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!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Wedding in Texas

Last August, exactly one week after the wedding of Matt (Jeff's son) and Akiko, Sean Knight proposed to Jeff's daughter Becky. Last Sunday we attended Becky and Sean's wedding, in Austin Texas.

Becky received double degrees from Arizona State University a few years back, in Japanese and Chemical Engineering. The American affiliate of Tokyo Electron recruited her to work for them out of their Austin headquarters, though she went out on assignment all over the US and in Japan, doing beta testing of complex devices manufactured by Tokyo Electron for their customers, who manufacture computer chips with these devices. One of her coworkers was Sean,then going through a divorce.

After 3 1/2 years in the chip industry, Becky began work on a PhD in the field she had been dreaming of for years, biomass conversion -- a branch of chemical and biological engineering that converrts plants to other things, in her case biofuels.

Becky earned her MSE at Purdue, but found that the doctoral program did not really work for her in the area she identified as her passion, algae. While the practical problems of making biodiesel from algae are condiserable, the potential payoff for solving those problems is vast, as algae in theory can produce more oil for biodiesel conversion, per acre, than any other living thing.

What happened next was one of those happy coincidences in life. As Becky and Sean resumed their friendship across a thousand miles of mid-America, Becky searched for other schools doing high-level research on algae and discovered that the University of Texas is in the algae big leagues, with one of the world's great algae collections, one very small part of which is seen in this picture from the lab where Backy is now working. She formally enters the doctoral program this coming May at UT. Since she's now working in the same lab where her doctoral research will take place, it's time well spent. AND . . . it puts her back in Austin, with Sean.

We arrived on Wednesday. Already, it looked like we might have dry weather for our outdoor wedding, but cooler than the average of 64. The next day we found a yarn store, spent an hour looking at various shades and textures of white yarn, then had Becky meet us there with the wedding dress that she was picking up nearby. After reaching consensus on the best match for the dress, we bought several balls of snow-white yarn with a little silvery glitter to it and some knitting needles. The yarn was rated for size 13 needles, already larger than anything Louise had used before, but she went for the size 17 ones, which made it look like she was knitting with dinner candles. But by doubling the yarn together and using these supersized needles, one day later Becky had a gorgeous 6-foot-long white shawl that went great with her wedding gown, as you can see in the pictures. Come Sunday, it was much appreciated as it was in the low 50's when the vows were said.

In between knitting we spent quality time catching up with Matt and his first six months of married life. Given that the flight is 12 hours from Tokyo to Houston, then another 1 hour to Austin, Akiko stayed home on her OB's advice. She's due in early May, and did not want to chance things. While relaxing in between wedding-related preparations was the main order of the day, we did get in a little hiking with Matt in a park overlooking the Colorado River. Not that Colorado, but a much smaller colorful river that winds through Austin.

We also had an interesting rehearsal dinner at The Boiling Pot, a Cajun feast laid out for us on a paper-covered table surrounded by a dozen family members and the maid of honor and best man. For many it was their first foray into the consumption of crawfish. They look like little lobsters, but even on the biggest of them, if you get any meat out of the claw it's at best the size of a grain of rice. The tail's the name of the game, and it's a bit of messy work to get one tail deshelled and into the mouth, where you get a quantity equal perhaps to 2 or 3 healthy peas. The shrimp were a little more rewarding, and you could take in real food faster than you burned it if you went for the cobs of corn or the Andouille sausage, though your mouth paid a little price for the latter. Fortunately, the restaurant had lots of cold beer nearby to quench any fires. It was a great opportunity for Becky's and Sean's parents and siblings to get to know each other in an informal setting.

The wedding was in the Zilker Park Botanical Garden, and Jeff led Becky down the (literally) rosy path to a gathering of about 50. Sean's friend Pete performed the ceremony courtesy of a recently-acquired license to perform weddings. He figured the accountant outfit he wears to work was not sufficiently matrimonial, so he rented monk's garb for the ceremony. It was a little tricky hearing all the words of Becky and Sean's vows in this outdoor setting, but Pete pronounced them Man and Wife with all the authority of the State of Texas, and so they were.

We then moved on to the Zilker Clubhouse a mile away, a beautiful old stone building with fireplaces at each end and a view over the Colorado River to downtown Austin in the distance. Best man Mike had spent much of the prior two days smoking brisket and pork roasts for the gathering, and we had a grand feast. When it came time for the First Dance, Jeff was pleasantly surprised to find that, quite unawares, they had chosen the very same song that Becky's brother Matt and Akiko had chosen for their first dance 6 months ago, Jerome Kerns' great song Just the Way You Look Tonight.

And beautiful was just the way Becky looked, glowing and oh so happy. Sean looked just as happy, and also his daughters Ivy and Zoe (who split their time 50-50 between Sean and their mom). Becky has known them since they were little, and they get on wonderfully together. They seemed quite pleased with Dad's choice of a stepmother for them.

