Next time try winter camping

Listen, when better to take about winter camping then in the dead of a Florida summer?

How cool is winter camping on Little Talbot Island?

Don’t ask me. Ask the arctic snowy owl.

There have only been a few recorded Florida sightings of that largest species of North American owl, which rarely ventures south of Canada. But a few winters ago one inexplicably came to earth amid the sandy dunes and salt marshes of one of Florida’s last remaining relatively unspoiled barrier islands.

Magically appearing, as though a refugee from a Harry Potter movie.

And thereby provoking a stamped of birders brandishing binoculars, rushing in from miles around hoping to catch a glimpse of a very rare bird in paradise indeed.

“I never dreamed it would get into Florida, which is really, really rare,” Duval Audubon Society member Carolyn Wyatt told the Florida Times Union at the time. “It is very striking and has a bowling ball head.”

For the record, I never did catch sight of the aforementioned bowling ball head. But all the fuss over just another snowbird was enough to disrupt the normally splendid isolation of my favorite Florida winter camp ground.

Every February I book a couple of campsites for a cold weekend at LIttle Talbot Island State Park. It is an annual winter retreat for a select group of Gainesville guys (we used to go backpacking in the mountains but we got old, OK?). We arrive with prodigious amounts of firewood, a year’s worth of exaggerated stories and outrageous lies, warm sleeping bags, assorted tents, inflatable mattresses, bicycles, bottles, braggadocio and bluster.

You know, guy stuff.

Because here’s the thing about camping on Little Talbot Island.

If you do it in August you’re a masochist. Mosquitos and no-see-ums and biting flies oh my. If you go in December, January or February – well the only thing liable to bite is that sharp wind sweeping in off the Atlantic ocean.

Little Talbot – just a short ferry hop from metro Jacksonville across the St. Johns River – is a winter paradise. You can stroll along its five miles of unspoiled beach and hardly see a sole. Or wander the marsh grasses and mud flats that surround the camp on three sides. Or kayak the narrow, corkscrew path of Myrtle Creek. Or hike for miles amid ancient sand dunes and Spanish moss-draped oaks with only your thoughts to keep you company.

All without benefit of bug spray.

And if walking’s not your thing, jump on a bike and try out the new rail-trail that runs nearly all the way to the long George Crady Bridge connecting to Amelia Island. On a sunny day it is a spectacular ride over glistening blue water.

Do all of that and you will begin to understand what possessed French explorer Jean Ribaut, in April, 1563, when he arrived on this shore and promptly declared it “the fairest, fruitfullest and pleasantest of all the worlde.”

There are 40 camp sites on Little Talbot Island. With water, electrical hookups, picnic tables and that all important fire ring. The rest rooms/shower facilities are modern and clean. The campground is separated from the ocean side of the island by a narrow strip of U.S. A1A. But a clustering of dunes and dense tree cover maintains a sense of isolation between the campsites and the highway.

The other thing that makes Little Talbot a great place to camp is that there is no shortage of interesting places to visit in the vast Timucuan Preserve that surrounds the island on three sides. The area is rich in history, culture and breathtaking scenery. Small wonder the Timucuans lived here for thousands of years before being pushed out by the forces of “civilization.”

A half hour bike ride will get you to the Kingsley Plantation, a relic of the days when Sea Island Cotton was king; and the Ribault Club, a fully restored pre-Depression haunt of the rich and famous; and Hugoenot Memorial Park, northeast Florida’s premier birding area; and more. Or if you are really ambitious, take the 17-mile bike ride to Fernandina Beach (or drive if you must) and have lunch at one of the many restaurants in its historic waterfront downtown. And don’t forget to stop at Ft. Clinch State Park on the way and visit its red brick Civil War-era fortifications.

But really, if you go winter camping on Little Talbot Island, you are not going to want to stray too far from the fire circle. Especially after dark when temperatures fall and the cold begins to seep into your bones. There is something about staring into flickering fire and glowing embers on a cold night that stimulates the flow of conversation and facilitates easy camaraderie.

That’s how story telling began, after all. Companions huddled around a fire against the chill of the night and spinning fantastical tales to pass the time.

Some of which may even be true.

(Originally published in the Gainesville Sun in Oct. 2015)

Miles, kilometers and junk food

Yes, I do believe that the metric system is a socialist plot to destroy America.

I’m not sure if I heard that from Rush or from Glen Beck, but either way you can take it to the bank.

Still and all… I have this secret, albeit unpatriotic, vice.

