Friday, February 29, 2008

Another Day at the Office

I know some of you admire what I'm doing. Some of you are jealous, and some of you think I'm crazy. And some of you might think I'm great entertainment.

For me, the monotony of the hike has set in. That's not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, but what it feels like, in a lot of ways, is a job.

I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, and get ready for my day job. It's a little bit different that when I worked at Intel. Here, I used powdered milk instead of the real stuff in my cereal. Here, I have to make my bed every morning (stuffing it into its stuff sack) while I rarely did that when working at Intel. The biggest difference, of course, is that I don't take a shower out here. Not like my collegues on the trail care how I smell.

It's all routine for me, though. As is striking out on the trail and putting in the miles. That's the actual work I put in. I take short breaks and a lunch break, just like in the office. Meetings, fortunately, aren't a problem out here. They do happen, sort of, when we trade notes with a hiker coming from the opposite direction or compare notes when we came from the same direction.

Today, I felt like I've reached a peak. It's all about putting in miles, and the quicker I can crank them out, the quicker I can go home. I don't much care about the job anymore as I do about just getting it done and over with.

Not that I feel like the job is a bad one--just that it doesn't hold much interest for me.

Usually, at the end of the day, I write up a little summary about what happened along the way, and if not much happened, I write a lot of fluff. Like today. =)

It's a job. Better than most, perhaps not as good as some, but I chose it and I'll see it through. Make the best of things as I muddle my way through.

So what did happen today? Glad you asked. It did not rain overnight, so I made excellent time hiking along the logging roads from the get go. It's remarkable to me that I often hike 25 miles a day now considering that the sun sets at 6:22 the last time I checked. I try to get my hiking done by around 6:00 at the latest. I'm quite thrilled when I finish before that. Like I'm taking off work early. =)

Today I think I did about 24 miles of hiking and finished just after 5:00. It amazes me that I can hike so far so quickly.

The logging roads are perfect for long days, though. They're quick and easy to hike on, there's almost nothing that's particularly scenic to make you want to slow down and smell the proverbial roses. Nope, just walk. It's all there is to do.

Near 1:00, I passed an older gentleman, and by older, I mean somewhere in the neighborhood of 70, hiking by himself south on the trail.

He had just been dropped off and seemed happy to meet me, but said he didn't want to bother me since I probably wanted to continue my hike.

Which is true to an extent, but I was very curious about the man. I got the impression that he's trying to section hike the entire trail. This day, he said, he only planned to do about eight miles to US 19-27. Which was strange, because I spent the night near there and had hiked about 16 miles already when I crossed paths with him. He either knew a shortcut or he was stopping before then.

I was a bit worried about him. He seemed strong enough, but he carried no backpack or water bottle of any kind. Even for an eight mile hike, I'd want a small water bottle. He won't die of thirst out here--plenty of water sources to drink from along the way, but why use them if you don't have to?

At least the folks in the black SUV that just dropped him off and knew where he was and where he was meant to be going. If he doesn't show up later in the afternoon where he's supposed to be, help will be on its way quickly.

And late in the afternoon, I finally left the logging roads. After something like 50 miles of them, I finally got back to a real trail along the Aucilla River. It was positively scenic, and my pace faltered. I kept pausing to admire the view. It had been days since I last did that. =)

I reached a campsite soon after that, and stopped for nearly an hour eating snacks and watching the water go by. Large oak trees leaned out high over the water, and impressive cypresses grew along the edges. The water here was shallow, so it moved quickly and rippled like every good creek should.

Even though it was only a little after 2:00, I seriously contemplated spending the night there and calling it a day. I liked the campsite that much. But alas, I decided to push on another six miles to the next campsite instead, but which should still get me in for the day at a respectibly early 5:00.

And that's where I'm at now. It's a beautiful sight, even before I picked up the empty beer can that had littered it. I set up my tarp near the edge of a steep slope going into the river which has a wonderful view of the river. Magical!

I still liked the other campsite better, however, because you could hear the water there. The river is wider and deeper at this location, and the only time I hear it is when a turtle (or something) jumps into or out of the water.

Anyhow, I'm rather happy along this river. It's not as large as the Suwannee, but it has ten times the charm. Unfortunately, roads are close by and I could hear several cars and trucks filled with people on the hike out. Not far enough from civilization, but at least tonight I seem to have the river to myself and feel like I'm in a wilderness.

Shoes are holding steady. For food, I'm definitely running low. Tomorrow I will be finishing my last breakfast and dinner. I have enough snacks to stretch out for two days when I hope to reach St. Marks.

Fortuntely, it looks like there is a small place along the trail tomorrow where I should be able to get some short-term resupplies. I figure if I can find something for one breakfast and perhaps a hearty lunch tomorrow, I'll be good through St. Marks.

I'm expecting a long day at the office tomorrow--as much as 24 miles--so I need to get going and get my rest. For that many miles, I'll be needing as early start as possible.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Sun Will Come Out... Tomorrow...

It rained pretty much all that night, with a couple of bolts of lightening lighting up the sky and a roar of thunder to make sure I was awake to appreciate it.

No adjustments to my tarp were necessary, however. It kept me dry all night, just as I originally set it up.

And the most wonderful news of all, the rain had stopped by morning. I ate breakfast under the tarp and packed up most of camp under the tarp--just in case the rain returned, but it was an unnecessary precaution since the rain stayed away.

I'm down to two breakfasts now, with four days before my planned arrival in St. Marks and a definite place I could resupply. I am, however, about a half day ahead of schedule, and think I can push on to a full day ahead of schedule by the end of the day--or at least close to it. Still, that's two breakfasts for three mornings.

Snacks are harder to estimate since I eat those whenever I stop or get hungry. Some days I eat more (or less) than others. All things considered, it's still a sizeable bunch of snacks.

Dinners... not sure how many of those I have. At least a few, but if my snacks run low, one of them might have to improvise as a lunch. Actually, one of them will likely improvise as a breakfast at some point since I know I'm already short one breakfast.

Basically, I'm cutting it close in the food department, but being a day ahead of schedule certainly would help tremendously since it eliminates the need for a breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The walking is slow at first, with the logging roads still saturated with rain water. As the roads dried throughout the morning, progress improves.

My mood has improved dramatically since last night. Rain still threatens all morning, but I hit a low point yesterday and things are looking up now. Of the three days of predicted rain, it's now the last day. My left shoe has a large gash in the side where the stitching is coming undone, but it doesn't seem noticeably worse since leaving White Springs and I'm nearly halfway to St. Marks where a new pair of shoes awaits.

My right shoe has started showing the same problem as my left, but the hole is much smaller and I have no doubt it'll make it to St. Marks without any problems. My left shoe could still blow out before then, but I'm optimistic it'll make it if I'm careful with my footing.

I pushed on, never stopping to rest for more than 15 minutes at a time. At first, my goal is to hike as much as possible before the rain begins, but by early afternoon, the sky starts to clear up and I don't think it'll rain at all. At least not until after I stop for the night.

My map shows a river, the Econfina River to be exact, and I figure to fill up with water there then find a place between US 221 and US 19-27 to camp for the night, but my imagination of what a 'river' is turned ot to be considerably larger than the real thing. I walked right passed the so-called river. I did see a stream, a couple of them, in fact, but I passed them earlier than I anticipated and assumed they were tributaries to the Econfina. No sense carrying extra water any earlier than necessary.

So I walked right past the river and didn't realize it until several miles later.

This was not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination. Water was still everywhere, including large pools of it directly on the forest roads. I'd rather not drink from it if I can help it, though.

The next water source listed on my map was at the road crossing of US 19-27, so I figured it must be a better (or at least more reliable) source than the others, and I set my feet in motion to reach that water source. Of course, if I found an awesome source of beautiful, clear water before then, I'd make use of it, but otherwise I'd rely on the stream by US 19-27 which was actually my goal for the NEXT night on my schedule. If I reached it today, I'd be a full day ahead of schedule.

So I kept hiking, hard, never stopping to rest for more than 15 minutes at a time.

The hike wasn't particularly noteworthy. I didn't hate it like many road walks since it was on rarely used dirt roads. Only one truck passed me all day, and he asked where I had started hiking from, saying I had 'spunk' and he admired that when he found out I started my hike in Key West.

So there wasn't much to hate about the walk, but it wasn't amazingly beautiful either. Much of the area was clear-cut, and the rest had been clear-cut in the past. Trees grew in perfectly straight lines, on linear mounds the tree planting equipment created for them.

No reason any hiker would go out of their way to hike this section, but at least it wasn't on busy roads.

My guidebooks warned that the trail could be hard to follow along the logging roads since trees with blazes often get cut down and blazing isn't always so great. A map and compass, my maps and guidebooks warned, were essential.

But I never had any trouble following the trail. It was well-marked and easy to follow, though admittedly, if someone did take a wrong turn, it would likely take some time before one knew it since generally, only the turns were well-marked. Blazes between turns were scarce.

But I made it through quickly and efficiently, reaching the designated water source a bit after 5:00. I liked the look of the water from the Econfina better, but it was too late for that now.

I stocked up with five liters of water, then mosied another mile along the trail, across US 19-27, and far enough away so the traffic wouldn't disturb my sleep overnight.

The sky looked beautiful at dusk, partly cloudy and not at all threatening. Having no idea what the overnight forecast was, however, I set up my tarp under some pine trees, on top of a thick layer of pine needles.

A thick layer of pine needles, I have to say, are my favorite place to camp. It's luxiuriously soft and comfortable, and even those folks with thick air matresses or pads can't do better than a thick layer of pine needles. They interlock at random points creating enormous air pockets. It's like floating about an inch off the surface of the ground.

I'd take a thin layer of pine needles if that's all that was available, but nothing beats a thick layer of them. Nothing. =)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

These are the times that try men's souls.

Obviously, a thru-hike is tough on the body. Especially the feet, but it's tough on your whole body, and a lot of people physically cannot complete a thru-hike, and often quit when they realize their physical limitations.

An even larger number of people, however, I suspect quit due to the mental and emotional stress involved with a thru-hike.

