At long last – The Villages

Soon after crossing the border from Georgia into Florida, we turned due east and headed towards the Florida Coast near Jacksonville. After a night in an uninspiring RV park near the highway, we biked onto a series of barrier islands and headed south.

The memory of the two storms this year loomed large in the area we were biking through. We saw a lot of debris – shingles, window frames and larger home pieces on the side of the road – and many of the houses were being rebuilt. There were plenty of cement mixers and other construction crews racing along the roads. Some dwellings, however, seemed beyond repair; the cliff under one house had collapsed and been eroded into the sea. Another had been squashed down by the wind, as if pushed over by a giant hand. Both had been abandoned and left to ruin. Many of the damaged houses we were passing by were McMansions that could not have been built too long ago.

It was a reminder to me that our division of the land into neat property boxes is a human abstraction, completely disrespected and ignored by nature. The land is alive, with plants, animals and natural processes, and those processes are more powerful and patient than the mightiest empire.

“And so castles made of sand, slip into the sea… eventually.”

Unfortunately, we are all obliged to stake our sustenance, our hopes and futures in the realm of human abstraction and live in sandcastles. We know that nothing is certain, that change is constant, that we our ourselves nature, and yet we must make plans for the future, using our abstractions to try to make sense of it all, try to gain some semblance of control, try to effect some change; what other choice do we have but to build and continue to rebuild our lives? One cannot will oneself not to breathe.
 Man is truly the unnatural animal; born from and of nature, but with the hubris to think that he can govern it.

Eventually, we reached St. Augustine and spent a lovely evening with Warmshowers hosts Hugh and Elisabeth, who fed us a wonderful dinner of roast chicken and allowed us to sleep in their camper. I can now understand the appeal of an RV – it is basically a hotel room that you can tow behind your car. The next morning we went to the more historic area of St Augustine and walked around, trying Spanish-style enriched breads and eating brunch. That afternoon we biked out through to the middle of Florida – to Palatka and then to points south through the Ocala Natural forest.

Good news, everyone!

We spent an evening in Salt Springs. The next morning we went to the springs themselves and spent a few minutes mesmerized by the sight of schools of large fish swimming in protected, crystal clear waters.

On the way out of the campground, I glimpsed a man with a tent and a bicycle – a fellow bicycle tourist! I gleefully went up to say hello. I announced myself and he turned around. His sun-scarred, misshapen face and sad wordly eyes instantly let me know that I had misread the situation. He turned from his breakfast of Wonderbread and honey, with a few cigarette cartons off to one side. He responded a weak “hello”, followed by a fit of coughing that reminded me of the sound of waves. Apparently he too had been misplaced by the hurricane and had “had to start over”. He came up in a U-Haul and someone gave him a rusty old cruiser bike so he could bike from his tent to the dollar store for groceries. I asked him if a few dollars would help. He said weakly – “If you want, up to you I guess”. I told him we were biking west to Pensacola to start with. He said that he did a “trip out there for God once”. Then he returned to his breakfast. When we passed by him again 30 minutes later I swear he hadn’t moved.

Later that day, we biked along Route 25. We are often chased by dogs, some of which are left outside unrestrained by fences (country folk have different opinions when it comes to dogs) and run into the street in pursuit. This time, I heard some barking, and out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a small white pitbull, the most American of dogs, beginning to give chase in my rear-view mirror. Groaning, with a slight increase of adrenaline, I start to pedal harder. I’m usually behind Amy so I have to do a lot of the escape work to get away from dogs. The dog turned its head quickly to its left and then a split-second later I heard a thud and the sound of car brakes.

Once I had processed what had happened I turned around and returned to the scene. A few more dogs just like the unfortunate one were howling in the yard, outside this bungalow embraced by swamp oak trees. The driver was waiting for the sheriff to arrive, with her young child in a car-seat in the back of their truck. She suggested we leave in case the other dogs started chasing us. We gave her our number to give to the sheriff… no-one ever called.

