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Related Photos Bainbridge, GA to Sebring, FL Stage Back
(via Highways 27, 441, 46, 436, 437, 545, 17, 634)
October 14, 2004
After eating the motel’s continental breakfast, we packed up our trailer and awaited the arrival of Barbara, the news reporter at The Post-Searchlight in Bainbridge. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and we were anxious to get started with our ride. Our morning interview with the reporter posed no problem with our timing today as we expected to ride less than 50 miles. Since we were on the south side of town, we wouldn’t have to deal with the busy, commuter traffic. As we were filling our Camelbaks with icy water, Barbara pulled into the parking lot.
The bubbly Bainbridge reporter was very excited to meet us. She was just amazed at the distance we were biking. The first question she asked was, “Are you guys doing okay?” She said that when she told her associates that we had sold our house and quit our jobs, they were wondering, “Is this homeless couple making it okay?” We understood their perception that we could be in dire straits but we assured Barbara that we were doing fine. After learning that we expected to buy a house somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Barbara gave us a big thumbs up as she had lived in Seattle for several years.
As she began her questioning, the reporter asked if it was okay to tape our interview on her tiny audio recorder. We were fine with that as we had experienced first hand a few misquotes from previous newspaper articles written about us. Barbara was incredulous that everything we needed for our tour was packed on our bike and trailer. She wished she could pack that efficiently when traveling. Randall then explained where the various items were packed. Barbara was particularly impressed that we were carrying a can of bear mace. She wondered if the pepper spray would be effective against alligators!
Wrapping up our interview, we thanked Barbara for her interest in our cycling story. We could tell that she was quite thrilled to meet some long-distance adventurers. Knowing that we would be in Florida when the story was published, we asked her to mail a copy to Barb’s sister Susan in Kansas. With Barbara’s permission, we later scanned the article and web posted it for those who would like to read Angells Pedaling Through. In the story, it noted, “The Angells……are having a heavenly time raising money for Habitat for Humanity.”
Leaving the motel parking lot, we headed south on Highway 27 for our final 18 miles of Georgia. We first hopped onto this road back in Kentucky and had now logged nearly 350 miles on it. With a brilliant blue sky above, we followed the highway as it angled to the southeast. The divided, four-lane road had a two FT wide shoulder that was covered with rumble strips so we stayed away from the shoulder. The traffic was very light so no one had trouble getting around us. Georgia’s infamous rumble strips were a menace to the very end. Passing by groves of pecan trees and an occasional cotton field, we climbed up several medium sized hills. This state was certainly more hilly than we expected. We were looking forward to “flat” Florida but wondered if we would be surprised about that state’s terrain also.
After 15 miles, the hills finally leveled out. With the late morning temperature now exceeding 80 degrees, it was certainly starting to feel like Florida. Having entered Georgia ten days earlier, we felt that we had trekked across the state in fairly good fashion. We passed through 20 of the state’s 159 counties. Only Texas, with its 254 counties, has more. Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River and is about 300 miles long north to south. Because of our detour to Americus, we managed to pedal on 424 miles of Georgia highways on our north to south trek. We were quite pleased with these extra miles as our meandering took us through portions of the Deep South that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Just as the highway started bending to the southwest, we could see the sign that we had long awaited. Florida at last! Our 12th and final state (along with two Canadian provinces and one territory) greeted us simply with a green sign that stated, “Florida State Line – Gadsden County.” Uncertain if there would be a subsequent colorful sign ahead, we stopped for the photo op. After taking several photos, we continued around the curve to find the more desirable sign that read, “Welcome to Florida – The Sunshine State” with a sub caption of “Speeding Can Wreck your Day.” We stopped for another series of photos.
There was so much glare in the background, it was difficult to capture a good shot with our digital camera. It was obvious that we were in a sunny state. Across the highway, we could see a flagpole holding up a large, Confederate flag. The proud Civil War heritage apparently runs into Florida as well. As we began our first Florida mile, we were elated to see the rumble strips disappear. We were keeping our fingers cross, hoping that the entire state would be rumble-strip free. Continuing along, the flat terrain changed back to medium sized hills. We were now 100 miles east of the state’s highest point call Britton Hill. At 345 feet, it is the lowest highpoint among the 50 states. So, we figured that we would have to battle some hills for a little while as we cross the Florida panhandle.
North of Havana, FL, we passed by a large lumber mill. With all of the tall pines we had been biking by, we weren’t surprised to see the numerous piles of logs stacked along the highway. Pedaling through this small town of 1,700, we saw a number of antique shops. The stores took root in the 1980s to help turn around a decaying municipality. As expected, Havana got its name from the Cuban city. There once was a thriving cigar industry here but that business went south to Central America several decades ago. From what we had seen of this small town and the mostly rural Gadsden County, it reminded us of Georgia. The setting is somewhat unique for the state of Florida, as it is the only county with a majority population of African Americans.
When we reached the south side of town, we stopped at a convenience store for a rest break. Now almost noon, we bought some sandwiches at the store and then ate them outside. While enjoying our meal, we noticed a lot of people stopping for gas and snacks. Business was hopping. To our chagrin, the store’s frequent visits contributed to a long line waiting for the unisex rest room. Because the temperature was now in the mid 80s, we packed our Camelbaks with lots of ice and water. For additional relief from the heat, we selected some ice cream bars for desert. With two weeks of touring left, we weren’t going to be conscientious about our diet now.
Departing Havana, we passed by a large Christmas tree farm which had acres and acres of pristine, evergreen trees. In several weeks, we suspected that the trees’ healthy branches would be bearing the weight of Christmas decorations. Holiday spirit wasn’t the only thing being marketed by the farm as we saw a large grove of pecan trees as well. Now heading southeast, the rolling hills we encountered made us very aware of the warm sun overhead. With elevation changes of 100 to 150 FT, the hills weren’t real big but they were causing us to sip water from our hydration packs more frequently.
After five miles of ups and downs, we crossed the Ochlockonee River. This muddy, brown river serves as the boundary for Gadsden and Leon Counties. Our second Florida county was named after Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer who was the first European to reach the state. A half mile into Leon County, we passed by a small airstrip called the Tallahassee Commercial Airport. For a city of a quarter million inhabitants, we concluded that this wasn’t their primary airport. Continuing southeast, we got a glimpse of Jackson Lake to the east. Seven miles from the center of Tallahassee, we noticed that the volume of traffic was increasing.
An alternate route would have allowed us to miss this large, urban area but we elected to stay with Highway 27. Given that it was a college town (Florida State and Florida A & M), we figured that the drivers would be more receptive to our long bicycle. Just north of Interstate 10, an extra lane was added but our shoulder disappeared. We wouldn’t have minded sharing the road with three lanes of traffic if only the hills would have just flattened out some. Naturally, we faced a couple of red traffic lights while climbing which made for challenging launches after the lights changed to green. As expected, Randall gripped the handle bars tighter and focused on the road ahead. After passing over I-10, Barb shot a photo of a sign so that he could later read the catchy name of the business: “A Dent in the Attic Self Storage.”
Riding the hills all the way to the center of town, we paused when we reached Park Avenue. This east/west street was lined with large trees covered with Spanish moss. It was quite a sight. We could see to the west that the FSU campus was a short distance away so we turned and meandered along the school’s boundary for a few blocks. A small business district that catered to the college scene was sandwiched between the campus and the downtown area. With school in session, trekking near the campus area proved to be very challenging. It seemed that some of the higher educated individuals had difficulty interpreting the blinking “Don’t Walk” signs correctly. Even students on bicycles were unpredictable!
Having seen enough of the campus and the downtown area, we continued south two blocks to where our Highway 27 made a turn to the left. We learned of the turn too late and were unable to get into the left turning lane so we continued a block south and circled back. This maneuvering allowed us more time to gawk at the state capitol buildings. The older capitol building ran parallel to the street and was the more prominent building. Now a museum, the central core of the building was completed in 1845. A drum tower capped with a verdigris-colored dome and cupola was added later to give the complex the appearance one is accustom to seeing in a state capitol building. Also striking to us was the red and white striped canopies hanging over each window. Interestingly, Tallahassee was the only Confederate state capital that was not taken by Union forces during the Civil War.
After taking a few photos of this grand structure, we felt pressed to continue on as the traffic at the “T” intersection was hectic. We knew that there had to be a new capitol building around somewhere but lost interest in trying to track it down. Later, we learned that we had captured a portion of the 300 FT building in one of our photos. Completed in 1977, the new capitol building is simply a block tower. Oh, how ugly! We were happy we didn’t waste time looking for it. Making a right turn onto east-bound Highway 27, we then flew down a fast hill only to face another moderate climb in traffic. After ascending that hill, we could see another hill ahead. Oh brother! To our relief, we had just three miles of this before reaching our motel.
A half mile before our motel, we turned off at a strip mall for a couple of stops. Having pedaled for a day in Florida, we still didn’t have a state road map. We searched for a Florida map in a few stores in Georgia but had no luck. Discovering that there was an AAA office at the strip, Barb walked in to check out their map options. After presenting her membership card, she was able to get maps of Florida, Orlando and the Keys along with a Florida tour book. The tour book would be handy for noting attractions and campsites along the way. Our other stop was to pick up more sun screen at the drug store. Now 2:30 PM, we were hungry and uncertain if there would be a restaurant near our motel so we stopped at McDonald’s for an afternoon lunch.
Following our well-deserved meal, we continued to our motel. Our lodging was on the east side of town so that we would be well positioned for our eastbound departure in the morning. We later learned that we were very lucky to find a room as Florida State was hosting a football game in a couple of days. The next two nights (Friday and Saturday) were booked throughout Tallahassee. Timing is everything. Once we got settled into our motel room, we showered and rested some. Through prior arrangements, a FSU grad student was going to take us out to dinner that night. A week earlier, we received an email from our friends, Dick and Charlotte, a SE Michigan couple who also has a passion for tandem cycling. Their daughter, Lori was working for her PhD here and was hoping to meet us. We said, “Sure!” (touring cyclists are always receptive when food is offered).
Before our dinner outing, we went through our Florida tour book to check out transportation options out of Key West, FL, our final destination for this tour. The night before, we were surprised to learn that the ferry we planned to ride from Key West to Fort Myers, FL did not allow bicycles. Has anyone ever heard of a ferry prohibiting bicycles? Perhaps the ferry company also rents bikes? We had planned to take the ferry to get ourselves near a major airport where we would then fly back to Detroit, MI. To fly with our bike and trailer, we would need our large suitcases that we traveled with to Fairbanks, AK. We had shipped the luggage from Fairbanks to Barb’s sister Susan in Leavenworth, KS for temporary storage. Susan had earlier found a lady near Fort Myers that would be happy to receive the suitcases for us. We quickly emailed Susan with the message, “HOLD the LUGGAGE.”
After considering all of our return options to Michigan, we decided that renting a mid-size car from the Key West airport would be the most practical thing to do. We would pay a little extra for not returning the car to Florida but it would still be much cheaper than flying (and shipping the necessary luggage to Florida). To reserve a rental car you have to know when you need it. Although our estimated arrival date set prior to the trip was October 15, we now projected that October 28 would be a comfortable target for Key West. It then dawn on us that we should check on the lodging availability for that date with a three night stay.
Trying to book a room online, we learned that all of the budget motels in Key West had no vacancy. After several minutes of searching, we found a room for $370/night. We wondered, “Wow, what’s going on here?” Checking the web site for Key West, we established that the city was hosting their annual Fantasy Fest during the week we planned to arrive. So, Barb phoned two campground operators to inquire about reserving space for pitching a tent on the 28th. Both sites said their rate was $60/night but that their campgrounds were full that week. We were thinking that if we showed up on a bicycle, we might find someplace to pitch a tent. However, we were wondering, “Do we want to be on that island when it’s packed with drunken party goers?”
While pondering what to do, Lori arrived at the motel lobby in her car. We quickly changed our focus from unsettled Key West arrangements to having a cheery night out on the town. Lori was tickled to meet us and excited to share a meal downtown. Hoping to take us to Andrew’s Capital Grill & Bar, she circled around looking for parking options. The limited parking availability reminded us of our college days with the competitive nature of locating a place to put your car. After finding a parking spot about four blocks away, we enjoyed a nice walk to the restaurant. Being a short distance from the state capitol building, Andrew’s is a favorite gathering place of the movers and shakers. Even the menu items were named after politicians. Randall quickly opted for the “Jeb” Burger.
Naturally, our conservation drifted to politics and hurricanes. Lori described how hurricanes Frances and Jeanne created a lot of wind and rain while Charley and Ivan created a large influx to Tallahassee due to the evacuations. Price gouging is always an issue during hurricanes, particularly with gas and hotels. The Tallahassee hotels typically hike their prices during football weekends which created quite a stir when the hotels were filled with hurricane victims. With the state’s attorney general next door, it didn’t take long for the offenders to forward refunds. Also related to the four storms, a Florida map had been marked up with the hurricanes’ paths to show how the counties that voted for Gore in 2000 were spared from devastation. This attempt at political humor took some finagling with the actual storm data to produce the results.
