Elise’s big ride, Rails-to-Trails, and the Florida Trail

I am very proud of Elise. Yesterday, we rode our bikes from our doorstep to the end of the Lehigh Rails-to-Trail path and back – a distance of over 22 miles. I feel like that is an impressive accomplishment for an 8-year-old. She is such a sport and down for almost any kind of big activity. This path passes through the 3,000+ acre Graham Swamp Conservation Area and along the Lehigh Canal, roughly from Flagler Beach to Highway 1. It’s quite beautiful.

(We had been planning on driving down to Blue Spring State Park by Daytona Beach over the weekend to see the manatees, who like to swim inland during the “winter” months here. The natural springs up and down the Eastern and Gulf Coasts have waters that are kept stable at warm temperatures. Alas, we had forgotten that this weekend was both the Daytona 500 and a day President Trump was in town. We expected the whole area to be a madhouse with traffic and changed up our plans. Hopefully, we can make it down before temperatures warm up and the manatees move out.)

Yes, that’s water.

In the spirit of having many future adventures, I bought two excellent books:

Rail-Trails Florida: The Definitive Guide to the State’s Top Multi-Use Trails – This is a wonderful book mapping out the handiwork of the Florida Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. As Lehigh is one of our favorite trails, I wanted to find more around the state that are like that. (Our beach town alone has 135 miles of bike paths along the water, through wetlands, and through the jungle, but we ride or walk them every day.)

I was shocked by the number of endurance-worthy bike paths the state has. In particular, I would really love to ride the path along Henry Flagler’s original railway bridges through the Florida Keys. My understanding is you can ride the restored path, separated from traffic, from Key Largo to Marathon. After that, you have to ride alongside cars. That’s a very long distance in its own right, but it had us fantasizing about taking off on our bikes and booking a hotel room along the way. Like we have to make it to [insert island here] to stay overnight, then we turn around and come back. Or just hanging out for a while on several different islands. It’s a little intimidating though, because if something happened to your bike that far out on the water, you’d kind of be S.O.L.

There is also an over-100-mile path that circumnavigates Lake Okeechobee, the 8th largest freshwater lake in the United States.

I love the Rails-to-Trails program in general. It manages to combine my great loves of history, infrastructure, and finance all in one thing. For a while, I got into reading about the history of the railroads here in the United States and elsewhere. I have a framed railroad bond from Russia dating back before the revolution, with the coupons still attached. So cool. I like learning about all the independent railways that were established all over Florida.

The second book is Hiking the Florida Trail: 1,100 Miles, 78 Days, Two Pairs of Boots, and One Heck of an Adventure by Johnny Malloy. This book is about a thousand times more entertaining than I imagined it would be.

The Florida Trail is an 1,100-mile trail that stretches from Big Cypress National Preserve outside of Miami (in the Everglades) up to to Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Pensacola Beach (the Florida Panhandle). I had absolutely no desire to thru-hike this trail before I bought the book, but I figured it would be a good way to learn about Florida geography and maybe find some sections to hike.

All I can say is, good grief, the people who actually manage to thru-hike the Florida Trail are bonkers. The official site for the trail warns you that the trail is unlike other long trails in the US, starting with the fact that it is not through mountains but often through swamps. One website I looked at advised hikers to pre-treat their clothing with some industrial-grade mosquito repellent that you can get off of Amazon when hiking through the swamps.

Malloy starts off describing the hike through Big Cypress as miles and miles of sloshing through swampy water. Unlike other trails, where you can pretty much hike until you are exhausted and then set up camp, in the Everglades you have to reach specific destinations to camp because the rest is usually underwater. Once you begin, you are totally committed. Combine this with the fact that even urban areas in Florida have hungry dinosaurs, big cats, and venomous snakes roaming around, that’s a scale of adventure I’m not cut out for. But it does make a fantastic read.

The whole time we were riding through the swamps yesterday, I tried to imagine venturing off the boardwalk and trying to hike through that stuff. Nope!

