catherine and Joyce, Gary’s mother and aunt, and we’re off to supper, then to spend a very enjoyable evening at their lovely home.
Wednesday–January 17, 2001
At my urging, Gary has decided to hike out with me from the Hollidome, and we’re off on a cool, clear morning a little before nine. The FT leads out on the bike path, and at the intersection leading to Pensacola we stop to talk with some folks out for their morning walk. In a few moments, my attention is drawn to a young man behind me, a hiker. I turn, and to my amazement, before me now stands Spider. This is astonishing! Our paths first crossed way north on the AT over five month, and 2,500 miles ago. We both started our hikes at Forillon; we’re both bound for Key West. We hike together for awhile, enjoying each other’s company. I feel such kindred ties with this quiet, gentle man. It has been unspoken, but we both understand that our journeys are a spiritual walk. We are from different corners of the world. Our cultures and religions are so totally different, but yet–on this trail, we are the same. Spider soon turns east toward Niceville where he’ll obtain his permits to enter Eglin and I continue north on FL87. Good-bye Spider. I feel our paths will cross again.
Gary hikes along for another hour, then turns to return to the Hollidome and his car. He’ll come then to fetch me as I complete my hike today at RR221, where tomorrow I’ll continue on east through Eglin Air Force Base on the main thru path of the FT.
In the evening, Millie has prepares a special meal just for me. What a joy being with these dear friends again.
Thursday–January 18, 2001
My bounce box has apparently gone to its final rest somewhere in postal purgatory. It’s disappeared. This morning Gary puts out an APB in hopes of tracking it down. So the next hour and a half is spent talking mostly to recordings, and finally, to a few postal employees. No luck.
Lee spends just a short time with me, for he must return to work. It’s my fault, getting started so late. Thanks for coming to hike with me, Lee I Joe.
Today the trail heads due east on a road of pure, red clay through Eglin. There is little traffic, many animal signs–deer, turkey, raccoon and armadillo tracks–and bear scat, lots of bear scat.
I arrive at Gin Hole Campsite just before sunset as the day turns cold and cloudy. I pitch on the banks of the Yellow River, get a fine cooking and warming fire going and settle in just as the thunderstorm arrives for the night. I’m (not so gently) rocked to sleep by an interesting and reverberating ensemble–the drums of native thunder echoing the drums of alien thunder from the bombs of Eglin.
Friday–February 2, 2001
It’s been two weeks since my last entry. Most of those days have been a blur as I continue hiking almost due east–even though my hike is a north-south adventure.
I remember hiking through a couple of new sections that have been constructed on the Eglin reservation. The first began at FL85 and ran some seven-plus miles to Jr. Walton Pond. The second picked up from Jr. Walton and continued on to FL285, a distance of some nine miles. These trails crossed several creeks, many with low banks, where thickets of titi (please say tie tie!) grow. Between the unspoiled, spring-fed brooks I passed through well drained, crowned forests of longleaf pine and turkey oak. Pearl, Silver, and Honey Creeks are an ever-dwindling part of the north Florida wilds, where pristine waterways continue flowing even during seasons of drought. It was a joy being back in the woods again, thankful for those many blessings–the beauty and serenity only seen and felt from those new vantages. The Western Gate Chapter, FTA, takes great pride in what they’ve accomplished, and well they should. Indeed, all involved, the USAF and the FTA, should be pleased with their labor and the fruits of their cooperative effort. I am certainly proud to be a member of the Western Gate Chapter, FTA!
I spent a couple of days with Steve Webb and his FTA trailbuilding crew, mostly young folks with the Student Conservation Association (SCA). On the second day, the kids came out and hiked with me. It was a hoot. We climbed and crisscrossed tall, forested areas, each filled with pure stands of longleaf pine. Between, the trail dipped to ford numerous meandering spring-fed brooks protected by tight walls of titi. Up and down and on and on we went as the kids kept trading point. Toward the end of the day, the terrain turned most interesting as we entered the lowlands formed by the Alaqua River. At the river, the trail became submerged in a mass of tangle and roots as it followed the serpentine oxbow shoreline. Out to a narrow point it lead, the rushing river closing on both sides. As the river consumed the little point, I became suddenly gripped with the realization that somehow the trail had to cross that wide, deep-flowing river. Sure enough, right at the very tip of land, there was a huge oak tree down, its trunk on one bank and the upper branches touching the other. And there we crossed. Limbs had been trimmed from the tree, and the bark was discolored where folks had inched and shuffled their way. Somehow I managed to get across, the kids right behind. We were very tired after that thirty-one mile day, but it was a memorable, joyful time.
I met up with Spider again, and we hiked together for awhile. But mostly, as usual, mine was a solitary time. Near Pine Log State Park, our paths crossed with that of *Luke Gnome Denton. Luke had begun his northbound hike on the ECT from Key West on November 1st, and was over 1,000 miles into his northbound trek. We spent a great time together, sharing the joy of our meeting and the excitement of our respective journeys. Later, hiking the Econfina Creek Trail, Spider and I spent an evening by the creek. There, I remember being serenaded by a large pack of coyotes.
The following weekend was a most enjoyable time at the Ruck, an annual hiker gathering held in the Georgia Appalachian Mountains. Lee Lee I Joe Parker and his son, Trooper, had given me a ride. Many friends were present. I made a short, impromptu talk, and then showed off my pack and its contents–which didn’t take long. I got to spend a few minutes with my dear friend and Webmaster, Greg Rockin’ Roller Smith, and he told me about Backpacker Magazine doing a great book review on Ten Million Steps. I really got my batteries charged!
I’ve gotten great use from my New Balance 803, cross-trainer, low-cut shoes. Six to seven hundred miles per pair has not been unusual. The pair I wore entering Bradwell Bay, a long swampy section, had nearly eight hundred miles on them. They’d sure taken a beating and were showing much wear, but they made it through just fine. I’m finding that low-cut cross-trainers, designed for off-road running, work quite well on the FT, what with much of the trail being submerged. In ’98, during my northbound ECT hike, I wore an old pair of Vasque Sundowners, an above-the-ankle, canvass/vulcanized lightweight boot. They worked okay, but these NB 803s have served me much better. These shoes have a mesh vent above the toes, which lets water in, but which also evacuates and pumps water right back out. So, after emerging from the numerous quags, I’ve found to my delight that the foot sloshing doesn’t last nearly as long. With my lightweight GVP G-4 pack, my Leki trekking poles, and these great NB 803s, I’m getting through the Florida swamps just fine.
The hike around and down along the Sopchoppy River was most enjoyable, even in the rain. Jim Restless Wandering Davis, another FTA crew leader, and the guys and gals with his SCA team, have done a fantastic job with their bridge-building project. I counted thirteen bridges!
Today I entered the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to continue my journey east. Oh yes, I’m still hiking east. Although Odyssey 2000 is a southbound trek o’er most-near the breadth of the entire eastern North American continent, the AMT, and now the ECT, have taken me not only south, but also west, clear into the Central Time Zone. It’s hard to believe that at Fort Pickens, in the Florida Panhandle, I was actually closer to Beaumont, Texas than to Jacksonville, Florida. So, for the last near-400 miles I’ve been traveling almost due east, and this eastern jaunt will continue another 100-plus miles before I finally turn the corner to head south into the mainland of Florida.
The trail through the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge will lead me on a journey across some of Florida’s most beautiful and unspoiled lands, a secret known to few. Indeed, St. Marks is the crown jewel of the FT. The next few days will bring delightful hiking. Slowly but surely, the days are becoming longer, the temperatures warmer, and the winter less harsh. This is my payoff–from here to Key West I’ll be hiking stunning and delightful treadway, and I’ll be with many wonderful friends.
Today I’m headed for the little town of St. Marks. I soon reach Purifying Creek and Oyster Bay at Marsh Point, at the very shores of the Gulf of Mexico. On this trail and for the past hour have I first entered the natural environs of the Sabal palmetto palm. I have waited so long and hiked so far to reach them, and here they stand now, so majestic and proud, rustling their fronds in the gentle breeze as if to say, “Welcome! We’re so glad you’re here!” And, oh yes, am I so very glad to finally be in their company. What better place could this reunion have taken place than in the beautiful St. Marks!
In the cool of the evening and as the day wanes, I reach the quaint little “can’t get there from here” village of St. Marks. The road and the trail dead end at the river, at Poseys Restaurant, and there I go for their famous shrimp basket. I linger, am greeted by many, and as I prepare to depart, I’m offered a ride to Allen’s Shell Island Fish Camp some two miles west.
This has become such a long journey, but I have found much good, much peace.
*Luke Gnome Denton and Candi Sonnefeld departed Key West, Florida on November 1st, 2000. Candi left the trail in St. Marks, Florida, ending her hike. Luke continued on to the Cliffs of Forillon, for his hike, a distance of some 4,800 miles.
Saturday–February 3, 2001
At the fish camp store this morning I meet Kenneth Hobbs, Allen’s cousin. He’s been working here with Allen for years. Allen and Ruthie are on vacation, so Ken offers to shuttle me across the St. Marks River tomorrow morning. This St. Marks is way too wide, deep and swift to try and ford/swim. Approaching, and before reaching the river from the south in ’98, I had considered garbage-bagging my pack and doggie-paddling it across, but once I stood, gawking from the banks of the river, better judgment kicked in and prevailed. So instead of swimming, I commenced hollering and hooting until a worker at Poseys Restaurant across heard me and sent Allen to fetch me over.
I got in too late yesterday for the post office. So I head there first thing this morning. I was looking forward to treating my tired puppies to a new pair of cross-trainers, as the ones I’m wearing have over 800 miles stomped out of them and they’re all tired out. But alas, problem is I didn’t give my sponsor, the kind and generous folks at New Balance, enough time to send out a new pair. So it’ll be another 150 miles before my tootsies get another chance at some new treads. When they come in here at St. Marks, Deborha (yes, it’s spelled correctly!) will bounce them along to Live Oak.
Heading on toward downtown now I stop in at “Bo” Lynn’s Grocery to inquire about where I might get some sewing done. My pants and water bottle pouch are coming apart. My good friend Norma Jean fixed my shorts while I was back visiting my sister Salle Anne in Missouri; seems everything I’ve got is starting to fall apart. Perhaps I’ll simply collapse and disintegrate into a dark little smudge-of-a-puddle at the monument in Key West! The kind storekeeper, Miss Joy, gives some thought to my inquiry then disappears. In a moment she returns from the back, talking on a portable phone. “Just a minute, I’ll find out,” I hear her say, then she turns and asks, “You the hiker come all the way from Canada?” With puzzlement I reply, “Yes, I’ve hiked here from Canada.” Returning the phone to her ear she says, “This is the man…okay I’ll tell him, thanks!” Miss Joy’s just gotten off the phone with her friend, Florence Clore. “Flo’ll fix your pants,” she says with a grin. “Let me show you how to get to her place.”
Word sure travels fast here in St. Marks. At Poseys last, I’d gone right away for their incredible shrimp basket. I’d feasted on that in “98 and spent most all day yesterday thinking about it. While at Poseys and enjoying my shrimp, I struck up a conversation with Ted Pusey (yes, it too, is spelled correctly!), oyster shucker and bartender par excellence here at Poseys. Ted is responsible for making Poseys the most famous topless place around–for oysters, that is! Anyway, Ted gave me a ride out to the fish camp last night and on the way I told him about “Odyssey 2000.” He right away told a friend of his, who told Flo, who just asked Miss Joy if that was me!
In the afternoon, I while away my time taking in the sights around St. Marks. Here is a remarkable history, much to do with the New World. At the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers is the jut of land where the first ships were built and launched by the white man. Preceded only a short time by establishments in St. Augustine, fortifications appeared here at San Marcos de Apalache. The site’s history began in 1528 with the arrival of Narvaez, followed in 1539 by Hernando de Soto. I enjoy hiking the trail through the ruins and seeing these historic fortifications.
In the afternoon I head once more to Poseys Restaurant. At this sitting, I go for the grouper basket, another great choice. I now recommend the weary thru-hiker stay at least two days in St. Marks, the first to have the shrimp basket at Poseys and the second to have the grouper basket–oh yes, at Poseys!
In the evening, I’m picked up by Howard Pardue, to be whisked away once more to Tallahassee, this time to the lovely home of Linda eArThworm Patton. Many members of the Apalache Chapter, FTA are present to greet me, along with Jim Davis and two of his Wakulla crewmembers, Nathan and Lilah. What a great potluck get-together and what a grand evening talking gear and telling trail lies. It was a lighthearted time, filled with happiness and much fun. Thanks, Linda, and thanks, again, Howard!
Being a vagabond, full of wanderlust–well, it sure has its price. Oft there are times of loneliness and doubt, even moments of despair, but it’s worth it, to be on the go–to be free!
Sunday–February 4, 2001
Allen’s cousin, Kenneth Hobbs, has offered me a ride across the St. Marks River this morning. As I wait in the little store at Shell Island Fish Camp, talking to Liz, the storekeeper, and as Ken helps some customers get their boats out of dry storage and into the river, in comes Spider. I was hoping he’d make it. I sent his brother an email a few days ago letting him know my plans. So this is great; we’ll get to hike together again!
Spider hadn’t hiked all the way to the river, so I continue draining the coffeepot as he hikes on over to Poseys. The last boat Ken dropped in the water belongs to a fellow named Ed, from Tallahassee. Ed comes in and stops by the table, where I’m finishing my blueberry muffin, and the rest of Liz’s coffee. He’s heading up the St. Marks and offers me a ride, thus saving Ken the trip.
We’re soon off to an absolutely perfect morning, cruising the no-wake up the St. Marks River toward Poseys. Spider’s waiting right there at the dock. We drift in, pick him up and are quickly across the river to where the FT picks up again as it heads toward the old ghost town of Port Leon, through the magnificent St. Marks Wildlife Refuge.
The trail continues south along the old trambed from where a trestle once crossed the St. Marks. This trestle vanished, as did the little settlement of Port Leon and all its inhabitants vanish during a hurricane that swept through over 100 years ago. In Port Leon, we climb the rickety, rotting steps all the way to the top of the old fire tower to get a good look–at the tops of the towering pine! Meandering now, the trail follows the old tramway out and into the marshes that fringe the bays and tidal basins of St. Marks. Here we see our first alligator, then, within the next two miles, many, many more huge gators! In awhile, heading toward us we see a solitary hiker, first on the far-sweeping and distant horizon that presents such a panorama all about, thence closer and closer. Finally, closing the gap, we’re greeted by Restless Wandering, with just as grand a sweeping smile! He’s come out to meet us and to hike back through the remainder of this remarkable St. Marks with Spider and me.
Together we hike along, enjoying this perfect day, and the seemingly endless beauty of live oak and cabbage palm hammocks. Toward evening and nearing the eastern extent of the St. Marks Trail do we see yet another hiker approaching. Tall, lanky, huge pack with articles and gadgets dangling comes *Joe Wild Flamingo Masters. “Nimblewill Nomad,” he exclaims, huge smile now, as he drops his pack to greet us. What a joyful time, exchanging trail talk and wishing each other all good success. Joe is forty-seven days out of Key West, bound for the Cliffs of Forillon, some eight months and 3,800-odd miles away, and yet ahead, in Canada.
Back at the crew truck now and loading our packs, we all sigh that sort of sigh that proves the truth of it, a feeling of contentment that comes only from such a splendid and memorable day.
Jim heads up another of the FTA work crews, this one also made up of guys and gals from the SCA. They’re busy building bridges along the Sopchoppy River and extending the trail northeastward up Econfina Creek. They’re headquartered and housed at the USFS Wakulla Work Center. That’s where we’re headed, soon to be unloaded and in for the night. The kids are all bubbly with excitement as Spider and I arrive.
Monday–February 5, 2001
Spider and I have the opportunity to spend a day and do some work with the Wakulla SCA Crew. The job they’re on today entails hauling building materials to two bridge sites along Sopchoppy Creek, an easy job, you’d think. However, as is often the case with this kind of work, the little gulches across which these bridges will span are pretty much inaccessible. So after a half-dozen pack trips each, all the two-bys, four-bys, cables, turnbuckles and anchors have finally been lugged to the sites. By this time it’s well into the afternoon, so Jim lets us call it a day. No argument on my part. Jim’s a big guy. When I saw him pick up only one board and head into the woods with it this morning, I knew right away that my work was cut out for me. I quickly found, as I suspected, that one board is plenty to tote, for any distance more than half a mile, even for the big guys. With this kind of work, patience is a grand virtue. I have a new appreciation now for all that’s involved in building this great Florida Trail.
