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

Mucked in Pennsylvania

Rails to Trails Conservancy’s 2018 Pennsylvania Sojourn

I’m having a beer and a burger at a bar and grill in Easton, Pennsylvania, and checking tomorrow’s weather forecast on my cell phone again. The chance of rain keeps increasing; it could rain most of the day. Not good, but at least the forecast improves in the following days.

My cycling friend Bob from Michigan will arrive soon. Tomorrow morning we will drive from our motel to nearby Hugh Moore Park to join the Pennsylvania Sojourn, a five-day bicycle tour organized by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines.

We will travel on the Delaware and Lehigh Trail on rail trails and canal towpaths through the Lehigh Gorge and to the towns of Jim Thorpe, Easton, and New Hope. Our route will follow a system of railroads and canals developed in the 1800s to transport vital anthracite coal from the mines near Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia. We will also cross the Delaware River and ride along New Jersey’s Delaware and Raritan Canal, part of a similar system built to transport freight between Philadelphia and New York City.

Rails to Trails has been running Sojourns since 2002, mostly in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Meant to celebrate existing rail trails and draw attention to gaps in trail systems, the multiday rides have been very popular. This year’s Sojourn has drawn some 300 cyclists from 30 states.

This is my first Sojourn, and Bob’s too. It will also be our last. Rails to Trails just announced that, despite the popularity of the tours, the organization is shifting its priorities and will no longer run Sojourns. I am bummed to hear this.

Day One: Rain, Grit, and Grief

We arrive at Hugh Moore Park on Sunday morning before 7:00 a.m., park our cars, unload our bikes, and register for the event. We load our luggage onto one truck and our bikes onto another. We load ourselves into one of the waiting school buses, which transports us an hour and a half north to the starting point of the ride in Lehigh Gorge State Park, somewhere in the remote hills of northeastern Pennsylvania.

It is raining lightly but steadily when we arrive at Black Diamond Trailhead and retrieve our bikes. It feels chilly for mid-June, and we are eager to start pedaling to warm up. We head off down the trail through the rain toward Jim Thorpe.

Today’s ride is only 35 miles, all gently downhill or flat. It should be easy, but the trail is saturated and messy. It varies from a single track to a double-track path, and the surface ranges from packed dirt to fine loose gravel. We veer from one side of the trail to the other, trying to find the best way through the puddles and muck.

We stop for a welcome lunch break in White Haven, 10 miles down the trail. Lots of wet, grimy, and cold cyclists pile into Antonio’s Pizza, where we order slices and sandwiches. I warm up with coffee and a hot slice of pepperoni pizza. Before Bob and I head out into the rain again, I add a long-sleeved shirt beneath my rain jacket, which has already soaked through.

The trail widens a bit, and the rain eases for a while. By now I’ve gotten used to being wet and dirty, but our bikes are taking a beating. Bob and I stop twice to squirt water from our bottles onto our derailleurs and chains to wash off the accumulating gunk. Our bikes make an awful grinding sound when we brake. My chain skips now and then, but otherwise my Trek 520 touring bike, which I’ve ridden some 30,000 miles over 15 years, is doing okay. It has weathered drenching rain and mucky paths before.

But about 10 miles from Jim Thorpe, my rear wheel suddenly locks up and I skid to a stop. I get off the bike to see if maybe the chain has fallen off. Instead I find that the lower part of the derailleur has somehow pulled sideways and jammed into the spokes. I have no idea how this could even happen. I tug and pull and finally wrench the derailleur free. I discover that the lower of its two rotating cogs is completely locked up with grit.

I squirt the rest of my water onto the cog and manage to wash off enough grit to get it rotating again. I’m finally able to continue pedaling. But when I shift gears a while later, the derailleur slides sideways and jams into the spokes again. This time it’s even harder to extricate. I pedal on again, but now I avoid shifting at all. I count down the miles to Jim Thorpe.

Farther down the trail, I and some other riders stop to try to help a woman who is also having bike problems. The bearings in the bottom bracket—the “axle” that the pedal arms attach to—have ground to a halt. She can no longer pedal. We can’t fix her bike, so she calls the tour’s rider support number to summon one of the roving mechanics riding somewhere along the trail. As we head off, she begins to walk her bike toward town.

