Winding Down 2021 – Adventures in a Rooftop Tent

This blog post was supposed to be about our first actual out of the driveway camping experience in our rooftop tent (called a RTT by those in the know). But with 2021 rolling out in as haphazard a manner as it rolled in, this post is similarly going to have to careen across many topics. Think of the ball in a pinball machine going this way and that – perhaps a good analogy for the year.

To go back a few weeks – we did indeed get to adventure for one night at a Hipcamp site on the north shore of Lake Apopka. It was a fairly short drive from Orlando – light industrial areas morphed into light agricultural areas, anchored by what I learned is one of the largest blueberry processing facilities in the country. Who knew.

This particular campsite is notable for its whimsical decorations – LED dinosaur lights adorned our spot, and odd remnants of old vehicles and other objects (like a swan boat!) dotted the landscape.

The RTT experience itself was great. There’s a sense of security in sleeping ten feet above the ground, and the views are magnificent. The campfire was great and dinner would have been also had we remembered any utensils. I found myself googling “how to eat baked beans without silverware.” After rejecting the idea of whittling a fork (we didn’t have a knife either!) we resorted to using the tops of our water bottles as scoops.

The next morning was misty and grey. There was a hiking trail just across the street. Huge elephant ear plants around our tent and gone to the wild citrus made us feel we’d entered a world far from 21st century Florida.

But despite our plans for further adventure in 2021, the world of work kicked in and the next RTT inhabitants were Daughter A and fiancé N – in the driveway! Their sojourn – one night only – was occasioned by a Covid/omicrom outbreak among yours truly, J and daughter S (who we suspect imported this strain from a brief trip to San Francisco). And yes, all of us are fully vaccinated and boosted. We did, however, ultimately manage to cordon off the house so A and N were able to sleep indoors.

Fortunately we have a large porch and the contaminated ones were able to sit at the bottom part while still socializing with the others who held court on the top part. Our kn95 masks were de rigeur. Thank God the weather in Florida was compatible with outdoor living, and thus far we’ve limited the outbreak to the original three. But I must say I have rarely spent this much time outside – even on a camping trip. We spent a lot of time watching TikTok videos of other families in similar straits.

Note the “uppers” and the “downers”

So, J and I will shortly see off the last of our holiday houseguests and plan to spend NYE in our covid imposed bubble instead of at the fancy dinner we’d planned at a local restaurant with M and S.

2021 had its moments – A and N’s engagement, Long’s Peak and Colorado, a family Thanksgiving extravaganza, and some great visits with my parents, among them. And let’s not forget the vaccines! I have a very definite feeling that without them I would be facing something very different than a head cold and fatigue.

Here’s to 2022! And to adventure, whether in a rooftop tent in the driveway or beyond.

Florida by Rooftop Tent

I haven’t mentioned it before on this blog but as of a couple of months ago J and I became the proud parents of a RTT – also known as a rooftop tent. This little dwelling place sits snugly atop our Ford Explorer and provides a safe and comfortable place to sleep with views to boot.

Installation is a bear. Step one involved procuring the proper crossbars – an item I’d never even been aware existed before. But J persevered and after only four trips to Ace Hardware he had the necessary tools to attach said crossbars to the top of the vehicle.

Step two involved the tent itself. Day one of step 2 involved unpacking and ground assembling. The thing arrived in a gigantic box on a solidly constructed pallet (that has turned into an excellent platform for my orchids). With the help of friend S we unpacked it and attached various bits and bobs such that we could get it to pop up on the garage floor. Whew – quite a stench. The smell of new fabric.

Day two of Step 2 involved assembling a crew of four strong friends in addition to assembling the tent. J and I had tried to lift the thing and dead lifting from the ground to above a Ford Explorer was not in the cards. Turned out with the assistance of some of our stronger friends – all fueled by coffee with chicory I bribed them with – the “lift” was quite doable. It was up!!

A little detail. The tent has a hard top and folds down to a thin 4 or so inches. The car still fits in all parking garages even with the tent riding on top. It has screened entrances/windows on each side and on the front. You access whichever entrance you’ve chosen via a telescoping ladder that hooks onto the side. There are various bags you can hang on the outside for storing shoes so you don’t track anything in.