In the evening, Spider and I are invited to join the crew as they attend the annual meeting of the Panhandlers Chapter, FTA. After a hard day and the long journey to the Black Angus in Panama City, we all have quite an appetite. My prime rib, courtesy of Herbert Robertson of the Panhandlers, really hits the spot.
A fine evening is enjoyed by all, but I’m totally pooped by the time we get back to the work center. No problem sleeping this night.
Tuesday–February 6, 2001
In only two short days I’ve become such good friends with all this great SCA crew. Good-byes are always so tough it seems, for always, does it seem that the time to say good-bye must come. So–so long Jim, Nathan, Lincoln, Lilah, Tia and Mark. I’ll miss you all, dear friends. Jim shuttles us back to the trail, and we’re soon on our way east again.
I’ve been looking forward to this day for such a long time, for this is the day I’ll finally hike the Aucilla River Rises and Sinks. I blue-blazed this section in ’98, had to, due to the flooding caused by El Niño. But today I’ll get to see this amazing river, a river that disappears beneath the earth only to surface again, and then just as quickly, disappear once more!
Oh what a remarkable hike this is turning to be. It’s a beautiful clear, warm day, the sun playing hide-and-seek in and out of the grotto-like yawns that form the limestone sinks all along this amazing natural wonder. The trail winds up and down and around and through the many and varied limestone formations. Tell folks there’s rocks along the trail in Florida, and they won’t believe you. But believe me, there are rocks along the trail in Florida! In awhile the river ends its disappearing act. As the terrain begins climbing, the river rushes and cascades all along in riffles and rapids, creating the most pleasant and joyful- sounding place to hike. It’s by one of these especially happy little tumbling waters that make us tarry for the longest time. Seems this is it for today. And what a better spot to call it a day. There’s a great campsite right by with grassy tenting areas, complete with a large fire ring, and there’s plenty of firewood all about. Here, Spider and I set up. A cooking fire is a snap and I soon have my rice bubbling and jumping.
Nature is always full of new surprises, which by now should certainly be no surprise. But the surprises today have proven to be most fascinating, most rewarding…what a great hiking day.
Wednesday–February 7, 2001
The peaceful and soothing sounds of the river rapids quickly worked their magic last night, sending me off to blissful, restful sleep. What great pleasure, not having to climb into my bag liner for a change, the night being warm enough to sleep without the need to bury my head in my bag hood.
The day dawns foggy but clear, the sun quickly burning off the early haze. We’re off again along the upper reaches of the Aucilla, the trail passing through majestic stands of bald cypress, complete with vast areas of cypress knees, their little children in great numbers all about.
The day turns hot. There is no shade, no breeze. The trail continues along sandy stretches of logging roads that converge and emerge in web-like fashion.
Following along the blazed trail proves some guesswork, some uncertainty. By early afternoon we reach the Econfina River where we retreat to the shade for a brief lunch.
Back on the trail, we immediately take a wrong turn, the road leading us directly away. In awhile we accept the folly of continuing and turn to retrace our steps. By late afternoon, and as the day finally turn cooler, we reach US19/US27, our destination for the day.
From here plans are to hitchhike into Perry to stay at a local motel for the night, but no one will stop for us–appearing as we must to passersby–a couple of bums. With evening approaching we begin walking the shoulder toward Perry, some twelve miles to the southeast. In a couple of hours we arrive at the Perry Rest Area where we’re able to call a taxi to take us on in. Never had to call a taxi before, but I’m glad to get to town. The driver takes us to Gandy Motel. After a soothing shower and a little rest, I manage to hurt myself at the Golden Corral AYCE buffet. This has been a knock-out-the-miles day.
Thursday–February 8, 2001
Today will be a day of R&R. I’ve got a bad sunburn on my face and arms, and my feet hurt. I did get my new NB 803s, in a funny roundabout way–chased down a UPS driver, he had them! There is some break-in time, it seems, even for running shoes. I’ll give my poor doggies a break today. It’s catch-up time for correspondence and journal entries…while Spider reads Hobbit. It’s good to be spending time with this friend again.
Friday–February 9, 2001
Spider and I head to Golden Corral for breakfast and on the way I have my thumb out. Now comes the taxi driver that brought us to town Wednesday. He stops, gives us a ride to US19/US27, and we’re back on the trail a little after eight. This worked great; no breakfast, but that’s okay!
The hike today is a roadwalk through timber company lands of Gilman/Foley. Most the entire area has undergone recent harvest, new pine planted, so there’s precious little shade, and less water. We do find water at the culverts by Econfina River but to our dismay, the river is not running, the water stagnant. A gator, sunning on the bank right by flops in, churning up the already muddy soup. So much for this water source.
Spider and I hike together very comfortably at a pace a tad under four miles per hour. On these wide woods roads we travel along side-by-side, yakking and enjoying each other’s company. Occasionally one of us will stop, the other continuing on, with the one dropping behind catching up usually within twenty minutes or so. Just after lunch today Spider pulls off, and I continue on. In twenty minutes I listen but he is not coming, so I stop, turn and look back down the long, straight road. I’m surprised to find he’s nowhere in sight. I shrug it off, figure he’ll be along in awhile, and keep on trucking. By mid-afternoon, and after making a couple of wrong turns, then returning, I’m thinking he’s now ahead of me. I hike on to our planned destination for the evening, the culverts at the intersection of Madison 5 and Black Lake 3, but he is not here.
I’m able to tolerate heat very well, but some folks aren’t. Spider is a veteran hiker, backpacker and woodsman, so I know not to worry. This has been a very hot, very long day, so I finally conclude that he pulled off to rest awhile and probably fell asleep.
Though there’s not much out here, this has been an interesting day. I’ve seen gators, turtles and many small birds, especially robins. I’ve heard ruff grouse for the first time since leaving the mountains, and I’ve heard the shrill squawk and have seen the first pair of sandhill cranes. The arachnids are out, and I’ve had to start brushing cobwebs. I’ve also suffered additional sunburn on my arms and face–and the trail goes on.
I pitch camp, get a small cooking fire going, fetch water, fix my porridge, and then roll in for the night.
Saturday–February 10, 2001
I am filled with excitement, for this day I will hike the Suwannee River for the first time and I will again see my dear friends of many years, Ron and Judy King. I called and talked with Ron from Perry and we’ve made arrangements to meet today at three where US90 crosses the Suwannee River.
The forecast is for 30% chance of rain. Sure enough, the day dawns cloudy and the rain comes soon. It proves a great hiking day though, with the rain gentle and the day cool. By noon I reach the banks of the Suwannee River. For the next three days, I’ll be hiking along this historic and grand old river, and from first appearances it’s going to be a memorable, joy-filled hike. As I continue now, the riverbank is nearly a bluff, with huge live oak, hickory, maple and gum all along, displaying such a proud, timeless presence. The oaks alone seem so tenacious, clinging precariously as they do to the sloping banks. The maple are beginning to bud, their crimson show so striking against the grays and browns of winter. Ahh yes, it is a joy to see spring approaching! Even with my poncho on I haven’t broken a sweat, for the rain of the day is providing such a pleasant coolness.
In awhile I can hear the far-off rumble of traffic from I-10, for the trail now takes me back north across this interstate, almost to Georgia again. It has been nearly two months since I departed Georgia, but in less than two days I could be back there hiking once more. Indeed, it is a very long way across the Florida Panhandle as I’ve continually hiked east–and north.
The monotony of the interstate din continues as the trail crosses it, then turns to follow alongside for the longest distance. The winding path finally returns to the river, but I’m no sooner out of earshot from I-10 than I begin hearing the traffic din on US90. My introduction to the Suwannee is not disappointing however, as I know there will be many quiet and peaceful miles of trekking its banks during the next few days.
Sunday–February 11, 2001
On the way in last to Ronnie’s, we stopped in Live Oak for the essentials, pizza and beer, enough for the whole family. You see, Judy has four sisters–two in Michigan and two right here nearby, in Live Oak. Over the years, I’ve also become great friends with these gals and their families. So last night we were together again–Dave and Erie, Bob and Shirley, Ron and Judy, and the old Nomad. Folks, the Suwannee is beautiful, the mystic old Appalachians are beautiful, the distant, forbidding lands of the Canadian tundra are indeed beautiful, but far and above all of these wonders of nature stand the people, the beautiful people! It’s the people that make the journey, it’s the people that make the odyssey, and it’s the people that make the memories, the priceless, precious, everlasting memories!
After a most-restful night’s sleep and a fine breakfast prepared by Judy, she and Ronnie shuttle me back to the trail. It’s another overcast day, just the least bit cool–delightful for hiking. Today I’ll journey through the Suwannee River State Park past ancient hammocks of live oak, thence to a roadwalk across the Alapaha River to again head toward the Suwannee at the entrance to the Holton Creek Wildlife Management Area.
The day passes quickly, and I’m soon at the little rustic, tin-roofed Y’all Mart/Adams Country Store. Shortly come Ronnie and Dave to fetch me. Back at Live Oak now, we head for the Colonel’s and a huge bucket of his finger-lickin’ finest. Then it’s back to Ron and Judy’s for another grand evening.
The life of a hiker can be great, don’t you know. The life of this hiker is certainly great!
Monday–February 12, 2001
Ronnie has two black labs: Duper, age nine, 140 pounds; and Clayton, age three, 110 pounds. In Publix the other evening, and as Ronnie saw me picking up a bag of chips, he just looked at me, smiled and said, “You don’t need to buy any chips.” I didn’t question what he meant by that, but when I got to his place I understood. Folks, this man has chips, bags and bags of chips–everywhere! Come to find, Ronnie’s neighbor is a Wise distributor, and so it seems that when he gets home, completing his deliveries for the day, he unloads the outdated bags by his door, where Clayton promptly appears to delicately collect them and deliver them to Ronnie! “Doesn’t your neighbor get upset with Clayton carting them off?” I ask! “Naw,” exclaims Ronnie, “He’s glad to get rid of ’em.” So here comes Clayton now, proud as can be, bright red bag of Krunchers Kettle-Cooked Mesquite gently clutched in his jaws! Oh yes, and later for an encore does he follow up with an orange bag of Smokin’ Grill Burger ‘n Fixin’s…dated January 24th, not bad Clayton, not bad at all. Give him a dog biscuit, Ronnie!
Ronnie and Judy cart me back to Y’all Mart, and I’m off on yet another cool, overcast day. A short walk down a grassy woods road and I’m standing before one of Florida’s remarkable natural wonders: crater-shaped Holton Spring. From this huge hole in the ground flow millions of gallons of water, creating a small river all its own that meanders for a great distance, the trail right beside, to eventually merge with the Suwannee.
Along the Suwannee now, the trail follows beside the rim of near canyon-like formations, walls of striking white honeycombed limestone, eroded and pocked by relentless waters of the eon. And at each oxbow, dune-like mounds of blinding, pure-white sand. Ma Nature is so creative, so imaginative…how she forges her fortresses, patiently constructs her masterpieces, delicately places each speck of dust, each grain of sand, as she builds her sandcastles of time. What an inspiration, being with her–God’s loving and gracious gift to me this day!
Plans are for Dave to fetch me from the trail where it passes under US129, and at three, as I reach the underpass, he’s waiting for me. From here it’s back again to Ron and Judy’s for yet another relaxing evening.
Tuesday–February 13, 2001
Today will be a day of rest, and the fourth night in the comfort of the King’s home. I spend time in the morning on my journal entries and correspondence, then this afternoon we visit friends around.
What a great day of rest before heading into the Osceola National Forest and points south.
*Variants and spelling are pure Foster demotic, taken from his original work, “Old Folks at Home.” Stephen Collins Foster never saw the Suwannee River, nor did he ever visit Florida.
Wednesday–February 14, 2001
Judy fixes me a tank-stokin’ breakfast to send me on my way south, just as she did to send me on my way north in ’98. I’ve had such a grand time once again with these dear friends, but alas, Dave has come to get me and shuttle me back to the trail. So, as is always the case, it’s time to say good-bye. So long, Ronnie. So long, Judy. You have been so kind and so generous. Thanks, thanks so much!
The trail crosses US129 a short distance north of Live Oak, and Dave soon has me there.
Dave and me, we’ve also been good friends for many years. He’s Ronnie’s brother-in-law, Ron’s wife, Judy Jane, and Dave’s wife, Erie Belle, being sisters. Dave’s retired now and has moved to Live Oak so the sisters can be together. Same for Bob and his wife, Shirley. They’ve also moved here after retirement. What an absolutely great bunch; my extended family, if you will. It’s always fun time when the sisters are together, which makes for much joy for all. So now it’s good-bye time again. So long, Dave. It’s going to be tough keeping this day from kicking a funk on me.
I’ve got a twenty-one miler ahead, but I know it’s going to be a grand hike, for today the trail follows entirely along the Suwannee River. It starts out overcast but soon burns off, the sun out, the morn warm and pleasant. I’ve sent my bag liner home, along with my heavy, insulated gloves and a few other items, so my pack is considerably lighter now, probably in the neighborhood of twelve pounds, including food and water. At mid-morning now I hear and see the first familiar “V” squadron of Canadian honkers headed north. Oh yes, definitely a good sign!
It’s interesting how the trail here along the Suwannee goes right through people’s back yards, right between their houses and the river. Yesterday I had to climb over rope railings along a boardwalk that connected this fellow’s house to his river deck! I’ve been told that the Suwannee is classified as a scenic waterway and, as such, is protected by public lands some distance back from its banks, thus providing the corridor for the trail–even where there’s private land right next the river. Seems this might be the solution to solving the problem of roadwalking southern Alabama. For in southern Alabama are there the rivers Yellow and Conecuh, along which the trail might pass.
This day’s hiking ends far too quickly, and I’m soon at the Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center. To my delight, I’ve the place to myself, and Pat, the kind attendant, takes time to tell me about the Center and to show me around.
This FT/ECT passes some interesting places. This remarkable Center is certainly one of them. Stephen Collins Foster was a very interesting and very blessed and talented man, a pioneer if you will, for during his lifetime there existed no music business as we know it. Sound recording and radio were unheard of; no such thing as copyrights or royalties. At his death at age 37, he had 38 cents in his pocket, along with a scribbled note reading, “Dear friends and gentle hearts.” Among his many famous compositions are two that have been adopted as state songs, “Old Folks at Home,” by Florida, and “My Old Kentucky Home,” by Kentucky.
In the evening I check into the Suwannee Motel then head over to the Country Café for their special, T-bone steak and baked potato.
What a blessing, this day!
Thursday–February 15, 2001
While I was snapping a shot of the beautiful plantation-style Culture Center yesterday evening, up pulled this passenger van towing a trailer loaded with canoes. “You that long distance hiker?” asked the driver. As I stuttered to respond, I was told that Not To Worry, my friend from way back on the AT last summer, had stopped recently at American Canoe Adventure here in White Springs and showed the owner my book, Ten Million Steps. “Recognized you right away from your picture on the cover,” said Wendell Hannum, big smile on his face!
The Suwannee Motel is still run by Tom Salter. He remembered me from “Odyssey ’98,” gave me the same great hiker-trash deal! After checking in, I hoofed it over to the outpost to chat some with Wendell. Also got to meet his brother George and sister-in-law, Judy. American Canoe Adventures is a great hiker-friendly spot. Wendell has a bulletin board on the wall with maps of the FT prominently displayed, along with notes posted from this year’s FT/ECT thru-hiker class. White Springs is a great little trail town.
Today I complete the Suwannee. The weather’s been kind, the hike a most memorable time. There’s a time-encapsulated, captivating magic about this place that can’t be explained, but that can certainly be felt and experienced. It’s baffling and quite remarkable that Stephen Collins Foster sensed, and in fact came under the spell of, this mystic old river–without ever having been here or having seen it.
The remainder of this day is mostly a roadwalk as I enter the Osceola National Forest. In the forest now, and at West Tower, there are picnic tables, running water, and camping is permitted. So this is it for today.
