Searching for Florida

In April I was all set to give this presentation at a Bike Florida conference on bicycle tourism. But of course it got canceled due to COVID-19.

Still, I’m not one to waste a good speech so……

Could we just take a moment to talk about the real Florida please?

Because Florida is very much a state of mind.

Case in point: In 1980 I was covering the U.S. Senate race in Florida for the New York Times Florida Newspapers.

That year the campaign trail took me from Pensacola to Key West, and in the course of things I got a call from the Great Gray Lady Mother Ship in New York: AKA The New York Times.

They were sending down one of their national political reporters to do a story about the Florida race and asked me to show her around.

So I picked her up in Orlando. I don’t remember her name but right off she assured me that she knew all there was to know about Florida….having spent many a winter in Miami.

We were following Democratic hopeful Bill Gunter and our first stop was in Plant City, strawberry capital of the South.

We stopped at a diner where the produce haulers ate so Bill could press some flesh, and my guest from NY looked around in astonishment.

She said….and I am not making this up.

They’re eating grits!”

Apparently you didn’t get grits with your bagels on South Beach at that time.

Later we were on our way to Tallahassee by way of Perry, and while approaching the Osceola National Forest she was moved to remark

“Look at all those trees!”

I could have told her that developers had cut down all the trees in Miami years ago, but what was the point?

I bring that story up to relate to you Florida’s dilemma, especially but not exclusively when it comes to generating interest in bicycle tourism.

“Everybody” you meet knows all about Florida.

We are the home of Florida man, after all.

The problem is that “Everybody’s” idea of Florida starts with South Beach and ends with Disney.

What we need to do is figure out how to introduce these people to the other Florida.

You know, the real Florida.

Listen, some years ago my wife and I rode the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal trails from Pittsburgh to Georgetown in D.C.

Arriving in Pittsburgh we proceeded to get lost looking for the GAP trailhead. So I stopped a guy on a bicycle and asked directions.

We had a lovely chat and in the course of it I asked him if he had ever done any riding in Florida.

“I’d never ride in Florida,” he scowled. “It’s too damned hot.”

A few months later we had our spring tour in Lake and Polk Counties. And to this day the thing I most remember about our Orange Blossom Express tour is that temperatures were dipping down into the 30s most nights.

And this in March.

One night we ran movies in a middle school auditorium in Clermont all night long because nobody wanted to go back to their tents.

Welcome to too-hot-to-ride Florida pal!

Oh and then there was the time I put up a Bike Florida display tent during the annual Bike Virginia tour, this one in the Shenandoah Mountains.

The most common remark I got was “I won’t ride in Florida….it’s too flat.”

“Listen,” I’d tell them. “We have mountains in Florida….it’s called the wind.”

And here’s the difference between cycling on the Blue Ridge Parkway and heading south on A1A battling a ferocious Atlantic headwind.

Every now and then you get to go downhill on the Parkway,, which is a nice little break. A cruel Atlantic headwind cuts you no such slack.

So here’s the thing I found most frustrating, and most challenging, during my tenure as executive director of Bike Florida.

If you want to convince people that Florida is really a great biking state you better bring your lunch.

I have ridden the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, the southern highlands of Scotland, Ireland’s Cliffs of More and Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands.

I’ve cycled the Rockies and ridden the south rim of the Grand Canyon, toured New York’s Finger Lakes and the Erie Canal Trail.

And I’ve found all of those experiences to be remarkable in their own way.

But I’ve done some of my best and most memorable riright here in the Sunshine State.

We may not have mountains. But as Clyde Butcher will tell you, Florida’s beauty is every bit as exquisite if infinitely more subtle.

We used to have a small group tour we called the Horse Country to the Springs Tour. Through the heart of Florida’s Eden.

We took riders down lovely no-traffic country roads that wound past cracker shacks interspersed with multi-million dollar horse farms – where you’d see a for-sale sign and know that yet another tort lawyer lost his case on appeal.

We passed zebras on our way to Micanopy.

We visited Marjorie Kinnon Rawling’s cracker citrus grove in Cross Creek, where enthusiastic docents filled us in on the nitty gritty of her Bohemian life style.

We stopped outside Gainesville to walk out onto Alachua Sink to get up close and personal with Gators who were well and truly on steroids.

Listen, nothing gets that big on its own.

Arriving in High Springs we pressed on to Oleno State Park – named after a once popular gambling game because this is Florida, after all – got off our bikes, and proceeded to throw ourselves into the gently-flowing, tea-colored water of the Santa Fe River.

And as we floated there a woman from Baltimore asked me, rather nervously,

“Are there any gators in this river?”

Since I cannot tell a lie, I told her, truthfully.

“Why yes there are.”

Then I pointed to the roped line of floatation devices that sectioned off the park’s swimming area and I said.

“But they aren’t allowed to go past that line.”

I dunno, she didn’t seem all that reassured.

I have been telling this remarkable state’s unique stories – some of them near to unbelievable for those of you who may have heard of the Wakulla volcano – for my entire journalistic career.

And when I got the opportunity to be executive director of Bike Florida I thought “This is great. Now I can show cyclists from all over the world my Florida.

That secret Florida.

The Florida that isn’t defined by South Beach and Disney.

I wanted to take my cyclists to Two Egg.

And tell them about that time our Confederate governor fled there to his plantation -lto fatally shoot himself upon hearing that the South had surrendered.

I couldn’t wait to lead tours to Wewahitchka – Tupalo Honey capital of the south – by way of the primeval Dead Lakes.

