Thursday, November 14, 2013

Day 8: All The Way Down

I’m not sure where the sense of urgency came from, but my internal alarm clock got me up pretty early.  J and the kids took an early flight from Houston to Miami.  The would hit the airport about 10am and then drive the truck and trailer down to Key Largo to meet me about 11:30 or so.

The time between waking up and them getting there felt like a lifetime.  I went ahead and packed up (for the last time) because I just couldn't stand it.  I strapped everything back on the bike because I wanted to meet them at the visitor center (and because my campsite was a dark, dismal shithole).  

I milled around the park for a couple of hours when I finally got the call that they were close.  I ran out in the main road to meet them.  I can’t really describe how I felt but I did have a conversation with my son (the next day) that sums it all up:

My Son at Disney’s Animal Kingdom: This is like our home.  I actually like it better.
Me: For me home is where y'all are.  I can be anywhere.
My son: So yesterday, you came home, when we met you in Key Largo?  

Back to Day 8, I loaded all my bike luggage into the trailer and we grabbed my son’s riding gear.  The plan had been that he would ride with me from Key Largo to Key West.  I had my reservations but I had given him my word that we would try.

In many ways this was the pinnacle of the trip.  My son and me on the bike in one of the most beautiful places in the world.  J and our daughter would scout ahead in the truck.

The view did not disappoint.  It was long bridges, blue green water and tiny islands. It looked much like I thought it would.  Yet, I'm not sure I ever believed that I was actually on the road to Key West.  The idea seemed too ridiculous to be real.  And yet, there we were.  It was a cool feeling.

I expected this ride to only take a couple of hours, thus, it took four.  The traffic was pretty rough and it was really getting hot.  Despite all this, that kid had a great attitude throughout the entire trip.  We had helmet comms so we could talk along the way.  It was always: “Dad, look at that” or “Dad did you see that?”.  He would say “CORVETTE” in the same way that that a dog would say “SQUIRREL”.  We talked about cars, motorcycles and islands, it was fabulous.  He didn’t bitch once about the heat or the ride.  I did, but he didn’t.

There is this great intersection in Key West where you have literally come as far down as you can go.  You must turn left or right.  Remember, this is the first and only turn of the whole day.

Credit Google Maps

I couldn’t figure out which way to turn because I was so damned hot and tired. Also, after 4 hours of riding in a straight line, I'd forgotten how.  We managed a left turn and I pulled into a hotel parking lot.  I called J.  My son got off the bike and laid down on the concrete, right there in the parking lot.  J told me that left was the correct direction and I could just keep going to hit the hotel. 

Five minutes later we were there.  The Sheraton Key West is beautiful.  They were extremely polite and accommodating.  We got to our room, which was very nice, and settled down.

After a few minutes of sitting around in the room...
J:”Are you going to Land’s end”
Me: “I had planned on it but I the last thing I want to do right now is get back on that fuckin’ bike”
J: “I know but you have come all this way. I think you need to finish it.”
Me: “Really?  Yeah, you’re probably right.”

J helped me with the directions and I got ready to finish the trip.  I was feeling emotional but in a detached kind of way.  The fatigue and relief at being with the family balanced into this strange numbness.  I think that I was afraid to finish the trip.  I’m still not sure why.

Back on the bike and through the town streets of Key West.  What a cool town. Yes it’s a party town but unlike other coastal party towns, it has a strong identity. Chickens walk through the streets and everyone is on two wheels.  

I watched this cock walk right out in the middle of the street.
Scooters are definitely the preferred mode of transportation.  I had the strange feeling of being on a much larger vehicle than everyone else.  I followed the phone navigation to the southernmost point in the United States.  I was able to park pretty close.

You can see the place marker down the street.

Here is a closer shot.

I wasn’t done though.  I rode back to the hotel and parked the bike.  The hotel was directly across the street from the (most gorgeous) beach (in the world).  

I walked across the street and down the seawall steps.  As I walked across the soft white sand I pulled my keys out from my pocket.  I stopped at water’s edge and tossed ‘em in.

