Florida trail, day two: O MAGIC SWAMP

December 14
Mileage 21
Mile 10 to mile 31

My alarm goes off at 5:30. I sit up in a tent cometely saturated with condensation. Everything is damp. We’re in a swamp; I guess that makes sense. Outside, the land is draped in moonlight. The sun shows no sign of rising. What time does the sun even get up these days? I don’t know. I pack up my wet tent and sleeping bag in the chilly damp-dark and start hiking with my headlamp, picking my way through the mud. By and by the sky begins to grey and then bam! That gentle-orange wintertime Florida sun. How nice it is to see.

Today we have a surprise: water alternating with mud and then, just water. Flat, shin to knee deep water, stretching out in every direction, dead-looking trees sticking up, bleached white. The water is clear and the bottom is deep, sucky mud. I take a step- splash! And then I wrench my foot out- slurp! And this goes on for a number of hours. There is nowhere to stop and sit, nowhere to take a break. My shoes fill up with mud until there is no room for my feet; I remove the insoles and empty the shoes out, rinse them with swamp-water, wedge them back on over my socks. Soon they’re full again, pulling me down like bricks. The water is cool, though, and it feels soothing on my scratched-up legs. As I slosh forward I look at the forest around me- gnarled trees, leafless but stuck here and there with air plants, which I have seen before only in small glass atriums, lily pads, sunlight shining off flat water. And a deflated helium balloon- the fourth one I’ve seen today. So when you’re a kid and it’s your birthday party and you let the balloons go- this is where they end up. In the Enchanted Swamp.

After a time I realize I’m travelling at just over one mile per hour. This makes me panic a little. I’d planned to finish the swamp this afternoon- now I’ll be lucky if I get out by dark. What happens in the swamp after dark?

I try not to panic. Slurch, lurch, go my shoes. Splash! Goes the water, as it covers my legs and the hem of my dress. I look into the water for snakes. Would I even see one if it was there?

There are these things in the swamp called “pine islands”. I don’t know how they exist but I happen upon one around midday- a chunk of solid land, or at least firmer mud, in this vast expanse of low clear water. I push my way onto it, through some tangled foiliage, and find a leafy small alcove in the center, just big enough to camp, surrounded by dense trees. It’s eerily still here, and there are rustlings- I feel like every swamp creature lives here, at least every swamp creature that needs solid ground, and they are all, at this moment, watching me. I make a little lunch, take off my shoes and attempt to scrape the mud out. My socks are filled with mud too. I spread my wet tent and sleeping bag on some tree limbs in the sun to dry. A swarm of the tiniest mosquitoes descends on me, but I don’t mind. Rustle rustle, go the bushes. When I can’t stand the watchful eyes of the island any longer I plunge back into the swamp, and resume my slow journey north.

I find a kind of rhythm. I give up. I forget that there is any time, that there is anywhere I need to be. Slurp, slurp, slosh, go my footsteps as I lurch along, grabbing at the trees for balance. I wonder how my feet are doing in there. Rotting maybe? At 5 p.m. I pass another island- the next solid land, according to my data book, is not until the highway in 3.5 miles. I wanted to make it to the highway so bad- there’s a rest area there, and I’ve been fantasizing for hours about rinsing all the mud out if my shoes under the bathroom tap, post-swamp. But the sun is sinking and will set in half an hour, and my pace is slow, so that means night-hiking. I look down around me at the clear, deep water. Is it safe to night-hike in this swamp? Is there something I should be scared of?

I choose option C) call a friend. I call Track Meat, who lives in Florida and who hiked the FT last year.

“What are you doing?” He says.

“I’m in the swamp.” Splash. Splash. Splash.

“That is so cool.”

“Is it safe to night-hike here? Will something try to eat me?”

“Nah,” says Track Meat. “Alligator feeding time is before sunset; they’re not feeding now. And when you’re walking you don’t look like a deer.”

“They eat deer?” I say.

“Yeah. But you’ll be fine.”

Afterwards I am greatly reassured and I splash forward with renewed confidence, swinging my headlamp around at the dark trees. After a mile or so I reach a dirt road, only partially submerged, and I squelch down this with glee. Now and then I am plunged into knee-deep water, but the road always rises back out. And then the distant lights of the highway, a chainlink fence, and I am thrust back into the ever-present bustle of western civilization- the freeway.

I miss the swamp already.

In the restroom at the rest area I rinse out my shoes, change into my tights, and find an embedded tick in my armpit. The vending machines are like a convenience store; I buy three different types of chips to go with my instant lentil dinner and then I sit at a picnic table on the dark grass, watching the regular people in their cotton outfits come and go. I am exhausted from the swamp slogging; my legs ache all over and I’m starving. After dinner the Florida winter chill comes on but no matter; the vending machines have hot cocoa. And honey buns.

I push my way into a dense stand of trees behind the rest area and next to the biggest cell phone tower I’ve ever seen and set up my tent there, to stealth camp. This reminds me of my hitch-hiking/trainriding days. I push my stakes into the soft mud and crawl inside, exhausted.

Tomorrow the roadwalking begins.

Photos on instagram