Don’t scare the horses

I’ll just say this and let the chips fall where they may.

Ron Cunningham is a liberal.

I know, you’re shocked. And appalled.

“But you told us you were a progressive, Cunningham.”

Yeah, that’s just something I say in polite company so as to not cause anybody vapors or scare the horses.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being, you know, the L-word. I hear they may even have a cure for it now over at Shands. A vaccine maybe. 

But I’m not taking the cure. I’m just going to stop humoring the absurd but carefully manufactured mythology that we liberals are aliens from outer space out to Destroy Civilization As We Know It. 

Truth is, most of us are perfectly reasonable carbon-based life forms. 

Oh, and don’t call me a socialist either. Not that there’s anything wrong with socialism. I’m just not all that social a guy.

Apropos of nothing at all, I see that Andrew Gillum (also not a socialist) is officially The Most Liberal Candidate Ever Nominated For Governor Of Florida. 

Everybody says so. Trump. DeSantis. Newspaper nabobs of negativity. 

How liberal is he? Gillum wants health care for all. He wants to crack down on gun violence. He wants us to stop turning our rivers gunk green and our seas dead red. He favors quality public schools. And he wants to tax corporations more to help pay for it all.

Gee, doesn’t sound so bad when you say it fast like that.

Anyway, it’s not just Gillum who’s finding his liberal voice in this Age of Trumpian Discontent. 

Heck, ole Willie Nelson himself is helping Democrat/liberal/socialist/progressive (choose one) Beto O’Rourke take away Ted Cruz’ U.S. Senate seat. 

“Beto embodies what is special about Texas, an energy and an integrity that is completely genuine,” Nelson said.

Sing it Willie. 

Admittedly some of his fans think this is, um, one toke over the line, even for a guy who never passed up a toke in his life. “Let me know when you come back from your bad acid trip” an ex-Red Headed Stranger groupie grumped…I mean tweeted.

But polls indicate that Beto’s got a fighting chance in red Texas, as does Gillum in red tide Florida. So maybe this whole idea of liberals being persona non grata in American politics is no longer being swallowed hook, line and sinker by the electorate. 

Not that the Republicans haven’t tried long and hard to shame us libs into shutting up and sitting down. They’ve done it for virtually my entire adult lifetime, and mostly it’s worked pretty well for them. 

It worked when they convinced voters that George McGovern – who had one of the most dangerous jobs in World War II, bomber pilot – was unAmerican…unlike Dick “I am not a crook” Nixon. It worked years later when they got another war hero, triple amputee Max Cleland, tossed out of the Senate to make room for a Georgia fried chicken king.

On the notion that losing two legs and a forearm to enemy fire does not a patriot make. 

But I’m not sure it’s working still. Some early election results this year indicate that voters are beginning to think that good government may actually require more than tossing rolls of paper towels at hurricane victims.  

So liberals of America unite! It’s time to be loud and proud. We have nothing to lose but the phony “libtard” rep that GOP shape-shifters have been furiously trying to graft onto us since the 1960s.  

Voters are wising up. Thanks, Donald. 

(Published in the Gainesville Sun, Sept. 23.)

The road left unpaved

“For nearly seven decades, our national transportation obsession has been about maximizing the amount that you can drive. We now need to focus on minimizing the amount you are forced to drive.”

That excerpt comes from Daniel Herriges’ terrific Strong Towns blog titled “A Texas-sized Paving Problem” which argues that not even the Lone Star State can continue to throw endless billions of dollars away in a fruitless effort to expand traffic capacity. “Forget about doubling the size of the system,” he writes, “$12.6 billion in 30 years, and none of it for maintenance of what you’ve already built? That way lies madness.”

Texas isn’t alone in its auto-American, car-centric madness. Florida loves new lane lines as well, and is experiencing its own brand of highway sticker shock. 

Here’s a column I wrote for the Gainesville Sun a few years ago that made a similar case:

While wandering the back roads between Palatka and Daytona Beach, I once took a serendipitous turn in Flagler County and ended up on a long sandy lane going nowhere.

Well, there are lots of unpaved roads in Florida, but this one was remarkable for the thousands of red bricks that ran down its center – most of them long obscured by dirt but many still exposed – for the space of about 9 miles.

That’s a lot of bricks.

Turns out that the old brick road was part of the original Dixie Highway out of Jacksonville. Built around 1915 it was nicknamed “Tin Can Alley” for the cheap trailers that tourists once hauled down to Florida behind their Model Ts.

For whatever reason, that stretch of Tin Can Alley never got an asphalt upgrade. It was just forgotten.

Letting roads revert to the wild may seem like an unnatural act in AutoAmerica. But some roads really aren’t worth the upkeep.

And that may be especially true in an era when politicians are afraid to raise gas taxes and taxpayers won’t cover their driving tab in other ways – witness the repeated, emphatic, rejection of a sales tax for road maintenance here in Alachua County.

This is leading to some interesting bookkeeping contortions to try to pay for the care and feeding of roads.

For instance, if Congress continues to renew the nation’s insolvent Highway Trust Fund – and that’s far from certain – it will likely opt to finance it with government IOUs for fear of nudging up a gas tax that hasn’t been raised since 1994.

In any case, even if Congress did raise the gas tax it would surely be a temporary “fix.” Several trends – the rise of electric vehicles, the shift away from suburbanization, the tendency among younger Americans to drive less, and killer apps like Uber – will inevitably conspire to lacerate the gasoline tax’s utility as a reliable user fee.

All of which brings me back to that old brick road to nowhere.

