The US90. Lovely stretch of road. Lined with trees. Big old sun in the sky. Nice wide, smooth shoulder to ride on. All mine for around six days. I got bored of the perfect conditions quite quickly, such is the fickle nature of a cyclist, I wanted some twists and turns along the way.
It becomes pretty apparent, very quickly, that Florida has a lot more cash knocking about than other states.
First up was Pensacola, which turned out to be a nice little town. I was staying with Jeb at a local Methodist church, who opens up their doors to cyclists passing through and is a bit of an institution along the Southern Tier. Jeb was a top guy, lovely to chat to, totally welcoming, and gave me and the other girls who were staying free reign of their space, along with a chest freezer full of ice-cream. If only I had a sweet tooth, or it was full of scotch eggs. I could Cool Hand Luke 50 scotch eggs, no problem.
One thing I’ve noticed about WarmShowers hosts is that they tend to have one bizarre aspect of their lives that juts out like Bruce Forsyth’s chin. A strange home, an odd living arrangement, job or life experience. Almost always these were endearing qualities, talking points. Everything about Gene was bizarre, a Medusa’s head of Forsyth’s chins if you will. Gene, it was not nice to meet you to meet you nice.
I managed to meet Gene on the way to his place. I say meet, he was heading the other way in his pickup, so he slowed down and yelled ‘DOOR’S OPEN!’ out of the window, as he carried on towards what I presumed would be the dump, considering the level of tat piled up in the back.
As I approached Gene’s I was surprised to find he lived in quite a nice area. I was unsurprised when I biked down a big hill and around a corner to find Gene’s place; a run-down shack with all manner of shit strewn around, similar to the tat in the back of his pickup. Suddenly it all became a little clearer – Gene was that guy. The guy in the neighbourhood who’s blissfully unaware that he’s singlehandedly devaluing the entire community whilst managing to piss everybody off with his derelict shit-tip of a dwelling.
I was past the point of no return. It was pretty much sunset, and the prospect of scratching around for a roadside campspot or a shithouse motel in the dark was just slightly less appealing. I propped up The Buggernaut by the side of the shack and headed inside to be greeted by what can only be described as some kind of vast slug draped across a couch. I made small talk with Jabba the Hut until Gene returned.
I’ll make this as clear as possible – I got along fine with Gene and his girlfriend, they made me completely welcome in their home, it’s just that there are certain things you just shouldn’t share with a guest in order for them to feel comfortable. Like his repeated attempts to bring his polyamorous nature into conversation, each time with a smug grin within earshot of one of his girlfriends, who obviously wasn’t quite as comfortable with the situation. He also managed to monologue about the mental asylum where he worked, just around the corner, and the lovely notable events close to home which stemmed from it.
After dinner Gene suggested we took a walk down to the creek behind his house. Seeing this as an opportunity to escape his shack for a while, I jumped at the chance, probably a little too eagerly. Out of the frying pan into the fire.
I didn’t expect to be wandering through an eerie bamboo forest in Florida. It was at this point I suddenly became aware of my surroundings – following a quite obviously strange man through woodland towards a shady creek at sunset. What a way to go, eh? I’d definitely make the front page of the Grimsby Evening Telegraph with this one.
Sensing things were lining up to be a bit odd, I managed to use the last bit of my roaming data to send my location on WhatsApp to a few friends back home. At least someone would know where to start looking for the bits of my body.
We chatted for a while by the creek, which was more of a ditch really, whilst I juggled conversation with comforting thoughts of the fact I could definitely out-run Gene. After a while we decided to head back to his shack.
‘After you’ I offered, as I pointed to the path.
‘You first’ Gene replied.
This was it. The moment I expected a sharp crack on the back of my head as he’d attempt to brain me. The only relatively sharp object I had was my phone, a trusty old iPhone 4 with it’s nice perpendicular edges, which I gripped in my pocket as I trudged through the bamboo.
As we got to the clearing of his house I turned round to see Gene about 20 meters behind, red-faced and sucking in more air than a fancy Dyson. It seems despite all the stars aligning, paranoia had got the best of me, and I saw Gene for what he was – a guy, albeit strange, who lived in a knackered shack with a horror-flick creek which absolutely didn’t have a pile of dead WarmShowers guests nearby. I chilled out a little more after that.
Gene was working nights in the asylum (or maybe he just had curfew), so I settled in for a night on a ragged looking couch with Gene’s deaf dog that liked to have a little bite of me whenever I moved around (I didn’t figure out the dog sign language for ‘piss off’).
