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Ryan’s Great Adventures

Volume 88: Sun June 29, 2008

Our adventuring hero braves rivers, logging roads, and pretends to be a homeless guy under a bridge

February 20

The broad, slow moving Suwannee River

The next morning, I ate breakfast at the Suwannee River Diner, not only to save the one and only breakfast cereal I had left that I knew I liked, but also because my guidebook mentioned what a wonderful mural is inside of it.

And it is indeed absolutely wonderful! It stretches around the top of the walls, depicting the Suwannee River flowing from its source in the Okeefenokee Swamp (and I just love that word—Okeefenokee) to the Gulf of Mexico over all four seasons and 24 hours. Supposedly, there's even a Florida Trail blaze hidden in the mural, but I didn't find it. I think it was on the wall I was sitting against so I didn't have a good view of it.

It's a wonderful mural, though. The breakfast was ordinary—two pancakes, two eggs (scrambled), and a heap of bacon—but still quite a luxury compared to my usual cereal.

After breakfast, I did a few more chores regarding permits for St. Marks Wildlife Refuge and hiking through Eglin Air Force Base, finally hitting the trail near 10:00 AM. Much later than I would have liked to start, but was about the time I figured I would start given the tasks I had to finish.

I was determined to get as many miles done for the day while the weather was nice. A minimum of 20 miles, though with my late start, it would be nearly impossible to do more than 25 miles by dark.

This day, in any case, turned out absolutely beautiful. The temperature was nice, the bugs weren't out, and the trail continued to follow along the banks of the scenic and meandering Suwannee River.

I'd have been positively giddy except for the weather that I knew would be blowing in tomorrow which put a damper on my spirits.

The trail near Swift Creek climbed over a series of small hills. I clutched at trees and roots, using all fours to make it back up the steep slopes.

One was so steep that the powers that be included a cable line one could grab to help pull yourself up with, and after reaching the top, breathing heavily, I promised God that I'd never make a joke about Florida being so flat again if he stopped with the hills. (Not to worry, though, the hills kept coming.)

Snap crosses a log bridge along some remarkably uneven terrain by Florida standards

Late in the day, I caught up with Snap. Gretchen had left the trail for the civilian life, but Snap was still working his way through Florida. He took a zero day in White Springs which is why I caught up to him—I thought he was still a day ahead of me, but he left town only a couple of hours before I did.

Even more amusing, it turns out that he was right next door to me at the hotel, in room 18, and neither of us realized the other was there.

We continued hiking together the rest of the afternoon, trading war stories and enjoying the company of not hiking alone.

At US 129, Snap decided to hike south to a campground. I was torn. I wanted to get miles in, but there was food and perhaps a telephone in that direction. I didn't intend to add to my food stores, but I didn't think I had enough food to get me to St. Marks so if I could eat dinner there, that was one extra meal I'd have for later.

The fact that Snap is such great company settled it for me. =) Enjoy it while I can! We hiked toward the campground. A woman who turned out to be a landscaper offered us a ride in her golf cart gizmo to the campground, but when she told us the camp store closed at 5:00, we declined. The store had closed minutes ago. We decided to go to the convenience store another 0.2 miles down the road instead, and I joked if she could still give us a ride on her cart.

She seemed to think about it a moment, then waved us in, "Yeah, I can do that!"

We threw our packs in the back and squished into the front. She couldn't drive the thing on the main road outside of the park, so she drove it down a dirt road then across the grass (warning us to hold on, because the ride was about to get bumpy) across the street from the convenience store.

We jumped the fence, then ransacked the store for dinner. I picked a hearty Italian sub, a bear claw, and a Coke. Snap picked up a Cuban sandwich, a Snickers bar, and a Diet Pepsi, I think it was.

After finishing our meal, we hiked back to the trail and set up camp far enough away from US 129 so the cars driving by wouldn't keep us awake all night.

I poked my head out of my tarp to check out the total lunar eclipse I knew was supposed to happen that night, but I didn't know the details of exactly when it would start or end at my location. I couldn't see much in any case since the trees mostly obscured the moon, and I never did see the eclipse. Oh, well. There's another one in 2010, and I've seen a number of total lunar eclipses in the past. Not the end of the world.

The weather, on the other hand, that would be a problem....

February 21

They must have had a lot of extra paint while painting the blazes on this tree!

The morning started overcast, to be expected, and I hoped the rain wouldn't start up until late in the day. Snap left camp before I did, but I passed him by pretty quick determined to pull about 26 miles to a shelter of sorts. Snap had no intention of trying to keep my pace, so we parted ways.

"I'll give you a call when I reach Springer Mountain," I told him. Maybe I will too if someone has a cell phone up there that works. =)

Have you ever seen those homeless guys under the bridge? Of course you have. They're everywhere. Have you ever been the homeless guy under the bridge?