Inside it’s tall enough for me to stand up at the highest point. There’s a four plus inch built in memory foam queen size mattress, with lots of pockets on the sides and ceiling for storage. And, most cool, you can plug a battery pack in and a string of LED lights illuminates the interior.

When you want to put it up, you simply undo the latches and push. Beyond that it’s just a matter of pushing out the awning that shades the entrance on the front. Storing it is a little trickier – one person pulls down, you have to make sure all the fabric is folded in all around, and then you secure the latches. Compared to putting up a ground tent, it’s instantaneous.

Camping trip number one was in the relative safety of our driveway – to the great interest of our neighbors. Based on accounts in all the rooftop tent camping groups I immediately joined on Facebook, apparently that is a time honored tradition.

Camping in the front yard is one thing but camping in the woods another. We just finished our first one, so there’s another story on the horizon. This Thanksgiving giving thanks for the many adventures with friends and family that are yet to come.

Only a 20% Chance of Rain – Seminole Wekiva Trail

“So what are the chances of rain?” I politely inquired of S. “Oh, the National Weather Service says only 20%,” was his nonchalant response. He and M apparently took this forecast as gospel truth since neither of them brought any rain gear. Although I didn’t voice them, I had my doubts, so J and I padded our weighted backpacks with raincoats.

My foreboding stemmed from our prior attempt with M and S at this very same trail – a couple of months ago we started it only to encounter a cloudburst within the first ten minutes. Alas, history proved predictive.

We managed the first couple of miles, trying to ignore the increasingly dark clouds. The goal was to reach the art walk portion of the trail – a mile or so of painted fences lining the sides. We’d done this hike back in 2018 (see A New Year, A New Trail – Seminole Wekiva Trail ) and had always wanted to return.

Unfortunately the dark clouds were engaged in a slow motion wind up and just as we reached the fences the sporadic drops had turned into a full fledged fire hose. This is a completely urban, asphalt trail, and we had just crossed a busy suburban boulevard that provided shelter in the form of an overhang of a small office building looking across a parking lot to a dry cleaners and what I would call a kennel but now goes by the much more exotic moniker of “pet spa.”

I have been slightly sidelined for a couple of weeks with a knee injury incurred in a rather embarrassing fall off the bouldering wall at Blue Swan Boulders. This first training hike since then had a similarly ignominious ending. Needless to say, since S is known for initiating the soggiest of hikes the proverbial finger was pointed at him. He, however, noted that he and M had done this same hike recently with no rain and that J and I were the only common denominator in the wet ones.

Nonetheless, we slopped along, and managed six miles. After wringing ourselves out, we felt we more than deserved a nice lunch at Antonio’s.

A Tale of Two Trails – White Sand to Red Clay

Into the Klondike, from Apollo Beach

It was the best of times; it was the worst…well, you know how that goes. While my hiking has been curtailed somewhat over the last couple of weeks due to an over energetic reach at the bouldering gym that resulted in an unfortunate and ungraceful fall, the prior two weeks offered hikes into two of Florida’s most opposite landscapes – some of the few remaining miles of undeveloped beach and a stretch of rural clay roads forming a loop amid Florida’s few hills.

Some of you may remember that shortly before the pandemic started a year ago J and I trekked into the back country of Cape Canaveral National Seashore, improbably named the Klondike. Castaway on Cape Cavaveral National Seashore – Florida Hiking. Then we started from Playalinda Beach, at the south end and hiked north six of the twelve miles of completely undeveloped beach. This time, along with fellow hikers M and S, we started from Apollo Beach on the north side and headed south for six miles, hoping that this means we’ve actually done the whole thing. There may be a gap here or there but it’s close enough, IMO.

To no one’s surprise the north end of this narrow strip of sand wedged between the brackish calm of the Intercoastal and the crashing waves of the mighty Atlantic is remarkably like the south end. Mile upon mile of sand that varies between soft and rock hard, flocks of pelicans, and masses of jellyfish.

There were apparently only two other people with backcountry permits that day but we never encountered them. At some point midway in the hike, however, we could see the silhouette, far in the distance, of a figure holding something scythe shaped and standing atop a dune. It was so isolated that all I could think of was that he was either a yogi communing with nature or else a serial killer who lived in the rough underbrush waiting for victims. It’s easy to let your mind wander on beaches like that and S’s fondness for horror movies doesn’t help. I started to wonder whether the scythe shaped thing could be some sort of garrote.