I bailed before Gene returned. I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the guy. He’d been through some serious stuff in his life and needed a little help, but I’m not sure cyclists passing through can do much, and if you’re not really equipped to host people in a half decent environment, it’s probably best to give it a miss. I had a word with myself afterwards about not getting in similar situations in future, but at least it made for a decent story, eh?
Back on the US90 towards Tallahassee I decided to partake in my favourite cycling pastimes – failing to learn how to whistle (so much so my face ached and I covered myself in dribble), talking to myself in a Scottish accent and pulling silly faces. I have mastered two of the above, the former still eludes me.
I was quite impressed with Floridian cities so far, Tallahassee was a cool place; lots of cool little bars, breweries and cafes, and a museum I got the chance to wander halfway round before getting kicked out at closing time. They weren’t interested in a lock-in.
I was staying at BicycleHouse – a little co-op in a big warehouse run by a guy called Scott. Scott was a busy man, I didn’t get chance to chat to him much throughout the day, but we managed to squeeze in a few beers with a couple of his volunteers at a local brewery in the evening.
Despite having all the kit around me I still couldn’t think of anything The Buggernaut needed tuning up. At this point I’d figured that my chain was stretched and needed replacing, but if I did that my cassette would need swapping too, and my chainrings had started to resemble shark teeth, so it’d be a full swap-out. I opted to continue to ride it to death, just giving it a healthy squeeze of lube.
The riding in Florida wasn’t really much to write home about to be honest. That’s not to say it was bad, far from it, it’s just nothing fun seemed to be happening whilst riding. Fortunately, WarmShowers kept throwing me some interesting hosts, and seeing as though I was spending all day in my own company I’d be gagging for a chat, so I’d turn up like a sweaty Paxman firing questions left, right and centre.
Next up were Maria and Diane, a couple who lived on a farm way out of town. The British guys I’d met in Alabama told me to pop in and say hi if I was passing through, and it turned out to be a top recommendation. As I turned up on the farm, Maria wandered straight out with her army of chihuahuas lead by a massive pitbull and gave me a huge hug. As far as welcomes go, they don’t come much better. In fact, WarmShowers doesn’t get much better, and all we did was sit down, chat for hours, and watch a film, which goes to show what good company Maria and Diane were.
I’ll be honest, I was delighted with just how ridiculous some of the people I had met had been. America truly throws up some loveable oddballs. Ken was a particular favourite.
I’d arranged to stay and the Suwannee Bicycle Association; a newly refurbished bikehouse run by local members which has recently opened itself up to cyclists passing through. As I pulled up and turned on my phone to find the keycode the door swung open.
“Yeah, yeah, ok, I’ll call ya’ back, ok Paw? There’s another guy on a bike turned up.”
Ken guided me in with his long arms. The usual bike chat ensued, but I couldn’t help focussing on Ken as an actual person; his booming Boston accent endlessly blasting out of his wirey-moustachioed mouth, along with his rangey limbs that would swirl around, crossing over, and in some cases wrap and envelop a nearby object. There was one moment in which, mid-sentence, he casually wrapped his left leg over the breakfast table, all whilst guiding a slice of toast coated in peanut butter and jelly into his mouth like an envelope being pushed into a bristled letterbox by an impatient postman. I could hardly get a word in edgeways, and I didn’t want to. It was like talking to a real life cartoon character. I was simultaneously honoured to have met him, and also disappointed that I had no one to reflect upon meeting him with.
There’s only one Ken, and for good reason.
At this point it was time to point The Buggernaut southwards for the final stretch towards Miami. I still had a fair stretch of time to fill up though.
I’d grown to dislike cities in America. They’re mostly big, ugly, grey things, with unimaginative structure and designed purely to be navigated by car. Gainesville was slightly different though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like an actual city full of character, but it’s streets ahead of any other city in America I’ve been to, and was worthy of spending an afternoon in before I headed out to Tom and Martha’s place.
Tom and Martha’s was probably the most difficult house I’ve ever had to find. The actual address and GPS co-ordinates lead you about half a mile away, so you have to follow Tom’s written directions word for word. Tom and Martha were top class hosts, and their house was equally amazing, along with their performing cat, and Tom’s elaborate beer and whisky collection (I’m still not convinced that best bourbon can be called anything more than mediocre. I am, however, still willing to give it a try). They were also hosting another couple; Dave and Joanne. Dave was cycling across the states whilst Joanne would tag along in a support car checking out birding hotspots along the way. The key factor in this though, was that Dave was 70 something, and Type 1 diabetic, something I imagine is quite difficult to navigate around in America. Hats off to the guy.