Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Briefly Enchanted


Following the conclusion of my Ouachita Trail adventure, I headed out to Arizona to begin the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET). Starting just outside Phoenix, the GET meanders nearly 800 miles through the highlands of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico to its terminus in Albuquerque. The GET is definitely a route rather than an official trail, much like the Hayduke Trail, Deseret Hiking Route, or Lowest to Highest.

The route begins by winding its way through the Superstition Mountains. After about 25 miles, it joins up with the Arizona Trail (AZT), following it south past the towns of Superior and Kearny before departing to the west, New Mexico-bound.

From the very beginning it was clear that this was not a typical Arizona backpacking trip. The Phoenix area had been soaked by several inches of rain over the past week, and as the sun set and the temperature dropped, dew collected heavily. I set up my shelter each night on trail. Water is ordinarily a scarce commodity in the deserts of the Southwest but was flowing in the bottom of each little gully and drainage. I certainly didn't expect to spend most of the time hiking with wet feet, but then again, it's been a strange, wet, cold spring.


Near the trailhead, the trail underfoot was wide and smooth. As I got deeper into the wilderness, trails gradually deteriorated, becoming increasingly faint and brushy. I hiked through several areas that had burned in the 2019 Woodbury Fire. In such areas, the trail was next to non-existant. Catclaw tore at my legs, leaving me with classic "desert pinstripes" - lines of scrapes and scratches.

But my oh my, the Superstitions were lovely. I'd hiked through the Supes before as part of my AZT hike in 2019. I'd been a little disappointed in the Supes my first time around, as the trail stays largely in the eastern, higher part of the range, in pinyon forests. They were alright, but not quite as pretty as I was expecting. By contrast, the GET passes through the lower, western part of the range before joining up with the AZT. Despite being lower, I found the western Superstitions to be more dramatic and scenic than their eastern counterparts. I hiked over a few high passes, up tight box canyons, past fields of wild poppies, and within eyeshot of the iconic Weavers Needle and Four Peaks. All in all? A wonderful stretch of not-quite-trail.



When I joined up with the AZT, trail tread immediately and dramatically improved. The AZT is probably the easiest (aside from the completely-flat Florida Trail) long-distance hike I've ever done. The trail is built to modern standards and is mountain bike-friendly. In the wake of the Woodbury Fire, volunteers have already cut back the burnt and fallen trees and kept the encroaching post-fire brush at bay. It was a true joy to walk on and a testament to the strong community support that many of our most beloved long trails enjoy. I saw quite a few AZT thru-hikers hiking toward me on their own long-distance journeys. They were headed north toward the Utah border while I was heading (temporarily) south, eventually toward Albuquerque.

As I met these AZT hikers, I was surprised and not a little dismayed by the flippant attitude that many showed toward the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Certainly, some of it was due to being disconnected from larger society, where the situation was rapidly evolving. Some of it was due to selection bias - the large majority of people who were taking things seriously weren't out here - because they were taking seriously the guidelines about non-essential travel that health departments were just starting to issue. Still, I was a bit distressed by some people's sneering attitude of invincibility, even as I pondered what to do about my own hike.


Eventually I got cell service and spent a few minutes catching up on what was going on with the world. Even if a hike on the little-used Grand Enchantment Trail is relatively low-risk (it's hard to catch the bug when the nearest person is twenty miles away), resupply in tiny towns at the end of a long and fraying supply chain is bound to be a challenge. What if that small town post office is closed because the one and only postal employee is sick, or if governors issue shelter-in-place orders? In a quickly evolving situation where society is bound to be impacted in unpredictable ways, could I have any confidence that I wouldn't get stuck hitchhiking on a deserted road dozens of miles away from my resupply point? Furthermore, when (not if) my plans got blown to bits and I had to improvise, that would put me in a lot of contact with a lot of people. And getting sick and becoming a burden to a town without any medical facilities is not an option.

I think there's a lot of fear-based decision-making happening right now and frankly, the parochial attitude of some folks is getting a little tiresome. But in evaluating the situation as dispassionately as I could, I concluded that the most prudent parth in an uncertain situation was to hole up in a place with good supply lines and medical facilities. So after three days and 40-something miles on the Grand Enchantment Trail, I quit. I hitched a ride into Superior, AZ with a passing motorist, who happened to know somebody who was headed into Phoenix tomorrow. After staying the night, I caught a ride to Phoenix and got on a plane.



Here I sit in the Midwest in self-imposed exile after having traveled by air. Though I'm bummed not to continue the GET, it's hard to feel too sorry for myself. I've lost the opportunity to take what's essentially a vacation with a fancy title. Others have lost their jobs, their health, or even their lives. I'm going to do my part, stay home, and not make things worse. I'm going to respect both the letter and the spirit of the various public health orders and guidelines that are being put forward. As far as I'm concerned, "only the essentials" means "only the essentials". And I don't really need that much.

Let's not end on that note though. Let's instead end with a pair of mediocre photos of a lovely field of poppy blooms that I found in the Superstitions. And let's keep in mind one of my favorite Dutch hymns which reminds us that God is still in control and still cares for us:
We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
He chastens and hastens his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.
Yep. That seems about right.




