6: Baxter & the Lorax: Guardians of the Florida Trail

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Our trail vacation at the Nonsense residence in Gainesville is over, and it’s back to business making miles on the Florida Trail. The temperatures are again warm to our great relief. Today we start off with a roadwalk. The Florida Trail has a variety of these. You have the rural roadwalk, which usually consists of a two-lane road with speeding traffic and no shoulder. Here territorial dogs often chase us. So much so that we have started calling our trek poles “dog-beating sticks”.

Also, there is the highway roadwalk where you play chicken with semi trucks and wade through neverending litter. And finally, you have the forest roadwalk, which is a dirt road in the woods. It is the most pleasant kind. This morning we have the rural variety. Later, we hike through Gold Head Branch State Park and then Camp Blanding, coming to Magnolia Lake where we explore some leftover set props from the movie GI Jane. This trail is full of weird surprises.

Florida Man

Over the next several days our hike with Ryman consists of a variety of roadwalks. We pass through Hampton and hike on an old railroad into Lake Butler. Together we navigate the soupy trail and forest roads of Osceola National Forest. We spot a Bald Eagle near Crystal Lake before stopping over in Hampton for some ice cream at the convenience store. Here a weather-beaten man with face tattoos parks his riding lawnmower near our storefront picnic table. He dismounts and shuffles into the store for his 10 a.m. sixer and pack of 305s.

After making his purchase, he squeezes in with us, opens a beer, and says “Y’all are travelers ain’t ye”? We nod our ascent, but he doesn’t wait for us to explain that we’re thru-hikers before launching into a ramble about his traveling days sleeping under bridges. He departs leaving us with this advice “God watches over us all, but you better grow eyes in the back of your heads”. Oh, Florida Man. This trail wouldn’t be the same without you.

Shut up, Cow

In Osceola National Forest, we lunch at one of the few and the oldest shelter on the Florida Trail before stopping for the evening at the West Tower Camp. There are winter residents at West Tower Camp. A man in a blue bus cooks us pasta as we take advantage of a free but cold shower. We climb the endless stairs to the top of the fire tower where we’re awed by Florida’s lack of elevation change.

The evening comes as we pitch tents. A chorus of hound dogs echos through the camp and somewhere in the distance a cow moos incessantly. We’ve said our goodbyes to our buddy Ryman. He is getting up extra early tomorrow to get into Lake City where he is ending this year’s section hike of the Florida Trail.

Who Needs Toenails Anyway?

We slog through tannic water in the Osceola National Forest. Pine trees and palmettos encroach but eventually relent to a roadwalk of the rural/forest variety leading us into the riverlands of the Suwannee and Big Bend. Our first glimpse of the Suwannee River is dramatic and exciting. The river is dark brown and rapidly flowing, creating great piles of foam along its edge. Cypress trees stick out their boney knees. We climb up and down the sandy riverbank, spotting giant alligators sunning themselves on the shoreline.

A man riding bareback nearly tramples us with his horse Crusader. The man reminds me of Sam Elliott. He has an expressive mustache and speaks with a Florida drawl. His bloodhound slobbers all over my legs. We tell him we have walked from Big Cypress, which seems to astound him.

It is late afternoon as we spill into the town of White Springs. Soggy from wading through flooded trail and tired from the up-and-down of the river’s edge, we make our way to Miss Judith’s B&B for a zero. She welcomes us and soon we are showered, fed, and relaxing in front of the TV watching “First Blood”. I try to summon Rambo’s toughness as I remove what is left of my right big toenail.

Baxter Gets around

The walk along the river over the next few days is scenic. Sometimes the inlets are flooded, and we are forced to wade through waist and chest-deep tannic waters. This is unnerving because you can only feel what’s under the water with your feet. There is zero visibility.

