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Education of a Survivor
The Florida Trail stretches the 500 miles length of the state. It's flat and straight as a tooth save dips and turns that spell thrill.
Day one finds me on the Everglades fringe staring into a gator's eyes. The reptiles "dot every Florida puddle, outswim Tarzan and outrun a racehorse," cautions a nearby old-timer on the end of a fishing rod. My eyebrows arch. "Don't cost you an arm and leg for the low-down," he giggles. I pass him a green Lincoln. "Beware of exaggerations," and he starts reeling. Only the gator's eyes and nose protrude the water but I've seen enough; little one at six feet compared to his mother. He gives nary a blink either as I push on.
Day two. The Everglades is known worldwide for grabbing civilization by the neck's scruff and shaking hard. It's also a south springboard for this publicized Trail. It's early December, after rainy season, prior to gator breeding, a grand time to walk, and the sun will be at my back as long as the journey takes. The route today carries me across soggy meadows of saw grass, cypress and palms but by mid afternoon the string of orange markers ceases and I'm lost. Secure with compass and stars, I nonetheless seek a dry spot for the night.
The sun sinks and I'm bathed from knees up in orange light, from knees down in dark swamp. In thirty minutes I clench a cigarette-size penlight in my teeth. Water reaches waist-high and the ghastly environs are a bad fairy tale of lurching mangrove trees and waving saw grass. The moon rises and, shortly, a tree uprooted at 30-degrees to horizon awaits. My berth! I skinny the trunk high above waterline and gasp under the stars. In an earlier year while paddling an Okeefenokee swamp I glided past camping platforms elevated above alligator reach, and tonight's is similar but narrow and angled. I tie belt loops to the 3-foot trunk to keep from rolling off and just listen to the shadowy canopy: rodents skitter along branch roadways, an owl wing whispers, a bobcat screams. The laws of nature are as just as terrible up here, without favorites. The night is glorious but I'm near-tears at tomorrow's prospect of descending into the swamp. I can almost hear mom's deathbed voice, "Somewhere it's morning in the world". The last thing I see before sleep is a shooting star to the north. Dawn's yellow light of day three filters past the canopy onto an alert hiker perched on a slanting rack. I untie, slide, strike the cool water and wade. A gray flash at eleven o'clock and a heron takes to the sky, head held close to body and legs trailing, but five-foot wings crash the green canopy and the bird somersaults to the water. I fear he's injured but have personal worries.
I'm calf-deep in the Gator State headed from uncertain distance toward "Alligator Alley" which I visited years ago.. and still shudder. Rather hand me a six-shooter to bargain Russian-roulette for life, but that's no option. My hope is in last night's chill to render their cold blood inactive, and I splash through a "river of grass" that extends dozens of miles but only a foot deep. A few inches vertical change en route causes transition from lake to wet marsh to dry ground and back to water. Also, animal life alters with water level to cause environmentalist outburst if you take a couple inches. The sun climbs, sweat drips and "tunnels" appear throughout the saw grass. These resemble torpedo paths but are gator trails. Later, floating oil flecks surface everywhere - Washington DC was built upon a swamp - hence I'm closing on civilization and am uplifted. Project your own senses to nature and soon get invited to dinner. Now, crossing the grass tubes, I wish my hands were holding a book per evolutionary intent instead of balancing here. Still no gator's hiss or roar. Listen to their neat hearing reception: A small external passage on each head side leads to a tympanic membrane with an outer earlid that closes underwater. Inside the tympanum lies an air passage above the brain to the other side, so sounds can be said to go in one ear and out the other. I theorize this is why gators appear cross-eyed when staring at you, thinking. I recall from a childhood book that predators "hear" a strong walk and let it pass; yet falter a step and the forest closes in. I stride boldly, constant as a metronome, without attack for hours.
At noon I slump against a sapling, both of us ankle deep in water, and pass out standing until thirst jolts me. The sun is a fever. I stoop and drink from the water plane, tannic stained yet pure, and it tastes like tea. I add powdered milk, shake in a cup, sip and strength surges. They'll be firmer steps, by gosh. The course is connect-the-dots between hammocks - island stands of palms, pines and cypress - ten minutes apart across the swamp. By late afternoon I hear distant cars, and an hour later halt before a 12-foot hurricane fence.
Beyond at 100 yards is Alligator Alley, an east-west auto thoroughfare with a beast every thirty yards. The fence is meant to keep 'em out but, in truth, the road sloughs are teeming. The Florida Dept. of Transportation patrols the Alley to shotgun blast 'em at five yards. The barrier rises sturdy with no bottom opening and a razor wire top, as if gators have wings. They got to the other side, so can I, and I'm put in mind of the canine "I.Q test" where one is on one side of a long fence with a meat slab on the other. Some figure to go around the fence, as I do. After ten minutes walking the line, there's no break and I feel myself failing. Farther, a solitaire tree stands by the fenceline and on the other side lies not a slab of meat but a gator every thirty feet. Limbs take me to the top, I rope my pack down, followed by myself. Now it's a dash between gators and cars before resuming on the far side. Perhaps it's true the world moves aside when you're focused.
Day five commences with supply logistics. The possibilities are: Snare game runways and toss a fishline, but I dislike delay; forage for wild edibles, but my knowledge is mostly textbook; hitchhike at cross-roads to food, but I avoid it; or cache the trip, but I didn't this one. The solution on this hike is reptilian gorge-n-starve at infrequent, near-trail burgs, and you never saw such surprised looks in town. Ergo, this outing's strategy is strictly "streamline", which I also use in world travel - go light and farther without worry. Gear includes a light synthetic sleeping bag, bug net, poncho (doubles as tent), bottle of iodine, guidebook, compass, notepad, water bottles, change of socks and floppy hat to hide long earlobes. The more experience under the hat the less to carry on his back, but miles will tell.