The keys are actually in 6 inches of water.
The water is just so clear and clean that you can't tell.
I grabbed them, put them back in my pocket and sent a text to J:

“I’m done and coming to you”

And just like that, 1 year of planning, 8 long days, 2300 miles across 5 states and 10,000 thoughts came to a close.  No accidents.  No injuries.  No breakdowns. No regrets. 

And now to close this “third phase” of the trip, that is to say this blog, I find myself struggling for words.

I have always been a child of the gulf coast.  The warm waters, the warm breeze, even the crazy storms have always spoken to me...  taught me about the important things…shaped who I am.  I have always hated that my experience only stretched along one small piece of the coast.  This was more than just a vacation.  It was more than just a ride.

This trip was about connections. Dots on a map connected by motorcycle and rider.  Places that used to only live in my imagination now live in my memory.  I have a mental mosaic of this entire coastline and the people who live on it.  And as different as each place seems, there is an underlying spirit that is unmistakably gulf coastal.  All the places and people are in some small way…connected.

This blog has also been a journey of connections.  Something happens when you write a thought down.  Not only is it saved for the future but it’s examined in the present.  I had to think about these experiences in a way that they could be described to someone who wasn’t there.  It has been difficult because the ride experience was such a rich one that I find my writing abilities pushed to the limit.  Still, you probably only got about 15% of what it was like to go do this thing.  Yet, I hope that you were able to connect with some of the places I described here.  I hope that in dragging you with me on this trip I’ve given you a sense of what it is like to be summarily immersed in every part of this region.  It remains the place I love most on this planet.  While I imagine that I will visit many of the individual places again, I doubt that I’ll tour the whole region in one go. 

That journey is complete and now, so is this one.

Thank you for riding with me.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege.

..and to close, one last storytime….

A husband and wife in their early seventies sit on a porch in Key West that overlooks the sea. 

“Did I tell you that they are both flying in with all the kids?” she said.
“No. You mean actually flying?”
“Yeah, they rented a twin-engine and she’s flying it.”
“Cool! Does she know how to fly into Boca Chica” he asked.
She gave him a flat look
“Right, of course she does” He said.
“She is planning on flying over the house on the way in.” She said
“What time”, he asked
“Tomorrow at 10AM” she said.
“What? Shit!  I thought they were coming in on Wednesday”, he said.
“If you would have checked the calendar on the fridge…”, she said.
“Right, right.  Damn I need to get those scooters running”, he said
“You know, we could just rent them some.” She said.
“Hell no” he said “I can fix the spares.  I just need to get the carbs on the one and a new battery in the other.  Shouldn’t be a problem at all.  Take me maybe a couple hours at the most.”
“Why don’t you see if there are any parts that you need.  Mike got really pissed the last time you made him open the shop in the middle of the night”, she said.
“Good idea, I’ll go check it out.” He said.

Sunrise the next day, the wife is sipping coffee on the same porch.  The man sits down behind her.  His hands are grease stained and his eyes are red.

“For someone who didn’t sleep, you look pretty good” she said
“Thanks.  Well, all the bikes run now.  Everyone will have their own set of wheels”
“You didn’t have do that” she said.
“No worries, I just didn’t expect to have to change tires and swap gas.  I’m glad Mike was awake last night.  I picked up helmets for all the grandkids as well”
“I’m sure your daughter will be grateful for that” she said
“She said that they could ride when they turned 8.  They’re both older than 8”
“They’re 9 and 11” she said.
“Which is older than 8.  I’m sure it will be fine” he said.
She sighed.
They both turned at the sound of airplane engines in the distance.
“Is that them?”
“Should be.  She texted me a few minutes ago”
A small twin engine plane flew directly towards the house.  Just before the plane flew over, the left wing dipped three times in rapid succession.
“Yep, that’s them” he said.
“Let’s go get them” she said.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Day 7: Getting Lost

Early to bed and Early to rise….gets my ass to Key Largo before dark.  Seriously, that was the whole plan for today.  Haul ass down the length of Florida, check on the truck and trailer at the Miami airport ( I dropped it off a couple of weeks before) and roll onto Key Largo while singing Bertie Higgins (don’t fight it, it’s good for you.)