I hadn't, but I figured it was about time I gave it a try. =)

With rain in the forecast, and expected to continue all night long, I decided to hike 26 miles to a bridge over the Withlacoohee River on CR 141. I'd passed several campable bridges the last few days, and my guidebook said that this particular one, on the west side, would make a good rain shelter.

So a rain shelter it was to become. Unless I found some other improvised shelter at a more reasonable 20 to 25 miles away first, but I had no reason to expect that would happen.

The first sprinkles started by 10:00am, and by noon, the rain came down in torrents. The trail was still quite scenic, but the rain wasn't much fun. Cold and wet pretty much sums things up.

I stopped to rest at 2:00 at Gibson Park. Filled up my water and used the pay phone across the street at the agricultural check station. That was when I heard the first of the thunder. The weather forecast called for 'isolated thunderstorms' the next day, so I was surprised to hear the thunder just then. It gave me a small hope that maybe the storm was blowing through quicker than expected and perhaps I'd only have to deal with two days of rain instead of three.

The rain continued the rest of the day and evening, sometimes hard, sometimes soft, but always there.

To reach the protection of the bridge by dark, I decided to take a blue blaze trail cutting about 3.5 miles of official Florida Trail hike. It was a shame, really, since the trail followed along some very scenic areas, but a half-mile blue blaze would cut an hour off my hiking time and allow me to reach the bridge by dark.

I also set a limit—if I didn't reach the blue blazed trail by 6:00, I'd set up camp at the first good place I could find. I didn't want to be caught setting up the tarp both in the rain AND in the dark.

I reach the blue-blazed trail with less than 20 minutes to spare, and happily lopped off the 3.5 miles of official Florida Trail.

It must have been karma. When I reached the bridge, I was disappointed to see litter strewn about and broken glass all over the place. It looked like a local hangout for the teenaged delinquents. I considered going on and finding a place to camp in the woods, rain or no rain, but it was starting to get dark and I kind of liked the idea of being the troll under the bridge. Perhaps it wasn't the nicest of bridges to haunt, but I'd do it anyhow.

In hindsight, I should have just moved on.

I laid out my ground sheet on a small patch of grass near the north side of the bridge and set up camp. I cooked mashed potatoes to use up some of the cookable stuff I had while it was dry to do, then laid down to go to sleep.

A few minutes later, a gust of wind blew in from the north, and I quickly realized I was too close to the north end of the bridge.

I threw open my tarp on the south side, and quickly carried all my belongings onto it, safe from the rain blowing in under the bridge.

This camp under a bridge would be one of my worst, most miserable nights on the trail.

For now, at least. There wasn't room enough to lay down here. Most of the area under the bridge pooled water and turned to mud—obviously not good places to camp. I looked around with my headlamp and decided on a location between two support beams holding up the bridge. It was high ground, and perhaps the posts would help block the rain from blowing in.

I stood in the spot, determining if rain would be a problem still, and decided it likely would be, so I tied my tarp between the two posts and set up camp underneath it.

If I was going to set up my tarp anyhow, I would have just as soon did it in the woods where I wasn't surrounded by trash and broken glass.

When I did lay down, I discovered yet another reason it was such a horrid camp. That was when I got my first whiff of urine. Damn punks had peed on the post by my head.

In a nutshell, my idea to camp under the bridge was one of my worst ones ever on the trail.

I did survive the night, however, and listened to the rain and thunder most of the night, staying mostly dry in the process.

February 22

Shortly before sunrise, the rain stopped, and shortly after sunrise, I broken down camp, glad to be rid of the place.

Obviously, a thru-hike is tough on the body. Especially the feet, but it's tough on your whole body, and a lot of people physically cannot complete a thru-hike, and often quit when they realize their physical limitations.

An even larger number of people, however, I suspect quit due to the mental and emotional stress involved with a thru-hike.

I write this entry on one of my mentally toughest days on the trail. I woke up under a scummy bridge, surrounded by the smell of piss. The rain had stopped, for the moment at least, but I knew the forecast was for more.

The trail would largely follow a scenic trail along the meandering Suwannee River, but I didn't care anymore. It would just be more of what I'd been seeing for the last few days. Then it would become road walking again, never an exciting thing.

Frankly, I didn't have much to look forward to, and that's never good for one's disposition.

Some of my hardest days, mentally speaking, are the first few days after Amanda leaves from a visit. She's a heck of a lot of fun, and brings much joy into my life. =)

When she leaves, the joy usually leaves with her. I think she sneaks it into her bags or something when I'm not looking.

But seriously, I often spend the next few days wandering around with a dazed look in my eyes thinking, "And why do I want to be out here?"

I imagine all the things I would do today if I weren't on the trail. I'd probably be in Seattle, waking up in a cold room. If it were cold enough, I might turn on the heat a little. Just in the room with the computer, however, since my fingers can't type very well in cold weather and I'd need to type to work on Atlas Quest.

