Tuesday, February 14, 2017

My 5,000 Miles In The Sun / The first Yo-Yo and the Fastest Known Time for the Florida National Scenic Trail

  As my big brother, Rich, stared at me from across the table, I could sense his concern by the way he was looking at me. “You’ve really got to spend time outside of your bubble, little brother… I fear that working too much on those books is going to make you a nerd”, he sarcastically judged through a mouthful of fries. “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do, my man”, I replied as I took a bite of my burger. After a short conversation about where I stood with the weekly goals, Rich returned to his choice topic of the day. “Listen, my man, while I was working on the mail-drop stuff for the Appalachian Trail, I came across some information on the Florida Trail. The trail looks cool and it’s over a thousand miles long”, he said while continuing to stare at me. “Hahaha… the Florida Trail? Rich, I’m a mountain boy, not a beach guy”, I stubbornly replied. “Bro, I’m not saying that you have to be a beach guy… all I’m saying is, it’s right here in your backyard”, he firmly stated. Sensing his commitment to the topic, I quickly assured him that I would consider it… which I had no intentions of doing so. “The Florida Trail?”, I questioned in my mind. “Sounds boring”, I quickly convinced myself. Knowing that I was blowing him off, he located a single folder labeled ‘Florida Trail’ and slid it across the table as he concluded the conversation. “Listen, all I am saying is, look at what I’ve found and think about it… alright?” Well, that day passed and so did quite-a-few more.

  Then, in early March of 2015, Mom and I decided that my next speed record should be the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. Knowing that I needed to get into peak shape after spending the winter working on my next book, we looked at our options. My idea was to winter hike a couple of hundred miles along the Appalachian Trail. It would be cold, but we already had done our research. “Boom! No planning needed!”, I eagerly stated. My mother always seeing the big picture said, “Nope. You’re not only going to have to train your body, but you have to figure out what works and what doesn’t work in relation to going fast over a distance that long.” And after a short pause, she frickin said it, “How about the Florida Trail?” Not wanting to give-up on the idea of hiking for a couple weeks on the AT, I immediately protested. But as Mom calmly overcame every objection I threw her way, it quickly became clear that she was right. Thirty-six hours later, on March 8th of 2015, I started southbound from the Rice Creek Trailhead. Quickly becoming apparent that the trail harbored obstacles unlike any I had faced in southern Appalachia, I was drawn to the difficulty of the new experience but not the surroundings… not yet. Comparing it to my choice terrain in western North Carolina, I blinded myself from its unique beauty. After eighteen days, Mom picked me up just north of Moore Haven and, at that time, I was sure that was the end of the Florida Trail for me. The prospect of ever again slogging through the mud for miles, fighting off swarms of mosquitoes, and roasting beneath the blistering rays of the sun… all the while with sand in every possible crevasse, was an experience comparable to Ralphie wearing the bunny suit in the Christmas Story… nooo thank you. But, I guess Jimmy Chin says it best, “The greatest hikers and climbers are the ones with the shortest memories.” Haha... wise words.

  After returning home from setting the Fastest Known Time for the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, I knew my gear-selection needed work. That summer, on three different occasions, I went to Ocala National Forest and did laps along the Florida Trail between Rodman’s Dam and Clearwater. It was during that time that I really started to appreciate the new terrain.

  Upon returning home in late August from mapping the mountain section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, I went back to work writing guidebooks. Then, in late October or early November, I just had one of those days where the walls in my office were closing in. Knowing that I needed to get out of the house, Mom and I decided to drive to Gainesville and visit the Florida Trail Association’s headquarters. By then, I had figured I would thru-hike the Florida Trail at some point but had no actual plans... and certainly not before completing the Appalachian Trail. The people there were nice but yielded no real information beyond directing me to their selection of trail-data for sale. While there, I questioned the gentleman about the current speed record. Not knowing anything about speed records, the conversation quickly moved on. As Mom and I got into the car to leave the office, we decided to investigate the Fastest Known Time record when we got back to Jacksonville. Upon viewing the FKT board, I was shocked that the record time was thirty days with an average daily mileage count of just over 36 miles. "What?" And upon even more investigating, I was even more shocked that the FT had yet to see a successful Yo-Yo. Haha... I can still remember saying to Mom, "Florida is flat! How hard could it be? I'm the creator of the toughest hiking circuit east of the Rockies for crying out loud... this is going to be a snap!!" Looking back on it now, I should have known something was up. But, within an hour of learning those two facts, we were in front of the white boards working on the logistics. Our plan was to complete the first Yo-Yo of the Florida National Scenic Trail and to take-down the speed record while on my southbound thru-hike… simple, right? At that point, I had already hiked nearly the entire trail south of Palatka. So, we decided that I would, again, start along SR-100 and hike the six hundred miles to the northern terminus to familiarize myself with the trail before starting my speed bid. 

