Just a couple of days ago, I finished hiking a new route in Florida: I have dubbed thee the “Lake ‘O’ Lollipop.” I had the most amazing time, exploring and walking through areas which few see, and which even fewer will ever get to experience on such an intimate level as a three-mile-per-hour pace will provide. The idea of this trip was to connect two trails that were just begging to be connected, all the while seeing places which I have only read the names of on maps. I have hopes that this Lake ‘O’ Lollipop will become a route for any and all hikers in Florida who are looking to challenge themselves in new and interesting ways (as that was a main driving force behind me doing this), and of course who will enjoy seeing beautiful places in central Florida, and falling in love with the people and the small towns which surround Lake Okeechobee.
For those who may have missed my pre-hike description, here’s a quick recap of what this route is, and which trails that it combines. The Lake ‘O’ Lollipop merges the Ocean-to-Lake Hiking Trail (OTLHT) with the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST.) Prior to starting, I had also decided that it would be really cool to make this into one giant loop, since the LOST is already a big loop trail that navigates the circumference of Lake Okeechobee, which is the second largest lake in the US and half the size of Rhode Island. So, this hike begins at the eastern terminus of the OTLHT on the beach of the Atlantic Ocean, and goes through multiple parks and wildlife management areas – all with their own feel and differing ecosystems. This takes you directly to the LOST, two miles south of Port Mayaca. From there, you circle around the lake, going either north or south, whichever suits your plan of attack better, bringing you back to the western terminus of the OTLHT where you will once again make your way back to the eastern border and Atlantic Ocean to finish your giant loop.
The Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail is 110 miles around, and the Ocean-to-Lake Hiking Trail is 63 miles across. When you add them up in this roundabout way, doing the OTLHT twice, you have a 236-mile trail. The hike which I have now completed is 241.2 miles. I had to add on some miles, by walking around the lake on back farm roads and highways, due to construction closes on the southern half of the trail along the levee. I encourage anyone considering this route to do some of these road walks, even if the levee is open to the public, as they were one of my favorite parts of this trip. If I were to do this again, I would hike roughly the same roads as I did here, levee open or not.
The two trails contrast brilliantly. One is very much a jungle at times, and the other is very much out in the open and more or less an urban hike. (Urban thru hiking is gaining in popularity since the Inman300.) It was really beautiful to get to spend my first couple of days in the woods, then to walk through small towns, and then to finish back in the wild. Since you’re spending 126 miles on one trail, and 110 miles on the other (depending on your choice of route) you are spending roughly the same amount of time in each of these environments, and you thus always have something to look forward to … be it different scenery, or a new obstacle.
The Lake Okeechobee Lollipop route, not marked are the roads I walked around closed sections of trail.
Pre Trip Preparations
Unlike how most train for a long and difficult hike, I choose to use methods of training which I like to call “saving my energy” and “stockpiling calories.” Daily, I eat six to twelve donuts and devour whole pizzas in order to save up those calories for the really big days ahead. I often do this while sitting on the couch, so as to not expend any energy which I might require later. People ask me the secret to hiking a thirty-mile day, and you here have just heard it. Just kidding…. I do make these questionable choices for my training regimen, but I also make sure that I go on multiple twenty-four-hour trips, in the sweltering heat, to make sure that I am happy with my gear, that my feet are feeling good, that I can handle the weather, and that my food selection is proper. My food selection for this particular long hike was not proper, but it was good enough for me at about two pounds, 4,000 calories per day. I don’t own a dehydrator, and I don’t order much food online, and so my supply was looking similar to that of your typical on-trail resupply. I frequently buy camping food staples like couscous, tuna, and raisins whenever they’re on sale, and so I had a full bin of food to dump out and plan out my meals for the days to come.
After devouring and printing maps for this trip (I could and should have bought maps of Lake Okeechobee from the Florida Trail Association), I decided that I would resupply my food either in Clewiston or the town of Okeechobee. I would be walking directly through or past both places on my journey, about four or five days after my start. I planned on averaging about twenty-seven miles a day, and finishing this adventure in nine days. This type of mileage isn’t new to me, but stringing this many big days in a row for nine days is. I always say that I’m looking to further challenge myself – and this is not even to mention doing this hike in June! Before leaving, I talked to multiple veteran members of the FTA about the things that I was worried about. They provided me with valuable information on what I was getting myself into; a big shout out to Paul Cummings for giving me a guide book on hiking the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. That book was really handy for me to have when I was first planning my daily miles and camping sites. It was also useful in identifying monuments, animals, and milestones to be on the lookout for. This book provided me with peace of mind.
I restocked all of my medical supplies, made sure that I had a lot of toilet paper, and took another good look at my gear strewn neatly on the floor. There is nothing worse than leaving for a trip, being out there, and only then realizing that you forgot something. Whatever that something small may be could be on your mind for days to come, as you convince yourself that it might have been the solution to all of your problems. For this trip, I was planning in particular on using a poncho tarp, which would serve as my rain gear and also as my shelter at night. It would have saved weight off of my back, but it sadly didn’t come in the mail in time. So, I went with my tried and true 7’x9’ tarp/ rain jacket. I had also tried ordering new shoes, since my old ones have taken a serious beating in my prior trips, but I mistakenly ordered a half a size too small. Fortunately, though, I had the same shoes in a half a size up from what I normally wear. Clearly, this was not the first time that I’ve made this mistake! I chose to wear those, knowing that my feet were going to swell from all of the walking which I was about to do. You will notice that your well-fitting shoes may seem tight after a few days on-trail, as your feet can grow a half or even a full size larger! With my backpack all packed, I had a base weight (only the weight of my gear, without food or water) of less than six pounds. So, fully packed with five days of food and a liter of water, I was set to be carrying a very heavy sixteen-pound backpack on day one. It was only to get lighter from there, a fact which I am always excited for as I am only going to get be getting more exhausted from there. After triple- and quadruple-checking everything, my pack seemed to be in order, and I was ready for my hike!
Day 1 – Hobe Sound Beach to Hungryland Boardwalk trail head: 31.7 miles
The Lake Okeechobee Lollipop is a go. No more working, all that I have to do now is walk, make as few mistakes as possible, and see to it that in nine days I make it back to the very spot which I start from. On this day, I wake up at around 4:00 AM, drink a protein shake, don my short shorts, pick up my pack, and transform my thoughts into those of a machine made to walk. I have chosen to get up so early because this trip is to be taken in June, one of Florida’s most harsh months when it comes to heat. People have already been telling me that there is record-breaking heat, and that I need to be careful. Starting a hike at 5:30 AM is certainly being mindful of the heat to come once the sun rises. I am being driven to the beach by my mom who is to drop me off and then not see me again until I am finished. We arrive, and I walk down to the beach and snap a picture. The sunlight is barely reaching the clouds in the distance, and everything around me is black except for that thin line of light on the horizon. I start to walk the sidewalk that will take me in the dark the two-and-a-half miles to Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Within minutes, I scare some poor woman who is on a morning run with a flashlight, who apparently didn’t see me until I am right beside her. Not everyone is asleep at this hour, apparently. She is to be the only person who I will see for the next sixteen miles of the day, until I get to Riverbend Park. By the time I reach JDSP, the sun has risen, there is a beautiful pink hue in the sky, and I can see a spectacular moon. It is still high in the sky, waiting to fall out of sight and to be replaced by its more aggressive sibling. For once, as I tread the sand dunes in JD, a train passes by me. I always love seeing trains and so this is a great start to what will be a very long day. Being the first day of my trip, the initial road walk and then the soft sand won’t prove much of a match for me as I glide through the first five miles to the first campsite of the Ocean-to-Lake Hiking Trail, the Scrub Jay Campsite. I try to make a point of not stopping when I don’t need to, as there are only so many hours in the day to get to where that I need to be. The next three miles are beautiful in the early morning, nothing but tall weeds and pine flat woods. I fill up a liter of water at Kitching Creek, and the sun begins its relentless reign of terror which will last for the rest of the day. The next section until the Hobe Grove Canal is only two miles, but it has recently undergone a controlled burn. Some of the orange blazes that were marking the trail are gone, and the tree cover is very limited. I have already gotten my sun umbrella out, as I am trying to mitigate the rays from above. At least the trail is completely dry, and I can travel fast. The Hobe Grove Canal is a small water crossing. It is usually clear of debris due to the high volume of traffic which this trail receives. Well, I’m guessing that there haven’t been many other people out here, because I’ve been having to push my way through all of the weeds that have been building up in the canal. I pass an orange grove, and I walk down an overgrown dirt road where I see a turkey. Then, five little turkey babies pop out of the bush, and they’re all walking down the trail together. I’ve been feeling pretty good, and I decide that I will never be able to get a good picture from this far away! So, I start chasing them, trying to get a picture, until they dip off into the bushes. The next section has a beautiful wooden bridge over Cypress Creek, which is an offshoot of the Loxahatchee River. I sit there and snack, as it’s one of those can’t-pass-up locations. I see some bubbles and think that it’s a turtle underwater. I wait for it to surface, and wouldn’t you know it? Those bubbles are from an otter! He’s having a grand time swimming around, giving me a show. I watch until he goes around the corner, out of sight. It’s pretty amazing to see one, as I’ve sat here countless times during other hikes and have never had the privilege. My feet know this next four-mile section extremely well, and I