Saturday, April 6, 2019

Reflections on the Florida Trail

Us at the Southern terminus of the Florida Trail - Big Cypress National Preserve
To hike any trail is to put one's self in the path of the unknown, to hike a long distance trail is a gradual surrender to the unknown, but to hike the Florida Trail was a giant leap and sudden immersion into the unknown. To embrace the unknown, find peace within it, and ultimately become intimate with it, is largely why we hiked this trail. 

The Black Lagoon - Big Cypress National Preserve

Our very first day hiking into the Big Cypress National Preserve, to be completely honest, we were terrified. Never mind the fact that we have hiked numerous long distance trails before. None of them included miles of wading black water, alligators, panthers, pythons, poisonwood, and hookworm larvae. We had done our research and the ranger at the Oasis Visitor Center drove home to us the many dangers we could possibly encounter. The first mile of the trail was overgrown with grasses as high as our heads. Never before in my life had I been fearful of every foot step, so alert to rustling in the brush, or hesitant to touch a plant. But despite our learned knowledge of this region, we were mere babes in the jungle. Every impression new. But this was why we had come reawaken every sense, to force ourselves into the present, and to eventually become at home in a landscape that was so far from home. The earth is our home and we sought, and still seek to, know it well in all its hardness and beauty. Throughout its length the Florida Trail offered us the path to doing just that.

Walking along the levees in southern Florida

The Florida Trail provided intensity. On the levees we persevered through unyielding sun and dizzying heat and struggled to stay hydrated. But each morning we followed in the path of the birds that called this land home and marveled at the alligators that lived in the sparkling waters that stretched for miles. In the prairies, we wandered through remote grasslands for over 100 miles and sunk our feet into deep sugar sand. Yet here, the wind carried the sounds of scraping Saw Palmetto fronds and when we dipped into a Live Oak forest, the scent of fresh oranges. The temperatures dropped drastically in Ocala National Forest and we wondered how we had ever been so hot further south, our fingers numb from the cold every morning. However at night the skies were studded with twinkling stars and by day the skies so blue against the white sand of the trail and the green of the trailside corridor. Scrub Jays of the same brilliant blue flitted to and froe across our path. Then just as we were considering sending home our water-walking shoes, we plunged into the swamps. Swamps with sucking mud and swirling pollen and the blackest water we had ever seen. Yet from these rose towering Cypress with smooth bark and carnivorous plants that sometimes seemed more animal than plant.

Wise Man checking out an ancient Live Oak

We wove along the edges of rivers with names that harkened to another time long ago - the Suwannee, Withalacoochee, the Aucilla, the Sopchoppy, and Appalachicola, to name a few. Here we crept around the ancient Live Oaks adorned in Resurrection Fern, Sphagum moss, and red lichen, and marveled at the scarlet samaras of the Maples that lined the rivers' edges. Then there were the long roadwalks, so very long. Cars zipped by with such frequency and the pavement rolled underfoot so regularly we were sometimes hypnotized, that is until a truck would rumble by kicking up a sandstorm in its wake. But we made friends with cows and marveled at humble shacks and falling down barns. In our last two days we reached the crashing waves and lumpy dunes of the beach. This trail was ever-changing and complex in the challenges it presented. However in each unique region, after what felt like a very long time existing in it, although in reality might have been only a few hours or a few days, we grew comfortable as we got to know our surroundings. 

Black Titi (Cliftonia monophylla)

I have spent roughly a decade studying the plants of Appalachia. These plants are dear friends that I incorporate into meals and medicines and use in educating others about their natural world. I have become well acquainted with the plants of the Piedmont and had brushed shoulders with those of the Coastal Plain on my hikes along the coasts of North Carolina. However many which I met on the Florida Trail were new faces to new me or variations of those that I have met before. Some faces which always greeted me on the trail, I never saw once. Therefore, I felt truly a stranger in strange land. The first couple of weeks on the trail, I wondered how I might ever become truly acquainted with the array of new botanicals here in the Land of Flowers. However, each day I learned one, or two, or five. There were the beauties: Ten-Petaled Sabatia, Lantana, Tassel Flower, Moon Flower, and Lizard's Tail.
Red Cedar (Lantana camara)

There were the often-seen: Gallberry, Saw Palmetto, Wapato, Alligator Flag, and Innocence.

Innocence (Houstonia procumbens)

Then there were the carnivorous plants: Trumpets and Sweet Pitchers Sundew, Hooded Bladderwort, and Butterwort. 
Sundew (Drosera)

The fragrant flowers were easy to remember: Florida Anise, Wild Rosemary, Ti-ti, and Candy Weed. 
Florida Anise (Illicium floridanum)

So were some of those we ate: Spanish Needles, Beauty Berry, Pink Wood Sorrel, and oh so many Violets.
Spanish Needles (Bidens pilosa)

And so many more. By the time we were walking the final mile along a gravel trail lined with greenery, it was as if these plants were dear friends lining the path in celebration of our journey's completion. I will never be a stranger in a strange land here in Florida again, rather I will find myself at home amongst these plants. 
Hiking through Nokuse Plantation

Amidst the intensity of the trail there was also always a quiet consistency underlying it all. In certain ways, each day was very much like the last. We awoke before dawn, made coffee and ate peanut butter, be it on a tortilla, granola bar, bagel, or pop-tart. We looked at the days miles and got to hiking. We stopped roughly every hour or so to have a snack, check out a plant, or cool down. Mid-day we peeled off our shoes, leaned back on our packs and ate lunch which usually consisted of cheese on some kind of glutenous product. If we were lucky we had condiment packets and wild greens. Just before sundown, we would find our camp, set up the tent and crawl inside for the night. 