Two excellent hiking websites (Southeastern US)

We promised Elise that we would plan a backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail at some point in the next year. (Not a thru-hike, but just a week-long or so backpacking trip.) I have been reading a lot of websites and blogs about neat places to start. I am thinking at a minimum we need to pick a spot where there are reliable stops for water or that pass close to a town. We don’t want to put an eight-year-old through anything extreme.

Anyhow, I have found two especially wonderful sites if you enjoy hiking in general and live in the southeastern United States.

The first is Hiking the Appalachians and Beyond. This chap takes some serious trail notes and includes a lot of pictures. You have a very clear idea what you are getting into if you go on any of these hikes. And he includes detailed driving directions to get to the trail heads, which is sometimes a tricky problem with rural areas (even in the age of Google).

The second is Georgia Waterfalls. I have written before about our quests to find spectacular waterfalls in the Blue Ridge Mountains and neighboring areas. (See my earlier posts, Playing in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and An afternoon in gorgeous Greenville, South Carolina.) The author of this site has produced an unbelievable index of waterfalls throughout Georgia, along with tips and warnings about how to get close to them.

Smoky Mountains National Park (our 2nd favorite place to wander, beside the Blue Ridge Mountains) Photo Credit

The best water shoes ever

As someone who lives in a beach town and tries to spend as much time outside as is humanly possible, I have a lot of opinions about water shoes.

Until recently, my favorite water-ready shoes were Teva sandals. I often wore them on hikes where I knew I would have to cross streams. They would dry almost instantly and were comfortable enough to trek relatively long distances in.

Well, we discovered something far better: Aleader Quick-Drying Aqua Water Shoes. Rodney bought a pair. We bought a pair for Elise (yes, they make children’s versions). We bought them for my in-laws who love sailing and need non-marking shoes with white soles. And I am on my third pair now.

(This is not a paid advertisement. I am simply in love with these particular shoes and had to share.)

The neat thing about these shoes is not that they dry quickly, but that they have a mesh top and tons of small holes in the soles that allow the shoes to DRAIN. This means you could walk/run for miles in the surf, and the water (and sand) just passes through your shoes. It’s a miracle.

I pretty much live in these shoes and my boat shoes now. When you are not walking through water, they make your feet feel breezy.

The shoes are not ideal for walking over serious rocky terrain. You will definitely feel the rocks through the lightweight soles. But they are light enough to throw in your backpack for a long hike that involves water crossings.

I also wear them a lot when I am gardening. They feel cool working out in the sun, and if they get dirty from digging or laying mulch, I can just hose them off or throw them in the wash machine.

On the history of American hiking

Theodore Roosevelt hiking with John Muir

I just finished reading the book, On the Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin. If you love hiking and conservation (as I do), this is a delightful tome. I had not thought much about how hiking was an unintended consequence of the growth in industry and the introduction of sophisticated infrastructure into cities.

Before the late 19th century, nature walks were the province of aristocrats. Ponder for a second how much of Pride and Prejudice is devoted to talking about natural beauty and jaunts through the countryside, and how Mr. Darcy takes this as evidence of Elizabeth Bennett’s autodidact-aesthetic and intelligence.

In post-Civil War American society, however, the popularity of walking grew out of the anxiety of increased industrialization and the sense that “progress” might not be commensurate with certain notions about a life well-lived:

On the one hand, Americans welcomed improvements in their quality of life and took pride in innovations as mills, canals, steamboats, and trains. On the other hand, they recognized the potential for technology to create larger, dirtier cities inhabited by a class of workers with no means of escaping factory life. These dichotomous responses were embedded in the culture of the period and permeated discussions of politics, literature, and society. Nineteenth-century Americans adopted the pastoral ideal, or “middle landscape,” as an alternative, more desirable vision.

