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Related Photos Sebring, FL to Key West, FL Stage Back
(via Highways 27, 997, 905A, 905, 1 along with LOST Trail)
October 23, 2004
One hour before sunrise, we pulled on our yellow, sleeveless jackets and started pedaling our loaded tandem south on Highway 27. A few blocks from our motel, we stopped at a restaurant for breakfast. For the next 50 plus miles, we knew of only two service stops. One was 13 miles out and the other was 40 miles beyond that. A big meal to start our day was imperative. Following breakfast, we watched as two men were checking out our parked rig. One of them had never seen a two-seat bicycle before so his friend, an apparent cyclist, described the features to him. In commenting on our setup, the cyclist told his friend, “From the amount of gear they have, I’d say they’re traveling unsupported.”
With the pre-dawn sky displaying some brilliant colors, we advanced south. Highway 27 continued to be a divided, four lane road with a three to four foot shoulder. Highlands County was naturally named for the local terrain. The rolling hills were gentle, giving us a slight workout. For the past 50 miles we had been riding across a series of sand hills referred to as the Lake Wales Ridge. Because these remnants of ancient shoreline dunes were isolated long ago by water, there are numerous endangered plants and animals in the area. Sometimes called Florida’s attic, the ridge has several species found nowhere else on earth.
As we biked up and down the moderate slopes, we occasionally passed by some orange groves. The well-drained sand hills provide the desired setting for citrus farming. Unfortunately, housing developments also find the deep sand attractive as well. In those areas left untouched, the scrubland was covered with low lying shrubs mixed with grasses and herbs. Some of the plants appeared to be like the sage brush that we had seen in southwestern USA. Although the area absorbs 50 inches of rain most years, it was like we were pedaling through a tropical desert. Because only 15 percent of the original habitat remains, the state is putting together tracts of refuge to preserve the scrubland.
The number of vehicles sharing the road with us was quite low compared to previous days. We weren’t sure if the lighter traffic was due to the weekend setting or the remoteness of the area. Whatever the case, it was a welcomed change. After pedaling mostly southeast for an hour, we could see Lake June-In-Winter on our right. We were now at the outskirts of Lake Placid, a small community of 1,700. As the highway bent around to the south, we climbed up a four to five percent grade for nearly a half mile. Little did we know that this would be the last hill on our AK to FL tour.
Entering town, the 270 FT Placid Tower initially captured our attention. An elevator ride to the observation deck gives visitors a view of the area’s 27 lakes. A sign near the tower proclaimed Lake Placid as a “Town of Murals.” Having had our share of ups and downs on the region’s sand hills, we passed by the tower and turned west onto Interlake Boulevard to check out the paintings. Before reaching our first mural, we had a sense that this town was going to be special. The streets were lined with palm trees and USA flags. Even the trash containers had colorful themes. Inspired by the wall paintings of Chemainus, British Columbia, the first mural was completed in 1993. There are now 37 colorful and historical displays.
One block into town, we viewed an everglades scene with a family riding an airboat. The artist did a superb job as the boat looked like it was flying out of the building and onto the street. We then passed by a red brick building with the sign, “Toby’s Clown School.” With nearly 500 clown graduates since 1993, Lake Placid claims to have more clowns per capita than any other town in Florida. The founder of the school (a clown by trade) hopes to build a Clown College on nearby property.
The next mural we saw was on a building owned by South Florida Community College. The painting depicted a distinguished-looking gentleman named Dr. Melvil Dewey. Dewey, at age 21, created the Dewey Decimal System. In 1895, he built a summer resort for his wealthy friends in Lake Placid, NY. Three decades later, he discovered this Florida community and proceeded to develop a winter resort for his affluent companions. In 1927, he convinced the state legislature to change the town’s name from Lake Stearns to Lake Placid. Although Dewey died four years later, his legacy lives on.
In the next block, the 60 FT by 30 FT wall of a car repair shop displayed a field of caladiums. A caladium, also called elephant ear, is a colorful plant that has large, arrowhead-shaped leaves marked in varying patterns of white, pink and red. With 1,500 acres of the ornamental plants grown in local fields, Lake Placid bills itself as the “Caladium Capitol of the World.” Imported from the Amazon River Valley of South America a half century ago, 95 percent of the world’s caladiums now grow here. The area’s fields of rainbow colors are said to rival the tulip fields of Skagit Valley in Washington.
As we continued into the center of town, we passed by several more murals covering interesting aspects of the town’s history. From pre-historic times to the introduction of the telephone, it seemed that they exhibited every tidbit of the past. Three of the murals were programmed to come alive with realistic sound effects. Nested between two painted walls was a nicely landscaped area with a goldfish pond. An older lady, wearing a blouse sprinkled with hearts, was tossing bread crumbs to the fish. Having completed our virtual journey through the local history, we biked back to Highway 27. Along with Winter Garden, we rated Lake Placid a must-see community in Florida.
Because the next opportunity for services was a long ways away, we stopped at a McDonald’s Restaurant before leaving town. Following a small breakfast, we continued south down the four-lane highway passing by some of the area’s small lakes. The pristine bodies of water are popular for recreational pursuits and fishing. Due to their remoteness, these lakes have not experienced the water quality problems seen elsewhere in the state. Bass tournament weigh-ins regularly measure fish over eighteen inches long and weighing over six pounds. Catching a large mouth bass that weighs nine pounds or more is not uncommon.
About six miles south of Lake Placid, we were again flabbergasted to see a highway sign warning of bear crossings. This sign indicated that the bear zone would be for the next twelve miles. We continued to carry our bear pepper spray within easy reach but we didn’t expect to see any bears. With the berries, acorns and honeybee nests that are available in the scrublands, this must be paradise for the black, furry critters. They are probably plump and healthy.
Like Polk County, Highlands has substantial agricultural interests. In addition to citrus farming, there are over a 100,000 cattle grazing in the county’s pastures. Among the miles of cows we biked by, we saw a number of Brahman and other exotic breeds that fare better in the warmer climate. Occasionally, we would see a field of round bales covered with white plastic. Because of the higher humidity, the bales are wrapped to minimize spoilage. From our vantage point, the fields looked like cookie sheets covered with spongy marshmallows.
After starting out as a dreary, overcast morning, the clouds dissipated leaving us with a brilliant, blue sky. The terrain went from rolling hills to flat and then to very flat. Oh, life is good! Before departing the county, we saw an isolated sand dune along the side of the road. The sandy hills we rode on earlier were rarely exposed because of vegetation. This dune had little grass cover and the eye-catching sand was so white, it looked like snow. Once we got through the bear zone, we pedaled into Glades County. The highway sign marking the county line impressed us with its double post mounting with angle-iron. It would take a pretty strong hurricane to knock that one over.
As we cycled down the super flat highway, we noticed that we weren’t seeing many vehicles. We could bike five miles without any motorists passing us. With a county population of only 10,000, we had plenty of room to spread our elbows. The highway was so quiet, that critters would sunbathe on it. Randall noted to Barb that there was some debris in the road ahead, a black segment of rope, perhaps. Barb surmised that it was a strip of tire rubber. When we reached the black object, we were startled to find that it was a four foot long snake.
Passing the snake on the right side, we awoke the wiry reptile from its late morning slumber. In sleek fashion, the slippery critter zipped at near lightening speed to the drainage ditch where it disappeared in the grass. Even though we were coasting along at 10 mph, the snake managed to dash between our tandem wheels without contact. The fleeing episode was a bit too close for Barb’s comfort. From the slender, satiny appearance, we suspected the snake was a black racer. Racers are nervous, irritable and fast-moving snakes commonly seen in Florida. When given a chance to escape, they generally do so very quickly.
Just before Highway 27 made a bend to the southeast, we passed through the small settlement of Palmdale, FL. A couple of nearby signs advertised the local gator farms. One was call the Outback Gator Ranch and the other, Gatorama. With 4,000 alligators and crocodiles, Gatorama is the world’s largest gator farm. The farm’s operators warn visitors, “No swimming or sunbathing. Violators may be eaten.” The state of Florida has 18 farms that produce 200,000 pounds of alligator meat and 30,000 hides annually. Having previously visited a gator farm in Louisiana, we weren’t interested in seeing the confined Florida gators. It was more thrilling to see them in the wild.
Also near Palmdale, we saw two areas of logging. The skinny trees being harvested were cut so that the timber could be neatly stacked across the width of the trailer bed. After seeing signs noting the Fisheating Creek Campground, we passed over the stream. The bridge was quite long as the creek looked more like a large pond than a river. The Fisheating Creek begins in Highlands County and snakes its way 52 miles through cypress knee-studded forests and marshes before reaching Lake Okeechobee (O-Key-Cho-Bee). Because of the tannic acid from vegetation, the creek’s dark-blue water enhanced the reflections of the sky.
A mile beyond the creek, Barb noticed that the trailer was swiveling a bit. Stopping to check it out, we found that the small tire was flat. There were no side roads to turn off onto so we pulled our rig onto the grassy drainage ditch. We risked getting a thorn in the tires with this placement but it was important for us to be off the three foot shoulder should any vehicles speed by. Although it was not the most pleasant setting for tire repair, we pulled the wheel off the trailer and started checking for the source of the puncture. Incredibly, the leak was caused by a quarter-inch segment of thin wire. The tire had lost about two-thirds of its rubber from nearly 7,000 miles of wear, so it was more susceptible to foreign objects. We had a backup tire with us but decided to give the 16 inch tire one more chance to reach Key West intact.
As we were getting the new tube inserted into the tire, we both started feeling something biting our feet. Because we were wearing sandals without socks, tiny black ants were having a field day with our exposed toes and ankles. Flipping them off with our hands was ineffective as they moved so fast and would scamper between our feet and shoes. We both trotted over to the paved shoulder and quickly removed our sandals. With our hands, we continued to swat away the speedy ants until we could find no more. We then knocked off any survivors from our shoes before putting them back on. The tire repair process was completed on the shoulder away from the grass. When we had to walk back on the grass to install the tire and pack the tools, we kept our feet moving constantly.
Once we were ready to roll, we took a last look at the grassy area where the attack occurred. There were no visible ant dens in the area but simply a few dozen ants running around haphazardly. The small, black insects appeared to be a colony of crazy ants. Aptly named, this menace does not follow trails, but is known for its erratic and rapid movement. They have no stinger but can bite an intruder and curve its abdomen forward to inject a formic acid secretion onto the wound. Having lived in Kansas, Ohio and Michigan, we had never experienced such aggressive black ants.
Just as we were ready to launch, our feet and toes started giving us an annoying itch. We got off the tandem and scratched the ant bites for relief. Amazingly, small white pimples had already developed over each wound. Wherever we would remove a pimple, the itch went away but the lesion felt like it was on fire. To each bite, we applied an ointment we had used for mosquito bites with success but the relief lasted less than a minute. With the temperature in the low 80s, we were really feeling the heat of the late morning sun. As we pushed the pedals, we were quite aware of our feet. At each five mile break, we stopped to rub the itchy areas. Even though Florida has a reputation as a bug-infested state, we hadn’t had any issues up to now. We suddenly had a powerful respect for the black ants.
Five miles from our destination, the road curved again as we headed due east. The surrounding flat lands were a mix of forest, marshland and fields. Occasionally, we would see standing water in the neighboring drainage ditch. One rest break was next to the water so we were on the lookout for devious alligators. The presence of water brought an increase in bird sightings. An anhinga with a four foot wing span was perched on a tree with its wings spread out for drying. Because the bird’s feathers are not waterproofed by oils, they can get quite waterlogged. Cattle egrets were seen flocking around some cows.
As we neared Moore Haven, FL, we went by two miles of sugarcane. The tropical grass appeared to have a height of ten to twelve feet. Because of the Cuban embargo in 1961, Florida ramped up their acreage of this sweet crop considerably. It now leads the nation in sugarcane production followed by Louisiana, Hawaii and Texas. Worldwide, Brazil and India each annually produce ten times the USA output of 30 million metric tons. It takes 224 stalks of sugarcane to provide the annual average sugar consumption of 67 pounds per person in the USA. Perhaps the fields we passed by would satisfy the sweet tooth of a medium size city.
At the outskirts of Moore Haven, a bald eagle posing as the community sentinel, was perched high on a dead tree limb. Outside of Alaska, more bald eagles live in Florida than any other state. A welcome sign greeted us with, “Moore Haven – Lake Okeechobee Sportsmen’s Paradise.” It seemed that all of the southern Florida towns were hyping their fishing and hunting. This town of 1,700 was started in 1915 by James Moore, a Seattle hotel owner. The Glades County Courthouse sits in the center of town along Highway 27. The light brown building is a block-shaped, two-storied structure with four, white pillars in front.
Before checking into our motel, we stopped to eat a late lunch at a KFC Restaurant that was connected to a convenience store. In the store’s parking lot, we gawked at a trailer-mounted air boat that was hitched to a pickup. We must be in the everglades now! Having ridden hard through the morning and having dealt with a flat tire, crazy ants and a black racer, we eagerly sat down for a huge meal. A local deer hunter later stopped and ordered a chicken dinner. When asked about his outing, he replied, “I didn’t get a deer but I saw quite a few wild boars.” The elusive hogs are so plentiful in Glades County that there are no legal limits on size or quantity. When we told the hunter about the extent of our trip, he responded with: “And I thought I worked hard today!”
Following lunch, we went across the street to check into our motel. There was still plenty of afternoon left to ride another 30 to 40 miles but we would then have a 90 mile segment after that. The best scenario was to have a leisure ride prior to the anticipated long day. While Randall unpacked the tandem, Barb had a nice chat with the lady managing the motel. The woman was a victim of the infamous 2004 hurricane season. Frances was the first storm through as it badly damaged the roof of her home. Before the woman could make repairs, Hurricane Jeanne came along and just demolished her cherished residence. By taking the job at the motel, she felt fortunate to have the manager’s quarters to live in.
When Barb mentioned our cross country adventure, the woman perked up as she experienced a trip of a lifetime in 1980. Joining several Native Americans, she rode horseback from Oregon to Washington D.C. to raise awareness of the problems Indians were facing. The ride took one year to complete and she lost a lot of weight during the excursion. She claimed she gained back 20 pounds in the first month following the trip. When she learn we were headed south on Highway 27, she recommended that we take the levee trail along Lake Okeechobee instead.
After settling into our room, we dug up information on the levee trail from the internet. Called the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (or the LOST Trail), it follows the 143 mile long Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds the lake. Parts of the trail were said to be unpaved gravel but it was unclear which segments were actually a solid surface. Given that the dike was 35 FT high, we figured that there had to be some scenery along the way. We confirmed that the access and exit points were compatible with our route plan so we were excited about our diversion for the next day.
Later in the afternoon, we able to listen to portions of a college football game using our internet connection. Our Kansas State Wildcats smacked the Nebraska Cornhuskers by a score of 45-21. That outcome felt so good that we managed to forget about our achy feet for a while. We soon discovered that the chamois butter we used for saddle sores also soothed our ant bites. For our next couple of meals, we kept it simple with snacks and sandwiches from the neighboring convenience store. Following an early dinner, we easily fell asleep by 8 PM.
Miles cycled – 56.9
October 24, 2004
At 7 AM, we began our day with pastries and juice that we had purchased earlier from the neighboring convenience store. We then packed our tandem seat bags with street clothes for a three mile trek to St. Joseph-the-Worker Church. Because the parish center was located west of town on Highway 27, we left most of our gear at the motel. Although we had passed by the church the day before, we did not notice it. We wondered if we would bike out into the country only to find fields of sugarcane.
Biking without the trailer, we started out somewhat wobbly. With only ten pounds of gear compared with the usual 140 pounds, it was like we kicked that jaded third person off our tandem. Without the usual 40 pounds on the front fork, Randall was naturally over compensating on the handlebars. Fortunately, we had a wide shoulder to ride on. The object was to ride 15 mph without heavy perspiration but inevitably, we were sweating about the stability of our long bike as it snaked down the highway.
When we reached the church, we parked our tandem on the shady west side. As we wrapped our 12 FT anti-theft cable around the bike, the local cat appeared and started playing with the end of the cable. Soon bored with that activity, the black and white pet sprawled out under our bike and made himself at home. Having pulled our street pants over our bike shorts, we soon met the church’s pastor. Upon learning that we were cycling for Habitat for Humanity, the minister noted that some HFH homes had been built recently in Glades County. At the beginning of the 8:30 AM service, the pastor made a point to welcome us and told the congregation about the extent of our trip.
Following worship, we went to the front of church to check out the beautifully painted wall that was behind the altar. The fresco of Jesus surrounded by children of various ethnic groups had very vivid colors. At the back of church, we found postings and pamphlets by FEMA to assist the area’s hurricane victims. After riding back to the motel, we started packing our rig so we could resume our tour. Outside our room, a large palm tree that had been toppled by one of the tropical storms was now just a two inch high stump. As Barb turned in the key, the manager encouraged her with, “Enjoy every minute.”
Before leaving town, we zigzagged down a few blocks looking for eating options. A motorist stopped and asked if we needed help finding something. He informed us that KFC and Burger King were the only places open that morning. Opting for beef, we pedaled a couple blocks over to the hamburger restaurant. After positioning our bike in the parking lot, a drive-through motorist asked if he could photograph our rig. His friend also jumped out of the car when we clarified the point of origin. They thought our “AK 2 FL” tag meant that we started in Arkansas. So, we gladly stood next to the tandem for the photo op.
Following our brunch, we were off to find the lake trail. As Highway 27 curved to the south, a huge overpass bridge came into view. Although we were not expecting this high-rise structure, the bridge’s six-foot wide shoulder made the climbing more comfortable. Nearing the top of the span, we were wowed by the magnificent Okeechobee Waterway. Using a series of five locks and Lake Okeechobee, the 152 mile waterway extends to the Gulf of Mexico via the Caloosahatchee River and to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lucie Canal. We slowly pedaled across the bridge’s crest to enjoy the distant view to the west.
After descending the bridge, we immediately exited onto the ramp for River Road. Curving around 270 degrees, we followed the roadway as it passed under the bridge we had just crossed. We then biked a half mile along the waterway before reaching a dam. Parking our rig next to the dam, we attempted to get our bearings. A nearby sign displayed the name, “Moore Haven Lock and Dam – Okeechobee Waterway.” Because there was no access across the dam, we wondered where the LOST Trail went through. A narrow strip of land between the two structures prevented us from viewing the lock to the northwest. We later determined that trail users had to leave their route north of the lock and follow Moore Haven streets to Highway 27 and then cross on the high-rise bridge we climbed.
Peering down at the dam’s four massive gates, we could see the dark, brownish water rushing through. The recent hurricanes had added quite a bit of water to Lake Okeechobee so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were trying to get the lake back down to a reasonable level. A six-foot high levee was initially built around the lake in the early 1900s. Two devastating hurricanes hit the area in the late 1920s resulting in eight-foot storm surges which wiped out Moore Haven causing hundreds of deaths. To prevent reoccurrence of the tropical storm disasters, the Corps constructed floodway channels, control gates and major levees which still stand today. Unfortunately the water management activities have greatly encumbered the water flow from the lake to the Everglades. Instead of steady sheets of water, the Everglades now experience periods of drought or powerful discharges of water.
On the release side of the Moore Haven Dam, the rapid water formed an aerated and unstable current. The frothy water had a whitewater appearance before connecting with the neighboring lock channel a quarter mile downstream. A dozen fishermen were seen plying the shoreline waters with their baited lines. On the opposite side of the dam, the dark-blue channel water was like mirror glass as the surface was calm and highly reflective. A string of red buoys crossed the channel to keep boaters from getting too close to the dam. Double-crested cormorants (a black seabird) and white egrets found the buoys and neighboring posts to be great resting places.
Departing the dam area, we pedaled a short distance southeast to a parking lot filled with boat trailers. While seeking out the access point to the LOST Trail, we became somewhat disoriented. We knew that the path was on top of a levee but the setting was confusing us. Expecting to see Lake Okeechobee on our left, we were unaware that the shoreline was seven miles away at this point. Ahead of us was a 12 FT wide paved surface that extended southeast on what appeared to be a dike. A locked gate spanned the entire width of the pavement. On each side of the gate, guard rails ran down the slopes of the levee.
