I had started this particular morning North of the small town of Blountstown, FL and began to hike across the long and winding bridge over the Apalachicola River and across the time zone border line into Eastern Standard Time. Just on the other side of the river was the even smaller town of Bristol where I had one of my famous double breakfasts. This stretch of the trail was an extremely long road walk into both of these towns and out of them as well. They were calling for a 60-70% chance of rain and I was hopeful that it would blow over. I had about an 8-10 mile road walk ahead of me and I don’t know about you but getting poured on is bad enough without the vehicles blasting past you on a shoulderless road where the sides slope off into drainage. Several miles into the road walk on a humid/sweaty afternoon, the clouds began to change from just overcast to looking more ominous. It even started to get a little chillier. This front felt to be more like a cold front than anything. I checked the weather on my phone while I was still in range of town to check the radar. I was about to get smacked in the beard with a good line of storms that were at best unavoidable. Several more miles down the road I heard that there was a teeny little mom and pop store. I picked up the pace to see if I could get there before the worst of it hit. It became quickly apparent that this was futile as the winds picked up and the dark clouds were upon me.
Now, A little over a year ago I made a purchase. I bought a Chrome Umbrella. Actually what I bought was the GoLite Chrome Dome but they went out of business and now I am shamelessly plugging the new Gossamer Gear equivalent which is literally the same exact thing, as far as I know. In any case, I bought it because I didn’t know what to expect from the New Mexico desert and what that sun would bring for me. I carried it on my first stretch on the CDT and used it sparingly and ultimately didn’t carry it past Lordsburg (the first town stop). Later on in my CDT hike there were definitely times that I wished I had it with me, especially since I carry a very thin and flimsy rain jacket that usually eventually wets out over the course of a substantial storm….anyways, I’m probably giving you all too much back drop but guess what, you’re gonna suck it up. So to get to the point, I am now carrying the umbrella with me because I don’t know what to expect from Florida storms and figured my jacket could use the help, if indeed its cold enough for one. On this particular day I didn’t feel it was necessary to break out the rain jacket AND the umbrella so I went with just the umbrella for the first time in the rain. And I gotta tell you, I LOVED IT! It kept everything dry that I gave a damn about, my upper torso, and the top of my pack is all that I really care about. Feet and legs are going to get wet, screw ’em. So anyways, I’m walking along getting trashed by torrential rains on the side of this road, but what was awesome about this was the never ending stream of big rigs hauling timber to a facility down the road. They’d woosh past me with their hurricane drafts and the added water that came along with it, blowing my umbrella nearly inside out and out of my hands. I had to have it clipped to my shoulder strap, handle tucked into my chest strap, and both hands around the shaft (no chuckling). This went on for about 90 minutes until I finally passed the facility, now all I had to do was manage wind and the rain that was already happening. Not like that’s difficult or anything, just a minor annoyance. Finally the rain began to taper off and the winds died down, just in time for me to make it to that little store. Perfect timing (he says sarcastically). I’m bitching because I can, not because it is really merited here. I hung out in the store with the owner, Hubert, for about 30 minutes while I dried off and warmed up. Had a couple sodas and candy bars and exchanged pleasantries with him. He was born and raised in this area and it was nice to get a taste of the local flavor from someone who had been around. He was a retired gentleman with kids and grandkids. Once the spritzing had ceased altogether, I rucked up and said my goodbyes and shoved off.
Only another mile or so down the road until I reached the turn off to where the trail cut into Apalachicola National Forest. From that point I had another few miles of swamp walkin’ to go until a campground at Camel Pond where I was going to clean out my shoes from swamp debris and get ready for a nighthike. Ya see, I have been doing big mile days to get as close to Orlando as possible by March 20th so that I can enjoy some downtime in the area visiting with some relatives that I had not seen in some time. I still have some miles to go before I was content with my mileage for the day. But what happened next, well my friends, that is the real story here….and I am about to tell you.
