After just a few days of living out-of-doors, hikers become attuned to the rhythms of the day and discover the daylight hours are short. Since the solstice in late December each day gets a little bit longer, but only by a minute or so. The first week of January is still the heart of winter and the sun does not start rising until after seven, and is close to the horizon again by four in the afternoon. By seven in the evening the cypress trees and swamp waters have melted completely into the black night. Some thru-hikers realize the long hiking days they were used to on the PCT or AT aren't possible on the Florida Trail, and dial down their mileage expectations.
They also discover that the Florida Trail is a lonesome trail. At the kickoff thru-hikers enjoy eating and talking with FTA volunteers. They meet maybe a dozen other hopeful thru-hikers, who leave the Oasis Visitor Center with them on the same day, but within a week or two everyone seems to have disappeared. The other hikers are either ahead or behind. And after the kickoff, there is no more trail magic either. No one waits at road crossings cooking burgers. No sodas are to be found in coolers stashed along the Trail.
While there is little human presence along the Trail, except during the occasional roadwalk when cars race past, the absence is compensated for by the tremendous amount of wildlife, more than thru-hikers see on any other trail. The night is filled with the chirping of tree frogs and the songs of insects. The morning bird chorus wakes even the heaviest sleepers. After breaking camp and beginning the day, hikers pass huge congregations of birds feeding together. Dozens of species like wood storks, sand hill cranes, and spoonbills mingle with pelicans, turkey vultures, and caracaras. Lizards scurry underfoot and butterflies seem to be everywhere. Armadillos and opossums wander into camp during dinner, seemingly oblivious to the hiker sitting with a steaming pot of noodles. They stop and sniff the air before vanishing back into the palmettos. At midday a wild boar followed by a half-dozen piglets cuts across the Trail. The Trail's sandy soil has also captured the footprints of predators who would take a piglet if they could — bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and even panthers — but those animals remain hidden in the golden grasses and dark green palmettos.
Thru-hikers on the FT are a mixed group. Many are Floridians, even if they weren't born in Florida, and many of them are retired. The retired folks have often been long-time FTA volunteers, who went out on weekends and joined work parties to maintain the Trail. Finally retired, they thru-hike the trail they've been helping to maintain for so many years.
Hikers from beyond Florida are often veterans of other long distance trails. They've hiked the AT or PCT or both, and are looking for their next adventure. These hikers skew older, since only
retired folks have the time to hike a different trail every year, but there are a few younger hikers in their twenties and thirties, who can squeeze the FT in between jobs since it is so
Almost no one on the FT is thru-hiking for the very first time. Few if any thru-hikers have been fresh out of high school or college. The Appalachian Trail seems to have the strongest grip on the
imaginations of that age group. The FT is too young, too little known, and too incomplete to be romanticized like the AT and PCT.
An Escape from the Human Zoo?
There is an indescribable, inescapable thing about long-distance hiking that captures our imaginations and won't let them go. Something draws us to a life out-of-doors, constantly on the move.
Perhaps it is because we as human beings evolved on the plains of Africa as hunter-gatherers. We are still best suited for life in our environment of evolutionary adaptation, not the zoo-like
conditions we have built for ourselves. We are at our most human when we live outside, walking all day, never lingering in one place too long, sleeping in temporary locations. In contrast,
human behavior in a city is remarkably similar to that of animals confined in a zoo, an idea explored by Desmond Morris in his book, The Human Zoo.
A Modern Day, Secular Pilgrimage?
For centuries all over the world people have walked great distances not for trade, education, food, or other material benefit but for inner reasons that — for want of a better term — are called spiritual. They are physical journeys toward a non-physical goal. Pilgrimages do not have the same features across all cultures, however. The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca is very different from a medieval Christian pilgrimage, which shares some features in common with Buddhist pilgrimages. A thru-hike in America most resembles a medieval Christian pilgrimage.
For medieval Christians, travel to Jerusalem was too expense and too dangerous. Instead, the tomb of Saint James in Spain became the most popular pilgrimage destination for Western Europeans.
Pilgrims followed four main roads through France and over the Pyrenees mountains to unite at Puente La Reina, then hiked the "Way of Saint James" to the saint's shrine.
Like a thru-hike, this medieval pilgrimage had specific beginning and end points, as well as a designated route along a footpath with no express purpose except that as a pilgrim trail. This is in contrast to say, the Trans-America Bike Path, which is a route drawn across different linked roads also used for normal, day-to-day business. Pilgrims planned their journey by consulting guidebooks like the Liber Sancti Jacobi (or Book of Saint James). Similar to the tradition of trail names, medieval Christian pilgrims would adopt a “pilgrim name” during their journey, usually the name of a saint that inspired the pilgrimage. Businesses cropped up along the route to outfit pilgrims. Monasteries and abbeys provided food and shelter — the medieval equivalent of hostels. Upon reaching the terminus, pilgrims received a special metal coin as proof they had reached the end, similar to the thru-hiker’s patch.
Today, the Way of Saint James (often shortened to "the Way") has become a backpacking destination. People still follow the pilgrim trail, but their motives are secular, rather than explicitly religious. While these hikers may not have great interest in the shrine or relics found at the end of the journey, the journey itself is no less personal, inward, and perhaps spiritual than when pilgrims walked it a thousand years ago.