Sunday, March 22, 2020

Whiteblazing and Blueblazing in Arkansas


The Appalachian Trail has a unique lingo. Some of this language seeks to describe the ways that people travel on the trail. The main trail from Georgia to Maine is marked by white paint splotches roughly the size and shape of a dollar bill. Naturally, when you're walking on the designated AT, you're said to be "whiteblazing". Side trails are marked with blue blazes, and those who deviate from the main trail in their journey north are said to be "blueblazing". The term "blueblazing" often carries a pejoritive connotation - that somehow it's more holy and righteous to hike the designated AT than to take alternate routes.

In Arkansas two long-distance hiking trails run parallel to each other - the 160-mile Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) and the 220-mile Ouachita Trail (OT). The OHT is blazed white, just like the AT, while the OT is blazed blue, just like the AT's side trails. I hiked the OHT in 2018 but didn't have the chance to hike the OT until 2019. In so doing, I couldn't help but comparing the whiteblazed trail to the blueblazed trail. And at least in Arkansas, the blueblazed trail comes out on top.

This trail also featured a few random green, red and yellow blazes

In many ways, the trails are similar. They're of roughly equal length, run through similar environments, are both well-blazed, seldom-used, and are surrounded almost exclusively by a corridor of public land. The hiking season is roughly the same, elevations are virtually identical, and the forests look a lot alike.

There's just one difference: The Ouachita Trail is infinitely more enjoyable than the Ozark Highlands Trail, at least in my opinion.

It's tough to articulate exactly why I think that. I think part of it has to do with my fascination with maps. The OT takes a really elegant line, staying high on ridgetops whenever possible. It has very few PUDs (pointless ups-and-downs), hits a surprising number of summits with pretty views, and generally just "makes sense". The OHT, by contrast, seemed a lot more arbitrary in nature, constantly climbing or descending into or out of a ravine without any clear purpose. The nature of the trails largely depends on the geography of their respective ranges - the Ouachita Mountains is a range with clearly defined east-west ridgelines, while the Ozark Highlands are a jumbled pile of misshapen hills and gullies running every which way. Sure, the OHT had some decent waterfalls and passed through some wonderfully remote designated Wilderness areas, but the OT had plenty of that too, while also offering my inner map geek a sense of coherence and effective forward progress.

There are two other advantages the OT has: more foot traffic, and shelters along the way. While both trails see little traffic, the OT is better-trod in most places. Normally this wouldn't matter too much, but Arkansas trails are famously rocky underfoot. When there's no traffic on a trail, a thick layer of dead leaves quickly builds up on the trail such that it's impossible to see what you're stepping on until you step on it and twist an ankle. More foot traffic smashes down those leaves. The OT isn't any less rocky than the OHT, but at least you can see what you're stepping on!

On the topic of shelters, the Friends of the Ouachita Trail (lovingly abbreviated "FoOT") recently completed a shelter-building project along the length of the trail. Except for a 30-mile stretch of private land near the west end, there are gorgeous Appalachian Trail-style shelters roughly every ten miles. This came in very, very handy given the weather I faced on the OT.


So anyway, let's get to my 2019 OT hike.

After wrapping up my Florida Trail hike, I caught a flight to Little Rock, Arkansas to start the OT. Given my previous Arkansas hiking experiences on the OHT, I didn't have super high expectations for the OT. I liked the OHT because I'm an excitable little puppydog when it comes to long distance hiking and tend to view any time spent outside as terrific and wonderful. But to be honest, I must admit that the OHT is probably the long-distance hike I enjoyed the least.

But from the get-go, it became clear that the OT was a whole different beast. In true jaded long-distance hiker fashion, I skipped the first mile or two (and the official western terminus) and instead started by climbing Pinnacle Mountain. Pinnacle is a popular little mountain as it's within driving or public transit distance of Little Rock. I got dropped off at the trailhead right before sunset and climbed it in the fading twilight. And by "climbed", I do mean a solid Class III scramble. There are definitely easier routes to the top, but I preferred to freelance my own steep and direct route. The whole mountain is just a giant rock pile so it's scalable from just about any direction. I reached the summit just as the sun was setting. A couple of headlamp miles later, I set up my tent and fell asleep. I had woken up that morning on the Florida Trail and went to bed on the Ouachita Trail. A quick turnaround indeed!


What followed were the Three Glorious Days. I'd checked the weather before I got on trail, and true to Arkansas-in-March form, the forecast was a bit apocalyptic. But before the bad weather was scheduled to move in, I had a window. Three days. Three Glorious Days. They were bright and sunny, with minimal wind and perfect daytime temperatures. I took my time, enjoying long lunches in the sun and detouring to a couple of mountain summits overlooking sweeping valleys already starting to green up.

On Day 2, I got up early and had made a quick 5 or 6 miles when I saw a couple walking toward me. From a distance, I saw silver umbrellas strapped to their packs - a sure-fire sign of a long-distance hiker. As they got closer, I stopped in my tracks.

"Naomi?" I asked.

