Public Lands Project 2.1… Or, How the Florida Trail Handed Me My Ass

If you follow me on social media, I was last seen on the Florida Trail, in the first 100 miles of a planned ~7,000 mile walk of National Scenic and Recreation Trails in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act of 1968. Now, I am at an undisclosed beach location in southern California, house-sitting a couple of cute dogs and binge-watching Vikings on Amazon Prime.

‘WTF happened?’ you may be wondering.

In the couple three months prior to leaving for Florida, I had allowed myself to fall into probably the most unhealthy state I’ve been in since before I returned to hiking in 2012. High stress and anxiety related to embarking on this ginormous adventure coupled with moderate depression related to the fairly disastrous state of my personal life rendered me without appetite and unable to eat most of the time. Frankly, I was drinking most of my calories, and what little I was able to choke down was shit food, completely devoid of nutritional value.

This was, of course, worrisome, but I consoled myself by reasoning that this would all sort itself out once I hit the trail. My stress, depression, and anxiety would melt away as they usually do once I get in the dirt, hiker hunger would kick in, and I’d be fine. ‘Anyway,’ I told myself, ‘the FT is flat! It’ll be an easy cruise once I get out of the Swamp, and I’ll whip back into shape in no time.’ So, I started the Florida Trail malnourished and under-hydrated, with minimal energy, yet with the mindset that everything would be fine; the Trail would be my panacea.

Surprise! No exception to any other long trail I’ve known, the FT responded with, ‘you made plans? That’s so cute!’ This accompanied by uproarious laughter and a resounding smack upside the head.

The southernmost 100 miles of the FT is no joke, and I’ll never again automatically equate ‘flat’ with ‘easy.’ I spent the better part of the first 30 miles through Big Cypress Swamp in water: 2.5 days of wading, slipping, sliding, the mud equivalent of post-holing (except at least when you’re post-holing, your feet aren’t like cement blocks, with shoes and socks stuffed with wet sand and mud), falling into hidden limestone potholes, eternally off-balance. There was no way to establish a pace or even take a sitting break most of the time. This will be the first (and hopefully last) time I will lose a toenail due to displacement by mud. I got hammered by mosquitoes, multiple plants with names starting with ‘saw,’ and was rained on nightly. My stress and anxiety went nowhere, just changed focus: now it was about hurting myself, finding a place to camp before dark when all of the more dangerous critters are out looking for dinner, the pain increasing in my right foot and shin, making it out of this hostile environment in one piece.

Trail Angel!

On Day 4, after a hugely spirit-lifting trail magic experience at the Seminole Indian Reservation gate and a belly-lifting Indian taco experience at Billie Swamp Safari Cafe, I hobbled the last few miles of road-walking into Big Cypress RV Resort & Campground. I’d promised my body I’d take a post-Swamp recovery zero to dry out and rest up. I awoke the next morning to a swollen right foot, ankle, and lower leg, and the swelling was increasing. I contacted a dear friend who is also an amazing sports medicine doctor, and was diagnosed from pictures and history with tendon strain and tendinitis, and advised to RICE (Rest / Ice / Compress / Elevate) as long as was practicable.

One zero turned into four as I dealt with my injury and an attempt to get new shoes that was thwarted by FedEx and a snowpocalypse at their hub in Memphis. Plagued by cabin fever brought on by being mostly confined to a tiny one-person tent surrounded by the giant mobile rigs of snowbirds (who am I kidding? I would have had cabin fever by then regardless of circumstance), and the stress of being held up so long so soon with so far to go, I set back out.

Usually, I have ankles…

In two days, I covered almost 50 miles, frequently into strong and consistent head- or crosswinds. It was a combination of road- and levee-walking, the latter of which was more like marching in a high school band, knees unnaturally high to avoid tripping on overgrown foliage and hidden vines, or stepping too long on the million hills housing biting ants, or falling into the million rodent holes pockmarking the levee tops. By now, not only were my right foot and ankle swollen and angry again, but that shin started to splint. Not to be outdone, the left shin started splinting as well due to decompensation.

