Biking the Atlantic Coast – The End

[This is the fourth and final entry about my biking trip down the East Coast with my wife Sarah]

We heard from Adela.   

Her plan to hitch-hike from Surf City to Raleigh, North Carolina, did not go well.  Actually, it didn’t go at all.  To return to my Steve Martin movie reference, Adela didn’t even make it to the end of the fence.  A few drivers stopped to chat, but no one was willing to transport her and her bike in the direction of Raleigh.  After a few hours in the cold, she hopped on her bike and followed our route south. “Thankfully, I think she made it Wilmington, although I don’t know where she is staying,” Sarah said, as we walked back to our Airbnb after dinner. It was a big relief.  Perhaps our journey with her was not over.

The next morning, we rented a car.  And even more demoralizing, it was a mini-van. 

Sarah and I debated all morning, but in the end, we decided to optimize for safety over pride.  Several times on this trip I had glanced to my left—out over the white shoulder line of the road filled with cars whizzing by—and thought, that’s death out there.  I believe you need to go to the edge occasionally to feel fully alive, but I don’t want to go over that edge anytime soon.

I hit the submit button on the rental car site.  It was official: We would skip the shoulder-less South Carolina roads. 

As I biked to the Wilmington airport to pick up a mini-van that morning, I reminded myself that we now had a good shot at making it all the way to Key West before Thanksgiving.  And I also thought about my daughters, both of whom had yelled at me on multiple occasions during this trip for taking on too much risk.   Daughters are a gift.  I know that making generalized gender distinctions is not favored (and often inaccurate), but the differences between our son and daughters was on display.  Our daughters were tracking our every move.  Our son?  He may, or may not have known what part of the country we were in.  Not that I expected him to, especially considering he is a freshman in college and living his best life.  I was sort of glad he wasn’t yelling at me too.

It felt weird to be behind a steering wheel again.  And very, very fast.  It amazed me how quickly I had become accustom to life coming at me at 12 mph instead of 65 mph.  

Back to Reality

Later that morning, we reunited with Adela in a Trader Joe’s parking lot.  It was a relief to see her safe and we exchanged hugs.  The good news was that she had found a “Warmshowers” host in Wilmington where she stayed the previous night.  The bad news was that there were no trains in Wilmington, either.  She was still stuck.  But thankfully our mini-van was big enough to pack in a third bike, and an artist from Brooklyn by way of the Czech Republic. 

We’re off to Savannah, I do, I do declare!” I say in a bad southern drawl as we pull out of Trader Joes.  Adela smiles politely, but Sarah responds flatly, “please don’t.”  It doesn’t dissuade me from similar attempts during the 305-mile road trip from Wilmington to Savannah, Georgia. 

It was fun to be reunited with Adela.  It was not fun to be driving again. It struck me how impersonal the experience seemed.  We passed 100’s of drivers, but I didn’t look at a single face or think about them as fellow humans.  They were mostly just in the way.  And like the drivers I scoffed at while biking, I found myself becoming angry if someone slowed me down for even a second.  The South Carolina state line flew by, and I thought about Sarah and I taking pictures as we crossed into North Carolina several days ago.  “It’s way more fun to cross a state line on a bike,” I say, but neither Sarah nor Adela will indulge my pity party.  And rightly so.  This is incredible, I remind myself.  It would have taken us five days to pedal across South Carolina.  Instead, in five hours I’m rolling across it effortlessly at 70 mph while seated in a comfy chair in a climate-controlled bubble of glass and steel.  So what if I had to brake for a second, I’m going 70! 

I wish I had this perspective every time I plop down behind the wheel of a car.

Savannah’s Underbelly

We dropped off Adela in another parking lot—this time across the street from her Airbnb rental in Savannah.  During our drive, she tried to find another Warmshowers host or camping option, but had to settle for Airbnb in this larger city.  At least she found one with a very good COVID-related discount.  “I love you guys,” Adela said as we hug goodbye again.  “Please watch the weather and stay safe.”  “We love you too, Adela,” we replied.  And meant it. 

Why was Adela, a woman who was very comfortable with risk, warning us about the weather?  Because another hurricane was bouncing around the Caribbean and was likely to pinball its way towards Florida.  In hurricane speak, we would be traveling into the “cone of uncertainty” of Hurricane Eta.  The 2020 hurricane season wasn’t done with us yet. 

But first, we decided to spend a few blissful days in Savannah exploring and watching the Presidential Election.  We loved Savannah.  It’s a peaceful, walkable city built on a human scale, well before the age of the automobile.  Gorgeous old homes are organized around dozens of small squares, pocket parks and quiet city blocks.  Enormous live oaks, some over 300 years old, spread their graceful branches out over every brick street and sidewalk.  Graveyards, historical markers and statues tell of a long, complicated history.  Church bells ring from towering steeples on the hour—an echo that transports you easily back in time.  While strolling around the old city, I started to feel like a character in the board game Clue, complete with a monocle eyeglass and walking cane.  I resist the temptation to shout “it was the butler with a candlestick, I do declare!”    

But for all of its charm, we couldn’t shake the feeling that the city was also sanitized and detached from the real world in a Disney-esqe sort of way.  As though there was an iron hand at work behind the scenes to make this magic happen.  Sarah noticed it first, pointing out that we hadn’t seen a single homeless tent in the city, despite walking miles and miles of its streets and alleyways.  There were also no bugs, and with the exception of pigeons, no real wild creatures of any kind.  “Have we even seen a squirrel?”

As we were having this discussion, sitting on a park bench in Forsyth Park, a small group of people unfurled a rainbow flag and some big signs and started marching up the park.  From out of nowhere, two policemen on horses came trotting up and the group seemed to quietly disperse.  Maybe they lacked a permit?  Having seen our city of Minneapolis torn apart this past summer, Sarah and I are very conflicted about how to root out police misconduct and racism without destructive riots, but Savannah has swung the pendulum far towards order. 

It felt stifling.

We made our way down towards the horses to see what happened, but it was back to normal.  Just then, we bumped into Adela.  She was hopping on an Amtrak train in less than two hours, bound for Philadelphia, where there was another cone of uncertainty, this one surrounding the Presidential election.  “I can’t wait to get out of here,” she said.  I’m sure she had felt the same sterile undercurrent we had, although we didn’t discuss it.  We said our goodbyes a final time.  God speed Adela.  You; your energy, your heart, and your perspective, have been a gift to us on this journey.  There would be a lot less suffering in the world if it was full of people like you.

Two days later and the Election behind us (sort of), I pulled out my phone at a bustling intersection on our way out of Savannah and started recording a video to send to our family.  I scanned the scene and then said, “Just in case any of you are tempted to feel jealous that you aren’t cruising peaceful, tree lined country roads or enjoying glamorous ocean beaches with us, I wanted to send you this evidence of our more typical daily existence.”  I hit send before the light changes.  Sarah can’t stop laughing.