Most people will remember this from studying transcendentalists and the Hudson River School artists in school. (I was impressed that the author devoted a section to what a total charlatan Henry David Thoreau was, talking about hanging out by Walden Pond in the middle of the city as if he were David Livingstone trekking through deepest Africa.)

But walking as a form of leisure and moral improvement became a sort of national obsession during the period that was hardly limited to philosophers and artists.

Investors started funding walkways along the canals and factories they financed to ensure their ventures would be better received by residents and local politicians. (During this era, canals competed with railways as a form of mass transit, with railroads eventually winning, at least until automobiles came around.)

This improved the quality of life of the working class significantly, as they took advantage of new greenbelts and public parks in droves:

One of the most remarkable – and least known – examples was the canal-turned-greenway in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell’s canal system consisted of several short canals that provided waterpower to the city’s famous mills. The Boston Associates – the wealthy group of investors who owned most of Lowell’s mills – became concerned about the town’s stark appearance. Beginning in the 1820s, they embarked on tree-planting and landscaping projects along their canals and in their factory yards. The first plantings were adjacent to the company’s boardinghouses, home to the young women who worked in the mills. Although the land between the street and the canal had been used as an informal promenade for several years, the new landscaping evoked a parklike setting that encouraged more people to use it as a public walk. Textile workers were encouraged to publish their poetry, short stories, and other writing in a monthly periodical called the Lowell Offering…

When the Northern Canal along the Merrimack River was completed in 1847, city residents could follow the Merrimack, Western, Pawtucket, and Northern Canals in an approximately four-mile circuit of the city that took them through the rural countryside west and north of Lowell. By design, canals are relatively flat, so these four-mile jaunts were hardly strenuous, but they did offer an opportunity to experience walking in a natural setting, especially outside of town.

From such projects, a sports craze developed, with the introduction of professional pedestrians:

As a formal sport, pedestrianism emerged from the British aristocratic practice of placing bets on how far and how long their footmen could walk behind their carriages or around a circular racetrack… By 1809, the stakes, audience, and prestige of the pedestrian had grown. In July of that year, Captain Robert Barclay, a wealthy Scot with royal blood, completed his well-choreographed and widely celebrated “thousand miles in 1,000 hours for 1,000 guineas.” Barclay, who along with a small team had planned and strategized his approach for more than a year, circled a track for nearly six weeks straight, walking at least one mile every hour. When he completed the task, he earned, along with side bets 16,000 guineas, or the equivalent of 320 years of income for the average artisan who composed his audience of thousands. American newspapers picked up the story from London…

By the mid-nineteenth century, reports like these had inspired a small group of celebrity pedestrians in the United States. In the winter of 1861, a professional pedestrian named Edward Payson Weston walked between Boston and Washington DC in eight days. The walk originated in a casual bet with a friend: Weston promised to walk to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration if Lincoln were to be elected.

In the end, Weston had gained such notoriety that he had the opportunity meet President Lincoln. Lincoln offered to pay for the man to ride back to Boston on a train. (He walked instead.)

In the 1860s, social groups emerged not only to take nature walks but to take on aggressive hikes (like climbing Mt Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire). I found this development interesting for a couple reasons: (1) you would not think about recreation being an all-consuming pursuit for people during the middle of the Civil War (it almost goes to show you how removed some northerners were from the Civil War as a political concern with a direct impact on one’s ordinary life) and (2) women were included in these hiking groups from the very beginning (perhaps because city infrastructure gave women the chance to become physically athletic too).

Nowadays, female athletes make a big deal out of “trailblazers” like Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, who had her bib number ripped off of her by organizers mid-race. But women were climbing some of the highest peaks in the Appalachians in hoop skirts a century earlier.

Anyway, the book from that point transitions into accounts of the founding of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the Sierra Club, and similar groups, along with the fights to establish state and federal parks. The further you get into it, the more it becomes a sort of directory of early members and their pet causes, and the tension between people who were in hiking for the sake of sport and people who turned it into political activism – which is interesting, though way too much for a blog post.