push through it quickly. I only make one brief stop, at another one of my favorite spots on this trail. It’s a scenic overlook of a hairpin turn in the Loxahatchee River, a beautiful spot where I’ve sat and had many a meal before. Now that I’m in Riverbend Park in midday, the heat is truly upon me. Sun umbrella out, and a bandanna on my head, I’m not playing games anymore. I will look like this for the rest of the day. The people in Riverbend might not understand my look, judging by the stares I’m being given, but I’m probably travelling a lot farther than they are in this heat. Riverbend is a great park if you’re on a bike, out for a picnic, or going kayaking. For walking or running, though, I’ve always disliked the compacted hard ground. It seems to me to be more like a park for driving trucks around than it does for walking, despite the beauty. Take me back to the trail! After exiting the park, I sit down by a small marsh to have some lunch. I soon realize that there is a deer no farther than fifty feet from me, watching me eat! No sooner after that realization, another one comes in that I’ve been sitting in a pile of ants. Life goes on. The Loxahatchee Slough is next, another section which I know like the back of my hand. Fortunately, this section is completely dry. “Fortunately,” because it’s usually flooded from start to finish. There are a lot of small boardwalks here which make this a really great place to come and do day hikes, or just to walk through in general. It’s also home to a very diverse ecosystem which changes multiple times throughout the seven miles. There is one boardwalk in particular with a nice bench, made for an Eagle Scout project, which overlooks some wetlands. This, again, is one of my favorite places. How amazing that there can be three really amazing spots to stop and have a snack in just my first day! The section after this is undergoing a restoration project at this moment, which I had believed to be already completed. I soon come across some machines, and two workers. I say hello, and explain my mistaken thought. One guy tells me that I shouldn’t be here, and that the trail is closed. The other guy says, “I don’t see nothin’, man. Do what you want.” The FTA has done what they can to relocate the trail while the area grows back, but it has undergone some serious changes for a couple of miles. After this, I walk the Beeline Highway for a mile to get to the Hungryland Slough, an area which I think was planned to be a neighborhood – so you are walking undeveloped, grid-like dirt roads for about four miles. It’s very interesting and goes by quickly, as there isn’t much difficulty in the terrain. By this point, the heat is really getting to me, I’m tired, and it’s getting late. I have hiked thirty miles so far, and only have one mile left to go. I enter Corbett, throw away my trash at the dumpster next to the main gate, and walk the dusty road to the Hungryland Boardwalk trailhead. This is a grassy parking lot with two trailheads. Luckily, there are no cars, and so I set up camp immediately. This grassy parking lot is my home for the night. Situated right in the middle of the Ocean-to-Lake, I have walked half of this trail in one day (based on miles). I’ve done this before, but without this much ease. It has been an extremely hot day today, leaving me to wonder how I might do if I were to have a cooler day. Very happy to be done with my day, I settle down for the night. I’ve seen a lot of deer this day; I figure that I was seeing about a deer every couple of hours. At least one deer for every park or natural area which I have gone through. All night, I hear animals rustling in the bushes behind me. I can only hope that they don’t want to deal with me just as much as I don’t want to deal with them. Day One has been a success. I’m excited to be hiking the OTLHT again, and to be doing it bigger than ever before.
Day 2 – Hungryland Boardwalk trailhead to Dupuis west boundary: 27.8 miles
I wake up late at 6:30 AM, and am moving by 7:00 AM. This timing will prove to hurt me a little later in the day. I could technically finish this trail today, in what would be a new personal record, but that would leave me without anywhere to sleep at the western terminus. I plan to stop just short instead, and sleep in Dupuis at the border of the management area. I start my day walking through Corbett. Used to walking through water during the sixteen miles, I decide to skip the first of the wetlands crossings and take the bypass trail around it. Later, I will find out that it’s so dry out, that the area which is typically up to my knees in water is completely barren. At least I am managing to skip what would have been a giant mud hole, so I stand by my decision to save my feet for another couple of miles. I get to the next wetlands crossing, known as “Eyeglass Lakes,” named after the overhead view in which it looks like a pair of eyeglasses, and you walk through what would be the center. This is another notoriously wet section that is completely dry. I’m stoked that I can for once move freely through Corbett without the burden of water holding me back, or turning my feet into raisins – something I’m used to, as it’s extremely rare for these sections of trail to be dry. I tell people the secret to walking through water is getting wet. The secret to walking through water fast is getting REALLY wet. The first six miles of Corbett are always a blur to me, although it’s a lovely section. There are recognizable sights, but I can never tell how far that I am from the start, or the next mile marker, once I’ve gotten going in it. The next campsite is the closest, most obvious, trail marker, but I can’t tell you the halfway point from only being a mile to it. For this reason, I try to blow through this section as quickly as is possible. I like to know where I am … for the most part, anyway. It’s nice to be able to track my speed and distance. After those first six miles, Corbett gets truly interesting. The scenery and the terrain start to change, and suddenly I’m really out there. The best known piece of trail here, and what I consider to be one of the most (if not the most) beautiful sections of trail on the OTLHT is called the “Hole in the Wall.” It’s a cypress strand, and it’s usually knee-deep to waist-deep with water that you can’t see down into. I turn a corner, and I’m there. I’m right in the middle of hundreds of cypress tree, countless air plants hanging from every single one of them. The corridor is tight, and stunningly pretty. Going through here alone can be a scary prospect, due to the depth of the water as well as the remoteness of the location. I’ll say that I’ve never had a problem, and never felt in real danger, but the thought remains. This time, passing through the Hole in the Wall, I’m blown away: It’s completely dry. I spend some time in here, looking around and taking pictures, because I may never get to come through again when it’s like this. It’s quite the treat to be able to experience this without worry of water snakes. I take my sweet time here, and enjoy while I can. After about a mile, I’m greeted by a bridge over a canal. I frequently get water here, and today is no exception. It has been overcast all day, but I’m now ten miles into Corbett and it seems that my luck has run out. Once again, the sun is shining, and the heat is on. I have plenty of energy, and I’m glad to have been so lucky with the clouds in the morning. A couple of beautiful miles later, I take my lunch break by the Big Gopher Canal. Some foresight has played its part here, as I know that an alligator family keeps its residence here, and that I shouldn’t get water in this spot. (When I walk up really slowly, light on my feet, I hear them dive under the water and hide. Rarely do I actually get to see them.) Good thing that I filled up extra at the last canal! After a nice break, where I add a couple pieces of Leukotape to my feet to combat the hot spot or two that I can feel coming on, I finish up the last four miles of Corbett. This is an awesome section with a lot of walking through cypress swamps. I am sad to report that I haven’t seen any larger animals in Corbett. Those hunters sure know how to clean a place out. More often than not, I see loads of animals everywhere but here. I cross under large power lines and into Dupuis. There’s a campsite here, as well as another canal. Some have spotted otters here, but I have only seen gators. I wonder how the two animals can coexist. The next five or six miles are devoid of water, so I decide to fill up two liters here and move on. The back country of Dupuis is extremely pretty, and extremely different from the front country. Since the last time that the FTA has mowed out here, the border has already gotten quite overgrown. There’s a really wild feel to the area. This trail is littered with little yellow flowers, and I’m walking through them for miles and miles. I feel like Dorothy on the yellow brick road…. I’m Jupiter on the yellow flower trail. This marks the beginning of my new PR of armadillo sightings. SIX in one dozen miles! I can go for days without seeing one, I meet disappointed out-of-state hikers wanting to see them, and now here I am faced with six of them over the course of just a couple of hours. I even see two at once; one silly armadillo is so scared of me that it runs directly into a tree! The trail follows a sandy road that runs parallel to another canal for maybe half of a mile. Here again is an alligator home, and I like to avoid animals that can do serious harm to me. There’s a giant, rusted metal tube lying nearby. I’d always imagined it as some massive culvert, never been installed, but I’ve recently found out that its use was as a feeder for cattle back in the day. There are more of these metal pieces scattered around Dupuis, but none are as big as this one. Shortly after this, I reach the last campsite of the trail, nine miles from the western trailhead of the OTLHT. This isn’t where I’d like to stop, but I’ve traveled twenty-two miles so far, with five-and-a-half miles to go, and this is my last location for water for the foreseeable future. I will begin walking around Lake Okeechobee tomorrow, with no prospects for drinking water, and so I chug down a liter right there and fill up all three of the liters in my pack. At this point, it’s getting really late, the sunset is coming soon, and I know that I’m to be walking in the dark. I walk three miles before the sun starts going down, one in the dim but colorful lights of the sunset, and the last one-and-a-half in the dark. Unfortunately, the second that the sun has gone below the horizon, and night is upon me, I enter a recently burned area. So there I am with my little handheld flashlight, capable of something like fifty pitiful lumens, looking for trail and orange blazes that have been burned off of trees. This proves to be quite difficult, as you can imagine, given the conditions. I fumble around, and lose and find the trail multiple times. I finally make it to a spot that I’m happy with, and I set up camp directly in the middle of the trail in the burned area. The next day, I’ll be greeting a group of ultra runners, who are running the trail from lake to ocean with a deadline of eighteen hours. This is something that I’m excited to witness, as these people are incredibly inspiring as what they’re doing is exceptionally difficult. Some call them crazy, but I think that you’d be crazy to not want to be able to do what they’re doing. If you think that me walking thirty miles in a day is impressive, try running sixty-three miles, over challenging terrain, in less than eighteen hours. I have my tarp pitched directly in their path, with cords going every which way, so the idea is to wake up before they get to where I’m camped. I’m in for a rude awakening otherwise!
