My family, the one-once-intact, used to drive to Florida every year.
For many Mays, this meant getting on Interstate 75 at the last Michigan exit before Canada and following the signs until the last exit in Florida, a thousand miles and a climate change later.
It was always an adventure: 6 bodies in a minivan, the oldest throwing up in New Jersey, the youngest throwing a tantrum in Georgia, books on tape and gas station snacks and music marathons until, at last, we’d arrive, sometimes still talking.
My then-husband and I would drop the kids at my folk’s place and spend a week dining out, conversing with other adults at his work convention, and sipping frozen drinks on hot-white sand.
As a young homeschooling mom, I relished these days, looked forward to them all year, mourned when they came to an end.
I loved my kids, of course – even managed to spend one “special day” with each of them during our time down there – but the break – O that break! – from the routine of math and meals and domestic mania.
Naples and the swanky hotel where we’d stay was how I remembered Florida: $8.00 drinks, valet parking, new cars and old money.
But this spring, I took a break from my now 200 school-sons and drove instead to the Panhandle to hike a section of the Florida Trail, a 1,000 mile corridor that snakes from Fort Pickens National Seashore in Pensacola down to the Everglades, south of my beloved Naples.
I discovered that the Panhandle is not only a different time zone from Naples, but it also felt, in so many ways, like a whole different planet.
The first person I met on the Panhandle drove an hour out of his way to deliver me to the northern terminus of the trail. Matt, one of the Florida Trail’s many “trail angels,” almost talked me out of being afraid of alligators as we crossed the many bridges from Pensacola to Fort Pickens and snapped this picture on the cold Tuesday morning I began my hike.
The cold lingered for the next few days as I walked 12 miles of sugar sand (hard) and even more miles of road (harder).
Unlike many of the trails up north or out west, the Florida Trail must parcel together brief bursts of nature linked together by longer stretches of pavement or dirt roads.
Had I done my homework better, I could have carried a much lighter load, as I passed convenience stores and even restaurants every few hours my first days on the trail.
Road walks are a cruel necessity, but the time hiking in and out of communities allows one access into that community’s heart.
I remembered the opulent vehicles that were the norm in Naples, but folks on the Panhandle drive pickups you can work out of, splattered with the red clay of back roads and farm towns and carrying lumber and table saws and hound dogs.
I watched as a lady trooper, unfazed, donned rubber gloves and dragged a dead deer out of the road. A man pulled over one day and told me he had “seen me walking all day and wondered if I need a lift.” Haha. Thanks but no need, kind man.
I found 9 pennies one day on a 21-mile road walk. A friend calls these “God-winks,” and I always seemed to find one when suffering a low point of the day.
I found that folks on the Panhandle still say yes ma’am and no ma’am, hold the door, linger over coffee.
I loved everyone I met, particularly one ridiculously generous trail angel who let me stay at her house, slack-packed me for two days, and, along one sketchy piece of road, drove her car between me and a driveway full of 10 snarling Mastiffs guarding what looked like a trailer cooking meth. When I was finished, Nancy drove me the 100-plus miles I had walked back to my car. Unreal.
But I went to Florida to walk in the woods, and despite the many road-walks, I found myself in some beautiful but alien terrain.
I was surprised by the sandy-bottomed streams, clear and cold, that criss-crossed the trail and some haunting spider domes that appeared one foggy morning in the trees.
Some prettier sections of the trail wended through Eglin Air Force Base, and it was a bit of a logistical nightmare to time walking these bits when my permit allowed so as not to be taken hostage by training rangers or bombed into oblivion. To be allowed on the base, you actually have to pass a quiz on what to do should you encounter unexploded ordnance along the trail. It was a little tense, but some strange scenery kept my mind off being blown up.
I thought I would see more wildlife, but in the week I was on the trail, all I saw were a few black vultures feasting on some dead thing along the road, a dead squirrel behind the payloader I tucked in back of to pee, the aforementioned dead deer, a huge tick that crawled across my foot, and two snakes.
I managed to snap a photo of the cute little green guy, but I was too busy screaming and running away from the other monster to consider pulling out my phone. Yikes.
Oh yeah: and on the beach, I saw a dead jellyfish and some shore birds, so there’s that.
Are there gators on the Florida Trail? Apparently, yes, but I didn’t see any, and I’m not at all sad about that. Some northbound thru-hikers told me that when walking through the swampier areas, alligators “sense your vibrations and swim away.” Alrighty, then.
I had planned on hiking longer, but a nasty blister under my foot and a seriously sore quad forced me off sooner than I would have liked, but isn’t it always better to leave wanting more?
I’m finding that it’s okay to do things alone, to be alone with my own itinerary, my own thoughts, my own path.
On the Panhandle, I never felt truly alone, and having a new tradition in Florida – spring break on the Florida Trail – seems like an exchange I can live with.
It may take me years to hike the whole Florida Trail, but I learned a ton this time around and I’ll be more ready when next spring break rolls around.