Florida Part 2, Return From The Keys! June 4-8, 2014.

I have to admit something up front… Maybe it was the rain, but I was more than happy to turn back north.

I’d been cautioned already by people who know me that once past St. Augustine there wouldn’t be much for me on the ocean side, just long, straight drives through high heat and humidity, and maybe some scenery. They’re mostly right; I’m not really a beach person, and I’m not familiar with the romance of Daytona, Cocoa, or um, not really sure what there is. My primary source of knowledge on Miami before experiencing it from aboard my scooter were based on CSI: Miami (thanks to Kendall and Moni) and Dexter. Now I can check that ride off my list, and continue back north on the gulf side. But first…

A sunrise goodbye to the Atlantic.

Bahia Honda really is a beautiful island for camping. In spite of my million bug bites and non-beachy personality, I wanted to get my feet wet in farewell to the ocean I’ve lived much of my adult life by: the Atlantic. I let my thoughts wander and the salt soothe the bug buffet of my legs, breathed in the ocean air, stirred up sand in the surf, and stuck around for what felt like the perfect amount of time for any beach. Feeling serene, I made my way back to the scoot. A clock check revealed it had been about 20 minutes.

Of course, the weather breaks as I say goodbye.

I suppose I had one of those ‘moments’ as I cruised back north on the long bridges. On the way south, with the challenging weather, constant sticky sweatiness, bug bites, and all my gear smelling like salty feet, I was increasingly questioning myself and my decision to make this journey. I didn’t expect an endless string of fun days, but it sure was tiring to put myself out there day after day. Why am I doing this? What is my damage? Are they right, am I foolish and crazy? Questions of that nature were a steady background hum that got louder the further I went south. But now, with Key West behind me and sunbeams beginning to pour from between the clouds, something clicked in my head. Something about the absurdity of the questions, the absurdity of all that anxiety, the absurdity of doing anything really, whether seeking meaning, perspective, experience, fun, or whatever your personal quest is… I began laughing uncontrollably in my helmet. Laughing, crying, and probably speeding.

Crazy, indeed.

Thankfully, addiction quickly overtook insanity, and I regained composure long enough to find some coffee.

Look who I found! Teamr2 and his bodyguard!

On Key Colony Beach, I found a cute cafe. Waiting in line, a beardy fellow with a cool mohawked pup nodded towards my full gear and asked, “Whatcha riding?”

“Oh, ha, a scooter.” The conversation might have ended there if I hadn’t come out of the cafe, coffee successfully acquired, to discover him seated across from my fully loaded Vespa.

“This is yours?”

I confirmed. Conversation followed about going cross country and my Rhode Island origin – he thought I was a local. “If I were local, I would be in shorts, sandals, and no helmet.”

He laughed, “I just thought you were really serious about safety.” Then, after a pause, “Do you know about a forum called ADV?”

And so, another ADVer was discovered! We’re like Easter eggs, hidden around the world. James (Teamr2) and I exchanged backstories, ride stories, and contact info while the coffee kicked in and the sun broke through the remaining clouds. He was working on the Keys, but invited me to stay at his place in Pensacola!

He had to get to work and I had miles to cover, but I couldn’t feel more lucky.

Then, a giant crustacean attacked my scooter.

My route that day was along Alligator Alley, and I counted 60 gators before I was even halfway through, and gave up.

It’s looking right at me…
I didn’t even know Florida had panthers!
I saw bright orange leaf-like things on the road, and pulled over to discover they’re enormous crickets. This guy was nearly 3 inches long.
In fact, there were a lot of bugs.

I don’t recall where exactly I stopped for a restroom break, but it was a bakery that only spoke Spanish. The tamales smelled good though. For something like $1.50, I took one for the road, but I still have no clue what the meat filling was. Pork, probably. I like to think it was gator. Maybe nutria. Armadillo?

Tasty. I’ve determined it contains corn, at least.

Destination for the night: My first ADV tentspace signup host, Randy’s (piratetreasure) home. What an incredible pleasure to meet him and his family, and share his home for a night! I’m about to take back everything I said about not being into beaches, just look at the view in his town:

They’ve been here for generations.

