Friday, August 26, 2011

Ride of My Life



It has been said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity. Since I am not a genius, I could only be considered insane, particularly when I made my decision to ride from Miami to the Florida Keys and back again. But it's not so much insanity that led me to do this as it was a combination of curiosity, fear of boredom, willing ignorance, and overall questionable judgment.

I had planned a week long stay in Miami as part of my ongoing quest to see more of the South and also to visit Rachel, an estranged friend from high school, who lives in a very fashionable section of the South Beach neighborhood. Not being a city slicker and having just come from visiting New York City, I had a small concern that I would exhaust my days in Miami with endless urbanism if I spent the entire week there. So I decided it would be a great opportunity to explore the Florida Keys, which for some odd reason, conjured up absurd, adolescent-like imagery of quasi-deserted islands and pirate ships. Driving there sounded boring without my dog, so naturally, I decided that if the stars aligned, I would cycle there.

My preparation for this task was shamefully inadequate. An avid bike rider, I typically ride ten miles to work and back 5 days a week, and at most 30 miles on the weekend. Due to the summer flash floods in New Orleans for the past two months, I had little opportunity to go on any sort of substantial training rides. And, while I had stuffed a couple of 30 mile rides during a visit in California, these seemed to have little effect when I eventually made it to Miami.

Miami. Oh you beautiful, white-sand beaches dotted with perfectly-tanned, bulbously body-conscious creatures clad in bikinis and speedos, very few of whom break a sweat in your all-white outfits! You pastel-colored thing, you! You shiny-car-filled streets you! You 95 degree F and 71% humidity thing you! You hot, sticky mess!

There are many, oh so many reasons why I see little more than cruiser bikes roaming amongst sparkling Mini Coopers and Mercedes on these Miami streets.

But dear reader, that is not the impression I was lead to believe in my 2 hour internet research. I read of a "bike-friendly" Florida, of an off-street Overseas Heritage Pedestrian/Cycle Trail spanning the length of the Keys, of a Overseas Highway 1 upon which cyclists were permitted and even "common," of a very flat land hosting hundreds of cyclists interested in serious distance riding. And a serious bike shop in South Beach, with serious Canondale road bikes for rent to born-again, neophyte distance cyclists such as myself. I swear to you this was the case. And unlike 90% of my little nature sojourns in my former home-state of Alaska, the entire route the bike trails in Florida run parallel to street traffic; there is no risk of being stranded in the middle of nowhere with no one to help you; For crying out loud, there are ATM's and running water everywhere.

So how bad could it be?

It didn't take long after launching from Rachel's apartment in South Beach for me to start second-guessing myself. I had lost the path laid out for me by the guy at the bike shop, and added at least an hour or two turning around, taking the long way, etc. Because of my meandering, my speed varied from 17 mph to 8 mph. Nothing about the journey could have been considered steady.

I cannot recall precisely when doubt first crept in. Perhaps it was when the bike lock and small travel sack I poorly bungied to my bike rack, fell off, only for the bungie chord to tangle itself around the bike gears, a mere 15 miles from my departure point in South Beach. Or was it the big-rig trucks careening by me at speeds of 50 miles an hour in Coconut Grove on Highway 1, long after I had lost the trail of smaller, safer bike paths. Or maybe it was the 92 degrees, my sweat sticking to me like gel in the Florida humidity. Or maybe just the fact that I've never ridden a serious road bike before, with its fancy bi-directional gear shifters, its super sensitive brakes, its paper thin tires which make sure I feel every crevice of the road with a vibration or jerk to the saddle area.

It was a mere hour into my ride when I found myself adjusting my bike for the third time on the side of the road, stuck in my first Floridian flash flood screaming to myself, "What a dumbass I am!!!!! What is wrong with me?!!!" And silently, Maybe my family is right, maybe I just need to find a nice guy and settle the f*&k down.

But it was too late for that. What was I going to do? Return to Miami and go clubbing every night?

The obvious answer was instead to ride 55 more miles that day, and possibly the next and 70 miles home again the day after. Having lost the route set out for me my by trusty bike guys at the shop, I eventually get back on track and ride for over 20 miles on peaceful Old Cutler Road, which meanders through one of the countless wealthy suburbs of Miami. I am gratefully on a designated bike path at this point, parallel to but separated from the road by a narrow greenbelt. I am not a religious person but then and there, finally on a path separated from big rigs and luxury vehicles whizzing by me at frightful speeds, I thanked the good Lord above.

