Triplogue - Florida

29 April 97, Crestview to Marianne, FL, 86 miles

And I had always thought that Florida was flat as a roadkill armadillo. At our greasy spoon breakfast this morning, what appeared to be the village idiot came up to us and warned us that our route would be hilly all the way to Tallahassee. He said he was a cycling enthusiast himself and suggested an alternate route along the coast. We didn’t heed his advice though, and spent the better part of the day cruising up and down the steep hills of the Panhandle.

We had a tailwind again –albeit a considerably lighter one than yesterday’s—and we covered the thirty miles to De Funiak Springs in no time. This was where our pal Geoff’s mom grew up, and we theorized over what house could have been her childhood home. The town was amazingly cute, full of funky old structures organized around a sort of lake. Fred said the place reminded him of an episode of "The Twilight Zone", just as I was thinking of the resemblance to the village in Patrick McGoohan’s "The Prisoner" --creepy.

A bit further East we encountered love bugs by the millions. Susan had told us about them in Pensacola, how they were introduced to eat mosquitoes but had become a pest themselves. They’re black and fly slowly, always linked in copulating pairs. I concentrated on keeping my orifices closed as best I could. The drivers, however, were a much worse pest. Most of them were cum laude graduates of the Redneck School of Driving, and seemed to derive glee from passing us as closely as possible, or coming up right beside us before leaning into their horns. Fred remarked that Florida has the highest b.p.m. (buttheads per mile) ratio of any state we’ve ridden in.

We sought refuge from US 90 at a Quonset hut restaurant in Ponce de Leon, where the lunch special was copious and cheap. When we emerged, our tailwind had disintegrated into something resembling a headwind. The terrain turned swampier in the lower altitudes, and I kept a vigilant eye open for gator sightings. Bonifay and Chipley felt especially rednecky and threatening; we joked about stopping for an iced mocha, but paused only long enough to purchase water at a weird Christian service station with slogans all over the walls. Further on, what looked like the entire burg of Cottondale was being dismantled. All of the buildings along the roadside were being either demolished or carted away on flatbeds. Was the ground tainted? Or were they just planning to widen the road? We’ll never know. Marianna soon appeared amidst the towering magnolia trees, heralded by rush hour traffic. We landed a sort of suite by sweet-talking the granny-owner of our hotel. She directed us across the street to Tony’s for some truly uninspired Italian cuisine. Tonight I’ll dream of the biscuits and grits I’ll be wolfing down at breakfast tomorrow.

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Letting one of Florida's friendly drivers pass before crossing the Choctawhatchee River

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The photo that almost sent us there

30 April, Marianna to Tallahassee, FL, 80 miles

To be forever known as "I hate Florida Day", this day taught me to have little respect for this state. As we rode eastward I daydreamed of the end of our voyage in the States and our imminent departure for Europe. Anything to keep me from thinking about how unfriendly the people are in Florida. I have the distinct sensation that the African American folks resent our whiteness and the rednecks despise our yankeehood. My suspicions were verified by the jeers and catcalls from passing drivers of all colors. Cars whizzed by at barely subsonic speeds so close we could feel their trim. When they weren’t yelling epithets at us they were honking and gesticulating. The sheriff of one county even tried to run us off the road. Adding to our riding experience were the trash strewn road shoulders.

The day was not without distraction. On the outskirts of Chatahoochee we came across our first of many Floridian correctional institutions. It seemed to be surrounded by levies of brillo pads. As we rode closer we discovered it was razor wire. Our map showed that we could take a shortcut on a road that ran close to the prison and we were interested in getting a better look. We wanted to take a photo of the premises but warning signs advised us not to. As we biked the perimeter (against my better judgment) Andy goaded me into taking a picture. Without stopping I reached into my handlebar bag, turned on the camera, lifted it over my head and took two shots. The action did not go unnoticed. A mile away from the prison a pick-up truck with official markings zinged up to us and rode on the grassy shoulder to our right. The shotgun-wielding guard advised us that we had been riding close to a prison and that we should not have been. Andy started to insist that it was a public road. I cut him off and started replying with "yessirs" and "nosirs". Spending the day with this type of flatfooted buffoon was not what I had in mind.

Coasting into Tallahassee was not an option. The terrain was the hilliest we had seen since the hill country of Texas. The city was no exception; roads laid out in a grid over steep slopes made it difficult to shop for a hotel with all of our gear aboard. I was especially cranky and ready to be off my bike as quickly as possible. Looked all over town for a place to rest our heads to no avail. Finally we decided to eat. Popeye’s across from the rescue mission gave us an opportunity to collect some nourishment before reinitiating our search. We shopped with our stomachs, sampling the complimentary chocolate chip cookies at several hotels. Finally settling on one that had been decorated by an iron curtain era designer. When we reached our room we realized that the sliding glass door had been sealed by the hotel. One of the benefits of traveling with enough tools to disassemble a bicycle is that we can correct this type of problem. After my minor hotel remodeling job we proceeded to update our website in the newly fresh air.