Ultimately, the cost of using the public roads will be paid, one way or another. But perhaps the political inertia over how to finance our transportation system will force us to confront the question of whether we’re already paying for more roads than we need.

Paul Trombino, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, acknowledged as much at a recent Urban Land Institute seminar when he said “the reality is, the system is going to shrink.”

“I said this a lot in my conversation when we were talking about fuel tax increases,” Trombino reportedly said. “We’re not going to pay to rebuild that entire system. And my personal belief is that the entire system is unneeded.”

He continued, “let’s not let the system degrade and then we’re left with sorta whatever’s left. Let’s try to make a conscious choice..it’s going to be complex and messy, but let’s figure out which ones we really want to keep.”

The truth is that too often roads are built for the wrong reason – to enrich land speculators and enable sprawl development that guts cities, incentivizes suburban flight, creates congestion and ultimately obliges taxpayers to subsidize poorly planned growth in countless ways.

Moreover, there is mounting evidence that transportation agencies routinely exaggerate the need for new and expanded road systems. A 2014 Federal Highway Administration report to Congress indicates that the U.S. Department of Transportation has been overestimating how much Americans will drive – and hence, how many lane miles of road they will need – since at least 1998.

“The road goes on forever,” the Allman Brothers once assured us. But even in AutoAmerica it may make political and fiscal sense to let at least some of ’em go the way of that old brick road to nowhere that used to be Tin Can Alley. 

 

 

 

 

 

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.)

Anastasia is a magical place

There is a full moon hanging in a cloudless sky, and it scatters diamond flashes across the surface of the salt run.

A relentless wind sends rows of white surf exploding onto the beach. But beneath the tree canopy – long ago sculpted by the elements into a natural windfoil – a lively fire in an iron ring barely yields to that offshore force of nature.

Across the inlet a long, tall bridge is aglow from stem to stern. And nearer still the old lighthouse continues to beam welcome home signals to nautical wanderers.

On this enchanted night I am reminded of the sheer wonder in the eyes of my children on a similar evening, some two decades past, when we ventured out onto this dark beach and discovered they could create swirls of phosphorous light simply by running their small fingers across the wet sand.

At this magical Florida place of light and shadow and surf.

It’s not just that Anastasia State Park is my favorite place in all of Florida to camp. It’s my favorite campground period. My family has been coming here for more than 30 years. My children grew up here – whooping along its rabbit warren of wooded trails like little savages, exploring amid the dunes, splashing in the surf and sleeping under weather-gnarled trees all a-draped with Spanish moss.

Indeed, spring break camping at Anastasia was an annual event from the time Jenny and Andrew could toddle until well into their teens. Usually it was a dads and kids only affair that eventually came to involve multiple families. We dads had two hard and fast rules: 1. You had to come back with as many kids as you left with and, 2. Extra points if they were the same kids. They played hard into the night and awoke in the morning to the smell of bacon frying. Bleary eyed, they’d stagger out of their tents, one after another, to snag rashers right off the grill.

I don’t care if you’ve been to St. Augustine a thousand times. If you haven’t been to Anastasia you really don’t know the allure of America’s Oldest City. This is where the Tumucuans, to their ultimate misfortune, encountered the Spanish. It is here that laborers quarried the coquina that fashioned the massive fortress Castillo de San Marcos just across the water.

Anastasia State Park is 1,600 acres of woods and estuary and sand. It is four miles of open beach, off limits to cars thank you very much. It is a long narrow salt run – a warm, shallow lagoon protected from the ocean by a dune barrier – home to an impressive variety of shore birds and popular with wind surfers, kayakers, paddle-boarders and fishers. It is 139 campsites – some large enough to accommodate RVs – strewn among tree thickets and sited so close to the ocean that you go to sleep and wake up again to the sound of the surf. It is home to the endangered Anastasia Beach Mouse and bands of four-legged night scavengers that will steal you blind if you don’t lock your food away.

And maybe the best thing about Anastasia is its proximity to so much that St. Augustine has to offer. Just outside the main entrance is the old Anastasia Lighthouse. Climb its 219 steps and you will be 165 feet above sea level with 360 degree views to die for. Right across the street is the St. Augustine Alligator Farm – not just another Florida roadside attraction and not nearly as tacky as it might sound. It’s quite fascinating, really.

If you decide to go see Steely Dan or Jackson Browne or another favorite band from your youth at the St. Augustine Amphitheater you can’t pick a more convenient place to spend the night – the park is right next door and has a path that gives campers direct access to the show.

From Anastasia it is a 15-minute bike ride to the Bridge of Lions and all that Old Town has to offer. A 20 minute ride through a back exit gate will get you to the restaurants and attractions on St. Augustine Beach. If you are feeling ambitious continue pedaling south and you will sooner or later arrive at Fort Matanzas National Monument, Marineland and Washington Oaks State Park. Or head north through the city and over the Vilano Bridge to get to Caps on the Water, Guana River Nature Preserve and Ponte Vedra Beach. If you are too hungry to wait that long, there are several great restaurants closer to the park, including the Gypsy Cab Co., Mellow Mushroom, O’Steens and The Conch House.

But here’s the thing about Anastasia State Park. Once you actually arrive and set up your tent, the temptation to stay – to not go anywhere – is enticing. You can lose yourself and all track of time amid the dunes and under the trees and by the fire and on the trails and along the beach and in the surf and the salt run.

If you value sense of place, Anastasia is one of those special Florida places that lures you in and only reluctantly lets you go.

(I originally wrote this for publication in Gainesville Magazine in 2016.)Unknown-1

 

 

 

 

 

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)

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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.