It started with a scattered moo or two. Cows, curious by nature and ever followers, not leaders, collected at the fence of the Basinger Ranch. Perhaps they could count four legs -- two natural ones and two hiking sticks -- in my stride. The mooing got more persistent as the herd turned to walk with me a bit. John was up ahead with Primrose and walked up with a cold Gatorade for me.
“Flies!” he said. I peeked inside the van, and sure enough, flies covered everything! “The cows came to the fence when they saw me,” he said, “and all of their flies came over here!”
I left him swatting flies as I continued walking along the road.
On the newest roadwalk segment of the Florida Trail -- a 10.7 mile stretch from Micco Landing to Starvation Slough -- I expected rural landscapes. Basinger, northwest of Okeechobee off US 98, is in the heart of Okeechobee’s cattle country. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a dozen years of hanging out in Okeechobee, it is the best place in Florida for beef. On our drive out to this segment, we passed the Dixie Ranch (since 1908) and dozens of other dairy and beef operations laid out over massive acreage on the Kissimmee Prairie, a vast upland ecosystem to the north of Lake Okeechobee and east of the Kissimmee River.
While future efforts to create the Everglades Headwaters NWR may result in a natural footpath for the Florida Trail eventually, with the switch to the east side of the Kissimmee River for the trail this season, it starts off with this roadwalk. Now it’s not a bad roadwalk as they go: there isn’t a lot of traffic on a 10-mile dead-end road through ranchlands. There’s also no shade. But there are plenty of cows, and cowboys.
I heard a bleat from the tall grass on the side of the road and thought I saw a deer, until I got close enough to realize it was a calf. Not wanting to disturb it -- it was on the wrong side of the ranch fence, and lying down in the grass -- I kept walking, and moments later saw a red pickup truck pull out of the ranch and head towards the calf, with another one in the pickup bed. At my next hydration stop, John told me he’d watched the cowboy lasso the calf and lay it down in the grass, then head off to get his truck. Mystery solved.
At the Okeechobee Livestock Auction, the big ticket items are calves to be sold to ranchers out of state to add to their herds. Two truckloads of calves on their way to market pulled out of a ranch entrance, and the first cowboy -- with his saddled-up horse in the back of the truck along with the calves -- stopped to ask if I was okay or needed help way out here in the middle of nowhere. I pointed out the orange blaze on the telephone pole and told him about the Florida Trail passing by his ranch. It was news to him.
Along with counting cows, I counted birds, abundant throughout this landscape. I saw more than a dozen sandhill cranes, and watched a caracara standing protectively over its meal. Kingfishers sung from the wires. A great egret waded through a marsh in one cattle pen. A limpkin flew off as I reached Oak Creek, a rare natural waterway sluicing its way towards the Kissimmee River.
The landscapes that surround you are huge: prairies cleared and planted with grasses to support cattle, with views that go on for two to five miles in most directions. It’s a place where I felt small, and a bit vulnerable, as a wall cloud swept across the landscape. The icy blast from that dark line above rushed me down the limerock road to Starvation Slough, where John was waiting for me to finish the journey. Moments after I joined him under the roof of the picnic pavilion for lunch, it began to pour.