The scenery itself on Old Cutler Road quickly exhausted itself. Miles after miles of gigantic mansions, I begin to question if local house painters even bother to carry anything other than pale earth tones or pastels. It is a curious uniformity amongst an economic class clearly able financially to distinguish their houses from one another.

Alas, I was wrong to be so ungrateful; from Old Cutler Road my choices were to get back on Highway 1, or find the Florida Turnpike, which the bike guy marked on the map as bike-friendly. "Actually, there is a large shoulder on the Florida Turnpike, and for a long part there is no shoulder on Highway 1." The results of my internet research were consistent with his opinion regarding both the Turnpike and Highway 1.

But I did not initially find Turnpike so Highway 1 it was, with all of its truckers big and small, zooming right by me. I follow the separate bus route for some time, get on and off sidewalks, and feel frustration at the stress level created by traffic typical on an 8 lane highway.

Finally I find the Turnpike, and roll on it for a bit, possibly 45 minutes when it ends, forcing me to re-enter dreaded Highway 1. Then I see an exit for Card Sound Road, another alternative to Highway 1, but an extra 7 miles longer of a route. Screw it. One mile of Highway 1 feels like seven miles on a normal road anyhow, the difference more than breaks even.

Through a large expanse of swamp the two-lane road was surrounded on either side by expanses of tall, swampy greens, slow-moving water, and short trees. I am unprotected from the unwavering Florida sun and stop almost every 15 minutes for an hour to swig down some more Gatorade. The temperature increases upwards from 92 degrees and it feels like I am standing next to a car engine the entire 11 mile ride. It feels like what I imagine the Greeks were describing when they created the concept of Hades.

At 5'6", 145 lbs and size six, I am reasonably fit (most of my weight in my bulging bicepts of course). A former ice climber, current aspiring boxer, bike commuter, I am no stranger to physical activity. But on that leg of the Card Sound Road, after stopping repeatedly to fill the tank with more Gatorade, my body felt so pathetic, so powerless. I can't remember which stop it was when I questioned myself honestly and seriously whether I was really going to make this happen, or whether I was gonna perch next to the canondale and stick my thumb in the air, leaving fate to the kindness of passersby.

Eleven miles later on the Card Sound Road, and by the time I make it to Alabama Jacks, the last bar before entering the final 8 mile stretch to the Keys, I have consumed two liters of Gatorade, yet am still parched. My face must have spoken a thousand words. Either that or the sweat pouring from each pore in my body.

"Can I get you anything miss?" Says the server setting up bar stools and chairs peering at me curiously.
"Um, yeah." I say looking at the two liters of water still attached to my bike. I have the urge for more sugar and I am out of Gatorade. "I'd like a large Coke."
"Sure, I can do that. You wanna sit down? Where'd you ride from?"
"South Beach."
"What?! Did you say South Beach?"
I nod while simultaneously guzzling the first Coke, then another.
"Hey guys, this lady rode from South Beach!!!" A universal turning of lethargic heads ensued.
That seemed like my cue to keep riding.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that my knees were shaking at the sight of Card Sound Bridge into the Keys. Elevating 65 feet over a distance probably less than a quarter mile, it looked like a road to nowhere. But, as one of the two entry points into the Keys, the other being via the dreaded 1, Card Sound Bridge was the unavoidable next leg of my journey.


But riding Card Sound Bridge was also my reward for my journey of over 60 miles thus far. From 65 feet above water, the bridge, and I on my bike, then descend full-speed at 20 mph into the Crocodile Lake Wildlife Refuge. A breeze billows against my overheated mess of a body as I take in the lush greenery. After another 8 miles through foliage on either side of the road, with very little traffic, I am at ease, despite the heat, despite the humidity. It is lovely, and unlike other rides I've been on in my life, I have no fear that bears or moose will be popping out of the wilderness. Rather, I ride around fishermen staring at brackish water, and pullouts where tourists are searching for crocodiles. Stretches of road with nothing more than tall reeds and swampy greenery on either side of me.


And then, after another 8 miles, I see, what appear to me at that moment to be the most beautiful words in the English language. "Welcome to Key Largo." I made it.

Passing through a slew of chain hotels, I stop at the Amoray Dive Resort, which is more like a motel, sitting on the waterfront. I check in, and beeline for the shower. My chest is dotted with dead bugs as must ever car windshield that has driven from Miami. Bike grease from the chain stains my legs and traces remain even after vigorous scrubbing with a soapy towel. I wash my microfiber cycling shorts and tank top in the sink and the sink water immediately turns an opaque, murky greenish brown. I toss on my travel dress and walk to Captain Jack's, a nearby bar, for nourishment. I am not hungry, but as a duty to my body I order a plate of three enchiladas and a large side of rice.