An hour later we arrived at the Villages. The Villages is a privately owned age-restricted retirement community. Their sales motto is “Free Golf for Life”. Seeing a maze of golf-courses, themed downtown areas and golf cart-only bridges and tunnels rising out of the rural landscape so suddenly was surprising. The man in front of you at the Dollar General, whose card was declined buying two packs of cigarettes, is replaced by a well-tanned, well-dressed elderly gentleman with a bowtie and a hawaiian shirt, puttering along behind you in his Club Car, his well-groomed dog beside him in the front seat. The surroundings are immaculately maintained, with a small army of landscapers running around with gas-powered hand-held lawn edging machines and other contrivances. The entire area seems so very well controlled.

I exclaim, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” No-one except Amy is within hearing range.

We reached Cherie and Diane’s house in the Villages before sunset. Cherie, Amy’s aunt, moved to Florida with her partner, Diane, a few years ago to retire here, and visiting them both was one of the reasons we decided to ride all the way south to Florida. Both Cherie and Diane were very sweet and hospitable and we had lots of fun talking with them, playing with their dog Gillian, and lounging on their lanai. I shared my family shortbread recipe and made two batches. Amy and I gently poked a bit of fun at the Villages while at the same time exploiting its amenities, everything except the golf courses.

We visited all three of the themed downtown mall areas – the western themed mall, the coastal themed mall (complete with a lake with artificial shipwrecks and a boat tour), and the original Spanish themed mall. There are hidden speakers in each area that play soothing oldies, and I can almost imagine myself wearing a Hawaiian shirt. The weather is cool enough for the warm Floridian sun to be soothing like a heat lamp at dusk. The feeling of being here is very leisurely. I could almost convince myself that I am retired. I’m not working right now, right?

We’ve been restocking our supplies, sleeping on a fantastic guest bed, taking baths (yes, baths!) and generally being on vacation. I watched the Lawrence Welk show and thought it was charming and ready for a comeback somewhere in deep Brooklyn. I saw the new Blade Runner movie and was very impressed by the cinematography. We ate lunch with Fran, the bike tourist from Concord who we met on the side of the road near Philadelphia (who was also traveling to the Villages to see her father) at a Mexican restaurant “downtown”. It was a pleasure to add a bit of closure to her story, and to swap a few stories from our trips so far. I also got a buzz cut, which should make camp showers in un-heated shower areas less miserable. The barber who cut my hair was from Brooklyn. Go figure.

We’ve decided to continue our trip for now, down to Melbourne, FL to visit our friends Jared and Bryce. Part of me wishes we could stay here for a few more days, but part of me is itching to get back on the road.

That’s it for now,



Goodbye Georgia, Hello Florida

We spent the last few days riding down the coast of Georgia, before crossing into Florida yesterday.

Georgia surprised me by being my favorite state for cycling in the south (so far). As other cyclists warned us, bike infrastructure gets progressively worse as you head south from Virginia. We’ve noted deteriorating conditions for bikes – smaller and smaller shoulders, then rumble strips. But when we hit Georgia, suddenly it looped around and became so rural that the riding was great again. Slightly curvy and undulating roads; good asphalt; relaxed traffic measurable in minutes-per-car; beautiful farms with an occasional tiny town hosting a stick-to-your-ribs buffet.

Literally perfect.
So how many cotton t-shirts does this make?

We expected thunderstorms so we crammed three days of riding into two to reach the one nearby hotel on our route – in Nahunta, GA, population 1,000. We took off our first full rest day in a long time. Usually when we’re “resting,” we’re actually exhausting ourselves being tourists in a city somewhere. But Nahunta was a small place, so we planned to do absolutely nothing, which we enjoyed very much. I spent most of the day working on a painting in the library. We also watched a lot of bad movies in the hotel and made several raids to the local Piggly Wiggly for fresh food.

We left Nahunta feeling refreshed, and it was a short ride before we crossed over into Florida.

In which I am enthusiastic about finally reaching Florida.

Very quickly the rural countryside disappeared and we were back in tourist country. Our first Very Florida Experience was to stop at one of the Citrus Center gas station tourist traps. It was actually a real delight on a bicycle – all the chilled orange slices and juice we could sample. The employees seemed pretty bored so I guess they were happy to accommodate our enthusiasm for fresh citrus.