After supply, the pivotal concern of hiking lost and alone is injury. Today my foot hovers mid-stride over the yawning mouth of a cottonmouth snake. His oral cavity shows white as his name, and the jaw unhinges as if to swallow my boot. The bones of the jaw temporarily dislocate and widen, moving the fangs with them. He's a juvenile only about a yard long and scared as the dickens. My dad once told me of a fishing friend in a rowboat who was chased by a squad of cottonmouths, climbing aboard even as he beat them off with oars. The inside story is this occurs during mating season with fish (a delicacy) odor in the air, and I hope my feet don't smell again. I sidestep as he follows each movement with upturned mouth and with the pit viper's heat sensing hole between each eye and nostril. The danger passes for both, and I walk now sharper eyed as a scare is great advice. "Hureer!" blasts the afternoon, followed by silence. My first high school report was " The Florida Seminole Indians", from which I recall that nineteenth century settler expansion squeezed a population of Native Americans south into Florida where a splinter escaped into the Everglades and a few descendants thrive to this day. The idea is captivating: escape where others won't go. "Hureer!" It's birdlike from a sun-drenched meadow, closing in. The track rises to a corner stand of trees where upon a branch perches a swarthy man having Indian features, a bird caller and rifle. He's barely visible among the leaves, and I feel fooled so walk closer. Searching ten feet up, I wave and he grins like a jack-o-lantern. I mouth, "L o s t" which he doesn't understand, so I whisper, "North?" and he points correctly. I say faintly, "South?" and he points the same way. Maybe there's wisdom in this, so I follow his finger for ten minutes to a ramshackle hut where a knock goes unanswered, gratefully draw water from a barrel, then continue north fancying I'd met an inscrutable Seminole. The trail braves the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation and rises onto dryer walking in pinelands. Later, it becomes dirt roads that ply farms and cattle ranges and - once in thick bush - I stumble on a remote dirt airstrip for perhaps hunters or drug smugglers. I lose the trail again near here and alternately sight the compass, sun and northern tall trees for heading. Lake Okieechobee is Seminole for "Big Water" and has been a fat blue dot on my map, the second largest freshwater lake in the United States. This afternoon I note it's actually a 50-mile wide slow moving river fringed by thick vegetation atop peat and muck. On Christmas, 1837, The Battle of Lake Okeechobee was fought on this beach with 800 American militia against 400 Seminole and black warriors. The guidebook advises a east or west shore passage but both look unappetizing so I veer along a northwest canal bank punctuated by water control structures (constructed by the Army Crop of Engineers in the 1940's) that I skirt or climb to the astonishment of fishing onlookers. There's a pay phone at a pumping station where I dial and hear a voice from the past, Marsha, my college gal.
"Hi, it's been years but I'm at Okeechobee and thinking of you." "Well, there's one hurdle - my new boyfriend. He's 300 pounds, works at the prison and we're going wild pig hunting. He drops on 'em and cuts their throats."
"Bye, and good hunting."
From the lake it's slightly uphill along an interlace of canals and dikes, and the pig-killer who stole my gal is forgotten. I whistle a marching tune and get lost in the miles.
Thoughts on days six to eight go to Davy Crockett who reported, "I've never been lost but once I was mighty bewildered for a few days." I hold a north bearing on raised ground while detouring recurring swamps. Witness more saw palmetto fields, pine islands with air plants and giant ferns in their shade, wet prairies with cabbage palm, and busy mangrove forests. Bluebirds, quail, kites and hawks abound throughout, and the woodpecker is heard. Hiking is a natural, convenient, economic sport at which I have quirks: Travel light is one, while camp another. Not one for marshmallows in soft talk over firelight, I instead unroll the bag in a minute and sleep the next. Morning starts by pulling on boots (if indeed necessary) and tramping a couple hours before breakfast. I use a tiny fold-out stove and fuel pellets so, happy campers, the kitchen plus week's fuel supply fit into a soap dish in lieu of the bulky, smelly traditional hiker stove. I walk daily until sunset, eat a big supper, then hike with penlight for additional hours. Nighttime harbors surprises to keep some wanderers moving.
Day nine. The quintessential southern postcard shows a hunter standing next to his pickup peeing on the tire. They love drinking and shooting. Gun reports come as deer seasons swings in. I tie a red shirt to my backpack and proceed cautiously. Twice I've seen the postcard and ducked away. In mid-afternoon I hold a pine forest track until attending this scene: Baying dogs caged in the bed of a brown pickup as another pulls up and parks. Seven hunters in all pile out and one sees me, pointing. Hunting is necessity or hobby and these gents are fleshy, but I walk up.
"Hey", I return.
The men wear tattered jeans and camouflage, are woods savvy, and sport rifles, 3-day beards and beer bottles. A few pee on the tires while the rest size me with predatory looks straight from the movie "Deliverance". The spokesman and clown step closer.
"You don't mind a Yankee in your midst?" I grin. It's a simple disarming tactic.
"Bud, we's just folks," drawls the lead man.
"I just walked up here from the everglades. Beautiful country, don't you think."
They look like they see a dinosaur. Well, most of them are in my palm, but the spokesman has a set jaw and the clown's got a cockeyed twinkle. The dogs bark impatiently.
One concept of aggression is a drive that motivates attack until fight exhausts it, then begins afresh and accumulating to a higher level, repeating. I steer the conversation to exact forests and marshes I've passed until the guys, recognizing some, sputter deer size and points relative to geography. Their hunting technique is to drive back roads until spotting tracks or an animal, release the hounds to run down the prey, and the hunters step in. They introduce the dogs in wood-and-wire cages - eight noisy beagles, coonhounds or crosses. Season's end draws near and the deer population has thinned, leaving the group fidgety and myself antsy to depart.
"Boys, the Georgia border ain't far off, so I'll be gone and good shooting. But remember this - I flick the red shirt - ain't a deer nose."
"Sure yuh don't wanna stay for supper?" It's the clown's first words. We're havin' bird stew."