As we got closer, however, we realized he was a park ranger who had clearly been assigned the task of keeping an eye out to make sure that no overly adventurous hiker was going to be cut off by high tide. And the garrote was the strap to his binoculars.

It was truly a long and arduous 12 miles, especially lugging 30 pounds in my pack. But what really made it worse was that I apparently had forgotten all the lessons I learned on Mt. Elbrus in 2014 (Steps on the Summit) and failed to put sunscreen on my lips. For about two weeks afterwards I looked like I had some horrible communicable disease and was very glad I got to wear a mask.

I think you can see the lip sunburn starting

Anyway, not to be put off by mild injury, and feeling the Long’s Peak adventure ever approaching, the next Saturday I convinced J to go with me to hike the 10 Mile Clay Loop in Clermont. (See The Florida Foothills- 10 Mile Clay Loop). Begrudging is the best way I can describe his agreement.

When I’m out in the Florida rolling plains, I personally find it easy to imagine I’m in Tuscany, surrounded by large vistas of fields, gentle hills, and a dramatic grey sky. The fact I’ve never been to Tuscany may assist in this creative exercise. J, however, saw lots of traffic, trucks that seemed to take pleasure in speeding and kicking up large clay dust clouds in our faces, and something that looks like a large sand pit that is being constructed on one part of the loop. The for sale signs for some promised future development are a little ominous also.

It turned it was pick your own strawberries day at the very large berry farm that occupies much of the interior of the loop; hence the traffic. They’d run out of fruit though and instead people were picking sunflowers from acres of brilliant yellow flowers. The last hilly stretch with the lake on one side was as beautiful as always.

You can focus on the worst – the sunburn, the drudgery of trudging through sand and dust, and the blisters. But the best is out there too – the crashing waves, so loud you can hardly hear, the sunflowers and wildflowers and pelicans. It’s sort of like jellyfish – their stings don’t out shadow their luminous, stained glass like glow.

Lost in Florida – Surprises at Sabal Point and How I Got A New Trail Name

On the trail

It started off as an innocent seven mile hike. S assured us that we wouldn’t have to wade through miles of swamp water, and on that point, at least he was correct.

The Sabal Point trail is a surprising natural gem buried amidst a large conglomeration of apartment buildings, houses, and condos of the same name. It’s hardly the place you’d expect to find an untouched spread of palm hammocks, marshes, and oaks. But there it is: the trail head innocuously placed at the end of a dead end street. You do rather feel as if you’ve been invited over to someone’s house.

Our goal for that Saturday was to work on carrying weight and to that end we’d all loaded our packs. M and S have had the brilliant idea of using bags of charcoal so they can burn it once done with training. Since I believe training should never end I’m carrying around a gallon of water, my old weight vest, and various bits and bobs to add up to 25 pounds. Need to get up to 35.

The trail itself is an old railway bed, elevated a few feet above very swampy forest. We are in Florida spring and the trail was dotted with what looked like bluebells, pink star shaped flowers, and red berry bushes whose Christmasy aspect seemed out of place.

Christmas berries?

One of the things about training is to check out your gear and M quickly realized the Osprey pack she’d bought was not for her – too rigid in the waistband and an odd shape that causes your arms to stick out at the side. Fortunately REI has a good return policy so she’s now trying my fav – a tried and true Gregory (I have 3, in all different sizes).

Enough of the gear talk. How did our hike deteriorate into something more sinister? As I was blithely walking along, chattering away, S suddenly yelled out, “You stepped on a snake.” My immediate reaction was, “Oh no, is it Ok?”, to which S (somewhat insensitively I thought), said, “No, it’s dead; you stepped on its head.” Not sure he realized that sounded like the middle verse of a rap song.

I could barely bring myself to look, but as J and S inspected said creature, S looked more closely – and said, “It’s not just a snake; it’s a water moccasin!”

Water moccasin

At that point my guilt over the execution quickly by evaporated and instead I decided I was the hero of the hike. I mean, perhaps I saved countless lives! I don’t know much about snakes, but even I know water moccasins are BAD.