First off, I roll all the way down to Florida to freeze my ass off.  Seriously, it had to be in the upper 40’s when I woke up at 5.  Full winter gear and long underwear just barely cut the bite of the wind.  The first hour was pretty rough. 

I think I stopped in Crystal River to get breakfast and coffee.  At this point things were warming up and I was starting to relax.  I was kind of looking forward to Tampa.

Out of all the routes I took on this trip, this was the one I spent the most time planning.  I wanted to stay close to the coast but that route added hours to the trip.  I wish I would have had another day to get a feel for this part of Florida.  I am pretty sure I could live down here.

Instead I took 19 all the way down through Tampa to save time.  My phone was trying to get me killed. The navigation would work for 5 minutes at a time and then the phone would shut down…just before I passed a ramp with no signs.  So, I got a little lost in Tampa and ended up at the Shriner's International Headquarters.  I’ve already written another post about this one so I’ll just say that I am really glad I got lost.  It was a high point of the trip and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.

South of Tampa, I crossed this big beautiful bridge:

The Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge

About half way across the bridge I realized that it was no longer cold.  It was, in fact, really hot.  It would stay that way for the rest of the trip.

I stopped on the other side of the bridge to ditch the winter gear and get some coffee. I struck up a conversation with a very much older guy (70’s) on a small Honda Shadow.  We talked about fuel efficiency and lifetimes of riding.  He was on a tour of the south, moving from couch to couch, visiting relatives.  In one of the recent Carl Hiassen books (read him, he’s fucking great), there is a retired cop who spends his time riding his Harley up and down Florida.  That is literally his retirement life.  I ran into many people who I thought might be living this way.  You could get used to it.

In any case, I got turned around and headed back the wrong way over the bridge. I stopped again to take pictures.  

Then I set out to make some time.  I didn’t really mind repeating this bridge, it is breathtaking, even the third time ‘round.

Not much to see or say about the next few hundred miles.  Mostly just turnpike.  I enjoyed the speed though.  It felt good to open ‘er up and just cruise for a few hours.  Then it was time to turn east across Florida.  It was basically just swamp and brushlands all the way across the state. 

Credit: Google Maps

Guess what, I got lost in Miami.  Really goddamned lost. Then a miracle occurred.  My phone turned out to be a game-day player.  The turn-by-turn got me to the airport! A quick word about Miami. Felt a lot like home (Houston). Warm and busy. Vibrant and cramped but in a good way.  I feel comfortable there. 

After a couple of hours in the traffic I was headed down the turnpike to Key Largo.  Key Largo is not what I expected.  It isn’t particularly beautiful and there is just enough development to kill some of the natural beauty of the island.  It wasn't all bad though.

My campsite, however,  was terrible.  Dark and tiny with no view of anything but the Poisonwood forest between me and the bay.  I should have said hell with it and stayed in a hotel.

In any case, I got unpacked and set up camp. I crashed out pretty early because I was so damned tired from the ride. 

At some point around midnight, I heard a bell ringing outside my tent.  Apparently one of the local boys (probably a raccoon) found the package of week-old hot dogs in my fishing kit and was dragging the whole damn thing off into the woods. I was too tired to care and went back to sleep.

Besides, everything would be amazing tomorrow.  J and the kids would be flying into Miami and driving down to Key Largo to meet me. These were my happy last thoughts of the day.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Day 6: Demons

Let’s talk about Demons for a quick second.  I’m not talking about any sort of the “Other” external-type demons that you find in pretty much all the world’s mythologies.  I’m talking about the demons that speak softly with your voice.  The motherfuckers who sound so logical.  The ones that eat at your resolve in small ways.  I’ve found that the best way to tell the difference between their voices and yours is to speak the words aloud.  I forgot to do this for the first hour of day 6

When I woke up, there was one particular voice saying one particular thing in my head.  “I can’t have another day like yesterday.  No more traffic.  No more stoplights”.  I got up and went through the motions of breakfast and camp cleaning.  I took a quick video of my thoughts but I can’t seem to find it out now. The first words in the video were “Its day 6 and I’m trying very hard not to be a pussy.”  If I remember correctly, the rest of the video was just about how tired I was…bla bla bla.

