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Ryan’s Great Adventures
Volume 84: Monday January 28, 2008
Through cows, horses, rain, and road walking, Ryan prevails over all obstacles thrown in his path.
The next morning started with a steamy layer of fog, the trail following alongside a dike keeping the Kissimmee River in its place.
The fog burned off after a couple of hours, though, and the heat became brutal when the trail left the dike and followed roads for much of the day, including a 5.6-mile hike along CR 599.
At the turn in the road, I noticed railroad tracks running by, and could follow it up my map about four miles where the trail crossed the tracks, and another eight or nine miles where the trail followed immediately parallel to the track. It seemed almost too easy to jump off the road and follow the railroad tracks instead. It's illegal, of course, to walk along the railroad tracks, but it had to be nicer than walking on the road which appeared to be a lot of coming up, and it was shorter since they tend to run trains in straight lines, geography be damned.
But I didn't. That wasn't the route of the Florida Trail, and for better or worse, I was following the Florida Trail.
The paved road ended at Platts Bluff Boat Launch, where I stopped for a much needed lunch break. I threw out my things under a bunch of beautiful, large live oaks, and made a bean and rice burrito (three of them, in fact) while watching the going ons around me.
Parks are always a fun place to people watch. People are always so happy and friendly, glad to be away from work. There was one apparently drunken family who had a horse dragging them around on a cart, trying hard not to fall off.
And there was another couple I couldn't help but overhear since the woman yelled, "You're the goddamned laziest asshole I've ever met!" and "And that's the only reason you even got me out of that bar last night."
Just wish the man would have spoken louder so I could hear his side of the conversation as well.
Another beautiful day at the park. =)
I rested for a couple of hours, and headed north on a dirt road a short ways, glad for the dirt since it meant less traffic racing by at high velocities, then climbed over a style into a bunch of cattle.
I begged for the road walking to end, but the cattle walk was not an improvement, since I had to keep a VERY close eye on where I placed each footstep, and looking at a bunch of cow crap isn't really very scenic to me.
Through the ranch, the trail seemed to zigzag in every random direction, and I wondered why the heck the folks making it had a problem with straight lines. It wasn't long before I started mumbling things like, "I'd really like to smack someone at the FTA right now." Didn't even matter who—I just felt someone needed a smacking. The ranch had a few places where the trees grew and provided shade, but most of it stayed under the heat of the brutal sun.
Until I reached Yates Marsh Trailhead, and the trail went back to road walking, this time on Lofton Road for the next 5.2 miles.
It was not a fun day of walking. Roads and cattle. Not fun.
Lofton Road intersected with US 98 for nearly a mile, before ducking back into cow pastures.
I had to stop once the trail went back into the ranch land, however. It was getting too dark to continue, even though I would have liked to put a few more miles on the trail. I needed good visibility, both to avoid stepping in the cow paddies and to follow the orange blazes. Any semblance of a trail was long pulverized by the cows running loose, so being able to find and follow the next blaze was critical.
My day of hiking had come to an end, and not at a good place. On one side of the fence, loud traffic from US 98, and on the other side, cow dung all over the place. What's a hiker to do?
I choose the cow dung, finding a nook that appeared to be dung free, threw out my ground sheet and tried to go to sleep in that stiffling heat.
Until I heard a noise, looked up, and saw something watching me. I picked up my headlamp and shined it at my visitor—a possum. Who didn't seem to have a great deal of respect for me.
Damn. There were no rocks around to throw at him and scare him off—what I really wanted to do—so I took a branch laying on the ground nearby and started breaking it up into smaller pieces that I could throw. The possum left as soon as I started breaking the branch, but I kept the pieces nearby the rest of the night—just in case.
Later in the night, I heard a rumble and flash of light—a lightning storm. Normally, I love a good thunderstorm, but it seems in my experience that it often results in rain storms which I did not want since I had not set up a tarp. I took out the tarp and threw it over myself—just in case.
Then it started to rain. Big fat rain, by the buckets, and the temperature dropped from a stiffling heat to a brutal cold.
I spent the rest of that miserable night—my worst on the trail so far—shivering, wet, and cold surrounded by cow crap. The night could not end fast enough in my book.
I woke wet, cold, tired, and grumpy. It was a miserable night, but at least the rain had finally stopped.
I skipped breakfast since I wanted to hit the trail to get warmed up, and even wore my fleece jacket for the first several miles before warming up enough to take it off.
The morning was undeniably cold, however. I never did take off the nylon shirt I wore, which usually comes off within minutes of starting my hike in the morning.
Nor did the trail improve any. First it went through several miles of cow pastures, then followed US 98 a ways before ducking into the woods for a brief 1.6 enjoyable miles before coming out on US 98 again, this time to follow the highway for 6.4 miles.
It was a terrible walk, with traffic barreling by at high velocities. I had to use the string on my hat around my chin to keep the hat from blowing off whenever a semi drove past.
