Scenes from a Southern Sojourn

We left home on March 9, two days earlier than planned, restless, ready, and eager to hit the road. The coronavirus pandemic would begin to explode within days. We drove away from the Washington, D.C., region just in time.

The plan was for Sue and I to rendezvous with New York friends Tad and Lea and Michigan friends Bob and Meg in Beaufort, South Carolina, and then spend most of the next two weeks or longer traveling together through the coastal Southeast and Florida and maybe elsewhere. But because of the increasingly worrisome news about the pandemic, Bob and Meg ultimately decided to cancel. The rest of us traveled on.

We kept our distance from people and avoided crowds, which was not hard to do. Our activities mainly involved walking and bicycling on trails and in parks and on beaches that were largely or completely deserted. While the pandemic forced a few changes in our plans and in some ways of traveling, the trip came off mostly as we hoped it would.

Sue and I returned home after 18 days to a very different world than the one we had left. As with everyone else, we don’t know when we’ll be able to travel again. So our warm memories of this trip will have to tide us over for a while.

The Low Country

Florida

Wildlife

David Romanowski, 2020

Gold Mines at Great Falls in Maryland

A while ago in this blog, I wrote a post called Walking the Gold Mine Loop, about the trail system in the woods near the Great Falls of the Potomac on the Maryland side of the river. The loop trail is named for the gold mine that once operated here. That post has received a small but steady stream of hits, so I thought I’d do an update, about what I’ve recently learned about this area.

“Historic Mining Along the C&O Canal”

As a volunteer at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, I recently attended a presentation by Jessica Lindsay, who had completed a Geoscientists-in-the-Parks internship here. She had been tasked with mapping mining structures throughout the entire park and identifying current hazards related to these sites.

There was quite a lot of mining over the years along the 185-mile canal, for concrete, lime, sandstone, coal, iron, and gold. While little in the way of technological ruins remain, the landscape still bears lasting signs of mining. For example, Lindsay showed us images from west of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, showing long gashes in the landscape up to 70 feet deep from iron mining. Most evidence of mining within the park is much more subtle.

Her talk, “Historic Mining Along the C&O Canal,” focused mainly on the Great Falls area and its many defunct gold mines, in particular the Maryland Mine, which the Gold Mine Loop and its connecting trails overlie. Mining took place near Great Falls from the 1880s to the 1940s, when the Maryland Mine closed.

The gold veins threading through the hills here are the northernmost end of a gold-bearing belt that extends all the way to Georgia. Gold nuggets weren’t panned from streambed sediments here, as in California during the gold rush years of the mid-1800s. Instead, the gold-bearing rock here had be crushed into small pieces and then the gold extracted using mercury. It was a laborious, dangerous, and poisonous process. Because of the relatively minor amounts extracted, it ultimately proved unprofitable.

Lindsay clarified some mining terms for us. A tunnel is a chamber that has openings on both ends, like a train tunnel. An adit has only one opening; it leads to a dead end. A shaft is a vertical chamber. Don’t step into one.

Gold Mines at Great Falls

One of the sources Lindsay relied on was the Department of the Interior’s Geological Survey Bulletin 1286, “Gold Veins Near Great Falls, Maryland,” published in 1969. Most of the text is heavy duty geology, but the 22-page bulletin also contains interesting historical background and some intriguing photos and graphics.

Consider the cover illustration, created from a historical photograph reproduced in the bulletin. It shows the processing facility for the Maryland Mine. The caption for the photo explains what role the various parts of this structure played in the gold extraction process. Knowledgeable locals know that the remains of this facility—a concrete structure that supported a water tower—can be seen in the woods on the left as you enter the C&O Canal National Historical Park from MacArthur Boulevard. Last year, the National Park Service removed some wooden structures from here that were not historic or even historically accurate. They were built in the 1980s to help interpret the site for visitors but had deteriorated and become hazardous.

As you walk the trails through the woods here, you’ll see little other obvious evidence that mining took place here. And yet, there is much among the trees that just doesn’t look quite right. “If it doesn’t look natural,” Lindsay said, “it most likely isn’t.” There are earthworks and stone structures dating back to the Civil War, traces of old roads, and exploratory prospecting pits and trenches from the mining operation.