"Where you visiting from?" Asks the bartender. I tell him my story briefly in between huge gulps of Coke. I order a beer. And he is amazed that I have just ridden a bike the distance he drives on a daily basis to work, which takes him over an hour each way. Without prompting, he delivers an extra huge plate of rice, and apologizes that the restaurant has no bananas. He calls a friend to learn that avocados are the next best thing for potatassium, and sends me home with a bag full of avocados. The cooks come out of the kitchen to catch a glimpse of me.

"I'm sorry if I'm looking at you strangely, but you look a lot like my sister," he says.

I smile in response, cheeks full of food. I can tell he is young, half-Asian, and not terrible to look at. I pay him and on my five minute walk back to the hotel, I realize that he has not charged me for the beer, the huge plate of rice, the avocados, or the four tumblers of Coke. Right then I also realize how beautiful it is here in Key Largo on this evening.


In my room, the air-conditioning is blasting, I strip down to a tank top, turn on the cable tv, and lie on the bed airing my poor, abused saddle area. Somewhere outside my room, beyond the tropical-themed pink and green curtains, I can hear the faint sound of Jimmy Buffet playing from a car stereo, when I finally doze off to sleep.

The next day I have every intention of riding another 40-70 miles down the Keys. I finish breakfast only to find my body breaking out into sweats in the air-conditioned diner, and my stomach turning and churning like a hurricane. My head becomes light. The thought of mounting my trusty steed sends me into a panic, so I return to my bed for a nap.

Upon waking up hours later, I come to terms with exactly what I have done to myself, and my body. I opt instead to putz around Key Largo like a normal American tourist.

Originally named Rock Harbor, it was renamed Key Largo following the release of the Hollywood classic starring Humphrey Bogart. Except for some backdrop shots, no part of the movie was filmed on-site, but that doesn't obstruct the natives from marketing this relationship with Bogey. I wander into the Club Caribbean which (probably mis-leadingly) touts itself as a site for the movie on a large billboard facing the highway. There is a life-size statue of Bogey himself. At the Holiday Inn down the road I catch a glimpse of the original boat used in the Bogey movie African Queen, which has no relation to Key Largo except that its former owner had a vacation home on the island at some point in time.


To my surprise, there are no white-sand beaches. Rather, Key Largo, as a remnant of a reef, is rocky, and more nautical than beach-bum in style. The loci of numerous shipwrecks, it is a haven for scuba-divers. Key Largo, like many of the Keys, is dotted by untold numbers of vacation homes and villas, many of which own exclusive access to the waterfront, and I am riding and walking for miles before I can soak in a picture of the beach.

It is only when I grab one of the free kayaks at my hotel that I experience a bit of that famed Key Largo nautical serenity.



The next day I ride as far as the next two keys, to Islamorada, where I take frequent breaks to steal precious peeks of the ocean between luxury villas. I also visit to a Bird Rehabilitation Center where I am surrounded by both caged and uncaged local birds of all sorts in various stages of their recovery. I walk amongst pelicans who look at me with disinterest as they preen on the glassy water.



That night, when I am preparing to ride back to Miami the next day, a storm begins to howl and lightning strikes. I begin to panic. My smartphone tells me the forecast for the next day is no kinder. What shall I do? Shall I book a shuttle back to Miami for a hundred dollars? Do I search for the kind bartender and flirt a ride back to the mainland?

At this point I recall passages from my friend Jill Homer's book Ghost Trails, about her ride through wintery Alaska along a few hundred miles of the virtually deserted Iditatorod Trail. There are points during her ride, hundreds of miles away from humanity that she endures a blizzard, with serious risk of survival.

There I am, reclined on the hotel bed, cable tv on, staring at the pink parrots on the green curtains, experiencing what I imagine her fear was during that blizzard. I am going to be stuck, stranded in this strange faraway place? This purgatory of Jimmy Buffet, forever searching for that lost shaker of salt?

When I wake up the next morning the sun is shining brightly without a cloud in the sky. I haul butt and pack up. I swallow four bananas and two bowls of cereal for breakfast, washing it down with Gatorade.

