By Ben |

[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on February 9, 2005]

I've had some good times so far in the Florida Panhandle! On Friday I followed the route Bruce suggested around Pensacola to the west and north, but even that far from the coast I saw lots of hurricane damage. The sides of the roads were littered with asphalt shingles and vinyl siding, even as construction workers were scrambling to put new flimsy shingles and siding in their places! Those who do not learn the lessons of the past...

It was still early in the afternoon when I reached my campground for the night, a place called Pelican Palms right next to an I-10 entrance ramp. I was having some lower-back pain from sleeping on the strawberry plants two nights before, so I lay down and read for a few hours. My neighbors in the campground were a young couple from Kansas City who came down "the day after the hurricane" because he's a licensed tree surgeon and can make upwards of $500 a day cleaning up after storms, and she's an OR nurse. But when they got here they found a huge bureaucracy designed to protect the hurricane victims from price gouging, and by the time they had gotten themselves properly re-licensed and certified and insured, the work was mostly done. So he's been doing roofing ever since at a much lower pay rate, and she's been turned down from every job she's applied for because she's overqualified, and for six months the two of them have been living in a tent between a highway interchange and a cell phone tower, and they're planning to go home in a few days.

I had a couple of options for Saturday... I could ride long and hard and reach the coast around noon and ride along the coast to Destin, or I could make it a short day and camp at Blackwater River State Park, in the middle of nowhere, and ride to Destin the next day. It was the Interstate that made up my mind for me... the sound and smell of traffic and trucks idling on the on-ramp interfered with my sleep, and I decided I was fed up with following highways. (I've been following US-90 more or less since I left Texas!) I'm not contributing to engine exhaust, so why should I breathe it all the time?

Blackwater River State Park sits in the middle of the state forest of the same name. It's nearly 5 miles from the highway and blissfully quiet, aside from the folks reenacting the Creek and Seminole Wars on their weekend, who fired fusillades and cannons all night long. It's still a lot better than idling trucks, if you ask me! In fact, that park made such a good impression that I made a point of staying at other Florida parks for the next few days, although they got progressively less secluded and less affordable as I continued east. They're still nicer than any parks I've visited since Wisconsin. Many of them were founded as commercial theme parks and, when they went bankrupt, were bought by the state, and they still have peculiar landscape features from their theme-park days.

I was prepared for Sunday's ride to take all day, so I hit the road at sunrise and rode fast and hard, at least by my standards. The ride was uneventful aside from a toll bridge (bicycles 10 cents) from the mainland to the barrier island, about 5 miles of calm, shallow water with a view of rays and other large fish milling around. Around 2:00 I arrived in the "Twin Cities" -- Valparaiso and Niceville, Florida. Niceville was nice enough; it gave me a marked bike lane all the way to Rocky Bayou State Park. The "bayou" looks more like a sandy lake than the swampy bayous of Louisiana and Mississippi, but I guess if it's a slow-moving river it qualifies. And as for "rocky" -- well, I haven't seen many rocks since entering Florida. The ground is all sand!

My neighbors in the park were a bunch of Cuban tree cutters, who had just cut down a big pine tree in their campsite -- I'm going to assume at the park's request -- and reduced it to firewood to the accompaniment of a loud radio, and then gave the firewood away to a constant parade of other campers. Fortunately they went inside to watch the Superbowl and took their comically obese pit bull with them. One of the other neighbors stole my jar of Nutella, carried it to a fallen tree, and gnawed a hole right through the side of the jar before I could stop him!

Monday was an amazingly beautiful day! It couldn't have been more pleasant... clear and dry and mid 70s, and my route took me along the gulf coast -- the real ocean, with waves -- on a paved bike path most of the way. When I passed through Destin (suggested motto: "Why Settle for Destiny When You Can Have the Real Thing?"), the bike path was crowded with snowbirds on their morning walks, many of them clutching cups of coffee. I thought it was odd that they kept bidding me good morning when it felt like 2:00 to me, but it was still only 11... time seemed to stretch out forever.

I ended the day's ride around 3 PM at Grayton Beach State Park, which apparently was voted America's best beach a few years back. It lacks many of the features I would think people look for in a beach, but it does have impressive dunes (the brochure says, "What appear to be bushes growing out of the dunes are actually full size trees covered with sand"), and the sound of breaking waves makes a nice change from (or at least a nice addition to) the sound of highway traffic. I waded in the surf for a while in the afternoon and returned after dark when I emerged from the shower house and discovered a clear, warm, moonless night. A gorgeous day like that can make up for an awful lot of bad weather and hostile traffic. I'm sure glad I didn't take a Greyhound from Pensacola! I woke around dawn on Tuesday and took my time getting ready. I made another trip down to the beach to look for my camera, which I had left there, but someone had already brought it to the park office, where I was able to reclaim it.

I guess I succeeded in getting well clear of New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Although I was still seeing beads along the highway shoulders as far east as Pensacola, the day came and went without a single sign that it was Fat Tuesday. I followed the shore most of the day, but there was less bike path and more shoulder and sidewalk through a nearly continuous row of condos. They're building lots of new high-rises ... at least, I assume they're new and didn't just get blown down by the hurricanes! The day's destination was Panama City Beach, which I actually saw abbreviated PCB. Yummy!

St. Andrews State Park is just east of town, on a point of land where a lagoon meets the gulf. The campground is on the lagoon side, but it's a sandy Florida lagoon with little gurgling waves rather than a swampy Louisiana one with duckweed, and the sound of the breakers carries nicely from the other side of the park. I went for a long walk on the beach before sunset and got my walking shoes thoroughly soaked when a wave came up higher than I expected. There are worse things that can happen to shoes. En route to the beach, I stopped at an alligator-viewing dock, and there was a small alligator waiting there to view the people. Then while I ate dinner at my picnic table after dark, a blue heron stalked over and began fishing for its dinner about 30 feet from me. The deer are even more tame -- good thing I don't have any fresh vegetables in my tent!

Around the time I send this message, I'll be in Panama City (suggested motto: "If you Leave the First Letter Off our Name, You Deserve What You'll Get") trying to figure out where to go next. Stay tuned! --Ben