Near the end of the road walk, I could see those railroad tracks on my left. If I had realized how horrible the walk was the day before, I might have reconsidered walking on the tracks anyhow. I could have skipped all those cow paddies and road walking, and enjoyed a nice mellow walk along the railroad tracks. Not to mention cutting five or ten miles off the hike. Illegal, yes, but oh so tempting....
Too late to do anything about it now, except watch as an Amtrac train passed me. Probably from Okeechobee. If only the passengers knew how easy they had it.
The trail left US 98 for good, then ducked into the woods. The first mile was overgrown and difficult to follow, then the trail curved onto a dirt road briefly, but things started turning around.
The trail became easy to follow—a JOY to follow, in fact, winding through oak trees and palmettos. No cows around, and no cars. Not even any spiderwebs crossing the trail.
The land was flat and dry, and deer and birds could be spotted wandering around with a purpose only they knew.
I had entered the Hickory Hammock, a hiker oasis of beauty and enjoyment.
Halfway through, the trail passed a campsite that even included a trail register, which I eagerly opened and started to read. I was stunned to see that the first entries in the register started in 2001. Nearly seven years worth of thoughts and ponderings filled the book, much too many for me to read them all, as much as I wanted to.
So I read a few pages from each year and different times of the year, to get a sense of how the area has changed, both over time and on a seasonal basis. Another thru-hiker signed in nine days before I did—perhaps I'll catch up to him before the end of the trail.
Mountain Laurel and Mosey had not signed in, and I assumed this meant they had temporarily left the trail for a day or two to be with family that lived near Sebring. I was probably ahead and of them now.
I left my own message, commenting that if the whole trail was as nice as the last two miles, I'd never have anything to complain about. =)
While returning the register, I discovered a geocache behind the post for the register. *shaking head* Okay, I guess everything can't be perfect. =)
The trail continued another two beautiful miles, then dumped me out at a horse camp. Camping was free, but hikers were supposed to reserve a spot ahead of time which I did not do figuring to camp further up the trail.
I did, however, stop to make use of the facilities, including covered picnic tables and a pump that retrieved well water. A sign by the pump said the water was not potable, so for the first time on my hike, I had to treat the water using a nifty little gadget that uses ultraviolet light to kill pathogens. I could have gotten river water, but I figured the well water was probably better than river water, relatively speaking.
The horse camp was practically empty. I saw two people at the far end, enjoying a campfire, and the rest of the seemingly large establishment was completely empty. Seemed odd for a holiday weekend, but I wasn't complaining. I liked the quiet.
Near the center of the camp was a neat looking barn that now doubled as stables for horses.
I took out my tarp, ground sheet, and sleeping bag and threw them each out on picnic tables to dry. The sun still had not come out so I figured they might not dry completely, but every little bit helps.
Then I decided to make dinner, since it was such a nice location to do so. Plenty of shelter, plenty of picnic tables, and plenty of water. Bean and rice burritos. Delicious!
While cleaning up dinner, the only two other folks in camp wandered by, and I told them about my thru-hike. They'd followed the orange blazes while riding their horses around, but had no idea they stretched across the state of Florida and people like me existed who would hike from one end to the other.
They suggested I spend the night in the barn, which given the circumstances, was pretty darned tempting. It looked like it could still rain at any moment, and the weather was still frightfully cold with a strong wind. The barn seemed tempting indeed, but I was worried about getting caught camping illegally. I never even bothered to get a permit to camp at the camp much less in the barn!
But the two kept insisting, saying they were the only ones there, and they'd only use the far end for their horses. I could camp out on the other side of the barn, and who would care?
So this was my introduction with Dan and Bonnie, a couple of horse-lovers out for the weekend enjoying their horses.
I walked over to the barn to check it out closer, both the first floor where the horses were kept, and the second floor that was empty except for a lot of owl dung (I suppose!) on the floor.
The second floor intrigued me, since it seemed unlikely that a ranger would see or notice me camping without permission up there. =) By golly, I was sold—I'd spend the night in the barn tonight!
Dan and Bonnie invited me over to their campfire where we swapped war stories for the next few hours. They were absolutely stunned nobody else was around, saying it's usually like a New York traffic jam there on a good day, and they figured it would be terribly congested with horse campers on a holiday weekend, but no, it was just those two. The bad weather the night before must have scared everyone else off.
After dark, they made a steak dinner with ice cream and pie for dessert, which they invited me to eat as well. =) Bonnie let me use her cell phone to call my mom and wish her a happy birthday (it was, indeed, my mom's birthday). And the campfire was awesome—my first on the trail, no less.
As bad as the night before was for me, that's how good this night was becoming. I needed a little happy trail magic to lift my spirits.
At the end of the night, Dan and Bonnie brought out blankets to me in the barn to help pad against the hard floor, and Dan whipped out a propane-powered heater to set up by me for the night! Luxury does not get any better than this on the trail.
I slept warm and good all night.
The next morning, the cold temperatures had finally passed into something comforting moderate, and Dan and Bonnie continued their generous trail magic. Bonnie had real milk to go with my cereal, and put out muffins and bananas and all the fixings to make myself a sandwich for lunch. Wow.
I got a late start on the trail, sucked in by Dan and Bonnie, not leaving until 10:00 in the morning, but it was worth it.
