I’ve never been to Florida. You hear quite a mix of opinions about this place. But then, this state can’t quite be categorized as one place, can it? No state can, really, but Florida might be in a league of it’s own in that respect. First you have miles and miles and miles of coast which varies depending on which part of the state you’re in. Then you have the inland territories of the north and the south. The culture, from what I hear, is quite different. But that’s what I’m here for, to experience Florida. I am under no illusions about the trail in front of me. I know there aren’t any mountains, or crazy vistas, or wild country like that of the Continental Divide. This is a humid place with humid-loving flora and fauna. No, I am not here to have the experience I had on the AT, or the CDT. I am here because I like adventure in new places.
After a weekend in New Orleans with my oldest and best friend, Cody, I got picked up in NOLA by a Marine buddy who I met through another Marine buddy while I was on the Appalachian Trail. Justin offered to pick me up and bring me to Pensacola for the start of the trail. I can’t thank him and his fiance enough for putting me up for a few days while I rounded up the last of my supplies and did the last bit of loose-end tying, After one seriously gluttonous breakfast they drove me to the start of the trail at Fort Pickens. We said our goodbyes and there I stood, at a very unlikely place about to hike in a very unconventional environment. You don’t think of ocean and sand when you think of hiking. You think of mountains and dense forests with fresh water streams and grass. Yet there I stood next to a cannon atop a pentagonal fort that was closing in on being 200 years old.
I walked the beach for awhile until I decided that it was too much effort to trudge through the sand, so I bounced over to the road that paralleled the beach (it was a very narrow barrier island). I finished the day on the road, roughly 6 miles of blacktop walking. I forgot how much I loathed the feeling of my feet walking mile after mile on black top. I’m not carrying Crocs like I was last year when I started the Continental Divide Trail. They were a staple and a go-to for my road walking endeavors through New Mexico. I don’t carry a camp shoe anymore. I can’t justify the weight of things that aren’t needed anymore. Although, I’m sure once I get into some more swampy areas of the FT, I may be wishing I had my trusty ole ‘Socks N Crocs’.
The next day I vowed that I would stay on the beach all day. Sure it might be harder work and the miles might come slower, but my body in general felt better after doing miles on end in sand. And really, it was more beautiful. I might as well enjoy the beach while I’ve got it. Once I cut inland, I don’t think there is too much beach walking, if at all from here on out. I enjoyed walking on the beach so much that I decided to actually continue on the beach off of the official trail. Once you get to Navarre Beach the trail cuts inland around the west side of Eglin Air Force Base and then cuts east through the base to just north of Freeport. I decided to bypass Eglin Air Force Base altogether and stick to the beach. Not only do you require a permit to hike through Eglin but in my experiences, base training property/grounds are never really very scenic. Camp Lejeune (where I was stationed) was just one big swamp and briar patch basically. I found myself losing myself in thought along the beach, enjoying the sounds of the waves crashing. I drifted up and down the slope of the beach as the waves faded in and out. It became like a game to find the hardest parts of the sand so that I could more efficiently walk along the beach without my feet slipping in the sand. Luckily I wear gaiters or I might as well have been walking bare foot the whole time with the amount of sand that would have piled up in my shoes. I did, however, walk a ways barefoot, more so for the novelty of it than anything else. It was nice to dip my toes in the sand and ocean. The water was exceptionally warmer than I thought it would be. I eventually came to a stretch that was “off-trail” and forged on without a second thought. I just figured, “This is beach, I can walk it.” It was a cold and windy day and a couple miles in I started drinking some of the leftover whiskey that I had from my New Orleans trip the weekend before. You’re damn right I saved it. Now, I didn’t get shnackered (not a real word but I doubt it needs explaining), but I was feeling the right amount of good to be talking to myself and hollering at oncoming seagulls and pelicans. I laughed out loud to myself as I knew I looked like a crazy person, but really I was just having a good time, and nothing was going to stop me. Not even the restricted sign that said “permit required” that was on the beach could stop me. I was too far to care about turning back, there was no way that I was going to walk around. I kept trucking. The only thing that had me worried was what looked like a giant air traffic control tower. But there was no runway nearby so I just kept moving. My hope was that they could care less about some dude with a backpack walking along the beach yelling at birds minding his own business. And my hopes were realized, I passed no problem.
Eventually I made my way to Fort Walton Beach. This was where I would spend the night because one of my closest friends from the Marine Corps lived there. His name is Decoteau (last name). I haven’t seen Dakota (not how you pronounce it but what we call him anyways) since I got out of the Corps. It’s unfortunate when you lose touch with someone you were so close to for so long. We were together from basically the beginning. After boot-camp, if you are going to be in the infantry, you get sent to SOI, or the School of Infantry. Dakota and I were squad leaders together at SOI and when it was time to get sent to the Fleet Marine Force we got orders to the same Battalion! Not only that but the same Company! Not only that but the same Platoon!! Now, it would be too much to ask to be in the same squad but being in the same platoon is damn close enough. We were brothers, and always will be. After we came back from our first deployment to Iraq we decided to make the move over to Scout Snipers together along with our friend G-Spot (I swear that’s what we all called him on account of his last name being Gearino, even my parents called him that). The three of us made the transition together and we deployed once more to Iraq as a threesome of best buds. After our 4 years of Active Duty service we all decided to take our honorable discharges and seek a new life in the civilian world and the three of us would never be together again, at least yet. So Dakota picks me up at a Waffle House and man let me tell you it was like we were never apart. We didn’t skip a beat. I was so glad that I cam down here to hike this trail if for no other reason than to run into him for a night. We went out to Chili’s and had a few beers and reminisced about old times. I get a little emotional just thinking about how lucky I am to have served my country with such an amazing crew, even beyond Dakota and G-Spot. I crashed with him for the night and then he dropped me off at the trail head the next morning. Wished I could have spent more time with him.
The next day I finally got into some woods and off the beach and roads. I had no idea what to expect from this new environment but I can tell you that if there is a way to enjoy it, I’ll find it. The ground became soft and needle covered. The trail winds in and out of shallow sand creek beds in woods that appear like something out of The Lord of the Rings (I described it on Facebook as being like Fanghorn Forest). I enjoyed it. I liked the solitude. There wasn’t a person in sight once I left the road. Only distant sounds of a feint car engine. I saw plenty of what appear to be panther tracks. I have been keeping my eye out for one and I am hopeful that I’ll bump into one sooner or later. My first official wooded campsite was perfect. It had a fire ring and two benches. I enjoyed a couple of burritos there and camped with my rain fly off but there was a chance of rain that night so I had it handy in case. The next day I walked into my first resupply spot in Ebro where I had a box sent to the Ebro Motel. Lovely people run that place and it was recently renovated to my delight. Clean rooms and everything a hiker could need. They did my laundry for free. Ironically, staying directly next to me were 3 other Florida Trail Hikers. Captain Glen came to my room to introduce himself and insisted that I come over and visit with him and his companions, Dos and Bat. They were on their home stretch heading in the opposite direction. It was nice to encounter some other hikers, especially since they had information about the towns and trail that were ahead of me. They also had a friend visiting them who is somewhat of a hiking legend himself, Nimblewill Nomad. We all had a great time talking about hikes and conversation over a few beers.
Man, It’s great to be back on trail. This life is what I need. I could be anywhere as long as I’ve got my pack with me.