Florida trail day one: le swamp

December 13
Mileage 10
Mile 0 to mile 10

On Friday night Phyllis, the trail angel who volunteered to host me in Miami, picks me up at midnight after my flight is delayed. This officially makes her a saint. We go to a late-night burger joint and then Phyllis takes me to her condo in North Beach- she’s set up the most incredible bed for me on her living room floor. It’s such a sight after my long journey wherein many things went awry, although that is another story for another time. I crash in Phyllis’ quiet living room at 2 a.m. and when I wake it’s 11:30 a.m.- I guess that’s what jetlag does. Phyllis takes me out into Miami, which looks, at least in some parts, exactly like a Pitbull video. Palm trees, people wearing gold jewelry, luxury yachts shaped like spaceships.

“The drug trade built all this,” says Phyllis.

On the drive to the trailhead we stop at a grocery store. I haven’t eaten, and to my amazement I discover that there is both peruvian AND cuban food in the strip mall there. I eat a conglomeration of roast chicken, black beans and rice, vegetables and what I think is barbecue sauce. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten in days. Phyllis drops me off at the trailhead at 3 p.m. I have no idea how I would’ve gotten to the trailhead if it wasn’t for her, as it’s pretty remote. As such, she saved my ass. Thank you Phyllis!!

Things I learned about the Florida trail today:

Swamps exist. Swamps are real. I keep expecting to see kermit the frog sitting on a log, strumming a banjo and singing “rainbow connection”. I see three alligators within a minute of leaving the southern terminus. They are on the other side of a chain-link fence, next to a canal. I hold my phone up over the fence to take a picture. Can alligators jump? There are also birds with long white necks, called egrets. And herons, and what look like giant pheasants. In general the birds are large. As I hike there is much rustling in the swamp- as though a hippo or giraffe or dinosaur might appear. The temperature is perfect, about 65 degrees, and the sun is soft and long. Soon the trail turns to mud, then standing water. The mud sucks at my shoes and pulls them off. I look down into the water- are there snakes here? The water is at my ankles, then my knees. Help! I need a boat! I keep slogging though. Contrary to what you may have been told, only the first 30 miles of the FT are swamp. And then a 6 mile chunk later on. I know I’ll miss this when it’s gone, and all I’ve got is roads. So I try to keep a good attitude.

The going is slow, though. Water, then mud, then water again. I’m not making very good time. And now the sun is setting… at 5:30. I want to do ten miles today, so I get out my headlamp. I smell a campfire, and the I pass “seven mile camp”, where a couple is sitting in front of a tent. I keep walking, and then the trail just sort of… disappears. There are orange blazes spaced regularly on the trees, but at night I can’t see them. And now the tread is as good as gone.

I poke around, but everything is overgrown with grass. Huh. I guess that campsite is about as far as most people go on this trail. I find the trail, lose it again, keep having to backtrack. Mud, water, mud. I wish I could see the orange blazes. There are these big rocks in the trail that look like bleached dinosaur bones, it’s hard not to trip on them. More overgrown trail, more backtracking. The trail grows more faint. There’s no way to tell which way to go- just flat swamp-forest in every direction. I actually have to use my GPS, which is embarrasing. This is the florida trail! Still, it’s cool that I’m in a mysterious swamp and that it’s challenging.

By the time I reach “ten mile camp” I’ve just sort of been bushwacking for a while, using my GPS. There’s a flat spot, and, according to the data book, “water in a cypress dome”. What is a cypress dome? I don’t know. It’s too dark to find out, so I just set up my shelter. I look up and see the most fantastical shooting star. Earlier there were fireflies.

Tomorrow I hike through “the black lagoon”, where water can be “up to a person’s waist”. Who’s waist? A six-foot-tall person’s waist?

What am I doing here? I don’t know. But I’m having fun so far.

Photos on instagram