Like it’s 1974 all over again

On Christmas break in 1974 Dave Smith and I took a road trip to Washington, D.C. and on into Pennsylvania.

Dave was editor of the Independent Florida Alligator and I was his managing editor. And these momentous times indeed for two young journalists to go to D.C. 

Richard Nixon was gone. Our U.S. Senator, Ed Gurney, freshly indicted for influence peddling, had one foot out the door. 

Helen Thomas got us into a White House press briefing. And William Raspberry invited us to the Washington Post, where we chatted with Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward.

Heady stuff for a couple of guys who aspired to ink stained wretch status.

Oddly, though, none of that moved me to write this column 44 years later. 

Rather, it was something that Dave said in passing as we motored north into the American rust belt, past belching smokestacks, over polluted rivers and through communities that reeked of the effluvia of the post-war Industrial Age.

“What have they done to my country?” Dave asked. 

An excellent question then. Even better now. 

At that time the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection was just four years old. It was signed into law by a Republican president after DDT had driven the American bald eagle to the brink of extinction, oil spills had blackened California beaches and an entire river, the Cuyahoga, had burst into a chemical-fueled fire. 

Thank goodness those days are behind us. 

Listen, except for the algae choking Florida’s rivers, the red tides that are killing marine life, the fact that South Florida is sinking, – not to mention rising ozone levels, raging wildfires, dying coral reefs and slowly acidifying oceans – things are looking…well…

Like it’s 1974 all over again. 

Only now the EPA has gone over to the enemy. 

Stay with me here and try to follow the logic.

They tell us that if we don’t reverse Obama’s fuel efficiency goals, 1,000 more Americans each year will die in auto accidents because driving will be cheaper and we will want to do more of it. 

That’s bad.

But we also must reverse Obama’s emission limits on coal plants even though that will cause 1,400 additional premature deaths a year. 

That’s good.

Because, you know, the War On Coal. Plus, windmills kill birds.

And if the folks running the EPA sound like a bunch of verbal contortionists they are not alone. Over the past eight years we Floridians have stood idly by while our leaders in Tallahassee have systematically dismantled state environmental enforcement and gutted our water management districts. 

All of which brings me back to Dave’s question: What are they doing to my country?

They aren’t doing anything. We are. 

Not doing anything, I mean.

Those people that weaponized the EPA against us? We elected them.

Ditto the politicians who are dragging Florida to the brink of environmental catastrophe.

Listen, Nixon and Congress didn’t create the EPA because they woke up one morning feeling green. 

They did it because a well organized and vocal environmental movement had gained enough momentum by the 1960s to force elected officials to act lest they lose their jobs.

Nobody in public office worries about that anymore. The pols act like the only things we care about are guns and abortion. And they are kept in office by the lobbyists – big ag, big oil, big chem – who bankroll their campaigns.

That’s got to stop. Starting this year. 

As we get closer to the election we will talk more about which rascals need to be thrown out before they kill us with contamination. 

And shame on us if we don’t do it.

(Published in the Gainesville Sun Aug. 26, 20188)

 

 

North to Craggy Gardens

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the top of Craggy Gardens.

Everything suddenly went black.

Well, not black, exactly. More like gray.

The black part only lasted while I was riding through a tunnel on the Blue Ridge Parkway that ended just about one mile distant from the Craggy Gardens Visitor’s Center – my goal for the day’s ride. My flashing white and red lights barely registered in the darkness….but you could make out the light at the end of the tunnel.

You could also see the steep hill – just the latest and hopefully last ascent that would take me up final 300-or 400-feet up to the nearly 6,000 feet elevation point that marked the Visitors Center.

I would have liked to have made it. It was so damned close.

Yet so far away as things turned out.

What happened was that at the top of that final hill I ran into a thick bank of gray fog that was rolling across the top of the mountain.

Now I saw it, now I didn’t.

In fact, I literally couldn’t see much of anything beyond my handlebars. And that’s not a great situation to find yourself in when you are on a narrow, two-lane, twisty mountain road much favored by cyclists, automobiles, motorcycles and RVs.

So, conceding defeat, I turned around and headed back the other way, downhill. Luckily, the fog did not follow me.

The Visitors Center will still be there for some future ride.

And the long, steep, descent between Craggy Gardens and the distant Folk Arts Center – at about 2,200 feet just outside Asheville – is reward enough.

Really, how often do you get to ride at speeds of up to 35-plus MPH (could have gone faster at points, but I get skittish at a certain velocity and start feathering the brakes) for mile after mile? Certainly nowhere in the vicinity of my usual Florida stomping grounds.

Having climbed steadily and doggedly for upwards of two hours, that return ride seemed to fly by in a matter of minutes.

In my previous blog, I criticized the National Park Service’s “ride on the right side of the road” rule for bicyclists on the Blue Ridge Parkway – aka its “suicide by bike” requirement. Which criticism I stand by.