Afterwards we decided to hit the town for a drink. We got into the cab cautiously when I noticed there was no meter. When the driver quoted us $10 for a ten block trip I bargained with my feet, opening the door and getting out. Quickly backpedaling our driver corrected himself saying that was for a two-way trip, further demonstrating the sleaziness of Floridians. The bar, called "Brothers" was a bust, too. We had gone anticipating viewing fictitious Ellen becoming a lesbian on t.v. in the company of some simpatico homo brethren, but the bar wasn’t showing it. There wasn’t a single sister to be found at Brothers, which Susan had told us was Tallahassee’s one and only queer bar. All we found were a few scary-looking alkies slumped over the bar. An admitted former heroin addict from New York asked Andy if he wanted to step outside to taste some moonshine that he had stashed there. We took this as our cue to return to our hotel, where I was soon dreaming of our arrival on the east coast.

1 May, Tallahassee to exit 84 (near White Springs), 111 miles

It didn’t take us long to bike out of tiny, verdant and hilly Tallahassee. Pumping our way out of town we thought of the "village idiot" back in Marianna, who had told us the terrain would flatten out East of the capital. We postulated that he had never been East of Tallahassee, which he’d visited only once, to pay the back taxes due on his trailer. The road we followed was unquestionably the prettiest one we’d been on in a long while. It was called Old St. Augustine Rd. (which made us feel like we were nearing our goal, plus heading in the right direction) and was self-billed as a "canopy road", meaning that the long branches of live oaks and other trees had all but engulfed it entirely. The best part of all, though, was the utter lack of traffic, which we were to enjoy for the remainder of our extremely long day of riding. Fred kept turning to me and saying that he was beginning to like Florida again, against his better judgment.

At our lunch stop we met a family who was very curious about our travels. We answered their many questions and learned that they were in the process of moving to Oklahoma. The dad was a fossil hunter, and told us that if we got into any kind of trouble we should go to a church. He told us his favorite flavor of church, too, and I wondered for a moment if his and his family’s enthusiasm had an agenda behind it. When we complained about all the rednecks in the Panhandle, his response was: "Just consider yourselves lucky you’re not riding through Georgia; it’s much worse there." I told him we’d seen "Deliverance" and thought to myself that the Sunshine State wasn’t looking so bad after all.

After following a series of beautifully abandoned back roads, we hooked up with the 90 again near Greenville, where we were surprised to find a shoulder and a dearth of auto traffic. In a sleepy old town called Madison we stopped at a pharmacy and soda fountain for root beer floats and a routing pow-wow. Several logistical factors made us decide to head towards Jacksonville rather than St. Augustine. Our goal for the evening shifted from a campground on the Suwannee River to a motel some twenty-five miles further down the road, making me wonder if we’d ever find a use for all the camping gear we’ve been lugging along.

The sun had nearly set by the time we reached the cluster of highway culture at exit 84 of Interstate 75. We were exhausted, sweaty and encrusted in road dirt and dead bugs, so my attempt at bargaining for a better room rate was especially feeble. When I saw the sign outside proclaiming the motel as "American Owned" I was prepared to deal with a redneck, yet inside was another friendly Indian gentleman, who told me that he was just filling in for his friend and that the owner was indeed American. I wanted to ask him how he felt about the racist, xenophobic sign outside, but my desire to get under a shower was too strong.

The nearby "3 B’s" (we never did ask what the b’s stood for) looked like your basic roadside diner, but the food was surprisingly good. You could tell that someone in the kitchen actually gave a damn about what s/he put on the customers’ plates. We both needed to carboload after such a long day of riding, and devoured our plates of pasta like wolves. The beverage selection was more disappointing, however. When I ordered a beer, the waitress insisted on my proof of age, which I had left behind in the room. No problem, I said, just bring me an O’Doul’s beer-flavored non-alcoholic beverage. When she said I’d need an ID for that, too, I nearly lost it; but Fred placated me into settling for a big cool glass of water.

Not much later, I fell asleep giddy with the thought that we’d be finished with our transcontinental journey in less than twenty-four hours.

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Photos go in this column

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Andrew rescuing a tortoise from Florida's dangerous roads

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of their U.S. journey with their official photographer, Will

2 May, exit 84 to Neptune Beach, 101 miles

Our Indian friend from the front desk of the hotel burst into our room a few times in the morning as we were preparing to get an early start for Jacksonville. Each time he said "ooh, sorry, wrong room!" As we were actually leaving he dashed in again, frantically looking for something and caught us as we were getting on our bikes. "Did you leave the key?," he asked. Andy and I looked at one another trying to remember who had the key last (this was not the first time we had walked away with the key). Each of us looking at the other more and more confidently, trying to intimidate the other into digging through panniers to find the key. I finally fessed-up to having it last and rifled through and found it.

