The Truman Show

18/12/16. Friday was a very mixed day. It went downhill very quickly, then improved a fair bit, then was absolute pants (bloody Garmin! or Stephen depending on who is telling the story!!) and finally was rather lovely (although by then tiredness & bad temper made it difficult to appreciate how lovely!)

From DeFuniak Springs, as foreshadowed in the last post, we went “off piste” by heading down to the coast. This involved taking US331 which was going to be quieter than US90.  More digits = quieter road, right?

Wrong!

It was much busier and, to make it worse, it was being widened to dual carriageway (or divided highway as it is known here – a more understandable name in our humble opinion). This meant that the roadworks impinged on the shoulder for long stretches pushing us out towards the traffic making for the scariest riding we have had in the US. In some ways it reminded us of the bad bits of New Zealand. Perhaps less aggressive driving but offset by more traffic.

Then, just as we reached the end of the roadworks and had a better shoulder to ride on, the traffic reduced significantly for no apparent reason. We were not complaining but just wish it had happened earlier when we had to “share the road”.

Although the cycling now felt much safer the countryside was less appealing than the last few days – as though development had started but then, largely, been abandoned so that it was generally quite “scruffy”. We then came to a long, long bridge over the Choctawhatchee Bay to yet another barrier island/spit of land.

Once over this, the Garmin (operated by Stephen) suggested that we headed down a gravel track into Point Washington State Forest rather than along another busy US route. Christine was dubious but Stephen had faith.

You can guess how it turned out! The track deteriorated becoming increasingly sandy which meant that even Stephen was reduced to pushing. Then it was flooded at one point but we battled our way through the trees round the flood. Turning eastwards we pushed for a while until the trail dived into another flood which did not appear to be passable.

So we headed back westwards with the Garmin showing a track that reached a proper road. We followed this for a while, manhandling the bikes over a fallen tree, until it came to an abrupt end.

At this point Christine resumed charge of navigation and Stephen ducked for cover! We returned to the busy road, via the forest around the flood and the sandy and gravel track, where we had a late and silent lunch. We turned off the main road after a mile or so and joined bike paths alongside roads for the rest of our trip to our Warmshowers host.

The route went through very pleasant, affluent villages on the Gulf Coast and, although we didn’t see much of the beach because of the houses between the road and the sea, it was all very pleasant.

At one point Christine remarked that the buildings reminded her of the The Truman Show. (A great film. If you haven’t seen it then go out of your way to do so but don’t read anything with plot spoilers beforehand.) We found out later that this place (unimaginatively called Seaside!) was where it was filmed.

Our 2 hour, 6 km “yomp” around the forest meant that we arrived at Martin’s house later than expected but he, Molly and Joey (the friendliest dogs on the beach) were just returning from their afternoon walk so it “worked” well.

A warm shower and delicious meal improved our humour no end (!) but, although we were enjoying the bike related chat with Martin, we were both absolutely whacked and turned in before 7.30!

Saturday morning dawned fair and warm, and after a relaxed breakfast we waved goodbye Martin and Joey (Molly was curled up somewhere – sensible lady) setting off back along the trail beside the Scenic 30A for the next 30 km. Well rested, we  were much more able to appreciate its loveliness than the previous afternoon.

We passed many lakes which were of a type, according to the information boards, only found in “Madagascar, Australia and South Walton” (we were in Walton County). We had heard of two of these places before and are not convinced that the third, despite being lovely, is of quite such significance to the world!

Reaching the end of the Scenic 30A  the route followed a mixture of main road with shoulder and quieter roads with sidewalk/separate bike trails through a more commercial/developed stretch of the coast into Fort Walton Beach where we had booked a motel for 2 nights (Saturday & Sunday) to accommodate Christine’s pill day and church.

Just after crossing a bridge we met a young couple, Danielle and Kyle, who were on the last day of a 6 month trip from Wisconsin back to Florida initially by boat but they then swapped to a brand new tandem when they reached the coast and weather turned bad.

Amazingly, Stephen did NOT go for a bike ride on Sunday morning.

No, he was not feeling unwell! It was a combination of unappealing looking routes (other than along the coast which we have already covered or will tomorrow), several other things to do (food shopping, blog writing, reading, etc) and (the biggie) an unappealing weather forecast of thunderstorms and heavy rain. What a wimp!

Just on the subject of weather, the US is in the grip of some bizarre meteorological conditions at the moment with Storm Decima continuing to bring snow and record cold temperatures to the north east. Here in Fort Walton Beach it was 22°C (yes, Celsius!) at 6 am this morning and expected to rise to 23 or 24 by midday before falling to 6 or 7 by dawn tomorrow – a change of 16 degrees in 24 hours! – and hitting a high of 11 by the middle of the day on Monday.