When I reached the pond, the sun half showed its golden face from behind the rest of the grey clouds. I ran (literally) to the water’s edge to try and capture some photos but the lighting just wasn’t right. I took several shots anyways. I walked all around to size the place up. First I saw a pavilion with picnic tables and I thought to myself that I could cowboy camp on top of them protected from any future rains but then quickly remembered that I was going to do night hiking so I tried to block the thoughts of setting up shop from my brain. Although, I kept exploring the campground like I was looking for a reason to stay. I got to the vehicle entrance and I saw a sign that read “Camp Host” in front of a spot that had a Honda Odyssey towing a teardrop trailer behind it (if you don’t know, google it). I make a motion towards her and I began to walk her way assuming that she was, indeed, the Camp Host. Before I could get any words out of my mouth she said, “I bet you think I’m the Camp Host.” I quickly replied with, “If you aren’t, what have you done with the body!” She half laughed and quickly I laughed twice as hard to break the awkwardness. I am so smooth, it’s not even funny. We chatted briefly about what little she knew of the campground and then we talked about where we were from and where we were going. Her name was Polly (if I remember correctly) and she was from Ohio. I told her I was from Pennsylvania and she immediately declared me the “enemy”. She was barking up the wrong tree and she didn’t even know it, poor girl. She was retired and on an epic long road trip that was going to take her to Yosemite and a few other places. She was so excited about it and full of glee to share it. I told her I was a long distance hiker and that I would be out that way later this summer and that I hoped to run into her! She then started walking me down the road further into the campground which was beautiful. Spaces were big and open and the pond was visible from everywhere. A lot of the spaces had hookups for RVs. At the very least I was going to fill up on potable water and get a charge on my phone a little bit, I thought to myself. As she was preparing to part ways with me she began to point at the farthest RV spot where an old smaller RV was parked. She said, “You gotta go down there and talk to the guy at that RV, he has claimed to have done the AT twice.” As soon as those words rolled out of her mouth and my eyes made contact with the RV….It all clicked!! I knew this RV. But there was no way. What were the chances of that?? I looked back her with pure excitement as we grew further apart, “I think I know this guy! Does he have a dog?” She replied with a yes. “Shut the front door,” was what I wanted to say, only not so PG.
Two years ago, I was on the Appalachian Trail and I had just come off of Max Patch. Let me rephrase that, I had just blasted over one of the best spots on the Appalachian Trail. A complete 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains from atop the bald that is Max Patch. Why did I just blast over this scenic spot you ask?? Because I was racing the clock to sundown. I was on a mission to make it to a particular spot where I thought that I would be getting picked up to head to a lodge that was doing trail magic for the Warrior Hikers. They were putting us up for the night and making steak dinners for us as well as breakfast in the morning. All you gotta do is say the words “food” or “trail magic” and I’ll rip the door off if I have to. So I was trucking along all day to try and make it to this alleged pick up point. I got there and I saw what I thought was my pickup vehicle. Only, this was not the case. This person informed me that they were merely doing trail magic for the hikers but he did direct me to to two pieces of paper in a plastic envelope that had a map and directions on it to where I was supposed to go. He said,”If you don’t mind saving my trail magic for the other hikers who aren’t getting steak dinner, I would appreciate it.” I, of course had no problem with that, but secretly wanted that chicken, burgers, and dogs he was grilling. Upon looking at the map and instructions, it was clear to me that there would be no ride. Damn it! I still have a ways to go. It was getting towards the end of the day and I knew I could still make it before dark but I had three other people behind me that were also trying to go to the same place. Two females (Joelle and Flo) and another one of the Warrior Hikers (Gary). Now, Joelle and Flo had actually decided to slack pack this day and didn’t have any of their overnight stuff, assuming that we would be making it to this lodge for the night. I forget how they planned it out but their packs were supposed to be meeting them at the lodge. But now came the hard part: getting the whole crew to this lodge together without getting separated. But at the same time, we were already late for dinner. I decided to break apart from them to make it there as fast as I could. You know the old saying, “Haste makes waste?” Well this could be applied here I am sure. In my rush to get to a place that I had no idea where it was…I didn’t snap a photo of the map and just assumed that finding this alternate trail off of the AT wasn’t going to be a problem. As it would turn out, it was. I hiked for almost a half an hour and never found this orange blazed side trail. I turned around for fear that I would lose the other 3 behind me and finally met up with them and they hadn’t found it either. Flo and Joelle began to worry about what they were going to do for sleeping accommodations. It was a no brainer really. Flo was to sleep with Gary and Joelle was to sleep with me and we would use all of our collective clothing to keep people warm since we only had two tents and two sleeping bags. We would exhaust the majority of the food that Gary and I had to make sure everyone got fed and the next day we would make a strong push into Hot Springs, NC to sort out the mess of getting their packs back to them. Not to panic, just gotta think on your toes a little and cooler heads always prevail. We ended up making camp with a cool group of hikers, Surfer Dude and Caboose to name a couple. We were surely bummed about missing the food and warm bed but the new company, fire, and bottle of whiskey that was making the rounds made up for the loss.