With the common thread of having lived in Michigan and the Midwest, we got a giggle over a variety of subjects. People’s perceptions about weather can be astounding. Lori raved about how one classmate consulted with her about choosing a winter wardrobe for Tallahassee. Hailing from the Miami area, this gal had traveled very little and was concerned about the severity of the winters in the Florida panhandle. Jumping to football, Lori talked about the crazy atmosphere surrounding the FSU home games. Having attended the University of Kansas previously (bitter rival to our alma mater, KSU), she asked how our Wildcats were fairing in football. We then lowered our heads and enlightened her about KU’s football victory over KSU this year.
Lori reacted with (frazzled voice), “In football?!” Now perplexed, she followed with, “Football!” and then blurted a hysterical, “Football!” Facing that kind of response, as K-Staters we had good reason to be deflated. But, instead, we were elated to be sharing a table with someone who appreciated how wrong that outcome sounded. We had a good laugh about it. With wonderful food and company, we couldn’t have asked for more. We exited the restaurant to find a shower falling over the city. After trudging through a warm day, it felt good to soak up the cool relief. Upon our return to the motel, we expressed our gratitude to Lori for the wonderful outing.
Miles cycled – 45.3
October 15, 2004
Having stayed up past our usual bedtime the night before, we stretched our sleep time to 8:30 AM. Feeling refreshed, we dined on the pastries and cereal that the motel had to offer. Knowing that we still had to resolve our Key West planning, we opted to make the following day a rest day so that we could take time to iron out the details. Another gorgeous sunny morning awaited us as the blue sky was completely devoid of clouds. A few minutes before 10 AM, we were eastbound onto the four-lane Highway 27. There were very few cars seen on the route which was nice. Our shoulder stayed steady with a two FT span on which to ride.
At the outskirts of Tallahassee, we saw another storage company sign with an eye-catching caption. With the upcoming election, the sign demoted Bush and Kerry as unacceptable. Instead, it offered, “Larry, Mo or Curley for President.” For the next ten miles, we continued riding through some moderate rolling hills. The road was pretty much lined with pine trees. Typically, when we have biked through forested areas, we followed a curvy route. This trek through the trees was straight and boring. There we were, riding in Florida and complaining about the scenery. After crossing into Jefferson County, the hills leveled out to make riding even more uneventful.
Seeing a continuous, flat terrain for the first time since Kansas, a rare gap in the trees would occasionally tease us with a distant view. Some of the pines looked like they had been planted long ago as they were somewhat aligned in rows and had a consistent height. After nearly twenty miles of trees, we passed by Robinson’s Pecan House. With at least a dozen, yellow roadside-signs with red and black text, the advertisement overshadowed the small, nondescript building which housed the produce stand. Among the offerings were, country smoked sausage, Indian River fruits, pure Tupelo honey, pecan rolls, homemade peanut brittle, pure cane sugar, sweet onions, tomatoes and of course, roasted pecans. Desiring a more balanced meal, we kept on pedaling.
A few miles later, the water tower for Lamont, FL came into view. This small town of about 500 had three, convenience store type businesses to pick from. It was almost 1 PM so we paused to consider which store to buy lunch from. The store across the street was advertising Disney T-shirts and souvenirs (and we were still 200 miles from the Magic Kingdom). Not being Mickey Mouse fans, we dropped that station from consideration. The remaining two stores were unremarkable so we just parked our rig at the one we were closest to. After stepping inside, we could see that the selection for snacks and refreshments were limited. Seeing no restroom inside, Barb asked if there was one outside. The clerk indicated that there was and handed her a key for access.
Randall then strolled down the three aisles to check out the lunch options. He spotted some tuna and egg salad sandwiches but chose not to make a selection until Barb returned. As he stood waiting near the store’s entrance, Randall noticed that a man sitting at a desk on his left had been studying him over. The well-worn desk and the elderly gentleman seemed out of place. In the opposite corner, the store had a sales counter that was manned by a young clerk. Although the older man wasn’t doing anything, perhaps he was the owner of the establishment and needed the desk to appear busy and in control.
As Randall stared out the window, this curious man popped the question, “Where ya’all biking from and to?” Randall answered, “We rode our bicycle down from Alaska.” The man asked again, “Where?” Randall repeated with, “Alaska!” With a contentious face, the man again asked, “Where?” With a raised voice, Randall replied, “Alaska – we have ridden over 6,000 miles so far.” The man then nodded as he repeated the word, Alaska. He then followed with, “So where ya’all biking to?” Randall responded in a soft voice, “Key West.” The man tipped his chair back and proclaimed, “BOOOY, do you know how fur it is down there? That there is a long ways away! How many miles is that?” Randall countered that it was about 700 miles as we were close to finishing. The man just shook his head and said, “Well, I hoped ya’all make it okay.”
Upon Barb’s return, we made our lunch selections and then sat outside in the shade. Randall then related to Barb about the humorous exchange that occurred inside the store. We theorized that this guy had driven to Key West at least once in his life. With that experience, he could relate to how far we had to travel. As we learned in Georgia, those in the rural South had difficulty grasping the extent of our trip. They had enough trouble visualizing the distance to California let alone Alaska. This man’s response reminded us of the “Toledo Syndrome.”
We use this phenomenon to describe the unusual responses we get from motorists who somehow connect to a particular cycling accomplishment. Our first encounter with this syndrome was in 1997. By then, we had biked across mountains and had pedaled for over a hundred miles on a few occasions. Many of our co-workers in Michigan were aware of our past bicycling adventures. However, we made the biggest impression on them when we reported on our solo ride from Detroit, MI to Toledo, OH, a mere 70 miles on flat terrain. One astonished associate stated, “It takes me two hours just to drive there!” We were so distinguished with that one ride that we have always referred to the experience as the Toledo Syndrome.
Having been sufficiently amused by the remarks of an old man in a small town, we continued on our journey. Just beyond Lamont, we crossed over the Aucilla River. This dark, murky stream is unusual as its waters sometimes disappear under limestone layers on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. With the river crossing, we were now in Madison County and southeast bound. The trees seemed to be less prevalent now as we passed by some farmland surrounded with wooden fences. After only six miles, we cut through the southwest corner of Madison and pedaled into Taylor County, our third consecutive county named after a president.
The four-lane highway seemed eerily deserted at times. We could bike a couple of miles without seeing any vehicles. This county is not densely populated as far as Florida goes. Fishing is probably what draws tourists to the area with the rivers that flow into the Gulf. One country store we passed by had a sign that noted, “Ice – Beer – Bait (Crickets Worms).” Also telling was a small signboard that stated, “DON’T BOMB the Nature Coast.” The Pentagon sees the sparely populated area as a good place to put a bombing range. The bombing is currently done 200 miles to the west but the population has grown there to the point where the noise from the bombing range has drawn complaints. Among the bombs tested is the MOAB, (Mother of all Bombs). The MOAB is the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever built. The exploding device creates a mushroom cloud and has shockwaves similar to a small nuclear explosion. So, the locals were campaigning against it.
For the next 15 miles, we biked through another forested area as we followed the flat and straight highway. After 45 miles of pine trees and grazing cattle, we were approaching Perry, FL, the county seat of Taylor County. A sign at the outskirts of town promoted a left turn at the next traffic signal to view the city’s historic downtown. Enticed by the sign, we headed east on Green Street, following it for a half mile before turning right onto Jefferson, the main street into town. This community of 7,000 had a quaint little downtown. The most striking building was the courthouse. Although the block-shape building didn’t have much character, the windows all had a dressy appearance with green canopies.
After nearly fifty miles of very little traffic, we were now engulfed with cars as we trekked through Perry. We had made motel reservations the night before but were unable to reserve a second night because of the Florida State football game Saturday. Apparently, the bookings were high as the Tallahassee lodging fills up quickly. We followed Jefferson Street for a mile to reach Byron Butler Parkway where there was a string of motels. Heading southeast onto the busy parkway, we went by some inns that appeared to have vacancy. The question was, “Can we get two nights?” Stopping at an economy motel, we inquired about Saturday availability. Thankfully, they could give us two nights. With a fridge and microwave in the room and a grocery store nearby, the setting was perfect.
While checking in, the lady asked us about our bicycle, wanting to know if we were traveling very far. Her young son was also taking a keen interest in our rig as well. When we told the clerk about our trip, she then handed us a book that a previous guest had written and forwarded to them. In his book, “Follow the White Line,” Henry Martin had described his cycle touring from Homestead, FL to Battle Creek, Michigan. As we thumbed through the book, we could see that, like us, Martin traveled Highway 27 through Florida, but in the opposite direction. Once we got our gear into our room, we called to cancel the other motel reservation. After settling in, we walked next door to a restaurant for a final meal before retiring for the day.
Miles cycled – 50.9
October 16, 2004
Our rest day began with a short walk to the Winn-Dixie supermarket. The Winn-Dixie chain, based in Jacksonville, FL, is quite prominent in the South. They are particularly known for their private label Chek brand soft drinks, which are produced in over 20 different flavors. After purchasing enough food to last through the next morning, we carried the bags back to the motel. Following a big breakfast, we returned to our unsettled Key West planning. Having earlier rationalized that we did not want to be riding into Key West during their rowdy Fantasy Fest, we set our target arrival date as October 31st, the day that the festival officially ended.
With a Halloween finish to our adventure, the motel rates in Key West dropped dramatically. Granted, the lodging cost is never cheap on the Key Islands but we felt a lot better about paying a fraction of what the special-event rates were. We found that the motels four miles east of downtown Key West had the lowest rates. Without hesitation, we booked one of the east side inns for three nights. That reservation then established our rental car schedule. We would pick up the car from the airport on the afternoon before our return to Michigan. Expecting to leave Key West on November 3rd, we emailed Barb’s sister Susan with our post-tour travel plan. We requested that she ship only our small suitcase to Florida which contained street clothes and other essentials.
Having setup our Key West logistics, we realized that we had better look at our other stays on the Key Islands. Knowing that the last significant city that we would pass through in southern Florida would be Homestead, we decided to break the 130 mile trek from there to Key West into three segments. We determined that overnight stops in Key Largo, FL and Marathon, FL would give us comfortable travel stages. Given that spacing, Barb then called campground sites in these two cities to reserve camping space. We were relieved to have the final segments of our trip planned. All we had to do now was bike several hundred miles to the finish.
For the balance of the morning, we added some notes to our daily journal and reviewed our latest photos. That afternoon, we were content with watching our alma mater host Oklahoma in a football game. Because KSU was having a miserable season, the undesired outcome was not unexpected. At 5:30 PM, we walked a half mile south to attend a 6 PM mass at Immaculate Conception Church. The 40 FT by 80 FT chapel was among the smallest churches we had ever been in. The pews in the white church were filled with cheerful retirees who made us feel very welcomed. When we told the pastor about the extent of our trip, he stated, “Whew, I get tired just biking across town!” That evening we were in bed by 9 PM as we were hoping for an early morning departure.
Miles cycled – 0.0
October 17, 2004
With the sun expected to rise at 7:38 AM, we begin our morning at 6 AM. Our night’s rest went pretty well except from 2:30 – 3 AM. The noisy Florida State fans had returned to their rooms following their post-football game activities, still in a cheery mood. Following breakfast in our room, we put on our jackets and tights as there was a slight chill in the morning air. While packing our rig outside, we could see that some fishermen were also preparing to depart. They were scurrying around three pickups, each with a boat in toll. We exchanged waves as they were seeking to catch some fish and we were seeking to catch some miles. At 7:10 AM, we launched with both head and tail lights flashing at the crack of dawn.
To exit town, we had to make a right onto Jefferson Street and head back into downtown Perry. At the center of town, we rejoined Highway 27 with a right turn. Now heading southeast, we were immersed in a light fog that gave our path an eerie look. The road was initially four lanes but soon necked down to two. We had a two foot wide shoulder with an interesting twist. About 500 FT before each bridge, a series of rumbles strips were added. We suspected that the bumpy surface was to alert approaching motorist that the bridge ahead did not offer a wide opening. In fact, the shoulder disappeared altogether over the crossing. Naturally, we didn’t attempt to ride on the shoulder when the rumble strips were present. On an early Sunday morning, there was very little traffic to be concerned with.
At our first five-mile rest stop, we paused near a tall ranger’s tower. We were entering another forested area and this structure would give the observer a pretty good view of distant fires. There were signs along the way encouraging fire prevention. Before continuing on, we removed our tights and jacket sleeves. Although the sky was still most cloudy, it hadn’t taken very long for us to get warmed up. As we entered the forest, the road curved to the east and actually took us northeast for a few miles. For 15 miles, we trekked down the tree-lined pavement. The most interesting thing we saw was at a subsequent rest stop. Down at our feet, we observed an earthworm being attacked by tiny red ants. Not knowing if the insects had an appreciable bite, we kept our distance and marveled as two hundred of the ants teamed up to carry the wiggling worm across the shoulder.
As we departed the dense tree area, the road curved back to the southeast. We were now enjoying distant views of the surrounding agriculture. The unidentified crops along the road had already been harvested and plowed under. Herds of cattle were quite abundant and one pasture had some sheep and goats grazing. A few large chicken barns were also seen along the way. We pass by one large prison complex called the Mayo Correctional Institution. After 29 miles of riding, we reached the city of Mayo, FL. This small town of 1,000 was still fairly sleepy. We stopped for some refreshments at a gas station. Having just canned pop and a few snacks in stock, we bought some items and then rested at a nearby grove. The huge trees with hanging moss offered a lot of shade.
