20 February 2015

Over a two-day period in early January, over 30 hikers set off from the Oasis Visitors Center in Big Cypress National Preserve on the Tamiami Trail to hike all 1400 miles of the Florida Trail to Fort Pickens, Gulf Islands National Seashore, near Pensacola. Randy and LuAnne Anderson (“Chuck Norris” and “Tigger”) organized a Presidents’ Day rendezvous in Lake City as a time for hikers to catch up and exchange their trail experiences. A freezing cold front is roaring down on North Florida as I write this, so many of the hikers have elected to hang out in the neighborhood and wait for the front to pass before getting back on the trail. I drove out to Lake City from St. Augustine with Mary McAuliffe to ask how the hike was going, what the trail conditions were like and how they felt about road-walks where gaps exist. Eb Eberhart (“Nimblewill Nomad”), author of “Ten-Million Steps,” was there to encourage the hikers and newly-weds Sandra Friend and John Keatley, www.floridahikes.com, were also there, having just finished hikes in Southern California.

Trail angels met several of the hikers at nearby points on the trail to bring them to the event so that 17 hikers were present, a surprisingly large group, and my guess is that most of them will now make it to the western terminus.

When asked about trail conditions, a few said it’s been a wet year. One of the hikers at lunch, who was further along than the others, doubled back to join the fellowship and said that at one tributary leading into the Suwannee, he had to strip down and carry his pack over his head. The water was chest-high.

I specifically wanted to know about hiking the gaps. A couple of hikers said they had read up on the trail before-hand; they knew the gaps were there; it was just a matter of accepting this reality. Nobody enjoyed the gaps. The most-used adjective was “dangerous.” Road noise and heat were secondary issues to hikers’ safety. One hiker said he weighs 215 pounds; his pack weighs 30 pounds, and yet a semi passing him on a highway could almost blow him off the asphalt. He couldn’t help but wonder what a smaller hiker would endure. Would acquiring the gaps improve the experience? Everyone agreed, absolutely.

The lunch spot was particularly well-suited for hikers. There were about two-dozen selections at the salad bar and more than that at the entrée bar. I counted eight dessert choices. Hikers can put down 6000 or 7000 calories a day and not gain weight. Everybody had good things to say about the Ole Time Country Buffet on Highway 90 just west of downtown.

I’ll write again about the thru-hikers when they reach Fort Pickens.

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Jim Kern

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