On a long trail, you don't meet regular people. How can you possible call someone that is walking all day, every day, for weeks on end "regular"? You wouldn't expect to meet a John, Paul, or George out there, would you? Maybe a Ringo.
If you did meet a George, you'd never remember his name a few days later. That's why many long distance hikers have acquired Trail Names - more colorful nicknames used while hiking. I've met hikers with names like Papa Bear, Valderi, A-Town, and Vanilla Thunder. Since an author may have a nom de plume, I think a trail name should be a nom de sentier but that's probably not right.
Allow me to tell you about the interesting folks of the Florida Trail that I met on my days out there hiking.
The Florida Trail Association holds a kick-off event for a few days in early January near the southern terminus of the Florida Trail. After hiking through the Florida Keys, Josh and I camped overnight with these nice folks on their last night before starting our hike through the swamp.
Before hiking into the swamp, we were fortunate to get our picture taken at the southern terminus monument with Jim Kern, the man who got the Florida Trail started. We didn't get to talk with him much since he would be doing a presentation to folks not hiking this day, and we were anxious to get some miles into the swamp.
Having never been to an annual kick-off for a long trail before, I had no idea what to expect. I know the Appalachian Trail has a huge, week-long Trail Days party in Damascus and the Pacific Crest Trail has its ADZPCTKO kick-off at Lake Moreno each year. The long trails I've hiked - Arizona, Ice Age, Superior - have so little traffic that they don't have such an event yet. So, this would be the first for both Josh and me.
On all of these trails, you can find people that help hikers. They may or may not hike themselves, but they are an integral part of the hiking community, providing shuttles, food, a place to stay, moral support, or other precious assistance to hikers when needed.
Josh and I got a ride from Miami to the kick-off campground from Miss Janet Hensley. Miss Janet is a fixture on the A.T. and decided to join the F.T. gang this year since the A.T. is pretty quiet in January. Miss Janet is known for shuttling hikers hither and yon in her van - snooping online, it appears she has gone through at least a couple vans over the years.
In the short time we were with her, Miss Janet made me feel like I was with friends and helped this introvert meet a few others at the kick-off. In the 2 days prior to our arrival, groups of about a dozen hikers had set out through the Everglades. So, it was a smaller group the last evening but I enjoyed asking questions of the old experts and listening to the young'uns getting ready for the morning. I was hoping to find someone that might be a potential hiking partner for the time after Josh would leave the trail - he only had a few days left.
Right away, I noticed one young guy with his girlfriend. He seemed pretty quiet, fit, and not too boisterous. To be honest, some of the folks out on long trails are a bit too dramatic for me, but having someone along that is more talkative can be a good thing. Anyway, this guy looked like he was ready to hike.
I said 'Hi' and introduced myself. It turns out that Bennett (no trail name) would be thru-hiking the trail and his girlfriend had just brought him to the starting line. Chatting awhile, I found out he had put in a lot of time practice hiking so he was in good shape. But, this was his first long hike, so he was pretty unsure of himself. I liked him right off the bat! I let him know that we'd love to have him hike with us, at least the first couple days through the swamp, and he agreed that would be good for him. Most people starting their hike had not hiked through swamp before and we were all a bit nervous about the prospect.
I could do an entire story about Bennett, but here's the short version: We hiked two days through the swamp together. Josh and I left him at the Seminole Reservation when he took two days break to rest his feet and we continued on to Lake Okeechobee and then took two days to visit Josh's grandparents. When Josh left for college, I hiked with Bennett around Lake Okeechobee to the town of Okeechobee. At that point, Bennett left the trail for a few days and I went up the trail.
Bennett got back on the trail a few days later, taking a different route than me so I never saw him again. The trail splits and most people go East around Orlando, but I took the less traveled Western Corridor route. I heard from his girlfriend that he was in the Ocala forest, and I just heard today that he was at home. I assume that means he did not finish the trail, but he did a darn lot of hiking out there!
