The TransAmerica Tour January-June 2011
(more stories to come later…)
In November 2010 we left from our home in Nova Scotia, Canada and started pedaling for warmer pastures. After a stopover in New Brunswick we hired a van in Maine and drove down to St Augustine, Florida. From there we resumed our pedaling ways and headed across America for Vancouver, Canada.
Land of Guns & Home of Fear
“You travel with protection don’t you?” asked the man outside the post office. “You know… a gun? A hunting knife? A big hammer or something?”
“Um… well no…” I replied, taken aback. “We have the dogs I suppose.”
“You are a braver man than me,” he said, an unfaltering wall of intensity. “Aren’t you scared of being attacked?”
“Crazy people!” he said with a trace of indignation entering his voice. “Crazy people are everywhere. I sleep with a gun under my pillow. I would never leave the house without my tazer.”
The man, a Michael J. Fox-esque bastion of middle America, lifted up his sports jacket. A tazer was indeed sitting upon his belt, sheathed and poised to defend against the crazed masses.
“Make sure you always camp in well lit areas…” he continued. “I’m serious! You’re not going near the border are you?”
“Man, be careful!” he interrupted. “You should be carrying a hammer or something. Those crazy Mexicans will slit your throat for a dollar. These are hard times in America.”
The sun hadn’t set on our first day of cycling in America and I was already being told to arm myself with guns… knives… hammers? Was cycling across America really so dangerous? And when in American history did open resentment of black people transfer over to Hispanics?
Several days later we pulled over to a roadside diner in rural Florida on an icy morning. The sight of smoke and smells of grease lured us into a hut lined with license plates and confederate flags. A plaque proclaiming the right to carry concealed weapons commanded the line of sight upon entry.
We had only just opened our styrofoam containers loaded with hearty servings of biscuits and grits when a family walked in. Word of our bicycle trip with dogs came quickly to their notice and the father in the camouflage hunting cap began questioning us.
“You two carrying a gun?” he soon asked, as if this was as an everyday follow up to how’s it going? and how ‘bout this weather?”
“I wouldn’t even know how to use a gun,” Zoa replied, trailing off into laughter.
“Well there’s not much to it,” the man said with amusement at this strange breed of city folk. “You just point it and pull the trigger!”
The daughter, a picture of blonde cheerleading innocence, weighed into the conversation by lifting her purse towards us.
“I bought a gun only the other day,” she said. “A woman down the road sold it to me real cheap. I carry it everywhere with me. You got to be ready to protect yourself.”
“Against who?” Zoa asked. (I hadn’t passed on the enlightenment from the Tazer Man at this stage.)
“You know… against bad people!” the father added with a hearty laugh.
As we continued pedaling west through Florida past giant ‘correctional facilities’ and teams of prisoners cleaning toilets and collecting roadside rubbish, the warnings continued.
The most intriguing warning of all though didn’t come until a small farming town in Texas. A retired lady had finally exhausted exchanging her favourite quilting tips with Zoa, when the talk turned to the local wildlife of the Texas Hill Country.
“There are panthers in these here hills and they can be mighty dangerous. If you happen upon one,” she said pointing to Paco, “you have to be prepared to throw that little dog of yours at the panther and run.”
We scanned her face for traces of sarcasm. None registered.
For a country so wrapped up in its own ideas of freedom, it is amazing how many Americans are choked by fear. Maybe we are passing along in our own little happy cycling bubble, but as we continue across the country we are meeting nothing but generous folks who go out of their way to help us out.
Jerry Seinfeld said that if aliens were looking down on us they would think that it’s the dogs, not the humans, who are in charge. They get to laze around, are showered with affection, get taken for walks, and then we have to pick up their poop in little plastic bags. Unfortunately not all dogs are so lucky.
While cycling along the Mississippi River in New Orleans we came across a stray dog lying scared and abandoned on the side of the road. She was a bag of bones and had a badly damaged leg. It looked like she had been roughing it for a long time and was covered in ants. We called the poor dog Charlie.
Charlie was a very sweet and friendly dog, but she wasn’t so interested in riding to the next town in Paco’s basket. She was alot more enthusiastic about some water and a bowl of dog food.
We stopped cars and asked for someone to help, but nobody wanted to help poor Charlie. We called animal shelters for miles around, but they said we were in the wrong county, and to try calling 911. We were a bit unsure about dialing 911 as it wasn’t a life or death emergency but we were getting impatient from being hand balled from department to department.