What a Difference a Day Makes

15/12/16. After the rain came the sunshine!

There was further rain yesterday evening but of course we were safely inside our tent draped room. (The sand and pine needles which had been stuck to the fabric by the rain did make a bit of a mess as things dried. We did try to tidy the worst of it up but did leave a job for a powerful vacuum cleaner when room service came.)

By this morning the clouds had disappeared and it was a gloriously sunny day. Looking at the forecasts (we think the Americans are even more obsessed with the weather than us Brits) there is some serious winter weather going on from coast to coast in the northern half of the country with Storm Decima bringing cold air and snow from the Arctic. Some places in the midWest (such as Bismarck, South Dakota which we had not heard of but gets regular mentions in the forecasts) are forecast to go down to -30°C (and even lower with the wind chill factor).

Here, there was a bit of a nip in the air first thing – at least compared to what we have become accustomed to – it was about 7°C with the wind coming from the north but it warmed up to the upper teens as we again cycled along the main US90.

It was a lovely ride with the sunshine, little traffic, and a reasonable shoulder. As on the previous couple of days, we passed through woodlands where a lot of the ground was covered in water. Our take was that this was not because of the rain in the last couple of days but, rather, the natural Florida swampy countryside and made us appreciate how difficult travel must have been for the early explorers.

In fact, it was so glorious that it was up there with some of the best days’ cycling ever and helped to erase some of Christine’s dog related memories!

We made good time, not least because we were getting some assistance from the northerly wind as we travelled sometimes west, sometimes south west, and reached DeFuniack Springs, our destination, not long after 2 o’clock having covered 64km.

Although it is more than 4 weeks since we arrived and we have covered nearly 1,300 km (excluding Stephen’s extra curricular rides on “days off”) we are still in Florida. We Brits focus on the peninsula with Miami, Orlando and Tampa but the Panhandle (the section along the Gulf Coast) is a big area and there is still another 150 km to Pensacola (on the western border with Alabama) by the most direct route.

(Just as a reminder the map page showing where our nightly stops have been is here and details of our daily distances are here.)

In DeFuniack Springs we made our way to the post office which was where we had asked Tallahassee post office to forward the map package. Lo and behold, it was there to our slight surprise and great relief. This is not least because DeFuniack Springs is where our detailed map runs out (although we do have less detailed maps of each state plus the Garmin).

However, it is also slightly ironic that there is where we are going to take a detour from the designated Southern Tier route as we are heading to the coast – partly on a whim and partly because we have arranged a couple of Warmshowers hosts along the way!

(PS Interesting factoid re DeFuniack Springs: Lake DeFuniak is one of the two almost perfectly round circular spring-fed lakes in the world – per Wikipedia.)

And The Rain Came Down

14/12/16. Christine’s episode with the dog occurred on Monday, the day we left Tallahassee. As you may recall, we were unable to get our package of maps over the weekend so we decided that Christine would set off on her own while Stephen would wait at the post office (a little off route) for the manager to come in (usually about 9 o’clock) and then catch up.

Well of course the inevitable happened! The lady did not turn up as usual. By 10 o’clock Stephen gave up waiting as a man had undertaken to call when he located the package and forward it “express post” to the post office of our choice. It was another hour before the call came and Stephen contemplated returning to collect the package just to be certain. But that would have meant he was 3½ hours behind Christine which would be way too much to make up before darkness fell.

As it was it took him until gone 3 o’clock to catch her even though she had been taking the frequent short but sometimes sharp uphills very easily because (as she puts it) she didn’t have someone glowering at her and tapping his foot at the top of each one. (For the record, Stephen strenuously denies that accusation!) This does prove the “tortoise and the hare principle” that a 2 or 3 kph speed differential is quickly eroded if the faster traveller takes long rests.

The dog incident occurred before we joined up and, of course, there was no sign of dog or owner by the time Stephen came through. (He had a stout stick to hand following a warning phone call.)

Just to explain what happened a large white dog came barking and running out of a house in the middle of the country as Christine cycled past. She pedalled as fast as she could but the dog lunged for and scratched each of her rear panniers before the owner recalled the dog. She remonstrated with him in no uncertain terms. His only response was that someone had called at the house and the dog had escaped.

On the plus side, the weather had changed over the weekend with a significant increase in temperature – highs in the low 70s, rather than the high 40s – but we did have a short, sharp shower to contend with.