After the excitement of the snake we were looking forward to reaching the river, promised at 3.5 miles. But after a mere 1.75 (according to my trusty Fitbit) we encountered a forbidding metal gate plastered with no trespassing signs warning of prosecution if violated. Whoever posted them looked like they meant business.

So since training called for more miles we simply turned back, hiked back to the cars, and then hiked the same trail all over again to reach our 7 mile goal. The snake was still there the second time around – not unsurprisingly in the same position as before.

Not quite what we’d expected. But it was a beautiful Florida day, we carried our weight, and I now have a new trail name – Snake Stomper.

Be careful where you tread

A Retrospective – The Summitless Year of 2020

2020 – learned how to hang my bike in the office parking garage

Not sure summitless is a word, but why not. Everything else was turned topsy turvey by the pandemic, so why not add a non word to the mix.

A year ago – 2019 – we were looking forward to adventures in Maine and a trip to climb Mt. Katahdin, which is the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, with daughter A and now fiancé N. (Yes, for those of you who read this blog, as of December 30 boyfriend N is now officially future son-in-law N)!

Had to include a pic – A and N in the Balkans, 2019

But the summer Covid surge and Maine’s quarantine rules put the kabosh on that plan. In fact, the unused camping permits for Baxter State Park are still sitting on my desk.

So we have trundled through the year with a mixture of Florida swamp hikes and multiple urban hikes. Turns out when there’s a lockdown (I hate that word) looking in closed store windows becomes its own treat. We also experimented with a lot of outdoor lunch places to give city walks a little more flavor.

One of many swamp hikes with friend M and S

And I did manage to walk the three miles to work at least once a week – to the point that the crossing guard by a local daycare asked where I’d been when I took a different route on one of my walking days. Another unexpected lockdown benefit was that the reduced traffic meant I actually rode my bike to work several times without fear of losing life and limb.

Of course, like everyone else my in-office days were severely curtailed – reduced to 2 or 3 during the summer surge and I had only just worked up to 4 in December when I had to quarantine again in order to socially distant visit family. I’m back now, but I may never work in the office on Mondays again. I never knew Sunday nights could be so relaxed.

Another 2020 development has been learning to substitute on line yoga, barre and fitness classes for my thrice weekly Y classes. That experience was a little soured when my favorite on line yoga teacher suddenly died (remember, it’s 2020), but I’m still discovering YouTube videos she’s posted that I’d never done.

We were lucky to have an amazing week with daughters S and A and fiancé N in the Blue Ridge mountains and a beach week in Oak Island in July that even included my parents. That allowed us to escape Florida, then the Covid capital, for the relatively unscathed grounds of North Carolina. Of course, that state is now giving Florida a run for its money, but not to be beaten, in typical fashion Florida is pulling ahead again.

Oak Island, NC

In any event, I’d love nothing more than to be dreaming about the next big adventure. But given that I appear to be toward the bottom of the barrel in the vaccination race it’s hard to count on anything overseas. Not to mention the fact that court calendars are so messed up it is impossible to know when any of your cases might go to trial, just to add another complication to the mix.

I really didn’t intend this post to end up as an extended whine but that’s certainly what it seems to have turned into. I am really hoping for some domestic travel at least – I’ve never climbed a 14er in Colorado and Big Bend in Texas looks highly inviting. But I have the feeling it’s all going to have to be a bit last minute and I’m missing the joy of anticipation.

2021 is here, though. And my resolution – despite my Type A tendencies – will have to be to take it one step at a time and let things evolve as they may. After all, the tag line for this blog is steps, stairs and summits. Happy new year, y’all.

Closing out 2020 with this fine fellow on Lake Ivanhoe

Lost in Florida – Staring Down Charles Bronson

So this is the first of my Lost in Florida series since the time of coronavirus. And yes, this particular adventure was designed by our friend S — he of the famous Tosohatchee trail hike where he didn’t bother looking at the reverse side of the map — which was in color and indicated that much of said trail was blue (meaning under water). For that adventure click on The Lost in Florida Series – The Tosohatchee Wilderness.