Two miles north of here I finally turned the corner. After weeks of hiking almost due east, I’m finally headed south again. It’s hard to believe that I’ve traveled so far, over 500 miles, from Fort Pickens in the spellbinding Gulf Islands National Seashore, to finally arrive here at West Tower. But the western extreme of the Florida Panhandle is, indeed, way out there, deep in another time zone. What a remarkable amalgamation of trails, this grand ECT, the Eastern Continental Trail. On the venerable old AT, I recall oft hearing thru-hikers lament their less enjoyable experiences in dealing with the “Virginia Blues,” a funk-driven sort of mood that descends like a fog after hiking for so many, many days and miles on the trail through that longest AT state. But here on the FT/ECT, I’ve already exceeded that great distance through Virginia, seemingly heading all the while in the wrong direction, and I’ve still over 800 miles yet ahead of me, still in Florida, before reaching Key West! Ponder this if you will: Where else on earth is there such a grand, extended trail, where it’s possible for this year’s southbounders to meet this year’s northbounders–and also next year’s northbounders! On Carter Dome, on the AT late last summer I met my dear friend Jon Class V Leuschel, bound for Cap Gaspé, out of Key West. And just this month I’ve met Luke Gnome Denton and Joe Wild Flamingo Masters, bound for Cap Gaspé, out of Key West. Oh yes, I’m still bound for Key West, out off Cap Gaspé. Of all the thousands and thousands of hikers that shouldered a backpack and headed out on an extended trek in the year 2000, only two, just two, are still out here, still going! One of those intrepids is Sridhar Spider Ramasami. Spider departed the Cliffs of Forillon on June 1, 2000, on the ECT, where the Appalachian Mountains plunge to the sea at Cap Gaspé, Quebec, bound for Key West, where the trail meets the Caribbean. We’ve hiked together off and on. He’s only a day or two behind me now, on the FT, still headed for Key West, still southbound on the ECT. And the other intrepid? Oh yes, it’s the old Nomad, still headed for Key West, still southbound on the ECT.
Friday–February 16, 2001
The hike today is through some of the most majestic piney woods yet. Here are mature, expansive, far-ranging stands of longleaf, loblolly and slash pine, the understory lush and densely clustered with the evergreen broad-frond scrub palmetto. This section of the FT is under the capable care of Phil Niswander, Ranger, USFS, Osceola National Forest. I’m able to see Phil for a few moments at Olustee, where this weekend the Battle of Olustee is being reenacted. I’d planned on camping here this evening, but after seeing the mass of confusion and listening for just a short while to the annoying din, I decide to move on, right past the cattle pens, the orange-blazed FT leading right down the midway, craft and folk art booths on the left and food concession stands on the right! In ’98 this whole place was under water, with not a soul about.
Today I cross I-10 and US90 for the last time. Getting them behind me has taken awhile. I met both way out in the panhandle, first crossing them there, then again further east, and now for the third and last time, here near Olustee. Remaining, of the almost countless “I’s,” are I-4 and I-75, the latter with which I’ll play similar tag before finally putting it behind me in the Everglades.
Heading south from Olustee now, I enter the Lake Butler Wildlife Management Area. The timberlands here are owned by Georgia Pacific, the lands managed by the Florida Fresh Water Fish & Game Commission. It’s a great cooperative effort, permitting Georgia Pacific to reap the bounty of their lands through timber harvesting and at the same time allowing public access under a professionally managed government agency.
Camping is not permitted on Georgia Pacific lands. I understand and respect that regulation, so I’m really hammering the trail now, hoping to make the nearly nineteen additional miles to the south trailhead. But with the sixteen miles already covered from West Tower, it just throws me too late into the day. Thirty-five miles is way too far, and I’ve run out of water, daylight–and energy. So reluctantly, I pull up and pitch on the banks of Swift Creek. Swift Creek is not swift this day, being as slow and nearly as dry as me, only a puddle. But what a joy it is to behold–and to have. Hundreds have pitched tonight at Olustee. Most, I am sure, prefer the distraction and noise of their close encampments. Would they instead, have chosen the quiet presence of Nature and the peaceful solitude of such a place as this? Please forgive me, Georgia Pacific, but I could not stay there; so I ventured on. Know that you will not find the least trace of where I’ve camped this night.
Saturday–February 17, 2001
I’ve a short eight-mile hike into Lake Butler. I arrive there by eleven, filled with anticipation. Here, during my northbound hike in ’98, a very kind man, name of John Hamill, befriended me, and I’m anxious to renew his acquaintance and to spend some time with him again. But alas, approaching the house where John lived, the door open, a woman running a vacuum there, I somehow manage to get her attention and inquire about John. “Don’t know any John Hamill, lived here more’n a year–don’t know any John Hamill,” is her reply as she goes back to her vacuuming. I thank the lady, turn back to the street and stumble in a funk, across and toward the IGA.
The water in Swift Creek was really stagnant, and I drank only the little I needed last night to keep myself reasonably hydrated, so I’m thirsty, real thirsty. A sub shop across the way gets my attention and I head there, thinking, “Bet they’ve got plenty of ice cold sweet tea.” I immediately hasten my step. Yes indeedy, sweet tea! You know, the big plastic glass that stands near ten inches tall…iced down, full-up, yup, good old made-in-the-south (not, “You can add the sugar”) sweet tea! One big gulp keeps me from tripping further into a funk as I order a sub. Striking up a conversation with the lady, I inquire if she might know of a John Hamill, her establishment being near where he once lived. A fellow helping out overhears our conversation and as the kind lady directs me his way, he replies, “I’m cousins with John’s boy Justin; my name’s Chris.” We shake hands. Now here’s a great break! Doesn’t take long though to see this isn’t going to work, for John has moved to near Waldo, nowhere near where the trail passes.
I thank them both and return again to my roadwalk, as through here the FT follows SR100. Seems it’s truckin’ time again. There’s only a pricey bed and breakfast here in Lake Butler, so it’s off to Starke, some fifteen miles to the southeast.
SR100 is a busy, dangerous highway, not the ideal roadwalk. I’ve been here before, and it’s not where I want to be. The whole thing starts out okay, what with a paved shoulder, but that quickly peters out at the New River Bridge. 18-wheelers are really plowing their little tornadoes at me, and the other traffic isn’t all that friendly–just as I remember it from the early eighties when I came through here the first time. Even little tornadoes get old fast, and fifteen miles can become a long haul, even to a long distance hiker. The sun’s also been pounding on me today since I’m trekking nearly south now, but the sun and heat are welcome and I’m managing to strike a happy chord.
I arrive at Starke around three, have a frosty (soft ice cream) at Wendy’s, then go to Captain D’s for supper. Later in the evening, and to my dismay, I find that the motels all around are full up, what with this being “Daytona 500” weekend. So, looking around, I find a quiet little spot in the cabbage palms behind Denny’s, roll out my pad and sleeping bag and call it a day.
Hiking the shoulders of SR100 has knocked the starch clean out of me, tough, really tough–no scars, though. Thank you, Lord. Sleep comes soon.
Sunday–February 18, 2001
The traffic, which starts rumbling and grumbling on US301 around seven-thirty, rousts me out, so I pack my bag and head across the back parking lot to Denny’s for coffee. I slept with my hiking garb on last night, so I suppose I look just the least bit disheveled this morning. Anyway, seems as though this NASCAR bunch and folks hereabouts aren’t used to seeing good old hiker trash all decked out in shorts, gaiters and sporting a backpack. They apparently haven’t seen this kind of “bum” before. It’s a hoot watching their expressions and double-takes, a pure hoot!
While looking for a room last evening, I chanced to pass the Starke First United Methodist Church, the sanctuary not grand in size by any stretch. But its beauty and presentation, the impact that it had on me in a true, traditional sense struck me as being truly magnificent. To either side of the entry, which forms the base of the bell tower, are arched windows, the lower extent of each being filled with marble. To the left is inscribed the Lord’s Prayer, and to the right, Psalm 23. On the little announcement sign I read, “God is good, all the time! Rev. Jerry Carris.” I decided right then and there to attend their Sunday service, and here I am. Oh what a friendly, God-fearin’ group of folks. Sure enough makes me feel at home, and that’s a great feeling to a fellow who’s been away from home.
After church I stop by Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q for their AYCE chicken. I’m really proud, didn’t hurt myself for a change! Over now to Budget Inn, I’m able to get a fine rate for two nights. My body and my feet are tired. I need the rest.
In the evening I call friends and family. I’m able to make plans for the next few hiking days. Vagabond Rick, Rich Solar Bear Evans and Sandra AT Navigator Downs will be aiding me with maps and data to get me around the west side of Orlando on the “Western Corridor Trail.” My southbound hike will be the first thru-hike around this way, so I’m truly excited. They’ll be coming out to hike some with me. Also had the joy in talking again with Bob Sourdough Bob and Rose Ramblin’ Rose Goss in Paisley. I met them at the FT conference a year ago. I’ll stay a day or so with them soon and will be getting maildrops there. Got emails recently from Jim Thunder Chicken Pitts and Tim Long Distance Man Anderson. They both want to hike some with me, so we’ve made plans to get together for a day in the Ocala National Forest.
This is my payoff, folks: great friends, great hiking. Life just couldn’t be better, what joy!
Monday–February 19, 2001
I will not heed the call to go forth today. This is a day of rest.
Tuesday–February 20, 2001
I’m out and into another gorgeous, sky-blue day in Florida. Today I’ll put the SR100 roadwalk behind me. This is a treacherous path; there’s something about the traffic on this highway. I know it isn’t the people, but there’s something bothersome and near-evil about this highway. I’ll be very relieved when I reach Airport Road, the end of it.
At the intersection of SR100 and CR18 is Edward’s Grocery. I crossed SR100 here during “Odyssey’98.” Stopping in, I find that I have missed my dear friend *Ed Tric Talone. Ed, at the young age of thirty-ish has hiked over a thousand miles for each of those years, yes, over thirty thousand miles in his hiking career! We became friends in ’98 when our paths crossed way out in the boonies in southern Alabama. Ed’s hiking the ECT now. He left Key West around the middle of January, bound for Cap Gaspé, and we missed each other yesterday. I was holed up at the inn in Starke, and Ed passed just south of me on his way to the Florida Panhandle. Dang!
The trail now passes around the south side of Keystone Airport, pretty much the same route I hiked in ’98 when I got lost! The way the trail goes now is grand, passing by delightful little spring-fed brooks and crystal-clear pools, through the Air Force property and into Gold Head Branch State Park.
I’ve much better luck with the **”Hike for Hope” folks. Our paths cross here on the trail in Camp Blanding. What a great bunch of kids, six in all: five guys and a gal, all inspired by my writings about the ECT during “Odyssey ’98.” They’re hiking out of Key West, all bound for Cap Gaspé. The mission during their odyssey is to focus attention on the dreadful problem of world hunger. We all drop our packs, find some shade and chat incessantly for the longest time. Oh, what a great bunch! There’s Mike Big Mike Smith, age 21, from New Mexico; Dakota Cow Doubter LaCroix, age 27, from Vermont; Ray Poppenstein Hauffenschlager Ford, age 23, from Alaska; John Jester Gilette, age 24, from Connecticut; Jeff Timmy Smith, Mike’s brother, age 18, from New Mexico; and Kim Berly Jackson, age 22, from Colorado. Godspeed my dear new friends. You’ve an incredible adventure before you!
I’m in early, so I while the time with ranger Don Musen before pitching for the evening. He puts me in a dandy spot, right under the miniature, adolescent live oaks in the main campground. Don told me about an eagle he’d carved out of a stump that stands in the Park, so I take the short side-trip to give it a look. Very impressive, Don! Two, dark, angular knots form the eyes of the eagle. Now how did he do that?
*Ed Tric Talone–dates and distances not available at time of printing.
Wednesday–February 21, 2001
Another beautiful hiking day, cool and clear. The trail takes me through the remarkable Etoniah Ravine, the last of the truly northern-like areas I’ll experience on my way ever south.
Late afternoon, and daydreaming along, and just before the gate leading from Carraway Mailroute onto Old Stark Road, I gasp, shudder and pull up in total disbelief. For before me, stretched across the warm, sandy path, is a huge timber rattler, the biggest I’ve ever seen; not long, as these fellows tend not to grow in great length, but so remarkably huge–the meat end of a baseball bat, mostly. Instantly and reflexively, he contorts from his sunning pose to his rattling/striking pose. Up he comes like a cobra, head 10-12 inches off the ground. I back off, though I am no closer than ten feet.
Folks, this is riveting. I’ve never experience such a moment of utter fear–ever. Try to get in this with me, will you? Do this: put your arm on a table there; now bend your elbow, bringing your forearm straight up. Okay, now flex your wrist at a ninety, make a fist and turn it directly toward your face. That’s the likes of this guy, head size and all. Now add to this some menacing hissing and rattling, and back that up with the piercing gaze from two hollow slits of cold, black, eyes–and you’ve got it. Sorry! Wow, in the future when folks ask me, “Aren’t you afraid of snakes?” I’m going to give that question considerable more thought. I finally manage to pass, get over the gate–and go. Whew, I’ll remember this encounter for awhile. There’s sure a difference between the angels we know to be Herald, and that one we know as–Satan. I came close to meeting one or the other of them today. Got to make sure that when my judgment day finally comes–that I’ve properly prepared myself. Hopefully, I’ll be in good stead to meet the Herald angels. Yes, Billy Graham, it is true; “…this life is only a dressing room for eternity.”
On Old Stark Road now, and past the depressing remains of an old, defunct dairy, I decide to head into Bud’s Grocery, only a half-mile off the trail. Oh yes, good local (not the other insanely over-priced) ice cream. I’m a happy hiker!
I pitch for the evening, trailside, west of Bud’s, just north of Water Management Area lands.
Thursday–February 22, 2001
Well, in ’98–guess you’re tired of hearing about ’98–but anyway, in ’98 I tried to get my good friend of may years, Jim Thunder Chicken Pitts, AT, Georgia to Maine, ’97, to come out and hike some with me in the Ocala National Forest. Circumstances were that it just didn’t work. So this year, time to try again, as tomorrow I enter the Ocala yet again. Also in ’98, I hiked with Jim’s good friend, and now my good friend, Tim Long Distance Man Anderson, AT, Georgia to Maine, ’98. Perhaps, just perhaps, tomorrow we’ll finally get together.
It’s another marvelous hiking day, partly cloudy and cool. Nothing much redeeming nor memorable about the trail today, the treadway being mostly sandy roads and rutted two-tracks. But this is how the string of pearls that make up this remarkable Florida National Scenic Trail are hooked together.
By early afternoon I’ve walked the barge canal lock access road and am standing in front of the locked, chain-link barricade by the lockkeep building. Plans were to meet Jim and Tim here this evening, but this place looks like a fortification, gates and fences everywhere, and they shut the whole place down (which isn’t even open now) at five. The lockkeep finally shows, opens the gate and lets me in.
While sitting and waiting I’ve been thinking, “What to do?” The decision I’ve made is to get over the locks and across the canal while the gettin’s good. So I leave a note by the “Stop, do not enter,” sign for Jim and Tim, and move on.
On the note, I leave instructions for my friends to meet me at the campground just up the canal at Rodman Lake. That’s where I’ve decided to head for the evening. But alas, as I pick my site, get firewood, pitch, prepare my evening meal, and wait and wait; no Jim and Tim.
Friday–February 23, 2001
Today I enter the Ocala National Forest, and today, once again, I become saddened and disheartened, just as two years ago. For, I have found that little has been done to halt the unauthorized use of the Florida National Scenic Trail. It’s the off-road vehicle and horseback folks. Where once the trail was a blanket of pine needles and oak leaves, is there now only churned and bermed-up sand. This breaks my heart; it truly breaks my heart. I, too, enjoy being in the woods on quad-tracs, motorcycles and horses, but not here, this is not the place. This bunch of yahoos in the Ocala are ruining it for all of us.
Once on Riverside Island, I manage to perk back up, for here is truly a beautiful setting, cathedral-like if you will. I must just ignore the atrocity that is the treadway. Here stand magnificent monarchs, all in a glorious family, such a proud, majestic lot are they, so tall and straight. Here stand thousands and thousands of native longleaf southern pine. Oh, and what an understory, so open, so incredibly sweeping and far-reaching, not like any other place, such a strikingly beautiful home for the luxurious, colorful wiregrass and the shining-green scrub palmetto.
By two-thirty I’m at 88 Store. For the last two days I’ve been following the dainty footprints of a fellow backpacker, and here at 88 Store I meet Nancy Magellan Gowler, AT, Georgia to Maine, ’95. We talk trail at the bar for the longest time over BBQ and fries, washed down by a few cold ones. Magellan’s headed for Alexander Springs.
