This morning began with a resolution to reconnect with nature. I didn’t need to be at the park for a few more hours, but for some reason, waking up with the sun felt necessary. I was drowsy from a late night of half-attentively skimming through the Netflix catalogue of Man vs. Wild — a last-ditch refresher course for the adventure ahead.
With trail names like “Grunt,” “Misery” and “Tornado Alley,” I expected a daunting, formidable experience from Hanna Park, located just south of Naval Station Mayport. The park’s trails are known for being as excruciating as they are scenic, and with 447 acres of woods to explore, there’s plenty of scenery to take in. But, honestly, nature was just the icing on the cake; I was here for the challenge. The homemade video a quick YouTube search turned up of people riding the trails — complete with a death metal backing track — bode well.
After paying the park’s $3 entrance fee, I parked in a clearing, turned off the cell phone and threw it in the pack. No emoticons to distract me. No ear buds spouting Pandora Radio to keep me from soaking in the sights and sounds. The great outdoors had my full and undivided attention.
Shirtsleeves rolled up, my weekend beard and I set out afoot. It was my first visit here, and I was unfamiliar with the layout of the park, so I walked along a gravel road that wrapped around a large lake, looking for an entrance into the trails. After about a quarter-mile, I stopped looking and just clambered around a man-made hill of earth, rusty metal and freshwater seashells, finding a bike trail on the other side.
It was midday on a Tuesday, and the park was mostly empty, save for a few enthusiastic riders. On a busier day, it might have been unwise to hike on the roughly 4-foot-wide biking path. A peculiar-looking rider in a skintight spandex suit with a mountain-man face poking from beneath his helmet sped by, and I had to hug the treeline to stay out of his path. After a few more minutes, I found a sign for the hiking path and followed it.
There was a considerable difference between the biking and hiking trails.
The terrain was fairly hilly for Florida, root-knotted routes that dipped into creeks with turf-like moss coated across their surface. Bridges and crosswalks made of recently cut cypress reached across them. Even in the thick of the woods, I could feel the nearby ocean breeze coming through the trees. It was nice.
I thought the quiet would get boring — I’ve become unfamiliar to any extended period of time not accompanied by a soundtrack or continual interruption from phone or email — but I quickly grew used to the sounds of the forest. I could better hear myself think among the birds fluttering around from branch to branch, the fish popping at the surface of the creek and all that Davy Crockett kind of stuff.
It was really only when I decided it was time to leave that I realized I was lost. In retrospect, I’m not sure what I was expecting to happen. Perhaps I thought that once I felt satisfied with the hike, the exit would just present itself to me.
I didn’t panic. Luckily, I didn’t have to resort to drinking my own urine or slicing open the belly of a wild tauntaun, sleeping inside it to maintain a pulse — park rangers might have frowned on such behavior. Instead, I found a paved road and followed it back to the parking lot. I had been hiking for only about an hour and a half, but I must have covered some ground, because it was quite the walk back. But even strolling down the two-lane street was a pleasant experience, with live oak tree hammocks towering over the street and the sound of the nearby ocean’s shore-break fading in and out of earshot.
I left the park feeling more refreshed than winded, bloodied or bruised. It seemed that the challenge for which the park is so reputable, the challenge that drew me to it, is in hurling a bicycle-on-steroids over the stumps and the slopes – the hiking didn’t require much more exertion than navigating the flat-trails on University of North Florida’s campus. But what the footpaths lacked in challenge, they more than made up for in natural beauty.
Today, the trails of Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park had not claimed my life or limb or severed the ties between me and civilized conduct. They did, however, leave me with a newfound respect for the nature of the park and another resolution to return.