Sunday, November 27, 2011

What the Blazes? Reflections on My TAG, part 1

Last week I went off on my semi-annual TAG Retreat. (TAG stands for "Time Alone with God." For a while I was calling it "Get Away with God" but that acronym really didn't have the same connotation.) I chose Lake Clearwater in the Ocala National Forest for this year's excursion into creation because we nature-people feel closest to God in the great outdoors...the outer, the better. But my roommate worries if I go too far into the wilderness all by myself (and since watching 127 Hours, I've been more sympathetic to her concerns), so I compromise by choosing the most remote campsite in a regularly-patrolled campground and then making day-long forays into the woods on clearly marked, well-traveled hiking trails and kayak runs.

Let me open by saying that Lake Clearwater is a beautiful camping facility and I recommend it highly. There were sandhill cranes and white-tailed deer practically on my doorstep every morning, and although the campground is a bit close to the highway for my taste, three hiking trails are easily accessible.  I did have to drive 30 minutes to do any real kayaking, but Juniper Prairie Wilderness is arguably the most beautiful (and challenging) paddle in the Ocala Forest, so I didn't mind.

Friday I woke at 6:30 to the melodious sound of sandhill cranes (if you are a serious birdwatcher, you are laughing right now at my choice of adjective) and the inspirational sight of two does browsing beside them just a hundred feet or so from my tent. I then took a hike on the lakeside trail, a 1-1/3 mile loop that brought me within twenty feet of three more deer and two families of sandhills.

Saturday was a bit overcast, so I decided not to wander too far from home. The Florida Trail has a trailhead just 1/4 mile from my campsite, so I trotted over to it and did a little bit of exploring.  For those not familiar with this trail, it runs over 1000 miles from the Panhandle to the Keys. (For more info, see I had no intention of going that far on it, but I figured a few miles out and back was reasonable. My map showed that the Florida Trail would intersect the Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail in two places, so because I hate retracing my steps, I plotted a route that would include one leg of the Paisley Trail. The Florida Trail is blazed with painted rectangles . . . blue from the trailhead, and orange along the main trail . . . and the Paisley Trail is blazed with yellow plastic diamonds nailed to the trees. It was easy to hop from one to the other, and when I noticed on my map that the Paisley Trail came very close to the Lake Clearwater Trail in one place, I climbed a barbed-wire fence into the campground (feeling no moral qualms about "trespassing" since I had already paid the campground fee for a whole week) and followed a dirt road back to the lakeside trail that I'd hiked on Friday. (This shortcut becomes important later in my story.)

The next day fairly screamed to be a kayaking day rather than a hiking day, so I loaded my boat into my van and drove to Juniper Springs. That trip will be the subject of another blog, since it really doesn't figure in this story at all.

Monday, however, threatened to turn into a same-old same-old, so around 10:30 I decided to go for it and hike the Paisley Trail. See, the Paisley Trail is designed for bicycles, but it is a loop, and as I already mentioned, I hate retracing my steps. The bit of the Florida Trail I'd hiked on Saturday was okay but poorly maintained (I'd actually had to walk along the top of a fallen tree for 30 feet or so) and looked an awful lot like rattlesnake heaven, but the bike trail was broad and clear and appealed to me as an easy stroll rather than a grueling hike. (You will laugh later.) So I set off with one pint of water (feel free to smile), my hiking stick, and a windbreaker tied around my waist "just in case." Of course I also sprayed myself with insect repellent and wore a hat.

The Paisley Trail runs from Lake Clearwater to Alexander Springs, an 11-mile one-way trip or a 22-mile loop. Obviously it was too late in the day for me to hike the whole thing, but there is a connector about halfway dividing the trail into two 11-mile loops: the Clearwater Loop and the Alexander Loop. I decided to make use of the connector to do just the Clearwater Loop and estimated that if I strolled along at the leisurely pace of 2 mph, I would arrive back at my tent by 4 pm, long before sunset. Off I went.

The first mile of the trail is more like a dirt road than a hiking trail, and I barely glanced at the blazes as I marched along at a fair pace. If you have read my second novel, The Voice, you may recall the first page of Chapter 9, where Yochanan dances off into the wilderness in a cloud of bliss only to realize later that God has not called him out there for his pleasure. I was soon to learn a similar lesson. I walked for about a mile before I realized that I hadn't seen a yellow diamond in an awful long time. Panic didn't set in . . . it would have been impossible to get lost on that dirt road . . . but I began to suspect that I was no longer on the Paisley Trail. As Norton Juster said in The Phantom Tollbooth,
As he drove along the peaceful highway he soon fell to daydreaming and paid less and less attention to where he was going. In a short time he wasn't paying any attention at all, and that is why, at a fork in the road, when a sign pointed to the left, Milo went to the right, along a route which looked suspiciously like the wrong way.
See the yellow diamond? It's there. Honest. Keep looking!
Feeling very Milo-ish, I examined the surrounding trees and saw, off to my left, the orange blazes of the Florida Trail, but no yellow diamonds anywhere. It was beginning to look as if I had two choices: go back and retrace my steps until I found the Paisley Trail, or cut over onto the Florida Trail. Neither option was appealing. Then, a considerable distance ahead of me, I saw a diamond. I kept going until I came to a crossroads; on the far side of the intersection, a faint trail cut through the grasslands, and that was the trail blazed with yellow diamonds. It was just dumb luck (or God's sovereign plan, take your pick) that I'd found it.

(If you are looking at the above photo, you may be thinking that this trail looks an awful lot like rattlesnake heaven. Yes, I was thinking the same thing. I will spare you the suspense . . . I never saw (or heard) a rattlesnake on my hike, but while putting this blog together I did look at someone else's photos of the Paisley Trail and he saw a beaut! You can check it out at if you're interested.)

So off I set on the narrow trail, keeping a sharp lookout for yellow blazes, while in my mind a verse of Scripture played itself out over and over:
13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV)
To be continued . . .

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