Now, in fairness, this time he checked both sides of the map and the 9 mile loop in the Charles H. Bronson State Forest (I kid you not about the name) showed not even a tinge of blue. But, what the map didn’t show was that days and days of rain had turned an otherwise well marked trail into canals worthy of Venice. (Apparently Charles H. Bronson was a Florida public official who worked in the department of agriculture.)

Now, when I say canal, I don’t mean that the water was nicely contained like a Netherlands water control situation. No, first you’d encounter just a little bit of a soggy section on a low part of the trail. Then the soggy section would get wetter and deeper until it overflowed its banks into a bayou of 20 or more feet of brown tannic water which you just prayed was not inhabited by snakes.

There were few choices. Try to find some high ground around the sides and risk the thorns and people traps formed by vines, tiptoe through said water hoping it wouldn’t crest the top of your hiking boots, or just tromp the entire thing saying damned if you do, damned if you don’t. After five hours of slogging through I took the third option.

The area surrounding the trail is very beautiful. Of course, we couldn’t see much of the trail itself since it was under water. J and I and our hiking companions in crime, M and S, started just before 10 am at the Joshua Trailhead. After hiking out a short (and dry) spur to the actual loop, we decided to go right. It turned out to be a good choice because the wettest parts were on that side of the loop and I’m not sure we could have conquered them at the end.

The canopy is high and deep. Creamy petals from small magnolia trees sprinkled the first part of the trail, for all the world as if for a wedding procession. Occasional meadows were covered in wildflowers – fields of perky yellow ones, vivid oranges mixed with ornate pinks, tall blooming yuccas like grapes, and purple thistles as high as my head.

Then the water would come. Slightly oily looking in some places, clear in others, but always with a brown tannic look that you could take as mysterious or menacing. At one point we did hear something that could have been a bear or a boar, and raised our voices accordingly.

Interspersed with the jungle were stands of Florida pines with little underbrush, along which were treeless prairies. The trail narrowed so there was barely room for a person to creep between the tall scrub on either side.

The final slog was not wet but unbelievably hot. It was 95 degrees. We had not brought enough water since we usually have too much and were down to our last sips by mile 9. By then the injury count was high. M had impressive scrapes after she encountered a vine trap apparently designed to capture people; I had a great bruise from clamboring over a fallen tree, combined with multiple bites from mosquitoes who were impervious to DEET; and J and S were both dehydrated.

Our pace was slow, and our survival skills would not have earned us an A in any Sierra Club challenge. Anytime you run out of water in 90 plus degree weather you know you’ve done something wrong. But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. We faced down Charles Bronson and won!

Castaway on Cape Cavaveral National Seashore – Florida Hiking

For years J and I have puzzled about the Klondike. No, not of Alaskan gold rush fame, but the mysteriously named strip of sand, dune, palmetto, and marsh that lies between the end of the roads at Playalinda Beach (parking area 13, where signs warn of nude sunbathing) and Apollo Beach (parking area 5, which I don’t believe has any similarly salacious signage although since I haven’t been there yet, I’m not sure).

It’s 13 miles between the two beaches. Some internet research had suggested there was actually a trail that veered off the beach, although the post from a year ago cryptically mentioned it “did not seem to be maintained” and was “not well-marked.” A call to the Visitors Center further confirmed that “no one is allowed back there” and whoever had been so adventuring was “doing something they weren’t supposed to.” Being law abiding citizens, we decided we would just stick to the beach, which seemed to be grudgingly accepted as permissible as long as we purchased our back country hiking permits.

The logistics of hiking straight through end to end seemed too daunting, at least for a first attempt. It would have taken two cars, with multiple drop offs and pickups. Thus, the plan was to hike half of the south to north route and turn back; next time we’ll hike the other half, north to south and then reverse; and theoretically, after that, we’ll figure out the logistics to do the whole thing.

Temperatures were in the low 70s, with a little chance of rain despite steely grey clouds, so we knew conditions should be good. Despite the signs promising nude sunbathing there was little to be found in the morning. The hike started off in some soft sand that hardened a bit as we got further away from the road. We soon passed the permit required sign, and the one lone person who had been ahead of us turned around and headed back toward civilization.

