How this St. Petersburg professor and son still bonded on a failed hike on the Florida Trail

City Wilds.

click to enlarge How this St. Petersburg professor and son still bonded on a failed hike on the Florida Trail
c/o Thomas Hallock

The kid and I started at Clearwater Lake, on the southern end of Ocala National Forest, packs busting with gear, water, and food. We planned a week-long trek to Rodman Dam, 70 miles north, a classic leg of the Florida Trail.

"I'll give that trip three days," my mom said to my wife as they pulled away, forecasting like the witches in ‘Macbeth.’”

The goal for day one was Alexander Springs, 11 miles away. Using the Florida Trail guide, I had mapped out a string of campsites, facilities, and cool sites to see. I organized like a parent in desperate need of control. I set up this hike because nothing else was working. 

During the pandemic, a national poll reports, seven out of 10 teenagers struggle with mental health. Adolescent depression has spiked 20%. In addition to the 2.7 million lives lost, mostly elderly, COVID-19 has taken its toll on the emotional well-being of our young. 

My kid is no exception. He graduated from high school two years ago, and after a hiatus, started college. The pandemic led to online teaching, but he did not connect with remote learning, so he took an academic leave. He moved back home, under the condition that he find a job. But work did not happen, and the kid fell into a funk.

Which leads to this hike. Long before Xanax or Sigmund Freud's analytic hour, people managed their demons with a walk in the woods. 

Our trek covered the choicest stretch of the Florida Trail.  First laid out in 1966, the Clearwater Lake leg represents the symbolic core of what is now a very long path—a national and scenic trail, stretching from Pensacola down to Big Cypress in the 'Glades. Ocala National Forest threads through piney hills and oak scrub, classic Florida ecosystems. Day one took us up and down relic dunes, across our state's unexpected desert habitat, then into a cypress forest near Alexander Springs.

Around 5 p.m., a fellow hiker with radar warned, a storm would hit. We double-timed to the Alex Springs recreation area, where we could cook in a shelter, maybe wait out the rain before making camp.

The plan worked. In the picnic area, I heated some instant potatoes, a pouch of Keto broccoli, and leftover brats that the kid pulled from the depths of his pack. Dinner gave us a chance to plan. We agreed to keep our gear dry and let our persons soak. The kid secured his electronics then stripped down to his shorts and hiking boots. We backtracked 10 minutes, to a campsite right off the trail. I managed to set up my brother's tent (for the first time) in a dark rain. We survived the first night, warm and dry.

By day two, however, I knew we had to adjust. We agreed to cut our pace in half. That morning, the kid soaked his blistered feet in the 72-degree spring. We re-packed our stuff, which had dried out, and after a little first aid, hit the trail again.

Water is always a concern on a Florida hike. Even though our state gets a foot more annual precipitation than Seattle, rain sieves straight through the sandy soil. I did not want a dry camp. As the one holding the map, I insisted we reach Buck Lake, five miles past Alexander Springs. By 3 p.m., however, the kid's patience flagged. His feet hurt. His knees ached. He was miserable.

As we passed a muckish prairie, just beyond US-19, he asked "is that Buck Lake?"

It was not. We reached a second prairie, not much more than brackish sludge between the sedge and Jeep tracks. The kid insisted we stop. "Here's your lake," he said.

We pitched our tents, collected firewood, and I gathered water. I filled every piece of cookware we had at the prairie, filtering particulates then double boiling for safety. The kid heated some ramen and teriyaki jerk for us to share. As night fell, a cold front moved in. We fought back the chill with a fat fire from pine limbs.

The kid and I (to be honest) do not always get along. Though nearing 20, he still has a teenager's personality—somewhere between tender and tough, stuffed animals and "fuck yous." My default to the inevitable affronts is sarcasm, which as the parenting guides tell you, succeeds only in alienating a late adolescent. 

It was nice to have this campfire in the woods.

Later that night, the trip unraveled, just as my mom predicted. The 2 a.m. cold triggered an asthma attack. Trail grit had clogged up the kid's inhaler.

I called my wife, asking for help. "Run warm water through it," she said. So I unzipped my sleeping bag, lit the stove, and poured the dregs of our twice-filtered water into the frigid cook pot. Even after a makeshift rinse, the inhaler would not work.

The next morning, we finalized our non-decision. We could either hoof back to U.S.-19 (where my wife could fetch us) or power 15 miles through the Juniper Wilderness. We turned around.

I wish I could claim the glories of perfect parenting. I wish I could present some triumphant moral from the weekend adventure that should have lasted a week. 

By noon on day three, we were in the car and heading south on 75. I sulked the whole way home. With this pandemic, there is only one way forward. That is the only lesson I can offer right now.

You bandage your blistered feet. You shoulder your pack. You keep each other company. And you walk.

Thomas Hallock teaches English at the St. Petersburg campus of USF. His Road Course in Early American Literature, launches Feb. 26 at Tombolo Books.

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About The Author

Thomas Hallock

Thomas Hallock is Professor of English at the University of South Florida St Petersburg. He is currently writing a book of travel essays about why he loves teaching the American literature survey, called A Road Course in American Literature...
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