Within 15 minutes a police officer pulled up on the side of the dusty, desolate road. The officer was personable and businesslike, but was no dog lover. He held Charile’s leash at arm’s length, like he had just been handed a pair of dirty underwear. When the second police car rolled up he was only too happy to hand the scruffy dog over.
Bon voyage, Charlie! We hope you find a loving home.
Cycling the Coast of Mississippi
We clung to the coast of Mississippi like a bad Hooters outfit. The bland repetition of McWaffleMarts made old Highway 90 a numbing grind – a means to an end in reaching New Orleans. But as we pedalled west to the border of Louisiana we were awakened from our daze.
Tortured oak trees – casualties of hurricane Katrina – caught our eye in the middle of the coastal highway. The ancient trees, stripped of life, had been re-incarnated as angels, eagles, and sea creatures by master carvers Dayton Scoggins and Marlin Miller.
Marlin spent countless hours climbing, sawing, and sculpting the trees, without any intention of profit. “Most generations in Mississippi go eight or nine generations deep,” Marlin explained in American Profile. “When these people lost a giant tree, it wasn’t just theirs. It was something that their great-great-great grandparents played under as children. This token gesture from me represents a rebuilding of the spirit.”
With renewed enthusiasm we rode a series of deluxe, newly constructed bridges into Bay St Louis, the town that was perhaps hit the hardest of all by Katrina. Katrina’s fury still lingers in abandoned blocks, damaged buildings and broken dreams, but Bay St Louis is on the rebound. Out of a sea of debris an amazing creativity, spirit and sense of community has emerged. By the time we had explored the funky cafes and art galleries of this artist’s haven we had been offered three different places to spend the night. Our new record for hospitality!
We were very fortunate to spend time with Mary Kay, a generous soul with a big heart and a lust for life. She invited us into her beautiful ‘shotgun’ style house (a long, narrow house layout where one room follows on to the other meaning a bullet could be shot from the front door right through to the back door without ever hitting a wall). Mary Kay entertained us for days with her stories and love of art while our dogs Jack and Paco enjoyed making pals with Mary Kay’s two pint-sized poodles – Gabby and U2. (Paco particularly enjoyed helping his new pals keep a cheeky squirrel out of the bird feeder.)
We are pleased to tell you that Mary Kay has shaken off stage 4 cancer with the power of positive thinking and healthy living (ok… and a wee dose of chemotherapy). Here are some of the local artists and characters Mary Kay introduced us to. We hope y’all enjoy…
Spencer Gray Jnr – Spoon Man
Spencer Gray Jnr’s first designs were bird feeders and bird houses created with wine bottles, copper, and wood, mostly salvaged in the wake of the storm. Since then he has made a series of metallic characters which blew our stockings off. How does he get so much humour and playful expression from mundane, everyday metal objects like spoons, forks, pots, and garden hoses? Check out more of his work at “The Artists at 220” in Bay St Louis, or online.
Carter Church – A Maestro of the Mardi Gras
Carter Church is the king of costume. We were stoked to be invited into his studio in Bay St Louis where cats and dogs roamed among work benches swathed in fabric and sequins*. Carter and his creative team were busy preparing for the upcoming Mardi Gras. Hand sketched designs were being crafted into a series of stunning monstrosities, fit for king and queen (and I mean monstrosity in the nicest possible way!!!) Our favourite was the giant alligator head piece that must have weighed about as much as an er… alligator?
*Side note: this was not some kind of cat/dog peace loving utopia. Carter had the cat room. The dogs hung out next door with the rest of the creative team.
Walter Anderson – A Life Worth Living
Walter Anderson (1903-1965) was the odd sock who refused to be tossed into the laundry basket. He was a passionate and prolific artist with a deep love of nature. Walter expressed himself through writing, sculpting, and most famously painting. Sadly, much of Walter Anderson’s art was lost during Hurricane Katrina, but perhaps he would have preferred it that way. He was never one to seek out fame and notoriety, but ironically it is only a matter of time before his life story is turned into a feature film starring Tom Hanks (remember, you heard it here first). During his adult life Walter went on epic bicycle adventures in America, China and Costa Rica, escaped a mental hospital to walk over 1000 miles home, and rowed to isolated islands off of the coast of Mississippi where he did much of his painting before falling asleep underneath his overturned row boat.