After studying the two posted signs, we concluded that this was our intended path. The most dominant sign was, “Authorized Vehicles Only.” The second, less prominent, sign showed illustrations of a bicycle and a hiker with the words, “Florida Trail.” The LOST Trail is a segment of the Florida National Scenic Trail. Through our previous trail riding experiences, we had been accustomed to having posts inserted at the trail heads, not a gate that looked strong enough to deter a Hummer! The posts are typically spaced about three feet apart to prevent motor vehicles from using the trail. In this setup, the gate was offset from the guard rails to block even ATV and motorcycle riders. So, trail users had to squeeze between the two-foot gap between the rail and gate and then maneuver around the gate’s support pole to return to the pavement.
Navigating the staggered rail and gate crossing with a regular bicycle would have been challenging enough. Some cyclists would perhaps lift their bike over the three-foot high gate. In our case, a loaded, eight-foot long tandem was quite difficult to walk around the gate. As expected, we disconnected the trailer before doing the awkward task. While trying to avoid thorns and burrs, we slowly squeezed between the gate and rail and then pivoted our bike around the gate. We had to be careful not to slip on the soft sand and tumble down the levee’s slope. After we managed to advance the tandem around, we could pull the trailer under the gate and then rehitch it. Whew! What an ordeal.
Once we had completed the gate crossing, we had a very smooth pavement to enjoy. The first thing we noticed was that there were canals on both sides of us. A lot of dirt was needed to build a three-story high dike, so the Corps used the material that was dug out of the canals. The canal on the right is an irrigation ditch that provides water to the many crops in the region. The channel on the left is called the Rim Canal. As part of the Okeechobee Waterway, boaters can take this 50 mile segment around the perimeter of the lake. If they’re in a big hurry, they can shave eleven miles off by taking the open water route.
Just two miles down the trail, we met a couple riding horses. The equestrians were traveling on the grassy side of the levee so we avoided tangling. For the next 30 miles this would be the only humans we would see using the trail. For a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon, we would have expected to see more trail users. Perhaps the access gates discouraged travelers. The circular lake route passes through some extremely rural areas. Because we were higher up and trees were very sparse, we sometimes noticed the shifty winds off the lake. The few trees we did see looked like clusters of limbless, white spears. The lifeless sticks were probably killed by flooding long ago.
Occasionally, we could see smoke plumes from distant sugarcane crops. The fields are burned immediately before harvest. The white smoke is rather spectacular but short in duration. A 40 acre section will burn for 15 to 20 minutes. Some distant fields that were really blazing were just smothering cane stalks when we got closer. The fires burn off dead leaves which would otherwise impede harvest and interfere with the milling process. The leaves, if left on the cane stalks, would absorb the sugar and greatly reduce the yield.
The agricultural activities along the LOST Trail are quite diverse. Besides an abundance of beef cattle and dairy cows, we saw numerous crops of sugarcane, winter vegetables, rice, sweet corn, along with citrus groves and sod. Some of the most fertile soil in the USA surrounds the south shores of Lake Okeechobee. Through the ages, lake water saturated the area lands which helped to convert decaying plant materials into fertile, mucky soils. When the first set of dikes was put in a hundred years ago, the surrounding swamp land was drained to expose the rich muck. When the drainage channels and the current dikes were completed in 1937, even more acreage became available for farming.
Although we encountered just the horse riders while on the trail, we definitely didn’t feel abandoned. Various types of recreational boats went up and down the Rim Canal. A number of the vessels were obviously dedicated to bass fishing. A couple of the boats had the configuration of a speed boat as they raced down the waterway. They passed us like we were standing still. There was apparently no speed limit on the channel. One larger ship was an impressive, double mast sailboat. Like many of the passing boaters, the sailboat’s operator gave us a wave.
On the agricultural side of the dike, we occasionally saw the local residents fishing out of the irrigation canal. Who needs a boat when you can walk from your home to your favorite fishing spot? Those who weren’t fishing were seen working in the fields. They were too distant for us to observe what they were doing. Pedaling along, we saw an impressive array of cane harvesting equipment sitting idle near one sugarcane field. The combines, called chopper harvesters, cut the cane at the base of the stalk and then chop it into smaller segments before propelling the output into a wagon that is pulled along by a tractor. Unlike most crops, the remaining stubs of the harvested cane plants grow into another crop. After three or four harvests from the same plants, the sugar yield declines to the point where a new crop has to be planted.
Beyond the presence of people, we were just in awe of the wildlife along the canals. We had two sightings of alligators in the irrigation canal. The large reptiles appeared to be casing the neighborhood as they floated along effortlessly. Along these same waters, shaded rest stops with benches were installed for the comfort of trail users. We chuckled hysterically at the locations of these rest areas. To us, they appeared to be fast food stands for alligators! In addition to the gators, the waters were active with head-bobbing turtles and jumping fish.
Fishing might be king at Lake Okeechobee, but it was the birds that made the most impressive showing. In addition to cormorant, egrets and heron, we saw seagulls, anhinga, sandhill cranes, eagles, crows, hawks and vultures. This was truly a bird paradise. We observed an anhinga swimming through the water with just its head and neck above the water. It looked like a snake ready to strike. Some of the larger, long-neck birds would watch us with a cautious eye. Others were spooked by our presence and gracefully flew to the opposite side of the canal.
The wildlife was active away from the water as well. An armadillo was seen wandering about on the grassy levee slope. Along the trail’s edge, a vulture inexplicably landed 30 feet in front of us. Flying off just as abruptly, perhaps it was checking to see if we were still alive! Later, a dragonfly that was darting about settled on Randall’s left glove. After a half mile ride, the speedy insect lost interest and zoomed away. Eight miles into our nature slideshow, we were rudely greeted with another locked gate. Using the same routine as the first crossing, we made the tedious transfer around and under. The overbuilt barriers were certainly a momentum buster. It was like having a pleasant dream being interrupted by the alarm clock. This gate was not near an access point but a county road was nearby which may have justified the deterrent.
A half mile from the gate, we were surprised to find an idle road grader parked on the edge of the trail. There was several hundred feet of exposed sand that the grader was apparently trying to level out. Beyond this heavy machine, the outline of another dam came into view. Across from the dam, we could see a major channel that flowed southwest from the irrigation ditch. To our relief, the trail continued right across the top of the dam without any barriers. At a subsequent, shaded rest stop, three vultures were perched on the roof. This scene was more proof to us that the rest areas were ill-advised areas to stop.
After ten miles on the trail, we started getting glimpses of Lake Okeechobee. We were thrilled to see a great blue heron standing along the Rim Canal. With its long neck and legs, the four-foot tall bird stood firm as we pedaled by. At the outskirts of Clewiston, FL, we reached the Hendry County line and another locked gate. Urrgh! Past the gate, this community of 7,000 had a nice park area that ran parallel to the Rim Canal. On the opposite side of the dike was a parking lot filled with boat trailers. To the east, we could see the open water route that boaters could use to cut across the lake. With periodic markers to show the route, it looked kind of like an airfield landing strip. Larger boats probably steer cautiously within the dredged boundary as Lake Okeechobee is a fairly shallow lake with an average depth of ten feet.
Without warning, the trail came to a dead end. The disconnect was due to another water control dam ahead. So, we pedaled back a quarter mile to hop onto Clewiston’s streets. With all the sugarcane we biked by, it was no surprise to us that the nation’s largest sugar mill was located outside of town. Because harvested cane must be processed quickly before the sucrose deteriorates, the six sugar mills in southern Florida are located close to the cane fields. The brownish, raw sugar produced at the mills is sent to the state’s two sugar refineries, one of which is located in Clewiston. With both a mill and a refinery, the community stakes its claim as “America’s Sweetest City.”
When we found Highway 27 to the southwest, we turned left and crossed the bridge over Industry Canal. To complete our two mile, “U” shape detour, we turned left again which took us by the Army Corps of Engineers’ main office building. Without any signs to point the way, we were thankful to find the dike again. After ascending to the levee’s top, we were disappointed to find an unpaved, double-track path. Fortunately, the gravel surface only lasted for a quarter mile. We cringed when we saw yet another locked gate at the start of the smooth pavement. With the fourth gate crossing in twelve miles, we were beginning to despise these robust barriers.
As we continued southeast, we noticed that the scenery on the right side of the dike changed somewhat. We were now riding parallel to Highway 27. The rich muck fields were still to the west but offset by four lanes of traffic. In the early 1800s, before the swampland was drained to expose the muck, thousands of Indians settled in this area. Having escaped deportation to Oklahoma reservations, the former Creek Indians of Georgia became known collectively as Seminoles, meaning “runaways.” It was the Seminoles that named the lake, Okeechobee, which translates to “big water.” During the 1830s, the tribe fought the federal government’s efforts to relocate them. Having never signed a peace treaty, the Seminoles proudly call themselves, “The Unconquered.” Today, most of the tribe lives in the Big Cypress Reservation in southern Hendry County.
With Highway 27 now at our right, we certainly had a different perspective. While the motorists below had no view of the lake, we were relishing the fabulous scenery from our elevated route. After just five miles of riding in Hendry County, we reached the Palm Beach County line. With the change of counties, the shores of Lake Okeechobee merged with the Rim Canal. Wow, what a view! The expansive waters of this 730 square mile lake resemble those of a calm ocean. A source of water for seven million people, this body is the fourth largest lake completely within the USA (after Lake Michigan, Alaska’s Lake Iliamna and Utah’s Great Salt Lake).
Near the lake’s shore, we passed by a pile of dead trees that were probably cleared from the Rim Canal. The heap of dead timber was a favorite roost for the area’s vultures. Wanting to capture a closer photo of the large black birds, we stopped so Barb could walk down the grassy, levee slope. While Randall gazed at the lake, he heard some commotion and then turned to observe Barb aggressively stomping in the grass. It was those darn crazy ants again! Rushing to rescue (and spooking the vultures), Randall met Barb on the paved trail where she was doing an impromptu dance. Both her sandals were removed so that we could swat the elusive ants away. Fortunately, no additional bites were inflicted but the episode reminded us of Florida’s pesky insects.
Recovered from the ant attack, we continued with our lakeshore dream tour. At about a hundred feet, we noticed two dozen cattle egrets that were flying ahead of us. The white birds outpaced us slightly so they would land three hundred feet ahead of us and await our arrival. When we closed within 50 FT, they took off again. The setting was reminiscent of seagulls following a ship only these birds were leading the way for us. We were sufficiently entertained by the attention but the bird show was just beginning! After a quarter mile, we noticed that the flock was growing. There soon were 50 birds leading off. A half mile later, there were over a hundred egrets doing the fly-and-land-and-fly sequence.
Two miles later, we had well over two hundred birds in our entourage. Resembling a white cloud now, the growing flock continued to take flight and land. Some of them waited to the last minute to fly up out of our way. It was almost like they were mocking our slower speed. Up ahead, we saw about 70 crows stalking the levee’s grassy slope for insects. When we got close, the crows joined the egrets in flight for a flashy black/white integration. The crows, however, were apparently smarter than the egrets (or less attracted to humans) as they circled around to return to their insect search. Our fearless, white leaders hung out with us to the next locked gate. Amazingly, the bulk of the birds kept us company for six miles. It was the weirdest sensation as we felt like we were herding the birds.
Our fifth gate crossing was at the Miami Canal. As we reached the barrier, a woman had just ascended the dike using the narrow path along the guard rail. She had hiked up to catch a view of the lake before returning down below. We learned that she had relocated to Florida from Michigan a few months earlier so that she could be with her son and grandkids. After squeezing by the gate we could see that the dam had no access. Like the Industry Canal in Clewiston, we had to leave the dike and cross the water channel using Highway 27.
This was a more precarious detour because a slushy median prevented us from getting over to the two eastbound lanes. Our only option was to go the wrong way on the westbound shoulder for 500 feet. When we got to the 100 foot long canal bridge, the shoulder necked down to a one foot width. Yikes! We stopped and waited until we could see no cars approaching and then made a mad dash across. After a left turn, we headed back up to the dike. Naturally, another locked gate awaited us on the east side of the water control dam. The sixth crossing was just as challenging as the first five.
Resuming our ride, there were 50 cattle egrets ahead that were still hanging out with us. In the muck fields across the highway, we were seeing some sugarcane farming activity for the first time. One tractor was creating furrows five feet apart. A second tractor was applying fertilizer into the rows of trenches. A third tractor was laying 20 inch stalk segments horizontally into the furrows. The cane stalks have buds every two to four inches which sprout rapidly once covered with moist soil. Because the small seeds from the red or white cane plumes do not germinate very well, five percent of the annual harvest is set aside for stalk plantings. It takes about a year before the mature cane stalks are ready for harvest. Following four years of cane production, the fields are typically planted with rice to restore the soil’s fertility.
After passing four miles of dusty muck fields, our wonderful nature tour came to an end. Highway 27 was bending to the south and we needed to rejoin it for a short ride to South Bay, FL. Our exit was the municipal boat ramp area and of course, there was a locked gate awaiting us. We took one last gaze at a gorgeous Lake Okeechobee. Our faithful egrets would be staying behind. The LOST Trail was quite a treat! This was a rare day where we had to change to a second memory card in our camera. Beyond the gate we could take the public access road down from the dike. Studying the gate, Randall became rebellious and decided that he could walk our rig down the narrow guard rail path. A horrified Barb promoted the crossing instead. Randall trusted the brakes so we inched down the 15 percent grade risking thorns and a runaway tandem. After a successful descent, we paused to get our heart rates back to normal.
A quarter mile jog got us back onto Highway 27. Heading southeast, we pedaled a mile before reaching our motel. Having found the only lodging in this community of 4,000, we decided to locate a restaurant for an early dinner. We zigzagged through town looking for a business district but found none. Pedaling down some residential streets, we saw a number of the African Americans who make up two thirds of South Bay’s population. One young boy playing in a yard commented, “I like your camouflage!” While his companions chided him for referring to our purple jerseys as camouflage, the lad probably had never seen cyclists wearing colorful clothing that were meant to be conspicuous. Because hunting is so prevalent around Lake Okeechobee, we found his interpretation of our bike clothing amusing.
Later, a teenage girl shouted, “Where you been at?” Her accent was so heavy that we couldn’t understand what she was saying. Frustrated, she asked her question two more times with a raised volume. Regrettably, we didn’t piece together what she was asking until we were some distance away. Arriving back at the motel, we decided to check in and get some food from a neighboring convenience store. Five miles to the northeast, there was a larger town, Belle Glade, FL, which would have been a base camp offering more services. But, we decided that with 90 miles in the next tour segment, it would not be prudent to tack on more distance. After getting settled in and showered, we discovered that the area’s wildlife was quite evident in our motel room. Scurrying about the walls was a gecko-type lizard.
At the convenience store, we found lots of food options to satisfy our dinner and breakfast needs. As we paid for our selections, the Hispanic clerk asked us where we were biking to. When we told her we had biked down from Alaska, her eyes got real wide. After hearing that we planned to go south on Highway 27, she gave us a solemn, worried look, and said in a soft voice, “Be safe.” Back at the motel, we savored our day’s dramatic ride as we ate our hot meals. Anticipating an early start the next day, we soon called it a day.
Miles cycled – 34.6
October 25, 2004
The alarm clock rudely awoke us at 5:25 AM. Anticipating a long ride with no services for at least 80 miles, we were extremely motivated to begin our pedaling before dawn. In preparation for biking on a dark Florida highway, we replaced the batteries in our flashing red taillight and in our headlight. Following a large breakfast, we slipped on our sleeveless yellow jackets for greater visibility. One hour before the 7:28 AM sunrise, we launched our rig into the semi-darkness. The glow from South Bay’s streetlights gave us diminishing illumination as we edged out of town.
Our early start was inspired by various factors. Historically, we had found that we could cover a great distance on a bike if we began in a pre-dawn setting. We never understood why. Perhaps our legs stay fresh longer in the morning. The afternoon heat can certainly have an impact. We noticed that as we advanced further south into Florida, both the heat and ultraviolet indices were ramping up. The smooth, clean shoulder of Highway 27 certainly provided us with some riding comfort and safety. If we didn’t have the three to four foot wide shoulder, we would have slept for another hour.
With the early departure, we had expectations of lighter traffic. While very few passenger vehicles passed us, we were stunned by the high volume of semi-truck traffic. Just as our eyes were getting adjusted to the low-light level, a string of seven trucks passed us. All of the drivers moved to the left lane as they went around. Some of them probably thought we were nuts riding in the dark so they gave us the wide berth. All that mattered to us was that they could see our rig. For next ten miles, we averaged one truck per minute. After passing, four of the drivers gave us brief toots with their horns as if they were encouraging us along.
Just after ten miles, we turned onto to a rare side road for our first break. Sunrise was 15 minutes away and we were now beginning to understand why we were seeing all those semis. We were surrounded by tall sugarcane and harvest was underway. The crop is harvested annually from late October through March. Although the stalks have not reached maturity by late fall, the lower-yielding sugarcane is cut earlier to allow time for processing the whole crop through the region’s six sugar mills. Each semi was pulling a yellow trailer with wire-mesh siding. Depending on which direction we were from the mills, the empty trailers were going in one direction and trailers loaded with 20 tons of cane stalks were headed in the opposite direction. During the peak of harvest, a mill will receive two truck loads of sugarcane each minute.
While resting, we were amazed at all the cane trailers going up and down the highway. A few years back, we biked through a sugar beet harvest near Sebewaing, Michigan. The beets would spill from the overflowing trailers onto the highway shoulder. Because of the steady stream of trucks, we had to bike over a lot of abandoned beets. Thankfully in south Florida, the sweet cargo was not bouncing out. The “STOP” sign for the side road where we had paused was curiously altered. It appeared that someone had spray painted the face white. The red background was almost obliterated. We wondered, “Was this done to make rolling stops permissible? Or did the substantial sun bleach the sign?”
As the east sky became a fiery red color, we applied sun screen to our exposed skin. We thought we were reasonably tanned but the Florida sun was making us even darker. Continuing southeast, we were enjoying a moderate tailwind from the north. With a posted speed limit of 65 mph, this divided, four-lane highway was built for high velocity whether you were in a motorized vehicle or on a bicycle. With just a few strokes of the pedals after launching, we reached 10 mph which soon climbed to 15 mph. Adding a few hard strokes, we were startled to see our pace go to 20 mph. We would then settle to 17-18 mph and allow our weighty load to just sail along. Oh life is good!
Twenty-six miles southeast of South Bay, we entered Broward County. With nearly two million residents, Broward is Florida’s second most populated county. It was the center of controversy during the 2000 USA Presidential election recount. Strangely, we would bike 27 miles through the county without passing through a town. A short distance into Broward, the rare side roads went away completely. We were now past the sugarcane farming as the surrounding landscape was swampland with tall grasses. While we were enjoying a highway devoid of traffic signals, the absence of side roads forced us to change our rest stop strategy.
Without any crossroads, it would have been impossible for vehicles to turn around. So, every two miles, a crossover was paved over the grassy median. Because the swamp went right up to our three-foot wide shoulder, we did not feel comfortable stopping at the edge of the highway. For all we knew, a hungry alligator could be lurking nearby. When we were ready to rest, we checked for traffic behind and then scooted over the two southbound lanes for a stop at the crossover. In a couple of instances, there were approaching trucks from the north so we kept on pedaling. We would rather bike seven additional minutes to the next crossover than be caught on the side of the road with a motionless bike. A rest stop is much more relaxing when you’re not concerned with oncoming traffic and sneaky gators.
Even though our route was flat and fast, there was a lot of exertion on our part. This was quite a contrast to the day before when we took every opportunity to leisurely enjoy the wonderful sights. Sugarcane fields, swamps and power lines can seem rather monotonous after 20 miles so a faster pace was sensible. Further south into Broward County, we noticed canals on both sides of the highway. The North New River Canal on the east side is slated to eventually replace the Miami Canal that supplies water to the Miami area. The canal on our right occasionally had small ponds which were separated with a string of buoys. Like in Moore Haven, the double-crested cormorants found the buoy lines a nice place to rest.
