By Ben |

[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group, February 13, 2005]

I've really been enjoying the longer days lately... for the first time since October I can sleep in, take my time riding, and still get to camp well before sunset. Well, most of the time, anyway...

The ride into Panama City Wednesday morning was so easy I felt like I was coasting. Fresh off the bridge, I saw I convenience store offering free coffee, so I stopped in. As I was drinking my coffee in the parking lot, a young man sauntered over and said he had a BikeE similar to mine and a BOB trailer, and he was thinking of doing some touring. We talked for a while, and I mentioned that I was having trouble planning a route into Tallahassee. The difficulty was that the Apalachicola National Forest has only one road going through it from west to east, and all the campgrounds are on the north-south roads, and camping in the rough isn't allowed during deer season, which doesn't end until the 16th! This man strongly recommended that I follow US-98 along the coast, south of the forest, until I was south of Tallahassee, at which point I would find a rail trail into town. In fact, he said if I followed a marked bike route a few blocks away, it would take me past the library (which I was looking for) and to 98, where I'd find a good shoulder to ride on all the way. I was skeptical, because I've found people's directions to rarely be accurate, but I gave the bike route a shot. After the library, it led me deep into a residential neighborhood with beautiful live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

A word about live oak trees: when I first saw them in southeast Texas, I couldn't believe they were related to oaks because A) they grew all crooked, B) they had small, oval, evergreen leaves instead of big, lobed, deciduous ones, and C) I didn't see any acorns. But in this neighborhood I finally saw some that looked like oaks. They seem to be particular favorites of lichens and air plants like Spanish moss, which coincidentally also looks nothing like its relatives, namely pineapples.

I found the highway at last and headed out of town, past the Arizona Chemical Company, which smelled like a paper mill from a distance and was indeed processing truckloads of pine logs, but up close it smelled exactly like Worchestershire sauce. If I didn't know better, I'd swear that's what they were making.

The highway didn't have much of a shoulder, and it led through Tyndall Air Force Base, which from the road looks like a whole lot of nothing -- noplace to stop and rest. At one point I crossed the highway to stop on a little sidewalk and reapply sunblock. Someone thought this behavior was suspicious and called it in, so two military policemen paid me a visit while my hands were full of sunblock. They asked a lot of questions and ran my driver's license, but they didn't detain me further.

When people ask me my destination, Minnesota is not the answer they're looking for. All autumn I said "Texas," and all through January I said "Florida." I noticed an odd thing: people in the South were more impressed to hear I was headed to Florida than that I'd come from Minnesota, even when we were just 50 miles from the Florida border. The same is true within Florida: these MPs couldn't believe I was biking all the way to Tallahassee! All I can figure is they have no concept of how far Minnesota is... either that or they know that almost half the country's bike fatalities occur in Florida!

I rode into Mexico Beach shortly before sunset and made a beeline for the one campground that allows tents. They gave me a good deal on a site that was mud & gravel, but with a wooden picnic platform. I set my tent up on the platform although it smelled powerfully of cats and spent a comfortable night up off the ground. That night turned out to be one of those magical nights when everything dries... Had I known, I would have done a bunch of laundry!

Thursday morning I rode into Port St. Joe and did some more route research at the library, but I was surprised to see how late it was getting already. Come to find out I had just crossed into Eastern Time! I'm now south of Georgia instead of Alabama. Several people had recommended I visit St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, but it would add about 25 miles and an extra day, so instead I took a shortcut through St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge and got into Apalachicola by mid-afternoon.

The town of Apalachicola is conveniently located where the Apalachicola River flows out of Apalachicola National Forest and into Apalachicola Bay. (Suggested motto: "Mind if We Call You Apalachicola, to Keep it Clear?") The hotels there looked too pricey for my taste, so I continued across the bay to the town of Eastpoint. It was a beautiful day, but chilly, and with a stiff wind. The wind was at my back most of the day, which was great, but I really felt the gusts when I crossed the 5-mile bridge across the bay!