I make off. At a fifty yards a shot rings and a branch cracks at my right shoulder. I sigh relief for these boys are good shots even when drunk. I turn and nod.
The clown waves his rifle and shouts, "Robin?" How did the North win the war. entertains me for a distance.
Passersby are few but two are worth describing. One muggy afternoon a green tunnel of a trail widens abruptly and I look at asphalt. This kind of thing shocks the long-distancer who's held a lonely mental beat. I glimpse left and right along the hard ribbon and see a car coming. It pulls over and a beefy sheriff protrudes his head from the window, "Long ways from home." I offer a spiel salted with two-bit words about the Florida Trail. The sober polysyllables gets most policemen out of the hair, but I swear he begins crying. "It was a year ago around here. Hot as hell like today. My buddy ran out of water and trail. We found his body and it was." he chokes on the final words. Momentarily he gives me water and, "I'd offer a ride but know you won't take it." I shake my head and leave. Shortly, I detour into a one-lane town for provisions. While window shopping a café, darn if a local policeman doesn't flank me. He's young, fresh and provides meritorious conversation. "Don't believe the cop shows on TV. Sure, once a month there's a chase or drug bust around here. Mostly, though, it's domestic disputes and checking people like you. Have a pleasant walk." He departs grinning and without asking for an ID. These two encounters are jewels for a California-based traveler where one definition of policeman is a criminal who's taken a wrong turn in life.
Day ten comes with thick, ghostly spider webs that monitor animal and human trail traffic. I strike one chest-first and spring back challenged, pick up speed and break through or limbo under many for a mile. The three-feet silk concentric circles probably belong to orb weavers which include the large silk spiders that produce strong, elastic thread used in textiles. Silk is made in the spider's abdomen by glands that lead to spinnerets where muscular valves forces silk to flow outside the body. Evolutionary wisdom drapes that in webs along this passageway through thick woods. SPRONG. After an hour of ducking and springing I sit and look over my shoulder. A yellow-black spider as large as a hand crawls up my collar. Indiana Jones felt the same but I consider my spider history broader. I once collected and housed tarantulas in a homemade hotel and showed people the private rooms of Theodore, Thomas, then Terry tarantula. The first two were real but out jumped Terry, a rubber tarantula mounted on a spring. He landed on the chest or hair of many spectators until my grandma nearly had a heart attack. I take a breath today, swallow my own medicine after all these years, and remove the big guy.
Assume I've picked up a few survival lessons over the past twenty years of being out. Living on is the gist. There's a cartoon with a man siting by a pool thinking, "What's it all about?", even as animal emerges from the water intuiting "Eat, drink, reproduce!" As for me, an Idaho young sprout, I took cues from animals - a dog's lope, monkey's grasp, mule's kick, human's (are animals) eyes - and imitated the best. The result was a Mr. Potato Man of unconventional movement sufficient to win some national sports titles. An adventurer might also put himself on four legs to survive, as I do. The Florida Trail hiker is a rare species but, better, out pops a rep from the animal kingdom. A speculative tortoise grapples with the path, notes me and stops. I approach and pet it's scaly forehead and it cuddles back. We continue a few seconds and slowly pass, he with a 16-inch shell and me with the 35 pound pack. As a kid I affixed an eight-foot string to a pet tortoise not so much to walk it as to let it wander freely. Every late afternoon I explores our Michigan neighborhood only a few minutes to find Rosco's cord and recage him for the night. In folklore he represents slowness, determination and long life - today's empathy plowing along until finding reason to do otherwise.
A coral snake reclines in the trail and the "Red-and-yellow, kill a fellow" rhyme and stripe sequence mark it venomous, but really they're docile and small-mouthed with such an awkward venom delivery that it's safe to sit and admire. To die from a bite I'd have to cuff the snake, offer a finger, let it gnaw, wait for poison from the saliva to enter, shake him off, hike with a little pain or swelling, feel weak and numb in an hour, drool on my boots, and about supper time I'd shake, be unable to curse a prayer, and when there's no breath I'd succumb and thus contribute to the long evolution of the human intellect. There's nothing to be afraid of. He's shiny as new crayons, skinny and two-feet long.
One day I sight a cat print big as a saucer in mud. It's author is the endangered Florida panther that's been pressured by agriculture and civilization from a six-state territory into southern and central Florida. They're magnificent machines, longer-legged and smaller-footed as adaptations to swamps, about 150 pounds, and seven feet from nose to tail tip. As a child I emulated cat paw jabs and leaps for athletics, so it would be exceptional but unlikely to see one of the remaining sixty in the wild. I rehearse an encounter - calmly walk by, avoid eye contact and compliment it softly because all cats in their minds are queens or kings, and try not to throw the scare pebbles I picked up. These big cats cover wetlands and forested areas while using wooded corridors like the Florida Trail, which explains the footprint.
By contrast, the armadillo's a stout, poky fellow, an armored digging terrier, and I get lucky. Like folks, this one lives singly, in pairs or groups but unlike us his siblings develop from one fertilized egg. The short-legged wobble under buckler plates reminds me of a silent accordion and one feels compelled to play with them until noting the long teeth and claws. They're timid and withdraw their feet until armor touches ground, but my experiences from the Brazilian Pantenal to North America is otherwise. An exception occurred in Amazonia once where natives enjoy their succulent white meat. A guide, his two kids and I spotted one and they chased it to a tunnel. The father probed along the ground top until his machete came up dripping red. "Esso," a son yelled - that's it!. Soon they dug out and dispatched the animal, carrying it off by the tail shouting "Rico," for indeed it would be a rich supper pot. Ms. armadillo often emerges at dusk from a burrow entrance - blocked by day with bony plates - to grub for bugs and vegetation, and this is how I come upon the one in Florida. She gives me the cold shoulder so I approach and stroke the 14-inch length until she waddles to a stream bank burrow and exits like Alice's white rabbit. I'll look her up in a book.