I love kilometers. I lust after kilometers.

For cyclists, kilometers are the junk food of distance measures. Gobble down one and, well, you just want to keep eating those suckers up.

As opposed to miles. Which are what you are obliged to consume because they are “good for you.”

Like Brussel sprouts.

Check it out. If I want to ride a century in the states, that’s 100 miles. That’s a lot of broccoli, pal.

But a metric century in one of those socialist countries? That’s only 62 miles or thereabouts. Like pigging out on Cheese Doodles.

And my wife likes to run a 5K. That’s 3.1 miles. Do I hear the sound of potato chips crunching, dear?

Anyway, that’s why I went to Canada –  Nova Scotia to be more specific – in the summer of 2015 to cycle the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton.

Yeah, there were stunning seascapes to contemplate and admire. And very unFlorida-like mountains to get over (“Low gear, everybody down.”). And wonderfully cool and crisp weather to savor at a time when it’s 104 in the shade back and 100 percent humidity back in Gville.

But it’s all in kilometers, man! Talk about icing on the cake. And none of that sugar-free icing either.

Listen, there’s nothing more thrilling than racing down a steep, winding road off northern Cape Breton’s French Mountain – the sparkling blue water of the Atlantic spreading out on one side, sheer cliffs dropping away on the other – and glancing at the bike computer on my handlebars…

…and realizing that I’m going a freaking 64!

No, not 64 miles per hour, that would probably have killed me. But 64 kilometers an hour. And that’s still pretty freaking fast.

How fast? I’d tell you but Sanford isn’t paying me to write this so I’m not going to bother to do the math for you.

Let’s just say it’s fast. Really, really fast.

Still, the thing about junk food and socialism is that they both have a way of viciously turning on you when you least expect it.

Take our first day of touring on Cape Breton.

According to the cue sheets helpfully provided us by our tour company, Backroads, the first day was to be a relatively short shakedown ride of just 45 kilometers (that’s 28 good-for-you miles in American) from the lovely lakeside community of Baddeck, over Hunter’s Mountain (elevation 500 feet, you figure it out, Mike) and down into the beautiful Margaree River Valley to a pleasant lunch on the shore of scenic Lake O’Law.

But alas, my Gainesville cycling buddy Bruce Stechmiller and I went astray. First taking this wrong turn. And then that one. And then retracing our routes and crossing Hunter’s Mountain not once, but twice. And finally showing up at Lake O’Law long after everyone else (and the food) had decamped for our nearby lodgings.

Before it was all over, our computers were registering 88 kilometers (ask Mike) and I was writhing on the ground at lakeside with severe leg cramps, having not hydrated myself properly for an epic ride of that distance.

As far as Stech and I can figure, this unfortunate kilometer malfunction occurred for two primary reasons.

  1. Florida guys – well, let’s just admit it, all guys – are pretty much incapable of asking directions and unwilling to actually read the cue sheets. And
  2. Contrary to my presupposition, it turns out that you actually can get lost on an island. Who knew?

Ultimately we ended up bumming water off a very nice farmer in an authentic straw hat, and subsisting on emergency Snickers bars purchased at a roadside cafe.

And in desperation we finally did break down and ask directions, only to get conflicting advice.

First, the elderly woman in the antique store assured us that Lake O’Law was just down the road about 5 miles. “You can get there in about 20 minutes,” she said.

About half an hour down the road later, the aforementioned straw-hatted farmer told us he thought it was still more like 15 miles away.

So what have we learned from this friends and neighbors? Well, most obviously, both of those “locals” gave us distances in miles, not kilometers. Presumably because we weren’t fellow travelers, if you catch my drift.

I’m just saying, if they had told us in kilometers we probably would have arrived in 10 minutes and made lunch in plenty of time.

But, no, they made us do the ride in miles. Because it’s supposed to be good for us. Like eating cauliflower. We’re lucky to have made it at all.

All of which goes to show you that socialism isn’t entirely bad. Sorry Rush, sorry Glen, but you had to be there.

(Originally published in the Gainesville Sun in 2015)

 

 

My favorite Florida hideaways

You’ve been to Orlando to see the Big Mouse.

Check.

And you consumed an industrial-sized tropical drink in a neon South Beach cafe.

Check.

And you’ve done Bike Week, when the Harleys flock to Daytona like swallows to Capistrano.

Check.

And you say you’ve done Florida?

Not so fast pal.

My Florida is so much more than theme parks and beaches and aging Boomers playing Easy Rider.

