I’d decided to gun-it down the middle of Florida. I’d been warned that when you reach the coasts the prices go up, along with the traffic and towns along with it. Apparently the Eastern coast towards Miami is lined with condos – not exactly the shoreside ride I’d had in mind, and to be honest, I prefer forests.
This meant I got to spend three days riding through the Ocala National Forest. It was a welcome change to be riding through trees for a while, not that I could see too much of it –there was a big fire smoking out everything. It was so bad the Fuzz had shut down a bunch of roads, which of course was the exact way I was heading. I spent a while chatting to a couple in an RV who rang ahead to the camp I was heading for, just to make sure it was open before I made the punt all the way round. They were lovely people, I haven’t got a chance of remember their names, but it reaffirms my point that if you’re in a pinch, American’s will see you right. Mostly.
It turned out that the camp I’d earmarked was directly opposite the bushfire.
I found the whole camp host thing a bit weird to be honest. They were the go-to people for problems you had, which for me was normally “My stuff is being torn apart by raccoons” After chatting to some of them, it turns out they generally get their status by being around for so long, ‘a part of the furniture’ if you will, like that guy at work who doesn’t really have a particular job, but he’s been there forever so he always has to stick his oar in.
This bunch were pretty cool though. Shortly after I’d pitched up she wheeled over on her beat up bike and shouted over in a broad Brooklyn accent –
’They put up these speed signs for me, y’know!’
She explained that the fire next-door was still going, despite them chucking water on it via helicopter, and that if it got any worse we might be evacuated. Nice thoughts.
My main concern was raccoons though, the cute little bastards, and after explaining to the Hostess about my nightly fights with them, she let me stick all my bags in her boot. In other words, I became the worlds most easily robbable cyclist.
To be honest, the rest of the time in the Ocala forest was nothing to write home about. Don’t get me wrong, it was really nice, lots of trees and lots of rivers, but nothing weird happened. I did quite enjoy camping in places with bear lockers though. Not for bear safety, just to stop the god damn raccoons.
Out of Ocala I headed south to Eustis where Ken and Lisa offered to host me. Before I popped round to Ken and Lisa’s place, I decided to stop in Eustis for a while and kill an hour or so in a park. It’s interesting gauging people’s reactions to a dishevelled looking guy on an overloaded bike. If I was just a dishevelled looking guy in a park, I doubt I’d get quite the number of smiles and hello’s that I do without the overloaded bike.
Quite often, people will pop over for a chat. Other times, like this one, someone will skirt around the periphery whilst they pluck up the courage to fire off a few questions.
An old fellow parked his bike next to the bench opposite me and sat down for a while, before skirting over to the other side of my bench.
“I’m just a little curious, as to, uhh, where you’re travellin’ from?”
Answering this question takes a fair amount of time now. Inevitably, we got on to the discussion of where I was heading, so I explained I was going to Miami, before flying to Barcelona, then biking back to the UK. This piqued his interest.
“Never been to Europe myself. I know, uhh, a couple of friends who rode their, uhh, motorbikes over there. Holland, France, Germany, city to city, brothel to brothel…”
There was a couple of moment silence, although you probably hearing my teeth clamping onto my lip to stifle the laughter.
“…UHH, hostel to hostel I mean.”
Yeah mate, whatever. Good cover up for your sexy mates.
Ken was waiting outside when I arrived. We shoved the Buggernaut in with their collection of very shiny bikes and headed on through to sit out back lakeside and chat with a beer. Very nice. Very nice indeed.
Ken and Lisa were from up North. He’d previously ran a music store for years before selling it to retire and escape down to Florida where they’d been for ten years. It must’ve been a pretty big business judging by the size and location of their place. Ken had also ridden the periphery of the US a few years back, pretty much what Mark McGhee was doing on his recumbent now. To put this into perspective, riding the perimeter of the US gets you roughly from the UK to Thailand. I say this every time but Ken and Lisa were lovely, warm people.
Could this have been one of my few normal WarmShowers encounters?
Of course it fucking wasn’t.
Everything was perfectly normal until just before dinner, where just as we were about to serve up in the kitchen, Ken grabs my right hand, Lisa grasps my left, and before I know it we’re stood in a circle listening to Ken saying Grace.
I’ve never said Grace before. Am I supposed to close my eyes? I had a quick peek.
I’m supposed to close my eyes.
Am I supposed to agree with ‘mmhmm’s’? I listened out for Lisa.
No, I’m not.
Am I supposed to say ‘Amen’ at the end?
Too late, I missed it because I was too busy trying to stifle laughter. I think that probably marked me out as not being one of them.
That and the fact I’d often forget and drop a massive blasphemous clanger like ‘Jesus’, or ‘Oh my God!’ when I’d react to their stories. In fact it got so bad that at some points I’d notice I was saying it and bail halfway, leaving an ‘Oh jee…’.
There was a particular moment in the night, when a friend had popped round for a beer, Ken was telling a story about eggs. Apparently in America they have to store eggs in the fridge, whereas in the UK we can happily store them out. Ken explained that this was due to them having a thin membrane on the outer of the shell, and in the States they wash this off, before remarking at how it’s amazing how they had evolved in such a way. This went down like the proverbial shit sandwich
‘EVOLVED?! You mean created… BY GOD!’ Lisa proclaimed.