Kat Fitzpatrick raises her own bees in Bay St Louis and then uses the beeswax (encaustic) as the base medium in her paintings. “This ancient medium is capable of translucency, opacity, layering, texture, incising…almost anything you can imagine,” she says. “I apply it to wood or to heavy watercolor paper… Because they (bees) are in deep trouble at this point in history, these paintings have a poignancy and urgency about them… also a “sweetness”. Watch the video below to see Kat in action.
Route Info: Old Highway 90
Don’t be fooled. Although much of old Highway 90’s traffic through Mississippi has been relieved by the muscled up Interstate 10, she is still a busy old highway. Her eastern stretches have wide boulevards with generous shoulders but there are sections where her shoulders disappear and old 90, your fickle friend, spits you back out onto the road amid a crescendo of honking, impatient drivers brandishing pistols. Ok, so not every driver is impatient and rude, and none were brandishing pistols, but you get the picture. The extra wide bum on Zoa’s trailer meant that our detours onto the curby, bumpy footpaths were a nuisance, as were the sand drifts which periodically covered the path. Still, Highway 90 gave us a 80 mile/130km short cut between Alabama and Louisiana en route to New Orleans and was not without its charms…
Cycling Florida in Winter
I didn’t have high hopes for cycling through Florida. I was fearing an over dose of glitz ‘n’ titz, snowbirds, serial killers and flat, boring roads through trashy towns. Just fast forward to New Orleans I thought. Florida isn`t the `real south` anyway.
Does Florida Have Southern Charm?
From the coastal town of St Augustine to the tip of the panhandle our daily mileage dwindled as we were lavished with the warmth and friendliness of the locals and not so locals. The cliché of southern hospitality was proving true. People wanted to chat, find out our story and help us in any way they could. We were given coffees on cold mornings, slices of pecan pie, bags of home grown citrus fruit, were offered places to sleep, invited over for dinner, provided with maps and endless route advice, were given free bike mechanic help, and had someone pick up our tab for lunch. Meanwhile the dogs were given bags of dog food and treats by random admirers. Wow! We were spoiled rotten by Florida.
Flat, boring & over developed?
With the exception of some lumps and bumps, Florida is pretty well flat, but I was pleased to find it still has some breathing space. When we pedaled across Florida in winter it was in the midst of a long, dry spell. The brown grass, palms and pines gave it the feel of a dry jungle. The mosquitoes, snakes and ‘gators were hibernating, while other wildlife continued to roam. We spotted loads of vultures, raccoons, armadillos, deer, bird life, and were happy to spot some manatees (who swim upstream for the warmer water of hot spring fed rivers). We were also surprised to see a black bear which ran across the road in front of us only a few hundred metres from the Gulf of Mexico. We were so impressed by Florida we would consider coming back to hike The Florida Trail, which crosses Florida from the Everglades to the panhandle.
“You’re Kinda Tresspassin” – Pitching a Tent in Florida
Florida has a great network of State Parks. They typically offer relaxed camping in a natural setting, with access to water, electricity, toilets and showers. We found a few bargain campgrounds for $10, but unfortunately campgrounds become outrageous in the more travelled coastal areas – often between $20 and $30 just to pitch a tent for the night!
Wild camping in Florida can be a little tricky, especially on the coast and on narrow peninsulas where the police are looking to keep vagrants out of sight of the tourist dollar. ‘No Trespassing’ signs are everywhere. Nevertheless we wild camped – from groves of trees behind libraries, to wild corners behind churches, to patches of forest in the countryside. Whenever we asked for help people were accommodating and let us pitch on their land.
One night we made a detour through some hunting woods and became lost in the network of sandy roads (not ideal during hunting season). When we woke up and asked for directions a hunter told us “I don’t mean to get nasty, but you’re kinda tresspassin,” but then proceeded to give us directions and best wishes.
Food, Glorious Food
There is a gluttony of fast food chains everywhere in Florida. The more interesting places are the quirky pubs, cafes and roadside stalls you often find in small towns. For the first time we tasted some grits (a corny cream of wheat style breakfast side), gumbo (a spicy stew with okra), hush puppies (deep fried corn-bread), raw oysters and a delicious mullet dip (a local fish). Sadly we never got around to tasting a deep fried Oreo…
By the way, don’t bother with bread. We were told the local water is too sulphurous for bread to taste good. The ‘artisan breads’ looked and tasted like wonder white darkened with molasses. The French would be horrified.
The unusually cold weather in Florida during December and January had the locals and the snowbirds grumbling. They thought that winter was a crazy time of year to ride a bike across Florida. For us it made quite a pleasant change from snowfall in Canada, although we experienced many freezing nights where our tent poles were frosted together. Often we rode in our warmest clothes during the morning until the weather warmed up. Some days we enjoyed riding in shorts and t-shirts all day long.
