Some rides, you just get on the bike and let the road take you wherever it goes. Some rides have an actual destination. This one I had been thinking about ever since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. Not only was it an ecological disaster, a way of livelihood was threatened for thousands of people that make their living on and along the shores of the Gulf Coast. Deepwater drilling was stopped by order of the President of the United States, fishing in the Gulf and harvesting oysters in its bays and estuaries. This was not just a disaster for the folks living in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Florida but a personal one for me. My favorite food, the Gulf Coast Oyster was being abruptly cut off. Now the oyster is one of those foods that most folks either like or just plain won’t have anything to do with. There is not a lot of “I can take it or leave it” when it comes to eating oysters. And the very best oysters come from the bays in the warm waters along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, specifically, those around Apalachicola, Florida. So when I head that oysters were being harvested from Apalachicola Bay again, what better reason for a bike ride!
One thing I have a problem with on bike rides, especially those that I have been thinking about for days or weeks, or months, is the night before. Just thinking about the ride, getting ready and all…..did I get everything I need packed? Just anxious to get on the road. It seems that getting to sleep is almost impossible for me. So Friday night I tried to stay up pretty late so that I would be good and tired when I went to bed but as usual it did not do much good. After a few hours of restless tossing and turning with what seemed only a couple of hours sleep, I climbed out of be about 4am, took a shower and got into my riding gear.
Actually riding early in the morning is one of my favorite riding times. It’s still dark and everything has a deeper stillness and quietness about it a 4am. I was well through the city and out into the country before early morning light began to wake things up. I rode past the prison in Baker County all brightly lit up and surrounded by high fences topped with razor wire. It is almost scary, the feeling one gets as you go by. It certainly made me glad that I was free to ride on by and keep on going. As I got into the outskirts of Lake City the sun began to come up over the trees. The fog and mist disappearing from around them, giving the fields I was passing by an almost mystical look. Before getting into Lake City turned south onto rt247 and took a ruler straight ride, so typical of some Florida roads, into the small town of Brandford and to Nels restaurant. Brandford is one of those jumping off points for boats onto the Suwannee River. There is not a whole lot there: 2 gas stations, 2 bait and tackle shops, a couple of grocery/convienence stores, a hardware store and Nels. Nels being one of those little restaurants that by all rights should not be there, it is a little gem out in the middle of the state. They serve up really great down home, southern food. Nothing fancy but good and plenty of it. If you should ever find yourself in the area, you owe it to yourself to have a meal at Nels. I had some of the best biscuits and gravy I have ever had anywhere. A couple of cups of coffee and as usual, got into an enjoyable conversation with some of the locals about my bike and where I was going.
After paying the tab, leaving a generous tip and thanking the waitress for a fine meal I got back onto the bike and headed west across the Suwannee River. Riding rt27 north and west through some pretty cattle country on a nice two lane road with minimal traffic as another beautiful Saturday morning arrived. Riding through the town of Mayo, I saw the entrance to another large prison….or, as the sign said: Mayo Correctional Facility. A fellow that I work with has recently obtained a job with the state and will soon be working at this “facility”. By this time my lack of sleep and the fine
breakfast were catching up with me and I was feeling a bit drowsy. As I rode in to the town of Perry, I saw a nice little park with hardly anyone else taking advantage of it so I stopped and found a nice spot of soft grass under a huge old Oak tree. Listening to the soft Florida breeze blow through the leaves, I nodded off for a bit. Waking after 30 or 40 minutes I felt much refreshed and took a walk around the park. I stopped by a small restaurant for a cup of coffee where I was the only customer. The owner and I had a nice little conversation about Motorcycles and cross country riding. He said the one thing that I hear so often on my trips…”I wish I could get away like that for awhile, maybe someday.” I hear this all to often during my rides and it saddens me. The thing is, I understand all too well where he is coming from because I have said the same thing myself for so many years. When we hear that call, feel it in our gut we should all listen to it, chuck everything, get on the bike and go. Most of us though, just say “Someday, someday, I’ll take that trip” and go on back to our “responsibilities”. “Someday” is a disease that can take your ride and trips and dreams to the grave with you. As I finished up my coffee, I left the coffee shop thinking about how lucky I am. I’m on the road, on the ride that I want to be on, short as it may be. Riding MY ride and it felt damned good! I got back to the bike and headed west on rt98 towards the panhandle of Florida. Next stop, the Gulf of Mexico.