Halfway across Broward County, we biked under Interstate 75. We had been riding parallel to this expressway since Kentucky. Called Alligator Alley as it cuts across the swamps of southern Florida, this 1,786 mile highway runs from Sault Ste. Marie, MI to Miami. We were grateful that most of the trucks seemed to be taking the entrance ramp to the expressway. As oppose to sugarcane, the semis were now hauling sod, large palm trees and various building materials. For the next several miles, the swamp’s edge was lined with Australian melaleuca. The 40 to 60 foot tall trees have a white, multi-layered papery bark. Introduced to south Florida in 1906, the melaleuca was widely planted for landscaping and for drying up swamps. Like the Kudzu vines in Georgia, Floridians consider the non-native tree an unwanted weed. When fire or herbicides is used to control the trees, each stressed plant can expel up to 20 million seeds into the air and water.
Having gone southeast for most of the morning, our route was now taking us directly south. After nearly 50 miles of riding, we were surprised to find a truck stop along the highway. We pulled in to check out their food options. Inside, there were no snack offerings so we bought a bottle of pop to sip. While munching on our energy bars outside, we noticed that the nearby trees were loaded with hundreds of crows. Periodically, a dozen crows would dive down to the gas pumps to seek out any trash inadvertently dropped by the truckers. With no food being sold inside, it appeared to be pretty slim pickings for the crows. There were two coin-operated boxes at the truck stop which distributed the local Hispanic news. Reflecting the upcoming elections, one of the newspapers, El Nuevo Herald, had the headline, “La Florida – Epicentro de la Campaña.”
Continuing south, the traffic was becoming heavier. At Pines Boulevard, we were halted by our first traffic signal of the day. Seven miles to the east, Flamingo Road crosses this boulevard in the heart of Pembroke Pines, FL. Based on automotive crash claims, State Farm Insurance in 2001 ranked this Flamingo/Pines crossing as the most dangerous intersection in the USA. With all the notoriety, the city has no doubt made some improvements to the troubled junction. None the less, we were thankful we were biking down the interior of Florida. Riding along the east coast would have provided a scenic ride as well but the associated stress from venturing into a high-risk traffic area would have been unbearable.
Although more cars were passing us, we still were not seeing any commercial or residential areas. It’s probably only a matter of time before the Miami suburbs expand out to Highway 27. A traffic sign noted that we were now 15 miles from Miami’s city limits. That was as close as we cared to be to the metropolis called “The Gateway to the Americas.” We were now in Miami-Dade County. The county was named for a soldier that was killed in the Second Seminole War. In 1997, voters approved the addition of Miami to the county’s name. A half mile after crossing the county line, we reached our right hand turn for Highway 997. If we would have stayed on Highway 27, the route curved to the southeast and into downtown Miami. Hopping onto this grand highway back at Stanford, KY, we found it to be a reliable route for 843 miles. Only the Alaskan Highway gave us more touring miles.
Shortly after turning onto Highway 997, we stopped for a photo op. A highway sign displayed, “Homestead 33 – Key West 157.” The distance indicator caused us to pause and reflect. Our target was less than 200 miles away. This ordinary green sign certainly ramped up our level of exuberance. Having been on the road for four hours, we drank a lot of water as the climate felt quite warm and humid. After leaving a divided, four-lane highway, our path was now a two lane pavement with virtually no shoulder. For the next five miles, the paved road headed southwest before curving to the south. We soon crossed over the Miami Canal that we had previously passed near Moore Haven.
Before long, the traffic on the narrow, rural highway started to pick up. Being in a county with 2.5 million residents, the extra vehicles were not unexpected but certainly unnerving. One northbound SUV stopped quickly before reaching us. As we wondered what was going on, the driver jumped out and gave us the thumbs up. The enthusiastic tourist then shot a photo as we pedaled by. The number of southbound trucks was noticeably high. Because of oncoming traffic, we had a half dozen trucks queuing up behind us on two occasions. Once the passing lane cleared the truckers all went by in one pass. Although the road was moderately busy, no one tried to run us off the highway.
During our tour planning in 2003, we read a number of stories about scary motorist/cyclist encounters in the sunshine state. Published in 1983, Barbara Savage’s book, “Miles from Nowhere,” portrayed the Florida drivers as inconsiderate and described instances where drivers intentionally ran her and her husband off the road. In contrast, we were finding the state’s motorists to be patient and understanding. The one exception was the trucker with the wide load near Avon Lake. As has been our experience, “timing is everything.” Highways and streets have slow times and busy times. If a cyclist is mixed in with heavy traffic that significantly accumulates to the rear, then a quick exit off the road to allow passage is prudent. When the route offers no safe exit points for some distance, then you would hope that the drivers understand your plight.
Our scenery continued to be a mixture of trees, tall grass and swampland. Some places along the road were really thick with melaleuca trees. A couple of pickups pulling trailers with airboats passed us. About ten miles down the highway, a two-foot wide shoulder was added. We were so thrilled to have the added comfort zone. After riding 69 miles, we saw our first commercial development of the day. The Miccosukee Resort and Gaming building was a ten-story tall casino operated by the Miccosukee Indians. Like the Seminoles, this small band of the Creek Nation settled in this area to escape the forced removal from Georgia. South of their complex was a crossroad called Tamiami Trail. Highway 41 was so named because it connected Tampa with Miami. We were now 18 miles west of downtown Miami.
After crossing the Tamiami Trail, we were just one mile east from the northeast corner of Everglades National Park. Containing the world’s largest mangrove forest, the 2,100 square mile park represents only one-fifth of the 50 mile-wide “river of grass” that drains from Lake Okeechobee. The boundary of the marshy park is shaped somewhat like an arrowhead pointed south. As the park’s border zigzags slightly to the southwest, the neighboring private lands yield a diverse mix of vegetables, fruits and landscaping plants. For the next dozen miles, we pedaled by an incredible array of cultivation. South Florida is considered the nation’s winter food basket and it is most evident on the patch of land between the Everglades and Miami. Seventy percent of the vegetables grown in the USA during the winter months are by produced by Florida farmers.
To the distant east, we could see some ongoing development gobbling up precious farmland. Miami is running out of land to build on so there’s a continuous struggle between the feeders and the eaters. The lines separating rural and urban are constantly being moved. While we were biking by vibrant green fields, developers were looking beyond the lines and seeing a different kind of green. North of Homestead, the community of Redland is trying to incorporate 68 square miles in order to halt development and nurture agriculture. They want to form a city in order to avoid becoming one.
On both sides of Highway 997, verdant fields extended all the way to the tree lined horizons. Green beans, celery, lettuce and radishes were among the first crops we passed by. Most of the plants seen were in their early stages of growth. Off in a distance, we could see irrigation systems spraying the young crops in a circular fashion. After pedaling by cabbage, pepper and tomato fields, we noticed a half dozen men sitting on the shady side of a school bus. Having spent the morning pruning tomato plants, the workers were now on their lunch break. Because the tomatoes will eventually be sold in fresh produce markets, the plants were held off the ground using four-foot stakes and nylon twine.
Near SW 136th Street, our watches showed a time of 12 noon. We pulled over to check our progress for the day. Through our past ten years of avid cycling, one of our yardsticks for improvement was the number of miles biked by noon. On one of the two northbound days in Kansas, we managed to ride 54 miles by 12 o’clock. Without touring weight, our best morning in Michigan was a 68 mile trek. So, we were quite astonished to see 77 miles on our tandem’s odometers. Our average speed was an incredible 16.7 mph. As we marveled over our feat, we appreciated the moderate tailwind and infrequent traffic stops which factored in. None the less, we concluded that we would probably never again have such a speedy morning.
Following our 12 noon checkpoint, each mile of our route’s intersections was regulated with traffic signals. The abundant fields were now alternating with fruit orchards and landscape nurseries. The numerous nurseries offered a wide range of tropical plants. It was an awesome sight to see large plots covered with ten-foot palm trees. We met one semi-truck hauling a huge, three-foot diameter palm tree along with several smaller ones. The fruit orchards were offering exotic produce such as longan, guava, papaya, lychee, coconut, annona and bananas. Some of the orchards must have been popular with the birds as they were entirely covered with screening. Among the 40 tropical fruit growers based in Homestead is “Going Bananas” which offers nearly 100 varieties of the yellow fruit.
As our surroundings were becoming more and more urban, we continued to see patches of crops, orchards and nurseries. In subsequent vegetable fields, we were able to observe various planting and cultivation practices. Specialized planting equipment was creating well groomed trenches across each field. As seeds were inserted between the furrows, an 18-inch wide span of black plastic sheeting was neatly tucked into the soil. The plastic provides extra warmth for faster growth and helps protect the young plants from blasts of wind. For crops like peppers and tomatoes that require transplanting, the process became more labor intensive. The planter would punch holes in the plastic as it was laid in place. Two operators, riding at the back of the planter quickly inserted a seedling into each hole.
In another field, we saw a tractor slowly pull an odd looking implement along rows of 12-inch tall tomato plants. Three workers on each side of the equipment were walking under the machine’s 20 foot long arms. Each operator had a pneumatic hammer that they used to pound steel stakes into the ground. Between every two plants, a stake was inserted one foot into the soil. In addition to the unique machinery, the large scale operations required a lot of resources as well. Pallets of black plastic rolls were place along the road for reloading the planters. Eight-foot tall, mobile spools of black irrigation tubing were strategically placed about the various fields.
Biking near the outskirts of Homestead, we noticed that the cross street names were numerically increasing. Typically, the numbers get smaller as you approach the center of a city. Beginning at the Tamiami Trail, the numbers were referencing the number of blocks southwest of Miami. At the intersection of SW 248th we spotted a Dairy Queen which quickly became our lunch stop of choice. After six hours of touring and a very fast 85 miles, we were rather soaked with perspiration. At 86 degrees, we were certainly feeling the burden of the tropical climate but pleased that we were almost to our destination. The toughest part was stepping into an air-conditioned restaurant. Burrrrr, it was cold in there!
Following a huge lunch, we returned to our tandem refreshed and chilled. In the parking lot, we spotted a photo opportunity. A service truck that catered to preventive maintenance had the name, P.M.S. Their slogan was, “It’s that time of the month.” Pedaling south again, we passed by even more orchards, nurseries and fields. This was certainly the most remarkable agricultural setting that we had ever seen. Two miles from Dairy Queen, a sign noted the Homestead city limits. The two lane highway was now a divided, four-lane street with a ten-foot grassy median lined with palm trees.
When we reached the downtown area, our orientation was challenged because the eastside streets ran parallel to Highway 1 which angled to the southwest. After meandering over to the busy highway, we jogged over a short distance to reach our motel. Our 2:15 PM arrival was at least two hours earlier than we had expected. After checking in, we gave our legs a welcomed rest. Because of Key West’s ongoing festival, we would be spending four nights at this base camp. With reasonable room rates that included a continental breakfast, we were very content with our wonderful, tropical setting.
Miles cycled – 89.4
October 26-28, 2004
Following a late morning breakfast, we set out to find a local grocery store. We hitched up our empty trailer as we expected to make a large food purchase. Our room was furnished with a fridge and microwave so we wanted to take full advantage of that. Wandering a half mile to the center of Homestead, we found Borges Supermarket and Cafeteria. Like a number of businesses in town, the grocery store catered to the Spanish-speaking population. Because of the labor intensive agriculture in the area, 50 percent of the region’s residents are Hispanic. As we locked up our tandem outside, we sensed that we were attracting a lot of attention. A bicycle built for two was not a common sighting for the store’s customers.
Once inside, we pushed our grocery cart down all aisles seeking out the foods that we had some familiarity with. We soon realized that we were the only non-Hispanics in the store. Given the Spanish prominence, we then wondered if our being mono-lingual would be an issue during checkout. As we traversed the narrow aisles, we found ourselves repeating most of them as our usual comfort foods were elusive. Going by shelves of pop and beverages, all the drinks were independent brands. There was no Coke or Pepsi. The meat department was very minimal and prepackaged items such as sandwich cuts were nonexistent.
Even more daunting to us was the absence of freezer displays. No TV dinners, no frozen pizzas. Hmmmm? After several loops around, our grocery cart started to accumulate stuff. A gallon each of orange juice and milk and two boxes of macaroni/cheese mixes were selected. Finally, we decided on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so a few more passes were needed to locate bread and the cherished spreads. While only one brand of peanut butter was stocked, there was nearly an entire shelf for sauces. From La Victoria green taco sauce to Pico Pica Mexican hot sauce, the choices seemed endless. Before checking out, we noticed a large display of religious candles and trinkets. Judging by the quantities, the tall “Our Lady of Guadalupe” candles were quite popular.
After we added cans of peanuts and cashews, the clerk then scanned our items and the amount due flashed on the register. Without saying a word, the cheery clerk took Barb’s credit card to complete the transaction. Based on our selections, we were obviously not local patrons. As we walked out with our bags, we realized how insular we were with our preference for American foods. Returning to the motel, we settled in for some relaxation and writing. Our email retrieval yielded a note from a well-wisher and a dozen messages that were spam. We could thank south Florida for the unwanted messages. Historically, the state has been home to large telemarketing firms. It’s only natural that the spammers would also take advantage of the gorgeous weather and the low key atmosphere.
The next day, we continued with the writing. A rough draft was started for an end-of-trip press release. Needing something beyond peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we biked to a nearby cafe for lunch. A conspicuous sign outside the restaurant stated, “Bicycle Parking Only – Please Secure Your Bicycle Properly.” An ordinance code posted below the note to cyclists made us curious. Apparently the authorities were fed up with all the reports of stolen bicycles. After lunch, our return route to the motel took us by a clever sign for the local optometrist. The letter on the top row was a large “E.” Below that was a smaller “YE.” For those with good eye sight, you could see the smallest letters “CARE.”
After spending the balance of the day reviewing our photos, we stayed up late to watch the spectacular show in the sky. The lunar eclipse started at 9:14 PM and we began our viewing a few minutes before 10 PM. Unlike some areas in North America, we had a cloudless setting for our observation. We watched as the colors changed from orange to dark brown. At 10:23 PM, the totality began with the Moon completely immersed within the Earth’s dark umbral shadow. This phase of the total lunar eclipse lasted for 81 minutes. After five minutes, we had sufficiently captured the moment digitally. The dark brown blob wasn’t as exciting to watch so we returned to our room. It was way past our bed time. The next total lunar eclipse for the USA will not occur until February 21, 2008.
On our last full day in Homestead, we needed a changed of venue so we hopped on our tandem for a ride into town. With no set route to follow, we just meandered around while trying to avoid getting lost. Following Highway 1 a short distance south, we noticed that some of the billboards were in Spanish. It felt like we were in a foreign country. We soon found ourselves on SW 344th Street which was also called Palm Drive. For our convenience, there was a bike lane marked to the right of the two westbound lanes of traffic. We were now in Florida City, FL, the southernmost mainland municipality in the United States. Originally named Detroit, residents later voted to change to the current name. The city is at the eastern end of the only road running through Everglades National Park.
At the center of town was a fairly new civic complex. In 1992, Florida City and Homestead bore the brunt of Category-5 Hurricane Andrew. Florida City, with 8,000 residents, lost three-quarters of their structures so a lot of rebuilding has occurred over the past decade. As a result of stricter post-hurricane building standards, the newer structures were designed to withstand 175 mph winds. Turning northward, we zigzagged through a residential neighborhood. The area’s homeowners certainly weren’t bashful about loud colors. Florescent pink, toy green and sea blue were among the prominent exteriors. All of the dwellings had either metal shutters or steel bars covering the windows. Because many residents had tall fences around their front and/or back yard, we initially thought that the window coverings were for security. However, the shielding also provides good storm protection.
After heading east for a while, we turned left at A – OK Fish ‘N’ Bait. We found ourselves back on Highway 997 but in a northbound direction. Also called Krome Avenue, we noticed that traffic on Homestead’s primary road was rather light. We got the sense that we were off the beaten path. Surveying the mix of car tags, nearly all of the vehicles had Florida plates. Most tourist traffic apparently skips by Homestead using Highway 1 or the Florida Turnpike. Florida has 100 specialty license plates for those who want an alternative to the standard design showing a pair of oranges overlapping the state’s outline. Also displayed at the tag’s top and bottom are “MyFlorida.com” and “Sunshine State.” Among the most popular specialty plates are Panther, Protect Wild Dolphins and University of Florida.
As we neared historic downtown Homestead, the first thing we noticed was the really tall palm trees. The healthy plants were taller than the street’s two-story buildings. The community had done a great job refurbishing the downtown district. The stucco exterior of the buildings all looked freshly painted. After passing the Seminole Theatre, we biked over brick pavers which depicted a large rose flower. This area opened to homesteaders in 1898. Now with almost 40,000 residents, the community began to thrive with the 1904-1912 construction of the overseas railroad to Key West.
On the way back to our motel, we passed by a large, windowless building with the prominent sign, “Amputee Brace Clinic.” Sadly, this business probably exists because of repetitive motions and mechanized activities associated with the region’s agricultural work. After spending more time writing at our base camp, we biked a mile south on Highway 1 for dinner. Near the south terminus of the Florida Turnpike was a Golden Coral restaurant. We were very impressed with their buffet so we decided to return for breakfast the next morning. That evening, we reviewed in detail our map itinerary for the Keys. We were so close to an anticipated fun-filled ride that it was difficult to get to sleep that night.
Miles cycled – 11.0
October 29, 2004
Expecting a ride of about 40 miles, we began our day much later than usual. Before departing, Barb had contacted The Reporter, a daily newspaper covering the Upper Keys region. When told of our impending arrival in Key Largo, a Reporter staff member asked that we call again once we reached our campsite. At 10:15 AM, we biked one mile south for our return visit to the Golden Coral. With breakfast served until 11 AM, we made several trips to the endless buffet. While the food was so delicious, we realized that this would be the last time we were be eating in an uncontrolled fashion. When our waitress asked where we were biking to, she followed with, “You’ll have fun riding to Key West.
During Randall’s visit to the rest room, another restaurant employee quizzed him about the extent of our bike trip. As he studied our HFH card, the well-dressed worker was just incredulous about our journey. In wishing Randall well with our upcoming finish, the staff member then noted that he had a brother that was into bicycle racing. Shortly after Randall rejoined Barb in the dining area, the soft background music was interrupted. From the P.A. system, an enthusiastic voice bellowed out, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the staff here at Golden Coral would like to welcome our very special guests today. Randall and Barb Angell of Oakland County, Michigan have ridden their bicycle all the way from Alaska and will finish their trip in Key West. Let’s give them a big hand!”
While we were blushing from the sudden notoriety, a man at a neighboring table teased us with, “I’m driving my pickup over to Key West. You can load your bike up in the back. No one will ever know!” Laughing chaotically, we graciously declined his mischievous offer. As we finished our meal, various waitresses stopped by to extend their congratulations. Now plump with food, we gingerly launched our tandem again. In the parking lot, members of a high school marching band were congregating outside their bus. When we paused to take their photo, two from their group approached to query us about our trip. The band leader then yelled at the stray teenagers to get them back with the group. The leader reprimanded them with, “You owe me ten!” We weren’t sure if that was pushups, laps or what.
Back on southbound Highway 1, we were now at the point where the turnpike traffic merged in. Four miles to the east is the Homestead-Miami Speedway, a popular 1.5 mile oval racetrack. For the next mile, the divided, four lane road was packed with hotels and restaurants. Traffic was fairly heavy but we had a shoulder to ride on. At the outskirts of town, we arrived at the traffic light for Highway 905A. Known primarily as Card Sound Road, this lesser traveled route to the Keys averages less than 2,000 vehicles a day. Even though the older road is five miles longer, we decided early on in our planning that it would our route of choice. The newer highway from Homestead to Key Largo, called Eighteen Mile Stretch, is a death trap for self-propelled travelers.
