The mother of all detours. Bayou La Batre to Pensacola (119miles).
Well I did manage to get up early and I was on the road before 7am. I decided that I would ride directly to the ferry so that I could get breakfast at a nearby café prior to catching the boat.
Overnight the wind had picked up and so, before leaving the hotel, I telephoned the ferry helpline to check on the sailing conditions. Unfortunately it was too early and the automated service was still giving out information about the previous day’s crossings. I had no option but to take a chance and to phone again when I got a bit closer. The first ferry was due off at 8am so I was sure that the telephone helpline service would soon be updated.
After about 14 miles of tranquil riding along a scenic wooded road and over small bridges crossing pretty bayous I stopped by a small gas station in Alabama Port. It is directly at the junction of the State Roads 188 and 193, about two thirds of the distance to the ferry. This was a natural stopping point and an opportunity to make the phone call. Turning right would take me 7 miles to the ferry; turning left would take me on a long detour to Mobile and a bridge crossing the Mobile Bay. Unhappily the automated helpline service informed me that the ferry was suspended because of high winds and that a re-assessment would take place at 10.30am. Oh well, life is like a box of chocolates.
As it was only 8.15am I did some quick mental arithmetic. The first ferry after 10.30am was scheduled to leave at 11am and it would take 45 minutes to cross the bay arriving at 11.45am. Then it would take me about 2 hours to ride the 22 miles to Gulf Shores. This meant that if I waited for the ferry I would reach Gulf Shores at about 1.45pm. That was a total of 5½hrs. I didn’t know how far it was to Mobile but I figured that I was better off riding there; crossing the bridge and working my way back down the other side of the bay to re-join my route rather than waiting to see if the 11am ferry sailed. There was no guarantee that it would. What happens if the 11am ferry doesn’t sail? I suppose I could always camp overnight. What happens if the wind doesn’t improve tomorrow? I would then have wasted two days. In the end the cautious but prudent side of my brain won, and I elected to detour into Mobile. It also meant that I wouldn’t get to spend tonight in the $6m mansion.
First of all though I had to eat breakfast and so I snacked on some bits and pieces which I had purchased at the gas station and then fixed a puncture which had mysteriously appeared in my rear tyre. I’m sure it wasn’t there when I stopped to make the phone call.
After leaving the gas station and heading north towards Mobile I noticed signs that the climate was more temperate here. Palm trees mingled with pine trees, and there were dead snakes on the roadside which reminded me of what Tom had said to me about sunbathing snakes. Do you remember Tom? He was the bloke that I had met outside of Brackettville and who was sleeping by the side of the road.
It was eighteen miles before I rejoined the US90 on the outskirts of Mobile. Then there were another ten miles before reaching the ‘George C Wallace’ and ‘Bank Head’ tunnels both of which run under the Mobile River, but both of which are closed to cyclists. Instead I had to ride three miles up river through the Alabama State Docks. I passed disused rail stock and railway sidings all smelling of diesel, to the Cochrane – Africatown Bridge over the river to Blakeley Island. I stopped here to take some photos of the USS Alabama which is docked in the river alongside in the Battleship Memorial Park. The USS Alabama fought during World War II in the Pacific and was later donated to the state of Alabama as a museum ship in 1964.
It was then a twelve mile ride along the US98 across a narrow spit of land to Spanish Fort and on to the town of Daphne where I stopped for lunch. Using some more mental arithmetic I calculated that to ride to Gulf Shores and pick up my original route along the Gulf Beach Highway to Pensacola would mean a total distance of 140 miles today. That’s too much. Instead I decided to ride blind again without a map. I had a mental picture of where Pensacola was positioned geographically and the shape of the coastline so I knew roughly in what direction I wanted to travel. That was just as well, because my experiences so far is that signage on State and County roads is very limited and that the information contained on them is often minimal and usually devoid of distances between towns.
After riding twenty miles past Daphne I pulled in to a gas station in the town of Magnolia Springs. It was another hot day and so far I had travelled over eighty miles so I treated myself to an ice cream. Actually I had two ice creams but I figured that I deserved them.
The attendant told me that she though it was 40 miles to Pensacola, and based her assessment on the fact that it took her 40 minutes to drive there at what she claimed was a mile per minute. That was a little deflating.
Well the maths is right. I just hope that she is wrong as I was expecting it to be around thirty miles. As I cycle off and encountered roads with speed limits of 35mph and others of 40mph I began to get a bit more hopeful. There is no way she would drive these roads at 60mph, is there?
En route I was stopped by a Sheriff who insisted that I should ride in the 9 inch gap between the white line that ran along the road edge and the kerb stone. I duly obliged until he was out of sight and then returned to my usual riding style, about 18 inches from the kerb. As I think I said previously, I prefer to ride offensively so that drivers can see me. Stupid is as stupid does.
As it happens it turned out to be just twenty seven miles of riding to West Pensacola through the towns of Foley and Elberta before crossing Perdido Bay at Lilian and entering Florida my eighth and last State. The sun was setting and the light was fading fast. Yet still I had another seven miles to go, passing the huge Naval Air Station and Training Centre before I found myself a hotel near to the Bayfront. By now it was dark and my detour had been in excess of 50 miles!
Sandwiches, crisps, chocolate all bought from the gas station opposite my hotel was tonight’s ‘dinner’. Comfort food, but exactly what I was craving after riding nearly 120 miles. I also bought a Florida State map book, and then ripped out the pages that contained the rest of my intended route together with those pages which bordered it and threw the rest away. I wanted to be prepared in case of another eventuality like today.
I am limping very badly today. But even now that I’ve reached Florida, and even though I still have about twelve days to go, I feel that the end of my trip is in sight.
My fear now is that this injury is going to affect my enjoyment of a few days off when I finally do reach Miami.
Oh, by the way, did you spot the Forrest Gump quotes?
Dr Patel, medicine man. Pensacola to Fort Walton Beach (40miles).
I decided to treat myself to a late start and short mileage today after yesterdays marathon ride. I also decided, having punctured yesterday morning, that it would be wise to replenish my stock of inner tubes before setting off. So eventually after locating a bicycle shop I left Pensacola at 11am.
This morning it was windy, blowing 25mph from the south east which I knew would be almost directly in my face and it is the strongest that I had experienced since my ride into Kent, Texas.
My route today was planned to take me across the Pensacola Bay to Gulf Breeze. Then through the sand dunes on Santa Rosa Island, before re-crossing the bay at Navarre and onto Fort Walton Beach, finishing at Destin about 50 miles away.
The bay around Pensacola is part of “Project Greenshores” an ecological project aimed at reducing the erosion of the coastline and preventing the eradication of the marshlands that lie alongside the bluffs and low banks. A bluff by the way is a shoreline that rises more than 25 feet, whilst a low bank is a piece of coastline rising no more than 5 feet.
The first part of my ride away from Pensacola was over the four mile long Pensacola Bay Bridge (US98). Although the carriageway on the bridge has four foot wide shoulders, I really could have done with another couple of feet of space. The strong wind together with the drafting from the busy rush hour traffic made it difficult to steer a straight line.
In addition, I wasn’t comfortable riding too close to the side of the bridge. The seat on my bicycle was higher than the low concrete side wall and I was concerned that one big gust of wind would tip me over the side of the bridge and into the water below. I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably be riding at a single figure speed all day if the wind continued in the same vein.
Leaving Gulf Breeze (which was certainly living up to its name) is a second bridge. The county road 399 toll bridge is only two miles long, but little did I know that today it was to become a bridge too far.
Arriving on Santa Rosa Island, the wind was whipping up a sand storm. There is only one road running along the length of the island and it extends sixteen miles to Elgins Air Force Base. The public then have to turn north and leave the island via another toll bridge to Navarre.
In order to avoid the worst of the wind and sand I cycled off the main road and through the quiet residential streets for the first four miles which also gave me an opportunity to look at the attractive beachfront properties. When these streets ended I returned to the main road which runs between the grasses and sand dunes of very fine, powder soft, white sand.
Unfortunately, the very nature of the sand meant that it was easily carried by the wind and I was being gently exfoliated. Even my sunglasses became coated in a thin layer of the aggregate.
After about 9 miles I saw a sign indicating that the road ahead was closed. But as I had seen numerous cars pass me and not return I decided to push on, after all a bicycle can normally navigate where a car cannot.
A couple of miles further on and I flagged down a Sheriff’s car to double check on the status of the road. The Sheriff told me that he had passed me earlier and that he had wondered to himself then if I knew what I was letting myself in for. Apart from the weather, the road ahead had been ripped up by hurricanes, not Katrina or Rita but a year earlier; first by Hurricane Ivan and then by Hurricane Dennis. The Sheriff reassured me that although there were some places where I would have to walk, the road was still passable. Two further miles along the road and I met a truck coming the other way; it was carrying broken concrete piers. The lady driver stopped to chat and again warned me of the conditions of the road, but she also warned me about her grumpy supervisor and told me to ignore him. Oh if it was to be that simple.
