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Ryan's Great Adventures
Volume 81: Saturday January 26, 2008
Our hero battles alligators, turtles, and wild tourists on his hunt for the southern terminus of the Florida Trail.
The next morning, I slept in luxuriously late. It was kind of a shame to waste away the cool morning hours, but it would also have been a waste not to use the nice, dry bed as long as I could too. =)
By 10:30, however, I was finally on the trail, mostly because that was the checkout time.
I didn't make it far before I got distracted. The hike followed highway 997 north, pretty much from the moment I left Card Sound Road, heading through Florida City and Homestead. In Homestead, I noticed a small bookstore that also claimed to have an Internet cafe, so I popped in to check it out.
I paid $3 in advance, covered by the three one dollar bills I found along Card Sound Road. The last dollar took a couple of minutes to carefully peel open—very fragile from their time in the sun.
Ended up spending two hours there, checking e-mail and working on Atlas Quest. Rather a nice way to spend the afternoon and I could have stayed their longer except miles still needed hiking! I'd gone about a mile and it was now already 1:00 in the afternoon.
I followed Krome Avenue, a.k.a. highway 997, northward. Gas stations with food dotted every intersection, and life was generally good. This time I made it five or six miles before stopping at a Subway for lunch.
Then it was north, always north. A little ways later, a park ranger pulled up alongside me. At least that's what I thought he was, with that official park ranger white-and-green truck he had. Seemed odd for a park ranger to heckle me out in this civilization. I waved, and he rolled down his window asking if I had talked to him earlier through the FTA. I was pretty sure I hadn't talked to him, but I was puzzled since he acted like he expected to see me there.
To make a long story short, he had been talking with some other hiker who planned to thru-hike the Florida Trail, and there not being many of us, thought I might be the same one. He also turned out to be a former Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, by the name of Priceless, having done his trek in 2001.
He happened to be driving by when he spotted me, and said, "I can recognize a hiker!" Then he pointed to my shoes, "Though your shoes threw me off for a bit."
We swapped some AT war stories, and he warned me of the trials I'd face hiking through the Big Cypress area. Another guy driving around in an official vehicle stopped to talk to Priceless. I had to imagine it must have looked like a big bust going down to those driving by, requiring two officials to take down my hoboing ways. They'd probably be disappointed if they knew we were chatting about our AT thru-hikes. =)
Priceless asked if there was anything he could do for me, but I couldn't think of anything. I just left from my cozy hotel room earlier that morning, resupplied everything I needed, and a cold drink was available at every intersection. I wish I could have thought of some trail magic that he'd get for me, but I couldn't think of anything.
The walked continued, straight as an arrow, mile after mile. Unlike the day before, I enjoyed the wide shoulders to walk on and the variety of scenery including restaurants, farms, nurseries, and in general, a rather nice walk minus the noise from the traffic.
Near sunset, I decided to look for a phone to call Amanda—I told her I'd give her a call that day.
I eyed a pay phone on the side of the road, and thought one more. At the next intersection, I'll use it.
And, of course, there were no more pay phones. Mile after mile. Now I started to get annoyed—I couldn't stop until I reached a pay phone!
On my map of Florida, it showed an enormous intersection five miles up ahead, and I figured THAT would be the next gas station and the next pay phone. I ambled up, long after dark, excited about finishing, and.... nothing. Not a darn thing at the intersection.
The next phone that I *knew* was available was another five miles ahead, at the intersection with highway 41. Five more agonizing miles....
I walked until 9:30 before I finally reached the gas station at highway 41. The last few miles, I gazed longingly at places to stealth camp, but promises were made. I needed a pay phone, and onward I trudged.
At the phone, I checked e-mail, noticing that Priceless had already posted a comment to my blog. =)
I called Amanda, the last time I knew I'd be able to reach her for several days.
Now I could go to sleep.
An Indian casino stood diagonally across the street, and I waddled over to ask about room rates. I didn't originally plan to stay a second night in a hotel, but it was right there and I was badly tired.
The lights were blazing, smoke dribbled out the door the moment I pushed it open, and was assaulted by the sounds of people loosing their money to the one-armed bandits. I walked up to the registration desk.
"How much is your cheapest room?"
The well-dressed gentleman behind the counter told me, "That would be $149, sir."
"Is that a joke?" went through my head, but I was tongue-tied. Maybe I misheard him over the noise of the casino? "A hundred and forty....?"
"Nine," he finished. "One hundred and forty nine."
"That's WAAAAY out of my budget," and I turned around and left.
Never tell me the cheapest room available is $149 when I have all the camping equipment I need on my back!
I was not happy about having to now find a place to stealth camp, however.
