It was 2004. Unemployed for the second time in a year and a half, I found myself needing to get away from the job search for an afternoon. Nature walks have always calmed me. So, I picked up my camera and decided to head over to the Alafia River park. It offered some fresh air and a much needed escape from the frustrations of a job search.
I parked my car at the Equestrian Trail entrance. It was marked with a hiking marker, so it wasn’t just for horses. I located a map and had planned a small loop I estimated would take about an hour, along the east end of the park, jumping between the blue, white, and green trails.
As I started out, the trail took me alongside some fishing ponds to the property line of a neighboring ranch. Cows dotted the pastureland adjoining the trail. I took my camera and focused in on a black cow with a white egret on its back in the distant field, capturing the moment and then continued on my walk around the edge of the ranch.
I heard a rustle nearby. Ahead of me, at a bend in the trail, a large steer with crooked horns peered at me. We were separated by a fence, but he watched me as I walked by, snapping shots. His horns made him look confused, as if he were asking a question.
I walked a little further along and found a shady spot to stop and take a drink of water. I looked around at the time, and thought I should have already come to my turn for the white trail, but did not recall seeing any markers. I must have misjudged the distance, so I continued on the blue trail, watching for any markers.
Along the way, I snapped some photos of a few birds, dragonflies, and butterflies. This was back in the day of film cameras, so I tried to limit my shots. I contemplated doubling back on my walk, but knowing I had already walked for an hour and a half, reconsidered and kept moving forward.
The trail led me to a clearing with no shade. At this point, I knew I had missed my turnoff. I spied some powerlines off in the distance and made my way to them. These would lead me back to the road along side the park hopefully.
An osprey flew overhead. I captured a couple shots and pushed on. I wished I had a way to figure out exactly where I was, but this was in the days where cellphones were just phones, not the smart phone contraptions. That, and there was no signal on my Nokia anyway to make a call.
I could hear traffic off in the distance and continued towards the sound. Finally, I saw a truck pass by on the road ahead. I knew I was headed in the right direction after what was now at least 3 hours of walking. As I approached the road, the trail I was on split into two directions.
Again, I guessed wrong, thinking I had doubled back on my walk, and headed westward along the trail. In 20 minutes, I found myself at the main entrance of the park. Relieved, but more than a mile from my car, I walked up to the ranger station.
Sweaty, thirsty, and exhausted, I asked for assistance from one of the rangers to get back to my car. The ranger smiled a knowing smile. “It happens all the time. Do you remember where you parked?”
I nodded, too tired to blush or be embarrassed, and muttered “The Equestrian Trail entrance.” The ranger drove me back over to the car. I climbed in my hot car, and blasted the AC. I was never more happy to have an air conditioned car in my life. My one-hour walk had turned into a four-hour unplanned hike. This is where I learned my first hiking alone lessons — always bring water and a snack, know your route, and when possible, don’t go it alone!