Continuing through town, we passed by the majestic Lafayette County Courthouse. For a county with of only 7,000, this was a pretty fabulous building. The four-faced clock tower showed a time of 10:08 AM so we were traveling at a fairly good pace. Leaving town, we noticed a convenience store that was selling gas for $2.10 a gallon. We were understandably thinking, “Glad we’re pedaling and not driving!” Back out into the country, we passed by a substantial number of chicken barns. Painted on the side of one of the buildings was a comical looking chicken lounging in a lawn chair. The agriculture in the area appeared to be quite diverse. We were seeing dairy cattle, pigs, and sheep. A number of the fields were holding large round hay bales wrapped in white plastic. One private home was hosting a soccer game in its huge front yard. In a rural setting, it was curious to see a dozen adults, wearing team jerseys with numbers, chasing after a ball.
The vehicle traffic picked up some as the locals were on their way to the area’s country churches. One church driveway had a large influx of cars turning in. We had to be extra careful passing by. At the next crossroad, we pulled off the highway for a rest stop. While sipping on our water, we could see a pickup approaching from the south, generating a cloud of dust. The truck paused at the stop sign as the lady passenger asked us where we were biking to. Following Barb’s answer, the male driver asked, “Where did ya’all start?” Randall answered, “Perry” and Barb more specifically answered, “Alaska.” Holding a Bible, the woman exclaimed, “Alaska, no way!” We could sense that the couple had a dozen questions to ask but they had to hurry on to avoid being late for church.
Before resuming our ride, we watched a John Deere tractor pull a feed wagon down the highway. Just as it reached us, a motorist driving a RV passed the tractor. We felt that scene pretty much captured what powered the economy in the area. Rested, we started cranking the pedals again. Including the 40 miles from the day before, we had now biked across 80 miles of flat terrain. We appreciated how nice it was to have no wind out of the south (recalling that strong current of air back in Kansas). With a five mph tailwind, we were averaging an incredible fifteen mph, a speed we would normally be happy with on an unloaded tandem.
As the sun approached a position approximating midday, we were starting to feel the warmth of the 80 plus degree setting. We observed that some of the cattle were resting in the shade for relief from the heat. In one pasture devoid of trees, a herd of two dozen dairy cattle were standing under a structure of pipes. Sprinkler nozzles were distributed about the plumbing. We figured that periodically, a shower came on to keep the cows cool. Cool cows meant higher milk production. We were looking for some relief as well and Branford, FL just ahead would hopefully offer a cool stop.
Prior to crossing the Suwannee River west of Branford, we noticed that a police car was park sideways to block access to a side road. While pedaling across the bridge, we could tell that something was amiss. The water was really high and was overflowing past the tree lined banks. We later learned that heavy rains from Hurricane Jeanne had caused the flooding and that the river had crested at 30 FT. The flood stage for that area was 29 FT. The Suwannee has a bubbling start from the massive Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and winds its way 266 miles southwest to the Gulf. Even though northern Florida’s largest river has 56 springs feeding into it, the water is quite dark and murky due to tannic acid from decaying vegetation.
Just beyond the river was Branford and Suwannee County. A colorful welcome sign stated that Branford was the “Spring Diving Capital of the World.” The area’s springs emerge from an expansive, underwater cave system which is interconnected through subterranean passages. With visibility exceeding 200 FT and a constant temperature of 70 degrees year round, the springs feeding into the Suwannee are extremely popular among scuba divers. One irony we saw with the diving promotion was a sign at the bridge that warned, “No Diving from Bridge.” We were wondering, “Who would want to dive into black water?”
As typical with a major river, the region had a rich history. Near the bridge’s entrance was a sign noting the significance of steamboating on the Suwannee. Because the river was navigable from the Gulf to Branford, steam-powered vessels were able to transport the area’s cotton and lumber to market. One steamboat that served the region prior to the Civil War was called the Madison. This floating country store had a whistle that was unproportionally loud for the small size of the boat. Upon hearing the whistle from miles away, farmers and woodsmen would rush to the boat’s landing with their goods. As the boat approached the dock, the crew would throw out nickels. The ensuing mad scramble on the shore (a nickel was worth a lot back then) created a legend.
Standing at the east side of the bridge, we could see that the flooding was more apparent. The entrance to Ivey Memorial Park was closed as the park appeared to be completely flooded. A yellow sign that cautioned motorists about pedestrians crossing the park road had its mounting post completely submerged. So, the water depth there had to be about five feet. The rest of the town appeared to be on slightly higher ground and out of harm’s way. One other historical sign near the bridge made note of a song that made the local river one of the most well known streams of water.
In 1851, a young songwriter, Stephen Foster, was searching for a two-syllable Southern river name that would fit into a song he was composing. For his song, “Old Folks at Home,” he was using “Pedee River” (in South Carolina) but it didn’t sound very euphonic. After consulting a world atlas with his brother, the composer settled on the name, Suwannee, but removed a couple of letters to make the name, “Swanee.” The song has quite a catchy tune. When we realized the song’s connection to the river, we were humming the music all afternoon.
Foster also wrote other popular songs such as “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Camptown Races,” “Oh! Susanna” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” but his “Old Folks at Home” became arguably the world’s most familiar melody. More commonly known as the title, “Way Down Upon the Swanee River,” the song was played on the USS Missouri when Japan surrendered to the Allies, thus ending World War II. Having never seen the river he made famous, Foster suffered an early death at age 37 with only 38 cents in his pocket.
After biking 46 miles in the morning, we were more than ready for a big lunch. Just a few hundred feet away, a convenience store with a Hardee’s Restaurant offered just the stop we were looking for. While enjoying our meal in air-conditioned comfort, a Hardee’s customer asked us if we were having fun. Barb then handed her one of our cards. Upon seeing our Habitat for Humanity connection, she immediately reached for her purse to make a donation to HFHOC. She told us that she had been assisting hurricane victims in the area. Before departing Hardee’s, we were sure to pack our Camelbaks with icy water. Near the ice dispenser was a rack displaying flyers such as “Yacht Trader,” “Heavy Equipment Trader” and the magazine, “Boar Hunter.”
Across the street from Hardee’s we noticed a patrol car and a small office that was labeled with the words, “The Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement.” This building is one of 22 agricultural interdiction stations that are located throughout Florida. With an annual economic impact exceeding $60 billion, the state aims to protect its second largest industry. As we pedaled eastbound out of Branford, we noticed a paved bike path to the south. Unaware of the extent of the path, we choose to stay with the highway and its two FT shoulder. The highway was much smoother and cleaner to ride on. We suspected that some motorists may have been perturbed that we weren’t on the path. Oh well.
After only nine miles, we had cut across the southern tip of Suwannee County. The Ichetucknee River Bridge took us into Columbia County and by the south edge of Ichetucknee Springs State Park. Glancing to our right, we were amused at the large collection of tubes at the business, Buffalo Joe’s. There were dozens and dozens of yellow and blue tubes stacked in piles. Tube floating enthusiasts could rent a tube and enjoy a three hour ride on the six mile river. There was a daily limit of 750 tubers per day. Sounded like a lot of bobbing traffic to us!
Just past the state park, the road curved back to the southeast again. The bike path that we were paralleling had apparently ended. Arriving in Fort White, FL two miles later, we trekked through the town of 500 without stopping. We passed by a gas station with the name, Floyd’s. With pumps dating back to the early 70s, the business apparently closed decades ago. Fort White was once a thriving city in the late nineteenth century but a boom sparked by citrus production collapsed because of severe freezes in the winter of 1894-1895.
Continuing southeast, the road was flat with pine trees seen in various concentrations. The pavement and shoulder felt really smooth and made for a nice path for our final stretch of the day. The traffic was picking up some but the presence of “Share the Road” signs (showing an outline of a bicycle) gave us some comfort. We caught up with a cyclist plodding down the highway on his fat-tire bicycle. The teenager had a couple of bags from a shopping stop draped over the handle bars . As typical for bikers who don’t know the rules of the road, he was riding on the left shoulder facing traffic. We cringe each time we see this practice. The rider might feel more comfortable seeing what’s coming at him but it is intimidating to motorists and can lead to a catastrophic collision.
Outside of High Springs, FL, we pedaled over the Santa Fe River and into Alachua County. We somehow managed to bike in five counties in one day. Alachua was named for an Indian word meaning sinkhole. Wondering if we should be worried about falling into sinkholes, we reach the city limits. In 1889, the name of this city of 4,000 was changed to High Springs because of a spring located atop a hill within the town’s boundary. The spring has since disappeared. Having previously planned a night’s stay in this city, we had an inkling that the area may not necessarily be flat. Sure enough, some small, rolling hills greeted us when we entered town.
As we approached the center of town, we passed by some historical looking homes. Once we were in the downtown area, we became somewhat disoriented. Instead of making the necessary left turn, we biked a half mile more before reaching Santa Fe Boulevard. Because this four lane highway took traffic back to the northwest, we had to make a sharp left turn to pedal the final mile to our economy motel. This multi-lane street was packed with cars and there was no shoulder. To make matters worse, the route was under construction. Staying to the right was unnerving as there was a one foot drop-off at the edge. Our final mile of the day was torturous. Happy to reach the motel alive, we noted that there was a convenience store across the way.
While checking in, the clerk asked Barb about various issues we might face during our trip. In rapid fashion, she quizzed, “What if you get sick? What if you get tired?” The clerk was certainly intuitive about what could go wrong but Barb sensed that the lady had a strong aversion to any activity which had risks, despite its rewards. Pulling our rig into the room, we were stunned by the size. The queen-size bed looked puny in the 20 FT by 30 FT space allotted us. And to top it off, the room had not a small fridge but a full size refrigerator. We wondered if the extra cold storage was for the fish catch of the day. After a refreshing shower, we walked three blocks to an old-fashioned diner for dinner. During the walk back to the motel, we picked up some breakfast items at the convenience store.
Miles cycled – 71.6
October 18, 2004
After a restful night we rose about the same time as the morning before. The anticipation of a warm afternoon always seemed to motivate us with an early start. Following breakfast, we slipped on our jackets to counter the chilled morning air. The afternoon before, we had squeezed in with the traffic on Santa Fe Boulevard to reach our motel. Now, because our out of town exit was to the south, we had to fight the traffic again. At 7:20 AM, we seemed to hit the peak of the commuter traffic as motorists were rushing to work. Biking a mile through the heart of town, we got some relief from the cars when we turned right onto Main Street.
Looking at a map, we could see that we were only five miles west of Interstate 75 and would stay parallel with this freeway for most of the day. Plus, we were now only 20 miles northwest of Gainesville, FL. Since it has a population exceeding 100,000, we were thankfully not biking through the city but merely passing close enough to potentially experience an increase in traffic. Upon reaching downtown High Springs we rejoined the two-lane Highway 27. To our surprise, the street had four-foot wide shoulders made of brick pavers. We felt like we were getting the “red carpet” treatment as we departed town. Outside of the city, they ran out of bricks so we were content to ride on the two foot wide paved shoulder.
The morning was quite foggy initially but quickly burned off with the sunrise. Watching the sun break through the fog gave us one of the most beautiful morning scenes we had ever seen. With nary a cloud in the sky above, we were looking forward to a gorgeous day. The density of the pine trees continued to vary along our route. One large home we pedaled by had a half dozen citrus trees loaded with ripe oranges. As the sun began its climb, we were creating some vivid silhouettes to the west. It was kind of neat to ride with our shadow for several miles. Riding south or north in the morning has its benefits. At our next stop, we shed our jackets and applied sun screen.
We passed by a farm that had a toppled windmill. Like a sunflower that became top heavy and collapsed to the ground, this mill’s blades were resting in the front yard in a shattered mess. Pausing to check out the damage, we suspected that the windmill was the victim of Hurricane Jeanne. The center of this northbound storm had passed through just five miles to the west. Although we had been near the hurricane’s path earlier, this was the first dramatic destruction we had seen. Prior damage we observed was limited to damaged roof tiles and broken tree limbs. We then realized that the oranges that we had seen earlier were so visible because the trees had lost nearly all of their leaves.
The area’s terrain could be described as mostly flat with an occasional slight hill to keep our legs tuned up. After passing by miles and miles of grazing cattle and hay fields, we noticed that the pine trees were becoming more sparse. Some of the farms had wood fences along their perimeter. Irrigation seemed to be prevalent in both the fields and the pastures. At one five mile rest stop, we paused across from two palm trees. Having survived the wrath of Jeanne, the trees looked remarkably healthy. We were thinking to ourselves, “We must be in Florida now.” Arriving in Newberry, FL, we were now directly west of Gainesville which was fifteen miles away. Our favorite sports drink, Gatorade, was invented in Gainesville as a means of refreshing the UF football team. The University of Florida still receives a share of the profits from the beverage.
Newberry, a bedroom community of 3,500, had a sign which noted its annual Watermelon Festival in June. Although we didn’t notice any melons in the fields, it is said to be a major cash crop for the town. Beyond Newbery, the highway curved to the southeast as we continued to enjoy a smooth pavement and shoulder. The route was somewhat curvy now. We found it curious that a straight path couldn’t be found in mostly flat surroundings. Perhaps we were following an old Indian trail. A few miles out of town, a road grader passed us on the highway. A number of the side roads were dirt and required some maintenance.
