Gators, Guts, & Glory: Adventures Along the Florida Trail 

By Lauralee Bliss

Wander on the wild and humorous side of adventure with long distance hiker Lauralee Bliss (trail name Blissful), hiking the 1,100-mile Florida Trail from Big Cypress National Preserve to Gulf Islands National Seashore. From alligators and cottonmouths to tenting among the palmettos and walking on water, from forests of cypress knees and lofty pine to the help of trail angels along the way, “Blissful” uncovers the hidden gems of glory in this National Scenic Trail with a unique journey unlike any other.

Chapter 1

A Monument to Sucking Mud

 Is anyone out here?

There’s been no water for miles, no semblance of humanity, and my water bag is dry. I am a lone wanderer on the Florida Trail, and things are getting desperate.

Water is normally everywhere, pouring out of faucets, filling rivers and streams and great oceans. One never misses anything so commonplace—until you don’t have it. I look at my empty water bottles while my tongue runs over parched lips. Many of the streams listed in my guidebook are dried up. The sweltering Florida sun beats down, and my need for water after hiking many miles is getting critical. I must have some liquid refreshment soon, not only to ease the dryness in my throat that feels like sandpaper, but really, to prevent full-blown dehydration.

I lumber along, wondering what to do, when I look off to my left. Suddenly I spot a silvery pool glistening in the bright Florida sun. It’s a pond of water, surrounded by a beach of black sand. Water! Yes! Heaven on earth. Thank you, God.

I need to leave the trail and walk out to the pool of water, but that shouldn’t be difficult. I’ve already done many things to reach water—hiking through tall grass, slogging across bogs and cypress domes while batting away palmettos in my face. The black sand looks pretty wet, so I elect to keep my backpack and shoes on grassy turf and don my Crocs—my favorite footwear for camp and water crossings (they have holes in them to drain out water). I pick up a water bag and small cup I use to collect the water from a natural source and gingerly make my way toward the pond. How lovely it looks. I can’t wait.

I step onto the black sand. And sink. Rapidly. All the way up to my hip. It’s not sand but a muddy trap known as sucking mud.

“No!” I yell. I try to pull out my leg but I’m stuck fast. I twist, attempting to maneuver out of this mucky stranglehold and finally drag my leg out, now covered in black slime. I step out with my other foot and meet the same fate. Mud all the way to my hip.

No, no. How am I going to get out of this? How am I going to get the water I need?

As a hiker I’ve been in lots of wacky situations. I’ve done over 6,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail in all kinds of weather and in wild terrain where I thought I’d lose my life. I’d been lost and stabbed on the Allegheny Trail in West Virginia. I’d been in a veritable wind tunnel and flooding rains along Vermont’s Long Trail, not to mention my backpack falling off a cliff, but that’s another story. I’d been attacked by the infamous Japanese hornet on the Foothills Trail of South Carolina where my leg swelled to twice its normal size. But I’ve never be caught in quicksand, i.e. sucking mud.

Memories of the classic movie The Princess Bride flash through my mind, of the hero and heroine caught in the depths of lightning sand and nearly suffocating. If I don’t find a way out of here, I could very well be stuck for who knows how long, a permanent muddy monument to the rigors of the Florida Trail.

I force away the fear and turn to prayer, asking fast and furious for help from above. There is no one else out here but God, and He has been with me through thick and thin. Though right now I’m in a situation as thick as mud. I think of how often God has dispatched mighty angels to help in my time of need as I wander these many trails. I wonder if the angels pull straws in heaven to see who is responsible for helping Blissful the Hiker out of her latest predicament. Seriously though, I consider how much angels have taken care of little ol’ me, involved in some crazy stunt while hiking a trail. And here I am in another pickle jar, stuck fast in the mud. I’ve never been through anything like this before. But then again…I’ve never done anything like this before, either. Nothing is normal out here. And maybe that’s a good thing. A backpacking trip should never be boring.

Welcome to “Adventures along the Florida Trail.” You will never be the same.

Chapter 2

The Adventure Is Born

There’s nothing like a return journey on the trail of my dreams, and here I am in late March, hiking for a third time along a section of the Appalachian Trail from the Great Smoky Mountains to Spivey Gap in Tennessee. I’ve been out a week in nearly every kind of weather. In the Great Smokies, foot-high snowdrifts turn to ice when melted by freak rain. Ice then turns to slush that soaks through trail shoes and makes the way slippery. Farther down the trail, slush turns to mud that grabs hold of feet like mini pools of quicksand, sucking off trail shoes. Hitting the town of Hot Springs to dry out, clean up, and eat is now on the hiker menu.

