Friday, February 8, 2019

Running Away From Home on a Bicycle: Solitude in the Keys During High Tourist Season

Overnight bicycle trips from my home in Miami get complicated in the winter high tourist season. Motel rates skyrocket. Campgrounds fill with RVs. And absolutely nothing is available without reservations made long in advance. Despite this, I wanted to take a last-minute overnight bicycle trip. I wanted to pedal down to the Keys.

First, I really wanted an ice cream cone from Mr. C's in Key Largo. It's a little ice cream shop that makes fresh waffle cones. You watch them make the waffle and shape it into a cone. Then you tell them what to flavors of ice cream to scoop into your cone.

Second, I wanted a bit of solitude in a place where I could see stars without the interference of urban lighting. I couldn't realistically afford even an "inexpensive" motel in the Keys in February. What I needed was a state park campsite that RVers or car campers couldn't use. (Wild camping just isn't a sensible option in urban South Florida.) Something as far from the Florida Keys Overseas Highway (US 1) as you can get without a boat. I knew that competition for these sites increased dramatically over weekends. Since I wanted that waffle cone from Mr. C's, and since there was a state park near Mr. C's, a plan formed.

I'd made several calls to the state park. I packed my bike and set off on a Wednesday. I appeared at the park in the late afternoon. The state parks go out of their way to find spaces for bicycle campers who show up without reservations. (That said, it isn't fair to put them on the spot more than necessary. I had called in the morning and checked that there was a decent chance they would have a spot I could use.) In my situation I actually wanted one of the out of the way spots where they send bicycle campers who arrive late in the day without reservations. I checked in. The ranger drew the route to my campsite on a park map. It was past the marina and down a footpath though the woods. The path took me to an isolated clearing designed as a group campsite. There was a fire pit with a semicircle of benches. An oversize grill. Several picnic tables. No electricity, of course.  A little farther down the path was a small older bathroom/shower building. Some solitude with the basic modern conveniences. Perfect. (Just what every scouting group or bicycle camper needs.)

The night sky was cloudless. Far from the city, the stars filled the sky with a brilliant display of twinkling lights. I decided to sleep in the open, using just my bug bivy so I could watch the night sky through the netting. I fell asleep listening to the wind in the treetops and watching the stars.

A very special and delightful running away from home on a bicycle memory.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Everglades National Park: Trail Picnic

Al suggested a quiet Saturday away from all the people and noise of Miami. Some quiet, some solitude, and a chance to enjoy the beauty of Everglades National Park (ENP). He liked the idea of exploring some trails there. After all, ENP is just an hour's drive south of where we live. We'd take our old mountain bikes with the 1.75 inch tires and pack a picnic lunch.

Our lunch basket.
The weather wasn't perfect. Mainly dry but with spotty light rain. Since this was to be no fuss, I just scavanged in the kitchen for the picnic makings: a few English muffins from the freezer, some slices of an interesting cheese, and some bread and butter pickle slices. A can of large smoked oysters from last year's hurricane supplies. A few mandarin oranges from the snack bowl. Al made espresso and filled our two little espresso thermos bottles. It all got bagged and tucked into one of my Arkel tail bags. Because of the weather, we decided to head to ENP's Long Pine Key area. It had paved roads, grassy trails, and rocky trails. Lots to pick from depending on how wet things might be.

The government shutdown had the left gates of ENP open, but, of course, there were no rangers in the entrance booth. We drove through and down the road a piece to Royal Palm Visitor Center. The store and restrooms there were open thanks to the private concessionaire that runs it and some volunteers. We parked our car in the almost empty parking lot, unloaded our bikes, and headed out.

We first took a quick loop of the Anhinga Trail right by the Visitor Center. It's a short paved trail with long sections of boardwalk that cuts across the hammock and into the swamp.
It's usually overrun with tourists. But since we were there at such an early hour,  we had the place to ourselves. Lots of alligators, blue herons, and anhinga.

Next we wandered down Old Ingraham Highway trail and explored some grassy trails running off of it. They were pretty wet, so we opted to head back to the Old Ingraham Highway Trail and do some of it. Then we turned around, eventually turning down Research Road, then pedaling all the way to the locked gates of the old Nike base. We turned around again, and  explored the trails that came off of Research Road.