The Yo-Yo:
  • On December 12th of 2015 at 4:44pm EST, I started my Yo-Yo and headed northbound from SR-100, located just outside of Palatka.
  • On January 15th of 2016 at 10:am EST, I started my southbound thru-hike (speed record attempt #1).
  • On January 30th of 2016 at 1:22pm EST, I abandoned my southbound speed attempt due to statewide flooding but continued my thru-hike with the plan of going for the speed record again once headed northbound.
  • On March 2nd of 2016 at 1:01pm EST, I completed my southbound thru-hike.
  • On March 5thof 2016 at 7:am EST, I started my northbound thru-hike (speed record attempt #2)
  • On March 18th of 2016 at 1:23pm EST, I arrived at SR-100 and completed the first Yo-Yo of the Florida National Scenic Trail.
  • On March 29th of 2016 at 2:23pm EST, I abandoned my northbound speed attempt due to flooding in Bradwell Bay but continued my thru-hike with the plan of establishing a new variation along the gulf coast.
  • On April 7th of 2016 at 10:53am, I completed my northbound thru-hike and journey.

 In total, I hiked 2992.77 miles in 116 days, 18 hours and 9 minutes, with the Yo-Yo requiring 96 days, 20 hours and 39 minutes.

  Leaning up against the front wall of Fort Pickens, I was overjoyed. I had completed the first Yo-Yo of the Florida National Scenic Trail and had hiked 3,000 miles… all during the second wettest season in two decades. My achievement felt great, but missing the record still burned regardless of the reason.

 The summer of 2016 went by and I watched my chances of another speed attempt slowly die with each hurricane that passed through Florida. Wanting to see the trail condition firsthand, I hiked eighty miles of the trail while walking from my home in Jacksonville to the Florida Trail Association’s statewide conference in Deland. Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed. There were so many trees down through Ocala, it took me an additional day to get to Deland. After speaking at the conference, I questioned everyone I could about the condition of the trail in their section. Feeling hopeful, I joined the Black Bear Chapter’s work party scheduled for the following ten days. By the end of the week and a half, the trail through Ocala looked amazing! Continuing to see other parties post their stewardship in the following weeks, I readied for another go at the beast.

The Fastest Known Time:

Style: Self-supported. To resupply through my own efforts, and to never accept supplies, gifts or support of any kind. Though it was my right to do so, I left no pre-placed supplies, nor did I send out any mail drops. 

Route and Schedule: I used my same 24-day schedule from the 2015/16 season with the exception of routing through Keystone Heights along the Palatka/Lake Butler Trail and the road-walk between White Springs and Randy Madison’s property, both-of-which promoted by the Florida Trail Association as official Florida Trail thru-routes.

The legend on an official Florida Trail Association map personally obtained through the FTA.

The route from White Springs to the opposite side of Randy Madison's property.

The northern half of the alternate route via the Palatka/Lake Butler State Trail.

The southern half of the alternate route via the Palatka/Lake Butler State Trail.

Social-media and blogging while in route: That was strictly out of the question. Why? One, to allow no distractions. If the individual is not eating, sleeping or moving forward, that person is wasting time. Two, personal safety.

GPS and SPOT Device: I utilized both a Garman 62sc and SPOT while in route. Though I ran a continuous track during the 2015/16 season, I opted to minimize the weight and cost of the unit’s batteries by logging the completion of each day with a waypoint. All waypoint’s are provided with their coinciding days.

Dec. 20/21, 2016: Day’s mileage – 58.6
After my normal pre-game regiment, I started my third Florida Trail speed record attempt on December 20th at 2:pm EST from the new Florida Trail kiosk at Fort Pickens. I pushed almost continuously to the store in Harold where I finished my first day. Before leaving the store, I had already started to feel the heat of chafing in my groin region.

Dec. 21/22, 2016: Day’s mileage – 33.5
By the time I arrived at Crestview, I had a full-on case of chafing. Because of the situation, I opted to sacrifice some time to clean and medicate the area before the problem got worse. After a prolonged rest, however, the situation wasn’t any better as I finished my second day at JR Walton Pond.

