Biking Across Florida – The Middle

[This is Part 2 of a series about my bicycle ride across Florida with my wife Sarah. You can read Part 1 here]

The Ride Begins – aka Let’s Get Out of Jacksonville

In a word, our route out of Jacksonville was “gritty.”  Broken glass, missing sidewalk sections, boarded up buildings, decrepit warehouses.  Trash and more trash.  And this was our new and improved route out of town.         

If Garf thought this route was decent, I wonder what my route looked like that made him so nervous,” I said to Sarah after we passed a big group of people in two cars at a rail road bridge underpass.  They had parked one of their cars, a sports car with big fancy rims, at an angle in the middle of the road and they were taking pictures of a woman posing on the hood.  Their impromptu photo shoot was blocking traffic, but I got the sense that no one was going to honk to get them to move.  I waved as we biked by on the sidewalk.  One guy in the group waved back.    

“Advantage bicyclists,” I said, and added, “you can’t say that very often.”  Sarah just smiled nervously.  We were both anxious to put Jacksonville in Sarah’s rear view mirror.

The industrial area transformed into a poor neighborhood, and then a poorer neighborhood.    A group of young guys playing basketball asked us for a “test ride,” and a few people hanging around an abandoned warehouse stepped out onto the road to check us out, but they seemed more curious than threatening.  No one hassled us.  In fact, we got more smiles and waves here than we expected.  

Our nervousness in Jacksonville turned out to be misplaced.   

This would become a theme of the trip.  In the following days, we biked through a lot of poor neighborhoods across Florida, some urban, some rural.  And almost without exception, we felt welcome in the predominantly black neighborhoods, and very unwelcome in the spots that were mostly full of white folks.  In our experience, there are a lot of angry white people in Florida once you leave the tourist areas along the coastlines.  I hate making distinctions like this, but it was such a stark difference that it was hard to miss.  

I say “almost” without exception because there were a few exceptions, mostly having to do with School Bus drivers.  They all hated us, regardless of demographics.  More on that later.    

We kept pedaling and little bits of open sky and nature crept in.  Green grass started replacing some of the trash on the roadside.  We crossed bridges with friendly people fishing and Ospreys sitting on power lines.  A huge flock of blackbirds flew in unison overhead.  Both of us took a deep breath and started to settle into the magical rhythm of bike travel.  Back in the saddle—legs pumping—the miles ticked by.

Twenty or so miles later we reached the Atlantic Coastline and rejoined the route we traveled back in 2020.  Leaving the busy road behind, we hopped onto a dedicated bike path along the ocean leading to Little Talbot State Park.  The familiarity felt akin to looking through an old photo album.  There are a lot of lows in bike travel, but the high points make it all worthwhile.  And this was a high point.  No cars in sight. 

The high didn’t last long.  Sadly, they never do.  The Little Talbot campground quickly knocked us off our perch this time.  “Dank,” was the word Sarah used to describe it as soon as we rolled up to our campsite and started unpacking gear.  It was muggy.  And very buggy.    

Uh-oh.  

Long time readers know that there are only a few things that can crack my wife’s seemingly uncrackable sunny disposition.  Gravel roads are one.  But biting bugs, especially mosquitos, are number one on the list by a wide margin.  And this dank spot in a thick palm forest held swarms of them. 

Just go change,” I said to Sarah as I handed her the bag with her dry clothes in it and pointed towards the campsite bathhouse.  She did not protest and I quickly set up the tent, silently wondering if the Zika virus was common in the Florida mosquitos feasting on my unguarded flesh.

Clearly, I have made a poor planning decision.  Do better Mark.  Do better.

Friluftsliv – The Open-Air Life

Once set up, we escaped the claustrophobic campsite and headed down to an oceanside park pavilion to cook dinner.  There was a cool breeze, a big sky, and almost zero bugs.  Sarah’s smile quickly returned.  My decisions were improving.  The parking lot was nearly empty as the gate on this side of the park closed at dusk, but the ranger told us that we could stay down along the beachfront as long as we liked.  “Advantage bicyclists,” I repeated for the second time in one day.  I’m pretty sure that’s a record. 

Friluftsliv is a Norwegian term I came across recently that, although difficult to say, helps to capture a bit of the magic of bike travel.  Roughly translated, it means living an open-air life, and celebrating time outside and in nature.  I’ve never been to Norway, but apparently friluftsliv is a core part of Norwegian identity, which might explain why Norway consistently ranks as one of the happiest places on Earth.  As a quick google search will show you, spending time in nature is great way to boost your mood and mental health.  As long as mosquitos are not present, of course.  