I write this entry on one of my mentally toughest days on the trail. I woke up under a scumy bridge, surrounded by the smell of piss. The rain had stopped, for the moment at least, but I knew the forecast was for more.

The trail would largely follow a scenic trail along the meandering Suwannee River, but I didn't care anymore. It would just be more of what I'd been seeing for the last few days. Then it would become road walking again, never an exciting thing.

Frankly, I didn't have much to look forward to, and that's never good for one's disposition.

Some of my hardest days, mentally speaking, are the first few days after Amanda leaves from a visit. She's a heck of a lot of fun, and brings much joy into my life. =)

When she leaves, the joy usually leaves with her. I think she sneaks it into her bags or something when I'm not looking.

But seriously, I often spend the next few days wandering around with a dazed look in my eyes thinking, "And why do I want to be out here?"

I imagine all the things I would do today if I weren't on the trail. I'd probably be in Seattle, waking up in a cold room. If it were cold enough, I might turn on the heat a little. Just in the room with the computer, however, since my fingers can't type very well in cold weather and I'd need to type to work on Atlas Quest.

If it were raining, and I vaguely remember the Weather Channel saying something about a big storm hitting the northwest (as well as the midwest and northeast, but that's another matter), I would probably walk to the library during a lull in the rain, or perhaps stop for lunch nearby.

I'd read magazines, and oh how I'd love to read a BuisnessWeek or something engaging.

That night, tonight, I'd probably watch something on television to relax, and if nothing new or interesting was on, perhaps watch a DVD of something.

Instead, here I am. I'm camped illegally in land used by the timber industry. I think there's a papermill nearby. To be perfectly precise, I'm about halfway down Camp P Rd. According to my map, that's at approximately 30 degrees, 18 minutes, and 20 seconds north, and 83 degrees, 22 minutes, and 0 seconds west.

It will likely be the only time in my entire life I will ever be at this precise location, thank God. =)

Miraculously, despite the weather predictions, it did not rain all day, but I still set up my tarp since it could still very well do so at any moment. Nasty looking clouds out there.

It's dark now, 7:43 PM according to my pedometer, and I'm using my headlamp to see what I'm typing. Occasional I slap at mosquitoes or flick an ant off of me.

A few minutes ago, a truck drove by on this dirt road I'm camped alongside. Knowing darned well I'm not supposed to be camping here, I quickly turned off my headlamp when I heard the truck approach, then watched it drive by from behind the bushes on the side of the road.

The truck was something of a surprise. I could tell no vehicles had driven on this section of the dirt road since the rain last night (no fresh prints) and hoped that meant by camping here, no one would drive by during the night or in the morning before I left. One truck isn't too bad, though.

And now I just battled a very large moth who felt that the light on my head was its home.

I'm feeling awfully lonely and alone at the moment. These are the times many hikers call it quits and go home.

I will not, however. I knew going into this hike I'd have my low days, and I'd have high days, and things will brighten up. They always do.

It's 7:51 now, and I just heard the first few drops of rain on my tarp. I'm okay with that, though, since I'm tucked safe and sound underneath it.

My biggest worry is if the wind will shift directions or grow stronger. It's been coming in from the south and I set my tarp up to protect me from wind in that direction. A strong wind will make me drop that side of the tarp lower than it currently is. Annoying, but better than getting wet.

A 90 degree shift in the wind isn't too big of deal--I'll crunch up on the side away from the wind. If it moves 90 degrees and becomes a strong wind, I could have problems. I'd probably take the trekking pole out as a support if the wind is coming from that direction, or lower the rope against the tree if it comes from the other.

The rain is getting heavier now. Perhaps it'll get the bugs to stop bothering me.

Except for a spider that just crawled under my arms as I typed this. I guess he wanted the dry protection under my tarp as well, but I flicked him out into the cruel outdoors. He's got to learn to fend for himself, just like I have. =)

I'll let the ant crawling around on my Waldies stay where he is, though.

Why am I out here again?

I don't mind if it continues to rain all night--I'm already in bed for the night--but I have my fingers crossed it'll stop by sunrise so I can hike dry. The weather forecast predicts more rain tomorrow, so I won't hold my breath, but I'm hoping.

Yesterday too was a rather sad and depressing day, but I still smiled with joy twice. I reached a phone and was able to check the comments people left me on my blog and sent through AQ mail--always fun and encouraging to read--and I got to talk to Amanda who was on a layover in San Francisco. I bet it's a lot cooler there than here in Florida!

Despite the weather and my gloomy mood, there's not much to report today. The most exciting moment was finding a group of Outward Bound folks camping in the woods. I quizzed the first guy I saw, asking how long he was out there (3 days) and which day he was on (2nd day). I asked how his night went (wet and rainy, oh yes, been there, done that) and wished him drier weather in the future.

It wasn't until I had passed several younger people outside their tents with sleeping bags and clothes outside to dry that I realized what a miserable night they must have had. They were in tents, but almost everyone one of them seemed to be trying to dry out. One of them complained to me that they got "flooded," and looking inside their open tent I could see that the floor was completely wet. How did they get SO wet in a tent?! Don't know why, but that amused me.

Goodnight, and good luck.

The Homeless Guy Under the Bridge

Have you ever seen those homeless guys under the bridge? Of course you have. They're everywhere. Have you ever been the homeless guy under the bridge?

I hadn't, but I figured it was about time I gave it a try. =)

With rain in the forecast, and expected to continue all night long, I decided to hike 26 miles to a bridge over the Withlacoohee River on CR 141. I'd passed several campable bridges the last few days, and my guidebook said that this particular one, on the west side, would make a good rain shelter.

So a rain shelter it was to become. Unless I found some other improvised shelter at a more reasonable 20 to 25 miles away first, but I had no reason to expect that would happen.

The first sprinkles started by 10:00am, and by noon, the rain came down in torrents. The trail was still quite scenic, but the rain wasn't much fun. Cold and wet pretty much sums things up.

I stopped to rest at 2:00 at Gibson Park. Filled up my water and used the pay phone across the street at the agricultural check station. That was when I heard the first of the thunder. The weather forecast called for 'isolated thunderstorms' the next day, so I was surprised to hear the thunder just then. It gave me a small hope that maybe the storm was blowing through quicker than expected and perhaps I'd only have to deal with two days of rain instead of three.

The rain continued the rest of the day and evening, sometimes hard, sometimes soft, but always there.

To reach the protection of the bridge by dark, I decided to take a blue blaze trail cutting about 3.5 miles of official Florida Trail hike. It was a shame, really, since the trail followed along some very scenic areas, but a half-mile blue blaze would cut an hour off my hiking time and allow me to reach the bridge by dark.

I also set a limit--if I didn't reach the blue blazed trail by 6:00, I'd set up camp at the first good place I could find. I didn't want to be caught setting up the tarp both in the rain AND in the dark.

I reach the blue-blazed trail with less than 20 minutes to spare, and happily lopped off the 3.5 miles of official Florida Trail.

It must have been karma. When I reached the bridge, I was disappointed to see litter strewn about and broken glass all over the place. It looked like a local hangout for the teenaged delinquents. I considered going on and finding a place to camp in the woods, rain or no rain, but it was starting to get dark and I kind of liked the idea of being the troll under the bridge. Perhaps it wasn't the nicest of bridges to haunt, but I'd do it anyhow.

In hindsight, I should have just moved on.

I laid out my ground sheet on a small patch of grass near the north side of the bridge and set up camp. I cooked mashed potatoes to use up some of the cookable stuff I had while it was dry to do, then laid down to go to sleep.

A few minutes later, a gust of wind blew in from the north, and I quickly realized I was too close to the north end of the bridge.

I threw open my tarp on the south side, and quickly carried all my belongins onto it, safe from the rain blowing in under the bridge.

For now, at least. There wasn't room enough to lay down here. Most of the area under the bridge pooled water and turned to mud--obviously not good places to camp. I looked around with my headlamp and decided on a location between two support beams holding up the bridge. It was high ground, and perhaps the posts would help block the rain from blowing in.

I stood in the spot, determining if rain would be a problem still, and decided it likely would be, so I tied my tarp between the two posts and set up camp underneath it.

If I was going to set up my tarp anyhow, I would have just as soon did it in the woods where I wasn't surrounded by trash and broken glass.

When I did lay down, I discovered yet another reason it was such a horrid camp. That was when I got my first whiff of urine. Damn punks had peeded on the post by my head.

In a nutshell, my idea to camp under the bridge was one of my worst ones ever on the trail.

I did survive the night, however, and listened to the rain and thunder most of the night, staying mostly dry in the process.

Shortly before sunrise, the rain stopped, and shortly after sunrise, I broken down camp, glad to be rid of the place.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Calm Before the Storm

I left you hanging with my arrival in White Springs. The food situation was terrible, my left shoe was starting to show signs of falling apart, and the weather forecast was not encouraging.

Frankly, I fell into something of a depression. I was not at all looking forward to the next week ahead, but what else could I do but plod on?

The rest of the night, I watched the History Channel and the Weather Channel. Much better than Project Runway. ;o)

And no, I did not work on Atlas Quest. I didn't have the laptop to work on, and even if I did, the hotel had no wi-fi access.

Actually, it was generally a pretty sad place to stay. When I left to make a phone call, I returned to find a couple of cockroaches nosying around my food. In the morning, when I turned on the hot water in the shower, hundreds of ants came out from behind the knob. There were more bugs and critters in that room than there were when I slept outside, and that's just not right.

The place is a bit run down, and I'm okay with that. I love old, run down hotels. Just not ones with bug infestations.

The rest of the night, I stored much of my food in the mini-fridge. The fridge didn't seem to work when I plugged it in, but I kept the food in there anyhow since its interior seemed bug free. I once heard that many families in India use refrigerators to keep bugs off food. They don't get electricity so they can't keep anything cold, but it's well-insulated so it keeps bugs away from their food. I decided to try the same thing.

The next morning, I ate breakfast at the Suwannee River Diner, not only to save the one and only breakfast cereal I had left that I knew I liked, but also because my guidebook mentioned what a wonderful mural is inside of it.