Dec. 22/23, 2016: Day’s mileage – 29.4
The chafing was intense all day. From experience, if treated properly, chafing is only a two-day event. So, with that in mind, I continued to keep the area clean, dry and medicated. Again, like the second day, I decided that it was more productive to rest and allow the area to heal rather than proceed at a slower pace and potentially prolong the condition. My intention was to stop at Blount’s Creek and clean the affected area. However, I finished my third day a mile short at the kiosk warning hikers that Demon Bridge was out.

Dec. 23/24, 2016: Day’s mileage – 63.5
Upon getting started, the troubled area was tender but quickly subsided as I started moving. Now behind schedule, I planned to continue through the day without pause. Upon arrival at Blount's Creek, the ford was barely crotch deep. While passing through the Lafayette Creek area in the dark, I was overjoyed to see that the shin-deep mud from last season was dry-as-a-bone. After passing up a shower at Sand Pond Campground, I resupplying at the gas station on the corner of SR-20 and SR-77 around mid-morning. I finished my fourth day just north of Little Porter Campsite and felt great.

Dec. 24/25, 2016: Day’s mileage – 39.6
Continuing into the next twenty-four-hour period, I completed Econfina before sleeping in the bushes across from a house along Scott Road that yielded a beautiful display of Christmas lights. Funny Story: Whenever I push for prolonged periods, I typically listen to loud music to stimulate my mind against the monotony of continuously processing the next ten feet. So, as I bedded down across from the wonderful show of decorative lights, I removed my headset to a dog barking at me from across the street. “Haha… well, dang it… so much for a peaceful evening,” I mumbled as I drifted off. After sleeping for a couple hours, I awoke a few minutes before my alarm sprung to life… and what did I hear? The dog still barking. Haha… I couldn’t believe it. Quickly gearing-up, I pushed on with the goal of a cup of coffee and orange juice at Shelton's Store. Shelton's was closed but I stopped at the gas station at the corner of SR-275 and SR-71. After a quick snack, I finished my fifth day just north of Blountstown city limits.

Dec. 25/26, 2016: Day’s mileage – 42.3
Once in Blountstown, I resupplied enough to eat three good meals (Blountstown, Camel Lake and one more) and then grabbed just a few snacks so to keep my pack light through Apalachicola. Once through Blountstown, I continued to Camel Lake Campground where I showered, ate and slept. Waking early, I finished my sixth day taking a nap alongside a dirt road east of the Vilas Campsite.

Dec. 26/27, 2016: Day’s mileage – 49.2
Continuing after a short rest, my objective was to push through Apalachicola before stopping. Though the trail was not maintained, the lack of swamp water this season made advancing a breeze. Upon passing through a dry Bradwell Bay, it was hard to believe that it was the same place that thwarted my second speed record attempt just months earlier. After finishing Apalachicola, I continued along the reroute around the Marshy Point area and then finished my seventh day napping where the trail picks back up.

Dec. 27/28, 2016: Day’s mileage – 27
After sleeping, I pushed on to Saint Marks. There, I resupplied and ate a belly full of food. Haha… which, for the record, is a terrible idea if pushing hard afterward. But, I knew that Shell Island was just a few miles away and that they wouldn’t be open until the morning. Upon reaching Shell Island, I quickly took a shower and slept on the office’s front porch. I awoke early to the scrambling of fisherman loading their boats. Wanting to eat right away, I sat-up to grab my breakfast. Upon positioning myself upright, I could immediately see the thick blanket of fog under the lights in the parking lot… not good. The folks at Shell Island are amazing at getting hikers across the St. Marks River at the snap of a finger, but I knew that they weren’t going out in this. All I could hope for was that the fog would quickly burn off. So, I finished my breakfast, packed up my gear, washed-up, and waited patiently. Before long, Bucky and Carl rolled up and we hung out on the porch until the fog lifted around mid-morning. It was great seeing them and we definitely had a blast catching-up. After one of their employees dropped me off on the opposite side of the St. Marks River, I finished my eighth day quickly eating lunch at the Ring Levee Campsite.

Dec. 28/29, 2016: Day’s mileage – 51.6
After finishing the St. Marks area, I stopped at JR’s Store and talked to JR for about twenty minutes while resting and lightly resupplying. As I walked out of his store, I knew that I should have grabbed more food. Not wanting to carry any more than I had to, I kept moving. I pushed into the night and napped after passing through the Aucilla area. Once along the road and felling fresh, I turned it up and finished my ninth day east of US-221… and felt depleted.