Day 3 – Dupuis west boundary to South Bay RV Park: 27.5 miles
Getting up just before 6:00, moving by 6:20, I’m super stoked to see the ultra runners start their race. I’d thought that it was beginning at 7:00, but an executive decision must have been made due to the heat that I’d been experiencing for a couple of days already. I make my way down the farm road, toward the mine that the trail passes, and I can see the group in the distance. One man is way ahead of the rest. There’s a tight group behind him, and then the rest of the twenty-plus runners strewn in the distance. I greet that first runner, and try to get a good look at his face, as I figure that whoever’s first in line will be the one to win, but then this isn’t a race about speed. This is a trail run. Navigation and ability to read the trail are everything. It’s one thing to be fast on a straightaway, and another thing entirely to be able to swiftly duck in and out of the wilderness. As the second group approaches, I recognize two runners who I have met in the past, and yell out, “Let the pain begin!” It may not seem like it, but this is my way of wishing them good luck. What this group is doing is a feat of endurance and athleticism. I am inspired by them, and admire everything about their style and choice of sport. Something is sparked in me, and I want to get out and do what they’re doing. Running marathons is cool, but running trails with distances even farther than marathons is even cooler. I can comfortably walk twenty-six-plus miles, but I can’t comfortably walk forty or fifty miles yet. Some of these runners are capable of 100- or 200-mile races. This group has a surprisingly equal ratio of women to men. My buddy Rob, who I’ve met several times on the trail, stops to talk with me for a second. I warn him of what he already knows: It’s hot as hell out here. I truly love seeing this event take place, and wish that I could be present for the rest of their journey, but I have my own path to follow. I finish the OTLHT, and immediately start down Highway 441 South, as this is a section of the LOST that is closed. For the next eighty-or-so miles, I will be walking down highways, on back roads, and also on sidewalks through towns. The asphalt doesn’t seem as bad as I’d thought that it would be. In fact, I wanted to do this trip as a way of experiencing the effects of walking on hard surfaces for prolonged times, to strengthen myself for future walks of this nature. It’s still early in the morning, so 441 is rather quiet. Not many cars pass as I walk in the shoulder. I like going against traffic, as it allows me to see if the vehicles’ drivers are paying attention or not. Some are, and some aren’t. Semis seem to show me the most respect, and so I start to show them the most respect in return. I get off the road for them and them alone. Motorcyclists are the worst offenders, seeming to mess with me by getting as close to me as they can. Today’s road walk is amazing, as I’m walking past all of these super cute homes. I see lots of cats, and some really fat chickens. I see an abundance of hoarded metal junk, and yards with pristine gardens. I wonder what growing up here must be like. To have Lake Okeechobee at the front of your house, and a sugar cane farm at the back. The views are spectacular, and the living is simple. I’m sure that you’d get used to the highway and railroad in between you and the lake. I walk this road, gazing at homes and occasionally sugarcane fields for maybe eight or ten miles, drinking my coffee until I’m all out of water. Wondering when I’ll reach the road that I need to get on for the next leg of the day, I come across the town of Canal Point and their community center. I decide that this is a great place to stop, because they have a giant map of the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail right out front on the sidewalk; they understand! I spy a public bathroom in back of a playground, and some water fountains, and so I’m in luck. I stay until mothers with children show up to use the playground. I don’t want them to worry that I’m some predator. I keep on walking, and come across a poor neighborhood with feral cats running around everywhere and sleeping on everything. Someone has put out a big pile of food for them to eat, outside of a junk yard. This junk yard is something special, as it houses mobile carnival rides that fold up into vehicles, and big trucks with oddly painted murals of food – probably also used in carnivals. Right after this, I see two very familiar faces, Roy and Shannon Moore of the Loxahatchee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association! Roy is the Grand Poobah, the Exalted Ruler … if you will … of that chapter. Or so he is to me! Shannon is his wife, and runs the Web-site for the chapter. They tell me where the runners are now, as they’ve been out taking pictures of them, and talking to the crew supporting them. After that, they decided to find me, bring me cold water, and see how I’m doing. Thank you guys so much! It’s great to see you two, as always. This really brightens my road walking for the day. I continue on, and am no longer on the road. I now have a sidewalk to hike on. I pass through more beautiful little towns, with more cute little homes, until I come across the Pahokee Community Center. They too have a giant map of the LOST! It sure is funny how all of these towns have big pictures of Lake Okeechobee, and yet the Army Corps of Engineers are doing such extensive work, costing millions of dollars, that nobody can use more than half of the trail going around the lake. I’m really overheated, and so I find an empty baseball field with seats, cold water fountains, and a bathroom. I hang out there in the shade for a while and cool down. I call the South Bay RV Park, to ask them about tent camping, as there is nowhere legal for me to set up my tarp, and I don’t want to be stealth camping on my first night walking around Lake O, just south of Belle Glade. The lady tells me that they close at 4:00, and I mention that I’m on foot and have a very long way to go. Making the biggest mistake of my trip, I tell her that I can probably get there in time, if I hustle. The heat and friendliness keep me from inquiring further, when really I should. She should give me more information. As I leave the baseball field, I begin the trend of dumping water all over my head and shirt to keep cool, and I weird out the people who see me doing this. Anyhow, everything good must come to an end. My sidewalks, for example. I’m back on the highway, and this is my first really long stretch of road without any shade. Getting burnt to a crisp, pushing to get to South Bay, rain is threatening to my east. I don’t know how far that I walk, but I eventually get off this road at Hooker Highway, which isn’t a highway at all. It’s a dirt road, and it dead ends in the direction that I’m going. My maps show other dirt roads connecting to it, in a fashion, allowing me to go farther south and get to a two-mile section of the LOST that isn’t closed, near Torry Island. These dirt/gravel roads are the beginning of my ankle problems. Dirt is fine with me, of course, but adding medium-sized gravel when I feel like I’m on a deadline is not good. I’m walking these empty roads, and a car comes up right behind me. A young man stops next to me, and offers me a ride. I tell him what I’m doing, and that I very much appreciate the offer, but that I have to walk. He tells me to watch out for water moccasins, and goes off on his way. Minutes later, after his car is gone, I hear four loud gunshots in the distance behind me, from Hooker Hwy. I turn around, and see a truck speeding away. That isn’t at all suspicious! I keep walking, and start to wonder if maybe the young man meant a gang when he said “Water Moccasins.” The Water Moccasins rivaling the Fire Moccasins for territory, around the southeast side of Lake O, sounds plausible to me. It’s only another mile to the levee and the Torry Island Bridge, but I’m really beat and it’s really hot. I don’t want to stop, because I’m so very close, but it’s hard to continue. I slog up the hill, and plop down in the first patch of grass that I see. I lie on top of the levee, right next to the Torry Island Bridge, with my umbrella held directly above me for shade. Car after car passes, wondering what the hell I’m doing. I’m so tired, and it’s 3:50. And I have two more miles to go. I call South Bay, and tell the girl that I’m not going to get there on time. I’m so very close, but so far, and I’m moving very slowly after trying so hard to get there before they close. Now, she says that it’s fine. She’ll leave out an envelope for me with all of the information that I’ll need, and I can pay her in the morning. Damn. Why couldn’t she have said that in the first place? I’m still happy that I’ll have a place to sleep, and a place to order pizza to. I take my first steps on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail, and I make my way down the two miles. I finally arrive, and learn from the aforementioned envelope that I can camp anywhere on the grass next to the lake. I immediately call Pizza Hut, but they don’t deliver. I end up with a pizza establishment previously unknown by me. I order a fourteen-inch pizza, ten chicken wings, sixteen breadsticks, and a liter of Mountain Dew. I tip the driver very well, and he asks me if I live here. I tell him what I’m doing, and he asks me if I’m on a mission. I’m not sure what he means by that, so I simply say “No.” I eat every bit of what I’ve ordered. It’s so early to be at camp, but I’m so destroyed from pushing myself so hard on my first day of road walks. I cuddle up in the grass next to the lake, with my Mountain Dew and trash. I wait for the energy to set up my tarp, shower, throw away garbage, and charge my phone. There are only two other people in the entire RV park, both with RVs. What I have is a tarp by a lake in which there are alligators. There is a magnificent sunset tonight, but I don’t limp my way up the levee to see its true form. In this moment, it feels unlikely that I’m going to complete this trip. That’s how bad my left ankle is hurting. I’ve learned my lesson: Do not, push yourself to walk faster than you’re comfortable with (especially on roads or other compact surfaces). Every long distance hiker will tell you that distance is equal to your rate divided by the time that you have, and that the higher your rate is also the more prone to injury that you are. In other words, it’s why you’re better off hiking longer than faster, why hiking big miles means getting up earlier, and why I often don’t set up camp until it’s already dark outside. I know this, and I’ll be sure that I don’t repeat this mistake. People think that I walk fast, and I can, but they are misguided. Most of the time, I walk between two-and-a-half and three miles per hour. People are under their mistaken impression because they only see me on six to ten mile hikes, where injury is improbable no matter how fast that I’m going. I decide that my next day is going to be an easy day. I’m only going to go the fourteen-and-a-half miles to the Clewiston Historic Inn, to rest my feet and relax. I look up a video on ankle stretches, and I do those for a very long time. I hope that I will be feeling better after resting. I have a built-in buffer day, so that my overall mileage on this trip will be twenty-seven per day while allowing me to have a short day. I sleep by the lake with a stomach full of pizza, and I can hear some dog outside one of the RVs, barking on and off into the wee hours. If I do this trip again, I’ll spend the section from South Bay to Clewiston on the LOST, and I’ll camp along the trail.