Savannah boasts a major U.S. seaport and an international airport.  Our biking route out of town was sandwiched between them on a busy divided highway.  Trucks hauling shipping containers are streaming in lines out of the port, spewing diesel smoke.  Cars, pickups and SUV’s, are frenetically trying to avoid them, but are only succeeding in winning the race to see who can stop first in the line at the next stop light.  Jetliners are roaring overhead, one after another, without end.  There is dust hanging in the air and trash everywhere.  A cacophony of noise surrounds us.  It feels a bit like demilitarized zone—a ground on which humans should not be biking, or even standing.  

The Belly of the Beast

Our stay in Savannah had been idyllic, but now two days later, I was recording the underbelly that makes that tranquility, and the luxury of modern life in general, possible.  It made me think back to my Flounder dinner the night before at the fancy Olde Pink House, and all of the steps it took to pull that fish out of the ocean and drop it onto my plate.  I didn’t stop there.  I thought about the Amazon orders delivered by truck to my house that are made in China, shipped to the U.S. across the sea, and wrapped in cardboard made from trees clear cut from a Canadian forest.  I thought about the metals in my iPhone, and in the bike I was riding.  Violence, pollution, destruction.  Just because I’m not doing it with my own hands doesn’t mean I’m not a part of it.     

These thoughts made me appreciate running the gap between the airport and seaport that day on my bike.  It’s an underbelly we should all see, feel, and consider.  Plus, it gave my family a good laugh. And our daughters more to worry about.    

Our goal for the day was to make 63 miles to the Parkwood RV campground in Statesboro, Georgia, where we would rejoin the main Adventure Cycling route and start making progress south again.  It was a great ride, once we got used to the rumble strip and narrow shoulder that made us feel like we were riding on a tightrope.  As an added bonus, we ran into more donkeys, which always provide Sarah with more pep than a shot of 5 Hour Energy. 

Donkeys!

It felt good to be camping again that evening, even though the Parkwood campground was made for R.V.’s and located along a road that was so busy that we walked our bikes in the long grass on the side of the road the last half mile to get there. 

Once again, it was the people we met at the campground that made the experience special.  As we were setting up, Daryl rolled up in his golf cart with a German Shepard riding shotgun.  He and his wife were living full time in an R.V. after selling their house just down the road—the first step in their goal to retire in a few years.  I suspect most of the “campers” in this park called the place home.  It’s a rung on the ladder that many people are forced to grab as they get laid off or reach retirement age. 

Drive-In Movie

After dinner and a make shift “drive-in” movie on my laptop, we met Joyce and Selena who were staying in a borrowed R.V. next to us.  They had just returned from the hospital in town, where Joyce’s adult son was in intensive care with a viral infection.  His prognosis was dire, yet despite their own crisis, all Joyce and Selena wanted to do was help us find a place to stay or camp the following night.  We kept trying to turn the conversation to them, but perhaps the focus on our adventure was a welcome mental break.

Meeting people usually feels random, like we are ping pong balls in a lottery game bouncing around and into each other.  But once in a while a meeting feels anything but random—like you were supposed to meet.  That’s how Sarah and I felt about Joyce.  There was an immediate bond, even before we learned that she had recently lost a grandchild to gastroschisis, the same rare birth defect that almost took our daughter Caitlin from us two decades ago.

The next morning, Joyce got up early to see us off, and presented Sarah with a small cross that a chaplain at the hospital had given her the previous day.  She hoped it would keep us safe.  Sarah hung it on her handlebars, where it remains to this day.  And it did indeed keep us safe.  I wish we could have given something to Joyce to keep her safe.  Her son passed away the next day.  But despite struggles and tragedies, her warmth and kindness—her spark—had not been broken.  She continued to reach out to us for updates on our trip and to make sure we were safe.  I’m not sure I would have the same strength.  Like the cross, it’s another gift Joyce gave to us. 

Joyce

Pecans, Cotton and Food Deserts

It took us another three days to pedal south through rural Georgia.  We loved it, with a few exceptions.  Exceptions like the Friendship City Inn in Reidsville.  Our ride from Statesboro to Reidsville was only 35 miles, but it was hot—mid 80’s—and our legs were tired.  Check that, my legs were tired.  Sarah’s legs do not get tired.  The State Campground in town was full and the manager would not make an exception for us despite our limited mobility.  We next tried to find “Ray’s Gay Campground,” which is exactly what the name implies.  It showed on our Google maps just outside of town but the dirt road was a dead end and Ray was nowhere to be seen.  It was just as well, as Ray’s informed us when I called later that they were not comfortable having a woman, aka Sarah, anywhere on the property.  So much for inclusion Ray. 

That left us with the option to either bike another 40 miles to the next town or book a room at the Friendship Inn, the only hotel in town.  It was getting late in the day, so we opted for friendship.  The hotel’s Google reviews and $48/night price did not make me optimistic that our room would be luxurious.  It was not.  It was so bad that Sarah never took her shoes off, even while showering.  I’m not kidding.

But we both enjoyed Reidsville.  It’s the kind of out of the way, rural town that you’d never come to as a regular tourist.  It was an unvarnished window view into small town life in America, complete with a dinner at the local pizza joint that was hopping after the Friday night high school football game, and a long chat with Jimmy Burns, who owned the auto parts store in town.  Jimmy even gave us a tip on where to stay when we made it to Cocoa Beach, Florida.  “Tell Miss Jane at the front desk that Jimmy Burns sent ya.”  

Thanks Jimmy

Our struggles to find lodging continued the next day.  The hotel in Nahunta that was listed on our Adventure Cycling maps had closed and we couldn’t find another hotel, campground or Airbnb rental anywhere on our planned route that was reachable in one day. 

After a lot of research, I found an old cabin for rent on a farm outside of Atkinson, Georgia, only 15 miles out of the way.  The owner, Mary, was nice and even offered to have her husband pick us up so we could avoid a busy stretch of road.  “If you come over while the Georgia/Florida football game is playing tomorrow though, the road will be empty,” Mary noted.  They take their football serious in these parts.

It sounded like a solid option, but Sarah—the hard-core camper—was having none of it.  “Let’s just ride to Nahunta and try to find a spot to pitch our tent.  I bet that lady you called at the bar in town would let us sleep in her parking lot,” she shot back at our Team Meeting early that morning at the Friendship Inn.  After some debate, Sarah agreed that Mary’s farm was the better option.  Either that, or she couldn’t stand to be at the Friendship Inn any longer. 

The Friendship Was Not Busy

The 87-mile ride from Reidsville to Mary’s place in Atkinson was the type of bluebird day that kept us going on the trip—like the occasional long putt for birdie that keeps a bad golfer coming back to the course again and again.  We enjoyed quiet country roads through Pecan and Cotton fields.  Wandered through old family farm cemeteries planted under towering Live Oaks.  Discovered our first orange trees.  Read historical plaques on abandoned Baptist churches that people used to walk to on Sundays rather than drive.   Rolled through small towns with front porches and sidewalks.  And everywhere, friendly people and drivers moved over and waved.  We even saw a few bicyclists out for a ride—the first we’d seen in the State. 

