West Orange Trail Redux

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We are two months out from Pico de Orizaba, so it’s time for…the 20 mile hike on the West Orange Trail!

For those of you who’ve read this blog before, you know this isn’t the first time we’ve embarked on this somewhat odd urban hike through the wilds of Orlando’s suburbs. But this time we decided to start from the Apopka end and finish at the Killarney Station, just five miles beyond Winter Garden. (Sorry, Apopka – you just don’t compete with Winter Garden’s breweries and brasseries.)

Themes of the day were butterflies, bugs, and bruises. The butterflies you’ll see in the photos below. The bugs are not pictured, but it turns out that every beautifully shaded bench is equally viewed as such by Florida’s massive mosquitos. And the bruises are from the last two miles where I decided my boots were laced too loosely, tied them up tightly – and hugely over compensated.

So here’s the blow by blow –

It’s 6:55 a.m. We violated all of our vows to prepare sensibly by not going to sleep early enough.  Instead we followed dinner with our friends M and S (see “travel with friends – the Iceland series” https://fromswamptosummit.com/2015/03/15/iceland-part-1-a-day-in-reykjavik/) with a visit to an Irish pub, Fiddlers Green, to hear The Windbreakers. We’ve been listening to this Irish music duo since all of our kids were knee high to a grasshopper. But it wasn’t conducive to an early morning rising.

Nonetheless, by 8:15 or so we contacted Uber to take us up to the trailhead. It was way too early to get any of our nearest and dearest to drive 30 minutes on a Saturday morning. I’m sure I typed in the right address on the Uber app – to Park Avenue in Apopka – but somehow our driver thought he’d picked up a trip to Park Avenue in Hollywood, Florida. Now that would have been a worthy affair.

Mile 2 – after exiting our Uber ride (surely no more stylish way to arrive), by the Apopka Middle School, we suddenly found ourselves in a throng of a couple hundred middle school students, some with parents, walking a walk to raise money for either breast cancer or cystic fibrosis. Whatever the worthy cause, I’m embarrassed to say we walked as fast as possible to get ourselves out of the throng.

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Here are  the snippets from my contemporaneously recorded notes.

Scraps of middle school conversation. “She blew up in the middle of class” (I really wanted to know how that happened). Very few boyfriend/girlfriends hand holding. I’m sure there was more of that in my day in the ’70s.

Downtown Apopka. The Catfish Place restaurant amidst a sea of fast food establishments.  Dunkin Donuts taken to an art form.  Right next to the BBQ place. Turns out BBQ was a theme for the day.

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Mile 3.  Shaded woods, winding trail, lots of churches. As before, I’m baffled by St. Elizabeth, Church of God by Faith next to the Freedom Missionary church.  More BBQ smokers smoking away by modest and well kept homes. Moving on – we pass what must be a borrow pit for the interstate construction project.

Mile 4. Two people pass us, riding what look like elliptical bikes. Never seen them before. All of a sudden I realize my iPhone email isn’t working and it wipes out and then re-downloads my messages since August. Not a big deal – except I’m already fielding work calls on this Saturday morning.

The remnants of Florida’s fern industry – right next to Nelson’s Florida roses and Hippy’s Junk Auto Parts. That’s really the name.

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At Mile 5 we take a break – where we encounter the first of the mosquito swarms.  I also inadvertently hit my Fitbit watch face and it starts counting miles all over again on the GPS. For the remainder of the hike, I’m adding 5.23 miles to what the current  mileage shows. That’s a challenge to your math after about six hours or so.

Mile 6. We’ve made our way to the Buddhist temple,which was such a surprise the first time around.
A service is going on. I could hear voices but  couldn’t make out any words. Through the open door at the back I could see the monks in their yellow robes.

Immediately after we pass a home decorated with great concrete statues – next to one of several town homes abutting the trail where birthday celebrations seemed to have started hard and early. “Go Jerry” – whoever you are.

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Mile  7.  We’re back on a sidewalk by a main road. Housing complex to our  left, clear cutting and a seemingly abandoned housing development on our right. It’s really hot. We’ll see a long stretch of unshaded asphalt ahead of us and just think – go for it.

Mile 8.  Off the streets again onto a trail.  But it’s a stereotypical Florida image. A golf course on the left, a memorial garden on the right, and a filled in swimming pool by some outbuildings. Golf, then die?

Mile 9. We stop for lunch under an overpass.  There are golf courses on either side, but there are no bugs because there are no trees. And we forgot the bug spray anyway. All of a sudden, we realize what we had thought were some sort of exotic trash cans are really water coolers. Who knew.

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Mile 10.  Tiger swallowtail butterflies; beautiful light brown and lavender moths, Florida’s version of monarchs.. Caterpillars. I spend a lot of time thinking about shape shifters.

Mile 11. Time for blister and foot repair. Get a call from daughter #2. She sounds good. Way away from golf courses now and back into that odd cacophony of semi rural and suburbs. There’s an old warehouse on the right, and a band practicing.