Just at happy hour ticks in, in come Thunder Chicken and Long Distance Man. They’d camped near the locks last night, then all day today they hiked along a couple of hours behind me. Dang! I should have stayed at the locks yesterday instead of moving on. Like time, I just can’t stay still.
Saturday–February 24, 2001
What a great evening last. Patricia (same barkeep from ’98) wheeled in another keg of Coors Light for our grand celebration. Thunder Chicken and Long Distance Man lingered, then after more sad good-byes, were able to get a ride back to the locks with Patricia. Around six, Rich Solar Bear Evans and Sandra AT Navigator Downs, came in. I’d met them at the annual FTA Conference and we’ve since become great friends. I also made the acquaintance and became immediate friends with Jack Angle from Ohio and his good friend, Tim White, entertainer at 88 Pub/Store. It was way past eleven before I rolled in.
Somehow I manage to get up and back into the store for coffee at eight this morning. Solar Bear will be hiking with me today, and we’re out and on our way before nine. We get a quick glimpse across Juniper Prairie, then it’s on through the high-washed sandpine ridges to Hopkins Prairie. Here, time is spent meandering the deep coves and jutting peninsulas that form the “shoreline” of Hopkins Prairie.
The day heats up and we slow considerably, yet manage the twenty-one mile day quite easily by 4:30. Arriving at Hidden Pond, we find Magellan already in. The respectable cooking fire, turned warming fire, chases the bugs and keeps the least bit of chill from the evening. It’s a joy having company on the trail again. Ahh indeed, what are friends for!
Sunday–February 25, 2001
Hidden Pond was quiet, with only the occasional far-off sound of sandhill cranes; a cool, perfect night for sleeping under the stars!
Solar Bear and I hike the morning with Magellan, who gets off the trail at Alexander Springs. We continue on through the heart of the Ocala. Here the treadway is much less abused, the scenery grand. At three, and hiking toward us we meet Sourdough Bob and AT Navigator, who have hiked in from the south. Oh, this is grand; now I’m hiking with three great friends! By 4:30 we arrive at SR445 where their vehicles are parked. We all load and head for Sourdough Bob’s, where Ramblin’ Rose has a fine home-cooked meal waiting. In the evening, AT Navigator and Solar Bear brief me on the maps and data they’ve prepared to help me along. At SR445, my southbound hike will be interrupted, and tomorrow I’ll head west to begin my mainly-road excursion around metropolitan Orlando along the Western Trail Corridor, FT.
Monday–February 26, 2001
I had my own private room and bath at the Goss home, and a great night’s sleep. The heat took it out of all of us yesterday and I became dehydrated. Sure glad I’ve asked Dr. Gary Bearbag Buffington, AT, Georgia to Maine ’00, to send out some more of his thirst quencher. Gary is one of my kind sponsors and the innovator of Conquest, a drink mix designed to keep ultra-marathoners adequately and properly hydrated during their long and grueling runs. It really works. I know–I used it all last summer when the temperatures were unbearable.
The hike today is entirely a roadwalk through Ocala’s Big Scrub territory. All along are towering stands of sandpine bordered abruptly by neatly sectioned areas of clearcut. The day turns very warm. There is no shade, only the occasional cloud to hide the sun. I manage to endure the heat better as I slog the Conquest, and recollect the many days my fingers wouldn’t work due to the incessant cold.
I’ll be staying the night once more with Bob and Rose, so Bob will come to fetch me from the trail a little before two.
I arrive at Doe Lake just a little before two, and Bob comes right along–with sandwiches from Rose and an ice-cold jug of water. Ahh folks, this is trail magic at its best!
Another great meal prepared by Rose, then it’s off to my room to catch up on correspondence and journal entries. I am not in debt to this day, nor it to me.
Tuesday–February 27, 2001
That time is here again; why must it come? More sad good-byes–this time to my dear friends Bob and Rose Goss. They’ve both shuttled me back to the trail this morning. What a blessing, though. I’m clean, well fed, rested and ready to go again. Just a few salty tears, the only problem to show. Thanks, Sourdough Bob and Ramblin’ Rose. You’ve been so kind to this old hiker. Indeed, I will remain in your debt.
More dear friends to help the old Nomad along, and what an incredible amount of time they’ve spent in scouting, hiking and driving this fledgling Western Trail Corridor, FT–Solar Bear and AT Navigator. And that dear friend who’s always been there to help me, no matter what, Rick Vagabond Rick Guhsé. It’s so good to have such accurate, finely detailed maps and data to guide me along. Solar Bear and AT Navigator have even helped prepare my itinerary for the next two weeks. How thoughtful of them, and how helpful to me! Having a practical and workable plan is invaluable in calculating how much food to lug, and where each day will end. Most importantly, family and friends can keep tabs on me. Thanks Rich, Sandy and Rick! Folks, I keep tellin’ ya, it’s the people, they’re the reason, for from them and through them comes pure joy. And it’s this joy that frames the pictures in my memory–happy, joyful pictures that will remain forever, never to fade with time.
The day begins, my last in the Ocala, on a bumpy sandwashed road with no traffic, but that soon changes. By eleven I’m in the thick of it, vehicles rushing everywhere as I pull into Duck’s Dam Diner right next the Ocklawaha River. It’s a neat old mom-n-pop place run by John and Debbie Duckworth. What a menu. I pick the catfish, slaw, biscuits and fries. Oh, and do these kind folks know what sweet tea is, tall, ice filled, brimming glassfuls of sweet tea–oh yes!
In the little berg of Ocklawaha now, I find the post office right next the trail, where I head in to mail the remainder of my winter gear back home–my wool shirt and insulated gloves. The trees are budding, the wild plum and dogwood blooming, and it’s a pounding-hot eighty-degree day. I think winter is over!
Last evening I received an email from a friend of a friend. That friend is again AT Navigator, and her friend is Kenneth Smith. I remember receiving an email from Ken quite a ways back, offering to assist me when down this way, and has he ever! I’m told that ahead I will find jugs of water stashed along the trail in the Cross Florida Greenway where there’s a long dry stretch, and he’s provided “local” directions to the motel in Belleview, directions that get me in by three-thirty, saving me nearly two miles–a great benefit at the end of a hot, dirty, twenty mile roadwalk. Gee whiz, thanks Ken! The great Florida Trail Association folks have been out in force today.
Wednesday–February 28, 2001
From the motel I head up US301 this morning to complete the remainder of the 38.5-mile roadwalk from the Ocala Trail to the trail through the Greenway (the planned and purchased route for the ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal). It’s great to be away from the insane noise and confusion of the highway, to be back, finally, in the woods. I arrive at ten.
There’s no water anywhere in the Greenway, the trail running through for a distance of some fifteen miles, so Ken Smith has stashed water for me at two strategic locations. In the Greenway now, the hike turns interesting and most enjoyable, interesting in that civilization is just outside the corridor, which is only a mile wide. Even though the trail’s in the woods, noise from traffic and nearby industry carries easily to the trail. It’s also interesting because of the grand live oak here. They’re in rows (old but long-gone fence rows), not the century-old monarchs seen elsewhere along the FT, but oaks that provide shade that makes for pleasant hiking. Yes, this hike today is most enjoyable! I find the two jugs of water that Ken’s hid for me. I take a quart of water from the first and leave a quart in the second.
Today I’m hiking west. Even though I’m on a southbound trek, it seems I seldom hike for long in that direction. I’m used to that; thru-hikers get used to the trail flitting about like a butterfly, going the roundabout way. We’re not supposed to be in a hurry. If we were, I guess we’d be at the bus station!
Many miles have been added to this Western Trail Corridor, however, apparently as a result of the FTA’s desire to include the Ocala Trail. So whether one chooses to hike the Eastern or the Western Corridor, the Ocala is in! Thirty-eight miles is a long roadwalk, and most of it is not terribly pleasant, but that’s the price the Western Corridor hiker pays in order to have the benefit of hiking the Ocala. And why hike the Ocala Trail? Indeed, why is it included in both thru-hike routes? As best I can figure, it’s because the Ocala Trail is considered to be “The Crown Jewel” of the Florida National Scenic Trail.
The long roadwalk on the northern end of the Western Corridor, coupled with no progress for the hiker north or south, makes for a not-so-fun hike. I think it would be best for the Western Corridor to skip the Ocala entirely. I’ve hiked all over this Florida National Scenic Trail, and I don’t see the Ocala Trail being the likes of a “Crown Jewel.” In fact, I believe that asserting it to be such holds the FT up to the public in entirely the wrong light. If we must talk about certain segments of the FT in relation to jewels, then let’s talk about an incredible natural treasure chest full of jewels–and gems and pearls if you will. As we open this chest (as we hike the FT) do we find a remarkable array of nature’s bounty. There’s the aquamarine waters of the Gulf, the National Seashore and dunes, the new and breathtaking Wiregrass and Juniper Creek Trails that lead to Alabama, the remarkable St. Marks that presents cathedral-like hammocks, the Aucilla and Suwannee Rivers with their mystic wonders, steeped in history and intrigue, the northern-like ravines of Etoniah and Gold Head Branch, the longleaf pine groves and the islands and prairies of the Ocala, the majesty of the centuries old live oak hammocks of Kissimmee, the rookeries of exotic birds and the bromeliad-draped cypress of the Big Cypress National Preserve, and hopefully soon, the spectacular wonders of the Keys! You pick one: which is the most beautiful of nature’s wonders seen along the Florida National Scenic Trail? Well, if I’ve made you do no more than stop and think about it–is the Ocala really so much more spectacular than all the other remarkable wonders along the FT?
I finish the Greenway Trail around five at SR200; find a quiet spot by Ross Prairie and pitch for the evening.
Thursday–March 1, 2001
Yesterday before heading into the Greenway, I stopped at Publix for provisions. Just inside the door stood this huge Toledo Scales. I’d sent home the last of my winter gear recently, my pack once again pretty skimpy, so I’d been wondering how much it actually weighed. So over to the scales I went–plunk. The needle hardly budged, finally creeping up to nine pounds and change, slightly less than the weight I was carrying after shedding my winter gear on the AT last spring.
Would you like to know what I’ve currently got with me (not counting food and water)? Okay, here goes:
GVP® G-4 backpack with hip belt
On my person, in pocket, or otherwise not included in my pack weight are the following:
It’s another near-perfect day in (near) paradise. I’m up and out on a cool, foggy morn. Today I’m faced with a long roadwalk, twelve miles, along SR200 down to Hernando where I’ll get on the Withlacoochee paved Rail/Trail. The traffic is incredibly heavy and totally launched. Everybody’s heading for work in Ocala, but the shoulder is paved and, although I’m only four feet from the deadly projectiles, everyone seems alert for such an early time. I’m making good progress into the constant tornadoes being churned up and hurled at me.
By nine I’m standing at the Withlacoochee River Bridge and right next the famous Stumpknockers Restaurant, which doesn’t open till four. Dang! Some other time, I guess.
As I pull up now to look at this old, narrow bridge, comes raw fright–clean down to my nail-less toes. Between the bridge crash rail and the road-edge white line there’s one foot of pavement–both sides. That’s all. I shudder as I watch two eighteen-wheelers buffet and sway as they pass dead center, with only inches between them, and between their wheels and the crash rails. What to do? I begin with: “Calm down, calm down, there’s a way, there’s always a way. How about wading across? Aw, geez, this river is wide and deep. Not a good idea. Then how about bowing your head, saying a short prayer, then head ‘er up and go!” And that’s just what I do. And for over a full minute does not a vehicle pass in either direction, and I’m quickly across! Thank you, Lord. The path you’re providing me is indeed wide and safe.
By eleven I’m at Hernando and the Withlacoochee Trail. After lunch at the local mom-n-pop, I’m on my way south–yes, south! The bikeway is a cruise. It’s actually a paved road–just no motorized vehicles, and by two I’m in Inverness, where I call it a day at Central Motel.
Friday–March 2, 2001
Another leisure day of hiking the Withlacoochee State Trail. I’ll be on it till Nobleton, where I head for Croom. Many have passed here before, but I am content in its discovery. Partly cloudy turns out great, what with the occasional full sun putting a sizzle on the black tarmac.
Starting to get some ribbing from the locals about my “ski poles.” It’s another easy, carefree hiking day.
Saturday–March 3, 2001
I waited with great anticipation last evening after arriving at Hog Island Campground. Plans were for AT Navigator to come in, camp the night, then hike out with me this morning. What joy to see her, and what joy, her surprise for me, for just after her arrival, and also to camp the evening, came Jon Wanchor Phipps and Joan Bluetrail Jarvis. All brought food and refreshments. Great friends, a memorable time.
Plans today are for Wanchor and Bluetrail to hike out with AT Navigator and me, then turn back after an hour or so. This is great, hiking with these friends, but the hour passes way too quickly.
The trail in Croom offers a gentle stroll through forests that roll from cypress dips to longleaf ridges. At Navigator and I enjoy chatting as we pass by cypress domes, live oak hammocks and pine plantations.
The woods hike behind us now, we venture out on US301. Here is not peace and quiet, but rather the clamor and crush of passing traffic and the blasting heat from the tarmac. Before long we both start to wilt. Time to retreat to the shade, cool our heels, and try to stay hydrated. Back to the tarmac, back to the shade–we alternate often. At the intersection of US301 and SR50 we retreat once more to the cool of the Mobil Station/Food Mart.
Plans were for Solar Bear to meet us, but plans don’t always work out, so I hike on to Richloam alone. Great hiking with you, Navigator; thanks for coming out! Along the way now on SR50, and turning to read a billboard aimed at westbound traffic, I read, “Weeki Wachee Springs, 14 Miles.” A few days ago I was less than two miles from the St. Johns River; now I’m almost to the Gulf again! I pitch by the trailhead. A glorious half-moon keeps me company, and as its gentle, calming light reflects on me, I reflect on the joys of this day.
Sunday–March 4, 2001
The forecast has been for thunderstorms, but the day dawns without a cloud in the sky. The decision is to chalk up some miles today, so I’m up and going by seven. A permit is required to camp in these upcoming Withlacoochee Tracts. Problem is, I’ve not secured a permit, so unless I hike Richloam and both sections of Green Swamp, I’ll be violating the regulations. My decision is to pound on through all three today, a distance just shy of thirty miles.
By nine I’m well on my way through the Richloam Tract. It’s then I begin hearing thunder in the distance. In moments the wind picks up, the blue sky ahead of me turns pitch black and the train comes shuddering and rumbling through. I manage to don my poncho and duck behind a large live oak to escape the frightful onslaught. I stick tight, and in a short while the wind relents and the driving storm turns to moderate-but-steady rain. I’m in it now, but do manage good progress as the treadway has been remarkably well maintained, the blazing very dependable.
The rain doesn’t dampen my enjoyment for this hike today as the trail passes through the real Florida I know–huge cypress bays, grand live oak and cabbage palm hammocks, and vast islands and rolling hills populated by groves of mature longleaf pine, understoried by rusty wiregrass and winter-green scrub palmetto.
The trail along now finds old woods roads, tramways and secret little meandering paths through the forest. By six I’ve reached the game check station. Here there’s a well and running water. What joy in the finding, as today I’ve had to make do with surface water taken from rain puddles.
This has been a long day. No fire or warm sustenance tonight. It’s late, everything’s soaked, and I’m just too tired.
Monday–March 5, 2001
The rain has gone, and the day once again is the brightest blue. The treadway that is the trail of the Western Corridor is behind me now, but my hike around is far from over. Before me lies an eighty mile roadwalk, and not uncommon with roadwalks, the wind comes up and with it a bit of a nip, so I alternate my hands from the clutch of my trekking poles to the warm clutch of my pockets. The sun soon warms both the day and the wind, the wind continuing to whip steady at my back.
As each day is different, so is each accompanying hike. Folks find this hard to believe, but it is true. Yesterday I was in the quiet and peaceful calm of the forest, and today it’s man’s world of noise and confusion. No complaints though; I like it all–every single foot of it, every minute. Heaven-on-earth is what you make of it, and walking can be some of the best of it. Why not put on a backpack and give it a try!
Navigator and Solar Bear, dear friends who have helped me with maps and data for this Western Corridor hike, have described cattle ranches, orange groves, cliffs of sandstone, a half-buried VW and a cypress tree festooned with silk flowers as things to busy myself watching for along the road today. The cliffs are a stretch, the ranches and groves drift by, the half-buried VW is certainly a very odd and funny thing, but I miss the decorated cypress tree!