After we joined up it was not long until we reached our destination of Chattahoochee. Rolling down into the campsite on the western edge of town, we were told that there was no office on site – if we wanted to register we had to either call or visit the city hall back up the hill – but the man was sure it would be “all right” if we didn’t! We took him at his word and went to our the first tent specific area in a campsite in the country – which meant that we pitched the tent on grass rather than a sandy/gravelly area suitable for a humongous RV.

On Tuesday morning, we went back up the hill – not to pay our dues (a free night’s stay is always good for the budget) but to cycle a mile or so north so that we could say that we had been to Georgia and therefore colour in another bit of the map! What a pair of anoraks!!

Back down the hill, we crossed the river – and changed time zones! Suddenly we had gained an hour although the downside was that it was going to get dark earlier (obviously) – in fact before 5 o’clock. Thankfully our destination, Marianna, was much closer than the previous day’s 80+ km at about 45 km, although the campsite was 5 km off the route.

We arrived in town in time for a lateish lunch (after 1 o’clock – new time) and found a covered picnic area in a small park. We were mighty glad of the roof as the sky to the west was a very threatening black colour and, sure enough, just as we were finishing eating the heavens opened.

It only lasted about 10 minutes but a significant amount of rain came down – a foretaste of the night to come. Once the shower had passed we made our way to the library for a quick “update” online (very speedy wifi – highly recommended) before tackling a couple more hills (it had been another undulating morning) to the entrance of the Florida Caverns State Park. The ranger gave us pause for thought when she said that the campsite was another 3 miles (5 km) into the park but with little alternative and the added attraction of laundry facilities (we had 5 days worth of dirty clothes by this stage) we proceeded.

We passed through swampy forests past another sinkhole until we came to the campsite. The outer tent had gone away damp in the morning thanks to dew and a light early morning shower but, with the tall trees and the sun very low in the sky, there was no chance of it drying. We quickly set up camp, put the washing on, showered and changed into long sleeved shirts and trousers (because of the mosquitoes) before starting to cook dinner but it was still almost pitch dark by the time we started eating.

The washing up done, we dived into the tent to escape the mozzies and wait for the dryer to finish. A light rain started to fall which discouraged the insects but did not encourage us to leave the tent! Stephen took advantage of a break in the rain to make a run to the toilet and pick up the washing at the same time.

It was fortunate timing because not long after he returned the rain came back with a vengeance! And it started to thunder and lightning – and (in the words of the song) it was “very, very frightening” when the largest clap of thunder either of us have ever heard went off right above our heads! The ground definitely shook!

The storm lasted at least an hour and the rain carried on after that.

In the morning we found that the inside of the inner tent was a little damp but everything was OK. However another shower just after we had the bags all packed and were about to take the tent down had us scurrying for shelter again and meant that, when it passed, the tent was saturated when it was packed away. It also meant that it was well past 9 by the time we got going despite the alarm having gone off at 6.

We were back following our old friend US90 having been mostly on more minor roads for the last few days. The weather remained miserable throughout the morning with fine drizzle off and on which was a pain for Christine with her glasses. At lunchtime Christine very wickedly pointed to a small burger joint and Stephen took very little persuasion!

In the afternoon the road started to dry a little and we almost caught a glimpse of the sun but then the skies darkened again so we decided that camping was going to be a damp and miserable option and, in the early afternoon, headed for a motel where we festooned the room with wet, sandy tents and bags.

I Hate This Country! I Wish I Had Not Come Here!

12/12/16. A rant from Christine following an incident when she was attacked by a dog. Thankfully the only damage was to her nerves and some scratches on both her rear panniers.

  1. ******* dogs! And the ******* owners who cannot control their “dogs” .
  2. Two out of three church experiences have been horrible in a country that espouses Christian values.
  3. Almost 50% of the electorate chose a misogynist, racist as president.
  4. And don’t get me started on the post office!!!!

There are mitigating factors of course.

  1. Whenever we have stayed in someone”s home they have been vehemently anti-Trump.
  2. Their dogs have been generally well-behaved and friendly.
  3. Motorists have been far more considerate and respectful of cyclists than we had been led to believe would be the case.
  4. The church in Ormond Beach was really friendly and just as welcoming as one could hope for.

Christine may recover her equilibrium in a day or two.

Tarrying in Tallahassee

11/12/16. Waving goodbye to Susan and Kevin, on Saturday morning we headed back down the hill to the post office where we given good news and bad news.

The good news was that the package had been located in the manager’s office. The bad news was that the door was locked, only he and his secretary have a key and neither would be at work until Monday morning! Hmmm.