I ran into a couple of ECT hikers who planned to ride into Clewiston for the night, and they invited me to go in on a room with them. I hesitated at first – I’d just spent way more time and money at the RV Resort than I felt was reasonable. When a friend of mine also on trail appeared and agreed to this offer without batting an eye, I conceded. The weather was looking increasingly threatening, and I saw nowhere ideal to camp solo in Lake Harbor.

We got into town, hit the store to pick up some healthy provisions, and I spent the rest of the evening RICE-ing. My right leg throbbed most of the night, making sleep difficult. Neither the pain nor the swelling subsided by the next day. It took what felt like forever walking the 0.7 mile to the post office, where I’d sent my bounce box. Every step felt like I was being stabbed in the legs. I knew I was done for now – if I continued, I’d be dealing with these injuries for much longer, if they didn’t just outright develop into stress fractures. The smartest move would be to get off trail so I could heal up properly and completely. I sent the bounce back to California and was on a plane myself two days later.

In the short time I’ve been back, I’ve been pounding clean, nutrient-rich food, and I already feel loads better. I’m still not 100% healed up, but I’m pretty close – the swelling has completely subsided and now I just feel hints or twinges of discomfort. Other than doing minimal walking, I’m not doing anything else special besides eating well – no compression, no ice, no meds.

More this, less beer and burritos

How do I know I was nutritionally-deficient at the start? Well, aside from just assessing what I’d been consuming, I knew because I was experiencing food cravings I didn’t get until well over 1,000 miles on the PCT, in my case usually blueberries, spinach, and red bell peppers. I know because before I left, my hair had turned reddish, and become brittle, breaking easily and falling out at an alarming rate. I had had low to no energy. So, basically I tried to start walking 7,000 miles with the body health of someone who has already walked 2,000 on nothing but ramen and Honeybuns. Nutrition-related injury and retarded recovery are common causes of the premature ending of a long trail, and I’d only gone just shy of 100. It was a critical error to think I could start with such a deficit and that getting on trail would fix it. The Trail can help heal a lot of things, but not everything. Not this.

So, now what? Well, I actually think it’s great this happened, and the timing couldn’t have been more ideal. I learned a lot from this experience, the two primary takeaways being that it is folly to attempt an endurance athletic endeavor without a solid base of health and wellness, and never underestimate a trail. Luckily, we are still in January, so getting back out this year will be easy.

From a pragmatic and logistical perspective, though, there is no way I can stick with my original plan of hiking the Florida, Pinhoti, and Appalachian Trails north followed by a southbound hike of the Continental Divide Trail without being stopped by weather at some point. However, I can still do the same route, just backwards. I’ll have to start later, and the trip will go into next year. Most people start a northbound CDT hike in mid-April, so that gives me more than ample time to heal fully and continue building a healthy base. Since I probably won’t be able to wait that long, I’m now looking at doing the Arizona Trail beforehand. I’ll still have another good month or so to solidify a healthy base as well as time to prep more resupply boxes with heathy and nutritious food to sustain me throughout the trip. I’m also reaching out to companies that produce healthy ingredients (e.g. Wild Foods) and meals (e.g. Backpacker’s Bistro) I can take on trail to ensure I don’t crap out again. This was a LOUD wake-up call: I’m not 20 anymore, able to abuse myself mercilessly and just bounce right back again.

I’ll also be able to continue catching the website up with last year’s activity (since returning I’ve already put up 2 blogs, 2 sites, 2 businesses, and a newsletter), and devise more ways to remain solvent enough to complete the walk. These were both significant contributors to the stress I was experiencing before I began, in addition to dealing with unnecessary personal drama, most of which wasn’t even my own.

Well, I’m over all of that, and about taking action on what I can, and letting go of the rest. If my intention is to walk thousands of miles, I need to be ruthlessly selfish, and focus on whatever I need to make that happen, which is exactly what I am going to do, for myself and for the successful continuation of this pubic lands project. I feel much stronger, healthier, and more calm in just 10 days of eating well and adopting this attitude; it’s amazing the gains that are possible with a dedication to self-care.

I’m so grateful to the friends and strangers (now also friends!) who gave assistance and support during this rough patch. I can’t wait to get back out, back home to Pachamama, but with the proper approach this time: with respect for myself as an athlete, and the appropriate respect for the Trail. ♥