Dec. 29/30, 2016: Day’s mileage – 27.7
Not wanting to stop until Madison, I kept going. I was doing alright until a fifteen minute, cold rainstorm with high winds hit me just before reaching SR-14. Shortly after the rain, the effects of my low blood sugar took hold… and I had no food to reverse the condition. In situations like that, I typically push harder… and so I did. Unfortunately, my spurt was short-lived and only aided in my plummet. The last few miles into Madison were slow-going but a phone call with Mom kept me motivated. Upon reaching town, I grabbed food and a hotel room. Once in the room, I ate while showering and then promptly went to sleep for a full night’s rest on a soft bed. The next morning, I was a new man. After resupplying and purchasing an additional long-sleeve layer from a truck stop in preparation for the next day’s cold-snap, I hit the road and finished my tenth day eating along Winquepin Street.

Dec. 30/31, 2016: Day’s mileage – 38.2
While nearing Stroud Cemetery, a truck pulled up with a smiling, familiar face… it was Bill Walker! Well known for being an amazing steward of the Suwanee and for starting the Florida Hiking Syndicate, Bill and son jumped out of the truck and gave me a huge hug… it felt great to see a pal. After gabbing for a bit, we parted ways and I continued my journey. The evening brought the cold and I stopped to nap just before reaching Holton Creek. After turning off my alarm in a sleepy, cold morning haze, I was startled to see daylight as I re-awoke. “F***! Well, no shower at Holton!” I barked as I jumped out of bed in disgust. Reaching Holton River Camp shortly thereafter, I briefly warmed up in one of the heated restrooms for a few minutes while eating and charging my phone. Upon exiting, I quickly gabbed with the camp host and a large group of hikers heading northbound. After passing through the camp three times the previous season, I had become very good friends with the then camp hosts, Gary and Joyce Gabriel. As I passed the location where they would have been set up, my heart sunk a little missing my pals. Now with a full belly and two back-to-back full night’s sleep, I sped off for the gas station near Suwanee Springs. Upon arrival, I resupplied and gave the owner my one-day-old jacket since the forecast called for warmer temperatures. There, I sat and finished my eleventh day on the bench in front of the store while devouring calories and talking to Mom on the phone.

Dec. 31 / Jan. 1, 2017: Day’s mileage – 43.7
Finishing the Suwanee before stopping, I slept just outside of White Springs. Arriving at the gas station in town around 6:am, I walked in and was immediately greeted with, “Well, look at what the cat dragged in!” Funny Story: I resupplied at that gas station all three times during my 2015/16 season and that lady was always there! Day or night, she was working. So, while charging my phone, I brought her up-to-speed on last season’s results and this season’s intentions. Shaking her head, she said, “Haha… whatever tap you drinkin’ from… stop.” After resupplying and getting another hug from her, I was off. After making quick work of the road section around Randy Madison's property, I entered Osceola. Funny Story: Before retiring last year, Randy's printing company actually produced all of my books. I chose his company because of their professionalism and, more over, because Randy was a serious hiker. I can remember him talking about the Florida Trail and inviting me on hikes. Little did I know then the impact I would have on the trail that he would go on and on about. Funny how God works. The day in Osceola was amazing and I saw the only two bears of my trip. Finishing my twelfth day at Turkey Run Trailhead, I felt great.

Jan. 1/2, 2017: Day’s mileage – 41.1
Continuing to the Olustee Trailhead, I paused to plug-in my phone, hydrate and sleep. Arriving at Lake Butler the following morning, I was very excited to be at the halfway point. "Hurray!" As I approached the grocery store, I remember joking, “Haha… No half-gallon-challenge for me this year! Can’t risk it.” Reaching the deli, I ordered my usual two hot plates. Funny Story: … and let’s freeze frame for a second. I love hiking… it is literally my entire existence. I love the Florida Trail… it has consumed my life for the last two years. While in the grocery store, the folks remembered me from the previous season and we carried on like teenage kids! So, as I walked toward the picnic table to the right of the store with my two hotplates… I felt like a rock star. I happily posted-up at the table that is positioned directly under a big tree to enjoy my feast. I took off my gear, sat down, opened the first meal… and while in the process of opening the second container, a bird crapped directly into the mashed potatoes of my first meal. Hahaha… I remember looking up at the sky without pause and saying, “Well, Jesus, you sure have a way of keeping a guy humble.” Hahaha… and even better, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, I promptly spooned out the coagulated mess of green and white ooze and ate the rest. After finishing my meal, I pressed on and ended my thirteenth day on the dirt road just before reconnecting with the Palatka/Lake Butler Trail after the reroute along SR-100.