Day 4 – South Bay RV Park to Clewiston Historic Inn: 14.5 miles
South Bay doesn’t open until 8:00, so I get to sleep in, charge my phone a little outside of the bathroom, apply sunscreen, look over my maps, and figure out a game plan for the day. I pay the lady her ten dollars for the campsite, and am friendly despite the day before. I make my way out to Highway 27, and my ankle is feeling better from the night’s stretching and resting. Yesterday, I was walking mostly through neighborhoods and towns; today, I will be walking a real highway. The levee is to one side of me, the sugarcane farms are to the other, and there are a whole lot of cars in between. I see a guy riding his bike on the levee, and I stare at him from below as he stares at me from above. I would like to be where he is, but I’m sure that neither he nor I would be able to pass the construction sites that the Army Corps has here and there. Per usual, I’m walking against traffic, so that I can keep my eyes on those around me. When walking with traffic, I don’t feel safe – not even for a few minutes. Anyone could come up, not paying attention, and hit me at any moment. Walking against traffic, I feel more in control of the situation, and able to avoid any problems that might arise. The situation is more personal when the incoming traffic can see into my eyes. The drivers can relate to me. I’m a human like them, and a young guy at that. The road walking is actually pretty sweet today. I don’t have an overcast sky, but the heat of the day isn’t bothering me. I’ve had my umbrella out since the first moment that I started on the highway, and I will carry that umbrella for every mile that I walk today. I’m finding all sorts of things on the side of the road: cell phones, iPods, and a suitcase full of clothing. Why are these things on the side of the highway? I pick up and try out all of the electronics, but none of them are in working order. The clouds are amazing to watch growing and changing as I walk. Cloud-watching is a highlight to my urban hiking of today. My friend Wayne has pointed out that all of these farms on the sides of the roads have canals, and that all of the plants in and on the sides of these canals are dead. Others have told me about the pesticide usages, and I can see the consequences firsthand. Is there no better way? What is this doing to our water? It seems absolutely terrible, like we’d be better off without whatever good that chemical is providing. Science is the answer, and people smarter than I am coming up with alternatives to this archaic practice that our local governments seem to be overlooking. After Wayne brought this up with me, I’ve seen it everywhere. Beyond that, however, the farms are pretty to look at, with the sugarcane blowing in the wind. There are vast expanses of farms as far as the eye can see. When walking past these places for hours, sometimes the littlest things can become more and more beautiful in their own ways. Driving past them, I write them off, bored in minutes with my air conditioning blasting and music blaring. But here I am on foot, with no option but appreciating the simple beauty of it all. Much like the clouds, or the little bugs and spiders, the farms on the side of the road have beauty in them. I have long roads ahead of me, and can see little water towers way before me; I will eventually walk past them, and they will soon be way behind me. There’s an abundance of beauty. I walk five-and-a-half miles, and make it to John Stretch Park. There are some pretty bridges over a canal coming from a water structure on the Lake Okeechobee Levee, and trees with tables underneath. This is paradise to someone who’s been walking for a long while in the sun! I hang out here a bit, but I know that I still have nine miles to go. It will be pure highway, but there are different kinds of highways. People are playing soccer in the grass, people are gathered to drink, and there is a line of cars along the main canal where people are fishing. I finish my instant coffee from the morning, and fill up at a bathroom’s water fountain for the road ahead. I start walking, and soon realize that this is the type of road that has no cover and too much traffic, as Clewiston is one of the larger towns around the lake. So many Wal Mart trucks pass by. How many trucks does one Wal Mart need? What is in all of those trucks? I walk, I walk, and I walk some more in the hot midday sun. Eventually, I pass by some very small trailer parks, and see up ahead some cars parked along the road. I get up there, and I see that it’s a farm with a sign that says, “Fresh fruit and vegetables,” which sounds awesome to me! Nothing is better than fresh fruit after a long day’s road walk, I think. There are big bundles of bananas hanging out front, and as I walk down the road a few yards toward them I see some woman arguing with a very elderly, very tan, Spanish-speaking guy. The guy is the one selling, and the woman is trying to get him to sell for a lower price. She wants this six-foot tall stock of sugarcane, and she wants it for less than a dollar. She doesn’t look poor, and it sure looks like a very large piece of cane to me. I almost want to just give the guy a dollar and pay for it, but I don’t say anything. Really, I don’t even know what she’ll use this sugarcane for. I see a room with more stuff inside, and it seems to be what he’s selling, and so I go in. I realize that “Fresh fruits and vegetables” means bananas and sugarcane. There are a few gourds, but it’s a large stack of sugarcane and big bushels of tiny bananas that take up the space. The bananas look tasty, and I want to buy some, but he’s only selling them by the bushel. One bushel alone would not only be bigger but also heavier than everything that I’m carrying on my back. I contemplate just eating fifty or so tiny bananas right here, but decide against it. I would offer to pay for just a few, but the woman is still arguing with the seller, and so I smile and walk away. Those bananas sure would have tasted good. Back to the road I go. Farther down the line, I pass a sign letting me know that I’ve entered Hendry County. It turns out that I’m still a couple of miles out from Clewiston, but I’m getting close and my road walk for the day is almost over! Along the way, I’d been thinking about stopping and taking a break in the few shady spots that I’ve seen, but I haven’t yet and I won’t in these last miles to come. I’m already walking along a highway, and I don’t want to stand out any more than I already do by lying in the grass next to a major roadway. I see a lady doing just that, with no water bottle but a package of cigarettes. I don’t know where the heck that she came from, or what the heck that she’s doing here, and she probably thinks the same about me. But at least I have water! I smile at her, and she just looks away from me. Oh, well. Clewiston, here I come! Eventually, I arrive in “America’s Sweetest Town.” It’s a pretty sweet town, I’ll give them that. Right away, I have the choice of two different gas stations from which to grab a cold drink and a snack. I sit outside of my gas station of choice, and call the Clewiston Historic Inn to tell them that I’m ready for my room! Around this time, my buddy Wayne messages me to let me know that, surprise, he’s in the town to the north of me and heading south through my area with his girlfriend! I tell him that I’m checking into my hotel, and that I’m going to take a quick shower. I’ve learned a trick: Showering in my clothing, washing it as I wash myself, eliminates the need for laundry-doing. It works great, except that I then have to wear my wet clothing out to dinner. Wayne is kind enough to pick me up, and take me out to dinner and then for Hawaiian Ice. It’s very nice to see him and Liz again, and I don’t often get the chance to. Thank you so much, Wayne! It’s great to receive such excellent trail magic on my day of recovery! You’ve put the spark back into my eyes, and I’ll have a skip in my step tomorrow due to your visit. Wayne, Liz, and I talk about my trip thus far, and also what is to come – seeing the ultra runners, and just general backpacking talk. Liz asks a question that isn’t asked enough: What do I do when I get to camp? I do things differently than most due to my style of hiking. When I get to camp, I’ve hiked long and far, and I’ve usually just finished up the last mile that I can squeeze out without having to take a long break (which cuts into my sleeping hours, as I stop walking at sunset or just after dark, an hour or less before I should be going to bed for a wake-up time of 5:00 AM). What I do when I get to camp is take care of myself. I wash my feet with a bandanna, brush my teeth, drink water, study maps and mileage for the next day, apply a wax salve to my feet to help repel water from penetrating the surface, put Leukotape in any pained areas for the day to come, stretch my legs and feet, collect and filter water, and pack up and prepare as much as I can for the day to come. I do everything that I can to make the next morning go as smoothly as it can. I like to wake up really early, and be moving within thirty minutes of getting up. This doesn’t always happen, but it’s always the goal on a solo trip. I don’t make fires on solo trips, and I don’t explore my campsites. I do chores, more or less. It’s the same way when I take breaks during the day. I take off my shoes, and clean my socks and feet. For me, solo trips are about the hike. I’m out here for the journey, to enjoy nature while I’m travelling through it, and the purpose of camping is re-energizing. I’m not purely there to “work”; I like very much to look at the stars and listen to the sounds while I lie under my tarp at night. I won’t be camping tonight, but I still do all of those things to make my morning easy. I have my bag packed and ready to go, and my phone charged. I’m watching the weather channel, thinking about food, and wondering why I didn’t go out for second dinner, as I fall asleep.