As I’m packing up, an older guy comes over to ask if everything in camp would go back on the bike.  I just laughed and said that yes, everything fits after some work.  We talked for a few minutes about the process and where I’d been.  He lived in Dunellon and was a retired part time RV’er.  He asked about my route for the day.  I told him everything.  The fatigue, the traffic and how I was planning on just grabbing I-10 down to Dunellon.

He said “Well, you could do that but let me go get a map real quick”.

He came back a few minutes later with a road map and showed me the route that I had pretty much planned on taking when I started the trip.

He talked about sticking to the coast and how I would have to end up on the freeway eventually anyway because there are no coastal roads after the panhandle.  I decided then and there to take his route and stay on the coast.  I’m horrified that I almost missed this amazing stretch of road.

So out 98 I went. I was only an hour into the ride when I heard the unmistakable sound of military jet engines on my left.  I killed the throttle and looked left just as I came into a clearing of trees.  I watched an F-22 go from a standstill to vertically airborne in seconds.    I have tried repeatedly to put the experience into words but I can’t seem to do it. At the end of this post I included a quick daydream session to capture the feeling. through google images
The country I’m from created that machine and the pilot in it.  I might have missed that had I listened to the demons. Lesson learned.

Further along the coast there were beautiful beach towns and great views of the coast.

Credit: Google Maps

This was my view when I stopped to get gas.

This is the coast that I dreamed of.  I made the turn from south to east into Saint Vincent Sound.  The road was wooded on both sides but every once in awhile you would get this view:

And then, the John Gorrie Memorial bridge.  Just, damn… 

Credit: Google Maps

The picture does not do it justice at all.

Eventually I grudgingly made the turn north at Bald Point State Park.  It was mostly treelined farm to market roads up through northern Florida and then down to Dunnelon. 

I did stop at an interesting restaurant though. Deals Oyster House in Perry.  The food was fantastic but the owners have a strange custom.  When someone walks in the door they say (unfailingly) “Welcome to Deals, the finest people walk through that door”.  When someone leaves they say (unfailingly) “Thanks for coming to Deals, the finest people walk out that door”.

The food was extremely good and the service was fantastic.  I couldn't shake the greeting though.  Every time they said it all I heard was “the finest people walk through that door….for the last time.”  I felt guilty about this because everyone seemed so nice and professional.  The greeting just really threw me off.

I made my way through Dunellon at about 7:00 local time. Rainbow Springs state park was just outside the city proper.

A word to Florida State Parks: You’re doing it right.

The campsite was amazing, the park was beautiful and the park ranger in the office was very polite.  I dropped my gear at the campsite and raced the fading daylight for some pictures.

For my Texan readers, Rainbow Springs and Dunellon reminded me of New Braunfels.  There is tubing and the river here is clear, cold and gentle.

More importantly there were really good washing machines in the bathroom area. Washing my clothes felt very luxurious.  With a clean bag of clothes, calls made to Julie and the kids, I watched a movie on my laptop and crashed out.  Tomorrow would be as tough as the Galveston to New Orleans ride.  Dunellon, all the way to Key Largo with a stop at the Miami airport (always a treat) to check on the Truck and trailer.

So much can change in a day of long distance travel.  And to think, I almost took I-10.

I'll leave you with storytime...I had this cool daydream after the F-22 thing at Tyndall.  Here it is…

A couple on a big black BMW Sport-Touring bike pull over to the side of the road. They get off the bike and start removing helmets and riding gear.  The air is clear and crisp with the faint smell of grass and south Florida pine forest. 

On one side of the road there are tall Georgia pines on the other side, a long airfield runway runs to a point in the distance. 2 F22’s line up to do run-up checks and wait for ATC clearance to take off.