And it is indeed absolutely wonderful! It stretches around the top of the walls, depicting the Suwannee River flowing from its source in the Okeefenokee Swamp (and I just love that word--Okeefenokee) to the Gulf of Mexico over all four seasons and 24 hours. Supposedly, there's even a Florida Trail blaze hidden in the mural, but I didn't find it. I think it was on the wall I was sitting against so I didn't have a good view of it.

It's a wonderful mural, though. The breakfast was ordinary--two pancakes, two eggs (scrambled), and a heap of bacon--but still quite a luxury compared to my usual cereal.

After breakfast, I did a few more chores regarding permits for St. Marks Wildlife Refuge and hiking through Eglin Air Force Base, finally hitting the trail near 10:00 AM. Much later than I would have liked to start, but was about the time I figured I would start given the tasks I had to finish.

I was determined to get as many miles done for the day while the weather was nice. A minimum of 20 miles, though with my late start, it would be nearly impossible to do more than 25 miles by dark.

This day, in any case, turned out absolutely beautiful. The temperature was nice, the bugs weren't out, and the trail continued to follow along the banks of the scenic and meandering Suwannee River.

I'd have been positively giddy except for the weather that I knew would be blowing in tomorrow which put a damper on my spirits.

The trail near Swift Creek climbed over a series of small hills. I clutched at trees and roots, using all fours to make it back up the steep slopes.

One was so steep that the powers that be included a cable line one could grab to help pull yourself up with, and after reaching the top, breathing heavily, I promised God that I'd never make a joke about Florida being so flat again if he stopped with the hills. (Not to worry, though, the hills kept coming.)

Late in the day, I caught up with Snap. Gretchen had left the trail for the civilian life, but Snap was still working his way through Florida. He took a zero day in White Springs which is why I caught up to him--I thought he was still a day ahead of me, but he left town only a couple of hours before I did.

Even more amusing, it turns out that he was right next door to me at the hotel, in room 18, and neither of us realized the other was there.

We continued hiking together the rest of the afternoon, trading war stories and enjoying the company of not hiking alone.

At US 129, Snap decided to hike south to a campground. I was torn. I wanted to get miles in, but there was food and perhaps a telephone in that direction. I didn't intend to add to my food stores, but I didn't think I had enough food to get me to St. Marks so if I could eat dinner there, that was one extra meal I'd have for later.

The fact that Snap is such great company settled it for me. =) Enjoy it while I can! We hiked toward the campground. A woman who turned out to be a landscaper offered us a ride in her golf cart gizmo to the campground, but when she told us the camp store closed at 5:00, we declined. The store had closed minutes ago. We decided to go to the convenience store another 0.2 miles down the road instead, and I joked if she could still give us a ride on her cart.

She seemed to think about it a moment, then waved us in, "Yeah, I can do that!"

We threw our packs in the back and squished into the front. She couldn't drive the thing on the main road outside of the park, so she drove it down a dirt road then across the grass (warning us to hold on, because the ride was about to get bumpy) across the street from the convenience store.

We jumped the fence, then ransacked the store for dinner. I picked a hearty Italian sub, a bear claw, and a Coke. Snap picked up a Cuban sandwich, a Snickers bar, and a Diet Pepsi, I think it was.

After finishing our meal, we hiked back to the trail and set up camp far enough away from US 129 so the cars driving by wouldn't keep us awake all night.

I poked my head out of my tarp to check out the total lunar eclipse I knew was supposed to happen that night, but I didn't know the details of exactly when it would start or end at my location. I couldn't see much in any case since the trees mostly obscured the moon, and I never did see the eclipse. Oh, well. There's another one in 2010, and I've seen a number of total lunar eclipses in the past. Not the end of the world.

The weather, on the other hand, that would be a problem....

The morning started overcast, to be expected, and I hoped the rain wouldn't start up until late in the day. Snap left camp before I did, but I passed him by pretty quick determined to pull about 26 miles to a shelter of sorts. Snap had no intention of trying to keep my pace, so we parted ways.

"I'll give you a call when I reach Springer Mountain," I told him. Maybe I will too if someone has a cell phone up there that works. =)

A Visit to White Springs

Once again, I had walked a mile in the wrong direction. In my defense, however, I was following orange blazes! I can only assume this must have been an old, abandoned route that is no longer the official Florida Trail, or a new route in the making that was not on any of my maps. Or maybe the folks painting blazes wanted to find out how many thru-hikers they could confuse. =)

In any case, I had no idea where the blazes were leading or where I would wind up, and I had my heart set on a shelter that was NOT on this particular trail, so I backtracked the mile back to the road, cursing the blazing for leading me astray.

I followed the road another mile or two, the current correct direction of the Florida Trail, and finally ended the day at Madison Shelter. The shelter seemed cluttered and dirtier than other shelters, filled with decorations, candles, and even a wood-burning stove. Oh, I was tempted to start a fire in the stove--it was going to be a cold night!--but I'm too lazy to search about for wood to burn.

Instead, I lit a couple of the candles, giving the shelter a warm, romantic glow, not that it would do me any good, but it was pretty to look at. =)

I changed into my camp clothes and cooked dinner--mac 'n' cheese with spiral (spiral!) noodles.

After cleaning up, I sat back in the rocking chair (a rocking chair!) and rocked back and forth catching up on writing my blogs on my PocketMail device.

By around 8:30, my fingers started turning numb from the cold, so I put on my gloves, blew out the candles, and crawled into my sleeping bag for the night.

The next morning, and a cold morning it was, I took my time waking up and packing up camp since I planned to stop in White Springs for the day, a measily 12 miles away. No reason to get up early or rush around!

At first, the trail mostly followed roads--not very exciting at all--then the trail went into the woods and followed along the banks of the Suwannee River. In a word--WOW!

The Suwannee is a sizeable river flowing along a relatively deep chasm. Often the trail would descend steeply at a tributary, then climb back up just as steeply where I'd actually find myself breathing hard upon reaching the top again.

And the river banks were beautiful. Some of the prettiest hiking so far in this state. I vaguely remembered a song about the Suwannee, but I couldn't remember any words or even be sure if this was THE Suwannee River, but I hummed a tune close to how I thought it went.

I often sing or hum tunes based on where I am, the weather, or any number of triggers that might set me off. When you're hiking by yourself day after day, it gives you something to think about. In the Florida Keys, I'd sing Margarittaville or Kokomo or something. Near Orlando, it was Disney tunes. In Avon Air Force Base, it was In the Navy by the Village People. (I couldn't think of any air force songs, so I figured a navy one was close enough.) Today, it was the Suwannee River.

The rest of the day's hiking was absolutely wonderful, in any case.

I arrived in White Springs at about 2:30, and my first stop was at the American Canoe Adventures. Apparently, they're very hiker friendly there with a register and a thru-hiker wall of fame, and I could get my picture added to it. =)

Alas, it was not meant to be. They were closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and I arrived Tuesday afternoon and would leave Wednesday morning. Maybe I'll take a picture of myself and mail it to them someday. Seems wrong that I'm not on the thru-hiker wall of fame since I am thru-hiking the trail.

I then did some more mundane chores. Made some phone calls, posted to my blog, and dropped by the library to use the Internet, and finally stopped at the Suwannee River Hotel making arrangments for me to have a room for myself. Room #19 for anyone who wants to follow in my footsteps or sleep in the same bed I did. ;o)

I checked the weather forecast at the library, and in a word, it looked bleak. The next day would be beautiful, but then three solid days of rain would follow. There would be another day or two of sun before the rain continued. The next week would not be fun. In the hotel, I flipped on the TV to the Weather Channel for more details about the forecast. It still looked bleak and depressing.

I emptied out my pack, then started walking up US 41 looking for a grocery store. My guidebook mentioned an S&S Food Store, warning that it was good for short-term resupply, so I planned to skip that. I needed some long-term resupplies--enough to get me 160 miles to St. Marks.

It also suggested Dollar General for groceries, but I never remembered them as being good for long-term resupplies, so my hopes rested with Stormant's Grocery. It sounded like a real grocery store.

Alas, it was nothing more than a mini-mart attached to a gas station. I suddenly realized that I had a serious, serious food problem. I needed a real grocery store, and this town was filled with mini-marts.

I bought a few items at Stormants. A bottle of fruit punch, sliced up watermelon, potato salad, and a slice of strawberry cake, which I ate for dinner.

I also picked up some Stove Top stuffing thinking I could make a meal out of that on the trail in a pinch.

I don't like to cook meals in the rain, so I often end up eating Pop Tarts and other snacks instead. Knowing the weather forecast, I wanted to buy a disportionately large number of meals that did not require heating or cooking.

But the choices available were as bleak as the weather forecast. I prefer a hearty cereal for breakfast, such as granola or something like Smart Start, but the only thing available here were Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms. I do like those cereals, but I don't find them very filling and end up hungry an hour after eating them. I wanted a cereal with substance, but they only offered fluffy cereals.

Walking back to the hotel, I hit every mini-mart available along the way trying to stock up enough food to get me through a week of hiking. At Dollar General, I picked up a box of something that at least pretended to have nutritional value on the box. (They don't even try to pretend on boxes such as Fruit Loops.) I have no idea if I'll like the cereal, but I'll be eating it.

And I stopped at S&S Food Store, picking up additional snacks and food items.

Back at the hotel, I laid it all out and started repacking everything into ZipLocks. It was a sorry state of affairs, and seemed representative of my week to come. I was not at all happy with my food situation or the weather forecast.

Plus, my left shoe is starting to come undone. After 600 miles, my shoes finally need replacing, but the next post office on the trail was another 160 miles away.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Battle of Olustee

That night, Amanda took me back to a hotel in Macclenny. Early in the morning, Amanda had to fly out, which would have meant dumping me out on the trail again at three or four o'clock in the morning. Not something I'm particularly fond of. =)

Lord knows where I'd end up going to sleep while surrounded by 20,000 people anyhow.

But I had an idea. Gordon Smith, trail angel, who found me on the trail two days earlier. If he could give me a ride from the hotel to the trail, I could sleep in to a decent hour, or at least when it was light outside, and Amanda woudn't have to drop me off on the trail so we could stay at a hotel closer to Jacksonville. She wouldn't have to drop me off, so the drive was shorter for her. She could sleep in an extra hour or so too! (But she still would have to wake terribly early.)

