Chapter 9 Florida
Waking up early I walked down to the convenience store for coffee and when I came back I turned on the TV for the news and weather. There was a tornado warning and it was not clear if we should even head out. Watching the weather channel and looking at the radar on the internet we determined that the storm that was now hitting the area would be over by 11:00 AM with the next severe storm hitting in about three hours. I reasoned that since the storm was moving at 12 mph, and we could ride at 12 mph, we would have plenty of time to get to our next Warm Showers host, the Methodist Church in Pensacola, Florida. Hanging out in the hotel room, packing and repacking, we waited until about 11:00 am. At that time the skies were clearing and we raced towards Pensacola. For once we were riding with a strong tailwind but soon enough the wind shifted to a strong headwind reducing our speed. Being along the shore we had to cross several bridges and that added to our stress. Yet even with the headwind we were able to stay well ahead of the storm as we entered Pensacola. Once in the city we stopped at a coop food store, the kind of a store we were familiar with but had seen too few of on our trip. While eating we talked about how it was a wonder that we hadn’t once become sick after eating so much junk food on our trip. Candy bars, gas station fried chicken, tons of French fries, and a lack of green vegetables was the norm and boy did we scarf it all down!
We continued on to the oldest Methodist Church in Florida where we met Jeb, the social director at the church. He showed us around the building we were to stay in; where to sleep, where to cook, where was the freezer full of an amazing amount of ice cream which we were encouraged to take part of! After our tour Jeb left us alone and Mary and I were suddenly left to ourselves and with an unlimited amount of electricity we plugged in and started looking at our devices. It was the day after the inauguration, the day of the Women’s March when millions of people around the world gathered peacefully to show their support for a positive, loving future. We were mesmerized and couldn’t stop looking at all the pictures. We saw pictures of the City of Montpelier and there were people in the crowd that we knew which made us miss our Vermont. The other news was not so great. The storm that had passed that morning had leveled a town a little north of us and twenty people were killed. Locals were saying that these storms were unusual for this time of year. I had a difficult time sleeping that night thinking about all that happened that day.
The next morning we packed up and debated whether to continue. It was very windy and another storm, complete with lightning and thunder, passed over as we went to breakfast number two. While eating we discussed the next severe storm which was on its way. The storm, coupled with a three mile long bridge ahead, gave us a lot to discuss as we went back and forth and kept stalling over cups of coffee, until we decided to spend another night in Pensacola. The storm was scheduled to hit in the late afternoon so we spent the day walking around the town visiting the historic district. We also stopped at the local bike shop to replace our chains which had about 2,000 miles on them. Back at the church we met another biker, Steve, from St Paul, Minnesota who was spending the night. Steve was our age and had been on the road for over a year traveling the country. He was very chatty and it seemed like he had traveled everywhere by bike, including a tour in Africa.
In the morning Steve, Mary and I had breakfast together. No one was in a hurry and it took us quite a while to leave the restaurant, but we finally had to get going. We said our goodbyes, headed over the bridge to Pensacola Beach and then to Fort Pickens where we planned to camp. As we were approaching the fort we passed construction people cleaning up broken asphalt that had been deposited in the sand from past hurricanes. Pulling over we talked with a young man who wondered if in the future the government planned to repeat this process after every storm. It was a long ride out to the park and finally we came to the registration booth. After spending so much time out in the wind we asked for a sheltered spot to set up in. The ranger recommended site 18 and even went so far as to show us the site on her computer. With only a few more miles before we could finally rest we pushed on. Reaching the campground we found our site and sat down at the picnic table to have a snack. We could barely keep the food on the table it was so windy! We gobbled down some food and then walked around to find a spot that was sheltered from the wind. We moved over to site 14, tucked up against a wooded area and set up our tent. Then we rode out to take a tour of the fort, an amazing brick structure that had been built by slaves and housed Native Americans. That night we sat around a campground with our neighbors Jane and Joe, eating s’mores and sharing stories of our lives. As we were packing the next morning our other neighbor, Jack, offered us coffee and waffles for breakfast and Joe joined in. They had met at this campground the previous winter and resumed their friendship this year. As Joe was heading out of town Jack was baking him brownies in his small camper oven! When meeting such kind, generous and interesting people it was always hard to tear ourselves away; however we had miles to go before we slept. Right before we rode off we found out that the water in the restrooms wasn’t working and you had to walk to another campground. It’s amazing that many of the state parks had ‘limited water’ signs in their bathrooms along with ‘running out of money’ signs and yet they continue to operate flush toilets instead of installing composting toilets. Flush toilets are costly in comparison to composting toilets using money and water and are more prone to breakage.