I was looking for a hotel rather than a campground because the night's low was forecast to be in the 20s F. As it turned out, the tenting campground in Eastpoint had closed anyway, so had I wanted to camp, I would have had to rough it or head out to St. George Island -- very scenic, I'm sure, but almost 30 extra miles. Eastpoint has only one remaining motel, but it's a really neat place, well maintained, affordable, and right on the water. Quirky, too: my room had a hayloft and an attached squirrel cage! I took pictures.

I took my time leaving my comfy motel room Friday morning because I needed to make a tech-support call to the makers of my keyboard, which was going through an uncooperative phase, and their phone center operates on Pacific time, despite being in India. So I watched two episodes of Buffy and changed my rear tire, whose slow leak was getting on my nerves. Cue ominous music.

I rode a final stretch along the Gulf coast (Apalachicola Bay) before turning north. The tide was out, and I saw millions upon millions of little sand piles on the beach. I tried to dig one up to find out what sort of shellfish had made it, but I found nothing in the bay sand besides smelly black organic matter, so I gave up. There were no shoulders much of the way, so I pulled off the road frequently to let cars pass, and I got a flat in the tire I had just changed! Still, I couldn't ask for a nicer day to stop and change a tire.

US-319 was much more fun than 98, a pleasant road through the forest with light traffic and good shoulders. I rode to Ochlockonee River State Park, which besides being fun to say is a very beautiful, secluded forest park. I went for a walk to see the white squirrels, which are not native and not albino, but were imported to the area as pets and released accidentally. They're quite striking.

My plan for Saturday was simple and elegant: I would ride to Tallahassee and stay at a campground west of town. Rather than follow the most direct highway route, I would go a few miles out of my way to the rail trail that connects Tallahassee to the Gulf shore town of St. Marks and enjoy the peace and quiet away from traffic. One small problem: I got another flat, on the same wheel that had two flats yesterday in two different tubes and tires. The problem was on the wheel rim, not the tire, so no amount of changing tires would keep the tubes from getting punctured; I put a patch on top of yesterday's patch but it was torn through in less than half an hour. I had to stop every 15 minutes and pump more air into the leaking tire... needless to say this slowed me down, though it did get me some upper-body exercise for a change!

Another cyclist stopped and asked how he could help. I told him I was headed for a bike shop in Tallahassee, and the only thing I thought could help me get there would be flat-fixing slime. He rode ahead and bought a can of automotive flat-fix which specifically said it shouldn't be used on two-wheeled vehicles, but we rationalized that the risk of a blowout was negligible at the speed I was going -- and away from traffic. The tires I use are meant to run at 80-110 PSI, and I need that much pressure on the rear tire because of the weight of the trailer, but the can could only manage about 60 PSI, so I had a spongy ride all the way into town, but at least I didn't have to stop every 15 minutes!

I got to the Organic Engines workshop about an hour before sunset. Organic Engines makes recumbent bikes and trikes, notably a heavy-duty utility trike that can carry over 1000 pounds! The owner, Dan, and his assistant were expecting me, and they quickly fixed the rough spot on my wheel and gave me some new tubes. I explained that I was headed for a campground west of town, and Dan invited me to stay at his house instead. I was exhausted from riding with a low tire, so I gladly accepted. Since I didn't have to hurry to the campground, I got to test-ride all the different vehicles. I wanted to try the utility trike under load, so Dan (175 lbs) climbed in the back. Since there are no hills here, I pulled him up the ramp of a loading dock. When I lost traction it was because I didn't weigh enough -- the trike is front-wheel drive, and the cargo sits over the back wheels -- but fortunately the trike backs up very well, unlike my trailer!

Dan is from Nova Scotia but married an American woman and moved down here. He had been doing custom welding for local customers but got into building recumbents at the same time the Internet came of age, so he was able to skip all the traditional marketing hurdles and go straight into the mail-order bike business. He's also actively trying to improve the neighborhood where he lives and works, so he bought a local coffee shop that was serving as a community gathering spot but was having management trouble. I took him out for dinner at an amazing pizza place (modestly named Decent Pizza) and we talked about community building and ecovillages and human-powered vehicles. Then he dropped me at his house -- which is also a fixer-upper, being a former crack-house -- and went back to his shop to work late into the night.

Next stop: Ocala!