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From the Panhandle to the Everglades: A Miami native hikes the long way home

Maria Llorens, 32, hikes in historic Ellaville Fla., as part of the Suwannee River section of the Florida Trail in January 2023.
Maria Llorens
Maria Llorens, 32, hikes in historic Ellaville Fla., as part of the Suwannee River section of the Florida Trail in January 2023.

The parents of Maria Llorens didn't quite understand the appeal of exploring the outdoors. Growing up, communing with nature meant driving through the Tamiami Trail to get to Marco Island.

"I just grew up with this perception that the Everglades in particular and the outdoors were unsafe or unpleasant and not worth being around," she said.

As an adult, she found that it's quite the opposite.

The 32-year-old challenged herself to explore Florida in a way that few people might be willing to do — hiking through it.

This year, Llorens decided to thru-hike the Florida Trail. The 1,100-mile trek is one of 11 National Scenic Trails, specially designated long-distance routes across the U.S. The Florida Trail snakes its way along the length of the state, starting from Pensacola down to Big Cypress National Reserve in the Everglades.

"I think as an immigrant kid, being born here—my parents are immigrants—I kind of wanted to have a sense of home and a sense of place in Florida," she said. "And knowing that top to bottom felt like the way to be a true Florida woman."

Now, she knows the Everglades intimately, with mud caking the ridges of her worn-down boots. The trail forces those curious enough to reckon with Florida in its most natural and untouched state — an aspect that not many Floridians get to see.

"The swamp is just a special thing, and the humidity and the heat … that is just as much of a challenge as going up a mountain and just as rewarding and beautiful," she said.

The trail is relatively young. It was constructed in the 1960s by Jim Kern, who also founded the Florida Trail Association, a nonprofit that manages and develops the network of trails. Since its inception, only a total of roughly 400 people have either hiked sections of the trail or the length of the trail in its entirety.

"It feels like an adventure in that way, like you're kind of trailblazing this newer trail," she said.

The trail tends to be less trafficked, lacking some of the same amenities that are found along more established trails like the Pacific Crest and the Appalachian, she said.

"It's kind of like a wild west trail. You're completely alone most of the time and there are parts that can be very overgrown or just isolated," she said.

Oftentimes, she would hike sections of the trail for two or three days at a time, stopping to camp in place or rest at a motel along the way. At one point, temperatures dipped as low as 36 degrees at night, frosting over her gear. Weathering various conditions, she would trudge through knee-high water after a rainy day or don her orange vest to warn hunters out in the woods.

"I wanted to do this hike to challenge myself, to get to know my home state and also to show people [that] Florida is more than just subdivisions and Disney World and the beach," she said. "It's actually a very special and beautiful place."

Llorens hopes that people who see her journey on social media can see the beauty of Florida through her eyes.

The swamp is just a special thing and the humidity and the heat … that is just as much of a challenge as going up a mountain and just as rewarding and beautiful.
Maria Llorens

A quick scroll through her Instagram account, Dispatches from the Swamp, shows a tableau of Florida's various ecosystems, blending into each other with every step. White sandy dunes in the Panhandle melt into North Florida's oak trees, later tapering off into rolling hills of Central Florida before merging into ancient Cypress domes.

When her courses shifted online during her second year of law school, the Miami native sought a physical and mental refuge in nature.

At first she explored the Everglades on her own, when no one wanted to accompany her. Later on, photos of her hikes shared on her social media page would inspire what would soon become the Miami Hiking Club.

As part of the club, she would coordinate group hikes to expose more people to South Florida's natural resources and make it more accessible for those siloed in the city.

"We kind of paved over and drained the swamp in order to build a city," she said. "I want people to get out there more because I think we'll realize [nature] is a lot closer than we think, and it's something worth preserving and not just because it's pretty or it's enjoyable, it's because it's vital to our ability to survive in South Florida."

As of this week, she is still chipping away at the trail. With more than 500 miles under her belt, she's slated to complete her thru-hike the first week of March.

Alyssa Ramos is the multimedia producer for Morning Edition for WLRN. She produces regional stories for newscasts and manages digital content on WLRN.
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