Day 9: Titusville, FL to Cassadaga, FL - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

April 21, 2011

Day 9: Titusville, FL to Cassadaga, FL

I'm riding by 6:30, just before the sun comes up, with a mostly full moon still hanging off to my left in the purple-blue sky. It's a cool morning and a great time to be on the road. I pass through the most rural area I've seen since I started, alongside small houses on large pieces of land, farms and tractors, and a lot of pickup trucks. It's a different Florida. Not long after starting I join back up with Highway 1 and it takes me even farther out into the country. There aren't any strip malls, gas stations, high-rise condos, beach-front estates, or Lamborghinis this morning—just grass, trees in all shades of green, chirping crickets, calling birds, and the quiet buzz of two rubber bike tires turning easily along freshly laid blacktop.

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For the last eight days I've ridden almost entirely to the north, always within a few miles of the coast. At Oak Hill I turn left and head due west instead. The road is laser-straight with almost no cars and I ride in the shade of the palms and pines that sit 15 feet off of either side. The trees on the left stand tall and almost perfectly straight, while the ones on the right lean to one side and curve slightly over the road. I have no idea why, but together they shade the path almost completely. Chipmunks dive off the road and into the crunchy leaves that sit by its edge as I sing "Mr. November" by The National to no one in particular, beating out the drum solo on the handlebars. Florida is starting to redeem itself.

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I push farther west and the trees thin out. The road subtly winds past rivers that barely move, a few logging operations, and mile after mile of fenced land where every fourth sign post comes with a No Trespassing sign attached. It's hot and sticky and the mosquitoes are intense, leaving behind dozens of black spots on my legs and arms as they stick to the mixture of sweat and sunscreen. The sun's at my back and as long as I keep riding there's enough of a breeze to neutralize the heat. I hit Osteen by noon, where I dive into a diner and order a feast of the bike touring gods: pulled pork, mashed potatoes, gravy, buttered noodles, applesauce, an Oreo milkshake with four inches of fresh whipped cream on top, and a tall glass of ice-cold water.

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The world explodes with color in the bright, cloudless afternoon. The light gray pavement shines almost white in the direct sunlight, the lane markers and warning signs blaze a blinding yellow, and the greens of the trees and grass pop against a deep blue sky dotted with tiny patches of off-white clouds. Soon I'm in Deltona, passing through a long string of tidy neighborhoods. They look like they were planned and built all at once, but that was at least 30 years ago. Now they've all been repainted, remodeled, and added onto enough that there's a good bit of character—not the clean, inoffensive sameness I've seen so much of in the rest of the state. I wind through empty residential streets to avoid the traffic of the busier road, but the riding's still tough. The ground isn't flat and the first little rolling hills I've seen in the last 500 miles start to kick my ass in the heat.

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My head drips with sweat as I reach the Cassadaga Hotel, my home for the night. Built in 1927, it's a well-maintained building that stays true to its age with dark hardwood floors, leaded glass windows, and period furniture. A wide, attractive veranda lined with tables and wicker rocking chairs runs all the way down its western side. I walk into my room and find it modest but surprisingly stylish. A queen-sized bed with seven-foot tall posts at all corners takes up most of the space. Along the walls sit a couple of dressers, one of which has a large Buddha head statue sitting on top. I find the shower and toilet crammed in a bathroom barely bigger than a closet. It's so small that the sink and mirror have to be placed on the other side of the room, next to the door out to the veranda. It's very nice, but two things are obviously missing: a TV and a phone. That's because they negatively affect your ability to connect with the spirits.

The what?

The spirits. The Cassadaga Hotel is haunted, supposedly by hundreds of ghosts. The goofballs who care about these sort of things claim it acts as some kind or portal or vortex to the other side, and I'm here to find out if that's true. I'm ready to hear some strange noises, see doors close by themselves, catch a picture of a flashing orb, look out at the chairs on the veranda rocking on their own, and feel like I'm being watched as I sit in my room or walk down the dark and narrow hallway.

