At the beginning of March, we were visiting with my Mom in Ocala en route to two weeks of hiking and public speaking in Northwest Florida and Alabama. She wasn’t feeling up to a lunch out, so we brought deli food over from Publix. And showed her our new Florida Trail presentation on DVD.
“You’ll be back the Monday after your talk, right?” She asked. “What are you doing for your birthday?”
We’d made a lot of plans – it’s a long drive from Orlando to Alabama – so hiking near Tallahassee, Panama City Beach, and Pensacola was on the agenda. I didn’t have an answer for her. “We’ll keep in touch and see how things are,” I said.
For the next two days, I went hiking while John worked on travel research around Tallahassee.
Our friend Dawn joined me for two long day hikes. The first day was a loop at St. Marks NWR that included the Deep Creek Trail and the Florida Trail. The views were spectacular on that clear day. We saw plenty of alligators. But my feet hurt, and they shouldn’t have. When we got back to the car, I discovered my shoes were a size too small. They were new, and I must have mistaken the UK size for the USA size. I don’t blister often – except on the Big O Hike – but my toes exploded in blisters overnight.
The next day, Dawn and I headed up the Aucilla River on an amazing stretch of the Florida Trail. Water levels were just perfect for the Aucilla Sinks to reflect and flow at the same time. The rapids along the river were so mesmerizing that they lured us in to staying there a while. I leaned my pack against a tree. When I went to pick it up a half hour later, I discovered I’d wiped out my GPS track. The touch screen cleared it when it touched the tree.
An hour later, I snagged my foot under a branch and fell flat on my face, striking my left knee pretty hard. With me limping, it took an extra hour to get to the north end of the hike, and we had no way to let John know, since phone service is pretty dim in that part of the state. He hiked in, worried about us.
“Something’s telling me I shouldn’t be hiking right now,” I said.
The next day we visited Camp Folks in Tallahassee, spent time talking with the Florida Trail administrators at the USDA Forest Service, and gave a presentation to a pretty full room for the FTA Apalachee Chapter.
After a hike to Spring Creek the next morning, I worried about Mom. I called her again. Her voice didn’t sound like her.
“We need to go back to Ocala,” I told John.
I’d made plans, however, that involved meeting a friend who was section hiking in the Central Panhandle so we could do the Econfina section of the Florida Trail together. He’d hiked away from his car, so he was waiting in Blountstown for a ride. I caught on Instagram that Henry, one of the Warrior Hikers thru-hiking the FT, was at Camel Lake, and that was en route. We picked up a couple of cold Gatorades to drop off. Good thing we had two, as we first met Hiker Slim, and then Henry, walking along the roadwalk to Bristol. Both were in good spirits.
We picked up Bronco in Blountstown and ferried him out to Pitt Spring, where Denali – who thru-hiked last year – met us to take him to his car and take our presentation to Alabama. She’d offered to substitute for us at the Alabama Hiking Trails Conference.
And then we were off, a mad dash back to Ocala, arriving in the early evening. We found out that Mom needed a ride to the hospital the next morning for a inpatient procedure, so I made plans to take her there.
At the hospital, things went wrong almost immediately during the procedure. They rushed Mom downstairs to the ER, and then admitted her. After four years of fighting cancer, her body was shutting down. After nine days, she was transfered to hospice, which she chose to do. We had once last evening of conversation about mundane stuff, like cleaning the house, and who had the best pitch on ‘Shark Tank’. The next morning, she wasn’t there anymore, except in fits and starts of confusion. “I don’t have words,” she blurted out. I cried.
Family and friends came to visit, my sister taking vigil all night, every night. The folks at hospice were so kind. Our previous experiences with death – my other sister, my father – had been sudden, and then it was over. This was not. It was a slow shutdown, a difficult thing.
She died on my birthday, after I’d said goodbye to pack and head home. My sister and brother were with her for those last moments.
For a month, I didn’t journal. I took no notes. We did no research. I simply didn’t have it in me.
Then, the second blow: John’s Mom was hospitalized with a host of previously undiagnosed health issues. She’s now in a rehab facility. There’s a lot of work to be done to bring her home.
It took a walk with my sister to help me get back to nature again.
This past weekend, we had a commitment to speak at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and decided to go through with it. I’m glad we did.
On the drive down and back, we took the time to do some casual hiking and some trail research. Getting back into the swing of “normal life” isn’t easy, but it’s coming, step by step.