Screw It—Let’s Get a Room

We finally straggle into Jim Thorpe, with Bob’s disc brakes grinding badly and my 27-speed bike reduced to a single speed. We join the crowd of fellow cyclists milling around in front of Pocono Biking, which is providing mechanical support for the tour. Many have lined up to hose off their bikes and themselves, creating a beach of gray grit on the sidewalk. The shop’s mechanics are performing triage on dozens of crippled bicycles.

As we wait for them to assess ours, I start shivering again. Our campground is a half-mile walk from here up a steep hill. Dinner is not provided on the tour tonight, so after setting up our tents in the soggy campground we are supposed to head down the hill into town to find a restaurant, and then trek back up the hill again. As we mull over that thought, the mechanics’ verdicts come in: both our bikes are unrepairable with the parts and tools at hand. Bob’s brake pads have been ground away, and my derailleur mishap has bent part of my bike frame.

We overhear another cyclist asking about nearby hotels. One is right behind the bike shop, just steps away. Cold, wet, and demoralized, Bob and I agree we should look into it—and quickly, before the place fills up. As he waits to hose off, I dash around the corner. Tiny Hotel Switzerland has just a few rooms left. I reserve our best option: a room with a queen bed and private bath. It will beat setting up camp in the rain at the top of that hill. Lots other cyclists who had planned to camp opt for hotel rooms too. We will be the most comfortable campers on the trip that night.

Bob and I lock up our bikes and arrange for a tour staff member with a minivan to shuttle us up to the campsite, where our luggage awaits, and back. We lug our duffle bags upstairs to our tiny hotel room—just large enough to walk around the bed, but with a roomy, private bathroom. Bob offers to sleep on the floor. We shower and change into dry, clean clothes; hang our dirty, soppy ones wherever we can; and go to the restaurant downstairs to eat dinner and consider our options.

By now I am in full emotional response mode. I’m ready to quit the tour. I want to find a way to get me and my damaged bike back to Easton, load up the car, and go home. But the weather forecast for the next couple of days is good, and Bob, in a more calm and rational mode, wants to try to find a way to continue the trip. After dinner we drop by Pocono Biking and ask about rentals. We also arrange to have our own bikes transported with our luggage back to Easton, tomorrow’s campsite and where our cars are parked. With the logistics figured out, I calm down. We decide to continue the tour, at least for now.

Days Two and Three: Back in the Saddle Again

The next two days are everything the first day wasn’t: sunny, warm, and dry. The riding is mostly carefree and easy. The rental bikes are adequate. I enjoy examining the canal structures we pass, visiting the National Canal Museum in Easton, and comparing these canals to those I’m more familiar with, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Erie Canal.

At our second night’s campsite in Hugh Moore Park, I retrieve my bike and lock it onto the rack on my car. Bob calls around and finds the brake pads he needs at a bike shop in Easton. The mechanics in camp are able to get his bike repaired, and he turns in his rental bike to them.

The campground for the next two nights is at the upper unit of Washington Crossing State Park, a couple of miles beyond New Hope. I am not happy to discover that our camping area is rife with poison ivy, to which I am extremely sensitive. I step carefully and manage to avoid contact.

Day four will be a layover day. Some riders had preregistered for a kayaking trip or a tour of the state park, which preserves the area where General George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776 to surprise and defeat the Hessian forces at Trenton. I plan to explore the park and New Hope on my own. But once again, weather comes into play.

Day Four: Let’s Call It a Tour

Rain is forecast for later today, the last thing we want to deal with again. And neither of us is looking forward to largely retracing our route back to Easton tomorrow. Now it is Bob who favors cutting the tour short. He has made up his mind; he’s ready to leave. I am conflicted. But I’m also looking forward to driving up to Albany, New York, to visit friends after the tour. I call and they tell me I’m welcome to show up a day early. I make up my mind.

With the sky overcast but the rain holding off for now, we pack up our tents and gear. We learn from some tech-savvier campmates how to use Uber, our best option for getting ourselves back to Easton. I turn in my rental bike to the mechanics. After some difficulty due to our remote location, we finally book an Uber to Easton. We load up and depart. Bob heads back to Michigan. I head for New York State. Our Pennsylvania Sojourn is over.

Afterward

A few days after I returned home, I took my bike to REI for service and repair. Its mechanics managed to straighten the bent and twisted derailleur hanger on the frame. The frame could have broken during that process; if it had, the bike would have been a total loss. They will replace the derailleur, cassette, chain, crankset, and possibly the bottom bracket, which was full of grit when they took it apart—basically the entire drive train. It will be expensive, but I’ll have my bike back soon, ready to roll again with brand new components.

