Cows and camelias…

1,034 miles pedalled, roughly another 150 to do over the next three days and our cycling will be done. Today was our second longest distance, just over 80 miles and the hilliest; although pretty tame by Devon standards. Even so, we are both on the tired side and grumbling about sore knees and achy muscles.

That blue line represents 80 miles from Franklinton to Jackson in Louisiana

Tomorrow we will meet the mighty Mississippi River; heading south along its bank, we will spend the night night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s state capital. Friday and Saturday will be two more 50ish mile rides along the meandering river into New Orleans.

The past two days have been more delightful cycling along backcountry roads with very little traffic, bar the occasional logging truck. Once the early morning fog had lifted, this morning, we had a lovely sunny day, reaching 25°c. This clearly pleased the wildlife, with birdsong providing a sound track and scampering squirrels and little lizards comical interest. The fields abound with various denominations of beef cattle, this year’s crop of calves busily gamboling around their mothers. Many of the cows and horses we pass give us a good looking at.

A few drops of rain as we cross the Pearl River and enter Louisiana

Our accommodation has varied along the way, from formulaic roadside motels, some better than others, to a whole bungalow B&B in Poplarville. Our 88 year old host Bob, was a lovely man with a rich Southern accent, who had placed bowls of his home grown camelias especially for us.

Old Centennial Inn, Jackson, Louisiana

Tonight we are the only guests enjoying an historic, beautifully decorated, former Hotel now run as a B&B. As I write this we are sitting on an upstairs balcony enjoying the last of the evening sun listening to crickets chirping.

A Plantation House dating from 1870 near Jackson, Louisiana

No two days are the same…

After a couple of mammoth days in the saddle we are now back on track; 802 route miles done and just 265 left to get New Orleans on Saturday. We crossed into the State of Mississippi yesterday and will be in Louisiana tomorrow.

Our brief journey through Southern Alabama, blighted by fog whilst on the coast, saw us pass some rather neglected looking cotton fields and extensively grazed beef cattle in the rural area east of Mobile Bay. The shore side of the bay was lined by many huge, mansion type houses with jetties straight out into the water.

At least seven rivers empty into Mobile Bay which makes the crossing tricky on a bike. We had to take a significant detour over several long bridges and causeways. The road out of Mobile towards Biloxi, on Mississippi’s Gulf coast was not much fun, lots of traffic and no shoulder for much of the way. It is not often that I am scared on the bike, but so many drivers came too close for comfort.

Muddy waters of the Pascagoula River, Mississippi

In total contrast, today was a real joy, 70 miles of quiet country roads, mostly through National Forest, to our selves and the few vehicles there were gave us plenty of room, often with a cheery wave.

We passed through many small communities today, all dominated by Baptist Churches, in immaculate condition, which looked far too big for the few immediate houses. We concluded they must serve a wide hinterland. There were no shops or even a petrol station the whole 70 miles, good job we stocked up for roadside picnics.

In between the forests there were a few areas that had been cleared for farming, all pasture land, mostly with beef cattle, a few horses and one flock of sheep. There were a couple of ranches with very impressive gates and fences leading up to huge houses – some serious wealth. Again, in stark contrast, many people live in trailer or pre-fab homes, some with some vicious looking, free range dogs which could have been a problem had we not brought along a gadget which emits a high frequency sound, this usually stops them in their tracks – thank goodness.

Bit of a Problem – plan B…

We were feeling very chilled after a couple of days at the town of Orange Beach on Alabama’s Gulf coast. It was a shame that both days were beleaguered by heavy, grey fog. Full of energy on Saturday morning, we ate up the 26 miles along the peninsula to catch a ferry to get us across Mobile Bay. On arrival, the ticket office was closed with a note on the window stating all sailings were postponed due to the fog; which at that point was lifting rapidly.

Gavin rang the number for further information and I managed to find some posts on the Ferry company’s Facebook page which stated that they would be running the 12.30 sailing from Dauphine Island and the return at 13.15 (the one we needed). What a relief, we sat down to wait with a couple of other cyclists and a number of car drivers. Tensions mounted as the fog rolled in again and no ferry emerging from the gloom. The next message filled us with dread, the ferry had been returned to port and would not be running again!

