When Amanda Hus was a little girl growing up in Fort Myers, she dreamed about hiking the Appalachian Trail. "I used to read about it in magazines," said the 53-year-old former stay-at-home mom. "I said to myself, 'Some day.' "
The Tampa resident had done a few day hikes in parks and nature reserves, but nothing serious. Then last fall she heard a talk by hardcore backpackers about "thru hiking" the Florida Trail.
The hiking path, which stretches more than 1,100 miles from the Everglades to the Panhandle, doesn't get as much publicity as the fabled "AT," but for Floridians who love the state's scrublands, pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks it is every bit as beautiful.
"They said they were going to help support a group that would do the whole trail," Hus recalled. "So I went up after the talk and asked how I could sign up."
Hus didn't have any equipment except a pair of boots. So she went to Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park and started asking questions in the backpacking department.
"They outfitted me from head to toe," said Hus, who spent about $800 and began training with day hikes. "On Jan. 2, 2011, 12 of us started walking down at Big Cypress."
Every time the group hit civilization, the hikers connected with a van driven by fellow trail enthusiasts so they could restock supplies.
But after a few days Hus realized her pack was full of nonessential items (such as a book she was too tired to read, extra fuel, etc.)
"We just dumped my backpack upside down and poured everything out," she said. " 'This has got to go, this has got to go.' … It is amazing to look at all the things you think you need but you really don't."
One by one, Hus' fellow hikers dropped out. One had to go back to college. Another had to return to work. Two succumbed to injuries. But Hus and a handful of others kept going.
"I was never scared or fearful for a moment on the trial," she said. "I loved every minute of it."
There was a point in North Florida, hiking through a forest that recently underwent a controlled burn, when her enthusiasm began to ebb. "It was a little rainy, the sky was gray and we had to walk through ankle-deep water, day after day," she said. "It was kind of depressing, but even then I never thought that I would rather be home."
Hus pressed on. Then, on March 12, 2011, she finished her trek at Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore, exactly 1,150 miles traveled from where she started 10 weeks earlier.
"I didn't want to stop," she said. "I felt like crying. It was the most fantastic thing that I have ever done."
Would she do it again?
"In a heartbeat. You bet."
And she would recommend a similar adventure for anyone willing to try.
As fall nears, now is the time to prepare for hiking season. The Florida woods are best October through April so get your hiking books, buy some maps and plan an expedition.
Some of the best places to hike in Florida can be found just a short drive from the Tampa Bay area. The segments of the Florida Trail that run through the Richloam, Croom and Citrus tracts of Withlacoochee State Forest can keep a trail walker busy for years. With nearly 160,000 acres of wilderness to explore, Withlacoochee has hiking and backpacking trails that will challenge beginners as well as experts.
To learn more about the Florida Trail, go to floridatrail.org. Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure will host another a Florida Trail presentation at 7 p.m. Oct. 17.