Camped along the Aucilla River

Especially towards the end, this routine at times felt monotonous, coupled with the fact that for all of the trail's changing terrain, each day did not have a highlighted goal. There was no high peak to climb or state line to cross. There was not a blatant daily reward. But at the same time, to hike to this sort of steady hum, allowed us to more deeply listen to our thoughts, notice our own emotional or psychological cycles, and gently attune them to that steady hum of the Florida landscape. The simplicity of trail life was a gift and the rewards were a clear stream, a tree heavy with ripe tangerines, the company of a sweet stray dog, crossing a long bridge over a wide river, reaching a gas station with a grill and cold soda, successfully tip-toing across cypress knees to dodge a swamp or surrendering to the swamp and standing ankle deep in muck without a care, the kindness of strangers and making new friends.

All in attendance at Billy Goat Days - an annual celebration marking legendary hiker, Billy Goat's birthday, and the Florida Trail

And there it is...the thread that stitches the Florida Trail together. The people. The community. For us, the Florida Trail would not have been the magical, meditative, botanical journey it was without the folks that support it, its hikers, and those that live and extend helping hands along its corridor. We speculated at its presence before we even started the trail, as we stumbled across numerous Facebook pages about the trail and several with the stated intention to be of assistance to those who hike the trail. We introduced ourselves, reached out, and the community responded. And although we feel like we formed unique and genuine friendships with those we met through the trail, it was not just us they helped. These folks were there for all the hikers. In the south, along the levees and throughout the prairie, had it not been for the strategically placed water caches, we would have either not made it or gotten sick from the contaminated water in the process. In central Florida we were welcomed into homes by family and new friends, assisted in getting around for resupply and shuttled from here to there and even attended the Annual Billy Goat Days. In the panhandle, we embraced the hospitality of the churches who opened their doors to us. Throughout the length of the trail, we were gifted with surprise slackpacks and rides to or from town, homemade meals or simply sweet company. Yes we were hiking this trail as a couple, a trail at times through deep wilderness, but it was as if we were part of a family and the trail was our home. We were supported. The Florida Trail Alliance and its trail angels and Florida Trail Association volunteers were largely responsible for this however, it was also our fellow hikers. When a tornado touched down on the trail, not far from where we were taking shelter that night in Hillcrest Church, we glanced at Facebook and saw that hikers were looking out each other. Trail angels and members of the Alliance and the Association were doing their best to account for where hikers were and hikers were responding, checking in with this one or that one. All were safe that night. Thru-hikers communicated via various forms of tech to help guide others coming up behind them through tricky parts of the trail. Hiker's families and friends opened their homes for places to stay and services to help resupply. The ways in which we received assistance, support, and acts of kindness are countless. We have said it before, and we'll say it again and again and again, the community that surrounds this trail is what truly makes it special. 

Hanging with Uncle Jim at the I-75 rest area

There were the friends from home and friends we had made on previous hikes who appeared with trail magic and walked miles with us, lifting our spirits and reminding us of the large network of friendship we have created in our travels. There were our families at home and along the trail that mailed packages, took us in providing us shelter, food, and laughter, and listened to our travails by phone.
Meeting the Brents along a roadwalk in Appalachicola National Forest

Even the locals that we met along the way, whether it be passerby at a convenience store or folks we met along the roadwalks, greeted us warmly and with generosity. We often have people ask us if we were scared of who we might meet along the trail - for surely what we see on the news tells us we should be - but rather we looked forward each day to just whom we might meet along the trail!

Traversing swamp in Osceola

Logistically, the Florida Trail is definitely more challenging than some other long distance trails in its potential closures and reroutes due to high water or weather. Navigating our way through the swamps where there was often no definable trail except for blazes or over terrain like sand and deep mud which are not always encountered elsewhere, were also an added aspect to this trail. However thanks to the community that extended their help, the resources available such as Sandra Friend and John Keatley's guidebook and the Guthook app, we found these tricky spots manageable. The resupply options along the trail were plentiful and the weather was as favorable as one might expect Florida to be in the temperate winter. I am happy to say that we encountered less bugs than we expected with the exception of swarms of mosquitoes on the levees. This trail may still be a work in progress but any long distance trail is in reality ever-changing. This is the nature of a trail after all - at times unpredictable, challenging, and unknown, and therein lies its beauty.

Wise Man feeling the magic of the trail

Now that we are home, the full effects of our journey will continue to ripple through us. This residual magic is why we continue to hike the long trails that we do. Despite returning to "normal" life and all the complexities it can present, we are still experiencing a quiet calm and a deep appreciation for our many blessings. Food tastes richer, the company of friends and family is warmer, and every particle of our landscape is more enlivened. When we lay our heads down to sleep at night, we walk dirt roads, wander between Saw Palmettos, dine with friends, and still hear the calling of cranes and barking of dogs. One can never expect to hike a long trail and return the same person. The Florida Trail will now always be a part of us just as we shall now always be a part of the Florida Trail. Florida's landscape, its plants, it animals, and its people will forever resound through us.
Us at the Northern terminus - Fort Pickens - see, I said the trail will change a person!

So what's next? I will be continuing to compile our botanical research about the hike in the upcoming months. A guide to the plants of the Florida Trail will be in the works. You can expect to see us this Fall at the ALDHA gathering where we will share our experience on the Florida Trail and we hope to see all of our dear friends there as well! Our journey in Florida has really just begun. We plan to return in the winters and offer guided plant walks and hikes on not only on the Florida Trail but on other trails throughout the state, as well as herbal workshops, and presentations about our experience on the trail. We will be looking for land to purchase and/or a place to park the trailer so that we can make this happen. So if you have any pointers, ideas, suggestions, let us know!

Thank you to all who supported us in our journey! Each and every one of you made the difference!

Trail marker just a couple of miles from the end of the trail