It is big and beautiful and mysterious. It’s historic and epic. And of course it’s weird and tacky and ludicrous.

Here are some places you need to “do” if you want say you’ve done Florida.

Ron’s Magical Mystery Tour of Florida in 10 easy side trips.

  1. Solomon’s Castle

Drive down a secondary road in the middle of nowhere DeSoto County until you spot a very small sign pointing you into a wooded glen. There, quirky artist Howard Solomon has built his citadel, which looks to be made from 10,000 rolls of heavy duty aluminum foil but is really cobbled together from old metal newspaper printing plates. Howard filled his fortress with his own sculptures, made from old machine parts, oil drums and other castoffs (Hey, he’s been called the “DiVinci of Debris.” And he dug a “moat” to accommodate an absurdly contrived Spanish galleon with which to guard his kingdom.

Seriously, Disney needs to hire this guy.

  1. Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens

Florida at its best. Historic ruins. Breathtaking gardens. Concrete dinosaurs.

Port Orange’s best kept secret was a sugar plantation that abruptly went out of business when Seminoles, or possibly slaves, slaughtered the owner. The old millworks are still there. Now the 12-acre site is a lovely botanical garden teeming with spreading oaks, azaleas, magnolias, native plantsand an assortment of “prehistoric monsters.” This last because, briefly, in the 1950s, it was called Bongoland and sported a fake Indian village, miniature railroad, Flintstone-esque dinosaurs and a baboon named (what else?) Bongo.

3: Chief Tomokie

The chief is in residence at Tomoka State Park, near Ormond  Beach, in the person of an outrageously kitzy 40-foot sculpture created more than half a century ago by artist Fred Dana Marsh. Here’s the way my pal, Daytona Beach News Journal columnist Mark Lane, describes it: “The statue depicts an Indian legend manufactured in the 1950s. It shows the nude orange Amazon, Oleeta, aiming an arrow at Tomokie with murderous intent. Nearby, warriors are poised as back up. The tribe turned on Tomokie for the sacrilege of drinking the Water of Life from the Sacred Cup, because, well, who wants put up with that?” Who indeed?

Oh, and take along a bicycle. Tomoka State Park is situated on “The Loop,” a popular 34-mile scenic road that may be Florida’s most beautiful ride.

  1. Wewahitchka

Nothing weird about this wonderful little town near the banks of the Chipola River. It is the Tupelo Honey capital of Florida…heck, maybe the world. Here Peter Fonda filmed “Ulee’s Gold,” about – what else? – an eccentric beekeeper. There’s a two-day Tupelo Honey fest in May. Don’t like honey? Take a camera, kayak and pole and visit nearby Dead Lakes, which owes its haunting beauty and great fishing to thousands of drowned cypress trees. And if you think only Gainesville has a Lake Alice, think again. Alice lives in Wewa’s lovely downtown park as well.

  1. Bok Tower

Another one of Florida’s best kept secrets. This 205-foot, 60-bell, “Neo-Gothic/Art Deco Singing Tower” in Lake Wales sits atop (I’m not making this up) Iron Mountain – at 295-feet one of Florida’s highest points. The tower is a monumental work of art in its own right. The carillon music is sweet. The gardens and grounds spectacular. Gainesville photographer John Moran collaborated on a stunning book about Bok aptly titled “Finding Yourself: A Spiritual Journey Through a Florida Garden.” If you can’t find yourself at Bok you are hopelessly lost.

  1. Falling Waters and Florida Caverns

Yes, Florida does have a waterfall, and caverns you can visit without scuba gear. Best of all, these two state parks are just 25 miles apart, in Jackson County. At Falling Waters you can watch a typical Florida stream abruptly drop 100 feet into a sinkhole and vanish from sight. (If you want to see what Florida will look like after we’ve drained the aquifer, this park is lousy with sinkholes). Then head north to Marianna and tour Florida Caverns, a series of “dry” (air-filled) caves, replete with “dazzling formations of limestone stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, flowstones and draperies.” Of course the highlight of the tour is when the guide turns out the lights, giving you a breathtaking view of….absolutely nothing.