The Sheriff had been right; I did have to walk some part of the way. The road surface was broken up and resembled tectonic plates that had shifted during an earthquake. Parts of the blacktop were five or six inches higher than others and some parts were completely missing and had been replaced with large expanses of the soft white sand.
Half a mile on and I met the grumpy supervisor.
He refused to let me go any further. He wasn’t at all concerned about how far I had come or how far the return journey and detour would be. He flatly refused to allow me to continue along this road. Despite me telling him that the Sheriff had said it was OK, he insisted that the road was Federal property and that the Sheriff had no jurisdiction. He didn’t appear to understand my frustration at having been told by a law enforcement official that I could use the road. He did concede that because the beach was not Federal property I was allowed to walk my bike along the beach (which he knew was impossible given that the sand was so soft and that my bike was likely to just sink) but he categorically refused to allow me on the road surface.
One of the other lorry drivers who had stopped nearby during this conversation even offered to drive me the couple of miles through the road works, but the supervisor denied him permission to. He then threatened to call the Navarre police if I did not turn around. Now I was quite happy to wait for a police officer to put over my point of view, but I really didn’t want a confrontation nor could I afford to delay any longer. Instead I thanked him for being the most unhelpful person that I had met since starting my journey from Los Angeles, turned my bike around and cycled back towards Gulf Breeze. Fortunately the wind was now on my back and I made good time over the fourteen miles, but still it was mileage and time wasted. In effect when I stopped for lunch back in Gulf Breeze, I had covered just 5 of my intended 50 miles and it was now already 2pm.
I was now regretting my late start. As soon as I left Gulf Breeze I was once again riding into the strong wind. There was no way now that I would make Destin by a reasonable hour, not with this wind against me and I wasn’t prepared to force the pace, especially not with my damaged leg.
After lunch I battled along the US98 through Mary Ester and arrived in Fort Walton Beach. Here I found a number of motels along the sea front and so decided that this was as good a place as any to stop for the day. I registered at the Fairway Inn, which is directly opposite an ‘Olive Garden’ restaurant; so it will be Italian again tonight, yummy.
I then hobbled off to a nearby gas station to buy some cleaning materials; WD40 fluid for my bike and some wash powder for my clothes.
It was imperative that I clean my bike as the sand had gotten everywhere. As I sat on the ground outside my room stripping down my bike cleaning and re-lubricating the gears and chain I was joined by an elderly Asian man dressed in a flowing white robe. He squatted and sat there in silence watching me work away at my machine. He noticed the bandage on my leg and pointing to it he asked “Hurt?” He then tapped his chest twice and said “Patel, Doctor”. Through pigeon English, he gave me his room number and said that he would treat my leg.
After finishing my bike and showering I made my way up to the elderly Asian man’s room. The door was opened by his wife and I could tell from the room layout that they were definitely living at the motel, not as hotel guests, but living there!
All the hotel corporate trappings were gone and had been replaced with personal furniture, ornaments, photographs and other knick-knacks. Some motels offer good long term rates; maybe the Fairway Inn is one such motel. It can often work out cheaper to stay there than to buy or rent a house; or maybe the Patel’s had found themselves homeless because of the hurricanes. I would never know because neither Dr Patel nor his wife spoke much English.
Dr Patel encouraged me to sit on the floor and pointing at the bandage with his right index finger wagged his right hand and said “No” I took that to mean that I shouldn’t wear the bandage. He then proceeded to examine my lower left leg pushing his thumbs deep into my flesh and every so often beckoning his wife over to look as he pointed at various points on my shin. I could see that he was showing her the capillary refill, showing her how quickly or slowly the fluids were entering and leaving the injured area. He then disappeared into the bathroom and returned carrying a small pot of a mustard coloured paste which he massaged into my leg. I understood from his very limited English that this was some derivative of tree sap. Ordinarily I would have gone for the Hot/Cold R.I.C.E. remedy. (Rest Ice Compression and Elevation) but I am very open to alternative medicines.
Amazingly as I rose to my feet to leave after about half an hour of massage, Dr Patel suddenly found enough English to ask for money. I wasn’t about to be discourteous so I gave him $20 for which he was more than happy.
My leg definitely felt easier when I walked across the road to the restaurant, the ‘crunching’ was not as prominent. Only time will tell if this is a cure or just a temporary respite.
Tomorrow I will be on the lookout for another haircut. I know that it was only seventeen days ago that I had it cut in Del Rio, but it grows quicker in the heat and because I like to keep it short, any new growth soon begins to look untidy.
Spring break city. Fort Walton Beach to Panama City (67miles).
I had breakfast in the hotel before leaving to cycle the six miles to Destin, crossing the Choctawhatchee Bay at the start of what is known as the Emerald Coast. The sands here seem even finer and whiter than Santa Rosa Island (if that is possible) and this type of sand extends east all the way along the Florida Panhandle.
I kept an eye open for a barbers shop whilst riding through Destin. There was any number of parlours where I could get another tattoo; an unusual number of bridal dress shops; numerous opportunities to get a body piercing, or place to have a tattoo removed by laser. But I couldn’t find anywhere to get a haircut.
The wind was up again today, blowing out of the east and into my face. I followed the Miracle Strip Parkway (US98) for a good couple of hours stopping at a very busy ‘Donut Hole’ restaurant. It’s Tuesday and I cannot figure out why it is jammed to the roof with teenagers of school and college age.
Shortly after leaving I came across the type of incident in which having a bicycle makes you king of the road. A car was on fire in the carriageway. Traffic had been halted whilst the fire services extinguished the fire. Problem? No problem for me. I’ll just cross the central reservation to the other carriageway and ride east along the westbound bike lane. Problem solved! It also prevented me from having to ride through the plumes of acrid smoke that were pouring out from the car.
Half an hour later and whilst all the car drivers were still delayed by the burning car, I caught up with a man who was pushing his bicycle. I’ll be polite and say he was big boned. He told me that he had been riding an ‘out and back’ course along the highway but that he had made the mistake of taking the easy route out, i.e. with the wind behind him. Now that he was on his way back he was finding the conditions very tough.
Riding my fully loaded bike, I must have shamed him into getting back onto his because twenty minutes later after leaving the highway to ride a quiet side road towards Grayton Beach, I looked back to see him cycling behind me.
After cycling through Grayton and Seagrove Beaches I arrived at Alys Beach, a resort so new that it does not yet feature on the map. The promotional blurb announces Alys Beach as “a reminder that what once was can indeed still be. A life of balance, a life of beauty, a life of simplicity, a life of grace. A life defined.” Well it certainly caught my eye with its elegant architecture, white washed buildings, vibrant green grasses and miles of bike lanes.
I stopped for lunch in Sunnyside, just west of Laguna Beach where the wind was whipping up another sandstorm. The red flags were flying, the surf was crashing and bathing was prohibited. The beach was deserted.
Although Sunnyside was quiet, madness and mayhem was breaking out a few miles down the road at Panama City Beach. It was here that I found out the reason why so many teenagers were in the donut restaurant this morning. It is the start of spring break.
Actually, it is spring break for all of America it seems but not yet for Florida. Floridians put up with an invasion of college students intent on having a good time and then, after they have returned to their State schools and Colleges, the Florida schools break up the following week.
Panama City Beach should be renamed Spring Break City. It is your stereotypical beach front town of tacky shops, amusements and bars. Today it was also rammed with cars and pickups blaring out music, full of youngsters in beach shorts and bikinis. Nobody was going anywhere fast, traffic was at a standstill.
Shortly after leaving the beachside madness and passing the huge mock up USS Ripley at ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum’ I stopped at ‘Classique Hair Styles’ a small salon along Front Beach Road. Annie the stylist laughed as I took off my cycling gloves to reveal tanned forearms but pure white hands. I decided then and there that I wouldn’t wear my gloves again for the rest of the trip; to give my hands a chance to catch up on the colour. Before Annie could set to work on my hair another assistant, Melanie, was assigned to wash it in order to remove all the sand that had accumulated during the morning’s ride.
As they washed and cut my hair I kept both girls entertained with stories of my trip. “Well you’ve certainly made my day” said Annie who only charged me $5 for the hair cut. I was sure that I overheard the manageress tell her not to charge me any more, so I gave both girls a $5 tip. Then it was on to Panama City and a hunt for tonight’s accommodation.
Panama City and Panama City Beach are two distinct towns separated by a mile wide stretch of water but connected by the Hathaway Bridge over which the US98 runs. Once again this afternoon I was the ruler of the road as I glided effortlessly through a huge traffic jam of spring breakers that were stationary on the bridge.
Although I passed a number of hotels and motels along the way, I wanted to find something a little closer to the start of Highway 231 which was going to be my road north out of the city tomorrow. As luck would have it there were two motels at the junction of US98 and Hwy 231.