I book through Card Sound Road, over the bridge of seeming treachery, through the rest of Card Sound Road. It is scorchingly hot and I am fantasizing about jumping into Rachel's pool back in South Beach. I hop onto Florida's Turnpike when it begins to cloud up and rain. On the other side of the turnpike are two fire trucks for no apparent reason, who chastise me on their bullhorn to get off the turnpike. (Upon my return I find out that (1) my original research appears to be accurate that bikes are allowed on the Florida Turnpike (Section 316.091(2) and (4), F.S.), and (2) from a gentleman firefighter friend I also learn that his kind are not in fact allowed to direct traffic. So there.)

I hop back on the 1, and find the route I couldn't quite navigate on my way down, take Old Cutler Road back through the wealthy suburbs, Ingram and Main Highway and have a pleasant ride through the once historic shopping district of Coconut Grove, and it looks like I will be able to shave off 1.5 hours from my previous time.

And that of course, is when the rain really starts to pick up. I am riding a foot deep through water accumulating on the trail and sidewalks. By the time I am in downtown Miami, 5 miles from my friend's white marble floored apartment in South Beach, winds have picked up and palm trees are deeply bowing. I look to the left of me to watch the wind push road blocks to walk towards me like characters from a Star Wars movie. I maneuver quickly before they have a chance to knock me over, only to nearly miss being clipped by a BMW with the same fear.

At that I relent, pulling into the cover of a plaza with tables and chairs outside a sophisticated high-rise. I laugh hilariously, giving in to the bike gods who have toyed with my fate for the past four days. I wait there for over an hour, drenched to the bone and shivering, praying the rain will stop. I call a taxi with no realistic shot at seeing it before I start shivering. Where I once fantasized about a jump in Rachel's pool and a cold shower, I am now having stronger fantasies of a hot shower and a warm meal. On this day my body has been through every temperature and condition imaginable, from sweating to shivering, high energy to barely movable. I am worried about my ability to maneuver a bike in the rain, my muscles overworked, my body trembling, my spirits annoyed and desperate to be in dry clothes indoors.

But the wind and rain stop their teasing, and the taxi continues to stand me up. I remount my horse, and roll slowly through the rest of downtown, over the charming Venetian Causeway, through the half dozen or so man-made islands with charming luxury homes, back into South Beach. I am drenched and the security guards at Rachel's apartment give me a quick judgmental look over. I know what they are going to say and I nip it in the bud.

"I'm sorry, but this is a very nice road bike, and I won't keep it outside with the others. I have just ridden back from Key Largo."

They usher me to the service elevator, and lean it against the wall in Rachel's apartment. I look down at the distance counter and read 188 miles roundtrip. Finally, finally I am able to stop, shower, and collapse.

There is an old Chinese proverb that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I have on frequent numerous occasion done irrational, possibly stupid physical endeavors expecting something different at the end of the road. But I would argue that each of these small time adventures has in fact taught me something new, has lead me to a different place.

For instance, on this little challenge, I learned that I believe in Gatorade. I used to mock would-be athletes who would gulp it down after an hour of exercise. For crying out loud, the thing was developed for an NFL football team based in Florida. But what I was doing was my version of being an NFL football player, and in Florida I was. I couldn't suck that stuff down fast enough in the merciless heat after six-seven straight hours of exercise.

I learned that if one sweats enough, one can drink over 4 liters of fluid and pee only once in a seven hour span.

I learned how hard one can push the human body. Massively ill-prepared, but my general overall conditioning and level of health enabled me to extend my normal level of exercise by a matter of 6 or 7 hours. Other than some saddle soreness, with a concerted campaign of rehydration and food intake, I managed alright.

I also learned about real solitude. An avid fan of traveling alone, with a pack on your back and a hostel or low-budget hotel around every corner, I never really have in fact traveled "alone" per se, meeting all sorts of folk from all walks of life at any given moment during any one of my international sojourns. I was given the impression that this Florida Keys route would be chock full of cyclists such as myself, if not more techie. But in four days I saw only two cyclists with distance road bikes, both of whom gave me a fist of solidarity in passing. To ride a bike 188 miles alone is truly to experience exploration solo. Certainly I am grateful that there were numerous passersby who could help me if any real trouble had befallen me. At the same time, I appreciate the experience of having passed most of those four days seeing miles and miles of a world I had never been to, with only my thoughts and an ipod shuffle for company.

I would argue that these lessons, new to my small world, are reasons enough to distinguish me from the Chinese definition of insanity. Clearly, if I had to do it over, I would have done things a little differently. I would have trained more rigorously beforehand, and would have charted my course more carefully. I would have woken up earlier, eaten better. I would have found a way to Key Largo and then biked to Key West.

But I'll say it here and now, that I don't regret this little folly of mine. It was 188 miles of solitude, and it was the ride of my life.

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