As we traveled down the peninsula of the Pensacola Beach the scenery was breathtaking. The miles flew by and we began to see high rises in the distance. Campgrounds were far away and stealth camping didn’t look like an option so it was a motel in Navarre Beach. From Navarre Beach to Destin, a famous fishing village, there were several bridges. The flat riding was relaxing and the views out to the Gulf were lovely. Moving east we entered an area of miles of high rise hotels, one right after another. We wondered if they were all full in the tourist season and if they were we wouldn’t want to be here. The busy season is in the summer when the temperature is high and we were told that many of the tourists spend most of their time inside their room looking out at the Gulf. We camped that night at Henderson State Park and continued the next day to the Top Sail State Park where we occupied the best site in the campground which was right on the bike path that wound its way down to the beach. Taking the path to the shore we locked our bikes and headed to the beach to soak up the sun and the sand and to watch the wildlife. The next morning we met Larry, a minimalist who had sold his house and was out on the road pulling his homemade trailer that converted into a kitchen and carried his bicycle, kayak, and camping gear.
After leaving Top Sail we traveled through many highly affluent towns. The lawns were being watered even after the rain storms and most of those lawns had the bright green look of chemical fertilizers showing absolutely no diversity in plant life. Herbicides and pesticides are produced in chemical plants, like the ones we passed in Louisiana, and then they are shipped out and sprayed on lawns to kill weeds, ending any diversity. It is the diversity of plants that insures the diversity of microbes and mycorrhiza fungus in the soil which is responsible for the mineralization of the nutrients needed for a healthy environment. A healthy environment includes bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects which are in rapid decline. The towns we have been riding through are not ecologically sensitive using even more resources of surrounding areas to maintain a lifestyle. The affluent living conditions weigh heavily on other people’s lands.
In looking at Paul Ehrlich’s Netherland’s Fallacy which states that the ecological footprint of an area decreases by importing resources needed for environmental technology such as windmills, smart grids, etc. This often comes at the expense of others. In our desire to be ecologically sensitive we often overlook that to arrive there we are also harming other lands and peoples. For instance, in communities with bike paths, the concrete needs to be manufactured somewhere and then trucked in and poured. Although having bike paths can greatly contribute to a towns overall sense of wellbeing; folks are out exercising and using automobiles less, there is a cost that is usually not born where the paths are laid. In my own life, living off the grid, my solar panels and the wiring and infrastructure that supports them, are not something that I myself can build and they are manufactured elsewhere, possibly at a detrimental cost. This is something that we need to always be aware of.
Our destination that day was the St. Andrews State Park. Right before the park we stopped at a local restaurant-bar for food and drinks. We met the owner and joked and laughed with the locals before heading to the park. Our night of camping included sitting around a campfire with Linsey and Michael, our neighbors from Canada. The campfire hot topic was Canadian and American politics.
By now, crossing major bridges had become an everyday affair. Just that morning we crossed one bridge entering Panama City, one on the other side of the city, passing a smelly chemical plant in a poor section, and several others later in the day. We were soon on a highway running beside the Tindal Air Force Base which went on for miles. On a familiar theme, the day was coming to an end and I was thinking that we could stealth camp on the Air Force land and no one would ever know. There was no fence and it was all woods. As I was riding I was looking for a path that led into the woods when I saw a big sign that read, “Danger Explosive Disposal Range”. I didn’t quite know what the sign meant but I did know I didn’t want to camp there. We continued on and again we had to cross a long, high bridge and it was cold and windy. When I reached the peak I looked down at two kayakers paddling along in the middle of the bay. I said to myself, “Boy, those two are crazy”. It was another night with nowhere to camp as the campgrounds were set up for RV’s only or charged $50 for a tent site. In affluent areas people frown on travelers camping and thus we ended up in another motel. Here again our culture allows those with access to resources the ability to travel and truly see our great nation. There are some younger bicycle tourers that have mastered the art of stealth camping and can hide almost anywhere, however, in the land of plenty this is a crime. Our culture has no room for low impact, low cost travelers. I feel sorry for these wealthy communities because they limit their educational and spiritual growth by not welcoming the diversity of other cultures and economic levels.