I didn't spend much time looking for a place either. I walked east on highway 41 for less than five minutes before careening into the trees and setting up camp, still within view of the hotel. I wondered if that empty $149 per night room was watching me now.
Then I took off my shoes and went to sleep.
Amanda and I, several years ago, once drove down Highway 41. Today, I would walk it on foot.
The walk, for the most part, was fairly easy, with wide shoulders to walk on or—for much of the way—an option to walk on a berm on the far side of the canal parallel the road.
I considered backtracking to the gas station at the intersection with highway 997 to resupply water, snacks, and use the phone, but finally decided not to after reading that such items were available a short ways ahead.
Oh, if I could go back and do things over....
My first stop was Coopertown, population of 0008. Yes, you read that correctly—anywhere the population was listed, it always included three extra zeros at the beginning, as if the eight citizens had grander plans in mind and wanted to make sure their signs could handle the population explosion to come.
I stopped at the picnic tables, took off my shoes, and laid down. A few minutes later, a couple from Kentucky pulled up, asking about airboat tours. I hadn't planned on doing an airboat tour myself—I'd done that with Amanda a couple of years before, but it only cost $19, paid at the end of the 40-or-so minute trip. The guy joked that if you didn't come back, you didn't have to pay. What could go wrong?
I decided to go. Sitting around a boat while the scenery went by? Now THAT sounded like fun! It would only take an hour out of my day, which is how long I probably would have laid around doing nothing anyhow.
Two others showed up shortly before the boat left, a couple from Austria, and the five of us got a nine-mile tour of the everglades.
The airboat rides are a classic tourist trap, but they are FUN. They speed down mere trickles of water at high velocities, seemingly to break the laws of physics, but the boats can travel through as little as four inches of water. I also saw my first alligators since my arrival in Florida, though apparently everyone will see alligators on airboats rides. Our guide took us to several gator holes, depressions that gators dig to stay cool during the dry season, and we could see the fish and turtles swimming in the water.
The everglades, as our guide explained it, is just a giganticly wide river more than 50 miles across but rarely more than a few inches deep. The water travels about 100 feet per day.
I quizzed the guide on how this environment compared to the Big Cypress area, my gut telling me that I'd be walking directly through this sort of environment soon, and that's pretty much what he told me—except that there would also be cypress trees. Oh, joy. =)
The guide also told us that several movies and TV shows were filmed there, including Key Largo, Gentle Ben, the first episode of CSI: Miami, and a bunch of others I quickly forgot.
At the end of the tour, I asked if there was a spiget I could fill up my water with, and the tour guide got me two small water bottles. "You don't want to drink the tap water here."
Perhaps not, I thought, but I bet I'd want to more than the water directly from the everglades, which while pretty, did not look at all appetizing.
I emptied the two water bottles into my Platypus, thanked him, and headed out again. The phone, promised in my guidebook, was a bust. There were no public phones nearby.
I choose to walk along the road rather than the canal because the left side of the road was still in shade. I wouldn't get the view from the canal, and I'd have to listen to the traffic, but shade trumps all.
I stopped at every airboat ride along the way. I didn't ride in anymore airboats—once was quite enough, but I inquired about pubic phones for use (most of the time, they recommended the gas station at the intersection of highway 997 and highway 41—thanks, but I'm not walking back there!
I considered buying a cold soda, but at $2 for a 20 ounce bottle, felt it was a ripoff.
I became rather discouraged at finding water, phones, and rest at the stops. At times, groups of turkey vultures flew overhead, and I wondered if they knew something I didn't.
A memorial for the victims of ValueJet flight 592 was set up on the far side of the canal, a series of concrete columns laid out in a triangular shape, and I felt drawn to it. I crossed over the canal on lock structure 333, and set my pack down—no sense carrying it over to the memorial just to carry it back.
The plaque with all of the victim's names had flowers, baseball caps, coins, and other miscellaneous items spread out around them, and I felt so sad. It's a simple memorial as memorials go, but there were just so many names. The plane crashed out there, somewhere in the Everglades, and I remembered reading about it when it happened, and how difficult it was for rescuers and investigators to get to the crash site. The memorial was in the shape of a giant triangle, with the plaque at one of the points, as if it were pointing to the location. I don't know for sure if that's the case, but that was the impression I got.
I didn't know anyone from that doomed flight, but I did notice two people named Carpenter died on it which made it seem more personal.
I took out a penny from my pocket and dropped it on the plaque, to add to the other coins there, said a small prayer for them, and walked back to the lock structure and resumed the walk.
These people will always be remembered for how they died, rather than how they lived—a terrible waste.