  1. We all want to know what the future holds, right. Florida’s own “spiritualist community.” wrapped around lovely Lake Colby in Volusia County, boasts the Cassadaga Psychic Spirtualist Center, the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp and any number of seers who stand ready, willing and able to read your palm, tea leaves or, for all I know, goat entrails. Even if you don’t buy into that stuff, Cassadaga is a genuine historic artifact and has been ever since 1875, when celebrated “trance medium” George P. Colby founded his spiritualist camp to do readings, lead seances and maybe even bust the occasional ghost.
  2. Sopchoppy

Where to start? Well, there’s the town’s annual Worm Grubbing Festival – this devoted to the art of hammering wooden stakes into the ground and vibrating them until the worms finally surrender. Then there’s the legend of the Wakulla Volcano, derived from long time sightings of strange glows and smoke emanating from a nearby swamp that may be camp fires…or something entirely more otherworldly and sinister. Even if you at not a wormaphile and don’t buy all that X-Files stuff, this one-time railroad town is nestled up against a bend in one of Florida’s prettiest little rivers, the Sopchoppy, and it’s begging to be canoed, fished and otherwise savored.

  1. Little Talbot Island

No tacky roadside attractions here. Just pure natural beauty and vibrant history. Start with Little Talbot Island State Park, with five miles of stunning white sand beach and endless expanses of marshy wetlands. Throw in Kingsley Plantation, once owned by a woman who had herself been a slave. Then see the Ribault Club, a restored Gadsby-era playground where the rich and shameless once wiled away their winters. Stop by the Huguenot Memorial, denoting a brief French occupation before the Spanish cleaned house. An awesome tree-lined bike path will take you to scenic Nassau Sound. And after you’re done with all that, hop the St. John’s Ferry for seafood in Mayport.

  1. Two-Egg

Just to say you’ve been there, that’s all. There are only a couple of rickety shacks left of “downtown” Two-Egg, at the intersection of state roads 69 and 69A in Jackson County. Take a selfie next to one of the “Two Egg” signs (if they haven’t been stolen again). And if anybody’s around, ask them how the town got its name (they still argue about it) and what they know about the Bellamy Bridge Ghost, the Two-Egg Stump Jumper (aka little hairy Bigfoot) and Long Cane Grinding Day (end of October or early November).

Listen, even if you’ve already been to two rodeos and a goat-roping, you’ve never seen anything like these slices of real Florida.

(I originally wrote this for Gainesville Magazine in 2017. Some of the reasons I love this quirky state of ours. Also these are all great places to see while riding on a bicycle.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mobility power to the people

The last time I was in San Francisco I rented an E-bike and spent six hours zipping up and down its roller coaster-like landscape.

It was sinfully fun and shamefully easy.

Two days later, either from guilt or ego, I did the same thing on an old fashion two wheeler just to prove to myself that I can still climb hills under my own pedal power.

But if I’m personally agnostic about E-bikes, they are a thing.

Some 35 million electric bikes and scooters were sold worldwide last year. Walk into most American bike shops today and you can probably buy a battery assisted version.

But this isn’t about E-bikes.

This is about America’s urban mobility revolution.

This is about docks, dockless, “bike clutter,” the scooter “apocalypse,” and other more of less dreadful urban myths about how we get- or will be getting – around town.

Docks: Right now, most bike share programs in America are dock based – you have to pick a bike up at one dock and drop it off at another. This limits their practical utility, especially when it comes to the “last mile” dilemma of giving commuters a convenient way to get from their bus or subway stops to their homes or offices.

Not to mention that docked-bike share is an alien concept in most low income neighborhoods.

Enter dockless: Start up companies with names like LimeBike and Bird are beginning to pop up in cities around America. Dockless bikes can go pretty much anywhere you need to go at the swipe of a credit card, and you can drop them off where you want.

Which is starting to drive people crazy. From Frisco to Denver to Austin city officials are issuing “cease and desist” orders to force dockless bikes and scooters off the public streets and sidewalks.

Why? Because of…

“…bike litter. Undocked bikes are cluttering up the urban landscape. It’s chaos, bicycle anarchy. Not to mention…..

“….the scooter apocalypse. E-Scooter “bros” are scaring pedestrians on the sidewalks and ticking off cyclists in the bike lanes. E-scooters are a “disruptive technology” in the true sense of the term.

But then there’s this about all of that.

If you want to really talk about what’s “littering” the urban landscape you can’t ignore cars. They are everywhere you look in autoAmerica.

And it’s not just visual pollution. Urban auto traffic poisons our air, makes us sick and kills more than 5,000 pedestrians a year. Scooter bros are pesky gnats by comparison.

Right now urban America is caught up in a competition over who gets to use the public right-of-way and with what form of mobility. And it’s not just a competition between pedestrians and cyclists and scooter bros. There’s also a “bikelash,” going on, with angry motorists pressuring their elected officials to remove newly installed bike lanes so they can get back to driving as fast as they like.