One illustration in the bulletin reveals how extensive the Maryland Mine was. A cutaway view shows the mine’s underground chambers in 1940, when the mine closed, and the above-ground structures as they appeared in 1967. Long horizontal passageways pierce the bedrock at depths of 50 feet, 100 feet, 135 feet, and 200 feet. That is what’s below you when you walk the Gold Mine Loop.

Openings to the mines throughout the park have been sealed for obvious safety reasons. In some places bat gates, grates that allow bats to fly in and out, have been installed. But minor openings remain, some resulting from structural failures. However enticing, these places are dangerous. They can, have, and do collapse. In the unlikely event that you ever happen upon one, don’t try to enter it!

The Topographical View

One of the tools Lindsay used to locate evidence of mining was the MD iMap Topography Viewer, a nifty web application you can access yourself. It is basically a high-resolution map of Maryland that shows topographical features in great detail. The data was last updated in February 2019, so it’s pretty current. I zoomed in on the area where the Maryland Gold Mine was located and made a copy of the image on my screen. I added the three red letters to the image below to help point out some features.

The Potomac River is the flat area running from top to bottom on the left. “A” shows the location of Great Falls Tavern, the visitor center for this section of the C&O Canal National Historical Park. (Buildings are only faintly visible.) The long linear feature running past the tavern is the canal itself. You can discern individual locks and other structures, including the stop gate across the canal and the adjacent levee, both built for flood control, in the lower part of the image.

“B” marks a distinct feature unrelated to mining: the turnaround for a trolley that connected Great Falls to nearby Bethesda in the early 20th century. The trolley tracks are gone, but a trail now follows the trolley route through the woods.

The “M” toward the lower right of the image marks the site of the Maryland Mine gold processing facility (depicted on the Geological Survey Bulletin 1286 cover), near the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Falls Road, which are faintly visible. The areas to the right and upper right are now neighborhoods, some built atop old gold mines.

Look below the “M” and in other areas throughout the hilly, undeveloped land between MacArthur Boulevard and the canal, and you can pick out countless disturbances in the landscape—gashes, lines, pits, mounds—topographical evidence of the mining operations that once took place here and that are only vaguely apparent from the trails in the woods.

Call up the topography viewer and play around with it yourself. It’s fascinating! Take a look at your own neighborhood. You may see features you never realized existed.

The Gold Mine Loop is one of my favorite places to walk. Since Jessica Lindsay’s talk, I’m eager to get back into the woods. I’ll look around now with greater interest, curious about just what it is I am seeing and what lies beneath.

David Romanowski, 2020

Postcards from the Road

During the period from 1986 to 2005, I did a lot of traveling out West and elsewhere. These were the years when Sue and I took many trips to the western national parks, California, and Oregon, and when I drove across the country several times with my father.

Dad Trips 2000_17I spent some time not long ago browsing through the postcards I had collected during those 20 years. I discovered that I had amassed quite a collection, about 250 postcards and notecards. As a winter project, I decided to scan them all and (of course) organize the images.

I began collecting postcards as a way of creating a record of those trips. I’ve never managed to keep a travel journal for very long. I did so on several of my trips with Dad and on my month-long bicycle trip down the Pacific Coast. I didn’t have a portable computer back then to make journaling easier, and at the end of a day about the last thing I felt like doing was writing. Sometimes even scribbling just a few notes seemed like too much of an effort.

Oregon 1998_04aHowever, I knew that if I didn’t record those trips somehow, my memory of them would fade and the details would be lost. I figured I could at least manage to fill out a single postcard each evening. So I got into the habit of buying one for each day of a trip. On it I noted what we did that day, where we stayed, what we ate, and any other details I wanted to remember.

At first, I began sending the postcards home from the road. But to ensure that the cards wouldn’t get lost or damaged in the mail, I stopped doing that. Not addressing and stamping them also left more space to write my notes.

Oregon 1998_07I bought many of the postcards to supplement the photographs I took. I didn’t have a digital camera back then, so every photo had a cost in terms of film and processing. And until the film was developed, I couldn’t see how well or poorly the shots had turned out. So postcards served as backup images, and they often provided better views of places or lodgings than I could take myself.