The next morning, we woke up and slowly were getting ready to get out of camp. The other crew had already left while we were still discussing our strategy for the day. Before we could actually break camp, we had a couple of women walking down the trail towards us planting little American flags in the ground. We asked them what this was all about and they said that they were doing trail magic for the hikers, but more specifically for the Warrior Hikers!! I looked back at the crew with eyes wide open and then looked back to the women and was like, “You’re lookin at two of em right now!!” They got all excited and and we got all excited and urrbody got all excited. Excited! When one door closes, another one opens. I keep telling myself and others that ever since I started living the hiking life that “everything works out”. So we walk a few hundred feet up the trail to where there were a couple trucks parked and there were at least 4 people (if I remember correctly but there were other hikers there too and my memory is a little hazy) putting on trail magic. There was breakfast food of all sorts. You name it, it was either being cooked or was already made. I don’t have the time to explain it all since I am currently starving and the thought of detailing all the delicious food might actually kill me. We wouldn’t want that now would we? So while we were there, we got to know all the people that were taking care of us. I informed them that all the rest of the Warrior Hikers were at LEAST a day behind because they spent the night at the Lodge. Two of the people, Rebecca and Tom (husband and wife) decided that, after hearing our story of the day before, they wanted to do us a favor. They lived on property nearby and had cabins for rent on their property and were prepared to offer us them to rent at a “very discounted price”. We told them that while that was very generous of them that we had to cover some ground today and that our predicament with getting the girls packs made it not a very easy situation for us to just up and decide to hop off trail for some R&R. They told us that the discounted price was actually going to be free!! That REALLY made the decision difficult but I knew that no matter what we had to make some miles on this day and there was no way around it. We thanked them kindly for everything and and reluctantly went on our way. We started rounding the hill and were almost out of site when I stopped for a moment and looked back at Gary, Flo, and Joelle. “What are we stupid?? We gotta go take them up on this!!” Haha and they were all in agreement. We turned back and told them that we wanted to reconsider. They told us that they would take care of everything. Food, Laundry, showers, the works. She told us that we could even hike a full day if we made to a particular road crossing and they would pick us up!! it was perfect. So we hiked on all day until we made it to the dead end dirt road road. They picked us up within 10-15 minutes and brought us to their property and showed us the cabin we would be staying in. It had several bedrooms and had a hot tub on the deck! That was all we needed. She gave us some snacks to hold us over until dinner and told us to get showered up and follow one of the dirt roads up the hill from our cabin to the property that they lived on. It was out of sight and past several other cabins that they rented. We did laundry and took showers and basically just reveled in the current situation we found ourselves in. 24 hours earlier we were under very different circumstances. It’s funny the way the trail life works out sometimes. After we were all cleaned up and ready for dinner we made our way up the hill to Rebecca’s Mermaid Lodge. It wasn’t one big open space in the shape of an L. The short side of it was the kitchen area with sink and wood fired stove and the long side of it was the dining area as well as a reading space or nook. It was custom wooden hand-built structure with so much charm. Windows and glass everywhere and the inside was decorated with a lifetime of items that looked like each one could tell a lifetime’s worth of stories. Most of it was mermaid themed, hence the name. Rebecca claimed that once you skinny dipped in the pool, you were a Mountain Mermaid (MAN). Dinner was served and we ate like kings and queens. There was no shortage of food and while that took center stage initially, the real treat of it all was the companionship we shared with our hosts that night. To have two complete stranger take in 4 weary hikers who were down