Jan. 2/3, 2017: Day’s mileage – 36.5
Upon reconnecting with the Palatka/Lake Butler Trail, I laid everything out and took a nap under the blissful rays of the afternoon sun. Continuing just before dark, I reached Keystone Heights before stopping to sleep. Eager to meet-up with Mom near Rice Creek, I started early. As the dawn approached, thunder and flashes in the distance gave away the approaching storm. Trying to keep my feet healthy, I prayed for a shelter from the weather. As soon… I mean, as soon as the first drops began to fall, I passed an outside bathroom near the entrance to a soccer field. “Aaaamazing,” I said with thankfulness. After eating and hydrating, I slept under the exterior overhang until the rain stopped. Once the storm passed, I continued and finish my fourteenth day at Carraway Road.

Jan. 3/4, 2017: Day’s mileage – 36.8
From Carraway Road, I continued for about a mile and then connected with SR-100 to meet Mom. Seeing her that day was better than any triumphant moment of a lifetime... without a doubt. Now before you ask, Mom wouldn’t give me a smile if it went against a self-supported effort. So, she gave me no food, water, equipment or assisted me in any way… “True to the trail” is our motto. While opening Christmas presents on the side of the road and seeing her smile, hearing her voice, feeling her pride… … something in me fired red hot. As I reentered the woods after watching her drive-off, I knew what I had to do. “Screw sleep! Screw tired! Screw everything!! I am not just going to set the speed record this year, I'm going to f***ing murder it! Hurrah!” I had a new-found energy. Throughout that night and next day, I alternated back and forth between emotionally prideful and a raging Spartan. I was no longer going to just compete… I was going to dominate. Upon reaching Buckman's Lock after closing hours, I stopped and slept. The following day, I continued on and finished my fifteenth day at the 88 Store where I ate, hydrated, quickly showered, and slept.

Jan. 4/5, 2017: Day’s mileage – 47.8
Upon leaving the store after dark, I was a man on fire. I pushed all night and into the next day, only pausing for water and a rest at Hidden Pond and the pump south of Farles Prairie. Once south of the pump, I passed a timber crew chopping trees right up to the trail with a few directly on. Upon reaching the Alexander Springs area, the trail was packed with hikers. Once I arrived at a dirt road east of Alexander Springs, I stopped to sleep and finished my sixteenth day.

Jan. 5/6, 2017: Day’s mileage – 54.9
I believe that all high achievers wear their failures heavy upon their chest as a reminder of the taste. During my early to mid-20’s, I worked for Tingen Construction in Raleigh, North Carolina. There, the owners, Dan and Bill Tingen, treated me like their own… always having time… always having patience. I can remember so vividly the day they gave me the option of resigning due to my actions in relation to addiction. Since that day, that guilt has never left me. And so, during every single speed record attempt, I’ve always had the same reoccurring nightmare where I am working for Tingen and that I am late to be somewhere… and this would be the first time during that bid where I would shock awake from that dream. “Phil” Bill’s voice echoed as I jarred violently awake. Smacking my face, I hopped up and was moving forward within two minutes. After finishing Ocala, I passed up a shower at Clearwater, resupplied in Paisley and then kept moving. Upon nearing the southeastern side of the Boy Scout property, I smelled brush-fire smoke. Once along Maggie Jones Road, the entire property to the left was burning. Thick smoke choked me for the entire length of the road. Upon reaching Wildflower Way, I passed the home of Larry, Gerri and Zac Cook. Last season, they invited me in their home to charge my phone, and their son, Zac, gave me a bible that I very much cherish. While out front, I stopped to embrace the night with arms wide open and to pray in thanks for being so blessed. While praying, in that exact moment, one light breeze stirred the night. “Our Holy Father is with me,” I silently proclaimed. As I redirected my attention to the road ahead, my jaw tightened and my muscles flexed… “I am a warrior of God.” While along the path through Sanford, I carried no food or water. Instead, I stopped along the way whenever I was in need. After resupplying at the Publix in Oviedo, I finished my seventeenth day alongside the Flagler Rail Trail Bridge. There, I washed-up, took care of my feet, and slept.