And what could be more friluftsliv than living on your bicycle for fun?  

That’s what Sarah and I were both feeling at that beachfront pavilion.  The open-air life.  The last car pulled out from the parking lot as Sarah finished cooking our dinner.  The twilight sky turned from deep pink to a metallic color of purple and a brilliant sliver of moon appeared.  A group of Pelicans glided inches above the surf line in tight formation.  We set up our REI campchairs—quite possibly the greatest invention in the history of the world—and ate dinner totally alone, taking it all in.  

Friluftsliv.

To the Beach!
Time for Dinner

It gets dark fast in December.  After walking the dark beach after dinner with our solar light, we packed up and pedaled back to the campground.  I was planning a campfire, but Sarah grabbed her toothbrush and headed straight to the bathhouse.  “I’m going to bed,” she said.  “But it’s 6:52pm!,” I protested.  She went anyway, and was zipping up the tent and her sleeping bag before 7pm (which was 6pm our time back home).  I lingered for a bit longer outside, but soon joined her.  The traffic on the highway stopped and was replaced by the sound of ocean surf pounding in the distance.  Sleep came easy.  

Friluftsliv works better than sleeping pills, I guess.

A Tight 12

Do you know that you’ve been in that sleeping bag for over 12 hours?” I say to Sarah the next morning from my camp chair outside of our tent.  It’s 7:15am and she is just stirring.  “That’s a tight 12 hours of sleep,” I say, quoting a line from a movie I can’t remember.  We laugh, both at Sarah’s impressive sleep and at the campers across the road from us.  “They really hate the dark apparently,” Sarah says.  Both of us got up at different times overnight to go to the bathroom and were greeted with a massive wall of light, as this couple had set up a HUGE rack of spotlights on a tripod that they trained on themselves sitting next to their campfire.  At least I think they had a fire going; it was too bright to tell.  It looked like a movie set that was trying to make it appear to be daytime in the middle of the night, complete with a generator to power all of that wattage.  

Friluftsliv it was not.

We make coffee and oatmeal while dodging big drops of condensation dripping off of the palm fronds overhead, pack up our sodden tent and hit the road for St. Augustine.  The hot morning sun is cutting through the trees.  Another awesome day of open-air living is on tap.

The ride south to St. Augustine does not disappoint.  This is the Florida biking we remember.  Friendly drivers—two different people roll down windows to ask us where we are going—gorgeous ocean views, and wide shoulders on the roads.  There is trash along the roadside, of course, but we also pass an armadillo and an immature vulture that cheer us up when the plastic bags, Gatorade bottles, beer cans and discarded beach towels start to bring us down.  At lunch in a beachside parking lot, a leather tan retired guy, his shirt unbuttoned to fully liberate his Santa-like belly, asks us where we are going.  “Get ready for the mountains around Lake Wales,” he tells us.

There are mountains in Florida?” I ask rhetorically as we pedal away.  “Let’s add that to our list of things to research tonight,” Sarah replies.  

I’m not sure if other bike travelers do this, but Sarah and I make a mental list most days of things we want to research when we stop pedaling and pick up our phones again at the end of the day’s ride.  Today’s list included Lake Wales mountains, the wingspan of vultures, the price of homes along the Sawgrass golf course, and Huguenots.    

What is a Huguenot, you’re wondering?  We were too, after our lovely Airbnb host in St. Augustine told us that she can trace her family tree all the way back to the Huguenots.  We were tired from our 50-mile ride and anxious to get our bikes unpacked, our smelly clothes hung up, and hot showers before dinner, so we didn’t ask her to elaborate.

After accomplishing all three of these things, we walked into town with enough time before dinner to visit a museum that had a detailed history of the Huguenots, who were French Protestants that arrived in this region in 1562 to escape religious persecution in France.  Turns out our host was a part of the Huguenot family tree that’s been growing in this city for 460 years.  Wow. 

St Augustine’s history—Ponce De Leon landed here in 1513—makes you feel more like you might be poking around an ancient European city rather than a spot in North America.  And of course, those European colonists displaced native peoples that had lived here in one group or another for centuries.  But much of their history is lost to the ages, unfortunately. 

I’ll say one final thing about St. Augustine: If you ever find yourself in that beautiful city, make sure you eat dinner at The Floridian, stroll along the Matanzas river, and enjoy a Sazerac cocktail at the Dos Gatos bar.  Full of food and Sazerac’ed, we walked home through old neighborhoods of stately homes, towering live oaks and elaborate Christmas light displays that the city is known for, before crashing in a very comfortable (and very indoor) bed before 10pm. 