If it were raining, and I vaguely remember the Weather Channel saying something about a big storm hitting the northwest (as well as the midwest and northeast, but that's another matter), I would probably walk to the library during a lull in the rain, or perhaps stop for lunch nearby.

I'd read magazines, and oh how I'd love to read a BuisnessWeek or something engaging.

That night, tonight, I'd probably watch something on television to relax, and if nothing new or interesting was on, perhaps watch a DVD of something.

Instead, here I am. I'm camped illegally in land used by the timber industry. I think there's a papermill nearby. To be perfectly precise, I'm about halfway down Camp P Rd. According to my map, that's at approximately 30 degrees, 18 minutes, and 20 seconds north, and 83 degrees, 22 minutes, and 0 seconds west.

It will likely be the only time in my entire life I will ever be at this precise location, thank God. =)

Miraculously, despite the weather predictions, it did not rain all day, but I still set up my tarp since it could still very well do so at any moment. Nasty looking clouds out there.

It's dark now, 7:43 PM according to my pedometer, and I'm using my headlamp to see what I'm typing. Occasional I slap at mosquitoes or flick an ant off of me.

A few minutes ago, a truck drove by on this dirt road I'm camped alongside. Knowing darned well I'm not supposed to be camping here, I quickly turned off my headlamp when I heard the truck approach, then watched it drive by from behind the bushes on the side of the road.

The truck was something of a surprise. I could tell no vehicles had driven on this section of the dirt road since the rain last night (no fresh prints) and hoped that meant by camping here, no one would drive by during the night or in the morning before I left. One truck isn't too bad, though.

And now I just battled a very large moth who felt that the light on my head was its home.

I'm feeling awfully lonely and alone at the moment. These are the times many hikers call it quits and go home.

I will not, however. I knew going into this hike I'd have my low days, and I'd have high days, and things will brighten up. They always do.

It's 7:51 now, and I just heard the first few drops of rain on my tarp. I'm okay with that, though, since I'm tucked safe and sound underneath it.

My biggest worry is if the wind will shift directions or grow stronger. It's been coming in from the south and I set my tarp up to protect me from wind in that direction. A strong wind will make me drop that side of the tarp lower than it currently is. Annoying, but better than getting wet.

A 90 degree shift in the wind isn't too big of deal—I'll crunch up on the side away from the wind. If it moves 90 degrees and becomes a strong wind, I could have problems. I'd probably take the trekking pole out as a support if the wind is coming from that direction, or lower the rope against the tree if it comes from the other.

The rain is getting heavier now. Perhaps it'll get the bugs to stop bothering me.

Except for a spider that just crawled under my arms as I typed this. I guess he wanted the dry protection under my tarp as well, but I flicked him out into the cruel outdoors. He's got to learn to fend for himself, just like I have. =)

I'll let the ant crawling around on my Waldies stay where he is, though.

Why am I out here again?

I don't mind if it continues to rain all night—I'm already in bed for the night—but I have my fingers crossed it'll stop by sunrise so I can hike dry. The weather forecast predicts more rain tomorrow, so I won't hold my breath, but I'm hoping.

February 23

My backpack sits on the ground while I take a rest

Yesterday too was a rather sad and depressing day, but I still smiled with joy twice. I reached a phone and was able to check the comments people left me on my blog and sent through AQ mail—always fun and encouraging to read—and I got to talk to Amanda who was on a layover in San Francisco. I bet it's a lot cooler there than here in Florida!

Despite the weather and my gloomy mood, there's not much to report today. The most exciting moment was finding a group of Outward Bound folks camping in the woods. I quizzed the first guy I saw, asking how long he was out there (3 days) and which day he was on (2nd day). I asked how his night went (wet and rainy, oh yes, been there, done that) and wished him drier weather in the future.

It wasn't until I had passed several younger people outside their tents with sleeping bags and clothes outside to dry that I realized what a miserable night they must have had. They were in tents, but almost everyone one of them seemed to be trying to dry out. One of them complained to me that they got "flooded," and looking inside their open tent I could see that the floor was completely wet. How did they get SO wet in a tent?! Don't know why, but that amused me.

It rained pretty much all that night, with a couple of bolts of lightening lighting up the sky and a roar of thunder to make sure I was awake to appreciate it.

No adjustments to my tarp were necessary, however. It kept me dry all night, just as I originally set it up.

February 24

This is often what my view looks like when I stop to take a break

And the most wonderful news of all, the rain had stopped by morning. I ate breakfast under the tarp and packed up most of camp under the tarp—just in case the rain returned, but it was an unnecessary precaution since the rain stayed away.

I'm down to two breakfasts now, with four days before my planned arrival in St. Marks and a definite place I could resupply. I am, however, about a half day ahead of schedule, and think I can push on to a full day ahead of schedule by the end of the day—or at least close to it. Still, that's two breakfasts for three mornings.