At 9 AM, a haze filled the air for a while as the sun was heating things up. Eventually the haze subsided and we were faced with a very strong glare from the sun. We suspected that the ultraviolet radiation was particularly high. It certainly made our photography more challenging. Passing by more fields, we were starting to see some nurseries along the way. The hundreds of rows of small trees looked like they could satisfy the landscaping requirements of a large city. We biked by a few more pastures of cattle before reaching Archer, FL. Ready to refill our tanks, we stopped at a convenience store for a brunch and some ice. A man outside the store asked where we were from. We answered that we used to live in Michigan near Detroit. The man then indicated that he had traveled to Traverse City, MI several years ago.
Archer, a small rural community of 1,300, is noteworthy among Civil War buffs. At the end of the war, part of the Confederate treasury was hidden at a nearby plantation. The funds were later seized while being transported to a train station. Having been re-energized from our rest stop, we hopped back onto Highway 27. Before we got back up to speed, we could hear a dog yelping in the next block. A commercial building ahead had a four foot high concrete wall that surrounded the perimeter. The canine behind the wall could hear or sense that we were approaching but was unable to see us. As we got closer, the pet started jumping straight up, as if he was trying to catch a Frisbee. At the apex of each vertical leap, we could see the head of this black, furry mutt. We were most impressed with the dog’s coordination as each time he reached a maximum height, he would bark once. This repetitive jack-in-the-box routine had us laughing so hard, we could barely keep our bicycle upright.
A half mile southeast of Archer, we observed that our shoulder was drenched with water. As we rounded a curve, we could see ahead that a large, yellow water truck was applying a heavy shower of water to the grader ditch. The county had made some improvements to the pavement and was now reestablishing the grass. Instead of planting grass seed like most states do, they were laying down fresh sod. We figured, why not, the grass turf is probably cheaply grown in the state. Advancing further down the road, we could see how the process worked. A semi-truck delivered the sod in three FT by six FT wide bales spaced about twenty feet apart. The laborers would then unwind the bales onto the grader ditch. Just add water and let it take root.
While the workers positioned the sod into place, our south bound lane was closed for a half mile. Once the flag woman flipped her sign from STOP to SLOW, we raced down the single lane to avoid holding up traffic. Beyond this work zone, we found ourselves crossing into Levy County. Continuing southeast, we saw a sudden increase in the number of area trees. We passed by a couple of tree-filled pastures where cattle were grazing. Occasionally, we could see the white, Charolais cows peeking between the tall, skinny pines. Some of the herd appeared to be frightened by our rig as we trekked down the highway. We were spooked as well when we reached a subsequent dirt side road. Without warning, a road grader nudged its huge nose near our shoulder.
Outside the city of Williston, FL, a colorful sign welcomed us to the “Gateway to the Nature Coast.” This small town of 2,300 hosts a peanut festival each fall. And we thought Georgia was where peanuts came from! Not seeing any restaurant or convenience store in the area, we chose to keep on pedaling. The highway jogged to the left before resuming its southeast orientation. Soon the route became a divided, four-lane highway with a three FT wide shoulder. A couple of grass mowing crews along the blacktop gave us something to sneeze at. After just ten miles of cycling through the corner of Levy County, we coasted into Marion County. We were now encountering some moderate hills and after a couple of climbs, we pulled off onto a side road to snack on some energy bars.
While munching on our snack food, we watched several truckloads of lumber heading south. Initially, we were thinking that the lumber was processed locally and being distributed locally. But with a truck passing every couple of minutes, we realized that this transport of construction materials was being applied to the hurricane damage in central and southern Florida. It was a massive movement of supplies that was being sent south. Continuing over the hills, we found the scenery in Marion County to be outstanding. With each small climb, we had splendid, distant views. The grass was a lush, green color and there were a number of small ponds along the way. Soon, we started seeing farms framed with sturdy, wood fences. We were now in horse country.
Marion County and its county seat, Ocala, FL, is billed as the “Horse Capital of the World.” The county, with nearly 1,000 farms, has more horses and ponies than any other county in the USA. Accounting for a tenth of Florida’s agriculture economy, the state’s horse industry features nearly every breed on the planet. The thoroughbred horse popularity in the Ocala area really ramped up after “Needles” became the first Florida-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby in 1956. With lavish homes and elegantly, landscaped entrance gates, the prosperity of the area’s horse business was quite evident.
For twenty miles, we passed by numerous farms. The typically setting was a large house with some substantial barns. Very large oaks dotted each green pasture of grazing horses. A few of the trees had some broken limbs from past hurricane damage. Miles of stylish fences marked the farm boundaries as they stretched over the area’s rolling hills. Also prevalent in horse country were trailers and truck-loads of hay. It seemed that about a fourth of the vehicles had some equines that were being towed along. Half way into our horse-farm tour, we pedaled by the unincorporated town of Fellowship. The one building we could see in the community was the Fellowship Baptist Church.
As we approached Ocala from the northwest, we biked by several blocks of businesses which supported the horse industry. The first was Equus Reality which was featuring 25 fenced acres for $11,000. That was followed by Kral Saddlery and United Hay Sales. After passing a large lot of new horse trailers, we reached I-75, the freeway we used to live next to in Michigan and Ohio. Once we squeezed under the overpass with the abundant cars, we were within the city limits. The parade of vendors supporting horse lovers continued into town with Midwest Hay, Western Roundup and Wishful Thinking Western World – The Cowboy Superstore.
With nearly 50,000 inhabitants, Ocala exceeded our comfort level as far as large cities go. We were coping with the heavy traffic as safely as possible. Our usual strategy of getting across town before securing lodging was employed. Even though the city had some historical points of interest, we elected to stay with Highway 27. Much of the Ocala downtown area was destroyed by fire on Thanksgiving Day, 1883. The buildings were rebuilt with brick, granite and steel rather than lumber. By 1888, the town was known as “The Brick City.”
Following our route three miles to the heart of town, we saw some interesting billboards and signs. Habitat for Humanity of Greater Ocala had a huge display with the caption, “Thank You for being a House Sponsor!” Eleven area contributors were prominently named below. Another board was a pre-election promotion: “Let Tourists Put In Their 2 Cents! (a photo of two pennies followed the number 2) – Tourists Pay, We Benefit!” When we reach the point where we were to turn south to stay with Highway 27, the signs overhead seemed to indicate seven highways to choose from (it must have been a test of skills for the tourists). Two of the highway numbers, 301 and 441 were shown twice to reflect north and south passage while you could also choose among routes, 40, 492 and 27. Whew!
Pedaling near downtown, a woman who had just parked her minivan parallel to the street encouraged us with, “Congratulations! Way to Go!” She must have decoded our “AK 2 FL” trailer tag. Continuing south, we went up and down some hills and overpasses before reaching our motel three miles south of downtown. While checking into the economy motel, we noted a sign that stated the phone policy. In order to make calls, we had to leave a $5 deposit as 50 cents was being charged for each call. We were thinking, “A half buck to access the internet?!” A second sign tipped us off that we should be discreet about our tandem. It stated, “No (underlined three times) bicycles are allowed to be ridden anywhere (underlined once) on the property. Thank you – Mgmt.” With no restaurants nearby, we ordered Chinese dinners to be delivered to our room.
Miles cycled – 60.8
October 19, 2004
An hour before dawn, we commenced our preparation for another day of riding. With no nearby breakfast options, we ate some energy bars that we had in reserve. A bigger breakfast would be available in the next town. By late morning, we expected to begin a minor deviation to our route through Florida. Seventeen months earlier when our AK 2 FL route was planned in detail, we had calculated an adventurous 7,100 miles. From our latest projections, we were going to be about 50 miles short of that target. The primary reason was that through improvements, the Alaskan Highway had been shortened by approximately 100 miles.
Our earlier detour to Americus, GA for the visit to Habit for Humanity International added some makeup miles but it was not enough. We felt very strongly about holding to our mileage goal and figured that Florida would be a good state to go off course. In picking a region of Florida to makeup the requisite miles, Randall emailed his cousin, Nancy in Sanford, FL about a possible visit. With her response, “We would be honored to host you,” an improvised detour was planned. Sanford was 30 miles east of Highway 27 so we expected to add nearly 60 more miles with this diversion. Although we would be skirting the state’s largest inland city (Orlando) with this extended route, we were anticipating an increase in traffic no matter how we cut through central Florida.
With our rig all loaded up, we once again slipped on our jackets for a chilly morning start. The traffic was reasonably light heading southeast on Highway 27. The commuters going the opposite direction were backed up for two miles. We were so thankful that we had biked through Ocala the afternoon before. On an overcast and dreary morning, we watched the string of headlights advance northward. South of town, the divided, four-lane highway went by two large lots of new RVs. After a half dozen miles of cycling, we passed through Belleview, FL, a city of 4,000. The most striking building there was the city hall with its Spanish-styled roof tiles and stucco exterior.
For our second, five-mile break of the day, we pull into the parking lot of a real estate office. As we sipped water and shed our jackets, the business’s employees were arriving to start their work day. One older man, instead of heading straight to the office came over to chat with us. He opened with, “So what’s this resting business?” We replied that since we came down from Alaska, we deserved a rest. The guy seemed very dubious of the distance we claimed to travel so Barb handed him a card. He then proceeded to give us a couple of tips. “You are now in the land of the old,” he cautioned. “A red traffic light means go faster!” The man then finished with, “You will be leaving the hills soon. If you find that you are going too fast downhill, use your brakes; it’s a sinkhole!”
Sufficiently amused by the realtor’s advice, we continued down the highway. Beyond a nursery, we saw another setting that assured us we were in Florida. The sales lot of Masters Golf Carts had dozens of the small motorized vehicles available in every color imaginable. Just before departing Marion County, we saw a McDonald’s Restaurant ahead so we decided that it was time for our second breakfast. As we parked our rig, we noticed that there were a couple of golf carts sitting in the parking lot. After requesting our food, the clerk asked, “Would you like the senior discount with this order?” Having never been presented with that kind of question before, we realized that it was a courtesy prompt in case their typical customer forgot to note it. At least WE didn’t think we appeared to be that age!
Sitting down to enjoy our meal, we observed that the restaurant was unusually full and that we were easily the youngest visitors present. With a lot of chatter from table to table, this venue almost seemed to be a community gathering place. One guy near us asked how far we had come. When Randall answered, “6,600 miles,” the man was impressed as he followed with “600 miles!” Randall shook his head and clarified, “Six thousand, six hundred miles!” That amplification created some stir at the neighboring tables. Before departing, we packed our hydration packs with ice and water and swung them onto our backs. The Camelbaks drew a lot of interest among the senior patrons there. They were impressed that we could sip water in a hands-free manner. One man wondered, “What will they think of next?”
Following breakfast, we crossed into Sumter County a few blocks later. We were seeing some signs that referred to the area as “The Villages” but saw nothing on our map to mark the town. The thriving community is not considered a city because it does not have a municipal government. There are 50,000 residents in this population center, all exceeding the age of 55. By 2010, the number of senior inhabitants is expected to exceed 100,000. The Villages is a golf cart community meaning that golf carts can be legally driven on the area’s streets. At one point, we biked under an overpass built for carts and pedestrians. Highway 27 straddles the northeast corner of Sumter County for only one mile before entering Lake County. So, in effect, this unincorporated town overlaps three counties (Marion, Sumter and Lake).
Biking through this retirement community was somewhat surreal. All of the roadside buildings were elaborately constructed based on a Spanish architectural scheme. Palm trees and ponds with water fountains were quite abundant. There appeared to be plenty of medical centers for the local residents. We passed by the Sumter Landing Market Square which was a rather large complex. Later in the afternoon, President Bush’s bus tour made a scheduled stop at this shopping/entertainment center. His campaign speech was greeted with chants of “Four more years!” We count our blessings that we didn’t get tangled up with the Presidential motorcade. What a traffic mess that would have been. As we have stated before, “Timing is everything.”
About two miles into Lake County, we entered the city of Lady Lake, FL. This community of 12,000 bills itself as, “The Home of Lakes and Sunshine.” The county the town resides in has over 500 lakes. Just three miles later, we found ourselves entering Fruitland Park, FL. With the towns now all bunched together, we seemed to be traveling down a commercial highway corridor. This smaller town of 4,000 was named after a nursery in Augusta, GA. The postal authorities in the late nineteenth century refused to recognize the name because there was already a Fruitland in the state. For four years, the city was called Gardenia but the postal authorities relented because the railroad refused to remove the name, Fruitland Park from its schedules. Up north in Georgia, the Augusta National Golf Club (site of the Master’s golf tournament) occupies the former property of Fruitland Nurseries.
Fruitland Park may have been a small town setting but it had big city traffic. Up to this point, we had enjoyed a nice shoulder. Inexplicably, the shoulder disappeared completely. We suddenly felt very vulnerable as the traffic was getting heavier with each mile. The worst part of a shoulderless multi-lane highway is the traffic signals. The stop-light cycles create bunches of cars which can be very intimidating. For three miles, we felt squeezed with two lanes of traffic. We were so relieved to reach Leesburg, FL where we were to begin our detour onto Highway 441. As we got closer to our planned departure from Highway 27, we realized that we couldn’t safely change lanes to make a left turn. The traffic was just too heavy. So, we made a right turn and then made a “U” turn so that we would be lined up to Highway 441.