Reidsville to Atkinson, Georgia

One thing we did not see anywhere in those 87 miles was a grocery store.  The phenomenon of food deserts in America is well documented, but we can confirm it’s real in Georgia.  We passed dozens of places to buy fast food, hot dogs, fried chicken, chips, etc., but couldn’t find anywhere to buy vegetables or even fruit.  The best we could do was a Dollar General in Hortense, where Sarah found some frozen broccoli and cans of black beans after getting shut out at the mini-mart next door.  “We are stopping at dollar stores from now on!” Sarah exclaimed as she came out with the broccoli, legitimately excited.  Yep, it was that bad.  

We reached Mary’s just before dark, heavily laden with Dollar General food and a little shaken from what we had seen a few miles up the road.  It was a farm that had at least ten huge flags—the size of garage doors—flying along the road.  Pickup trucks spilled out from the driveway and were parked everywhere.  As we got closer, we discovered that the flags were confederate flags.  A bonfire was roaring around the side of the house with a big crowd of probably 100 people gathered around it.  I reached for my phone to take a picture, but thought better of it.  Biden had been confirmed as winner of the election earlier in the day, and this crowd looked angry and in need of a target upon which to displace that anger.  Hippie bikers seemed like they might be on the menu.  We put our heads down and pedaled quickly by.  “Was that a Nazi youth gathering?” I said to Sarah after we passed, but the intended joke fell flat as we were both a little shaken.  It was the only time on the trip I felt concerned for my safety, other than the ever-present concern of being mowed down by a car.

Mary’s farm made us quickly forget the Proud Boys.  It sat on a sandy 45 acres hugging the Satilla River, and contained a menagerie of farm animals, old cabins, and three generations of family members.  We stayed in a restored century old cabin with a big front porch.  After Mary showed us around, I spent most of the evening following Sarah, who was following the resident donkey on the property, Skippy.  Life is good anytime there are donkeys present, even if Skippy was a misbehaving rescue donkey that was taking full advantage of his run of the property.  After a busy night keeping Skippy out of trouble, we both slept like babies. 

Sarah Calls an Audible

I awoke to a light rain pattering on the metal roof and enjoyed my early morning coffee on the front porch swing.  The forecast was concerning.  Hurricane Eta was starting to slowly move our way from the Gulf, and would bring easterly winds of 25mph by evening, growing to 35mph the next day.  Our planned route had us going south today and then turning east tomorrow, into that headwind to reach Amelia Island on Florida’s Atlantic coast. 

Tomorrow’s going to suck,” I say to Sarah as she joins me on the porch and pets one of the farm dogs that has stopped by, a few chickens following in a line behind him, “but we can’t change the weather.”  Despite our need to gain some miles east today if possible, we linger until the 11:30am checkout time on the farm.  It’s a peaceful place that’s hard to leave. 

The rain passes by the time we depart, ushering in another hot day.  As navigator, I’ve found a way for us to rejoin the Adventure Cycling route after our detour yesterday and we set off southwest towards Callahan, Georgia. 

Thankfully, my wife is smarter than I am. 

A few hours into the day, we stopped for a snack and Sarah asks the obvious question, “why are we riding west when we are trying to get out to Amelia Island on the coast?”  Rather than slavishly following Adventure Cycling to Callahan like me, Sarah pulls out her phone and discovers that we are very close to another bicycle route, the East Coast Greenway, which takes a more direct easterly route to the coast.  The East Coast Greenway is not yet complete, and we’ve joined it a few times on our ride when our route overlapped.

“It’s high risk, high reward,” I say timidly, unsure of the road conditions we will find, especially on the long bridge crossing the St John River at the Florida/Georgia line.  I’m used to trusting (hiding behind?) our Adventure Cycling maps.  But Sarah’s argument carries the day.  We turn east and join the Greenway route on Highway 17. 

It turns out to be a brilliant audible.  The route is safe and we make so much progress that we decide to push all the way to Amelia Island, arriving at our beachfront motel in the dark, exhausted and happy that we’ve now made it to the Florida coast a day earlier than planned. 

“I’m confident now that we can make it to Key West,” I say to Sarah as we toast our progress over drinks at the open-air bar.  Sarah is the first to admit she is not a pathfinder, but I’m starting to disagree.

After dinner, we walk the beach with a huge sense of relief and anticipation.  We got ahead of the big winds.  The Ocean will be off of our left shoulder for the rest of the trip.  And Florida’s biking infrastructure is supposed to be great—bike lanes and bike paths everywhere. “Hello Florida!” a yell out towards the dark Ocean, but it disappears in the roaring surf.

Route Brought to you by Sarah

Thank You Florida!

It doesn’t take us long to appreciate the investment Florida has made in biking.  We start the day pedaling south on the broad shoulders of the A1A, and then enjoy a winding bike path through three connected State Parks; Amelia Island, Little Talbot and Big Talbot.  “Thank you Florida!” I yell as Sarah and I cross the Nassau Sound on a huge bridge with an 8-foot shoulder.  There are kite boarders flying on a wind-swept Atlantic beach off in the distance.

The wind is strong, but it’s hitting us sideways and even a little over our left shoulder, giving us a slight push.  By lunchtime, as we ride past the giant estates along the Sawgrass country club, the wind becomes so strong that it’s blowing sea foam and sand across the road and we have to lean sideways into it as we ride.

“Can you imagine if we had to bike into this wind today?” I ask Sarah as we stop at a Whole Foods to restock.  “You can call an audible anytime you like.”  Despite the deteriorating conditions, we decide to push on, rejoining the A1A as it heads south on a narrow spit of land between the Guana River and the Ocean on its way to St. Augustine.  Thankfully, there is a huge sand berm along the Ocean which blocks the brunt of the wind.  Just before we leave the A1A for the day and head into St Augustine, we pass a Jacksonville “Storm Team” Weather Van filming a live segment.  A weather guy in battle dress is animated in front of a camera, leaning into the wind.  Behind him, several big end loaders are pushing the blowing sand off the road.  It feels as if the Ocean has plans to swallow this road up tonight.  Our lives are certainly not in danger, but we are happy to reach St. Augustine.

Eta, the Hurricane that Won’t Leave 

“I have to advise you that we are currently under a tropical storm watch and if the hurricane center upgrades to a tropical storm warning during their 4pm update today, we will be evacuating the campground” the Park Ranger at the gate of Gamble Rogers State Park informs us.  It feels like he is reading a statement prepared by lawyers.  “We aren’t from here,” Sarah replies, “are we ok?”  He shrugs, “you could ride out to 95—there are a bunch of hotels—but it’s a several miles and it would be a miserable ride.”  Gee, thanks.

