Monday, January 28, 2008

Back on the Road -- and On to the Keys

After Becky and Sean's wedding we had one last gettogether for breakfast in Austin, a short but occasionally turbulent flight back to Miami, then it was back to terra firma and our much preferred way of travel. Except that getting out of Miami by bike would not really be anyone's preferred way of travel, as we'll explain shortly. We had left our tandem with Judy and John Stipek's daughter Joy, in Coral Gables, and Joy's two young children were duly impressed with our big bike and agreed it was the biggest bicycle they had ever seen. It took the two of us getting on for them to really grasp why it had two seats, however.

We did quite well for the first short day, 15 miles on back streets courtesy of a detailed AAA map and the extensive nice suburbs to the south of Miami. Day two was another matter. Only one road cuts on the diagonal to Florida City, busy US 1, known locally as Dixie Highway. However the Florida East Coast RR tracks it once followed were torn up in the past few years and replaced with a 'busway' and a bike trail, all the way to Florida City. Should have been great, except that the bike trail was littered at times with glass, and Jeff failed to see one large shard until it was too late and the rear tire had a 1/2 inch gash. We booted the tire and checked our smartphone web access for bike shops, and it turns out there was one across the six lanes of Hwy 1, in a mall.

Well, that was a wasted hour, getting to the shop and trying on the only tire that might work, a 26x1.95. R&E built our tandem with good clearance for a larger tire than we normally use, 26x1.25, but not quite big enough for this one. Off came the store's tire, back on with the damaged one, and back on the phone to other bike shops. We lucked out with Dave in Florida City, who checked with his supplier in Miami and promised to have two of our favorite tires at his shop the next morning. Leery of the glassy bike trail, we rode down the busway, and in the remaining dozen miles only had to pull off to the bike trail once for a bus coming up behind. Thanks to Ramada Inn in Key Largo, we were able to postpone our reservation there by one day, and we found a nice Comfort Inn in Florida City. The next morning Dave had our new tires, and we "retired" our slashed $40 tire, with only 100 miles on it, as the gash made it too unsafe to ride other than as a last resort.

Unfortunately, that was not the last flat -- we had one a day for three days running. However, the further we got out on the keys, the less glass we encountered, and we've actually gone four days now without a flat. Knock on rubber.

Only two roads go south from Florida City, Hwy 1 and Card Sound Road. Our Seattle friends Randall and Barb Angell tandemed from the Arctic Circle to Key West a few years back, and told us the latter was the better of two evils, and it was tolerable though totally lacking a shoulder, mainly because the traffic was light. After 8 very straight and
narrow miles a canal appeared on the right side, which we followed another 6 straight and narrow miles to the open water. Louise is always on wildlife watch for us, and she spotted perhaps the most elusive animal we ever encountered, the Florida manatee. Although it looks like a small whale, this mammal is allegedly most closely related to the elephant, and it lives only in the area around the Everglades in increasingly small numbers. We got off and followed two of them travelling together down the canal, moving at between 1 and 2 mph. Since it's a little hard to see detail with the manatee below water, we include here as a public service a second photo of the mail of the species.

We also began to encounter another elusive animal, the long-distance cyclist. In our first two hours on Key Largo, we met Bill and Nancy of Cashmere WA, riding north to North Carolina, and Tanja, a German woman riding solo (she wore out a boyfriend months ago in South America), now in her 29th month of exploring the Western Hemisphere by bike. Everyone exchanged blog URLs, and we checked theirs that evening and will recheck them from time to time. Jeff learned some new German vocabulary when he read Tanja's blog entry about "unfreundliche Truckfahrer und Rednecks in Pick Ups" in west Florida. Fortunately, we'll stick mainly to east Florida.

Both warned us that the much-touted bike trail through the Keys was not great. Indeed, the section in Key Largo deserves nomination as the worst bike trail in the US -- bumpy, badly damaged in places, only sightly wider than a sidewalk at its best moments, and mainly running on the south side of US 1, so that cars coming out from side streets are likely to not look for cyclists headed westbound, as we were. Two nights in the Ramada Inn in Key Largo did much to calm us down however, and this scene from the balcony of our spacious and beautiful room help show why.

We left Key Largo with no reservation for the next night, something we have almost never done, and decided to see how the day went before making one. At lunch we got on the phone and landed a room in the delightful and aptly named Edwater Resort. It required some creative menu planning, as we had to bring dinner and breakfast with us with only a microwave for cooking, but we ate reasonably well and had this

exquisite sunset for our reward, taken from right outside our waterfront room. The next day we backtracked two miles to Long Key State Park for a 1-hour canoe trip on a "canoe trail" around a tidal lagoon, following numbered pvc pipes sticking up from the shallow bay. A steady west wind of about 12 knots made it interesting at times, but the mangrove gave us some shelter on the ride upwind, and we got this shot of an turkey vulture in the mangrove trees to give you some idea of what a mangrove swamp looks like. The closeup also should give you an idea why it is also called the "walking tree." We then enjoyed a 1-hour hike on their nature trail out to the oceanside. What a delightful break!

With that experiment a success, we decided to try again the next day, this time riding into Marathon without a reservation. We found a nice "mom and pop" motel right on this sandy beach on the ocean, and only a few blocks from a great restaurant.
Yes, this is what we came to the Keys to find!

Yesterday we came to one of those places you look forward to with excitement but yet a certain amount of dread, the Seven Mile Bridge. It truly is seven miles of riding over the waves! When the time came for it, however, it was a breeze. In fact a 15 mph tailwind breeze, so close to straight behind us that we kept a perfect stride like Tour de France riders in a time trial, except that our average was a mere 20 mph! Soon after we had lunch at beautiful Bahia Honda St. Park, and enjoyed this striking view of the abandoned railroad bridge from our picnic site, a remant of Flagler's Folly, the extension of the Florida East Coast RR to Key West that lasted from 1912 until a devastating hurricane in 1935, after which the state took over the roadbed and turned it into US 1, building wider parallel highway bridges in later years.

We are now one short (35) mile ride away from Key West. More about that in the next blog entry. We spent 2 days on Big Pine Key, one of the larger islands and the main home of the diminutive Key Deer, which average about 30" high. We did manage to run into, fortunately in the figurative sense only, three of them. We also ran into two nice neighbors in the group of cabins where we're staying, Philip and Michelle, who shared with us their passion for boating and fishing from their kayak and canoe. They also kindly shared their laptop with a chipreader, so that we could at last illustrate our last two blog entries with our photos.

And now, on to the bottom of the country, Key West!

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