Mary and I noticed economic conditions were changing as we rode along. No longer were we passing fancy houses, cafes and paved bike paths. We were making very good time and wanted to enjoy the Florida Panhandle, so we decided on another ‘kinda day off’. It was yet another case of ‘I can’t believe this is happening again’. We started out with the wind at our back then it shifted to a strong cross wind and the day ended with more miles to ride than expected. Eventually we pulled into the Indian Pass Campground located at the end of a long peninsula. Entering the Eastern Time Zone we discovered that we had also lost an hour but our beautiful campsite made up for all the challenges. We set up our tent by a stand of palm trees and brush and tied up our tarp to block the wind. We were sheltered and isolated and had a lovely view of the bay. We were staying in an old RV campground and most of the people who went there returned year after year to fish, relax, and explore the area. It wasn’t long before we were walking the beach watching pelicans and egrets flying by and dolphins swimming along beside us as the sun set. The view was absolutely stunning. The stars were just starting to appear when we walked back to the tent site for dinner and bed. The wind was beginning to pick up and was blowing even stronger than during the day as we crawled into the tent. I woke in the night and took a quick look at the Big Dipper and by its position I could tell it was about two o’clock. Listening to the wind I started getting worried about being under palm trees that were bending from the strong and steady gusts, but we survived the night. Because of the winds both Mary and I had a hard time sleeping and were up early drinking coffee by the water, watching the sunrise. The winds had died down and there were the pelicans, egrets, dolphins and now an American Bittern and a Bald Eagle. Mary said it was a sign that we should take a rest day and hang out on the beach. We were enjoying the sunrise when Paul from Minnesota, walked by with his dog and we struck up a conversation. He had worked for years at a company that was downsizing and they had made Paul a deal saying he could retire early and receive a high percentage of his pension and healthcare. In the end, due to poor investments, the company couldn’t keep their promise and now Paul, along with his wife, are somewhat economically strapped. It is cheaper for them to spend the winter in their small RV than it is to live in Minnesota. Paul does love coming to this area but he is angry about the broken promises.
After our day off it was time to leave Indian Pass and head to Apalachicola where we had lunch at The Hole in the Wall, a small seafood eatery. Taking our time we strolled around town before heading out and across a very long, two part bridge and causeway. By now Mary was just riding right over the bridges without all of the pre-bridge warmups. Really, what choice did she have if we were to continue forward? The ride took us along the Gulf and we made frequent stops until we entered Carabella, a quaint little town. We rented a room in an old hotel and then walked down to the docks and to a small grocery store to buy food for dinner. Carabella is known for having the smallest police station in the US, consisting of a phone booth.
The next morning we were slow to get started. We had breakfast then did our laundry and went food shopping. Andrew, the young German lad that camped out with us at Dauphin Island, had given us the phone number of Joe, a man he had stayed with suggesting that we give him a call. Mary contacted Joe who was surprised to hear from us and said to come down, we could stay at his place. We offered to pick up some seafood and cook dinner that night and decided to buy the seafood when we were closer to Joe’s place, out on Alligator Point. About half way there we stopped at a convenience store for lunch where we met Michael, the owner. As the conversation progressed we told him where we were staying and how we were looking for a local place to buy fresh seafood. Michael replied, “There’s nothing but a few houses out there, this is the last store unless you go past the road leading to the Point and head to the next town”. Mary and I slowly walked over towards the bicycles, “Why can’t life be simple?” I went back into the shop and asked if anyone was heading back into Carabella. Michael said he had to go to the bank and not only would he take me, but he knew the best place to buy seafood. Mike and I headed out and the trip was a success. Mary and I rode out to Alligator Point knowing that Joe would not be there until later as he was spending the day in Tallahassee. We found his house, parked our bikes under it and then walked down to the state park entrance and back. We had just started dinner when Joe drove up, and after introductions he suggested that we set up the tent on the beach. There was not a soul around just the quiet whisperings of the sea. We joined Joe in the house for our shrimp dinner and before bed we listened to the many stories he had to tell. That night on the beach there was so many stars it was difficult to spot the constellations. In the middle of the night I was gazing for a while when a bright shooting star shot over me, and of course I made a wish.