A raccoon shoots from a brush collar along a canal and slouches in front of me bristling. This may be my most latent animal encounter because this Mr. coon is unkempt and maybe diseased. Rabies comes to mind and unlike the retiring northern ringtails I've known, he holds his afternoon ground. Long ago, I had a baby pet for a short time and admired the intelligent, handy creature, however today's ugly customer gets a wide berth. Florida's distinct subtropic and tropic zones offer about 100 species of mammals, 40 snakes and 400 birds, and I cheerily accumulate a daily collection encounters.
Evening is tops for observing animals and sometimes one finds himself the observed. In a sunset slosh I look up at a spreading egret colony perched across a series of trees. Upward of a hundred white, yard-tall birds ogle or climb about the branches. They could be migrating, stopping to feed, gathering to breed, or bringing babies. Small bevies flap 4-foot wingsets to winter whiteout, but none fly. The mild climate and warm, fish-laden water where I stand draw millions of leggy wanderers like these and smaller egrets, ibis and herons. I pass under the rookery and out beneath the stars.
In desert, prairie or mountain I normally hike straight into the night which gradually becomes heavenly with creatures. Notwithstanding, in wetlands or jungles where footwork is guesswork I camp early, as follows: A meal comes during the final thirty minutes of sunlight, the trail diary's done, then out with the bedroll and headnet. The latter article stuffs small as a sock yet replaces the tent (provided there's no rain) to screen insects, snakes and small mammals. It's a simple beekeeper's net (a piece of mosquito net rolled into a cone) to use a la carte or sewed to a sleeping bag hood. The drawback is remembering it's there upon wakening. One morning on Cancun's white sands I woke to a horrible growling at my throat and ripped at my fact to remove the proposed beast, only to find he net wadded in my mouth. That happens only once.
Tonight wild hogs root under a copse as sleep sings back my snores. Despite tales of their razor tusks, pigs along trailside have either ignored or stuck up their snouts at me thus far. I'm aware the Appalation Trail courses through territory that's home to thousands yet attacks are rare. A pig's orgasm lasts thirty minutes; why molest a hiker? They can swim but not climb and I'd bet on them in a 50 yard sprint. They've been active in evening.
This morning of day 13 has me crossing a spongy land of falling trees. Most of reach thirty feet. CRASH. Each fifteen minute interval on average another pounds the earth. I attribute the volume to recent rains, warming sun that expands the earth, shallow roots and a mild tailwind. I pause astride a log for lunch. CRASH. on my track thirty seconds back. It's akin to hiking high country in lightning.
In younger years for a decade I went to bars nightly seven days a week. They were college joints with bands across the country where I stood observing, never drinking, never sitting, hardly dancing and containing libido for exactly an hour. I recall fruitful lessons in music, body language and certainly the few lucky night of snagging a date. My technique for the latter improved by standing near the exit door or girls' john during last call. Leg strength for hiking was also born in that bar era for I ran a mile or more to them, always stood, then ran home. In San Diego, a favorite haunt was the "Ancient Mariner" that displayed an entrance sign:
'Day after day, day after day we stuck, Nor breath, nor motion, As silent as a painted ship upon a painted ocean. Water, water everywhere and all the boards did shrink.
Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.' It was poetic popcorn to sell booze, and night after night I read it until it couldn't be dropped. Since, I've studied water from sundry angles to never be without. I've drank from salt pools, Mexican horse troughs, camp rinse dishpans, railroad ditches, and once from a cooler with a floating bathing suit. it's not a question of palate but of thirst. This afternoon's path offers water that few would touch but I've vow to drink what I find without a filter. The advantages to this routine is rarely having to fill canteens and, importantly, the development of a body temperature index for water potability.
The following is not something I recommend to anyone but the test results are lovely. In lieu of a water filter this trip I "temp" myself thirty minutes after each water source. This, in the mode of eccentric biochemist authors of "Life Extension" (Dirk Pearson and Sandy Shaw once described themselves to me as healthy guinea pigs for their own theories and products), finds me walking with an oral thermometer. I keep a Francis Galtonian chart of sources and responding temp, remembering normal body temperature is 98.6. In general, the "grass rivers" perhaps due to expanse cause no temp rise; flowing streams give similar results; large lakes cause about a degree increase to 99.5 and I easily continue hiking; stagnant ponds or standing water raise to the 101 mark at which I must stop. This data points to where I can drink, plus to body temperature increments vs. physical performance. Only one time does the experiment collapse. One warm afternoon after sipping from a small pond I swoon under a hardwood with a 102 temp and lay like a stick in the mud for three hours before recovery. Understand that fever isn't a disease but a fighting style, and temper it by not struggling too long at too high a level. John Muir is better known for Sierra climbs, but also tramped Florida and fell ill to what I think he called "swamp fever", likely similar to what knocked me down. He waited it out also. Tips from my study are: Avoid sources where there are no plants, birds or wild animal tracks; moving water is better; don't dip from a stagnant pool unless in dire need or hell-bent on experiment; eschew stock holes; drink only a pint initially from a new source until confident; have a quart of fresh water in reserve to dilute an unsavory bout; and personally I wouldn't swallow any major city tapwater.
I draw fire for being analytical and field it as compliment. Little happens in Spud Town, Idaho to a growing eight-year-old, so one day I began the first of what would prove a lifetime of investigative projects. Early ones included rocks, erector set, leaf collection, chemistry set, astronomy and the microscope. In retrospect, each lasted a month, and at about age ten something threw me to higher ropes. it occurred to interrelate the past and future projects; it put me on an analytical roller coaster for life. Analysis is means rather than doctrine, and the best way I know to learn a system like nature, economy, or life is - I've gotten headaches but am not dead - over-analysis.