Day 5 – Clewiston Historic Inn to Lake Port (LOST): 27.3 miles
Another day and more miles to travel! I wake up early, and go down for the free breakfast. I’ve been looking forward to this. It isn’t much, but they have donuts, and I eat enough of them to make the stay worthwhile. The Clewiston Historic Inn is very cute, and much nicer than any of its price comparatives, and I would recommend it to anyone going through the area. I take my leave of it, and make my way down the main street of town. I stop at the Hawaiian Ice stand once more, and a CVS to grab snacks for the road ahead. I decide that I will skip resupplying in Clewiston, as I still have the options of Moore Haven, Okeechobee, and Taylor Creek, which all have varying degrees of food availability trailside. I still have food left over, and I can supplement that with whatever I can find in Moore Haven halfway through the day. This day starts off really nice, as I make my way down Highway 27. Forewarned by Wayne that there is a lot of construction between Clewiston and Moore Haven on this road, I dip down Highway 720, a back road with a small neighborhood and farms. This road gets less frequent use, and will take me to the same place. As I get on Highway 720, I come across a road sign labeled, “Happy Trails Blvd.” I take this is a sign that today is going to be a good day. I walk past small homes as I eat my Hawaiian Ice in the sun, eventually getting to nothing but farms that go deep into the horizon in every direction. This road is awesome, and I’m feeling great. My short day did wonders for me, and I’m not even feeling pain anymore. Crazy to think that I’m pain free, as on Day Three I’d thought that I’d sprained my ankle. I’m happy to be walking a mostly empty road. The clouds today are on a different level of beautiful. Clouds in the summer can be so dramatic, with how the formations appear and change. I love the ever-changing view, and I’m truly enjoying my walk. This road is to go on for ten miles, but something amazing happens halfway through. I’m walking along, and a man in a truck pulls up beside me and says, “There are a lot of things that I’d rather be doing than walking out here!” I tell him that I can’t think of anything that I’d be enjoying more. He pulls over to the side of the road, and we get to talking. He is one of the landowners of all of the farmland, and apparently his sixty-five-year-old buddy is a backpacker who does a 100-mile section of the Appalachian Trail every year. His friend also happens to be an ultra-light backpacker, and a self-proclaimed “gram weenie” (someone who thinks about every last gram that they have to carry in their backpack when they’re choosing gear; my kind of person). He knows immediately from my backpack and trekking pole that I’m not your average vagrant. We talk for a good amount of time about backpacking gear, and things like what I use for shelter, where I’ve been camping, where I’m going, what I have in my first aid kit, and which types of water filters are best. He opens his truck, and takes out a backpack of his own. He says that he created this kit for a survival situation in which he may be stuck for a few days. This is known as a “bug out bag”, and is often supplied with everything that you’d need to survive for seventy-two hours or longer. He’s a really awesome guy, and really seems to understand what I’m doing and that there aren’t many who would come out to recreate this or do it on their own. He offers me water and ice, but I’m already good to go. We say our goodbyes, and I go on my way, with my faith in people restored, and my energy renewed. I’m very happy to have met this man, and to know that he’s out there thinking about the same thing that I am: backpacking. You’re never too old to have fun with it. His thing is gear and survival. I continue on Highway 720, watching the birds flutter around, and looking for alligators in the surrounding canals. There are just a few homes out this deep in the sugarcane fields. When I make it back to Highway 27, and Moore Haven is within reach, I can see the massive bridge that takes you into town. This bridge is quite the spectacle, and goes over the Caloosahatchee River (I plan to use this river in a future trek). As I walk up the bridge, I realize that I’m on the wrong side for the best view! I hop the multiple concrete shoulders, and scurry across the roads to get to the other side for a beautiful view of both the river and Lake Okeechobee. I’m super excited to be experiencing this view on foot, rather than passing by in a car going upwards of forty miles per hour. I make my way down, and into the very small town of Moore Haven. The first place of interest that I see is a Family Dollar store. I passed one of these back on Day Three in Pahokee, and later regretted not going in. Now I know that I had indeed made a mistake, as they sell all sorts of food … even ice cream bars! I grab some junk, and a couple of sodas, and I sit out in the parking lot in the shade to eat it all right now. The beauty of urban thru hiking, the prospect of many places to get food! As soon as I enter Moore Haven, I leave. What a small place. It took me all of five minutes to walk through the center. I’m getting onto Highway 78 and walking ten miles north next. This road is very straight and very long. I realize soon after leaving civilization that I haven’t used a bathroom anywhere, which is met with the realization that I’m not going to be able to use a bathroom for some time. There’s a sheriff’s office to the left of me, and a correctional facility to the right of me, and I would rather not visit either for indecent exposure. I can’t drink any more water until I can get this problem solved, and it will be another hour before the flow of cars, mostly police, will slow down and I can dip off of the road. I’m very thankful when I can once again drink fluids, as I was starting to get very uncomfortable in the heat. This road seems to go on forever and ever. The heat of the day is no better, and people are once again messaging me about record temperatures. This doesn’t help, by the way! I can so very much feel the heat. Even under the shade of my umbrella, cool breezes are followed by massive heat waves, and this will continue for hours. I find a bridge to hide under to get some shade and drink down a lot of fluids. I get to sit by a small canal, and watch water birds walk on lilies, and scavenge. I find the strength to venture out again, thinking that I’m getting close to my destination. I thought that I’d gone eight miles, but it’s only been six. I have four to go. On this trip, I’ve seen all sorts of things on the sides of the roads. On this stretch, I find something that I very much enjoy: a very colorful party lei! It sure spices up my “dirty vagabond” look. I attach it to the back of my backpack, and go on my way. Before, I was just some dirty guy walking down the highway, and now I’m some guy walking down the highway with a flower necklace attached to my backpack! Oddly, this is a huge morale booster. I really like this lei, and I decide that I’ll carry it all the way to the end of my trip. At this point, I’m smack dab in the middle of my journey. I find another bridge for shade, an activity that I’m really beginning to enjoy – hiding under bridges like some troll. This bridge is accompanied by a large river and a park. The park has these offensive signs, saying “No camping,” all over. Good thing that wasn’t my plan. It’s getting late in the day, and fewer cars are passing me as I walk next to a nature preserve. I can feel that the end is nigh. When I’m honked at for the second time, I think that the lei must be working! People’s perceptions of my walking are higher. Well, that or I’m acting erratic on the shoulder of a highway that they’re trying to drive down. I wonder why more people haven’t honked at me on this trip. I’ve had thousands of cars passing me over these five days, but only two honks? I think that I deserve more honks than that! I have high hopes for my lei to get me more honks from those passing by. After a whole lot of walking, I finally make it to the LOST. After walking around half of Lake Okeechobee, about sixty-five miles on roads, and 128 miles into my trip, I’m now on the levee that I’ve been looking at for so long, and walking the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. The “Florida National Scenic Trail” sign on the gate is an amazing sight in and of itself. I can see the town of Lake Port down the road, but all that I want to do is walk along that paved road on the top of the levee. As I start down the levee, I see three bikers in the distance. I’m beyond excited. Here I am in my first steps on the LOST, and I’m seeing others out here using it too! I get up to them, and see that it’s a mother and two kids in their teens. I’m extremely friendly, and try saying hello, asking them how they’re doing, but they all ride past me without even making eye contact with me. This is a pretty disappointing first contact with others on the scenic trail. I only go another mile before deciding to settle down and watch the sunset from my tarp. The road walking has been painful at times, but I really have loved doing it. The next leg of my adventure is beginning now, and its name is LOST. I set up my shelter down by the river, at the base of the levee, and hope that I won’t be carried away by alligators in the night. The sunset from the levee is a sight to see. I love every second of it, and it’s only made better by the long walk that I’ve had to get to it. I’m a very happy man tonight, as I lie down in my bug net as the hoards of mosquitoes begin to arrive. The night stars come out, and I can see shooting stars, one right after another. I see so many within an hour that I assume that there must be some sort of meteor shower happening. Maybe it’s just so dark here that this is the norm. Either way, it’s much welcomed and appreciated. It’s a wonderful night to be on the LOST, and I fall asleep watching the shooting stars.
That’s a tan, not dirt.
Gator bait. Wonderful view of the sunrise the next morning. See below for closeup.
