We had a long, relaxed visit to my family in Massachusetts. This was a little different from my typical trip home for Thanksgiving. Usually I spend part of it working from home – this year, we had a whole week just to visit.
Jim and I put that extra time to good use. We cooked six dishes for Thanksgiving dinner; cut down a Christmas tree; took a family trip to the gun range; ate at two separate breakfast restaurants; threw Jim a 30th birthday party; went into Somerville three separate times (and ate Anna’s burritos twice); cleaned and sorted our bike gear; saw every friend we know in Cambridge; watched the new Pixar movie; and got Richardson’s Ice Cream. All in addition to the highlight of the week, the familial Thanksgiving celebration.
I’m glad we were able to take a break. There are definitely things I miss while touring – like pajamas, real kitchens, and the indoor lighting and space to do projects. I caught up on a lot of physical rest, as well as socialization. Visiting people remains one of the most meaningful parts of this trip to me, so seeing my entire family and most of my closest friends was really satisfying.
At the end of my visit, my dad asked if I missed being on the road yet. I realized I don’t miss very much about camping, but I do start to crave the novelty of touring. I’m not tired yet of being somewhere new every day.
Yesterday we flew back to Pensacola and picked up our bikes. It felt surreal to get on a flight to somewhere I had so little connection. It didn’t help that Pensacola is a tiny airport, so we had to take two slightly terrifying flights on a bus-sized 37-seat plane. But once we set up in our motel with the bikes, it felt almost like we had never left. Today, once we finish our errands, we’ll start traveling west again. We’re back to having no deadlines, so we’ll ease back into it.
One of the things I found a little funny about Florida was how fall decor shared the same signifiers of fall in New England – leaves, pumpkins, what have you – despite how incongruous these things were. I painted this fellow to be a Florida cornucopia, with the citrus and oysters that are actually seasonal there.
Now, of course, we’re back where leaves actually fall. I’m excited to see everyone and have our traditional, very New England Thanksgiving celebration.
We’ve had two companions for the last week: the Gulf coast, and State Route 98.
I can’t say enough nice things about the Gulf. The Gulf itself is shallow, so it has beautiful, aqua water, which reminds me of the Caribbean. Someone informed us that the beaches are “sugar sand” – white quartz that squeaks under your bare feet. I had a brief, but perfect, mid-bike-ride nap on one of those beaches.
Our experience with 98 has been more mixed – it’s taken us through every different flavor of Florida Gulf life, from the rural to the urban.
We started with two nights on the Forgotten Coast. I’m not sure if that name is tongue-in-cheek, but it did feel like an area time forgot, with miles of perfect, abandoned roads leading to the sleepy fishing villages of Franklin County. We took our sweet time riding through this stretch, stopping in each little town.
The first and most memorable of these was Carabelle, where we spent 45 minutes shooting the shit with a group of retirees on the docks. I felt like I had lived there for decades. We also took breaks in Apalachicola and Port St. Joe. These towns gave me a glimpse into why people like the slower pace of living down south.
The cute towns disappeared shortly after turning the corner around Saint Joseph Bay. We then had to spend the better part of a day riding through Tyndall Airforce Base. The base was funny on a bicycle – between the ominous signs like “KEEP OUT” and “Ordinance Disposal Field” was the occasional “Share the Road”. The only other entertainment I had for 20 miles was to watch the jets lazily circling above. We stayed in Panama City, which consisted mostly of strip malls catering to the base. Jim, with his fresh buzz cut, accidentally got us a military discount on our dinner.
We escaped Panama City and the route changed again. We swung onto 30A and it was suddenly the unforgotten coast. These communities were wealthy and clearly gearing up for tourist season. Besides the usual beach-town milieu of rental homes with cutesy names, t-shirt shops and cruiser bikes, we passed through some particularly eerie planned communities. While we rolled our eyes at the overpriced, cheesy atmosphere, we did enjoy all the well-appointed public beach access.
Finally, 30A shunted us back onto 98, which suddenly widened and sped up as we entered the suburban sprawl around Pensacola. Another 50 miles of very forgettable riding brought us to the final three-mile bridge into the city, and the end of our detour from the Southern Tier.
