March was a curious month in my hiking journey, bracketed, as it were, between twin extremes of brutal low temps and massive snowpack at the beginning of the month and blistering heat and sun at the end.
It is hard to say which I loved more.
Gridding in March always seems more like winter than spring, and this year was hardly an exception. The day before I was scheduled to head to Florida to chip away at another section of the Florida National Scenic Trail, I waited until late afternoon, when the ski lifts close, to hike the Wildcats.
A recent storm had covered the ridge in deep powder, which is why hiking up the groomed ski trails before heading across is such a treat. Pleasantly surprised that the ridge had been broken out by, of all things, some skiers, I followed their tracks across the Wildcat alphabet (peaks D, C, and B) until my mystery friends lost the narrative and turned around a mile short of A.
There was no way I was bailing so close to a March summit, so I broke the last mile through knee high drifts, tagged A, and backtracked the way I came. The snow was so high up there that branches typically out of reach above my head now lashed my face. It was all worth it, though, as the wide open view of stars and far-off lights of Gorham glistened on the way back down the ski trails.
It was a perfect contrast to what lay ahead in the Sunshine State.
This year, finding a safe place to stash my car for a few days and a ride to a distant starting point was never easier. Gold Head Branch State Park agreed to let me park in front of their entrance building, and my cousin, whom I hadn’t seen in decades, gave me a lift 85 miles south. Catching up on family and a hearty pre-hike lunch were sweet bonuses.
In years past, hiking the Florida Trail meant one unwelcome thing: wet feet.
It was a strange surprise, then, when day one took me through Juniper Prairie Wilderness Area on soft, sandy trail with nary a puddle in sight.
The massive trees draped in soft moss and open expanses of grass could not have been more different that the buffeted peaks of New Hampshire; the dry conditions would continue for the remainder of the hike, marking the first time in the five years I have been hiking the trail that I remained blister-free.
The dry trail made locating water more difficult, and I found myself doing heavy carries of multiple liters and relying on the trail angels who stashed gallons at road crossings. Not complaining, though, as I treasured the time with warmth on my skin.
Because I was only doing an 85 mile stretch and had five days to do it, I had pictured myself toodling along, exploring side trails, and sipping afternoon coffee prepped on my pocket rocket stove as I bathed in the beauty of the Florida forests.
There was some of that, to be sure, especially when dew-laden gear needed to to be draped dry in the lunchtime sun or a jaunty pine-cone parade route invited admiration as the last light leached from the day .
But old habits die hard, and once a thru-hiker, always a thru-hiker.
Wanting to escape the cold during the dark days of March, I started hiking the Florida Trail years ago because chasing blazes seemed more appealing than sitting on a beach.
There always seemed to be something up ahead, and my feet just wanted to get there. I just couldn’t make myself slow down.
I awoke three days in, 29 miles from my car, hungry as all get-out, with a few easy stretches of road-walking ahead.
Well, why not, I reasoned.
There were showers ahead at the park, a bag of chips in my car, and nothing but flat in between.
Just get close, see how you feel, and the rest will sort itself out.
And perhaps that is what I learned this year, on this stretch of the Florida Trail.
Walking that 29 miles, the longest I had ever done in a day, was possible because there was no pressure to do it.
I walked because I like to.
Linger if desired, or walk wildly if you want, but chase those blazes with everything you’ve got, because there’s always something pretty up ahead.
Ice or fire, it’s all lovely in the end.