This update is overdue owing to illness. Tango came down with the flu and generously shared it with me. Fever, chills, body aches, upper respiratory issues… the works! We are both once again among the living, and I am attempting to make order of our last three weeks. Unfortunately, the distribution of lodging necessitated many 40+ mile days, and snowbird season prevented us from holing up anywhere to focus on health recovery, so we have covered most of the width of Florida already. In addition to the germs plaguing Team Eleanor, Otter came into contact with poison ivy, which has seemingly eaten up his thighs and the backside of one knee. He, too, is on the mend.
Mercifully, the weather has been mild, even if ten degrees above normal. We are now convinced that there is no ‘normal’ weather, only averages; or, we are a weather curse, which is very possible in light of our track record this past year. The northern tier up to Lake Michigan had wetter and cooler than normal spring/summer weather, the Atlantic Coast was 20-30 degrees below normal winter weather, and now along the Gulf Coast it is ten degrees warmer than normal. After our Atlantic Coast experience, we superstitiously held onto some cold weather gear for our final touring chapter, not trusting that winter was ever going to truly retreat, but that now seems a distant memory. No long underwear, or even a pair of socks, have been dug out of a pannier bag since we left St. Augustine. I am not complaining. We will happily take 80+ degree weather over below freezing with wind or rain any day.
The warm weather and abundance of Florida State Parks enabled the resumption of camping as our primary accommodation. We have come to discover that this is peak season for camping in Florida, and have faced stiff competition for securing campsites. Some states have a hiker/biker provision at their state parks (Washington and Michigan among them)—if you arrive at a state park under your own power you will not be turned away. Some parks have auxiliary sites for hikers and bikers; others will improvise a space for you. The Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) addressed this in a blog post, outlining the states that have this provision and asserting that many remaining state park systems without such a rule on their books assured the ACA that if such a guest arrived they would do their best to accommodate them. We wrongly assumed that since Florida State Parks markets itself as ‘Voted America’s Best’ it would be among those willing to accommodate us in such a circumstance. Not so. We called ahead to Suwanee River State Park to make a reservation, but all of the reservable sites were booked and only the first come-first served sites remained. Our plan for an early morning departure, with the intent of getting there in time for a first come-first served site, was thwarted at every turn. We woke up to a dense fog and a sick Tango, and once we were finally able to mobilize we faced a strong headwind for the rest of the day. When we showed up, not surprisingly, our energy was zapped, morale was low, and all the sites were taken. Old Man asked if there was an arrangement in place for people under their own power. The park ranger instantly became defensive, talking loudly over Old Man saying she had only 31 sites and all 31 of them were filled. He patiently tried to explain our circumstance and the fact that the next lodging was 15 miles down the road against a headwind and it was already late in the afternoon. She was unmoved. Then, in divine timing, someone came into the office and announced they were canceling a reservation for one of their sites for that night. We immediately booked that site and went on our way, thankful to be done riding for the day.
With the return of outdoor living comes intense exposure to nature. We are back in the business of daily applications of sunblock and bug spray. Most of us are riddled with bug bites, but our golden tans disguise our itchy welts. Wildlife has been bold and abundant. We saw our first live armadillo (instead of roadkill) on our way to Gainesville. Recently, we camped at a park with a white squirrel population. We were warned of their wily ways, and were sure to safeguard our food from them despite their innocent appearance. Surprisingly (and with a bit of relief), we have not seen any alligators, aside from the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine.
We stayed a few nights in Gainesville to spend time with Old Man’s Uncle and his girlfriend, Tom and Marissa. On our first night, we checked out the bat launch on the University of Florida campus. It was a pretty amazing event to witness: we could hear them chirp and squeak as they woke up, observed a couple of veteran hawks perch with evident sense of the bat schedule and flight path, stood in awe as the bats finally flooded out of their houses, relocated outside of their flight path as we felt wet drops land on us, and cringed as those wise hawks successfully nabbed their dinners.
The next day we visited the Florida Museum of Natural History, where the kids delighted in the multitude of hands-on exhibits. On our final day there, Tom and Marissa treated us to an early Valentine’s Day treat and took the kids for the day. They went on the Silver Springs glass-bottomed boat ride, to lunch, and a movie. They brought back kids who were wiped from their full day, but joyfully bursting to share their experiences with us. In their absence, Old Man and I ran errands, planned for the remainder of this adventure and for our next one, watched a movie, and relaxed. In this chapter of close quarters and ample family time, a little bit of space from each other and extended quiet was truly decadent.
We biked and walked all over Gainesville during our stay, and we were struck by its impressive bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Bike lanes and sidewalks were connected and continuous, and drivers were vigilant of our presence. In all honesty, it is the best urban bike infrastructure we’ve encountered since Portland. In general, we had very low expectations for biking in the Southeast, especially in Florida, but Florida continues to pleasantly surprise us.
Now that we are on the Southern Tier Route, Warm Showers hosts who are willing to accommodate us have reappeared. Our first host along this chapter of the tour rescues chihuahuas and runs a farm with goats and chickens. She was our first Warm Showers host since October (in Ohio), and we were her last guests leading up to her [downsizing] relocation. She wanted to close out her Warm Showers hosting career with a bang and spoiled us to a pizza dinner and a bountiful breakfast, that included pancakes and a Puerto Rican casserole. We stayed at another Warm Showers host in Tallahassee the next night. This family has also bike toured on a triple tandem, so it was fun to share and compare stories of our adventures. Upon hearing of our intent to stay our next night at a nearby bike hostel, they insisted we stay another night with them instead. They generously fed us gourmet meals, invited the kids to assist in the kitchen, read to the kids from their well-appointed children’s library, and had an irresistible Yorkshire Terrier who entertained us and touched our hearts. Engaging local people really rounds out the experience of the location, and we have definitely been missing that component of the tour for the last few months.
We were surprised by the hilly terrain that surrounded and comprised Tallahassee. We had taken for granted that we would be on relatively flat coastal plain for the remainder of the tour and got more of a workout than we expected. While in Tallahassee we visited the Challenger Learning Center, where we watched a planetarium show and the kids built rocket ships with linking toys. We also checked out the Florida State History Museum that gave us a window into Florida’s varied history, and the kids especially enjoyed playing dress-up and house in the Grandma’s attic portion. The kids continued their unstructured play at a couple of local parks, and relished the laid back schedule after so many long days of riding.
We left the hills behind us and headed south to the Forgotten Coast to visit Old Man’s friend and former boss from our time in Albuquerque. We enjoyed connecting with his family and taking in the quiet privacy of their secluded location. Upon their invitation, we stayed an extra day and visited St. Joseph Peninsula State Park for a well-deserved and much cherished beach day following another string of long riding days.
After a couple more of Florida’s State Parks, we arrived in Destin. Uncle Tom’s work took him to this part of Florida for the day, so we met up with him again that evening. We were happy to see a familiar face, and the kids kept his hands warm and mind occupied with car talk during all of their waking hours. Today, we went on a dolphin cruise, a Christmas gift from Grandma. To our delight, we saw many dolphins, to include several jumpers and a few babies. Dolphin-loving Sissy was in heaven.
Tomorrow, we hope to partake in our final Florida beach day before exiting the Sunshine State this weekend. Alabama and Mississippi will be short-lived given the width of their coastlines. This is all winding down so quickly. We have just under a month to go. Didn’t we just start this hare-brained adventure????