We're back in Florida now, thanks to the magic of flight. Thanks to the magic of mid-air turbulence, we both vowed to stay on the ground once we landed, using our bike, cars or Amtrak trains for all future transportation needs. We'll have more to say about biking Florida from Miami to the Keys in our next blog. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Starting North by Heading South

Our grand Florida-to-Maine bike trip has begun!

After a flurry of cleaning, organizing, packing and knitting, we said goodbye to our cozy Ithaca sublet and its snowy back yard and spent a night at Lisa and Ray's, where granddaughter Elise modelled two of Louise's Fall projects, a grey sweater with black mitten-shaped outside pockets, and a white bolero sweater that was finished the day before we left. Then we partially disassembled the tandem to fit it in the trunk of our rental car and drove to Syracuse, where we did another partial reassembly/disassembly for Amtrak, to pack it in those two bike boxes, telescoped together as one long tandem bike box. It all worked, and we and our trusty steed made it whole to sunny Florida.

And sunny it has been. As we rode the train down the Mohawk Valley, we caught this scene of a thin winter sun shining across the Mohawk River, which doubles as the Erie Canal. When we stepped off the train after a good night's rest in our sleeper car, we were in Palm Beach, basking in sunny warmth. An hour's worth of reassembly and off we rode to our hotel.

It's been a great first week, exploring this part of Florida. All along the East Coast, from south Florida right up to New Jersey, the land seems to be reluctant to give up to the sea, and extends itself with narrow islands and peninsulas parallel to the mainland. In this part of Florida, these are islands of great wealth. Anyone landing on these shores from the ocean will find himself on the private beach of a towering condo, a resort hotel, a mansion, or with great luck or effort, at one of a handful of state parks or public beaches.

From Palm Beach we rode north a day and a half to Jon Dickinson State Park, but went inland to take a boat trip on the Loxahatchee River, one of only two official Wild and Scenic Rivers in this state. We glided past cypress and mangrove swamps, past numerous osprey and herons, a few turtles, and our first wild alligator, this 3-footer lazing away on a log next to the river a few feet from us. The park also holds the highest point in the 150 southernmost miles of Florida, a sand dune that is all of 86 feet above sea level. A viewing platform rising another 40 feet gave us this view of the barrier island to the east, which we rode later in the day past hundreds of mansions (one reputedly belonging to Tiger Woods), almost none of which we could see because of the dense foliage and bending driveways that preserve the privacy of these quiet lodgings.

In Palm Beach we stopped in on Sharon and Don, two fellow-passengers on Amtrak's Silver Meteor, who were staying at the fabled Breakers Hotel. They showed us the view from their room two stories above the ocean, and got this nice shot of us in front of the hotel. As you can see in the third photo, it remains as glorious as it was when built in 1926.

In all, we've now done 200 miles in the first week, visiting fabled cities like Palm Beach, Boca Raton and Miami Beach, and some not so famous ones, such as the wonderfully-named Hypoluxo. The Greek scholars and medical types among you may already be grinning at the meaning -- for this town has styled itself "insufficiently wealthy."

Ft. Lauderdale need not call itself that. We saw watery "street" after "street" of boats parked in front of mansions when we took the Jungle Queeen boat tour and again on foot. Imagine the pain of having a boat so large that you lose the waterfront view from your multi-million-dollar mansion! The big white house doesn't have that problem at the moment -- it's vacant and for sale, for a mere $35 million.

The roads have been mostly OK for cycling. We did ride some 15 miles on Highway 1, with its fairly narrow shoulder and fast traffic on 2 or 3 lanes in each direction, as in this first photo. Other roads have been narrow but fairly traffic free or, as in the second and third photos, accompanied by a bike-friendly sidewalk. Roughly half the miles we've done have been on Highway A1A, and most have been quiet or accompanied by a good shoulder. One stretch had a number of mirrors at the end of driveways, which gave us a chance to take this self-portrait. The ride from Ft. Lauderdale into Miami Beach was fortunately on the first day we had a strong tailwind, as the last 20 miles were largely busy and shoulderless, meaning we had to take up one of the two or three lanes headed south, going 20 to 22 mph (with that tailwind assist) while cars passed us doing 30 to 35. It sounds more harrowing than it was, but it's not for the faint-hearted cyclist, that's for sure.

We ended our first week in Miami Beach, where we met up with our Seattle next-door-neighbors Judy and John Stipek, who also have a condo here. They brought us to a wonderful restaurant at the southern tip of South Beach, where we dined while two enormous cruise ships headed out of port bound for the Caribbean, then took us up to their 39th-floor unit to see the night view and again the next day for the daylight scenery. They even found a temporary home for our tandem in their daughter's garage in nearby Coral Gables, for we are now on to the next phase of our trip, a side-journey by air to the wedding of Jeff's daughter Becky to Sean Knight. That's coming up on January 20. More -- MUCH more -- about that next time!