By Ben |

[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on February 18, 2005]

Hi, folks! I've reached the southernmost point of my tour: the home of my friend Diane in Marion Oaks, Florida, just south of Ocala. It feels good to be here! I had some misadventures this week, but the joke's on me and I get it, so imagine me smiling as I tell you all about it...

I packed up in Dan's house in Tallahassee Sunday morning and arrived at his coffee shop just after it opened. I checked my e-mail over coffee (Dan's urban-rustic house lacks a phone line, among other amenities that his lifestyle makes unnecessary) and then biked to church. I went to church today looking for my missing friend Alex, not for freebies, but the members insisted I share their potluck lunch. One of them offered me a room for the night as well, but I said I was headed out of town immediately. No one remembered having seen Alex.

I followed what my map showed as a bike route out of town. After I left the traffic behind, I got out my phone to make some calls and found a message from my mother's cousin inviting me to stay at her house north of Tallahassee... had I picked up the message while I was still in town, I would definitely have gone to catch up with her, but I was already about 15 miles east, so we settled for a phone conversation. Away from the beaches, Florida has actual soil instead of sand, and the bayous look more like the ones in Louisiana and Mississippi: lots of cypress trees standing around in puddles with their knees sticking up. Cypresses grow their roots in a shallow circle around the trunk, and when they fall over (e.g. in a hurricane) their circle of roots tips up in the air, just exactly like the base of a wine glass. I stopped for the night at a KOA that turned out to be the most luxurious campground I've seen in months... it has a beautiful, cozy game room, a homey feeling shower house, and complimentary continental breakfast and afternoon tea! Wild.

I had two options on Monday: I could ride east all day and reach Suwannee River State Park around sunset but have lots of camping options (close to Interstate 75) from there on south, or I could make a shorter hop southeast to Perry and risk not getting a campsite but be farther from the big highways. I was leaning toward the shorter route because I slept badly and had trouble getting up. But what cinched it was that, as I was finishing my complimentary Belgian waffle breakfast, rain started falling -- the first inclement weather I'd seen since entering Florida. By the time I left the KOA I was tempted to turn right around and check into a "kamping kabin," it was raining so hard. But I knew I could at least get a hotel in Perry, so on I went.

Bruce, my host from Alabama, sent me an e-mail warning me about fire ants. I was all set to write him back and say I'm already acquainted with them, thank you very much... but when the rain let up around noon and I stopped to take off my poncho, I must have put my foot down in another of their hills. They wreaked their fiery vengeance just above my ankle sock, stinging me about 30 times before I got them off. I was able to keep my elastic pant cuff from rubbing against the welts, but even so, by the end of the day my ankle was so swollen it was stiff. Not really painful, just uncomfortable. Thanks for the warning, Bruce... I'll try to be more observant!

Perry is quite the town for cheap motels. Not that I checked their prices... I'm talking about places that feel they have to advertise that their rooms are clean, or that their televisions are capable of color, or that they accept credit cards. That's how I know they fit my budget: they haven't updated their signs in 20 years. I passed at least two dozen such motels on my way through Perry, plus three campgrounds. Two of the three allow tent camping, and I chose the one closer to town so that I could run back in before dark and get groceries. I asked a clerk why the town has so many motels, and he said, "Tourism. We're close to the beach." Well, OK, if 15 miles is close. Another man I asked later said that before I-75 was completed, US-19 carried a lot of traffic through Perry, but that doesn't explain why the motels are still in business now... puzzling.

Around 3:00 Tuesday morning, the wind shifted and put Perry downwind from ... a paper mill! It was several hours before I got used to the smell and could go back to sleep. The day that followed was so humid that I could see my breath although temperatures were in the 60s F. So the good news is that my laundry didn't dry smelling like paper mill!

Steinhatchee is a little marina town on the river of the same name. There's no question about why there are so many motels and RV parks in Steinhatchee: the riverfront is practically one continuous marina, on both banks. I got a good deal on a tent site and settled down to do some work, since the afternoon was still young, but my keyboard stopped working again... Must be the humidity. So I spent the afternoon resting and reading instead. When I took off my shoes, I had trouble finding my right ankle bone through the fire-ant swelling, but I elevated the foot for a few hours and it went down. I met my first sand fleas at that campsite -- I'll take them over fire ants, mosquitos, and chiggers any day, because although their bites feel like pinpricks, they only hurt for a moment. And thank goodness my tent keeps all such varmints out! Knock on nylon.