This weekend has been spent prepping for our flight to Boston. Yesterday we dropped off our bikes at the shop, and I felt a pang of separation anxiety. I’ve been constantly on, or near, my bike for more than two months now, which made leaving it in the care of strangers disconcerting. Somewhere between dropping a car off at the shop and boarding a beloved pet.
Even though we’re just taking a break, this flight back to Boston seems like the end of a chapter for us. I’m not sure how it will feel to jump home, across the country, in a single day – but I feel good about how much we’ve accomplished so far.
After leaving Palatka, we continued west through to Gainesville. Most of the route was through bike paths and rail trails. The final approach to Gainesville, on the Gainesville-Hawthorne Bike Trail, was especially notable. The path was beautifully ecologically well maintained, with large isolated shrubs on either side of the bike path. Massive quantities of large dragonflies were flying between the island-like shrubberies, flitting across our path. We saw wild pigs and armadillos in the underbrush as well.
Gainesville is a large college town: home of the University of Florida, a massive institution of 40,000 students. We stayed with a couple, Krin and Richard, who had a fantastic garden with banana plants and raised beds of kale. Amy found an art shop on the way into town. We didn’t have too long to stay in Gainesville as we wanted to continue on to Pensacola. This part of the trip has been somewhat constrained by the number of days we have to make our flight back to the northeast on the 20th. Krin helped us plan the next part of our journey and rode with us out of town.
After Gainesville, we passed through to the Ichetucknee springs state park. We stayed for two nights. Both nights we were kept company by an a very charismatic feral camp tomcat. Both of us wanted to take him with us, but he seemed to be enjoying his life at camp, chasing armadillos and begging for food from the tent campers.
It seemed like he was being cared for by the park hosts as well. Besides, it is doubtful that he would have been able to stay on our bikes for any extended period of time, especially without a cat harness.
On the second day Amy went to the springs (see her earlier blog post). I spent the day doing a Walmart run, the first time I’ve been to a Walmart since 2011. We had discovered that we’d run out of food and camp fuel, so we needed to make a 17 mile detour to go get some. Walmart wasn’t my first choice, but it’s one of the only places that sells the type of camp fuel that we need. I was expecting the prices to be out of this world, but the food was more expensive than at Food Lion. There were a lot of shoppers though, and a fairly comprehensive array of products. The most horrifying thing I came across was a giant 2 lb meltable block of “make your own almond bark” vanilla topping that seemed to consist entirely of sugar and hydrogenated palm oil. On the flip side, they had a surprisingly good fresh produce section.
On the way back to camp, I ran into an old man running what appeared to be a metal detector along the ground. When I came closer I saw that it was a spherical wire mesh basket attached to a handle. I asked what he was doing and he said “pecans”. Sure enough, the golf-ball sized unshelled pecans on the ground were just the right size to pop themselves into the basket/wheel, leaving the other leaf litter and ground detritus behind. I’ve decided that I quite like unshelled pecans. The shell is just easy enough to remove, relative to something like a black walnut, and the nut is large enough to seem worth the effort. We bought a half pound at a produce market, and we have been cracking them with some pliers that are part of our bike repair kit.
The following two days we pushed hard to ensure we would make our flight out of Pensacola on the 20th. The first night out, we stayed at a country themed music campground on the banks of the Suwannee river. It was massive, large enough to have its own sales office, with campers using golf carts to get around. The music hall was busy for a Friday night. Lots of people of all ages dancing to a country cover band out of Georgia.
The second night out, we rode almost from dawn to dusk. Our mad dash was assisted by a delicious hamburger and fried veggies provided by the Corner Grille in Madison, Florida. We ended at a campground in Jefferson County on the eastern outskirts of Tallahassee. According to the campsite manager, Jefferson county doesn’t have any stoplights. It’s that rural. He gently ribbed us from being from “the city” while serving us free quiche his mother made for the guests the next morning. (The quiche was composed of egg and sausage coated with cheese and was delicious.) Having lived in cities or towns all my life, I found it interesting to encounter the concept of the county. Apparently the county is the local city government for an entire region. In Florida there is an elected county position called the “tax collector” that handles administrative work (like getting a driver’s license). It was slightly amusing to pass by “Tom McGee: Tax collector” buildings with large crowds of cars waiting outside. It made me imagine some kind of modern Sheriff of Nottingham character from the Robin hood legend.