So I gave Gordon a call, and he said he'd be thrilled to give me a ride to the trail. It was settled.

So we got a room in Macclenny, and Amanda left at four or five in the morning--I was still too unconscious to care. I slept in late, until about 8:00, then spent an hour typing up my adventures and another hour putting my pack together.

Gordon arrived at 10:00, and whisked me back to Olustee. It was an act of trail angeling that benefited both Amanda and myself.

"Don't get shot!" Gordon warned me as he dropped me off. =)

"Hey, at least all of these people are shooting blanks," I replied. "I'm more worried baout the hunters in the woods that are using live ammo!"

I'm rather interested in Civil War history and decided to stick around a bit to enjoy the theatrics. The reenactment this day wouldn't start for a couple of hours, so I took a walking tour of the battlefield reading all of the plaques set up to describe the battle. Surprisingly, I was the only person! Thousands of people around, and nobody else thought to walk around the battlefield?

After my history lesson, I went up to the bleachers where the reenactment would take place and took a prime location at the top. Then waited for the main event to occur.

I wrote more adventures on my PocketMail and ate a few snacks for lunch.

Then it was the main event. A narrator explained what was happening, and oh what a show they put on! Horses pranced around, canons blasted smoke O-rings into the air. You could feel the concussion of the blast hitting you. Men walked around firing their riffles. And huge explosions rocked the battlefield. Occasionally, a small palm tree or stick would go flying 50 feet into the air. It was a fine show.

Surprisingly, despite all the gunshots and canons, absolutely no casualties resulted. Not one dead or wounded soldier lay on the ground, and I can only imagine these people must be the worst shots ever.

Eventually, some of the soldiers started playing the parts of dead and wounded, but not for the first half hour.

I finally left about an hour into the reenactment. It was supposed to rain during the night, and a shelter--a shelter!--lay about 10 miles ahead on the trail. I needed to get there before dark.

While leaving, one person dressed in period costume asked why I was leaving--the battle wasn't over yet--and I explained about my hike and needing to get to the shelter ahead.

I continued to hear the sounds of battle for another half hour or so, and the rest of the hike was uneventful. I arrived at the shelter before dark.

The shelter had no walls--just posts at each corner which held up the aluminum roof, but I wasn't complaining. It was supposed to rain heavy this night, and a roof was more important than walls. =)

I made dinner on the picnic table in the shelter, then laid out my ground sheet and bag near the center of the shelter in case the wind started to blow water in. I wanted to stay as far away from the edges as possible.

It wasn't until morning that the rain started, however, disappointing because the last time I checked, the rain was supposed to END by sunrise. The storm must have came in slower than expected.

I had hoped to ride out the storm high and dry during the night, and continue hiking in the morning sun. Now it looked like I'd be hiking through the worst of the rain, and hopefully by the end of the day the rain would end.

At least I could eat breakfast, stand up, and walk around without getting wet. I waited, hoping the rain would let up before I had to leave the shelter, but by 10:00, I decided I could wait no longer.

I pulled out my umbrella, and stepped out into the rain. The wet, relentless rain.

Two hours into the hike, I saw another hiker coming from the opposite direction. "Must be a thru-hiker," I thought. "Nobody else would be hiking in this miserable weather."

The hiker wore a green poncho, and when he got closer, I thought he looked familiar. "Hey, is that Skeemer under there?"

And indeed it was. I only met him briefly near River Ranch when Amanda and I spotted him on the trail while I was slackpacking.

He was hiking south now, having parked his car in White Springs and figured he'd hitch a ride back to his car after about 75 miles.

I suggested he give Gordon a call--he'd be absolutely thrilled to help. Gordon is actually from Missouri and came out to Florida solely to find thru-hikers to help. I felt kind of sorry for him, seeing as there weren't many of us to be helped, and he was so excited when I asked for the ride from Macclenny back to the trail. "Give Gordon a call," I said. "He'd love you for it. Really."

We went our separate ways, and I continued through the rain.

The rain finally stopped at about 1:00, but tree snot continued to fall long after the rain had stopped. I was wet and generally miserable, but I had one thing to look forward to: another shelter, the Madison Shelter, where I could dry off and sleep somewhere dry.

The trail eventually came out of the woods onto surface streets, and once more the good blazing came to a screaching halt.

Unfortunately, the one place where blazes were good, they led me astray. A double blaze marked a telephone pole, which typically means the trail makes a sharp turn and to pay attention.

I did that, and noticed a small trail on my right. I followed it, finding more orange blazes leading me deeper into the woods.

After half a mile or so, I was still following blazes--some even looked like they had been painted last week--but I had a bad feeling that I wasn't going in the right direction.

I couldn't pinpoint exactly why I felt this way, but I did, and I started paying even closer attention to blazes and the trail.

Another ten minutes later, I reached a gate warning me I that I was entering Big Shoals Public Lands, and finally the alarm bells went off. I was NOT supposed to be here!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Massacre on the Trail

I left you with my arrival in Lake Butler, and I walked down to the IAG store where I called Amanda to find out where she was. She expected me to walk into town on SR 100 and might have been driving up and down the road looking for me, but she wasn't.

Amanda spent the afternoon near Gainsville visiting her stepmom, Suzi, and had gotten stuck in traffic. She was still an hour away. My guidebook mentioned a Hardees on the other side of town, so I told Amanda I'd wait for her there. It was a place I could loiter without drawing attention to myself, and I could eat dinner while waiting.

When Amanda did finally arrive, we drove back to Starke for the night. Lake Bulter didn't have lodging available.

The next morning, fairly late in the morning as it turned out since I got sucked into fixing a couple of bugs on Atlas Quest, Amanda dropped me off at the IAG.

Within a mile, six different dogs came running at me, often darting across busy roads, uncontrolled and barking. If I had a gun, I probably would have started shooting in a couple of cases, because frankly, those dogs were scary. I guess they thought me scarier, though, since I yelled at them at get away and they would stop their approach about 20 feet away. Never on the trail had so many vicious dogs running loose, though, and I was getting angry about the situation. Is it so hard to keep a dog on a leash, indoors, or a fenced yard?

Annoyingly, I lost the trail almost immmediately out of town. The trail turned north on CR 231, and I found a trailhead on the right side of the road marked with blazes and everything. But the trail led south! I couldn't find one going north.

Tired of playing hide and seek with the blazes, I just followed the road instead. Once out of the city, about one car would drive by every 15 minutes, which wasn't so bad, and it would cut off a mile or two from the meandering trail hike, wherever THAT went.

The trail should come out on the road, or at least close to it, twice more during the day, and I could pick up the trail again then.

The road walking went so well and so quickly, I started considering walking the whole darned road. Or at least to the last place the trail came near it at Barton Gap Rd.

After a few miles of road walking, Amanda drove up. =) I told her my sad story about losing the trail (again), and she offered me a cold soda saying the trail came out on the road just around the next turn.

When I told her I was thinking about following the road even further, she suggested that that wouldn't be a good idea. There was trail magic waiting for me on the trail, and I'd miss it if I followed the road.

To the trail, then. It was probably for the best anyhow.

At one road crossing, someone had written 'Amanda loves Ryan' and 'Lunch 3 miles ahead' in the dirt, and I suspected Amanda might be responsible for the graffiti. =) Or at least one of my many admirers. ;o)

I rubbed out the part about lunch being three miles ahead in case any thru-hikers were behind me. I didn't want their hopes to get up just to be shot down later.

Five miles more along the trail, I found another road crossing with a note for me attached to a hiker sign from Amanda, telling me that lunch was under some bark and other debris to the right. Amanda, in a car, used her odometer to determine the distance of three miles. On foot, the trail winds and turns and I actually had to hike about five miles to reach lunch.

In the plastic bag, I found a sandwich from Subway, a small bag of Cheetos, a small bag of sliced apples, and a 20 oz bottle of Coke (which was wrapped in a bag with ice, so they were still cold). Marvelous!

I took my stash into the shade and started to pig out, determined to eat everything she left. I almost considered not eating the Cheetos and saving them for later, but then decided I didn't want to carry the full bag out and stuffed those down my throat too.

A car pulled up to the trailhead just as I was finishing--it was Amanda! I waved at her, and she parked and walked over to me.

"You wouldn't BELIEVE the traffic at Olustee!" she exclaimed. Now I just walk my little walk, and I rarely look more than a day or two ahead on my maps to see where I'm going. As it turned out, I would be walking into Olustee SP on the third weekend of February.

Why does that matter? Because it happens to be when they hold a reenactment of a Civil War battle fought there in 1864. Thousands of people descend into this little community dressed up in the blue and the grey uniforms (for the men) and frilly elaborate dresses (for the women). And about 20,000 civilians drop into town to see them.

And, of course, one thru-hiker. =)

At the time of the battle, much of the food and supplies that supported the south came in through Florida, so a bunch of Union soldiers were ordered west out of Jacksonville to take and destroy a key railroad bridge in Lake City. When the south found out about the plans, they brought in soldiers to stop the advance.

And the two groups clashed at Olustee. It would be the largest, bloodiest battle ever fought in Florida where 2,807 men lay dead or wounded.

And completely by accident, I'd be walking directly into this reenactment.

Amanda came back to the trailhead to look for me, worried that we wouldn't be able to find each other in the masses at Olustee. If the lunch she left was still there, she'd wait for me. If the lunch was gone, she'd try to intercept me further up the trail. She didn't expect to find me eating lunch, but it worked out well for both of us.

I left the trash from lunch with Amanda, and suggested we meet in front of the museum that my guidebook mentions. The reenactment was to start at 3:30, and I told her most people would leave as soon as it ended. Parking would be then be easy, and she could probably get a front row location!

She headed off, and so did I. Near 3:30, I heard distant booms going off as cannons were shot off, which continued for the better part of an hour. They are LOUD!

The trail dumped me out directly at Ground Zero. It's a bit disorienting to be hiking all day by onesself, then walk into 20,000 people attending a reenactment, literally in just three steps.