They were as surprised as I was. I'd met Naomi "The Punisher" last year at a hiker get-together. Most notably from my perspective, she's one of a tiny handful of fellow hikers who's hiked the Idaho Centennial Trail. I'd never met her husband, "Iron Mike", but of course knew of him. I re-introduced myself and we proceeded to geek out on all things trail for a solid half hour, standing right there in the middle of the trail. You know you inhabit a niche community when a hiker from Utah meets a hiking couple from Washington on a trail in Arkansas and they already knew each other!

My phone's front camera is mostly kaput. Sorry!
The fourth day was a complete washout. I spent most of the day hiking in the pouring rain, though I did pop into a local cafe to pick up my resupply package and eat a gigantic burger. And I checked the forecast. Yikes.

One nice day. Then for the next week, rain chances were somewhere in the 80%-100% range every single day. And true to the forecast, I had one more nice day. I hiked hard that day and the next morning, trying to beat a line of severe thunderstorms into town. And I made it! I arrive at a road crossing mid-afternoon and spent an hour and a half hitchhiking to no avail. When it started to rain, I deployed my umbrella and kept my thumb out. As those raindrops turned to dime-sized hail, a kind fellow stopped and picked me up.  So for those of you who think an umbrella is an Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week, think again!

Aptly named.
I got a motel room for the night and made my descision. I was in Mena, AR, at about the two thirds mark. Mena was also the nearest bus stop to the western terminus. Hiking all the way to the western terminus would involve hiking three days in a virtual hurricane, only to try and get a long hitch back east to right where I was right now. I could do all that... or I could not. So I didn't. I quit. I had a terrific time on the Ouachita Trail and had no desire to ruin it with three miserable days.

I've done two thirds of the Ouachita Trail. I loved it. I love mountaintops and waterfalls and gorgeous shelters in the rain. I loved the little purple flowers that were just starting to bloom. I realistically won't be back to Arkansas anytime soon; there a lot of places to hike in the world, and I've done quite a bit of Arkansas already. But I sure did enjoy my time there. Oh, and go eat a burger at the Bluebell Cafe!

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Florida Trail - Quick Tips


Since Day One on this trail, I've been thinking about how to contextualize my experience, how to make it helpful for other hikers. I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there about the FT, and I want to clear those up. On one hand, it's easy to dismiss the FT out of ignorance as just one big nasty swamp and roadwalk nightmare. And while it has swamps and roadwalks, I think that picture is just flat-out wrong. On the other hand, it's easy for those who actually know the FT well to romanticize it and paint an overly-rosy picture of it.

In this post I'll try to talk honestly about the FT, its pros and cons, and what I thought of it. As usual for these kind of "quick tips" post, this is geared at the experienced hiker who's done a thru-hike or two. There are a million resources out there about the FT, but many of them are aimed at folks who may be newer to the long-distance hiking scene. This one's for veterans of long trails who aren't quite sure if they want to hike the FT or not.

A story, before we begin: About a week into my hike, I was walking along a road when a car rolled up and stopped in the middle of the street. The driver asked me what I was doing and all the usual questions that hikers get. While I was already racing darkness to get to a campsite, I took a few minutes to play trail ambassador. It was a great decision. She asked for a link to my blog, which I provided. She drove away, and that was that.

A few minutes later, she rolled back up. She'd read my blog, she said, and noticed that I went through the Big Cypress Seminole reservation. She confided that she was Seminole, and justifiably proud of her heritage. She presented me with a copy of the tribal newspaper and a patchwork quilted pouch filled with traditional remedies. I was floored - by a mile, one of the most thoughtful gifts I've ever recieved. Patchwork quilting has long been associated with the Seminoles, apparently, and it also makes a perfect analogy for what I loved about the Florida Trail: It's a patchwork quilt of America. More on that below.

Should I hike the Florida Trail?

Simply put, yes! The FT is a very different animal from many of the "greatest hits" hiking trails out there - the Triple Crown, the Colorado Trail, the Arizona Trail, the JMT, etc. The FT is a latecomer in a state that has very little public land. The FTA has worked incredibly hard to keep the trail in the woods as much as possible and have frankly succeeded to a degree I couldn't have imagined, given the challenges. The fact that there's "only" something like 300 road miles in an 1100-mile trail, in a state that's been parsed, bought and sold for centuries, is incredible.

That said, there are still at least 300 miles on pavement (probably a bit more, in my opinion). If you're not prepared for that, you're going to hate the Florida Trail. I've found that attitude makes all the difference here - if you're unaware of the challenges that FTA faces in creating a trail in these environs, it's easy to rage against the routing that an undefined "they" chose. On the other hand, if you adopt a grateful attitude that something like this exists at all, it makes the road walks a lot more tolerable.

And that brings me to the #1 reason (aside from the fact that it's a winter thru-hike) to hike the FT: It's a patchwork quilt of America. You pass gated communities and dumpy mobile homes. You go through Indian reservations, national forests, suburban sprawl, an Army Corps building project, swamps, cultivated farmland, and more. The diversity of people you meet along the way is unparalleled on any long trail I've ever hiked. Sure, the FT may be a bit discontinuous. It may feel unprotected. But if you want to see a lot of different sides of America, hike the Florida Trail.