Can’t we all just get along?

Eventually I believe we will.

Bike and scooter litter can be solved if cities provide “corrals” (you can fit about 10 bikes and scooters into one standard car parking space). Urban rules of the road for both street and sidewalk use can and will be established and enforced by social mores and law.

But the bottom line is this: Individual automobile use is the most wasteful, dirty and dangerous form of personal urban mobility. Anything cities can do to induce people out of their cars to bus, bike, walk and, yes, even scooter, will ultimately improve the quality of urban life and save human lives.

Revolutions are messy.

Mobility power to the people.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial writer for The Sun. This column was published in The Sun on June 17 2016.

 

 

 

 

Shaming and speeding

If you take a leisurely stroll down Lawtey’s main street you will pass a ball field, an elementary school, City Hall, a post office a grocery store and a church. 

Not that anybody strolls on Lawtey’s main street – aka U.S. 301. That would be like ambling through traffic hell.

Still, in a nominal concession to Lawtey’s pretense of actually being a “community,” the thousands of heavy trucks, pickups, SUVs and sedans which every day funnel through that small Columbia County town north of Gainesville are legally obliged to slow down from 60-plus to 45 MPH.

Not that many do. In autoAmerica, posted speed limits are deemed guidelines more than mandates. 

Studies have shown, as Bryan Jones, a planner and engineer with Alta Planning + Design wrote recently for strongtowns.org, that most “motorists believe the posted speed limit is just the suggested maximum and more frequently treat it as the minimum, knowing that many law enforcement professionals and courts will not ‘strictly’ enforce the maximum posted speed limit but rather something 9-15 MPH over the posted speed limit.”

Which is why, if you know anything at all about Lawtey, you probably know that it has been branded a “speed trap” by the American Automobile Association. It’s an old rep – these days the town reportedly only writes about 15 tickets daily. 

“We think it is a relic of the past,” Police Chief Shane Bennett told First Coast News last month. 

Still, it remains Lawtey’s foremost, um, claim to shame.

The definition of “speed trap” being a town that insists on ticketing motorists for breaking the law.

The definition of “speed limit” being a law that may only be enforced up to a point – that point being where the collection of traffic fines becomes a “revenue stream.”

Which is ironic when you consider that one-third (and that’s a conservative estimate) of all traffic fatalities in America are due to speeding. To break that down, about 113,000 people in America died of an overdose of “speed” between 2005 and 2014.

Lawtey is exactly the sort of town that Florida urban planner Andrés Duany had in mind when he wrote “The Department of Transportation, in its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow, has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.” Other casualties of the traffic wars along US 301 alone might include Waldo and Hawthorne, small towns similarly robbed of any sense of community by some long ago traffic planner’s “single minded pursuit.”

But the truth is that even cities, like Gainesville, that have supposedly embraced “Vision Zero” plans to eliminate traffic fatalities are either powerless or unwilling to slow down traffic and thereby save lives. 

We have no lack of “traffic calming” solutions, from narrowing or reducing traffic lanes, to using on-street parking, landscaping and other designs that make fast driving feel uncomfortable, to installing speed detection cameras and employing GPS technology. 

No, what’s lacking is the political will, and the public support, to adopt life-saving constrains on the autoAmerican “right” to drive fast. 

The other day I saw a corporate-owned fleet vehicle with a bumper sticker stating that the vehicle was being electronically monitored to ensure that its driver obeys the speed limit. Obviously the bumper sticker was meant to alert impatient motorists behind the fleet car that its driver wasn’t going to play ball.

Can you imagine the public outcry that would ensure if government adopted similar GPS technology to stop speeding? 

No, consider Lawtey a Scarlet Letter example of a town that tried to keep motorists from killing each other and ended up being nationally shamed for it. 

Because the truth is that we Americans have the need. The need for speed. No matter how many must die. 

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in The Sun on June 3, 2018.

Life and death in autoAmerica

The zebra ambled over and licked the salt off my handlebars.

The camels, aloof, looked the other way. And the springboks, oversized ears turning in unison like synchronized radar screens, dashed off in full flee mode.

I have no idea what manner of creature that was howling full-throat off in the distance.

And that’s the thing about cycling Florida’s back roads. You never know what you’re going to see next. Once I came across half of a built-to-scale brontosaurus – apparently destined to become Florida’s next roadside attraction.