A fun, though very esoteric read.

Counting our steps

We bought pedometers for everyone in our family a few days ago. I’m not generally into exercise gimmickry. I have been shocked, however, by how much the simple act of counting your steps can transform how you spend your day. I’ve also been shocked by how many steps our daughter takes in the course of a normal day. The kid is about as active as a hummingbird (with an equal enthusiasm for sugar).

We started off with the goal most people have of walking 10,000 steps a day. We quickly realized that all three of us were going to hit that goal with little effort. So then we bumped it up to 20,000. Then it turned into a competition to see who could get the most steps in. Suffice it to say, we’ve all been extraordinarily active this week.

Elise seems to love her pedometer more than anyone. She shows it off to everyone she sees. And a ton of people have whipped out their own pedometers to compare steps with her.

She was so accustomed to being the stepping champion of our household that comparing steps with her riding instructor completely devastated her. At 9 am, her riding instructor had already amassed over 4,000 steps just from mucking out stalls. Elise wanted to go to work on barn chores to level the playing field.

“You should have seen me before we had the new fencing installed,” she said. “I walked over 15 miles a day retrieving horses from the woods!” I imagine that would have been less fun without a pedometer.

Our neighbor sent me a text message at 10 pm last night with a picture of her pedometer. “Show Elise that I beat her 22,000 steps.”

A couple on our street who recently moved here from New Jersey pulled out their pedometers to show Elise. She probably has them pushing up their daily goal now too.

The only member of our household who does not like the competition is our rough-coat Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock. As you can see, he found a patch of shade while we were out walking in the intense Florida sun (yes, it is still hot and steamy here in October) and put the brakes on. We had to pick him up and carry him home because he was not budging. It reminded me of that line from Amadeus. What’s wrong with this hike? Too many steps!

It’s good for the soul to get outside.

Our piece of the Intracoastal Waterway

We are blessed to live on the Intracoastal Waterway here in Florida, and moreover to have a several mile long esplanade to walk along every day. We try to make it out there in the early mornings or evenings (or both), and enjoy seeing a lot of wildlife. Dolphins and manatees are regular visitors. Fishermen catch snapper, sharks, crab, and many other things. We’ve met people from all over the world while out on our walks. (Incidentally, we have a ton of people from Russia in our neighborhood.) One lady stopped me recently, screaming “I know you! You are the lady with the crazy gardens! I love driving by your house!” It made my day, to be honest. I love to joke that my garden aesthetic is Versailles. I just need to install some fountains.

I have spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains, having lived along the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and the Appalachians in the Bluegrass region. Hiking through wetlands is now one of my favorite wild experiences. I am glad that Floridians do so much to preserve the natural environment. Our daughter has learned incredible things out and about.

One of the best things about living in Florida is the state is in bloom all year long. Even in the “winter” months, plants everywhere are blooming. That’s actually how Florida got its name. Florida was first discovered by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon on Palm Sunday on April 2, 1513. He named the land Pascua de Florida, meaning “Feast of Flowers,” claiming it for Spain. And Florida truly is a feast of flowers. This is what autumn looks like here.

Sometimes I could do with a little less wild, however. We watched this danger noodle along our trail tonight. (Yes, that’s a copperhead. We see cottonmouths from time to time too.) I took the opportunity to explain to Elise that this is why I yell when she tries to play in the palmettos.

Playing in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains

So Hurricane Dorian moved through where we live in Florida at a snail’s pace last night and this morning. Based on pictures from our neighbor who did not evacuate (he works at an area hospital and was required to stay), our house is quite fine. I think my gardens are going to need *a lot* of tender loving care when we return, but that’s about it. We received five inches of rain during the storm, but there wasn’t any flooding. We watched the storm surge at Flagler Beach on the weather channel, however, and it was quite impressive. It will be interesting to see how bad our beach erosion is when we return. Our neighbor said a few year ago, the ocean brought us a bunch of sand of a completely different color after a hurricane.

