Grateful in the Panhandle

I resumed my walk from the banks of the Ochlockonee River on Saturday, November 21st. When I was originally planning my trip, I intended to walk the Gulf Coast from Panama City to Pensacola, then over into Alabama. Unfortunately, Hurricane Sally hit the coast in September and damaged the Pensacola Bay Bridge, causing it to close for repairs. With that bridge out of commision, I didn’t have a feasible way to get to Pensacola from the ocean.

Plan B was to continue my trek through the familiar forests of the Florida Panhandle. From my campground, I continued down Highway 20 for another three days, passing through Blountstown, Youngstown, Bruce, and Freeport.

Crossing the Appalachicola River outside of Blountstown. This three-mile long bridge rose high above the tree tops and offered expansive views of the water and adjacent forests prone to flooding. A pedestrian walkway and the setting sun made it even more enjoyable!

The scenery unexpectedly changed on the walk from Blountstown west. Thick roadside forests quickly dissapeared. At first, I thought it was an anomoly. But it continued for miles. Trees were snapped in half like toothpicks. Houses and businesses were missing roofs and windows. Many were left abandoned. It was an eerie walk for the entire day. I asked Google that night and discovered the damage was due to Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida Gulf Coast in October of 2018 as a Category 4 storm. Logging is one of the biggest industries in the area. 95 percent of the land in a four county area sustained significant damage. It will take years, possibly decades, for the area to recover economically. It was a sobering reminder of Mother Nature’s power.

After 40 miles of dilapidated forests, familiar Florida pines returned closer to Bruce. When I was five miles away from town, I decided to call the Bruce Country Store to see if I could camp on the business’s property. The owner, Diana, granted me permission, even though they would be closed by the time I got there after dark. It was the first of hopefully many “contactless COVID camping” experiences.

My Highway 20 ride concluded at Freeport, where I headed north on Highway 331. Given that we rarely walk due north, I promised PJ we weren’t heading the wrong way. I experienced some nice road magic on the way to DeFuniak Springs. A man pulled over and gave me an ice cold Gatorade. Then, a woman gave me three homemade turkey sandwiches and a big bag of chips outside of a Wal-Mart.

“Are you living on the side of the highway, honey?” She asked with her sweet, Southern draw.

“By choice, yes. I’m walking across America.”

“You be safe now. Eat up.” That was my Thanksgiving feast!

And the following morning, a man out jogging simply gave me five dollars. He didn’t ask where I was going or what I was doing. He just wished me a happy Thanksgiving and said “God bless you.”

From DeFuniak Springs, I picked up Highway 90 once again. I will be on 90 through the rest of Florida, most of Alabama, and all of Mississippi. My second stint on 90 is off to a rainy start.

After 13 days of picture perfect weather, rain and thunderstorms have settled into the South. The weather has certainly kept me on my toes. I have been doing my best to get in my miles despite the rain.

Thanksgiving Day was the wettest day of the walk so far. I was in between towns when a torrential downpour moved through. I walked through the chilly storm before stopping at a city park and resting under the cover of a gazebo. It gave me an opportunity to talk to my parents, sister, and brother on the holiday in relative comfort. After the the rain let up I was feeling froggy, so I walked another 10 miles, well after dark, on the quiet highway. The stars even came out for the last few miles.

Thanksgiving certainly looked different for a lot of people this year. For me, it was a reminder to appreciate and be grateful for the small things in life. A tent to sleep in during overnight storms. The opportunity to charge my phone so I could talk to my family and text friends. Viewing a beautiful, misty lake at sunrise. Appreciating the shoes on my feet. Being grateful for taking small steps every day to maintain my sobriety. At the end of the day, it is all the small things that add up and make life complete. The trick moving forward is to remember those things every day and have an attitude of gratitude. All good things will follow from there.

As I neared Milton and Pace in coming days, I left rural Florida and entered Northern Pensacola suburbia, complete with traffic, strip malls, and construction zones. PJ and I dodged cones and cars for 30 miles before reaching a hotel eight miles from the Alabama border. With two inches of rain possible in the next 36 hours, splurging for a hotel room seemed prudent! Plus, I get to watch the Broncos play New Orleans. How is that for timing?

From my hotel room in North Pensacola, I will begin my walk to Mobile, which will take two days. Mississippi and Louisiana will be “right around the corner,” Lord willing. Drier, but cooler weather (lows around freezing!) are expected for the next several days.

Favorite Three Pictures

One of the highlights from the week was walking Historic State Highway 1 outside Milton. The brick road was built in 1921 and is now used as a recreational path. I followed it for a peaceful nine miles. Follow the red brick road!
A misty lake at sunrise outside of Crestview on Thanksgiving morning. Certainly a view to be grateful for!
The historic library in DeFuniak Springs. This quaint little town had Southern charm and was quite festive. City employees were hanging Christmas lights and putting up decorations the day before Thanksgving. It got me in the holiday spirit…I may have even sang a few carols during my walk that day.

Trip Stats

18 days, 420 miles walked.

Peanut butter jars – 13

Loose Change Count – $1.42

Favorite Roadside Find – A Florida license plate. PJ is officially street legal in the Sunshine State!

Until next time, walk on with gratitude!

-Ben

3 thoughts on “Grateful in the Panhandle

  1. Simply amazing Ben, grateful for the people that have crossed your path and helped in anyway they can. The pictures are spectacular. My favorite is the brick road. Love the fact that you tell us a story of each picture. Makes me feel like we are on the walk with you. Be safe and Walk-On

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    1. Thank you Bonnie! I love telling the stories behind the pictures! And there are so many kind people around. The smallest gestures can make the biggest difference! Happy Holidays to you and Kris!

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  2. So glad you had a beautiful stretch! 420 miles wow!! (more by now… I just saw this!) You are making amazing strides! Such a wonderful journey you are having. And the trail magic can’t be beat! Thank you for the photos and update Ben! Keep up the fantastic journey! All the best!

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