Cars backed up as far as the eye could see in both directions. Hundreds of people walked along the street, many dressed in period costumes and carrying old muskets.

Amanda decided to watch for me where I came out of the woods and intercepted me before I could get lost in the masses.

Since we were in the area, we decided to take a look around. Booths were set up where you could have authors of Civil War books sign their work. You could buy period costumes and swords, paintings, and I don't know what all else.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On the Trail Again....

With no plans other than the vague "I'll do a few miles today," Amanda and I slept in late and took our time packing up the car and leaving the hotel.

We drove straight to Gold Head Branch SP, stopping only long enough to grab a lunch at Wendy's and to pick up a maildrop for me in Keystone Heights.

By the time we arrived, I figured I had about 10 miles I could do before sunset, and decided to hike through to Edwards Grocery off of SR 100 which the trail happened to pass. It would be an easy place for Amanda to pick me up at.

The hike was largely uneventful. I did lose the trail in Gold Head Branch, and finally followed the road to the entrance where I knew the trail crossed at and picked it up again there.

The trail then passed through Cape Blanding where the national guard trains. My data said I was to sign my life away at the kiosk when I entered the area and to sign out again when I left, but I found nothing to sign so walked in anyhow.

In the dirt, shortly past the entrance kiosk, I found a message written in the dirt road that read, "Welcome back, GT! =)" It was signed by Snap. It was fun finding a message for me in the dirt. I figured Snap probably passed by the day before and had at least a 24 hour head start on me since I had taken two zero days.

I arrived at Edwards Grocery a bit early, and Amanda wasn't there yet. I bought something to drink and waited for her about ten minutes before she pulled up.

We found a hotel in Starke, then ate out at Pizza Hut for dinner. Yum, yum. =)

The next morning, I decided to pull a miserable 20-mile road walk into Lake Bulter. It was nearly all road walk, and I was so not looking forward to it, but it had to be done.

Several miles into the road walk, a white van pulled over and the driver asked if I was thru-hiking the Florida Trail. "Well, yes, as a matter of fact."

It was surprising to me he identified me as a thru-hiker. There aren't that many of us, and I was slackpacking so I didn't have my usual full-sized pack or scruffy clothes. Not even my trekking pole.

But he identified as a thru-hiker (admitting later that it was a close call and he wasn't sure). He introduced himself as Gordon Smith, trail angel, at my service. =)

He was an older man and not in particularly good health, but he used to love long-distance hiking and now prefers to spend his time helping them.

I explained that Amanda was in town and didn't really need any help. (I was already slackpacking, after all!) He seemed a bit disappointed that he couldn't help, but gave me his number anyway and drove off in search of other thru-hikers. He had also told me that he found Snap, who was leaving Lake Butler that day, which indeed put him about a day ahead of me on the trail.

I continued the grueling road walk, and eventually a second vehicle pulled over to ask me about the trail. He said the reroute on the old railroad grade looked like it was done and wondered when hikers would start using that. I had no idea. I knew a reroute was in the works because it was marked on my map as the 'proposed trail' in the future, but I didn't know that status of the reroute or when it would be finished.

The man didn't seem very familiar with the Florida Trail, and I told him about it which seemed to fascinate him, then I continued the grueling road walk.

The trail passes through Sampson City, a small podunk with a few houses. The term 'city' is something of a misnomer.

While walking along the trail, however, I noticed an orange blaze on the other side of the trees lining the road. The OTHER side. Right where the reroute was supposed to be.

I walked over and checked out the reroute. In this section, it did look done. I could see what seemed like miles down the old railroad grade. Including the fact that even the local guy said the trail seemed to be done, I decided to ditch the road walk and perhaps be the first person to thru-hike this section of the reroute. It might not be official Florida Trail yet, but it would be soon!

The chances of getting lost were zero. The new trail followed an old railroad track and went straight as an arrow about nine miles directly into Lake Butler.

The first few miles were absolutely wonderful. No cars buzzing by, and an easy, wide trail. Trees, a whole forest of them, decorated both sides of the trail.

When the trail reached CR 235, however, I discovered exactly why the reroute hadn't been opened to the public yet. The trail became overgrown, and I had to dodge around a number of fallen trees. It was still passable, but not nearly so easy as those first several miles.

A couple of miles more, and I found myself at the edge of an old railroad tressle, except the tracks across the top were missing so I couldn't cross it. Looking down, a small river crossed the path.

I scrambled down to the ground level and examined my options. I walked out across a log as far as I could, stuck a long stick in the water to see how deep it was. (The water, as usual, was murky, and anything more than a couple of inches deep was impossible to see through.)

I then held the stick up to myself, and the high water mark went up past my waist. It was deep.

The gap to the other side was about eight feet, too far to jump. The tracks of the tressle actually did pass overhead at this point, and I considered climbing up to the top. I threw out that idea as stupid--tressles weren't designed to climb easily, and if I slipped, I could seriously injury or kill myself. No one even knew I was on this reroute, so they wouldn't even be looking for me here when I didn't arrive in Lake Butler on time.

No, I had to walk across. Damn.

I checked the water level in several places, on both sides of the tressle, and decided to cross just downstream from the tressle. The water was the deepest yet that I had to ford, coming up well past my knees but still below my waist.

I charged through, but I didn't blame the or curse the FTA for my prediciment. After all, the route wasn't officially open as of yet. This was my own fault.

But you know what? It was still better than a ten-mile road walk. Nope, I wasn't going to complain.

The trail continued through timber land and some sections you could see had recently been cut. The trail reached two more broken tressles, but the water below was small enough that I could jump over the streams.

The trail dumped me out in a neighborhod of Lake Butler, where thre kids on bicycles watched me fall out of the woods.

One of them asked, "Where did you come from?" clearly perplexed at my unexpected arrival, and I told them they were standing on what would soon be the official Florida Trail.

This is Ryan, reporting in from White Springs.

Keys to the Kingdom

Amanda, as a Christmas present, promised me a trip to the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Not just any trip, though, but a special one that would take me underground into the famed tunnels under the park that employees use and other behind the scenes stuff. Essentially, a factory tour of the house of the mouse.

The tour is called Keys of the Kingdom, and is available for anyone who is 16 and over with $60 burning a hole in their pocket. Amanda made a reservation for us the week before.

On the appointed day, we drove into the park and parked close to the entrance in the second row. It's always neat to arrive before the park opens and end up almost at the front row of an enormous parking lot. (The parking lot, we would later learn, is larger than all of Disneyland!)

Amanda purchased our entrance tickets (that, alas, is not included in the cost of the $60 Keys of the Kingdom tour), then we waited about a half hour for the doors to open.

A few minutes before the doors offically opened, several excessively happy folks came out and sang and danced for us, kind of like the opening credits of a movie welcoming us to the park. It's kind of sappy, but I enjoyed watching it. The theatrical extravegance seemed so incredibly Disney, building the experience for everyone even before we entered the park.

The doors officially opened when Mickey Mouse arrived on the Disney railroad. Most people, at this time, rush to their favorite ride to jump on before any lines have formed, and normally Amanda and I would do the same.

Not today, however. No, this time, we headed to City Hall where we reported in for our tour. We were handed menus and told to select a lunch, which we did, and were handed name tags we could keep forever and forever, and a guest badge which we could keep "for about five hours."

Our tour started at 9:30, which left Amanda with about 20 minutes to explore the gift shops before we had to go to our tour's starting point next to City Hall.

At 9:30, we were given headphones so everyone in our group--about 20 of us--could hear the tour guide easily without having to crowd in close.

Then we were off to learn the Magic Kingdom's deepest, darkest secrets.

Most of the tour, honestly, wasn't that exciting. Our tour guide, Jamie, led us around the 'on stage' (i.e. public) areas of the park, pointing out a couple of hidden Mickeys and telling us stories behind some of the details built into the park. Everything has a story, some quite elaborate, and is part of Disney's attention to detail that you don't find in other parks.

But let's face it--we wanted to see behind the scenes. It took a couple of hours before we finally got to that point, however.

We did go on a few rides, which is kind of fun to do since we were allowed to walk into the exit and cut in front of the line. With line waits of about five minutes, however, it's not like we saved a lot of time doing so.

The first ride we went on was the Jungle Cruise. Our group hijacked our own boat, then our tour guide told us things about the ride most tourists won't ever hear, such as the hippos are only completed above the waterline because the blue water hides the bottom half of them. The animals get cleaned about once each week to keep the mold down, and that sort of stuff. The waterfall is where the blue dye is added to the water, which is done to hide the track underneath the water that guides the boats. (No, those 'drivers' aren't actually driving the boats.)

And there's a hidden Mickey on the side of an airplane on the ride. Look for it the next time you ride it. =)

We also hijacked our own boat from Pirates of the Caribbean, and Amanda was thrilled to see Johnny Depp not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES on the ride.

And we went through a secret side door on the Haunted House ride that fed directly into the stretching room. We didn't hijack our own boats there, however, since that ride isn't really set up for that type of thing.

It wasn't until shortly before lunch where we finally got to see some behind the scenes stuff. Jamie led us around the left side of Splash Mountain, up the road, around a fence, and into the offstage area of the park.

But we were sworn to secrecy and I can't tell you about anything I saw. Oh, what the heck. We saw floats, without their lights flashing. We saw characters like Woody (from Toy Story) without his head on. We saw the no-see green building that houses Splash Mountain.

It started raining then, hard, and we took cover under an overhang that employees can use to wait it out. The rain passed by very quickly.

Speaking of which, Amanda picked an ideal time to take me off the trail, because a terrific storm passed through the night before and even a tornado took off a roof of a building not too far away. Glad I didn't have to spend the night in THAT weather!

Then it was time for lunch at the Columbia Harbour House, I think it was. Lunch was already set out for everyone on the tables, with name tags by each of our meals. They set Amanda and I at a table to ourselves, and the food was good. In the name tags marking our lunch was the official Keys to the Kingdom pin. Look for it coming to eBay soon. ;o)

After lunch, we finally headed underground and into the famed tunnels.

