Day Two of the Panhandle Trace Hike started off where we’d left the trail the day before, at Kennedy Bridge. After we dropped off our cars at the end point for the hike, McVay Road, Peggy, Helen, and other members of the Western Gate Chapter shuttled us to the starting point. We asked how long the hike would be and Peggy said “over ten miles.” Lesson learned: when you’re carrying a GPS, don’t ask about mileage, since it will almost always be more than you’re anticipating.
I’d backpacked the Wiregrass Trail a decade ago, so I had a sense of deja vu as I came to spots I recognized. As the trail paralleled the Blackwater River briefly, it had a rim of bright white sand on the river side like salt on a margarita. We found our first flame azalea here, sparking a lineup of photographers to take pictures of blooms. That conga line would repeat numerous times during today’s hike.
A basin swamp had been torn asunder by multiple forces – wind, fire, and flood – and we picked our way through the wreckage and bits of boardwalk that remained. It was one of the more ugly spots I’ve seen along the Florida Trail. Thankfully, it was later balanced by the beauty of the longleaf pine landscape. After we climbed Blueberry Hill – no thrills, since it had been burned recently – and took a break, meeting Peggy at Mary Pat’s Crossing – where I reminisced about my old friend who’d blazed the roadwalks of the FT for the first time, many years ago – we left the Wiregrass Trail for the Jackson Red Ground Trail.
This was new territory for me. On my visit to write about the FT a decade ago, I only had time to hike two-thirds of Blackwater, so the Jackson Trail was the part I skipped. It immediately became an immersion into longleaf, the wind making the needles sing. I watched each swale carefully, looking for pitcher plants, and finally found a small bog with nothing but old growth. That happened at every bog bridge the rest of the day. Signs of pitcher plants, but nothing fresh. Peggy said it was too early in the season, at least in this part of the forest.
We ran into her again at Peaden Bridge, where the trail becomes a roadwalk to cross the Blackwater River to its western shore. The roadwalk was worth the views off the bridge and the cool clay-and-sandstone bluffs that had eroded along the road.
I was eager to see Otathie Cemetery, a historic site along this section, and taken aback that the trail had been located away from it – “off the road.” Peggy gave us directions to find the cemetery but without a way to compare the new route against our old map, we had no idea where it was. We missed the shelter, too, as there were no blazes to it from the new section of trail. But there were many, many clumps of Gulf Coast lupine.
The landscape is hilly, very hilly compared to what we usually experience in the Florida peninsula. And hilly means tiring when you’ve passed that ten mile mark and were expecting to be done for the day. It was nice to find a bench and long boardwalk across a stream basin where we could all sit and rest a while, enjoying the wildflowers and burbling waters.
We emerged at a roadwalk and saw Peggy down the road. When we got to her car she said, “Where did you come from? The trail is over here!” Sure enough, it crossed where her car was parked. A missing blaze, perhaps, led us out to the road. The following segment of trail paralleled the fenceline of a large farm with views that reminded me of walking the Appalachian Trail in the Cumberland Valley.
It couldn’t be long now, we’d hiked more than 11 miles! Oops. Rambling between sand pines – it surprised me to find a sand pine scrub here – and sandhills and longleaf, we wondered when, indeed, the hike would be over. Clouds were gathering and we were all weary. After one last stream crossing on a nice bridge, we climbed up through the forest and found the line of cars at McVay Road, hitting the 12.6 mile mark and a wall of exhaustion – we’d put off having lunch.
We remedied that quickly with a stop at Ruth’s Store in Munson, one of those places that you shouldn’t pass by when you’re on the backroads. It’s been here forever, and is a gathering place for the community. Unfortunately, it was too late for lunch; they’d closed the grill. But with snacks, cold drinks, ice cream, and a nice bench to sit out front in the shade and enjoy it all, we wrapped the day’s adventure.