I ended up filling a three-ring binder with archival pages containing postcards from our trips. The plastic pages are transparent, so we can read the notes I’d written on the cards as we flip the pages. Organized by trip, these postcards provide a nice way to help us remember and relive a vacation. We sometimes browse through them before revisiting a place to look up the number of a room we especially liked in a historic lodge or the name of an eatery we enjoyed.

Below is a representative sampling of this collection. It was hard to select just a few out of 250, but I think these cover the full range of the kinds of cards I collected over two decades worth of travels.

 On the Road

Historical Images

Historic Lodges

Paintings and Drawings

Artistic Photographs

That’s all, folks!

David Romanowski, 2020

Exploring “Deep Time”

The oval-shaped displays are miniature see-through dioramas.

In June 2019 the National Museum of Natural History, where I volunteer at the visitor information desk, reopened its Fossil Hall after a floor-to-ceiling renovation. The hall, one of the largest in the museum, had been closed for five years. The dinosaur and ice age mammal skeletons, some of which had been on display since the museum opened in 1910, were carefully disassembled, shipped to specialists in Canada, and reassembled using state-of-the-art mounting techniques. A brand new exhibition was designed and built around these prehistoric treasures. New ones were added from the collections. The exhibition hall was completely renovated and returned to its original architectural grandeur.

This was the first stegosaurus to show scientists what the strange plated dinosaur actually looked like. Still used for research, this “type specimen,” is the one against which all other stegosaurus fossils are compared.

The exhibition itself—all the words and images and displays that provide context for these museum artifacts—is called Deep Time. At least that’s what the curators and exhibit developers call it. Most visitors just ask where the dinosaur hall is.

There are many spectacular prehistoric exhibitions in other museums, but this one has some unusual aspects worth noting. Deep TIme is more than just a collection of mounted skeletons of extinct animals. In fact, you may even be disappointed with how little information it provides about some specific creatures. The focus of the exhibition is on tracing the story of the evolution of life on Earth from its beginnings billions of years ago to the start of the human era.

As I said, the evolutionary message is not subtle. That’s Charles Darwin in bronze to the right.

The emphasis on evolution is anything but subtle. If you don’t believe in evolution, you may leave the museum composing in your head an irate letter to your congressperson. Good luck with that. Note that the full name of the hall/exhibition is “The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils – Deep Time,” in recognition of the conservative political activist and philanthropist who helped fund the exhibition. (He had no say in its content or approach.)

This exhibit explains how an asteroid strike led to the mass extinction of dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

There is also a heavy emphasis on climate change, which has been an important factor in evolution. The exhibition is organized into time periods divided from one another by the occurrence of mass extinctions, the most recent and best known being the one that did in the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. Most paleontologists think that an asteroid striking the Earth was the main cause. It wasn’t the impact itself that killed all the dinosaurs, but the environmental changes resulting from it.

The exhibition also has a thing or two to say about the present era of human-influenced mass extinction, which is going on as you read this, and about the human-influenced climate changes that have been taking place since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Another interesting aspect of Deep Time is that the curators chose to remount those fossil skeletons in nontraditional ways. Each animal is posed as though it is doing something it might have done when it was alive. The saber-toothed cat is slinking along as if preparing to pounce. The ground sloth is eating from a tree. The giant deer is sitting, legs folded beneath it, on the ground. The tyrannosaurus—a newly added specimen and one of the most complete T. rex skeletons ever found—is eating a fallen triceratops.

Complete fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs are rare. Therefore, many of the skeletons in the hall consist partly or completely of casts—exact replicas of bones. Casts are also used if specimens are too fragile to put on display. In this exhibition, the casts match the actual fossil bones so well that you can’t tell them apart. An illustration near each skeleton tries to show (the illustration is too small) which bones are real and which are casts.

But what did these animals and the places they lived actually look like? The exhibition planners came up with an interesting way to show this. At several places throughout the exhibition, you can examine miniature see-through dioramas, almost literally windows into the past, that you can view from two sides. You can see several of the oval-shaped structures that house the dioramas in some of the photos above.

The dioramas are astonishingly detailed, right down to the piles of dinosaur poop lying around. They help you imagine what the extinct creatures in this exhibition hall actually looked like in their prehistoric environments. These are among my favorite things in this new hall. The more you look at them, the more interesting and intricate details you discover.