In the afternoon now the gusting wind begins launching me, and I’m literally lifted and propelled as I complete the two-mile blue blaze down US27 to the motel. A shower, clean clothes, and I feel great again, fresh and rejuvenated–just like Minnesota Fats during that epic Hustler game…
Tuesday–March 6, 2001
The wind has decided to stay, bringing a mild chill from the north, but the glorious Florida sun is out dispensing its charm, and in just a short while the day warms nicely. The wind persists though, pushing hard on my port freeboard, and I must take constant precaution not to get tacked into oncoming traffic.
I put another “I” behind me today. The numbers have slowly dwindled, all the way down to I-4. There’s just one more “I” left, I-75. This one’s turned out to be a tough nut. When I think it’s behind me, back it comes. I’ve crossed it three times now on my journey south, and it will be there one more time, in the Everglades. And there’s a famous highway still remaining, one which has become my good friend over the years, US1. We first crossed paths during this journey over eight months ago, right after I entered the US from Canada. And in fitting fashion I’ll finish this southbound odyssey along its way, all the way to MM-0 in Key West. This ECT, it cuts such an incredible path as it crosses three time zones and most the eastern North American continent–and much of its history.
The roadwalk today provides full mix–the relentless bone-jarring barrage of commercial traffic along US17/92, contrasted with the leisurely stroll back in time along the old brick road to Tampa. These old bricks were once the way of the grand old touring cars, and running along beside were the telegraph poles and steam locomotives. As I close my eyes, quickly returns the nostalgia of that simpler day and time. As I journey along these old bricks, I hear the chug, and can even smell the sulfur as the smoke belching old steam engines pass. Soon I reach a stone monument at the Polk County line. On it are engraved these words, “Citurs Country.” Yup, that’s what it says, “Citurs Country,” right there for all to marvel over, since October 1930.
Roadwalk days usually pass quickly, as does this one. Nineteen miles, and by three I’m at the city park in Kissimmee, right next Lake Tohopekaliga. Here, by the old caboose-turned-concession-stand, I relax and work my journal entries while awaiting AT Navigator’s arrival, as tonight she and Solar Bear have invited me to be their guest. Though a weekday, the park is full, kids swinging and romping the playground, their happy, cheerful voices bringing joy to my ear.
Every day is a fine day to be alive. This one is especially fine! Navigator comes for me a little after five.
Wednesday–March 7, 2001
We’re up at six. The plan is to get the jump on the morning rush hour and get through Orlando before the crunch. This works great. We’re away from the apartment by seven, and Navigator has me back on the trail before eight. Thanks, AT Navigator and Solar Bear, dear friends, for all your kindness and generosity, and for your help in getting me around this remarkable Western Trail Corridor, FT. You’ve both worked very hard to make my hike here a quality experience, and I appreciate it very much.
The hike through Kissimmee is very pleasant, as the trail follows the walkways and bike paths all around Lake Toho. There’s a Wal-Mart, which I pop into, and numerous convenience stores along the way today, which I also pop into. By two-thirty I’m at Canoe Creek Campground. I usually don’t stop this early, but I’ve got fifteen miles knocked down already and I’ve been pounding hard these last few days, so in I go. At the campground office now I meet Tom Scheidt and his grandson, Matthew. Both make me feel welcome and right at home. So that’s it, I’m staying.
As I sign in, Tom says, “Pitch anywhere you like; Matthew will show you around.” So off we go, the youngster showing me about–right over to a neat spot, and I pick that spot, near the bathhouse, next the bingo hall. Matthew is fascinated. He watches with wide-eyed excitement and curiosity as I pitch my little Nomad tent–then he jumps right in to help. “There, how’s that!” he says. Folks, this is so humbling. So late in this life of mine have I found that I can become, and can truly be, an inspiration to others. It’s a joy, seeing the spark of excitement in this young lad’s eye–oh yes, it is a joy.
The wind finally gave it up today, but the day remained cool–another near-perfect hiking day in sunny Florida!
Thursday–March 8, 2001
Long, straight roads that disappear to a point on the horizon make for long roadwalks. There’s something about the fact that passing motorists are going twenty times faster than me (they’re doing sixty and I’m only managing three), and I’m able to see them flying along ahead of me for two or three minutes before they, too, disappear on the horizon. Problem is, the ground I’ve watched them cover in three minutes will take me the better part of an hour! But then again, at my pace there are lots more people to meet and many more things to see. Indeed, though I am on the same road–mine is a road less traveled.
So today is a long, straight roadwalk, over seventeen miles, the last to complete the Western Corridor of the FT. As I reach the end now, the familiar orange blazes come join me from the east. I’m glad I came this way, around the western side of metro Orlando. For even though it’s involved a lot of roadwalking, the distance being eighty miles further and most all of that difference a roadwalk, I have been well rewarded for my time. Indeed it’s been a memorable hike. Not passing this way, I would have missed the Big Scrub, the Greenway, Croom, Richloam, and the incomparable Green Swamp. And I couldn’t claim to have done the “Big 360,” and big it is at nearly 350 miles.
I had a premonition this morning–about water. In ’98 water was everywhere; I couldn’t get out of it. But this pass I fear there’ll be trouble finding water. And sure enough, at Three Lakes Management Area Campground, the hand pump is not working. Ditto for the pumps in Prairie Lakes. By late afternoon I’m able to find some respectable looking (only mildly light green) water in one of the sloughs–just a puddle with mud all around, the feral hogs having rooted it up. But pay no never mind. It’s wet, and a quart of it slakes my thirst.
A hot, dry sundrenched day. My face and arms are sunburned again, soon to look and feel like so much leather. After twenty-three miles, I pull over under a majestic live oak and pitch for the evening.
Friday–March 9, 2001
I’m up and out by seven-thirty. As I shoulder my pack I take the last swig of water to down my Ecotrin and Osteo-Bi-Flex. Reluctantly I steel myself for the possibility of there being no water for the next sixteen miles, nearly the entire hiking day. I’ve been told the Oasis store at FL60/Kissimmee River is closed down, condemned by the State to provide roadway for the new bridge soon to be built over the Kissimmee River.
A short hike by a woods road, thence through a live oak hammock, and the trail pitches me straight onto the prairie of Prairie Lakes. By nine the sun is hammering me hard so I stop to don my Hiker Trash painter’s hat and my long-sleeved polypro shirt. This helps some, but by the time I reach Godwin Hammock and some merciful shade, I am already very thirsty. I’ve been told there’s water, supposedly, in a large hole that’s been dug near the hammock, but seeing it and heading there, my worst fears realized: it is dry, with green plants growing in the bottom. This whole place was underwater my last pass through, even the hammock.
From the hammock, I’m back again on the shadeless prairie, finally to cross it, then to pass along a long, dug-up, shadeless fencerow followed by a two-mile walk down a shadeless, sandwashed road to FL60. At the highway now, I’ve been without the benefit of water or shade for the last eleven miles, and here before me am I faced with the roughest five-mile roadwalk along the entire FT.
I can’t remember ever being as thirsty as I am this moment. This is not fun. I try convincing myself, but not so convincingly, that I’ve less than two more hours to go–less than two hours to reach the store west of the river, about a mile past Oasis.
As I cross the road, and turn to meet the onslaught, the heat from the pavement rises to greet me. The traffic on this highway runs hard and fast, mostly commercial, mostly eighteen-wheelers. The drivers try to give me some space, but the rigs are rolling just as hard and just as fast in the other direction. I try to keep my fix on the crushing traffic. I try not to look at my watch. Before me now is another road that disappears, lifting and bouncing to the horizon. I manage to keep moving, but time seems suspended. Oh Lord, please, if you’ll lift ’em up I’ll try to put ’em down. In awhile I believe I see the bridge. Yes, it is the bridge. As I near, and look to the right down a narrow sand road, I see dwellings, all in a row. A pickup full of laborers turns in. It’s a migrant camp. I, too, turn in. Many greet me, but none speak English. I clutch my throat, and then make the motion of drinking by lifting my hand to my mouth. A young man comes and takes my arm. He leads me to his door, and in a moment I have a quart of water in my hand. What a blessing; I gulp it down. Dear Lord, I promise I will never, ever leave a glass of water sitting on the table before me again, never again!
Soon I am over the bridge, and as I pass Oasis I look back. The door is open on the west side and a sign reads, “Yes, we’re open!” Oh, what a blessing once again. I’ll not need to walk the extra mile now to the next store. As I enter, the lady recognizes me, “You’re that hiker from Canada, aren’t you?” she says, “Been a feller in here looking for you, showed me the picture on your book, can’t remember his name, said he’d be back by in a day or two.” I nod as I head for the pop cooler, two quarts of Gatorade and a ready-made sub and I plunk myself down in one of the easy chairs by the door.
I rest here most the afternoon before heading out the remaining four miles to Kicco Wildlife Management Area Trailhead.
My philosophy: “There are no bad days on the trail; some are just a little better than others.” Won’t take much to beat this one–as that scale of values goes.
Saturday–March 10, 2001
Well, I believe I’ve learned my lesson about the water situation. This trail is going to be dry until I finish this hike, and the only reliable way to be sure of having enough water is to carry it. So coming out of Oasis yesterday, I loaded both quart Gatorade bottles full of water. I also filled up a 20-oz Mountain Dew bottle. Today I’ll have water, no matter. And even if there’s none at Ft. Kissimmee Campground, if the pumps there aren’t working either, at least I can take water from the river.
I’ve hiked this trail before, but I recognize very little of it, for before, even the live oak were underwater. This time the hike is an absolute joy! I remember this Kissimmee River section as being very special, a truly southern setting, what with the magnificent live oak and cabbage palm hammocks.
I don’t notice the heat being nearly as bad today and the hike along Ice Cream Slough, Rattlesnake Hammock, the ghost town of Kicco and on into Ft. Kissimmee goes by quickly. No rattlesnakes at Rattlesnake Hammock, but did I brush by a polite old diamondback just south of Kicco. And brush is the right word. My Leki trekking pole grazed his head as I passed, as he coiled to strike. Darn good thing they don’t strike ’till they’ve coiled. We have a cordial conversation and I thank him for his tolerance in my rudely invading his home.
The first pump at Ft. Kissimmee is out, but I remember there being two. Sure enough, as luck would have it, the pump near the south campground boundary is working fine. This is it for today. I set a small fire for cooking, and then work my journal entries. Just as the cool of the evening descends, so do the mosquitoes, so into my spacious Nomad tent I go. What a fine hiking day, what a fine, rewarding day! I am no longer cold.
Sunday–March 11, 2001
The live oak hammocks south of Ft. Kissimmee are even more grand than I recall, one particularly so. Here are majestic trees, centuries old, perfectly aligned, limbs intertwined, yet their trunks a hundred feet apart, much the likes of a formal promenade, so striking and remarkable are they. I pass through their midst in silence, filled with wonder and awe.
Today I’ll be hiking two new sections of trail in Bony Marsh Wildlife Management Area. The northern half has been relocated, the old treadway having been destroyed as a result of dike removal, part of the Kissimmee River flood plane restoration. The trail now weaves back and across the 100-year flood line. And the southern half, which has been placed in the hammocks near the 100-year flood line, eliminates a nine-mile roadwalk.
I’ve been anxious to hike these new sections since hearing of them from Vagabond Rick. And I am not disappointed, as the views of the Kissimmee River savannah are absolutely stunning. Plus, there’s a hiker bridge that climbs nearly to the sky in order to clear a navigable canal. Yes, I’m having a great time here today!
Vagabond Rick has prepared a Thru-Hiker Handbook for the southern sections of the ECT, and Doug and Pat McCoy appear there on his list of trail angels. They live in Okeechobee. A couple of days ago I dropped them an email hoping for a little trail magic, but then I ducked back in the woods and have been unable to check my email. I’m hoping they’ll come for me as I near the end of my hike today along US98. Sure enough, just as I round the bend toward the Kissimmee River Bridge, up pulls Doug. What luck; this is great! We no sooner exchange greetings than I’m invited to be their guest this evening.
Oh yes, this has been one fine hiking day, shared mostly with Mother Nature, and there in her presence was I struck dumb to tears by her spellbinding, awe-inspiring beauty–Florida, unspoiled. This odyssey is absolutely filled with the miracles and magic that only perseverance and patience can reveal; let it continue.
Monday–March 12, 2001
Doug’s route to work takes us right by where I resume my hike, how convenient! I’m back on the trail (roadwalk) by seven-thirty.
Problem to solve today: there’s no good way for the FT southbound thru-hiker to get from Ft. Basinger to Yates Marsh. The Kissimmee River’s in the way. Northbounders can cross at the S65D lock after knocking on the lockkeep’s door. She’ll open the gate. Southbounders are out of luck. We could stand, and holler and yell from the far side of the lock all day, and she wouldn’t hear us.
One alternative for the southbounder is to cross the river at the US98 bridge, then walk the way-around five miles to Yates. Another is to trespass on railroad property and cross at the trestle–not the best route, but the shortest and easiest for the southbounder. Oh yes, as in all cases, do as I say, not as I do! I do the trestle walk again, just like in ’98. Crossing takes only a minute and a half, but that short time seems an eternity. During this time warp I’m thinking about that extra, now seemingly short five miles, and the rest of my (possibly very short) life. Hey, look, I’m across and still in one piece. Beat the odds again! Next rail projectile (Amtrak) doesn’t fly through for another half-hour.
Yates Marsh is a fun hike. I’m in the pasture, right along with the cows. There’s a mighty fine campsite here, complete with picnic table, fire ring, refreshingly cool, clear water from a faucet…and an electric outlet, into which you may plug your hair drier! Lucky pasture residents we, eh! This whole place was underwater in ’98 and I had to pitch by the watering trough, with the local four-legged folk standing sentry all night.
On the levee now, the wind is really beginning to drive through hard, straight out of the south, and I must lean hard into it to make any progress. Here there is no shade, no escape from the hot wind and the sweltering sun, but I must not complain about the heat; it is far-and-away the better choice, the other being the freezing cold of last winter.
There are mobile homes to my right now, and I can see the barricade ahead, the end of the Kissimmee River where it empties into Lake Okeechobee. Here is the Okee-Tantie Recreation Area and Lightsey’s Restaurant. It’s now just three so in I go for lunch. Plans are for Doug to come and fetch me and for me to stay another delightful night with him, Pat, and their children, Heather and Brit. My waitress lets me sit on the porch, to wait and to work my writing. She continues bringing me more delicious sweet tea till Doug comes for me at six.
For supper, Pat prepares a delicious steak dinner, complete with all the trimmings, rounded out with strawberry shortcake for dessert! Another fine evening with these great new trail angels–and another comfy night on their Sealy!
Slowly but surely it’s sinking in. I am beginning to realize the dream–that this remarkable “Odyssey 2000”–is coming true. In the beginning it seemed so unreachable, yet has it become such a successful dream! It is flowing, and I am there, flowing with it. It has truly become the dream of a lifetime.
Tuesday–March 13, 2001
We’re up early. I have breakfast with Doug, and it’s back to the trail. Doug, what a great time I’ve had with you, Pat, and the kids, Heather and Brit. Thanks, dear friends, for your thoughtfulness, your generosity and your kindness. The time spent with you will remain in my memory.
As you may know, hiking the “Big O” (the Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee) isn’t my bag. There really are no bad days on the trail, but hiking the “Big O” tests it for me. Folks actually come out here and hike this circle-round every year and have a great time of it. It’s just isn’t my idea of fun. A couple of hours up here are more than enough for me. More power to y’all; I’ll head for the Chic Chocs for my days in the sun!
At the bridge now, the roadwalk proceeding very nicely (no impending storm), I decide to pound it on down to Canal Point, my data sheet showing it to be a distance of about six miles. There’s a motel in Canal Point.
Here’s where things start coming apart. I don’t think the mileage is quite right for the Chancey Bay/Port Mayaca section, and I know it isn’t correct for the hike into Canal Point. And there’s no motel in Canal Point. It’s down toward Pahokee. So hike it on I go, down to the Grassy Waters Motel on the northern outskirts of Pahokee. Arriving, I indeed find the place to be grassy–the driveways being overgrown in grass. The whole place is pitch black, and there’s a “no vacancy” sign in the door.