Sarah and I have just arrived at Gamble Rogers after a two day stay at an Airbnb in St. Augustine.  We didn’t know much about St. Augustine, and we left the city impressed by its history, architecture and natural beauty.  The oldest European house in America still stands in town, and the well-maintained Spanish fort and old city walls tell the story of European powers jockeying for power in a New World.  It was a great few days to do laundry, sleep, eat, and explore.  We even found our favorite restaurant of the entire trip in town, The Floridian, which was sadly closed on our second evening or we would have eaten there twice. 

St. Augustine–Here, There Be Cheesy Pirate Shops

But this afternoon, we are 40 miles south of St. Augustine, checking into Gamble Rogers State Park on the Atlantic shoreline.  The park had been full—every State Park in Florida seems to book up months in advance—but I found a cancellation the day before.  Now I realized why the spot was open.  Hurricane Eta was just not going away.  After brushing the Florida Keys while we tourist’ed our way through St. Augustine, it was supposed to turn and head northwest toward Louisiana.  But it decided instead to move up the west coast of Florida and would cross the state overnight.  It would degrade to a tropical storm over land, but there was a chance it would track directly over us. 

Despite the Ranger’s warning, we decided to set up our camp. Perhaps we had gotten cocky after successfully dodging multiple storms on the trip already.  But we did have a very capable tent, and we were only 100 yards or so from a concrete building that housed the bathroom and laundry facilities.  As usual, we were the only tent in sight. 

Are you the cyclists?” a guy in a pickup asks as we walk back to our tent after hot showers.  Sarah noticed his Wisconsin plates and yelled hello.  “That’s my R.V. right there,” he said, pointing.  “If it gets bad tonight, just come on in.”  An hour later, he swung by and added, “I parked my truck with the keys in it next to our rig—just take it into town overnight and find a hotel if your tent goes in the storm.” 

It’s amazing how many nice people there are in the world, if you meet them standing face to face with humility.  Living on your bike provides humility in spades.

The hurricane center did not upgrade the watch to a warning at 4pm.  We were going to ride this one out.  Sarah made dinner sheltered behind a bathhouse wall and we marveled at the roaring Ocean just over the dunes.  There was a lone surfer in the churning surf and we watched him get pummeled as he rolled onto the beach in the dark, relieved when he walked away.  “Now that is bad ass,” Sarah said.   

We were zipped into the tent by 8pm, and I spent most of the night alternating between sleeping, holding the tent frame, and checking the hurricane website on my phone.  They upgraded us to a tropical storm warning at midnight.  We dodged the first giant storm cell, but the brunt of the storm hit us at around 1:30AM.  The wind was impressive and knocked us flat a few times, but the tent held, there were no big trees around to worry about, and the downpours didn’t flood us out.  I was very glad we spent the money on a quality tent.  Other than a bad night of sleep, we were no worse for the experience.  Joyce’s cross was still hanging on Sarah’s bike when I crawled out to assess the damage in the morning. 

The wind pushed me over to the bathhouse to make coffee in the early light, and our neighbor, John, joined me as I was waiting for it to boil.  He and his wife, Becky, were also up most of the night in the storm and they had debated inviting us over to ride it out with them in their tiny R.V. trailer, but COVID-concerns made them think better of it.  He came to deliver a little care package that included extra face masks, snacks and candy.  I ended up chatting with him for at least an hour about his life, career, kids, and cycling.  He had such a peaceful and caring demeanor, I was not surprised to learn he was a retired junior high school teacher.  I’m sure many kids counted themselves lucky to know him.

As we pedaled away later that morning, the camp host stopped us on his golf cart.  I did not realize it, but “Camp Host” in a Florida State Park is a highly coveted volunteer position.  The other volunteers we had seen cleaning the toilets in the bathhouse were putting in service hours in the hopes of earning such a spot down the road.  He was a “country boy” from Georgia with thickly leathered skin and a big straw cowboy hat.  He told us the path he took to get the job, sort of the way a law student would tell you how she lined up her clerkship at the Supreme Court.  Talk turned to the storm, and he claimed that we were the only State Park in Florida that wasn’t evacuated yesterday.  I’m not sure I believed him, but I didn’t argue.  “If you two come from Virginia,” he offered up as we said goodbye, “then you is bad a.s.s.”  We both liked the way he spelled out the last word.  And that he used the moniker that we reserve for dudes that surf in the dark during a tropical storm.  All we did was lay in a warm sleeping bag.

Getting Low at the KOA 

The next morning, I witnessed my wife cry for a second time of this trip.  The first was caused by an idiot in a corvette, but this time I’m embarrassed to say that it was my fault—I made camping reservations at the KOA off of Highway 95 in Titusville, Florida.

Low points are inevitable on a long, challenging trip.  Although our trip lasted over five weeks, Sarah and I each hit our lows within 24 hours of each other, for different reasons.   

The ride south from Gamble Rogers was tough in the simmering remnants of Eta.  Around 30 miles into the day we stopped at a veggie stand in New Smyrna.  Sarah volunteered to shop for our dinner and I sat down on a curb, completely and totally exhausted.  To use one of my favorite British terms, I was “knackered.” 

Before today, exhaustion had not been an issue.  At home before the trip, I would often wake up with a pulled neck and a tight back just from sleeping.  My Achilles tendons were usually so stiff that walking down the stairs in the morning took extra time.  But on this trip, all of those nagging aches and pains had disappeared.  As I age, one of my favorite sayings is “use it or lose it.”  And clearly my body was very happy to be biking several hours a day. 

But not today.  Today my body decided that it had had enough “using” for one day, even if we had 36 miles to go.  It was the only time that I didn’t think I could continue pedaling.  Fortunately, Sarah emerged from the shop with a magic elixir—Coca-Cola.  I had discovered the powers of an ice-cold Coke on a multi-day ride earlier in the summer.  “I’m not sure I can make it today,” I said, as she handed me an 20oz Coke and an apple.  But they cured what ailed me, and I felt almost back to normal within a few miles.  

Sarah’s low point of the trip wasn’t so easy to cure.  The ride to Titusville involved a lot of busy roads and made us appreciate that the Internet meme “Florida Man,” is very accurate.  Even a beautiful sunset along a bike lane the last few miles of the day did not improve our spirits. 

And then we pulled into the KOA.  It was dank, dark and full of surly and shifty characters.  As we were setting up the tent, I noticed a guy in a dark corner of the park pavilion next to our site smoking a joint and staring at his phone, which illuminated his face from the shadows.  After finishing the joint, he slid past our tent and slinked under the fence to disappear.  He must have been borrowing the campground wifi. 

We need to lock our bikes tonight,” I said, to which my Head of Security soundly agreed.  There were a few other tents in the tent area, but they were of the permanent variety—another rung lower on the path to homelessness.  One of them included a poor soul with a smoker’s cough that woke me up multiple times overnight. 

At our Team Meeting the next morning, we watched an old guy march out of his R.V. with a Trump flag that he unfurled in a ceremonious manner at the corner of his site.  He also had several “No Dogs!” signs planted and had strung yellow “do not cross” police tape along an adjacent section of the park pavilion.  His site and demeanor were representative.   