We noticed that the duration of the green light on the west side of the intersection was only 40 seconds so when we sighted the change from red to green, we made a mad dash across. Ramping up to speed onto eastbound 441, we were ecstatic to find a nice shoulder. It was amazing that no one had honked at us during those last three miles of Highway 27. Because our new route traversed between three large lakes, our path was not very straight initially. Just beyond a bend in the road, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Ahead was a two mile stretch of highway that went mostly up. Reaching the top, our exasperated thoughts were, “This is Florida?!” Granted, the higher elevation did offer brief glimpses of Lake Griffin and Lake Harris but the moderate hilly terrain really caught us off guard.
While trekking up a hilly curve, we could see a young man walking eastbound on our shoulder. From his back side, the guy looked a little disheveled. With a brief opening in our neighboring lane, we steered ten FT to the left of the man. Just as we passed him, he startled us with a snap question, “Cigarette?” We both gave him a resounding, “No.” You have to wonder about a tobacco addict that begs touring cyclists for a smoke. Stopping to rest near the Leesburg Airport entrance, we watched as three John Deere carts rumbled along the wide, grassy medium. Carrying weed trimmers and garbage bags, the road crew was working to keep this city of 16,000 clean.
East of the airport, we could see some significant road construction ahead. We took additional time to rest before advancing through that stressful setting. As we predicted, the road work had taken away our shoulder and we felt really squeezed by the large orange barrels. After pedaling for a block with a steady stream of cars passing us closely, we had enough. At the next intersection, we pull off the highway to assess what to do. Running parallel to the highway was a three FT wide sidewalk that was intended for pedestrian use. We decided to make this bumpy, concrete surface our own personal bike path.
For nearly four miles, we pedaled slowly down the sidewalk. We were careful not to exceed seven mph as the uneven concrete could break a wheel spoke. Although we didn’t encounter any pedestrians, we had to watch out for broken glass and cars turning in and out of side roads. Half way into the construction, we left the sidewalk to bike across the Dead River Bridge which connects Harris Lake to Eustis Lake. Thankfully, the bridge had a shoulder to ride on. As we reached the apex of the bridge, we could see a couple powering their small pleasure boat underneath. Before exiting the work zone, we had some nice views of Eustis Lake to the north.
Once we finished the construction zone, we were seeking a turn onto Highway 46 which would take us into Tavares, FL and then all the way to Sanford. At the point where we needed to turn right, the signs were very difficult to interpret. If we were having trouble figuring out the route at 10 mph, we could only imagine the challenge a 50 mph tourist would face. After meandering down a couple of side streets, we found our way onto eastbound 46 and continued through town. Tavares, a city of 10,000, is the county seat of Lake County. Since the courthouse was a couple blocks south of our route, we missed it. As we left the city, the highway became a narrow, two-lane highway without a shoulder. However, the traffic was comfortably lighter because most everyone was taking Highway 441 which was now a bypass.
The next city on our route was Mount Dora, FL which is about the same size as Tavares. Since the two towns are only two miles apart, two groves of orange trees were the only rural scenery along the way. We also enjoyed wonderful views of Dora Lake to the south. At the outskirts of Mount Dora, we passed by a dinner train that took riders on excursions of the neighboring lakes. The first restaurant we encountered in town was Dairy Queen which suited us fine for lunch. When we step inside the DQ, we suddenly realized how warm and humid it was outside. Although it was a mostly cloudy day, the sun was still bearing down on us.
After the clerk took our order, she asked us where we had biked from. When Barb answered, “Alaska,” the gal responded with, “Uuunt uuuh!?” Her reply had to be the strongest and most impressive expression of doubt that we had ever faced. We sure weren’t going to “pull one over on her!” Once we added a few details about the trip, we had her half-way convinced. Even with our Habitat for Humanity card in her hands and a display of our distinctive, biker tan lines, this girl gave us heavy scrutiny. When we finished our meals, we sat for nearly a half hour sipping in fluids. The warm morning had really taken its toll on us and we were in no big hurry to attack the heat of the afternoon.
Departing the DQ, we still had two miles to go before reaching the center of Mount Dora. Any city with the word “Mount” in its name is cause for alarm. This town sits on a plateau 266 FT above sea level so we had about a 200 FT increase to deal with. Although the grade was a gradual, two to three percent, we were feeling the burden because our top speed was only seven mph going into town. As the road curved around the north shore of Dora Lake, we continued to have awesome vistas. Venturing into the heart of town, we were impressed with the historic-looking business district as it was well groomed. Flags and colorful canopies were very prominent. Mount Dora has been referred to as the “New England of the South” and has been touted as one of the nation’s best retirement cities.
As we departed town, we had the sensation that we were still climbing. After passing under Highway 441 (which carried motorist directly to Orlando), we enjoyed a fast downhill. For the next four miles, we rode over a series of rolling hills. A couple of hills had a six percent grade. Shifting into granny gear, we slowly crawled up. The first steep hill we ascended had an appropriately named side road: Top of the Hill Drive. While climbing the hills, the traffic was light enough to not pose a problem. The two lane highway had a one to two FT wide shoulder which gave us some relief. Because of the heat, we changed our rest intervals from five to three miles. Even though we were struggling with the hills, it was nice to bike through a rural area again. We passed by two groves of lemon trees which were quite colorful. One farmer on a Ford tractor was observed mowing grass in a pasture.
When the terrain leveled out a bit, we reached the small of town of Sorrento, FL. This rural community of 800 was still cleaning up after Hurricane Charley. We stopped at a convenience store there to repack our Camelbaks with icy water. Back behind the store, two men were loading large tree limbs that had been sawed up. Sitting about 20 FT up on the cab of a truck, one of the men was operating a huge hydraulic arm with a gripper. With keen interest, we watched as a large clunk of timber was grabbed and hoisted upward. The massive arm would then pivot the load around 90 degrees before releasing into it the bed of the truck. Inside the cab of the truck, there was a large sign taped to the windshield that read, “Disaster Relief.” Nearby, we could see where some fallen limbs had flattened a sturdy, chain-link fence.
As we got ready to launch, Randall noticed that our rear tandem tire was deflated. We pulled our rig over to the perimeter of the parking lot and under a shady tree. The heat of the afternoon made fixing a flat tire a bit more taxing. An inspection of the tire revealed a piece of glass. We removed the glass and patched the tire with a piece of purple duct tape. After pumping the tire to the desired pressure, we rested a bit before resuming our ride. Outside of Sorrento, we biked by a grove with yellow-orange fruit that were quite large to be oranges. We paused briefly to confirm that the sizable citrus was grapefruit. Along the way, we also noticed a curious sign pointing to a cat shelter called, “Cat Protection Society, Inc.”
After just a mile and half of pedaling, we were entering Mount Plymouth, FL. Flinching at the name of the town, we later decided that the name of this community of 3,000 was an exaggeration. We felt no climbing sensation on either side of the town. The local topography was fairly flat and we were loving it. For the next dozen miles, there were no towns on our route. After biking 50 miles, we were finally going to enjoy a non-urban setting. Initially, we passed by a few miles of grazing cattle before entering dense, wooded area. On our left was the Seminole Woods State Forest and on our right was Rock Springs Run State Reserve. Before long, we enjoyed a wildlife sighting with four deer prancing in the nearby timber.
As we continued through this state-owned land, Randall was noticing an increase in road kill. He swerved to miss a flattened turtle and opossum and later dodged a dead rabbit. Overhead, we could see vultures circling around, a bird we hadn’t seen since central Georgia. We approached a yellow caution sign that left us flabbergasted. With a graphic of a black bear, the sign warned motorists of possible crossings. Bears? In Florida? We still had our bear pepper spray on the bike for whatever protection it might offer. It never occurred to us that these black furry critters may be a threat in the sunshine state.
Beyond the sign, we observed a ten FT high chain-link fence on both sides of the highway. The Departure of Transportation installed this mile long barrier in 1994 to reduce the incidence of bear road kill. Because the state’s bear population had dropped from 12,000 to 2,000 in the past century, the costly fence was put in to reduce the mortality rate of this protected species. At the center of this long fence is a concrete culvert which serves as a wildlife underpass for critters needing to get beyond Highway 46. To determine the success of this nature crossing, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection placed a camera in the culvert. In a year of filming, nearly 700 animals representing ten species were observed using the underpass. Even alligators got into the routine. Utah State University has a photo of the underpass on their web site.
Passing through the long, wildlife barrier was kind of a peculiar sensation. Although the road’s shoulder gave us some room for passing motorists, we somehow had this caged feeling. Once pass the barrier, we continued to enjoy the natural setting. A few miles later, we reached some private lands as we were biking by some horse farms. About five miles west of our destination, we crossed over the black waters of the Wekiva River. Like the Suwannee River, this stream is fed by some substantial springs. Beyond the river, a sign welcomed us to Seminole County. To the north of Highway 46 was the Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park which is popular among canoeists.
Now approaching the Sanford, FL city limits, the traffic volume was ramping up again. We must have had thousands of vehicles pass us in the past eight hours of cycling. The quantity, whatever it was, easily surpassed what we saw in the last eight days combined! In the swampy area to our right, we saw a large, white heron take flight. The bird had a beautiful wingspan that allowed it to soar over the water in a graceful manner. A mile west of Interstate 4, we reached the shopping center where we were to meet Randall’s cousin. Relieved that we were ahead of scheduled, we went inside a restaurant and ordered some refreshing drinks. Nancy and her husband, Jim, had recently moved into a subdivision with a maze of streets which would have been difficult to navigate. When she arrived home from work, we followed her car and zigzagged down the various streets.
Arriving at their residence, we found that Jim just happed to be escorting us from behind in his pickup truck. The Florida couple was thrilled to see us. They just marveled over how far we had come on one bicycle, pulling a trailer. Like us, Nancy and Jim grew up in Kansas. They had moved to the citrus state two decades ago. We could tell that they loved the area. Since Randall had not seen his cousin for a decade or more, they had a lot of catching up to do. After we settled in, we chatted some about our trip before hearing about their hurricane experiences. Although Frances’ and Jeanne’s storm centers had passed through to the west, it was Charley that hit Sanford the hardest with 110 mph wind gusts and huge quantities of rain. Frances tormented the area with sustained winds of 50 mph for over eight hours, dumping even more rain than Charley.
While discussing the weather, we learned that precipitation was forecasted for the next day. From our recent planning, we realized that we could afford to spend a day resting in Sanford and avoid the rainy mess. Confirming with our hosts that a second night would be no issue, we elected to sit out the rain. That evening, Jim and Nancy gave us a tour of Sanford and took us to Outback Steakhouse for dinner. The city of 40,000 sits on the south shore of Lake Monroe and like many northern Florida cities, lost its citrus industry during the winter of 1894-95. Similar to Ocala, the downtown area suffered a devastating fire in the late nineteenth century and the destroyed structures were rebuilt with bricks.
Miles cycled – 64.3
October 20, 2004
Waking up to pitter-patter sound of rain outside, we were thankful to be indoors. While our hosts had to leave early for their commute to work, we slowly rose for a late morning breakfast. After three consecutive pre-dawn starts, it was nice to have a day to relax. Following breakfast, we worked to update our journal entries. Our Florida passage had been full of adventure so far. Randall added a few more pictures to our slide show so that we could treat Nancy and Jim with a photo summary that evening. With nearly 15,000 photos taken so far, our poor laptop computer was about to choke!
Hoping to get a story into the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, Barb gave them a call. When she briefed the newspaper office about our cycling trip, their staff had trouble determining where to place our story. After a few moments of silence, the news clerk asked if we lived around there. Barb answered no but noted that we were staying with a relative in neighboring Sanford. The clerk offered, “That might fit the Seminole County Regional news. I’ll transfer you over.” The Regional News staff asked, “Do you live in the county?” With Barb’s answer, Regional News transferred her to the Lifestyle department.
The Lifestyle staff followed, “You’re biking cross-country? You should be in the Travel section.” Now connected with the Travel reporter, Barb again explained that we had an interesting story for the Sentinel. The Travel reporter pleaded that she had a deadline to meet and that today was bad timing. Barb realized then that the big city newspaper was giving her the “hot potato” treatment. She left our call-back number in case someone had time to chat with us before our departure the next day. We had learned from other newspaper experiences that getting a human interest story into a media with a very large circulation took some coordination.
After lunch, Barb came across an interesting article in the February 2004 issue of Nancy’s Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The story related to those who had difficulty finding time for exercise. By signing up for a charitable fitness event, the exercise-challenged people were astonished at their subsequent weight loss. The motivation to fair well and help a cause during the event encouraged the trainees to walk, run or cycle for weeks in advance. The possible weight loss for preparation of a 10K walk or run was eight to ten pounds. The article went on to note that if one trained four to six months to cycle 62.5 to 100 miles (which they said was equivalent to a marathon run), one could lose 16 to 35 pounds. Wow! With our weight loss falling within that range (but not in a training mode), we can vouch for this story. To view the whole article, click: Lose 10 pounds ,,, and Save the World.