Oh, and it's really beautiful too! The forests on the FT are by far the most interesting ones I've ever seen on any of my long hikes. Anytime you're following a river or body of water, it's roughly equivalent to those "awesome ridgeline" sections of other trails - a time to slow down and revel in the beauty.


Red Tape: Surprisingly little. You must become a Florida Trail Association member, as there are a couple sections on private land that are only open to FTA members. Just do it. And while you're on their website, download the thru-hiker information packet, which gives you an excellent (if somewhat overwhelming) overview of the couple of permits that you need to plan in advance for.

Animals: This is usually a throw-away section on most trail overview, but not on the FT. As someone who's petrified of gators, I can promise you that your gator fears are way overblown. Even the big ole mean gators don't really want anything to do with you, and just slide in the water and swim away when they see you.

You won't see very many snakes. Don't worry about them.

Dogs are actually a somewhat big problem on this trail, particularly in the northern half. By far my scariest animal encounters were all with unleashed dogs on the roadwalks in rural areas. I would not do this trail again without carrying pepper spray, if only for the peace of mind. I hitched a half mile or so past a couple of problem spots where the dogs were mean and numerous. Be prepared, carry pepper spray.

Roadwalks: Most of them were not at all scary. There were a few roadwalks with minimal shoulder and high speed traffic, but for the most part, those sections were short. I do acknowledge though, that those who come from a more purely triple crowny background often felt differently - perhaps it's just something you get more comfortable with over time. Many hikers do selectively hitch some roadwalks, so that's an option too if you're not concerned about connecting footsteps. It's never really necessary to hitch, but can save you some sub-par miles.

Swamps: On one hand, the dismissal of the FT as one big swamp walk just isn't true. On the other hand, the claim that the FT only has two swamps - Big Cypress and Bradwell Bay - is just as preposterous. Sure, those might be the only swamps, but they're conveniently leaving out the numerous bogs, wetlands, and marshes!

I think my feet got wet on at least half the days I spent on trail. That's definitely more than on most other trails, but it wasn't every day. And often there was just one swampy section in the course of a day. As long as you're prepared for this reality and know how to take care of your feet, you'll be fine.

Happy Feet: This trail is tough on shoes and the contents therein. Stress fractures are a real possibility when you're striding the exact same way tens of thousands of times a day on flat, even, often paved surfaces. Replace your shoes before you think you need to, and realize that although your muscles and cardio can do 3 mph indefinitely, the rest of your body can't. Take it easy, take breaks, and do reasonably sized days until you get hardened up.

Community: There were supposedly several dozen hikers out there this year (NOBO starting after the New Year), but I saw very few of them. There are so many different town options that hikers just don't congregate in the same places, particularly if you're not spending a ton of time in town.

As previously mentioned, right now is the golden age of trail angeling along the FT. I hesitate to shout out any specific individuals here as I don't want them to get overrun with requests, but you'll find them if you keep your ear to the ground. More likely, they'll find you somehow!

Maps: The map situation on this trail is really quite rotten. FTA publishes a map set and guidebook, and markets them in a "thru-hiker bundle", which I duly bought. They are absolutely terrible. While the mapset is professionally produced, it's way too zoomed out to be of any practical value for on-the-ground navigation, the trail itself is drawn as an annoyingly thick line which obscures nearby details, it uses the terrible USGS "National Map" as a base, which makes it hard to distinguish roads from contour lines, and its numbering system that corresponds to the data book is weird and confusing. I had a resupply snafu result in losing all my maps for the second half of the trail, and I suffered not at all. If there were an actual good map set in existence, I would have loved to use it, but there just isn't.

Moreover, the FT is 100% flat, making it tough to navigate by map in a largely featureless landscape. If you get off the trail away from a river, road, or other obvious landform, your chances of finding the trail again via map are really quite small.

For these reasons, I'm going to recommend something I'd never advocate in any other circumstance or for any other trail: you're fine with just the Guthook app. It's mostly a follow-the-blazes affair, but especially when the trail interfaces with roads or more urban sections, you do want something detailed to zero in on your location, and Guthook does that for you. I'm not a huge fan of Guthook-reliance, but there really isn't a better practical choice on this particular trail.

Resupply: Resupply is actually a bit complicated on the FT, but because there are too many options, rather than too few. I made a big resupply chart beforehand and it proved mostly useless, as different re-routes and just looking at the map in detail brought me past a whole bunch of places where I could resupply, above and beyond what "the literature" had stated.

For those who prefer to buy as they go (most repeat-offender hikers, in my experience), I would send only one box - to River Ranch at mi ~230ish. Aside from that, you can do the entire rest of the trail either 1) without maildrops or 2) without getting in a car. River Ranch was my only box. I only got in a car once to resupply, a cheap Uber into Palatka. I'm also not picky and can resupply from a gas station, which I did several times.

There's a long "dry" stretch in northern Florida where you resupply almost exclusively out of Dollar General. If it's been a couple years since you've done a long hike, fear not: DG really stepped up its game and offers basically all the usual hiker staples.

There's an almost infinite number of gas stations and convenience stores on the route. For this reason, I'd suggest not making a resupply plan ahead of time and just planning ahead one or two stops. Several times, sections of the trail would be closed/re-routed, and those re-routes would go near a place I could stop and get a hot dog or even resupply.