I checked into the Super 8 motel and unsuccessfully tried to persuade the receptionist to give me a discount on the room. My appearance in a cycling outfit always prompts conversation. When she learned how far I had travelled since starting my trip nearly six weeks ago the receptionist said that she was going to phone the local newspaper and tell them all about my fantastic achievement. I’m not sure whether she did or not, but I didn’t receive a visit from any reporters.
Two teenage boys from Wisconsin who were staying at the motel having just returned from partying in Panama City Beach were similarly impressed. When I recounted the eight States that I had I ridden through one of them commented “You’ve seen more of our country than we have!”
After sneaking into the adjacent motel to use their laundry facilities and to wash all of the sand and sea air out of my clothes, it was off to bed with a pizza which I had delivered to the motel.
Tomorrow the time zone changes at Blountstown, which is about 50 miles away. It is also scheduled to be another longish day of about 75 miles on the bike to a campsite at Lake Talquin. Lake Talquin is about 25 miles past Blountstown and 25 miles short of Tallahassee. I’m not intending going into Tallahassee, but plan on turning south through the Apalachicola National Forest.
I didn’t want to lose an hour of cycling tomorrow, especially not on a long day and so once again I tried to cheat time by putting my clocks forward before going to bed and went to sleep hoping that it would not be too dark when I set off in the morning.
A change of nationality. Panama City to Tallahassee (98miles).
This morning I got a nice surprise. My bill was less than I had expected. So although she hadn’t contacted the local press and although she hadn’t given me a discount when I checked in, I guess that the receptionist had taken pity on me after all.
The wind had changed direction overnight and it was now coming out of the south west which meant that for the first part of the morning’s ride it was directly behind me as I cycled up Highway 231.
The road passes through the two inconspicuous towns of Bayou George and Youngstown to ‘Hardees’ 231 Truck stop Plaza which, as its name suggests is a truck stop. Truck stop, yes, but it is hardly a plaza. There is just a restaurant and a gas station. It is situated directly on the junction with the US20 and it is also where I stopped for breakfast a little after 9am with twenty five miles already under my belt.
I took advantage of meeting with some of the truckers who were also eating here, to use their local knowledge of the route ahead today. I believed that Blountstown was the last available town with any motel or hotel accommodation before Tallahassee which was about fifty miles further on and that was causing me some concern. A storm was forecast for tonight and I really didn’t want to camp out at Lake Talquin in a storm but it also appeared that I had very limited options. I wasn’t planning on riding to Tallahassee and didn’t think that I was up to riding close on 100 miles for the day anyway. My ankle which, although had been easier the first day after Dr Patel had treated it, was now as painful again as it had been prior to his treatment.
Unfortunately the truckers confirmed my fears. After Blountstown there is no accommodation until Tallahassee. At the moment I am still in credit by a day, but it now looked like I would have to stop at Blountstown, which would cost me just under half a day of the time that I had in hand.
The wind was still whipping up a sandstorm when I left the truck stop an hour later and turned east onto the US20. From here it was another twenty five miles to Blountstown and the time zone change. Firstly though, I had to negotiate the Chipola Experimental Forest. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Triffids?
In fact, as it transpired, the Chipola Experimental Forest is a research area which explores various ways to get unproductive dry sandy sites back to healthy forests. It is also an area which tests out the genetics of Longleaf Pines as well as carrying out research into termite control. Termites are a big problem in Florida.
These dry sandy sites provided the wind with some more ammunition and at one stage I could see a huge sandstorm in the distance, rolling in across the bare fields to my right so I upped my tempo and made it back into the woods just before I was about to be enveloped by it.
For once the wind was my friend and helped push me along to Blountstown where I arrived shortly after noon. That is noon by my clock which of course was an hour ahead. I stopped at a restaurant for late elevenses / early lunch to take stock and consider my options.
Whilst eating I was joined by Barry Zander and his wife Monique. “Where did you start your trip?” Barry asked me. When I told them Los Angeles, his response was, “we did too. Do you see that huge trailer in the car park, that’s ours.” It turned out that Barry is from Los Angeles and his wife Monique is French but with family in America. Her mother lives in New Orleans. The couple have been on the road for eighteen months, just travelling and seeing the country with no ultimate destination. The couple have their own website where they keep a blog of their travels.
Barry cheekily tried to sell me the satellite dish off his trailer. “It’s too big” he said, “It’s one of those self searching dishes, when you turn it on it revolves until it finds a signal”. Hello, if it is too big for your trailer I think that it is going to be a little too big for my bicycle!
The couple had intended staying at the Manatee Springs State Park RV site tonight, but because it was full he said that it would have to be “Another Wal-Mart Night.” Apparently Wal-Mart, the large discount department chain store, allows its car parks to be used by motor homes overnight. A useful bit of information should I ever decided to do a road trip.
There are two mottos that I try to incorporate into my work and life: ‘prevention is better than cure’ and ‘proper planning prevents piss poor performance’ (actually that last one was my father’s adaptation). After about ten days of this trip I had adopted a third: ‘just do it’. There is obviously an acknowledgement to that well known global brand but although it is an antonym to the ‘proper planning’ motto it was making more and more sense on this ride. Once the planning is over it is time to stop thinking about it and just get on and do it.
Sitting in the restaurant was exactly one of those ‘Nike’ moments. I decided to be a bit flexible with my route and head to Tallahassee. It helped that I was ahead of time for today and that the wind direction was still in my favour. It would also ensure that I remained a day ahead of schedule which should give me four days in Miami for relaxation and sightseeing, but I would have to review my plans for the next couple of days.
So I set off, confident that the time zone change would give me an extra hour of daylight in which to complete the next fifty or so miles. The rest of the journey through the forest was shared with numerous logging trucks until I reached Lake Tarquin State Park where I experienced another five miles of rain.
On the outskirts of Tallahassee, I stopped a Sheriff to enquire about accommodation. He gave me some advice of where not to stay in this University town and then got on to his radio to call up a colleague: “I’ve got an Aussie here on a bike who wants to know where he can find a room for the night” Aussie!! I’ve never been so insulted in all my life! How very dare you. I’m only joking, I was very grateful for the help and advice that he gave me.
After receiving directions to a number of motels I made my way through the rush hour traffic to the Days Inn near to the University. Not only is Tallahassee the State capital of Florida it is also home to the FloridaStateUniversity. In reception I met an English lady who was staying at the motel whilst she was in town visiting her student daughter who was studying at the University. I was a little frustrated to learn that she had paid only two thirds of the price that I was being charged, but then again she had booked ‘on-line’. The disadvantage of having to be flexible in your travel arrangements is that more often than not you do not get the opportunity to take advantage of early booking discounts.
The five miles of rain that I experienced earlier this afternoon was a pre-cursor to the storm which, as promised, arrived later on this evening. Once again I let the weather restrict my movements and after using the on–site laundry facilities at the hotel dashed a couple of hundred yards to a Taco-Bell for some American style Mexican food. Another night of incessant rain followed. It seems to me that whenever it rains, it rains long and hard. Fortunately though, so far, not on me. All or nothing.
Wakulla Springs. Tallahassee to Perry (66miles).
Today I may be able to see a pole vaulting fish. Obviously fish cannot pole vault and therefore it must be a gimmick but I’m curious, especially as I have some experience of this event having once been the British Police pole vault champion.
This morning I found myself in conflict with the motel over my bill. They wanted to charge me for having a safe in my room. I didn’t ask for the safe, it was already installed. I didn’t use it. Instead of adding in as a “hidden” extra, why not just include it in the bill. It annoys me. The breakfast was also the poorest that I had encountered. Maybe it’s the whole student city mentality. Do they think people other than students are not going to stay here? Rant over, now chill out.
The overnight rain had subsided and it was a fresh morning. I took the direct route out of town which passed by the old capitol building, the most attractive structure that I saw in the whole of the town, shrouded in red and white blooms. It is no longer the capitol, but now serves as a museum of political and social history.
My research has revealed that there will be few food and drink opportunities today once I have left Wakulla Springs, about sixteen miles south of Tallahassee, so I’m taking additional water and snacks with me. It’s even more important today as it is forecast to be a very hot one.
Leaving behind the city, the road soon becomes rural as it first enters the Apalachicola National Forest and then the Wakulla Springs State Forest. The Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park is nearly 6000 acres of wildlife sanctuary, clear water springs, hiking and biking trails and picnicking.
Between 1679 & 1763 this area was under Spanish rule with numerous Spanish missions and dozens of small Apalachee Indian settlements along both sides of Wakulla River. Then the Florida peninsular was surrendered to Britain under the Treaty of Paris. During the time that the British had control over the peninsular they had a high demand for deer hides and killed 150,000 deer a year. This intensive slaughtering almost wiped out the deer population. The British were defeated in 1783 during the American Revolution and the Spanish recovered Florida.
