Ken and Gazelle had a sudden urge to hurt themselves and therefore decided to ride across the state of Florida on their mountain bikes. Gazelle had heard stories of the heroic deeds done by Ken and Craig on last year’s ATB Across Florida and he too wished to glorify himself. Always up for a stupid adventure and even though it was July in Florida, I joined their little bicycle party.
Once again we stayed the the Ocean Crest Motel in Ormond-by-the-Sea. The motel is nothing special but its rustic 1960’s charm is special in its own way. Our plan was to copy the route from last year but with some minor route changes around Dunnellon and some major route changes through the Ocala National Forest. In keeping with our tradition of trespassing and ignoring all public warnings to “stay out”, we still rode through the Relay Tract of Plum Creek Lumber.
The ride started with the usual breakfast at Alfie’s and then the ride up A1A until we cut to the west through North Peninsula State Park. Once at US1 and with just a bit of reconnaissance, we discovered a better way into the Relay Tract that did not require bushwhacking. Of course we had to ride through a farmer’s yard and jump a gate.
We worked hard in Relay since the dirt roads were very soft from all the rain Florida has had this summer. Wet sand is tough to ride but it is vastly superior to dry sand. By the time we got to the junction of SR40 and SR11, which is the start of the Heart Island Conservation Area, we were already out of water. I still had half a bottle but the blazing summer sun had made it too hot to drink without getting sick to my stomach. Oh well, only ten more miles until Barberville. We rested at the Heart Island entrance, ate a snack, and picked ticks off our legs. Fun, Fun!
We made it to Barberville without trouble and bought plenty of water, gatorade, snacks, etc. from a convenience store. Setting in the sand at the edge of the parking lot in the only piece of shade to be found, we watched the local trailer trash, touristic yankees, and smug cyclists go about their respective preparations for a weekend in the sun. We also debated whether trashy women with mostly uncovered and extremely large breasts where preferable to the stoic, uptight, and I would argue, very passionate type-A professional “angry-elf” women. I lost in a narrow 2-1 decision.
From Barberville we headed into the Lake George State Forest which we crossed easily and without much effort. Popping out at the St. John’s River Rd. we headed first to the south to visit the park at the end of the road that has a nice nature trail and a floating dock on the river. Then cycling back to the north we made our way into Astor where I had reserved a trailer at The Blackwater Inn. The trailer was fantastic. Well maintained and very comfortable, the Blackwater Inn and its adjacent restaurants are worth a stop.
As we rode out of town, we found a little restaurant open and decided to have a good breakfast before braving the sandy hell that is the Ocala National Forest.
This year we changed the route so we could explore some of the forest to the north of SR40 and visit the area around Juniper Spring Run. Our first exploration was done on Blue Creek Lodge Rd. We took this nice clay road to the north off of SR40 and then hooked up with NFS 571. Unfortunately, NFS 571 was impassable. It was nothing but soft, dry, fluffy sand. I walked a half mile up the road but it never got any better and we had to abandon that route. Next, we tried to ride the powerline that parallels SR40 and SR19 but after wasting lots of time and energy I had to admit the effort was not worth the result. The powerline was just too sandy. So we mostly stayed on SR40 and SR19.
When we reached Juniper Run on SR19, we had to take a break and enjoy this spring fed creek. Stripping down to our shorts we jumped in and reveled in the stream’s amazing coolness. Even though weekends turn this place into a crowded nightmare, we had the place to ourselves.
Just north of the Juniper Run is NFS 76A Which takes you back to Sweetwater spring where there is a nice family sized cabin that can be rented, if you are lucky enough to win the lottery that is used to select its next inhabitants. We rode in to check out a possible route into the Juniper Wilderness Area that might be accessible from the end of the road. However, we did not find a clear path and decided to not bother with a bushwhack this early in the morning. Instead we took NFS76 to the west and entered the Juniper Wilderness Area at a spot that reflected its “burned to the ground” best.
Oh, it was hot. The sun beaming on my head, the sun reflected from the white sand, no shade, and the Hiroshima-like husks of blackened tree trunks were sprawled out to the horizon. Ken and Gazelle seemed to manage the sandy hills without problem, but I was already starting to feel the heat and lagged behind, struggling over every hill.