At dawn I walked up to the house where Joe was making coffee and we sat out on the porch to watch the sunrise. When Joe said he had to listen to a service on the radio and we had to be quiet. I have to admit I was feeling uneasy. I thought there was a little religious ministry going on and I sat quietly listening. The sermon talked about having compassion for others and when it ended Joe stood up and turned the radio off. He said that he listened to a sermon every day and it brought inspiration to his life. Joe was a storyteller who had made millions in real estate and had given most of it away to charities. Looking around his house, which was quite austere, it sure didn’t look as if he was spending much money on himself. He was a pragmatic man with a spiritual side and he had great compassion for the poor. One time he was in Ethiopia helping to fund a water well project for a community and when the well was finished the locals gathered in celebration. Joe was given a cold bottle of Coke and after opening it he passed it to a young woman who he was certain had never had the opportunity to taste a Coke in her life. After receiving this gift she put the Coke down, went and gathered about 10 other people and then they formed a circle. They began passing the Coke around, each one taking the smallest sip. Joe watched this for over half an hour while they all enjoyed the shared bottle of Coke. Joe turned, looked right at me and said, “That is true charity. All the money I have donated can’t equal that. At the end of the day I will still have money to spend, but at the end of that day her bottle was empty and she may never see another”. On that note we headed out.
Morning coffee with Joe
Traveling to Panacea we met John, a roofing salesman and part time minister. We talked and he told us how he was so proud of his son who had traveled to Burlington, VT to help raise money for Haiti. A few miles farther down the road we saw another tourer, carrying his dog, on the other side of the road and we stopped and walked over. Mike’s story was that he was traveling through the Big Bend area and happened to stop in Terlingua where he ended up staying there for about a year and a half. Then he decided he wanted to do something big. I’m not sure of the details; however, he was able to get a bike company to sponsor him on a trip to test an electric assist cargo bicycle. Mike has broken a record in crossing the US having spent three years traveling and bringing awareness to the treatment of dogs. On his travels in Vermont he had passed through Montpelier, stored his bike at Onion River Sports, drank beer at the Three Penny Taproom and ate at McGillicuddy’s . Mike's great advice is, “if you are afraid of the world, turn off you TV and go out and meet people”. We both had miles to go so we ended with our ‘good lucks’ and continued our journeys.
The whole day gave me a lot to think about. In a time of great fear there are many people dedicating their lives to make change and people like Joe, John and Mike are examples of this. Joe has great access to resources and has chosen not to spend it on himself but to use this access to make real change, a change that is based on helping others. John and his wife made sure that their son also has this way of life, passing the concept of frugal generosity on to the next generation. Mike, with his low impact, low cost traveling is an inspiration to many and works hard in bringing his message.
In many ways our global culture as a whole is experiencing many challenges. Taking a look at how culture is formed, and perpetuates itself, is important in solving our issues. It is culture itself that makes sure it will continue. This crazy statement is described in one word, paradigm, which is a model, a pattern, or archetype. A person is enculturated starting at birth and possibly even in uteri. The way enculturation, or way of being, is learned is by living in the culture that surrounds you. Your parents, teachers, and even strangers, model every day how to survive and thrive in your culture. You learn through imitating those around you and in time there is a quality of permanence in this way of being. It then becomes difficult to see, or to make sense of, information that contradicts the paradigm. There have only been a few major paradigm shifts in the history of humankind; from the hunter-gatherer age to the agriculture age, from the agriculture age to the industrial age and from the industrial age to the computer age. When the shift occurs there are always remnants of the past age that also work in the new paradigm. Each successive paradigm requires more resources to maintain its increasing complex structure. When taking a look at the duration of time in each age, a pattern develops. As the need for more resources increases, the duration of time decreases. The period of the hunter-gatherer phase lasted at least 100,000 years (this is a very low estimate, it may be up to a million years); the agricultural phase – 10,000 years; the industrial age – 500 or 600 years at the most; and now the computer age, the age of information, is only 50 – 60 years old. Shift occur when a culture starts experiencing mounting stresses and contradicting information increases, slowly at first, then accelerating over time. When stresses begin to mount faster than the culture can deal with, a culture begins to appear shaky and the population drives the change.