Mile 12. We see a huge tortoise.  We pass Ocoee High School. There’s an ag program, and the three cows and donkey make  lot of noises as we pass. Reach another rest stop – the “Chapin station.” Lots more housing developments. A bathroom break. I see a flame bush over the top of the white vinyl fence lining the trail.

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Mile 13. I’m getting tired.  After some beautiful wooded and agricultural sections, we pass a truck storage spot. Guys are hanging out by their big flatbeds. A smoker is going. Looks like a good time on a Saturday afternoon if you have to hang out by your work truck.

There are old abandoned orange groves and a few packing buildings. There’s a concrete plant.   Seven  more miles to go and my discipline of a sentence or two each mile breaks down. Here’s what we saw – in retrospect – moving into Winter Garden. An absolutely perfect small town restoration, with a lively downtown and lots of people, enjoying a November Saturday. The last five miles are a park-like trail from Winter Garden to the Killarney Station with oh so eco friendly housing developments – but they are still housing developments. The odd farm opposite on the other side of the trail houses zebras and ostriches. There’s a parking lot for mega party buses. And a covered bridge going over the interstate that we were sure was swaying beneath our feet. Or that could just have been the fact it was mile 19. Nothing beats Florida for iconoclasm. Suburbs. Spanish moss. Greenness that just doesn’t quit. Even the golf courses can’t eradicate it. And peering down at it all this great blue flat sky.

After we reached Killarney Station and met up with friends A and T – and enjoyed beer and pizza at Winter Garden’s Crooked Can craft brewery (the thought of an ice cold beer definitely helped motivate those last five miles) – we wended our way back to College Park. But on the way we passed by the Citrus Bowl where the Electronic Daisy electronic dance music festival,  replete with ferris wheels, carnival rides and neon sound, was going on. Even in my house late at night, some miles away, I could hear the bass.

It wasn’t iconoclastic, somehow. It was just another way of finding the same sort of engagement I felt out there on the trail. It’s Florida.

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West Orange Trail – Beginning to End

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Husband J and I have been walking different chunks of the West Orange Trail for about the last year, as memorialized in “A Walk on the West Orange Trail” and “The West Orange Trail – Starting from the Other End.” But we also had an overarching desire to see if we could walk the whole thing in one fell swoop – well, at least 20 of its 22 miles. (The very last couple of miles – mostly along the side of a busy street in Apopka and culminating in the middle of a sidewalk in front of a strip mall – are simply not worth including.) After all, we reasoned, if the Romans could march miles like that in one day while laden with armor and the spoils of war, surely we could manage it with hiking boots and backpacks.

So, early on Saturday we set out with a couple of friends who had agreed to participate in the initial stages – M, of Iceland fame (see the prior weeks’ Iceland saga), one of my law partners who is affectionately known as King A, his daughter A, and her large, brown brindled part Weimaraner who shall be known by her full name, Daphne.

It was a beautiful, if humid, day and the first five miles to Winter Garden were like a walk in a shaded park along oak lined paths. The park theme was particularly evident as we passed a meadow inhabited by ostriches and long horned cattle (or maybe buffalo?) – not what we were expecting amid the Spanish moss.

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The amount of rapid development along the trail is incredible. In the months since we were last there houses have sprung up like proverbial mushrooms. While many developments are promoting their ecofriendly characteristics, the fact remains that each of them is occupying what used to be open Florida land.

Just before mile 5, M abandoned us to return to a more normal day of activities. King A and his daughter left us in the charming town of Winter Garden – after Daphne lay down in the middle of the sidewalk and clearly announced she had had enough.

Downtown Winter Garden
Downtown Winter Garden

Miles 5 to 10 wind through multiple housing developments and old citrus groves; they pass warehouses and fields, and the site of the Ocoee high school sustainable agriculture program, where three students were tending a cow. Some of the housing developments share great swaths of green semicircular common areas surrounding retention ponds – the manicured grass for all intents and purposes looking like a giant green unibrow. But where were all the people? It was as sterile as a glossy page from a magazine. When we walked through some much poorer areas later on the outskirts of Apopka there were men outside sitting on lawn chairs, kids playing with hoses, people walking down the trail to actually get somewhere.

Only in Florida - hill warning with no discernible hill in sight!
Only in Florida – hill warning with no discernible hill in sight!

At just after mile 10, we decided it was time for lunch and eventually located a bench in the shade of a freeway overpass, with a golf course running along one side. I had started off in running shoes, believing their light weight would help with the distance but had packed my boots just in case. By mile 10 it was clear it was time to shift footwear. So after a sandwich break and foot ministrations, we set off for the final 10.

Things, as they are wont to do, got even stranger during the last half of the hike. As we neared the end of the seemingly interminable golf course, lining the other side of the trail was a field dotted with bright flowers – which after a few moments we realized was a memorial garden. We had been thrown off by the office building – a small frame house with a filled in swimming pool. Huh? And I’m not sure what the proximity of the memorial garden to the golf course says about the nature of human existence but it doubtless means something.  We also concluded that Apopka must be slightly higher than Oakland, at the beginning of the trail – although there were no real hills, we kept going up a steady slight incline – and never seemed to get to go down.