The trail continued on, not nearly as scenic as the previous four miles, but happily free of cows and cars.
When it came out near a trailhead, though, my good luck finally came to an end. An adorable little dog trotted up to me on the trail. At first I looked up the trail for its owner, then I realized.... there was none. The dog was alone.
Oh, the dog was adorably cute and friendly, the tongue hanging out and the tail wagging, seemingly happy to see me.
I tried to ignore it and passed it on the trail, not daring to pet it in fear it would never stop following me.
But it didn't work. The dog started following me. "Shooo!" I told it, waving my arms around wildly. "You don't want to follow me."
But the dog continued to follow me, though at a distance further back. I gave the shoo speech again, apologizing for not being nicer, but the trail was no place for this dog.
Finally, the dog sat still when I continued on.
I went about a quarter of a mile, before I realized it took a shortcut and was ahead of me again. I hadn't lost the dog.
That cute, adorable little face. I could so adopt a dog like that, but I couldn't take this dog with me. Who knows what sort of wild animals would make it dinner.
I had to get this dog to stop following me. At the trailhead, perhaps someone could give it a ride into town and give it a proper home, or find the owner. With me, nothing good could possibly happen.
And I finally figured out how to ditch the dog once and for all. The trail followed alongside a barbed wire fence, as much of the trail along this section does, but this particular fence also included chicken wire near the base so small animals—such as a dog—could not get under it.
If I put the dog on the other side of the fence, it wouldn't be able to follow me anymore.
I started waving the dog closer to me, then petted it, in tears at the betrayal I was about it do. Told it over and over again how sorry I was, but he couldn't keep following me. Then I picked him up—he didn't resist or anything—and pushed him out to the other side of the fence (at that point, he did resist a little).
He dog landed on the other side, turned around, and watched me, seeming to ask, "Don't you like me?"
I started to cry all over again. "I'm sorry—you can't go with me." I was more than a little upset the owner of the dog had lost it out here in the first place.
The trail followed alongside the fence for a short ways, and the dog followed along the other side with me.
"I'm already feeling guilty you stupid dog!" I told it, crying some more. I felt like I was giving it a death sentence, leaving it to fend for itself, but I figured its chances had to be better near the trailhead than with me.
I finally lost sight of the dog for good at what appeared to be a small house or building of some sort. It appeared well taken care of, in the middle of a busy farm where I could see people off in the distance, and I hope the dog found someone there that could take better care of it than me.
I almost wished I was miserable again instead of feeling so damn guilty.
The rest of the day was rather non-eventful. The trail passed into Avon Air Force Base, where I signed my life away on a form at a kiosk at the entrance. The next 12 miles I pushed through as quickly as I could, wanting to reach the northern border of the base by dark, which I did, about 25 minutes after sunset.
I could have camped on the base, but I planned to meet Amanda the next day at River Ranch, and I wanted to get as close to it as possible to meet her there when she arrived. I still would have a long 14 miles to River Ranch, but it was a huge improvement to the 19 miles I'd have to cover if I camped at the last designated campsite in the base.
So I pushed myself through the base, a relatively nice walk despite the cows grazing, and reached the northern border just after sunset, setting up camp a few minutes later in an open area among a field of palmettos.
The night was wonderful. Cool, clear, and a brilliant moon lighting up the landscape.
I didn't waste much time getting back on the trail after the sun rose, however, because civilization was waiting about 14 miles ahead. Restaurants, supplies, air conditioning, and all things good. And if the timing was just right, a meet-up with Amanda. I expected her to be in the River Ranch area, perhaps by around 3:00 in the afternoon, so that's when I wanted to be there too.
There's not much to report about this section of trail. It meandered a bit, like most trails do, through cow paddies, which I quite expected at this point.
Eventually it came out and followed some dirt roads for several miles, exposed to the sun, but fortunately not too terribly hot. Then ducked back into trees. I passed a very dead cow, decorated with turkey vultures, and at one point lost the trail completely.
I went back to the last orange blaze, and walked a small semi-circle around it looking for the next blaze, but came up empty handed. Then I walked a large semi-circle around it, and came up empty handed again.
Assuming the blazes really weren't on this side of a small canal, I started hunting for blazes on the other side, finally finding a blaze and back on track again.
When the trail came out at a trailhead, I noticed a bright, shiny car parked on the side, thinking to myself, "It's been awhile since I've seen one of those!"
Then I noticed a head behind the steering wheel waving at me. It was Amanda! =)
I happily threw my pack in the car, grabbed a cold drink she had brought in a cooler, and jumped into the car.
She whisked me away to Lake Wales, the largest town anywhere near the trailhead, where we booked ourselves into the local Super 8 and I spent hours catching up on the Internet with the laptop Amanda brought.
I took a shower, changed into clean clothes Amanda also brought, and we went out for a wonderful dinner at Manny's Chophouse.
Life was good.
We started formulating plans for the rest of the week—Amanda would be supporting me for the better part of a week, and we started planning and calculating what to do for the rest of her time in the area.
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