After completing the Pacific Crest Trail on October 21st, 2010 one of my main thoughts was "it'll be a while before I do anything like this again". I was drained both mentally and physically, the 2,663 trail miles having whittled my 185 pound frame down to a very thin 140. At Halloween my brother joked that I really didn't need a costume, I could just go as a skeleton. Certainly a period of recovery was in order, a time to reconnect to the "real world".
The first fortnight was the most difficult as a feeling of weakness completely overwhelmed me. This was hard for me to understand because I had felt so strong on the trail. Perhaps I had run out of adrenalin and my body had gone into shut down mode. Several more weeks passed and I began to feel gradually stronger especially as I was still wolfing down food at a rate that only a hungry hiker can appreciate. As a result, I was regaining a fair portion of the weight I had lost.
It was during the Christmas holiday that one of my friends from Florida wrote that I should check out the National Scenic Trail in his state. I don't know the exact reason why, but the idea intrigued me even though up to that time I had never ever heard of the Florida National Scenic Trail. A little research on the Internet and suddenly that idea was becoming a plan. No doubt I missed the challenges of the trail, so I decided on an adventure that was longer in both time and distance than the Pacific Crest. If I was going out to the east coast to hike I might as well include the Appalachian Trail as a part of the experience. This combined with the trail in Florida would exceed 3,200 miles and would most certainly take more time than the three and a half months it took me to finish the Pacific Crest Trail. Over the next few weeks I ordered the maps and data book for the Florida Trail, paid my membership fee, arranged for the permits that would allow me to pass through the Seminole Indian Reservation and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and bought a few items of gear that I thought I would need for these particular trails. In addition, I got the Thru-hiker Companion and Data Book for the Appalachian trail figuring that the planning for our nation's oldest national trail could be done while I was in the back country of the Sunshine State.
So it was that in the late evening of February 13th I found myself boarding the overnight flight from San Diego to Miami, on the way to "hit another trail" much sooner than I could ever have foreseen. Early the next morning as the plane descended for its final approach into Miami International, I gazed out the window at the landscape of South Florida. It certainly wouldn't be long now before I'd be out there in it, my excitement and nervousness building. There was only one problem I had to worry about: How do I get from the airport to the Loop Road? No public transportation is available.
I had thought Alligator Alley Express was my best option as the FTA website stated that the company offered a service between Miami and Naples with the Oasis Visitors Center being one of the drop off places. However, in attempting to contact them a few days before my flight I only got a message that the phone number was no longer in service suggesting in my mind that they were out of business. At the airport information desk, the employee directed me toward a mini-van operation that transported people around the greater Miami area, but the confusion among those working at the pick-up point over exactly where I wanted to go coupled with the $500 suggested price left me shaking my head and laughing at the ridiculous situation I was in. The trail head was only 45 miles east with no apparent means to get there. "Hell, I'm a long distance hiker," I thought. I'll take the city bus to the edge of town and, if need be, walk the rest of the way.
The $5 bus ride to the western edge of the city was uneventful and the walk past Florida International University out to the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41) was pleasant enough, the temperature being relatively mild in the wintertime. I tried hitching for an hour, but there were three factors working against me. First of all, there isn't much room along the highway for a car to safely pull over to give somebody a ride. Secondly, in the winter there are many homeless people in the area, so locals are averse to picking up complete strangers, especially those with a pack on their back. Finally, what traffic there actually was was very light and I suppose the chances of catching a ride diminish with a low number of cars.
I believe I covered more than fifteen miles striding along the shoulder of 41. As the sun dipped below the western horizon I slipped onto a short, dirt side road that led to a transmitter tower and hurriedly set up my tent next to some tall marsh grasses. A fortuitous spot indeed seeing as how much of the area on either side of the Tamiami is covered with water. Not quite the way I had pictured my first day, but except for the acute loneliness I felt inside my tent that evening, all else was fine.
Hoofing it another five miles the next morning, I reached Everglades Safari, one of several establishments in the region offering air boat tours of the swamp. I stopped by to inquire about getting a ride to the ranger station. The people I spoke to, learning of my predicament, were eager to help and on my behalf spoke to a tour operator out of Ft. Lauderdale whose group was currently out in the middle of their swamp tour. He informed me that the next stop on their trip was only a half mile from the ranger station, all I had to do was take the front passenger seat and keep quiet so he could do his presentation as the group's guide. Agreed!
While I was waiting for the group to return, I sat in the shade and did some wildlife watching. Wasn't it a thrill to see a four-foot alligator emerge from underneath the lily pads and take up a nice sunny place on a grassy bank in front of me. "Now this," I thought, "is Florida.", as my face broke into a broad smile. It was only an hour later after a short drive and walk that I was standing in front of the doors of the Oasis Visitors Center.
Everglades Safari Park