I arrive at the Laughing Heart Hiker Hostel with soaked gear and soaked feet from all the precipitation the sky has dished out. The friendly hosts greet me and offer me a real bed while pointing out the major hiker necessities like the washer and dryer and the showers. Yes, there is wondrous scenery and friends on a trail, but oh, how I cherish the comforts of civilization in the feel of clean clothes, a clean self, a bed, and lots of food.

Once my basic needs are met, I wander about the hostel, looking around the sitting room with books lining the shelves and a hiker box brimming with leftover food in Ziploc bags and heavy gear no one would ever want to haul. I then examine the posters decorating the walls. One in particular draws my interest: a full-length map of the Florida Trail. I gaze at it intently, from its beginning in the Big Cypress Swamp, winding its way some 1,100 miles north and west across the Panhandle to Pensacola Beach and its northern terminus at Fort Pickens on the Gulf Islands National Seashore. In the past I spent a good deal of time in Florida—visiting relatives and scouring the famous landmarks of beaches, historical sites, tourist attractions, and orange groves. But hiking a trail in Florida is something I never considered. There are also rumors of the challenge found in the Florida Trail’s beginning—that is, trudging for days in knee-deep water through a swamp. After hiking in slush on this Appalachian Trail venture, I shake my head at the thought of unending wet feet with a pack on my back and no place to rest. I’m enduring enough of it on this trek.

The caretaker of the hostel—trail name[1] “Chuck Norris”—now ventures forward as I continue to look over the poster. “So is the Florida Trail difficult?” I ask him.

“No, not really.”

Oh yeah? What about the swamp things? Walking in all that water—how can a hiker possibly survive such an ordeal? “I know you have to go through water for several days,” I say to Chuck Norris. “Your shoes must get ruined as well as your feet. What do you do?” I’m thinking of my wet feet when I arrived here and how uncomfortable it made me feel.

He shrugs. “It’s quite easy. You just wear a pair of old shoes through the swamp. When you get out of the swamp, you throw away the old shoes and have a new pair waiting for you.”

Sounds logical enough. But I still can’t wrap my mind around the idea of actually wading through deep water with no place to rest one’s weary self. And then the isolation where no living thing can be found but for the alligators and water moccasins. You have to be crazy to even consider it. And that’s that.

Anyway, a trail in a swamp is not my idea of the Sunshine State. Florida had been a vacation mecca of mine for years, especially when my parents used to rent a condo in Largo every winter. Along the Florida coast there’s plenty to do. I loved wandering up the western coast to the quaint Greek village of Tarpon Springs where one can take a boat ride to learn about harvesting sponges from the deep, indulge in buttery baklava at a Greek bakery, or browse the many shops all filled with the same items for sale—sponges of every shape and size. Then there’s Homosassa Springs with its boat ride through the bogs and wildlife exhibits. Farther down the coast is Sanibel Island, known for its seashells, and Fort Myers with the winter homes of neighboring inventors Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Not to mention the beaches that frame a subdued Gulf of Mexico. On the east coast is the great Atlantic Ocean with its mighty waves and pristine beaches, and the Kennedy Space Center that has seen man journey to the moon and the International Space Station. There are sprawling beach resorts and a pool in everyone’s backyard. And of course who can forget Orlando—home to orange groves, Walt Disney World and the famous Cinderella’s castle, the whales and penguins in Sea World, and other high-priced amusements. Those are my images of Florida.

Now I’m trying to imagine Florida by trail, wandering through the heart of a state where nothing I attribute to Florida even exists. In fact, what does exist in the Florida wilderness?

I grab a pamphlet about the trail from a stack of literature in the hostel’s library and take it back to my room. I scan the map to find the dots of a trail meandering through a swamp, around a humungous lake, and through the middle of the state where hardly any civilization abounds. Wilderness in my eyes is what I hiked for so many miles on my treks along the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail of Vermont, and the Foothills Trail of South Carolina. Trees. Mountain summits. Streams. Maybe the Florida wilderness is still hardwoods and streams and wildlife, all set in flatland, flanked by water on either side. And of course, the swamps of the Everglades.

I set the brochure aside. For now this trail is just a passing interest. I’m walking the trails I know best—those that traverse mountain ranges, cross streams playing over moss-covered rocks, meander through hardwoods and spruce, and deliver stunning views and a great finish. All the things that have come from ten years of wandering in eastern woodlands on a nicely graded pathway marked by white blazes, called the Appalachian Trail. It’s all I’ve ever known. I will never tackle anything else, let alone something as wild and strange as the Florida Trail.