I think we should try to make it to Vero Beach today and just get this over with,” Sarah said after we watched our neighbor’s defiant Trumpian display.  This was over 80 miles.  “Get this over with?” I repeated.  I felt much better today, but my Head of Security was still in a dark place.  And then Sarah’s phone pinged with a text from our close friend, Jen Black.  Jen and her husband Tim were at a five-star resort in Mexico.  And Jen had chosen a very bad time to share pictures of her view and villa.  Sarah tried to hold it back, but I could see tears welling up.  She started laughing when she could stop them from streaming down her cheeks.

I needed to call an audible of my own.  I grabbed my laptop and tried to find the nicest place I could for our lodging that evening.  The Seaglass Inn, in Melbourne Beach, didn’t have donkeys, but it did have a swimming pool and beautiful rooms.  I booked it without asking Sarah’s opinion.  And we quickly packed up and put the KOA behind us.

Here, There Be Shifty Characters

Rocket Scientists and Irishmen

Happy New Year!” a guy yells from the sidewalk and we wave, “cause I probably won’t see y’all again,” he adds.  We are about 5 miles south of the KOA, biking through what appears to be a predominantly black neighborhood in Titusville.  We found lots of neighborhoods on this trip that were segregated by race.  Without fail, the residents in the black neighborhoods are friendly and warm.  Without fail.   

I could see Sarah smiling after the greeting.  It reminded me of the Christmas Spirit Gauge on Santa’s sleigh in the movie Elf.  The spirit gauge on Sarah’s bike was filling up again. My elixir comes in a bottle, but one of Sarah’s is friendly people.  Good.  The KOA was wearing off already.  As it turns out, we were just getting started with friendly people on the ride this day.

Our 56-mile route to Melbourne Beach included several glorious bike paths and a long stretch of Indian River drive, a 15mph winding road way lined by big, stately homes.  It’s bike paradise, and for the first time on the trip, we pass multiple cyclists on the road and don’t feel out of place.  One of the cyclists turns and give us a long look as he passes.  A few minutes later he pedals up from behind us.  “Where’ra goin’?”  he asks in a slight Irish brogue, “I hope you are avoiding some of the Florida Nutters.

Hi name is Don O’Sullivan and we’ve bumped into him on his weekly ride.  Forty-five minutes later, we find ourselves eating lunch poolside, a COVID-safe outdoor distance from Don and his lovely wife Raquel, on their lanai.  We stayed for almost two hours, as the O’Sullivan’s were delightful.  Other than bicycling, I can think of few other activities that would lead us to be eating at the home of total strangers and feel almost like family.  So it was with the O’Sullivan’s this day.  As we departed, Raquel reminded us that we were welcome to stay with them on our way home.  We had made two new friends.  Sarah’s bicycle spirit meter was reading full as we biked away.  Mine was as well.  

That evening, we stood outside of the SeaGlass Inn with fellow guests Bryon and Jordan Stark waiting for the launch of a rocket from nearby Cape Canaveral.  Bryon and Jordan lived in town.  A friend had offered to babysit their two kids so they could enjoy their first “date night” away from home since becoming parents.  Rocket launches were novel for us, but we could tell that they were a regular form of entertainment in town.  Several people were pulling out their phones to check a launch app.  One guy had a radio blaring a live broadcast of the countdown.  We peppered the Starks with questions about the launch.  “Actually, I’m a rocket scientist with the Air Force,” Bryon admitted after answering multiple questions with impressive detail.  His modesty finally overcome by our incredulous looks.     

Do you still want toget this over with?’” I asked Sarah as she enjoyed a late-night swim.  It had been a great day, filled with wonderful people.  We officially decided that we would push on to Key West and reminded ourselves that great days can follow bad ones.  Even if they include the KOA. 

One Thousand Miles

“Did you have your team meeting yet?” Allison, the co-owner of the SeaGlass asked us the next morning, as we turn up on the patio for breakfast.  The Friendship Inn this was not.  Soon after, Bryon and Jordan sat down at the table next to us and we talk for another hour or so before grudgingly saying goodbye.  “Please let us know when you are on your way home,” Jordan says as we leave, “we would love to have you guys stay with us.” 

Four new friends in two days.  Not bad.  Florida might have a large contingent of “Florida Man” and Nutters, but any state that includes Jordan and Bryon Stark, and Don and Raquel O’Sullivan, is doing just fine in our book.

Did Jordan make you feel a little old when she said we were inspiring?” Sarah asks me, a few miles into the day’s ride. “Um, yes!” I reply.  Sometimes Sarah and I forget our age.  We hung out with Bryon and Jordan like we would our friends at home.  That is, until Jordan said, “Bryon and I were talking about how inspiring you guys are to be doing this every day,” and then added, “at your age.”  That’s right, I guess we were old enough to be their parents.  It’s good to be humbled occasionally, especially by someone as sweet as Jordan Stark.

Any temporary knock to our egos was restored later that day, however, when our trip log crossed over the 1,000-mile mark.  The day’s ride included several more “Thank you Florida!” moments.  We stopped at Sebastian’s Inlet, perhaps the best park in the State, and marveled as the Indian river emptied into the Atlantic surf in a boiling tempest of water and current and mist.  We enjoyed crossing the Indian River several more times on towering bridges, ate our daily lunch of peanut butter and bananas at a city park, and traded off taking the lead into a relentless headwind, Sarah now fully bought into the power of drafting.  We even kept pace with an old guy on an eBike for many miles until he noticed us and put the electric hammer down as we passed by the Nuclear plant on Hutchinson Island.  “Cheater,” Sarah concluded.  In a word, we felt completely “dialed-in” to this daily existence on bikes.

As we neared our destination for the night, Jensen Beach, I remembered we were getting close to 1,000 miles and pulled up my Strava tracker, calling out each of the final miles to 1,000.  “I’m quitting now,” Sarah joked and pulled off to the side of the road as I yelled out “1,000!” 

One Thousand Miles!

But there was no way Sarah was stopping now, especially after she had found an R.V. on Airbnb for our lodging that evening.  We crossed the huge bridge into Jensen Beach as the sun began to drop, Sarah out in front of me in the piercing glow.  I could only see her silhouette, but I could tell that she was giddy with excitement.  Sarah likes R.V.’s almost as much as donkeys.  Knowing this, I first pitched the trip as an R.V. adventure, before pulling the somewhat devious “bait and switch” move to bicycles.  And now, she was finally getting the chance to live the R.V. life on this trip.

The Best Fort, Ever

The R.V. was new to Airbnb and wedged into the small backyard of a friendly couple that were excited to have actual paying customers.  “This is like, the best fort, ever!” Sarah said as we unpacked and cleaned up before walking into town for dinner.  As usual, her enthusiasm was infectious and made me forget that we really should have rented a place with a washer and dryer.  Biking clothes have a limited shelf life, and our’s had expired a few days ago. 