But I also had some not very flattering things to say about cycling the segment of the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs through the Asheville area. That last complaint calls for clarification.

So here goes: There’s nothing wrong with riding the Blue Ridge Parkway out of Asheville, indeed it is recommended – providing that you are headed in the right direction.

In fact, cycling north (in the direction of Mt. Mitchell) on the Parkway out of Asheville is a delightful experience. Beginning at the Folk Arts Center, the climbs are challenging but not especially punishing, the descents are thrilling and the scenery is spectacular. The traffic tends to be light, at least earlier in the morning, and not nearly as intimidating as what you would encounter riding south.

It is riding south out of Asheville (toward Mt. Pisgah) that should be avoided, most especially during the week days. The first several miles is essentially a forested local road which is used by commuters to get to work and back or wherever, thereby avoiding the city’s more heavily trafficked surface roads. You can tell it’s a local road not only by the volume of fast-moving traffic but also by the roadside litter that is all too common along this stretch of the Parkway. It isn’t until after you cross the French Broad River, about 10 miles into the ride, that the trip south begins to seem as pleasant as the trek north. (Ironically, right after crossing the river we saw construction signs advising cyclists to go no further because of loose gravel on the road. Sometimes you just can’t win.)

Judging by the number of cyclists I was able to observe, the locals know this north-south divide very well. Over several days we passed (or were passed) by dozens of riders headed north. Only a hardy few were evident on the one day we ventured south.

And most were headed north for reasons of safety and scenery. The overlooks at Haw Creek Valley, Craven Gap, Tanbark Ridge, Bull Creek, Lane Pinnacle, Potato Field Gap and so on all make for scenic water stops that more than compensate for the hard work involved in riding steadily uphill in the direction of Craggy Gardens.

Listen, I’m a Florida flatlander who does most of my riding at sea level. But this summer I’ve had the opportunity to cycle in the mountains of western Virginia, the uplands of southern Scotland (more about that in a future blog) and on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. All are recommended.

Life’s a journey, folks. Just make sure all of your gears are in working order – not to mention your tires, brakes and flashing lights etc.

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Live center or die on the edge?

I wasn’t aware of the National Park Service’s “Suicide By Bicycle” rule until I cycled the Blue Ridge Parkway out of Asheville, N.C.

Actually it was on the third day of cycling the Parkway when, headed north, I pulled over just after crossing the French Broad River to read a colorful sign proclaiming that I was about to encounter the “highest, most rugged elevations” of its entire 469-mile length.

There was lots of other information as well, including fairly specific instructions for bicycles. Among them that cyclists must “ride single file on the right hand side of the road.”

This next to an illustration showing a single rider hugging the road’s edge so closely that his right ankle was surly being tickled by the grass.

I’ve got no problem with the single file part. But anybody on a bicycle who follows the “right hand side” rule must have a death wish.

Why? Two reasons.

One: Sitting on the right edge seems an invitation to lead-footed motorists coming up from behind to pass you without bothering to move over onto the oncoming traffic lane….even if that means squeezing by within inches of your vulnerable body.

In fact, a sheriff’s deputy in his SUV cruiser did just that to me without bothering to either slow down or edge across the yellow middle line. Thanks John Law.

Second, hugging the right edge of the road similarly invites impatient drivers coming in the opposite way to view the remainder of your lane as a “window of opportunity” to pass the slowpoke driver (or drivers) in front of them.

No thank you.

I mostly stuck just to the right of the center of the lane. With my fluorescent yellow jersey, flashing red tail lights and white head lights, I was visible enough to give oncoming motorists ample notice that they needed to slow down until they could pass me safely employing the oncoming lane. Even if that meant waiting until there was no approaching traffic.

As it happens, very few of the numerous cyclists I observed while riding the Parkway seemed to adhere to the bicycle suicide rule. And if that sounds like cycling anarchy, I would also observe that many of the motorists who shared that narrow road with us didn’t bother to observe the Parkway’s 35-45 mph speed limits. And Parkway traffic enforcement being apparently rare to nonexistent, there seems little incentive for motorists not to speed.

I hesitate to make too much of this. Cycling remains a popular activity on the Parkway and for good reasons – spectacular mountain vistas, challenging climbs and exhilarating descents to name just three.

But given the presence of so many SUVS, RVs, pickup trucks, motorcycles and such, the intent of the ride-on-the-right-edge rule seems less intended to protect the lives of people on bicycles than facilitate the swift and uninterrupted flow of motorized traffic.

A worthy goal on a wide, high-speed multiple laned highway, perhaps. But wholly inappropriate within the tight confines of what amounts to America’s longest, narrowest linear park.