No GPS data was acquired for this day

Jan. 6/7, 2017: Day’s mileage – 52.7
Shocked awake again, I was quickly off. That evening, a storm with lightning brought the cold. Stopping near Christmas, Florida, I ate and attempted to sleep. I was cold and wet, so after a nap, I continued on. I was so thankful for the dawn. Everything was going well until walking along SR-520. Once along the flat tread, I turned on the autopilot and stopped thinking of my next step. Once nearing Nova Road, I started zoning out… way out. Even with the noise of the passing traffic, I would tunnel-vision-out and sleepwalk, always regaining consciousness with my eyes still wide-open and feet still moving. Upon reaching the creek along Nova Road, another rainstorm with cold winds hit. Even though I was quickly soaked to the bone, the cold rain woke me right up… like wide awake. Continuing through the storm, I finished my eighteenth day along Deer Park Road just south of Nova Road.

Jan. 7/8, 2017: Day’s mileage – 32.4
At that point, I was wide awake but the head-games were in full swing. White silhouettes of people in the corners of my vision would repeatedly snatch my attention. My brain screamed for me to stop, but with fences on both sides and only two bushes in twelve miles, I marched forward. Fun Fact: During Hell Week, Navy Seal instructors keep the candidates awake and active for five days. During that time, the men are only allowed four hours of sleep, which is the minimal amount of sleep a human body requires within that time-frame before shutting down and potentially dying. While in my haze, and knowing that fact, I remember keeping my morale high by laughing at my condition and repeating "If a Seal can do it, so can I." Shortly into the day, I past my first thru-hiker. “Hey!”, I yelled. Quickly walking over to her, I probably looked and talked like a crazy person. I remember feeling so happy to talk to such a friendly soul. After a quick chat and a high five, we continued our journeys. Upon reaching the Bull Creek Trailhead along US-192, I took about four steps into the forest, dropped my gear and slept… hard. Waking up before the dawn, the temperature and wind was bitter cold. I immediately got up and started walking so I could warm up. Nearing Forever Florida, I crossed a bridge where I had walked up on a dead twelve gator the previous season. Momentarily pausing at what was left of the corpse, I reflected on how far I had come since that day. I finished my nineteenth day eating two meals at Forever Florida.

Jan. 8/9, 2017: Day’s mileage – 40.3
Before leaving Forever Florida, I stopped by Shawn and Emily Hansen’s house for a hug… which I really needed. “Bro!”, Shawn joyfully spouted with a huge smile as he opened the door. Immediately giving me a big hug, Emily was eagerly next in line. They offered for me to come in and sit, but I knew I had to keep moving. Saying that I had just come by for a quick hug, they both continued to embrace me with hugs, pats and high fives. “Love you, Bro! You’ve got this, Concrete!!” Their encouragement was heart felt. After leaving, I quickly passed a spot where, last season, I met Sandi Conitz… a super great friend. I was flooded with emotion. I felt so blessed to have so many people that love and believe in me. Upon reaching Three Lakes, I stopped to nap in the bushes at the trailhead alongside CR-523. Crazy Story: I laid down just on the other side of the first palmetto cluster on the far side of the parking lot. Now, it was dark and I was tired when I arrived. But after napping, I walked the fifteen feet back to the parking lot and, to my surprise, there was a fresh bird with its head chewed off just feet from where I was sleeping… obviously, the doings of a bobcat. Did I pass it on the way in? I could have, but don’t think so. Continuing unfazed, I pushed on through the night and next day and reached Westgate around late morning. While there, I resupplied, ate some pizza, and call Missy at the lock. Pushing on, I finished my twentieth day just north of the Kicco Trailhead.

Jan. 9/10, 2017: Day’s mileage – 29.2
Seeing Missy flash her light as I approached the lock just sent joy through my heart. Seeing Missy and Steve was amazing! We hung out and gabbed for a while as I ate more pizza from Westgate and drank energy drinks. "I knew you could do it, Phil! This is your year, Brother!", they chanted as I got ready to go. After hugs and high fives, I continued my journey with a caffeine buzz… which didn’t last long. About six miles later, I went from fast forward to dead to the world. At that point, I knew I needed a good night’s sleep. So, I laid down without setting my alarm… and I slept hard. As I awoke the next morning to a gentle rain falling, I felt great. Up and moving, I quickly arrived at the Kissimmee Prairie Campground. There, I talked to the Forest Service ladies on the porch while drinking an energy drink. During the conversation, they informed me that the Forest Service had just abandoned an attempt to prescribe burn exactly where I was headed because of the rain. “Holy Cow! I came this far and I could have been shut out by a prescribed burn!” Quickly moving on, along the dirt road, I passed the fire crew returning to the ranger station. I finished my twenty-first day washing my feet atop a dilapidated bridge that spans a swampy area.