I’m not inclined to provide a detailed critique of a tour that won’t happen again, especially one so different in nature from others I’ve taken. Touring on trails and towpaths presents unique challenges, including lack of access to roving sag vehicles for aiding riders who need assistance. And anyone who has gone on enough bicycle tours knows that stuff happens. You get caught in the rain. It gets colder than you expected. The shower truck breaks down. There are not enough sinks and restrooms. The caterer runs late or runs out of coffee or food. Information is inadequate, inaccurate, untimely, or poorly relayed. Every tour has its snafus. Some are unavoidable; others reflect shortcomings in planning or preparation. This tour, in my opinion, had more than its share of these issues.

But I also have to say that much went very well, that all the Rails to Trails staff and volunteers I dealt with were unfailingly genial and tried to be helpful, and that the Pocono Biking staff did a commendable job dealing with the effects of that disastrous first day.

Even so, I am no longer so disappointed about the decision by Rails to Trails to end the Sojourn series. Many participants will likely disagree, but my sense is that bicycle tours are not the organization’s forte. I’m glad they offered these unique tours, and I’m glad I got to experience one. And I wish them well as they redirect their efforts and continue their noble mission of creating and promoting the use of trails across the nation.

David Romanowski, 2018

Postcards from Florida

A Springtime Road (and Cycling) Trip

In mid-March, as winter lost its rather weak grip on the Mid-Atlantic region, I packed up the car and headed south to Florida for a 2½-week trip. (See the route in Florida here.)

New Car, Maiden Voyage

A few weeks before the trip, I bought a brand new, light green, 2017 Subaru Forester. The odometer read 7.2 miles when I picked up the car to drive it home. It still had temporary license plates and less than 300 miles on its tires when I headed south.

The Forester felt like a spaceship compared to our 1997 Honda Accord. The car tracked miles per gallon in real time and got remarkably good gas mileage. Its cruise control reduced my speed as I approached a slower vehicle and increased it as I passed. The Forester serenaded me with satellite radio and mischievously kept turning on my iPhone music app when I wasn’t looking. It cleaned its rear window for me, even when I didn’t ask it to. It warned me of speeding maniacs and scolded me if I strayed toward the edge of my lane. It chimed and beeped and flashed at me; it prodded and nudged and indulged me. Quite often it confused me.

Bike Florida

This year’s Bike Florida tour differed from previous ones. Rather than cycling to two or three overnight locations during the week-long tour, we stayed in only one, St. John’s County Fairgrounds near St. Augustine, and did rides of varying distances and directions from there. This minimized packing and unpacking every day or so, but at the expense of cycling variety. Sections of routes from day to day often covered familiar territory.

I had visited many of the featured highlights—Palatka, St. Augustine, and the nearby Atlantic coast—on Bike Florida a few years ago. But for me, these tours have become less about sightseeing and more about reconnecting with cycling friends I’ve met over the years and making new ones. Thus, I tip my helmet to Tad and Lea from New York, Ed from South Carolina, and Tom and Bob from Michigan for a pleasurable week. Logging lots of miles was not our goal, so each day most of us chose to ride the shortest of the route options. A couple of times we stitched together our own route from the maps and cue sheets. We dawdled and poked along and had a fine time.

The Withlacoochee State Trail

After Bike Florida, I picked up Sue at the Orlando airport and then headed to Inverness in west-central Florida to rendezvous with Tad and Lea and bike the Withlacoochee Trail. This 46-mile rail trail is considered one of Florida’s finest. It is largely shaded and runs through lovely countryside from Citrus Springs through Inverness and Floral City to Trilby. That you’ve probably never heard of any those places is a good indication of just how far off the tourist-beaten track the Withlacoochee is.

The small city of Inverness is a good central location for exploring the trail, and the Central Motel in Inverness stands right beside the trail. Don’t be fooled by the bland name of this modestly priced and well maintained motel. Lots of people know about it. We reserved rooms many months in advance and were glad we did. When we arrived, we were told they had been fully booked since January.

We biked to the north end of the trail one day and about halfway to the south end the next day, which means we still have more to explore on a future trip. We especially enjoyed the lakeside riding in Inverness and the woodsy miles south of town.

Indulgent eating is key to any cycling adventure. The Cinnamon Sticks Restaurant, adjacent to the Central Motel, served a good breakfast, including bacon the way it should be (chewy) and excellent cinnamon buns and twisted cinnamon sticks. The Front Porch Restaurant and Pie Shop near Dunnellon is a locally popular place. Its strawberry pie—no rhubarb, thank you, just juicy in-season strawberries—is superb. In tiny Floral City, at the Ferris Groves store, we refreshed ourselves with milkshakes flavored with fresh strawberries and also indulged in silky bourbon fudge.