Never say never.

* * * * *

A few years later I take off to hike a relatively unknown long-distance trail in West Virginia called the Allegheny Trail.[2] This is the first time I’ll be gone for several weeks on a 330-mile wander that is not the Appalachian Trail. I have no idea what to expect except that it’s a yellow-blazed footpath wandering through the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia, over mountains, into valleys, and through towns. It’s also a trail that no one knows exists. To me, that’s a bonus. I can be a forerunner, so to speak, blazing paths with a pioneer spirit. And yes, undergoing the testing that’s part of a pioneer’s journey into the vast unknown. Little did I realize, but my journey along the Allegheny Trail would ready me for future adventures.

One big difference about hiking the Allegheny Trail is the roadwalking. All of the Appalachian Trail, except for bits here and there, has been carefully moved off roads and onto land easements of woods and fields for that wilderness feel. But on parts of the Allegheny Trail, it’s pure rambling on country roads. When you’re in the woods, you feel isolated and therefore protected. Not so on a roadwalk with cars zipping by and drivers witnessing someone lumbering along carrying a backpack. On one roadwalk there’s only a narrow strip of shoulder to hike on with semi-trucks zipping by at fifty-five miles-per-hour. You need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. And no wearing earbuds, jazzing with the music.

Case in point. During one of my many roadwalks on the Allegheny Trail, a driver in a van pulls up beside me. The mere act itself is unnerving. He then opens the window and thrusts out his hand. I step back to see his calloused fingers holding a twenty dollar bill. “Here you go,” he says.

I stare at the money in stunned amazement before politely informing him I’m okay, not down on my luck or homeless. I’m out walking a trail.

No matter. Again he tries to give it to me, to which I adamantly refuse. Instead I suggest he give it to someone in need. The man reluctantly drives off. When I mention the event on social media, some thought I should have accepted the gesture and then pass it forward to others. In hindsight, maybe I should have. For me personally, I’m amazed that folks think someone carrying a backpack is down on their luck and in great need. I have all that I need when I tackle a trail. The backpack is my home, the trail a means to an end, the journey a life-changing experience of drawing closer to God and His creation. But I will say that this situation is a first for me, and interestingly enough, will not be my last.

The second major eye-opener in hiking the Allegheny Trail is the effort it takes to simply follow the trail. Whereas I’m used to the familiar white rectangular blaze neatly painted on trees along the Appalachian Trail to guide my every step, the blazes on the Allegheny Trail are few and far between. Trees on the Allegheny Trail are marked by rectangular yellow blazes, if done correctly. In hindsight I should’ve brushed up on navigation skills. I must rely on maps of the trail and descriptions in a very old guidebook with updates to the guidebook printed on twenty other pages. Thankfully the trail maps prove fairly accurate. I try to pay close attention to the blazing when I do find it. Some sections of the Allegheny Trail are blazed better than others. Some blazing amounts to faint splotches of dying yellow on a tree. At times there are no blazes at all but just a trail trace to follow. It didn’t take long for me to become fairly adept at following a faint trail that only a herd of deer may have used. I look for any bit of paint still lingering on tree bark that has not been stripped off by an animal or by the elements. I have become a navigator of the woods.

But several times I did lose the trail. There I am, stuck on some mountaintop, knowing the trail is ready to turn and head via switchbacks to the valley below. If I miss the turn-off, I could be wandering around for a long time, and no one would know where to find me. I will become a MHA—Missing Hiker in Action.

In these situations, the appropriate lyrics to a song would come to mind—and one I sing often to calm my fear. “Help Me Find It” by Sidewalk Prophets. I sing it a lot, using my own words too. “Help me find it, God. Help me find this trail, a blaze, anything! Help me not get lost. Help me stay calm. Help me.” It becomes my rallying cry to this elusive trail. It’s a time to build up faith when every part of you wants to give in to fear and uncertainty. I search for any sign of a trail or blaze, continuing to murmur, “Help me find it.” I look over the contour lines on my trusty map to see the trail veering away from the mountain just before the summit. From this I deduce where to go and at last locate a yellow blaze and the trail. I’m learning to get myself out of sticky situations by using the brain God gave me, an outdated map, and that still, small Voice directing my path.