Despite the long walk into town, a huge dinner, and 71 miles of headwinds that day, Sarah even got me to stay up past 10p.m.—a.k.a. “biker’s midnight”—to enjoy a microwave popcorn party and bottle of wine in the R.V.  It felt like a slumber party in a treehouse.  A light rain was pattering on the roof as I drifted off to sleep, and I resolved to pay Sarah back for this trip with a future R.V. trip of similar epic proportions.

We Enter the Megalopolis

It was still raining the next morning as we ate breakfast in our R.V. fort.  We lingered until well after 10AM, both to give the rain a chance to stop and to allow extra time for us to figure out where we were going to stay that evening.  We had officially reached the urban sprawl that stretched all the way to Miami.  My map showed almost solid grey development with only a few tiny slivers of green.  “We aren’t camping again until the Keys,” I said.  But there were lodging options galore.  We decided to wing it and make hotel reservations late in the day, a little nervous to be entering the megalopolis of southern Florida.

Our worries were misplaced.  We did get caught out in a few rain showers.  Each time my Dad—our number one weather router, travel agent, and supporter—texted with impressive precision to ask if we were getting wet.  But it was an otherwise a great day of riding, mostly on the East Coast Greenway route that included a lot of wide shoulders, dedicated bike lanes, and expansive Ocean views. 

We even got another temporary boost to our egos when we met up with Steve De Sena at a park shelter overlooking Hobe Sound beach on Jupiter Island.  Steve, who was chatting with several retirees with leather deep tans, took our picture for inclusion in the next edition of the local Hobe Sound Magazine.  A few others in the group peppered us with questions, which was fun until one of them asked us if we had voted for Ilhan Omar for Congress, and then made a pretend gun with his hand, pointed it at us and yelled “bang!”  Perhaps it was time for us to move on. 

Thankfully Steve and the rest of the group were great.  Steve mentioned that he “did a little biking himself,” and I connected with him on the biking app Strava.  Later in the day I pulled up Steve’s info and was quickly put back in my place.  Steve did more than a little biking.  He routinely logged 100+ mile rides up and down the coast and was, in Strava parlance, the “Local Legend” of Jupiter Island.  I was happy to be knocked down a few pegs, as I’ve learned that the universe has a way of humbling me anytime I start to feel like I know what I’m doing. 

As we parted, Steve’s eyes lit up when I said we were heading south down Jupiter Island on South Beach Road.  “It’s a pretty nice neighborhood.”  We soon found out that Steve’s comment was another bit of sandbagging.  We had passed a lot of expensive homes on the journey through Florida, but this barrier island running along the Hobe Sound was the domain of the old money crowd.  The kind of people that were born with generational money or were so wealthy that they valued their privacy more than they did trying to show you how big of a house they could build.  Lots of the homes were completely hidden from view, but the ones we caught glimpses of through the trees and winding driveways were like works of art.  Adding to the old money vibe, many of them had separate service entrance driveways.  “I never want a service entrance,” I said to Sarah, but we were both a little curious to peek into what life is like down those driveways.  “Think they’d let us do our laundry?” Sarah replied.

We saw a lot more extreme wealth on the rest of the ride into West Palm Beach.  Mega-yachts, cigarette boats, and Bentley’s started to become commonplace.  It was clear that we were approaching Miami.  But it was an older lady in a wheel chair that left a much more lasting impression on us.  She was sitting alone at the base of a bridge we had to climb over the industrial Port of Palm Beach.  It was a big climb and I stopped on the other side to catch my breath.  “Did you hear what that lady said to me?” Sarah asked as she pulled up.  I shook my head.  “She yelled ‘Ride for Me!’”  Sarah said, emotion creeping into her voice.  “I flew up that bridge like it wasn’t there after hearing those words.” 

Even though I had been riding ahead of Sarah, she didn’t need to clarify who “that lady” was.  A black person that looked to be of very limited means in a sea of rich white people—she stood out more than the Bentley’s and big homes.  Her gesture was so distilled, but so powerful.  I’m sure she must have looked at us as just a few more rich white people, riding fancy bicycles for fun in special outfits.  But she chose to offer up those words to Sarah.  Words seeking empathy that instantly bridged the gap between them for a moment.  I wish I could tell you that we turned around, and rode back over that bridge to show her that she mattered to us that day.  But we were too focused on the fading light and our next destination.  It’s one of our only regrets on the trip.

All I can do now is offer up these words to her and say thanks: 

“The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded forever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to the light amid the thorns.”  George Santayana

Can We Bring Bicycles to Our Room?

Our bicycles made finding a hotel room for the night in West Palm Beach, and then the next evening in Miami, challenging.  Most of the hotels we called wouldn’t let us store our bikes inside.  Show stopper.  We stood on a street corner in West Palm Beach calling places for at least 30 minutes, and finally found a Marriott Residence Inn that would accept our bikes in the room and had laundry available.  Score! 

Even the Residence Inn felt upscale in West Palm Beach.  We rolled our loaded bikes into the lobby full of well-dressed people that smelled like shampoo.  I could tell Sarah was smiling under her face mask.

I’m glad that we cooked a big meal and got a great night sleep at the Residence Inn, because the 74-mile ride from West Palm Beach to South Beach, Miami, the next day was bonkers.  The morning on the A1A highway along the Ocean was relatively peaceful, even as we passed the traffic of Trump’s Mar-A-Lago.  But as we approached Fort Lauderdale, the condos went from 5 stories high to over 50, the traffic grew exponentially, and people became angry.  There is a direct correlation between the density of humans in an area and how we treat each other.  The more humans, the less humane we become.

At Fort Lauderdale, we were forced to detour inland off the A1A, around the giant Fort Lauderdale cruise ship terminal and through the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.  At one point we were riding a street lane that was dedicated for bikes and it disappeared without warning—a common occurrence.  I was cut off from Sarah who was suddenly several cars behind me in high-speed traffic.  As I waited on the sidewalk across a busy intersection for Sarah to join me a security guard came out to shoo’ me away and I explained that I was waiting for my wife.  “You left your wife back there in that?” the guy said.  “I know!” I said, “I swear it wasn’t my fault—the traffic swept me away.”  He turned and walked away shaking his head, “Good luck to you my friend.” 

Humans are amazingly adaptable.  If you had dropped either Sarah or me into that South Florida mega-mess on our first day of biking on this trip, we would have immediately quit, rented a car, and drove home.  But Sarah was actually laughing as she caught up to me on that corner.  We were officially battle-hardened. 

I’ve never been a bike messenger in New York City, but I’ve seen video, and that is what our ride from Fort Lauderdale to South Beach, Miami felt like.  Eight lanes of bumper to bumper cars racing to each stop light beneath the shadows of giant high rises.  And us dodging in between them, sometimes on the sidewalk, sometimes zig zagging between the idling cars, and sometimes directly in traffic, trying to hold our place from being overrun in lanes supposedly dedicated for bikes.  At one point, the road was rerouted around some construction, a city bus temporarily blocked the detour, and we found ourselves on a completely empty street.  After a few blocks alone, I turned and saw a four-deep line of traffic that was free and racing at us like a starting gun had just fired.  “Go!” I yelled to Sarah and we both put our heads down and hammered to the end of the detour roadway, narrowly escaping before the cars reached us.  It was exhilarating. 