Out of Perry, more flat cattle country. You could tell by the smell. With lots of open fields, the sun rising into a blue, cloudless sky, it was a perfect day for a bike ride. At Newport Springs there is a fork in the highway with rt98 heading gradually south towards the Gulf and rt267 west up in to the center of the panhandle of Florida, I took 98 towards the Gulf. 31 miles later at Alligator point I had my first look at the Gulf of Mexico. From here, rt98 rides along the Gulf for a couple of hundred miles all the way to Pensacola. The next 70 miles or so have to be one of the prettiest rides in the entire state. At times the road runs within a few feet of the Gulf. The breezes off of the Gulf and views of the barrier islands make you always on the lookout for places to pull just to stop and enjoy it for a few minutes, maybe take a picture or two. Riding west, along the Gulf through Carabelle (a nice light house there) on towards Eastpoint where I passed by the Oceanside Campground. The afternoon was getting on so it seemed like it might be a good place to spend the night. I stopped for gas, filled up the tank and rode back to the camp ground. What a nice place! Some RV’s there but there were also quite a few tents set up and it looked like a few sites were still available. I rode on over to the owners cabin and he found me a place within a stone’s throw of the Gulf. With big shade trees, soft ground and a gentle breeze coming off of the Gulf brining along salt and ocean smells, it was the ideal campsite. I had my small backpacking tent set up in no time at all. While setting the tent up a few of the other campers came over and as at campsites everywhere, we easily introduced ourselves and talked about where we had been, where we were going. It seems that some folks had set up camp, more or less, for the whole summer, right there. Not a bad place to spend a few months.
After getting settled in and deciding that this tent, while great for hiking in the mountains of Colorado was way too small for motorcycle camping, I headed on in to Apalachicola. A medium sized town, Apalachicola sits on the Florida coast at the head of the Apalachicola River and the Apalachicola Bay. To get there from Eastpoint, you ride a long causeway/bridge across the head of the bay right into downtown. The entire reason I came is for the wonderful seafood restaurants on Water and Market Streets; up the Creek Raw Bar, Upstairs Oysters, Papa Joes Oyster bar, Boss Oyster, Caroline’s River Dining and The Hole in the Wall, just to mention a few. They all serve up (in my opinion) the very best oysters to be found anywhere in the USA. You can get them any way you want, Raw on the half shell, steamed, baked, fried, covered with cheese, garlic, spinach or crawfish, however. If you like oysters, you are in for a treat when you make a stop in Apalachicola. I dropped by the Up Stairs Oysters at the end of water Street, a very interesting place. You go up some stairs, inside, place your order then go outside and sit on the deck, overlooking the Apalachicola River and marshes beyond, dogs are welcome. They have a set of binoculars available for any bird watching you might want to do. I was talking to a couple who were there from Canada with their Black lab when the waitress bought a dozen large baked oysters an order of conch cakes and a Fosters beer. Making the 274 mile ride from Jacksonville all worthwhile! I enjoyed the meal and the conversation with my new friends from Canada. As I finished the sun was beginning set, casting long shadows over the over the marsh. All in all, it was a very satisfying day.
Riding back over the bridge to Eastpoint there was still some light left so rather than heading back over to the campground I took the long bridge out to St George Island. This is a barrier island a few miles off of the coast and has several hundred summer/vacation homes built on the island. All of which are built among the sand dunes of the island. It’s really kind of strange because just about all of them are brand new. I think that the rest were destroyed or badly damaged when Hurricane Katrina roared through several years ago. They are all very pretty but they all look to be very temporary, as if just waiting for the next big hurricane. It must take a special kind of person to build a house out there, either very rich, very determined or, it seems to me, very stupid.
After the ride around St George Island, I headed back over to the mainland. Close by the campground, there was a small seafood restaurant so I stopped in there and had another dozen oysters in some kind of garlic sauce and a side order of crawfish and watched the sun go down below the horizon on the Gulf of Mexico.
I rode on back into the campground, parked the bike over by the tent and spent an hour or so walking around the campground, saying hi to other campers a few of them on motorcycles as well. With the sun going down, the breeze died down which brought out some mosquitoes. So I called it an early night and got in the tent with my Kindle e-reader and spent an hour or so reading a good book before falling asleep.
