This guest post is courtesy of Cathy Coale, who hiked the Big O Hike in 2012.
“You are gonna get blisters,” a veteran hiker told us, “Everyone does.” I remember hearing his words standing in the small town of Pahokee, Florida, my heart wildly beating, waiting for the hike to begin. We are at the town of Pahokee, Florida, to begin the 109 mile hike around Lake Okeechobee, known as the Big “O” Hike, held each year by the Florida Trail Association, Loxahatchee Chapter. We decided to hike the Big O several months ago after reading an article in Florida Travel and Life Magazine that encompassed the enchantments and challenges the hike has to offer. The lines of the magazine were still racing in my head as we made our way to the front of the group, making the journey seem attainable.
For nine days, we circled the 730 square miles of water, mesmerized by the burning sugar fields, unusual, majestic waterfowl, and panoramic views that can only be witnessed from the trail. How do you hike a circle? That’s where the fellowship comes in. Each day a group of hikers walk the trail, backwards, while the main group hikes forward. Meeting the middle for a quick exchange of car keys, everyone goes back to camp safely. Sounds confusing and yes, it is, but Master Paul Cummings, who has completed the hike more times than anyone, makes it all come together.
Hiking the longest day of the hike, Day 4 (14.7 miles), we turn to see Clyde, a return hiker approaching, just as the sun has melted away most of the chill of the morning. We curse him under our breath, as he is going to pass us again. So, you may think this is not a big deal, but Clyde is 80 plus years old and has been hiking since before we were born. “Beautiful day”, he smiles, “Perfect hiking weather.” He begins with gentle advice about the hike and shows us his exquisite eagle head hiking staff with such pride, I become quite taken. “My son had this one made for me, especially for this trip.” As he elegantly whisked by, my earlier feelings are swept away, as I have now made one of many new friends.
As the journey ends on Day 9, we stretch our blistered feet upon the grassy shire of South Bay, reflecting and scratching another mosquito bite. The hike was all we had envisioned and filled us with an overwhelming sense closeness and accomplishment. A new friend and hiker named Jessie materializes with her red flowing hair, and says, “Coming back next year?” I sigh, proudly photograph the elite, small group that completed the Big “O” hike, and said, “Wouldn’t miss it.”