Lap of Florida (start/end in Jacksonville, FL)
Wed – Thurs, March 11-12, 2020
I awoke just before 03:00, plugged in the coffee, and got myself attired and caffeinated. Bike uncovered and packed, and filled my hydration thermos with hotel ice – ready to go! I ran down West Beltway for a few miles, crossing the St. Johns River to the following exit and pulled up to the Circle K pumps. My bright LEDs scorched a couple cars over in a darker area of the lot directly ahead of me, but I was focused on getting my starting receipt squared away, and I usually just leave the key on while fueling. Shortly after, whoever was there decided they’d had enough and drove away.
The receipt was not forthcoming, of course, and the attendant was out emptying trash and tending to her outside tasks. She followed me inside after a minute and got me a duplicate receipt. She thanked me for shining my headlights on those cars/people, saying that they’d been making her a bit uneasy.
“Something shady going down over there?” I asked her.
“Well you never know, it’s happened before!” she replied. I told her I was glad to be of service and hoped the karma would stay with me for the ride ahead.
I dutifully took my starting receipt photo in front of my bike odometer: official starting time of 03:28. Here we go!
Garmin led me north on the West Beltway, back around Jacksonville to I-95. My first stop would be the required northeastern checkpoint on Amelia Island, thenceforth proceeding in a counter-clockwise direction around the state. I’d planned the timing and direction this way to minimize traffic (especially on the Keys) and to avoid sun glare.
I rode several miles before exiting on FL route 200. There were a lot of construction zones along this road east to Amelia Island, but thankfully all were inactive at this time of night. I was doubly grateful to be hitting this stretch at night, noting all the strip malls, commercial properties, and traffic lights lining the way – perfect recipe for heavy daytime traffic.
I had a Speedway picked out for my checkpoint receipt, but they weren’t open yet when I arrived. No matter, there was a Circle K about 50 yards further and they were lit up for business. I secured my proof of reaching the mandatory northeast checkpoint, and headed back to I-95.
Retracing my steps back down to the West Beltway, this time I exited onto I-10 for the long leg westbound to Pensacola. This was my first ride on the Florida panhandle, so I was looking forward to seeing a new area.
Turns out there wasn’t much to look at on I-10 in Florida. Much of this interstate feels like you’re passing through a tunnel of trees, with a heavily wooded median in many sections. Add to that riding at night for the first couple hours, and then a heavy fog advisory in effect, as I gleaned from the occasional electronic DOT highway signs. The fog reduced visibility to a half mile or so for several stretches, not enough to really affect top speed.
I made good time across the state, amid very light traffic. As the fog began to burn off, it was nice to see some of the native trees and wetlands pushing close to the highway corridor. I was surprised by the lack of wildlife, however. I was on high alert for deer, especially before sunrise, but only spotted a couple off on the shoulder that Waze warned me about. I didn’t even see any of the larger larger birds or small roadside critters like armadillos that you might expect in Florida.
I made one fuel stop in Lloyd, just east of Tallahassee, and there were several law enforcement vehicles there getting coffee, pulled up alongside each other to chat, and preparing for a prosperous day of traffic enforcement on the interstate. Once past Tallahassee, the exits are few and far between – the isolation was kind of nice, looking back on it.
The topography began to change and vegetation thinned out as I approached the western end of the panhandle and headed down towards the coast. Just before crossing Blackwater Bay, I pulled into a rest area for a nature break and realized that I was in Blue Angels territory.
I got my first glimpse of the Gulf waters while crossing over Pensacola Bay.
Pensacola (apparently based on a word meaning “village of hairy people”) wasn’t what I had envisioned – i.e. something of a sleepy tropical backwater with Key West’ish character and charm. Unsurprising, since I didn’t do any research on it beforehand! I’m sure there are some very nice areas in and around this large city, though I didn’t happen upon them while using the fastest path to my second checkpoint on Perdido Key, and many properties along my route seemed run-down. Now that I’ve taken some time to go back and read some of the history of the “City of Five Flags”, I’d like to return and take more time to explore.
Even Perdido Key, though showcasing some pretty white-sand dune areas by the road, was a bit of a disappointment, scenery-wise. Going across the short bridge over the ICW was nice, looking over the island with a marina and a colorful housing community in the foreground. Apparently, this section of the canal used to be a ditch you could jump across, before it was dug out for the ICW and completely severed what would become Perdido Key from the mainland.
Once on the island, several ugly high-rise apartment buildings loom over the road and beach immediately, petering out as you head further west. Views toward the ocean are completely blocked by a high dune ridge-line next to the road. I cruised a couple miles to the Tom Thumb station that I’d chosen for a receipt, and went inside to get a breakfast sandwich after filling up.
