Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Florida was the 49th state on my motorcycling bucket list

Old Yeller began to complain as I made my way down Florida's west coast toward the Keys. The chain and sprockets that were spankin' new when I started my cross-country ride two summers ago, were now worn and stretched to the point that the bike was lunging, lurching and grinding whenever we came to a stop light. Unfortunately, there are many stop lights on US-19, the coastal route.

As I approached Crystal River, I saw a big billboard for Love's Motorsports in Homosassa, one of the biggest motorcycle dealers in the area and the first Suzuki dealership I'd seen since Corpus Christi.

So, at about 4:30 Friday afternoon, I dropped in to see if I could find replacements for the exhausted drive train. Greg, the service and parts manager poured over his inventory database for about 30 minutes trying to find a combination of sprockets that would fit the V-Strom.

"I've got a chain," he said, "but I won't sell it to you given the condition of the sprockets on your bike."

Eventually, Greg found a rear sprocket that would work and he called his friend Damien, the parts guy at Barney's in Brooksville, Fla., 26 miles down the road. Damien found a front sprocket and set me up with a service appointment at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

I found a motel in Crystal River and next morning rode down to Barney's, where Yeller got a new lease on life. By 3:30, we were off to St. Petersburg and the amazing Sunshine Skyway Bridge to Bradenton.

The Sunshine Skyway is both a spectacular bridge and a recreation area. After I crossed, I tried to ride out on a section of the old bridge that is still maintained as a fishing pier to try a photo from that side. There was a toll to go out on the old pier. I told the gruff toll-taker I just wanted to take a picture, not fish.

"That'll be $3.40," he said. I decided the shot from the north side was good enough.

That night, I camped in Myakka River State Park. Since it was Saturday, all the ranger had left was the "accessible" campsite, right next to the bathrooms. I had to pitch the tent on an asphalt slab, tying the rain fly to the wheels of the motorcycle, since I couldn't drive tent pegs.

The ranger, who had once lived in Hawaii, offered me a catalog of Florida State Parks. "You can stay at any of them that have camping for $23 a night, including electricity and hot showers."

I sat at the picnic table and drank a beer as the sun went down and very tiny, noiseless mosquitos began to feast on my feet and legs. By the time I realized I'd become dinner, it was too late. Days later, I'm still itching.

Next morning, I was off to Ft. Myers and Naples, a posh town where Thomas Edison and Henry Ford had side-by-side winter refuges, and stayed on US-41, the Tamiami Trail, through the Everglades. I stopped at Everglades National Park, but there was little to see except a marina, where folks sign up for boat tours or launch their kayaks.

There are lots of spots to stop and go for an airboat ride through the swamp, but I chose to keep going and eventually arrived in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo, the Key closest to the mainland. It was Sunday evening and traffic heading north was bumper to bumper as people fled the islands to return to their Monday morning jobs. Happily, I was headed south against the flow, and also, happily, I was likely to find a campsite -- and did.

"That'll be $43 for one night," the ranger said.

"But, wait -- up at Myakka River they told me the fee for state park camping is only $23," I said.

"Welcome to the Keys," she said.

Monday morning, taking advantage of the hot showers after a hot, sweaty night in the tent, I saw these critters taking a bath in the backwaters near the restrooms.

The road to Key West is a long one. I left Key Largo at 8:30 a.m. going south and returned through Key Largo at 3:30 that afternoon. It's about 100 miles, with 35 mph speed limits going through each of the towns along the way: Islamorada, Long Key, Marathon, Bahia Honda and Summerland. There is one seven-mile bridge, the rest are much shorter. The best views are from the bridges, but stopping is forbidden -- so no pictures.

When I arrived, I went in search of the southern most point in the city. First, I tried the harbor, where I found a Coast Guard cutter and a cruise ship, but no south point marker. Using the GPS, I crawled through the residential area until it appeared.

I was there -- at the southernmost point of the continental U.S., where tourists were literally standing in line to be photographed next to the "90 Miles to Cuba" marker.

I commemorated my arrival, asking one of the mob to take my picture. It was a milestone. This trip had taken me from the southwestern most corner of the continental U.S., San Diego, to the southeastern most, Key West.

A little rain shower greeted my arrival, but it didn't spoil the beauty of the place.

But it was crawling with visitors. I'd visited by automobile some 30 years ago, when tourists were still sparse and it seemed more charming, not to mention cheaper. Those folks up on the lighthouse paid $10 each for the privilege of climbing to the top.

Tourists pour in by air, auto, boat, cruise ship and motorcycle. The ride on the back seat of a Harley can be comfy, with backrest, arm rests and cup holders.

When I visited the Hemingway house 30 years ago, my companion and I were the only visitors in the building. I forget what the admission charge was, but today it's $13.

The chief charm of the Hemingway house is that the family of six-toed feral cats that infested it back when Papa lived there are still in residence. I assume the warning not to pick them is one posted to avoid liability.

Old Yeller poses in front of a couple of typical Key West buildings on Whitehead Street.

Stopping for gas on the long ride back to the mainland, I found this hen and her chicks scrabbling for snacks at the pumps.

But the wildlife I encountered on my Florida travels was often ersatz and larger-than-life, such as this manatee at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.

Then, there was this specimen in Islamorada.

And, how could it be Florida without pink flamingos?

But the masterpiece was this ginormous lobster outside the Rain Barrel gift shop on Islamorada.