On Mother’s Day, Jill and I cycled south out of Micanopy into the Marion County horse country on a rabbit warren network of rural roads defined by Spanish Moss-draped giant oaks, cracker barns, house trailers, multi-million dollar horse farms….and a private wildlife preserve.

It was a perfect day. The weather was fine. Traffic was light. Twice a man and a woman on a motorcycle cruised slowly past us, sharing the same scenery and peace of mind.

Later, back in Micanopy, we saw police cars diverting southbound traffic away from U.S. 441 where it intersects with CR 234. A badly dented car and a destroyed motorcycle blocked the road.

The man driving the motorcycle was dead, and his woman passenger critically injured. Maybe the same couple that had just shared our ramble through paradise.

Accidents happen. Even on Mother’s Day.

We call them accidents because it makes us all feel better – as though the inevitability of 40,000-traffic related deaths a year is simply the price we must collectively pay for personal freedom in autoAmerica.

But the truth is that, all too often, deadly accidents are the result of careless negligence bordering on the criminal – speeding, poor judgement, distracted, aggressive or impaired driving. That “king of the road” feeling you get when you’re tearing down the highway in your SUV, fiddling with the stereo, maybe sneaking a text message, impatient to get there and perhaps driving just a little too boldly because…you can.

Accidents happen.

And, really, you can’t blame us. We are sold vehicles that can travel at speeds far in excess of any posted limit. We enjoy wide, multi-laned “forgiving” roads specifically engineered to minimize our chances of dying when our hubris overrides our common sense.

Well, that’s not exactly true. “Forgiving” roads really only forgive people who are encased in automobiles. Scant mercy is spared pedestrians (6,000 dead in 2016), motorcyclists (5,000 killed) or cyclists (840).

By the way, isn’t it bloody ironic that we observe “Infrastructure Week” and “Ride Your Bike To Work Week” at the same time?

The former gives us occasion to berate our politicians for not building us even more lanes, that are wider still, more forgiving and pothole-free so we can to drive to work, school, the mall and home again as quickly as possible.

Even as we give once a year lip service to this notion that people ought to get out of their cars, get on their bikes and ride to work on roads that make anything but car-armored commuting a very risky business.

Listen, we don’t have to accept staggering body counts as a necessary trade-off for life in autoAmerica. We have the technology, the know-how and the wherewithal to end the slaughter.

In future columns I’ll talk about how we can save lives on our public roads…if only we have the will to do so.

But for now, I just wanted to tell you about the lovely Mother’s Day we had.

At least those of us who survived it.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun. This column was published in The Sun on Sunday, May 20.

Twisty trail through the timber

When I met Gene on the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway he was riding for his life. Literally.

The former Ohio coal miner turned corrections officer turned Florida retiree was slowly but surely pedaling away from the inevitable heart attack that would have almost surely put an end to his world.

At one point, he told me, he weighed in the neighborhood of 400 pounds. “I would lie in bed and gasp for breath,” he recalled.

Then he and his wife Jane, started to ride bicycles. First on the shorter Rainbow Springs Trail, and then on the recently paved 15-mile section of the Cross Florida Greenway that runs east to west from U.S. 441, just south of Ocala, to SR 200, not far east of Dunnellon

Nothing dramatic. Just a few miles here. Five miles there. But his miles on wheels have begun to add up to a life-changing experience for Gene. He’s already dropped considerable weight, “and I still have a long way to go.”

When I passed him Gene was doggedly making his way up one of the greenway’s modest hills. “When I can’t go up any more I just get off my bike and push it the rest of the way,” he said. Pushing or pedaling, he’s still getting the exercise.

Gene was hardly alone on the trail on this spring-like Wednesday. There was also a young mom and her daughter riding in tandem, both singing at the top of their lungs. And a bunch of guys putting about a dozen horses through their trotting routines. A man on a recumbent sporting a Navy jersey. Couples on hybrids, and hikers clad in kakis and broad brimmed hats, and joggers….

It’s fair to say that in just the few months that the paved portion of the Cross Florida Greenway Trail has been open, it’s gained quite a following. And for good reason.

This is easily one of the most scenic and fun to ride trails in Florida. Scenic because it runs almost entirely through oak-and-piney wood forests, – rather like riding in Endor – occasionally broken up by palmetto scrub lands. And fun because, well, unlike most of the state’s paved multi-use trails, this one is not a rail-trail.

That’s an important distinction because rail-trails tend to be straight, point-to-point affairs that seldom vary in course and direction. And why would they? The railroad tracks they replaced were also built on the straight and narrow.

