Feb 3: Florida

Submitted by Ben on Tue, 02/03/2015 - 08:49

[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on February 3, 2005]
As I write this, I'm still in Alabama, just across the border from Florida, but by the time I send it I'll be in Florida at last. I wound up staying in Alabama a couple days longer than I expected!

It rained all night on my little tent in Mobile but let up a few hours before dawn Tuesday. I left camp at a reasonable hour and headed straight for a big chain bookstore: the time had come to buy my Florida map. There were some stores in the nearby malls that I thought might carry chain lube, so I paid them quick visits.

In the Toys R Us parking lot, a mother of twins idled her minivan to ask if I needed directions. I told her I didn't think so, but she proceeded to tell me eight times with a pained expression that I shouldn't ride through the tunnel across the river, which I already knew because it's an Interstate highway. I didn't want to be rude, because she was trying to be helpful. What I didn't know was that there are two tunnels, so when I told her I was going to ride on the US highway, she thought I planned to ride through its tunnel. The only other way across the river was a bridge about three miles north of the tunnels. Fortunately I allowed plenty of time, having no other business to keep me in Mobile.

Rain started falling again as I was crossing the river bridge, and it continued all day and evening. When the Hazardous Cargo route caught back up with the tunnel routes, the US and Interstate highways intertwined together playfully on their way across Mobile Bay. The Interstate bridge is about 15 feet above the water and crisscrosses back and forth above the US highway bridge, which is only about 6 inches above the water! Must have been high tide.

I considered stopping for the night at Meaher State Park, but when I learned there were no showers (aside from the scattered ones in progress) I decided to go on to the town of Daphne. I stopped at a gas station to ask directions to the bike shop, and the woman ahead of me in line was complaining that the rain had been with her all day since she left northern Louisiana in her RV that morning, and she hoped it wouldn't follow her all the way to Jacksonville, Florida that night. Meanwhile I dripped patiently behind her. [My Uncle Dale counseled me later that I should have said, "Must be tough!"]

At the bike shop I bought chain lube and asked about the "Bike Route to Florida" sign I had seen at the divergence of US-90 and US-98. The clerk said that it's not so much that 90 is a good road to ride as that this stretch of 98 gets terrible rush-hour traffic, so they wanted to entice bike tourists away from it! He then proceeded to recommend a motel on 98...

If I could live Groundhog Day over and over again, like Bill Murray's character in the movie, I don't think I would bike all day in the rain. I'd watch the 6 AM broadcast of the Buffy musical until I was sick of it. I'd try all of the thousands of ways to order Waffle House hashbrowns, including the ones that involve Bert's Chili, without fear of getting sick the next day. I'd give my rig to the two Hispanic guys who were admiring it. Then I'd call a cab and give the cute, sleep-deprived waitress the ride home to Mobile she was fishing for, and then I'd go to the airport and fly to Pittsburgh to meet my new nephew. Among many other possibilities.

But I had the next day to think of, and the forecast said that the rain would stop by noon, so off I went. I got as far as Foley, Alabama, where I knew there were hotels and campgrounds. But none of the campgrounds allowed tents, and all of the hotels were full! (I later learned why: read on.)

That didn't leave me with much choice... I headed down a county road and pulled into the first concealed, non-posted property I found, which turned out to be an out-of-season strawberry field. All I can say is that anyone who can claim nothing is real after being in a strawberry field is either hallucinating or a very stubborn existentialist indeed, because strawberry hillocks are really lumpy!

I woke well before dawn Thursday and picked about 50 slugs off my tent before hitting the road at sunrise. I stopped at a convenience store and told a curious passerby that I was having trouble finding places to stay. His response changed my day and nearly changed my whole trip: he said this area is still recovering from last August's hurricanes, so there are hundreds of workmen visiting from out of town, plus displaced homeowners and renters. He suggested I go farther from the coast, i.e. back north where I had just come from.

That would be a good suggestion, if I knew of any campgrounds farther north, but I didn't! I called a hotel in Pensacola, verified that there was at least one room available in town, and decided to ride there and use the library in the morning to plot further plans. If I couldn't find better options down the road, I'd pack up my gear and take a Greyhound to central Florida.

But as I was approaching the Florida border, I spotted another cyclist and stopped to talk. I asked him about the extent of the hurricane damage, and he said it was really only bad for a 100-mile stretch of the coast; once I got east of Destin I should be fine. Then he invited me to use the Internet at his place. By the time we were a mile down the road, he had invited me to camp in his yard. By the time I met his wife, I was to sleep in their camper in the garage. By the time I woke from an afternoon nap, I had been invited to sleep indoors and have dinner and breakfast with them. They took me to an import grocery store, where I bought two pounds of halvah (energy food!), and to a buffet restaurant where I got their money's worth. Their rationale for helping me was the same that Mike's mother used in Cincinnatti: "I know if it were my son out there, I'd want him to have X."

Bruce is a retired Navy dental technician who makes extraordinary wildlife-inspired jigsaw art when he's not out bicycling. He and his wife travel in their camper and have all sorts of campground guides. I was able to find enough places in these guides that do allow tents and are not booked solid (I called them to double-check) that I won't have to ride the bus after all; I'll just detour around the windblown area as far as Destin.

Q: I was wondering, how do you handle securing your possessions when you leave your trailer at a campsite?

A: I don't. I have faith in the average person's lack of chutzpah. When the tent is all closed up, there's no way to tell whether or not it's occupied, short of opening it, so the only people who would know for sure that my stuff is unattended are the ones who know I'm traveling alone: one or two of my neighbors in the campground. Same goes for leaving my bike unlocked when I go into a store: I could come out any second, unless you saw me go into the bathroom. Most people won't risk it. And if they do, I'm insured. So far the only item that's ever been stolen from me in my adult life is my previous bike, and that was locked at the time!

Wish me weather worthy of Florida's reputation! --Ben