Porter put the bikes on the back of the car again this morning, and we headed off to the Tosohatchee State Reserve near Christmas. That's Christmas, Florida—we're still much nearer Memorial Day than Christmas.
We knew this would be a different kind of ride. We knew it would be on unpaved trails through a wilderness area, and we thought we were prepared. We had sunscreen and bug repellent, emergency bike kit (tube, CO2 cartridge for inflating same, patches, wrench, and those little thingies for helping you put the tire back on the rim), water to drink, and cell phones. Knowing we'd be in a game preserve, we also had a monocular and a camera. We had a change of clothes and a picnic lunch waiting in the car for our return.
"Unpaved trails." I was expecting something like the crushed-shell-and-sand trail at our local park. Silly me.
Everything went pretty much according to expectations at first. They do have an interesting honor system for the park entrance fee: You put your money in an envelope, slip it through a slot, and don't forget to sign in so we know where to look if you get lost. We drove a little along a very washboard-y road, and parked the car. (Florida sand roads develop a series of "washboard" ridges that can shake loose anything not firmly attached: exhaust pipes, dental fillings, whatever.)
It was after we parked that things began to go not quite as planned. The trail was wide and inviting, but certainly not crushed-shell-and-sand. This was more like riding over a not-too-well-maintained lawn.
Make that not maintained at all. Both of us have all-purpose (cheap) bikes, so they were built to take the abuse. My body may have originally been built to take it, too—but it hasn't been all that well maintained recently itself. Although the trail was flat, it required the work of a signficant uphill grade, with no hope of a corresponding downhill. The really fun parts were where we had to put on a good burst of speed to build up enough momentum to get us through the soggy, wet parts. You don't want to come to a dead stop in the middle of a boggy place.
Little did I know that this was the good part of the trail.
This trail map gives you a rough idea of our route. I say "rough" for two reasons: (1) the map itself is not completely accurate, and (2) because of reason 1 I'm not exactly sure where we were some of the time. Location A is where we parked. (Just a reminder—the pictures are preview links; click on them for the full view.)
The trails are not well marked. That is an understatement. As you can see, we veered off the trail and found ourselves on the other side of the park boundary. Too bad we couldn't stay there, because the going was significantly easier on that side. But we knew we had to get back into the park, because we could now see the trail, just on the other side of the...barbed wire fence. Porter wasn't going to let a little thing like that stop him. He climbed over the fence, then took the bikes as I passed them to him. I was not at all sure about climbing the fence, so he held two of the wires apart while I squeezed through.
There! We were back where we should have been. But doing what's right is not always the easier path....
The grassy trail had deteriorated into a humpy, clumpy much-torn-up (by deer, possibly, judging from the hoofprints) ordeal. At some point, Porter intellgently and kindly suggested we swap bikes. His is enough easier to ride to make it worth putting up with the fact that I can barely sit on the seat and reach the pedals. I was having to ride standing up much of the time, anyway. When I wasn't walking. Yes, sometimes I gave up and got off the bike. Walking allowed me to catch my breath and make progress at the same time.
In choir we've been rehearsing a song that includes the words, "I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me." It's a lively, repetitive song that's a lot of fun to sing (think gospel meets barbershop quartet), which means it's the kind that gets stuck in your head and won't go away. This one asserted itself about 4 a.m. and didn't stop until we were on our way home. At first it drove me nuts, but soon it became a prayer....
We began to doubt again: Were we on the right trail? Or was this just a firebreak along the boundary line? Surely the real trail couldn't be this bad. I wish I had pictures to show you, but I was incapable at that point of thinking about my camera, and anyway no picture could do it justice. No doubt for a mountain biker this would have been a walk in the park. No, wait. For me it was a walk. A mountain biker would have ridden straight through. Anyway, we later concluded we were probably on the right trail, because we saw several others that were equally bad.
After the longest four and a half miles (give or take a bit) of my life, during which we thought we were mostly on the right trail but still had our doubts, Porter found a path that connected with a road. (Approximately location B on the map.) I was totally exhausted but this brought me back to life. Here was crushed-shell-and-sand! Here I could ride! Suddenly I felt great! Porter asked if I'd rather take the road back to where we had parked, instead of continuing on our planned route, but the road had inspired me and I was ready to go on, as long as we stuck to the road. The road and the trail were one for most of the remaining trip, anyway. We switched back to our own bikes and were on our way again.