Campsites: This trail has some truly awesome camping. Everything's flat and there's not a single rock in the entire state. The soil is almost always easy to get stakes into, and holds well. With the long nights of a winter thru-hike, it makes sense to pay a little more attention to campsite selection than it would in the middle of summer. I had many of the best campsites of my life in the FT.

There are designated campsites irregularly spaced along most of the route. You're generally not obligated to stay at them, but they're often quite lovely. These campsites often have designated fire rings and picnic tables. Though I didn't stay at a ton of these sites, the picnic tables make for a nice place to have lunch.

Camping on the roadwalks is quite rotten, illegal, or non-existent. With a little planning you can generally avoid camping on a roadwalk, but sometimes you're gonna have to hone your stealth game. Again, for the experienced thru-hiker, this probably won't be anything new.

Water: It's almost always abundant, but very frequently marginal. It's swamp water, after all It's always tannic and very rarely appealing. Filter or treat it, obviously. There are also plenty of "town" sources that you can tank up at, as well as the occasional water cache.



FT Part 3: Orlando to Pensacola


Since last we spoke, I walked through all three of Florida's National Forests. I hiked next to some incredibly beautiful rivers, through a National Wildlife Refuge, a US Air Force base, and a National Seashore. Oh yeah, and I finished the trail.

I must therefore offer a half-hearted apology for my inevitable dearth of updates recently. I wrote my first post after 100 miles, the second after 400, and this final one after 1100. Unlike my slow-and-steady approach to actual hiking, my approach to blogging is far more sporadic. Sorry-not-sorry.


Anyway, let's get right to the point:

National Disappointments: I had high hopes for Florida's three National Forests, but was let down a bit. Ocala National Forest was alright, but became monotonous. It didn't have the variety of vegetation that I had come to expect from the FT. Part of this was my fault - I skipped the side trails to a couple of gigantic sinkhole-like "springs" that are supposedly amazing. It was pouring rain when I went through and it just didn't seem like I'd appreciate them, given the circumstances.

Osceola National Forest was nice enough, but so small as to be barely noticeable. I hiked all the way through it in a day.

Apalachicola National Forest was another slog in the pouring rain. The trail routing through this section was completely ridiculous, as the map said things like "leave forest road to descend into swamp". Uh, no thank you. That sounds fine when it's 75 and sunny, less fine when it's 40 and raining sideways.


The Revenge of North Florida: As I left the peninsula of Florida behind and turned west into the Panhandle, the weather really took a turn for the worse. The southeast US has been getting hammered by rain this winter, and while the worst of it has stayed a bit north, we've gotten more than our fair share. For most of the second half of the hike, it rained for two days, then cleared up and got cold for two days (lows near freezing), got nice for one day, and then the whole cycle repeated. I had frost on my tent on a few mornings, and the tent hasn't dried off once since I hit the halfway mark. Aside from one round of severe storms, it's not been truly nasty most of the time, but just a low-grade "yuck" that always forces you to keep an eye on the forecast.

Oh, of course I slept in a bathroom on one occasion to get out of the rain.


True Delights: Weather aside, the second half of the trail really did pass through some wonderful places. While the National Forests mostly disappointed, I absolutely loved most of the other parts. The walks along the Suwanee and Aucilla rivers stand out in particular. I walked high on bluffs overlooking the river, with oak and palmetto lining the shores. The rivers themselves cut through the limestone that undergirds the entire state, and in the case of the Aucilla, the whole river disappears underground into a sinkhole at one point. Where it ended, there was the usual patina of algae and driftwood circling the drain, along with a few old couch cushions and assorted garbage. Eerie, but neat!

Eglin Air Force Base was paradoxically one of the most wild and wonderful places on the entire trail. Here, the forests are full of mature trees with a beautiful thinned-out understory. The trail crosses a number of creeks on beautifully-constructed footbridges, many of them covered in roofing shingles to keep you from slipping on algae-covered boards. Aside from the occasional thunder of a bomb going off (yes, really!), you'd never know you were on a military reservation.

I also hiked through a couple of private natural preserves, which were magnificent.


Beyond the Headlines: Remember when Hurricane Michael turned into a Category 5 storm and pummeled the Gulf coast in 2018? Well, it turns out that while the news cycle lasts a week or two, the actual devastation takes months or years to clean up. I hiked through a formerly gorgeous creek gorge that was almost completely leveled by the storm. At least three quarters of the trees were snapped off about half way up their trunks. There was one section where Florida Trail Association volunteers had cut thousands of trees - literally thousands in order to re-open the trail.

But beyond just the trail, the communities in the area are still cleaning up. Many homes are completely destroyed, and many others are sporting blue tarps on the roof. Some businesses that formerly served hikers are permanently closed, destroyed beyond repair by the storm. It will be years before these communities are rebuilt, and even then, they'll be forever changed by the storm.


True Generosity: Unusually for me, I stayed with a few trail angels in the last couple hundred miles of my journey. This was certainly unexpected, but they were so genuine, and so eager to help, that I took them up on their offers. I'm glad I did!