What-the-hey, it’s totally dark now, so on to Pahokee I trudge. In just moments I hear an approaching racket as two juveniles come flying straight at me on a quad-trac, lights out, barreling right down the shoulder. I take to the ditch to avoid being hit. Seeing me now, they spin around in a ripping grind, churning and throwing dirt in all directions. They come right straight at me again, this time intentionally. Again I dive for the ditch as the passenger hurls a bottle. They turn again, zooming clear across the busy highway, then to spin around and come straight back across the road at me. This time I stand my ground, jumping to the side only at the last second while taking a roundhouse swing with my trekking poles. I miss with the sticks, but the straps slap hell out of one of them. Turning yet again, and as I shake my sticks at them, they decide they’ve had enough “fun.” Heading back north on the shoulder, they’re soon gone, the low-pitched drone of their engine fading into the night. Oh my, what an ordeal. This whole episode lasted little more than a minute. Oh but thank you, Lord, thank you for seeing me safely through yet another one!
At the outskirts of Pahokee now, and thirty-nine miles for the day, two teens on bicycles come alongside. “We’re ya going,” says one. I give them my pitch. “You’re heading into a bad neighborhood,” says the other. Well now, I’m thinking, “Like, I’ve been in a good neighborhood!” “Better let us go with you and show you a safe way,” says the first. So, trusting their kindness, along we go. Soon, a policeman, the local night patrol, pulls to the shoulder to check me out and to inquire as to my well-being. It’s here I learn there’s no place to stay in Pahokee.
Thanks, Alan and Hector! Gee whiz, what a crazy day–a crazy thirty-nine mile day. As I pitch for the night, by the shores of the great lake, Okeechobee, I am content in the feeling and in knowing that my faith in the goodness of man will remain unshaken. I have no scars, but I’m certainly the least the wiser. Indeed, there are no bad days on the trail, but there’s no question, some sure turn out better than others.
Wednesday–March 14, 2001
With the wind off the lake, the waves lapping the shore, and near a forty mile hiking day, I wasn’t long for this world once my head hit my makeshift pillow last. My little Nomad tent has indeed become home, and I drifted away to the Land of Nod, feeling safe and secure.
The fishing’s been good recently and everybody’s up early this morning, so I’m up early, too. With the crazy hike of yesterday, I’ll be taking a day off. Jon Phipps won’t be coming for me down in Lake Harbor until tomorrow evening, to fetch me from the trail and shuttle me to the FTA Annual Conference. Lake Harbor is only fifteen miles south of Pahokee by trail (levee) and I can easily knock that out tomorrow by one-thirty.
On my way back to Burger King for breakfast, I pass these most ancient and grand Royal Palms. They stand in a row all along the street, lining both sides. I’m in the subtropics now, no doubt about it. There are so many strange and exotic plants here. Yesterday I saw the first Washingtonian Palm, the first Norfolk Island pine, the first Coconut Palm, and the first Royal Palm. There are so many more, but I do not know their names.
I spend the day in the library, catching up on correspondence and writing my journal. In the evening, Alan joins me for supper at Nana’s, a little Mexican store up the street. After supper we head back to the lake where Hector has had good luck fishing. I enjoy their company before rolling in for another grand night on Pahokee Beach.
The fishermen are up again, so I’m up again. I manage to break camp and hit the levee by seven-fifteen. The wind is already kicking out of the south, and there’s nothing up here to stop it. As I lean into it once more, I step out briskly with the pleasant assurance that this will be my last day hammering the “Big O.”
The wind finally succeeds in pushing me over the side at Paul Reardon Park, where I camel-up on water and top off my 20-oz Mountain Dew bottle before heading back up and into it again. Entertainment today includes watching an old twin engine do touch-and-goes at Glades Airport, with the closing act being two officers, full dress, flack jackets, guns and all, being dragged along the canal bank by a huge bloodhound. I must have passed the guy whose trail they’re tracking. Glad our trails didn’t cross!
By one-thirty I’m at Lake Harbor. Problem is, I don’t see any town, and the eighteen-wheelers continue flying by at seventy. At John Stretch Park, I inquire as to the whereabouts of the town of Lake Harbor. With considerable amusement, the man emptying the trashcans points, “It’s right over there,” he says. I look but still see no buildings–nothing. I shrug. He continues, “Down that road right over there.” I inquire further about a post office, restaurant, gas station. “Oh, there’s a post office,” he says, “but that’s it. Lake Harbor’s a real small place.” Now that I take another look, I do believe I can see the flag flying over there a ways.
Heading down the side road and at the next crossroad now, I arrive at the Lake Harbor Post Office, the only building around. I enter and am greeted by Joy Hand-Pierce, the only postal employee around. We pass the time while waiting for Jon to come and fetch me, talking about my hike and about Joe Wild Flamingo Masters and Del Delahunty. According to Joy, they also stopped here at the Lake Harbor Post Office while passing through on their respective ECT northbound hikes. As we’re talking I inquire as to why the pop machine outside isn’t working. Seeing that I’m thirsty, Joy says, “I’ve got something better than pop” as she heads to the back. In a few minutes she returns with a huge Styrofoam cup filled with ice, topped off with the last of her mother’s mighty fine sweet tea–which serves to wash down the sandwich and chips she also hands me. What a joy meeting Joy! Vagabond Rick, here’s another trail angel to add to your ECT Thru-Hiker Handbook.
At four, right on time comes Jon Wanchor Phipps to help me on my way to the annual Florida Trail Association Meeting near Paisley in the Ocala National Forest. It’s a long drive back to Oviedo where Jon and Joan live, but well worth the ride as Joan has not only provided for my lunch but has prepared a fine evening meal. Thanks, Jon and Joan! In their comfy home for the night now, I try doing some writing but am just too tired. The crispy clean sheets feel so very good.
Friday–March 16, 2001
Today I’ll continue on to the annual FTA Conference in the Ocala NF. Vagabond Rick will be hauling me. There’s some time this morning, so Joan drops me by the library on her way to work. Here I plan do some writing. She isn’t gone long, however, till she returns with another hiker. The writing can wait, for meeting and talking now with Bob Roscigo turns to quite an experience. Here’s a very interesting man. Seems Bob is also on an odyssey. I think he’s called his a “tour.” What’s different and so remarkable about this man, however, is that he stays in the woods for upwards of seven weeks at a time and is currently carrying between 110 and 120 pounds on his back! He’s down here hiking the Florida Trail. When Jon comes later in the morning, he’s just got to have a picture of Bob and me together. What contrasting hiking styles!
Jon delivers me to Travel Country Outdoors (TCO) in Altamonte Springs, where Rick is waiting. Here, I once again get to spend time with these great folks. TCO is a sponsor for “Odyssey 2000-01.” They’ve provided me such great support, both in gear and in enthusiastic encouragement. To Mike Plante, TCO manager, and to all at TCO, thanks!
The ride from Altamonte Springs to the Ocala goes quickly as Vagabond Rick and I have many things to discuss. We’re both fired up about these great new trails, the AMT and the ECT. Rick is also hiking them, but in sections. So far he’s gotten from Key West to Andalusia, Alabama, and soon he’ll return to the ECT to continue on to Springer Mountain, Georgia.
In the evening, and at the conference site, I talk with many dear friends again. Jon has provided me a fine room for the weekend and I soon head there. I have become so very tired the last two days. It seems I have no energy.
Saturday–March 17, 2001
Sleep was fretful last, but I did manage to rest. This morning I attend a few presentations, then sit in on the annual Long Distance Hiker’s Committee meeting. Much is happening now with the FT, all good. Long-distance hikers have begun moving into important positions of leadership within the organization. For instance, Chuck Swamp Eagle Wilson, who has just successfully completed his ECT northbound thru-hike, will be taking over the responsibilities of the LDH’s Committee, to continue the great momentum begun by LDH’s Joan Trail Angel Hobson and Vagabond Rick. Joan is now VP of Trails.
Another example is the remarkable work coming out of the Tallahassee office. At the meeting conducted by Kent Wimmer and Howard Pardue, I learned of the great strides being made in identifying trail corridor, acquiring land and certifying existing trail. Indeed, the Florida National Scenic Trail has come of its own as a long distance thru-trail. Jim Kern must indeed be very proud!
My energy level has left me again. By two I barely manage to return to my room before collapsing on the bed. I’m unable to rest however, as I must make frequent and repeated trips to the bathroom. I’d hoped to be able to sign and sell some books this afternoon, but I have neither the strength nor the resolve to get back out.
Thank goodness the evening schedule runs on and I’m not called upon to present my program until very late. This permits me the excuse for a shortened version, and with the help of Jan Dutch Treat Benschop, who has set a number of my ditties to his beautiful music, I’m able to additionally shorten my time before the audience. Though late, and though the program short, Jan and I are well received. I cannot remain, as Jan closes the act. Thanks Jan, dear friend, and thank you, dear friends, FTA members all, for your kindness and understanding.
Sunday–March 18, 2001
I managed to sleep a little better last night, but breakfast is the last thing on my mind this morning. Many friends come by my room to check on me before setting out on their journeys home. Gary Bear Bag Buffington, MD, has been keeping a close eye on me and has written a script for Flagyl (Metronidazole), the medication used for the treatment of giardia lamblia.
I’m still in my room, feeling little like going anywhere, when the cleanup crew shows at the door. Chuck and Betty Wilson have brought their luxurious motor home around. They’ve come for me, insisting I return with them to their home in Naples. It doesn’t take much to convince me that I’m in no shape to return to Lake Harbor. With tears in my eyes, I manage little resistance to their offer. I finally get my pack together. It’s raining as Chuck practically carries me to his motor home across the way. “You’re in luck,” he says, “Betty’s got the bed all made up for you.” Oh what an absolute blessing. I can remember Chuck stopping to fill Gary’s prescription, and that’s it. I know not how long it takes to reach Naples.
In the evening I’m feeling better. I manage to shower, and Betty fixes me a bowl of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. I tell Chuck I want to return to the trail in the morning, but judging from his looks my plea doesn’t sound too convincing. The Wilsons have such a beautiful, spacious home. I try to look around a little, but end up heading right back to my room.
Trail magic–I think not. Trail miracle–I think so. Chuck and Betty, you’re all about trail miracles!
Deborah, (Stewart-Kent, FTA President) please forgive me for missing your always-inspiring conference closing ceremony, I just couldn’t make it.
Monday–March 19, 2001
It has rained off and on all night, continuing into the morning. But my decision is to go, so Chuck gets me loaded and we’re off to Lake Harbor.
The rain has eased by the time we reach the post office. I introduce Chuck to Joy, the three of us chat awhile, then I’m off again, heading ever south.
The hike today is along the Miami and L-2 Canals, not particularly exciting. The rain soon comes again, this time in the company of a generous supply of lightning. Thankfully, the show is all cloud-to-cloud, as there’s no place to hide up here. Also thankfully, there is little wind as the rain comes heavy at times.
My energy level remains surprisingly high all through the afternoon, and by late evening, with another ominous black wall of clouds approaching, I hastily pitch for the night. I no sooner roll in than the storm comes through, the gusting wind driving torrents of rain. But I’m dry and away from it in my great little Nomad tent. Into each life some rain must fall. It’s sure been falling here in mine. Hopefully, it will soon be gone.
Tuesday–March 20, 2001
The front passes through during the night, but it leaves a blanket of fog behind for the sun to burn away this morning. I’m now in the land of the sugar cane…and the sandhill crane. As the sun succeeds in lifting the haze, do I have the most remarkable view, which lifts and carries my gaze for miles in all directions, the anxious, raspy clangor of the crane carrying with it.
The rain has cleansed the air, making it again crisp and clear, most-nearly ether. I’ll bet anything the folks that work these cane fields are glad for that, because when it’s so dry, as it has been, theirs is filthy, grimy work. I always thought the fields were burned after the harvest, but the burning actually occurs before. What a sooty, dusty mess! How they manage to extract such a pure white substance from the black scorch they haul to the refinery in their bouncing, rattling, grime-covered cane trucks is beyond me.
As the sun climbs, comes with it much humid heat. There is absolutely not a patch of shade up here on the levee, and I’ve managed to nearly deplete my water supply. I’m in luck, however, for as I hear a vehicle approaching from behind, I turn to see a pickup towing an airboat. It’s the water management folks out to spend the day, and as they pass, down comes the driver’s window. Now do I hear such kind and welcome words: “Could you use some water?” Oh yes, this’ll work! Here I meet Jay. “I know what it’s like to be out here without water,” says Jay. And so you do my friend, and so you do. But I’m wondering, as I fill my pop bottles, drinking my fill in the process–I’m wondering if you realize, Jay, how truly thankful a person can be that receives such kindness!
On Snake Road, in the Seminole Indian Reservation now, I am again offered many rides, just as I was while passing this way in ’98. I’ve found the Seminole people to be kind and gentle folk. How paradoxical indeed, for were they not such brave and fierce warriors, the only nation to remain unconquered during the Indian wars!
In the evening now, tired from the long, hot roadwalk, I arrive at Billie Swamp Safari. Here there are swamp buggy rides, airboat rides, and a zoo–literally a zoo. For now is spring break, school’s out, and I do believe every kid from Miami is right here. I manage though, after a very long exercise in patience, to get a chickee for the night (a small, elevated, thatch-covered Indian dwelling).
Heading to the bathhouse, deep in thought about these past few days, appears right before me Chuck and Betty Wilson, with the grandest, broadest smiles I believe I’ve ever seen on any two individual’s faces. “Everybody’s asking about you, wondering if you’re okay. So we’ve come over to check on you,” exclaims Betty. I’m so completely taken, overjoyed is the word, that before I can respond, Chuck asks, “Can we buy you supper?” I finally manage, “Sure Chuck, sure dear friend, you can buy me supper.” What an absolutely perfect day this has turned out to be!
Wednesday–March 21, 2001
The man that thought he was invincible, the man that shot his mouth off to everybody about how he was immune to giardia lamblia, well, turns out the boob isn’t so invincible after all. Yup, you’ve guessed it–the old Nomad’s come down with the dreaded bug. Two hours after dinner last night, World War III erupted in my gut, rumblings, tremors and outright explosions the likes of which I’ve never experienced before, a racket and commotion worse even than the crashing of tennis shoes in a drier! It all started around nine. The race was on after that, running to outrun the runs, and it lasted till around two this morning. From my chickee to the toilet is about a hundred yards. No sprinting back in the NFL could have stayed with me. Lordy, lordy, what an absolute nightmare. I started right then on the Flagyl.
This morning I’m not inside-out near as bad as I thought I’d be. In fact I’m rested and fairly ready to go at the day. So it’s over to Swampwater Café for breakfast, then to see the Florida Panthers in their cage, then back to the trail. Plans today are to meet Chuck and Betty Wilson at the Alligator Alley Rest Area, where the trail crosses I-75. From there Chuck will hike the Big Cypress National Preserve with me, all the way to Loop Road, the present terminus of the FT.
The trail continues as a roadwalk through the lands of the Seminole, and near the end, passes beside a canal. In ’98, along this canal, I saw some of the largest gators I’ve ever seen anywhere. I swear, I believe one monster had the girth of a 55-gallon drum flattened down. In my journal entry for that day in ’98, I promised I’d bring my camera along next time, just to quiet you doubters. And so, this time I think I got him. Don’t know though, I had trouble holding the camera steady.
Near the southern trail entrance to the lands of the Seminole, and at I-75, there’s a trail register for the northern section of Big Cypress National Preserve. Just as I’m signing out, along come Chuck and Betty. It’s lunch time, and Betty’s brought lunch and lots of cold pop in a cooler. The magic continues!
The last and final “I” is behind me now: I-75. This interstate highway has been the most persistent and stubborn of all, this being the fourth time our paths have crossed. But it’s back there behind me for good now during the remainder of this odyssey.
It’s a joy having company on the trail again. Chuck is a seasoned backpacker, having just completed the Key West/Everglades Roadwalk, the FT, the Alabama Roadwalk, the Alabama Pinhoti, the Georgia Pinhoti, the Georgia section of the Benton MacKaye, the AT and the IAT. Whew! Some hike, eh! Well, these trails and roadwalks, which Swamp Eagle has just completed, are the trails and roadwalks that, when combined, form two trails that I predict will soon become known as the trails of the 21st century. They are the Appalachian Mountains Trail (AMT), and that grand and most glorious trail of all, the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT), a trail that crosses sixteen states, two Canadian provinces and three time zones, from the tropical waters of the Caribbean Sea at Key West, Florida to the tundra and the Cliffs of Forillon at Cap Gaspé, Quebec, where the Appalachian Mountains plunge to the sea at the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Ahh, what a grand and glorious trail indeed. The two of us have so many mutual friends we’ve made along this ECT, so many magic and mystic places to talk about. And so, reminiscing the memory of those dear friends, those remarkable experiences, do we share and spend yet another memorable day.