Although the Eighteen Mile Stretch has a two foot wide shoulder, the motorists’ behavior creates a setting where there’s no safe refuge for cyclists. Tourists out of Miami International Airport are barreling down the road to their ultimate dream destination of Key West. Their rental car can’t get them there fast enough. It takes the stricter speed enforcement of the Key Island municipalities to slow them down. In the opposite direction, tourists are in an even bigger rush to get back to the airport after a booze-filled vacation. Mix in the slower RVs and boat trailers and you have some very frantic drivers. To offer relief, passing lanes were added every four or five miles. Naturally, the meager shoulder disappears with each segment of passing lane. When the shoulder is available, rumble strips placed every eight feet create an obstacle course. Cyclists should avoid this suicide stretch at all costs.
Just getting across Highway 1 for our left turn onto Card Sound Road was an ordeal. After waiting through two traffic signal intervals, we squeezed between some paused motorists to get over to the turning lane. Whew! Bearing southeast, Highway 905A was flat and straight with a two-foot grassy shoulder between the pavement and guardrail. A large, empty rock truck rumbled past us shortly after we entered the narrow highway. With such a narrow margin of space on our right, our feelings were somewhat claustrophobic. More empty trucks headed southeast while full trucks headed northwest. We soon realized that there was a rock quarry ahead. Thankfully, Florida Rock and Sand was just four miles down the road. Once past the quarry entrance, we were away from the busy rock-hauling loop to Miami.
Because of the truck traffic, the surface of Card Sound Road was moderately rough. After five miles, we stopped at a side road for a rest break. Now mid day, the tropical heat was really a drain. In addition to drinking lots of water, we soaked up our purple bandanas with water. The coolness on our scalps felt wonderful as we resumed our pedaling. The scenery varied from grassy marshes to dense mangrove trees. Occasionally, there were pools of water along the road. We were amused by a homemade sign that was nailed to a utility pole. Unreliable distances were posted as “Ocean Reef 5 – Key Largo 11 – Cuba 190.” Ocean Reef is a private resort on northern Key Largo. Like the sign at the start of Highway 997, the mileage indicators, raised our level of excitement.
Just past the sign, a small group of squatters have carved out a rickety community along a cove off of Barnes Sound. Living in boats or piles of scrap wood stacked up to look like boats, the year-round residents make their living from the cove. Because they are right at the county line, the temporary status of the squatters’ moorings is not questioned. Near one boat, we could see several bags of harvested sponges. Natural sponges are considered more absorbent, durable and longer lasting than synthetic sponges. Annually, over a half million sponges are pulled from the Keys waters. Next to another boat, there were several stacks of crab cages.
Continuing past the boat homes, we stopped at the public boat dock to check out the cove view. The mangrove trees were tightly packed around the cove’s perimeter. Some anglers were preparing their boats for an outing. From the shoreline, we could see various fish darting through the water. South of the dock was a restaurant/bar called Alabama Jacks. Their sign lured motorists’ eyes with, “Welcome to Downtown Cardsound – Voted Best Conch Fritters in the Keys – Welcome Bikers.” Parked in front were a dozen motorcycles and a few cars. Although it might have been interesting to mix with the motorcyclists, our tanks were still plenty full from the breakfast buffet so we pedaled on.
We were so focused on the unique restaurant that we barely noticed the bridge toll booth ahead. A nice blue canopy over the toll crossing greeted travelers with, “Welcome to Monroe County and the Fabulous Florida Keys.” On the side, an ominous sign cautioned, “Crocodile Crossing – Next 7 Miles.” Then we saw the bridge as it was being framed by the canopy. From our perspective, the 65-foot high-rise crossing looked really steep. As we approached the booth, we were retrieving the dollar toll when the gate operator interrupted us with, “Bicycles go through free as long as you avoid running over the wheel sensor.” So, we carefully walked along the narrow shoulder to steer clear of the sensor. The toll is also waived for vehicles when the Keys are being evacuated for a hurricane.
Our twenty-third and final county in Florida is known as the “County of Islands.” As we launched, we noticed a roadside vendor selling live blue crabs. After pedaling two hundred feet, we stopped on the wide shoulder before attempting to climb up the bridge. Strangely, there was a sign ahead of the bridge with the word, “Bridge.” The area is not lighted at night so apparently they have had motorists that were startled by the abruptness of the bridge. The grade of the approach appeared to be eight to nine percent so we positioned our chain into granny gear. With the sound of gently slapping water coming from both sides of the road, we slowly began our ascent.
For first half of the climb, there was a walkway with a three foot high concrete wall. About 50 feet up, two young men were fishing as they had five poles distributed along the wall. A sign warned, “No Jumping or Diving from Bridge.” When we reached the end of the walkway, the wall was shortened by one foot to serve as a curb. With the shifty cross winds, a two-foot high wall is not a substantial barrier. Paranoid that we could topple over the side, we rode four feet away from the edge. Traffic was light and not an issue. Only two pickups passed before we reached the bridge’s apex. During our bridge crossing, a sizable yacht was approaching from the north. Crossing from Biscayne Bay on the left to Barnes Sound on the right, the large boat passed under us as we reached the top.
At the bridge’s summit, everything opened up. We feasted our eyes on a wonderful panoramic seascape. There was endless water to the horizon in almost every direction. To our right, the fast-moving yacht cut through the expansive and highly reflective waters. Straight ahead, patches of dark green mangroves swirled forward before ending at the Atlantic Ocean. On our left, the darker blue waters went on for miles. Oh, what a view! Barb snapped the camera repetitively as we knew this brilliant setting would be fleeting. Although our weight could have sent us flying down the other side at 35 mph, Randall squeezed the brake levers tightly for a dramatic 12 mph descent. With our giddy feelings, it was like we were floating through the air.
After departing the bridge, a sign noted that we were entering the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The sanctuary was established in 1980 to protect the breeding and nesting habitat for the endangered American crocodile. While the brackish water next to the road discourages alligators, crocs thrive in it. The refuge apparently has been a success. The reptiles were proliferating so well that chain link fences were installed in places to deter road crossings. More aggressive than alligators, crocodiles are the top predators in their environment. While they might look clumsy on land, they can actually sprint up to 30 mph for a very short distance.
In spite of this grave danger, we left the highway at the first clearing. With the Biscayne Bay as our backdrop, we positioned our rig next to the shoreline for our proud display of seven fingers. Seven thousand, unbelievable miles! While capturing photos of our treasured moment, we glanced around frequently for any signs of crocs. Once our special moment was documented, we hastily got back on the highway and pedaled away. The road took us mostly east towards the interior of Key Largo, the largest of the Key islands. Along the way, we crossed four short bridges which had signs warning, “No Fires on Bridges or Roadways.” We met a yellow utility tractor that had a column of circular saws on a hydraulic arm. The equipment was trimming the mangroves back from the highway.
After four miles of mangroves and patches of sparkling blue water, we reached a junction in the road. To the left was the private road to Ocean Reef. On our right, Highway 905 went nine miles southwest before joining with Highway 1. Making a turn to the south, we were pleased to find a much smoother highway. We still had no shoulder but the traffic was quite light. Two miles down the road, we passed by the former Nike missile site. Closed in 1979, the site was hastily constructed after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. At the outskirts of the Crocodile Refuge, we felt safe enough for an extended rest. Because there was no shoulder, we picked a shady side road for our stop.
While we were studying our map, a state park ranger stopped his truck and asked if we were lost. When we told him that we had biked down from Alaska, he looked over our rig and queried, “Your stuff doesn’t look that weathered?” If only we had thought to show him the inside flaps of our faded red bags. Instead, we handed the dubious ranger our HFH card. He said that he had donated some landscaping plants to Habitat for Humanity. As far as sights in the Keys, he recommended a wild bird center and the hawk watch. Given that it was a Friday afternoon, he cautioned us that it gets pretty crazy on the weekends.
The rest of Highway 905 was somewhat bland as far as the Keys go. The trees were fairly solid on either side of the road. But, we were quite content to be away from traffic. Our 25 mile alternate route ended with our road going straight into Highway 1 as it curved around from the north. At this merging, there was a convenience store which was an obvious stop for us. From our research of the Keys, we knew that there was little shade and that convenience stores were few and far apart. Even though we were less than nine miles from our destination, we packed our Camelbaks with icy water. Outside the store, we were amused to see a rooster and hen in a heavy commercial area. They were contently pecking along the grassy edge of the parking lot.
Departing the convenience store was no easy matter. We had to cross four lanes of the moderately busy Highway 1, otherwise known as the Overseas Highway. Southbound motorists up to this point had enjoyed a speedy 18 miles and had yet to adjust to the island speed limits. There was a bike path on the south side of the road that ran the entire length of Key Largo. The beginning of the path at the Highway 905/1 junction was not well marked. Our plan was to use the path only as a rational alternative. Cyclists taking the path contend with countless driveways and drivers who do not even think about looking before crossing the path. Trees and shrubs reduce visibility making right-of-way issues even more challenging. Because the path would require constant vigilance, we decided that the highway with a shoulder would be safer.
After nearly ten minutes of waiting, the traffic cleared sufficiently for a crossing. Given that it was the weekend, we gave particular attention to RVs and to pickups pulling boat trailers. The extended mirrors on some vehicles can really stick out a ways. We were now approaching MM 106. Like the Alaskan Highway, locations in the Keys are indicated by mile markers which measure the distance to the Monroe County Courthouse in Key West. Instead of street numbers, these MM numbers are used by the locals and businesses to indicate addresses. A location with an address of 102517 Overseas Highway could be found near MM 102.5 and on the ocean side. The rectangular, green MM signs are consistently placed along each mile of Highway 1.
The first thing you notice about Key Largo is the extravagant commercialism. These desperate businesses have to be that way. Every day, thousands of tourists pass by with the intent of reaching Key West or other lower Key islands. The motorists’ attention is so fleeting that stores must be particularly eye catching to get the speedy cars to stop. Consequently, the landscape is dotted with huge sculptures of giant, multicolored fish, boats or menacing crustaceans. A number of the buildings are painted with dazzling murals. It was quite a sight, but the ploys didn’t persuade us to stop.
At MM 103.6, we crossed the 400-foot long bridge over the Marvin Adams Waterway. Known as the “Cut” by boaters and businesses, the half mile passage cuts the 30 mile long Key Largo at about the middle. The man-made waterway offers a shortcut between Florida Bay and the ocean. Scattered on the islands are marinas catering to the ever-present anglers and skin divers. We saw a number of dive flags waving from buildings. The flags’ red rectangles split diagonally by a white stripe gave us a cheery welcome. Key Largo, a community of 12,000 is known as the “Diving Capital of the World.” It is home to the most extensive living coral reef system in North American waters and the third largest system in the world. A mile southwest of the Cut, we passed the entrance to John Pennekamp State Park which is famous for its snorkeling and diving.
This state park was the first underwater preserve in the United States. With the coral and artificial reefs, recreational diving is huge in this region. If the Keys’ long history of shipwrecks doesn’t offer enough stuff to explore, there are several ships that were intentionally sent to the bottom. The most recent large sinking was the 510-foot long naval ship, Spiegel Grove, in 2002. Key Largo hosts 100 to 200 underwater weddings each year. One popular spot to get hitched is near the “Christ of the Deep.” The nine-foot statue of Christ has arms lifting up to the heavens from beneath the waves. And if you’re really into diving, you can check into the Jules Vern off the coast of Key Largo, the world’s only underwater hotel.
After passing a few restaurants, we decided to eat at the Waffle House at MM 100.2. This chain is quite prominent throughout southeast USA but this was the first one we had stopped at during our tour. Having driven to Key West in 1993, we recalled that chain restaurants and businesses were non-existent then. Now, the franchises appear to be well entrenched. Even though it was 3 PM, we treated this setting as if it was our final meal of the day. We weren’t seeing any grocery stores and we didn’t expect any services near our campsite. Once we had sufficiently cooled off with lots of iced tea, we hit the road again.
Just beyond the restaurant was the sign for MM 100. We stopped to get a good photo as this was another epic moment for us. A passing motorcyclist yelled out to us, “Only 100 miles, you’re almost there!” Three miles off shore from MM 100 is the Benwood on French Reef, one of the most dived shipwrecks in the world. Continuing on, the four lanes on the Overseas Highway were soon separated by a 200-foot wide median. Our paved shoulder deteriorated to nothing while the traffic kept a pretty good pace. With two miles yet to go, we were resigned to riding on the bumpy but firm grassy surface next to the highway. It wasn’t the most pleasant riding surface but we had seen a lot worse. Along the way, a billboard advertised Hog’s Breath Saloon, a Key West bar. Their slogan was, “Hog’s Breath is better than no breath at all!”
Having rumbled on the grass for a while, we were ecstatic to see the entranced sign for America Outdoors Camping Resort. In the spirit of Halloween, there was a “witch” smacked against the sign. Barb called the newspaper reporter to let her know we were in town. She said that she would be over in fifteen minutes. Inside the campground office, the manager asked about our trip. When he learned about our Habitat for Humanity involvement, he noted that he had helped with HFH houses on Big Pine Key. While registering at the office, we checked the time on the wall clock only to find that the clock’s hands had fallen off. When you’re in the Keys, time is irrelevant.
We had to decide between $40 or $50 sites. Checking the lower priced locations next to the highway, we concluded that it was quiet and secluded enough for a restful night. Before the reporter’s arrival, we wondered what kind of photo the newspaper would want so we delayed setting up our campsite. Soon, the reporter pulled into the campground driving a red convertible. After we guided her to our campsite, she quizzed us about what we packed on our rig. Like many before, she was amazed that we could get by on so little. Once she took our photo standing behind the tandem, she was quickly on her way to another story. To read the story, click here From Alaska to Florida by Bicycle.
Following the interview, we hastily put up our tent on the super-white sand. With power hookups and a picnic table, we had everything we needed. Having had two full meals for the day, we snacked on energy bars as oppose to cooking a meal. We were surprised to learn that the campground offered wireless internet through Linkspot. The catch was that it wasn’t free. With a one day subscription of $5, we were able to retrieve email and news stories much faster than the usual dialup connection. On our way to the showers, the sign, “No Bike Riding After Dark,” attracted our attention. Strolling across the grounds, we enjoyed the colorful trees and flowers. The trees’ growth had been managed to give every campsite some seclusion.
Instead of washing clothes at the available laundry facility, we soaped them up in the shower. After drying off, we wringed the water from our clothes and then slipped them back on. We had done this many times before with a chilling effect. With the temperatures in the mid 80s, this was the first time that the damp clothes felt really comfortable. Less than an hour later, we were completely dry! Following our refreshing showers, we went to the shore to check out the view of Florida Bay. An outdoor food bar called Fishtails was at the center of attention on the shore. With lunch and breakfast served there, we knew where our next meal was coming from. From the food bar, a wooden pier stretched out 300 feet into the bay. We ventured out on the decking to gaze at the mangrove lined shore to the northwest. The south boundary of Everglades National Park is just a mile north from the Keys coastline. What a wonderful way to end the day.
Returning to our tent, we meandered by several RVs that were parked in the area. It was apparent to us that we were in a very upscale campground. On our short list of campgrounds, we could have settled for a site with fewer amenities. However, we saw this as an opportunity to gawk at the lifestyles of the rich. Besides the Greyhound bus sized RVs, there were several midsize units that had quite a setup. Tracking white sand in? No problem. Just cover the entire lot with green outdoor carpet. Satellite dishes were more abundant than mosquitoes. For inclement weather, a simple awning wouldn’t do. Many had full lot coverage with an overhead canopy. Back at our campsite, the mosquitoes were starting to feast so we retired to our cozy tent.
Miles cycled – 38.2
October 30, 2004
At 7:10 AM, we were awakened by the morning’s first light. With temperatures in the low 70s, we began packing things right away. Breakfast service at Fishtails would start at 8 AM so we wanted to break camp by then. Because of the heavy traffic we saw on Highway 1 the day before, we were motivated to be back on the road before the vehicle volume ramped up. Once our rig was loaded, we pedaled the 500 feet to the shoreline snack bar. While waiting for the food vendor to open, we strolled once again onto the pier to check out the gorgeous blue bay. We noticed that some of posts near the pier were topped with plastic caps in the shape of a cone. Apparently this covering was use to control bird roosting.
Near the pier, there was a sign that had been posted by Save our Seabirds, Inc (SOS). The very detailed display offered tips for anglers who inadvertently hook a bird with their fishing line. The photo instructions included how to hold the bird and how to extract the hook. To aid in the bird’s recovery, SOS strongly discouraged the quick resolution of cutting the line. Another sign posted on the side of the food bar gave us a chuckle with, “May your fish always be bigger than the holes in your net!” Besides serving breakfast and lunch, the vendor also sold frozen bait. Because we wanted to maintain our morning appetite, we didn’t dwell very long on the long list of bait: “squid, chum, finger mullets, thread herring, rigged ballyhoo, and silver sides.”
When the food bar opened, we quickly placed our orders. The female cook noted our matching bicycle jerseys and remarked, “Don’t you two look cute!” After receiving our servings of pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon, we seated ourselves near the bayside view. As we plopped down into our chairs, we could feel some immediate stiffness in our back and legs. Our bodies were revolting not because of the cycling but because we hadn’t camped since central Georgia. Although our air mattresses provided some comfort, they didn’t match the softness of a motel bed. While enjoying our meals, the campground cat watched us intently. The feline’s begging eyes and meow pleas were ineffectual as this pair of hungry bikers would not be leaving any scraps.
With our duel fuel tanks filled we hopped back onto Highway 1. Now at MM 98, the traffic was light enough that we could stay on the pavement. With two southwest-bound lanes, all traffic could pass us without issue. A couple of the locals were apparently unnerved by our presence on the highway. We could see them pointing in the direction of the bike path after passing. If it would have been the middle of the afternoon, we would have considered the path as the shoulderless road and traffic would have made things too stressful for any great distance. After two miles, the wide, 200 foot median narrowed back to 20 feet. With previous widths up to two miles, the island was now only 1,500 feet across. We were now getting some glimpses of the scenic ocean. The movie, PT-109 had some scenes staged on Key Largo’s shores.
A half mile past MM 95, we reached the boundary of Tavernier, a small community of 2,500. While we were still on Key Largo Island, a small, deserted island one mile offshore had the name Tavernier Key. Many of the Keys’ names are Spanish as the prefixing name was Cayo which denotes a small, coral-based island. After decades of mispronunciation by English-speaking residents, Cayo became Key. Tavernier is actually a French name meaning tavern keeper and was probably derived from the original Cayo Tavona which translates to Key of the Horse Flies. In the 1800s, pirates used this key as their base during the day and searched the reef at night for booty from ships that had run aground and sank.
At MM 93.6, we noticed a sign at the entrance of the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center. If the park ranger hadn’t suggested this attraction, we would have missed it as the sign wasn’t very prominent. This six-acre rehabilitation site for birds is the largest of four centers located on the Keys. Their primary purpose is to provide emergency and recuperative care for injured birds. Eighty percent of the avian patients are treated for fishing-related incidents. Toxic chemical exposure and collisions harm the balance of the birds. A number of chicks that have fallen out of their nest are also received. For the center’s staff, success is measured by the number of birds returned to the wild to continue their natural life cycle. Those birds that are permanently disabled live out their protected lives at the center and provide photo opportunities for gawking tourists like us.
With camera in hand, we entered the network of boardwalks which meandered to the bay’s shoreline. Our fall timing was excellent for viewing birds as the migration season had been underway for a couple of weeks. Also, since all of the focus was on Key West’s Fantasy Fest that day, we saw only four other tourists visiting. Each winter, the center is frequented by a number of the previously rehabilitated birds and others that just liked being in the company of other bird species. Initially, we passed by several cages holding healing or disabled birds. For unobstructed views, plexi-glass windows were sometimes inserted into the cages’ wire frames. After hearing a “whoo-whoo-whoo-whooo-ah,” we could see the distant, penned hoot owl that was making the call. Seeing the captive owl was a sight to behold. In neighboring cages, we saw a red tail hawk, a bald eagle, a yellow-crowned night heron, an osprey, a merlin falcon and numerous pelicans.