I wanted to show them Ormond Beach’s Loop, past wetlands that seemed almost primeval in their graceful beauty, and then on through a massive oak-canopied road that abruptly gave way to urban river life Florida style.

I’ve taken them the Old Sugar Mill ruins in New Smyrna Beach, where folks still argue over whether the sugar plantation’s owner was murdered by his slaves or by Indians.

And you know what impressed them most about these historic ruins?

That’s right….the cement dinosaurs that are still there from back when it was called Bongoland.

Yes, another Florida roadside attraction.

We’ve taken cyclists to Bok Tower. And ridden the Canaveral National Seashore.

We’ve cycled the Talbot Islands past great undisturbed stretches of Atlantic coast that still look something like they must have looked when Jean Ribault made landfall there in 1560.

And we’ve taken cyclists to St. Marks, and told them about that time Spanish conquistadors got trapped there by Apalachee Indians

Who were not at all impressed with their muskets and horses.

BTW: That’s one of my all-time favorite Florida stories.

Those conquistadors originally landed in Tampa Bay looking for gold. So they cornered the local indigenous people and demanded “Where’s the gold?”

Whereupon said indigenous people said “We haven’t got the gold. The Apalachee do.”

Which sent the conquistadors scurrying north in the direction of Tallahassee looking for fame and fortune.

Of course the Apalachee didn’t have the gold.

What they had was a reputation for being the nastiest, meanest and most warlike tribe in the entire region.

Thereby proving my longtime contention that Florida has always been a land of confidence men. But that’s another Florida story.

Heck, the Spanish ended up having to eat their horses and cut their hides into leather strips to make rafts and then launch themselves into the Gulf of Mexico…ultimately to end up washed ashore on Galveston Island, where most were either killed or enslaved by other Indians.

Listen, we have ridden through the rabbit warren of million dollar seaside mansions on Casey Key – just to see how the other half live – and then on to Boca Grande….where they told us that we couldn’t use their “private” bike/golf cart trail because they didn’t want “our kind of bikers” in their town.

Like we were the Hell’s Angles or something.

And speaking of which we once took several hundred cyclists to Soloman’s Castle, a big house apparently made of tin foil out in the middle of nowhere Hardee County…and had the great good fortune to arrive at the same time as the Tampa Bay chapter of Dykes On Bikes.

Is this a great state or what?

Listen, I could go on and on about the Florida stories we could tell….and show…to our cyclists.

Watching the sun rise on the St. John’s River in Welaka before heading out to Mud Springs…which isn’t really all that muddy. Some say it’s called that to discourage people from going there.

Like visiting Fernandina Beach so we could sit on a bench with David Yulee the railroad barron and talk to him about that time he had to get out of town real fast in one of his trains just before union troops could nab him.

Or riding to Mexico Beach…at least before it was reduced to rubble…so we could show them what a Florida beach town looked like before the condo kings got ahold of it.

I was brimming over with stories….and places..and I was absolutely certain that cyclists would beat a path to our door for the privilege of seeing My Florida.

And I am sorry to say that, by and large, I was wrong.

I will tell you that to this day I consider my biggest failure as a professional communicator was my inability to figure out how to market the Real Florid to cyclists from up north or from out west or oversees.

I hope that the people in this room will put their heads together and figure out how to do that.

Because Florida isn’t too hot.

And Florida isn’t too flat.

And our best places to ride aren’t South Beach or Disney.

BTW: Have you noticed that Disney packages cruise ship tours with resort visits…all the better to capture a target audience and keep them spending money on Disney enterprises.

Nobody from Disney has asked me, but if they did I’d suggest that they do another kind of packaging to attract people from Germany, Italy, France and other places where cycling is a thing.

Say, five or six days in the resorts followed by a five day guided bicycle tour.

And the beauty of that is – thanks to the commitment Florida is making to connecting greenways – Disney or anybody else will soon be able to offer exclusively on-trail tours of several days length for people who would love to ride a bicycle here but are scared off by Florida’s deplorable record for killing more cyclists and pedestrians than almost any other state.

Which brings me to the other really important message I have to deliver to you who came here today to figure out how to grow bicycle tourism in Florida.

Sorry, but I need to say this because I have been writing about these basic pubic safety issues for far longer than I’ve been interested in bicycle tourism.

Florida has for too many years led the nation in the number of pedestrians and cyclists it kills.

We are killing far too many people who prefer not to drive in order to get from here to there.

On one of my very first Bike Florida tours we lost a very nice man from Arizona after a teenager near Newberry dropped his cell phone, reached down to get it, and veered into the bike lane.

So let me be clear.

Florida desperately needs to take aggressive, corrective action to save the lives of people who don’t care to encase themselves inside multi-ton steel cocoons for the singular privilege of getting from one place to another.

Call it Vision Zero. Call it traffic calming. Call it Complete Streets.

Whatever you want to call the strategy, the only thing we can call the status quo is unacceptable.

If we do not do something about that then we can kiss our bicycle tourism ambitions goodbye.

My bottom line message to all of you is simply this.

We need a strategy, a vision, a plan to get out the message that Florida is open for safe and enjoyable cycling.

We should refuse to take a back seat to corn field-rich Iowa, or lumpy North Carolina or woody Oregon or any other state when it comes to being cycle friendly.

Seriously, folks, it’s time for Florida to grow up and cycle right.

It’s time for all of us to ride our age.

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

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