When we reached mile 15 we had travelled more miles than on any previous hikes, and we were also on a part of the trail we hadn’t seen before. All of a sudden, peering over the edge of the trail was a giant white statue of Buddha gazing down serenely on the cyclists whizzing by him – it turned out we were next to an extremely large and ornate Buddhist temple. The religious juxtapositions were interesting. We had started by the “Mosaic Church” near Oakland, now the Buddhist temple, and shortly after encountered churches ranging from the Seventh Day Adventists (where a very dressed up congregation was just departing church services) to something called St. Elizabeth, a Church of God By Faith, with no other apparent denominational affiliation.

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After a wooded section we emerged onto another road which offered a tour of Apopka’s dying foliage industry. Nelson’s Florida Roses (I had never realized it was even in Apopka) still seemed to be flourishing – although we couldn’t help but note that when we saw them switch on the sprinklers the electrical transformer over our heads actually crackled and sparked. But next to Nelson’s are acres of semi-abandoned greenhouses, giving a sort of post apocalyptic feel to the whole place.

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Finally we made our way through a wooded area, dotted with small houses, and up to the Apopka bridge. Just beyond that is the Apopka Station, our ending point, but we were just under miIe 20. So we forced ourselves to go on just a little further so that when we turned around back to the Apopka Station we stopped at mile 20 on the nose.

This particular training adventure, unlike most, was a one way trip. Except for the half mile at the end, when our friends A and T retrieved us, we hadn’t covered any of the same ground twice. Sometimes I wish summits were like that – you could get to the top, just stay there, and not have to come down again.

J near the beginning of the hike
J near the beginning of the hike

A Walk on the West Orange Trail

Cement plant amid abandoned orange groves
Cement plant amid abandoned orange groves

Training has to be in earnest now. The long Martin Luther King weekend  provided the impetus for our first hike with weight since – oh, probably when we were training for Elbrus last year. But with Cotopaxi and still maybe Chimborazo looming a mere six months away, it’s time to ramp up.

Orlando has been working on its urban and semi-urban trails for a number of years, and the West Orange Trail was one of the first. It stretches 22 miles from Killarney to Apopka, running mostly along abandoned railroad tracks.  It passes through suburbia, a high end residential enclave, abandoned orange groves, and, every now and then, glimpses of the pine forests and palm hammocks that graced the state before development threatened to turn it into one giant subdivision.

Husband J and I had hiked the segment from Killarney to Winter Garden last year, so we were already familiar with the classic car show that takes place in Winter Garden on Saturdays. People from all walks of life sit on lawn chairs with everything from Model Ts to 1967 Mercury Cougars on display. Somehow I don’t think my 10 year old Sebring convertible would have qualified.

So this time we decided to load up the backpacks with about 25 pounds and walk the next segment, from Winter Garden to about three miles beyond the Chapin Station by Chapin Park, for a nine mile round trip. Before Ecuador this summer we are going to try to walk the whole length in one day. Hey, if the Romans could march over 20 miles every day, why can’t we?

Not really a walk on the wild side
Not really a walk on the wild side

The first part of the trail cuts through several housing developments. One of the most striking features is the lengths and lengths of white vinyl fences that line the trail. The fences finally stop and you’re treated to a view of backyard after backyard – all of which blend into one another with barely any delineation. Talk about peer pressure to mow your lawn! Notably, I saw not one soul sitting outside on any of these neatly manicured grass strips, even on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Finally, housing developments give way to abandoned orange groves. As we passed the one with the cement plant rising up out of the middle (see photo above), we heard what at first sounded like a loud rant of some hellfire and brimstone preacher. But as we got closer, in the distance we could just hear an amplified broadcast of MLK’s I Have a Dream speech. Somehow very fitting for the weekend, the trail and our training.

West Orange Trail - J's trademark shadow in the corner
West Orange Trail – J’s trademark shadow in the corner

The next segment did move into something approaching nature, although the sound of the highways nearby was never too far away. A hawk almost strafed our heads as we paused on the bridge shown above, and then settled into the trees, its plump belly blending into the mottled deep green black leaves.  We passed by a specialty crop garden tended by a local high school, as well as what looked like an uninhabited barnyard with a big sign saying sustainable farming.  And at one point, from a warehouse al out hidden by the trees, we could hear the throbbing bass of a rock band practicing. On the way back, it seemed to have transformed into something that sounded like a mariachi band. Same band? Or rented space?

The West Orange Trail even has a few hills – at least by Florida standards. I just kept thinking to myself, “imagine it’s 10 degrees farenheit, it’s a 35 degree slope, and you are at 18,000 feet.” You’ve got to have some imagination to train in Florida.

There's a hawk somewhere in there - use your imagination!
There’s a hawk somewhere in there – use your imagination!