Day 6 – Lake Port (LOST) to Taylor Creek: 27.1 miles
This morning, I get up at 4:30 AM and am on my way down the scenic trail by 5:00. The sun isn’t set to rise for another hour, but the sky is already full of color. The grass is full of dew, going from my campsite to the trail, and so I decide to put my shoes on once I climb the ridge to the top of the levee. It turns out that the asphalt is so smooth, without rocks or glass, that shoes aren’t a big deal. I actually end up walking a mile, to a water control structure, before I even put them on. I’ve been too busy watching the colors in the sky change and continue to lighten. This has been a spectacular sunrise – without a doubt, the best of this entire trip. I watch in awe, as I walk, and it just gets better and better over the course of an hour. Finally, around 6:30, when I’m already a couple of miles into the day, the sun peaks at the top of the clouds and the day officially begins. Within my first mile, there’s something labeled as a “hiker graveyard,” which I first noticed in the guidebook from Paul at the FTA. Sure enough, there’s a spot that has a whole bunch of concrete blocks sticking out of the ground. I figure that it’s nice for those who make it halfway around the lake and perish, and those who get eaten by alligators along the lake. This is a convenient location right along the trail for their burial. I’m glad that I’m not one of those hikers! If it weren’t considered a hiker graveyard, I would think that it would be a good place for some serious ninja training. Jumping from block to block would really work for strengthening the skills of an average ninja. The day has started out really beautifully, but the exposed ridge soon becomes unbearably hot for walking on. The paved levee road is more like gravel at this point, which is super unpleasant. I prefer the blacktop by far. This isn’t your average gravel; this is like the cheap kind, where the stones are medium-sized, embedded, protruding, and loose. There are some that will make you trip, and some that are going to ruin your feet. This gravel is rough, and it makes up the trail from Lake Port to the Kissimmee River. There are eighteen-some miles of this stuff. I hide under more bridges whenever they come up, to get away from the heat and to rest my feet. Bridges have become a safe haven for me, away from the harsh Florida weather in June. The surrounding area is very beautiful and natural, with a massive nature preserve on one side, and a large canal that parallels the trail on the other. In this section, most of the benches and tables are down off the levee, by the canal. Although it’s tempting, I can’t justify climbing up and down that ridge over and over, through the thick grass, when I want to take a break. So, for the most part, I walk mile after mile without stopping, only going down when I need water. There’s a time during this stretch that I’m spotted by a helicopter (hopefully they don’t see me using the restroom). For a while, at first, they didn’t pay any attention to me. Before I knew it, though, I have this helicopter following me. It goes out and flies over the prairie for five to ten minutes, and the circles back to hover over and fly low past me. They continue to do this, for an hour. I decide that I’m a part of the scenery for them: “On this part of our tour, we have some idiot walking the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail in June…. Take a good look, and we’ll circle back in a few minutes to see if he’s fainted yet from heat exhaustion.” The helicopter at last disappears, and I move on, but after an hour it’s back again. I’m miles farther down the trail, and it’s following me again! It’s repeating the same process as before, getting progressively closer to me and lower to the ground. It’s pretty amazing that I’m a focus of this helicopter’s entertainment. (I don’t think that it’s a coincidence, and I can’t imagine what else could have been happening.) After that helicopter leaves for the second time, I don’t see it again. Maybe I’ve gone too far away from its base, or they’ve played me out with the tourists. Now, I’m watching cows in pastures on the side of that great big canal, and it seems like they’re watching me too. I start to whistle at them as I walk, and I get this giant herd of cattle walking alongside me, although maybe 100 yards away. This is really entertaining – I’m the Cow Whisperer/Whistler – until they start mooing at me. There are about 200 cows, all mooing at once in my direction. It’s no longer entertaining, and now really annoying, that they’re all following me and mooing! There are old and young cows, all doing it, and the last fifteen miles in the blistering heat have done a number on my patience. When I get closer to the Kissimmee River, I come upon a water control structure with a guy outside watching me. We talk, and he mentions that a big storm is to hit the area in the next twenty minutes. I haven’t looked behind me in a while, and doing so shows me a wall of black clouds moving in our direction. I’m not close enough to shelter for this to be a fun thing to look at. The guy also tells me that, after the river, the trail becomes blacktop again. This does get me excited. The winds start to pick up, and I can hear the lightning in the distance. I’m totally beat, and my feet have been destroyed by the terrain. I find an official Florida Trail campsite, with a table under a small sheltered structure. I would rather be under this if it’s going to be raining, than out walking. I eat some food, and I prepare my backpack for rain. I put everything important into bags. Then, I sit and wait. The wind is getting stronger and stronger, whipping off of the prairie, and pushing all of my gear off of the table. I turn to look at it, and I get a face full of the debris that’s constantly flowing in my direction. There are massive black clouds every which way, and I’m right in the middle. No rain has come yet, and I think that maybe I can make it into town before the storm really hits. This little shelter isn’t going to keep me protected from the elements any better than my rain jacket and umbrella could, anyway. I hustle my ass another mile down the levee road, to the Kissimmee River, and the rain starts. The thunder crackles, and the lightning flashes across the sky. I’m on the bridge, going over the river, as this is happening. Very much to my delight, I see a restaurant. Seafood is on the menu, and – more importantly – escaping this storm. I hide out there for a couple of hours, and I order a mountain of food. I eat until I can’t eat a bite more. I order beers, a few too many considering that I still have miles to make tonight. The waitress is extremely kind, and talks to me for a long time. She lets me charge my phone, and fill up my water bottles with fresh water for the night. She sure as hell doesn’t understand why I’m doing this, or why anyone would want to do anything like this, but she’s still very friendly. Her manager comes out, most likely to size me up to see if I have money, since I’ve been ordering all of this food and alcohol, yet I look very dirty and as though I could be the type to skip out. I tell him what I’m doing, and he’s very nice as well; he understands the freedom that I experience from a trip like this, but it clearly isn’t his thing. When the rain lets up, I thank the waitress, and tip her well, and I am off on foot to find the levee again. The next so many miles are nice, as there is a table at every mile. I don’t stop at any of them, but it’s nice to know my pace. There is the most lackluster sunset, due to the storms clouding the skies behind me, and then I walk the next two miles in the dark. The mosquitoes are terrible, and I camp right along the trail to save time both now and in the morning. I’m less than a mile from Taylor Creek. The stars and the lights along the lake are beautiful, and I plan my next day’s approach.