In 1937 Edward Ball a financier to the DuPont family purchased the land to protect the wildlife which lived here and to conserve the natural features of the area. At the time Mr Ball was the largest landowner in Florida, but I’m guessing that title now belongs to a certain Mr Disney and his family.
Edward Ball built a lodge on the site which today is a hotel and restaurant. I could perhaps have stayed here last night, but was led to believe that it was very expensive. As it turns out a room only costs around $100.
Mr Ball erected a fence around the springs, cutting off access to the river that it feeds and which runs some nine miles into the Gulf of Mexico. This enraged the authorities who took him to court. They lost. Some years later when the State purchased the park from the Ball family; surprise surprise they kept the fence in place to keep out trespassers.
I arrived about ten minutes too late for the first boat tour of the day and so wandered around the lodge. In the reception encased in a glass cabinet is an 11 foot long stuffed crocodile called ‘Old Joe’. He was one of the parks original inhabitants until shot by poachers in the 1960’s. Every New Year’s Eve Old Joe joins in the celebrations by wearing a party hat supplied by the staff.
The word ‘wakulla’ (pronounced wa-colour) is an Indian word meaning “strange and mysterious waters.” The springs from which the Wakulla River flows are 185 feet deep, crystal clear and it discharges on average 400,000 gallons of water per minute. What is strange and mysterious about that? Well, the source of the spring is not known.
Over the years there have been many cave diving expeditions to the underwater caves, which have contributed to diving research, diving safety and diving technology and recently the world record for time submerged was set here.
Yet still no-one has found the water’s source. What have been found on the bottom of the spring bowl are the bones of a 12000 year old Mastodon (now housed in the Museum of Florida in Tallahassee) together with the bones of giant sloths, giant armadillos and even camels!
The clarity of the waters has leant themselves to be used in a number of films. In the 1940’s two Tarzan films were made here starring Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimming champion. This was a bit of a coincidence because whilst in Los Angeles and prior to setting out on my ride I had taken a sightseeing tour around the stars homes, one of which was Weissmuller’s. In the grounds of his LA home he had a mocked-up river built where he could train and which was also used for some of his Tarzan filming.
Other films made here include ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ in 1954 and ‘Airport 77’ (made in 1977) when the springs doubled as the Bahamas and the fuselage of a Boeing 747 was lowered into the waters to simulate a crashed aeroplane.
The boat tour takes in over two miles of river and lakes and lasts nearly an hour. It is a very serene place with lots of wild life on show and some huge cypress trees hung with Spanish moss. I was able to see alligators, turtles, cormorants, egrets, green and & blue herons as well as leaping mullet.
One thing I did not see however was Henry, the pole vaulting fish. Unfortunately he is only visible through the glass bottomed boats, but since the hurricanes had stirred up the water so much the visibility hasn’t been good enough so I am unable to comment on his vaulting technique.
It doesn’t mater though, this park doesn’t need a gimmick, it is one of if not the most beautiful places that I have seen. It is a shame that it is so far away from the rest of the Florida tourist attractions as more people should have an opportunity to visit here. But then again, maybe that is a good thing so the ambiance remains untainted by mass tourism.
The water here is a constant year round temperature of 70 degrees. Swimming is allowed in a roped off area in the deepest part of the spring, the alligators on the other side of the rope don’t encroach ……. not usually. There has never been an incident involving a member of the public and an alligator. Not yet anyway.
Although my trip was never intended as a sightseeing tour, I was pleased to have had the opportunity to visit this Florida gem which has definitely been a highlight for me. Over the next week or so I will try and visit a few more tourist attractions as I make my way down the west coast of The Sunshine State.
Leaving the park it was nine miles to Newport a tiny village that wasn’t on my radar. It was an unexpected but very welcome addition with two gas stations and a single restaurant, the Savannah Country Buffet, which is where I had lunch. Yes you’ve guessed it; an all-you-can-eat buffet. I was way out of my depth though, this place is aimed at the logging community and those woodsmen sure can pack it away. I only managed two plates of fried chicken, salad and ice tea.
A half an hour after leaving my lunch stop a car pulled up alongside me and winding the window down, the driver called out “Where are you headed?”. It can be quite nerve-wracking and distracting to have a car alongside as you are trying to concentrate on riding a straight line. I usually try to return the conversation, but on this occasion I felt distinctly uncomfortable and stopped riding. “Perry” I answered truthfully. “I’m going that way, I’ll give you a lift if you like” he replied. Like I said I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Maybe I was overreacting but there was something not quite right. Maybe it was the fact that his car had Wisconsin tags (a long way from home). Maybe it was the untidiness of the car interior. Maybe it was the …..oh, I don’t know. I just wasn’t happy. “It’s alright” I said, “I want to ride. It’s a nice day” As he drove off (disappointed?) I just hoped that he wasn’t going to be waiting for me a few miles down the road. Maybe I was just overreacting. Maybe I’ve seen one too many horror movies. Maybe just maybe.
The US98 road to Perry is long, flat and boring and today it was also a very hot ride. I was mentally tired this afternoon, finding it very difficult to maintain concentration along the road which stretches some 40 miles and appears never ending. It was same old, same old; trees, trees and more trees. Having said that it was still much nicer than the riding through busy Panama City Beach and Tallahassee that I had done in the last few days.
I passed St. Marks River, the Aucilla River and the Ecofina River as well as various unmanned wildlife management areas where you can book in and record your kills. I suppose that is wildlife management.
Shortly after passing the Aucilla River I stopped at a gas station another unexpected but very welcome find. I sat outside the shop drinking cola and water and being entertained by an enterprising cockerel. He strutted around the corner and made his way over to a dustbin. Then he tried to half-jump, half-fly onto the bin which was open. It took him about a dozen attempts before he was successful. He then removed some foodstuff before strutting off again.
From about six miles out from Perry I got bombarded by enormous roadside billboards advertising the Chaparral Inn. The advertisements were so old and battered that I though the Inn would be too. Another roadside sign that I saw and which amused me said: ‘Re-elect Jack Tedder, Tax Collector’. On my travels I have been seeing many of these roadside signs for all sorts of local elections; Sheriffs, Constables, Mayors and of course for the National nominations, but this was the first for a Tax Collector. He is either very good at his job (and by that I mean knows all the loop holes) or he is just having a laugh.
When I arrived in Perry I found the Chaparral Inn. Contrary to the impression that its advertisements gave, it turned out to be a newly remodelled establishment. However, instead of taking the first price that I was offered I decided to try a few different accommodations to compare facilities and prices. Eventually though I returned to the Chaparral. “So you couldn’t find a cheaper place then?” taunted the elderly receptionist. Actually I could but this place was the cleanest and smartest of the four that I had tried and was a very welcome overnight stop after a hot and tiring day.
Tonight was another all-you-can-eat buffet, this time Chinese. Only because it was just across the road and I didn’t want to walk too far on my injured ankle.
With all the food I was eating you would think that I would be piling on the pounds. Quite the opposite, hours of cycling, especially long slow distance, lends itself to fat burning. I knew that I had started this trip a little on the heavy side, but by the time I retuned home I would have lost over 20lbs.
Conspiracies, ramblings and the Suwannee River. Perry to Chiefland (66miles).
Today is Good Friday. Back in the UK that means it is a bank holiday. I’m not sure what to expect here in the good old US of A.
This morning I will be cycling exclusively along the US19, after lunch I’m hoping to follow the Nature Rail Trail for about 30 miles from Cross City to Chiefland. I was hoping for a quite pleasant off road ride through a nature park. Later I found out that the correct title was the Nature Coast Rail Trail. Nature Coast is the name given to this stretch of Florida because of the diversity of flora and fauna and variety of outdoor activities on offer. Although I was a little disappointed that it didn’t go through a nature park, it didn’t detract too much from my experience.
I had breakfast in Perry before setting off because my research told me that, apart from a couple of gas stations en route, the first food opportunity will be Cross City which is about forty five miles away.
The US19 is a wide flat highway with little traffic and my first stop of the morning was at Mr Shah’s gas station in Salem after about 18 miles. Here I spent a bizarre 45 minutes chatting with the owner. I guess he must be very lonely because this is the only inhabited building that I have seen since leaving Perry. Salem isn’t a town though, just a place name on the map.
Our conversation touched upon the conspiracy theories of 9/11; Mr Shah is a firm believer that the US government was behind the atrocity. He also explained his theory that Britain had embarked upon a 500 year plan to split the country of India; then he gave me his opinion that al-Qaeda did not exist and that the American President and British Prime Minister were involved in a huge deception against the public. He even gave me free food and drink as an inducement to stay and listen to his ramblings. Like I said, he must be very lonely.
Prior to leaving Mr Shah’s gas station he had one last odd question for me; “On your journey have any women offered you services?” “No” I said, a little taken aback. “What, not even in hotels?” “No” I reiterated. He must be very, very lonely!
It is another 10 miles until the next signs of civilisation, another gas station this time in the small community of Tennille and even further, an additional 17 miles to Cross City where I stopped for lunch.
