8: Thunder, Marauding Dogs, and White Sands

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You get to know trash when you do as many roadwalks as we have lately. Today we start road walking before the sun is up so that we can cover the great distance into Ebro around Econfina, which has been closed due to damage from Hurricane Michael. From roadside litter, we know that Floridians like Bud Light and mini Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey. Other things that we continuously see are packs of 305s, tires, and single gloves. Towards the end of the day, we begin to notice that the Hurricane damage is lessening.

I awaken to the sound of construction trucks beeping loudly outside the Ebro Lodge. Hurricane clean-up crews make up the majority of the guests here. We pack up quickly and walk west on the road towards the Nokuse Plantation. Entering the woods, we spot a box turtle on the trail all tucked up under his defenses. It’s absolutely lovely to be back in the woods after so much road walking. Unfortunately, it won’t be for long.

We seem to be out of the hurricane damage now. Nokuse is one of the largest private conservation projects in the United States. We have walked through endless homogenous timber plantations in Florida. Nokuse is making an effort to return this area to Long Leaf Pine forest. Nearing the end of our day, the terrain becomes more hilly than anything so far on the Florida Trail as we climb the bluffs along steep head ravines. The Magnolia trees here are magnificent.

Is that Thunder?

We pass into Eglin Air Force Base the following morning to walk the gorgeously maintained trail. The gently rolling hills drop down to clear, cool creeks and climb back up again through magnolia forests. Nearby we hear the sound of thunder rolling, but we know better. The Air Force Base must be doing drills, so we call the number listed in Guthook’s (the app we use to navigate) to check for closures. To our great disappointment, we’re instructed to roadwalk again to avoid the section up ahead closed for maneuvers.

Eglin AFB FNST 2019

We turn west onto Bob Sikes road and walk for miles before heading north again to intersect with the trail near Red Creek Camp. It’s dark by the time we get there, but hey we didn’t get blown to bits. The camp seems to have no flat spots for tents, but we’re so exhausted we hardly care. We find a flat-ish spot and collapse inside.

FNST trail blaze with RamboJuice

We practically run the 20 miles into Crestview. It’s the first “real trail town” we have had in what seems like a very long time. We go bonkers. First, we get a room at the Hampton Inn, and then, we go out for a steak dinner at Samuel’s. It is a super big treat, and we’re happy as clams.

Cujo

Guess what? We’re roadwalking again. This time we walk through Crestview and down into Holt where we catch a cheap meal at Sherry’s Lunchbox. The comments in Guthook’s say that there is a pack of dogs up ahead just south of I-10 before we enter the Yellow River Wildlife Management Area. After we pass under I-10, we decided to hitch around the dogs.

We have been sticking out our thumbs and holding up our sign “Hikers to Trail” for some time now without any luck. A pick-up truck drives past us, but then the driver changes her mind and does a U-turn. We are climbing into the backseat of her truck, and as she is pulling away, we see a pack of 8-10 chows running towards us. These people have saved our asses. I shudder to think of what would have happened if this kind lady had not stopped for us.

Once again it’s dark as we set up camp in the Yellow River WMA. Our tent is pitched next to a pair of old tires. A Great Horned Owl is hooting and a dog barks in the distance. Tomorrow we have another big-mile day. We’re hiking all the way to Navarre, which is on the coast. We are nearing the end of our journey. It’s baffling to think that soon we’ll be hiking on the white sands of Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Hard Times

We hike out of the Yellow River area quickly and cruise through the streets of suburbia to reach the Tom Thumb on highway 87. We’re sitting outside the store eating breakfast when a man comes over and tries to give us money. He says I don’t know if y’all are on hard times, but I can give you some money. This is not the first time that we have been mistaken for homeless. We thank him but explain that we’re thru-hikers. His kindness is extraordinary, especially considering that he looked like he couldn’t spare the money. Many people in Florida are totally unaware that the Florida National Scenic Trail even exists, but we’re continually shocked on all of our hikes at the kindness of random strangers.

We continue down 87 for hours and hours until the highway becomes a two-lane road leading through suburbia. Before we know it, we’re standing in front of a sign for Navarre “Florida’s Most Relaxing Place”. We continue through the strip until the road leads to the coast, and we finally lay eyes on the ocean waters of the canal side. It’s been a long, long day but we still have work to do. We pop into the grocery to buy the small amount of food we’ll need for our last day on the trail, and then we slip into a cheap motel adjacent the market.

Mardi Gras

We’re sitting in the McDonald’s at 5 a.m. drinking coffee and watching the news. The world’s problems seem far, far away from us. Being a thru-hiker is strange. Even when you’re in civilization, you still feel outside of it. You can still function in the system. You can drive your car and do your shopping, go to your job, watch the news at McDonald’s while drinking coffee, but somehow there is always that part of you that is left behind…out there in the woods somewhere.

It’s still dark out as we take the bridge over the canal. Massive hotels and colorful beach homes decorated for Mardi Gras line the bike path for a few miles. Then the trail leads us into Gulf Islands National Seashore and onto the pristine, immaculate beach.

We remove our shoes and walk for miles in the white sands. It’s a day of light. The ocean is hypnotizing. The sunlight illuminates the crests of the waves. The water is always changing while staying exactly the same. We comb the beach for seashells and crab claws. Time falls away, and soon we find ourselves strolling among the mansions of Pensacola Beach. It’s an odd feeling wanting to reach your end goal but also wanting time to slow down. You want this to be over, but at the same time, you don’t.

The miles fall away one by one. My feet scream at me as nerve pain shoots up my heels and ankles. How much farther can I walk? Almost there I tell myself. Soon we’re in the scrubby marshlands of Fort Pickens; we can see the strange rock bunkers looming out of the wind-blown vegetation. The trail becomes a gravel footpath that leads to an unassuming footbridge crossing over a marsh. We look down into a grassy island and see a blue egg nestled there. And suddenly there it is, a humble pile of bricks arching over a neat plaque announcing our arrival at the northern terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail…1,100 miles from Big Cypress National Preserve to Fort Pickens. No joke, at that very moment, a bald eagle flies directly overhead.


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