Florida Trail (Green Swamp East)

June 2, 2020

With my colleagues Casey Blanton and Christopher Meindl, I am co-editing the Spring 2021 issue of the Journal of Florida Studies. Our theme is the Florida Trail, the long path that runs from Pensacola to Big Cypress in the Everglades. We seek contributions about the trail from as many backgrounds as possible. Along the way, periodically, I also will post about my explorations on the trail.

We could feel the walls closing around us. The university shut down campus, scrambling online like every other school in the nation, as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Public officials ordered everyone to stay at home–no bars, no restaurants, no contact within six feet. Keep indoors, common sense dictated. But I am a person who needs time outdoors. By April the season for camping would soon finish, and I was already stir crazy.

So two weeks into the pandemic, Julie and I loaded our Westphalia van and left. We topped off the gas tank (careful to wipe down the pump) and set our course for one of the Tampa Bay area’s hidden gems:the Green Swamp.

More mosaic or ecological checkerboard than actual wetland, the Green Swamp sits on a plateau just north of Interstate-4, tucked between Tampa, Lakeland, and Orlando. This 560,000 acre Wildlife Management Area, despite its size or proximity to a major metropolitan area, somehow slips off the map of most nature lovers. The campgrounds cater to hunters from adjoining Polk County. You will find only a handful of interpretative signs, poorly marked trails, and no bathrooms with running water. Few Floridians even know this pocket of wilderness even exists.

I’m good with that.

The coronavirus pandemic was taking not just lives, but sanity. In addition to workplace demands, the health crisis had forced our teenage son home. Away for his first semester of college, independent for the first time in his life, he bristled at being back under his parents’ charge. The kid, who is no longer a kid, understandably questioned house rules. Who was I to tell someone when to go to bed? Or to clean his own dishes? But that didn’t mean I should walk around his mess.

Nerves frayed quickly, Julie and I needed an overnight escape. The Green Swamp was just the place. I chugged our reconditioned, ’87 camper van down the right lane of Interstate-275 and over the eerily deserted Howard Frankland Bridge. Traffic was non-existent at the knot where I-275 merged into I-4. We drove north a few exits, then turned onto Highway 301, through the dogtrot towns of Thonotosassa and Zephyrhills. We zigzagged around Highway 54 and 471, through backroads, and cruised through the open gate at the Green Swamp’s East Tract, onto the graded road.

Nothing drops my blood pressure faster than a properly-managed pine forest. While much of the Green Swamp is second-generation cypress, filtering the headwaters of the Hillsborough and Withlacoochee Rivers, the bulk of the land is saw palmetto, prairie, and slash pine flatwoods. In late Spring, before the rains come, the flatwoods offer miles upon mile of open range. All we had to do was find a spot and park.

Julie spied a little turn off, not too far from the Withlacoochee and orange blazes marking the Florida Trail. We popped up the roof of our Westphalia, gathered downed pine branches, and circled around limestone rocks that a previous camper had tossed into the scrub.

The Green Swamp is the closest place to the Tampa Bay area where one can still see natural light. Julie and I had a full moon, and as our little fire flickered, I followed the sparks into the pine canopy. The slash pines bend rather than break, and they move in unison, not uniformly, one may sway east as the others bend west, but at the same pace, as if to remind us that trees are also a community.

Night fell. Julie and I hiked a stretch of the trail the next morning, then packed up to check on our little boy who was now an adult, but still our little boy. I tossed the chunks of limestone back into the saw palmetto and drenched the charred logs with several gallons of water. The woods had given us a reprieve from the panic. We finished loading the van, and with the site looking no different than when we came, we drove away.

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