Friluftsliv is great, but Huguenot hospitality is also hard to beat.

We rolled out of St. Augustine the next morning and enjoyed one final glorious day riding down the Atlantic coast on Highway A1A, past cheesy t-shirt and sandal shops, giant live oaks, beautiful parks and wind swept, wild beaches.             

After lunch—the usual peanut butter and banana wraps—I start composing a poem in my head about the three-foot side of the roadway that we exist on for most of the day on these trips.  “’Avoiding Roadkill’ is the working title,” I say to Sarah as I test out lines on her.  She’s not a huge poetry fan, at least not the poetry that I compose on the fly from my bike seat.  I don’t blame her.  

But, poetry aside, that three-foot wide strip of land is a very strange place to spend your vacation.  

It can be equal parts ominous, depressing, and terrifying.  A demilitarized zone in which you shouldn’t linger in too long.  But it is also electrifying, maybe in the same way that a rock wall feels to a climber.  And it opens up a visceral and tactile way to travel that makes you feel like an active part of the landscape you are moving through.  That strip is only a few feet—and sometimes a few inches—from the space shared by the folks in cars racing by next to you, but the experience from your bike seat couldn’t be more different.       

Spend any time at all in that strip, and you will know you that are living.  And that racoons are very, very bad at dodging traffic.  “I’m changing the name of the poem,” I say to Sarah a bit later after swerving around another flattened trash panda.  “It’s now called ‘Avoiding Becoming Roadkill.’”

Fort Matanzas Park

The Siren Call of Sarah’s Sleeping Bag

“The shower head in the handicap shower is amazing!” Sarah says that afternoon as she returns to our campsite at Gamble Rogers State Park.  My post ride shower wasn’t as great—the guy sitting on the toilet loudly laughing at TikTok videos on his phone kind of killed the vibe—but I’m always impressed by the cleanliness and quality of the Florida State park facilities. Florida doesn’t mess around when it comes to catering to the R.V. crowd.  

We make dinner out in the open, treeless part of the campground to avoid the mosquitos around our tent, and then stroll around the campground gawking at all of the huge R.V.’s.  Most have elaborate Xmas light displays, fenced off areas for their tiny barking dogs, and giant screen T.V.’s that cast a bright glare all the way out to us on the road.      

I press Sarah to walk in the dark over to the beach across the highway before we hit the tent for the evening.  She hesitates.  “It’s 5:52pm!” I yell, as I feel her succumbing to the call of her sleeping bag.  After a bit more cajoling, she agrees to the walk.  Mark, 1; Sleeping Bag, O.  Progress!   

The beach and the return walk along the river behind our campground are incredible.  We feel like we are the only people in the world, until my Dad calls about Christmas plans and mentions the name of the river that we are standing next to.  He is tracking my iPhone location.  What a strange new world we live in.

Gamble Rogers State Park

I lie awake in the tent until well past 11pm.  Tomorrow morning we will be turning west, away from the touristed safety of the Coastline, away from the familiarity of our 2020 route, and into central Florida.  The unknown gnaws at me and I pull out the map and count the mileage we’d need to cover if we kept traveling our old route south all the way to Fort Lauderdale before turning west and crossing the State through the more unpopulated Everglades.  It’s just too much mileage, and I abandon calling an audible with Sarah.    

If I had known what the next few days had in store for us, I would have called the audible.  But then this story wouldn’t have our recklessness to fall back on for added entertainment value.

Turn Right 

A few miles south of Gamble Rogers on the A1A the next morning, we stop at Highbridge Road and take a picture.  This is where we turn right, say goodbye to the Atlantic Ocean and start our traverse of Florida.  It’s amazing how much more confident I feel about the new route today in the bright sunshine than I did last night in the tent.  Giddy up.

I think I missed the turn to the Publix,” I turn around and yell to Sarah 10 miles after that right hand turn.  We carry a week’s supply of oatmeal, coffee, peanut butter, tortilla wraps, nuts and energy bars with us, but tend to buy all the rest of our lunch and dinner fare on the fly every day.  We’d have too much weight otherwise.  And I blew past the only major grocery store on the route for the day.  We pull over and consult Google Maps to discover that we can make a slight detour to a Winn Dixie in Deland at the end of the day.  That’s good news, as I don’t want to backtrack, both because I’m already tired and also because the last ferry boat to our island campground for the evening leaves at 4:30pm.  We don’t have time to spare.  

