Hiking the Florida Trail with Blissful
It is one thing to wade through a Florida swamp, backpack fully loaded, when you’re a Floridian and you have some context for what you’re experiencing. You know about mud, and alligators, and the fact that some spots are deeper than others.
It’s quite another when you’ve spent much of your life hiking mountain ridges, and you live in the Appalachians.
For Lauralee Bliss, who goes by the trail name “Blissful,” the contrast between the two sets up the tension she experiences, and the relief.
Wrapping up the very first trail experience she recounts in her newly published book Gators, Guts, & Glory: Adventures Along the Florida Trail, she sums up what it means to hike the Florida Trail.
“Nothing is normal out here. And maybe that’s a good thing. A backpacking trip should never be boring.”
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Blissful Discovers the Florida Trail
Normal, of course, is defined by your frame of reference. A Virginia resident and long-time long distance hiker, Lauralee has served as a ridge runner for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
She’s also a novelist. So when I heard she was headed for the Florida Trail, I hoped there was a book in her plans.
We met Lauralee years ago at the annual ALDHA Gathering. Like us, she had a table and was selling books. She’d written a first-person account of her Appalachian Trail thru-hike and was giving a talk at the conference.
We, in turn, had The Florida Trail Guide on display and were there to provide a workshop for would-be Florida Trail hikers. While Lauralee bought our book, she didn’t pepper us with questions, but she did overhear us answering questions other hikers had posed.
Several years before that conference, a Florida Trail map had sparked her interest in the trail. She’d seen it in a hostel in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Because we’d left some there.
When John and I tried tackling a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, we lingered in Hot Springs while I recuperated from something I’d picked up in the shelters of the Smokies.
The hostel caretakers at Laughing Heart were none other than Chuck Norris and Tigger, who’d kept in touch with me year after year about the groups they were helping hike the Florida Trail.
We became good friends. While they continued to manage the hostel, John and I would swing through Hot Springs to visit. We’d drop off Florida Trail maps when we were on our way to hiking events where we planned to talk about the trail.
Besides picking up a copy of our guidebook, Lauralee talked to fellow hikers at ALDHA, many of our friends among them, to get a feel for what she was getting into.
“…I spend time researching the trail and discover things I never thought I’d need to worry about. Like alligators lurking in the water sources.”
Well, yes. As we tell our readers, Florida is different. For a backpacker planning a long distance hike, the logistics, permits required, rules, and the different – swamp walking, alligators, poisonous plants, unfamiliar habitats, non-AT-like water sources – can be daunting.
Capturing the Feel
Lauralee completed the trail over two seasons, backpacking much of it alone. When she let us know that she planned to write a book about experience, I was excited to hear it. You can count the number of first-person books about the Florida Trail on two hands.
I was even more delighted to be one of her readers on her manuscript to offer my honest opinion and a blurb for the back of her book.
I’ve read many first-person accounts by hikers tackling many trails around the country. Most, to be honest, are recaps of daily journals. Fine for research, but not compelling reading.
With Gators, Guts & Glory, Lauralee brings storytelling to her Florida Trail experience. It is well paced. You want to keep reading.
It made me chuckle, in a good way, knowing how a hiker from the mountains – many of whom pooh-pooh the Florida Trail for its lack of elevation – saw the uniqueness of our trail.
“We are in Swampland, USA, dehydrated and surrounded by poisonous trees. This could be a great scenario for a reality television show or a new plot for a science fiction drama. Except I’m dealing with the reality of empty water bottles…”
Florida IS different.
Feet on the Ground
Hiking the Florida Trail is challenging, no doubt about it. It may not seem so when you head out on a day hike near your home, but that’s because you’re hiking the popular, well-used pieces.
When you try to cover every mile, especially by backpacking, the tougher things can get. Hikers expect that in Big Cypress, because a backpacking trip across Big Cypress is like no other place on earth.
But in more easy-to-access pieces of the trail, long distance hiking can still test your mettle. Weather is always a factor, but human-caused problems crop up more often than you’d like.
For instance, after she continued north from Buckman Lock, searching for somewhere to filter water, Lauralee came across this scene.
“The one place which still has some water left, several ATVs are buzzing through it, sending water and mud flying in the air. I look in dismay as my one source turns into a muddy, oil-filled mess.”
While hiking through one of the National Forests, she ran into an all-too-common issue during hiking season.
“Before me lies a dark, foreboding area, with the potent smell of burnt timber lingering in the air. It’s a huge, newly-prescribed burn area, the ground pitch black and possibly still warm from the fires for all I know. I reach a bridge that spans a modest creek and head across it, only to find the fire has burned out the last part of the bridge, including the stairs. I look down at the fifteen foot drop and think, Okay, how do I get down from this thing? I take off my pack and drop it to the ground then gingerly use the metal beams that survived the fiery ordeal to lower myself down. Now with charcoal-colored hands to match the woods, I venture on, but with the lateness of the hour, I realize I’ll be camping in this black forest.”
Late in her hike, she posted an update on trail conditions to let other hikers know of a major problem in Eglin. Seems that DOT had been putting up fences along SR 87 during a road-widening project and walled off all access to the trail.