Deceptive road! After about two minutes of delightful riding—still quite a bit harder than paved road, but worlds better than the trail—it became all sand again. The weather has been very dry, and the road is not well travelled. This translates to loose sand. My cousin was a lifeguard at Daytona Beach, and he used to train for his job by running on the beach—because running in loose sand is very hard work. So is biking in loose sand. Not only does it require a lot of power, but if you don't keep your front wheel completely straight, you immediately go into a screeching-halt skid.
I still didn't want to turn back. We again traded bicycles. Sometimes the road was better, especially in the middle where a few springs of grass had grown up. Sometimes it was awful. Sometimes I rode—ganbarimasu!—and sometimes I walked. Porter managed to keep riding, stopping periodically to allow me to catch up. Here is the resting point where I finally remembered that I had a camera. (Location D on the map.)
One of the great things about riding in a game preserve is all the wildlife you can see. And we did, if you count grasshoppers and butterflies. Riding took so much concentration it was not possible to look around, so all I saw was what happened to be between me and the road. Despite the park rules that say that all wildlife is protected, Porter did make up his own real-life video game by trying to run over the grasshoppers. There were so many he was often successful. When I was growing up I thought grasshoppers were cute. Now that I've seen the devastation wrought by our giant Florida varieties, I feel differently. I did manage to see a vulture, and Porter flushed a wild turkey, but other than that all our wildlife was insectival.
It was a long haul, but we finally made it to Long Bluff road (see map). There the way really did get easier, as the road was more travelled. There were still bad spots, but they were fewer, and every once in a while we got up to the dizzying speed of eight miles per hour! Though it might have been exhaustion that made me dizzy. :) At some point Porter also took my backpack. Neither his pack nor mine were at all heavy, but at that point I was taking all the help I could get. This road would have been much less of a challenge had I not been so worn out by the first part of the trail.
I'm accustomed to having one bottle of water be sufficient or more so when we go riding. This time we were at the halfway point on the trail when I realized I was much more than halfway through my water. Comes from breathing so much with my mouth open (i.e. panting), I guess. Most of the trails we've travelled have water sources along the way, but not, of course, this one. So we both decided to be a little more conservative in our drinking. At some point it was going well enough that we switched bikes once more. I missed my more padded seat, and the extra seat-to-pedal distance on Porter's bike, combined with the bouncy road, was more than a bit uncomfortable for the, um, more delicate parts of my body.
Finally, we reached the "Praise the Lord!" point: Power Line Road. (Location C on the map.) I could see that it was a much better path, and so did not mind taking a short detour (about six tenths of a mile round trip) to see the St. John's River. This is where we met up with the first people (fishermen) we'd seen since the beginning, except for one truck that had passed us on the road. We saw a few more cars before getting back to ours, but no one else on bike or foot.
Power Line Road stretched long between us and our car, but we were able to make a steady 7-8 mph most of the time, and the riding was easy enough we could look around and actually see some wildlife. Birds, actually. White herons and Great Blues and lots of smaller birds. We heard a couple of alligator-shaped splashes nearby, but didn't see what made them and didn't feel like investigating. Alligators can run faster than I could pedal at that point.
Scofflaws that we are, we enjoyed breaking the speed limit by bicycle, crossing two wooden bridges a good two or three miles per hour over the posted 5 mph limit. We were significantly under the 30 ton weight limit, however.
There was one more bad stretch in the final mile, and I had to walk a bit more, having totally lost my momentum having to pull off the road to let a car pass. But I finished the trip by bike, joyfully greeting Porter who had already opened the car and pulled out a cold drink. We ate some grape tomatoes, but otherwise were in no mood for our picnic lunch—we just drank and drank.
It actually was a great trip. A wonderful feeling of accomplishment. We're both very glad we did it—though neither of us feels any need to do it again.
On the way home we had another great adventure, but that will have to wait for another post.