Not so us! We kept on going, along a medium wide strip of beach that narrowed to an alarming few feet and backed us up to the edge of the dunes at certain points. We could see points of land ahead, sheathed in sea spray, and had not clue what might be on the other sidet. And not a person around. Eerie is the word that comes to mind.

Glancing over the small dunes, edged with sea oats and palmettos, we could see the lagoon (what in North Carolina we would call the Sound) across a marshy area. But in some places the island itself narrowed, and I was conscious of being on a windswept strip of sand that one rogue wave could easily submerge.

As we continued on, the tide – I think we were at high tide and it turned as we were hiking – brought in a steady stream of human detritus. Full size plastic trash cans. A Gatorade bottle, still full. An air compressor with its power cord stretched out along the beach like a tail. And thousands of pieces of flaked plastic that blended into the white chipped scallop shells. So here we were, on a completely remote and uninhabited beach, yet surrounded by plastic.

Shells or plastic?

It was so bright that I couldn’t really see my Fitbit, except when I synced it to my phone, so we strictly adhered to our time estimates. The last thing we wanted was to be stuck behind the gates after the park closed. As we turned back, at approximately the half way mark, we could see our footprints, except for the spots where the waves had worn them away. There was something reassuring about knowing we’d already walked that way before.

We crushed through seashells, dodging sea suds blown all around us. On the way out, we had only seen pelicans. But the sun had now come out, and so had many small little seabirds, congregating at the edge of the water as though they were attending a convention.

Conventioneers?

Finally we started to see signs of life other than of the two legged and winged variety. I guess you could say it was a little Adam and Eve like, as the first person we saw, striding purposefully along in the surf, caused J to say, “does he not have clothes on?” Apparently the long promised nude sunbathers were now out in full force.

It was a monotonous hike (and a great workout), and it took some mental energy to keep on going (especially given the blisters I discovered I’d developed by the end). But when it’s monotonous – yet scary – you focus on the here and now. A lesson in mindfulness. And we’ve still got the other half to go.

Me, Myself, I on 20 Miles of the West Orange Trail

FromSwamptoSummit sums up the West Orange Trail. You start in a swamp of poverty, journey through the foothills of mid-income housing developments, and ultimately arrive at McMansions that “start in the $800s.” As we prepare for our upcoming Balkans trek I wonder if there will be a similar journey, albeit in the wilds of the former Yugoslavia.

I like to prepare for a big trek by hiking 20 miles in one fell swoop. If you can walk 20, you should be able to do anything, right? But this time, for various reasons, my husband and erstwhile hiking companion J couldn’t make it. So there was no choice but to go for it on my own.

This is probably the fourth or so time I’ve done the entire trail  and it was familiar enough to me that it felt eerily like coming home in some ways. The Buddhist temple was just where I remembered it; the huge log house with the extensive grounds; the farm animals outside West Orange High.

But doing it solo caused more observation, here and there. I did the first 10 miles with barely a look at my phone, except to take photos. Sights?

  • The number of homeless people I encountered just outside of Apopka. Hiking on your own you are cautious about strangers. An elderly bearded man started to approach, clearly preparing to talk. “Ma’am, can you tell me what day it is?” “Saturday.” “Thank you.”
  • A little later I saw another man in the distance dart off the trail into the woods. As I reached his exit point, I could see a path worn into the woods, strewn with wrappers and other trash. It looked for all the world like a bread crumb trail left by Hansel and Gretal.  Who knew what was at the far end.

 

  • And a trip back in time. It was only in the mid 80s, but grey and humid. Outside one of the modest houses that line the area I think of as “church country” as there are so many of them sat two men and a woman on aluminum folding chairs. The men were wearing short sleeved button up shirts. One wore a tie; he was clearly the visitor. The woman was wearing a skirt and pouring drinks from a pitcher. I bet she even had on stockings. I expected the 1940s station wagon to show up any moment.

I took a 30 minute lunch break in the shade of an overpass at the 10 mile mark. I’d been watching  a very large tortoise slowly move along the trail but fortunately my pace was faster. At the bench I spread out, bandaged my feet again, changed from heavy weight to light weight boots, ate half a sandwich, and drank a lot of water.