But this a nicely engineered trail that winds its way through the trees in near serendipitous fashion  – call it curvaceous, twisty and serpentine as the mood strikes (Here’s a Ride with GPS link: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/22932797).

Oh, and those modest hills? Sometimes you hardly notice the long, gradually upward sloping slogs until you start to wonder whether you’ve got a flat tire. How else to explain why you’re suddenly moving so slowly and breathing so heavily?

And then the next thing you know, you’re suddenly gaining momentum. Then you glance at the computer on your handlebars and see it’s nudging 30 mph.

Yeah, a fun trail to ride, both for the uphill slogs and the downhill runs.

And in the few instances where the trail encounters major roads, it dips down into bypassing tunnels, so crossing traffic is not a problem. The exception is when you cross over I-75 on the greenway’s nicely landscaped “Land Bridge.”

Oh yeah, and the trailhead at Santos park, just off U.S. 441, has ample parking, rest rooms, picnic tables and camping facilities.

The Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway has been around for years, and has long been a favorite destination for hikers, equestrians, mountain bikers and others who don’t necessarily require asphalt to negotiate the landscape. The addition of this 15-mile section of trail opens the greenway up to cyclists, casual pedestrians, runners and families that need something more than dirt foot paths to get around.

If you haven’t ridden this trail yet you should. It’s a twisty trip through the tall timber.

Discover The Loop

Listen, I want to tell you about the prettiest mile in Florida. 

Seriously, you can trust me on this, because I’m a trained observer. But don’t go blabbing it to everybody, because it’s still one of Florida’s best kept secrets.

It starts on High Bridge Road, just off U.S. A1A south of the Volusia County line and about half a dozen miles south of Flagler Beach. You can leave your car in the parking lot at North Peninsular State Park east of the bridge and hop on your bike. (Sure, you can drive The Loop, but why would you want to?). 

First you cross the low, aging drawbridge (a charming  infrastructural relic of the last century) where it spans the Halifax River. And suddenly you are on a two-lane road lined with tall, wind-bent palm trees and shady spreading oaks. 

To your left the road follows Bulow Creek, a primeval Florida marsh alive with all manner of water fowl, flitting things abuzz in the air and swamp critters of wondrous variety.  Soon the road begins to twist and turn, and you’d almost swear you’ve pedaled into a jungle. If not for the narrow strip of asphalt under your wheels, you might think you’d slipped back in time to an age when the only way to navigate this kind of terrain was afoot or apaddle. 

And here’s the really amazing thing about this short stretch of paradise: It’s just part and parcel of The Loop, a 24-mile elongated route that runs up one side of the Halifax and back down the other between HIghbridge and the Grenada Bridge, in Ormond Beach. 

I’ve cycled The Loop many times, as recently as just a couple of weeks ago, and it never fails to inspire. Plus, I keep discovering new things about it that I hadn’t noticed before. Its got miles of oak canopy – a veritable tree tunnel. Its bridges cross savannas and winding creeks that reveal epic views of water and sky.

And it’s not all about nature. Ride south from Highbridge to Ormond on John Anderson Dr. and you’ll get a serious case of house (waterfront mansion?) envy? Cross the Grenada heading west and duck into Bailey Riverbridge Gardens, under the bridge on the western side, and you can take a stroll on an impressive boardwalk that juts out into the Intercoastal. Or visit the delightful, morbidly named James Ormond Tomb Park, site of an old cotton and indigo plantation, and search out the ancient tree. Or maybe stop off at Tomoka State Park and look at the absurd wooden statue of the legendary chief who never was. And don’t forget the Dummett Sugar Mill Ruins, or follow the Woodham Trail. 

And if you’re an especially ambitious cyclists, you can extend your ride several miles by heading north on John Anderson to Flagler Beach (I recommend the roof deck of the Golden Lion for lunch) and then head south again on A1A past Gamble Rogers State Park. Among other things you’ll have about six miles of spectacular, uninterrupted Atlantic Ocean vistas to hold your attention on the way back to Highbridge. (if you’ve got a Ride With GPS account you can access this extended route by clicking on (https://ridewithgps.com/routes/27381323).

I keep telling people that there’s so much more to our little peninsula than just Disney and South Beach. Case in point: The Loop is a different Florida  entire.

(Feature photo by John Moran courtesy of Bike Florida.)STJR2C.069-2

Don’t Raise The Bridge, Lower The River

My latest column in the Gainesville Sun:

University cities are laboratories for urbanism. And we can learn as much from their failures as successes.