Visitors can watch volunteers working on bones and other fossils in the hall’s FossiLab.

One of the benefits of being a volunteer here is being able to explore the museum before it opens to the public. Every other Saturday morning, I arrive early for my volunteer shift at one of the museum’s information desks. The grand museum rotunda, one of the great public spaces in Washington, is empty and quiet, as are all the exhibition halls.

Before the doors open to visitors, I spend half an hour or so browsing through a single exhibition, taking it in just a bit at a time, reading the labels (all the words in the exhibition) and examining the displays more carefully than I ever did a visitor. I do this both for my own enjoyment and to make me more informed and better equipped to help museum visitors. I spent months worth of Saturday mornings just going through the mind-boggling Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals.  Since Deep Time opened, I’ve been slowly working my way through that.

So if you love fossils of all kinds and want to find out what the fossil record tells us about how life on Earth evolved, stop by and spend some Deep Time here. If you don’t believe in climate change or evolution, well, you’ve been warned. Come on down anyhow. You might learn something.

David Romanowski, 2020

Back to the Florida Keys for Bubba Fest

When you come across a breathtaking aerial view of the Florida Keys, it almost always shows the Seven Mile Bridge, the longest by far in the Keys. About four times longer than the Golden Gate Bridge, it spans the blended blue-green waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico near the middle of this 126-mile-long island chain.

When Bubba Barron, founder of the Bubba Fest Florida Keys bicycle tour, hypes the Seven Mile Bridge as “the most beautiful 7 miles you have ever biked,” he exaggerates only a little. The midpoint may be the farthest out to sea you can get on a bicycle. The view from the top may be one of the most sublime you will ever see on bicycle. But what Bubba doesn’t tell you is that, especially for a first timer, the Seven Mile Bridge may be the most unnerving 7 miles you have ever biked.

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There is a not quite high enough concrete barrier between you and a gracefully long fall into some of the loveliest waters you have ever seen. There is a not quite wide enough shoulder separating you from all the cars and trucks blowing past just a few feet away. You need to focus ahead of you, scanning for obstacles and sharp debris on that seemingly endless shoulder, while praying that you don’t get a flat. Please God, not here.

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You get major bragging rights for biking across it twice: once on the way from Key Largo to Key West, with a fine subtropical breeze at your back, and again on your return, with a gusty make-my-day wind in your face.

My First Bubba Fest

Once described by someone as a rolling party, Bubba Fest Florida Keys is a week-long bicycle tour that begins and ends in Key Largo, the northernmost of the chain of keys (islands) that extend southwest like drips of coral and limestone from the tip of the Florida mainland. Over two days, you bike from Key Largo to the end-of-the-road city and island of Key West, about 100 miles away. You spend a couple of layover days at Key West and then retrace your route. I rode Bubba Fest in November 2009. It was my first bike trip in the Florida Keys, and a very mixed experience.

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Me at Boyd’s Key West Campground in 2009.

I got off to a bad start. The reasons for this involved the timing of the trip, high winds and threatening weather, feeling like I was crashing a party where I didn’t belong, and an anxiety-roiled sleepless night just before the first day’s ride. By morning, sleep deprived and paralyzed by panic, I nearly decided to drop out of the tour.

But once underway on my bike, I cycled out of the panic and ended up having a great time exploring the Keys. They were among the most beautiful places I’d ever biked. But I biked alone for almost the entire trip. I never warmed up to the group, the festivities irritated me, and I ended up isolating myself. I was the first to leave the farewell party on the last night and the first to leave camp the next morning. I reached Key Largo before anyone else and quickly packed up and left.

Now 10 years later, I began thinking the time had come to bike the Florida Keys again. And I thought perhaps it was time to give Bubba Fest another try.

Back to Bubba

For my first Bubba Fest, I had flown down to Florida alone. This time I hoped to rustle up a companion to make the tour more enjoyable. I contacted my Michigan friend Bob, whom I met a couple of years ago on a Bike Florida bicycle tour. Even though this was something of a last-minute proposal, Bob was game. We considered various options for a Keys cycling trip (an Adventure Cycling tour, a trip with Keys cycling guide Earl Stine, and going it on our own) and concluded that Bubba Fest seemed the best fit. Surprisingly, registration was still open with the tour only weeks away. Because of a late-breaking dental issue I had to contend with, we registered only two weeks before the tour was set to begin.