Following Nancy and Jim’s arrival home from work, they served up a delicious dinner. With a very cozy house to spend a rest day and the fabulous meal, we were very grateful to our hosts. The use of the washer and dryer were particularly appreciated. We later presented some slides of our trip and then went out to the garage to describe our gear and how we packed. Nancy and Jim were impressed that our rig carried all of our needs. While pointing out features on our bike, we discovered that we had a flat tire! The same tire that went flat the day before was deflated again. In our more comfortable setting, we took the tube to the laundry tub and searched for the leak. Finding yet another piece of glass, we remove it and patch the tire with tape. Later that night, Jim had the game 7 playoff of the Red Sox and Yankees on TV. Not being followers of baseball, we soon got sleepy eyes.
Miles cycled – 0.0
October 21, 2004
Rising early in the morning, we wanted to depart when Nancy left for work. After a nice breakfast, we positioned our rig onto the driveway. Nancy’s neighbor and young child were checking out our bike as we set up. The young mother was astonished at our travel distance. We elected to wear our jackets but without the sleeves. The morning air wasn’t chilled but it was foggy out and we wanted to increase our visibility. Just before launching, Barb took a photo of Nancy with Randall and our bike. Nancy took our photo as well as she was very happy that we selected their place as a stop. Launching into the soupy air, we kept pace with Nancy’s car for a few blocks to ensure that we found our way out of the subdivision.
Per Jim and Nancy’s recommendation, we were going to ride on the paved Seminole Wekiva Trail to skirt the west side of Orlando. A former railroad line, this path would make riding through this heavy urban area less miserable. In succession, we would be going through the Orlando suburbs of Lake Mary, Altamonte Springs and Forest City, FL which have a combined population of 70,000. We were also hoping that the fog would break by the time we finished the trail. Leaving the subdivision, we turned right onto Highway 46 and then made a left onto southbound Orange Boulevard. After pedaling for a mile, we found the Seminole Wekiva Trail and made a slight jog over to hop onto the path.
Just a couple of miles west of where we entered the rail trail, an experimental traffic signal had been installed at a street crossing. In the summer of 2004, Sanford became the second city to try this solar-powered, traffic light device. On each side of the crossing, a ten FT pole holds two lights. A flashing yellow light warns motorists that a bicyclist or inline skater is approaching (triggered by motion sensors) while a flashing red light pointed at the trail warns path users that a vehicle is approaching. Motorists have the right of way at the path/street intersection but because trail routes are sometimes obscured, the path users cannot be seen until they’re at the street’s side. Due to the high speed of vehicles approaching the trail, two additional poles were installed 400 FT out to give advance warning to motorists of path activity. To view a photo of the signal, click here: Cross Alert System.
As we continued south on the rail trail, the fog got very thick. With I-4 just a block to the east, the roar of the morning commuters was somewhat intimidating. Although we couldn’t see any distant scenery, we were thankful that we weren’t out on the street. We met very few joggers and cyclists on the path as it was a weekday morning. At times, we could see the tree limbs overhead for a tunnel-like effect. After about four miles on the trail, we could feel the rear of the tandem snaking from side to side. We had a flat! With three flats in three days, we were starting to wonder about central Florida. The only upside to this deflation was that it occurred near a bench. Upon examination of the tire, we found another sliver of glass. What a pain. Removing the glass, we placed a third piece of purple duct tape inside the tire for a patch. We considered going to a new tire but decided to ride on the current tire a little longer.
After another four miles of riding on the path, we reached Sanlando Springs Road. According to our trail map, the path was supposed to run for another mile or two. Given that we couldn’t see where the trail continued, we decided to merge westbound onto the busy, four-lane Sanlando Springs. Whether we were just resting or gauging the ferocity and aggression of the traffic, we were hesitant about jumping into the sea of cars. We waited through three iterations of green traffic signals before advancing. Once we got started, there was no stopping. To add to our turmoil, we had re-entered the rolling-hill terrain. A couple of miles later, the street curved to the south. For the next mile, Randall intensely gripped the handlebars to keep the bike steady at the side of the road. With an anticipated right turn coming up, we pulled off into a 7-Eleven store parking lot.
Taking up a parking spot, we planted the bike on its kickstand so we could regain some calmness. Little did we know that we created quite a stir cycling into the lot. Three city workers, wearing orange-color vests, were cleaning up after some curb-side construction work. The apparent supervisor of the group made some big strides across the lot to reach our rig. He greeted us with, “Are you really biking from Arkansas to Florida like your tag says?” When we clarified that “AK” stood for Alaska, we were suddenly treated like royalty. The guy was just overjoyed to meet us. As Barb handed him a card, he said, “I want to shake your hands.” After some firm handshakes, he followed with, “Well, congratulations! You guys should be in the newspapers. Have you talked to the Sentinel? This is big news!” Shaking our heads with disenchantment, we related about the lackadaisical response from that paper.
For the next ten minutes, we discussed the features of our trip as the supervisor asked question after question. Astonished, he said, “Man, you guys are amazing! You sold your house and quit your jobs to do this. That’s unbelievable! You know what. You guys are living the American Dream. That’s why we’re fighting in Iraq right now so that people like you can live their dreams.” He reached out to shake our hands again. Walking away briefly, he turned back quickly with, “What you guys are doing is just incredible. Are you going to write a book? I want to buy one.” He then reached out to shake our hands a third time, saying, “I never thought I would be shaking hands with someone that has biked across North America!” The man then returned to his work crew.
Having encountered a boisterous expression of joy about our trip, we stood at our tandem for a few moments of wonderment. What an exchange that was! As we got ready to resume our ride, a motorist coming out of the store asked, “Is it true what I heard? You have biked down here from Alaska?” He followed with, “Wow. Good luck!” We then eased our bike onto the street. If we would have stayed at that store lot any longer, all of the acclaim would have made our heads swell. When we reached Highway 436, we headed west onto this six-lane, divided route. Although the traffic was even heavier and faster now, we were pleased to have a three FT shoulder to ride on.
As we followed the slightly curvy highway, we passed by two humorous signs. The first one was, “Camp Bow Wow – All Inclusive Dog Daycare & Boarding.” A second sign, “Kickin Chickin,” enticed motorists to stop in for a chicken dinner. At the point where Highway 436 merged into Highway 441, we entered the city limits of Apopka, FL. Now in Orange County, we noticed a welcome sign that proclaimed Apopka as “Indoor Foliage Capital of the World.” The yellow pages list 50 foliage nurseries with an Apopka address. This city of 30,000 is serious about their indoor foliage. When we reached the center of town, we needed to make a left turn onto Central Avenue. The traffic was too heavy to negotiate our desired turn so we made a right and then circled back with a “U” turn. Heading south of Apopka’s downtown, we passed through a shockingly neglected neighborhood that appeared to be safe as long as we kept pedaling.
Near the edge of town, Central Avenue connected us with Highway 437 which curved to the southwest. We were now back into a rural area and able to enjoy a relaxing ride. Because 437 ran parallel to the I-429 toll road, we had little traffic to contend with. In a county with a population of 1,000,000, it was kind of neat to be on a route that was off the beaten path. We passed by a few orange groves along the way. Orange County (name changed from the less enticing Mosquito County in 1845) had a strong citrus industry up to the 1970s. Now, most of the commercial orange groves are further south but a few of the area’s packing plants still remain in operation.
Occasionally, we would get glimpses of Lake Apopka to the west. The 49 square miles of water is the state’s third largest lake and has the distinction of being the most polluted. City sewage, citrus waste water and fertilizer runoff from neighboring farms have exacerbated the problem over the years. With ongoing restoration efforts, the lake should eventually recover. After six miles of appreciable rolling hills, we turned right onto Fuller Cross Road for our entry into Winter Garden, FL. This eastbound street took us towards the southeast shore of Lake Apopka. We pedaled by an older lady who was retrieving letters from her mailbox. She inquired, “Can I have a ride? That looks like fun!” We gave her a big smile and continued on.
As the road curved to the southwest, the street name changed to Crest Avenue. For the next mile, views of the lake were elusive because of trees and private homes. Before the street turned southward, we pulled into a lakeside city park. Finally, we had a great view of the lake. The water off in the distance had a vivid blue color but the shoreline water was a pale green color. While strolling along the 200 FT boardwalk, we were startled to see our first alligator. The four FT long reptile was basking in the sun near the shore. The gator was quite photogenic as it turned occasionally for various profiles. Standing on the wood decking six FT above the water level, we observed the alligator intently for several minutes.
Following our rest stop, we took Lakeview Avenue into downtown Winter Garden. For two blocks, we pedaled through a tunnel of enormous oak trees. What a lovely entrance to a town! The gorgeous trees thankfully survived the multiple hurricanes. Upon reaching Plant Street, the main east-west thoroughfare, we decided to turn right (opposite direction of downtown), to check out the sights. The brick street had been beautifully landscaped. A twenty FT wide grassy median dominated the street’s entire span. This tree lined median had an eight FT wide bike trail going right down the middle. Checking out a map, we learned that the route was called the West Orange Trail.
Like the Seminole Wekiva Trail near Sanford, the path was built on old railroad bed. In other words, the railroad trains use to rumble right down the middle of the city’s main road. The 19 mile West Orange Trail actually started in Apopka and weaved its way down past Winter Garden. While we were aware of our missed opportunity to traverse this bike path, we were thankful that our selected route gave us an alligator sighting. We found our ride on Plant Street’s bricks to be very tricky. The wavy and bumpy alignment of the bricks was more challenging then the gravel roads of Alaska’s Dalton Highway. The passing motorists were probably annoyed and thinking, “Those silly bikers. Why don’t they use the bike path?”
Making a “U” turn, we headed back towards the center of town. The downtown was full of quaint and historical buildings. With the brick street setting, we felt we were traveling in nineteenth century Florida. We weren’t the only ones enthralled with city’s well-defined downtown. The National Rails to Trails Conservancy cited Winter Garden as one of the nation’s eight best places to live. Near the town’s center, the Heritage Museum is based in the former train station. A beautifully refurbished Chessie System boxcar sat outside along with a bright red fire truck from the 1950s. Across the street from the museum, a massive, arched gateway towered over the bike path. With gate’s tower showing a time of 11:37 AM, we started checking out our lunch options.
Deciding to go with the Moon Cricket Café, we searched for a reasonable place to park our rig. There were no bike racks near the bike path which seem odd. We simply parked our rig on the grassy median so it would be out of harm’s way. Since the previous day’s rains gave us slighter cooler temperatures, we elected to eat at the outdoor tables along Plant Street and watch people scurry by. While dining, the two neighboring tables of local patrons asked about our trip. The extent of our adventure created the usual stir. One young man asked what our start and end points were for today. When we noted Sanford and Haines City, FL, he was quite impressed with the distance we planned to cover.
The meal we enjoyed at Moon Cricket was among the best. The waitress, knowing that we were thirsty bikers, refilled our glasses of ice tea very frequently. At the end of the meal, she brought out a desert tray which was stunning. We selected rich, chocolate treats that would power our legs for the rest of the afternoon. Following lunch, we circle the downtown a couple more times before departing. The water tower had a colorful mural depicting the town’s arched gateway and bike path. On a side street, we turned to get a closer look at a laundry mat. As we got closer to the structure housing the washers and dryers, we couldn’t believe our eyes. There was no enclosure around the machines. This open-air setting had a ten FT overhang to keep the customers dry during inclement weather. Wow, what a sight!
Taking Winter Garden-Vineland Road to the south, we passed by the American Legion building which had a mural remembering September 11th. On each side of the mural, there were a dozen USA flags that were painted by various graffiti artists. To get to onto Highway 545, we jogged a mile west on Highway 50. As expected, this four-lane road was bustling with traffic. Unable to go left onto 545, we resorted to our routine of making a right turn followed by a “U” turn. Ahead of us was a shoulderless but wide, two-lane blacktop. We had apparently found another “off-the-beaten-path” route as the traffic was reasonably light. Highway 27 which we had left two days earlier was now six miles to the west.
Except for some initial zigzagging to the southwest, Highway 545 took us mostly south. The terrain was gentle rolling hills. In the first few miles, we saw a number of substantially large houses along with some new construction. The Orlando metropolitan area is said to be the fastest growing sector in the nation. Before long, we found ourselves in a very rural setting. We noticed some flooding in some of the low lying areas. After trekking over a few medium-size hills, we went by a large nursery. As typical of the many nurseries we had seen, the plants and foliage were for wholesale only.
Near the nursery, we saw our first, substantial orange grove. The rows of trees appeared to cover a few acres. Having seen a few orange trees already, we were more fascinated with caution signs posted around the grove. The bilingual signs warned, “Irrigation With Reclaimed Water – Do Not Drink.” Reclaimed water is highly treated wastewater that can be safely reused for non-potable purposes. The source of the water is typically from runoff that might otherwise contaminate bodies of water such as Lake Apopka. The water contains low levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, which are beneficial to citrus plants and nurseries but not suitable for drinking. Orange County is one of the largest users of reclaimed water in the USA.