More Florida: State Parks, Rocky Shores, Alligators, and More

After the Withlacoochee, as Sue and I meandered around Florida, we revisited favorite spots and explored some new to us. We indulged in Florida Sunshine Cake at the Camelia Court Café in the Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville. We strolled around the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, a lovely oasis just outside of Gainesville. We stocked up on locally made treats at Whetstone Chocolates of St. Augustine. We gawked at the hundreds of crocodilians and roosting tropical birds at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. We stayed two nights in a charming rock-walled room in a 1930s motel now called the Palm Coast Villas. We strolled around Princess Place Preserve, a former estate on a river near Palm Coast. A motel desk clerk told us about it; we never would have discovered it on our own.

We also visited a slew of Florida State Parks: Rainbow Springs, O’Leno, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Fort Clinch, and the former estate and rocky coquina shore at Washington Oaks Gardens. State parks are some of our favorite Florida destinations.

Coastal Cycling: Amelia Island and Jekyll Island

On our way home, Sue and I returned to Amelia Island at the northeastern tip of Florida to do more bicycling. We stayed at the conveniently located Hampton Inn in downtown Fernandina Beach. We biked down the long canopy road at Fort Clinch State Park and along the Atlantic shore to the southern end of the island.

The next day, we stopped at Jekyll Island in southern Georgia for more cycling. We biked a flat, mostly off-road route, much of it under a canopy of trees draped with Spanish moss, from the historic Jekyll Island Club Resort to the northern end of the island and back.

In short, we had a typically outstanding Florida spring vacation.

David Romanowski, 2017

Remembering Author and Cyclist David Lamb

While reading an article about the Trek 520 touring bicycle in a recent issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine, these startling words snagged my attention: “But when it comes to finding out what the bike is truly capable of, I tip my hat to the late great David Lamb.”

I had not known that the man who inspired my passion for bicycle travel had died.

I learned from obituaries I found on the Los Angeles Times and New York Times websites  that David Lamb passed away in June 2016 at the age of 76. The obituaries summarize his many notable achievements as a journalist and author. My brief connection with him related to the bicycling adventure he wrote about in one of his books.

As the Adventure Cyclist article summarized it:

In 1994, the veteran Los Angeles Times correspondent rode his 520 more than 3,000 miles from the Potomac to the Pacific, eventually spinning the three-month journey into a book, Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle.

I bought Over the Hills when it was published in 1996 and also heard Lamb speak at the Smithsonian about that trip. What struck me most was that, when he set out on his Trek 520 from his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for Santa Monica, California, Lamb was in his mid-50s and a cycling novice. Yet he managed to cross the country under his own power with no significant mishaps, not even once getting caught in the rain.

His trip struck a chord in me that continued to reverberate as I reread Over the Hills during the next few years. Through his book I discovered the Adventure Cycling Association and a culture of bicycle travel I had never even known existed. Each time I closed the book, I thought to myself, “I could to do that!” As my 50th birthday approached, I began to consider the idea of embarking on my own “midlife escape.”

That trip, which I finally undertook in 2006, was a self-contained Adventure Cycling tour down the Pacific Coast from Bellingham, Washington, a few miles from the Canadian border, to San Francisco. For me it ended a half-day’s ride farther south at my sister’s home in Half Moon Bay. Before I embarked on the trip, I wrote David Lamb a letter of appreciation:

All of this—these last four years of dreaming, planning, and preparing— have happened because of the inspiration I gained from reading Over the Hills. As this adventure approaches, I just wanted to write to you and simply say, thank you.

I was on the tour in Washington when I received his reply.

David, thanks for the great letter. Can a writer have any greater reward than knowing he has inspired a reader to travel down a new road? Your upcoming Bellingham–San Francisco ride definitely qualifies as epic! You will make it with ease because half the challenge of long-distance biking is mental, not physical, and mentally you’re obviously already psyched.

He extended an invitation to meet him for lunch after I returned from my trip and concluded with words I would reread time and again along the way, and that would help me over my own hills:

When you pull into your sister’s home in Half Moon Bay, you’ll feel like a hero. And you’ll be one, too.