Breakfast was at the 3-B’s again. There was a table full of waitresses from the night before and one was with her girlfriend. We were both amazed at how many rural lesbians there are in the U.S. who seem to be out, happy and accepted in their communities. Andy was still grumbling about the beer episode the night before. He finally calmed down after a few cups of coffee.

The first part of the riding day was great. Warm morning sun, wide road, little traffic, big shoulder and exquisite scenery. Crossing the foliage-encrusted Suwannee River we got into the groove for last day of riding in the states. The splendor faded gradually as we headed for America’s largest city (824 square miles).

We knew that we were in the capital of white trashdom and redneckdom as we pedaled past a business called "Repo City" that specialized in reselling repossessed trailer homes. Cringing and laughing at the same time upon seeing the signs that boasted "E-Z terms", "No money down" and, the especially ironic - "No credit check".

We were riding through what was signed as a National Forest. Nestled in the National Forest were five more correctional institutions. We mused about what Florida should consider changing its tagline to. We imagined them supplanting "The Sunshine State" with "The incarceration state". The "National Forest" was a sham, behind the rows of trees that had been left along the road there were acres and acres of land that had been clear cut. Occasionally we came across groves of trees that had been spared. Near one of those groves we saw a tortoise on the opposite shoulder contemplating crossing the road. In horror Andrew sped across the road, picked up the wayward creature and relocated him back to the grove.

Not long after this good deed we road into McClenny, nearly the last town before the sprawl of Jacksonville. The main streets were perpendicular to the small highway we were riding on and were devoid of any lunching opportunities. We couldn’t figure out where the folks in a town of over 10K were eating. We finally ran into a couple who had been stranded in the town for a few days while their car was being repaired. The looked like they were incarcerated, very sullen, very sad and very fed up with being in McClenny. They pointed us down a side street that led to the new center of the town that had grown up around the WalMart. There we hit paydirt, ate lunch and hit the trail.

The next miles were not as interesting as the last. The terrain became more and more urban. The shoulder became narrower with each mile. The traffic became heavier. Gradually the riding experience became more and more hellish. By the time we reached downtown Jacksonville we were ready to forego the Atlantic Coast Bike-at-the-beach vanity shot. We persevered and rode onward. Motorists became ruder and ruder, coming closer and closer as they passed. Finally we elected to take a lane on the narrow road and that is when all hell broke lose. As we approached a signal an impatient female motorist came up behind us and laid on her horn. Then a bearded dude in a very fancy pickup truck lost his temper and tried to run us off the road. He nearly clipped me but only brushed my front pannier.

I lost my temper and so did Andy. I saw a cop in the gas station on the corner and sped off to explain what had happened. Andy berated the bozo through the window of his truck. As I told the cop the story he started to tell me there was nothing he would or could do. Just then a woman who had seen the whole event unfold rolled into the station and started to tell the officer what had happened. He still said there was nothing to be done. I wouldn’t settle for that, the driver had intentionally tried to hit me. I told the officer that I wanted to press charges for assault with a deadly weapon. With that he called his supervisor, who instructed him to write a Hit and Run citation.

That wasn’t the last redneck run-in that afternoon, either. Looking back on it, Jacksonville has to be the most dangerous urban area we’d ridden through during the trip. We rode slowly and carefully to the coast. After winding through coastal residential neighborhoods we found ourselves at Neptune Beach. The excitement of seeing the sand was too much; it signified the end of this leg of the trip. It also meant the end of riding with rednecks. We dragged our bikes down the beach and into the water coerced some little passerby to take the photo and were ready to seek a hotel when we met Robert.

Robert is too large a character to describe. Novels are based on people with this big of a personality. He is the uncle of Will, the boy who took our photo. Wade, Will’s brother, and Robert came up to us just after Will snapped our picture in the sand. Robert was from Massachusetts, lived for years in California and now in Neptune beach with "his Woman, Peggy." We knew this and more within two minutes of introduction. Before we knew it we were having a beer and watching the sunset on Robert’s porch overlooking the Atlantic musing about our trip and learning Robert’s life history while he apologized to Peggy for bringing home strangers again. Model, filmmaker, boat restorer, clothing manufacturer, professional kickboxer, amateur artist and professional bullshitter were among his past and present careers.

We escaped (narrowly) to our hotel down the beach, but not without promising to come back the next day to share our bottle of champagne that somehow ended up in Robert’s fridge. On the way to the hotel we couldn’t help but think how great America is and how nowhere else in the world could breed people like Robert, as well as our friends in Sanderson, Allen and Amy from Pensacola and all the other wonderful, wild and weird cast of characters we’d met along our route. We cast aside sentimentality and were soon stuffing our faces at the copious seafood buffet of our hotel, wondering how Europe would compare to the U.S.


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