Everybody agreed and laughed and went onto the next avenue of conversation as though this was a perfectly rational conclusion, whilst I sat there, feeling a little out of place, whilst secretly amused and absolutely made-up that I had a little story to write about.
The next morning I woke up and headed out to join Ken and Lisa on their veranda with a coffee.
‘We’re gonna kick off today with a little prayer from one of our favourite books, it’s from the second best selling Non-Fiction book of all time, behind the Bible’ Ken declared, before heading off on a monologue for a couple of minutes, whilst I pondered the validity of the ‘Non-Fiction’ tag Ken had just given the Bible.
Ken joined me on the morning ride out of town towards Orlando. He had replica Tour de France cycling gear, except on closer inspection it actually read ’Tour de Christ’. You couldn’t make it up.
At this point I’d like to say that Ken and Lisa were absolutely amazing hosts along with being great people, and I hope they think I was at least a somewhat nice guest, and I’m pretty sure they figured out I wasn’t religious in any way pretty early on – they must have. We are however, cut from entirely different cloth, which is one of the great things about WarmShowers, isn’t it? You get to meet people from all over who have these startlingly different lives, interests, cultures, thoughts and ideas. I’d wanted to broach the subject of their overt religion whilst I was there but in all honesty I chickened out (amazing pun, right there). It felt wrong that if after they’d invited me into their home, I were to question their beliefs. Not that I would have done it in a condescending manner, but I would’ve loved to have known why. Were they always religious? Did they ‘find’ God? Their thoughts on science? What they thought of their detractors, or even other religions. But despite my curiosity, my desire not to appear a prick overruled. Probably for the best, eh?
Anyway, I went into Orlando and took a few days off.
After Orlando I pretty much headed south towards Lake Okochobee, a recommendation from Ken. There was supposed to be a cycle path around the perimeter of it, and lots of campsites littered around it. Both were true, however the cycle path was shut down for maintenance most of the time.
I’d been tipped off that the road from Okochobee towards Miami was a long, traffic heavy highway with not much to look at except swamp either side. Didn’t sound like much fun to be honest. I decided to risk it and try to take a dirt track that ran through a nature reserve. Most of the time this ends with me swearing a lot and bemoaning my lack foresight when it all turns to shit. Weirdly, this time it worked. I only had to jump three fences.
There’s another Hollywood on this side of the States. That was news to me. I was staying with a couple of guys called Dave and Leo. After I found their place, Dave answered the door and lead me through to the back where I could stick the Buggernaut. He leaned in and said with a hushed voice –
‘We Airbnb another room out, so if you could kinda not let the guy know you’re staying here for free?’
‘Yeah, no worries, of course’. I replied
‘…and we have a relaxed attitude towards nudity in this house. The other guest is choosing not to wear clothes, myself and Leo may or may not be wearing clothes. Whether you were clothes is entirely up to you’.
I think I just giggled a bit as a response. Dave pondered off whilst I stripped down the Buggernaut and before I knew it I turned round and was chatting casually to a 50 year old naked dude about biking around the world. As you do.
I headed for the shower and giggled uncontrollably whilst simultaneously pondering whether to go naked. It was hot and humid – this is Florida after all.
In the end, I overthought the situation. Was the nudity for comfort or sexual gratification? Not that I felt threatened in any way or form, they were all nice people, it’s just I’m not really up for that.
I walked out into the lounge fully clothed. I was a bit disappointed with myself – this story could have more legs, instead we chatted, had dinner then I fixed up Dave’s bike with a spare gear cable.
Next morning we all had breakfast, I only had a relatively short ride to the airport along the coast, so I stayed for a while and chatted for a couple of hours with Mike (the other guy) after Dave and Leo left for work. By this point the nudity has got so normal every now and then I’d suddenly have a reality check as my internal monologue would shout ‘There’s a naked dude right there and you’re just talking to him’.
Mike was good guy, however his constant desire to be naked was a little unerring. Even as I was leaving he pointed the way to Miami’s only nudist beach, it’s a good one apparently. I made a joke about how it’d be unkind of me to share my cycling tan lines and left.
The money in Miami is pushed right up to the coast, which is unfortunate as it’s constantly flooding. I bet the people with water pumps in Miami are pretty rich.
Riding down the coast wasn’t really all that fun. Lots of traffic, not so cycle friendly. I cycled around a bit and saw the sights, but to be honest it wasn’t long before I bailed towards the motel I’d booked near the airport and started hunting down a bike box. I was done, and I couldn’t wait for decent food and actual culture.
Weirdly, America was one of the safest places I’ve ridden. Sure, it’s custom built for cars, but because of that you generally have a massive hard shoulder to ride on. I managed to get to the other side without getting into a fight with any vehicles, which is pretty good going, especially while I didn’t have any insurance, and said fight would wind up with a sizeable bill at the end. At least in Europe I can wave a European Health Card with a flappy, broken arm after being run over. Well… for a bit anyway.