Bob rendezvoused with me at my home in Maryland. We drove down to Key Largo in his minivan, taking just over two days and bringing with us his new motor assisted e-bike and my trusty touring bike.

Bubba Fest, Then and Now

The tour format had changed a bit. Last time, after a first night in a Key Largo hotel, we camped for the rest of the trip, at the town of Marathon (the midpoint of the Keys) and just outside Key West. We had one layover day in Marathon and two in Key West. This time, there was no layover in Marathon, which was still recovering from Irma, a Category 4 hurricane that struck the middle Keys in 2017.

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Many things remain the same.

Nearby Pigeon Key, a nice day trip by bicycle from Marathon via the old highway bridge, was now accessible only by boat tour. The campground in Marathon was gone, developed into a resort. So this time, we stayed in a hotel in Marathon on the trip down and back. Like last time, we spent three nights at Boyd’s Campground near Key West.

Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers provided everyone with roomy tents, air mattresses, and other amenities. Most breakfasts and dinners were included, along with the mechanical and emergency support you expect on a fully supported tour.

The Cult of Bubba

One of the reasons I felt like an outsider at some stranger’s week-long party 10 years ago was because, in a sense, I was. Bubba has a devoted following. Many of the riders on Bubba Fest have done Bubba tours before. While this comradery can make Bubba Fest feel just a bit clannish at times, everyone welcomes newcomers. This time around, knowing what to expect, I felt much more relaxed and sociable. I really enjoyed meeting and talking with people, and that made a huge difference in how much more I enjoyed the tour this time.

Most of the people who set up the tents, drive the support vehicles, and help out in many other ways are volunteers and veterans of Bubba bicycle tours. Bubba himself, a retired police detective from St. Louis, remains a commanding yet jovial presence throughout the trip. He began running Keys tours in the early 2000s and has since branched out and added a few others, including a fully supported cross-country bicycle tour. Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers also provides tent rentals and pampering service for several other bicycle tours around the country.

Bubba clearly relishes running these trips. His “pirates trolley tour” of Key West—required if you want a ride to that night’s catered dinner at a restaurant near Mallory Square—remains unapologetically juvenile and tacky, unless perhaps you’ve indulged in a couple of his pink and potent “Bubbaritas” in camp before heading out. You have to wonder how much all that pirate paraphernalia (bag, shirt, bandana, and a plastic sword you are encouraged to wave threateningly), along with all the other Bubba branded stuff he gives out, adds to the tour cost. But I did appreciate the stainless steel mug he provided each of us to fill at the coffee stand thoughtfully set up for us in camp by 6:30 each morning.

Biking the Florida Keys

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The bike ride follows the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, a multiuse trail that, when completed, will extend 106 miles from Key Largo to Key West. The trail website states that over 90 miles have been finished. Indeed, comparing the trail maps I have from 2009 and 2019 reveals great progress. Some of that progress was undone in 2017 by Hurricane Irma, which damaged trail sections in the middle Keys.

Note that “trail” does not always mean “bike path.” Lengthy sections of the Overseas Trail consist of paved paths separate from US 1, the main (and only) highway through the Keys. This is especially true in the Upper Keys. Many other sections consist of bike lanes alongside the highway, sometimes generously wide and separated from the traffic lane by rumble strips, and sometimes not. In a few places, you ride on narrow shoulders or sidewalks. Here and there, the trail switches sides of the highway. It’s not always clear which side of the road you should be on. There was little directional signage for the trail; we had to follow the small pink arrows Bubba laid down on the pavement to show where to turn or cross. But you can’t really get lost.

Through the Upper Keys, the trail is not especially scenic. But then you start crossing bridges. More than 40 of them link the islands of the Florida Keys. Some you barely notice. About 20 range from nearly 1,000 feet to over 2 miles long. And then there’s the aforementioned Seven Mile Bridge. Some are modern highway bridges completed in the decades after World War II. Many are historic railroad bridges later converted to highway bridges, relics of the short-lived railway built in the early 1900s that linked mainland Florida with Key West.