I think the Florida Trail right now is in a sort of "golden age" of trail angeling. There's a good community associated with the trail, but it's not (yet) so busy that these folks get overrun with requests. It was a true honor to stay with these folks, who are working tirelessly to promote the Florida trail and showing great hospitality. What a blessing!

An Anti-climatic Finish: The trail finishes at Fort Pickens, a Civil War-era Army installation on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. I strode toward the classy Florida Trail monument, which for some reason is 0.2 miles south of the actual end of the trail. I kept an eye out for the monument, but somehow missed it as there were a group of people standing in front of it. I arrived at the northern terminus, stopped, looked around, and had to backtrack to find the monument! It's by far the least impressive and dramatic finish I've ever had to a long hike, but really drove home the point - I loved this trail because I love hiking.

No drama. No story line of Overcoming My Fears And Finding Myself On The Yadda-Yadda Trail. I just like to spend time in beautiful places. And that's why I loved the Florida Trail.


What's Next: Hopefully a "quick tips" post about the Florida Trail to address some of the gaps in the existing corpus of FT knowledge. Then it's off to Arkansas to start my Central "time zone" hike: the Ouachita Trail.


Wednesday, January 29, 2020

FT Part 2: Lake Okeechobee to Orlando



"This is what I've been waiting for".

I think I said it out loud upon entering the woods. After 180 miles of mostly roadwalking, much of it paved, I finally entered the forest, and immediately the Florida Trail fulfilled its promise. On most trails, the forested sections are the boring part, and I enjoy it more when I emerge from the trees and come to a vista or pop above treeline. Forests change slowly, over the course of hundreds of miles, and the result is monotony.


On the Florida Trail, it's the exact opposite. When I'm not in the woods, I'm often in civilization, surrounded by strip malls and angry people yelling at their speakerphones. And when not in civilization, I'm walking across endless levee systems or trudging through wet, muddy marshes. But the woods are special. I enter an environment reminiscent of a fairy-tale enchanted forest. The forests are incredibly varied - oak here, pine over there, cypress just a little bit yonder. The trees spread overhead, branches interlocking into one hammock-like canopy. It really is a green tunnel, but it's far from boring. Walking is pleasant and easy, the plants are constantly changing, and the canopy offers shade from the intense sun. Forests? I'll take 'em!


Feet Falling Off: This trail has been murder on feet. I've seen more people sidelined with foot issues - from infected blisters to stress fractures - than on any other trail (with the possible exception of the AT, where everybody's a rookie). It's easy to see a trail that's dead flat, 3mph walking almost the entire time, and assume it's going to be easy. It's just not so. The limiting factor on the Florida Trail is not muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness, or backpacking know-how. Instead, it's repetitive stress. On a flat trail like this one, you step exactly the same way, over and over, tens of thousands of times per day. Woe to those whose feet aren't toughened up to take the pounding! They may have busted out twenty-mile days a few years ago on the AT, but unless they've keep it up between then and now, they're in for an unpleasant surprise.


Lest I let myself off the hook though, I too am definitely guilty of crimes against my feet. In particular, I started the trail with a pair of old, worn-out shoes. I decided to go through the first 30 miles of swamp in old shoes, which would certainly get torn up, and then replace them afterward. Solid plan, until you realize that "afterward" wasn't until the  230-mile mark. So, for the first couple weeks of my hike, I was walking on largely hard surfaces with a pair of shoes that was almost completely worn through. By the end of each day, my feet hurt so badly that I had to sit down several times in the last few miles before camp (when I'd otherwise be a man on a mission to get there) just to give them a break. Once I picked up my maildrop and switched to new shoes, the problems evaporated instantly.

So, for the 427th time, don't go cheap on shoes. Don't try to wear them after they've worn out their welcome. And if you think I'm preaching mostly to myself here, you're right.


Billy Goat Day: I recently took a couple days off to attend Billy Goat Day, an annual Florida Trail get-together. It ostensibly celebrates the birthday of the legendary Billy Goat, who's hiked something like 50,000 miles (many of them on the FT) since he retired twenty years ago. Now north of 80 years old, he's still going strong. Really though, it's a convenient excuse to get everybody together - thru-hikers, section hikers, trail angels, and related hangers-on - for a big shindig. It's a potluck, held at a park in a somewhat central location. The trail was abuzz for weeks with talk of Billy Goat Day and how everybody was getting there. Trail angels did a marvelous job of picking up folks wherever they were along the trail and bringing them to the celebration.

I tend to be a bit skeptical of trail get-togethers - I'd rather hike that sit around talking about hiking - but this one was a lot of fun. In addition to Billy Goat himself, there was a whole host of hikers with a ton of experience, and it was good to pick their brains and make friends. Oh, and there was an outrageous amount of food, which didn't hurt either.

A Buffet of Surfaces: After Lake Okeechobee, the trail dove mostly into the woods for a long period of time. I also walked through sunbaked prairies along the Kissimmee River, slogged through some deep sand, and contended with my least favorite type of terrain on this trail - grassy areas that have been torn up by hogs rooting around. It's really the only type of terrain that really slows you down on this trail. It's mentally taxing - imagine trying to walk on a giant, human-sized egg carton for hours on end and you'll start to get the idea.