Randy and I went to his aunt’s place so I could do laundry, and I had a chance to walk along the local beach while the wash cycle ran. He took off his flip flops to walk in the water, and I followed suit. As the sun made its slow descent in the sky, we shared stories, poked at sea life washed ashore, picked up a few shells, and dug for tiny burrowing clams I can’t recall the name of (didn’t find any of these mythical molluscs). It was the kind of picturesque that belonged on a postcard, but it was authentic, real, and I was squishing white sand between my toes wondering how I found myself in a place so fortunate. I suppose I should mention we were definitely wandering along the beach longer than my previous record of 20 minutes.

Back at AJ’s, I flipped the laundry and she had three cold Gatorades waiting for us. We sat around the table and I listened to her tell stories about hurricanes, and which parts of the house we sat in were rebuilt, original, or moved and rotated 90 degrees (answer: the whole thing!). As someone who grew up moving homes, it’s amazing to me to be inside a house with such a history, and hear stories from family who have stuck with it for generations. With such a ridiculously serene place to call home though, why wouldn’t you return?

Dinner was well underway at the Amos home, and the house was filled with aromas. The kitchen table teemed with family activity (and me, introduced to an uncle by Randy as “A person I just met from the internet and is sleeping here tonight”), and although it probably wasn’t a special night for them, I savored both the food and the company.

If only you could smell this picture.
If only you could smell this picture.
“You don’t want to know what I’m cookin’, Mo,” (shh, it’s chicken)
Yes.

I can never resist sharing stories and routes with other riders though, and Randy and I stayed up a bit (okay, Malorey helped with commentary on the video portion).

Thank you so much for welcoming a stranger from the internet into your home!

What a family!

A bit of research turned up that on Thursdays, museums often have an ‘after 5’ deal with discounted admissions ($10, instead of $25). Years ago, I went to a summer program at the Ringling School of Art and Design, which was instrumental in my decision to attend art school. I haven’t been back to Sarasota since, so I caught up on the Internet at a local cafe until 5pm, and parked myself at the Ringling Circus Museum.

New exhibit hall, I love how the ceiling looks like the inside of a tent.
Did I mention, I love miniatures?
The irony isn’t lost here.
Wonderful details, and every few minutes the display goes dark so you can see the scene lit up.
Derp.

As corny as it sounds, the museum brought back a childlike sense of wonder in me. As if making up for the heavy questions earlier, I found affirmation walking through the exhibits, as well as enjoyment and education. John Ringling loved both circus and art, and there’s a quote somewhere (I can’t seem to find it, please send it if you do!) about the overlap between the two – the gist was, they both inspire your imagination, and bring something fantastic into what could otherwise be a dull life. As I wandered John and Mable’s grounds, I felt a renewed fire for the so-called crazy and disparate things I do. There is a common thread after all: I just want to draw, create, or physically perform something that will give other people pause out of their daily life to say, “Wow.”

Or y’know, “…Why?” Or, “What’s wrong with you?” Or just a silent, bewildered look. And we’re back to the crazy. Anyway, I love spectacle, and the circus is right up my alley.

Howard Tibbal’s workshop, still in use.

I thought I’d seen the highlight, when I walked into the second, older gallery that housed retired circus equipment. The smell was what struck me first; these were not plastic reproductions or display copies. No, bleeding into the air was a smell that could only come from years of use, travel, set-up, break-down, animals, people, and work. It was the co-existance of mundane and exotic. I suppose you could either be appalled or enthralled. I was riding high, buzzing with a sense of creative purpose.

Nice shot.
If I were to marry, this is how I want to go down the aisle.
Looking out over the water.

I planned to take the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to my next overnight spot, though I’d been warned even some car drivers feel nervous crossing it. Let me tell you: there’s no anticipation like coming around the bend from the south of the Skyway, and seeing that massive bridge rise in the sunset. I held a death-grip on my handlebars at wide open throttle, and on the incline the needle wouldn’t budge past 60mph – actually, near the top it began dropping. $1 toll for one fantastic thrill.

Red Brick’s 3 Bagger for me, I tried and liked it in Atlanta.

Sadly, I failed at taking any photos with my hosts for the evening. I landed at Mike’s (zippy) place, and went out with a couple other rider friends (Floki and one non-ADVer, name is escaping me I’m sorry!) for burgers and live music at one of their local picks, The Ale & The Witch. I think I was just enjoying myself too much – fellow riders, good food, good drinks, good music – the only photo I have is of the venue’s extensive tap selection. A shame, really, I had a great time unwinding with them. Apparently, the downtown area of St. Pete’s took off recently, it didn’t always look like the hoppin’ college nightlife spot that we wandered through. I didn’t mind, the streets had cooled off in the night and I enjoyed walking and talking about music and motorcycles. I felt like a minor celebrity; they had set me up with a free hotel room downtown, and walked me back at the end of the evening.