We had no option but to retrace our tracks for 20 miles – 40 wasted miles and the best part of a day. To cycle up to the first bridge crossing at Mobile adds yet another 20 miles to our planned route. With few options, we just put our heads down and pedalled for England, arriving at Spanish Fort, opposite Mobile city, on the East bank of the bay at 6.15pm; running on lights in the dark for the last half hour. Eighty eight miles cycled but only two miles eaten off the, longer, alternative route, so an early start and another long ride today to make up the rest of the deficit and put us back on plan.

Armadillo spotted at Gulf State Park

Grey and Blue …

Today is our last day in ‘The Sunshine State’ with the sun, shy as the terrapins, hidden behind thick, moisture laden clouds. This is a real shame as we are on Pensacola Beach, situated on a narrow spit of land, the Island of Santa Rosa, in the Gulf of Mexico.

White sand but grey sky and sea at Pensacola Beach

The island is over forty miles in length but so narrow you can see both coasts most of the time. The beaches and dunes are of fine white sand and would be a perfect place to spend our first day off the bikes had the weather obliged. To pass the time, once the wind died down, we cycled out in heavy mist, to Fort Pickings on the western tip. The fort and its various batteries were built in the 1800s to protect the US navy based in the lagoon between Santa Rosa and the mainland. The only time the fort saw action was in the Civil war when Confederate forces attacked the encumbant Union forces.

It was a delight to see a small Armadillo waddling along in the sand next to the road, and observe a majestic Blue Heron on the shore.

Blue Heron at Fort Pickings

Tomorrow we will cross the State Border into Alabama to spend a couple of nights at Orange Beach before heading into Mississippi.

Force of nature…

We are now two days and 137 miles west of Tallahassee heading for Pensacola, the most westerly city on Florida’s panhandle coast. The terrain is hillier now, but many are of the rollercoaster variety; a bit of extra wellie on the down hill and you are half way up the other side before you can say ‘Bob’.

Everything is ‘drive through’ here even the cashpoint!

We are mainly on quieter state highways which have a wide shoulder marked by a solid white line, so feel quite safe. We are probably two weeks early to enjoy the full benefit of spring, deciduous trees are just showing signs of life. However gardens are ablaze with camelias, azaleas and magnolias. It is a joy to hear and see many colourful songbirds as we pedal along. We have also caught sight of a few terrapins in the swamps, they are shy creatures and quickly disappear underwater.

Hurricane damage Marianna

Both yesterday and today we passed through a wide swathe of the state which was devestated by Hurricane Michael, a category five hurricane, in October 2018. Hundreds of houses and commercial properties, we witnessed, still have tarpaulins on their roofs, some mobile homes were overturned and damaged beyond repair. A man at a local store told us some people are still living in their cars, four months on. Thousands of trees have been uprooted or snapped off. The cleanup operation is still in full swing. We stayed in the town of Marianna last night, which was particularly badly hit with many businesses and homes destroyed. Poor people it must have been terrifying.

Luckily the tree missed the house, but the roof was blown off

Valentine’s night in the jungle…

Just a short 40 mile ride today, from Monticello, a small town with some impressive plantation houses, to Tallahassee. This allowed us time to enjoy a tasty and leisurely breakfast at our first US B&B. Our hosts, Katherine and Scotty were charming and their home a lovely old clapperboard house crammed with an eclectic mix of collectables including at least four dolls houses, one of Barry Gibb’s (Bee Gees) guitars and Harry Houdini’s death certificate, not to mention hundreds of other things. We slept in the ‘Safari’ room, complete with a model elephant being ridden by a chimpanzee and a lifesize model banana tree!

Daffodale House, Monticello – our B&B on Valentine’s Night

Although the state capital, Tallahassee ranks as only the 7th most populous city in Florida. The State University dominates the centre with impressive buildings and grounds.

We started yesterday’s 75 mile ride from White Springs to Monticello in full winter kit; there was frost on the ground and the temperature was sub zero at 9am. Fortunately it warmed up fast once the sun came out. The route, once again was very rural, mainly through farmland. The communities along the way have been very small but with a surprising number of churches, mostly Baptist.

The road surfaces, so far, have been mostly excellent with smooth asphalt, and generally a shoulder on which to ride. Although as nothing compared to Devon, we are getting into hillier territory. To date the drivers have been very accommodating.