The Citrus Center sells both oranges and taxidermied alligator heads.

Today we continued along the barrier islands on the eastern edge of the Florida coast, passing through Big and Little Talbot State Parks, and then the beach towns along route A1A. The damage from recent hurricanes (notably Irma) was still evident here, with lots of ongoing construction and special debris collection stations.

At the end of the day, we reached St. Augustine, which is our final destination on the Atlantic Coast Cycling route. I feel like I should be reflecting on the enormity of the accomplishment, or at least have something deep to say – but I have a very large dinner to sleep off!

Savannah, Georgia

Another state is in the bag – we bid farewell to the rumble strips of South Carolina and spent a rest day eating and sight-seeing in Savannah, Georgia.

Savannah was beautiful in a way I haven’t seen in other US cities – gorgeous buildings, parks everywhere, and ancient trees covered in Spanish moss. The weather was a balmy 80 F all day. 
Tutti Frutti sundae at Leopold’s. I’m a sucker for homemade ice cream, as well as anything that’s the original recipe since the 1900s.
Jim, bicycle stevedore. How could we resist stairs with a warning sign?
Looking super cool in Forsyth Park.

Through the Low Country to Savannah

The past few days we’ve been bicycling through the South Carolina Low Country.

 Most of the countryside we’ve been biking through has been swampland and estuaries. When I think of a swamp, I usually think of a desolate wasteland, with buzzards and some grasses for ground cover, perhaps a dead tree or two.

However, the swamps we’ve been biking through have been living forests. Ancient deciduous trees, festooned with Spanish moss and vines, arch their way over the access roads we’ve often been traveling on. Occasionally we’ll be passed by a logging truck carrying a full load of fresh-smelling cedar trees.

Our first day out of Wilmington we found a secluded spot in a very old (non-swampy) forest to camp (there wasn’t much else in the area). The next morning we woke up early and biked seventeen miles to Waffle House, a southern chain we were looking forward to dining at. Now that we’ve increased our mileage average from ~35 to ~60 miles, our appetites have increased from merely elevated to absolutely ludicrous. The Waffle House managed to more than satisfy our ludicrous appetites; next time we’ll skip the extra side of biscuits and gravy. I was very impressed by the minimalist efficiency of the Waffle House. The line cooks had specialized call-and-response language they would use to communicate when a waffle was almost done and how many more they would need to start cooking. The industrial waffle maker itself looked like a car from the 1960s, which I assume was when it was manufactured. None of their ingredients appear to be too perishable: Eggs and white flour will last for a while, and both corn syrup and butter-flavored partially-hydrogenated cottonseed oil should last indefinitely. I can completely understand why they are the last restaurants to close before a major storm: see the Waffle House Index.

Line cooks at Waffle House

That evening, we bicycled to Conway, a College town a few miles inland from Myrtle Beach. Two old family friends from Egypt, Mike and Lisa, moved from Egypt to Conway almost 20 years ago to teach at the university there. I was so grateful to see them after not seeing much else in the area. They were very hospitable, and we spent many hours reminiscing about our shared memories and watching their pet rabbit, Hunter, hop about. Mike has the same awesome sense of humor I remember so well from my childhood. The next morning they sent us on our way, “Groucho Marx style,” with some hard-boiled eggs. For lunch we went to a Food Lion, divided a large platter of supermarket cornbread in half, and put some of the hard boiled eggs on top. It was better than the Waffle House.

After a few days of uneventful riding we arrived in Charleston, SC. We stayed with a couple on Warmshowers, Charles and Missee. Charles was busy planning a large group bike ride with his friends from Raleigh. We enjoyed seeing a picture book of the Southern Tier ride to San Diego that he did with a number of people a few years ago. Missee made us grits both mornings, one with cheese and one with eggs.