Through the Orlando area, it's been a strange mix of incredible forest walks - the best on the trail thus far - and long stretches of unpleasant pavement with high-speed traffic. 

Sometimes the orange blazes are in unlikely places
What's next: Ocala National Forest awaits, one of the highlights of the FT according to pretty much everybody. I don't really know what to expect from it, but I'm hopeful it's going to be more in the "pretty forests and rivers" bucket, and less in the "high speed traffic" bucket.


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

FT Part 1: Big Cypress to Lake Okeechobee


Well, that was jarring.

In early January, I boarded an airplane in the frozen upper Midwest and three hours later, landed in southern Florida. Since then, the temperature has never dropped below 70F, even in the middle of the night. I've only been on trail for a week, and I already feel grosser than ever before in my life. The tropics of South Florida are sticky, slimy, almost saccharine. What a wonderful climate to be a bacterium!


Calf-sucking Mud: On January 8, my good buddy Blue Moon dropped my off at a visitor center in Big Cypress National Preserve that marks the southern terminus of the Florida Trail. The FT doesn't go quite to the southern tip of mainland Florida, but only because that's all Everglades country, which definitely blurs the line between "land" and "water. And after all, who in their right mind would hike through a swamp?

You. You would. At least if you were hiking the Florida Trail. While Big Cypress may not be named "Everglades", it's very much still the same ecosystem. As such, there's a ten-mile stretch within the first couple days that is described (with more than a twinge of exaggeration) as "the toughest stretch of wilderness hiking anywhere in the United States". While I tend to think that whoever penned that statement needs to get out and do a lot more hiking, there's no doubt that it's difficult travel.


The entire stretch is underwater. I found the areas of deepest water to make for the easiest travel. While splashing through knee-deep water around trees and logs and roots isn't exactly quick, it's definitely preferable to the thick, gloppy, shoe-sucking mud that the shallower water is paired with. Extracting my foot after each step became a chore. Imagine hiking with 30-pound weights strapped to each foot. Yeah, good times.

But while it's easy to complain about swamp-sloshing, it was a really unique experience and one that I'll remember for a long time. Florida doesn't have any mountains - or even major hills, really - but the swamps make for a roughly equivalent obstacle. Big Cypress is reputedly the longest and toughest swamp section, but it sounds like there's a few more along the way to contend with.

Canals: After leaving Big Cypress behind, I traveled across a vast area of mostly farmland. That farmland is still in the swampy everglades ecosystem though, and stays dry enough to cultivate only through a massive waterworks project involving dozens (hundreds?) of canals and pumping stations. I walked for days atop dikes bordering canals. At one point, I walked due north for twenty miles, perfectly flat, perfectly straight. Progress is quick when everything you encounter is 3 mph terrain!

That easy walking atop the dikes does come with a couple downsides though. First, there's not a lick of shade to be found. As mentioned, South Florida has seen record high temperatures (85-90F) for much of the past week, and combined with lower-latitude sun intensity and 100% humidity, the result has been sweltering. Second, there's water everywhere, but it's all agricultural runoff - full of pesticides and who-knows-what. While it's certainly not the worst water I've ever drunk, it's certainly to be avoided if possible.


Caches: Thankfully, it's been pretty easy to avoid canal water thus far. There have been somewhat frequent outposts of civilization (towns, country stores, freeway rest areas) along the way where I can water up. In addition, the Florida Trail has a robust network of trail angels and supporters who have helpfully cached water at convenient spots along the way. Water caches as a rule cannot be considered reliable (and indeed, one of them was dry and another had only one gallon left), but it's always nice to draw nice clear water from a jug rather than ginger ale from alligator-laden ditches.

Oh, speaking of gators, I've probably seen at least a hundred, mostly laying in wait in canals or along the banks. As long as you stay comfortably above/away from them, up on the dikes, they're really no concern at all. But wow, have I seen some whoppers!

A friend remarked a while back that if we want to see the CDT completed, we should really rename it the "New Mexico Trail". All the state-specific trails that I've hiked thus far (Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, Florida Trail, the exception being the mostly-imaginary Idaho Centennial Trail) have excellent networks of volunteers and a lot of civic pride behind the trail-building and maintenance efforts. It's really cool to see locals throwing themselves into a project and obviously taking a lot of pride in it. Go Floridians!


What's Next: Walking around the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee at the moment (which claims to be the second largest lake entirely within the United States - which okay, whatever. You're still not a Great Lake). That's all on pavement, which is unfortunate as my shoes are pretty close to dead and offer no cushion anymore. Then things get a little more remote for a while.


Sunday, December 29, 2019

2020: It's Always Adventure Time

 
"When are you going to do the PCT?"

As I neared the end of my CDT hike, I started to get the question. Friends, family members, and fellow hikers inquired,. They were curious. I've now completed two of the three legs of long-distance hiking's rarefied "Triple Crown". The Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail are done. The Pacific Crest Trail is next, right?

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If you read this blog carefully (hi Mom!), you'll recognize the preceding paragraphs as coming from my 2019 look-ahead - in which I pulled a bait-and-switch and concluded that no, I wasn't doing the PCT but instead the Route In Between. In fact, I've teased the PCT a couple times on this blog, and as of yet, haven't actually done it.

