Sometimes I close my eyes with my face against the Florida sun in a moment of near-perfect peace. Other days I jab and whack my trecking poles into the earth or slam my pack against a rock in unpredictable and uncalled-for frustration. Kicking littered beercans to the next county takes the edge off I guess! In no uncertain way, the trail is a place of extremes; and so emotions take pendulous swings.
But, alas, the path is especially suited for the shatter-hearted—the social leftovers, the could-have-beens—those trying to piece a torn life together and draw conclusions about their world. It’s a tragic but necessary journey to search out, to grieve in some cases, and to bring closure and restorative strength in others. Being on trail is happy and sad, desirable and undesirable, safe and dangerous.
Making our way steadily out of the sprawed-out Orlando metropolis, Tank and I came upon a number of outlying towns, the first of which was Winter Springs reached by a paved bike path lined with upscale houses. The area was both biker and pedestrian friendly with spaced-out metal benches, public water-bottle fillers, bike repair stations, and even doggy water fountains (water fountains lowered to reduce canine neck-straining!).
Since this section was an urban area with paved surfaces, namely designated bicycle paths instead of a conventional dirt footpaths, the FTA set aside a small thru-hiker-only campsite in a nondescript area of the woods. Continuing on the bike path, Tank and I penetrated through the town of Lake Mary where I was able to sip on a cappuccino at the 7-Eleven, pack out a submarine sandwich from a nearby deli, and bounce my box of winter hiking gear from the Lake Mary post office up to Crestview. Further up, after much roadwalking, we came upon the picturesque Seminole State Forest. This began my favorite part of the trail up to this point. The trail in this section was largely dry and well-maintained, having a wilderness feel quite distinct from south Florida. There were even shelters (lean-tos) in the Ocala section, which were reminiscent of those regularly seen on the Appalachian Trail that extends from Georgia to Maine.
Ocala National Forest is where Jim Kern, the father of the Florida Trail and the originator of the Florida Trail Association (FTA) first began blazing a continuous footpath through the state. Kern, after having hiked on the Appalachian Trail back in the 1960s, sought to build a long-distance trail through his home state of Florida. The birth of the Florida Trail began with Kern’s bold vision and passion for the outdoors. The FT was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1983 when I was just two years of age.
Paisley made for a quick but resourceful stop as the two of us were able to resupply at a Dollar General and take some skin-cooling shade under a shelter at the local library. Hiking on still further was the much-anticipated hiker-friendly stop at Oasis 88 (“The 88 Store”). This old time general store had hiker food, a bar, a shower room, and a soon-to-be auxiliary laundry building. We chatted up with the locals and even got some thirst-quenching beverages on the house! Natural Light (“Natty Light”) flows like water here. Tank ate multiple hot dogs that were spinning on the rotisserie while I inhaled a couple extra-long chimichangas. The place welcomed “hiker trash” (a term denoting a hiker that has gone several days without a shower or doing laundry), probably because it’s a popular hunting area that is used to accommodating grungy folk. Some hunters here actually use beagles (scent hounds) to hunt deer, which is perfectly legal, but I won’t go there in light of my views of a fair chase.
Crossing over swampland using an elaborate system of boardwalks, Tank and I finally tackled the Ocala section of Central Florida. It was time to knock out the northeast portion of the FT!
On a final note, I wanted to pass along an encounter I recently had with a local reptilian resident. While nightwalking one evening along a swampy ditch, I noticed alligator eyeballs illuminating an orangish glow like little lightbulbs just as soon as the light from my headlamp hit them. This was most definitely a special wildlife moment—an imprinted memory of which will surely be pleasantly recalled years from now.
The time has come to make another push; Alabama is drawing ever closer.