Charleston seemed like a nice walkable city. The central peninsula has a similar history and geography to Manhattan; a fort protected from the Native Americans by a wall, at the end of the peninsula, then expansion northwards and to adjacent peninsulas with bridges. We loved walking through the preserved downtown section. It seems like the entire area has managed to survive architecturally over the past few hundred years; no Robert Moses to bulldoze entire blocks of old buildings. Further north, past a buffer of chain stores, was the part of Charleston I would probably chose to live in, a bit cheaper, some breweries, and an amazing modern art space. The brewery I wanted to go to – Palmetto Brewing Co – was closed on the day we were in town, but the campground we stayed at last night had cans of their ‘Island Wit’ for sale.

On our second night in Charleston, Missee cooked Amy and I a wonderful dinner of chicken soup with roast turkey breast and vegetables, and we spent a lovely few hours talking about our past travels and separate lives. Apparently we have the Middle East in common; her daughter’s family is currently deployed to the naval base in Bahrain. Her family is in the music store business. Francis Ford Coppola is one of their clients; they tune his piano at this country house he maintains in the area. They had a lot of respect for my mother’s work as a community piano teacher in Egypt. We left them feeling well fed and happy.

After all that we biked another 70 miles to a campground – the first campground we’ve stayed at since the night before Wilmington, and are currently preparing to bike to Savannah, GA today.

That’s it for now!


Suburbia and Supplies

We’ve had a few relatively uneventful days – after we left the outer banks, we’ve been riding through the ‘burbs around the southeast of North Carolina. A lot of it has been suburban hellscape – dull and busy roads filled with auto dealerships and storage units and strip malls.

We snagged some clams from a bodega on Cedar Island, before things stopped being so nautical.
Frogger would’ve been easy with a bike helmet, right?

But civilization also isn’t without its comforts! We did a lot of shopping and resupply – new shoes for me, and a full pannier of food for both of us. We also ate a bunch of good food. In 24 hours we hit a vegetarian restaurant for dinner and a BBQ restaurant for lunch. It’s a weird contradiction – after a month and change traveling, we really crave vegetables and fresh things, which we can’t carry very easily. But our appetites are still enormous, which makes it easy to put down a whole lot of pulled pork. Notably, both restaurants also sold us hush puppies (yum).

North Carolina style pulled pork.

The most exciting part of the resupply mission was stopping in Surf City to pick up our very first package! Apparently you can ship things to any post office as “General Delivery”. We were anticipating this box for a couple days. Among other comforts of home, we got prescription sunglasses, an eBook reader, and an economy-sized tube of chamois cream.

We can’t stop here! This is bike country!

Finally, we also enjoyed another great Warmshowers stay in Wilmington, a city that surprised us with a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s, a great beer shop, a long river-side bike path and good food. We left late after a lazy morning, refreshed and ready for the sparse services between here and Charleston.

Beaches and a Birthday

We spent this week leisurely working our way down the Outer Banks. A thin strip of sandbar off the coast of North Carolina, the Outer Banks are part of the Atlantic Coastal Plain. That’s the same geological formation as Cape Cod, so it’s been fun to compare and contrast the two. Unlike the Cape, the Outer Banks are almost perfectly flat and only a few feet above sea level. The houses here look like Cape houses, but they’re built on stilts to reduce flood damage.

A particularly cute architectural example.

That flatness also means that there’s very little to break the wind. The riding has been decent, but plagued by a persistent headwind.

Watercolor sketch of Rodanthe and a typical water tower over the Sound

We crossed into the Outer Banks using the 518 bridge at Point Harbor. Our first stop was with Tom in Kitty Hawk, who was the best Warmshowers we could ask for – both an excellent conversationalist and an amazing cook. Since we were having such a great time, and my birthday was coming up, we decided to spend an extra night there. We spent our rest day in Duck, NC, lying on the beach and shopping.

Many invertebrates were harmed in the making of this photo.

At the end of the day, we also picked up a birthday cake from Tullio’s Bakery so I could have a proper birthday celebration with Jim and Tom. We sang Happy Birthday together, which was a really memorable and special experience – it made me feel really welcome here, which means a lot when traveling.

This is how you deliver a cake on a bicycle.

The next two days we rode south. The Outer Banks became increasingly depopulated as we went away from Kitty Hawk. First we were riding through beach towns, filled with empty rentals and t-shirt shops, but once we crossed the Oregon Inlet bridge, we were suddenly on a road in the middle of nowhere through a nature preserve. The road was incredible – the ocean on your left and the sound on your right, with only a few feet of dunes separating you on either side.

