Okay, with My Lovely Bride away I decided to play hookey and go for a hike. Not just any hike, but a couple of days on the Florida Trail, which runs from Big Cypress Preserve near Miami to Fort Pickens near Pensacola, about 1,100 miles. I would only do 25 miles or so, but heck, it’s a start. It would also be a good opportunity to clear my mind (such as it is). I enlisted My Good Friend Bob and His Lovely Bride Jan to watch Rudy and Gretchen, and when I took our little puppies out for their last walk, discovered that the view from our front yard was blocked by this enormous RV… Rudy’s aunt and uncle had brought their brand new Thor motor coach home to wash and wax. I considered asking them if I could take their coach out with me for the weekend so I could check it out, but… Naahhhhh, they’d never agree to that.
Resigned to a humble one-man tent rather than Bob and Jan’s fancy new five star coach, I set off for Paisley… not the one in Renfrewshire, Scotland, but the one in Florida, population 734, because that’s where the Florida Trail is, Duh… I parked my car at the trailhead at Clearwater Lake Rec Area, where it was safely guarded by the camp hosts, a nice couple who said, “We’ll be looking for you to return on Monday; be careful of the bears.” I thought, “Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about the bears, but didn’t see any in the wild in Wyoming or Alberta, and this is Florida, so who cares?” Fateful words… I found the trailhead sign marking the trail, and foot followed foot for the next five hours or so…
This is what the pine forest looked like at the start of the trail. The sort of orange patch you see on the tree is an orange blaze, which marks the Florida Trail (the Appalachian Trail is white blazed). This section of the trail was pretty easy to follow, but at times it was overgrown with shrubs. Being a former Boy Scout, I relied on my compass and superb sense of direction and woodsmanship to stay heading in the right direction. (No snide comments, Bob).
After an hour or so, I found this bench, thoughtfully provided by someone to allow a comfortable resting spot to weary hikers. Attached to the underside of the bench was a geocache prize, which I didn’t inspect, not being a player in that sport. (Maybe I should, though; it sounds like fun). That’s my Osprey Exos 58 ultralight backpack; empty, it only weighs 2 lbs. 12 ounces… today, fully loaded, it’s 32 lbs.
I came across a single gravestone in the forest, that of Jeremiah Brewer, born 1844 in Clinton County, Ohio, and died 1877 here in Florida. I researched his name, and found that he served in the 188th Ohio Infantry during the War of Northern Aggression… oh, yeah, he probably called it the Civil War. It’s interesting that he moved to Florida after the war… maybe he got tired of shoveling snow back in Ohio, just like a lot of Villagers. But I did wonder what he did for a living out here in “The Forest”, as locals call the Ocala.
There hadn’t been any hikers through recently, because there were lots of spiderwebs across the trail. This was the prettiest arachnid I encountered… it was also the most bizarrely colorful spider I’ve ever seen. It was about four inches across, but I was unable to identify it with an on-line “bugfinder”…
The trail also passed through stands of palmetto, one of the signature plants here.The trail here was easier to identify than in the pines, because the palmettos seemed to crowd out the undergrowth of bushes and vines that made the pines harder to traverse. Hey, that’s not whining, but at times the vines were catching my boots and trying to make me fall flat on my face, not a pleasant occurrence with a heavy pack on your back – there was no one out here to help me up if I went face down in the dirt! In fact, on my first day of hiking, I didn’t see a single soul. Eleven miles, five hours, not another soul… it was getting pretty lonely out there.
I arrived at Alexander Springs campground late in the day on Saturday and found an almost full campground… only one site left. I had planned on stopping only for water and finding a nice spot in the woods, but it had been a very hot afternoon, and I was sweating like the proverbial pig, so decided to stay in the campground so I could take a shower. The friendly camp host, Annette, cheerfully checked me in and told me about the springs and the campground. (She also mentioned Ocala NF’s bear activity… I thought, “Yeah, yeah, more bear stories…”) One of the pleasures of camping is meeting interesting and friendly people, and Annette was one of them. There was a sign saying “No alcohol – we inspect coolers”. I told Annette that I wasn’t carrying any beer or wine in my backpack… she thought that was pretty funny.
Marching on with tired feet to my campsite, I set up my tent and prepped for dinner… gourmet freeze-dried sweet and sour pork, actually not too bad. I had just finished when my neighbors came back from walking their dog. Wendy and Pam are from St. Augustine, and have a beautiful golden retriever, Camper, that they rescued. Not only are they kind to dogs, but to tired old backpackers… they were gracious enough to offer me a glass of wine, which I cheerfully accepted. (The “No alcohol” ban is for people using the springs for swimming and canoeing,. to keep the springs and rivers clean of trash… campers are exempt from Prohibition here). They asked me about hiking the Florida Trail, and regaled me with tales of zip-lining in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. We shared photos of dogs and vacations, traded stories about problems with our respective RVs, and had a splendid talk until dark. They even offered me dinner, but I was full; thankfully we didn’t do a potluck – my freeze-dried sweet and sour would have been a poor entry indeed. It was a fun way to end the day, and I invited Pam and Wendy to come see us in The Villages – while they are a long way from retirement, it’s still a fun place to visit… and I owe them a glass (or two?) of wine.
All in all, my first day on the Florida Trail was a resounding success. The scenery was lovely, if not mountainous like Colorado, Wyoming, Montana or Alberta, but the heat in late afternoon was as tough on my body as was the elevation in the Rockies. After a lukewarm shower (my only complaint about the campground was that the water wasn’t hot enough for my liking), I crawled into my sleeping bag and went to sleep, with only an occasional coyote’s howl and a great horned owl’s hoots to break the blessed silence…