The woman leans against the bike seat and asks, “Is that her?”.
He hears the edge in her voice and puts his arm around her.
“I think so.  The time is right but I don’t think we’ll know for sure until she takes off.  Three dips, left wing, 8 seconds after take-off”
“Okay.  I’m not sure I want to be here.” She said.
“It’s not her first flight hon.  ...only a couple of more weeks of training”
“Still, seeing her do it…makes it real”
“I get it.” He said
The engines get a little louder.
“Here she goes”, he shouts.
She smiles, “You’re sure it’s her”.
“It’s her. Here they go”, he said.
The fighters throttle up to a deafening roar and almost immediately leave the ground.
“6 one thousand, 7 one thousand, 8 one thousand”
The fighter on the left dips it’s wing 3 times in quick succession.
Tears run down the man’s face as he laughs.
“That was her, did you see it”, he asked.
“Yes, that was her” Her voice was low and steady. “I am ready to go now”
“Can you drive for awhile?  I’m too shaky.” He said.
“Sure”, She said.

They slip back into riding gear and helmets.  The woman climbs onto the driver seat and adjusts the mirror. 

She starts the bike, picks it up and motions for the man to climb on.  He does so.  Before they leave, he pulls out his phone and sends a three-word text “You are amazing.”

Monday, September 23, 2013

Day 5: The Real Cost of a Hurricane

Just to recap, on day 4 I rode from Galveston to Bay St Louis, to stay in the Hollywood Casino hotel.  The trip was 13 hours and I would only end up getting a few hours of sleep.

Waking up in a Casino hotel is interesting.  Casino’s by their very nature seem to blur the lines between day and night.  The bright shining sunlight off the pool 12 floors below was the only way I could tell that I'd had more than an hour of sleep.  I had rested but not nearly enough.  Body-wise I felt pretty good.  Brain-wise, not so much. 

Packing up was pretty easy as I’d been here way less than 12 hours.  As I walked down to the checkout, the same person was at the front desk. 

“Good god, Are you still here” I asked
“Oh no.  They let me go home to sleep for a few hours” she said.

It reminded me of former jobs with strange hours.  In fact, this whole trip had that feel to it. An exorable progression south where day and night was really just a condition of lighting.

I was surprised to realize that the Casino was in the middle of a neighborhood.  I rode through it respectfully and made my way to the coast. 

I would take 90 all the way along the coast to Biloxi then overland down to the Dauphine Island causeway.

I had never been to the deep south before so I was really looking forward to this gulf coastal stretch.  After all, this is the land that produced Jimmy Buffet.  It is unlike any other part of the gulf coast I had ever seen.  The beach is so close to the road that, at times, you feel like you can reach down and touch the water. 

There were long swaths of sand flowing like small rivulets across the road. 

How do any of these towns survive Hurricanes (more on that later).  It felt so unprotected. 

I stared Southeast into the gulf. I imagined that I could see Key West sitting patiently at the bottom of the country… somehow knowing that I would get there in a few days.  I however was in a hurry.  After the 13 hour grind from the day before, I was haunted by the thought of another long day.  Today was only a couple hundred miles.  I would get to Panama City with plenty of daytime left.

As I look at the map now, the overland stretch was only about 60 miles.  It felt much longer.  First of all, there were stoplights everyfuckingwhere, allthefuckingtime.  I got to the point where I was ready to ride up on the sidewalk and haul ass through ‘em.

I should say though that the countryside through here was quite pretty.  Small towns and tall pine trees.  It was much more rural than I expected.  It reminded me of the way 249 used to look about 20 years ago.  Not far from the city but irrevocably country.  I just don’t know why there where friggin' stop lights on a highway…every 2 miles.

I struggled through the “stoplight” highway onto the Dauphine Island causeway.  One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t put a GoPro camera on my handlebars.  There were times where I could have just snapped a couple of pictures without stopping.  Shots from Google Maps have been a good substitute but after using a GoPro lately, I really should have had one for the ride.

