Day 13: St. Augustine, FL to Fort Clinch State Park - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

April 25, 2011

Day 13: St. Augustine, FL to Fort Clinch State Park

Rick and Pat highly recommended Casa Yallaha to me a few days ago. It's everything they said it would be. It's comfortable, there are a good bunch of guys staying here, and it's such a great place to hang out that I think about staying another day. But ultimately the pull of the road is too strong. There are more incredible experiences coming my way and I'm anxious to finish off the long haul up through Florida.

This man's home is literally his castle.
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In South Ponte Vedra I pull off to take a short break at a roadside beach park. Ten minutes later I see a young guy in a red and black jersey ride past on a dark silver bike with a couple of blue panniers, a tent, and a sleeping bag strapped to the back. It doesn't look like he's stopping, but a moment later I look up and he's walking his bike up the sandy walkway toward the covered area and the bench where I'm sitting.

His name's Stefan and he's about to finish a seven-week ride across the country. It's his last day on the road after starting in San Diego and riding east through California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. He's been hanging out in on the coast for a few days and is now on his way to the airport in Jacksonville to box up the bike and start a long series of flights back home to Switzerland.

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Stefan mostly had a great trip across the southern part of America, and he's got a great biker's beard to show for it, but the route threw him some challenges. He dodged angry dogs on the Apache reservation in Arizona, woke up to frozen water bottles and frost on the tent in the mountains of New Mexico, slogged over unexpected hills in Mississippi, had to get used to the long, lonely stretches of desert riding throughout the West, and fought constantly against the wind.

"I had a nice tailvind until I got to the Continental Divide," he explains with a modest German accent. "At first I vas thinking, 'Oh, this is so easy!' Then it vas a day with a headvind, and then two, and then five. But you get used to it."

The hardest part, he says, was being away from his girlfriend for two months. That's the biggest reason he's happy to be headed home. Six weeks from now I'll probably feel the same way.

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Later in the morning I hit the gated mansions and tree-lined streets of Ponte Vedra Beach. With its standards, rules, and homeowners association covenants, everything in the town is just so. Even the for-sale signs in front of the homes look exactly the same: a green post about three feet high, with a six-by-eight inch board attached, and the agent's name and contact information in basic green letters. In a ten mile stretch I see only three residents out around their homes, but more than a hundred of the people needed to support them—the housekeepers and nannies, the landscapers and pool cleaners, the electricians and bricklayers.

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This house is so big it needs six air conditioners.
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Just before Jacksonville Beach I see two fully loaded bikers headed the opposite direction. They're stopped on the side of the road in front of a fancy sports club, looking at their maps and asking directions from three confused girls in bikinis. I don't recognize the woman in front, but the guy behind her looks familiar. A moment later I realize it's Carl McDonald, whose name I recognize from Crazy Guy on a Bike. He and his sister Sallie started riding from their home in St. Augustine this morning. From there they'll head west as far as Mobile, Alabama before turning north and making their way to the Pacific Coast of Oregon. I might see them somewhere out west later this summer.

Everybody wants to talk today: the waitresses at the Mexican restaurant, the couple I meet outside the drugstore, and the local biker who rides alongside of me for three miles to learn about where I'm going, where I'm from, and how all of this bike touring madness works. I'm happy to answer all the questions. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to know that so many people are interested in the trip and will be rooting for me to make it all the way to Washington.

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As I wait in line to board the ferry at Mayport, the crew member in charge of boarding slowly walks over to me.

"You've been randomly selected for secondary security screening," he says. "Let me have a look inside one of those bags. How about that left one there, in the back?"

I undo the top strap of the pannier and he peeks inside for a second and a half.

"Hmm, I see. Looks like you've got some books, some clothes, that's about it."

I can't understand how he doesn't seem to notice the large, round, black plastic container with two shiny metal screws on top that takes up most of the space in the bag. It's a bear-proof canister that I use to protect my food from animals while I camp, but no one around here carries one. It's not something he would expect to see on a bike. Everything about it says hey, this is suspicious, open it up and take a closer look and make sure this guy isn't trying to blow up the boat.

"Alright," he tells me a moment later with a big, white smile. "You're good to go. Thank you!"

Well done.

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After the four-minute ferry ride I head north and over a bridge to Little Talbot Island. First I ride along the shore, where the incoming ocean and outgoing canals meet in a violent swirl of white caps and green-blue water, set against a backdrop of bright, tan-colored beaches. From there I turn inland and push past miles of untouched forests that partially shade the highway from the afternoon sun. There are plenty of parts in North Florida that make a punch in the balls seem fun, but it also manages to mix in some wonderful places like this.

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Early evening takes me by the golf courses, resorts, and spas of Amelia Island before giving me my last view of the Atlantic and dropping me into Fernandina Beach. I sit, write, and stink up an upscale coffee shop and watch as rich old white guys wearing tight jeans and white tennis shoes park their shiny, loud Harleys across the street, come inside, and then order espressos and complicated coffee drinks topped with whipped cream and a carefully placed swirl of chocolate syrup. They sit out front on fancy metal chairs and talk about their mortgages and tumor surgeries.

A quiet evening in Fernandina Beach.
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It's almost dark when I backtrack a few miles to Fort Clinch State Park. The rangers are locking the gatehouse as I pull up and ask them if there's a place to stay. They tell me that all of the camping sites are full.

"No, seriously," I say. "Is there any place open? I just want to stay for a night."

I ask again because park rangers seem to think that giving the sorry-we're-all-full line, even when there are plenty of spots available, is the most hilarious thing in the world. I hear this all the time. Only tonight they aren't kidding. It's the day after Easter and a lot of people are traveling for spring break, so this giant state park has exactly zero sites left. Eventually they decide I can stay in a spot that used to be set aside for camping, but now serves as a rocky parking lot for the adjacent bathrooms. It's a turd of a site.

I set up as quickly as I can, sweating uncontrollably even though the sun's been down for more than an hour. As people walk to the bathrooms to get ready for bed, I make plans to be on the road at first light.

Today's ride: 72 miles (116 km)
Total: 688 miles (1,107 km)

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