A grey haired fellow on a racing bike sat down next to me and complimented my hiking poles (I think they were the only pair of hiking poles on the trail that day and they made all the difference). I apologized for hogging most of the bench with my various and sundry items.  He was wearing a US Postal team racing shirt. It turned out he had just been hiking in Death Valley and was riding 50 miles that day. Later on I encountered him going the other direction.

The last ten miles I gave up on my phone ban. I looked at social media and read WordPress blogs. And I also listened to at least three of the final episodes of Serial – Season 1. I can tell you anything about Anand Syed you want to know.

That internet blitz matched the world I was now walking into – housing developments that had mushroomed in the last year, advertised on huge billboards promising the latest in lifestyle pleasure.

At mile 15 I reached Winter Garden. The rain started to pour down and I sheltered in the bandstand, put my rain cover on my pack, and dug out my raincoat. After a few minutes it cleared and I was on the last stretch.

The final five miles, from Winter Garden  to Killarney, is quite beautiful. You pass through oak forests, meadows, and some small towns. Houses range from charming little cottages just outside Winter Garden to newly built mansions overlooking the surrounding lakes. There’s always something to look at. And I try not to focus on the history of racism that exists in some of those small towns. Just look up the 1920 Ocoee Massacre.

The last mile is always the hardest. But I pushed through and J was there waiting. It was quite a solo journey – under 20 minutes a mile the entire way. I think I’m ready for the Balkans.

The Lost Series – Palm Bluff Conservation Area, Florida

This post was supposed to be the tale of my 20 mile solo hike last Saturday on the West Orange Trail. But it’s July 4 and instead I thought I’d celebrate by a quick addition to the “lost” series. It’s timely because this hike literally only finished about three hours ago!

Fellow hiker and friend S has apparently developed a new hobby – finding the most unknown hiking trails in Central Florida. Today he thought we should all recognize Independence Day by asserting ours and venturing off into the wilds of Volusia County. He and M and their daughter B, all of whom will be leaving with us in two weeks for our Balkan adventure, insisted we get to their house at the ungodly hour of 8:15 am, to drive to the trailhead as heat was a concern. Boy, was it.

When we arrived at the trail head there were only two other cars in the wide flat meadow. One must have belonged to the two mountain bikers we saw early in the hike – they were the only other humans we saw on the trail. Two people were standing by the other car, neither of whom looked as though they had ability or desire to set off on an 8 mile hike. When we finally finished, ours was the only car in that meadow. The fact the grass was long and hadn’t been mashed down should have given us a clue we weren’t exactly on an Everest like climb. (Note – rather remarkable that Everest has become synonymous with crowded trails.)

Anyway, the first part was fine. Flat, grassy, and a number of stiles to go through with stringent warnings to shut gates as “cattle were in pasture.” We were basically circumnavigating a broad swath of power lines – I was hoping walking under them might give us a jolt of energy but it didn’t.

Anyway, as we chatted and walked, we found ourselves walking by a farmhouse, together with quite a few cows. We’d been making fun of how many trail blazes there were on what was really a well-marked fire road when we realized we hadn’t seen any of said red blazes for quite a while. M, pointing out she once had been a professional map reader in her brief career as a fire watch, was sure we’d missed a turn. S, equally confident in his navigation skills, felt sure we were going in the right direction. J and I, aware of our directional challenges, mostly stayed quiet. And B pointed out that there was now absolutely no shade, the sun had come out, the heat index was over 100, and it was so humid we were all leaving puddles of sweat behind us.

It turned out all of the above were true. After slogging on another half mile or so we finally re-encountered the trail, apparently having wandered off through someone’s cow pastures and added an extra mile or so to the trek. The universe had not taken kindly to our jokes at the expense of those who had marked the trail so well (but really – every 100 yards or so? And sometimes with poles that looked like flashers?)!

The remainder of the trail was truly brutal. Yes, it was flat, and pines lined each side, but the Florida sun was beating down with its most Florida like intensity.

After close to 4 hours, we reached our car, which was looking very lonely as it sat isolated in the meadow.

Beers and burgers were up next. Fortunately we were seated far away from anyone else in the restaurant which certainly was a blessing to those around us, given our rather fragrant condition. But, the Balkans approach, and I figure if we can get through this swamp we ought to be ready for those summits!