Admittedly, it's not much to look at. They piped non-Disney music through the sound system (they hear enough Disney music above ground!). But the tunnels are long, boring, concrete structures that lead all around but under the park.

We never really saw much except the tunnels themselves. Many doors led off to all sorts of rooms, but we were never taken into any of them. I did see far enough into one to see a break room with video games and vending machines.

Then it was back in the sunlight and the end of our tour.

We returned our guest badges and headphones then had the rest of the day left to our own devices. We road a few rides, but having already done 'the big three'--Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Haunted House--there wasn't much left we wanted to do.

We left then wandered out to Downtown Disney to see if we could find Sits N Knits so Amanda could do some exchanging with her.

And that was our day. We went out to Chili's for dinner and called it a night. I spent the rest of the evening working on Atlas Quest. =)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Tip a Canoe and Amanda Too

Amanda and I headed to Juniper Springs Recreation Area for a canoe run. We woke early, and arrived at the location at about 8:30. We paid for the canoe, and I pushed it around on a specialized dolly to the start of the run.

I had my doubts about doing the canoe this day. Amanda woke up in the middle of night, probably around three or four o'clock, whimpering and crying, due to a sharp pain in her neck. (No, it wasn't me!) She thinks she pulled some muscles wrong while carrying heavy bags. At daybreak, the worst of the pain had passed, but her neck was still very sore and tender and she had trouble turning her head. While driving, I'd often look for her to see when it was safe to change lanes.

So I had my reservations about doing the canoe run right now. It could wait a couple of days, but Amanda was adament that she could do it, so off to Juniper Springs we went.

Juniper Springs, unlike most water sources I've seen in Florida, is clear, allowing us to watch strange-looking boils in the water. The ground in most of Florida is made up of limestone, and the spring is slowly eroding the rock. Some places where the water comes out of the ground, the rock has been ground down to a fine powder and looks like it's boiling, except that it's limestone powder and underwater. Just wait until you see the videos I took of it!

I took charge of the canoe, sitting in the back while Amanda took the front.

The woman who rented us the canoe warned us the run was not for beginners, and almost immediately, we could see why.

The water level, in most places, is very shallow, so we had to navigate around them into the deeper areas, which has often just a few inches. Then we reached the first of many trees that had fallen across the creek, and we had to guide the canoe (and ourselves) under them. I usually leaned back to get under the trees, but because Amanda's neck hurt, she usually lean forward to get under them.

And at other locations, several trees had fallen across the creek in opposite directions requiring sharp turns to get around them.

This was the first canoe run either of us had been on which required so much work to get through. It was fun, but hard.

And we had the river almost completely to ourselves. Only one other person rented a canoe that day, someone who had thru-hiked the AT last year by strange coincidence, and most of the time he was behind us on the river and out of view.

Near the four-mile mark of the seven-mile run, we had to go under another tree. I'm not sure if we were coming in too fast or at a bad angle, or maybe a little of both, but Amanda grabbed the branch yanking the canoe off balance just enough for a substantial amount of water to get into our canoe.

At this critical junction, we both had two very different responses. My thought was, "We're okay. The canoe has several inches of water in it, but we're still afloat and we can paddle to shore, get out, and dump the water."

Amanda's thought, keeping in mind that she was in the front of the boat and unable to turn her head back to examine the situation, was "There are several inches of water at my feet! We're sinking!"

Then she jumped out of the canoe!

In the process, she tipped the already low canoe enough so more water was able to flood over the side, and at this point, my rosy expectations came to a dashing end. We were sinking. Or at least I was--Amanda had already abandoned ship.

My first concern was electronics. My camera, PocketMail, and even my wallet needed to be kept dry. Most things were in my pack, which I was wearing, and my camera was in a pocket of my pants since I had been using it.

I grabbed onto the limb that sunk us, pulling myself up and out of the water.

Then I realized, that was a pretty wasted effort. I had to get to shore, and the only way to do so was to drop into the water and walk. I couldn't get the camera out of my pants since I needed both arms to keep me suspended above the water, so I dropped down into the water, pulled out my camera, and waded to shore where Amanda had already gotten out of the water.

I handed her my camera, terribly wet from the soaking it got, and my backpack. I had to go back in the water to retrieve the canoe, but I could leave these things with her on shore.

The canoe went downstream perhaps 15 feet before getting caught in an eddy in a deep pool of water, and I took a couple of steps in that direction before realizing how deep the mud at the bottom of the river was. It was trying to suck off my Waldies.

I took my Waldies off and handed those to Amanda as well, now wearing nothing but socks on my feet.

Then I went in and retrieved the canoe, still stuck in the neck-deep water which suddenly felt ice cold on my chest.

I got the canoe, and brought it back to Amanda on shore. The crisis was over. We still had to empty the canoe of water and I had to assess the damage to my camera and the contents of my pack, but we could take our time about it now.

The other guy in a canoe arrived just in time to watch the unfolding disaster, and I jokingly told him not to do what we did. =)

I had Amanda give me my camera and I took the batteries out. I didn't know how badly damaged or not it was and didn't want to experiment with it now, but having been soaked in water, I didn't want any electricity running through it. Amanda did the same with her camera. My pack I opened, and thankfully, the contents were dry.

Amanda and I tipped the canoe to its side, emptying the water water out. I held the canoe steady as Amanda got in, then she hung onto a branch of a tree to keep the canoe steady as I got in.

The rest of the canoe run went fine, and four hours after we started, we made it to the end. We and our canoes were picked up and it was back to Juniper Springs for us.

We drove to Orlando afterwards, spending the night a couple of miles away from the Magic Kingdom--our destination for the next day.

Both of our cameras suffered water damage, mine more than Amanda's. The lens on Amanda's camera was fogged up but otherwise seemed to work fine. My camera had been completely submerged in water and was significantely more wet. I left the batteries out and took out the memory card, decided to wait until the camera had completely dried before starting it up and seeing how it worked (or not).

"This would never have happend on the Jungle Cruise," Amanda would say. =)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

How To Tick Off a Thru-Hiker

Etonia Creek ravine was probably 30 or 40 feet deep--and steep enough to seriously hurt or kill yourself if you stepped a bit too far off the trail. Very exciting, and even pretty! =)

I made it into Iron Bridge Shelter just before sunset, happy to not set up my tarp this night. I did pull it out and hang it up to dry from the dew in the morning, but I slept in the shelter, another nice place. It was also enclosed with a screen to keep out bugs--not that they were a problem this time of year.

I chose to make mac 'n' cheese for dinner, not that I had a lot to choose from at this point. My food bag had never been skimpier!

The next morning, once again, was bitterly cold, seemingly colder than ever. I did make breakfast since I had a 14-mile hike to Gold Head Branch SP and knew I'd need the energy. I ate my last full meal, a bag of mashed potatoes, nearly finishing off my fuel at the same time. I found it surprisingly hard to light in the cold, but it did light.

I got on trail before 8:00, and hoofed along, anxious to reach the state park where I expected to meet Amanda at around noon. Doing 14 miles in four hours is quite fast, but darn it, I wanted civilization!

The trail dumped me out onto road, busy roads, for most of the day, which made me all the more anxious to finish this day's hiking as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, the FTA's habit of poorly blazing 'obvious' sections of road walk thwarted my plans for a quick hike.

I remembered the trail reaching a T-intersection, and a note saying that potable water was available 0.3 miles north at a fire station but the trail headed south.

I didn't need potable water, so at the next intersection, I turned south. I kept my eyes open for blazes, but saw nothing in either direction at the intersection, nor even behind me on the road I walked up. I wasn't concerned, however, because I hadn't seen a blaze for miles. It was a road walk, and blazing was notoriously poor on road walks.

I remembered that the trail turns off the road after 1.5 miles, so after about a mile of hiking, I pulled out my data book to verify what road the trail turns on. The blazing was poor, and I may need to know the name of the road to know when to turn.

Which is when I got a bad, sinking feeling in my gut. The next intersection, according to my databook, had a fire station 0.3 miles to the north, and the trail turned south.

I thought I already passed that intersection. If I hadn't passed it, then what intersection did I turn at?

I dropped my pack and pulled out the maps, looking them over hoping that I had turned the correct direction.

I hadn't, and I said a few not-so-nice things about the FTAs blazing policy. I was downright angry, having walked more than a mile in the wrong direction because they didn't have enough paint or time to slap on a few extra blazes on road walks to mark the way or confirm we were walking in the correct direction.

I deliberately looked both ways for blazes at the intersection to confirm I was going the correct way, and could not find a single blaze, including behind me where I had come from. One well-placed blazed at that intersection would have saved me a mile of walking in the wrong direction, and I was furious!

I turned around and walked 20 minutes back to the intersection, knowing there was no chance I'd make it to the meeting point with Amanda on time anymore, and my 14-mile day, non-stop hike just turned into a 16-mile day, non-stop hike. ARGH! On a miserable road walk, no less!

I finally huffed into Gold Head Branch SP, not at all mellowed since discovering I had walked in the wrong direction. At the recreation hall, where I was to meet Amanda, I didn't see her and started using the pay phone to call her when she turned the corner and arrived, mere seconds after I did.

Strange, bizarre coincidence. Amanda had arrived late as well, the drive taking longer than she expected, and we arrived at almost the exact same time. I was still pretty peeved about my wrong turn, though. I could have finished hiking through the park while waiting for her, or rested, or wrote some of my adventures. Anything but a miserable extra two miles of road walking.

I filled Amanda in on our plans for the next day--canoing at Juniper Springs--and we drove off to Ocala to find a hotel for the night--the closest major city to Juniper Springs.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Eighth Largest Cypress in Florida

The next morning was, once again, brutally cold, and I woke up shivering. I got an early start on the trail, skipping breakfast to get on the trail quicker and warm up. I did eat some Pop Tarts and granola bars to have something in my stomache, but eating cereal was out of the question because I ran out the morning before and cooking a dinner was out of the question because I was too cold to want to wait around for a meal to cook.

My bottle with denatured alcohol collapsed overnight, like opening an empty water bottle at a high altitude then brining it down to a low altitude, except my altitude never changed. Just the denser, colder air was enough to crush the bottle I used for my fuel. Even on the AT, I can't remember that ever happening.