I had hoped to capture at least one nice “beach shot” with palm trees, etc. during my quick stop in Pensacola, but I hadn’t researched a good location for a photo op. I was tempted by the signs for the Pensacola Lighthouse, but wasn’t sure how far off my route it was and whether I’d need to pass through a military base gate to access it. The clock kept me moving.
The ride back east on I-10 was a little more enjoyable, as the weather and visibility had improved. To help pass the time, I made a few phone calls, chatting with friends Ken and Marc in the early stages of their own ride south. I got a much better feel for the isolation and distance between exits west of Tallahassee, and realized after chatting with Marc that this was where at least one IBR rider’s attempt came to an end last year, with mechanical failure. It’s gotta be tough breaking down out here – no wonder he had to wait so long for help.
I fueled up at the same station in Lloyd, then continued eastbound before hitting I-75 for the long leg south. It was a bit of a mental pinch to make that turn, as I’d done hundreds of miles now and could see Jacksonville just an hour to the east on my zoomed-out secondary GPS unit. Until I reached Key West, I’d be moving away from the finish line for a good long while… I still sometimes harbor a New Englander’s awe at the size of these bigger states.
I-75 is what it is…a plain-jane interstate highway that could pass for many others, with little distinctive scenery except maybe the billboards featuring cute baby alligators. It does get you north or south fairly quickly, and the miles passed easily to my San Antonio FL fuel stop. Traffic around Tampa was my only real concern of the trip, since I’d be hitting the area right around rush hour. Sure enough, traffic was backed up for a mile or two at each of the major east-west highways crossing I-75. I did some creative filtering to get around the worst parts of the backup, losing perhaps 20-30 minutes total.
Things began moving again once I cleared the bay area, and I was treated to nice views of the setting sun down near Punta Gorda.
I’d never been to Marco Island either, so I don’t know if I missed any good scenery, as it was past nightfall by the time I arrived. Looked like a nice place, from what little I could make out, and I’ve since read that it is one of the most expensive beach destinations in Florida. The Chevron station that I used for my third checkpoint receipt was clean and tidy, that much I can vouch for. 🙂
Between I-75 and Marco Island, I was a bit surprised to pass by a “Panther Crossing” road sign. To drive the point home, there was another one just a couple miles more down the road.
Then I passed a “Bobcat Xing” sign on the way back off Marco Island to the southeast. Alas, I did not catch a glimpse of either of these large felines, but it was cool to know they were thriving enough to warrant signs, some place in our overpopulated nation.
When first planning this ride, I was excited that I would finally “visit” the Everglades, that mystical swampy area I’d heard about since childhood, full of alligators, birds and all sorts of other wildlife. Unfortunately, the schedule I’d chosen for the ride was designed to minimize traffic and sun-glare, rather than maximize sight-seeing. Thus my run across southern Florida was under full cover of darkness.
I followed CR 92 a few miles north from Marco River and turned east on the Tamiami Trail (US 41). Opened in 1928 after 13 years construction and 2.6 million sticks of dynamite (!), even at night this was an interesting road. Two lanes closed in by woods on both sides, but with decent vegetation cutbacks, the road felt arrow-straight for miles at a time with lots of passing zones, but very few cars at this time of night. It was also VERY dark out there in the swamps, with very few crossroads or human establishments along the way, and no streetlights.
I was able to light the way with every one of my scorching LED lumens for long stretches when nobody was ahead of me. The speed limit seemed more of a suggestion way out here, but I generally kept it to 10 over or less. I was hyper-focused and on RED ALERT for deer and other critters, but figured I be in just as much trouble going 10 under as 10 over, and there were about 80 miles of this road to cover. A couple locals eventually passed me on this road, in the safety of their enclosed four-wheel cages. At one point I passed a “wildlife crossing” sign and almost immediately rolled right over some small roadkill. I held out hope of glimpsing an alligator on the side of the road, but it didn’t come to pass.
Emerging from the Everglades into the Miami area, my V1 was getting bombarded with radar. There were several stationary radar signs with flashing blue lights warning of the precipitous drop in the speed limit in these more populated areas, including a small Native American reservation. I heeded the warnings and throttled down to the limit and was gratified to see a few cruisers silently awaiting the next unknowing hooligan along this stretch.
I turned south on FL 997 in Homestead, hitting several lights before picking up US 1 for the run down onto the Florida Keys. Now on familiar ground from last year’s run, I knew I had to be patient and pay close attention to my speed, despite the late hour and light traffic on the 100+ mile run down to Key West. The V1 was a huge benefit, and even Waze was useful after dark, since the cops must hang out fairly close to the road, with fewer places to hide. I had a loose plan to check into the Iron Butt Hotel (i.e. napping on the ground or a bench) somewhere on my way back along the keys, so I kept my eyes peeled for likely spots to stop. That gave me something to concentrate on and helped stave off the weariness I was beginning to feel.