I had a nice quiet ride down US-19 Wednesday, but when I got to Cross City and stopped in at the library, the librarian told me about a rail trail that parallels the highway all the way to Chiefland, which is roughly where I was headed. Happily I was on that trail, far from traffic, when I got distracted by a tangle in my headphone cord and wiped out on the asphalt. One of the few things I don't like about the BikeE is that its steering is unstable, particularly at the low speeds I travel. The front wheel really would prefer to trail behind its headset like a caster wheel on a shopping cart, and given an opportunity, like a loose grasp on the handlebars, it may express this preference by whipping around and pitching the bike over sideways. Had I not had so much practice getting my feet out of their pedal clips, I might have landed hard on my hip and elbow, as I've done a few times on Minneapolis ice. As it was, I got my foot under me and was able to roll onto hands and knees like any good kid. I bruised a hand and skinned a knee and had to realign the troublesome front wheel, but otherwise all was well. It's hard to get discouraged on a beautiful day!

I saw my first signs of Florida agriculture Wedneday... In the panhandle it was all forestry, hunting, fishing, and tourism. No citrus orchards yet; just hay fields and pasture. I pity any livestock set out to graze a field full of fire ants! Outside Cheifland I turned back west to Manatee Springs State Park. Manatees (or as an explorer in 1774 put it, "the monstrous amphabious maneta") living in the famous Suwanee River like to spend the winter in this spring-fed stream because it stays a constant 72 F year round. It also makes for good viewing, because the water is clear, unlike many Florida bodies of water, which are stained black with tannin. I didn't see any manatees, but the area around the spring was very pretty and interesting. I walked there with some fellow campers who have toured by bike in the past, so we shared stories.

On the highway Thursday morning I saw a man walking, pulling a big duffel on a luggage cart. I did a U-turn and stopped to talk with him. He said that reading the Bible in Greek a year and a half ago had convinced him to get rid of all his worldly belongings (except the duffel) and live in what he called the "Celestrious Realm," which I took to mean the more or less natural world. He told me that traveling faster than 25 mph damages the soul, and that I should camp illegally more often and "shit in the woods" whenever possible, the better to lead a celestrious life. He also warned of the sinful "water mines" (groundwater pumping) though he reluctantly admitted he drinks bottled "spring water" himself. He aspires to one day get all his water from melons. So for those who think I'm crazy for biking around the country... Well, it depends whom you compare me to...

I felt really good on Thursday and was able to go a lot faster than usual without getting tired. Didn't get any flats for a change, either! But the traffic was kind of aggressive on US-41 and left me a little shaken by the end of the day. The campground at Rainbow Springs State Park used to be a private RV park and is not contiguous with the rest of the park. It was immediately clear to me that the campground is not the main attraction: it's the crystal clear water of the river. I called up Diane and arranged to go canoeing with her first thing in the morning.

Another cyclist in the campground saw me pull in and came over to talk. He's not touring at the moment, just serving as a campground host (a volunteer who lives in the park for a season), but a friend of his is headed west by bike and stopped by for the night. It's amazing how many people have made trips like mine, and how many people have never heard of such a thing!

I slept in Friday morning and made a hot breakfast and was able to thoroughly dry the tent before Diane arrived at the campground. We rented a canoe and paddled up the Rainbow River to its source in the other part of the park. Along the way Diane pointed out cormorants, egrets, and other wildlife. The water is some of the clearest in the world, very popular with scuba divers. I was still kind of rattled from the previous afternoon's traffic, so I accepted Diane's offer of a ride into town. We were able to fit all my gear into the back of her pickup. We stopped at her local grocery store on the way home, and she seemed to know everyone there, just like Lonnie did in Fairfield. It took us over an hour to buy three items, but we had some great conversations!

Most people I meet here aren't native to Florida, but I've met enough Floridians to be able to offer you: A guide to Florida vowels (tongue in cheek):

  1. "mean" is pronounced "main"
  2. "main" is pronounced "mine"
  3. "mine" is pronounced "mon"
  4. "man" is pronounced "Mayan"

"Florida," by the way, has two syllables and rhymes with "sorta."

Q: What kind of computer, PDA, etc. are you using? Seems to be holding up pretty well, in spite of keyboard problems.

A: Yes, it is, though I have to admit I'm on my second one. Before my first trip in 2002, I bought the least expensive PalmPilot that met my needs, specifically because I wanted it to be durable but disposable. I started with a Handspring Visor Deluxe, plus a folding keyboard, a modem, and a backup card. When the Visor wore out I went to buy another and got talked into buying a more souped-up model, the Platinum, for the same price... actually I bought two, just in case. The price was right. Number two is still fully functional but it has some water stuck in the screen, and I'm holding number three very carefully in reserve. Now that my keyboard isn't working reliably, I've obtained a spare keyboard (thanks, Marisa!). All told it adds up to about $500.

I'm going to take a well-earned vacation for a few days while I wait for the rest of my mail to catch up with me. I'll have two rolls of new photos to share with you in a day or two! Happy Presidents' Day! --Ben