By Ben |

[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on February 23, 2005]

Late Sunday morning, Diane drove me out to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Like a lot of Florida's state parks, it used to be a private attraction and so seems a little bit Disneyish. We got on a quiet electric boat and cruised through a lush, sluggish river just as we might at Disney World, but the boat wasn't on a rail, and the wildlife along the river was actually wild and live! The main part of the park is kind of like a zoo, only all the animals are native to Florida. (Lucifer the Hippo, left over from when the park was a zoo, is officially a naturalized Floridian.) Most of the animals have been rescued from near death and recuperated in captivity so long that they now can't be released into the wild.

The manatees put on a great show, crowding around for one of their many daily feedings, since they've eaten all the underwater grasses that would be their natural diet. There's a "fishbowl" floating observation room right above the spring that gives a good view of the manatees and fishes underwater. It may be the best way to satisfy human demand for seeing manatees up close without disturbing the actual wild manatees.

I left Diane's place late Monday morning and followed a route she recommended to avoid traffic returning from Sunday's Daytona 500. I've got to hand it to her: the route had a shoulder about 90% of the way, which is unusual for Florida, and it may be the best route advice I've received on this trip.

Ocala National Forest has much sparser underbrush than other Florida forests I've seen, so that I could imagine just pulling over and finding a place to camp, now that deer season is over. The underbrush at Apalachicola National Forest was so thick I think I'd be hard-pressed to find a place to stand, let alone lie down! Mid-afternoon, I started seeing hikers on the Florida Trail, which runs through the forest. I stopped to talk with one of them, who lives near the forest but had spent the holiday weekend hiking and camping and was on his way home. He told me there were a lot of "Rainbows," or modern hippies, camped at one of the primitive campgrounds, and sure enough, I saw a bunch of college-age folks wearing hemp and tie dye when I passed near there.

I stayed at the Salt Springs campground in the forest (as Diane had recommended), and Tuesday morning I rode north into Palatka. I stopped for lunch at a Huddle House, which turned out to be pretty much what it looked like: an imitation of Waffle House, but with about twice as many items on the menu. Their chicken sandwich couldn't compare. If I eat there again, I'll order something I can't get at Waffle House!

I rode pretty hard all afternoon to reach St. Augustine. When I crossed US-1 I started giggling... here's this modest, normal-looking highway that parallels the Atlantic coast all the way from the tip of Maine to Key West, and here I was crossing it on my bicycle! US-1 is not always the closest highway to the coast; when it's not, that honor goes to State Highway A1A. None of the other highways are named that way, which makes it all the more memorable.

I had high expectations for Anastasia State Park, and they were only heightened when I learned a campsite would cost me $25, more than any other state park I've ever visited. Must be really great, right? After talking with some other campers, I can say that some of the sites are very quiet, but mine was not; instead of surf I heard highway traffic and airplanes and what sounded like a rocket engine being tested. On top of that, the park has only one dumpster for 139 campsites, and judging by the assertiveness of the squirrels, a lot of campers don't make the trek to the dumpster before bed. While I was paying my respects to the Atlantic, a squirrel gnawed a hole in my canvas saddlebag and made off with the empty Nutella jar I was planning to wash for storing fragile things. I got back and found him busily gnawing through the plastic jar to get the dregs of Nutella! I was glad I hadn't left the jar in my tent, because he could easily have clawed through its nylon walls. After the squirrels and I went to bed, raccoons took up the night shift, launching a fresh assault on my trailer every 20 minutes or so. In the morning I found muddy footprints all over the bins and a bunch of sand inside, where they had managed to squeeze in a paw or two.

After I got packed up, I started calling around to try to find a better deal on a campsite. I was dismayed to find that all the private campgrounds near St. Augustine were actually more expensive! One wanted $40 for a tent site! The nearest affordable campground I found was in Jacksonville, which wouldn't leave me much time for sightseeing in St. Augustine. I made one last call to the hostel shown on my bike map. The manager said a bed for the night would cost me $18, but when he heard I was traveling by bike, he said, "In that case it's $15... and that includes breakfast!"

So I rode into town (past a number of $30 hotels! cheaper to get a room than a campsite...) with a light heart and the prospect of a dry bed at the end of what was forecast to be a very rainy day. But the sun came out and made the air so muggy that I changed out of my bright yellow-orange shirt (thanks, Uncle Carl!) into a white one to stay cool. I climbed to the top of the historic St. Augustine Lighthouse and walked around the Castillo de San Marco National Monument. St. Augustine is considered the oldest city in the US, meaning the oldest European settlement. The Castillo withstood at least a dozen hostile attacks because it's made of coquina (seashell stone), and cannon balls just bounced off its walls. The lighthouse has a similar history: Anastasia Island was the only place on the coast where a lighthouse would remain standing, because the rest of the coast is all sand.

I was surprised to find that the hostel has a pirate theme ( I was able to dry all my gear on the rooftop deck before the forecast cold front finally moved in late in the afternoon, and I explored the nearby historic district, which is a lot like New Orleans' French Quarter, only Spanish, and many of the roads are closed to vehicles.

My high-school friend Scott sends the following in response to the smelly paper mills question: The process of refining pulp involves two really smelly things: Ammonia (tons of it) and the actual pulp itself. If you have ever smelled wet, decomposing cardboard you would recognize it as a component of the paper mill odor. In the pulping process, the reclaimed paper/wood chip product is kept wet while it is agitated and cooked and it breaks down into a fibrous pulp. This partial decomposition yields the readily identifiable aroma. When I was really young, my dad worked for a paper mill in Arkansas and the odor of the working factory could bring me and my infant sister out of a deep sleep.

Thanks, Scott! Let's all use less paper and make the world a little less smelly... :-) --Ben