The Appalachian Trail is otherworldly, a window to the soul of nature as it was meant to be, but I live in Florida. That makes any AT adventure, even a short weekend trip as I’ve done before, a long, complicated affair. So with spring break approaching and very little free-time during that week to set aside for a run, I set my sights on a more local destination- The Florida Trail. With 1,300 miles of trail to choose from, and habitat varying greatly from one end of the state in the Everglades to the panhandle, I chose a section that was both challenging and beautiful, wild and accessible; the section that precipitated the formation of the trail back in 1966, and traverses the Ocala National Forest.
From the northern edge near Lake Kerr the trail is unbroken and remote, with the exception of a few brief road crossings, to the southern edge 60 miles south at Clearwater Lake. I planned to spend one night on the trail and pack light, covering 30 miles each day. As the trip approached, however, some challenges naturally arose. First, I had to take my two kids to school in Tampa the morning of my trip. Second, the weather forecast called for freezing temperatures that night so I had to pack a tent and sleeping bag and warmer clothes, all heavy items I was hoping to leave behind. Finally, I had figure out a way to get to the trailhead at the northern section and get home from the southern one. Simple solutions, I know, but still it made for some last-minute drama during the planning stage. I ended up taking a bigger pack, weighing 20 lbs with all my supplies, using Uber to get to the 88 store near Lake Kerr, and starting my run at the peak of the day instead of first thing in the morning, but it all worked out in the end.
I stepped out of my Uber ride, tipped the driver generously considering he drove me to a remote dive bar despite not speaking a word of English, and walked into the store that I thought was a popular hiker supply stop. I felt a bit out of place as two people at the bar barely looked up from their drinks, and the bartender glanced my way as if to say, “are you lost or do you want a drink?” The truth is I felt lost before even stepping foot on the trail. I found a path leading back away from the store and soon enough saw an orange blaze that would send me on my way. I never actually strayed from the trail or even had to consult my GPS for directions but that feeling of being lost stayed with me for several hours. I think in retrospect I needed to find myself deep in the woods before this adventure truly seemed real.
I began with a light jog, feeling the weight of my pack and the soft sugary sand under my feet. My pace quickened as I lost sight of the road and began to embrace the challenge of what lay ahead. My goal was to cover 30 miles while the sun was still up and find a good spot to set up camp, and despite the late start I was moving fast and covering a lot of trail. The northern part of The Ocala National Forest oscillates between longleaf pine and sand pine scrub, and both were equally inviting. The former consisted of towering Pines spaciously arranged with open grassland between allowing for clear views in every direction for as far as you can see. The latter was a different world of stunted and compact trees and shrubs, dotted with small ponds and exposed to the sun’s glare. I ran for several hours enjoying the islands of tall pines surrounded by seas of scrub, and barely felt the weight of my gear or the miles ahead.
A little over ten miles in, the trail emerged from the forest and entered a sprawling prairie ecosystem that seemed too grand and pristine to be hidden so well in the middle of a tourist state. The lakes were very large, but probably rather shallow and the trail lazily meandered around each one for another 10 miles. It was beautiful and peaceful, but there was no hiding from the sun and the miles began adding weight to my pack. I decided at hidden pond, a natural spring with deep, cool water to drink, that I didn’t need to be carrying 2L of water and instead began stopping to drink using a life straw and carrying just a small emergency ration. I decided to camp just shy of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, at about 30 miles for the day and right on schedule, except the light was already getting dim and it was dipping below 40 degrees, which by Florida standards is almost unbearable. I built a nice little fire, put up my one-person tent, and sat down for a well-earned meal.
Unfortunately, in my zeal for minimalism and efficiency, I had packed meager rations. So far I had eaten two energy bars, and one Epic brand dehydrated meat bar. For dinner, I had packed two more meat bars and a Cliff bar, and for breakfast a small bag of oatmeal with almonds. After that feast, I would have just two more energy bars to last me the rest of my trip. I still don’t remember how that made sense to me in the planning stages, but I wasn’t about to go foraging. My tent was covered in ice by morning and the best decision I made that day was to spend 20 minutes getting a little fire going again before breaking camp. As I slowly hit the trail again, back sore from sleeping on the ground after 30 miles, and 30 more miles ahead with no way out but to keep going forward, I felt truly alive.
The hardest part of this day came relatively quickly as I left the embrace of the prairie and entered Big Scrub, the heart of Ocala national forest and the largest area of scrub in the world. The trail was white sand, the vegetation desert-like and offering no shade, and the rugged but featureless landscape acted like a maze of thorny walls that stretched and twisted for nearly 15 miles. My strategy of saving pack weight by not carrying water seemed quite foolish at this point, but I knew a large spring was somewhere just around the next clump of wild rosemary, so I pressed on. As it turns out, Alexander Springs was about a mile up a side trail that climbed away from my ultimate destination, but at this point thirst prevailed. The two-mile detour left me cleaner, more hydrated, and motivated. Actually, the thought of a fresh brewed cup of coffee was my biggest motivator. Either way, I ran through truly stunning hydric hammocks, and more upland longleaf pine forest until I completed the 62-mile run to Clearwater Lake.
My body was worn but defiant; my spirit was lifted. I had lost myself in some true Florida wilderness and found a resilient and appreciative runner emerge from the scrub. The landscape will likely never make the final cut for a postcard or billboard, but this area of central Florida, dwarfed for attention by Disney and the coastal beaches, offers a glimpse of the beautiful complexity of creation. Every step is an ecosystem in transition, and every step helped change me as a runner.