I also hadn’t realized how tired I was. I think I hit the big, cushy, king sized bed in the hotel room with the gravitational force of Jupiter. I would have told you I was the most comfortable person in the world, if it hadn’t required removing my face from the pillow. Wars could be fought over the restorative powers of that bed.

Alas, I didn’t get to take advantage of the other fanciful hotel offerings, but I spent the morning catching up on drawing, writing, and continuing in my own time.

Greek food lunch break at Tarpon Springs.
Sea divers were imported from Greece to harvest sea sponges from the bay.
New hood ornament?
Live long and prosper…doesn’t look like it worked out.
Finally! Someone will sell me just a couple.
Sign at the Rainbow Springs State Park campground.
To the springs!

The heat and humidity never really ends, but luckily there was an available tent site at Rainbow Springs State Park. Getting from the campground to the spring head was a bit roundabout, so I ended up riding about 7 miles (14 round trip) in a bikini. I think I would have been more cranky, but the cold spring water was just what I needed after a sweaty day.

Swimming area through the trees.
Playing with waterproof camera!
Found a rock to stand on.
So…I’m standing on it.
Yup, still here.
Reverse shot of swimming area.

They say the temperature of the spring water in this region stays the same year round. In the winter (pah!), steam rises from the surface.

Alas, didn’t end up drying completely in the humidity.

I’m impressed by the state park campgrounds in Florida. They’re consistently level, with decent privacy between sites, and quite pretty. Rainbow Springs included an electrical hookup and a clothesline. If I had an RV, the spot would be the same price, which is incredible (I might have been jealous of my RV neighbors, and the smells of bacon their hulking forms seem to produce in abundance).

Catching some wifi at Kona Joe’s in Cedar Key.
Decadent blue crab quiche, their special.
I feel… so relaxed…
Someone told me Cedar Key is what Florida was before Disney arrived.
Scooter wants a flight.

On the Silver Snail, I’d read that Island Air Tours would fly you around Cedar Key for $35 ($25 for 2-3 passengers). Off to haunt the little airstrip. I met a couple while waiting, and we shared the cabin with the captain, Marve, a retired flight teacher.

My flight partners!
Aerial view of Cedar Key.
You can see the runway in the upper right.
Seahorse Key? Some good I am with names.
Inflight.
Thanks for a great flight, Marve!
Everything is so cute and islandy.
Wish I could have taken some smoked mullet, but they’re quite big and still susceptible to heat and humidity.
Guess I’ll have Guthrie’s gutbox instead.

Remember the Giraffe from previous posts? He had some intel for me from his college days at Florida State in Tallahassee. First stop: Guthrie’s for fried chicken (peppery dipping sauce is like crack). Next stop: Poor Paul’s dive bar for cheap drinks. …And that was my last stop for the night, unless you count the cheapest motel I’ve ever stayed in.

Scooter parking under awning, because storm clouds were gathering.
Didn’t spin the wheel, but ended up playing pool and fuzbol with new friends.

The place looks like a questionable concrete building from the outside, but inside it became apparent it’s the sort of college place where legends live on even after graduation. I ran into a lady who said she used to come here ten years ago when she was in school. It’s a laid back spot, the bartenders are cool, and you won’t go broke just hanging out with the local characters. I had a great evening, much thanks to the Giraffe for pointing it out.

Starting to feel a bit like this guy, in the sun.
Oyster table!

I had one more pit stop before my last night in Florida: Apalachicola, for their bay oysters. Not many places were open on a Sunday, but after some stumbling around in the sun, tempting heat stroke, I stepped into the luxurious AC of Up the Creek Raw Bar. $6 for half a dozen (they gave me an extra because one looked a bit small), and they were everything I could have hoped for.

Naked oysters.
Dressed. Slurp.
Thank you, Teamr2!

I did end up taking James up on his extremely kind offer of a place to stay. My riding pants went for a wash – over a week of daily wear plus heat plus moisture plus camping plus ocean had imbued them with a rather sour quality. Actually, I think I didn’t set foot outside again except to water his plants and take in some mail. That night, I fell asleep on the livingroom couch, watching the Mythbusters on cable TV, in sweet, cool, central air. Tomorrow would be my last day in Florida.

Thematically appropriate song for this leg?

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