Many of the historic bridges are only open to bicycles and pedestrians; it’s just you and the folks fishing from them. A few in bad shape are closed altogether. Many are still active highway bridges, and you bike along the shoulder. In some places, as on the Seven Mile Bridge, you bike on the newer bridge, with the abandoned historic bridge a ghostly presence beside you.

It is from these bridges that you enjoy the most exquisite views in the Florida Keys: of the stunning range of colors in the waters around you, of the endless expanse of ocean and gulf extending to the horizon on either side of you, of the magnificent tropical cloudscape painted across the sky above and beyond you. There is no place I have ever been that is anything like it.

And at the end of the trail is Key West. We had two days to explore that compact city, and a bicycle is the best way to do it. The Overseas Trail splits into two when it reaches Key West. The upper branch runs past a long, generic commercial strip. The more scenic lower branch runs along the Atlantic shore, past the airport and several seaside resorts, and leads you into the heart of old Key West. From there you can cycle up and down the streets and past all the areas to which tourists and locals flock.

Throughout the trip, the winds were mostly gentle, and the temperature each day ranged only a few degrees, from the upper 70s at night to the mid-80s by day. Other than a refreshing sprinkle, we never got rained on while riding. Only on the last day, as we biked from Marathon back to Key Largo, was there any real threat of rain, but it held off. The headwinds grew stronger and gustier as the morning wore on. Along with many other riders, Bob and I decided to take the shorter riding option that day. We let Bubba’s helpers shuttle us by car for the last 18 miles to Key Largo, so we could get an earlier start for home.

The Future of Bubba Fest

Bob and I joke that we jinx bicycle tours. After we signed up for the 2018 Rails to Trails Pennsylvania Sojourn, the Rails to Trails Conservancy announced it was ending its popular series of rail trail tours. After we joined Bike Florida’s 25th anniversary spring tour this past year, Bike Florida announced it would not hold the tour in 2020. Now it appears there are changes in store for Bubba Fest too.

That Bob and I were able to sign up for Bubba Fest only two weeks before the start of the tour is revealing. Just over 70 riders participated in the tour—as I recall, about half as many as 10 years ago. The oldest rider was over 80. A significant number were in their 70s. Only two riders were younger than 40.

Not enough younger people are filling the bicycle touring ranks increasingly vacated by aging baby boomers. But that said, there were many first-timers at Bubba Fest this year. So maybe there’s hope for reversing that demographic trend.

At the farewell party, after handing out awards for oldest and youngest rider (and to Bob and me for being the last to register!), Bubba announced a significant change. Next year, Bubba Fest will be an all-hotel trip with no camping. Many Bubbafesters will cheer this change, given the inevitable discomforts and inconveniences of camping. Maybe this is a concession to Bubba’s aging clientele. Maybe it will attract new riders. It’s likely to change Bubba Fest.

I wonder how this will affect the social nature of the ride. Our camping area was centered on an open air pavilion, where we would hang out, share meals, and get to know one another. Will that be harder to do when everyone has a private, air-conditioned room to retreat to? The group meals at restaurants tended to be in noisy rooms with people seated in small groups at large round tables, where it was often hard to talk to anyone but the person next to you. I much preferred the rows of picnic tables in the campground pavilion.

Despite discomforts and inconveniences, camping has its delights too. Like pouring yourself a mug of hot coffee in the predawn darkness and walking over to the nearby shore to watch the sunrise. Or hanging out with fellow riders and getting to know them because you have nothing better to do. Or helping out a discouraged campmate who could use a pair of earplugs and some empathy. Or just enjoying the small pleasures of living a simpler and less connected life outdoors for a few days on a subtropical island.

Afterglow

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My first Bubba Fest 10 years ago was an experience I swore I would never repeat. This Bubba Fest turned out to be everything for me that the last one was not, a far better time than I expected. Much of that had to do with having Bob along to share the adventure. I was also in a far better frame of mind and therefore enjoyed the social experience more.

Having finally gotten to bike the Keys again, I doubt I’ll be tempted to do another Bubba Fest. But I’m really glad I did this one. Despite the unseasonable chill that greeted us after our return to Maryland two days later, I still felt a lingering warmth.

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David Romanowski, 2019