Day 7 – Taylor Creek to Dupuis west boundary: 25.8 miles
I get up an hour before sunrise, and start my walk slow. Right off the bat, I’m met with a water control structure that’s gated off and locked. And it’s blocking my path. I’m glad that I didn’t hike farther into the night, as this would have been really disappointing to walk up to after dark, and to have to go back for camping opportunities. There’s a guy, maybe fifty yards away, looking at me. I don’t want to try trespassing or skirting the edges of this obstacle, but I do see a bridge that I can get to if I go out into the RV park adjacent to me and the town of Taylor Creek. I take the quick detour, and I am again met with a locked gate and a bunch of “No trespassing” signs. I have this map of the lake, sent by the Army Corps of Engineers, which shows all of the closed sections of the LOST. This is not one of those sections. I have no choice but to go around it on the three miles of highway, and hope that the next section is open to be walked. I’m kind of happy to be back on the road after all of the harsh gravel that I had to walk on the day before, leaving a sour taste in my mouth for the trail. I pass a gas station, and I figure that it’s my last chance to get food until the end of this adventure – or at least until Riverbend Park and Indiantown Road. I pick up some food, mostly nuts, trail mix, and power bars, as resupplying at a gas station is doable but not the best. I replace my two Smart water bottles with fresh ones, and buy a couple of shots of coffee to get me hyped for my walk. I forget to get both bug spray and some type of electrolytes to add to my water, and I can only hope that I haven’t made a mistake. The highways have been my jam during this trip, and so I’m pretty stoked to once again be walking them. It isn’t a big deal that this three-mile section is closed. I pass an interesting bar, with funny murals on the side, and more small neighborhoods and trailer parks. The roads are my home on this trip, and I’ve so enjoyed walking them. I come to the end of the three miles, where I can pick the levee up again, and I see dump truck after dump truck going down that road with one guy flagging them past. I walk up to him, and I ask if I’m allowed to use the other side of the trail. He tells me that I’m good to, and so off I go. From this part of the levee, I have a great view of Lake Okeechobee. I pass two Asian bikers on their way back from a ride, and I greet them. There aren’t any walkers yet, for obvious reasons. It’s really hot outside, and biking makes it easier to go farther and see more. The next approximately fifteen miles are spent walking the blacktop, looking off into the distance, and trying to see the places where I had been in the days before. Every so often, I go down and sit by the lake. I enjoy the view and the breeze, I collect water. I drop a bottle cap, on accident, into some rocks in an unreachable location, and so I go from having a water carrying capacity of three to two. The levee here is pretty. There are houses to my left, across the big canal, and occasional long views of the highway or farms in the distance. I’m dodging under the covered benches, which are scattered down the path, for shade, whenever the heat gets out of hand and I need to lower my temperature. My map shows water control structures every so many miles, and so those are my point of reference for how far that I’ve travelled. Furthermore, I can see them far into the distance, and so they’re how I know how far that I still have to go. Getting to each of these structures makes me feel like I’m moving, like I’m really getting somewhere. The in-between is a lot of lake, and big open space, where feeling forward progress is difficult. I see the Port Mayaca Bridge way off in the distance. This is the first sign that I’m really close to having walked all the way around Lake Okeechobee. It has seemed to take forever to get any closer to this bridge, and just when I’m about two miles away, a storm is visible in front of me. I brace myself for rain, and I hope for the best as I keep walking. When it starts coming down, it starts coming down really hard. The lightning is crashing just miles away from little old me, the tallest thing in the area walking on the top of the levee. I’m getting absolutely soaked, and I’m pushing to walk faster and faster to find shelter under that giant bridge. I walk the two miles in the rain, and I check out the Port Mayaca dam while I’m there, as I’m sure not going to be walking back to look at it. I take a seat under the bridge, and then I realize: I have to walk over this giant concrete obstacle, in this rain. This is a very scary prospect, as this highway is mostly used by big trucks and semis. I have only two more miles after this, and then I’ll be able to say that I’ve walked all the way around Lake Okeechobee. And I sure have to earn that title. I sit around and pout for a little while, until I decide that it has to be done. I get moving and climbing up the side of the shoulder of the road. The concrete wall, separating me from falling to my death, is not very tall. As semis drive past me, I can feel the force of the wind, physically pushing me toward the edge. When cars come by, I get covered in the mist of water picked up from the road, and I hope that the car behind the one passing can see the bright red of my rain jacket. I make it across, after an incredibly frightening climb, and I can only wonder why the hell that I couldn’t have just walked across the dam. There is no construction on the other side for a few miles, and it would have been infinitely safer. I have two more miles until the LOST/NENA trailhead, where the OTLHT begins. I walk those two miles of highway, in the rain, bubbling with excitement over having actually walked around the entire lake, to back to the place where I had begun. I still have the sixty-three-mile Ocean-to-Lake to do, but I’ve already made a massive accomplishment. By the time that I can see the trailhead, I’m screaming with excitement. Raining or not, here I am. I’ve done it. I stand around wishing that there were a covered bench, taking some photos of the trailhead, and then I begin my walk back east on the OTLHT. It’s only drizzling at this time, which is good as the first three miles from the lake are farm roads that are out in the open and very exposed to the elements. There is a one-mile detour around a mining road, and I decide to take it so as not to cheat the trail. This turns out to be a big mistake. I should have just trespassed, and then taken the shorter, more direct route. Only halfway into my trek down these dirt roads, I notice a big black cloud off to my right – and I think, boy, am I lucky that I’m not over there. Shortly after that, out of nowhere, comes pounding, sideways, heavy rain. I take a hard right onto one of the last roads that I have to walk down, maybe a mile from the closest place that I could be setting up shelter. The dirt road that I’ve been walking down has turned into a river that’s ankle-deep. I’m counting all of the lightning strikes, trying to determine how far away that they are. Some are sixteen, some are eleven, and some are only five miles away. I start to count the next flash, and BOOM! There’s an explosion less than 100 yards from me, in the cow pasture to my left. Scared for my life, I just start running down that road. I’m gripping my trekking pole and my umbrella very tightly in my hands, as I run the next mile all the way down to the Dupuis boundary. I keep seeing more strikes, happening very close to me, within just a couple of miles. I hop both gates to get into the park, and I hide under some brush and start to unpack my tarp to get set up as soon as possible, to get out of this weather. Still, the rain is coming down extremely hard, and so the best thing that I can do is to set up and create a dry place for myself. I had planned to go another five miles from this location, but my plans change quickly. I now have a safe place from the weather, and actually get to enjoy it instead of being destroyed by it. I’m soaked, but it doesn’t matter, as I’m happy to not be getting wetter than I already am. Late into the night, the storm stops, and the wind picks up. I’m excited about how well that my tarp has done in such a monstrous storm, as this is the biggest that it’s been in so far. I had pitched it in a half-pyramid formation, one of the most storm-worthy pitches that I know. Once I had that set up, I was completely safe, and I didn’t have any rain blowing in at all. I could set up the inside of my shelter, and organize my gear in peace, without dealing with the rain just inches away from me. It’s amazing what a simple rectangular piece of fabric can do when it’s used properly for the situation. All of my gear that I need to keep dry, I was able to, and I didn’t have any problems for the rest of the night. I fell asleep to the sound of the heavy winds blowing, keeping the bugs away.
Day 8 – Dupuis west boundary to Hungryland Boardwalk trail head: 27.8 miles
I sleep in, and I’m not walking until 7:30 AM. I’m surprised that the strong winds actually blew dry my tarp overnight. I pack up fast, and I start to catch up with the day. Normally, by this hour, I could have walked many miles already. Surprisingly, Dupuis is pretty dry, without much standing water in this section. I’m laying down miles, and I’ve traveled about seven miles when I reach a canal and a giant metal tube. Just ahead of this, I come across the first water of the trail, which is where I finally have to get my feet wet. I look down at the water for a little while, not wanting to do it, but I eventually give in. I notice movement maybe ten feet in front of me, and I look up to see a big alligator directly in the center of this small wet section of the trail. I whip out my phone (like any idiot would do in my place), and I snap a picture of it as it turns toward me. The second that it turns in my directions, it CHARGES STRAIGHT AT ME! I nearly pee my pants. I have never in my life heard my own voice with so much fear in it. I scream out loud, “OH SHIT!” as it lunges in my direction. Everything happens very fast, yet in slow motion, as I back up very quickly, and turn and run another fifteen feet away. I feel very lucky that the gator doesn’t pursue me, and that it must have only been warning me to step back. This is easily the scariest thing that’s happened to me while hiking, and just ten hours ago I had almost been struck by lightning. I wait for a while as this five- to six-foot gator sits in the trail. The area surrounding me is incredibly thick, with plants taller than me, and I figure that it isn’t the safest for me to bushwhacking through it – but I don’t have much of a choice. I give the gator a ton of room as I make my way through the vegetation on the side of the trail. I don’t look back after I get past that area. I want to forget this as quickly as possible, with three big canals coming up in today’s hike and many, many potential water crossings ahead of me in Corbett. The rain the night before really did a number on this next stretch of land. Almost the entire five miles before I finish up Dupuis are under water – even though everything was bone dry just five days when I hiked it out to the lake. I push on past the power lines, and into Corbett. The sun is now out, and I’m losing my morning steam. I come across a main canal, with a bridge over it, where I need to get water. I filter two liters with my chemical treatment, and lie down on the bridge, with my feet elevated on my backpack. I don’t intend on taking a nap, but that’s what I wind up doing. When I wake up, and I look at the time, it suddenly seems very late in the day, and I still have ten or eleven miles left to go. I push through the next five miles of heat, and I am happy to find this section – including the Hole in the Wall and other typically very wet areas – dry. The heat is starting to get to me, and so I take a break at Bowman Island, and I eat some food to regain my strength. I have only six more miles before I can set up my camp for the night, and I get the idea that my ultra-running friend Christian is going to visit me where I’m staying, based on something that he said on-line. These six miles of Corbett are the hardest, always. I make it maybe three miles before I poop out again, and I stop to eat more food and hide out in the shade. About a mile later, I see some guy ahead of me, with a very large backpack, trudging through the water. I come up behind him, and I try not to startle him, but I scare him out of his mind when I say something. He whips around, wearing flip flops, with a two-foot axe in one hand, and another pair of shoes in the other. “Whoa! I totally didn’t expect anyone else to be out here!” Me neither, my friend! At first, I think that he’s hiking the Ocean-to-Lake, like me, based on what he’s carrying, but it turns out that he’s just testing gear for an upcoming trip that he’s thinking about. He’s planning on doing the Benton MacKaye Trail, a 300-mile hike that goes through Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, through the Appalachian Mountains. This trail is rough, not well-traveled, and requires map-reading skills to complete. I suggest that he do the 300 miles on the AT instead, as that would probably be more fun all around. His name is Jamie, and he’s a local to Loxahatchee. He’s a very nice guy, who I would guess is around my age. He likes glass-blowing, and he isn’t in the happiest place in his life. He decided that he wanted to take a big hike to think about what he wants to do. I’m excited for him, as I’ve been there, and hiking has helped me to become a much better person in a lot of ways. Hiking has given me so much, and I’m so happy to see him starting out on a similar journey. He and I walk the next two miles together, talking about trails, gear, and what we’re doing out here. He was on an overnight in Corbett, and actually found the OTLHT by accident, while hiking the hunting roads. He had probably hiked ten miles out on the roads, camped, and is now coming ten miles back on the trail. I give him major props for camping in that storm last night. It’s nice having company, after being mostly alone for the last eight days. Also, he has a giant axe to kill any more gators that might want to come at us. Why don’t I have a giant axe? I take him through the wetlands of Corbett, instead of taking the bypass trail, as this is a stretch of trail that he has to experience if he’s coming through this area. It’s kind of a rite of passage. It’s got deep water, mud, and a very long path through the middle of a wet prairie. We make it to the trailhead, where I’m going to be camping, as I tell him about the OTLHT. He lies down in some grass, to give his back and neck a break, and I go over to the tables to lay out all of my gear, to air it out and to prepare for the night. He comes over, and he lets me charge my phone with his external battery, as I’m pretty much out of power. We talk for a while, and my buddy Christian, who has just run in the Lake 2 Ocean 100k, pulls up! He has brought some trail magic in the form of cheesy calories! Christian comes bearing pizza and an Arizona Tea. This is much appreciated! I’m running really low on food, and I was about to eat some Ramen noodles. The pizza is so much better than those noodles would have been. So, Christian is now a glorified trail angel, for the OTL. If anyone wants his services, just let me know and I’ll patch you through. It’s really nice to see him, and to talk a little bit. I hope that we can hang out again in the future, and discuss fast-packing and ultra-running. (One thing that I know quite a bit about and one thing that he is a master at.) Jamie gets picked up by his ride, Christian leaves, and I’m alone again for the night. Tomorrow, I’ll finish the OTLHT for my twelfth time, and I’ll complete the Lake Okeechobee Lollipop trail!!