Don’t get me wrong. I still loved cycling the Blue Ridge Parkway. But I would advise anyone who wants to give it a try to avoid the stretch running through the Asheville area. It’s clear that many local commuters use the Parkway as a convenient, time-saving option to avoid the traffic lights and congestion on the city’s roads. Looking in my helmet-mounted rear mirror and seeing a line of 7 or 8 cars coming up behind me and showing no signs of slowing down tends to….well, spoil the moment.

Not to pick on the Park Service, but I think the Parkway’s right-side rule is dangerously misguided. Check out what the American Bicycling Education Association’s Cyclingsavvy website has to say on the subject:

“Driving in the middle of the lane actually protects bicyclists against the most common motorist-caused crashes: sideswipes, right hooks, left crosses, and drive-outs.  A bicycle driver’s top safety priority is to ensure he or she can be seen by motorists with whom they might potentially be in conflict, and bicycling in the middle of a lane is one of the most effective ways to do that. Most overtaking crashes involve a motorist who attempts to squeeze past (illegally) in a lane that is too narrow to share.”

If ever there were lanes that are “too narrow to share” you’ll find them on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Sorry, ranger, but I’d rather live as a rule-breaker than die in perfect compliance.

Just find a trail and ride

We get it. You want to ride. 

You long to get out there on your bicycle, to explore the best that natural Florida has to offer. To exercise your body and your mind. To leave your sedentary existence behind, if only for the day, or perhaps just a few hours. 

But you are not comfortable riding on the roads. Traffic worries you. You don’t feel safe occupying the same space with cars and trucks and distracted drivers with cell phones.

Not to worry.

The really cool thing about Gainesville is that it is pretty much the epicenter of Trail Country. If you have a bike rack, or enough on-board cargo space to stow your bicycle, you are within easy driving distance – an hour or so – of at least four quality rail-trails. 

No need to share the road. Just get on a trail and sing along with Queen: “I want to ride my bicycle…..”

Here they are in order of proximity.

The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail: This one literally starts at Depot Park in downtown Gainesville and runs for more than 15 miles, all the way to downtown Hawthorne. Along the way you can stop at the Boulware Springs Trailhead for water and restrooms. You might want to take a bit of time off the bike to stroll the walkway into Alachua Sink at Paynes Prairie. There are rolling hills and scenic prairie overlooks. You can stop at Prairie Creek and watch the fishing, or maybe even cross under the Hawthorne Road bridge and take a peek at Newnans Lake. You can explore tiny Rochelle, cross Lochloosa creeks and, when you get to Hawthorne, maybe have lunch at Diane’s Old Time Barbecue, or visit the Historical Museum before heading back to Gainesville – where you just might consider a cold beer reward at First Magnitude, conveniently situated at trail’s end. This is one of Florida’s oldest rail-trails and it never loses its charm. 

The Lake Butler-Palatka Trail: Just a 35-minute drive east will take you to the trailhead at Grandin, in Putnam County. From there you can ride either west toward Keystone Heights or continue east toward Palatka – or better yet, go first one way and then the other. Either way the ride will take you through the heart of this area’s sand hills and lakes country. The important thing to remember is that this 47-mile corridor is very much a work in progress. As this is being written, construction continues on a trail extension that will go all the way into Palatka. Once that is completed, it will be possible to connect with the Palatka-St. Augustine Trail that will take you over the St. John’s River to the farm town of Hastings, the charming trail-communities of Armstrong and Elkton and then on to the very outskirts of the Ancient City itself. 

Nature Coast Trail: It’s a 40 minute drive west from Gainesville to Old Town. From there the Nature Coast Trail runs for 32 miles – west to Cross City, south to Chiefland and east to Trenton and extending in the direction of Newberry. This trail runs through the heart of a slice of old Florida that was once connected to the rest of the world by steamboats and railroads, and the highlight of the trail is a Suwannee River crossing via an one-time iron railroad bridge. The trail is in close proximity to Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs, so a quick dip in cold water, or a time out for a bit of kayaking is not out of the question.

Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway Trail: A 56 minute drive south on U.S. 441/301 will take you through Ocala to the Santos Trailhead and the recently opened 23-mile Cross Florida Greenway Trail. What makes this trail different from most others is that it was not constructed on a former railroad right-of-way, meaning that it doesn’t run straight and true in typical railroad fashion. Rather this trail takes delightful twists and turns though the deep forest and over the low hills of the Cross Florida Greenway Corridor. Instead of crossing busy roadways, the trail dips under them via a series of tunnels. And when you get to I-75 can keep riding west unimpeded thanks to the trail’s attractively landscape “land bridge.” Oh yeah, along the way you will pass the Florida Horse Park, so don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself sharing the trail with a number of earnest looking individuals who are in the process of training their mounts for upcoming races. On the drive back, consider stopping in Ocala’s restored downtown for lunch in one of its many restaurants. 

(I wrote this piece for the latest edition of Gainesville Magazine.)