Oscar Psychas wasn’t scared. He had crossed continents. And now, he would walk 300 miles from his home in Gainesville to Tallahassee.
Anybody could do it, he says.
But Oscar Psychas isn’t just anybody.
The gangly 19-year-old comes from a 700-year-old line of Finnish farmers.
Growing up, he spent his birthdays climbing 2,904 feet up Mount Afadjato, Ghana’s tallest mountain.
He named his dog Duma. “Cheetah” in Swahili.
In Spain, he hiked 500 miles with his 80-year-old grandfather in 35 days. They backpacked through villages, hostels and ancient cathedrals in hopes to reach the remains of St. James.
Oscar appreciates the world’s natural wonders. And now, he’d fight for them in Florida. Over the course of 24 days, he’d walk from his house on Newnans Lake to the steps of the state capitol in Tallahassee.
As the legislative session began March 7, Oscar wanted to make sure lawmakers did what the public asked. To save Florida’s environment.
While the springs are choked with neon-green algae, rivers are polluted and lands are lost to development, Oscar would push legislators to increase funding for conservation.
On day one, he laced up the brown shoes he’d be wearing across the Florida swamps. He wasn’t scared about trekking through the wild with three pairs of socks and only one spoon. That’d be the easy part.
Getting people to care about Florida’s future as much as he does.
That’s the hard part.
The morning Oscar left, the scent of his sister’s freshly baked pumpkin bread wafted in the kitchen. Twenty of his friends and family gathered to see him off.
“We’re just pleased and crossing our fingers for a successful hike,” his dad, Paul, said. “Not too many hobos and rattlesnakes.”
The father of four with a salt-and-pepper beard watched his youngest son stuff the last of his electronics in his backpack. Oscar fastened the 35-pound load and took off down the driveway, first stopping to pluck two ping-pong-ball sized kumquats from a tree.
At 6 feet 5, he leaned down to hug his father goodbye. He vowed to walk 15 miles a day.
“Hey, keep your wits about you,” Paul said, embracing his son.
“I wish I had some epic, pithy quote to say,” the towering teenager said to his family and friends.
He didn’t. Instead, he gave Duma a pat on the back and started his journey.
“Bye, dad,” he said.
Paul made his way back to the house. Then, his phone rang. It was Oscar.
He forgot his maps.
As a kid, Oscar was always reading, always curious, always barefoot. His favorite book was the “Science Encyclopedia.”
In third grade, he moved from Gainesville to a sprawling city in Ghana. Seven years later, he moved back. He appreciated Gainesville’s proximity to Florida’s lush foliage, natural springs and wildlife.
After graduating from Eastside High in May, Oscar decided to take a gap year before starting school at Middlebury College in Vermont.
First, a 7,000-mile road trip with his friends, hiking the west coast. Then, hiking 500 miles in Spain. That’s when he decided to “Walk for Wild Florida.”
The first night on the Florida Trail, Oscar couldn’t sleep. He bathed in the Santa Fe River, huddled in his tent and tried not to jump at every scurrying creature. He started writing his editorial for the Gainesville Sun, encouraging others to get involved in local politics.
In the morning, the leaves crunched under his bare feet.
“Normal people bring slippers,” he said.
But Oscar trudged barefoot through the flooded trails. He spoke to Civil War re-enactors and sauntered through the expanse of longleaf pine forests.
“Trail angels” left coolers and water bottles for hikers.
After two weeks, Oscar’s sweaty bangs stuck to his forehead. It had been a long day of hiking. He tried to guzzle from his water bottle, but it only trickled out. The filter was silty from the river.
He turned the corner and spotted something. A vending machine. In the middle of rural Madison County. He pulled out a crumpled dollar bill. He cracked open a Pepsi.
“I’m not sure how it is here,” Oscar said. “But it’s sure miraculous.”
In the forest, Oscar said he felt like a bear. Or a Florida panther. He drank from their streams. He walked in their steps. He saw their lands cut by new roads.
Not only did Oscar think about the bears, but also the people he had met along the way.
The volunteer firefighter who invited him to the station for water. The man who trapped and then freed an opossum and stopped to bring him a drink. Two Canadians who drove 24 hours straight from Quebec — just to canoe down the Suwannee. And Trevor, a teenager on a farm in Lake Butler. He also wanted to work in conservation.
“I just love to hunt and fish,” he told Oscar. “And I want to see that my kids and their kids can have this land, too.”
On the 11th day, Oscar looked in the mirror. A week-old beard was growing prickly along his jawline.
“I ought to stay somewhat civilized,” Oscar said. He stopped at a camping facility to shave.
After, he stuffed a few pink Finnish candies in his mouth. He took a swig of sweet tea mixed with copper colored river water.
He couldn’t think of a more southern drink.
On the 11th night, there was a new moon. It was pitch black. Oscar couldn’t see, other than the hundreds of shimmering spider eyes piercing the forest.
It was too dark to go on. He stopped in the middle of the trail and pitched his tent.
He sent a text to his dad.
“More Ritz crackers please, I’ve been craving them,” he told him. He was running low on supplies.
He strapped a flashlight to his forehead and poured water into a pot. Click. The portable gas stove turned on, and the blue flame sizzled.
Dinner would be rice and lentils, sprinkled with bacon bits and taco seasoning. Sitting cross-legged, Oscar broke a stick from under him and dipped it in the pot. Lifting it to his face, he slurped.
A couple minutes later, he slurped again.
He shrugged. “The rice is edible.”
As Oscar got closer to Tallahassee, he thought about his speech. He thought about what awaited him. There would be a Wendy’s.
On the first day of the legislative session, Oscar woke up two minutes before his alarm. It was 6:30, and he still had a few miles to go to the capital.
Inside the tall, arching Capitol, the halls were thronged with chatter. People wore suits, slacks and dresses. They set up cameras and conducted interviews.
But Oscar, a modern-day Paul Bunyan, towered over them. Dirt caked under his fingernails; gripping his walking stick; and 35 pounds tugging at his skinny frame. His proud mom, Marjatta, stood by his side, smiling.
“It’s fun to see your kids grow up to have such strong interests,” she said in a thick, Finnish accent.
Oscar nervously scribbled down notes. Stepping up to the lectern, he spoke with confidence. He told a story he knew by heart.
“I just walked 300 miles through the Florida backwoods to come here with a message to Florida’s leaders,” he said.
Oscar described the hikers, hunters and farmers he met along the way.
“I’ve seen more than ever that, as Floridians, we are united by our love for our state’s wild places,” he said. “Protecting these places is about protecting our livelihoods, protecting our clean water and protecting our way of life.”
As he stepped aside for the next speaker, Oscar knew he had more left to do. He’d spend time in Tallahassee. Meeting lawmakers, attending meetings, fighting for conservation.
Next month, he’d continue his gap year in Nepal and Mongolia. But first, he’d get home.