Rolling onto Key West just before 12:30, more or less right on schedule, I pulled into the same Circle K we used as our BBG finish last year. This time, I still had 500 miles left to ride.
After a quick break and fill-up, I proceed on through the quiet Wednesday-night streets for a couple more miles to get the requisite photo by the southernmost point marker buoy. There were only two young guys here on scooters, taking each other’s photo, and they accepted my offer to get one of them together. One of them took a good look at me and the ST, and said, “Man you look like you’ve just come a looong way.” I grinned and gave them what was probably a mostly coherent overview of my ride plan for the week. They just shook their heads and took my picture for me.
I weaved my way through the quiet side streets back onto US 1. Now every mile was getting me closer to the finish – a nice mental boost. However, I was getting tired and knew I’d need to grab at least one cat nap, preferably while still on the more rural keys before getting stuck on the interstate through the Miami metro area. I spotted a large gravel day-parking area on the side of the road on tiny Conch Key, with a couple trucks and RVs at one end and no buildings or other signs of habitation around. I went to the far end away from the other vehicles and turned off the bike. The stars were bright and I could hear the quiet lapping of the ocean yards away down the scrubby hillside.
There was a patch of grass nearby and that looked just fine to me. I set alarms on my cell phone and the Screamin Meanie for backup, loosed my ear plugs, and laid down with my helmet on and a fleece rolled up behind my neck. I drifted there for perhaps 15 minutes before I awoke to the Meanie going off. What the hell? I’d set it to go off five minutes AFTER my cell phone, which was still counting down another 3 minutes. I’d always felt the Meanie wasn’t keeping very accurate time for these roadside naps, and now I felt sure of it. Not sure if I have a defective model or if it’s battery related, but I’m going to need to remedy that before future long rides.
Either way, I was up now and felt OK to keep moving. When I reached the final bridge from Key Largo to the mainland, I pulled over and thought briefly about stopping for one more nap as a preventative measure. I knew daylight was coming soon enough, and I wasn’t feeling like I HAD to stop, so I decided to press onward to Jacksonville before laying my head down again. So I quaffed a 5 Hour Energy and a couple fig newtons, then pulled back out onto the deserted roadway. Traffic was light in the early morning hours, through the Miami area and up to my final fuel stop in Fort Pierce.
Sun was up now, I was doing fine, and the final miles to Jacksonville passed quickly as I chatted with my wife, and then with Ken who had arrived in Jacksonville at a respectable 21:30 last night, well before the hotel bar closed. During this last stretch my GPS was predicting an arrival for around 09:30. I suddenly wanted to beat the 30 hour mark for the ride, which mean clocking in before 09:28. Just like that I had a goal to keep me focused for the final 45 minutes or so.
I pulled into the Circle K with minutes to spare, and quickly fueled up. The receipt spit out and ….BLANK. What the hell? So I got my duplicate inside, with the attendant joking about needing lemon juice to be able to read his hidden-ink receipts. Final timestamp was 09:18, for an elapsed time of 29:50 round the state.
I was glad I’d finally decided to go for this challenge, even early in the season. Though my neck and back were a bit sore, this would give me a solid base of miles to build on for the upcoming rally season.
That self-satisfied feeling disappeared all too quickly as I pulled out of the lot and up to the stop light direction across from the Ramada host hotel. My highway blades were still folded out, and as I eased up to the light, I attempted to kick them back in. This is a habit I’ve tried to cultivate as I get close to parking, to avoid breaking them again if a low-speed tip-over should occur.
Well wouldn’t you know it, my left pants leg caught on the blade and wouldn’t let go, yanking the bike to the left. Of course, my foot was tangled so I couldn’t put it out further to brace the bike, and tried futilely leaning right to try and keep the bike upright, and… FAILED. The bike completed its slow-motion downward trend to the left, ending with the crash guard lying right on my foot and me looking right at it, waiting to feel bones break. To add insult to injury, my tank bag shifted into the horn button and the Stebel began loudly tooting my predicament to anyone who wished to look.
Finally, I managed to wrangle my pants leg and boot out of there and stand up. Adrenaline pumping over the weariness, I got the bike righted quickly, hoping no riders were around to witness my triumphant arrival to the IBA meetup. Duly humbled, I managed to cross the street and parked in front of the Ramada without further incident.
As always a big thank you to Jason Jonas for the existence of SpotWalla!