Snacks are harder to estimate since I eat those whenever I stop or get hungry. Some days I eat more (or less) than others. All things considered, it's still a sizeable bunch of snacks.

Dinners... not sure how many of those I have. At least a few, but if my snacks run low, one of them might have to improvise as a lunch. Actually, one of them will likely improvise as a breakfast at some point since I know I'm already short one breakfast.

Basically, I'm cutting it close in the food department, but being a day ahead of schedule certainly would help tremendously since it eliminates the need for a breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The walking is slow at first, with the logging roads still saturated with rain water. As the roads dried throughout the morning, progress improves.

My mood has improved dramatically since last night. Rain still threatens all morning, but I hit a low point yesterday and things are looking up now. Of the three days of predicted rain, it's now the last day. My left shoe has a large gash in the side where the stitching is coming undone, but it doesn't seem noticeably worse since leaving White Springs and I'm nearly halfway to St. Marks where a new pair of shoes awaits.

My right shoe has started showing the same problem as my left, but the hole is much smaller and I have no doubt it'll make it to St. Marks without any problems. My left shoe could still blow out before then, but I'm optimistic it'll make it if I'm careful with my footing.

I pushed on, never stopping to rest for more than 15 minutes at a time. At first, my goal is to hike as much as possible before the rain begins, but by early afternoon, the sky starts to clear up and I don't think it'll rain at all. At least not until after I stop for the night.

My map shows a river, the Econfina River to be exact, and I figure to fill up with water there then find a place between US 221 and US 19-27 to camp for the night, but my imagination of what a 'river' is turned ot to be considerably larger than the real thing. I walked right passed the so-called river. I did see a stream, a couple of them, in fact, but I passed them earlier than I anticipated and assumed they were tributaries to the Econfina. No sense carrying extra water any earlier than necessary.

So I walked right past the river and didn't realize it until several miles later.

This was not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination. Water was still everywhere, including large pools of it directly on the forest roads. I'd rather not drink from it if I can help it, though.

The next water source listed on my map was at the road crossing of US 19-27, so I figured it must be a better (or at least more reliable) source than the others, and I set my feet in motion to reach that water source. Of course, if I found an awesome source of beautiful, clear water before then, I'd make use of it, but otherwise I'd rely on the stream by US 19-27 which was actually my goal for the NEXT night on my schedule. If I reached it today, I'd be a full day ahead of schedule.

So I kept hiking, hard, never stopping to rest for more than 15 minutes at a time.

The hike wasn't particularly noteworthy. I didn't hate it like many road walks since it was on rarely used dirt roads. Only one truck passed me all day, and he asked where I had started hiking from, saying I had 'spunk' and he admired that when he found out I started my hike in Key West.

So there wasn't much to hate about the walk, but it wasn't amazingly beautiful either. Much of the area was clear-cut, and the rest had been clear-cut in the past. Trees grew in perfectly straight lines, on linear mounds the tree planting equipment created for them.

No reason any hiker would go out of their way to hike this section, but at least it wasn't on busy roads.

My guidebooks warned that the trail could be hard to follow along the logging roads since trees with blazes often get cut down and blazing isn't always so great. A map and compass, my maps and guidebooks warned, were essential.

But I never had any trouble following the trail. It was well-marked and easy to follow, though admittedly, if someone did take a wrong turn, it would likely take some time before one knew it since generally, only the turns were well-marked. Blazes between turns were scarce.

But I made it through quickly and efficiently, reaching the designated water source a bit after 5:00. I liked the look of the water from the Econfina better, but it was too late for that now.

I stocked up with five liters of water, then mosied another mile along the trail, across US 19-27, and far enough away so the traffic wouldn't disturb my sleep overnight.

The sky looked beautiful at dusk, partly cloudy and not at all threatening. Having no idea what the overnight forecast was, however, I set up my tarp under some pine trees, on top of a thick layer of pine needles.

A thick layer of pine needles, I have to say, are my favorite place to camp. It's luxuriously soft and comfortable, and even those folks with thick air mattresses or pads can't do better than a thick layer of pine needles. They interlock at random points creating enormous air pockets. It's like floating about an inch off the surface of the ground.

I'd take a thin layer of pine needles if that's all that was available, but nothing beats a thick layer of them. Nothing. =)

February 25

I know some of you admire what I'm doing. Some of you are jealous, and some of you think I'm crazy. And some of you might think I'm great entertainment.

For me, the monotony of the hike has set in. That's not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, but what it feels like, in a lot of ways, is a job.

I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, and get ready for my day job. It's a little bit different that when I worked at Intel. Here, I used powdered milk instead of the real stuff in my cereal. Here, I have to make my bed every morning (stuffing it into its stuff sack) while I rarely did that when working at Intel. The biggest difference, of course, is that I don't take a shower out here. Not like my colleagues on the trail care how I smell.