I feel blessed that our house is okay, but honestly, I’m just so thankful the whole miserable ordeal is over. “Evacuation fatigue” is a real thing, y’all. Last night, I was thinking, “Do whatever you want, Mother Nature. Just please, for heaven’s sake, do it already.”

My heart breaks for the folks in the Bahamas though. We would love to donate all of the supplies we purchased for hurricane season to them. If anyone knows of a good charity or community effort where we can drop them off somewhere, please let me know. Or any reliable nonprofit that handles hurricane recovery efforts there.

***

Yesterday, we decided to get away from the lake house and go explore the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Oconee County in South Carolina is now one of my new favorite places to visit:

Oconee County takes its name from the Cherokee word “Ae-quo-nee” meaning “land beside the water.” Oconee was a local Cherokee town that was situated on the main British/Cherokee trading path between Charleston and the Mississippi River in the early 18th century. Its geographic position later placed it at the intersection of the trading path and the Cherokee treaty boundary of 1777. In 1792, a frontier outpost was built by the SC State Militia near the town site and was named Oconee Station. When Oconee County was created out of the Pickens District in 1868 it was named for Oconee Town.

We started off going to Chattooga Belle Farm to pick figs. Folks who know me know that figs are my all-time favorite treat. I can’t wait until late summer for figs to be in season. Chattooga Belle Farm had more fig trees than I have ever seen in one place. I was so happy. I also picked up some canned goods from the orchard, including moonshine jam, which is indeed made with corn whiskey. I have no idea what I am going to do with it, but I also couldn’t not buy it. When in Rome.

The orchard is also home to Belle’s Bistro, which is a good place to stop for a quick lunch if you are exploring Oconee County. They have a burger topped with fig preserves, goat cheese, and applewood smoked bacon that is out of this world.

From there, we drove a few minutes to the Chattooga River, which is the main tributary of the Tugaloo River. It bisects the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, which includes three states (Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and three National Forests (the ChattahoocheeNantahala and Sumter National Forests).

But you most likely know it as the river from the movie Deliverance.

The Chattooga River is a wild river with serious rapids that make it popular with the whitewater crowd. We found a spot to play that was relatively safe, but we could still see rafters negotiating class 4 rapids above and below us. It was an incredibly beautiful place, and Elise loved chasing the minnows around in the shallows.

After playing in the river, we decided to start visiting the myriad waterfalls in the area. There are dozens to visit, if you have the time. (Here is the Oconee County link for All Trails.)

Be forewarned – some of the roads to the waterfalls are quite treacherous (and should probably be hiked). We found ourselves driving down a one-lane gravel path snaking through a steep valley, with cliffs on both sides of the car, and precious few places where you could turn around if you started questioning your life decisions. I was trying to imagine what I would say to Rodney when we had to call him to come get us. “Where are you?” “I’m not sure exactly, but apparently Deliverance was filmed here.”

I thought this was pretty cool. At one of the parks we stopped at, they had created a kiosk where parents could borrow a life jacket to put on their kids while they played in the river.

You know you are in a daring part of the country when the special rescue units are using your trail to practice rappelling down the cliffs and getting a target out of the water.

After our adventures, we returned back to the lake house, where Elise’s Papa took her out inner-tubing behind the bass boat. With the Labor Day crowds gone from Lake Hartwell, we had the water mostly to ourselves. It was the perfect opportunity to teach Elise how to do this without worrying about her getting run over by a jet ski. Our fearless child had no problem, and was standing up and bouncing behind the boat on her first try. I think she’s probably ready to learn how to water ski.

Finally, we had dinner at the Galley restaurant on the South Carolina side of Lake Hartwell and watched a cotton candy sunset over the sailboats in the marina. I don’t think we could have packed more fun into a single day if we tried. Needless to say, Elise did not fight her bedtime.

Soon we will be returning home to Florida.