So what can we learn from the bridge that fell and the little Uber that couldn’t?

First the bridge:

Last month a concrete span intended to get pedestrians safely across Miami’s busy SW 8th Street to Florida International University collapsed while undergoing “accelerated” construction. Six people died.

That $14 million structure was built because, in recent years, SW 8th had seen more than 2,200 crashes and 12 fatalities. And it was going up at a faster than usual pace so as to minimize traffic delays.

But, really, was the bridge designed to be a life saver or just one more car expediter?

Pedestrian bridges “are not really about providing safety..,” Victor Dover, a Coral Gables-based town planning consultant, writes in Miami Community Newspapers. Rather this bridge’s purpose was to “reduce the pesky crosswalks and speed up traffic, to minimize signal phases when motorists would have to wait for people to cross on foot.” It did “nothing to solve the situation at ground level at all the multiple other crossing locations where pedestrians are being killed.” (Check this City Lab conception of a more rational approach to traffic taming.)

If Dover’s name rings a bell it may be because, some years ago, his firm proposed a controversial redesign of University Avenue with the objective of “calming” traffic (narrower traffic lanes, wider sidewalks, etc) so as to make Gainesville’s main east-west car expediter more business and people friendly.

You can probably still find that study in some round file down at city hall.

Oh, and about Uber’s renegade robo-car:

Three days after the bridge fell, an Uber autonomous vehicle (AV) hit and killed a woman who was wheeling her bike across the street in the Arizona State University city of Tempe. Neither the car’s anti-collision system nor the presence of a just-in-case driver on board worked as expected.

The “accident” scene: Six wide traffic lanes 500 feet away from the nearest intersection.

Tempe police quickly blamed the victim for “coming out of nowhere” and thereby putting herself in harm’s way. And never mind that the AV was doing nearly 40 mph and likely couldn’t have stopped on time even if its programmed mind-of-its-own wanted to.

Forget posted speed limits and just consider the laws of physics.

If you are a pedestrian knocked down by a car doing 20 mph you have a 95 percent chance of surviving the encounter. If that car is doing 30, your chance of staying alive is a coin toss – about 50-50.

At 40 mph your chances of living are one in five.

The negative publicity of the Uber crash has, temporarily, put a halt to Arizona’s love affair with AV’s. And it may even help delay Gainesville’s pending deployment of our own robo-ride in the form of an autonomous mini-bus.

So what lessons might our university city learn from the bridge that fell and the little Uber that couldn’t?

First, the fact that two of Gainesville’s most pedestrian-hostile streets define the eastern and northern edges of its most pedestrian-rich environment (UF) shows just how horribly off-kilter our transportation/public safety priorities are.

And second, that neither expensive infrastructure “solutions,” like ped bridges, nor autonomous vehicles are likely to rescue us from the deadly consequences of our own traffic-first policies.

Dover describes Miami’s SW 8th St. as a “rushing river of cars.” Likewise University and 13th Street.

Gainesville: Don’t raise the bridge, lower the river.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

What fresh new hell is this?

I will be looking at 2017, my 69th year, with new eyes. Literally, thanks to laser surgery. But what to see now that the scales have fallen? The crumbling of our American democracy? The end of our American century? Overdue certainly. I used to joke that when I started out as an editorial writer I thought I could save the world. Now I’m just hoping that the really bad stuff won’t happen until after I’m dead. Let the kids sort it out.
I’m not a cynic….ok, so I am a cynic. But there are only two logical explanations for the chain of events that have brought us to the very eve of a Donald Trump presidency. 1. Widespread ignorance. 2. A culture of venality. Which raises an interesting if uncomfortable question indeed. Is it better to say that one lives in the United States of Ignorance? Or the Venal States of America? A Hobson’s choice any way you cut it.
In my lifetime, Apartheid fell, men stepped on the moon and the Iron Curtain came down. All things seemed possible. Ours was the generation that would change everything. “We can change the world, rearrange the world.”
Turns out we did. And with horrible consequences. I fear for my country in 2017. For my children.
Not all is gloom and doom. I live on a shining city on a hill, or on a creek in any event. I’m optimistic that Gville will find its own path in the coming year. Against all odds perhaps.
And what of me? Bike Florida is behind me. I’m still writing for The Sun, although for how long is anybody’s guess. I must find new outlets for my cynicism, surely. Hence resurrecting this long-dormant blog site. img_0279Let the Gator growl in 2017!