I slept well and was awake early. It was still dark but I was wide awake anyway. Searching around inside the tent, I finally found the small flashlight I keep inside with me, the watch read a little after 4:30 am. It seemed like getting up early was becoming a habit during my travels. I got out of the tent, grabbed a change of clothes from the pack on the bike and went over to the small restroom. I cleaned up a bit, changed into some fresh riding clothes and went back to pack up the tent. Packing up in the dark is never fun and this was no different, rolling up the sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Cleaning out the tent, taking it down and packing it up and then putting everything on the bike. I was ready to leave. That is until I realized that my wallet was not in my pocket! A bit of instant panic right there! It had to be somewhere in the campsite so I got out the flashlight and started looking. Pretty soon, a guy from a nearby campsite came over and asked if everything was OK. I told him what had happened and before I knew it, there were 4 other folks out there with flashlights at 5am in the morning helping me look for my wallet.
We eventually did find it in one of the saddlebags on my bike. I thanked everyone ever so much for all of their help, told them I hoped they could get back to sleep and headed back out onto the highway towards home.
Riding back west on rt98 just a few miles past the campground I turned north onto state road 65 through the Apalachicola Forest. 65 miles through the dark. Just my headlights and the 2 lane blacktop ahead of me. I kept the speed under the 50mph posted speed limit as there was no telling what critters might be sitting in the road waiting for me. With the mist in the trees, and the Spanish moss hanging from branches, ‘brer bear along the roadside would have been right in place. As I pulled into the crossroads of state rd 65
and rt20 at Hosford the sky was just beginning to get gray. I stopped at a gas station too fill up the tank, get a coffee and ask where the hell I was. Riding with a GPS is nice but at least with a map you get an idea where in the state or country you might be. Anyway, they guy at the store was very helpful and it turned out that I was only 2 turns and about 30 miles from Interstate 10 which would be a straight shot back Home. Finishing up another cup of coffee, I got back onto the bike, riding west on rt20 for about 10 miles to rt267. The sun coming up and Interstate 10 only a few miles away I found myself in early morning traffic. Everyone headed in the same direction. I couldn’t figure what would be causing all of this traffic in rural Florida on an early Sunday Morning. As I came over a small hill I could see the overpass for I-10. I pulled into a Waffle House before getting onto the highway and had a breakfast of pecan waffles, side order of sausage and another coffee. When I went to pay the bill I asked the waitress what all the traffic was about and she told that this being the bible belt, folks were going to the big Baptist Church down the highway towards Tallahassee a bit.
Back out on the road and onto the Highway, Interstate 10, I headed back on east into a rising sun, glad for sunglasses and the dark visor on my helmet. I have some history with I-10, one of the longest Interstate Highways in the country. I have been at both ends, With Jacksonville, Florida on the east coast and Santa Monica, California on the west and a whole lot of highway in between. Our Interstate system is one of the things that our government seems to have actually got right. With big wide highways, they move the traffic from one end of the country to the other. And if you ride a big touring bike like I do, they are especially nice. I set the cruise control on my Royal Star at 75 mph, leaned back into the drivers back rest, put my feet up on the highway pegs and enjoyed the ride. I enjoy riding the back roads and through the small towns but when I want to get some place soon, there’s no better way to do it than getting on the Interstate Highway system.
This Sunday morning was especially nice, with little traffic, I almost felt that I had the highway to myself. Even when riding through the center of Tallahassee, I only had to take the bike out of cruise control one time. Near Live Oak, Fl. I stopped for gas. A couple of hours later the traffic began increasing as I approached Jacksonville. Rather than fool around with the crazy drivers on I-10 around the city, I got off and followed back roads around and through Jacksonville.
Finally crossing the St Johns River on the Matthews Bridge, I was only a few miles from home. As I slowly rode down the street that I live on and then backed the bike into our garage, I thought about the trip; Only 2 days long but with almost exactly 600 miles on the gps, it seemed so much longer. The oysters were great, the camping was fine (I think I will be doing a lot more of that in the future) and, as usual, the people I met along the way were what really made the trip great.
Jacksonville, Florida October 2010