Today it was difficult to find an ATM where I could get some cash. I only had a couple of dollars in my wallet and had to try three machines at different locations before I could find one that was in service. The fact that it was Good Friday didn’t really have any impact. I did find it a little strange though that the library was closed given that other government agencies such as the Department of Highways Safety and Motor Vehicles where I popped in to ask directions, were working.
Today was the start of a special offer being run by the sandwich chain store ‘Subway’ a foot-long roll filled with meats and salad for just $5 (£2.50). Obviously as someone who does not eat red meat this could be a bit of a challenge in a country which loves it: steak and eggs for breakfast, huge steaks in Texas; so my sandwich filling was turkey and cheese. Although I didn’t know it then, this chain store was going to provide me with a number of cheap lunchtime meals on the rest of my journey between here and Miami.
Cross City, Trenton and Chiefland in the three Florida counties area known as the “Tri-County Area” (the three counties being Levy, Gilchrist and Dixie) are interconnected by the Nature Coast Rail Trail. It is a biking, hiking, horse riding “T” shaped trail of about 34 miles in total length, running through Fanning Springs at the intersection of the “T”.
The trail has been built on an old abandoned railroad bed so it is almost completely flat with no steep gradients; in fact, there is probably no more than a 20 foot difference in elevation from any part of the trail. The scenic ‘high point’ for me was the old railroad trestle bridge over the Suwannee River, which has now been decked over with thick wooden planks. The Suwannee River is the subject of at least a couple of well-known songs. Firstly, the Stephen Foster song “Old Folks at Home”, in which he misnamed it the Swanee River. Secondly, the George Gershwin’s song, made popular by Al Jolson, in which it is also misspelled as Swanee.
In general the trail is about 10 – 12 feet wide and completely traffic free and you would expect it to be well used by cyclists and pedestrians, but actually I only saw one jogger and later two elderly walkers. The trail parallels the US19 for the most part and although hidden by trees and hedges, the sound of traffic can still be heard but even so there are a few places where the trail diverts a couple of hundred yards from the road and you are cycling along in complete silence.
This afternoon was one of the hottest so far and I was grateful for the tub of ‘butt cream’ because I was getting mighty hot and sweaty. Oh please! Too much information. A number of years ago when I rode the Pyrenees, I was accompanied part of the way by a mate of mine, Ron. Ron used to wear seven pairs of underpants because he thought that more padding would be comfortable on a bike. That’s a bit of a myth (not the seven pairs of pants – that’s true) but the bit about the padding. The more padding you have (including that in a saddle) the more there is to rub and chafe. You are much better off with a firm saddle and a single pair of proper fitting shorts.
Well I wasn’t about to do an Al Jolson impersonation so after stopping for a couple of photos, I headed off towards Chiefland, pausing briefly on the way to chat with a couple of elderly gentlemen who were walking the trail. One of them was 67 year old retired cyclist called Jim, who said that he used to import his tubs from England, because they were a better quality. Tubs are one piece tubular tyres which don’t have an inner tube. They stick directly to the bicycle rims with special adhesive.
Turning right off the Rail Trail onto the State road 320 takes you about 6 miles to Manatee Springs State Park, here there is a spring which discharges over 100 million gallons of water every day. The geographical makeup of the surrounding area is sand and limestone making it very sponge-like and it quickly transfers all the rainfall from a 40-mile radius into deep caves that then funnel the water to the spring. Many species of fish, reptiles, mammals (including, obviously, manatees from which the park takes its name), birds and invertebrates use the waters (which are a constant 72°) for warmth.
Re-turning back to this junction, the opposite turning took me into Chiefland. I found myself a room at the Best Western Suwannee Valley Inn. I’m hoping that tomorrow or the next day that I will have an opportunity to see some of those placid sea cows.
Manatees and Mermaids. Chiefland to Weeki Wachee (76miles).
This morning was another long lazy breakfast at the hotel. A middle aged couple of cyclists were also staying here, their plans were to ride about 30 miles along the Rail Trail. I’m continuing to head south down the western side of Florida to a wackily named place called ‘Weeki Wachee Springs’. Here I hope to see some mermaids. Before I get there however, I plan on stopping at Homosassa Springs to see some manatees and other wildlife at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park.
It is another day exclusively riding the US19 and apart from it being flat and open there is nothing much along here except a couple of gas stations at Otter Creek after 13 miles and Gulf Hammock after 20 miles. Then it was a stop for lunch at the Hickory Island Restaurant near to the banks of the Withlacoochee River in Inglis.
Lunch was good, as was the company. I was sitting with a young lady who had sailed her boat from California through the Panama Canal and who had it moored in the river nearby. Fantastic. Yet, despite her own adventures, she actually thought that my little trip was “awesome”. Also at my table was Jack Jackson from Alaska. He told me of a scenic road, the US81 that runs from Canada to Mexico. He regularly drives the road and suggested that it would make a good route for a cycle tour, but warned me that during certain times of the year some of the very northern most parts can become impassable because of the weather.
After I had finished eating, the weather appeared to be closing in. The heat of the last few days had gone and the sky was black. Florida is supposed to be the Sunshine State; I hope that my last few days aren’t going to be hijacked by the wet stuff instead.
Riding on through Crystal River the US 19 brings you eventually to Homosassa Springs and the Homosassa State Park. Homosassa is an Indian word meaning ‘place of many pepper plants’. This State Park is apparently one of the best places to see manatees, because visitors can get close to the mammals on a floating observatory. Injured manatees are treated here before being released back into the wild. In addition to the ‘sea cows’, the park has black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, alligators and river otters. However, despite the best efforts of the staff I was unable to find anywhere safe to leave my bicycle unattended for the two hours that it would take me to tour the park. So disappointedly I set off towards Weeki Wachee knowing that there may be other opportunities to see some of the indigenous wildlife before I reach Miami.
With hindsight this was a good decision. An hour down the road and ahead of me I noticed what appeared to be smoke hanging in the air. As I got closer the ‘smoke’ got denser and denser, but never moving. It turned out that this wasn’t smoke, but rain. A thick dark cloud was hovering and depositing its contents directly on my route. There was a clear and distinct line where the rain started and it was possible to stand one side of the line in complete dryness whilst a few feet away a torrent of rain was falling. It was so strong that my waterproof top was breached and for the most part I was riding blind, literally. I had to take my glasses off as the build up of water made it impossible to see anything and I was unable to put my contact lenses in. The rain continued for the next ten miles to Weeki Wachee Springs.
Weeki Wachee Springs is a clear, fresh water spring so deep that the bottom has never been found. Its name, which was given to it by the Seminole Indians, means ‘little spring’ or ‘winding river’. The Weeki Wachee River itself meanders some 12 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The water temperature, like Homosassa Springs is a constant 72 degrees. Every day, over 115 million gallons of water bubbles up out of underground caves. Deep down in the spring, the current is so strong that it can knock a scuba diver’s mask off, but a little closer to the top, about 16 to 20 feet below the surface, mermaids swim.
In 1946, Newton Perry, a U.S. Navy man who trained Navy frogmen in World War II, explored Weeki Wachee as a site for a new business. At the time the U.S. 19 which today is a busy highway, was just a quiet two-lane road. All other roads in the area were made of dirt and the area was inhabited more by alligators and black bears than by people. The spring was full of old rusty fridges and cars. The junk was cleared out and Perry carried out some experiments with underwater breathing hoses. He invented a method whereby swimmers could breathe underwater using an air hose which is connected to a compressor, rather than from a tank that is strapped on their back. So, by using the hidden air hose, humans can give the appearance of living twenty feet underwater with no breathing apparatus. Soon an underwater show was born.
A small theatre of just 18 seats was built into the limestone and submerged six feet below the surface of the water so that viewers could see into the spring. The first show at the Weeki Wachee Springs theatre opened in 1947 when the mermaids performed synchronized underwater ballet while breathing through the air hoses which had been hidden in the underwater scenery.
The show became extremely popular and in 1959 the spring was bought by ABC, the American Broadcasting Company. ABC built the current theatre, which now seats 500 and is a further ten feet lower in the water than the original.
Apparently, being a mermaid is a magical job. The mermaids even have their own little song which they sing in The Little Mermaid show:
“We’re not like other women, we don’t have to clean an oven. And we never will grow old, we’ve got the world by the tail!”
Today, the tiny town of Weeki Wachee is one of the smallest in America and has a population of just nine. Surprise, surprise, even the mayor is a former mermaid.
Usually there are 35 mermaids employed at the Weeki Wachee Springs, but today however the park had closed early because of the weather. The receptionist at my hotel jokingly said it was because the mermaids had drowned!
I booked into the Quality Inn which overlooks the theme park, dripping wet and making a puddle on the reception floor. I felt bad, but it wasn’t a problem for the receptionist.