Our plan was over to ride to Gainesville and then into Jacksonville where we would take a train north to Vermont. We were both feeling our journey was coming to an end. We decided to camp at a county park in Newport, on the Saint John’s River, then head to Gainesville where we could ride mostly on bike paths over to Jacksonville. I encouraged Mary call Jane because in her last text it sounded as if she was living in Tallahassee. Mary thought Jane had been visiting in Tallahassee and was certain Jane had lived in Gainesville for the past 30 years. After we found the campground we set up camp then walked to a local bar to eat and Mary called Jane. It turned out that Jane had never lived in Gainesville, and as our luck would have it, the road that leads to Tallahassee started right by the oyster bar we were sitting at. The next morning we were off to Tallahassee.
It was great to see Jane again. She had visited us in VT and as we talked the subject of Gainesville vs. Tallahassee came up and we had quite a laugh. When you believe something so strongly it’s hard to change your thinking in spite of contradictory information. That night Cliff, Georgina and Jerry joined us for dinner at Jane’s and new friendships were formed. The next day we joined Jane and Jerry in attending a march against the ban on immigrants. The crowd was small at first, but as the march was underway the crowd grew larger and larger as we headed to the Florida Capitol building. There was an elderly woman, Mo, who marched the whole way in spite of her difficulty in breathing. It was so inspiring to see so many people engaged in the issues they cared about. Later that night there was a co-op community pot luck dinner and we were invited. This community has modest houses that were as different as the personalities of the owners. It was great to see community members arguing, agreeing, having dinner together and hearing stories about neighbors helping each other in building a successful community. The next day Jane, Jeanne, Mary and I walked around the area including a trail leading through a swamp. After our walk, Jane went to work, Jeanne went home and Mary and I started to try to figure out how to get home. The ride from Tallahassee to Jacksonville was on busy roads and we were really missing home. We had a great ending in Tallahassee and why ride the last 150 miles? We could hitchbike to Jacksonville; hop on a train and in 2-3 days we would be in VT. Mary called for information on the train schedules and found out we could get a train to New York City or Washington, DC, but the connection to Montpelier in either case would be the next day. There were other challenges; such as, where would we stay for the night. As Arlo Guthrie would say, ‘It was like a vision’. Suddenly the new plan was obvious, “Why don’t we rent a car?” Mary called around and sure enough there was a car rental 8 miles away and the cost would be $143.00 for 3 days! When Jane came home we went for another walk and stopped by a neighbor and met Doug, who had lived in Bunkie, Louisiana, where we had stayed in a fire station. Doug had gone back to Louisiana recently and was so depressed over how the chemical industry had destroyed what he had remembered as a child. He said it was the last trip he would ever make to Louisiana.
At last it was time to go. I disassembled the bikes so we could fit them into a compact car and we packed up. Sarah, Jane’s housemate, offered to drive us to the car rental place where she dropped us off. We got in line and talked the clerk who had all the information given over the phone, but he told us they had forgotten to add in the drop- off fee of $500.00. We sat down on the seats by the window stunned. Debating what to do, I said I wanted to talk to someone. Mary pointed out the manager and I went over and started explaining about our plans of riding the train, how we switched plans to take a car rental, and how our ride had just driven away. He told me to wait a moment; he would see what he could do for us. When he came back he said he could reduce the drop-off fee to $100.00 and would we be willing to drive a minivan at no extra cost? After filling out the papers we were soon driving out in the minivan, packing up and heading home.
This is what we depended on throughout our trip