In any case, the view from the causeway was beautiful

from google maps

I made it to the Ferry landing…to realize that I had just missed the goddamn ferry!.  The next one wasn’t leaving for an hour and a half!  There goes my daytime in Panama City.  The lesson learned here was to check the damn Ferry times and ride like hell to make them.

The good thing about all of this is that I was in spot #1.

from Google Maps

Oh well, there are far worse places to be stranded.

So I did what all bikers do in such situations.  Grabbed lunch, worked on the bike and talked to other bikers.

There was a couple from Washington that were on their retirement trip.  They were three weeks into a months long trip and I have forgotten all of the places he said that they’d been to..  He was on a 1200 pound Harley (I asked) and she was on a smaller model.  They were a really neat couple although I sensed some reluctance on her part to the hard-core windy riding we’d done across the causeway.

I love talking to people on different voyages.  I think that these journeys somehow intersect for a reason.  You are smarter after a conversation with a fellow biker than you were before.

As with the Louisiana ferry, the loaders were very familiar with bikes.  They put us all together in a fairly stable spot.  The bay was really choppy so we stayed by the bikes.  We struck up a conversation with a really cool local guy who explained that the shark they used in jaws (the one they thought was the killer) was actually caught a few feet offshore, “right over there”.

The non-coastal people seemed very surprised.  I’ve seen some bigass hammer heads pulled in on the Galveston piers so I joined the local in spreading some shark fear.

I got some really close pics of an oil rig:

I meant to check to see if it was one of ours but I’ve never done it.

We buckled down in preparation to disembark.  If you ever get  a chance, ride a motorcycle from the Ferry to the docking platform. You just feel like an absolute badass while doing it.  Not sure why, it just is.

As I made my way down Fort Morgan road, I was a little disappointed at the lack of water view.  There were trees on both sides of the road along much of this peninsula.  I became a little introspective and started thinking about all of these places that were now “real”.  I had kind of a terrible thought. 

Every Hurricane that makes it onto a Gulf Coastal mainland will now cost me something.  It will be a piece of coastline that has been forever changed and lives only in my memory.  This made me a little sad but it also gave a sense of urgency to the trip.  "Pay attention asshole ‘cause nothin’ lasts forever." I decided to worry less about schedule and look around more.

Ironically, it was about that time that I realized the biggest planning mistake of the trip.  182 along the Florida coast is absolutely jammed with stoplights and traffic.  It took me hours to crawl across this bastard and it wasn’t even that pretty.  I didn’t get to see much water at all.  I really should have grabbed I-10 at this point and gone up and over.

I had been to Panama City beach years before for a family reunion.  It is a beautiful place but it always feels much more like California than Florida to me. There is an LA vibe that I can’t say I’m in love with.  Go a little further though, and you will find one of the most beautiful places on the Gulf Coast.

I made it into St Andrews state park at about 7:30 and I was utterly spent.  I got to the site. Chucked off my gear and bike luggage and rode my ass to the beach.  The goal was to get as many daylight pictures as possible. 

And here we go…

First the swampy lowlands

Then the beach....

St Andrews feels like the kind of park where you could get eaten after sunset.

I didn’t venture too far from the campsite after dark.

I slowly set up camp and called Julie and the kids.  I turned in pretty early though.

A quick word about my camping setup.  My gear was fantastic.  I had the right tent, the right sleeping mat and a good heater that provided both white noise and a cozy interior.  My phone produced some white noise and I had a big empty Gatorade bottle for midnight biological necessities.  Night time rest was not a problem. I mention it because this should really be considered a safety concern for anyone who does a ride like this.  If you catch yourself skimping on camp gear for any reason during the planning phase, use hotels for the whole trip.

I wouldn’t have backed off my schedule even if the nights were crappy.  This would have led to the “zombie on a motorcycle” condition.  All this gear was a pain to lug around, but I lived well at the end of the day.

Even in fairly comfortable camp conditions, there is a demon that lurks in the depths of mental fatigue.  It whispers of comfy beds, soft pillows and more time to enjoy the destinations.  All you have to do is start taking the big freeway roads and your life gets better.  I would have serious discussions with this demon on day 6.