After ascending a medium-size hill, we had a distant view for miles around. To the southeast, we could see an ongoing road project. The sandy, half mile wide path veered off to the southwest and went on for miles and miles. The new toll road will be a continuation of the I-429 we biked under earlier. It will eventually connect to I-4 and allow Disney World fans to bypass Orlando. After descending a long hill, we climbed up a smaller hill to reach the point where I-429 was to go over Highway 545. As we went through the topless overpass, the construction workers were pounding the long steel pilings into the ground.
Beyond the overpass, we could see a substantial hill ahead so we stopped for a rest break. We could feel the ground shake from the repeated pounding of the pilings. A construction worker’s pickup parked nearby drew our attention. The personalized license plate read, “LTL BULL” and a large caption on the tailgate read, “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowgirl.” We recalled from Ocala, that cowboys and cowgirls are quite abundant in Florida. Once we were rested, we shifted into granny gear and slowly crawled up the steep hill. The afternoon heat was starting to peak so the seven percent grade gave us quite a workout. We never expected hills like this in Florida.
When we reached the hillcrest, we could see the Orange County National Golf Course on the left and Hickorynut Lake on the right. We were now less than two miles from the west boundary of Disney World. There was no direct access to the amusement park from our route which was fine with us. Except for an occasional cement truck, we were enjoying our low-volume highway. The city of Lake Buena Vista encompasses most of Disney World which leads to an interesting quirk. The city houses more than 3,700 hotel rooms, a Disney shopping center, a golf course and a 56-acre water park but has a population of only 23 (all Disney employees).
We followed a curvy Highway 545 for three additional miles until it ended at Space Coast Parkway, a major route for Disney World traffic. We turned west onto the multiple lane highway and rode on the six FT wide shoulder. A mile down the road, we reached a collection of motels which we didn’t expect to see. The lodging obviously catered to Disney World visitors. We pulled into a motel parking lot to get our bearings. When we checked our reservation information, we realized that we were just across the street from our motel. This caught us by surprise because Haines City was still fifteen miles to the south. We were thinking that the motel was just a short distance north of town.
Having biked 50 miles already, we decided to keep the reservation and call it a day. This would make for a longer ride the next day but we felt we could handle the extra miles okay. The one down side to staying at this location was that there was no restaurant nearby. There was however, a convenience store next door so we bought enough food for dinner and breakfast. We also purchased a gallon of water as the tap water at the motel had an unpleasant taste. Our three-story motel with its neon-pink color really stood out. The exotic pink was more typical of colors used in the Florida Keys. Hoping for an early start the next day, we went to bed soon after eating dinner.
Miles cycled – 51.7
October 22, 2004
A few minutes before 6 AM, we begin our day. Again motivated to get an early start, we scurried around to get our rig packed for departure. Our breakfast was somewhat light as we expected a second breakfast down the road somewhere. At 7:10 AM, we launched our bike. The sunrise was still 25 minutes away. The morning had just a touch of fog and sky had somewhat of a violet tone to it. For visibility, our front and rear lights were flashing and we were wearing our sleeveless, yellow jackets. From the motel, we made a left onto Space Coast Parkway for a half mile ride to Highway 27. To rejoin our mainstay highway, we had to go under an overpass and then make a left turn onto the entrance ramp. When we reached the ramp’s end, we were in Polk County.
The limited-access design of the highway tipped us off that we were cycling on a high volume roadway. The sooner we returned to the back roads, the better. For the next fifteen miles, Highway 27 was the only highway in the vicinity that would take us south. With a gentle, flat grade and a slight tailwind, we hoped to complete this busy segment in just an hour. Timing is everything. Less than a mile down the blacktop, we saw our first hurricane damage of the day. The northeast corner of a red brick wall had been toppled over and loose bricks were scattered about. The ten FT high wall served as a perimeter for a subdivision and appeared to be a fairly rigid structure.
From what we had read and heard, we expected to see a lot of damage throughout the day. The parallel road that we planned to take passed through an area portrayed as ground zero. South of Haines City, Polk County took the brunt of Charley, Frances and Jeanne as the storms crisscrossed the region. Once we got up to a cruise speed of 15 mph, we started seeing school children congregating at the entrances of various subdivisions. While waiting for their bus, each child was toting a small bag that rolled along on wheels. Minutes later, a number of school buses passed us. The sun started peeking behind a cloud on the east horizon. It was a gorgeous sunrise.
We trekked through a couple of construction zones. To our chagrin, the first one completely removed our two FT wide shoulder. All that was left was a gravel surface a foot below the pavement surface. With the moderate traffic, we had no choice but to ride on the gravel for a mile. After surviving that work zone, we reached the bridge over I-4. Construction on the overpass forced four lanes to neck down to two. We managed to cross over the bridge without holding up very many motorists. Another type of hurricane damage was becoming more evident. The state’s highway signs had been mangled. Some signs were shredded while others had mounting posts which were twisted or bent over. The larger the sign, the less likely it survived.
Looking around at the commercial signs, almost all had some sort of damage. The way the signs were constructed, with a plastic face attached to a steel frame, they were quite vulnerable. In some instances, we would see just the steel frame with no trace of plastic. In the case of a WEndy’s sign, only the “WEn” was visible as the rest was blown out. Interestingly, on that same signpost, management had posted the words, “WE ARE OPEN.” Already, we were viewing a sobering sampling of hurricane devastation and we were still several miles from the storms’ paths. A number of mobile-home retirement communities were seen along the way. The homes were too distant to assess any storm damage.
At 8:20 AM, we reached the outskirts of Haines City. Just before exiting Highway 27, we were delighted to find a Sonic Drive-In. We pulled into one of their stalls and parked our rig. After placing our breakfast order, we were wondering, “With no windows on our bicycle, where is the server going to hang the food tray?” No problem. Upon receipt of the tray, we sat at one of their picnic tables. Oh, life is good! The large breakfast gave us a nice boost. With a beautiful blue and cloudless sky, we continued a half mile south before reaching our exit for Highway 17. The ramps were clustered around Highway 27 in a cloverleaf fashion. Our eastbound ramp had us looping around clockwise.
The mile ride to the town’s center was quite an up and down adventure. There was nothing flat about this city of 14,000. As we trekked by the McDonald’s Restaurant, we were struck by the appearance of the golden arches sign. There was only a skeletal outline with a couple small pieces of yellow plastic still intact. Amazingly, many of the exposed, fluorescent light bulbs were unharmed by the storms. A block from where Highway 17 turned south, we admired the stately Polk Hotel. Built in 1926, the nine-story skyscraper appeared to be the only tall building around.
Because of its central location, this city is known as “The Heart of Florida.” Originally called Clay Cut, the community was established in 1883. Although the railroad went through town, the residents could not get the trains to stop. This was remedied four years later by changing the name to Haines City. A station was quickly constructed. The trains were then compelled by the railroad’s chief engineer, Colonel Henry Haines, to make regular stops. After making a turn south to continue with Highway 17, we huffed and puffed for a couple of blocks to reach the top of a hill. We then stopped to take in the wonderful view to the north.
Patches of blue were scattered around as Haines City has several lakes within the city limits and on the outskirts. The day after Hurricane Charley, thousands of dead perch, bass and catfish were discovered on the shores of nearby Lake Marion. The large kill was due to oxygen depletion caused by the churning waters. Because of the stinking mess, the lakeshore residents were hoping that the buzzards would come back soon. Resuming our ride to the south, we could see nothing but hills ahead. This terrain was as rugged as we had seen in Florida. Not knowing when the hills would end, we took on each climb with the mindset we have had throughout this tour, “One mile at a time, one hill at a time.” Besides, if we to average out all of the ups and downs, everything would come out flat, right?
Even though we were putting up with some tough hills, the highway was in pretty good shape. The shoulder was three FT wide and the traffic was very tolerable. We were noticing more and more orange groves along the way. Polk County is the state’s top citrus producing region. Citrus trees are not native to Florida as Europeans brought them over four centuries ago. The state’s unique sandy soil and subtropical climate has helped Florida to become the second leading producer of oranges in the world (Brazil is number one). Florida is the leader in grapefruit production. This larger fruit is shipped from September through June, peaking in February.
Although we didn’t see much damage to the orange trees, we saw a lot of fruit lying under the trees. For those groves left unattended, there was an unusual layering of oranges scattered about. The bottom layer was blacken and decaying, left after Hurricane Charley. The middle layer, consisting of yellow, partially ripened fruit, was left by Frances. The green fruit on top were separated from the newly laden trees after Jeanne stormed through. Some of the irrigation pipes appeared to be twisted out of shape. An aluminum-paneled shed that housed a pumping station was completely shredded. Many of the farm houses we passed by had blue tarps covering their roofs. Twisted and broken limbs could be seen on the large oaks in the yards.
Five miles south of Haines City, we reached Dundee, FL. Beginning with a citrus processing plant north of town, we saw a flurry of repair work under way. A number of roofs were seen with men removing and replacing tiles. Near the city’s center, we stopped at the convenience store for icy water. The relentless sun and multiple hills were starting to take its toll. Like many gas stations around, this site lost the overhang above its pumps. All that was left was the steel frame. As we strolled back to our rig, a dairy truck had stopped to make some deliveries. With the truck’s tail gate in a horizontal position, a cloud of chilled air hovered about. We were thinking, “Geez, it must be really warm for the chilled air to act like that.”
With much of Dundee situated on a hillside, we climbed a half mile up a hill before stopping to look back. For this town of 3,000, it appeared that over half of the homes and buildings were covered with blue tarps. Across the way was an upscale subdivision with homes worth about $500,000. Even the roofs of these houses had tarps distributed about. The entrance sign for this section also took a beating as it read, “The Bluffs of undee.” After ascending the hill southeast of Dundee, we could see miles and miles of rolling hills and groves ahead of us. Although the state’s highest point is in the panhandle, this region of Florida has the distinction of having the peninsula’s highest point at 298 FT above sea level.
As we rode up and down the hills, we noticed that every rural home was now covered with blue tarps. Through a FEMA program called Operation Blue Roof, homeowners could complete a Right of Entry (ROE) form to authorize the free installation of blue tarps. The signed ROE form allowed a contractor from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to access the property and assess damage to the home. Among the restrictions were no commercial property, no flat roofs or garages, and only roofs that were structurally sound. Homeowners could also get a free tarp from a county’s FEMA distribution point and install the roof covering themselves. As with any government program, there were problems.
The lower quality 14 FT by 19 FT blue tarps were never meant to be a long term fix as they were not formulated to withstand ultraviolet rays or high winds. Of the tarps that were put on after Hurricane Frances, half were destroyed by Jeanne. Suddenly, there was a need for 200,000 tarps with none in stock. A resin shortage, as affected by soaring oil prices, put the biggest strain on the tarp supply. Homeowners who had their tarps destroyed by a subsequent hurricane had to complete another ROE form to get another free installation. Taking matters into their own hands, many Florida victims were soon on a first-name basis with their cashier at Home Depot.
Passing by hundreds of orange trees, we continued to see a lot of fruit on the ground. Dead branches hanging from citrus trees were now more apparent. After climbing several small hills, we realized that we had a flat tire. For the fourth time in four days, the rear tandem tire lost its air. We were getting fed up with the repeated deflation. It was becoming all too routine. We retrieved the black bag off our trailer and pulled out a new tire. Randall was trying to get enough miles out of the rear tire so that we could complete our final tour segment with no more tire changes. With less than 400 miles to go, we now had one new tire for a spare but we were confident this backup would stay in the bag all the way to Key West. With the amount of rubber we wore off the outgoing rear tire, it was becoming more susceptible to slivers of glass.
The setting for the tire change made the repair work a bit difficult. We had pulled off onto a side road that had a house on each side. The house on the south side offered a little bit of shade so we parked next to it. The home was abandoned and there was broken glass scattered in a wide area. It wouldn’t have been too cool to puncture a brand new tire with a shard of glass! Once, the tire was inflated, we carefully walked the bike to the edge of Highway 17. We were ready for some more hills. A mile down the road, we entered the city of Lake Wales. This resort town of 12,000 was considered by many to be “ground zero” of the three major storms that devastated the area. We had planned to tour around the community to gauge the extent of the damage.
The evening before, we had read about a place in town called Spook Hill. This tourist attraction claimed that the laws of gravity were defied on this hill. The hill was so named because horses were spooked by a visual illusion. Given that we both have engineering backgrounds, the luring description peaked our curiosity. A short distance into town, we saw a sign that indicated that Spook Hill was to the left so we turned east onto Burns Avenue. Ahead of us was a hill; a very long hill. Randall asked Barb, “So, do you want to see if we can see anything?” Barb answered, “Yea, but let’s not go too far.” So we climbed and we climbed. After one mile, we had seen no more signs referring to Spook Hill or anything out of the ordinary. We felt like we had been on a wild ghost chase and all we had to show for it was sweat and tired legs.
We rested a bit before turning around. Little did we know that we were just a couple of blocks away from the peninsula’s highest point of 298 FT. If we would have looked to the north, we would have seen a 200 FT tower that marked the spot. Completed in 1929, the Bok Tower was commissioned by Edward Bok, founder of “The Ladies’ Home Journal.” So, we raced back down the long hill. Near the end of the hill, we decided to turn south onto a street called Old Scenic Highway. After one block, we saw a sign that noted Spook Hill Elementary School to the left. That spurred us to head east again. This school zone was sitting on flat terrain as confirmed by our 15 mph advancement.