on their luck, well you just don’t know how much that means to someone until you are on one of the two ends of it. We were so appreciative and thankful for their generosity, words can’t even express. We must have sat and enjoyed conversation with them for a couple of hours until our bellies were stuffed, complete with dessert. Once the lethargy started kicking in and it began to near hiker midnight, we said our thankful goodnights to both of them and started back down the hill towards our cabin, but not without a bottle of sparkling wine that they sent us off with. Too kind. We capped off the evening with a relaxing soak in the hot tub and a couple glasses of the wine. Life doesn’t get much better than this day.
Am I getting to the point of the story yet? Almost. Shut up and keep reading.
When we woke up in the morning we took our time getting ready. We were in no hurry to get back to the trail. Rebecca was going to take us back to where she picked us up the day before but she wanted to take us, first, to a friends of her. Apparently one of her distant neighbors was a very interesting person with a very interesting home. Camille Shaffer was from France and she is the oldest living civilian WWII casualty. I hope I’m saying that right. What I mean is when she was a little girl she lost part of her arm when she was trying to pick up a booby trapped toy doll in the streets left behind by Nazi troops. You can read her whole story in the link I provided but she is a lovely woman and passionate artist. She runs a magical property made for artists of all kind to take up residency. This place is called Azule. And once Rebecca began driving up to it, we knew it was a magical place. Hands down one of the most beautiful and unique places I have ever been to. And Camille was a real delight and let us roam the place freely. If I could ever build something as unique and magical as this, life would surely be complete. I encourage you to check out the links I have provided here. After an hour or more venturing through the caverns and secret places of this place we decided that it was time to get back to the trail. We thanked Rebecca a million times over with hugs all around and went about our way, onward to Hot Spring, North Carolina. For the record we made it there no problem and the girls were reunited with their packs and all was right with the world.
Now, time bring us present. Back to the Camel Pond campground we go. I am walking closer to the old, shorter-style RV and I make out what appears to be a woman, and immediately I think that this can’t be the same camper. I don’t recognize this person. And no sooner was I thinking this when out popped the bright blonde/white mop I remembered from that fateful day two years ago past Max Patch. It was Onesimus and his RV!! He was the one doing trail magic by the side of the road where the map was to the lodge I never made it to!!! I looked back to Polly and said, “IT IS HIM!” and I turned without a reaction to almost shift into sneak up mode. I came around the corner in clear view of him, the two people he was with, and his dog. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, but we met two years ago on the Appalachian Trail” I said interrupting the party. He looked at me like somebody who has given trail magic to too many hikers in his day. Time to jog the noggin’. I recanted the ENTIRE story to him. He walked into his camper and came out holding two sheets of paper and said,” I remember.” There it was, the map and directions. The son of a gun saved them!!! I was holding the very map that would have led me into an entirely different direction that day!! Wow. I couldn’t even believe it. Not only was I holding the maps, but here stands before me a trail angel that I had met before on the AT two years ago?? What are the chances of this. He takes his winters to Florida apparently and he had been at this location for a couple weeks now. He had his mountain bike and kayak with him. What better spot? A Connecticut man originally but he served 30 years in the United States Army, which brings me to his companion. Super Sergeant Spencer. A part Australian Shepherd and part pit stray puppy that he found on Fort Benning Georgia while being stationed there. Onesimus was a Ranger and Delta aka Special Forces. He was a boss but he has the heart of a servant. He had my respect long before I learned any of that but once I learned of this I had a whole new respect and bond with the guy. He also had two other people with him. Enter Missi and Jack (or