Jan. 10/11, 2017: Day’s mileage – 56
Continuing through Kissimmee, I stopped off and briefly spoke with a thru-hiker camping at Starvation Slough Campsite. There, he told me about the closure at the intersection of the Kissimmee River and Lake O… which started last year without any heads-up to thru-hikers. He informed me that the reroute was along SR-70 and US-441 through the town of Okeechobee. After a high five and good luck, I pushed on. Quickly arriving at the trailhead, I saw a campfire and called out, “Hey, Hey! Do you mind if I warm up for a minute?” I questioned as I approached. “Sure thing!”, the group yelled back. They were a group of military folks that had intended to go fishing that day but were forced to abandon their plan upon finding out that the Kissimmee boat dock was closed. They were an awesome group and I moved on after a short rest. Shortly thereafter, they drove by me and honked and cheered… I was really feeling great. Upon passing through the swamp south of Basinger, I was again shocked at how dry things were this season. After passing a tent at the stile, I continued toward the Chandler area. After briefly getting turned around in the Yates Marsh area, I reached SR-70 at first light. Turning left, I reached Okeechobee around mid-morning. After turning right on US-441, I lightly resupplied at Wal-Mart and then continued to the dike. I finished my twenty-second day just north of the Kissimmee River and Lake O intersection.

Jan. 11/12, 2017: Day’s mileage – 33.9
Continuing into the night, I slept on the dike just north of Harney Pond Canal. The next morning, I stopped at the gas station there to eat. The rest of the day required a lot of effort. I realized that I had to eat more. I continued along the SR-78 reroute around the closed dike to Moore Haven. Upon reaching Moore Haven, I finished my twenty-third day at Beck’s gas station eating a sub. While resting, I planned my next move. Last season, the US Army Corps of Engineers had a major reconstruction project on the dike near Clewiston. With so many sections of the dike now closed, and knowing that the trail was closed at the Kissimmee River and Lake O intersection this season… without a route change on the Florida Trail interactive map, I opted to continue along US-27 into Clewiston instead of taking the chance of having to illegally trespass or backtrack. Though following US-27 would be longer, the route was a safer bet.

Jan. 12/13, 2017: Day’s mileage – 29.6
Just before US-27 turns east toward Clewiston, I laid down in some bushes next to an electrical station. While there, I heard a vehicle pullover on the side of the road. Hanging out for another fifteen minutes, I continued my journey and immediately encountered a gentleman standing with a detached trailer. Upon asking him if he needed to use my phone, he asked to where I was walking. I quickly explained my grand plan, and to my great surprise, he said, “Really! Jim Kern is a long-time friend of mine.” Haha… how the Lord works. He called one of Jim’s sons and I had the great privilege of speaking to him for a few minutes. After the chance encounter and knowing that I only had about a hundred miles to the southern terminus, my morale was through the roof! Once I arrived in Clewiston, I got a hotel room and resupplied at Wal-Mart. After the best night’s sleep of my life, I continued the next morning and passed two section thru-hikers just after leaving Clewiston. Upon reaching John Stretch Park, I hydrated and quickly moved on. Before finishing my twenty-fourth day west of the Miami Canal, I passed four thru-hikers.

Jan. 13/14, 2017: Day’s mileage – 40.1
Along the box notch north of CR-835, I briefly spoke to two thru-hikers and encountered a beautiful Pygmy Rattlesnake. South of CR-835, I passed two more thru-hikers in their tent just as the darkness fell... high five, Timeless! About halfway between CR-835 and Deerfence Canal, I stopped to sleep. I passed the large building along Deerfence Canal just before dawn and then a late sleeper still in their tent shortly thereafter. After getting soaked in a quick rainstorm while passing the rodeo arena, I finished my twenty-fifth day at the Big Cypress Landing Store while eating a meal and talking to the cashier that remembered me from the previous season.

Jan. 14/15, 2017: Day’s mileage – 28.1
After the huge meal, I proceeded for a few more miles and then napped near the West Feeder Canal. After a short rest, I continued to Alligator Alley where I then stopped at the Big Cypress Trailhead to sleep before taking on the mud and water. At dawn, I proceeded through the mud and paused to eat at Ivy Camp where I encountered a small Eagle Scout group. I gabbed with the leader, Jason Bacon, while stuffing my face and then was off again. About a half a mile before reaching the barbwire fence, the terrain dried out nicely… maybe too nice. I had luckily drank my fill and topped-off my Nalgene bottle just before reaching dry land. Even though the water level was very low through the first section, I was sure that there would be water sources along the last section… right? Once along the dry terrain, I finished my twenty-sixth day beating the sand out of my shoes just north of Thirteen Mile Camp.