Besides the blazing, the Allegheny Trail is not beautifully maintained in its entirety like the Appalachian Trail. In their spare time a few hardworking volunteer maintainers care for this 330-mile path. Some areas are better maintained than others. In places there are large blowdowns blocking the trail, requiring you to go off trail around the fallen tree and somehow find your way back to the trail trace—a nearly impossible task if it’s foggy. In one section of the trail atop a place called Shaker Mountain, a friendly maintainer warned me of a quarter mile laced with thorns and I better have bandages. I thought he must be exaggerating. When I reach the area, all I can think of is the prince in Sleeping Beauty, fighting his way through thick thorns to reach the castle. How I wish I had a machete as I plunge into the thorns that tear at my backpack, my clothes, and my skin. When I arrive at camp that night, my arms and legs are covered in tracks made by the thorns, some angry red streaks, others bleeding, all of it painful. I’m the victim of a battle waged against a trail. As I lay there in my tent after applying antibiotic ointment, the cuts screaming in vengeance, I wonder what on earth is motivating me to endure such trials. No one cares. None of this makes sense. Why put myself through it?

“Weeping [from cuts] may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). The next morning, a pretty grove of pine trees with streams of sunlight piercing through the fog greets me. I’m learning to cope with the rigors of a walk that make the beauty of wilderness appear even more stunning—with its vistas and flowing streams and the grandeur of Blackwater Falls. I’m becoming not just a hiker but a pioneer, working through the trials of the wilderness where there may or may not be a trail to follow. Most of all, I’m becoming a determined adventurer who refuses to let thorns or faded pathways or fear deprive me of a journey.

A few days later I face another obstacle by way of stepping on a limb. The sharp end of the stick flies up and stabs me in the left lower leg. Bleeding profusely and with some kind of whitish flesh showing, I shiver, thinking it’s a tendon or something. I decide to leave the trail and have it doctored. Thankfully in a week the wound heals nicely, and I’m back out there though forever sporting a deep scar on my lower leg as a medal for hiking the Allegheny Trail. A few days later I sprain my ankle in a hole after wandering over yet another blowdown. I worry this will do me in. But I take medicine, wrap the ankle in an elastic bandage, and continue on, determined not to let this trail beat me to an almost bloody pulp.

Even on my final day on the Allegheny Trail, beset with foggy, rainy weather, I spend it trying to locate faded blazes and end up lost in the thick mist, all the time hiking without food. Yes, I had inadvertently forgotten my food bag that day in the car. Just completing this forsaken trail is taking me to the brink of everything I thought I knew about hiking. But to my relief, God once more provides a way out as I spot several apple trees with fruit dangling from the branches. And somehow the blazes appear out of the thick fog to guide my way out of there, all the way to the finish line where the Allegheny trail unites with the Appalachian Trail.

I did it. I hiked the entire Allegheny Trail. The completion feels sweet in many ways, thinking of all I had endured, from thorns to a tree stabbing, from an ankle injury to food deprivation and losing my way, all to a glorious conclusion.

I arrive home diced and spliced but with a mental hardiness that gives me the confidence I need to go for experiences well out of my comfort range. For months after the Allegheny Trail, I wonder why God has led me on a trail through the wilds of West Virginia that no one cares about, let alone me. I wondered what the experience would do to me as a hiker and as a Christian. I wonder how this time of encountering the unexpected and finding oneself lost and in trouble would be used for a higher purpose. It’s done something in me, that’s for sure. It’s made me a scarred adventurer. Maybe that’s all it’s supposed to do. Or is this preparing me for things yet to be played out?

* * * * *

A year later I find myself interested in other long-distance trails out there, and the idea of hiking the Florida Trail re-enters the picture from a seed planted long ago at a hostel in Hot Springs. Completing the journey on the Allegheny Trail changed me in many ways. The time has come to expand the learning to new horizons and seek new and exciting adventures, like the Florida Trail. Even if its beginning involves trekking through swamp water. I’d already been through a lot on the Allegheny Trail. The thorns didn’t stop me, though they tried. The stick stabbed me, but I survived. The ankle gave out, but it healed. How much more damage can a few days walking in swamp water do? What’s another adventure to add to life’s list?

And so I begin some preliminary research into the Florida Trail. I join online groups to chat about the adventure and discover needed information. I start the wheel slowly rolling down the trail, so to speak. This is not a trail I longed to do, like the Appalachian Trail, which I dreamt of for thirty years before I accomplished it. But the Florida Trail is something I am destined to do.

Why?

Only time will tell.


[1] Trail names are a unique aspect of the trail community. It’s a name either given to you or one you call yourself to replace your real name. In most instances it represents something interesting about you or an interest you have.

[2] For information, maps and guidebook about the Allegheny Trail, visit the West Virginia Scenic Trails Association website: www.wvscenictrails.org

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