Ken was being nice and came back to get me. He then noticed that the Juniper Run was only about a 1/4 mile to our south and that a quick dip in its cool waters might be nice. We called to Gazelle but he did not respond. He would later report that he heard us but was not about to ride back through sand and heat to see what we wanted. So, Ken and I hiked to the river and found a little spot with clean sand and laid out in the refreshing stream. Thankfully no alligators intruded on us and after about twenty minutes we headed back to the bikes and white hot sand box that is the Juniper Wilderness Area.
Once we hit the ponds that dot the Juniper Prairie, the plan was to continue west until we hit the next north/south road and take it to the north. However, NFS76 petered out at the ponds. It was still visible but was made impassable by fallen logs and brush. I’m sure it was destroyed in the big fire of ’96.
The backup plan was to follow the pond edges to the north until we ran across the Florida Trail. We did not have a map with the recent trail route and only guessed as to where we might find it. The going was very tough at first as we had to push our bikes through palmettos, brush, and the wet reeds around the pond edges. But, even though we managed to parallel the ponds, we never found the trail. Gazelle refused to walk with Ken and I because he did not want to hear us talking about how screwed we were. As we approached the north side of the last pond, I could see that the low area in which these ponds are located was rising back up to the level of the sand scrub. If we hit this scrub and did not find the trail then we would be forced to turn around because the thick underbrush was eight feet tall and completely impenetrable for the next four miles. Fortunately, the Florida Trail was waiting for us at the north end of this last pond.
We grimly road the trail to the north and after jumping over countless blown down trees we broke out onto FR10. Gazelle and I were totally beat down by the heat and tough trail. Ken was just worried that he was going to have to rescue us. Gazelle took a short break; I continued to stagger down FR10. We regrouped after eating a snack and drinking some of our disgustingly hot water and then continued down this good clay road until it hit FR65.
At this point the plan was to continue on FR10 through Hayes Island, which contains the champion Loblolly Bay tree. But FR10 did not look very good to the west of FR65 and I was hot and worried that I was not going to make it to a resupply point before dropping from a heat stroke. I suggested that we bail out and hit the easiest way out of this mess and find some cool water and gatorade. So we headed north on FR65 to FR86 (The Hopkin’s Prairie Road) and headed west to CR314. CR314 was still six mile away and we didn’t know where a store might be located once on it.
Ken and Gazelle seemed to be riding fine but I was dead and could barely turn the pedals up some of the hills. Once on CR314 we headed to the southwest with our eyes looking for a store. Ken stopped to ask some fisherman where the next store might be and they said a few miles down the road. But no sooner than we started going again, we saw what at first looked like a mirage or an antique gas station sign in someone’s yard. But once we got close it was obvious that it was a real, if not very run down, convenience store.
Once stopped, my abdomen and calf muscles immediately cramped up. I couldn’t even get up off the ground without major cramping and lots of pain. As I was flopped onto the dirty cracked pavement of the store, Ken and Gazelle heroically bought beverages and snacks, filled all the water bladders with ice water, and tended to my needs like the finest of nurses.
Finally, as the skies grew dark and the lightening started to flash, I was able to get off the ground and pick up my shoes, backpack , and bike. At this very moment the rain started to come in a torrential down pour. It felt marvelous!
Across the street we noticed a Baptist church with a covered porch and rocking chairs and headed over there to clean up, rehydrate, and enjoy the cool summer storm.
He could have fooled me but Gazelle claimed this ride through Ocala National Forest was one of the hardest physical challenges he has ever completed. I agreed. Ken was not even fazed. He is just too strong for us.
After cooling off, rehydrating, and eating everything in sight, we got back on the road and headed for the nearest motel. The original plan was to go to Ocala and find a motel but Gazelle was adamant that we get to a place to sleep immediately. So we headed to Silver Springs and booked a couple of rooms and life was good again.
After a good breakfast, we headed toward Ocala via the Marshall Swamp Trail.
Here are a few photos from the event. This year we had a 33% increase in the number of participants. In 2011 we may have to close registration early.