Every subsequent town was a long stretch away from the next. As we went south, it felt a little like going back in time, with hand-painted store signs, and a kind of beachy, sand-blasted, down-on-its-luck appeal. We met up with another cyclist, Frank, and got more practice drafting off of one another on those long highway roads.

At the end of the second day, we took the ferry from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke Island. We pulled into a beach-side state campground, which had looked really nice on the map, but unfortunately was teeming with mosquitoes. We took shelter in our tent. While we debated what to do, like a mirage, a woman and her husband came by to offer us cold beer and hot dinner! Once the sun set and the mosquitoes calmed down, we visited them at their camper, and were properly introduced to them as Mark and Anne. Besides feeding us, they regaled us with tales of Mark’s adventure biking to Oregon in the ’70s. We enjoyed beers and a perfect view of the Milky Way.

Originally we had planned to get up early and take the morning ferry back to the mainland, but Mark and Anne told us we shouldn’t skip Ocracoke Village. It turns out they were right – Ocracoke Village is everything we had hoped for in the Outer Banks. It’s very tight-knit, with a year round population of about 1,000, and full of cute shops. There’s a lighthouse. Plus, they even have a local dessert: fig cake, due to all the figs that grow on the island. We spent the day wandering (and eating) our way around town. One particularly great part of Ocracoke was how everyone seems to know everyone – the coffee shop owner, Katy, told us to buy fig cake at the seafood market; the seafood market owner Patty told us to chat bikes with Katy!

Doodle of Jim at the Magic Bean Coffee Shop.

When it came time for the evening ferry, we realized our mainland camping plans weren’t going to work, so, oh, darn, too bad, we just had to spend the night in Ocracoke. We were both still itchy from our last campground, and I had a head cold, so we splurged on an actual motel, complete with balcony and hammock.

Such hardship!

Today we’re actually going to take the ferry and return to the mainland. I’m really glad we decided to take the Outer Banks route; it was unlike anything I had expected to see on this trip.

Days 24-26: To the North Carolina seaside

For the last three days we’ve been booking it down the coast. We realized there wasn’t much else we wanted to do on our route in Virginia, so we decided to increase our mileage and ride for the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The weather has been cool, the terrain is pancake flat, and we felt ready to ride longer, so we did two 50+ miles days and our longest day yet, a 73.

We left Richmond and spent a day and a half on the Capital Bike Trail, which ends in historical Jamestown (apparently now some kind of colonial theme park.) We took the car ferry across the James River and continued through cotton and peanut fields towards the coast.

We ended our second day at a grocery store in Suffolk, VA. After restocking our supplies (mostly beans, oatmeal, and peanut butter), we discovered both our plan A and plan B for lodging had totally fallen through. While we debated whether to camp in the Great Dismal Swamp or to try our luck at the local one-star motel, who should come over but two bike tourists, also shopping for groceries!

We struck up a conversation and it turns out they were part of a group called Canada to the Keys, riding to raise money for the American Society for Suicide Prevention. They graciously welcomed us to join them where they were staying in a local church building. We were thrilled not only by the serendipity of it, but also because we had such a good time meeting everyone. Their group included people who had completed more than one long tour; a world record holder; a recumbent rider and a couple on a tandem! Besides comparing bicycles and notes, we enjoyed the chance to meet people who were such perfect bike-touring role models for us, and I went to sleep with a big smile on my face.

We waved farewell to our new friends at dawn, (and again half an hour later at McDonalds), and before lunch we crossed the border into North Carolina. The ride quickly became even more rural, with long stretches of perfectly flat, straight farm roads. The only challenge was a persistent headwind, which gave us practice drafting off on one another, as well as practice fighting boredom. At the end of a long day, we finally reached the coast, and we were treated to spectacular salt marshes during sunset – like Cape Cod, only flat.

Sketchbook page with the different biomes of the North Carolina coast.

Tomorrow we head towards the Outer Banks – we’re looking forward to enjoying a few lazier days by the beach.