Along a protracted dry stretch I glance wistfully at mounting cumulous clouds, and within an hour they open. It's easy to rig a 3' x 3' catch basin with arms outstretched under a poncho and I bob thirstily while hiking. Recall castaways in sea disasters, surrounded by undrinkable seawater, catching rain in sails to sustain them. Today's rainwater has a worse nylon tinge than sail or swimsuit but keeps me moving. Some miles later, there's a stream where I genuflect and eye a tremendous cottonmouth water moccasin watching me. He has the broad brow of ex-convict, is brown with dark crossbands, and at 6-feet glowers through the raindrops. "It's my fishing hole and I'm going to tag your butt," is the message. The species is known for this territoriality where his diet is fish, turtles and birds, but he's coiled to strike me from a body length away. Normal strike range is about a half-body length, but the curious factor here is he's on a bank at eye level to me. Snakes don't leave a platform upon strike, however a slope provides greater leverage for longer horizontal strikes. This, and it's a most ill-tempered serpent I've seen are taken in quickly, and I leave without giving Mr. Snake a chance.
Day 15. I rub my eyes at the burnt bridge ahead and feel the juices of Indiana Jones rise. The red dirt track has stopped abruptly at a 30-foot river flowing lazily as "Old Suwannee". The bridge including approach stretches 60-feet and was constructed originally of two-foot diameter logs that in history burned and now lay losely bolted like charred Lincoln logs. Twenty feet below the center-span water foams around the wood uprights and who can count the gators because it's so murky.
I dislike heights despite childhood years of climbing higher trees, so descend the shore only to get tangled in terrible thorns. Anything but that! They straight-jacket both arms and legs, plus one tethers an eyelid. Survival manuals avoid this scenario, so I've developed techniques based on the plants: If one knows the point interval along a stem, tip length and diameter, barbed (catching) or toxic, and give of the total branch, then just add a couple deep breaths, patience and humor. With a free eye out for gators, I extract the pricks one-by-one and retreat to the burnt bridge, now a favored choice. I sit bleeding and trembling at the base but quickly hoist myself because one advances by rejecting the norm, and so onward. The inclined approach to the main span is burned save one log that's too slippery a catwalk, so I cling upside down like a monkey and pull along a few yards. After snaking around a thick upright, I try the next horizontal afoot but fall grasping, and there I pause to stage a fall: The river depth is unknown so stay vertical, scissors the legs, spread the arms and prepare to land flat-footed, jump toward the river middle where it's deeper and away from the pilings that collect debris, then fan the legs and arms upon entering to decrease penetration. I've jumped dozens of times this way from lower heights without getting my head wet. This morning I prefer not to fall, and instead slow my breathing. I take pack in hand for lower counterbalance, rise and start with baby steps. In seconds I cling panting to the next upright. The next horizontal is charred and mossy so I shimmy along in shorts while picking up soot and splinters. The operation's over in three minutes, I alight on good dirt, and make into the safe forest.
On day 17 a mechanical drone greets me and a dump truck groans by in a sweet wake. Ahead a buzz remains where men with chain saws have at tall cypress. Bulldozers with chains tug felled trees to metal hoppers where spinning teeth reduce logs to chips that are loaded into a queue of dump trucks. One departs every ten minutes.
"Lawn chips," the first driver shouts, "For the city folks." Wetland cypress here grow 100 feet and the trucker explains the species is tagged allergenic, "Especially this time of year - AACHOO!" It's odd as square toes to strike such esprit after being alone so long. He continues, "The truth is it's a lie that gives somebody license to cut, chop and sell chips. But what do I know; I only haul 'em." I study him. Anthropometry was one of the childhood projects that still benefits sports, dating, barter and survival. This man is rugged framed and honed to skin and bones with powerfully bowed legs and a forehead up high like a melon. He could one-hand me into the dump truck, but smiles widely.
"What do you think of Yankees?"
"Look at me. This the third job in a 60-hour week. I drive a milk truck and repair bicycles."
"You have twelve kids, not to mention the other wife?"
"Well, you just learned something about hard work and southerners, Yankee."
I infrequently take lifts but he says I've walked an hour opposite from a trailhead sign, so he'll drop me along the haul. We chat amiably as the dump truck lumbers, that likable redneck speaking flatly against northern ingenuity to this inventive northerner. I wave goodbye from an orange post smelling like cypress.
Theoretically, these orange signs blaze the entire Florida Trail and like Dorothy in Oz you follow the bright road. "The (Florida Trail) Association appears to be one of the most effective citizen trail developing and maintaining organizations in the country. And most extraordinary, the Florida Trail exists almost entirely without cost to either the national or Florida taxpayer," reports the Department of the Interior. While applauding worth, I've found trail signs grown over by bark, blanked by years of sunlight, obscured by limbs, rotated in wrong directions, and torn or fallen down. In some places double trails are dually marked and cross each other, making irritating pauses. As with many other national paths, signage is excellent near populated Florida trailheads but dismal in backcountry where through-hikers like me get lost. I've been on-trail only 30 percent of the time and bushwhacking the rest.
Day 18. Deep in cattle territory of north-central Florida, gleefully pucky-hopping through open prairies. During the past sixty miles (three days) I've opened and shut about fifty fence gates, while climbing, crawling through or under dozens of others. A cow is truth in hooves and I could walk merrily among them for a year. Today, to keep hunger at bay, I dip into their blackstrap molasses pan and feel the hair grow between my toes. This is a viscous, heavy molasses used in cattle feed that goes better with oatmeal. They eye me poker faced and chew the cud. This afternoon a scruffy herd of fifty rushes me perhaps to kick up their heels in celebration of life but more likely thinking I bring hay, though maybe it's my breath. The play now, herd closing, is to throw up one's arms for diversion, but surprisingly these keep a-coming as I flap like Don Quixote's windmill. "They'll stop," I say softly as the thunder grows. ""Stop!" I yell but no one will know because I sprint to a fence and hop it at which point they pull up short.
It's surprising the dearth of cowboys where cattle's big business. Two ol' boys bouncing in a battered pickup side me and shut off the engine. They sit sleepily.
"Seeking permission to walk with the cattle. Is this your property?"
