It's Thanksgiving Day weekend, and I could be battling bargain-seeking Black Friday crowds, but nooooo. Here I am, spending the holiday plodding along a concrete trail, searching for the next yellow mile marker to measure my progress. My vantage point from atop the Herbert Hoover Dike, the 35-foot embankment circling Lake Okeechobee, reveals Central Florida’s flat agrarian landscape: green sugar cane gracefully waving in the breeze, loam awaiting the next planting, and smoke plumes signaling the harvest of the area’s sugar-daddy crop. Canals on each side, marsh grasses and several species of wading birds mark the elusive Lake Okeechobee, the star of the annual 109-mile Big O Hike.
I’m an interloper, joining the group of 40-plus hikers near the conclusion of the nine-day Thanksgiving week trek, a tradition born 20 years ago by eight hikers from the Florida Trail Association’s Loxahatchee chapter. I’m fresh; the others, mostly 50- to 70-something hiking enthusiasts and newcomers, have already logged 71.5 miles.
Ever the overachiever, I shun opening day’s 3.4-mile “Wimp Walk,” instead hiking 25.7 miles on days seven and eight from Moore Haven to South Bay, two of the tiny hamlets dotting the second-largest freshwater lake in the continental United States.
“This being Florida and flat, isn’t it more of a walk?” I post on Facebook.
Just an hour into the hike, which celebrates its 21st year this November, I’ve already learned some of the lingo. There are the rabbits, who breeze through at four miles an hour; turtles, who amble along; and those like me in the middle, just hoping to finish. Some hikers will go the distance; others will complete just a portion. Those who finish the full 109 miles — either in one outing or several — receive a certificate.
Miamians Rolando and Liz Branly are tackling the Big O for the first time. “My wife talked me into it,” Rolando, a retired physician, says. “She has been trying to get me to do this for three years.” Linda Benton, a St. Augustine resident, has participated every year for 17 years, completing the full hike seven times. “It just seemed like a good idea,” she says matter-of-factly when asked why. “You meet a lot of interesting people. We’ve had hikers from England and Canada.” For Beverly Cammock, an attractive Jamaican woman with a runner’s physique, the Big O is a prelude to the granddaddy of all hikes — the Appalachian Trail. “I tried it before but just wasn’t ready,” she says.
Several hikers seem to prefer the solitude, walking alone, perhaps enjoying their thoughts, the scenery and wildlife — crested caracaras, wood storks, soft-shelled turtles and the occasional gator. Many walk two to three abreast. I have company — a new friend, Andrea Ferronato, and my 23-year-old daughter, Ashlee, whom I bribed with, ironically, a gym membership. Ashlee enjoys comforts like bathrooms and blister-free feet, and I’ve taunted her for weeks by reciting some of the guidebook’s pointers: pack duct tape and extra socks, be prepared for trail stretches devoid of restrooms, and get ready for 5 a.m. wake-up calls to see the sun rise over Lake O.
OK, I admit, that last one got me too. My husband wanted to know: “Have either of you ever seen a sunrise?” “Not over Lake Okeechobee,” we replied.