For the rest of the trip, we kept up a sporadic email conversation. I had no smart phone back then, so I looked for public libraries along the way where I could access a computer. His brief messages cheered me on as I biked through Oregon and California and reached my final goal.

A few weeks after my trip ended, I arranged to meet him for lunch at Chadwick’s in Old Town Alexandria. I biked from my home about 15 miles away; he walked from his a few blocks away. The notes I wrote afterward recall, “I almost didn’t recognize him when he walked up. He was shorter and thinner than I expected. His hair was sort of blonde. His voice was a little faster and raspier than I remembered when I heard him speak at the Smithsonian about ten years earlier. But he seemed like an affable guy.”

We chatted for about an hour and a half. I asked if he had any regrets about his cross-country trip. No, he replied, other than not stopping longer to smell the roses. (I said I regretted that too.) I asked if anything surprised him about his own reaction to his trip afterward. Not really, he said. It ultimately didn’t change his life.

He told me about his time living in Hanoi, his travels in a recreational vehicle to write a book about minor league baseball (he loved living in an RV), and the supported cycling trips he had since taken with his wife and friends in a half dozen countries. Like me, he’d thought about cycling the Florida coast someday, would prefer staying in motels rather than camping on such a trip, and liked riding about 50 miles a day.

Afterward, we went outside and I showed him my Trek 520, very similar to his own. “The 520 is a great bike for touring,” he had written me. “The best, I think. I was in Trek’s Wisconsin factory and met the guy who designed it. I got fatter tires at his suggestion for my trip. Wish [like you] I’d thought of lower gears.”

“To David Romanowski –
Who saw the mountain,
and climbed. With admiration.”
David Lamb,
November 2006

He signed my copy of Over the Hills, and I gave him a signed copy of a book I had written. Then we wished each other well, said we hoped our paths would cross again, and parted ways. I contacted him a couple of times over the next few years for one reason or another, secretly hoping he might someday invite me on one of his biking trips, or that we might plan one together. But our paths never did cross again.

David Lamb’s bicycle journey may not have changed his life in a lasting way, or so he believed, but it profoundly changed mine. It inspired me to challenge myself and undertake my own epic adventure that took me farther beyond my comfort zone than I had ever gone. In the end, I did feel like a hero, even if just for a while. And in the years since, taking bicycle trips has become an important part of my life, and I have found my own circle of touring friends.

And so I bid a belated Godspeed to David Lamb for cresting that final hill, and I offer him one last heartfelt thanks.

David Romanowski, 2017

From Home to Harpers Ferry (and Antietam) by Bicycle

I have taken many long-distance cycling trips since I became interested in bicycle travel. But I hadn’t done the one thing I’d really wanted to do all along: roll my bicycle out of my back yard in Bethesda, Maryland, and bike to somewhere far away.

I live close to the C&O Canal National Historical Park, so the canal towpath is a perfect option for a cycling excursion from home. I visit the towpath often to walk or bike, and I’ve bicycled its entire length twice. I’ve always thought a trip from home to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, via the towpath, with a side trip from Harpers Ferry to Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland, would make a perfect three-day bicycling trip.

During a stretch of unseasonably warm weather this past October, I finally ran out of reasons to put off this trip. I made a two-night reservation at a bed and breakfast in Harpers Ferry, loaded clothing, supplies, and snacks into one of my touring panniers, and headed for the canal.

(Mile markers appear along the towpath at one-mile intervals and provide a handy reference for describing locations along the canal, as in the captions below.)

Harpers Ferry occupies the strategic point of land where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers merge. Once an industrial town, it became known for John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal here in 1859, an event that helped incite civil war a year and half later.

Union and Confederate troops traded control of the town throughout the Civil War. After the war, severe floods helped end industry here. Much of Harpers Ferry is now a national historical park managed by the National Park Service.

Harpers Ferry itself is well worth a visit. However, I’d visited many times before, so I didn’t do any exploring. But staying overnight at the Stonehouse Bed and Breakfast was a first for me.

The next morning I biked another 12 miles up the canal towpath to Boonsboro Pike (Maryland Route 34), and then another easy 4½ miles on roads to the Antietam National Battlefield visitor center near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Antietam preserves the grounds of the exceedingly costly Civil War battle that took place here on September 15, 1862. By the end of 12 hours of fighting, about 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. It was the single bloodiest day in American history.

I headed home the next day, retracing my route down the canal. I had biked almost 75 miles from home to my farthest point in Antietam, and a total of 162 miles over three days.

David Romanowski, 2016