After washing and drying the majority of my clothes I spent hours on the internet trying to find accommodation in Miami which is only five days away. No luck. Oh well there is bound to be something when I get there, experience has shown that there is always more accommodation than that which is advertised on the Net.
Jumping fish; is it the X files? Weeki Wachee to Gibsonton (73miles).
Sunday morning after a long breakfast, I set off without any real ideas for my destination this evening. Until just four days before I left the UK I had planned to ride down to Clearwater and St Petersburg using the Pinellas Trail.
The Pinellas Trail is a greenway corridor linking some of Pinellas County’s picturesque parks, scenic coastal areas and residential neighbourhoods. It started as a vision in 1983 when a man whose son had been killed whilst out riding his bike formed an advisory committee of bicycling enthusiasts. They got together with a local pedestrian safety committee and as a group worked together to find a solution to a safe place to ride, walk and jog.
It helped that the County had 34 miles of abandoned railroad and in 1990 the first five miles of the trail opened. Over the succeeding years the trail grew and helped by the construction of eight overpasses the trail is now 47 miles in length, traffic free, and used by an average of 90,000 people each month.
Well, that was my plan. I was then going to take the Sunshine Skyway Bridge from St Petersburg across Tampa Bay towards Bradenton. There was just one snag. As I was doing some last minute tinkering with my route, I discovered that cyclists are not permitted on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. I didn’t really have enough time to make detailed changes to my plans and so roughed out a route through Tampa.
So as I set off after breakfast I had just one plan and that was to get through busy Tampa and head south looking for a motel.
The US19 was fairly quiet this morning which is just as well because I was having tremendous problems with my rear panniers. They kept jumping off their supports. Then suddenly, in Hudson, the strap which connects the two together broke and I had to retrieve them from the middle of the road! Fortunately I had a couple of bungee straps which I could use as a back up.
Eventually after about 25 miles I left the US19 and headed off to Tarpon Springs and the start of the Pinellas Trail, even though I couldn’t use its entire length I was at least able to ride some of it.
This town got its name after the first people to settle here noticed shoals of jumping fish, called Tarpons. These large coastal fish grow up to 8 feet in length, can weigh up to 200 pounds and have the unique ability to breathe air from the surface of the water.
Tarpon Springs is now known as the ‘sponge capital of the world’ and is a working port with the feel of a Grecian fishing village. The Greek influence emanates from the discovery of sponges in the 1880’s. This led to the recruitment of young sponge divers from the Dodecanese Islands of Greece. The sponge industry thrived as did the Greek Community and Tarpon Springs now has the highest percentage of Greek – Americans in the US.
Unfortunately in 1947 algae wiped out most of the sponge fields and so a lot of the sponge industry switched to fishing and shrimping. Nowadays the majority of sponges that are sold on the docks are imports. However, local harvesting of sponges is making a bit of a comeback and only a few months ago in the autumn of 2007 a record harvest of sponges by a single boat was made. In addition to the seaport activities of the town I noticed a number of art galleries and antique shops, together with an attractive municipal golf course. I found this to be an altogether agreeable little town.
Riding south along the Pinellas Trail I got chatting with a local cyclist who gave me some advice: “Be careful on the roads, there are a lot of old people in this County and they are not very good at driving!”
I left the Trail at Palm Harbour and worked my way east towards Tampa. The busy US584 / 580 passes north of the international airport and through the northern suburbs of Tampa. It was here that I had my second close encounter of the trip with a motorist. Whilst riding across a junction with the traffic lights in my favour a car turned across me and it was only my supreme bike handlings skills that prevented a collision.
A few weeks ago, if you remember, I met a family from Plant City who suggested that if I was nearby, I should visit their town as it hosts a Strawberry Festival. Well today is as close as my route takes me. Yesterday however whilst surfing the internet I discovered that the festival was held at the end of February / beginning of March. As it is now 23rd March, I am too late. It was a shame really as the headline act was the Country music icon, Glen Campbell. Maybe another year?
Late this afternoon I joined the US41, Tamiami Trail which will eventually take me all the way to Miami in another 5 days time. Riding south out of Tampa I crossed the Palm River and found myself in Gibsonton where, after a quick scout around, I could only find one motel, The Gibtown Motel. In all honesty it was a bit of a hovel, but Peter the manager allowed me a tax free discount because I paid in cash. I guess that is going straight into his pocket. My room was extremely basic, but at least it had a bed nonetheless.
Wandering around this small town, it had an odd atmosphere. Unreal or Surreal. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Later I found out that Gibsonton was famous as a sideshow wintering town, where the more unusual circus acts would spend the off season. I say “unusual” the locals called them “freaks”. Circus acts with names such as ‘Percilla the Monkey girl’ and ‘The Lobster Boy’ have at one time or another resided here. Once upon a time the town had a post office which had a counter specifically for people of restricted growth (dwarfs) and a pair of Siamese twins once ran a fruit stall here. The town offered unique laws which welcomed these acts, for example, by allowing for circus animals such as elephants to be kept.
In the 1990’s an episode of the hit TV show, The X-Files, was set in this town during which Mulder and Scully investigate the death of a circus act called the ‘Alligator Man’. They also come across circus acts such as ‘The Conundrum’ a man who doesn’t talk but who eats everything & anything and ‘Dr Blockhead’ a body manipulator whose act includes hammering nails up his nose. Although they are not real residents of this town, the writer Chris Carter has obviously taken his inspiration from previous inhabitants. Later in the same decade the American chat show host, Jerry Springer recorded a live show here and a book by the horror writer, Dean Koontz, also features the town.
Although times have changed and the majority of these circus acts have passed on, some still remain as does the Giant’s Boot which serves as a reminder of what the town once stood for. It appears to me that the people that now live here are of the travelling fraternity, attracted to the area by the temperate climate.
Apparently there is a Wal-Mart here, but I never found it, so I resorted to buying snacks from the gas station a mile out of town. Later in the evening back at the motel, Peter the manager brought me some food. He is Indian of origin, and when I booked in, I had casually remarked that I hadn’t eaten Indian food since arriving in America. Peter had very kindly gone home and returned with some vegetable curry, chapattis, two mangos and a bottle of water. I’m very grateful.
Tomorrow I have two options. One is to ride the Tamiami Trail US41 to a camp site south of Sarasota. The other is to take a detour and ride some of the Florida Gulf Islands. I’ll see what the weather brings. There is no TV or radio in the motel so I’m not sure what to expect.
I’m not sure if I’m demob happy or whether there have genuinely been no photo opportunities, but for the last two days my camera has stayed in its case. Hopefully I can do something about that tomorrow.
Tamiami trail. Gibsonton to Venice (77miles).
It is a beautiful start to the morning but, not being able to find anywhere suitable for breakfast in Gibsonton, I once again resorted to McDonalds, this time in Ruskin, about 10 miles down the road. I’ve eaten far too often at this “restaurant” chain, but then again I really didn’t have much choice.
The US41 south from Gibsonton passes the heavily industrialised Tampa Bay port area which is juxtaposed with beautiful gated communities that have large impressive lakes and golf courses. Apart from that it is a pretty dull and uninspiring road.
I decided to take a chance with the weather and left the Tamiami Trail after crossing the Manatee River at Palmetto to ride into Bradenton. This will mean an extra fifteen miles, but after missing out on the beaches of Santa Rosa Island (because of the hurricane damaged road) and also missing out on Dauphin Island (because of the problem with the Mobile Bay ferry) I’m determined to see at least some of the Florida beaches.
When I arrived in Bradenton I was surprised that I didn’t see any signs proclaiming this town to be the tennis capital of the world. Tommy Haas, Jelena Janković, Mary Pierce and Maria Sharapova have all at one time or another called Bradenton home whilst training at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. So have the Williams sisters, Anna Kournikova and even our own ‘Brit’ Greg Rusedski. Other notable tennis stars such as Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, and Monica Seles all went to high school here. How does that happen? Does one person make good and then other inspired locals follow in their footsteps? Or maybe they just put something in the water!
I left Bradenton to cross onto Anna Maria Island. It is a tiny island about 7 miles long and only about 1 mile wide. None of the buildings on this island are allowed to be any taller than three stories high and the inns and cottages that are here are a rainbow of pastel colours and are perfectly at home amongst the sugar white beaches overlooking crystal clear waters. I’m really glad that I did decide to take this detour today. The beaches are some of the best that I have seen, Caribbean included.
The wind was quite strong this morning, blowing out of the west and pushing me along quite nicely thank you, over the bridges of Anna Maria Island. In Long Boat Key I met up with three recreational cyclists; Dick and Dana Braun from Cincinnati, Ohio and Dana’s brother Dennis Ostholhoff. Dick and Dana are vacationing here for a couple of weeks; Dennis is here for the winter. We spent a pleasant half an hour riding through a wooded area overlooking the white sand and blue sea. During our conversation I mentioned that I was intending to ride the Tamiami Trail all the way to Miami and speculated that ‘Tamiami’ was probably an Indian name. Dick cracked a little joke. “Do you know why it is called the Tamiami Trail?” he asked. “It’s because when people are asked where they are going they say…… Ta Miami”. Groan!