was it Jake, Onesimus’ real name was Jack or Jake, you can imagine my confusion). Missi and Jack/Jake were from Michigan and were retired. Jack (not remembering which was which is driving me crazy) was a heavy equipment operator and him and Missi were escaping the northern winter in their RV while towing their Harley. Now, the funny thing about these two (and there was a lot) was that they were each each other’s first and third marriages. Meaning this was the second time they were married to one another with another marriage in between. They were so much fun though and you would have never known they were ever divorced. He affectionately referred to her as the Cannabitch, he was the Cannaworms, and their RV was called the Cannabus. Did I mention that pot was medically legal in Michigan? They had funny stories for days. Anyways, so we make friends all around and Onesimus invites me for dinner. There was NO WAY I was going to walk away from this. Sometimes your ambitious hiking plans just have to be put on hold. Night hike through swamps? ORRRR enjoy grilled chicken and fire baked potatoes and good company? Hmmm, tough call here.
The temperature was rapidly dropping as the sun was beginning to set over the pond. I ran back down to the waters edge to grab a couple more photos before it was gone. Then made me way over to the bathrooms to use the sink to rinse out my shoes. When I walked in it turned out there was a shower. Jackpot. I climbed in to rinse off quick with warm water and rinsed out my shoes in the process. Its called multitasking people, maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s like taking a shower while you’re bathing your dog. Oh you’ve never done that either? Well then forget I said anything. I made it back to the camp and began to set up my tent before it was pitch black and before dinner was ready. We shared so much fun and good conversation that night. Mostly we were all just so astonished by the random connection of two travelers. I was taken back by it all. I must have said a dozen times how awesome it was that we all were spending the evening together. It felt like we were all old friends or something. We made the correlation between hikers and RVers that its really all about the connections you make with the people you meet during your travels. I could see a thousand sunsets and hike a million mountains, but the power of human connection will usually trump most of those. It’s the people you remember more. Dinner was served and the boys sat at the picnic table and enjoyed our meat and potatoes by kerosene lantern. Missi sat by the fire and enjoyed her beer as she had already eaten. Not much talking could be heard during that time, mostly just the sounds of eating satisfaction. We continued to visit with each other for awhile until just before 9pm when we all decided it was time to call it a night. I said my good nights with sturdy handshakes for the men and a hug for the lady. What an awesome surprise evening this was. I still can’t believe it.
In the morning I awoke to a beautiful cool and sunny morning. I walked over to Onesimus’ camper where he said he would have coffee for me. We spent a good part of the morning enjoying a few cups and had some conversation ranging from all topics such as hiking, traveling, religion, and what our plans were for the rest of the year. His plan was to leave Florida in the coming weeks to start doing trail magic on the AT again. I informed him of my hiking plans and we figured that we would probably run into each other down the road again sometime. I’m sure it will happen. I walked over to Missi and Jack’s RV and said my goodbyes but made sure they had my information to follow along on my journey’s in the future. Sad that such a fun time was so brief and yet had to come to an end. That’s the nature of hiking. Eventually ya gotta keep moving. Fare thee well my trail magic friends. On the way out of the campground I had another camper run up to me. He had the look of a hiker. An older gentleman with a feather in his cap. He told me he had hiked the AT before and he was just traveling in Florida with a borrowed car to see what the Florida Trail was all about. He told me his trail name was Feather and asked what knowledge I had about the trail, which wasn’t much. It’s funny how hikers can easily spot other hikers. His first words to me were, “Are you a thru hiker?” Haha. What gave it away??
Then I hiked through 60 miles of swamps and other shit happened…..I’m done typing. There is your story. Hope ya liked it.