After nine full days of walking, I have landed on the shores of the Ochlockonee River off Highway 20 in Northern Florida. I am 225 miles into my third walk across America. No signs of any alligators – yet – though I did see a young black bear nearly get hit by a car yesterday! I’m glad he/she could run fast.
I landed in Jacksonville on November 10th and took my first ever Uber (one of many firsts on this trip, I’m sure) to the UPS store in Atlantic Beach where I shipped my stroller, PJ. After reassembling my travel companion, we walked about four miles north to Kathryn Abbey Hanna County Park to camp for the night. We had torrential rain overnight but dry skies in the morning to start the walk!
PJ and I didn’t waste any time and officially started our 2,700 mile journey at 9 AM. Day one included a series of bridge crossings (eight total) over marshes, rivers, and coves north of Jacksonville. Wide shoulder gave us plenty of room to steer clear of moderate traffic. The mosquitoes were still biting though!
I thought I was starting my walk late enough in the South to avoid any tropical storms or hurricanes, but it is 2020…Tropical Storm Eta was slowly moving north towards Jacksonville for days prior to my walk beginning. I elected to get a budget motel room on the first night of my journey. The overnight forecast on the 11th looked terrible, and the storm was supposed to pass over the Jacksonville area around noon on the 12th. Finally, an ETA for Eta! Although heavy rains moved through overnight, the brunt of the storm passed south of me on day two. Eta had also weakened significantly. I decided to walk. Plus, the budget “motel” was quite possibly the worst lodging I have ever encountered. That says a lot coming from a guy who routinely sleeps under bridges and in the woods frequently. I would take a bridge over that place any day!
I spent day two walking through a surprisingly refreshing mist and light rain out of the Jacksonville area and into the country.
On day three I reached Highway 90. What a road! 90 offered a big, comfortable shoulder and low traffic levels. It meandered through several state and national forests filled with towering pine, saw palmetto trees, and cyprus swamps. The occasional idyllic ranch added to the beautiful scenery. I passed through Lake City and Live Oak (where I was able to camp next to the Community Presbyterian Church as opposed to stealth camping) over the next two days.
Socially, it has been a quiet journey so far, but I have been blessed with a few memorable encounters.
About 15 miles outside of Madison, something red in the grass caught my eye. It was a 2 of hearts playing card. I pick up a lot of stuff I find on the roadside to keep as random trip momentos. I thought the card would make a nice bookmark.
About a mile later, a woman named Patty pulled over in a big F-150 truck. She asked me where I was going and what I was doing. “God put you in my path today, Ben,” she told me. Patty lost her son to a heroine overdose three months ago. Her beautiful turquoise eyes were full of pain and sadness.
She was honest about the fact she has drug issues, too, and how she relapsed a few weeks ago. When I told her I was in recovery, her eyes lit up. “That’s why we met.” She said fighting back tears. “I need to hold myself accountable.”
We visited on the roadside for a while and said a prayer together. Patty gave me a donation and asked me to pass along 10 of the dollars she gave me to someone in need down the road. I will.
I said goodbye to Patty and thanked her for sharing her story with me. I took lunch 20 minutes later to reflect on Patty’s generosity and openness.
As I munched on a sandwich, a man in an old white Cadillac pulled over. John greeted me with a big smile. He explained how he had helped another cross-country walker a few years ago. He asked if I accepted donations. I said yes, and that they went towards daily expenses. He pulled a 10 out of his wallet. “Do you have a five you can give me back? I’m pretty strapped right now.” Unfortunately I didn’t. I insisted he take the money back, but he refused. “Keep all of it and have a great walk!” I thanked John and tucked away the bill. I was blown away by Patty and John’s generosity.
As I finished eating lunch, I pulled the card out of my pocket. “Weird, I thought. It’s a 2 of hearts, and two people with two huge hearts just went out of their way to help me out.” Coincidence? I’ll let you be the judge.
My next few days took me through Madison and Monticello. I cowboy camped (no tent, just a sleeping bag under the stars) in some woods off the highway both nights.
I reached Tallahassee on day eight. Instead of getting a hotel room for the night, I elected to do laundry and found a spot to urban stealth camp. Tallahassee joins my ever-growing list of cities, which includes Montreal, Ottawa, Kansas City, San Fransisco, Norfolk, Lexington, and the Portlands where I have successfully stealth camped!
Yesterday I took in Florida’s capital city on the walk west through town. I stopped by the capitol building and meandered through FSU’s campus before reaching Highway 20 and walking to my current location.
All in all, I am thrilled with the way the first 10 days of my journey have gone. Due to COVID, people are understandably wary about approaching a man pushing a stroller down the side of the highway (more so than normal!). But I still had numerous pleasant encounters with people, and the folks I have met have been very friendly and helpful.
From Riverfront Campground, I will begin the 225ish mile walk towards Pensacola and the Alabama border tomorrow morning. I’m hoping to be in the second state of my journey a day or two after Thanksgiving.
Favorite Three Pictures
10 days, 225 miles walked
Jars of peanut butter – 7
Roadside change – .52 cents
Favorite Roadside Find – 2 of hearts playing card!
One flat tire – the road really “screwed” me. I picked up a massive screw in my front tire yesterday, which quickly caused a flat.
Thanks for reading! Walk on!