Later that day we biked into Tallahassee. Parts of Tallahassee seemed more hilly than San Francisco, which was a change from the past month of cycling. We stayed with Scot, the founder of a bicycle collective called Bicycle House. Scot used to be a professional bicycle racer, and at one point rode in the tour de France for a club. He moved to the northeast, near Natick, where Amy and I went to school. Later in life he suffered an injury and came back to Florida to be with his family. We had great fun staying at the Bicycle House and using the outdoor shower, made with PVC pipe and a cattle trough! We talked late into the night over a few beers and then again the next morning over coffee.
Scot turned us on to a slight modification to the standard Adventure Cycling route. Instead of traveling inland to Pensacola we could continue south to the “Forgotten Coast”, the section of the panhandle that abuts the gulf coast and take state route 98. The route has been turning out great so far, but I think it deserves its own blog post.
We took a rest day at a campground by the beautiful Ichetucknee Springs state park. While Jim went on a resupply mission, I spent the day swimming and kayaking. (Thank you, Jim!)
Growing up, every summer we’d take a trip to Water Country. One of my favorite rides there was the lazy river. I was delighted that Ichetucknee Springs form a natural lazy river, winding through mangroves and teeming with wildlife. I saw herons, turtles, and leaping fish – plus a brief glimpse of an otter! I also got to take a dip in the Blue Hole and Head springs, which were as clear as bottled water.
The Florida State Park motto is “The Real Florida”, which makes me smile. I’m not much for theme parks as an adult, so I’m happy to experience the solitude and natural beauty of the real thing.
We’ve spent the last week completing a loop around central Florida. Florida has been distinctly different from the rest of the south – to paraphrase Jared, the more south you go, the more north you get.
The first difference we noticed was the roads. Even the backroads in central Florida are apparently highways, but oddly, they all have bike lanes. The last time we were here – driving a car between Sarasota and Melbourne – I distinctly recall making fun of them. “Why did they bother to paint a bike lane here? What idiot bikes next to a highway?” Now, of course, that idiot is me, and I’m appreciative, albeit sick of highway smog and noise.
Then we kept running into other folks from the north. Yesterday we stopped at a bar, Walden’s Filling Station. It was a picture-perfect little dive bar. Country music was blasting out on the porch while a group of regulars played cornhole. We ordered some beers – two for drafts $3, served in plastic cups. But when we struck up a conversation with the bartender she was from… upstate New York!
In the deep south, people looked a little disappointed when we unleashed our Yankee accents and said we came here from Brooklyn. In Florida, we’re just as liable to meet another member of the New York diaspora.
Once we escaped the gravitational pull of Orlando, most of our riding has been on rural roads and Route 1. I’ve enjoyed seeing the small businesses dotting the highway, many of which look completely untouched by time, straight out of the ’50s and ’60s. We’ve passed retro motels of all sorts; an ice cream shop shaped like an ice cream cone; and an honest-to-goodness drive-in diner. The highlight was Reptile World: Serpentorium.
We took a break there to admire the reptile collection. The snakes inside were organized by country. I found the number of venomous snakes represented by the USA mildly alarming: they all seem to be native to the areas we’re plan on biking through.
The highlight of the last week has been visiting our college friends, Jared and Bryce, on the coast. We last saw Jared at our wedding (well, technically at the after party), so it felt nicely circular – like we had biked straight out of the wedding and then directly to Florida. We spent two days catching up, having long philosophical conversations, and eating our way through West Melbourne. We started with trivia night and beers at The Broken Barrel Tavern – I contributed nothing but wrong answers, but the team still squeaked into 2nd place. The next day, Jared introduced us to the joy of mofongos at Mi Balconitos, and that night we cooked dinner for all four us us. Cooking was a real treat; it was the first time we’ve actually cooked in a kitchen in months. We ended the evening by playing a few intense rounds of Escape and Magic Maze.
We both felt a bit melancholy after leaving. It really did feel like this part of the trip has come to a close. Today we’ve rejoined the Southern Tier route and we’re feeling more back in our groove. I’ve started to ponder the enormity of crossing the country, but our next real goal is Pensacola: where we have a flight booked home for Thanksgiving!
Edit: I previously stated that we got 3rd place in trivia. Jared actually won our team 2nd place in an epic tiebreaker.