“Follow me!” a pony-tailed dude in a tie-dyed shirt riding a recumbent bike yelled to us a few miles later.  We had just jumped off of the A1A and were trying to find a beach boardwalk that was shown on our maps.  His name was Keith and he rode the boardwalk every day.  We enjoyed his company for a few miles until the boardwalk ended and we were forced to rejoin the chaos.  “There is another boardwalk that starts around 75th that you take all the way to South Beach,” Keith said as we parted, “good luck!”  He texted later that evening to make sure we made it.   

Thanks to Keith, we found the next boardwalk, and enjoyed the last few miles to South Beach, happy to trade the cavern of traffic and noise for Ocean surf and breeze.  It was clear that we had entered the land of beautiful people.  A bikini-clad woman on roller skates passed us and I tried hard not to stare.  A group playing volleyball looked like they had just left the set of The Bachelor.  The body builders strutting around shirtless looked very different than the shirtless man we had chatted with outside of a Jim Dandy Convenience store in Georgia the previous week.

Because of COVID and the need for outdoor dining space, Ocean Beach Drive through South Beach was closed to cars.  Restaurant tables spilled out into the street, giving the feel of a pedestrian mall.  We rode up and down the closed street lined with neon lit Art Deco buildings until we found a hotel that would accept dirty bikers.  “I can’t believe we actually rode our bikes to South Beach,” I say to Sarah as we wedge our bikes into the hotel elevator, feeling euphoric—and very out of place. 

That evening, we cleaned up, put on our least dirty clothes, and tried unsuccessfully to fit in as we dined street side and watched people stroll, roller skate, bike, strut or dance on by. 

The next morning our fish out of water experience continued as we cooked oatmeal in the room over our camp stove.  Sarah tended the stove, wearing only a t-shirt.  “Now this is classy,” I say, “the Breakwater Hotel is very lucky to have the McGuire’s!”  Both of us stop can’t laughing.  A trip through downtown Miami was up next, our last intense urban biking of the trip.

This is Why We Rented a Car

A 20-something guy in a Black BMW pulls up next to us in the right turn lane of a busy intersection across from the Miami Heat NBA arena.  “Where are you going?” he asks.  “Key West,” I reply and he smiles broadly.  “I knew you must be going somewhere.  You are going the right way, just stay on this,” he points straight ahead.  “Stay safe.”  He sticks his arms out of the car and claps for us as we bike away.  It’s surprising how much simple interactions like this can lift our spirits for hours, or even days, afterward.  “I’m going to clap like that anytime I see a traveling biker,” Sarah says, and I agree. 

I regained my navigator street cred on our way through Miami.  The two bike routes we were loosely following—Adventure Cycling and the East Coast Greenway—suggested very different ways to get through the downtown and onto the M-Path Bus and Bike Route that leads southwest out of town.  Adding to the confusion, we find a lot of construction and end up improvising most of the way through the busy downtown, one eye on the road and the other on Google Maps.  “I don’t know how you did that,” Sarah says as we reach the M-Path underneath Miami’s light rail line.  It felt good to impress her, and to be on a bike path again and out of the forest of skyscrapers for good.

We hoped to make it to Key Largo, on the Florida Keys, a ride of 60 miles from South Beach.  It was very windy—another gale warning in effect.  Around 1p.m., we reached Homestead and stopped in the shade of a COVID closed movie theater entrance to check the weather one last time.  Once leaving Homestead, we would be on the Overseas Highway through the Everglades.  It is 26 miles of wide open, treeless wilderness all the way to Key Largo.  Not the place to be in bad weather.  The heat feels oppressive, and we notice that ice cold, air-conditioned air is pouring out of the ticket counter slots.  Both of us lean over to try to catch it on our tired faces and arms.  The wind is bad—25 mph gusts—but it should be a cross wind rather than head on. 

“Let’s go for it,” Sarah says as she hits the confirm button on a hotel reservation in Key Largo.  Here we go.  I’m nervous, but we quickly see that the Overseas Highway has a safe shoulder and the wind isn’t knocking us around too much. 

The highway is beautiful, but also humbling.  For me, that is, not Sarah.  At the start of the ride, she puts in her headphones and proceeds to leave me in the dust.  I try to hang on her wheel, but I can’t keep her pace.  She doesn’t notice for several miles.  In my defense, I have larger rear panniers that were grabbing more wind, but I’m pretty sure she would have dropped me on either bike.  She smiles as I catch up to her.  A silent, but very sweet assassin.

The beauty of the everglades made up for the flogging that Sarah was dishing out.  Ospreys hover in the winds, hunting.  Kingfishers perch on the powerlines by the dozens.  A sea of grass and winding streams sway in every direction, under an enormous and endless sky.  The land of the Seminoles.  “This is why we skipped South Carolina,” I say to Sarah when we stop at the top of the enormous bridge that leads high above the Blackwater Sound before depositing us on the Florida Keys.  We can see the barrier islands of the Keys stretching off towards the Southwest for miles until they get lost in the ocean horizon.  “That’s where we’re headed.  Incredible.”  I guarantee that none of the cars zooming by are appreciating this view in the same way. 

Our luck continued that evening at an outdoor bar a short walk from our hotel.  It’s Ladies Night, and Sarah gets two free drinks.  On a whim, I check for openings at the two State Park Campgrounds between us and Key West, and find one tent site is open at Curry Hammock State Park outside of Marathon.  We find out how lucky this is the next night, when our neighbor at the Curry Hammock campground, Chip, tells us that the State Campgrounds in the Keys book up solid a year in advance.  There is even a service you can sign up for to check for cancellations on an automated basis.  “You are lucky that our friends canceled this site because of the gale warning, most people don’t bother to cancel and these go to waste,” he adds.  Fortunately, I quickly booked the site at Curry Hammock while Sarah enjoyed her second Gin and Tonic. 

There are times in our lives that we wish we could return to again and again.  I hope you can think of one as you read this.  Sitting at the bar that evening is one of those moments for me.  It was now my turn to be giddy with excitement.  The next two days of riding to reach Key West promised to be the most scenic of the entire trip, we were going to pitch our tent the next evening alongside the Ocean again, and the weather forecast indicated that we would have a huge tailwind at our backs all the way until the end of the trip. 

This is why we rented that damn Mini-van. 

Bridges, Wind and More Bridges

There are over 1,700 islands that make up the Florida Keys archipelago, which run like Christmas lights hanging off of Florida, strung from Miami all the way to the Dry Tortugas out in the Gulf of Mexico.  Riding over and between many of them on a bicycle to cap a challenging five-week ride with my wife (and best friend) was—well—it was awesome. 