I was impressed with Bennett for two main reasons. 1 - He put in a lot of effort to prepare for his hike, expecting hardship and being ready for it. 2 - He kept to his plan, and it worked for him. I think I may have pressured Bennett to hike more miles than he was comfortable doing, but he was content making progress to his schedule. He was the most physically prepared person I've ever seen on a hike. He put in many practice miles walking in the surf to get ready for the swamp. He tried out his gear. He had a plan. He was a cheerful man on the trail. The days I spent walking with Bennett really were a highlight of this hike.
There were a few others that started the same day as us. Bennett, Josh, and I were the first to head out in the morning, but three others caught up to us when we stopped for the day at 10 Mile Camp. Joey, Carjacker, and Handlebar all stopped by. Joey continued on but the other two set up tents. Carjacker is a young guy and you'll have to ask him how he got his trail name - something about borrowing trail angels' cars. This night was the only time we saw him. He went a bit slower with Handlebar, but then left the trail for a week or so, and then he and Bennett hiked together weeks later. As far as I know, he's still making headway down the trail.
Handlebar was an older fella with a big mustache (hence the name) and wearing a kilt. He's still moving along now, too. Last I heard he was hiking with Morning Wood, after Carjacker left the trail for his break.
Now, Morning Wood was another interesting dude. We caught up to him our second night when we splashed out of the swamp onto a small hummock where he had hung his hammock. When Joey arrived, that put 5 of us in a tiny spot of jungle where really maybe 3 should be. Morning Wood didn't talk much and was first to leave the next morning. To be honest, I was a bit put off by his behavior but having followed along online, I think it would have been good to get to know him a little more. Last I heard, he is nearing the end of the trail, hiking with Handlebar, so they met up along the way at some point.
I don't have photos of Handlebar, Morning Wood, or Joey - sorry. Joey seemed like a really nice, very quiet, methodical hiker. He has hiked the PCT and CDT so, when he kept going past our campsite that first night, I expected to never see him again. As it turns out, we caught up to him in the swamp on the second day and he camped with us - but said no more than two words. Then, he camped with us the third night on the Seminole reservation and talked a bit more - with some dedicated effort at questioning on my part. :-) He left before us from there and that's the last I saw of him. I've since found out he is in the last few hundred miles of trail, hiking with Melanie. His pace seems to be slow and steady. I think he'd be a good hiking partner, too.
After the swamp, there's no place to hide. With nothing but flat, open levee roads and sugar cane, we could see anyone far ahead and far behind. That's why I was very surprised when we ran into Devilfish sitting at the one covered shelter out in the fields for dozens of miles in any direction. I was sure he must be a southbound hiker since we'd not seen him. But, no, he was hiking north like us. We chatted awhile and he seemed like he was in no hurry and would be hanging there awhile so Josh and I kept hiking. Not much later, when I stopped to tie my shoe, I noticed he was coming up behind us. So, I waited for him to catch up and this is the one pic I got of him. He was a fairly small guy with what appeared to be a massive pack.
When we stopped for the night, he kept going another couple miles. I ran into him a couple days later, but then he went east around Orlando. He has been posting updates to the FT facebook page often and is closing in on the end of the trail.
Most people hike at their own pace and don't have much of a schedule to follow, except for reaching resupply points. I tend to push myself, not so much to set any record but just to push myself so I have a bit of challenge each day. Walking around Lake Okeechobee, Bennett and I caught up to these three Warrior Hike participants. They are veterans who are being sponsored to hike the trail and "hike off the war". It seems like a good program. But, they must follow what sounds like a fairly strict, and slow, schedule - doing only about 10-12 miles a day. They have presentations to do in communities they pass through, and they get to meet with VFW posts, so it's not just hiking.
Last I heard, they are still moving along the trail.
Reaching the north side of Lake Okeechobee, the word on the street was that the Kissimmee section was flooded. Since I had a schedule of my own to keep, I figured this section would slow me down too much so I contact Mike online to see about getting a shuttle past it. We arranged a pick-up, and this is where Bennett left the trail for a few days.