Actually although he was joking, Dick wasn’t too far off the truth. The Tamiami Trail is so called because it links the two cities of Tampa and Miami. It started life as a fanciful idea in 1910 when the area was covered in forests and wetlands and road building techniques were in their infancy. But within a few years the fantasy became a plan and in 1915 the plan became reality followed by 13 years of building before the road was completed in 1928.
Leaving Long Boat Key, the road brings you to Lido Key, in the middle of which is St Armand’s Circle and another homage to the circus life: The Circus Ring of Fame, a ‘sidewalk of circus stars’. The circus influence comes from John Ringling who was one of the seven Ringling Brothers that made up the Ringling Brothers Circus and who later merged with Barnum & Bailey to form the largest circus in America. In the 1920’s Ringling purchased a group of islands where he planned to build a major tourist attraction. These islands lay just off the coast of Sarasota, which at the time was a holiday location for the rich and famous.
The contemporary architecture of the elegant shops, restaurants and hotels was bustling with hundreds of tourists as I stopped in the Circle to eat my lunch, a foot long sub sandwich that I had pre-purchased in Bradenton.
After lunch it was a very busy ride through Sarasota passing numerous hospitals and medical centres with little in the way of shoulders or bike paths for protection until Phillipe Creek when the traffic subsided. I decided against camping at the Oscar Scherer State Park, electing instead to ride on to Venice, where I found the elegant Veranda Inn. A 34-room old Floridian-style hotel built around a central courtyard with palm trees and a small swimming pool. Each of the rooms has double French doors opening out onto the courtyard.
Ernie the receptionist is very passionate about the area and he gave me lots of helpful advice; such as where to find nesting parrots in King Palm trees, the best place to see the sunset and even where I might be able to see turtles on the beach. He described Venice as being “very safe” and told me how the local planning office is very strict about house building and that any new builds must be in keeping with the existing Italian themed architecture.
I’ve now been on the road for over six weeks and this afternoon, for the first time, I put on my swimming shorts and took a dip in the pool. I used it as an opportunity to carry out some non weight-bearing physiotherapy of my injured shin and ankle.
As near as just one block away from the main road, Venice was certainly very quiet. I cycled down to the municipal beach, stopping to do a double take and nearly falling off in the process when I saw a large white heron being fed with salami by an elderly gentleman on his front lawn.
On the municipal beach I met Kathleen McDonald, President and CEO of the Sarasota Art Centre. Kathleen’s sister lives in Belsize Park, Camden a place I know well and we both very nearly missed the sunset because we were so busy chatting about ‘back home’.
Dinner tonight was in a popular Italian restaurant near to the hotel. I seem to have spent the majority of my meal times in Mexican restaurants and when not there, in Italian. Still I’m not complaining, I haven’t had a bad meal yet.
Today, I think that the traffic through Sarasota was the worst that I have experienced so far. Ernie back at the Veranda Inn did tell me that plans are afoot to build a bike path from Venice to Sarasota. That will help relieve the stress.
A place to retire to? Venice to Cape Coral (63miles).
My shin and ankle feels a lot better this morning. Maybe the swimming had done it some good but I don’t want to get my hopes up too much. It had felt better after Dr Patel treated it, only for it to have a relapse a day or so later.
My first stop after breakfast has to be a bicycle shop. I was a bit over enthusiastic when pumping up my tyres this morning and I think that I may have broken my pump. I also think that I should purchase some more inner tubes. I know that there is only a few days to go, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
The first bike shop that I came to was in the small town of North Port. Talking to the owner he told me that sixteen years ago when he first moved here this was very much a retirement community with an average age of 71, that has now dropped considerably and the average of the population is now just over 45 years. The retirement community probably grew up around the warm mineral springs which are not too far from here. They are the only warm mineral springs in Florida and have a mineral content which is greater than any other spring in the US of A and incidentally is the worlds third highest.
During my elevenses stop in Port Charlotte I got talking with a local man, David Wilcox, who lives on Pine Island. He convinced me to take a different route into Cape Coral to the one that I was planning. He also tried to persuade me to take a three day lay over on Pine Island and some of the other hundreds of islands that lay in the Pine Island Sound.
It all sounded very spectacular; log cabins, forests, kayaks and aquatic preserves but unfortunately time was not on my side. Still I made a note for future reference. What is becoming more and more obvious is how much more there is to see in this country and that seven weeks doesn’t come close to being long enough to do it justice. Before leaving Porte Charlotte I once again took advantage of the Subway $5 foot long promotion to buy my lunch, which I stored in my panniers for later.
I took David’s advice and followed his suggested rote, the 765, through Punta Gorda, Pirate Harbour and Burnt Store into Lee County. The road is quieter than the US41, but I still wouldn’t say that it is quiet. Also there is very little shoulder to ride on and so the traffic comes very close. The road leads directly into the west outskirts of Cape Coral.
Cape Coral contains a large network of canals, some of which lead to the Gulf of Mexico and some of which lead to local lakes. There are lots of houses which have been built alongside the canals, a large number of which have docks or boat lifts.
About eight years ago this city was being touted around the British TV holiday programmes as a place to buy for its future investment and retirement potential. That was one of the reasons that I had chosen to come down the west coast of Florida rather than seeking out a route through the middle of the peninsular. I wanted to see for myself first hand what this town was like and whether or not it really was suitable for me as a possible retirement location. My first impressions were not very favourable.
The west side of Cape Coral is barren, the houses are sparse and there are few canals. I worked my way through the outskirts of town, once again having to rely on my own keen sense of direction, before finding a suitable spot next to a canal to eat my lunch. I only ate half of the sub roll and saved the rest for a late afternoon snack, rolling it up and placing it inside the top of my rear pannier.
Working my way through some more of the town’s suburbs I encountered a road that was under repair. There was no shoulder and no footpath and, a bit like the US90 back in the Long Beach area of California, I found myself at the head of a small traffic jam for a couple of miles. Once out of the road works and whilst stationary at traffic lights, a white pickup that had been following me pulled up alongside. The passenger began speaking in Spanish and gesturing towards me. I have about four words in my Spanish vocabulary and so I wasn’t able to understand any of what he said. He first pointed back along the way we had come and then gestured with both hands indicating a distance of about 15 inches apart. I thought that he was complaining about my riding. What could I have done? There was no where to ride except on the road.
I ignored the animated man and stared ahead waiting for the traffic signal to change. Once the lights changed, the pick up roared off. Later when I went to retrieve the second half of my sub roll from my panniers I discovered it had gone. I now guess that the Spanish man was trying to tell me it had fallen out along the bumpy road!
Cape Coral got more and more pleasant the closer I got to the Caloosahatchee River. I located a small hotel, The Dockside Inn, north on Del Prado Boulevard and was fortunate to secure a discount from the owner, reducing the cost of the room to a reasonable $95. Then I discovered that it wasn’t just a room, but a suite complete with kitchen and living room and a lovely view overlooking one of the canals. Things are beginning to look up for this town.
Once I had completed my daily chores I went out exploring and found that the east side is by far much more the attractive side of the town. There are canals on every turn and the houses are stereotypical Floridian in style. It might just be a place to retire to after all, especially with the relatively new Fort Myers International Airport just fifteen miles away.
After the positive reaction I got yesterday when I returned from my explorations I continued my swimming / physiotherapy sessions in the hotel’s small heated pool. I have, barring accidents, just two days and about one hundred and fifty miles to go.
How the other half lives. Cape Coral to Everglades City (73miles).
Everglades City, sits in the area around Chokoloskee Bay which for thousands of years had been occupied by the Native Americans known as Seminoles. However, by the time that the Spanish transferred control of Florida to the United States in 1821, the area was largely uninhabited.
After the American Civil War, Union sympathisers moved up the west coast of the Florida peninsula. Sugar cane became the principal crop, leading to the setting up of a trading post and a post office called ‘Everglade’. Soon afterwards, tourists started coming to the area to hunt and to fish. In 1923 Everglade became the county seat of Collier County even though at the time the town consisted of no more than about a dozen families. The settlers also added the ‘s’ to their town, so that it came to be called Everglades.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee Island, were centres of drug smuggling. The remoteness of this location and the dense mangroves that surround the area made it an ideal spot for cannabis smugglers to unload the drugs from their boats. It also helped that there was a small, isolated airstrip which they could also use to deliver their drugs by plane.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; I still have a little matter of seventy-odd miles before I reach Everglades City.
I am so pleased that I bought some inner tubes and a pump yesterday. Having gone days or was it weeks without a puncture I had two today. The first was my fault. I wasn’t concentrating and about seven miles after setting off I had a loud ‘pop’ from my rear wheel. Wassup? I had ridden over a broken Budweiser bottle. Not just a puncture but a gash that was too large to be fixed with a patch. Cue one new inner tube.