Coming back through Key Largo, I saw a sign for Card Sound Road, a toll road that bypassed the many stop lights and all the traffic on South Dixie Highway, the main road to the Keys. I decided to chance it and had a great ride through North Key Largo and across Card Sound to the Florida Turnpike. The toll was $1 -- my first and only Florida Keys bargain.

Having lost some time getting my new chain and sprockets, I decided to take advantage of the Florida Turnpike and zip north, avoiding Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and leapfrogging up the coast. Stopped at a rest area on I-95, I booked a cheap motel room in Palm Bay, a few miles south of Cocoa on the "Space Coast."

I was almost there at sunset, when I noticed that the again the headlights were not working. I'd thought they were fixed back in Tucson, but the ignition/headlight switch had a short in it. I pulled off the freeway into a gas station and took the switch apart.

None of the wires were burned and after I cleaned the contacts the headlights worked, but when I reassembled the unit, they didn't. I took it all apart again. When I twisted the switch slightly the lights would come on, but when I twisted them back, they'd go off. I cut the plastic wrap off the wires to see if there was a bare or burned spot, but they were OK.

So, I reassembled the switch but didn't tighten the screws clamping it to the handlebars, wiggled the wires until the lights came on and tightened the screws to hold the wires in place. It worked and got me to Palm Bay, but after I arrived, parked and unloaded, when I tried to start the bike again to go out for food, the started button didn't work.

I called David back in Honolulu, where it was still afternoon and talked it over. He thought I could just disconnect the headlights from the bad switch and splice them together. That way, the lights would always be on when the ignition key was on and the short circuit would be eliminated.

I had a crimp-on bullet connector in my tool bag and used it to connect the two headlight wires. I still had to wiggle the starter button a little to get it to work, but I was back in business. I called ahead to a dealer in Asheville, N.C. and had them order a new headlight/starter switch that I'd pick up on my way through in a few days.

Then I stopped in Daytona Beach for a new front tire. I got the old one in Minneapolis two trips ago and it had about 25,000 miles on it.

The store where I got the tire was right across the street from Daytona International Speedway. In the parking lot there was a lineup of police bikes, part of the overwhelming police presence in Florida.

While I didn't see police vehicles often out west, in Florida they are everywhere -- state police, sheriffs, unmarked cars, SUVs and motorcycles. Every 100 miles or so, I'd see someone pulled over. Every time I rode into a town, there would be a squad car parked in the median. Marked cars cruised every school zone, ruthlessly enforcing 15 mph limits. The police presence is like an occupying army -- I imagine the tax bill must be enormous.

Speaking of enormous, the speedway is absolutely huge.

Racing in Daytona began on the beach itself, where folks can still pay a toll and drive, but the speed limit isn't sporting.

Ah, Florida! At least when you take your car to the beach you don't have to worry about someone jimmying the trunk and stealing your valuables.

Next stop was St. Augustine, where the statue of Conquistador Pedro Menendez de Aviles, founder of the city in 1565, stands in front of the Alcazar Hotel. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, he "was a classic example of the conquistador -- intrepid, energetic, loyal and brutal."

The chimneys of the Hotel Alcazar reflect the town's Spanish heritage.

A couple of tourists are framed by the arches of the old hotel, which was built by railroadman Henry Flagler in 1888.

St. Augustine has many visitors and the trolley keeps many of them under control and off the streets.

After spending the night near Jacksonville, I left for Savannah on Wednesday morning, May 15. Stopping for breakfast, I noticed this sticker on the hot-air hand drier. Cracked me up.

The outdoor advertising industry in Florida is heavily supported by attorneys, each trying to out-tough the other.

On my way to Savannah, On David's advice, I went out to Georgia's Golden Isles on US-17, which is now bypassed by I-95, leaving many businesses like this restaurant without customers.

This bridge connects Jekyll Isle with Brunswick, Ga. and St. Simons Island.

The Spanish moss on the oaks in downtown Brunswick was thick. That's the cupola on city hall in the background.

Lovers Oak is a Brunswick landmark. The tree was cited by the International Society of Arboriculture in 1987 on the bicentennial of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, because it was alive back in 1787.

Ft. Frederica, now a National Monument, was built by British General Oglethorpe in 1736 to protect British Georgia from Spanish Florida. In 1742, Oglethorpe defeated a Spanish invasion force that had landed on St. Simons Island, confirming that Georgia was British territory.

The guns at Ft. Frederica commanded the rivers separating St. Simons from the mainland.

The bridge to Jekyll Island can be seen on the horizon from Ft. Frederica.

Walking around the old fort sparked my appetite, which was beaten into submission at a local Old Time Buffet and BBQ. To succeed in Georgia, any enterprise need only add BBQ to its name, as in "Acme Laundramat & BBQ."

I didn't know they could deep fry spare ribs. Now I do.

In the Savannah suburb of Rincon, I visited my niece Jennifer and my grand nephew (wow!) Marshall.

We took a ride down to the Savannah river side -- a great place for a stroll, a drink and dinner. Besides nice scenery, Savannah has an open-container law, which allows one to get a beer or a cup of wine to go and to enjoy while meandering along the busy harbor.

Marshall checked out one of the many historical plaques along the wharf.

The many quaint watercraft add to the spectacle.

Flanman enjoys nephew Marshall and an open container at dockside.

Niece Jennifer and I shared a terrific and inexpensive dinner of fresh shrimp and grits (!) and an oriental chicken caesar salad, done in a way I've never encountered before.

After a pleasant overnight stay in Rincon, I departed Thursday morning for Augusta, Ga.


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