The northern terminus of the Florida Trail isn’t easy to get to. I was thankful we weren’t driving one of our vehicles – especially Primrose – and even more thankful that Helen, from the Western Gate Chapter of the Florida Trail Association, was willing to ferry us in her car down this terribly rutted and washed-out clay road through Conecuh National Forest to the closest little parking area to the Florida Trail’s northern terminus.
There’s no sign at the border, at least not on the road. No dotted line like you’d see on a map. Just a little beaten path to a kiosk in a clearing. On one side, it welcomes you to the Florida Trail. On the opposite side of the Florida Trail sign is an AHTS sign, for Alabama Hiking Trail Society, the volunteer organization building a connector trail from Florida up to the Pinhoti Trail and the Benton Mackaye Trail to connect with the Appalachian Trail.
Today, however, we were headed south. A hiker could start here and continue on a 1,100 mile journey to the southern terminus in the Big Cypress Swamp in South Florida. But we were here to start the Panhandle Trace Hike, only 10% of the overall mileage of the Florida Trail, connecting this northern terminus with the original one at Fort Pickens, south of Pensacola Bay.
We walked through vast forests of longleaf pines for much of the day. In these forests the trees and wiregrass seen to go on forever. The contrast of green needles, reddish bark and golden yellow of the wiregrass was beautiful. It’s sad to think that these forests once covered millions and millions of acres. From Virginia to Florida, and west of the Mississippi. Logging almost wiped them out. We’re lucky that here in Florida a few large-scale landscapes like these have been saved and are being restored.
Low areas in these forests collect water and become swamps and bogs. Fortunately, in most of these places, the FTA folks have constructed bridges and boardwalks, keeping our feet pretty dry. But today every time we came to a bridge or boardwalk it seemed to have been burned or charred. For some reason there seems to be a disconnect between FTA and the people in charge with Florida State Forests. The foresters don’t protect this hard work when they do their prescribed burns, and FTA never is informed in enough time to take measures to protect these boardwalks and bridges themselves. It’s quite a shame when you think of the lost volunteer man-hours and money required to replace them.
For a long time we walked within sight of Hurricane Lake in the distance. Other than while hiking on the AT had I ever seen a large body of water off in the distance like this. Seeing it grow closer and closer was spectacular.
While we were sitting outside of the gate of Hurricane Lake Campground, who should walk up but Mike and the boys – Umby, Zack, and Bear – who I hiked with in Big Cypress in January. They were going to finish their section hike of the Florida Trail tomorrow, reversing the hike the rest of us did today. Hannah and Robin were with them and the entire family was excited about what they have accomplished. Zack and Bear were now the two youngest FT thru-hikers.
The day’s hike ended at Kennedy Bridge, where it was a relief to climb into the car and head back to the campground, Sandy playing navigator on the back roads of Blackwater River State Forest.
Back at camp we began our game of hopscotch between campsites. Moving to our second one, less than fifty yards from the first one. Arriving at our new campsite, our camper was dwarfed by the camp host’s RV next door. Their slideout was bigger than Primrose!!
Primrose makes setting up camp rather easy. Park, open the windows and side door, and pop up the top. Ten seconds or less! With the pop top up fully open, even as small is she is, Primrose stands out.
Back to that old “thirty year old” VW camper thing. Again, people stare from the distance and point as they walk or drive by. Slowly the brave ones walk up and talk. “We had one of those when I grew up” or “We used to have one of these” or “our neighbor had one”. Each visitor was beaming with happy memories as they told us their stories and asked questions about Primrose. Let me warn you, if you don’t like attention, or are trying to hide, DO NOT travel in a vintage VW camper!
While waiting for our fellow hikers, we took the opportunity to start our personalization of Primrose. Out came our stack of stickers. One by one they transformed her from just another old VW to our old VW. As our travels continue, so will our sticker collection.
Today a fellow camper across the road added our first political bumper sticker. I’m not much into making political statements on the back of my vehicles, but with his gift I made an exception. After all, I’m sure that it’s true… “Congress: the best government money can buy”.