Since we were out on damp grassy trails, we needed regular breaks to pick grass out of our rear derailleurs and cassettes. Finally we pedaled out to Main Park Road and headed south to the Long Key campground area. We'd had enough of damp and thought the campground would have a quiet dry spot for our picnic. As it turned out, the wet seemed confined to the area where we'd been. The campground was nice and dry. There was an outdoor auditorium on a little lake that seemed perfect for our picnic.

We had lunch. As we were leaving the campground area we ran into EBC member Gloria B. who was also out enjoying ENP.

The Royal Palm/Long Key area is a good choice for a bike hike and picnic:
  • It has low traffic paved roads. 
  • There are a variety of trails that are accessible with trail bikes or hybrids. 
  • It's a pleasant alternative to Shark Valley.
  • There are lots of peaceful areas where you can enjoy nature. 
  • There's easy access to the bathrooms, water, and snacks at Royal Palm Visitor Center. 
It was a great place for our first 2019 bicycle micro-adventure. Easy, inexpensive fun.

Outdoor auditorium by the little lake.
The outdoor auditorium made a great picnic spot.
Espresso and a sweet mandarin orange for dessert.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

If no one ever took risks, Michaelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor. (Neil Simon)

I've been spending time pouring over maps. I love maps.

Last year I made a discovery. One week I decided to pack my bike and take a solo overnight trip down to the Keys. I thought of it as running away from home on a bicycle. I had way more fun on that trip than I'd had in a long time. I realized that something got lost when Al and I moved to Miami. I felt the loss, but I couldn't pin it down. I had great bikes. I was riding a lot. We were traveling to bicycle events all over Florida. But I was, well, bored.

People ride bikes for a lot of reasons. Since the very first bike I owned as a kid, I loved riding a bicycle because of the places it could take me and the things I could see. When we moved to Miami, most of our riding became group riding. Riding with a group is fun and has a lot of advantages, but you have to accept the rules and route of the group. You can't just expect the group to stop to look at a fountain, some public art, or a garden along their route. I didn't want to give up group rides, but I did want to have more bike rides that were, well, more about seeing things.

So I got some bicycle travel gear. I got maps. And I started talking to friends. They introduced me to the term micro-adventures, adventures that are short, simple, local, and cheap. It is a term made popular by the British adventurer Alastair Humphreys. It was a perfect fit for what I wanted, a way to add solo travel to my rides rather than replace all of the group riding and bike events that Al and I do.

So I pour over my maps and make plans. Solo bicycle travel has its risks, but, after all, not much that is worthwhile in life is risk free.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The only things worth learning are the things you learn after you know it all. (Harry S Truman)

This past week I spent time organizing my 2018 digital albums and journals. My notes, plans, thoughts, and memories are totally digital these days. While storage space is virtually unlimited, clutter just keeps me from appreciating the good stuff I chose to keep to remember 2018.

As I diligently worked at deleting the junk and trivia, I saw a pattern emerge in the files and photos that remained. During 2018 I had begun doing solitary rides. Riding alone but not being in the least bit lonely. This was something new.

Of course there were still lots of rides with Al and friends.  There are benefits to riding with a group. A group is more easily seen on the road than a single rider, and riding in a group allows you to benefit from drafting, letting you ride farther and faster with less effort. But it requires more disciplined focus. Riding in a group means learning to focus fully on the bikes and riders around you, riding predictably and following group ride rules and etiquette.

But in 2018 I learned the benefits of riding on my own. I get to go where I want and stop when and where I want. I was surprised to find it makes me much more aware of traffic. My eyes are always scanning back and forth across the road ahead of me. I'm hypersensitive to movements around me, as dogs, pedestrians, and crazy squirrels and peacocks have been known to appear quite suddenly. I do have one small confession: I have no shame about using my sweetest, sunniest, septuagenarian smile, or doing my best abuelita performance, if I think it might give me an edge with drivers when I'm trying to get through a sticky piece of traffic.

Success at taking long rides alone has built my confidence and has, to my surprise, made me a happier person.

Not a bad thing to learn at any age.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

You must enjoy the journey because whether or not you get there, you must have fun on the way. (Kalpana Chawla)

I took a solo century ride this week. I did it in Miami, and I did it like I was on a trip. Travel style. The idea was to enjoy the scenery and people and not to worry about how fast I was riding or how long it took me to finish the route.