"Yup." they agree. "You got permission."
"Where ya sleep at night?"
"Why, I throw my bed beneath a tree and drift off like the rest of them."
They grow bug-eyes and lay a patch, leaving me astonished for a mile. Further on, power lines loom like War of the Worlds invaders. Observe closely, this is a welcome rule for hiking straight through wilds. (Others are railroads, fences, dikes and canals.) In addition, line swaths form a ecologically rich transition zone where clearing meets bush head on. What flora and fauna diversity! Eventually the line hits an extensive bog where I pause in brown study. One can go around, over, under or through a resistance and this quagmire could use them all. Skirting right and left brings just wet legs, so I stomp ahead. Sunlight fails and brings a phantasm of grasses, limbs and vines. Scant yards ahead the jungle breaks into free moonlight, but before lies a 20-feet fallen hardwood log of one-foot girth. I tightrope and it begins a peculiar hum and heave where I re-balance, a bug on a singing violin string, but ultimately I fall and cling, leaving slow scratches until hitting the water. "Ayee!" all the way to the moonlight.
The last two days' course was dry, fast and with drumbeat marching so by day 20 I penetrate northern Florida marked by hardier foliage throwing longer, greener branches into cooling air. This evening I pay for past speed by feeling the starts of a pull in each hamstring. This is my first potential injury of the journey so I can't lament but instead turn around and walk backwards for a mile. This relief for cramped hamstring or calf has never failed. I conjured it independently but subsequently read that track coaches prescribe backward running for sprinters who typically show overdeveloped, tearing quadriceps with atrophied hamstrings. I sideways-walk an additional mile to camp, then sleep with legs elevated on the pack to relax the thighs backs all night. In my opinion, we've transferred medical faith from the gods to the medical profession while ignoring our native good judgment, which I've remedied in part by recently submitting Keeley Kures to an agent.
There's no trip itinerary but gradually a scheme unveils. Heretofore ambling at 18 miles per day and figuring hereafter lay gentler ways, the total 500 mile Florida Trail will be complete in a week! The stride lengthens and strengthens while the mind grows more savvy. The old fisherman was right: Find yourself truth and handle others' exaggerations with cat's paws. Ordinary skepticism means raising doubts against certain beliefs for lack of evidence supporting them. I'm an ordinary skeptic, neither rejecting nor swallowing information on trust - I like direct evidence. When I pick an authority like the fisherman it's because he's a direct experiencer rather than one who argues from the point of a pyramid of believers. The trail will be done in a week and I'm a learning survivor. I don't know the date or news but it's been sheer joy with grim edges and, who cares.
Day 20. Florida has 400 miles of canals and levees, so as Siddhartha sat and mused on an Indian river bank the hiker now pauses for reflection along a canal. A Franciscan monk once made me a release gift from a posh loony bin which he had kindly driven me to of a Hermann Hesse book. This is the story of Siddhartha Guatama, born wealthy in Nepal and sheltered from misery until making four excursions where he encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a monk. The first three symbolize human suffering and the fourth the man's destiny. Well, he became an ascetic wanderer, but then sat until becoming an enlightened Buddha. On a canal bank I consider my aversion to passivity and how it's shaped my philosophy. I progressed from mid-west hayseed to factory worker, construction, college student, vet medicine, professional sport, author, publisher, American hobo, swap meet mogul, economic advisor, 100 countries traveler, desert recluse, sub-teacher, elephant-man of New York, walker. Thought clouds emerging from these vicissitudes are: learn self, explore self's boundaries, and make hay while advancing. I'm no Siddhartha since where he gathered life's tricks from an active road life following a passive childhood and later chose to meditate on it, I've kept rolling.
The canals prevent floods while carrying water to livestock and sugarcane fields. I hike banks for one full day above vast sugarfields being harvested by busy men and machines even as a Woody Guthrie's walking song "This land is your land, this land is my land." runs in my head. Periodic pump stations block or hurry water and are guarded by hurricane fences and sometimes manned booths. One evening I sneak along a plank, put a toe in a fence, and am over and gone before anyone knows the better. The Everglades is America's largest subtropical wilderness at 400 square miles, yet its only a third the original size due to water diversion.
Muggy air on day 21 slides into a thin passageway and falls like a blanket. I follow a "ghost" railroad and see America first-class. Turn-of-century grades and bends are mild, plus the raised right-of-way gives s a front row seat to hundreds of native plants and bird species. It won't happen today because this grade is trackless, but when a train comes the bed vibrates in time to jump aside and place a penny on the rail, wave at the engineer, then scoop the 3-inch ribbon cent after the caboose flies by. I learned rail walking in my hobo days. Once I lost my boots overboard a fast freight in Montana and debarked at the next siding to retrace by foot for miles. I walked barefoot through a hobo camp where they called me "Shoeless Bo" and offered material to makeshift new ones, but I made it to the boots. You can also find head-dated nails in wood ties that were pounded decades ago to indicate when the ties should be replaced - usually every twenty years. I own a sequential nail collection from 1900 to present and that's a lot of walking. There's no track under me today in central Florida because the rail was ripped for reuse and leaves a cleared ribbon through nature. A thicket to my left quakes as if in a whirlwind, yet the air's calm. I jump and nearly yelp, backup and study. The woods rock-n-roll from the ground up within a 6-cubic feet volume. The guidebook states this is bear country, the burly animal follows open trails, yesterday a hind print impressed me as human both in form and weight transfer but heavier, and there's been scat - I've hopped fecal piles like shovelsful of wet, brown cement studded with seeds and fur from small mammals but no false teeth. "Scram!" I yell at the arguing bushes, but no reply. I heave a branch into the fray that disappears. So I sit on the pack to ruminate a couple minutes. My education is veterinary medicine and my prior background is cleaning dog kennels. I once owned a knack for calming animals sight unseen and was fearless, but somewhere between the kennels and classrooms I lost it and discovered I could be mauled. I acquiesce, but maintain that others can still walk without harm into wild dens. Bear encounter textbook tactics include: Hold still, holler louder, raise hands to seem bigger, avoid eye contact, don't smell like pizza, don't climb a tree, sidle calmly away, and upon attack either ram a fist down the beast's throat to obstruct the airway or play dead. Bear meetings are common but not charges. Now the foliage shudders but I rally a thought as tidy as a finish tape and rise. "Oh, sable was a racehorse." my burst is like a tromped-on frog. " And I wish he were mine." so I haven't sung in years. "He never drank water." The brute would be foolish to charge. "He always drank wine." and I slip by.