Frost an unusual sight in Florida

Country roads and Inquisition…

Three days on the road with 180 miles on the clock, so a good start. Our route is somewhat circuitous, taking quieter roads or bike paths and wending around the numerous lakes and swampy areas. This takes us through State Parks, forested areas and open farmland. A good percentage of the cattle are claimed to be pedigree Angus or pedigree Black Angus, clearly their Aberdeen forefathers are long forgotten. There are many tiny calves at foot – so cute.

Route so far – aiming for Tallahassee, the state capital, on Friday

The terrain is pretty flat, so easy cycling, ever so slightly spoiled by annoying headwinds, if the forecast is right it will veer and be behind us tomorrow. Yippee. Today has been really cold, fully 10°c lower than yesterday.

Swampy land, Hawthorne-Gainsville State Trail

Eating out is a stressful experience for us reserved Brits. The waiting staff are very friendly and I’m getting used to being called Mam, but it is like a Spanish Inquisition. First you are required to specify which species you wish to eat, then what part of that animal, then which method of cooking (the choices are many), followed by how well you want it cooked. Next, which side dishes you want, whether you want fries (chips), what sauce you would like and if you want corn or garlic bread. Don’t get me started on the drinks, such choice, except when it comes to ice and you get that by the bucket load whether you want it or not. If you are not too exhausted by the ordering process, the food (so far) has been very good. Thank goodness we are doing a lot of excercise!

The Sunshine State lives up to its name – at last…

Our third full day in Florida and finally some warmth and sunshine to mark the first 50 miles of our journey. It’s good to be back in touring mode and in T shirts and shorts.

We could not have had an easier start, just 100 metres of ascent in 50 miles demonstrates how flat this part of Florida is. Travelling west; once we left the delightful city of St. Augustine, the urban sprawl rapidly gave way to swampy forests where lichens hang of the trees like old mens’ beards. Further on, Hastings styles itself the potato capital of Florida. It’s not hard to see why, we cycled past enormous acreages planted out to the tubers.

Our billet for the night is the small town of Palatka, situated on the west bank of the huge St. Johns River, which flows north to the Atlantic at Jacksonville.

Mile long bridge spanning the St. Johns River at Palatka

Saturday was a dreary, grey, day as we continued our drive across the Panhandle from Tampa airport. We viewed the launch pads and buildings at Cape Canaveral, stopped for a short walk through conserved swamps in the hope of seeing alligators but failed. However, a little further on we did see a small group of Manatees just loitering in a river – curious mammals with heads like seals and tails like beavers.

Daytona Beach was a disappointment, very tired and shabby, making us very glad to have stayed at St. Augustine Beach with its long sandy shoreline and proximity to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the US.

Sunday, another cold, grey and wet day was spent cycling around the old town with buildings and a fort dating back to the 1600s. Fragler College, originally built as an hotel, was particularly impressive.

Fragler College Courtyard – At. Augustine

Another imperative is the ritual dipping of bikes’ wheels; apparently in ‘the rules’ when riding coast to coast. It would be a bad job if we ever get to California, to find ourselves disqualified!

Dipping the wheels in the Atlantic at St. Augustine Beach

Lets us take you to the Mardis Gras …

First Leg – USA Southern Tier. St. Augustine, Florida to New Orleans, Louisiana.

For a while there it looked like we might not get away this winter, but a 26 day window opened so we jumped through and find ourselves in Florida USA.

The twin draws of sunshine and another cycling adventure will see us following the orange line on the map above, pedaling west, from St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast. Founded by Spanish explorers in 1565 this is the oldest continuously inhabited, European established settlement, in the US.

Our route follows Adventure Cycling’s Southern Tier Route, which crosses the continent, ending at San Diego, California on the Pacific coast. Totalling just over 3,000 miles, the entire route would be a might ambitious for us old codgers to achieve in three weeks. Our plan is to get to New Orleans on this leg, following the blue route south, once we reach the Mississippi River – about a third of the total route. (Leaving another couple of trips for the future).

If all goes to plan, we will arrive in New Orleans during the festivities and processions leading up to the City’s world famous Mardis Gras.

Wet and windy weather delayed our departure from Gatwick by an hour and US customs was the usual tedious process on arrival at Tampa. The airport is well laid out with very efficient, driverless, trains taking the slog out of getting around the concourse.

Today, we will head for At. Augustine in our rental car, via Cape Canaveral and Daytona beach, leaving Sunday to prepare the bikes and kit for an early start on Monday morning.