Sitting on the soft hotel bed watching a torrent of rain outside, I can’t help but think of the other thru-hikers out there getting drenched. We lucked out this time, but I’m sure we’ll be rained on one of these days while thru-hiking the Florida Trail (FNST). The good news is that the sudden storm is soon over and the temperature has remained fairly warm. We often say: we can do cold. we can do the rain. but cold and rain are downright miserable even dangerous.
A few hours later we’re back on the pleasant and well-maintained, paved bike paths that constitute the Florida Trail in the Orlando area. It seems too good to be true like we’re on a leisure stroll rather than a thru-hike. Shouldn’t we be suffering in some way right now? It’s in the seventies, sunny. My feet don’t hurt, and I don’t have hunger pangs. I don’t even have to hike up or down mountains. This is a strange trail indeed.
We stroll all afternoon eventually making the easy miles into the Lake Mary area where we indulge in fried chicken and baked goods. The next morning, we easily pick out a fellow hiker sitting on the sidewalk ledge of a manicured landscape along the FNST. We can tell by his footwear, athletic legs, and the telltale down “puffy” jacket worn with shorts. He smiles and introduces himself as Ryman from New Hampshire. We don’t know it yet, but we have just met a good friend and our hiking companion for the next couple of weeks.
The day passes quickly as we get to know our new friend while walking the streets and highways of the Orlando area. Later that afternoon after a mad dash down the busy highway, we retreat back into the sanctuary of the woods. Here Ryman stops to set up camp. He is section hiking for a few weeks and is taking his time. We press on to “make miles”. The strip malls, fast-food restaurants, and Orlando neighborhoods fade away as we walk north finally settling for the night just south of the rural area of Paisley (our next resupply point).
At dawn, we set off at “city speed”. We use this term for the 4 mph pace always used when close to a place that promises better-than-backpacking food. Upon arrival in Paisley, we discover that there isn’t much to get excited about. It’s a small community with a Dollar General and gas station. The hope of a good meal floats away as we troll the cramped aisles of the DG, filling our cart with cheap foods. In true hikertrash style, we loiter outside the building. Our tent is sprawled on the lawn drying while we fill our mouths with sugar cereal.
The Privy Hound
Hiking late into the evening in the Ocala National Forest, the terrain is beginning to roll a bit. It feels odd to walk uphill and then down among the scrubby trees and many ponds of the landscape here. Dark clouds are gathering in the sky, and the wind has picked up. I fear it will rain. Night falls and the temperature is dropping quickly as we search for a suitable camp around Farles Lake. The recreation area has a privy, which we stop to use. I open the door and to my surprise inside is the most pathetic creature. A skin-and-bones hound dog is lying on a pile of toilet paper shivering uncontrollably. Her eyes are held shut with discharge and ticks cover her body. She is wearing a collar and a GPS device.
RamboJuice calls the owner. Your dog is in the privy at Farles Prairie, he says. Oh, yea comes the reply. She’s been gone since yesterday. I’ll be there shortly to get her. Looking at the dog, we come to the disturbing realization that she didn’t digress to this state overnight. Likely, she doesn’t have a good home life. Needing to look to our own needs, we hike up the trail a quarter mile and pitch our tent. Soon we hear a car approach to pick up the poor privy hound. We can only hope the dog gets the medical attention she needs, but somehow I doubt that.
The Cold & the Rain
The rain comes in the night. It starts and never stops. Temperatures drop into the thirties. In the morning, we have no interest in braving pouring rain accompanied by near-freezing temperatures. We decided to try a “tent zero”. Having never done this before, I pictured a day of restful bliss. Instead, I got boredom and an achy back. Ryman passes by during the course of the day and stops to talk briefly. I don’t blame you guys he says. It’s pretty miserable out here. He too sets up his tent and retreats inside shortly thereafter.
It rains all day without stopping and almost all night. Near dawn, I awaken to the unfamiliar sound of silence. There is no pitter patter on the tent’s walls. The rain has finally ceased. We pack up wet and carry on. It is still cold but as we hike things warm up. Just before noon, we invade the camp store at Juniper Springs. This picturesque spot is one of the best canoeing spots in the United States. It’s nice to sit in a warm store with a hot cup of coffee.
The rest of the day is spent in the sunshine, hiking through Ocala. We see Scrub Jays and dodge piles of bear poop. At the end of a long day, we spot Ryman’s camp at the edge of the woods under a grove of pines. The sun is setting through the trees, spilling rays of golden light across the prairie. You really can’t beat Florida campsites.
Eagle at Rodman Reservoir
We roll into the 88 Store at 10 a.m. Thinking a bar must be closed at this hour, we are proved wrong when we walk into the dimly lit interior to discover a handful of loyal patrons beers in hand. The bar is filled with fox hunters this morning. A fire is roaring in the fireplace behind the pool table. We buy a few snacks and press on to Rodman Campground, chatting with Ryman along the way.
Before we know it, the day has passed and we are standing before Rodman Reservoir looking at a Bald Eagle perched in the pines. We collect a package at the office before setting up camp in the grounds. New shoes are always a treat, and this time is no exception. We donate our old ones to the trash can and high five at the nearly 500 miles we’ve completed so far on the FNST. The temperature is dropping again tonight, but the hot showers nearby are some consolation.
Nonsense to the Rescue
We stop along the canal walk to see a river otter swimming downstream of Buckman Lock. He looks up at us with curiosity, coming closer instead of shying away. The L
Our buddy Nonsense messaged. He was briefly breaking from his nobo thru-hike for a wedding. He lives in Gainesville with his wife Sara. Call me if you need anything his message said. With this in mind, we turned around and hitched straight into Palatka. While we begin our binge-eating process at the Golden Corral, Nonsense hops into his car and comes to rescue us. He collects the three of us and drives us back to his home, welcoming us with hot showers and hot dogs. Not only is he hosting us, but another hiker, Damfino, whom we met back on Okeechobee is here too. Good old Nonsense. We love you.
The next day, Nonsense drops us back where we left the trail the previous day. It is still cold, but today we are slackpacking and have a hot shower waiting at the end of the day. We’re so spoiled. Thank you, Nonsense. We do indeed wade in frigid waters, but we do so with cheer and smiles. The scenery is especially interesting today along the Big Cypress Boardwalk and Cedar Swamp Trail. We even spot a Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake attempting to warm himself.
Nonsense meets us at the Iron Bridge Shelter, hiking the last five miles of our day together back to his car at the Tinsley Road Trailhead. We have hiked nearly 28.5 miles today a personal best for us. When we get back to the house, we order large pizzas for each of us. That’s right one large pizza per person.
For more posts on the FNST, click here.