Among the cages were displayed a number of interpretive signs and memorials. In addition to describing the various species, the signs educated the public about the perils that wild birds face. Similar to SOS’s sign at the campground, there was information on caring for birds caught on a fishing line. One posting listed a long discourse about the pros and cons of feeding wild birds. The center emphasized that they only distribute limited amounts of food and that the birds are fed only their natural diets of fish. The problem outside of the center is that humans have a natural instinct to nurture children, pets and wildlife. The digestive system for birds cannot tolerate the fats and preservatives that human food contains. Even worse for the seabirds is filleted or scrap fish. The exposed fish bones get stuck before a bird’s system can dissolve the bones.
Halfway into the refuge, we noticed that the staff was walking around with five-gallon buckets. It was feeding time. Initially, the sight (and smell) was sickening to us as cage trays were filled with live minnows and other small fish. After the cage feeding was completed, a bucket of fish was emptied into an opening in the trees. Dozens of egrets of all sizes immediately swooned down upon the rocks to feed. What a sight! Continuing down the boardwalk, there were seabirds all about in the mangrove and buttonwood trees and in the marshy waters. While a snowy egret posed precariously on a limb for us, we gazed at its striking colors. The white bird had a yellow patch of skin around its eyes, a black bill and black legs with bright yellow feet. Geez, why would a seabird have such distinguished-looking feet?!
Once we reached the shoreline, a large contingent of pelicans awaited us. While only the seabirds back at the cages were being fed, these large, web-footed birds seemed to be anticipating food with our arrival. Seeing numerous small and large fish in the surrounding water, we felt that surely these birds could make an honest living. Soon, one the larger birds lurched for a fish, with its wings spread in a canopy over the target. The boldest of the pelicans stood on a small rock six feet away and gave us several photogenic poses. Returning to the cages, we noticed some spider webs we had missed earlier. A sign stated, “These spiders are harmless to people, they bite only bugs!” Near a supply shed, a large web had a distinctive “X” entwined across the network of thin string. It was almost as if the silver orb weaver spider had marked its signature.
Before departing the center, we checked out one last spur on the boardwalk. To our amazement, the path led to two pens of infant raccoons. A staff member soon arrived and asked if we wanted to see one up closed. We giggled as the juveniles scurried up and down the three levels of their cages. They acted like small kittens with three times the speed. As she retrieved the raccoon, the woman explained that the masked critters come into rehab because their moms were killed through trapping. The orphaned raccoons stay for a year before being release in the spring as a family group.
For several minutes, Barb tried to take photos of the raccoon squirming all about the woman’s shoulders. The very energetic creature wasn’t being very cooperative. The most famous raccoon to rehab at the center was “Bud Man.” For a month, campers had seen this unfortunate critter hobbling around a campground before some young men contacted the center for rescue. Because the animal’s front leg was stuck in the tab opening of the beer can, the staff had to perform a “canectomy.” After surgery and rehab, the young raccoon become another success story. Back at the entrance, we intently inserted money into the donation box. Enthralled by both the diversity and magnitude, that was the most interesting bird sanctuary we had ever seen.
When we reached our rig, we noticed that something was tucked under the bungee cord attached to our trailer. It was a dollar bill. A visitor apparently saw our HFH banner and decided to make an unsolicited donation. Wow! The anonymous contribution was very meaningful to us as we will never forget the method of delivery. Now almost 10 AM, we had biked only four miles of our projected 50 mile target. But, we considered our advancement quite adequate for absorbing the Keys. A leisurely pace was appropriate as we wondered when would we ever get to bike on this stretch again. With prevailing winds out of the northeast at 10 to 15 mph, how could any southwest-bound cyclist be concerned with making progress?
As we rambled through Tavernier, we crossed over Tavernier Creek near MM 90. The wide, natural channel offered boaters another opportunity to travel from the bay side to the ocean side. On the 300- foot long bridge, there was a narrow walkway that was separated by a concrete wall. Since, the traffic was still light, we stayed with the highway. Beyond the waterway was Plantation Key where the four lanes necked down to two with a nice shoulder. Tavernier also straddles this key which can be confusing to visitors. The 127-mile long Keys archipelago, which is a cluster of 1,700 mostly deserted islands, is just a crazy quilt of unplanned town, villages and keys. On the west side of the channels sits the Tavernier Creek Marina. The site is quite prominent with its large, blue/white striped sheds for housing boats. While resting after the bridge crossing, we watched as an oversized forklift truck with 20 foot long forks was hauling a shiny new boat from the display yard. Having grown up in land-locked Kansas, we had never seen anything like that.
The five-mile long Plantation Key was aptly named from its early days of pineapple and banana production. Coconut, limes and vegetables also were grown here up through the early 1900s. Key limes were popular for sailors to prevent scurvy on their long voyages. Farming all but disappeared because of limited water supply, distance to market and tropical storms. The housing developments and lower Cuban prices also led to the demise of island based produce. One of the island’s landmarks is the McKee castle at MM 86.7. The building once belonged to “Silver Bar McKee,” a Navy diver who struck it rich in the 1940s when he discovered the remains of a lost Spanish fleet. The commercial site now houses various merchants in Treasure Village. With a 35-foot lobster near the highway, the place is hard to miss.
After passing through Plantation Key nonstop, we pedaled over Snake Creek using a 200-foot long span that included a draw bridge. Unlike the previous bridge, we had a comfortable four-foot shoulder to ride on. We normally would walk our rig over grated surfaces but this passage was a short span that created no problems. Naming a wide channel a creek confused us as we considered a creek to be a stream with a small trickle of water. The somewhat elevated bridge gave us a wonderful view of the ocean to the south. With the creek crossing, we were in Windley Key and Islamorada, FL (pronounced EYE-la-mor-AH-da). This city of 7,000 is one of only five incorporated cities on the Keys. The others are Layton, Key Colony Beach, Marathon and Key West.
The main attraction on the two-mile long Windley Key is the Theater of the Sea at MM 84.5. The former quarry is a marine animal park which stars various sea creatures. We were quite impressed with the park’s bushes which were sculpted to look like dolphins. Continuing our island hopping, we pedaled over the Whale Harbor Channel. Enjoying another nice shoulder, we were startled by the vastness of the water on both sides of the 300-foot long bridge. The water was just so blue looking. A sign noted that we were entering Upper Matecumbe Key (pronounced MAT a KOM bee). Needing a rest break, we stopped at the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center near MM 83. As is the custom in the Keys, their mailbox was designed to attract motorists’ attention. The small replica of a red caboose certainly made us stop and take notice.
Once inside the Chamber’s office, we were chilled by the air conditioning as the temperature outside was a humid 81 degrees. While perusing the available pamphlets and postings, the staff asked about our trip. One woman, a native of Kentucky, was excited to hear that we biked through her home state. She reminisced about the wondrous fields of tobacco and how the plants’ flower stalks shot up in the late summer. With vivid memories of the tobacco flower’s brilliant pink color, she lamented that her husband, a Keys native, had never seen this unique Kentucky setting. Our adventure reminded the staff of two women who earlier traveled through the Keys on foot. Amazingly, the walkers spent 14 months traveling from Blaine, WA to Key West. They had a RV which supported them along the route. Their website is greatamericajourney.com. As we wiped the perspiration off our faces, one of the ladies encouraged us with, “Good thing you weren’t here last week when it was really hot.” Urrrrgh!
At the visitor’s center, we learned that Islamorada is known as the “Village of Islands.” The name Islamorada is frequently translated from Spanish as “purple isles.” Hence, the color purple inundates the local shops and resorts. The municipality proclaims itself as the “Sports Fishing Capital of the World” as it holds more sports fishing world records than any other destination in the world. The Atlantic side of Islamorada is brimming with marlin, dolphin, tuna, lobster, snapper and grouper. In the shallow backcountry waters of Florida Bay, anglers can easily find tarpon, bonefish and redfish. With all of the angling opportunities, the area boasts that it has more boats and ships per square mile than anywhere else on earth.
Cooled and refreshed, we continued across Upper Matecumbe Key. This island was devastated by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 with storm winds exceeding 200 miles per hour and a 17-foot tidal wave that washed over Islamorada. Hundreds of lives were lost. Among the dead were 259 World War One veterans who were constructing new bridges for vehicular traffic (only railroad bridges existed prior to 1935). Sadly, the bridges were never completed but the Florida Keys Memorial at MM 81.5 honors those who lost their lives. Beyond MM 80, we found ourselves at the southwest edge of the four-mile island.
Ahead of us were four bridges, two causeways and a tiny “T” shaped island to pedal across. With this two mile segment, our island hopping was now approaching the dream stage. Following a 300-foot bridge, we entered Tea Table which consisted of two narrow half-mile strips of land that were perpendicular to each other. Beyond the island was a 700-foot bridge that crossed the Tea Table Key Channel. Next up was the Indian Key Fill which was a causeway that was almost a mile long. For the first time since ascending Card Sound Bridge, we had tremendous, expansive views on both sides of the road. On the ocean side, the fall sun glistened off the sea giving it a silver-blue color. To our right, the bay’s backcountry waters had a gorgeous pattern of blue and blue-green colors. One mile offshore we could see Lignumvitae Key (pronounced LIG num VI tee) which boasts the Keys highest point above sea level, a whopping 18 feet. The dark green island is covered with rare tropical hardwood trees.
A half-mile long bridge then took us over Indian Key Channel to an unnamed causeway. Lastly, a 900-foot bridge took us over Lignumvitae Channel to reach Lower Matecumbe Key. Both the two-lane highway and the bridges on this two mile segment had a nice, five-foot wide shoulder. Although the shoulder seemed fairly clean, we discovered that we had a flat just past MM 77. Bummer! As the tandem snaked around, we found refuge in the driveway of a resort. We walked our rig about a hundred feet to a spot that offered shade and a rock to sit on. It was our front tandem tire that went flat for the fifth time during the tour. The front wheel was always a bigger ordeal to change because we had to remove the front panniers. Since the kick stand could not steady the tandem without damaging the front fender, we propped up the front using Randall’s right pedal.
After a thorough inspection, Randall finally found a sliver of glass embedded in the tire. The small shard was so hard to remove that we had to use tweezers to poke it through. We covered the tiny hole in the tire with purple duct tape and then inserted a new tube. Because of the humid, warm air, pumping the tire back up was quite a workout. We felt more spent from fixing a flat than we did pedaling down the highway! Continuing four miles to the west end of Lower Matecumbe Key, we stopped at Annie’s Beach at MM 73.5. The popular village park has a scenic, sandy beach on the ocean side and a half mile boardwalk that winds through a natural wetland forest. Most important to us were the park’s shaded picnic tables. It was now 12 noon and we were hot and hungry. Enjoying the wonderful view, we snacked on energy bars and drank lots of water.
Resuming our ride, we could see that we had another bridge ahead. The crossing took us over the one-third mile long Channel Two. We were now leaving the Upper Keys region. As one would expect, the next two regions were called Middle Keys and Lower Keys. While pedaling across the channel, two structures drew our immediate attention. The first was the old railroad bridge which ran parallel to the highway on the bay side. Given that the old bridge was only 50 feet away, we got a good view of the early 1900s engineering marvel. A series of massive, concrete archways had been beautifully crafted to give the bridge a strong foundation. No longer used for trains or vehicular traffic, the old bridge is a popular platform for fishing.
The second structure to capture our attention was the Channel Five Bridge. In a rare occurrence on Highway 1, the southwest-bound route bends 75 degrees to the northwest before Channel Five. With the road curving 1.5 miles ahead, we had a side profile of a bridge that was nearly a mile long. Several, tall concrete pillars lifted the span 65 feet into the air. Although we had gained some confidence with riding on Keys bridges up to now, one word described our immediate feelings. Terrified! For the next mile, we tried to block the sky-high crossing out of our minds as the structure grew larger and larger.
Having exited the Channel Two Bridge, we entered Craig Key which appeared to be a mile-long causeway. Surprisingly, the city limits of Islamorada went all the way to MM 73 as their departing sign sent us off with, “Catch You Later!” Thankfully, the slender Craig Key occasionally had some trees which obscured our view of the upcoming bridge. As we rounded the bend, there it was, a quarter mile ahead. The approach wasn’t as steep as Card Sound Bridge but the curb barrier was a mere three feet high. Obviously, we rode closer to the white, highway edge line than we did the concrete wall. Without any problems, we sailed up to the top of the bridge. Randall cautiously guided our rig in a stable manner while Barb clicked away on the camera. Descending the bridge was not quite as intimidating. We had incredible views all around. The azure blue waters of the ocean contrasted with the multi-color blue hues of the bay. It was just surreal!
Beyond Channel Five, we pedaled half a mile on a causeway before the road curved back to the southwest. We then skirted the small Fiesta Key. KOA Kampground owns the island which features an upscale resort campground on the bay side. From Fiesta Key, we ventured to Long Key using a short causeway. About 80 percent of this secluded island is taken up by the popular Long Key State Park. The town of Layton, population 200, is situated north of the park. Halfway across the four-mile island, we stopped to get a good photo of a sign. With the displayed warning, “Caution Poisonous Snakes,” we didn’t stick around very long. The state park’s shallow tidal flats and lagoons are home to a wide range of wildlife. As we departed the island, a highway distance sign indicated that we were 15 miles away from Marathon, FL.
Our next water crossing took us over the Long Key Channel. Unlike the Channel Five Bridge, this viaduct was fairly flat. Once we got rolling along our speed on the bridge leveled out to an astonishing 19 mph. We were puzzled as we were cranking our pedals with a casual effort. It was like a hand was pushing us along. On the causeways and islands, the tailwind appeared to be 10 to 15 mph. All we could rationalize was that the wind currents over the water were much higher and in our favor. A third of the way across the bridge, we cranked hard to see what speed we could obtain. We maxed out at 33 mph. Returning to a casual speed, we scanned around to take in the terrific sights. The bay waters were even more dazzling with its turquoise blue colors. In places, the water was so shallow, we could see the bottom.
The old railroad bridge was now on our left. The human toll for making the islands contiguous through a rail line was extraordinary. During the 1906 construction of the old Long Key Bridge, the railroad workers lived in two houseboats which were called quarterboats. These boats were large Mississippi River barges with houses on top of them and were moored next to the bridge construction. An October hurricane struck the Keys and washed one of the quarterboats onto Long Key. The other boat with 160 men aboard was blown out to sea where it sank a day later. In the ensuing days after the storm, 83 survivors were plucked from the nearby waters. All told, 700 railroad workers were lost to hurricanes and accidents during the six year construction. A century later, the bridge shows its age but makes a good fishing pier. Some anglers had walked quit a distance out to find the hot spots.
Even though we were going along at a fairly good clip, the Long Key Bridge appeared to be endless. It went on and on and on. Occasionally, small boats with cheerful, waving hands powered their way to the northeast. After two and a quarter miles of cycling, we reached the end of the Keys’ second longest bridge. What a fun ride! Just past MM 63, we cycled through the picturesque Conch Key. With its white-washed cottages, the 20 acre island resembled a tiny New England seaport. We then followed a mile-long causeway before crossing the quarter-mile bridge over Tom’s Harbor Cut. Within the next half-mile of narrow land mass, the ocean-side Duck Key is linked to Highway 1 via a short bridge. In the 1950s, a wealthy Canadian purchased this 50 acre island and expanded it to 300 acres using several million cubic yards of fill. The perimeter of the key actually resembles a duck’s head.
Before crossing a second quarter-mile bridge over Tom’s Harbor Channel, we spotted some men adjusting their diving gear while on a Fish N Fun rental boat. One of the divers appeared to be ready to take the plunge. The channel crossing put us on a cluster of islands 13 miles long. The first of the group was Grassy Key. Although we were still eight miles from the center of Marathon, the city’s welcome sign was just beyond the Grassy Key sign. Marathon overlaps a number of the local islands. In planning our overnight stops in the Keys, we choose Marathon as it is a reasonable halfway point. Knowing Seven Mile Bridge was just west of the city, we had made a reservation at the campground that was closest to the entrance of the long bridge. An early morning departure would then put us with fewer west-bound vehicles.
At MM 59, we passed by the Dolphin Research Center. Because a 30-foot statue of a mother and baby dolphin stands near the entrance, the place is hard to miss. Like the Theater of the Sea, the center offers visitors an opportunity to interact with intelligent and curious animals. This location was developed by the Santini family in the mid 1950s. Learning that the Miami Sea Aquarium was paying $100 for dolphins, two Santini brothers mastered the art of carefully capturing and transporting the marine mammals. During a dolphin delivery to the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, one of the brothers, Milton, broke his back in a truck accident. Having returned to Grassy Key to rehab, part of Milton’s therapy included squeezing a ball.
One day, his therapy ball inadvertently fell and bounced into a neighboring pool. To his amazement, their favorite dolphin, Mitzi, tossed the ball back. A star was born. With subsequent training, Mitzi was awarded with a fish for various tricks. When one fish was overthrown, the dolphin jumped up and swam on her tail backwards to retrieve her reward. The “Backward Tail Walk” instantly became a hit. In 1963, Mitzi landed the starring role in the movie “Flipper” and later, “Flipper’s New Adventure.” Mitzi performed all of her movie stunts except for the tail walking which a male stunt dolphin did. The movies and the ensuing TV series put Grassy Key on the map. When she died of heart attack, she was buried beneath the dolphin statue. A small plaque there reads, “Dedicated to the memory of Mitzi – The original Flipper 1958-1972.”
After trekking three miles across Grassy Key, we followed a narrow land strip to reach Crawl Key. The island was named for the pens (crawls) where large sea turtles were once held until butchered for steaks and soup. At MM 56.2, we found the small “Florida Keys Hawk Watch” sign that we had been looking for. The hawk watch, located at Curry Hammock State Park, was the second attraction that the park ranger had recommended. With a left turn, we followed the park road into Little Crawl Key on the ocean side. Because of ongoing construction of a parking lot and interior road, we were confused about where to go. A detour took us in a loop towards the shoreline and then back to the two-story building where HawkWatch International had two interns working. The non-profit organization based in Salt Lake City, UT monitors and protects birds of prey and their environments.
From mid-September to mid-November, an estimated 26,000 migrating raptors move through the Keys as they head to Cuba and beyond. Taking advantage of the funneling effect that the Keys have, the HawkWatch staff use this station to survey and band the raptors. Seventeen different raptor species have been observed at this site, including Merlins, American Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons. At the time we visited, the 2004 raptor count was 11,388. Yesterday was a slow day with 12 counted (including one bald eagle). Band recovery locations were marked on a large colorful map of North America. A staff member allowed us to look into her telescope to see a Merlin sitting on a telephone pole. The bird of prey didn’t appear to be carrying a passport.
Departing the state park, we made a left turn onto Highway 1. For a short distance, we were skirting Long Point Key before entering Fat Deer Key. Southwest of this island was Key Colony Beach, one of the five incorporated cities on the Keys. The small town claims to have 21 tennis courts for its 800 residents. Near MM 54, we noticed a bike path to the right of the highway. Our shoulder seemed to be diminishing so we were contemplating whether to hop onto the path. After we crossed the 300-foot Vaca Cut Bridge, we had seen enough. Now on the island of Vaca Key, the highway expanded to four lanes with no shoulders. In terms of congestion, Marathon with 10,000 residents is comparable to Key Largo. Battling very heavy traffic, we bailed out to the path which at times looked more like a street-side walkway. Unlike Key Largo, this segment of bike path had few trees and shrubs to hamper visibility.
This rather long, five-mile key was named for the manatees. From Spanish, the word Vaca translates to cow. The Spaniards referred to the marine mammals as sea cows. The bike path took us by the two-mile long Marathon airstrip. At the airport, you could tandem skydive with a trainer strapped to your back. This type of skydiving is designed to provide personalized instruction in freefall and parachute control with minimal ground training. Thanks, but no thanks! A few minutes after 2 PM, we started looking for a place to eat. At MM 52.3, we stopped at Gary’s Sports Cafe. While taking in some college football games, we enjoyed a hearty meal with two pitchers of iced tea. Thinking ahead to our evening meal, we had the waitress fill two of our water bottles with iced tea.