Picking a Route
Overall we were very impressed with Florida’s road network and the amount of roads with a generous shoulder to cycle on.
We started off on the Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier Route which connects St Augustine, Gainesville, Tallahassee, Defuniak Springs and Pensacola via peaceful, bicycle friendly roads wherever possible. However after passing through Gainesville we detoured away from the route to visit the beautiful Manatee Springs State Park, where we enjoyed some of Florida’s many rail trails.
From there we followed people’s recommendations to stay on the coast all the way to Alabama. We soon developed a love hate relationship with Highway 98. It offered some beautiful coastal scenery in places and allowed lovely detours onto the lavish 30A and more laid back Santa Rosa Island. Then it put you through miserable and dangerous sections in places like Panama City and Fort Walton Beach where we weaved around on footpaths to avoid being run over.
Our route below is in red. Click on the map markers for more detailed route info, recommendations and warnings…
Characters from the Road
Winter in Florida is not all about snowbirds thawing out stiff limbs. There are loads of drifters and adventurers floating around too. Here are three of the most eccentric that we have come across…
Phil the ‘Turtle’ makes us look like lightweights. His latest ride is a rock solid, industrial strength Worksman delivery bike, hand welded to tow a lumbering box trailer (which was adapted from a jet-ski trailer). In his box of tricks he hauls a full-size car battery, solar panels, weather-band radio, walky-talky radio, CD collection, hard covered books, and electric blanket. All up he has over 400lbs of gear with only his coaster brakes to slow him down!! During the last 32 years he told us he has cycled over 300,000 miles through every state in America (pushing his heavy rig over the Rocky Mountains). The only thing stopping him from claiming his Guinness World Record for ‘most distance travelled by bike’ was his brother’s girlfriend who threw out his collection of Atlases documenting all of his travels. Phil’s ramblings around America are funded by his knife sharpening skills. Along with lots of route recommendations he gave us a demo of his hand powered bench grinder and donated one of his hunting knives to us. Phil was such a chilled out character with a flair for storytelling – a legend of the road.
When I first saw Milton I thought he was rather odd. What kind of Dad pushes his baby stroller along the side of an extremely busy highway? Then when we met him further down the road I realised his baby stroller wasn’t carrying a baby after all, but all his supplies for a cross country adventure. Milton is currently walking and running his way from Miami to Los Angeles for ECYE – a charity that educates and empowers young people in developing nations. To make it even more difficult for himself he is trying to do it all within 100 days. So far he is averaging around 30 miles a day, but is hoping to step it up to 35-40 miles per day by Texas. To donate to his charity and find out if he beats us across the country visit his blog
Allen was seeking refuge from hurricane Katrina when he said he received a warning from above. He followed his impulse and jumped out of his tent just in time to avoid a giant tree crashing down upon him. That night he had a dream that he should cycle for Jesus, which is what he has been doing ever since. On his simple single speed Schwinn he has pedaled over 15,000 miles. He funds his travels around America with donations and odd jobs.
Manatee Springs, Florida
We dropped down to the Manatee Springs State Park in Florida hoping to be able to spot a manatee. Manatee’s are big lovable sea cows that swim up into the warmer waters of the river hot springs during winter. Don’t you just want to give one a hug?
Unfortunately we didn’t spot any manatees, but we did make some other friends of the forest…
We met the luckiest deer in Florida, who were very happy to be avoiding the guns and hounds of hunting season. They knew it too, walking right up to our tent to see what was going on. Meanwhile some cheeky raccoons kept us up most of the night as they performed acrobatics trying to get into our waterproof dog food bag (which is now not so waterproof).
Manatee Springs State Park was a detour off our ACA Southern Tier route, but well worth it. Swimming in the ‘hot springs’ (or more accurately ‘tepid springs’) among roosting vultures and gnarled oaks draped in Spanish Moss was magical.
The East Coast Road Trip
We loaded everything we own into a rental van and drove down the east coast of America from Maine to Florida. We were very happy to find out there was way more room than we thought – in fact Jack and Paco had lots of room to spread out.
Along the way we dropped into New York City, where Jack was a big hit with the friendly New Yorkers. Christmas was spent enjoying sushi in one of the lovely city parks of Savannah, Georgia. The road trip ended in Florida, the Sunshine State, where of course we were greeted by two days of rain! Now, on with the ride!