Inland Florida unfolds before us with little hint of its future dangers.  The roads, other than a stretch around Interstate 95, are quiet.  Most of the traffic is commerce—dump trucks, UPS vans, cattle trailers.  The land is rural, flat and open.  We pass ranch after ranch with sandy pine lined roads, barbed wire fences, and creeks that all turn at right angles.  We see a sign for a 5,000 acre ranch for sale.  Vultures soar overhead in the hot sunshine.  If there were mountains present, I’d expect to see Kevin Costner, aka John Dutton, drive by in the Yellowstone pick-up truck.  

So far, so good,” I say to Sarah just before we stop for lunch at an abandoned town hall outside of Pierson.  Why do I say things like that?  A few minutes after this ill-advised comment, we encounter our first loose dogs of the day.  A couple of scrappy cattle dogs come tearing up a farm driveway in hot pursuit.  “Go! Go! Go!” I yell to Sarah and thankfully we have enough of a head start that they give up the chase.  

At lunch, I find a solid, 3-foot stick that I tuck into the side of my front pannier bag, like a civil war cavalry soldier might sheath a sword on his horse.  Sarah rolls her eyes, but I’m the one responsible for fending off dogs.  “Those dogs didn’t look like they would have been put off by a squirt from my water bottle,” I add.  

We stop at a grocery store in Pierson, but Sarah emerges empty handed.  “Other than pork rinds and beer, there wasn’t much,” she says as we hop back on the bikes.  Finding decent food in small rural towns like this is a minor annoyance for us, but it must be a constant hardship for the people who call these places home.    

I have the opportunity to test my dog stick almost immediately after we leave Pierson.  The area quickly turns from large ranches to small homesites.  Ramshackle and rundown, it’s an area of deep poverty.  And loose dogs.  After outrunning two more dogs, we pass a trailer with a hand painted sign in the yard that reads: “Run Over My Dogs, And Your Next of Kin Better Get a Damn Good Lawyer.”  “Consider yourself warned,” Sarah says.  

We make it into Deland without any bite marks or injured dogs, thankfully.  But we are at over 60 miles for the day, the point at which we usually start dragging.  Deland is beautiful, but very grumpy.  The gorgeous live oaks and rolling hills can’t make up for the angry drivers, aggressive handmade Trump signs, and overall surliness of everyone we bump into.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

The DeLand traffic starts buzzing like hornets, and we retreat to the sidewalks in town to reach the grocery store.

Sarah emerges from Winn Dixie a bit later with two giant beers and supplies for dinner, which we stuff and bungie cord onto the bikes like giant puzzle pieces.  It’s 4:05pm and we need to hustle to make it the last several miles to our ferry boat.  The rush hour traffic is fierce and there are no sidewalks to escape to now.  It’s not going to be fun to hop back on this road tomorrow, I think as we reach the safety of the dead-end road that takes us the last few miles.  But that’s a future Mark and Sarah problem.    

Are you the campers I was waitin’ for?” The ferry boat driver yells as he motors up to the dock where we are waiting. Ferry boat is a bit of a stretch, it’s a small pontoon boat, but Al the boat captain is the real deal.  He is from Louisiana and makes us feel right at home on the short ride over to Hontoon Island Park where we are camping for the night.  A college crew team strokes by us.  Al says they come down here in the winter to train.  We spot an alligator and listen to manatees puffing here and there on the surface of the quiet river.  The angry chaos of Deland is quickly forgotten, and we check in and make the short bike ride to the campground. 

The campground is empty.  There is a camp caretaker that stays overnight in a trailer on the island, but his trailer is dark and quiet.  Al and the rest of the staff head home after the ferry shuts down and it is the only way to get here.  “There is literally no one but us on this island tonight,” I say to Sarah as we set up in the pine forest, and add, “I’m really glad we don’t watch horror movies.” 

Even though the mosquitos are pretty assertive and it starts spitting rain, I have a hard time talking my rule follower wife into cooking dinner in the unlocked screen porch of the small camper cabin sitting empty next to our tent site.  The bugs finally convince her when my efforts fail, and we move onto the porch and enjoy the amazing one-pot meal Sarah makes to pair with our giant beers.  

Owls are hooting all around us and a soft rain patters on the metal roof.  Moonlight peaks through the clouds occasionally to illuminate the forest around us.  Old Florida is easy to imagine—and romanticize—from this porch seat tonight.

After a fire, Sarah goes to bed and I wander around in the pitch dark listening to the night sounds before putting all of our food in the bear proof campground lockers and retreating to the tent.  Other than tree frogs chirping, the dripping of palm trees, and an occasional owl, it’s pindrop quiet.  