Returning to our bike path was no easy matter. We had earlier crossed the four lanes to reach the restaurant. Without a nearby traffic light or center line, we waited several minutes before dashing across. Whew! Continuing southwest, we passed by a Greyhound Bus Station. The red, white and blue buses saved us a lot of trouble in Canada by transporting some badly needed bike supplies. From Alaska to Florida, we saw these buses everywhere! At the west end of Marathon near MM 48, the four lanes necked down to two lanes with no shoulders. The bike path continued to be our savior. Just before MM 47, we entered Knight Key which was our destination for the day. The campground, name after the key, was on the ocean side so we had another challenge to get across the street.
Once on the entrance drive, we stopped to pay $33 for our campsite with electricity. The operator informed us that since it was the off season, the restaurant on the grounds was closed. We were told that with the exception of tent spaces, all lots were booked for the month of February. Until then, there were a number of the RVs and boats being stored at the site. We pedaled a few loops around before picking a spot among the many vacant sites. Worried about the mosquitoes, we chose a location about one hundred yards from the shoreline. We were just across from the intersection of 50 Amps Drive and Sunset Drive. After pitching our tent, we showered and washed our clothes.
With an expected sunset of 6:45 PM, we begin preparing our macaroni and cheese dinner at 5 PM. While eating, something started biting our arms so we applied some repellant. The tiny flies that were annoying us were less than a 1/16th of an inch long but had an appreciable bite. Later, the husband-and-wife team that managed the campground stopped by on their hybrid bicycles. After checking to see how we were doing, they quizzed us briefly about our trip. When we noted the small biting flies that were flying around, the couple identified them as no-see-ums. Also known as sandflies or biting midges, the minute biting insects are found along sea coasts and begin dining on blood around dusk or dawn. When an itchy bite from a no-see-um is scratched, the wound can take twice as long to heal.
Itching to connect to the internet, we learned that there were no phones lines in the area. So, we used our cell phone to link to the web. Although the connection speed was very slow, we were able to retrieve email and some national news. Surprisingly, we were even able to listen to portions of an internet radio broadcast featuring a Kansas State football game. Regrettably, the play of our beloved team was similar to our cellular linkage: slow with frequent stalling. After we had finished washing the dishes, we walked to the beach to watch the nature show. For a few minutes, we watched intently as the sun approached the horizon.
The Florida Keys have some of the most fabulous sunsets on earth but you have to be on the ocean side to see them. The previous night we had missed the show by camping on the bay side. On this evening, we were the only ones on the beach to watch the sky turn a fiery orange color. What a special moment! As the sun fell below the horizon, we realized that we couldn’t have come up with a more fitting end to our tour’s final evening. Because it was a Saturday evening, the mood in the campground seemed to be more festive. Our neighbors across the way were playing Mexican mariachi music until 11:30 PM. Given that the clocks were to be set back one hour the next day, we weren’t quite as concern about the annoying background noise.
Miles cycled – 52.7
October 31, 2004
On a somewhat clammy morning, we awoke from our night dreams to a dream of a lifetime. This was the day we long awaited but never wanted to come. As we stirred around the campsite, our feelings ranged from the giddiness of imminent goal attainment to the sullenness associated with inevitable finality. Our morning meal consisted of snacks and energy bars. It wasn’t an appreciable breakfast but we hoped to find more food during our ride. Once we broke camp, we rode over to the beach for one more look at the gorgeous view. Our eyes followed the incredible long span of 7 Mile Bridge as it disappeared into the west horizon. With the aid of the morning sun, the bridge had a whitewashed appearance. Except for a short high-rise section in the middle, the long bridge rises only 25 feet up from the water.
Yearning to cross the considerable bridge before traffic volumes picked up, we pried ourselves away from the spectacular setting. Leaving the campgrounds, we met a lady from the Irish Hills area of southern Michigan who was tickled to meet us. Thanks to the return to standard time, our morning was filled with a bright and shiny sky at 7:20 AM. When we reached Highway 1, we waited two minutes for a break in the eastbound traffic before making our left turn. Since there was an occasional westbound car speeding towards the bridge, we took the bike path a quarter mile to the bridge’s entrance.
At MM 47 and just 500 feet from the bridge entrance, we noticed a highway marker with the caption, “DRIVE SAFELY.” Reaching the start of the bridge, there were four more of the round signs, spaced about two feet apart. The three-foot high signs are Florida’s version of the standardized safety/memorial marker. The inconspicuous, 12-inch diameter dots are along both sides of Highway 1 throughout the Keys. At speeds of 45 to 55 mph, it is doubtful very many drivers notice the signs. Cruising along at 15 mph speed, we could read the small print below, “In Memory of – Name Here.” Although the signs were subtle in appearance, they certainly drew our attention before a significant bridge crossing.
Before taking on the 7 Mile Bridge, we stopped to read the various signs. For the old span to the north, there was the posting, “No Motorized Vehicles.” While the newer 7 Mile Bridge sails across the water without the aid of islands or causeways, the older version connects with Pigeon Key two miles to the west. Just past the five-acre island, a section of the bridge is missing which precludes advancement. The old bridge is now used as a fitness path and fishing pier. It is also possible to bike to the tiny island. We chose not to take the four mile detour as we suspected that our tires were not durable enough to survive the broken glass. The old bridge appeared to be impossibly narrow for those yesteryears of two-lane traffic.
Another marker noted the historical significance of this area of the Keys. Before construction of the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway (FECR) began in 1905, there was very little inter-coastal commerce on the Keys. At the time, Key West was Florida’s largest city with 17,000 residents as a number of its inhabitants were involved with shipwreck salvaging and military installations. Henry Flagler, a tycoon who reaped his fortune through the startup of Standard Oil, moved to Jacksonville, FL in 1878 and literally developed the state’s whole east coast for two decades. The absence of a deep water seaport on the Atlantic coast lured Flagler to build a railway to Key West.
From 1906 to 1911, up to 5,000 workers in 82 camps simultaneously toiled on the bridge and railway construction. The very ground that we slept on the night before was once a major camp for workers. As result of lessons learned from the vulnerability of the quarterboats, substantial housing complexes were built on Knight Key and Pigeon Key. With Flagler’s health failing in late 1911, the crews worked around the clock to complete the extension to FECR. In a 1912 celebratory ride, a private railcar delivered the 82-year-old Flagler to Key West. The nearly blind industrialist had lived his dream. While one nation backed the construction of the Panama Canal during the same era, one man spent half of his wealth to complete the Overseas Railway.
For the next 23 years of rail service, the demand for an automobile route increased. Cars could reach Key West only through 41 miles of ferrying. As previously noted, World War One veterans were in the process of building the necessary bridges when the 1935 hurricane struck. Remains of eight concrete block piers can still be seen on the bay side at MM 73. The storm also washed out 40 miles of the FECR rail beds but the bridges remained. For the Keys to survive, either a railroad or a highway had to exist. The highway won. Opened in 1938, much of road used the railroad right-of-way and bridges. To convert the rail bridges to highway standards, 20-foot wide concrete slabs with nine-inch high curbs were built over the existing structures.
From 1970 to 1983, wider bridges were built which eliminated the modified FECR bridges. Without these newer bridges, we would have been riding in the back of a pickup to Key West. While we grasped the interesting history of the Overseas Highway, the 7 Mile Bridge awaited us. Having photographed the two companion bridges, we carefully checked our three tires to make sure they were fully inflated and not leaking air. After chugging down big gulps of water, we pedaled onto the bridge’s wonderful wide shoulder. There was no turning back now! Similar to our experience on the Long Key Bridge, we were soon approaching a wind-aided speed of 20 mph. We could only wonder what it would be like to go the opposite direction. Confined to a five foot by seven mile space, Randall focused on keeping the tandem’s front wheel on an imaginary center line while Barb captured the moment with her right index finger.
For the first two miles of the bridge, we were crossing over Knight Key Channel. The old bridge on the right gradually becomes more distant as it veers towards Pigeon Key. For some unknown reason, the support piers in this old segment are a rectangular-block shaped instead of the concrete-arch configuration typically used in the FECR bridges. As we ventured further out, we were in awe of our abundant water setting. The shimmering sea with its various shades of blue was just incredible! Biking across 7 Mile Bridge gives cyclists a wonderful sense of tropical serenity. We couldn’t have picked a better time to cycle west on the bridge as there was only one vehicle headed to Key West for every 100 eastbound cars. It doesn’t get any better than this.
As the quaint little Pigeon Key came into view, we hardly noticed the upcoming high-rise segment ahead. Less than three miles out, we started climbing up the five to six percent slope. The tandem’s speed tapered to eight mph as we reached the apex near MM 44. At 70 feet above sea level, our emotions were now sky high. At the top we slowed to five mph to make it last as long as possible. Inevitably, gravity soon had us racing down the other side at 35 mph. The 7 Mile Bridge is the crown jewel of the Keys bridges. Opened in 1982, it is billed as the world’s longest segmental bridge. The structure’s 265 concrete spans, each 135 feet long, were built in Tampa and then barged to the Keys for assembly.
With our ascension over the bridge’s hump, we were riding over the Moser Channel of the Intracoastal Waterway. To our left, we could see Molasses Key, a small patch of land covered with mangrove trees. On our right, the FECR bridge gradually got closer to us. Because sections of the bridge are missing on either end, the span has been untouched by humans for two decades. Amazingly, there are a few trees growing on the old bridge. One cedar tree appeared to be about 20 feet tall. Past MM 41, we started seeing clusters of double-breasted cormorants. With no one to bother them, the black seabirds either roosted on the rusting side rail or stood on the concrete roadway.
A short distance later, we broke into laughter as we passed a missing section of the bridge. About six feet in from the gap’s edge, a dilapidated bicycle was resting on its side. Someone aboard a boat must have placed the bike at this inaccessible location. With the water gap at 50 feet, it didn’t seem possible that someone could have heaved the bike across. The way the wheels were bent out of shape, it almost looked as if someone had taken an “Evel Knievel jump” across the void. As we neared the shoreline of Little Duck Key, we saw a number of people fishing from the pier. The angler most distant from the shore was enjoying his seclusion as he was stretched out flat on the concrete surface. The closer we got to the shore, the denser the fishing poles became.
Upon reaching land, we pulled over to take one more look back at 7 Mile Bridge. The tandem’s odometers measured the total span at 6.8 miles so someone did some rounding up to derive the bridge’s name. Our trek was 26 minutes of cycling bliss. Once you have pedaled over it, you’ll want to do it again and again and again. Now in the Lower Keys region, the nice highway shoulder that disappeared in Marathon was back. We continued a short half mile across the narrow Little Duck Key before crossing the 800-foot bridge over the Little Duck-Missouri Channel. As expected, the skinny Missouri Key followed. The tiny island was named by railroad workers from Missouri.
Our next bridge was a quarter mile span that took us over the Missouri-Ohio Channel. The neighboring FECR bridge was just eight feet away on our right. The converted fishing pier was packed with anglers. Some even had tents set up among the chairs and ice chests. It was a real family affair. Up next was Ohio Key, a circular island one-third of a mile long. This small piece of land hosts Sunshine Key, a 400-site camping resort. After pedaling across the 1,000-foot bridge over Ohio-Bahia Honda Channel, we found ourselves on Bahia Honda Key (pronounced ba-EE-uh OWN-dah). The name translates from Spanish to “deep bay.”
When we reached MM 38, our two-lane highway transitioned to a four-lane route with a ten-foot grassy median. Unlike previous four-lane roads we had seen in the Keys, we continued to have a nice shoulder. At MM 36.8, we saw the sign for the entrance to Bahia Honda State Park. The 524 acre park covers the entire two-mile long island. Yearning for a diversion, we decided to explore the park. Because of the steady stream of cars from Key West, the left turn was quite challenging. After paying $2 at the park booth, we biked a half mile to the island’s southwest shore. Parking next to the boat ramp, we took in the terrific view. Of all the state parks on the Keys, Bahia Honda is said to be the most picturesque.
The Bahia Honda Channel west of the island has some of the deepest waters in the archipelago. The combination of abundant, white sand beaches with the neighboring deep channel provides an incredible array of colors. We walked a short distance down a nature trail to get a closer look at the FECR bridge. The rusting structure was used from 1908 to 1972. Because of water up to 25 feet deep, a considerable trestle was built on the concrete piers. The trestle, which peaked at a dazzling 65 feet above the water, was too narrow to accommodate a 20-foot roadway on the track bed. Amazingly, the problem was solved by building the concrete slabs on top of the camelback-shaped trestle. Like 7 Mile Bridge, Long Key Bridge and Pigeon Key, this site was declared a national landmark.
To the north of the old steel structure are the modern, twin bridges which carry four lanes of traffic. Before the newer bridges were completed, we could only imagine the anxiety of driving a car (let alone riding a bicycle) over the skeletal frame. A section of the old bridge is missing to discourage any current-day daredevils. Back at the boat ramp, we noticed a sign with the catchy phrase, “How Do You Keep From Losing Your Keys?” The large display by the National Marine Sanctuary Program provides tips on how to protect the barrier reef ecosystem. Established in 1990, the marine sanctuary is a 2,800 square nautical mile area surrounding the Keys. While some maps refer to the waters north of the Lower Keys as the Gulf of Mexico, the marine sanctuary boundary extends eight to ten miles north of the Key Islands.
As we returned to Highway 1, we encountered an older lady riding her hybrid bicycle down the park road. Greeting us with a big smile, she had a folded lawn chair strapped to her shoulder. Because of the maddening crush of eastbound cars, we waited several minutes for an opening to get back onto our main highway. Now 9 AM, the traffic volume seemed to climb higher just like the sun. We wondered if Key West’s elevation would gain a foot or two with this massive flight of vehicles. Continuing west, we had a slight climb to ascend the 1.25 mile bridge over Bahia Honda Channel. As the Keys’ third longest bridge, it offered splendid views of the waters, neighboring islands and the FECR bridge.
Following the long bridge, a sign next to MM 35 noted that we were on West Summerland Key. Before the FECR construction put in fill material, this mile-long island was originally three separate patches of land called the Spanish Harbor Keys. At the west end of the key, we saw a brown sign that cautioned motorists of key deer habitat ahead. Found only in the Lower Keys region, the small deer are no larger than a medium size dog. Because of habitat encroachment and road kills, the 400 remaining key deer are listed as an endangered species. Auto collisions account for 40 to 90 kills per year, about 70 percent of the annual mortality. Because Key West visitors are in such a hurry to get to their cherished island and then back to the Miami Airport, the maximum traffic speed in the primary habitat area is strictly enforced.
Our next bridge was a half mile span that stretched across the Spanish Harbor Channel. Near the start of the bridge, the reduced speed limit was posted, “Day 45 – Night 35.” On our right, the old bridge’s railings and curbs were completely stripped away. Because most of the bridge was inaccessible, the flat concrete was an extremely popular hangout for birds. With numbers approaching a thousand, the collection of seabirds was the largest we had ever seen in one area. Wow! Just to the north of the Lower Keys is the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge which was established to offer protection for endangered migratory birds that nest here in the winter.
Exiting the bridge, we were now on Big Pine Key, the second largest of the Key Islands. With 6,500 acres, the rectangular-shaped land mass is about one-third the size of Key Largo. Since this large key is to the northwest, Highway 1 makes a considerable bend to the north and follows a mile-long peninsula. This narrow strip of land had quite an infrastructure for protecting key deer. The first attention grabber was a yellow caution sign with one-foot high letters, “DRIVE WITH CAUTION – YOU ARE ENTERING AN ENDANGERED SPECIES AREA – SPEED KILLS KEY DEER.” On both sides of the four-lane highway were black, chain-link fences. At ten feet in height, the barrier looked like it could deter even regular size deer. A subsequent sign indicated the high potential for deer crossings in the next 3.5 miles. Hmmmm, we wondered if the fence was effective.
As we neared the primary mass of Big Pine Key, the four lanes necked down to two. We then stopped to check out the grated decking that was recessed into the highway at a side road and at the end of the peninsula. The grid of one-inch triangles appeared to be deer proof. Although the decking looked less threatening than the cattle guards we encountered in open range, we elected to walk our rig over it. Beyond the “deer-guard crossing,” the highway curved back to the west and our shoulder immediately disappeared. Given the volume of traffic, we shifted over to the neighboring bike-path/walkway.
Pedaling to the center of town, we caught up with four pedestrians that were walking down the path. While waiting to cross an intersection, the group asked about our trip. One of the men gave us his business card and said, “Call me if you have any problems; my cell phone number is on the back.” We were gracious of his offer but were thinking that with our ride being 99.6 percent complete, we will surely do okay. His business card however was unlike any we had ever seen. The primary heading was Omar – Baltimore, MD – phone number – TATTOO and Miscellaneous Services. Among the 21 services listed were Psychoanalysis, Urinalysis, Professional Rag Picker, Bridge Demolition, Used Cars, Bongo Drums, Saloons Emptied and Tigers Tamed.” Talk about a jack-of-all-trades!?
While these men headed for the Cracked Egg Café, we hesitated because there already a dozen people waiting in line. Thinking that we could find a less busy restaurant, we started zigzagging through the city. We were also hoping that our off-the-beaten-path excursion might provide us with a key deer sighting. Making a right turn onto Key Deer Boulevard, we pedaled northwest in a leisurely pace. Once we distanced ourselves from Highway 1, we enjoyed the slow pace of life as the large key has a causal and relaxed atmosphere. We were getting a lot of friendly waves from the locals. Some joggers along the way decoded our AK 2 FL sign and then extended their congratulations. After pedaling one mile, we had passed the small business district and were in the heart of the residential area. We then made a right turn onto South Street, a rough narrow road. A mile to the east, the street ended at the bay’s shoreline.
Although there was a house that somewhat obscured our bay view, we paused a while to feel the cool breezes from the northeast. The shade from the tree-lined street was much appreciated. The pine tree which is the island’s namesake was among the mix of woody plants. Because of the varying limestone formations, pines are virtually nonexistent in the Middle and Upper Keys. To the northeast, the Keys consist of mounds of dead coral which is a fairly hard substrate for tree roots to penetrate. The oolitic limestone found in the Lower Keys and Miami is a softer, granular mix which was created from botanical and marine organisms.
Heading back west, we turned left onto Wilder Road. If we would have gone to the right, we would have ended up in the sparsely populated island of No Name Key. Now southbound, we noticed that a number of homes were sporting a gray concrete manatee in front of the yards. The realistic replicas, about five feet tall, were positioned on their tails and held a mailbox in their front flippers. It is traditional to dress them up for the holidays so we were seeing witches, warlocks and goblins. Ever see a manatee on a broom? The mailbox stands were so tacky they were cool.
Returning to Highway 1, it didn’t appear that we were going to find a restaurant. There were now about 20 people waiting outside of the Cracked Egg Café. Although this unincorporated community of 5,000 was said to be a shopping hub for the Lower Keys, we weren’t seeing many stores. So, we turn right onto the path and continued west on our way out of town. A brown sign created by the Key Deer Protection Alliance was posted near the highway. They were displaying the road kill statistics for key deer, “Total Last Year – 91 and So Far This Year – 55.” At the outskirts of Big Pine, we saw a convenience store and our stomachs responded with a growl. Only problem was that it was on the opposite side of the highway.
After several minutes, we darted across. Inside the store, business was brisk with tourists departing from a Fantasy Fest weekend at Key West. Having paid for our sandwiches, chips, and popsicles, we went outside to sit in a shady spot north of the store. Now just past 10 AM, the 80 degree heat was taking its toll on us. Following our meal, we went to the restrooms to wipe our arms and legs with wet paper towels. A sign in the restroom seemed to point to a problem with the rude revelers departing Key West. Using 89 words, the full page note opened with, “Dear Fantasy Fest Partiers,” and then basically promoted the practice of common courtesy.
Back outside, we reapplied a layer of sunscreen before positioning our tandem at the side of the highway. The eastbound traffic was literally bumper to bumper now. Although a traffic light a few blocks to the east was regulating the flow, the cars and SUVs were packing in very tightly when stopping. A couple of passing pickups were pulling floats that had been in the parade in Key West. After a few minutes, we finally got a motorist to hold up briefly so that we could squeeze through and then yield to the westbound traffic. Whew! With the 700-foot bridge over North Pine Channel just a third of a mile away, we ramped up to speed quickly using the shoulder that had thankfully reappeared.