Thursday–March 22, 2001
Friends have told me the Everglades are dry, but I couldn’t comprehend that. Hard to believe, but true. Heading south from Alligator Alley yesterday, Swamp Eagle and I were in a little mud, down to a place I’ve dubbed the “lagoon,” but then never above our ankles. From there and on south into Oasis Ranger Station at Tamiami Trail, the treadway has remained dry.
At the trailhead register by US41 I find a card with a note from dear friend Smith Old Ridge Runner Edwards. It reads, “Check with the rangers inside, there’s a package for you.” So in I go. I hand the note to the ranger/receptionist; she heads to the back. In a moment she returns with this tall, narrow box covered with duct tape. I open it part way with much excitement. Oh yes, a bottle of Long Trail Ale! Swamp Eagle gets this silly little smirk on his face. Finally, it dawns on me–oh no, alcohol is forbidden while taking Flagyl! Gary warmed me of this, and it’s written in the precautions that accompany the medication. “Consuming alcohol while on this medication can cause severe stomach disorder.” Aww great, now what? Consulting with Swamp Eagle, turns out we’ll be coming back through here, as he and Betty plan to come to Key West to celebrate with me, and from there, to bring me home with them. So back in the refrigerator the grand prize goes, to await another day. Dang! Okay, thanks, Old Ridge Runner.
Friday–March 23, 2001
The trail today, on south through the Big Cypress National Preserve, is like a highway, and I’m wondering how I could have possibly gotten so lost in ’98. But that was indeed a different time and the Everglades a different place. Vagabond Rick and Debbie Dalrymple have been in and have worked the treadway and the blazing for the last three miles. So we’re able to cruise on into Loop Road–and another congratulatory note. Thanks, Not To Worry! We arrive here a little after eleven.
What an emotional time now, for here is where my son, Jon, dropped me off New Years Day in 1998. This is the place where “Odyssey ’98” began, and now, near where another miracle, “Odyssey 2000/01” will end. It’s hard to believe I’ve hiked over nine thousand miles since that day, across most-near the breadth of the entire eastern North American continent–and back again. Many of us dream all our lives about far-off, mystic places, about grand adventures that lie beyond the horizon, that dwell on the other side, past the beckoning, luring arc of the sea. But few of us ever go. Why is it, why do we just dream? Is it fear; are we afraid to go? I don’t know the answer, but I do know this: For those of us who couldn’t stifle that instinctive, deep-down burning desire, for those of us who could not ignore the call of the wanderlust buried within our soul; we have been so very, very blessed in life. We made that decision–to chase our dreams–and we have gone!
I’ve only a short distance to Key West now, and I’m thinking as I move along: what remarkably beautiful places I’ve seen, what wonderful life-long friendships I’ve made, and what times and adventures I’ve had. It’s been another soul-searching journey with the Lord. And the book, Ten Million Steps. What an amazing reception, and what recognition has come to me. What a truly humbling experience. It’s been a long way from here to Canada and back again, both in distance and in time–like from a different world, another life.
Betty has come for Chuck, and I’m once again alone, on my way toward that final destination. It’s in my sights now, the southernmost point on the eastern North American continent, the monument at the sea in Key West.
Saturday–March 24, 2001
Yesterday I completed my second thru-hike along the Florida National Scenic Trail, this time southbound. I’ve been told, and it’s hard to believe, but this hike is a first. For, even though the Florida National Scenic Trail has been in existence for nearly thirty-five years now, many folks having hiked it, no one apparently has thru-hiked it southbound. Guess that means I’m also the first to thru-hike the FT in both directions. Cool, neat distinction; I’ll take it! Chuck Swamp Eagle Wilson, (Chairman, FTA Long Distance Hiker’s Committee), you need to send me another one of those really neat FT thru-hiker patches!
I’ll be hiking roads beside the Everglades for the next few days, but my hike along the beautiful trail through the ‘Glades is finished. Ahh, the Everglades, “River of Grass,” as aptly named by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. What can one say about such a remarkably fascinating and mysteriously forbidding–but wonderful place! The grandeur of it is overwhelming, especially to one who takes the time to walk even a small part of it. Today, only one-fifth of the historic Everglades remain. The encroachment of man, our sheer numbers no doubt, will someday strike the death knell to its existence. But until that day does there exist here such a unique ecological system, unique to the world. In our hemisphere’s parks do the Everglades alone hold three internationally distinctive classifications: International Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site, and Wetland of International Significance. Yes, the Everglades remain a vast and uniquely special place–in the entire world.
I was again blessed to see the wood stork this hike, although its numbers have dwindled from over 6,000 as recently as 1960 to less than 500 today. Indeed, the numbers of wading birds nesting in colonies in the southern Everglades have declined 93% since 1930. Evidenced to me, and to my dismay, I saw no rookeries of the magnificent snowy white egret. They were prevalent during my ’98 hike. In my memory were the words of Amy Blackmarr, Going to Ground, “And the showy egret keeps watch from the east…where the small bass hide in the reeds.” Oh, but I was blessed to see gallinule, great white and blue heron, anhinga, osprey, black vultures, kite, ibis, a bald eagle, countless gators and crocs, deer, loggerheads, gar, Florida panthers (in captivity), and the remarkable and irrepressible sandhill crane.
Big Cypress refers not to the size of the trees that are here, but to the more than 2,000 square miles of wetlands that make up the northern reaches of the Everglades. Here the FT passes through systems of dwarf pond cypress, hammocks of slash pine, cabbage palm and gumbo-limbo. There are wet prairies and sloughs, and occasional domes of the giant cypresses, the great baldcypress. Few of these monarchs have survived the lumbering era, but those that have, embody antiquity, some as old as 600-700 years. Here among the black bear, panther, crayfish, bromeliads and orchids, is there a veritable paradise, where dwelt the ancestors of today’s Miccosukee and Seminole Nations. I have met them; I know them–for my spirit rose, and in a brief, fleeting moment of silence, and in that instant, my spirit was one with them. What a joy, my journey here once more. I must return…someday. Indeed, my spirit will return.
I am on US41/Tamiami Trail, heading east all this day–far from that spiritual realm of silence.
Sunday–March 25, 2001
I spent the night again, as in ’98, behind the truckstop next to the chainlink fence, right under the microwave tower. I had a great night’s sleep, despite the continuous low-pitched, synchronous, rumbling hum of the idling diesels.
The hike today continues the roadwalk, this one down busy SR997, another hot, clear one. I keep myself busy hugging the crash rail and picking up change, 54 cents in all. Along the way, I continue reminiscing my memorable and remarkable journeys through the Everglades, and the beauty of being with nature. This echoes within my mind, within my soul.
By early afternoon I reach Homestead, then Florida City. Here, on the southern outskirts of Florida City, which is also the eastern reaches of Everglades National Park, is the Everglades International Hostel, a classic (and classy), old 1930s apartment house, later turned migrant tenement house, more recently turned (totally renovated) international hostel. Owners, Edwin Anderson and Owhnn (and Owhnn’s daughter, Sotta), have done a remarkable job of transforming this rundown-but-quaint old two-story building into a modern, comfortable hostel, now in its glory, for the lucky sojourner who comes to spend a day, or a few–to enjoy. I’m here for at least two!
Monday–March 26, 2001
What a great evening last at the Everglades International Hostel. I met the owners, Edwin and Owhnn. Also residing here, I’ve found, is Andrew Old Dude Page, AT, Georgia to Maine, ’99 and ’00. Old Dude and me, we proceeded to have great fun, “bench” hiking. Oh yeah, many mutual friends to remember, many beautiful experiences to recall.
Today is a day of rest, working my journals, and sending email to many dear friends. The last two days of confusion and chaos along the busy highway, they have sapped me. It is good to be here where I can rest. My old bones need the rest. I will not worry; I will rest–and sleep.
Tuesday–March 27, 2001
While here at Everglades International Hostel, and while lavishing myself this much needed rest, I have come to know the good company of Old Dude. We’ve become friends. So it is that I’ve invited him to accompany me during the remainder of this odyssey, the hike on down through the Keys. Hoho! Old Dude–he just couldn’t back away from this invitation. So, this morning we’re off together–to Key West!
From Florida City to Key Largo is a long, rugged, utility-poles-pinned-to-the-horizon kind of hike. Even the locals that ply this desert-like landing strip–at seventy plus–have dubbed it “The Stretch.” There’s still treasure to be found down here in the Keys, though, so to occupy our time today, Old Dude and me, we set to finding some of it: seventy-eight cents in all, three quarters, which trickle down to three pennies.
By early afternoon, in a much-welcome and cooling rain, and finally nearing the first road bend for the day, pulls across this pickup truck. In just a moment over comes the driver, a familiar figure from the summer past. Oh my, it’s my good friend and AT hiking companion Travis Shepherd Hall, AT, Maine to Georgia ’00–big guy, huge grin. “Nomad,” he shouts, “That you, you still going, you still hiking?” After a grand, old-friend hug–“Yes Shepherd, yes, I’m still going, I’m still hiking.” Well, what a wonderful day! We load right up and head for Hobo’s Bar and Grill on Key Largo. It’s party time folks; it’s party time.
Late afternoon now, Shepherd puts us back on the trail as we make plans to meet in Key West. Then Old Dude and me, we stagger it on down to the Tiki Bar at Lake Surprise. Here Old Dude calls Owhnn, who soon comes to fetch us back to the Everglades Hostel in Florida City.
Well, what could have been a really tough day has certainly turned memorable. What with meeting Shepherd, the trip to Hobo’s, then free beer, (compliments of Denise, one of the locals at Lake Surprise–great surprise!), hey, and then to cap it off, just about the best pasta I’ve ever wolfed down, prepared from scratch by Richard at Everglades International Hostel–oh yeah! Thanks Owhnn, for coming for us. Even though it seems that I just gotta, gotta go…it’s great to be back for another luxurious night’s rest here at the Everglades International Hostel.
Wednesday–March 28, 2001
Owhnn gets us back to Key Largo plenty early. We’re in good shape and on our way ever south (west) to that now-less-elusive southernmost point on the eastern North American continent, the monument at Key West.
Comes again the traffic of the Keys. And building–the heat of the tropics. But I will not complain. I am blessed to be here, so happy and blessed to be here. It’s such a very far and great distance to walk, from the barren, cold stretches of the north tundra to these tropical waters. I will take much enjoyment and pleasure in these few, short, remaining days, the final days of “Odyssey 2000-01.”
The treadway is kind today, being mostly along the long bikeways that run the extent of Key Largo. Complimenting the normal daily routine of traipsing fifteen to twenty miles, I add the beneficial exercise of stooping to retrieve the few scattered remains, that long-sought treasure, the booty of the Keys, ten cents–all pennies. There is no cooling afternoon shower, and the sun is outrunning us to the west, ever the victor, all the while glaring back as we slowly follow. Now bidding us farewell, the sun embraces the radiant sea, lifting it above and before us, across and beyond the azure crescent that arcs the Straits of Florida. Presents now the most striking appearance, as if the sea is advancing, soon to consume us in the flames of sunset, creating a most convincing and mystifying illusion, rising, pulsing, shimmering in its transparent hues of crimson, aqua, and white. It reaches, then lunges, thence to finally crash defeated against the bastions of sand, to the horizon.
We savor the day by stopping at the great Mandalay Tiki Bar. Folks here are happy. Ahh, I too, am happy here!
Thursday–March 29, 2001
Came a good rain late last night. The catacomb-like recesses under and between the huge concrete I-beams that make the many bridges–there the narrow abutment ledges whereupon one might roll out–lie the resting places, directly below the bridge-end expansion joints. Some are watertight, some are not. I’ve a knack for picking the dry-when-raining ones…Old Dude wasn’t so lucky. Right after the rain began I could hear him rustling about. Looking over I saw him, headlamp flashing here, then there, as he retreated from the veritable river running directly through his camp. Oops, sorry Old Dude, forgot to tell you about the expansion joints.
This morning we’re out to another absolutely blue-perfect day, and I am immediately awestruck–again, by the perfect blue that sets this breathtaking scene, a dazzling backdrop that lifts heavenbound, rising from the sea full around, a creation of magic known simply as, “The Florida Keys.”
Crossing Tavernier Creek now, we pull into this little mom-n-pop stop for breakfast. Oh, is this grand! What a wonderful payoff for having endured the countless frost-laden mornings of the long winter past, mornings with no coffee, no warm meal to set me on my way. And my fingers, they’re working again. My shoelaces are tied, my zippers zipped!
Lunch is at the beautiful rooftop Holiday Isle, where Karin Wehner serves, both as hostess and as waitress. What luck, she’s here today, just like in ’98, a wonderful memory relived. I’m welcomed, and do I receive the long-lost-friend treatment from this kind lady! Old Dude and me are served a grand lunch, with a most-grand view, compliments of Karen. Thanks, dear friend, for remembering. Thanks for your generosity and kindness once again. Indeed, I will forever remain in your debt.
In the evening, with the relentless grind of oncoming traffic, and not wanting to cross the long, high-span bridge leading to Fiesta Key, we pull off Gulfside. Here we pitch on a little grassy incline, as the setting sun blazes its golden path across the crystal blue Straits of Florida.
Folks, along this way there are no blazes; there is no trail. But let me tell you this: Here in the Florida Keys, there is a hike the likes of which there is no equal. Oh, indeed, it is so hard to believe this wonder, this magic–yet I do believe!
Friday–March 30, 2001
Old Dude and me, we’ve set ourselves a goal while here in the Keys–not an easy goal, but one we believe can be achieved. And that goal is to hit every Tiki Bar between Key Largo and Key West! Tuesday it was Lake Surprise Tiki Bar, Wednesday, Mandalay Tiki Bar, and today…hoho! Holiday Inn/Outback Tiki Bar, followed up by the Lor-E-Lei Tiki Bar, both in Islamorada.
The hike we’re on now is east to west, to Key West, and by mid-afternoon the tropical sun comes to hit us straight on, the heat of it really working us over. And the traffic? Well, the traffic is crushing, continuous, hooked up and nonstop. By late afternoon we reach Marathon. Here are friends of a friend. The friend–Meg Cowgirl Letson, a fellow hiker who befriended me while hiking the Pinhoti Trail through the Talladega National Forest in Alabama. And her friends–Maria Lester and David Kaplin, right here in Marathon at Marathon Kayak. “Stop and see them on your way through the Keys,” I remember Meg saying, “I know they’ll welcome you; I’ll tell them you’re coming!” And so she did, and so today, from the outskirts of Marathon, I call David, and in just a short while, Maria pulls alongside, down the window, up her beautiful smile. Ahh, indeed Cowgirl, your dear friends do welcome me!
In the evening, and at David and Maria’s lovely home right next the crystal-jewel waters of the bay, I meet their son, Jason, and David’s parents, Allan and Laura. What a grand time. David’s friend, Jim, comes over, and David grills mahi mahi for Old Dude and me–and all–as we all celebrate the old Nomad’s cracking past the Keys fifty-mile marker.
I have had an inner peace and confident all along in knowing that I would complete this odyssey. Now there is no doubt in my mind.
Saturday–March 31, 2001
Seems it’s a joy for the Kaplans all, to have us with them. It sure is a joy for us!
I’m way ahead of schedule, that schedule being to reach Key West by next Wednesday afternoon, so at the invitation and urging of David and Maria, Old Dude and I remain another day. Their place here is a beautiful setting, overlooking the bay, tucked just inside the point of a deep waterway, docks and tall-masted sailboats lining and marking its course. All is open, and the gentle, refreshing breeze coming across the placid turquoise waters that are the Keys…ahh, there is no mechanical firm anywhere in the world that could possibly duplicate these conditions, that could make the air so refreshingly cool and sweet, in such a pleasing and perfect fashion.
I linger on the deck, watching the tide go out as I write. This is an inspiring place, bringing inspiration to the writer. I can see now why so many writers over the years have made the Keys their home.
Late afternoon now, Allan shuttles me back to mile marker fifty where he drops me off. From here, I’ll hike on west to Seven Mile Bridge. Plan is to run that gauntlet before first light. David comes to fetch me back at four. Owhnn has come for Old Dude and they’re off to their own.
In the evening, David, Maria, Allan, Laura and I enjoy pizza, a few tall frosties–and each other’s company. What a wonderful day. Thanks folks!
I am so blessed, to have such help along the way, such caring folks about. And it is a blessing too, to be living to the fullest, each and every day–right on the edge.
