Local Folks: Hiking the Florida Trail with George Lugeanbeal

Local Folks: Hiking the Florida Trail with George Lugeanbeal
George and Tami Lugeanbeal on the last steps, Day 70, of George's journey, at Fort Pickens State Park in Pensacola, Florida.

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, how about stepping out for a 1,110-mile hike on the Florida Trail from Big Cypress National Preserve to Fort Pickens State Park in Pensacola Beach? Ortega resident George Lugeanbeal averaged 16 miles per day hiking the Trail, a journey of 70 days with a small interlude when his wife, Tami, “forced him to hike Disney World” to celebrate his daughter’s birthday.

Lugeanbeal’s previous hiking experience, aside from his daily jaunts around Ortega, include hikes on the Appalachian Trail and walking the woods of Northern Minnesota in his youth. After retirement, he was wooed by the Florida Trail after seeing a National Geographic National Trails map and realizing that the Florida Trail was interesting and close by. He described his “shakedown hike” – a 108-mile trial run from Key West to Key Largo with his wife, a credit card, water, snacks and stops at motels – as great fun, but hardly adequate preparation, for the first 100 miles of his “real” hiking experience, which included 42 miles through the Everglades.

“I thought, ‘If every day is gonna be like this, I’m in for a rough time.’ After slogging through waist deep water, our group of hikers made it to a high ground camping spot. I asked a veteran hiker who had hiked over 9,000 miles on numerous trails what she thought of the past 10 miles and her answer shocked me. She said it was the second hardest of her life. That encouraged me, since I felt I had faced great adversity and persevered. Of course, the Bradwell Bay section of Apalachicola National Forest is equally daunting,” said George Lugeanbeal.

“Trail Angel” Tami prefers camping in the comfort of a motel with showers, meals and clean clothes and wouldn’t think of stepping out anywhere without her make-up on and her hair arranged. But this dutiful, helpmate’s contributions to her husband and his trail pals’ success involved meet-ups to take hikers to the nearest town for food, supplies and laundromats. She made reservations for them at state parks – cell phone service was inconsistent – and offered her husband a chance for a shower and a meal at her motel campsite.

“I wouldn’t even kiss him until he shaved,” Tami Lugeanbeal said.

George Lugeanbeal agreed that after hiking and carrying a heavy backpack, slogging through creeks and underbrush for days at a time and not getting a haircut for 70 days, he “reeked.”

“Tami and the other trail angels were givers and encouragers; it was great having someone go out of their way to be kind,” he said.

Dust and Grizzley: George “Dust” Lugeanbeal and John “Grizzley” Volt
Dust and Grizzley: George “Dust” Lugeanbeal and John “Grizzley” Volt

George Lugeanbeal said meeting up with other hikers, especially an experienced hiker and outdoorsman from Utah, John “Grizzley” Volt, was “an answer to prayer.” The hikers all had trail names and newcomer Lugeanbeal became “Dust,” a nod to his age, 60, and a reference from the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Dust and Grizzley, random strangers arriving at the same place on the planet at the same time, meshed. They were compatible in age, pace and objectives: to answer the challenge, enjoy new encounters, meet new people, gain a sense of serenity and embrace the unknowns of the journey.

“Grizz kept me safe, mentored me; he is wise, experienced, and witty. When hiking, you are somewhat in your own orbit. You have to HYOH (hike your own hike), but he saved my fat, and I saved his a few times,” said Lugeanbeal. “The hikers are fantastic, interesting, and I never expected to meet so many kind and encouraging people. My Trail Family or ‘Tramily’ was exceptional. I learned so much from them and cherish every one of them.”

The "Tramily," resting at the Lugeanbeal's house before the Jacksonville-to-Pensacola leg, were known by nicknames on the trail: Daz, Honey Locust, Nin-Lives, Socrates, Grizzley, Jangles and Dust.
The “Tramily,” resting at the Lugeanbeal’s house before the Jacksonville-to-Pensacola leg, were known by nicknames on the trail: Daz, Honey Locust, Nin-Lives, Socrates, Grizzley, Jangles and Dust.

Tami described a situation when she had taken the group into the small town of Crawfordville to do laundry. She and George were chatting with the owner of the laundromat and hardware store. Grizzley had stepped across the street to the drugstore. By the time he returned, Tami and George’s new laundromat friend had invited the hikers to camp at his “Man Cave” – a barn with air conditioning, a large-screen TV and other amenities. It just so happened that the Trail ran through part of his property. Lugeanbeal, who admits he can be “a bit longwinded,” joked that all that talking he does paid off in this instance.

Getting adequate nutrition, visits, advice from his trail family on dealing with fatigue and injuries, and messages from family and friends from across the country were encouraging and helped Lugeanbeal on his journey. While his backpack was loaded with a tent, camp stove, food, medicine, toiletries, rain gear, phone charger and more, Lugeanbeal also showed appreciation for another essential item, sandals to wear in camp while his hiking shoes dried out. Wearing good shoes – a new pair around every 400 miles – and using blister tape was a must, but by mile 1,000 his feet had grown from a size 12EE to a size 13 EEEE. Lugeanbeal was thankful for the volunteers who maintain the trails, the Florida State Park staff who assist the hikers and people in the trail communities who welcome the hikers into their towns to camp, eat and resupply.

A shared joke with Grizzley –

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“Hike who?”

 – inspired Lugeanbeal to write a book of haikus for his trail family and illustrate it with beautiful photographs from his Florida Trail adventure. It is a true reflection of the sense of wonder, the challenges, beauty and the incredible, postcard-like scenery of his personal experiences.

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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