Beyond the bridge was a three-quarter mile causeway which connected to the 800-foot bridge over South Pine Channel. During our stop at the convenience store, Barb left a phone message with a couple we chanced upon during our Whitehorse to Watson Lake segment. On June 10th we had just achieved our first Continental Divide crossing and were about to reach our first 1,000 miles when we stopped at a lodge for a snack. After our meal, we met Joe and Linda from Little Torch Key, FL who was traveling north in their Greyhound-sized RV. When exchanging business cards, we realized that we would be biking near their home. Their travel season went to late October. At that time, it appeared that with our mid-October goal we would miss them. Halfway across the causeway, our cell phone started ringing.
As we were barreling down the narrow strip of land, Barb retrieved the phone from the saddle bag and took the call. It was Joe! He was inviting us over to their house. While Barb received directions from Joe, we crossed over South Pine Channel and soon coasted onto Little Torch Key. This long island is three miles north to south but only a half mile east to west. Once onto Little Torch, it would have been prudent to stop and get our bearings. But since we were “flying with the wind” at 20 mph, it was tough to give up our momentum. In only 90 seconds, we had zipped across Little Torch and were riding across the Torch Key Viaduct to reach Middle Torch Key. When Barb asked Randall where we were, he reported, “We just passed Middle Key Torch Drive.” Barb then yelled, “Stop!!!”
Now we were in a dilemma. We had overshot our turn by a half mile and had to turn around. With a lucky break in traffic, we pedaled a quick U-turn on the two lane highway. Having wondered earlier what it would be like to go the other direction, we had our answer. Yuk! We struggled to maintain an eight to nine mph speed into the wind. It was like riding with the brakes on. When we reached our desired left turn onto Highway 4A, traffic was too heavy to make the turn. So, we kept pedaling but at a speed of five mph. After going 1000 FT out of our way, we finally had a sufficient break. Using our forward momentum, we were able to make a very quick turn back to the west.
Making our belated turn, we biked 1.5 miles north to reach Joe and Linda’s home. When we pulled up to their house, they were moving some stuff from their RV to storage. They had arrived home from their month’s long journey two days earlier and were still settling in for the winter. Having met by chance four and half months earlier in the remote Yukon Territories, we were elated to see each other. We both had extraordinary tales to tell. While we had our share of equipment problems, a wheel come off their SUV when they was pulling it behind the RV. Because the RV had so much power, they drove for miles with a three-wheel SUV before realizing something was amiss. Wildfires also delayed their travels at times. We considered ourselves very fortunate to get through Alaska before the fires became a factor.
While reminiscing about our first meeting, the couple served up some delicious ham sandwiches. We especially remembered the occupation that was listed on their business card, “Nomads.” Joe and Linda retired to Florida a few years back after spending several years in Michigan. They raved about how the Keys’ housing prices had been jumping up 20 to 30 percent annually. After we showed them a few photos of our trip, they talked about their day trip to the Fantasy Fest. While the setting was fairly rowdy, they particularly enjoyed the parade. Lance Armstrong was riding on one of the floats. Having had a wonderful visit for 90 minutes, we realized that we had to move on to meet our October 31st arrival goal.
To complete our three-mile roundtrip we pedaled back down Highway 4A, the only way in and out of Little Torch Key. This island is the first of three long land masses that are staggered to the northwest. Of the other two, Big Torch Key is too far north to be part of the Overseas Highway. The keys are name after the torchwood trees that are seen in the area. The resinous branches of the trees make excellent torches. Arriving at Highway 1, we made a right turn to get back to where we were previously. Mile Marker 28 was located halfway across the 900-foot long Torch Key Viaduct. After a short hop over Middle Torch Key, we rode the 700-foot long bridge over the Torch-Ramrod Channel.
Reaching land again with Ramrod Key, we were truly in an island hopping mode. Next up was the mile long bridge over Nile Channel. Underneath our last lengthy bridge of the day, the wheel assembly of a rail car can still be seen in the water. With the sun overhead at 1:30 in the afternoon, the solar reflection gave the pristine waters vividly blue colors. With the succession of three bridges, each about a quarter mile long, we pedaled over Kemp Channel, Bow Channel and Park Channel. These three concrete links connected our route over the mostly residential islands of Summerland Key, Cudjoe Key, Sugarloaf Key and Park Key at MM 18. Halfway across Cudjoe Key, the highway curved to the southwest to get the proper orientation to reach Key West.
The major attraction on Sugarloaf Key is located a half mile northwest of the highway. In the 1920s, a real estate investor named Richter Perky was frustrated with the abundant mosquitoes in the area. He decided to bring in some bats to feed on them. A multi-level tower was built to house the nocturnal critters. There are some residents who consider the 50-foot high tower to be the first condo in the Keys. Several hundred bats were brought down from New Jersey and placed in the bat tower. At the first sunset, the bats awoke, flew off and never returned. Some witty locals claimed that the mosquitoes ate the bats!
On our map, the splintered land masses beyond the tiny Park Key looked like randomly placed shards of glass. The subsequent island hopping meant we still had a lot of water gaps to ride over. The next four bridges, covering a combine span of 2,200 feet, took us over channels named North Harris, Harris Gap, Harris and Lower Sugar Loaf. The only island of significance in that sequence was Lower Sugar Loaf Key. After the fourth bridge, we reached Saddle Bunch Key at MM 15. This uninhabited island is covered with red mangroves and has an elaborate network of sandy lagoons. To navigate the rather fragmented key, four bridges with a combine length of 3,200 feet were needed to cross four channels that were all named Saddle Brunch.
Once through the Saddle Brunch area, we pedaled over an unnamed key which consisted of causeways. The only thing separating the expansive waters was the road itself, a somewhat unique perspective when you’re on a bicycle. Narrow patches of land covered with lush foliage meandered through the water on both sides of the two-lane highway. The land was less than a foot above sea level as water was seen lapping through the two-foot high sea shrubs. After passing by some sparkling lagoons, we crossed the 2,100 foot bridge over Shark Channel. To our right, we could see the mile long peninsula of Shark Key which featured 70 large houses in a gated community. The long sliver of land was named by early surveyors for its shark-like shape.
Another short causeway connected us to Big Coppit Key which is populated with families of servicemen. With our Camelbaks almost empty, we stopped at a convenience store on this island. While reloading with ice and water, we noticed a curious sign posted in front of the beer cooler, “No Alcohol Sales Between 4 AM & 7 AM.” Although the two cups of ice cost us four dollars, we welcomed the cool relief. In Florida, you can’t spell “priceless” without I-C-E. Continuing on our way, a church promotion played off the neighboring Key West event with, “Jesus Fest Every Sunday.” On the southwest edge of the key, we reached a momentous sign, MM 10. Let the countdown begin!!! We stopped for the essential photo op.
A quarter mile long bridge took us over Rockland Channel and onto East Rockland Key. As we followed more causeways, the surrounding emerald-colored water was now dotted with seagrass meadows. The seascape was so dazzling! The land bridge took us into Boca Chica Key where the highway expanded to four lanes while maintaining a shoulder. At MM 9, a promotional sign stated, “No Jacket Required.” With temperatures now at a very humid 86, we certainly didn’t require any outerwear. A golf-ball shaped tower on our left told us that we were passing through the Boca Chica Naval Air Station, one of the Navy’s premier pilot-training facilities. This area has sustained Navy activity since 1823. At MM 8, an overpass bridge took us up over Saratoga Avenue, the main road to the naval station.
The next water crossing was a half mile span over Boca Chica Channel which connected us with Stock Island. This key was named for the herds of cattle and pigs that were kept there a century ago. Beyond MM 6, the shoulder disappeared completely. With cars speeding past us at 55 to 65 mph, we decided to take the curvy bike path to the right. Because of urban sprawl, much of Stock Island is part of the Key West municipality. The main campus of Florida Keys Community College is located on the key. Passing by fast food restaurants and gas stations, it was evident that we were entering a populated area of 25,000 residents. Near MM 5, we crossed a 300 foot bridge over Cow Key Channel. With a short hop over Cow, we had reached the island of Key West.
Just beyond the bridge, the Overseas Highway splits as it enters the heart of Key West. The two four-lane forks rejoin after encircling the city. The southern fork runs along the south shore as South Roosevelt Boulevard while Highway 1 follows the north shore as North Roosevelt Boulevard. We elected to go with the busy north fork. At this point, the bike path changed to a concrete sidewalk. With just four miles to go and the traffic speeds now at 35 mph, we left the bike path and made the right turn onto North Roosevelt. As the street curved around to the northwest and then to the west, we passed by the motel we had reserved. Check-in would have to wait as we had some unfinished business to attend to.
Because it was a Sunday afternoon, traffic was somewhat lighter and motorists could get around us using the left lane without issue. At MM 3, we had our first verbal message as a local custom van passed us. The passenger yelled, “Get on the sidewalk!” Oh well, can’t please everybody all the time. Our presence on the sidewalk would have been quite intimidating to the mix of pedestrians enjoying an afternoon stroll. At MM 2.3, we went over the 200 foot bridge over Salt Run Channel. This was our 47th and final bridge in the Keys. The count included the 5 bridges we encountered on Card Sound Road (our alternate route to Key Largo). On Highway 1, one of the 42 bridges was an overpass over a street. For the 120 miles we rode on Keys highways, 19.3 miles was comprised of bridges or 16 percent of the total!
After passing by some marinas, we crossed over Palm Avenue at MM 1.5. Roosevelt Boulevard then changed to Truman Avenue as we were now heading southwest on a more comfortable two lane street. On our left, we pedaled by Bayview Park where young goblins and witches were gathered to show off their Halloween costumes. A short distance southwest, we arrived at Havana Street where MM 1 was posted. We dutifully lined up our rig next to the sign for the photo op. Continuing to the old downtown area of Key West, we passed by many homes and businesses with second floor balconies. The architecture reminded us of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Tin roofs, gingerbread trim, signature shutters and wraparound verandas were the norm. The former wreckers’ and shipbuilders’ homes are now high-end bed and breakfasts.
Given that the Fantasy Fest was over and that the weekend was winding down, there were just a few tourists out walking the streets. The sightseers we did encounter gave us a brief gaze as we appeared to be different, even by Key West’s wacko standards. As we went by fine Victorian mansions and quaint white frame cottages, we soon found ourselves being immersed into the town’s distinctive ambiance. In a way, the setting seemed to be more Caribbean than American. The area is known for its “whatever goes” attitudes as it attracts people with all sorts of backgrounds and ideas. Of the million tourists who visit each year, some drop in, some drop out and some just drop anchor.
With a blinding mid-afternoon sun in our faces, we trekked across the renowned Duval Street. Just a half block northwest was the Ernest Hemingway House where he wrote novels in the 1930s. Key West was also once home to such notables as Harry Truman, Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost and Jimmy Buffet. David Robinson was born here while his father served in the Navy. After pedaling 500 feet, we reached Whitehead Street, the second most prominent avenue in the old town section. At that point, we could turn left or right or go straight ahead. Making a right turn would keep us on Highway 1 where we could pause at the famed MM 0 sign next to the post office and the Monroe County Courthouse. While its northern terminus was 2,209 miles away in Fort Kent, ME, we had only traveled on 109 miles of this east coast route. However, Southernmost Point, not Mile Zero, was our planned endpoint.
If you’re going to the southernmost city of the continental United States, it only makes sense that you find the southernmost point in town. A landlocked concrete buoy, encircled in black, yellow and red stripes, officially locates the point and is probably the most photographed landmark in Florida. While we were pondering our next move, a couple in a car from New Jersey pulled along side of us. The husband leaned out of the passenger window and asked where we had biked from. After the man’s exclamation of “Are you SERIOUS,” Barb handed him a card. His next question was, “So where are you headed?” Upon confirming that we were going to Southernmost Point, they asked how long it would take us to get there. With Randall’s answer of “About ten minutes,” the couple indicated that they would meet us there.
Not having pre-arranged a welcoming reception at Southernmost Point, we suddenly felt important anticipating an impromptu rendezvous. With our giddiness meter already severely tilted off the scale, we pedaled straight ahead. In the wrong direction. Realizing our miscue, we continued southwest on Truman Avenue as we expected the streets to loop us back around. Along the way, we passed by a yellow stucco house with the sign, “Lofton B. Sands African Bahamian Museum and Resource Center.” African Americans and Caribbean Americans continue to live in this formerly segregated section of town. Through the center’s vintage photographs and memorabilia, the black community proudly displays their 200 year heritage on the island.
At Fort Street, our avenue came to an end so we made a left turn. We were now riding southeast along the boundary of the Truman Annex, one of five naval bases in the Key West area. Within the base is Fort Zachary Taylor. This historic site remained in Federal hands throughout the Civil War. About 300 Confederate ships were captured and held in the Key West Harbor during the war. The last active military role at the Truman Annex was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when it housed radar facilities. Because of this naval base’s boundary, Key West’s colorful buoy does not have the true claim of the southernmost point. Fort Street ended at Amelia Street so we turned left back towards Whitehead. Having completed our half mile “oops” detour, we suddenly found ourselves heading southeast on Whitehead.
For the final quarter mile, our feelings were out of this world. In fact, it was somewhat like an out-of-body experience. A paragraph full of descriptive words wouldn’t come close to recounting how we felt. At a point 710 feet from our target, Barb digitally captured the red speck ahead that marked the point. At hundred feet, we stopped pedaling and coasted to the “finish point.” WE RAN OUT OF HIGHWAY!!! Ninety three miles of ocean separated us from Cuba. After starting out at 66.56 degrees latitude, we were now just 24.54 degrees above the equator. At 3:37 PM, we dismounted and staged our rig a respectful distance away from the buoy. There were three groups ahead of us waiting for their memorable photo op. On cue, the couple from New Jersey arrived and congratulated us on our accomplishment. The husband volunteered to be our cameraman.
Before long, the others in the area were eavesdropping, “They came down from where?!” As the tourists huddled around us with rapid fire questions, our turn for the photo shoot had arrived. Our new friend took our camera and shot us in 14 different poses. We shuffle around in different settings as our eleven-foot long rig was not an easy object to center. Even more challenging was the tremendous glare from the sun. Thankfully, our cameraman was quite authoritative as he directed the poses and angles. This was particularly helpful since twenty people were waiting patiently by the time we finished. Many looking on probably thought that our photographer was a reporter for a newspaper (and maybe that was his occupation, we don’t know).
As we rolled our tandem out of the way, the line of tourists spontaneously cheered and applauded us. Whether they were acknowledging our trek or happy that we’re no longer holding up the line, you be the judge. To savor our moment, we parked our rig on the sidewalk about 50 feet east of the buoy. A sign overhead posted the message, “No Panhandling Or Soliciting Zone.” Two homeless men nearby curiously examined our trailer. In a very broken, Caribbean accent, one of the men said he had walked to Key West from California. As tourists finished their photo sessions, they inevitably wandered over to our tandem to see what was so interesting.
For the next hour, we couldn’t budge as we soaked up the sudden notoriety. The cluster of inquisitive onlookers varied from 20 to 40. With Randall at the front wheel and Barb at the trailer wheel, we entertained the full gamut of questions. “Did you see any wild animals? How many flats did you have? Were you ever tired? What was it like biking through the hurricanes? So you’re biking back to Alaska now? Who do you think will win the election?” We had talked to people throughout the USA, so apparently that made us qualified to predict the presidential race! Soon, Barb pulled out our North America route map for all to see. Some studied it intently and then concurred that our adventure was “all downhill.” Others wondered why we didn’t avoid the mountains. A lady offered, “I get worn out just looking at the map!”
One man looked at our map and queried, “And you’ll still together? My wife would have killed me before the finish! That would be fun to try on a motorcycle but not a bicycle.” Several people shot photos of us next to the tandem. Some even wanted to be standing next to us for the shooting which was difficult with the surrounding mass of people. There were a number of Europeans quizzing us about our trip. One couple remarked that we missed a wild Fantasy Fest by arriving today. When we described our challenge of finding affordable lodging, they noted that they slept in their rental car the night before.
During our question and answer session, the Conch Train passed by. We could hear the tour guide announce, “Three hours earlier, there was a line of 400 people waiting to take their picture here.” As we have stated throughout our trip, “timing is everything.” Four times during the hour’s continuous flow of inquiries, we removed our sandals for a display of our tan lines. The contrasting colors of exposed and unexposed skin brought thunderous laughter. When asked where we lived previously, Barb noted that we were originally from Kansas. One lady then noted that she was from Nebraska. Assessing the heights of Barb and the Nebraska woman, a nearby man joked, “Those Midwest women really grow tall!”
As the questions slowed to a trickle, we both called our parents to report on our safe and successful ending. When we first disclosed our AK to FL intentions in the summer of 2003, our folks were expectedly bewildered as their thoughts varied from “they’re not serious” to “they’ll reconsider after a tough start” to “my daughter/son is biking all the way from Alaska to Florida!” Before leaving the Southernmost Point area, we scanned around one more time to absorb the setting. The tourists continued to flock to the buoy, each with their own story of how they arrived at this point. With our story and dream fulfilled, we pulled up the kickstand for a three-mile soft pedal to our motel.
Heading northeast on South Street, we crossed over Duval which ended at the Southernmost Hotel. The popular name shows up in 24 listings in the yellow pages, including Southernmost Kitchen & Bath and Southernmost Wedding Chapel. Following a tree-lined half mile, we turned right onto Reynolds Street to stay with the perimeter road around town. Reynolds soon curved into Atlantic Boulevard. While the shoulderless, two-lane streets weren’t very busy, we had the option of riding on a neighboring bike path if they were congested. For the most part, we stayed with the streets. One and a half miles from Southernmost Point, Atlantic ended at the four-lane South Roosevelt Boulevard where we turned right for a wondrous ride along the ocean.
As we chased our shadow, we were rudely confronted with a strong head wind. However, since our gingerly pace was only seven to eight mph, we didn’t allow the stiff, tropical breeze to spoil our afternoon of closure. We soon passed by Sunset Watersports’ shop where one could rent all sorts of water oriented gear including parasails. If water wasn’t your thing, then “all day” rental chairs were available for $5. After pedaling by several shaded picnic tables, we stopped to watch a kiteboarder in action. A young man was zipping across the water at 15 to 20 mph while riding a small surfboard. Ahead of this crazed adventurer was a large, rectangular kite which provided the incredible propulsion.
While gazing at the white, sandy beach and the ocean, we had every opportunity to follow the common practice of dipping our touring bike’s front wheel in the sea. Coast-to-coast cyclists traditionally “baptize” their rear wheel at the start and then the front wheel at the finish as a symbolic gesture. Since we didn’t start at a coast and the nearest source of moisture was patches of snow, soaking our bike gear into corrosive salt water now wasn’t appealing to us. Some of our friends predicted that we would be so fed up with cycling that we would want to toss our tandem out into the ocean. On the contrary, we enjoyed each and every minute of our tour.
While setting up to launch, a couple from Fort Lauderdale, FL was taking a stroll on the sidewalk. They knew that AR (not AK) stood for Arkansas so they were curious about our starting point. After we described the extent of our journey, the woman remarked, “For having come down from Alaska, you don’t look that tanned!” So Barb, once again displayed the amusing color contrast. We thought we were fairly dark. The layers and layers of sun screen kept us from really burning up. Continuing our ocean-side ride, we kept a watchful eye out for the westbound traffic. The motor scooters and fluorescent-pink colored taxis operators were going into a blinding sun.
As South Roosevelt curved back to the north, we passed by some deeply tanned youngsters that were snorkeling along. Upon returning to the northeast end of the island, we checked into our motel. We unhitched our trailer for the final time and then cooled off after completing our humid outing. With Alaska being four time zones to the west, we quickly placed a call to Barb’s Aunt Anne and Uncle Virgil in Fairbanks. We were very grateful for their support through a difficult start. Barb’s sister Susan in Leavenworth, KS was also acknowledged for the numerous instances she shipped us supplies and handled our mail. We walked to Denny’s next door for our festive dinner. Although we ate hearty meals, we skipped dessert as we began our transition to a non-touring diet. Having realized our vision, we retired for the evening to dream a new dream.