It's all routine for me, though. As is striking out on the trail and putting in the miles. That's the actual work I put in. I take short breaks and a lunch break, just like in the office. Meetings, fortunately, aren't a problem out here. They do happen, sort of, when we trade notes with a hiker coming from the opposite direction or compare notes when we came from the same direction.

Today, I felt like I've reached a peak. It's all about putting in miles, and the quicker I can crank them out, the quicker I can go home. I don't much care about the job anymore as I do about just getting it done and over with.

Not that I feel like the job is a bad one—just that it doesn't hold much interest for me.

Usually, at the end of the day, I write up a little summary about what happened along the way, and if not much happened, I write a lot of fluff. Like today. =)

It's a job. Better than most, perhaps not as good as some, but I chose it and I'll see it through. Make the best of things as I muddle my way through.

So what did happen today? Glad you asked. It did not rain overnight, so I made excellent time hiking along the logging roads from the get go. It's remarkable to me that I often hike 25 miles a day now considering that the sun sets at 6:22 the last time I checked. I try to get my hiking done by around 6:00 at the latest. I'm quite thrilled when I finish before that. Like I'm taking off work early. =)

Today I think I did about 24 miles of hiking and finished just after 5:00. It amazes me that I can hike so far so quickly.

The logging roads are perfect for long days, though. They're quick and easy to hike on, there's almost nothing that's particularly scenic to make you want to slow down and smell the proverbial roses. Nope, just walk. It's all there is to do.

Near 1:00, I passed an older gentleman, and by older, I mean somewhere in the neighborhood of 70, hiking by himself south on the trail.

He had just been dropped off and seemed happy to meet me, but said he didn't want to bother me since I probably wanted to continue my hike.

Which is true to an extent, but I was very curious about the man. I got the impression that he's trying to section hike the entire trail. This day, he said, he only planned to do about eight miles to US 19-27. Which was strange, because I spent the night near there and had hiked about 16 miles already when I crossed paths with him. He either knew a shortcut or he was stopping before then.

I was a bit worried about him. He seemed strong enough, but he carried no backpack or water bottle of any kind. Even for an eight mile hike, I'd want a small water bottle. He won't die of thirst out here—plenty of water sources to drink from along the way, but why use them if you don't have to?

At least the folks in the black SUV that just dropped him off and knew where he was and where he was meant to be going. If he doesn't show up later in the afternoon where he's supposed to be, help will be on its way quickly.

The first campsite I reached along the Aucilla River was absolutely wonderful. I was tempted to stop early, but the trail was calling so I moved on.

And late in the afternoon, I finally left the logging roads. After something like 50 miles of them, I finally got back to a real trail along the Aucilla River. It was positively scenic, and my pace faltered. I kept pausing to admire the view. It had been days since I last did that. =)

I reached a campsite soon after that, and stopped for nearly an hour eating snacks and watching the water go by. Large oak trees leaned out high over the water, and impressive cypresses grew along the edges. The water here was shallow, so it moved quickly and rippled like every good creek should.

Even though it was only a little after 2:00, I seriously contemplated spending the night there and calling it a day. I liked the campsite that much. But alas, I decided to push on another six miles to the next campsite instead, but which should still get me in for the day at a respectably early 5:00.

Which isn't to say I didn't stop for a nice, long leisurely lunch. ;o)

And that's where I'm at now. It's a beautiful sight, even before I picked up the empty beer can that had littered it. I set up my tarp near the edge of a steep slope going into the river which has a wonderful view of the river. Magical!

I still liked the other campsite better, however, because you could hear the water there. The river is wider and deeper at this location, and the only time I hear it is when a turtle (or something) jumps into or out of the water.

Anyhow, I'm rather happy along this river. It's not as large as the Suwannee, but it has ten times the charm. Unfortunately, roads are close by and I could hear several cars and trucks filled with people on the hike out. Not far enough from civilization, but at least tonight I seem to have the river to myself and feel like I'm in a wilderness.

Shoes are holding steady. For food, I'm definitely running low. Tomorrow I will be finishing my last breakfast and dinner. I have enough snacks to stretch out for two days when I hope to reach St. Marks.

Fortunately, it looks like there is a small place along the trail tomorrow where I should be able to get some short-term resupplies. I figure if I can find something for one breakfast and perhaps a hearty lunch tomorrow, I'll be good through St. Marks.

February 26

Upon waking up in the morning, I was somewhat surprised to see gloomy skies and a thick layer of fog. I generally don't sleep deeply at night—at least not in the woods where you want to be alert of man-eating alligators and food-hungry bears—and peak around my surroundings all night long. You can do that easily from a tarp. I'll look at the sky and try to discern a pattern to the weather or listen to the splash of something entering the water.