One morning a dog greets us on the road outside of the Spirit of the Suwannee campground. For the next 20 miles, the dog keeps company with us. He bounds through the woods at a furious pace and even swims to the opposite bank of the Suwannee a few times before returning to us. By mid-afternoon, Rambo decides to call the number on the dog’s collar. It turns out that “Baxter” often follows hikers into the wilderness. In fact, he has quite a reputation locally.

The following day we are snacking in a gas station. Rambo strikes up a conversation with a local, explaining that we hiked with someone else’s dog yesterday and had to relinquish the dog to a campground host for owner pick up. The local man laughs: Was it Baxter? Everyone around here knows Baxter. Baxter gets around, he exclaims.

Holy Roadwalk

By evening, the trail leaves the Suwannee. We begin a forest roadwalk that escalates into a rural one. As you can imagine, one of the challenges of the Florida Trail is finding camping along the many roadwalks. Tonight we must walk farther than we ever have to find suitable camping. After 32 miles, we finally pitch behind a church next to a cemetery.

Stretch on the FNST 2019

We have a big motivator the next morning. There is a Waffle House on the trail. Powered by carb fantasy, we run to the intersection of I-10 at Madison for a heavenly breakfast. The staff is curious, and they gather around to ask us questions about thru-hiking. One of them asks, are you guys skiing?

Back on the rural roads of the trail, we help a man corral his escaped cow. Then, we eat our lunch in a busy church parking lot next to a man who is throwing up out of his car window. Brown-bottle flu I guess. After running a ferocious-dog gauntlet, we set up our camp within the fenced playground behind a church. As rain begins to hit the tent walls, I ponder the Florida Trail. I come up with one word: weird. This is a weird trail.

Vortex of Trash

The following day our rural roadwalks continue. A man flags us down from his orchard. He gives us a bag of 10 oranges. You’re gonna want some for later aren’t ya, he says smiling. Towards the end of our day, the trail meets the Aucilla River. We follow the roller coaster along the river bank.

The trail here feels wild. Deep tannic water covers the trail in many parts, and we are forced to slog through swamp water and mud. The palmettos close around us and we bushwack. One swamp was deep enough that we had to throw our packs to the opposite bank and swim across. We camp next to the Aucilla rapids that night. I can hear Florida Man all around us driving his ATV and shooting guns.

We hike until the Aucilla River disappears underground. This spot called “The Vortex” is choked with logs and copious trash. The Aucilla has disappeared from view, but not for long. Soon the trail takes on a new character. We can see the Karst topography plainly with the Aucilla Sinks. These are areas where the river resurfaces in a limestone basin called a sink. The trailside is a showcase of these incredible sinks. Some of them are fairly long and wide.

Leaving the Aucilla and returning to a forest roadwalk, we make our way to the highway that leads us to J.R.’s River Store. A package awaits us there. Before long, we find ourselves sitting in comfortable chairs enjoying cheeseburgers while petting Roxy the golden retriever. I ask the storekeeper if any other hikers have come through. She gives me a weird look and leans over the counter. There was a guy in a kilt here earlier, she says. I smile. The next leg of our journey will lead us into the St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge. Perhaps we will meet the kilted man there.

The Lorax

It is getting late in the day as we turn off US 98 and cross into the wildlife refuge. The trail is covered with coastal marsh water and foul-smelling muck. Trees are downed. We are often pushing aside overgrowth as we wind into the swamp forest, looking for the Pinhook River Campsite.

We follow the long Pinhook River Bridge spotting the campsite across a tidal creek. To our delight, we discover another thru-hiker already pitched. He is eating, of course, because hikers are always eating. His name is Lorax, and he is indeed wearing a fine kilt.

We are so happy to meet another thru-hiker and chat together excitedly as we set up our camp nearby. Lorax picks up trash around the campsite while we talk. We are becoming fast friends. Soon the rain chases us into our tents for the night. It is nearly hiker midnight (8 p.m.) after all, and we need our beauty sleep.

For more posts on the FNST, click here.

One Response

  1. Misti
    | Reply

    LOL Florida Man—totally apropos!

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