After a half hour of hiking, I felt comfortably warm, though I continued to wear my fleece jacket to stay warm. I figured Snap and Gretchen were probably 30 to 60 minutes behind me given their usual morning wake up time, so I scratched a message to them in the dirt road with my trekking pole: "Good morning, Snap + G! =)" (including the happy face, but it wasn't sideways), and signed it GT. I was lazy about writing out Gretchen's lame.

About 15 minutes later, I wrote another note, this time including the time I wrote it so they'd have an idea of how far ahead I was.

Five minutes after that, a truck drove by in the opposite direction, and I knew it would run over my first two messages, so I scrached a third message into the dirt, including the time once again.

The trail finally left the dirt roads, crossed over SR 20, and into the woods at the Rice Creek Conservation Area. My guidebook explained that it was a rice and indigo plantation by British loyalists in the 1780s.

There is a lot of water in the area, but due to the amazing work of local FTA volunteers, the trail was high and dry. And the work truely was amazing.

Hoffman's Crossing is a narrow boardwalk 1,886 feet long (about one-third of a mile!), crossing over deep sections of water they would have made you walk through if it was in Big Cypress.

Over 30 boardwalks and bridges were built along a two-mile section of trail, if I remember correctly, to help keep hikers' feet dry. And my feet did stay dry. Amazing work! I've done some trail work in California and Washington, and I know what an incredible effort was put into this place.

Further on, the trail splits. Well, kind of. The Florida Trail turns left and heads to the eighth largest cypress in Florida, but a white-blaze trail led right to a shelter commonly called the Hilton.

I was torn--which did I want to see? The eighth largest cypress in Florida, or a shelter? I decided on the shelter since I figured it probably had a picnic table and I could cook a proper meal easily to get me through the rest of the day. Not to mention that it was only the secod shelter on the trail so far. I wished I could spend the night--it's a shelter!--but it was far too early in the day to stop there.

So I stopped for a late breakfast and early lunch.

The shelter is wonderful. It's a two-story design, screened in to keep out bugs, and even included comfortable lounge chairs upstairs. Cosy little place.

Someone left behind a newspaper about a month old, which I enjoyed leafing through while my Hamburger Helper meal was cooking.

I ate, cleaned up, and packed my pack again, leaving the fleece in the pack since the day had warmed up plenty warm at this point.

I stayed at the shelter for about an hour, wondering if Snap and Gretchen would drop in on me or stay on the Florida Trail and perhaps be ahead of me by now.

I had two choices I could make: Follow the white blazes northward to wher it intersected the Florida Trail again, or backtrack to where I got off the Florida Trail. I'm not nearly as 'pure' with this hike as I was on the AT where I was determined to walk on every foot of that trail.

Because of the poor blazing at times, I'd already missed small sections of official Florida Trail, and other areas didn't even have a physical trail that could be followed with the 'any path between blazes' mentality.
So I had little qualms about missing the mile or so of official Florida Trail by following the white blazed side trail that led to the shelter. The trail wasn't noticeably shorter, easier, or different than the official Florida Trail.

Except for one thing--the eighth largest cypress in Florida was on the official FT trail, and I knew you all would want to hear about that. I wanted to see this legendary cypress.

I backtracked 0.4 miles to where I got off the trail, grumbling about the backtracking. Couldn't they have put he shelter and eighth largest cypress in Florida on the same trail?

At the cypress, I found Snap and Gretchen laying at their tent to dry and preparing lunch.

"Hey guys! I was wondering when our paths might cross again."

Gretchen asked, "How did we get in front of you?" then, before she finished her question figured out the answer. "You went to the shelter?"

"Yep," I confirmed.

They had found two of the three messages I scratched in the dirt for them, which they enjoyed finding--a friendly, unexpected surprise.

We chatted for a few minutes and I took pictures of the eighth largest cypress in Florida, which didn't really look all that impressive to me overall--it looked kind of dead, in fact--but then I did grow up in the land of the giant sequoias where the largest trees on earth grew. The eighth largest cypress in Florida didn't really stand a chance compared to that.

For a cypress tree, however, it is definitely a larger than normal one!

I only chatted with Snap and Gretchen for a few minutes, though, because I wanted to push on another 13 miles to the next shelter on the trail, Iron Bridge shelter. (Two shelters in one day! I may be getting spoiled out here!) But I had to push hard if I was going make it before dark.

At Old Starke Road, I once again decided to forgo a resupply--a one mile off-trail, one-way hike to Bud's Groceries. I couldn't if I wanted to still make it the shelter by dark.

I did, however, stop long enough on Old Starke Road to write more messages in the dirt for Snap and Gretchen. =)

The trail followed along dirt roads for miles. Happily, traffic wasn't heavy, but a couple of places there were agressive dogs that came out to bark at me which I didn't much like. Is it so hard for these people to keep their dogs on a leash or in an enclosed area?

The trail, near the end of the day, ducked back into the woods again, and followed alongisde Etonia Creek ravine, with a real, honest-to-goodnes ravine. I was shocked. It was the steepest, heighest, natural viewpoint so far on my hike.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Your Tax Dollars At Work

I never really finished my chat about footprints because of those pesky limitations on PocketMail, but in a nutshell, all of us hikers seem to spend a great deal of effort analyzing and learning from them.

Snap and Gretchen finally called it a night, and so did I.

They left early the next morning, a bitterly cold morning it was too. I was loathe to leave my warm sleeping bag, but eventually was forced to by my bladder.

The trail zipped past Lake Delancy, which was hoping with what seemed like hundreds of people with ATVs. Thank goodness I didn't end up their for the night! So that's where all those campers went!

Just before Penner Pond, a ribbon was tied across the trail. On it, someone had written yesterday's date and that the trail was closed due to prescribed burns.


Since it was dated yesterday, I assumed that meant it was safe to pass and I ducked under it.

There were small areas that had burned, but as far a fires went, I'm not sure they needed to close the trail for this one. There wasn't much that had burned.

I pushed on to the Rodman Reservoir.

This reservoir was the result of a failed public works project. Your tax dollars at work. =)

The idea was to build a canal across through North Florida so boats and barges could get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico without having to go around the entire state of Florida.

Talk of such a canal started in the early 1800s, but it wasn't until the Great Depression that work on it started. Get jobs for people, and benefit North Florida for decades to come.

Due to environmental or cost concerns or something, construction eventually stopped after just 3% of the project was completed.

But no, that wasn't the end of it. The US Army Corps of Engineers took another whack at it in the mid '60s. They spent millions of dollars, destroying swamps to create Rodman Reservoir and building canals and locks. Progress went much further this time, but once again, it was never completed.

Due to environmental concerns, the project was officially scrapped in the early 1990s, and the section that had been completed was turned into a public greenway, which the Florida Trail now followed along.

The trail follows along a completed section of the canal, and ducks under a wonderfully enormous bridge for SR 19. The bridge seems to tower a hundred feet above the canal, originally so large barges could cross under it. The barges never came, though, so now it looks monstrously out of place.

The trail crosses the canal at Buckman Lock, and I arrived just at the same time the lock attendants were leaving.

Not that that bothered me--I had the combination for the locks that kept most pedestrians out. =) The FTA will give thru-hikers, and only thru-hikers, the combination for the locks that keep other people out. I had called the FTA office the day before from The 88 Store to confirm that the combination hadn't changed since I first got it.

I unlocked the first gate, relocking it behind myself.

A man came out of the building by the lock, asking if I relocked the gate behind me (yes, sir!), then directed me out the front gate saying the trail followed alongside the road to the end.

He didn't seem especially friendly, and I felt like my being there was an annoyance to him, so I left the lock and headed to the Visitor Center instead.

Inside, an older gentleman named Carl sat behind a large counter to help tourists and other visitors with whatever problems or questions we might have.

I sat in a chair near the entrance, happy to get off my feet, and told Carl a bit about my hike, including the URL for my blog which he pulled up right then and there on his computer while I explored the dislays explaining the history of the failed canal.

When I finished and walked back to Carl, he said, "You sure do look clean for a thru-hiker!"

I laughed. "Hey! It doesn't count when you just read that comment in my blog!"

I headed back outside to make dinner on the conveniently placed picnic tables with spigets with safe-to-drink running water.

While making dinner, someone behind me called out, "Hey! How did you get over there?!"

It was Gretchen, with Snap, who I had passed on the trail earlier in the day. The lock was closed, but they also had the combination for the locks and crossed into it, but they didn't seem able to get out the other side.

I looked at the entrance--closed now-pointing at it and said I walked through. But the gate was open when I walked through. Gretchen said that it had a key lock on it, not a combination lock, and couldn't get through, fearing they put on the wrong lock.

"There must be another entrance," I concluded, and spotted a smaller gate off to the side. "What kind of lock does that gate have?" I asked.

It had a combination gate, and the two made it throgh the lock joining my dinner preparations with my own.

I decided to push on for another hour of hiking before sunset, while they ultimately decided to cross back to the far side of the lock (they had the combination and knew the route!) and camp at the campground there.

The trail delved into a series of dirt roads, filled with trucks and ATVs zooming around. Large piles of trash littled the roadside, and I could hear gun blasts in the distance.

Not really a fun environment to walk through. I finally stopped minutes before sunset, camping well off the dirt roads. Only two ATVs passed later during the night, and quiet finally settled in.

I set up my tarp once again to protect against dew, which was so thick it rained down as tree snot from the trees above.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Walking Through Fire, Yes, Again

I always knew Florida had a water problem--lots of it with nowhere to go. For most people, it's no longer a problem. They've built canals, dikes, and levees to control the worst of the problem.

But it seems this state has a regular problem with fires. In Big Cypress, they were set deliberately. This day, I don't really know. There was no sign warning that the trail was closed or that prescribed burns were going on.

For the first hour or so, I'd smell that mysterious 'campfire,' on and off, and wonder where it was coming from.

Near Hopkins Prairie, though, I suddenly noticed smoke--visible smoke--on the trail. This fire was much closer than I realized!

And that's when I found my first smoldering log.

