Part 12: Florida Trail (FT)—Central Panhandle (Mile 1,078.0 to Mile 1,178.2) Day 51-54

Submerging one’s lower extremity into swampy water is the norm for much of the Florida Trail, providing a most tactile experience in a way few other trails do. Some sections are merely ankle-to-shin deep while some are waist deep; yet other sections have been reported to be impassable (unless you want to swim!). Oftentimes, however, there are just water-saturated mud pools all around. Intricate snake-like tree roots grow up out of the ground such that a hiker can leap onto them in an attempt at avoiding the watery mud so as to keep one’s shoes dry. Tank had asked me if growing up I had ever played “Floor-is-Lava.” Basically, it’s when youngsters pretend the entire floor surface area is comprised of lava and one must jump or dive onto their parents’ sofas and reclining chairs to avoid “certain death.” According to the rules, a player cannot remain stationary and must keep moving on from one piece of furniture to the next. Although I recall engaging in this rowdy activity with my little neighbor friends, my mother certainly put a decisive end to the horseplay, probably after the first broken lamp! All this is to say that in hiking the Florida Trail, there can be much jumping around—a kind of hopscotch-for-adults. The technique improves over time and reduces the negative impact of “trail braiding,” which is when a hiker goes around an obstacle, thereby creating, often unknowingly, new smaller trails.

After departing the almost-adjoining towns of Bristol and Blountstown and walking a series of county highways and thoroughfares, it was arranged to stay at a place hikers were affectionately calling “Wilton’s Hilton.” This was a hostel specifically set up for FT hikers by a man named Wilt Quattlebaum. Wilton is an enormous man with a heart equal in size. Two shed-like structures had been set up on the grounds of Hillcrest Baptist Church. The larger structure includes a common area with a coffee maker, dorm-style fridge, snacks, and a hiker box. There is even a room with a king-size bed. Tank and I slept in roll-out cots in the smaller barn, which also housed the washer-dryer unit and a shower. Wilt had graciously unlocked the church kitchen for us, which demonstrated much unexpected hospitality. He even came over after we tripped the breaker, probably by overloading the fifteen-amp circuit by plugging in the toaster oven to heat up the submarine sandwich I had packed out!

From Hillcrest, a few more roadwalks connected Tank and me to Econfina Creek. This section was remarkable hiking-wise, with a rollercoaster of hills that bordered the creek. The terrain reminded me of the Suwannee River, which I particularly enjoyed; but this region had been terribly ravaged by a hurricane. The trail crews had since done a remarkable job, as they always do, by blazing a new trail for hikers to get through. The scenes of destruction, however, were still quite noticeable with a whole forest of trees bent over, uprooted, or in some areas, completely wiped out from hurricane-force winds.

Hiking on long-distance trails across America and Australia, I have had the chance to meet so many interesting people. Early on toward the start of my ECT hike was one such person. It was just north of Lake Okeechobee when I bumped into a northbound thru-hiker at a general store. His name was Patrick but he goes by his trail name “Tank.” After approaching him and making conversation about each other’s hiking goals, we were soon hiking alongside one another. Considering the fact that there were no other hikers around within days of us at that point, it made sense to team up. Sometimes Tank and I naturally separate during the day and hike solo, meeting up at an agreed-upon camp in the evening. Mainly, we were each looking for someone to hike with during the upcoming Alabama Roadwalk, which has had reports of being potentially dangerous (probably nothing), especially in and around Montgomery and even some of the privately-owned rural areas.

As of now, I have been hiking with Tank for almost one-thousand miles! Tank is of Cherokee blood and we have had lengthy discussions on Native American history, which has been fascinating. We have also exchanged views at length on religion, philosophy, natural medicine and tinctures, science fiction, and even the future of space colonization! You know, one can talk about most anything on a trail where there is an abundance of time. Although too modest to admit, Tank is a remarkable guy with much technical skill and practical knowledge. We’ll probably be hiking together until hitting the Smokies where he will then be ending his hike to help establish a sustainable tribe-run village and hiking community. I wish Tank all the best in his pursuits. Oddly enough, complete strangers from starkly different backgrounds can make suitable outdoor chums. A hiking partner brings numerous advantages, among them someone to watch gear when going into a town shop. Also, having company can mean going both further and faster. A canoe moves swifter with a second oar!

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