It was also high-fiving, yell out loud fun.  The combination of tailwinds, bike lanes and impossibly long ocean bridge crossings made our last two days of riding feel like an amusement park ride.  “Can we do that again?” I ask Sarah after crossing one bridge on our way to Curry Hammock that was almost three miles long.  The wind pushed us along at +20mph.  The land dropped away and we flew across a narrow sliver of concrete and steel—open ocean stretching forever on our left, the massive Florida bay off on our right, and water everywhere.  Water changing from deep Caribbean blue offshore to milky white in the churning shallows 50 feet beneath us.  If a car had offered to take me and my bike back to the start of that bridge, I would have hopped in and done it again.  And again.  The same way I rode the American Eagle roller coaster at Six Flags a dozen times in one day when I was a kid.  Get off and hop back into the line.  Just like that.       

“This is another top ten ride of my life, maybe top five,” I say to Sarah as we approached Curry Hammock for our last night of camping on the trip.  She didn’t respond.  She was furiously pedaling the last few miles to the campground gate.  I had made the mistake of telling her that we were averaging over 17 m.p.h. on the tailwind induced ride.  Our normal pace was around 12.5mph, and she wanted to push it.  “17.8 average with a top speed of 30 mph!” I call out between breaths as we reach our tent site.  That’s not going to win any races, but it felt good with 70 pounds of gear along for the ride.

We spent the evening sitting on our camp chairs on the beach, first enjoying an amazing meal that Sarah conjured out of our dwindling supplies, and then watching the sun set and the darkness settle around us.  Stars twinkled overhead, and we talked about the trip and watched an occasional plane take off without sound from a small airport several miles away.  We sat there for at least two hours after dinner—it was too beautiful to leave.  A few of the R.V. only crowd of campers came down when the sun set, but we were otherwise left completely alone.  They had all retreated back to the comforts of their R.V.’s, and the glow of televisions, iPhones, and computer screens.  But our senses were wide open.  We had reached the point where we didn’t need entertainment delivered through a screen. 

The open sky was more than enough.         

“Here they come,” Sarah whispered the next morning as we packed up.  Our neighbors in a big Motorhome were walking over.   We had been watching them do a perfectly coordinated outdoor exercise routine for the last 45 minutes and both of us were super curious to hear “their story.”  They were Ron and Robin and they live in their R.V. and use it as a traveling ministry.  “Can we say a prayer for your ride today?” Robin asks at the end of our chat.  Outward expressions of faith often make me uncomfortable, but Robin’s words were beautiful.  It was a perfect way to conclude our time at Curry Hammock.  The perfect way to set off on the last ride of the trip, filled up with unearned love and kindness offered to us from fellow humans.

Sarah also appreciated the prayer because she was very concerned about our first bridge crossing of the day—the legendary Seven Mile Bridge between Marathon and Little Duck Key.  The Internet had warned her that the bridge was dangerous for biking.  The Internet was wrong.  The Seven Mile bridge was as much fun as the three-mile bridge we had crossed the day before, only 2.33 times longer and better.  Finished in 1982, the bridge runs parallel to the original railroad bridge that was laid down by 4,000 workers in 1912 only to be destroyed by a 1935 hurricane.  It is an iconic part of the Florida Keys, and riding a bicycle across it with a 25mph tailwind is the perfect way to experience its magic.  The bridge rises up in its middle to a height of 65 feet, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider that everything else within 100 miles is sitting at sea level.  The view almost overwhelmed me with emotion and I yelled out several times to Sarah “can you believe this?”  Sarah was more focused on dodging the debris strewn across the shoulder, but she admitted that it was spectacular once we were safely on the other side.  We hugged each other while still straddling our bikes and I asked once more, “can we do that again?”   I wasn’t sure if I was talking about that bridge or our journey, which was very rapidly coming to an end. 

Robin’s prayer worked its wonders.  Bridges, bike lanes, tailwinds, and scurrying iguanas were our constant companions the rest of the day.  “If yesterday’s ride was in my top five, this might be number one, I’m not sure how to top it,” I say to Sarah as we eat our last peanut butter and banana lunch on a shaded bike path. 

And in The End

As we got close to Key West, the traffic grew louder and I had the sensation that I was flying through the air, hurtling towards the end of the road.  The way I feel sometimes when I consider that I’m 52 years old and flying through space and time towards 60 and maybe 70, and 80, and . . .  I am powerless to stop it and feel regret that I don’t appreciate more of the moments that pass before my eyes. 

Key West was pulling us home.   

And then it was over.  Sarah and I rolled up to the end of Highway 1 and stand in a long line of tourists at the “Southernmost Point” marker for a final picture before checking into our hotel on Duval Street.  As we wait, I try to tap down the emotion welling up inside of me.  It’s over.  Sarah is my opposite—happy business as usual.  It is a perfect example of why our partnership works.  She has a remarkable ability to “just keep swimming,” through life, while I ponder the color and temperature of the water around me.  I could not love her more.  

And she was right.  Our ride was never about reaching Key West for a photo opp, in the same way a pilgrimage isn’t really about reaching a shrine.  It is about finding meaning and transformation along the way. 

After snapping photos, we changed out of our bike gear and enjoyed two days in Key West, but it was hard not to feel discombobulated by our re-entry.  Our bicycles, and the journey, had changed us. 

If Einstein is correct that “genius is taking the complex and making it simple,” then bicycles are genius.  They allowed us to strip our complex, burdensome lives of comfort down to the simple genius of living. 

It was so simple.  We got up every day and rode our bikes.  We kept our wits about us.  We found shelter and food.  We met and bonded with people.  And we looked out for, and loved, each other. 

In the end, the trip helped me rediscover the simple essence of what it means to be human.  It restored my faith in humanity and America.  It helped me discover strength in vulnerability.  It heightened my awareness and ability to appreciate each moment—this moment, I’m living in right now.  It taught me that whatever happens, I like.           

It was genius.  Bicycles, are simply genius.     

“If you pass on through the meadows with their thousand flowers of every color imaginable, from bright red to yellow and purple, and their bright green grass washed clean by last night’s rain, rich and verdant—again without a single movement of the machinery of thought—then you will know what love is. To look at the blue sky, the high full-blown clouds, the green hills with their clear lines against the sky, the rich grass and the fading flower—to look without a word of yesterday; then, when the mind is completely quiet, silent, undisturbed by any thought, when the observer is completely absent—then there is unity. Not that you are united with the flower, or with the cloud, or with those sweeping hills; rather there is a feeling of complete non-being in which the division between you and another ceases.” Jiddu Krishnamurti

4 thoughts on “Biking the Atlantic Coast – The End

  1. Once again Mark, you have transported this old woman to another place and time in my own life. A beautiful journey that passes all to quickly. You reminded me of all the moments in my life that live like photographs in my mind, that when summoned, I can return to and enjoy again and again.
    Thank you Mark for such a truly wonderful escape!

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