Sunday–April 1, 2001
During the night a fierce storm drives through, dumping torrents of water, knocking out the power. But just before first light the storm passes, the wind turns calm. David and Maria get me loaded and I’m soon back at Seven-Mile Bridge. Plans were to meet Old Dude here this morning, but the storm of the night has left things most unsettled. He is not here. I bid farewell to David and Maria, shoulder my pack and head out in the dark, across the narrow concrete ribbon that is Seven Mile Bridge.
The plan is working; there is little traffic, and by first light I’m well on my way. Del Delahunty was hassled here as he headed north on his ECT hike earlier this year. A state trooper forced him into the patrol car, then delivered him across. He promptly hitched right back to complete his jaunt o’er Seven Mile. Knowing this has concerned me, and this morning, as the day brightens and the traffic increases, I try blocking the incident from my mind by picking up cast away treasure–coins tossed toward the sea by motorists in hopes of “good luck” on their long journey. By seven-thirty, and less than a mile from shore, the first patrol car passes. But it continues on as do I, and soon I’m safely across. Thank you, Lord. This should be the last big hurdle!
The kind barkeep at Looh Key Tiki Bar tells me that Sunday is a bad time to be on US1. That’s sure true, for the traffic has been almost bumper-to-bumper in both directions. I’m making good progress however, so I give a call to Phil and Ruth Weston, my dear friends on Sugarloaf Key. I’m in luck; they’re home, and they invite me to come on in. I hit it hard, and by five I’ve got the thirty miles knocked out.
What a blessing to be able to rest a couple of days as their guest. They’ve a beautiful home, they’re beautiful people! Ahh yes, time now to reflect on all the beautiful people, and all the remarkable places along this journey, “Odyssey 2000-01.” So now begins the time to look back, to remember, and to give thanks, especially to give thanks, for I have been granted another day.
Monday-April 2, 2001
As I rest here for the next two days, at the luxurious Weston home on Sugarloaf Key, I must take time to thank and give credit to all the great sponsors that have stood behind me and supported me all this journey. This has been such a remarkable hike as to the enjoyment of it, the quality of it. Without these sponsors, such a grand and memorable experience would not have been possible.
I’ll begin with my good friend, Larry Duffy. Larry’s a member of the clan, the Hiker Trash Clan, if you will, having hiked a good chunk of the AT off and on over the years. He’s a professional photographer living in Dahlonega, the same little berg I call home. We knew each other long before “Odyssey 2000.” Larry’s responsible for the great shot that appears on the cover of my book, Ten Million Steps. He lugged 25 pounds of camera gear up Blood Mountain, the highest point on the AT in Georgia, there to spend nearly a whole day with me, taking countless rolls of pictures, just to get that great shot. Folks tell me it’s a striking cover. Indeed, his time and his talent given, spent in my behalf, has gone far in making the book a hit. Thanks Larry, thanks so much!
I contribute the success of this journey, the quality of it, to three factors. All are benefits derived from sponsors. The first deals with my total packweight. The second, with the fact that I was provided with trekking poles and taught how to use them properly. And third, that I had the good fortune of being provided Osteo-Bi-Flex, a great natural product from Rexall-Sundown.
As to my total packweight, comes into play the following: GVP Gear, Feathered Friends, Cascade Designs and Wanderlust Gear.
GVP Gear is Glen Van Peski, owner of a small business centered in Carlsbad, California. Glen has been a great supporter of “Odyssey 2000.” He’s the innovator and manufacturer of the ingenious G-4 lightweight backpack. He started me out with a standard one in Canada, then, at my request, made a custom take-off of his G-4, which has brought me all the way from Maine. Thanks, Glen. The G-4 is a mighty fine, tough, lightweight piece of gear!
Feathered Friends is a cutting-edge company dealing primarily in high-loft, state-of-the-art sleeping bags. Aaron Leopold was of great assistance in providing me a lightweight, 750-loft down Rock Wren. I’ve carried it the whole way. Thanks, Aaron. Great company, jam-up quality product!
Cascade Designs is the manufacturer of Therm-a-Rest self-inflating mattresses. Karen Berger with GORP.com was instrumental in gaining this sponsorship for me. Some folks seem to do fine with the closed-cell foam pads, but I’m an old man and my bones are starting to scrape together pretty hard. Give me the Therm-a-Rest Guidelite, just a little over a pound. That’ll work, and it has, without fail for this entire odyssey. Thanks, Cascade Designs, for a tough, durable product, and thanks, Karen, for securing this sponsor and their great product for me!
Wanderlust Gear, what a neat little company. Kurt Russell in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is the mastermind here. When I tell folks my dry pack weight–only 9½ pounds, not including food and water–their eyes roll right back! It isn’t unusual to get a sort-of sneer, followed by a comment to the effect, “Well, we know your type, you’re nothing but a masochist, the kind that crawls into the bushes and rolls up in the leaves, then lets the bugs eat on you all night. You probably don’t even carry a tarp.” That’s when I tell them that I go on the trail for a good time, same as they do, and I recite the little quote attributed to Walter Nessmuk Sears. Nessmuk said, “I go to the woods to smooth it, not to rough it; I get it rough enough at home.” So now, back to Kurt Russell and Wanderlust Gear. “Yup, you’re right folks,” I say, “I don’t carry a tarp, I carry the luxurious Nomad tent.” Hard to believe, but my 9½ pounds includes a tent! And this Nomad made by Kurt is not just a dink-of-a-glorified bivy sack like I carried (along with 30-35 other pounds) in ’98. This Nomad is a tent in all respects–full pan, zippered no-seeum door, and a vestibule grand enough to cook under. You can sit up in the Nomad, even change clothes and pack your pack, which incidentally there’s also room for inside. And get this: How much does your flimsy wet-when-raining, bugs-when-buggy tarp weigh? Well, my dry-when-raining, no-bugs-never Nomad tent tips in at just a little over a pound three. I’ve weighed it; that’s all it weighs! My hiking sticks serve as the tent poles–neat, eh! I’ve carried the Nomad with me, beginning the first day in Canada. It’s in my pack now, none-the-worse for wear. Kurt, yours is a remarkable product. Cool name, too. Thanks for your support, but most of all, thanks for your kindness and your friendship.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with the great sponsors of “Odyssey 2000-01.” Right now, first things first. I’m being called to partake in a fine evening of dining with the Westons!
Smooth it folks, smooth it!
Tuesday–April 3, 2001
Sugarloaf Key, most-near paradise, and the Westons? The exact kind of people you’d expect to meet in paradise! They took me in and cared for me during “Odyssey ’98” and now they’ve taken me in again. Kind, generous folks, they. We’ve become good friends.
Tomorrow is a final day, a day that closes one of the final chapters in this old man’s life. For tomorrow I will live the last day of this odyssey, my southbound journey o’er such a grand and glorious trail, the ECT.
Today though, is another day of rest, a time for contemplation, a time to reflect, to remember, to count all the many blessings–a time to give thanks. So please permit me to continue, to finish giving thanks to all the great sponsors of “Odyssey 2000-01.”
The second of the factors that brought such quality, such heightened joy to this hike, to “Odyssey 2000-01” was accepting the fact that hiking sticks play an important and critical role in the whole equation. One might manage to hike/backpack a distance of nearly 5,000 miles without them, but believe me, the quality of that hike, indeed the outcome of such a trek would certainly be in doubt. Yes, I consider trekking poles essential. The usual claim I’ve heard is: the use of trekking poles gives a 20% improvement in hiking efficiency. I pooh-poohed that claim for years, before I picked up a pair and learned how to use them. I honestly believe now it’s every bit of 20%, probably closer to 30%, in my opinion…and does the Lord only know how many times they’ve saved my butt! Consider, if you will, all the folks you see that live in the woods–the squirrel, the rabbit, the deer, the moose, the bear, the caribou, everybody–they get around on all four. And man, smart old man, he’s the only one out there tripping around on all two! Time now for Leki’s great motto, their saying, “Two legs bad, four legs good!” Ahh, so true. I just love it! Hiking sticks folks, ya gotta have ’em. Hiking sticks. Thanks, Chris Hall with Leki. Thanks for the great Leki Super Makalu trekkers! They’re bent and battered and scarred, but they’re going to make it. They’re going to carry me through. Zero knee and foot trouble this trek. Great upper body strength, too (as good as it’s gonna get at 62). Thanks Leki, we’ve done it together!
The third factor that contributed greatly to what became and has remained a basically injury/pain-free hike is the use/daily regimen of a combination of natural substances. These substances are produced by our bodies; however, their production decreases with age. For many, this may prove no problem, as strenuous activity also generally decreases with age. But for those of us who keep on hammering at it up into our sixties–we need help! What are these natural substances, and what part do they play in the healthy scheme of things? Well, the substances are glucosamine and chondroitin. And their critical function–the healing and reconstruction of joint and connective tissue. You guys and gals ever have any knee or foot trouble? Struck a nerve there, eh (no pun intended)! Comes now Rexall-Sundown Corporation, makers of Osteo Bi-Flex, a combination of the natural substances discussed above. Dear friends at Rexall-Sundown, I could not have accomplished this miracle without you! To you, Carol Walters: thanks for providing me this must supplement. And especially, thanks for your unwavering faith in me, faith that I would prove your trust. Thanks for believing that I would complete this incredible journey–no matter, and so be it–an old man of 62!
I first met Karen Berger at the ALDHA Gathering in Hanover in 1999. She gave a slide show, the feature presentation, and I had a brief part in the program that year. Karen’s the resident expert on hiking and backpacking for the great web page, GORP.com now, and when the call went out for correspondents hiking the AT I applied. Karen picked me up right away. Karen and GORP.com have assisted me in many ways–by securing gear for me, by supplying film and slide development, and by paying me handsomely for writing a few articles about my journey. Thanks, Karen, it’s been great!
When one accepts money for what they do, especially as in sports, and I believe hiking and backpacking can both be considered a sport, then as a consequence one moves from the ranks of amateur to the ranks of professional. I don’t mean to imply this places the individual in another league, as to hiking ability. However, I do believe that accepting money and sponsorships creates for that individual certain responsibilities that must also be carried. There are commitments that must be met. I thought about this long and hard before actively pursuing the many great sponsors that have backed me this journey. Manufacturers don’t want to support someone with their product, their gear, and their service, only to have that individual fail in his or her endeavor.
So where is this going? Well, it’s going to the gut, to the crux of it. For do each of us not harbor doubt, do we not all have frailties as humans, indeed do we not each and all, fear failure! Ahh, and so now you know. Yes, I feared failure, deeply feared failure. How can one contemplate a trek of nearly 5,000 miles and not fear failure?
During “Odyssey ’98” my feet went flat; I literally walked them into the ground. My dear friend Brian Holcomb, DPM, his surgical practice in Cumming, Georgia, had already cut and wired my bones back where they belonged in both my feet. The procedure was a total success, but I still had a serious problem foot-wise. I’d lost fourteen toenails during the ’98 hike. All ten came off shortly after I emerged from the Florida swamps. Then when the nails on both great and second toes began regenerating, I lost all four of them again. They finally grew back, but in totally abnormal fashion. Thinking back, I knew there was no way I could tolerate the pain of losing them all again, and that attempting so would bring failure. So back to Doc Holcomb I went. “Take ’em off Doc,” I said, “all of ’em, permanently, forever.” I’ll never forget the look on his face! He finally managed, “Maybe the big ones, we’ll take the big ones off.” “No Brian,” I said, “I want them all off.” He just sat there looking at me in befuddled amazement. Sensing my resolve, and with some urgency in his voice, he responded, “You’re serious about this, aren’t you.”
And so folks, my toenails are gone, all of them, permanently, forever. It was the right decision, for the remarkably successful procedures that Brian Holcomb, DPM, performed on my feet have enabled me to strut with a spring in my step for another “Ten Million Steps!” Brian, it is through your great surgical skill that tomorrow the old Nomad will bow in prayer, to give thanks–for yet another unbelievable miracle. What a joy hiking with pain-free feet. And what a blessing, meeting my commitment to all my sponsors. Is that not what’s expected of a true professional? Thanks, Brian, dear friend. Thanks so much!
Two great outfitters have given me their total support. They are Travel Country Outdoors in Altamonte Springs, Florida, and Appalachian Outfitters in Dahlonega, Georgia. These folks–from TCO manager Mike Plante and AO owner Dana LaChance–all know and love hiking and backpacking. From them came not only great gear but more importantly, genuine encouragement and well-wishes from folks who know what being out there on the trail for extended periods of time is all about. Thanks Mike, Dana, and all!
You’ve heard a lot about my feet, but the story wouldn’t be complete, nor would this odyssey have ever been such utter joy without…the shoes! So let me tell you about the great sponsors who’ve kept this old Shank’s mare shod! In Canada, Vasque got me going with two pair of their great Avanti cross trainers. Thanks, Vasque! In the states, New Balance picked me up and kept me skipping along with no less than five pair of their great 803 cross trainer low-cuts, less than a pound each in my size! Thanks, Deirdre McDonnell, Amy Vreeland and Kathy Shepard with New Balance. Two great companies, tough, durable, jam-up shoes, and fine folks. Thanks, all! An average of 700 miles per pair on low-cut running shoes. Not bad, eh!
When the weather got hot, on the AT in the Mid-Atlantic States, then again here in Florida on the FT, a great thirst-quencher designed to keep ultra-marathoners going kept me going! The product is called Conquest. Its innovator is a fellow long distance backpacker and my great friend, Gary Bear Bag Buffington, MD. While all my hiking pals bailed during the heat of the day, the old Nomad chugged down the Conquest and kept right on chugging. Thanks, Gary, for your sponsorship and for your friendship. Oh, and thanks for curing my giardia!
I hope you’ve all taken the opportunity to click onto “Meet Webmaster” at the bottom of the content bar on my homepage, <www.nimblewillnomad.com>. If not, please do so, for here you will get to know the great guy who has created this remarkable “Nimblewill Nomad” page. His name is Greg Smith. Greg is a quadriplegic; he works his keyboard with a stick in his mouth. He’s trekked along with me every inch of the way, vicariously of course, as he’s loaded the journal entries for each and every day since New Years Day, 1998. Greg, my dear friend, I think my love and utmost respect for you as a remarkable human being can best be expressed poetically. God bless you, Greg, my dear, kind sponsor. I’ll close today with this ditty…
Wednesday–April 4, 2001
“Joy to the world, all the boys and girls, now, joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me.” Joy indeed! Ahh, dear friends has this odyssey been such a joy, from its beginning at the Cliffs of Forillon where the Appalachian Mountains plunge 300 feet to the sea at Cap Gaspé, Quebec, to the Caribbean Sea, where this magnificent Eastern Continental Trail ends at the southernmost point on the eastern North American continent in Key West, Florida. 300 days, over 4,800 miles. What an absolutely incredible adventure, another absolute miracle in this old man’s life!
This morning Ruth and Phil get me up and cheer me on my way, this final day. At nine I’m back on US1, mile marker 17, heading ever onward toward Key West. The morning sails by, as do the Keys of Saddlebunch, Shark, Rockland, Boca Chica and Stock Island. I remember little of their passing. Somewhere around mile marker 12 pulls along Mark and Robert from WPBT-2, Miami, and with them, Owhnn from Everglades International Hostel, Florida City. They boost me along with well wishes and a cold drink. Shortly follows Chuck, Betty, and Chuck’s sister, Mae, from Naples, hooting and cheering.
It’s another blue-perfect day in paradise as I turn the corner to arrive at Key West. Then it’s onto Roosevelt, mile marker 2, then Truman, mile marker 1, then the crowd and the carnival that is Duval. Turning at Fleming now I soon reach mile marker 0 at Whitehead. What words are there to describe such emotion, such feeling of overwhelming joy! In moments, as I proceed down Whitehead, I can see the monument marking the southernmost point ahead. Now are there many dear friends shouting and waving. As I continue, come Mae and Owhnn and Sheltowee and Moonshine and Frank and Ruth and Phil and Mark and Chuck and Betty and Robert and Les and Arlene and Shaft and Meatball. All congratulate me as I slump before the monument to thank the Lord for this amazing success.
We’ve done it, Lord. We’ve done it. Thanks dear friends, thank you one and all for being part of this remarkable adventure, the first southbound thru-hike o’er this network of trails that combine to create two of the most magnificent trails–the Appalachian Mountains Trail and this most grand and glorious of all trails, the trail of the 21st Century, the Eastern Continental Trail.