We decided to spend the weekend in Tallahassee as it would fit in with church and Christine’s pill day so we checked into a motel. (We had messed Susan and Kevin around once already and their son had just arrived back from college in Chicago so we didn’t want to disturb them again.)

Consulting the Lonely Planet Guide we learned that the Museum of Florida History and the Capitol Museum were the main attractions and, even better, they were both free! The Capitol Museum is located in the former centre of state government (Tallahassee is the state capital) and was fascinating. Not surprisingly it is focussed on the development of the local government since Florida was acquired from Spain in the 1820s. A major theme running through the exhibits was the development of race relations because (obviously) Florida is part of the South (it was the third state to secede from the Union in 1860). This was really brought home to us when we read that until the 1970s the political system excluded African Americans from participating in the goverment. Of course, Britain’s record on race relations at that time was nothing to be proud of but we were shocked at the extent of institutional discrimination that obviously prevailed here in the very recent past.

The History Museum was also extremely interesting and well worth a visit.

Christine’s experience in church was again very disappointing with nobody making any effort to talk to her and when she mentioned this to the minister as she left his reply was that it was something they needed to work on.

Winter’s Here

9/12/16. The weather forecast for the end of the week had been saying that a cold spell was heading towards most of the US including Florida where it was expected temperatures would fall to below 40°F (about 5°C). And it was not wrong!

When we set off on Thursday morning from the Suwannee River campsite we were well wrapped up – even Stephen had three layers on the top and was half considering getting his winter top out. As Thursday was supposed to mark the start of the cold snap we were glad that, for the next two nights at least, we were going to be inside. While in Gainesville we managed to get our act together enough to arrange stays with Warmshowers hosts (albeit at the second attempt when Christine’s tummy bug delayed our departure by a day).

And both nights’ hosts epitomised what Warmshowers is all about. Zef & OOna (in Monticello) and Susan & Kevin (in Tallahassee) could not have been more welcoming. Once we are back home, we both look forward to having to stay touring cyclists who are passing our way. This may not be repaying the kindness to those individuals who have welcomed us into their homes but it will feel as though we have done a little to reciprocate – and of course we would love to have any of those who have hosted us whether they are on bikes or not.

The route for much of the two days was through rolling countryside with the hills seeming to get longer and steeper towards the end of both days. Or was that the legs getting more tired? Either way, it was noticeably more “up and down” than anything we had encountered so far in Florida. Kevin provided the explanation when he told Stephen that Tallahassee is right at the very end of the Appalachian Mountains which run down much of the east coast.

Arriving in Tallahassee we made first for a post office where we hoped to pick up two maps that we had ordered. However when we turned up at the one where we thought they were going to be we were directed to the main office 2½ miles away.

With Christine wilting we made our way over the couple of hills on the way only to be told that, according to “the system” the package had been “delivered to our agent” earlier in the day! Recognising that this did not make sense the lady undertook to get a proper search made early on Saturday and said we should come back in the morning.

Let’s see how we get on!

Winter’s Here

9/12/16. The weather forecast for the end of the week had been saying that a cold spell was heading towards most of the US including Florida where it was expected temperatures would fall to below 40°F (about 5°C). And it was not wrong!

When we set off on Thursday morning from the Suwannee River campsite we were well wrapped up – even Stephen had three layers on the top and was half considering getting his winter top out. As Thursday was supposed to mark the start of the cold snap we were glad that, for the next two nights at least, we were going to be inside. While in Gainesville we managed to get our act together enough to arrange stays with Warmshowers hosts (albeit at the second attempt when Christine’s tummy bug delayed our departure by a day).

And both nights’ hosts epitomised what Warmshowers is all about. Zef & OOna (in Monticello) and Susan & Kevin (in Tallahassee) could not have been more welcoming. Once we are back home, we both look forward to having to stay touring cyclists who are passing our way. This may not be repaying the kindness to those individuals who have welcomed us into their homes but it will feel as though we have done a little to reciprocate – and of course we would love to have any of those who have hosted us whether they are on bikes or not.

The route for much of the two days was through rolling countryside with the hills seeming to get longer and steeper towards the end of both days. Or was that the legs getting more tired? Either way, it was noticeably more “up and down” than anything we had encountered so far in Florida. Kevin provided the explanation when he told Stephen that Tallahassee is right at the very end of the Appalachian Mountains which run down much of the east coast.

Arriving in Tallahassee we made first for a post office where we hoped to pick up two maps that we had ordered. However when we turned up at the one where we thought they were going to be we were directed to the main office 2½ miles away.

With Christine wilting we made our way over the couple of hills on the way only to be told that, according to “the system” the package had been “delivered to our agent” earlier in the day! Recognising that this did not make sense the lady undertook to get a proper search made early on Saturday and said we should come back in the morning.