Continuing on, I found much larger burn areas, much of it still smoldering, and I now realized there was another fire on the trail. I'd find the occasional tree on fire, but mostly just smoldering remains of logs, brush, grasses, and trees. The grasses made a satisfying crunch sound every time I stepped on what was left of them as the burned remains crumbled under my foot.

A half hour into the burn area, I finally found a piece of paper tacked to a tree, dated the day before, warning that the north end of Hopkins Prairie had a wildfire, but firefighters were monitoring it and apologizing for any of their fire fighting equipment ruining the quiet beauty of the area.

Huh. I guess that meant the trail was still open. =) From the tone of the message, it suggested there was a genuine fire--not a controlled burn--but who knows?

So I continued on through the smoldering remains of the wildfire. I didn't find any hot spots like I did in Big Cypress--just smolders.

I noticed what looked like recent bulldozer tracks over much of the trail at the edge of the prairie, and I assume they must have ran some bulldozers through yesterday to control the fire. Many blazes had burned or been felled, and trail itself wiped out where bulldozers went through, but the trail largely followed the edge of the prairie and I was able to continue following it without too much trouble.

It's still kind of unnerving to walk through the smoldering leftovers of a wildfire, though.

Further on, I reached the trail junction for Salt Springs. Originally, I planned to resupply and call Amanda from there, but it would have required a three-mile one-way hike into town. I decided to skip it and go to the 88 Store instead hoping it had enough to resupply my needs for the next few days.

Another seven miles up the trail, the east and west corridors of the Florida Trail around Orlando merged, and I walked into Region 5 of my guidebook.

The 88 Store was 0.4 miles beyond the trail junction, or rather the blue-blazed trail to the store was. The store itself was another 0.4 miles down the blue-blazed trail, and I arrived there a little after 3:00 in the afternoon.

The store's owners are Jack and Annie, and apparently have a 1,200 pound hog named Elvis that drinks beer and chews tobacco. My guidebook suggested that hikers should ask if Jack is around to show off the hog, but that seemed a rather weird thing to do and I didn't.

Annie was behind the counter tending the bar, and I read and signed the hiker register. I didn't talk to Annie or the customers much, though, because the smell of them smoking bothered me. They might be friendly to hikers, but the place reeked of smoke.

I looked through their limited selection of foods and was disappointed with the choices. I expected something similar to a mini-mart of a gas station, but the selection here was even less. I grabbed a multitude of snacks, a box of mac 'n' cheese for dinner, and a cold Coke to drink on the patio.

The thing I really needed was breakfast. I had finished the last of my cereal that morning. There just wasn't any real breakfast material in the store, so I grabbed the box of mac 'n' cheese thinking it might have to do in a pinch.

All my chores done, I hit the trail again, hiking out to Grassy Pond for the night.

I was surprised at the size of the place, off the side of a dirt road. It looked liked a place where large, wild parties with alcohol took place, and in fact saw the reminds of several beer cans and fires.

It wasn't an ideal place to camp in my opinion--far more exposed than I liked to be--but it was too late to reach the next camp at Lake Delancy before dark. I'd camp here for the night.

I no longer expected rain in the forecast, but waking up dry was a nice habit of getting into so once again I set up my tarp.

Shortly before sunset, two other hikers stumbled into the campsite. They looked older than the usual hikers, but they're packs were lean and light. These were experience backpackers, and I called out, "Are you guys thru-hikers?"

One of them was. Snap, the man, was thru-hiking the Florida Trail. Gretchen, the woman, was not. I told them if they made a fire, I'd invite myself over. If they didn't, though, they were welcome to come by and visit any time. =)

I didn't want to follow them out to where they were setting up camp in case they really didn't want to chat, but I wanted to make sure they knew they were welcome to do so with me. It's not often I have people to talk to at night!

After setting up their tent, they brought their dinner over to my tarp and we chatted long into the night.

Snap got his trail name after breaking his arm while trying to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Even with a cast on, he continued hiking, only calling it quits when his doctor recommended that it wouldn't be a good idea after getting the cast off since there would be nothing to support it.

He wisely deduced that I had hiked the eastern corridor around Orlando after noticing my footprints in the sand only after the junction of the two routes. He had hiked the western route.

You'll see a lot of animal tracks on the trail, but after awhile, you also start analyzing footprints from people. So few people hike the trail, it often warns you when people are ahead, how many, or even how tall they are.

Before catching up with Mountain Laurel and Mosey just before the 30-mile roadwalk, I had noticed two distinct sets of footprints, definitely no older than the last rain a couple of nights before, and I wondered if it was them.

And earlier in the morning, I passed a set of footprints that were absolutely enormous. I never found the owner of those prints, but I'm convinced that Shaquille O'neill was on the trail. The shoe prints were three or four inches longer than mine!

On the trail out here, you're always keeping your eyes open for fresh prints, especially those headed the same direction as you.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Naked In the Great Outdoors

I lounged around under my tarp for the better part of the morning, hoping the on and off drizzle of rain would turn off for good. To kill time, I wrote adventures and an e-mail to wassamatta_u about a possible solution to an Atlas Quest bug that had come to me in a dream. (Well, okay, I wasn't asleep at the time, but daydreaming counts, right? And in case you're wondering, the idea didn't pan out. *shrug*)

When the rain appeared to stop for good, I broke down camp and hit the trail.

About a half hour into the hike, I came across two older gentlemen hiking south. The one in front, when he saw me, threw his arms open like he expected a hug, and both of them had smiles like they'd never been so happy to see anyone before.

"You guys seem happy to see me," I said.

"Oh, you have no idea! We're lost!"

Things started clicking together in my head. The evening before, I passed two hikers heading south who mentioned a couple of older gentlemen ahead of them, but I hadn't seen two older hikers and assumed they must have gotten off at a spur trail somewhere before our paths intersected.

The second reason I didn't see them didn't occur to me--they got lost. I'm not sure how they could get lost. The Florida Trail is pretty easy to navigate through the Ocala National Forest, and I could have found my way through in the dark if need be.

They did know that they were on the Florida Trail, but wanted to know if they were going the correct direction to Farles campground.

I told them I camped near the trail junction to the campground, about a mile or two more, and they seemed so incredibly relieved.

"There's a sign?"

"Well, no," I answered. "It's off on a blue blazed trail, though, and the blazes are pretty obvious. I didn't follow it to the campsite myself, but my guidebooks said that the campsite was at the end of the blue blazes."

We chatted a few more minutes. I found out that they were from Georgia, near Atlanta, and they thought it was wonderful that I was hiking to Springer Mountain.

They also said they ran out of water the night before and filtered some surface water three times through a handerchief before drinking it. "Think that's enough?" one of them asked.

"I hope so," I answered. =)

It wouldn't have gotten the small nasty organisms out of the water like giardia, but most water is usually safe to drink anyhow. Worrying about it now won't do any good. If they get sick in a week, they'll be able to get to a doctor anyhow.

We said goodbye, and I continued north, still puzzled how they got lost on such an obvious trail. I can only imagine they started hiking in the wrong direction yesterday and it took them hours before they realized it. *shrug*

At the Juniper Springs Recreation Area, I stopped at the little entrance station to ask the attendent about the canoe runs. Ryan, the fellow I met the day before, raved about how wonderful it was, and my guidebook also had unusually nice things to say about it.

"The last runs leave at 12:00," she told me, and I looked up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was 12:30. Just as well, I thought, Amanda would probably be pretty miffed if I went on an incredible canoe run without her knowing she'd be flying in in a few days.

Which is when I thought, "Hey, Valentines Day is coming up.... I'm going to take Amanda on a canoe run!" =)

So I got all the dirt about running the canoes, the phone number to reserve one in advance, rules of river, and the lady explained that the river is often rated one of the best ten in the country and is not for beginners. (No problem, I thought, I've canoed before. Amanda, I'm not so sure.)

Apparently, the river is fed by a crystal clear spring--unusal in itself for this part of the country. Clear water? And from a spring?

And trees have fallen in the river, s at times you have to lean back limbo style to get past them. It usually takes four or five hours, and the last pick-up is at 4:30. Sounds like fun to me! All for the low, low price of $31.50.

Sign me (and Amanda, although she doesn't know it yet) up! =)

After learning about all of the canoeing details, I headed north on the trail again about five miles before stopping to rest and eat at Hidden Pond, considered the best primitive camping place in Ocala National Forest according to my guidebook.

It's a beautiful location, but the main thing going for it--a small lake with clear water. I looked around. There was nobody around. Based on the cobwebs I'd been breaking, nobody had been here all day. As late in the afternoon as it was, I doubted that anyone else would come.

I decided to, yes, skinny dip! Woo-who! I hoped I wouldn't get a sunburn where the sun rarely shines, and went in. The water was cool and took some getting used to, but it's Florida. It's not like it's a glacier fed lake!

Then I decided that clothes weren't so bad after all--I could rinse them in the water. They were made from fast-drying materials, and I figured they'd be dry or nearly so before I hit the trail again, so then you could find me naked trying to rub out the dirt from my pants and shirt.

Not sure how clean the clothes were--I didn't want to use soap in a natural lake such as this--but I figured the rinsing couldn't hurt.

All the while hoping none of those carnivorous animals Florida is famous for decided that was the time to take a bite out of me.

After my little swim and clothes rinse, I cooked a late lunch/early dinner (a lausagna version of Hamberger Helper, for those keeping track).

Then I packed up and continued north, always north.

I stopped for the night about three miles up the trail from Hidden Pond, at the top of a hill.

The weather forecast I last saw had Thursday night taking the worst of the rain (60% chance), so I definitely set up my tarp good and proper. The sky looked clear by this time, but I wasn't taking any chances. I saw the weather forecast.

One unfortunate aspect of my choice of locations were painful, annoying little thorns all over the ground. I spent a half hour rubbing my hands lightly across my ground sheet feeling for tiny but painful little pricks and removing the sticky thorns.

While going to sleep, I smelled the distant smell of a campfire. Strange, I thought, since I didn't know of any campers within five miles of my location. It would have to be an awfully big campfire for me to smell it.

Late into the night, the rain did start to come down, and once again, I stayed dry and warm.