Later that afternoon the path cuts into dense woods and takes bends that leave me lost but uncaring because it's colored by butterflies and birds. Thusly, I wander Florida's green spine without knowing, enjoying and trusting. Still later the air grows heavy, clouds gather and night crashes with storm. Contrast is the hiker's keeper and It ani't heaven no more, though some say better.
Hypothermic! God help me. My cold experiences are many and reason for choosing Florida. If only it wasn't so chilly between raindrops. The key to staying warm is moving. The present railbed crisscrosses another having rails, over which I haunch to orient with map and compass. I developed an early affair with compasses as a Boy Scout by stroking a needle with a silk to magnetize, then rubbing it on my nose for oil to float in water where it pointed north. Today, however, I can't hold the compass because of icing fingers so i lay it on the map and the map on a rail while bending closer to look - only to reel back at the haywire spinning needle. I stare in disbelief, then chuckle and raise the map and compass up from the deflecting iron rail.
The rain stops; in with the cold and out with the skitters. This region usually swarms with the suckers in summertime but tonight there's none. A few years ago I concocted a longer-sleeved shirt for protection against bugs, sun and cold. Cut ten inches of sleeves from an old shirt or sweatshirt and sew to your long-sleeved hiking shirt. The extension covers the handd yet can be rolled up for church. This, with a pair of rain pants, socks tucked over pant bottoms, and headnet disallows all bites. (Repellents to me are toxic for long hikes.) Tonight I force march at 4 mph for fifteen minutes to heat up and make sleep come easily.
The route of day 23 flanks the 100-mile Kissimmee River, major source for Lake Okeechobee, where animals and birds flourish. Deer, wild hogs, wading fowl and turkeys come to river's edge and the bordering oak hammocks, scrub territory and pine flats. This prominent rio reveals more as I stumble on former homestead sites plus small oxbow settlements, now broken and overgrown. Can you conjure another moment in time and walk through it? Rivers provide basic orientation but this twister's hard to stick to, so I locate suggestive animal trails until finding a string of trail signs that angle from the river into open prairie, then marshland. Finally, an orange sign lays facedown in a clear-cut field where I become lost but content. Later, in damp meadows, it's impossible to keep a straight bearing so I apply what I call tack-lines. These are rough edges in nature and - as sailboats advance into a wind where distance covered is greater than distance gained - I tack the land. I zig the clear-cut wood line, zag a canal, zigzag animal paths, and in time strike an old fence line at dusk.
Cold takes day 24 and shakes me to the boots. I was raised In Various Towns, USA clean across the Canadian border and perceive that one's gait, respiration and thoughts reflect chill. I keep close tabs on myself. The fence I dog finally turns toward sunset though north is my intent, so I squat with divided thoughts: The pack is empty of food; wetlands lie in every direction; West it is! and the citrus will be a-frosting tonight. (I later learn the entire East Coast is locked in a freak winter rage.) Whipping out a penlight I focus on a weathered sign nailed to a fence post. These have been periodic throughout the last hour but this is the first with surviving letters: "Avo_ Bo-__in_ Ran_e. Liv_ Or__ ce. D__ger! By inserting letters from the next few signs the puzzle reads: "Avon Bombing Range. Live Ordinance. Danger!" Hypothermia is stupefying but I retain enough sense to jungle down pronto to figure the next move. My method of cold camping is: Walk until warm, slip into the bag, and sleep before cold creeps in. Who can be cold if unaware? Tonight is an exception, so I settle tentless to study maps and plan for tomorrow. Two tips for happier campers: Keep a tiny magnifying glass and a spare flashlight; I use penlights with a single AAA battery. Even tonight as the first battery fails the second light is ready. I locate myself on a map in a small corner of this widespread bombing range and determine the next morning to walk across to where a small town lies at a day's march. I tend briefly to my journal where trails become phrases until a skeleton of the past day is born.
KABOOM. The ground bounces and the diary falls away. I duck and peep around a fence post. RATATAT. The night's on fire at 400 meters to the east. CHOPACHOP. Helicopters shoot up the range just beyond the barbwire. Dozens of rounds a second pound the air as tracers race toward me. I lie low and drag my bag behind the 6-inch post to peek-a-Bo the fireworks for minutes. Then, long ago, I mastered a "bum flop" for such tight spots. He reclines on a noisy park bench and without a twitch sleeps in a minute. I'm out. Sometime later the choppers buzz off like retiring hornets and the night is pungent and silent.
Dawn's land on day 25 wears a frosty jacket as I break camp. As a professional racquetball player I formulated game strategy quickly and tightly and followed through steadfastly until the practice became life habit. I jump the barbwire and make across the bombing range, soon passing last night's ravaged targets - old trailers painted white. Shell casings strew the ground but my attention is upward, just in case. Only early songbirds fly this morn clear to the far side where I hop the fence and kiss the danger sign goodbye.
Relief allows muttering hunger after two footless days. Lacking paths, I follow animal tracks to animal trails along my basic heading for a few reasons: They're the smartest routes especially during elevation change or through thick brush; they often lead to some goal; the scat is fun; and there are animals. I hug a northeastern tack that slides past an old groove with oranges hanging like smiles. Some might call the few trees wild but likely this was an old farm. Frost in horticulture refers to freezing of the solution in plant cells that damages the plant, like fingers. Today's fruit is pithy but sweet and I gorge slowly. My rule is three oranges every ten minutes to avoid the backward trots. Golden magic engenders and in forty minutes I face the day with a full pack.