A gate has since been installed, but her feedback – in our Guthook Guides app as well as on the Facebook group – was the first heads-up to anyone, even the volunteers and FTA staff overseeing that part of the trail, that something was awry.
A Place of Wonder
Backpacking isn’t just about coping with challenges. It’s about learning to appreciate the moment. Lauralee found both challenges and beauty all along the Florida Trail.
In Big Cypress, “We walk through grass and see tall trees reaching to the horizon, much like a scene from an African safari. I half expect to round a bend and find an elephant or lion. It is certainly different from the thick woodlands back home.”
Reaching the middle of the Ocala National Forest, Hopkins Prairie, she finds it “reveals why the Florida Trail is vastly different from any other woodland trail in the East. I venture through forests of gnarled oak, intertwined in such configurations that one can surmise I’ve been transported to a Lord of the Rings universe.”
After describing the enchantment of the Aucilla Sinks, she writes “I have to keep reminding myself that yes, this is still the United States. Witnessing such geological wonders, it’s plain to see why the Florida Trail has a National Scenic Trail designation. It is a world unlike any other and one a hiker must experience to truly appreciate.”
It’s About Community
Most importantly, throughout the pages of her book, Lauralee brings the people of the Florida Trail hiking community to the forefront. While a backpacker might go days on the Florida Trail without running into another hiker, you are no longer truly alone out there.
It’s been nearly six years since Chuck and Tigger (aka Randy and LuAnne Anderson) and John and I started the Florida Trail Hikers Alliance (FTHA) to bring together volunteers to encourage and support long distance hikers on the Florida Trail.
To do her research, Lauralee dove into the Facebook groups we’d set up. “Hikers Helping Hikers” is the core reason FTHA exists, connecting past Florida Trail hikers with wanna-bes and newbies.
This, in turn, nurtured the growth of trail angels along the Florida Trail. These volunteers choose, as their time allows, to help hikers on the trail with their logistical issues.
So when Lauralee needed assistance for her husband after he injured himself crossing Big Cypress, it appeared.
She called people who mentioned online that help was needed, and “a random couple heard of our predicament and now offers to meet Papa at the rest area and drive him back to our car.”
From the earliest pages of her story until the final wrapup, Lauralee continues to credit the kindness of others for making her hike an enjoyable one.
For instance, she happens across two day hikers near Paisley who give her water. Later, one of them, our old friend TrailTalker, tracks Lauralee down at a road crossing.
“She says with a grin, ‘Well, I have some water in the trunk. I was going to leave it for you. Unless of course you’d rather come home with me and spend the night in a real bed?’
In White Springs, Judy, who owns the B&B that hikers walk right past, invites Lauralee to enjoy dinner with the family.
As Lauralee walks up that tough long stretch of highway from the Apalachicola into Bristol, she’s parched and blistered and needs to get to the post office before it closes.
“Suddenly out of nowhere a car stops beside me. A woman smiles and holds out a cold bottle of water… (she) agrees to take me and bring me back here to complete my walk into town.”
That is trail magic. And it happens along the Florida Trail more often than hikers imagine.
Familiar names appear throughout the book, including long-time FTA volunteers like Randy Madison and Janie Hamilton, notable long distance hikers like Sue “Hammock Hanger” Turner, and more recent hikers helping hikers, like Nancy Frey and our good friend TruckrBob.
That’s what trail community is all about. A new crop of leaders for the Florida Trail Hikers Alliance is helping it continue to grow.
Fostering connectivity between past hikers, knowledgeable residents, and new hikers along the Florida Trail means a better trail experience for all.
Buy the Book!
We are grateful that Lauralee has added a gem to the short list of books available on the topic of the Florida Trail. You can purchase it as either an e-book for Kindle or as a softcover.
More First-Person Florida Trail Accounts
Other than Lauralee’s new book Gators, Guts, & Glory, only a handful of hiker’s personal accounts of the Florida Trail have made it into print.
Most recently, Mike Umbarger – who John hiked with through part of Big Cypress – wrote The Florida Trail End to End, a book on his experience of tackling the Florida Trail with his young sons. You’ll find our review on his book here.
One of the earliest books of hiker accounts was a very limited edition book published independently and sold through the Florida Trail Association 20 years ago. Assembled by Rick Guhse, it collected a handful of hiker journals into one binder, including ones from early FT hikers Chet Fromm and Nimblewill Nomad.
The next, in 2003, was my collaboration with photographer Bart Smith called Along the Florida Trail. While we won a national award for it, it’s been out of print for many years. The Florida Trail Association still sells copies of it.
Published in 2007, Nimblewill’s book Ten Million Steps spends a great deal of time covering the Florida Trail as the beginning of his epic journey on foot to Quebec, and the first real long distance hike of many that he tackled.
One of my past co-authors, Johnny Molloy, wrote Hiking the Florida Trail, his experience about his thru-hike as we collaborated on a different book that he was hiking the Florida Trail to research.
Steve Sheridan, first to complete a thru-hike from Big Cypress north to Bristol in 1979, came out with his account of that journey about a decade ago called Florida Any Way You Can.
Our 50th anniversary history of the Florida Trail, The Florida Trail: Florida’s National Scenic Trail, contains some Florida Trail memoirs from John and I, with our first-person accounts woven in with historical information.