When I found Mike in his camper beside the road, he already had two hikers with him and was surprised to see me. He thought I was ahead of him on the trail, so I was very lucky to find him. The other two hikers were Devilfish ( I caught up to him) and a new guy named Carl. Carl had just started hiking the trail on the south side of Lake Okeechobee and was just looking for good spots to check out. They both wound up staying in town while Mike took me up the trail, but I heard Carl jumped up to the Ocala forest and then I heard he was in Georgia. So, he's out there someplace.
Mike has hiked some of the A.T. and is enjoying time meeting F.T. hikers. It was a nice, quick, uneventful ride to the next section of trail, but I could have enjoyed spending more time visiting with Mike. Nothing crazy about him, just a nice, helpful, friendly Floridian meeting folks.
After leaving Mike, I knew I'd be splitting off to the Western Corridor the next day and would most likely see no one until I reached my scouting friends in Inverness. And, the next 60 miles or so would be walking along busy, boring paved roads.
Other than a couple fishermen giving me a lift to a hotel, I just walked all that day, all the next day, and another 10 miles the third day. Until, along came Sarah! She had seen me hiking with my "To Trail" sign out a couple hours earlier and was now heading home. She gave me a 6-mile ride to the trail and talked a mile a minute the entire way. Sarah does a bread ministry where she distributes surplus bread to needy folks. She is busy doing a ton of other great stuff, too - like helping hikers. :-) While Miss Janet and Mike are part of the trail community, and hikers sort of expect that support, and sometimes help cover their costs, Sarah was just a concerned person giving someone a ride, a complete unexpected surprise. I was hoping she'd contact me through my website, but hasn't yet.
After Sarah dropped me off, I had a bit of trail, then more road walking. Thunderstorms were rolling in from the west and I was walking right towards them, hoping to reach a hunter's check-in post for shelter before they hit. Coming toward me down the road, I saw another hiker, and he had an umbrella! This was Don't Panic winding down his southbound hike of F.T. With the weather coming, we didn't chat long - just long enough to take each others photo, wish ourselves luck, and share about the trail behind us. I said it's all road for the next 3 days. He said there's only one really deep water spot - and he had run into a couple hikers earlier in the day. Say what? Other hikers?
Sunshine & Trailmix
There was a trail registry a few miles ahead, at the entrance to the Green Swamp recreation area - one of the very few registries I found, and one of the fewer that were not completely destroyed. In it, I saw that Sunshine and TrailMix had been there just the day before. Hey! Maybe I'd run into them in the next couple days.
I hustled on to the hunter's shelter, almost making it before the drenching rain and lightning, but not quite. I waited it out a couple hours and then hiked on, shooting for a campsite in the swamp. I hiked a lot faster than expected (the miles may have been off) and found I could reach even the next campsite so I pushed on.
When I arrived, I saw two people already there and two tenst erected. Well, to be honest, I did have a bit of hope they might be there. Sure enough, it was Sunshine & TrailMix. They had stopped early for the day and invited me to stay. It was So Wonderful to have people to chat with into the evening. We actually talked a lot longer than I expected. They are planning to hike all of the F.T. - that is both the East and West sides of Lake Okeechobee and Orlando. They figure this will be the first time someone has done that.
Unfortunately, they have very heavy packs, they are only doing about 15 miles a day, and they don't need an old chaperone joining them for the next few weeks. So, the next morning, we hiked together awhile until an opportune moment when we parted ways with my hiking on ahead and they taking a break. It was a wonderful, short friendship, at least from my viewpoint.
And those are pretty much all the people I met on the trail that I can remember. Every day on the trail has some sort of adventure. It may be seeing a deer or alligator, or crossing a wild river, or enjoying warm, dry wind; but interactions with other humans, I've found, are the best of them.
If you'd like to see how some of these hikers are doing as they near the northern end of the Florida Trail, check out the Florida Trail 2016 group on Facebook at this page.
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