"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.