“Hello again,” the Lyft driver says to me as I slide open his mini-van door outside of the REI store in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s the same guy that had dropped me off at the store not 10 minutes earlier. Camping fuel in hand, I hop back into his van and we head back to the Zencog Bicycle Shop, where my patient wife Sarah–and our fully loaded bicycles–are waiting on this hot, December afternoon.
- Cost at REI for camping stove fuel canister: $6.20
- Lyft rides to procure said canister of fuel: $54, plus tip
Ahh, the joys of self-contained (e.g., no car, no support) bicycle travel. And this is just one of several expenses in the “curve-ball” category on this trip, the biggest of which involved renting a 26 ft U-Haul truck to get us the hell out of Lake Wales, Florida. But more on that later. First, let’s go back to the beginning of this adventure.
The Florida Connector
Sarah and I had a two-week window of free time in December to take a trip somewhere. After our amazing self-contained bike trip down the Atlantic Coast in the fall of 2020, the prospect of another similar trip was at the top of our list. But where? Covid meant international travel was problematic. And Sarah hates cold weather biking. That didn’t leave us many options.
I scanned the Adventure Cycling Association route page for ideas, and there it was: The Florida Connector. A winding route across the state of Florida.
We loved biking down the Atlantic coast of Florida in 2020, so I immediately began working to convince Sarah that this was the perfect trip. We had enough time to start in Jacksonville, just north St. Augustine, and end 10 or so days later in Fort Myers. It was an easy sell, even though we couldn’t find anything online about the route. Zero. In hindsight, this should have given us pause, but instead we blissfully (blindly?) chose to trust Adventure Cycling’s route building skills. This isn’t the first time we have made this mistake (biking onto the Outer Banks on another dangerous Adventure Cycling route comes to mind). I’m a slow learner, I guess.
Let’s pedal from Jacksonville to Fort Myers. What could go wrong?
Planes, Lyft Rides, and a guy name Garf
Self-contained bike trips require more logistics than an average vacation. Simply put, we needed to get us, our bicycles, and all of our gear to Jacksonville. And for this trip, we opted to fly rather than drive a rental car to the starting line, creating more steps in the planning process.
- Sarah and I fly with our gear–clothes, camping equipment, bike panniers–from Minneapolis to Jacksonville. We can fit most of our gear into a large roller suitcase, and we’ll also bring a couple of panniers (the bags that attach to our bikes) as carry-ons. The loaded suitcase weighs 47 pounds, just under Delta’s 50-pound limit. Perfect!
- We’ll stay at an Airbnb condo our first evening in Jacksonville, arriving via a Lyft ride from the airport.
- A few weeks before our trip start, we’ll ship our bicycles to a Jacksonville bike shop so they will be ready and waiting for us when we arrive. I find a service called Bikeflights that makes it very easy, albeit not cheap, to get our bikes shipped via UPS to Zencog Bicycles in Jacksonville, a short walk from our Airbnb.
- We’ll enjoy a nice first evening in Jacksonville, and then saunter over in the morning to Zencog to pick up our tuned bikes and pedal out of town and onto the coast, where we’ll pick up the Adventure Cycling route. Maybe we could even stop on the way out of town for a late breakfast.
That was the plan anyway.
Our first night in Jacksonville was wonderful. As those of you who endure northern winters will recognize, there is nothing quite like leaving a cold, grey, windswept winter landscape and emerging from an airport a few hours later into a different world. A world of green grass and palm trees and bright sun, where the humid, fragrant breeze (not bitter wind, but soft breeze) smacks you in the face the second those airport sliding doors open. It feels like a different planet. When we get outside, I walk to an open spot, look skyward, close my eyes and smile as the warm Sun hits my face. Every time, it makes me giddy like a little kid. Every time.
Our Jacksonville condo is great and we wander, sans bikes, around the hip Riverside neighborhood, eating dinner and enjoying a few martinis and a walk along the waterfront. It feels like lazy summer again. We even sleep with the windows open to the sounds of crickets chirping.
The next morning, we organize our gear and then walk with our empty roller suitcase to a UPS store a few blocks away from the Zencog bike shop. Rather than donate the case, we plan to ship it to our friends, Tim and Jen Black, who live outside of Fort Myers, where it will be waiting for us to use on the flight home at the end of our trip 10 days later.
Things went great until Sarah grabs the handle on the UPS door. It’s locked. It’s Sunday and the store is closed. Whoops.
Undaunted, we walk with the suitcase still in tow to Zencog, arriving as they open at 10am.
Our bikes are not there.
“Sorry, I was binge-watching Netflix this morning and lost track of the time,” said Garfield Cooper, aka Garf, the owner of Zencog, as he pulls up with our bikes still packed in their shipping boxes in the back of his pickup truck. His store is small, so he was storing the bikes off site. It’s now 11am, the time we thought we’d be biking away. Not good, since we have camping reservations that evening 30 miles away and it gets dark early in December. And all of our gear is still at the condo, which has a noon checkout time.
Garf is impossible to dislike, however, and he immediately gets his staff to work assembling our bikes while he asks about our trip and our planned route out of town. I show him my route, which has us going by a sporting goods store where we planned to buy fuel for our camp stove (the one item we couldn’t fly with).
Garf is not a fan of my route. “If you ride that way, you will get run over,” he says calmly. He pulls up Google maps and starts plotting a route for us that passes by the local REI store, but then he pauses again and says, “Nope, it you ride through this area you will never come back to my city again.” I don’t ask him to elaborate on the reason why.
I quickly scan our route south over the next several days in search of stores that might sell fuel for our camp stove. There are none. And I’m not eating cold mush and skipping coffee on this trip.
Zencog finishes our bikes at 11:50am, and we pedal quickly back to the condo to avoid a late checkout. Garf, our new best friend, agrees to keep our suitcase and ship it to the Black’s house tomorrow when UPS is open. No one is at the condo, and we load the gear on our bikes and head back to Zencog at 12:30pm where Sarah waits with everything on the curb while I take that $54 roundtrip Lyft ride to the REI store.
In the Lyft, I Google “sunset time, Jacksonville, Florida,” and get back “5:26pm.” Day One is not off to a great start, but I remind myself that these trips make you vulnerable, and open you up to the adventure of uncertainty and the reliance on the kindness of strangers. Roll with it, I say, almost out loud.
We finally pedal away from Zencog at 1:48pm, almost four hours late. We have coveted camping reservations at Little Talbot Island State Park that evening that we don’t want to waste, and we still need to stop at a grocery store and navigate our way out of downtown Jacksonville via Garf’s cobbled together directions.
Want to keep reading? Part Two of our Florida Traverse is right here