Let’s see how we get on!

Up the Swannee!

7/12/16. We left Lake City this morning and, freestyling rather than following the “official” Southern Tier route, we took the US90 all day which was not as bad as it sounds. In fact there appears to be a long distance cycle route (also numbered 90) which goes the same way. The hard shoulder kept the fast moving traffic just sufficiently far from our left hand side that we didn’t feel too uncomfortable.

The only things of note that we passed were (1) a native American church complete with two tepees in the grounds and (2) a sign announcing we were in Houston – but not that one!.

After passing through Live Oak we were nearing our destination so we delayed lunch until we arrived at the Suwannee River State Park. Yes! As in the Al Jolson song although the “u” was dropped to help it scan.

Once we had eaten and set up camp we had an enjoyable afternoon taking a leisurely stroll along the banks of the river humming the song very quietly to ourselves. (Neither of us can hold a tune to save our lives!)

The other excitement of the day came when Stephen started to cook the evening repast and he discovered that the fuel bottle was almost empty and wouldn’t generate enough pressure to boil the water for pasta! Oops! So dinner was pretty much the same as lunch with hard boiled egg and cheese sandwiches although we did have a starter of avocado and there were yoghurts to finish up.

It may not be cordon bleu but we don’t intend to starve!

The route followed a railroad pretty much all day and there is a level crossing right by the gateway to the campsite which we had to cross on our way in. While the trains are not very frequent, the sound of their extremely loud horns/whistles as they approach each of the many road crossings carries for an awfully long way and builds in crescendo before dying away – especially in the middle of the night!

And they are mighty long trains. Waiting for one to pass on the way up the coast Stephen counted over 150 wagons carrying either 1 or 2 containers and today we were passed by a coal train with 4 locomotives.

Holed Up in Lake City

5/12/16. We decided to stay an extra day in Gainesville to get our heads around the route for the next few days and potentially plan a few Warmshowers stays. To a certain extent this was superseded by warnings on the Weather Channel of dire weather coming from Texas way a couple of days out. There was talk of a “Southern Soaker” bringing inches of rain to the Florida Panhandle which cramped Stephen’s more ambitious plans of long distances. (This is not unusual. Christine almost always brings a dose of reality to his dreams!)

After much debate Stephen was beaten into submission (!) and the agreed plan was to head for a campsite at O’Leno State Park for Saturday night and then hole up in a motel in Lake City for two nights for the storm to pass over.

The hotel being on the northwest of Gainesville meant we were soon out of the town/city (not really sure which it is to be perfectly honest) and into pleasant, rolling countryside. Note the word “rolling”. We have hit some ups and downs! Just.

It cannot be said that the “hills” are not hard going – even Christine gets up them without walking! – but they do bring a bit of variation to the cycling.

Also, the vegetation has changed. The ubiquitous palm trees by the coast have been replaced by deciduous trees (and even in Florida it is autumn/fall) and, at times, fir trees.

On the way we met one of the few touring cyclists that we have seen, Stefan from Sweden who set out from San Francisco towards the end of September-  so across the country in 2½ months! It was an enjoyable chat with a very pleasant young man.

We covered the 50 km to the State Park at a good speed, arriving there in time for a late lunch. This meant that we could take the afternoon to enjoy the main attraction of the park by walking on a trail around a sinkhole where the Sante Fe river disappears underground through limestone caves before emerging 3.5 miles away at River Rise State Park. It was a lovely walk and the park is well worth a visit if you’re in this neck of the woods.

The campsite in the park was also rather lovely and even had provision for washing up dishes. One campsite where we stayed earlier even had signs in the Ladies forbidding using the hand basins for washing up. Christine slipped into “Bolshie mode” (can you believe that?!!) and went to Reception to ask where we were supposed to clean the dishes. The response was “Everyone does it in their RV” and there was complete bewilderment when she pointed out that tents do not come with basins built in!

In anticipation of the rain coming in from the west we set off not long after dawn heading up US41 (safe shoulder thankfully) pretty much all the way to the motel in Lake City which we had booked for two night. We arrived well before check in time so spent a couple of hours in the nearby Starbucks topping up on wifi and chatting to our oldest.

The rain has come through much slower or more to the north than predicted. There was a heavy shower in the middle of Sunday night/Monday morning but we woke to reasonable skies so Stephen went for his constitutional bike ride while Christine sat quietly ingesting her pill. With those matters of good order out of the way we went to the cinema (conveniently about 100 yards up the road) to see Fantastic Beasts, the Harry Potter “spin off”.