When we reached the school, we took a photo of their sign displaying the unusual name. Next to the name was a graphic depicting, “Casper, the Friendly Ghost.” Casper, in the spirit of education, had a pack of books on his back. The street that went north of the school was North Wales Drive, alias Spook Hill. We followed the length of the street with our eyes as it connected with Burns Avenue (that we had climbed earlier) and concluded that it was all uphill. The street is supposed to give motorists the sensation that they’re going downhill when in actuality, it’s all up hill. Unknown to us, the residents of the neighborhood got fed up with all of the tourist traffic and had the nearby Spook Hill sign removed. In the absence of the sign, we weren’t sure if we were looking at the quirky hill.
After several moments, we lost all interest in the search for Spook Hill. Instead, we focused our attention on a small pond called North Lake Wales and the neighboring hillside homes. All of the houses appeared to have blue roofs. In the distance, we could see uprooted trees and piles of cut timber dotting the hillside. Satisfied that we had sufficiently explored the north side of town, we headed for the downtown area. Along the way, we passed by a shed adjoining a home. The house appeared to be okay but the shed had lost all of its siding and part of the roof. A couple of vehicles were still parked inside the shed.
Weaving through downtown, two historical buildings caught our interest. The Dixie Walesbilt Hotel (now called Grand Hotel) appeared to be untouched by the storms. Like the Polk Hotel in Haines City, the ten-story structure was built in 1926. In the 1920s, a number of “skyscraper” hotels were built around the state when Florida was experiencing a big boom. Also built in that era was the massive, two-story city hall. Most of the windows of the red brick building were still covered with plywood. A more recently built municipal building housed the police and fire departments. This newer structure seemed to fair worse than the older buildings as its roof was covered with blue tarps.
From the town’s center, we took First Street to Highway 60. Seeing a strip mall across the highway, we stopped there to eat lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Following a large meal, we continued south on First. Not having a definite exit plan out of town, we sought one more diversion before rejoining Highway 17. This part of the city appeared to have been settled in the 1950s and 60s. The neighborhood was a mix of small houses and mobile homes. Understandably, the house trailers did not hold up well. Some looked warped and awkwardly shaped. Others appeared to have exploded. The trailer roofs looked like they had been peeled off with a can opener.
The small houses also did not fair well. In most cases, part or all of the roofs were gone. Carports were reduced to just a slab of concrete. At one house site, all that was left was the foundation as a large crane had loaded the scrambled mess into a large dumpster. Those who assisted with the subsequent cleanup were at risk as well. During our lunch stop, we read a local newspaper story about a man who was killed recently. He was helping dismantle a house and a wall fell on him. Reading about and then actually seeing this substantial loss left us with an empty feeling.
Finding our way back to Highway 17, we turned right for our southward journey. From what we had seen, Lake Wales did indeed suffer a considerable blow. When Hurricane Charley made a northeast turn near Fort Myers, FL, it cut through the rural heart of the state. Like a huge, runaway truck, it followed the two-lane Highway 17 to Haines City and then on to Orlando. With Frances preceding and Jeanne following, the region’s residents were stunned repeatedly. They went 44 years without a hurricane and then had three in six weeks. The tropical systems that hit Florida also spawned a record number of tornadoes which impacted livelihoods all the way to Maryland. There were 247 tornadoes reported for September, 2004 which shattered the September, 1967 record of 139. Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that despite four hurricanes, Florida’s tourism increased seven percent in 2004 (from 75 million to 80 million visitors).
As we distanced ourselves from Lake Wales, we continued to see the devastating effects of the storm with blue roofs and downed oaks. In some yards, pieces of metal were wrapped like scarves around poles and trees. Along the highway, we would occasionally see piles of sawed-up timber waiting to be hauled away. In retrospect, we realized that Highway 17 was fairly clear of debris. Because of the hurricane cleanup efforts, the shoulder may have been cleaner than it normally is. After a couple of miles of rolling hills, our route started weaving through the countryside. The highway was swerving to miss a series of lakes. Following a long bend around Crooked Lake, we passed through the tiny towns of Babson Park and Hillcrest Heights, FL.
Approaching the city limits of Hillcrest Heights, we found ourselves climbing and climbing and climbing. Just like northern Polk County, we were in some serious hill country. We were thinking, “Good Lord, ship us back to flat Kansas!” If Lake Wales has central Florida’s highest point then Hillcrest Heights must surely have the second highest point. Reaching the top of a huge hill, we saw acres and acres of young citrus plants. Averaging about two FT in height, the trees look fairly healthy. Along each row of plants was strung black, plastic tubing for irrigation. Several years from now, we could be eating oranges from these new groves.
Making a bend back to the south, we gasped as a horizon full of orange trees awaited us. Having worked so hard to get to the top of the world, we enjoyed a gradual, three mile descent. Except for a small lake on the left, the citrus trees aligned both sides of the highway for as far as the eye could see. Polk County truly is orange country. After skirting the west shore of Moody Lake, we had a short climb before arriving in Frostproof, FL. Before citrus production became entrenched in Polk County, cowboys would graze their cattle just north of Frostproof. When winter arrived, they liked to herd their cattle southward into this highland lake region. The cattle tenders noted the absence of frost during the coldest days of the year. After the great freeze in the late nineteenth century, the town’s name was changed from Lake Mont to Frostproof.
At the north side of town, we stopped at McDonald’s Restaurant for some refreshments. While sipping on our drinks, an older couple from Naples, FL approached us about our bike. Being tandem riders also, they marveled over extent of our journey. They later give themselves a self-guided tour of our rig. Biking around Frostproof was a special treat. For a small town with a catchy name, there was a lot to see. The first building to draw our attention was a real estate office. On the street side, a two-story castle-like turret gave an otherwise ordinary building a stately appearance. On the face of the turret, a mural depicting a robust orange tree was just incredible. In comparison to extensive storm damage we saw in Lake Wales, this community was not hit quite as hard. Piles of sawed limbs were lying about and a number of the older homes had blue roofs. The two towns are only twelve miles apart.
Biking from east to west, we discovered that the city was tightly sandwiched between two large lakes. With Clinch Lake to the west and Reedy Lake to the east, there’s only a half mile of real estate in between. With massive orange groves to the north and south, it didn’t appear that this community of 3,000 had much space to grow. The town’s center was dominated by an office building, a bank and a car restoration business. The west side of the two-story office building had a 20 FT high by 40 FT wide mural depicting a lake surrounded by groves and wildlife. The blue and green colors in the painting were extraordinarily vivid. At the opposite corner was the two-story Citizens Bank. The entrance pillars and the decorative façade made this structure very distinguished looking. Built in 1925, the bank building was part of the booming 20s.
Across from the bank was a colorful array of unique cars. Ranging from a mid twentieth century Rolls Royce to a tall, boxy model T Ford, we were curious that these exotic cars were parked outside for all to touch and feel. There were cars on display that we had never even heard of. Our favorite hood ornament was a flashy-dressed couple embraced in a dance pose. Intrigued by the setting of prestigious vehicles, we made sure we parked our rig in line with the cars for a photo op. As we continued to zigzag through town, three other structures caused us to pause.
The town’s post office was just a typical postal structure for a small population. However, add the name of Frostproof and you suddenly want to take a photo. Down the street was the city hall. This fairly new, two-story building took up half a city block. With a red tile roof and stucco siding, this structure seemed more suited for a city of 30,000. Our final stop was the water tower. With the same allure as the post office, we positioned ourselves underneath the tower and zoomed in on the name, Frostproof. We now had our proof that we had been to Frostproof! Interestingly enough, the lowest recorded temperature here was 18°F in 1981. The locals here would naturally not want visitors to hear about that exceptional January day.
Now 4:30 PM, it was time to move on. Frostproof was a quiet, peaceful place to visit but we still had at least 20 miles to our destination. South of town, we biked by the huge Cargill Juice plant. This juice processing complex is able to process up to 50 million pallet boxes of citrus a year. With 150 year-around workers at this site, the nine-month citrus season obviously drives the local economy. In the off season, the local cattle industry kicks into high gear with hay baling and cattle sales. Down the road from Cargill, we passed by Ben Hill Griffin, Inc. This citrus business harvests, packs and ships fresh fruit world-wide under the Sealed Sweet label.
Returning to a countryside filled with orange groves, we were pleased that we had taken Highway 17 as an alternate to Highway 27. Along the side of one grove, a parked semi-trailer was loaded with pallet boxes of oranges. After workers had filled each white, plastic container with 25 cubic FT of produce, the 900 pound load was stacked onto the trailer using a mobile hydraulic lift. Because of price competition from Brazil, Florida citrus growers have been gradually mechanizing their process. Nearly a tenth of the crop is now harvested by mechanical shakers. Because the tree rows require wider spacing to accommodate the machinery, it will take several years before the shaker-type equipment becomes commonplace.
Four miles south of Frostproof, Highway 17 reconnected to Highway 27. We had the option of weaving through some more back roads, but we decided that we needed to get on a faster track if we were going to reach our destination at a reasonable hour. The gradual grade of Highway 27 would give us some relief from the hills but we would be antagonized by the heavy traffic. Just before the intersection, there was a railroad crossing with gates. There must have been a high mortality rate at this crossing because there was a 200 FT long barrier in the center of the highway at each approach to the tracks. The line of three-FT high poles was installed to preclude motorists who had a bad habit of going around the crossing gates.
Once we were on the divided, four-lane highway, we ramped up to 14 mph. Like this morning, a two FT wide shoulder separated us from the traffic. After just a few minutes of cycling, we entered Highlands County. As typical with a number of Florida counties, Highlands has large retirement settlements with one third of the region being over the age of 65. The median age in the county is 50 years. Along the route, we were seeing a scattering of blue roofs. Some large billboards were completely toppled over. With the shortage of blue tarps, one advertising agency offered its destroyed signs as roof-patching material. Four miles into Highlands County, we reached the center of Avon Park, FL. This city of 20,000 bills itself as “The City of Charm” and “Home of the Mile Long Mall.” We weren’t too excited to learn about the mall. The vehicle traffic was already very heavy. Seeing a drugstore near downtown, we stopped to pick up some sunscreen and batteries.
Departing town, we had five more miles of Highway 27 before exiting onto Highway 634. Some distance out of town, we started hearing short, rapid horn taps from an escort vehicle for a wide load. We both looked in our mirrors to find a semi-truck hauling a prefabricated house section. The huge load was rambling down the pavement at about 55 mph. When the truck was several hundred feet away, the driver blasted his air-horn and held it continuously. We promptly left the shoulder and rode onto the grassy grader ditch. As Randall wrestled with control of our bike on the bumpy grass, the speeding house came within two FT of us. With the neighboring southbound lane empty at the time, we couldn’t understand why the driver was extending his load over the entire shoulder.
Taking a few moments to regain our composure, we waited for a clearing in the traffic before repositioning our rig from the grass to the shoulder. When we reached Highway 634, a left turn was required so we went the opposite direction and then made a “U” turn to get headed east. To our surprise, Highway 634 was a divided, six-lane highway with a three FT wide bike lane on the side. Thankfully, the traffic on this lakeshore drive was somewhat lighter. With a night’s stay in Sebring, FL planned, we had hoped that this multi-lane highway would give us some scenic views of the north and east shores of Jackson Lake. If we would have stayed with Highway 27, we would have gotten to our motel sooner but would have missed the town of Sebring altogether.
As we should have expected, there were virtually no views of the lake. Heavy development of the area had negated our opportunity for enjoying lakeshore scenery. When the highway wrapped around the lake to the southeast, our shoulder went away. We then noticed a concrete bike path that paralleled the highway so we hopped on the narrow trail at the next available access point. Although the path’s bumpy cement surface slowed us down to nine mph, it was better than riding a shoulderless highway. At the outskirts of Sebring, the path ended and we resumed riding on the lakeshore drive.
The city’s welcome sign greeted us with, “Home of 12 Hour Grand Prix.” The Sebring International Raceway is one of the oldest, constantly-used tracks in the country, set on the unused runways and support roads for the airport. The famed, 12 hour car races began in the early 1950s. Continuing into town, we were finally getting glimpses of Jackson Lake. The declining sun in the west glistened off the pale blue water. Other than some scattered trash and occasional boarded-up windows, this area did not seem to suffer as much storm damage. The homes facing the lake were quite varied. A number of upscale houses were seen along with purple and pink colored older homes that seemed to belong in the Florida Keys.
We stayed with the loop around Jackson Lake until we reached the south shore. Because the lake’s perimeter resembles the head of Mickey Mouse with just one ear, our sometimes scenic tour was always curving to the right. Our motel was located on the south shore which set us up perfectly for our next day’s departure. We were now just a half of block away from Highway 27. Once we checked into the motel, we walked to the lakeshore and gazed to the north and east. With the sun’s lower position, the wavy waters were now a beautiful, deep blue color. After observing the brilliant colors of the Sebring skyline, we walked one block to Wendy’s Restaurant for dinner. As we looked forward to a predawn start the next morning, we reflected on what was an extraordinary day.
Miles cycled – 76.5
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