Jan. 15, 2017: Day’s mileage – 18.3
Pausing at Thirteen Mile Camp, I ate and then drank more than half of my water. Continuing through the sawgrass fields, the area was dry as a bone... and hot. Just after removing my headphones, I rounded a bush and heard a tussle. Cautiously peering around the bend, I saw the hind-quarters of a six-foot-long gator. “Out here? really?” He quickly slid into a very small hole in the limestone that yielded a small amount of water. Knowing that I should fill up on water, I thought about refilling there but decided to find a safer source. Taking a break in the shade south of Thirteen Mile Camp, I closed my eyes for just a moment and passed right out. Coming to a short time later, I jumped up and kept moving. Continuing into the night, I began to smell a brush-fire. Just before reaching Ten Mile Camp, I walked right into a prescribed burn. I immediately replace my headlamp’s batteries and kept moving. With a scorched trail, thick smoke hiding the next blaze, and down to my last sip of water, the rain started. “Come on,” I belted. Quickly refocusing on maintaining a high level of morale, I began singing, “I’m a little tea pot…” I guess God took mercy on me because the rain stopped a short time later. I exited the burn just before reaching Seven Mile Camp. I was so thirsty by the time I reached the camp, I attempted to ring out my rain soaked shirt into my Nalgene bottle. What little came out wasn’t even brown… it was black. “No thank you,” I chuckled as I poured it out. Just before reaching the southern intersection of the Blue Loop Trail, I came across a small, murky puddle located in a spot that was waist deep last season. “Oh, praise you, Lord,” I said in desperation. As I sucked down a liter and a half through my Life Straw, I could feel my energy come back. Knowing that I was only an hour from the Oasis Ranger Station, I continued with only a sip of water in my Nalgene. Seeing the lights of the ranger station in the distance brought so many emotions. As I reached the open path alongside the fence before the bend, I paused for a moment to pray in thanks. Reaching the stone was amazing… I had finally done it.  At the finish line, I prayed, called Mom, posted my completion on Facebook and then fell asleep with a light heart. The next day, I met Glenn Tremmi and he offered me a ride to Miami. As we waited for the passing traffic before turning left out of the parking lot, I looked back toward the stone and seize the moment with a smile.

 On January 15th of 2017 at 10:54pm, I completed my 1,082-mile journey and established the Fastest Known Time for the Florida National Scenic Trail in a time of 26 days, 8 hours and 54 minutes. That is an average of 41.03 miles per day for 26.37 days.

 In the twenty-two months leading up to that moment, I had collectively walked five thousand miles on the Florida Trail in pursuit of my dream. I had completed three continuous thru-hikes, one nearly complete calendar year thru-hike, and an additional one thousand miles.

 Interesting fact: I started my first speed record attempt on January 15th of 2016 and finished my third speed record attempt and set the Fastest Known Time for the Florida Trail on January 15th of 2017... funny how the Lord works.

 My mother has a saying that she has repeated to us boys all of our lives, “Find that thing you love to do and do it. And while along your path, remember that everything you need is within your grasp.” As I write this, I now understand why Rich was so persistent when it came to the Florida Trail… it was everything I needed and was within my grasp. By the end of my journey, the Florida Trail became far more to me than just a trail… it became my testimony on how to beat life through faith and positive action. I believe Jennifer Pharr Davis summed it up perfectly when she said, “My message is not to encourage people to get out and hike, my message is to encourage people to follow their dreams.” And that’s what it’s all about, chasing down that thing that gives you life… whatever it may be. And along your road, there will be failures, and setbacks, and times when you feel that you’ll never make it… go all the way. There is no other feeling like it. You will be alone with God and the nights will flame with fire… do it… do it… do it… go all the way… all… the way. 

Dedicated to my loving family and friends.

1 comment:

  1. You are a true Champ in enthusiastic energy with passionate love and solid knowledge for the great outdoors... you are an inspiration to those who are stuck... get up and outside... best rewards out there to reap and experiences to hold forever... i'm glad you are beginning to write what you know.. amazing and inspiring... wow... give yourself two giant pats on the back, one for me... xox