I would actually sleep quite soundly at night, and usually do at first, to tell you the truth, but it gets dark so early and stays dark so late, I end up getting about ten hours or more of 'sleep' each night. Have you ever tried to sleep that long every night? It ain't easy, and I often end up tossing and turning wishing the night would go by faster. =) Not a big problems as problems go, but that's the real reason I'm often alert to the sights and sounds of the darkness. I'm bored with nothing better to do.

But I digress.... So all night long, I notice the brightness of the nearly full moon lighting up the area and casting long shadows. I can see the stars twinkling brightly all night long. So when I finally opened my eyes to get a start in the morning, it was a shock to see it so gloomy. A mere hour or two before, I was admiring twinkling stars. What happened?

Morning fog fooled me into thinking a stormy day was ahead, but it burned off quickly and became quite sunny.

I feared another storm had rolled in, knowing there was supposed to be another one behind the one that already passed. Maybe it rolled in early like the last one rolled out early? It wasn't raining, at least.

I made up breakfast—the last one in my sack of food—and packed up camp. A hint of blue started showing through the clouds. It was simple river fog, pure and simple, and the fog was starting to burn off. Fooled by river fog. Silly me. =)

The trail continued to follow the Aucilla River, or at least what was left of it according to my guidebooks. The Aucilla gets swallowed by a sinkhole, in its entirety, then can be spotted occasionally on the surface where it runs under other sinkholes.

So it didn't look like a river anymore. It looked like occasional pools of water. Scenic, but the water seemed stagnant. I imagine the bulk of the river is still flowing underground, below the sinkholes.

A few miles later, the trail dumped me back onto a road and the road walking continued. Almost by habit, I started singing 'On the Road Again' to myself.

The road passed what is labeled as a dolomite mine on my map, which I found entrancing to watch huge trucks moving around what looked like huge mounds of dirt. I didn't know what dolomite is or what it's used for (kind of sounds like an ingredient in Doritos, though, don't you think?), but I was impressed with their mine. Actually, I was impressed that Florida had something to mine other than limestone and coral.

The trail eventually passed J.R.'s Aucilla River Store, which was supposed to be good for 'hiker supplies.' I suspected this was another way of saying 'short-term supplies,' and I was right. They had a choice of about four different cereals, and I picked Raisin Bran or something like that. The flakes weren't very sturdy, though, and I suspect I might end up with a bag of crumbs by the time I'm ready to eat it.

Although I didn't need it, I also grabbed a box of mac 'n' cheese since I prefer to always have at least one extra meal on me at all times.

And then I picked up a bunch of snacks and a bottle of Coke to eat right then and there for lunch.

When the road walk finally ended, the trail led into St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. It was immensely disappointing to see a large pool of water across the trail. I was led to believe that the trail through St. Marks was largely water free. The walking through water part was still further up ahead.

Maybe this water was a fluke, I hoped, and carefully bushwhacked my way around the water where clearly so many before had tried to do as well.

After several of these water bogs and an unpleasant experience with a bush with sharp, long thorns, I decided that walking through the water was the best thing to do.

Frankly, I couldn't go wrong. Knowing my luck, as soon as I walked through one of the bogs, it would likely have been the last bog anyhow. And if it wasn't, and there were lots more bogs ahead, at least I didn't waste anymore time trying to get around them keeping my feet dry.

So into the bog I went. And another. And another. Then, to add insult to injury, they provided a bog bridge to get across. Not sure why they bothered since our feet were already wet, but I used them anyhow since it seemed like the right thing to do.

One of the views looking out from St. Marks

I walked through more bogs, and over more bog bridges, in alternating patterns as if it taunt us.

Finally the trail came out on a dike and the walking went faster and drier.

I stopped to rest when I reached the Pinhook River campsite. A nice site with lots of pine trees (my favorite), but it wasn't even 2:00 yet. How cool was that? I'd probably hiked about 18 miles, and it was only two!

On to the next campsite, another six or seven miles ahead. My permit wasn't for the next campsite, but then I also reached St. Marks early so it wasn't actually good for Pinhook River camp either.

I lounged at the campsite for nearly an hour, first noticing that the hole on my right shoe had grown dramatically larger since I put it on that morning. Alarmingly fast, in fact. My left shoe took the better part of a week to do that, and my right shoe did it in a matter of hours. Probably that bog walking. I thought it was a sure thing that my left shoe would fail long before the right one ever became a problem, but now I wasn't so sure anymore.

Between the two camps is the official Florida Trail and a blue-blazed high water route. Based on the bogs I had to walk through, I'd give the high water route serious consideration. I suspect it was meant for REALLY high water, like up to one's waist, but there was no sign saying how high the water had to be before the high water route was an acceptable alternative.

But as an act of penance for my last blue-blazed shortcut (camping under that horrid bridge), I took the official Florida Trail. And I walked through more bogs. Blah.

Both shoes came out muddy, but otherwise no worse than going in.