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As the sun makes its way down I step out of my room through the creaking screen door and sit in the first rocking chair I find. I've talked to so many people over the past few days that I'm looking for a quiet place to relax and decompress, to look through the pictures I've taken, and to catch up on my writing. This seems like the perfect spot to do it. But not even 45 seconds after I sit down, a guy my age wearing a yellow t-shirt and baggy jeans walks over, asks me where I'm from, and starts up a conversation. I'm the most popular person in America right now.

His name is Jeremiah. He's 27 years old and works as the hotel's maintenance guy. He lives here in a room two doors down from mine. He likes to smoke, he likes to drink, and he's doing both as we sit in the cool breeze under the roof of the veranda. His voice has the smallest touch of a southern accent, and he speaks with the slow pace of a guy who's toked more than he should have. We start out talking about football, but soon he tells me about his dogs.

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He has a blue-gray pit bull named Psycho that he keeps in a house near Sanford, about a half hour's drive from here. He bought the dog from its original owners about six months ago for $50, after watching it sit starving and neglected for several weeks in front of a home just down the street from his. Psycho took the place of his first pit bull, who died some time last year.

"She was short and she was fat," he says of his old dog. "Had hip problems, got so she couldn't walk no more, couldn't even get up the front stairs. It was real sad. The vet wanted $180 to put her down, 'cause of her size, and I was like 'Fuck no, I'll do it myself.' So I did."

People in Seattle don't do this kind of stuff, so I try to learn more.

"Where do you do something like that?" I ask.

"Just in the back yard, you know? Boom! Right in the back of the head."

I feel like I'm in the back of the cab in Key West again. I have no idea how to respond to any of this, so I just keep asking questions.

"So ... What do you, um ... So what do you do with the body?"

"Ya just bury it. I dug a hole, wrapped her in a blanket, put her in, filled it up, and put a cross on top. I cried like a baby."

He says it so matter-of-factly, like this happens all the time around here. Maybe it does.

Because Jeremiah works here, he's able to hook me up with cheese sticks at half price from the restaurant attached to the hotel. I eat them as he smokes and drinks a Natural Ice and we shoot the shit for another hour. He looks a bit like me, but his life is nothing like mine. I learn that he tends to push things too far, which has led to all sorts of fun outcomes, like his mom hitting him in the head with a skillet, his friend angrily poking him in the eye, a different friend threatening to push him out of a moving car, and a man down the street from his house promising to shoot Jeremiah if he ever sets foot on his property again. His arms have a healthy collection of scars and scrapes, including a couple of punctures from a recent dog attack. He says he wishes he had a sleeping pill, so I give him the one that's been smooshed into the bottom of my wallet since I left Key West.

He's had two beers, but by 7:30 he wants one more, so we get on our bikes to ride the mile down to the closest convenience store. He's on an old BMX bike with rusty bolts and worn out tires that have white threads showing all around the sidewalls. We're halfway there when I hear a crash and look behind me. He's on the ground, after his baggy jeans and cowboy boots somehow become caught up in the bike's pedals. He's angry and swears at his bike and his pants, but three seconds later he's up and he's fine.

We're a block up the road after leaving the store when Jeremiah stops in the middle of the lane. I can't figure out why. A moment later he fishes into his pocket, pulls out his beer, and shotguns it on the spot.

We sit in the same set of chairs back at the hotel. He's fading fast as the sleeping pill and three beers start to take effect. We don't talk as much.

"Those spirits better stop fuckin' with me," he says after a long bit of silence, with his eyelids heavy and his head hanging back a little bit.

"I'm gettin' sick of it. Every night I turn on my air conditionin', and every mornin' I get up and the heat's on. It's those spirits, man."

I decide now is a good time to tell him I'm tired and head back inside.

I get up, shake his hand, wish him all the best, and tell him that I hope everything works out for him. I really mean it.

Today's ride: 62 miles (100 km)
Total: 506 miles (814 km)

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