Yep, that’s right in the middle of the trail.
Day 9 – Hungryland Boardwalk trail head to Hobe Sound Beach: 31.7 miles
It’s my last day on the trail, and I wake up to realize that I only have two Clif Bars and a packet of coffee to get me the seventeen miles to Indiantown Road, where I’ll be able to hit up a well-stocked gas station, a pizza restaurant, and a Mexican place. I decide here and now that I’ll walk, walk, walk, as hard as I can, to get there and fill up for the rest of the hike. Today is going to be a big day, and I’m going to need the energy to get through the second half. I’m up extremely early, to try to beat the heat. By the time the sun has risen, I’ve already gone five miles. The Loxahatchee Slough has also been hit by the storm, and is partially flooded. I stop for water at the benches and the pitcher pump in the Lox Slough North, for my first break of the day. I push through, telling myself that I’ll stop for a break once I exit at the C-18 and am at the trailhead, but I’m pretty determined to get myself to food. I pass that location, and keep telling myself, just one mile farther, just one mile farther than that, and again just one mile farther than that. The southern exit to Riverbend is where I actually take my second break of the day. I’m maybe fifteen miles in. I’m pretty bent on getting to that gas station and pizza place for food. I’m sitting on the big metal bridge behind Riverbend when a girl on her bike goes by and compliments me on the lei hanging from the back of my backpack. It has gone over 100 miles with me now. I’ve been honked at three times, and I’m considering this my fourth honk. Thank you, girl on bicycle, my lei and I appreciate you. I make my way through Riverbend Park, and for once don’t see a single person on my way through. It must be the heat, or maybe it’s my smell that’s deterring people. Typically, this park has a lot of people. And, although there are a lot of trails, most of the people are on bikes and thus pass me at one point or another while I’m on the Ocean-to-Lake. I take the path under Indiantown Road, and parallel it for a while on the trail until I’m able to cross the Loxahatchee River and skip my way across the road to pizza heaven. Since I’ve been so low on food, I go a little overboard. I buy a lot of snacks, and two Gatorades, at the gas station, and then I head over to the Jupiter Farms Pizza restaurant, where I start in on a chicken Caesar wrap while they make me a calzone. I drink my massive fountain drink, and the girl in there tells me that she’s done half of the OTLHT. How awesome! Not many locals can say that. The calzone that they make me is absolutely massive, and I know instantly that I’m not going to be able to finish it. It’s a blow to my pride, but I can only eat half of it. I thank the pizza people, and I make my way back to the trail. I try to push to the Hobe Grove Canal crossing in one go, but it’s now midday and the heat is really starting to get to me. I stop one mile short at the very pretty Cypress Creek Bridge, after I accidentally find and sign a geocache. It makes me want to make my own geocache, and to make it EXTREMELY hard to get to, as I’ve seen some on my hikes, and I feel that these are the high-difficulty-level ones. I want one way out there, to require bushwhacking, water-wading, and just general carnage to get to. It would be a feat for the hardcore geocachers. Anyhow, I’m very tired and overheated at Cypress Creek. I lie down on the bridge, and I dream of jumping in for a swim, but I see multiple alligators hanging out, and I decide that I would be better off staying out of the water. After lying there for a while, with my umbrella held up over my head for extra shade, dripping in water that I’ve dumped all over myself, I hear something surface in the water. I think that it might be a big turtle, and so I get up to see, and I’m so surprised to see that it’s manatees!! This is the first time that I’ve seen manatees on the Loxahatchee River. Cypress Creek leads in the Lox, and that’s where they’re headed. There are two of them, and they’re very beautiful and gentle as they’re floating down the river under the bridge that I’m on the top of. This is amazing, and a first for me while on the OTLHT. I take this as a sign that it’s time to move. There’s only one mile from here to the Hobe Grove Canal crossing, and normally it’s an easy one on some back roads. Apparently, this time, someone thought that it would be a great idea to tear up the road and kind of reset it. So, the whole road has been broken up and turned into soft sand. With every step, my shoes sink in half a foot. I’m post-holing … but in soft sand. It’s a terrible experience, and I hope to see someone out here responsible for this, so that I can ask them why. What would normally take me fifteen minutes, takes me three times that long, as well as completely fills my shoes with sand. I finally trudge through and cross the canal, being careful to watch for gators after yesterday morning’s close call. The next section in JDSP has been burned recently, and a lot of the blazes indicating where the trail is are gone, and so it’s a slight challenge to find my way. Making things even harder is that the rain has completely flooded this entire area. It’s a very exhausting experience, and I stop at the Kitching Creek Bridge, which has recently been remade by the FTA. I lie down on it to rest, as it’s been a very hot day. This is a common thing for me, it seems. I’m either under a bridge for, shade, or sprawled out on the top of them to collect myself. At this point, I call my mom with the two percent of battery that I have left in my phone. I need to let her know where I am, and when to pick me up at the end. Talking to her is a breath of fresh air, after a very tiresome day. I pick up my things, and I push on to the next campsite three miles away. I make good time, and I’m surprised that this section after Kitching Creek is no longer flooded. When at the Scrub Jay Campsite, I collect water, and I sit down in front of the pitcher pump in order to pump water on myself until I feel good enough to finish this trail. Dumping water over myself feels great, and I’ve been doing it all day to lower my body temperature. When breezes come, they cool me down further. I see on a tree some arrows that have been stapled over the orange blaze … pointing in the same direction that the orange blaze would take you. While looking at this, I smash my big toe into a cypress knee, which is a nice start to the last five miles of this gigantic loop. The sand dunes of JDSP are rough, after already going twenty-nine miles. I want to stop, but I also want to get to the beach. I keep telling myself, over and over, one more step, and one more mile. This mantra really helps me to push up and over these sandy hills. Before I know it, I’m at US1, and I’m ready to walk the last two-and-a-half miles of this trail. It’s been one hell of a hike, and it’s time for the victory road walk. I never, ever stop and take breaks during this last section, and today is no exception. I have come a very long way to get back to here, and the end is so close. It’s more uncomfortable to walk these last miles than it has been in the past, but I handle it well. I look like hell, and I need a break. The last mile is bittersweet. You’re walking under extremely large ficus trees. They make for a red carpet of sorts, as this is very different from all of the hiking that I’ve done for the past 240 miles. By the last half-mile, I’m walking faster. I’m excited to have completed such an intense route, in one of Florida’s harsher months. Seeing the beach pavilion on my horizon is the icing on the cake. This is where I started, nine days and 241 miles ago. What an amazing journey that this has been. I can see my mom waiting to pick me up, and I walk into the parking lot and pose by the FT Ocean-to-Lake Hiking Trail sign for a picture. I make her come down to the beach with me for another picture, and to officially finish what I started. I’m bubbling with happiness, and I’m exhausted, overheated, hungry, and ready to sit down. This has been an incredible experience to have. It’s the most challenging hike that I’ve done yet. I’m the first to do the Lake Okeechobee Lollipop, and possibly the first to do the entire LOST and connect it to the OTLHT. My trip mileage is 241.2, and I averaged twenty-seven miles a day for nine days. I’ve loved every second of this hike, and it’s really sweet to finally finish. This trip has involved walking through beautiful areas, becoming close with small towns and big skies, falling in love with people and roads, and learning what I’m capable of and what my current limitations are. From here, my trips will continue to get bigger, as I’m going to continue to push myself.
A really tiny snake!
Thank you so very much for reading, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed my story of hiking the Lake Okeechobee Lollipop Trail!
If anyone is looking to do the same route I would be happy to help you get out there and hike it. I absolutely loved doing this and I may have had some trying moments during my time, I think it was the month I chose to hike in. I guarantee if you choose to do this you will have an amazing time as well.