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Hike in Withlacoochee State Forest clears the mind

Who says Florida doesn't have a winter sport?

It's called hiking.

"This is our best weather,'' said Lili Kaufmann of Tampa, who led a group from the Florida Trail Association on its weekly walk Thursday through the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

It was, as you no doubt know, one of the coldest mornings of the year. And this had Kaufmann and a half-dozen others I met in Croom keyed up (and, in puffy down jackets, dressed up) like skiers ready to attack fresh powder.

They listed a few of the advantages of winter hiking: no bugs, no sweat and long sight lines through leafless hardwoods.

"It's beautiful out here,'' Kaufmann said.

As a transplanted Northerner who still misses the changing seasons after 20 years — and who never caught the Florida phobia of all chilly breezes that don't come from air conditioners — I didn't need to be convinced. I like seeing frost on the leaves and steam in my breath.

But there was another reason I headed out Thursday morning. It seemed like a good time to get away.

So let me tell you what I left behind:

A volatile stock market and the nagging feeling that President Obama's hopeful start has been stalled by iffy Cabinet choices and a bloated stimulus bill.

County school administrators who seem eager to jump ship before it sinks into debt. "We're in crisis now,'' School Board Chairwoman Dianne Bonfield said this week. Which is wonderful to hear if you're a parent.

Then there was the jury in the hit-and-run case that proved the best course of action after fatally striking a poor pedestrian is to go see Daddy — as long as Daddy is a well-connected former Florida Highway Patrol trooper.

And, finally, I left behind the folks at the motor coach rally, who apparently missed the news about our finite oil supply and that it just might be nice to leave a few barrels for the grandkids.

This, on the other hand, is what I found a few miles east of Brooksville off Croom Road:

A parking lot surrounded with log fencing that funnels hikers onto a wooded trail. Tall pine trees that topped out in a bright blue sky and that, in the steady breeze, created a whishing sound that almost commanded you to forget your troubles.

My footsteps fell on a sandy trail cushioned by a layer of oak leaves and pine needles.

I was there early enough to see frost covering the grass in forest clearings and late enough to watch it thaw in the sun.

I saw darting cardinals, a screeching red-shouldered hawk and underbrush that burst into life with dozens of fluttering warblers.

I saw the white tail of a running deer, and I met up with a couple of parties of friendly hikers, almost all of them out-of-towners who had driven here for the opportunity to walk in our forest.

Wayne Odermatt of Zephyrhills, 59, setting off from the Tucker Hill trailhead with his son-in-law, Les Carmichael, said he feels lucky that his midweek walk has fallen lately on chilly days.

"I prefer it cold,'' he said.

But in any weather, hiking "clears your mind. It lets you think through problems you otherwise wouldn't be able to think through,'' he said.

"Or, you can just forget the world.''

I agree. Except, lucky for us, this is part of our world.

Hike in Withlacoochee State Forest clears the mind 02/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 5, 2009 6:41pm]

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