Hillsborough River State Park - Prayer of the Woods

Longleaf Pines in the Breeze: On Hiking In Florida

From my last trip to Brooker Creek Preserve many years back, I knew that there would be standing water on the trails. I should have known better. I did know better.

And yet I still wore cotton socks.

Brooker Creek regularly floods during the rainy season in Florida, which is any month you don’t need to wear a sweater. Portions of the trails close depending on how bad the flooding is. Last Saturday, when decided to visit, most of the trails were closed, except for a short ~2 mile loop.

But while I was drenching my trail runners and ill-chosen socks, I noticed some white petals on the ground. The magnolia trees nearby were blooming.


I’m known among my friends as the Epcot fanboy. I enjoy Disney parks, sure, but Epcot is my real passion. It’s cosmopolitan, optimistic, futuristic in a funky ’80s corporate way.

Suffice to say, I haven’t been to Epcot in a number of months. Of course, WDW was closed from March until recently, but even with their substantial safety protocols I wouldn’t visit any time soon.

Nor have I been to the gym. I’ve had to improvise exercise routines in my apartment; while that works for various HIIT regimens, eventually you get serious cabin fever.

I had to get outside.

Running? Possible, but with the heat index reaching 100F here it’s inadvisable unless you’re out the door by 6AM. Cycling would be kinder on my body, but I don’t want to risk breaking a limb and landing in the hospital during theseĀ uncertain times.

Summer is also the time of year I’d normally be driving to the mountains to visit with a bunch of religious hippies. I’m reminded every July how much I miss hiking. Alas, SUUSI is virtual this year.

But I needed a hiking fix, and heat index or no, I had to do something.


Tampa Bay, as it so happens, has quite a few parks and reserves. My immediate family, who have been caring for a toddler and have few opportunities, have been visiting local recreation spots and knew a few places I could start.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District oversees several large tracts in the area, including the enormousĀ Starkey Wilderness Preserve. Jay B. Starkey occupies roughly a third fo the preserve, has well-maintained trails, and is open to the public.

It took me a few weeks of rained-out weekends, but I made it to Starkey. I wandered in ill-equipped: I forgot to download a trail map, took too little water, and got myself lost trying to find a shortcut.

That I didn’t wander into poison ivy or was bit by a poisonous snake must be an act of providence.

I was struck by how eerie it was. Far from highways, with almost no one else on the trails, I could hear the wind rustle the longleaf pine needles around me. Outside of the heat bubble enveloping Tampa, there was a gentle breeze — still warm and damp, but not unbearable.

I could get lost for a while out here.


A week later, I had a growing list of trails to visit within an hour’s drive. There were several large parks and preserves in the area: Besides Starkey, there’s the Lower Hillsborough Preserve, Brooker Creek, and Myakka State Park. There’s also a constellation of smaller state, county, and city parks.

I prepared better next time, making sure to have a trail map on my phone, more water (with added electrolytes), and plenty of bug repellant and sunblock.

I tried to make a goal of getting to a trail a week, but that hasn’t quite worked out, due to unpredictable rain and family issues I can’t discuss. However, when it works out, it goes swimmingly.


I was talking to a friend about my recent misadventure in Brooker Creek. I told them I was going out to “get away from people,” which is true in a literal sense of avoiding close contact during a pandemic, but doesn’t cover my emotional rationale.

One reason I spent so much time at theme parks by myself is that it felt okay to be alone if I was away from home. Being lonely among friends and family is a terrible feeling. But solo travel, whether a short drive down I-4 or across an ocean, is liberating.

I’m reminded of Thoreau. Of course, most of us know by now he had a lot of support during his time in Walden — less of a wilderness hermit, more of a bachelor recluse. But Thoreau just moved his home to the woods. My home is where it has been the last five years — but like an astronaut on an EVA, I’m floating outside, and my tether is an internal reminder to center myself again after this is all over.

I feel like I can escape all this — the pandemic, the nation’s slide into dystopia, my failures and personal problems — by getting lost in the woods for a while, and ruining some otherwise decent cotton socks. But it works for a while.