Day 27 unleashes sunshine but the way takes a curve that raises my hair. A levee is a land bridge across a water or swamp. The way ahead is thin as a line between doubt and confidence. I plop at the entry on warm dirt to think. There are no human footprints and indeed I've seen few the entire journey; maybe they're eaten, drown, lost or seek their own unbeaten paths. I'm game but leery because there's no retreat after a distance. How far? One may as well ask how far can a dog run into the forest; halfway because then he runs out, which is moronic when at a starting point with no end in sight. Likewise what if something lurks on the levee at midpoint? Continue or turn around? There's a way to find out.
There's no end in sight after a half-day on the 12-foot wide land bridge. On either shore where wavelets wash weeds the lack of something's queer - there should be jumping fish and wading birds and more but it feels the marsh has only unseen eyes and ears. Oh oh. the dike's cut apart ahead by a 20-foot gap of flowing water. Stripping, snapping a small branch, I like it less but put the pack atop my head and ford. The current's mild so requires no staff but I probe carefully with the stick for depth before each step. There's a swish at my foot that I ignore. Rebooting and walking again there's soon another break, wider and I sink to my shoulders in water. At midstream there's another swirl at my ankle. Once atop the causeway, I peek through cattails and my jaw drops.
Hundreds of alligators line the levee sides to the horizon. I crouch instinctively and backpedal. To my back are two the cuts and I can't bring myself to re-cross. To the fore is the gator gauntlet and I step ahead. They're thick as New York City sidewalks, hundreds about 8-feet long mostly with mouths wide open to cool. "Don't cuss da gator long mouth till yuh cross da river," says a Jamaican proverb. Most are within thirty feet of the narrow path and since fewer lay to the port I edge that way. A wrist pulse gives 120 beats a minute and I pause to calm. "I can do this," I whisper while walking. The first half-mile brings little more than inconsequential glances. A 7-footer leers as if to ask, "Neighborhood rules?" and swims at me but as he touches shore I've scampered 50 yards. to stop and gasp. To my close right is the largest gator I've seen - 13 feet long and about 1500 pounds. I shake my head and pad by. One this size can sprint 30 mph which no human can match. Again and again, I pretend charges but none does and the causeway ends in an hour along with the gators. Why didn't they attack? They might be chilled, full or maybe I grinned right and didn't cuss 'em. Gators feed mostly in the evening with temperatures above 70 degrees, and today was earlier and cooler. They assess prey by height and bearing, so maybe I looked taller with a pack on the path. An odd thing punctuates the end of the levee. A blue heron stands on one foot like an exclamation point eyeing me from an S-neck. The instant stretches until broken by the thought, "Walk in the park?" I nod and pass him unruffled.
Day 28. The trail winds through the Osceola and Ocala national forests on sandy paths amid pine flats, hardwood hammocks and some swampy woods where abound deer, black bear, otter, gopher, squirrel and fox. I learn more each footstep. Resist an anthropomorphic view of nature to realize she's neutral, computer-like, a godless, feminine and merciless. If thirsty she doesn't respond with a trickle; you have to find it. If you want to halt, the end's not brought nearer. The Georgia goal line is just a day away but I'm acutely lost, frozen and growling hungry. Not to complain, only to march. I hold an ancient fence line for a muddy day, grabbing here and there twixt barbs to balance. Later I cut away across a poachy meadow,stagger stiffly through grass, and suddenly begin sinking. Deeper to the neck and sure I flail. What keeps my head above muck is four empty jugs in the pack that provide buoyancy. "Don't get stuck, Pa says, when you're down," and I struggle like a dinosaur from a tar pit. I'm the architect of my life without complaint. My NDE'S (near-death experiences) vary over time. I've beheld life flash by like a fast show; lights against a mental dark sky; out-of-body; tunnel vision; slowing of perceptual time; joining a consciousness ocean; and a pleasant dropping into nothingness. Today's near-finale reflects the last. The object of these experiences is there's no more fear in death than another bend in life's road.
Wait. There's a sharp sound over the hills. Louis L'Amour tells in westerns that a cowboy can smell civilization a mile away, and so with the ear. After comes the bawl of cattle and I head for it. A far-off rider herds a hundred head with a pickup truck parked nearby. Quietly, to stay unknown to the herd, I cover the remaining half-mile. Suddenly the rider spots me and wheels his horse in the light rain, then gallops as if a specter. Whip raised ear high, his horse stops, rears and paws the sky just before me. The cowboy raises a finger to his lips and I put my hands into a praying steeple. He nods, spins & returns to the herd. Calves and mothers are cut from the rest for twenty minutes and he returns, drops to the ground, and eyes me evenly. "You're one sick critter. Wanta ride?" I choke "Yes" and it's the end of the trail.
The Florida Trail was added to the National Scenic Trail system in 1983 and some day will be safe to walk. I wouldn't do it again for a million bucks; Want a movie? Hire a stuntman. However, if you must go take a companion, snakebite kit, rope, guidebook, GPS, know the gator-breeding season, wear red, interview locals and watch your step. Withstand and conquer. There's nothing to add to this educational adventure except the cowboy deposits me on a highway at the Georgia border and I fish my thumb. Santa Claus drives the first car, at least he wears a white beard and red cap. "I just walked the length of Florida and nearly died many times," I blurt. "Merry Christmas," he shouts for it is that day and he offers me a drink. We Hoo Hoo into the next state.
Bo Keeley lives at a desert point near Arizona, California & Mexico with Sir whom others call a sidewinder rattler. He teaches school in oasis Blythe and jumps off continent once a year to travel. This story occurred in Dec.'97 and was written from the trail journal at Palo Verde College LSC in Oct. '00. It will appear in the autobiography "Education of an Adventurer".