So far, so good, central Florida.

No Trespassing, Beware of Dog             

Al greets us the next morning for our return trip to the mainland.  “I was going to bring you donuts, but my car battery was dead this morning and I ran out of time,” he says, and adds, “next time you are here you should stay a few days so you can canoe up to the blue springs and swim with the manatees.”  I make a point to sit downwind from Al on the boat.  We only bring two sets of biking gear with us on these trips, and putting on my wet, smelly biking gear earlier that morning was like taking a bad cold shower.  I didn’t want Al to pass out at the wheel.  I hope the Minneola Inn, where we plan to stay that night, has laundry.  

The day starts cool (60’s) and overcast, but the rural feel and light traffic mercifully return after we leave the remnants of DeLand.  The land is pine forest and open scrub, broken up by tiny towns that spring up at the crossroads of rural highways.  Town is a generous description; most are just the collection of a few run-down homes and trailers.  But all of the homes—and I mean ALL—have fences and aggressive “Keep Out,” “Private Property-No Trespassing,” and “Beware of Dog” signs plastered on them.    

“They should change the slogan on the Florida license plate to read ‘No Trespassing, Beware of Dog,’” I say to Sarah after we bike by one trailer home that had at least 12 of these signs hung up along the entire distance of its 75 foot, chain link fence.  I tried not to focus on the mindset of someone that would hang one of those signs every few feet on a fence.  Just keep moving.

I’m not sure how other traveling cyclists navigate, but on this trip we relied mostly on the Adventure Cycling Florida Connector route with Google Map directions as an overlay.  Just before lunch, those two sources went in opposite directions, which happened more than you might expect.  After some debate on the side of the road, we opted to take the Adventure Cycling route into the town of Mount Dora where we enjoyed a great lunch at a downtown park with a fancy fountain and clean bathrooms.  

I can see why Adventure Cycling routed us this way,” I say to Sarah as we bike through the historic Mount Dora downtown after lunch, dodging tourists that are walking in and out of upscale shops and restaurants.  

We should have followed Google Maps,” is what I should have said to Sarah, because the rest of the ride almost all the way into Minneola was brutal.  We found ourselves on narrow, two-lane highways with no shoulder.  This type of road is fine in rural areas with limited traffic—in some ways it’s safer because cars slow down to pass you like they would another car—but they are terrifying when traffic is busy, high speed and angry.  

And that’s the trifecta of terror we found from Mount Dora to Minneola.  

Don’t do this on a Bicycle

Sarah insisted on riding in the back, as she has a good rear view mirror to call out approaching traffic.  “Two cars back, and one school bus!” Sarah yells to me at one point.  “Too many cars to count!” at another.  Every time she calls out traffic from behind I cringe, look at the traffic coming at us at 60mph+, and try to gauge whether the traffic in Sarah’s mirror will have a gap to pass us in the left lane or be forced to slow down to our 12mph speed.  This goes on for a few hours until we reach the outskirts of Minneola and Google finds us an escape route.  It is a draining and dangerous afternoon and we hope it is an outlier rather than a harbinger of things to come.  

Unfortunately, it’s going to get even worse.  

But we didn’t know that yet, and the Minneola Inn, a hot shower, and a sunset Miller Lite at the Inn’s lakefront tiki bar help us wash off the stress of the day’s ride.  The Inn is old and creaky, but beautiful, and the office manager tells us that we are the only people staying here tonight as she checks us in and leaves for home.  Last night we had an island to ourselves, tonight an Inn.  I think, oh so briefly, that we are pretty good vacation planners, but then reverse course and come to the correct conclusion:

Smart people are staying elsewhere.  

And not only were they staying elsewhere, they also weren’t planning to ride their bikes from here to Lake Wales, Florida, which is our foolhardy plan for tomorrow.  It’s such a bad plan, in fact, that it will force us to abandon our ride. 

More on that—and the little person wrestlers, cars stuck in orange groves, and insane school bus drivers we meet along the way—in the last entry on this trip. You can keep reading, here

9 thoughts on “Biking Across Florida – The Middle

  1. Pingback: Biking Across Florida – The Start | wander and wonder

  2. Once again, leaving us at the height of anticipation! At least I know it’s going to be OK because you lived to write about it, yes?

    • I love that picture Halffast. We’ve had some amazing experiences biking in Florida – just not in the middle parts. If you do ride there, stay on the Coasts! There is also a Florida “Coast to Coast Trail” in the works that will let you ride across the State almost exclusively on bike paths. I think it’s currently around 50% completed. Thanks for reading!

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