I had to rig up the tarp with quite a bit of rope and creative knots to beat the strong winds back

And I finally reached the Ring Levee campsite.

The views are wonderful. There is very little tree cover here, so you can see for miles in every direction.

The campsite was remarkably gusty, though. The wind didn't bother me, and if it kept the mosquitoes at bay, I'd have even encouraged it. But the wind was strong enough that I put some extra considerations while setting up my tarp.

I meant to describe some things I did differently to set up my tarp with such strong gust of wind to consider, but those stupid PocketMail limitations cut me off...

First, one side of the tarp would face directly into the wind to act as a windbreak. Its edge I staked right at ground level. Usually I leave several inches which I can look under, but not this time. At most, that left a two-inch gap under the edge of the tarp, which was small enough to block the wind.

I kept the inside height low as well, so less of a profile was there for the wind to hit. That's as far as I ever took matters in windy situations before, but these gusts were so strong, it was yanking the center of the tarp down ridiculously low, like a wind tunnel over the middle of the tarp.

I took some extra rope and tried tieing down the 'lifters' on the side of the tarp, but that just helped push the tarp down lower.

Took that rope off, then decided to run it from the top of my trekking pole, over the top of my tarp through a loop in the middle, and cinch the other end high on the tree trunk on the other side. It would pull up in the middle of the tarp and give me head room to work with.

Sunset over my campsite. It looks scenic, but don't be fooled. The bugs were taking protection from the wind under my tarp just like I was!

I left the end where my feet would be low—it was at the head and in the middle of the tarp I wanted enough room to move around in.

With that final rope in place, the tarp rose in perfect defiance against the wind. Another tarp job well done. =)

Of course, the real test would be sleeping under it that night....

I cooked dinner on the far side of the tarp, using the pitched tarp as a windbreak for my stove. It worked reasonably well, but being outside of the tarp definitely provided less protection than under the tarp.

I saturated the ground around my stove with water before lighting the stove. Given the strong winds, I didn't want to inadvertently start a wildfire! I also kept a particularly large amount of water nearby—just in case.

Dinner turned out fine, though, and no wildfires were started in the process of making it.

At sunset, I crawled under the tarp and was swarmed by mosquitoes. I think they were hiding out from the wind under my tarp! On with the mosquito netting and gloves, and all was right with the world.

February 27

The wind continued blowing strongly all night, and by morning it included a few drops of rain. Or maybe it was condensation that had shook loose from the handful of palm trees around the site?

Looking out, it seemed like a foggy day, until I realized that I could see some distant trees, well over a mile away, while the sky was grey and menacing. It wasn't fog—it was rain.


At least I stayed dry and warm under my tarp. I was quite proud how well it held up during the blustery night. I did get up to pee and tightened some sagging ropes.

The bugs under the tarp were merciless, though, so I didn't loiter long after that. In my sleeping bag and covered with mosquito netting, I was quite fine. It was when I needed my hands unencumbered to make breakfast (a bowl of ground up Raisin Bran) or eat it that the bugs pounced on me.

The rain mostly threatened a few sprinkles on and off for the next hour or two, never very long and hardly worth the effort of taking my umbrella out for.

I pushed on to St. Marks, where I planned to get off the trail—for one night, at least, maybe two. I had one worry, however: the St. Marks River.

The trail crosses the river into the town of St. Marks, but there is no bridge across. The river is much too large to be swimming across, and anyhow, I'd probably drown if I tried to swim with my pack on.

No, the expected way hikers are to get across is to hail a passing boat and ask them to ferry you across. There is a local one can call to shuttle you across for a fee, but my resources say it's "usually" easy to hail a boat during the day.

It was the word "usually" that bothered me. I've never been to St. Marks before and really didn't know what to expect. How busy is the river with boat traffic? Does that include windy, cloudy weekdays? I had my doubts, but the only information I was was that it was "usually" easy to hail a boat. I hoped they were right.

I could have called the local to pick me up from a nearby visitor's center, but that was a mile off the trail and he wanted 24 hours advanced warning, so I din't go that route.

Anyhow, hailing a boat to cross the river seemed quaint and fun. I'd probably be disappointed if I didn't at least give the option a try.

So off to the river I hiked, having no way to cross it.

The river wasn't nearly as wide as I imagined it to be. I might have been able to throw a rock across. Maybe. With the wind blowing in my direction. But I definitely could not cross it on foot.

I took off my pack and sat down at the water's edge, waiting for a passing boat to take me across. It was a little before 1:00, and I decided I'd give this hailing a boat thing a try until at LEAST 2:00 before I started making alternative arrangements.

The only boats I saw were in their slips on the other side of the river. I ate some snacks for lunch, while waiting.

Ten minutes later, I still hadn't seen a single moving boat, and I began thinking today might be an "unusually" hard day to hail a boat.