I didn't walk much further—I stopped at a boat launch, tired of walking, and threw out my ground sheet and took a nap. There was no shade anymore, so I opened my umbrella, wrapping the loop around the end around my wrist to make sure it wouldn't blow away in the wind, and went to sleep.
I still had miles to do, however, and my guidebook mentioned a motel available up ahead in the Miccosukee Indian reservation. Not a casino like the last one, I might add, and that a phone would be available. That's where I wanted to go for the night.
Darkness descended, and I continued the hike by headlamp, finally reaching the Miccosukee village.
I stopped at a restaurant for dinner, and the staff was very efficient and accommodating, but the food was boring.
Just beyond, I stopped at the General Store, the last good store for supplies for the next 71 miles according to my guidebook, when the checker asked about my hike and where I planned to stay the night.
When I mentioned the motel up ahead, she told me it had closed.
It would be another night in the woods for me, then. And there was no phone in town—no updates on my blog this day.
I slept in a small nook just outside of town, using broken branches to mask my campsite, but didn't sleep well between the traffic on Highway 41 and the mosquitoes along the canal.
It's called Loop Road, but it seems to me like it would be better called the Parallel Road, since it basically parallels Highway 41 for quite some distance.
I camped a couple of miles short of it, but reached the turnoff within an hour or walking. Right there at the turn, there was a picnic table and a bunch of information for hunters and permits. I stopped to eat breakfast at the picnic table, and kept a particularly close eye on my food when I spotted an otter crossing the road. It was an ugly little thing, I'll say that for it. Perhaps in the water they seem cute and cuddly, but on land, they look like miniature monsters, the kind that hides under beds.
I was honing in on the start of the Florida Trail. The Loop Road would be my last road walk, intersecting with the Florida Trail about 2/3rds down the road.
The walk went quickly, first passing by houses of the local Native Americans, then the road became rougher when it left civilization behind.
Along the way, I spotted several alligators, lurking in the canal parallel to the road. It pleased me greatly when they jumped into the water and swam away as I got closer. I'm always happy when large, carnivorous animals that could eat me in several bites show how shy they really are.
I stopped for lunch at a campsite, a free campground with 10 numbered sites and a porta-potty for bathroom activities. A few motorhomes and RVs filled up some spots.
I threw out my things under the shade of a tree, and introduced myself to an older gentleman next to his RV who seemed to watch me with curiosity.
Alas, I've forgotten his name, which is a shame because he ended up being a wealth of trail magic! He lived in Indiana and came south for warmer climates.
We only chatted a few minutes before I excused myself to take a nap. It was warm and hot out, and I didn't get much sleep the night before, and a nap seemed like the perfect thing.
I laid out and went to sleep.
I slept nearly two hours before rising to make lunch. A few others entered the campground during my nap, most of them on bicycles after a morning ride.
I picked up my lunch gear and walked over to Mr. Indiana figuring he'd enjoy seeing my soda can stove in action.
"You can use my stove," he offered.
I passed on the offer—the soda can stove worked well enough, and frankly, I enjoy using it. =)
He also offered to fill up my water bottles with fresh, clear Indiana water, which I gladly accepted. While I had the materials to get safe drinking water from the canals, I didn't have anything to actually make the water GOOD. The longer I could avoid natural canal water, the better.
He also offered me a cold soda and a huge bar of dark chocolate, both of which I accepted. I had my doubts about the chocolate—melting all over everything—and ate it in its entirety as soon as I left the campground. I enjoyed the cold Pepsi in camp so I could leave the can behind.
We chatted for a couple of hours, as other folks from the campground dropped by to say hi as well. All-in-all, it was a real friendly group of people.
But as all good things must come to and end, this was no exception. I headed down the road, eating dark chocolate along the way.
The road eventually turned to gravel, and cars became a genuine rarity for the first time on my hike.
An occasional tourist drove by, but it was a nice, peaceful walk. A woman from Naples showing a young couple from Germany the 'old Florida' (as she described it) seemed fascinated by my journey, and gave me a small bottle of water to my arsenal.
She also told me to take care of myself, but that she would watch the news for any reports of missing hikers so she could tell rescuers where to find me. =)
Near sunset, I reached it. A small kiosk on the side of the road, with a bright orange blaze on it. The southern terminus of the Florida Trail.
I yelled into the sky, triumphantly. My road walk was over. I would now be following a trail. I high-fived the orange blaze, slapping it with a solid thud. Let the games begin!
The trail enters into an area known as Big Cypress, known for waist-deep waters and slow slogging. With more than three miles to the first campsite, I decided to stay put for the night. I laid out my ground sheet at the base of the kiosk, made a quick dinner before heading off to sleep.
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