The beloved statesman Benjamin Franklin, writing under the pen name Father Abraham, quipped “There are no gains without pains.” The Florida Trail is a practical outworking of this axiom and an observable testing ground for sustained effort through mud and mire.
The point at which the Florida Trail joined the Suwannee River, I noticed that the blackwater river was raging and even had quick-flowing waterfalls. This was an unexpected shift in hiking as I was now winding along one of Florida’s major water systems for some seventy miles. Big Shoals State Park is unique in itself with calming water and palms and pines of every shape and size. The quiet town of White Springs is a “turn-of-the-last century historic community perched on the banks of the Suwannee River.” One is able to truly capture old time Floridian architecture and get a sense of the “genteel Old South.” After penetrating the urban fabric of White Springs, the hiker immediately rejoins the Suwannee. Cabin-like homes, presumably vacation retreats, built on flood-resisting stilts, sporadically line the river’s edge.
One of the oddest structures seen was the now-abandoned “Graffiti Bridge,” which is one of many bridges that cross the Suwannee. This bizarre riveted Parker truss-type bridge, now only open to foot and bicycle traffic, is humorously referred by locals as the “bridge to nowhere.” Over the last thirty years or so it has become a sort of “public canvas” whereby graffiti artists tag their talent. Visitors are even encouraged to bring their aerosol cans of paint and make their own unique mark or message. I saw everything from “John-and-Jane forever” love notes to Scripture verses to what appeared to be alien-like symbols. Druggies and party people are known to frequent the bridge. Nighthiking the bridge with Tank was a trip in itself!
There have continued to be large sections of roadwalking, which, by this time, is of no surprise. On one such highway stretch, I ran into Ken, my ECT mentor of sorts with whom I have been corresponding for a few months now. Ken is a renowned long-distance hiker who was thru-hiking the FT for his fourth time and even hiked the ECT last year. A photo op was a must for this most remarkable hiker!
In the South, numerous Baptist churches open up their doors and extend a warm invitation to the thru-hiking community. Coming in one evening to Hopewell Baptist Church just after their weekly Wednesday fellowship meeting, Tank and I dropped in to see about pitching our tents on the church grounds. Even though it was after dark and the church had already been locked up for the evening, a couple from the church graciously unlocked the church kitchen and loaded us with snacks and sodas. The churchpeople were quite interested in where we had hiked from and where we were headed. There was a real sense of community in this little country church, and I’m so thankful for their generosity and encouragement.
On the highway walk to Aucilla, I came upon an old abandoned Baptist church, which was both interesting and mysterious. Much of the structure had succumbed to water damage yet the pulpit, piano, and pews were as good as new. I’m finding there are countless abandoned edifices down here, each one which surely has an incredible backstory as to why it was vacated as if never to be occupied again.
JR’s camp store was situated in a “redneckish” (if you will permit me to use such a word) fishing spot. The southern-draw-talking staff that worked there were most certainly hiker-friendly, allowing hikers to make themselves feel right at home. There was a shaded structure where Tank and I were able to empty out our packs (aka “packsplosion”) and wring out some laundry in a nearby sink.
Reaching Big Bend and St. Marks Wildlife Refuge was most definitely the highlight of the whole section segwaying to the Panhandle. Alligator sitings are common as are rare birds and eagles, attracting wildlife photographers from around the world. Walking through the wildlife preserve felt like being in the savannahs of Africa with a clear delineation between swamp and prairie. To cross over from the refuge to the town of St. Marks, a kindhearted teenaged lad who worked for Shields Marina picked Tank and me up and ferried us across. A river crossing to great to wade on foot thereby requiring a canoe, kayak, or ferry, is known as an “aquablaze” in hiker parlance.
Temperatures in northern Florida in January can drop below freezing. On more than one account, I woke up to an icy tent. Even my shoelaces froze stiff! Cold is one thing but wet and cold is a recipe for hypothermia and frostbite. Swampwalking in thirty-degree weather takes much dedication and persistence. Since I bounced my warm clothes box too far north up to Crestview—thinking such gear would not be needed in central Florida— I’ve had to improvise. I purchased some garden gloves at a fueling station, which work good enough for conditions. Also, since I ran out of canister isobutane for my camp stove and the cans are hard to come by on trail, I bought some gas tank de-icer called Heet at an auto parts store. Then, I bought a can of 9 Lives cat food (for the can, not the food). After poking stagger-patterned holes in the can with a rusty yellow knife I found along the highway, I made an improvised alcohol stove!
The Florida Trail is super wet and having a campfire at the end of a long day hiking can do much for the morale—a boost in spirits. Most nights I’m so utterly exhausted that I fall fast asleep within minutes of pitching my tent. Food and rest are two of the most cherished aspects of a distance hiker.
All right then, I’ll update you all again from the western Panhandle. Thanks again for following along and offering such caring support!