Miles cycled – 61.8
November 1-6, 2004
Following a continental breakfast offered by our motel, we began November by putting the finishing touches on our press release. Barb also left a phone message with the local daily paper, The Citizen, as we were hoping that they would feature our story. We then emailed our story to all of the newspapers that covered us during our journey. The update that we sent out, follows.
On October 31st, 2004, Randall & Barb Angell of Oakland County, Michigan completed their dream of bicycling across North America. Riding their tandem bike from Alaska to Florida, they began their adventure on May 20, 2004 at the Arctic Circle, north of Fairbanks and reached Key West on a balmy, Halloween afternoon. Their 165 day, 7,100 mile journey took them through diverse terrain, cultures and weather. Having crossed the Continental Divide 15 times, they have enjoyed scenic settings from the Rocky Mountains to the grassy plains and finished with a dramatic Atlantic Ocean vista.
To prepare for this trip, they sold their house in Michigan and quit their jobs. Why would two automotive supplier engineers leave everything behind to bike across the country? Simply because, they love to travel and especially by bicycle. On their tandem, they saw things at a much slower pace than a motorist does so they were able to absorb more along the way. Having taken over 16,000 photos, they have documented their adventure with a daily journal that is posted on their website, www.TEAMANGELL.com.
During the course of this trip, the Angell’s raised funds for Habitat for Humanity. They are hopeful that they can raise the $60,000 needed to build one Habitat house in Oakland County, Michigan. The donations to their cause can be made through the Habitat link on the TeamAngell website or a check can be mailed to: HFHOC, Attn: Bicycle Adventure, 14 Judson Street, Pontiac, MI 48342.
Of the 24 newspapers that covered our trip, at least five of them had a follow up story. Once the press release was distributed, we sent several emails to the many well-wishers who followed our adventure through our web site. Their thoughts and prayers were very much appreciated during our arduous journey. At 1 PM, we received a return call from The Citizen. The overwhelmed reporter was more than happy to publish something if we emailed our photo of Southernmost Point. With the coverage of the recent Fantasy Fest and the election the next day, the newspaper’s staff was quite busy. The reporter enlightened us with, “You won’t believe it but we have a hotly contested battle in the school board election.” The following day, our photo and caption appeared in the Mile Markers section of the paper. To view, click Mile Markers.
With the afternoon drawing to a close, we took a break from our correspondence so that we could check out the incomparable Key West sunset. Starting out on foot, we strolled several blocks on North Roosevelt before stopping for dinner at Wendy’s. Following our meal, we took the Bone Island Shuttle for the final two miles west. The name Key West is actually a corruption of “cayo hueso” which translates to “bone island.” Early Spanish explorers reported finding a number of human skeletons on the island so today’s local businesses readily embrace this unpleasant name for the key. Unique names can be seen throughout the area. As we passed a marina, we saw a boat with the arrogant name, “None Of Your Business.”
Our bus driver digressed as he related how relieved he was that the Fantasy Fest was over. Although his double shifts were grueling, he didn’t mind the overtime pay he received. Departing the bus near Mallory Square, we headed directly to the popular viewing area for sunsets. Each evening, thousands of visitors and locals gather at Mallory Square Dock to experience a glorious nightfall while being entertained by two dozen street vendors and performers. Jugglers, palm readers, contortionists and musicians all vie for the attention and donations of the many spectators who begin gathering about an hour before the “sunset fest.”
When we reached the dock, we were surprised to find a huge Holland America cruise ship blocking the view. Cruise ships were not allowed to dock at Key West during the Fantasy Fest so naturally this vessel took advantage of the expired restriction. As we peered around the cruise ship, some of the crowd was already starting to disperse. Although the sun had not yet dipped below the water, the wonderful fiery-orange background was missing because of a bank of clouds on the horizon. While the clouds and ocean darkened to a grayish-blue hue, we could see the schooner, Western Union in the distant waters. The tall-mast ship with its unfurled white sails was quite majestic. Conceding the dismal show of sunset colors, we hoped for a better display the following evening.
Following the sunset fest, we immersed ourselves into the Old Town district. On our way to Clinton Square Market Mall, we passed by the Key West Aquarium. This historic site was built in 1934 by the Works Progress Administration and quickly became the area’s first major attraction. In the small mall, we stopped at Sweets of Paradise for chilling dairy treats. When the confectionery’s operator learned of our bike trip, he implored, “You have to go upstairs to the planetarium and ask the man there about his mom’s bike trip.” Hopping up the stairs, we found that the planetarium was already closed for the day. We then planned to arrive earlier the next day.
Departing the mall, we went one block northeast to begin the “Duval Crawl.” The main thoroughfare is lined with art galleries, boutiques, taverns, T-shirt shops and tree-shaded courtyard eateries. Typical of a tourist town, the shopping is pricey but the offerings are extreme with everything from hand-rolled cigars to tropical collars for your pets. After refraining from souvenir purchases for the past five months, we suddenly had the urge to splurge. Fortunately for us, some vendors were overstocked following the recent festival and were selling many items for half price. Some shirt purchases allowed us to “wear” our memories for years to come.
Continuing down Duval, we watched as a young man holding a lantern was leading a small group. The guide for the captivating Ghost Tour was busy recounting the stories of haunted houses, active cemeteries and legendary points of interests. In the1860s, wrecking and the Civil War made Key West the largest and richest city in Florida and the wealthiest town per capita in the nation. A number of the inhabitants salvaged shipwrecks from nearby Florida reefs. The town had an unusually high concentration of fine furniture and chandeliers which the locals used in their own homes after retrieving them from wrecks.
Key West is appealing for all types of folks who seek individual freedom. In some of the shop windows, we saw the “One Human Family” symbol. Key West adopted this diversity motto as it reflects the acceptance of the island’s large gay population and gay tourists. Also seen along Duval Street are the Conch Republic monikers. In 1982, residents of this free-spirited island tried to “secede” from the USA. This publicity stunt was prompted after the Border Patrol setup a roadblock just south of Florida City to catch smugglers and illegal aliens. The slow inspection was a disaster for tourism. The town’s mayor (portrayed as the Prime Minister) declared “war” against the USA and then quickly surrendered (after one minute), and applied for foreign aid (in the amount of one billion dollars). The roadblock and inspection station were soon removed. After touring one of the nation’s wackiest streets, we bused back to the motel to complete our day.
By the time we started our second full day in Key West, the election process was in full swing. We had planned to be back in Michigan in time to vote but it didn’t work out. While eating breakfast at the motel, we watched the ongoing election coverage. The European tourists also seemed curious about the Americans going to the polls. One asked us, “Who do you think will win the presidential race?” When we were hesitant to answer, the young man offered, “Well, it doesn’t really matter; a monkey could run that office.” Speechless, we figured that the foreign visitor was certainly living Key West’s free-spirited attitude. To get the scoop on the elections, we read The Citizen. We were tickled to find our photo and a caption in the local newspaper.
After checking our email, we put our front pannier bags on the tandem and started pedaling southwest on North Roosevelt. A few blocks down, we stopped at Home Depot and purchased some pipe insulation. As we should have expected, the cylindrical-shaped padding was really thin. In this temperate climate, the average temperature during the winter is only 13 degrees lower than in the summer. There is no known record of frost, ice, sleet, or snow in Key West. We stuffed the insulation into our panniers and continued southwest one mile before turning right on Frances Street. After pedaling by some quaint houses with white picket fences we were now at the dead center of Old Town.
Following two left turns, we found ourselves on Passover Lane and at the entrance to Key West Cemetery. When we first ventured to Key West by car in 1993, we found this sacred site to be quite memorable. This was one stop worth repeating. A stroll through this historic graveyard (established in 1847) can tell as much about Key West’s quirky characters as any history lesson. The whitewashed above-ground tombs and statues are fascinating. Passing by an ornate wrought iron fence, we noticed a crypt that had the epitaph, “God Was Good To Me” carved in wood. A neighboring headstone inscription read, “At Least I Know Where He’s Sleeping Tonight”. Perhaps the most hilarious message was on a large white crypt with a facing tablet. Pearl, a local hypochondriac, had the last word with her marker, “I Told You I Was Sick.”
Hopping back on our tandem, we pedaled northwest on Elizabeth Street. We found the narrow avenues to be quite comfortable as pedestrians and bicycles seemed to out number the cars. The flowers and landscaping in some of the private yards were incredibly beautiful. Reaching a sandy beach at the north end of Simonton Street, we paused to gaze at the neighboring crystal blue water. Surprisingly, there was sign posted that warned, “High Bacterial Levels – Health Risk at this Time – Swimming Not Recommended.” Resuming our ride with a short jaunt on Front Street, we turned left onto Duval Street for one last ride through Old Town.
Causally pedaling southeast, we took in the sights and sounds. One man standing in front of a shop yelled, “Hey, aren’t you the couple that was in the paper today?!” He followed with, “Aren’t you tired?” We caught up with a couple of locals on bicycles that were meandering down Duval. One was pulling a two-wheel cart that was carrying a folding chair among other things. The wheels on the trailer were so warped that it wobbled down the street erratically. A second rider was apparently a basket weaver as he had baskets dangling all around his single bike. Even more interesting was the skeleton he had seated up behind him. So many times, we have heard the motorists’ comment, “She’s not pedaling!” In this instance, we felt that the message fit perfectly.
At the southeast end of Duval, we jogged a block over to Southernmost Point for another look. Oh the memories!! We then made a bee-line to Key West Airport where we had a mid-size car reserved. While Barb checked in with the rental car agent, Randall began disassembling the tandem. A special wrench loosened up the eight couplings that held the bike together. The gear and chains were removed and the cables were disconnected. To protect the loose components in the rental car’s truck, we applied the Home Depot pipe insulation to the tandem’s tubing. Newspapers collected from the last couple of days were also used as packing material. Within 20 minutes, we had everything loaded up. We then drove back to the motel.
Following an early dinner, we took a bus to Mallory Square for one more viewing of the sunset fest. We were happy to see that the cruise ship was no longer in the area. However, our first order of business was a return to Clinton Square Market Mall. We arrived at the planetarium to find a man who was in his sixties. We were thinking, “His mom must have done this bike trip a long, long time ago.” Upon hearing our story, the man said, “My mom, Charlotte Hamlin, will want to talk with you. I’ll give her a call.” With no answer from Charlotte, the son encouraged us to view the fifteen minute planetarium program called, “The Ultimate Encounter.”
After expressing interest in the show, a lady led us to the twenty-foot domed room. She cautioned us, “This program portrays a Christian perspective. Some viewers may be offended by the religious content.” Having confirmed our openness, we picked our spot among 50 empty chairs. With emphasis on the past and present development of the telescope combined with a prophetic spiritual climax, we found the show very enlightening. Following the program, Charlotte’s son excitedly motioned us over. He had his mom on the phone. As Barb took the phone, we were certainly curious about this woman’s cycling past.
Ms Hamlin had biked from California to South Carolina to promote her plan for a healthy lifestyle. The health educator’s catchy words were FRESH START which stood for Fresh air, Rest, Exercise, Simple diet, Happiness, Sunshine, The use of water, Abstemiousness, Restoration and Trust in divine power. Charlotte wasn’t satisfied with conquering the USA by bicycle so she kept on cycling! Twelve thousand miles later, she had pedaled around the world, covering Europe, Asia, Australia and Canada. Her book, “Ride With the Wind,” is not your average touring tale as Hamlin began her adventure at age 68 (in 1987) and finished at age 75. Grandma Hamlin demonstrated that we should be able to do the things we want to do at any age. In her writings, she speaks of angels on either side of her handlebars when she shared narrow bridges with the “big rigs.”
Exchanging greetings with Charlotte, Barb briefed the well-traveled lady on our just-finished adventure. She was thrilled to hear of our journey and expressed great joy of our accomplishment. Although she noted that she wasn’t as mobile these days, we suspected that she gets around fairly well for an octogenarian. She concurred with Barb that time and again, most people are more willing to assist a helpless stranger who isn’t inside a steel and glass cage. After ten minutes of heartwarming chat, Charlotte’s son in the background interjected twice, “Mom, these folks need to go out so that they can watch the sunset!” Having completed the touching conversation, we scurried outside for the day’s glorious finish.
With the cruise ship gone, a large crowd had gathered on the dock. It was so congested that we decided to go to the neighboring Hilton Pier. This adjacent viewing area turned out to be a great vantage point. We could see both the horizon and the dynamic crowd on Mallory Square Dock. A bi-plane flew overhead with the banner,”2 FLY 4 $60.” Seeing a bank of clouds on the horizon, we soon realized that this sunset was going to be another letdown. Most of the crowd stayed for the anti-climatic ending hoping the sun would somehow overcome the clouds but only a dark-yellow hue framed the gray-blue horizon.
Suddenly, there was a mass exodus to the east. Within two minutes, the crowd was completely gone. It was as if the home football team had lost in the final seconds of a tight game. The air was filled with disappointment and denial. But for many, their evening of revelry was just beginning. We now considered ourselves very fortunate to have seen the lovely sunset in Marathon three days earlier. Anticipating an early start in the morning, we took in a few sights on Duval before busing back to the motel. It’s hard to find anyone who has been to Key West who doesn’t want to return.
Our drive back to Michigan began at 6:30 AM. There was no need to glance at the map. Highway 1 is the only route through the Florida Keys. Halfway across Alligator Alley on Interstate 75, our cell phone rang. It was Dermot Cole with the Daily News-Miner in Fairbanks, AK. Dermot had received our press release and wanted to ask a few questions before doing a follow-up story. Randall noted, “We both had a goal of going from point A to point B, and that was where we directed our focus.” Barb commented, “We had been riding a tandem bike for six years before this trip so a lot of things became second nature.” The next week, the News-Miner published a follow-up with the heading, “Husband and Wife Complete 7,100-mile Test of Togetherness.”
At noon, we stopped for lunch at Fort Myers, FL before driving over to Sanibel, FL. We had originally planned to fly out of Fort Myers but decided against it weeks earlier. So, instead of needing the large suitcases required for flying our tandem and gear, we had Barb’s sister Susan arrange to ship just a small bag with clothing and personal items. For a ship-to-address, Susan contacted Melva and Ed on Sanibel Island. Like Barb and Susan, Melva belongs to the P.E.O. Sisterhood, a philanthropic organization for women. Melva was more than happy to receive our suitcase and insisted that we spend the night at their place.
While driving along on the causeway to the island, we realized that we had forgotten to document our suntans from the months of touring. With short sleeve jerseys, cycling shorts and sandals as our consistent apparel throughout, we were quite proud of our biker’s tan lines. Never would we be this dark again! A small beach on the causeway gave us a white sandy beach setting that was perfect for the obligatory photography. After a warm greeting from Melva and Ed, we were reunited with our suitcase. For the first time in five months, our feet felt the comfort of tennis shoes. Wow!
Later that afternoon, Melva’s local P.E.O. sisters and the director for Habitat for Humanity of Lee County, FL, came over to meet us. For an hour, we shared many tales with the enthusiastic group. As the day wound down, our hosts took us on a car tour to Captiva Island. The island had been devastated by the Category-4 Hurricane Charley in August. The abundant trees and landscaping were now a flat, twisted mess. For those large homes that survived mostly unscathed, all of their privacy was blown away by the storm. At the north end of Captiva, we posed for one last Florida sunset. Following a delicious dinner, we shared our AK 2 FL slide show with Melva and Ed.
Careful not to wake our hosts at 6 AM the next morning, we tiptoed out to our rental car to resume our trek to Michigan. After a long drive with a couple of stops, we checked into a motel in northern Kentucky for a night’s rest. With a subsequent morning start at 6 AM, we arrived five hours later at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Marian from Clarkston, MI met us near the airport where we transferred our bike and gear to her vehicle. This was the same wonderful woman that delivered us to the airport at 4:30 AM on May 14 to begin our incredible adventure. Plus, she opened up her home to us during our transitional stay in Michigan. We couldn’t have found a nicer lady to spend time with.
Once in Clarkston, we unloaded our bike and gear and then were taken ten miles northwest to Bonnie’s farm where we were reunited with our two cars. The two vehicles had been stored in a big red barn while we were away. The next day, we reassembled our tandem and went to Stony Creek Metro Park for a ride in a Michigan fall setting. Yes indeed, we were yearning to pedal the old bike once again as we had passed the “test of togetherness!”
Miles cycled – 9.4 (does not include park ride in Michigan)
Total miles cycled – 7,426.5
[Our AK 2 FL route covered 7,115 map miles. The total mileage above includes the off-route riding to lodging and other services.]
Some of our readers may have been wondering, “How did two cyclists evolved from biking around the neighborhood to cycling across a continent?” We both grew up in Kansas and met as engineering students while attending Kansas State University. In our earliest outings, we went on cycling dates so we knew we had something in common other than just crunching numbers on a calculator. Since graduating, we have lived in Ohio, Michigan and now Washington. Our move to southeast Michigan in 1993 really set the stage for renewing our love of cycling. Using foldable hybrid bikes, in the mid 90s we took bicycle vacations to the American southwest and the Canada Rockies. It was during these independent outings that we started thinking about riding across the USA.
While we were thinking about expanding our horizons, in June of 1998, we got our first tandem. Buying the two-seater bicycle dramatically changed our outlook on riding. We could now go further and faster together. From then on, with each vacation we took, our coupled tandem went with us. Two years later, we bought a BOB trailer and some camping gear and attended a five-day cycle-touring class offered by Adventure Cycling in Missoula. By the fall of 2003, we had biked 100 or more miles in 30 states. Even though these mini-vacation trips were not done in a loaded-touring fashion, we later realized that the diversity of the roads, terrain, and motorists we encountered helped prepare us for a long journey. As time went on, we changed our minds about biking from coast to coast.
We had read about a man who had cycled from Alaska to Florida in 1996 and then we realized that if we are going to drop everything for a big trip we should be going for the longest ride possible within the available window of bike tolerable weather. For our starting point, we chose the Arctic Circle north of Fairbanks, AK for its challenging ride and numerous photo opportunities. For the ending point, we went with the highly recognizable Southernmost Point in Key West, FL
As 2004 rolled around, we were ready for our big ride! Knowing that we had long yearned to move to the Pacific Northwest, we realized that it was time to make a clean break. After much preparation, we sold our house in March of that year. In April, we partnered with our local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. It was important to us that we would be biking for a cause. Then in May, we quit our jobs. Our friends, associates and relatives thought were nuts! But then, many realized that you only go around once in life, why not?
When we got on that plane in Michigan, it was just an indescribable feeling. Our stuff and cars were in storage. We were leaving everything behind. We were living our dream! Flying into Fairbanks, we gave ourselves five days to get acclimated. It was to our advantage that Barb’s aunt and uncle lived in Fairbanks as it not only provided us a place to setup but they were able to transport us the 200 miles north to the Arctic Circle. And since we would be passing back through Fairbanks, we had a place to recover. Undaunted by the rigors of the Dalton Highway, we continued cycling beyond Fairbanks for five months to realize our dream.
We were happy that our AK 2 FL adventure raised a total of $9,271.81 for Habitat for Humanity, Oakland County, MI. We are VERY grateful to those who made contributions to our cause. The funds we collected joined with the Rochester Coalition to build one of the ten houses constructed in Oakland County, Michigan during the 2005 Jimmy Carter Work Project. The two-week long JCWP started June 11th and officially concluded June 24th.
Occasionally, we are called upon to relive the memories of our epic tour. A colorful, half hour slide show captures our special moments using just 2.5 percent of the trip’s 16,000 photos. We estimated that Barb shot over half of the photos while we were riding. With this camera angle, our viewers almost feel like they are along for the ride! Also contributing to our high photo count was our routine to stop every five miles whether we were tired or not. These regular stops gave us more time to enjoy the experience.
And lastly, we would like to leave a note about the theme for our wondrous journey, “It’s all downhill from here.” During our trip, so many people offered that assessment of the terrain to us whether it was factual or not. We soon embraced this expression of optimism during our adventure as we felt that it’s best to have a positive outlook no matter what you’re doing.
Randall and Barb Angell – – – – TeamAngell
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