I started out from home, heading to Everglades National Park (ENP) following a route that took me through beautifully landscaped residential neighborhoods, with stops at places with lovely water views of Biscayne Bay, and through the Redland Agricultural District with its miles of exotic trees, fields of tomatoes and beans, and nurseries of tropical landscape shrubs.

My meandering route made the entrance to ENP exactly 50 miles from my home. After a stop at the visitor center, I headed back on the same route I had taken to ENP, enjoying the curious fact that things look different (and that you notice different things) when you are heading in the opposite direction on a ride.

Talking with strangers is an under appreciated amusement of travel. I chatted with a man carrying an unbelievable number of grocery bags on his bike. ("I've got company coming, and I didn't want to make two trips to the grocery store," he explained with a shrug and a shy smile.) I talked with and took pictures of tourists at Everglades National Park and Robert Is Here. I met a couple from Milwaukee, and we talked about Wisconsin.

A solo century like this one is easy. You spend a day seeing your own city as a tourist might. And it is an adventure that even a timid traveler can accomplish. Yes, things can happen. Bikes break down; weather gets weird. But a ride like this is local, and home is just a call away, whether that call is to Uber or a friend.

All I can say is, the best holiday presents are often the ones you give yourself. And this year I gave myself a solo century ride, travel style, and it was great fun.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

If you're not lost, you're not much of an explorer. (John Perry Barlow)

GPS and navigation programs have made getting around a lot easier for people like me who are (ahem) navigationally challenged. I use my bike's Garmin Edge for navigation, but when I'm riding around a town or city, I find the map app on my phone infinitely more helpful. Why? Because it talks to me. "In 1000 feet, turn right onto 22nd Street." And if I wander off my course, it politely nags me back onto my route. "Make a u-turn, then turn right on 11th Street." Way, way better than the "beep" the Garmin makes as I approach a turn. So it's not unusual for me to use both the Garmin and the phone app on a city ride.

I've been exploring Miami on my bike. Now Miami and the close in communities like the Gables, the Grove, Midtown and Miami Beach are pretty easy. But as you go farther afield into the suburbs, things get more challenging.

Take my most recent ride from my home in Brickell to the wilds of West Kendall and back. Kendall and West Kendall are the true suburban wilderness for a downtown dweller like me. Looping side streets, cul-de-sacs galore, elevated freeways with few crossing points, major roads without bike lanes, strip malls randomly scattered about, and other car-centric/bicycle-unfriendly features. I did about a 50 mile ride, at least half of it doing loops on roads while the little navigation voice in my right ear was nagging me to do this and to do that so I'd get back to my designated route. All to avoid route segments I felt were too dangerous for me to ride. (And I am not an overly timid rider.) It was totally insane.

But I had a great time, and I plan to do this a lot more.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

I do not burn bridges. I just loosen the bolts a little each day. (Unknown)

I don't want a divorce, just a trial separation

My clipless pedals are not working for me lately. I need a break from them. I found a pair of studded flat mountain bike pedals among our old bike gear, bagged them, and took my road bike a couple of blocks down the street to our local bike shop. The bike mechanic raised his eyebrows, obviously questioning my request. But I was not going to overshare and discuss the matter with him. In minutes I was leaving, my clipless pedals bagged, the flat pedals installed on my road bike.

The foot and ankle contain a quarter of the bones in the body (26). There are 33 joints, and about a hundred muscles, ligaments, and tendons. I've always had foot and ankle issues. They were complicated in middle age by arthritis. Recently I'd been having problems using clipless pedals. Pulling even a little with the pedal system was painful. I was getting ankle cramps during and after rides. In short, problems from the clipless pedals were outweighing benefits.

This weekend we went to Clermont, Florida, for the Horrible Hundred. We were doing our usual Horrible Hundred kilometers, the 70 mile route. And (cue the drum roll) it went wonderfully. No problems on the flats. No problems on the climbs. And during and after the ride, no foot or ankle pain or cramps.

I'm going to see if the "trial separation" from my clipless pedals lets my feet and ankles recover. I'll do some stretching and strengthening exercises, and I'll spend my Tuesdays out on Virginia Key and Key Biscayne practicing pedaling smooth little circles with studded flat pedals.

I like my clipless pedals. Maybe a trial separation is all that is needed. (Watch this space.)