A few miles later and I crossed the bridge onto Fort Myers Beach, not to be confused with Fort Myers. Fort Myers Beach is another beautiful white sandy beach resort on an island. The road along this short string of islands has some seriously expensive real estate and hotels and takes in Lovers Key State Park and Little Hickory Island before arriving in Bonita Springs. A number of local cyclists were using the road as a time trial route, racing up and down the twelve miles of State Road 865. I’d love to join in, but I’m a bit handicapped by my luggage.
After leaving Bonita Springs I kept to the secondary road 901, or as it is known locally, Vanderbilt Drive and six miles of more expensive real estate and gated communities. The name should have been the clue.
Arriving in Naples I experienced my second puncture of the day, this time in my front wheel. From here it is back onto the busy Tamiami Trail US41, and for the first time I see a road sign indicating my destination ‘MIAMI 106 miles’.
I had already phoned ahead two days ago to book a room in Everglades City. Once again I wasn’t able to get my preferred option. I had wanted to stay at the Everglades Spa-Fari Inn, a bed and breakfast converted from the old Everglades City Bank with room names like “The Bank Managers Suite” or “The Mortgage Suite”, unfortunately I didn’t get any answer to my telephone calls, so I settled on the Everglades City Motel instead.
Everglades City is four miles off the US41 along the State Road 29. Apart from staying in the Ochopee campground this is the only suitable location before Miami. I thought that a motel room was preferable to sharing a campground with alligators and cougars.
I don’t know if drug smuggling still goes on in this little town, you really shouldn’t call it a city, but I guess that nowadays the economy is supported by tourism and in particular Everglades tours and Airboat rides.
I liked this place. It has a peaceful, relaxing atmosphere. Maybe during the height of the tourist season it get busier, but being 80 miles from Miami and over thirty miles from Naples, the two nearest places of habitation, I don’t suppose that it gets too busy. Maybe this town is another retirement opportunity?
Three Alligators. Everglades City to Miami (83miles).
If this was the last day of the Tour de France today’s ride would be a procession. It isn’t, so it wasn’t. Today was about three alligators and a frantic hunt for accommodation.
The ride itself was easy, a flat 80+ miles along the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades passing a number of small ancient Indian settlements.
The Miccosukee Indians of Florida (like the Seminoles) were originally part of the ‘Creek Nation’ and have a proud history. They were living in settlements near the West Coast of Florida, but during the Indian Wars of the 1850′s a group of about 50 tribal members escaped deportation by hiding out in the Everglades. They survived by living in small groups in temporary camps; fishing and hunting to maintain their traditional diet. Twenty years later and larger communities of the tribe began to form. The Miccosukee Indians continued to hunt and traded alligator skins, deer hides and feathers for cloth, tools, guns, salt and coffee. However, in the early 1900’s Miami real estate boomed and almost overnight the city became a metropolis. Looking around the city today I wonder if the building work has ever and will ever stop. New skyscrapers are rising out of the ground on nearly every street corner.
The introduction of canals into the Everglades changed the flow of the waters which had a negative impact on the Tribe as did the building of the Tamiami Trail which also cut off the natural course of the Everglades waters.
However, the most significant change to the Miccosukee Tribe came in 1947 when the Everglades National Park was established by the US Department of the Interior. The Department of the Interior declared that most of the Tribe’s ancestral land was now off-limits. This previously isolated and self-sufficient community suddenly found themselves thrust headlong into the 20th century with a need for more money, better education and all the other trappings that the modern way of life entails. The 375 or so members who make up the current Miccosukee Tribe and who are direct descendants of those who eluded capture back in the 1850’s have therefore been forced to diversify.
They have built casinos, hotels and other enterprises which support the Tribe’s health, welfare and educational infrastructure. The economic stability which the gambling and gaming industry has provided them, together with cattle, citrus, and other business enterprises such as tourism has made the Miccosukee Tribe one of the most successful businesses in America today. They employ more than 7,000 workers in their casinos and hotels. I think that the success they have made for themselves is a big slap in the face for the US Department of the Interior and a huge fillip for this small tribe of Indians.
Palms, Firs, Cypress and Pine trees dominated the landscape today as Hawks and Herons dominated the sky. There are even signs warning of Panthers, although you’d be pretty (un)fortunate to encounter one of those big cats; there are only about 100 of them still living wild in southern Florida.
Near to one of the small Indian settlements (but fortunately on the opposite of the road) I encountered the first of today’s three alligators. It was engaged in a feeding frenzy. Feeding on what I’m not sure because it was a large bloody mess and I wasn’t about to cross the road to find out, just in case he decided to make me his dessert.
The second was a dead alligator, again on the opposite side of the road, possibly like its cousins in Louisiana the victim of a collision with a motor vehicle. At over six foot long, and probably weighing in at about 100kg I wonder what damage has been caused to the car or truck that almost certainly hit it.
The third encounter was a basking ‘gator. I saw it too late and screeched to a halt desperate to photograph it in its natural habitat. The sound of my brakes must have startled it because with a kind of elegance I didn’t anticipate; it dived headlong into the Everglades and disappeared. How disappointing. Three alligators and not one photo. Not to worry, I do intend returning to the Everglades for some R & R and to have an Airboat ride, hopefully there will be other opportunities.
After reaching the junction of the Tamiami Trail and State Road 997 in the shadow of the huge Miccosukee Casino, I stopped for some drink and an ice cream. It was another hot day and once again it had been mentally tough for me, having been riding a long flat and straight road with just alligators and the Tamiami Canal for company. The next twenty or so miles was a change as I completed a busy ride into the city of Miami, my final destination.
Some cyclists, when undertaking a coast-to-coast ride, like to dip their wheels into the ocean at the start and end of their adventure. I didn’t have any such plans. In fact I didn’t have any planned activity to celebrate the end of my ride. I didn’t even have a confirmed room for the night, intending to take whatever was on offer. There must be hundreds of hotel rooms in this vast city.
When, by chance, I came across Number One Miami, a pair of condominium towers in downtown Miami where the Miami River meets the Biscayne Bay I thought that it was not only the most appropriate location but also the most appropriate address at which to officially end my tour. And so it was at 4.15pm on the 48th day that my ride concluded.
However, little did I know that it was going to take me over four more hours to find accommodation. Over the next four days Miami was hosting the Ultra Music Festival, featuring bands and DJ’s from around the world. Every hotel room in the city seemed to have been booked. Even (and especially) on South Beach where there are dozens of hotels.
South Beach, the bustling cosmopolitan resort of renovated 1920’s art deco buildings was once the 1st beach resort in Florida. Today it still is a beach resort but (this weekend in particular) it is frequented by the younger, trendy and fashionable community. Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive were heaving with music buffs and it was like one large street party with music blaring out of every window and door and clubbers congregating on the pavement and in the road.
Eventually, after some frantic phoning around (and even some internet surfing by my sister back in the UK) I managed to locate a room in a hotel out by the airport. I really did not want to spend four days on the airport complex, it would seriously impede my sightseeing plans; so en route I stopped at every likely looking alternative. I did find another room, at a flea bitten motel in the Morningside of the city. I won’t name it, but at just $60 a night I really couldn’t complain even though I had to fumigate the room each and every day. At least my sightseeing trips to the Florida Keys and back to the Everglades for airboat riding and alligator parks kept me occupied. It was a bit deflating not being able to find a nice hotel and even seemed a bit of anti-climax after nearly seven weeks and 3600 miles of riding.
Even though I was very ill for nearly three weeks of the trip I will still take from it some lasting memories. It has definitely been a trip of a lifetime and made all the more enjoyable by the people that I met on the way.
The highlights for me were Arizona and the old Wild West history; Texas and the Texan people who were so friendly and hospitable. I really should extend that to all of the people that I met along he way. Although I was on my own, I never felt alone. I also cannot believe that I was so lucky to only experience rain on just five separate occasions, which in total lasted no more than 35 miles which is less than one percentage of the total mileage. The lowlights were the one day I spent in the Sam Houston National Forest area and the traffic of Florida.
If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t change much. I wasn’t happy with the amount of traffic through Florida and so would re-route the last seven days. But the biggest change that I would make would be to my tent. I’d gone ‘micro’, taking the smallest tent that I could find. It had a footprint that was not much larger than the size of a sleeping bag and weighed not much more. However it wasn’t conducive to comfort. It wasn’t tall enough to sit up in. Once inside you were in it to sleep. On reflection I should have sacrificed weight for a bit more comfort. Some you win, some you lose.
Before I left England my friends and colleagues were warning me to take care. They were concerned for my safety riding so far and alone. They needn’t have worried. The negative impressions we sometimes get of America and its people are driven by the media. I have one answer for the critics: go there and meet the people yourself you may find that you will be pleasantly surprised.