It's time for that to change. This year, I'm doing the PCT. The idea of the Triple Crown isn't a major motivator for me personally, but the PCT looks beautiful and wonderful. It passes through environments I've never been to or haven't explored in detail. And it represents a fitting coda to this chapter of my life as full-time adventurer. Beyond just the PCT though, I intend on doing a long-distance hike in each of the four time zones in the contiguous United States - Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific.

Eastern: The Florida Trail (January-February)

The Florida Trail is 1100 miles long and runs nearly the length of Florida. It begins just north of the Everglades and terminates near Pensacola. I'll admit upfront that the FT is probably the hike I'm least excited about this year. And it's the one I'm most nervous about, because of my entirely irrational fear of crocodiliforms. And that's good. A big part of the reason I'm doing the Florida Trail is because it gets me out of my comfort zone - the arid west, with its deserts and mountains and elevation change and deep wilderness. The Florida Trail is not that. It's swampy in parts, sees abundant precipitation, often urban, and has alligators! Give me grizzly bears over gators any day. Are they actually a significant danger? Of course not. Are they big and scary in my mind? You bet. 

Speaking more positively though, I expect to spend time in subtropical environments that are new to me. I'm eager to see different kinds of vegetation and yes, even an alligator or two. Combine that with some beach miles (a particular favorite of mine), and I anticipate a trail that's a change of pace, but rewarding nonetheless. Will that be the case? Only one way to find out.

Central: Ouachita Trail (March)

I intended on doing the Ouachita Trail in 2019, but simply ran out of time. The Ouachita Mountains (pronounced WASH-i-tah) parallel the Ozarks to the south, running east-west for a couple hundred miles in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas. It follows long ridgelines for most of its length (220 miles). 

I'm eager to compare the OT with the Ozark Highlands Trail that I hiked in 2019. Research leads me to believe that the OT is probably a "better" trail, with more views, better trail tread, and infrastructure along the way (e.g. AT-style shelters). Shelters are an absolute godsend when the weather turns bad. There's no guarantee that the weather will be bad, but given my previous experiences hiking Arkansas in March, to expect otherwise at this point would be the height of folly.

Ouachitas, viewed from the Ozarks

Mountain: Grand Enchantment Trail (April-May) 

The Grand Enchantment Trail runs 800 miles from Phoenix, AZ to Albuquerque, NM. Along the way it passes through low desert, riparian, and alpine ecosystems. The GET is another hiking "route", rather than a trail. Like the Hayduke Trail, Lowest to Highest Route, or the Route In Between, it doesn't exist except in the minds of the hikers who walk it. The GET crosses deserts and passes through wonderful riparian areas. It crosses a dozen mountain ranges over its length. The GET also links two trails that I've done previously, the Arizona Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. The GET is a natural capstone to my long-distance hiking in the Southwest, and represents for me a completion of a sort of "desert triple crown" - the Arizona Trail, Hayduke Trail, and Grand Enchantment.


Pacific: Pacific Crest Trail (July-November) 

I've met a lot of long-distance hikers over the years. They're highly accomplished folks, often with at least enough miles under their belts to circle half the globe. Everyone has their story. Everyone has a unique set of experiences. Some of them have walked the Camino de Santiago - a mixture of religious pilgrimage and roll-through-town party train. Others have braved the jungles of New Zealand and trod down muddy trails, walking the country from north to south on the Te Araroa. Others wander oft-hostile desert environs remote canyons. But whatever their other experiences, one common thread ties many of these accomplished individuals together: when they speak about their experiences on the 2600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, they get all starry-eyed.


The PCT is unique among long-distance hiking trails. I can't think of a single other trail that everybody loves. Plenty of people didn't enjoy the green tunnel of the Appalachian Trail. Plenty of people grew tired of dull roadwalks and cow poop water on the Continental Divide Trail. And a few crazy souls just didn't appreciate the arid environment of the Arizona Trail. But I've never met a single person - not one - who didn't love the PCT. A friend once commented that of the major long-distance trails, the PCT is the only one he's hiked twice - and it's the only one he'd consider hiking thrice. That alone speaks volumes. Despite different motivations, experience levels, physical capabilities, and preferred aesthetics, everybody loves the PCT - even the crusty old-timers who don't find much joy in anything anymore. How is that possible?

I obviously don't have a good answer to that question, because I haven't hiked the PCT. But I want to know. I want to be in on the joke that everyone else keeps laughing at. More than that though, I want to see what I haven't yet seen. I want to experience the Cascades for the first time, and to finally, at long last, do justice to the Sierra Nevada. I want to hike past volcanoes and across jagged ridgelines. I want to enjoy well-built, modern trail. I want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. So in 2020, I'm doing it.

I intend on hiking it southbound, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. And while it's arguably a little more challenging than a traditional northbound hike, it promises to be far less crowded, and allows me to have my other "time zone" adventures before starting the PCT. 

Adventure Time

There you have it. Four time zones, four long hikes, in a multitude of different environments. I'm excited about this upcoming year. At the end of the year, I anticipate a return to a more conventional lifestyle. Between now and then? It's adventure time.