I could now hear thunder in the distance, which I figured didn't help my chances any. I don't know of many people who rush to their boats when a thunderstorm hits.

I looked downstream, hoping to spot a boat, perhaps coming back for the afternoon and saw the calm surface of the water near me turn into a splatter from heavy rain not more than 200 feet away.

The sheer ferocity of the splashing river startled me into action, and I grabbed my umbrella and opened it, tucking my legs and my pack under it.

A half second later, sheets of rain hit. It was a drenching I'd seldom seen before in my life, seemingly an inch of rain in mere minutes.

A flash of light lit up the sky, and a shockwave of thunder followed another second later. BOOM!

A particularly strong gust of wind nearly blew the umbrella out of my hands, and I clenched onto it tightly.

The St. Marks River blocks my access into the town of St. Marks. So close, and yet so very far away....

The rain was so thick, I could barely see the town of St. Marks anymore. And I'm huddled with all my possessions under a flimsy umbrella at the edge of a river I couldn't cross.

Frankly, I felt like an idiot sitting there, and an audience was somewhere, indoors and dry, watching me on a large screen TV and laughing.

It was still 20 minutes to 2:00, but I'd had enough. For nearly an hour I sat there, and I hadn't seen a single boat with an occupant. It was time for Plan B. I called it the 'hail a car' plan.

I last left you with me shivering, wet, and cold, stranded on the east side of the St. Marks River with no way to cross.

I resorted to Plan B, which meant hiking back four miles on the Florida Trail, then following a one-mile blue-blazed trail to the Plum Orchard Visitor Center.

I borrowed a cell phone from one of the employees there manning the front desk and called a fellow turtle who now resides in Tallahassee.

"Hey, there," I said, "Have room for a wet, miserable hiker?" =)

Originally, it was my intention to call her for a ride into Tallahassee and a night off the trail from St. Marks—thus my preoccupation with reaching St. Marks. There's not much to see or do in the town of St. Marks, but for me, it was the gateway into Tallahassee and comfort. =)

I gave my updated location, and she said she'd be there in about an hour.

I took off my shoes one last time—they'd carried me from the I-75 rest area on Alligator Alley to the east side of the St. Marks River (about 700 miles), and their end had finally come. Say what you will of Payless Shoes, but they did a wonderful job. =)

To kill the time, I looked through the gift shop and museum, then read through much of a magazine about running a business for birders. It astounds me that there are enough people who own stores selling birding supplies that they have a whole magazine dedicated to them, and there's no magazine for letterboxers?

It was a fascinating magazine, though. Learned quite a bit of interesting things about birding. Not sure when it'll ever be useful, but it was interesting. =)

Turtle arrived and whisked me away to Tallahassee.

February 28

The state capitol of Florida looks surprisingly like a penis with two testicles. I wasn't quick enough to catch the second dome structure on the right in this photo, but it's there. *nodding*

Oh, it was wonderful. I got to shower, work on Atlas Quest, and even watched the Simpsons movie which was pretty darned funny. The temperature would drop below freezing the next couple of nights, so it was nice to spend it in a nice, warm bed.

I ran a few errands, such as replacing my digital camera which appears will never be back to normal after the dunking it took from the canoe ride. I also had developed the roll of film from the disposable camera I had been carrying while hoping the digital camera would suddenly start working properly again.

I ended up taking a zero day in Tallahassee, which isn't to say the trail wasn't trying to catch up to me during that time! That evening, I got an e-mail from my mom, worried about me since some folks from St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge were trying desperately to find me. They wanted to do prescribed burns, but didn't know exactly where I was and they didn't want to burn me up. =)

The only reason they knew I was (or had been) there was because of the permit I mailed in, so I guess they were trying to make sure all hikers were safe.

I'd listed my mom's phone number as an emergency contact, but had no cell phone for them to contact me directly, so they called my mom several times during the day trying to find me, and even were out looking for me on the trail driving around in ATVs.

All the while I'm completely oblivious of the search, and well out of the way tucked away in Tallahassee. =)

I called the woman back who had kept calling my mom all day, who seemed relieved to finally know exactly where I was and my future plans. They were planning to burn the area around Port Leon, the area I'd hiked the day before, but I planned to continue my hike from the west side of the St. Marks River (after all, I'd already hiked everything east of it—no sense doing that again). So I'd be well out of the burn zone the next day. Much ado about nothing.

On my way out of Tallahassee, I got to see the state capitol building. Normally, I wouldn't mention something as mundane as a building, but for those of you not familiar with the Florida state capitol, there are two things I'd like to tell you. One, it is, hands down, the single ugliest state capitol I have ever seen in my life. I've seen jails with more class. And second, at least from the particular angle I approached the capitol from, it looks amazingly like an erect penis with testicals. I am not making this up. Floridians everywhere should hang their heads in shame. Everyone else should laugh at them.

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