TRAVELS WITH TOBY – WEEK SEVEN: Three states in three days, the end is in sight

Friday, April 15, Day 35
Mandeville, Louisiana to Gulfport, Mississippi

After an absolutely beautiful rest day on Thursday, we pedaled out of Fontainebleau State Park on Friday morning via the Tammany Trace Bicycle Trail, giving us about 16 miles of traffic-free pedaling before the trail ended in Slidell, and we hopped on the shoulder of US 190 headed for the Mississippi state line at the Pearl River.

Toby Thorpe

The previous day, we had met a young cyclist named Curtis who was camping a few sites down from us. In the course of conversation we found out that he was also from North Carolina (Mooresville), he was also cycling from San Diego to St. Augustine and he was doing it solo and self-supported (carrying all his gear on his bike).

What’s more, he had left San Diego a few days later than us and had cycled 112 miles the previous day carrying 42 extra pounds of gear. He had about a 90-miler planned for the following day, while we were looking at a wimpy 67.

Oh, to be young again.

Earl McMahon, Mike Stanley, Toby Thorpe and Keith Holloway arrived in Mississippi. (Contributed)

After pedaling about 15 miles out of Slidell we saw a cyclist off the road ahead of us. As we drew closer, we recognized him as Curtis. He had popped a tire and just finished repairing it, and he asked if we minded if he tagged along with us. Of course, we agreed, expecting him to blow by us at warp speed any time, but he hung with us to our next rest stop, and continued with us to the state line before pedaling on. I invited him to come ride in the Tour de Frog Pond and the Tour de Elvis since he’s close by, so hopefully we will meet up again.

After crossing into Mississippi, we noticed that the roads, at least from a cycling standpoint, improved tremendously. All along the Gulf Coast the highways had wide and clean shoulders, most towns had marked bike lanes and bridges were designed to leave plenty of room for cyclists and motorists to co-exist. Kudos to MDOT for its foresight.

US 190 is unusual in that it runs right up the beach from Pass Christian all the way to Gulfport. It’s not like US 17 in Myrtle Beach, which is about a mile off the coastline…190 is literally on the beach, within a couple hundred feet of the water, and with no hotels, condos or dwellings in between. It’s also an extremely busy highway, so the wide shoulder and bike lanes were even more welcome there.
After a night in the RV, it would be time to check another state off the list.

Saturday, April 16, Day 36
Gulfport, Mississippi to Dauphin Island, Alabama

As we left Gulfport on the Saturday morning before Easter, we expected to be riding in the midst of heavy traffic while dodging beachgoers crossing the highway to the Gulf Shore sands.

Boy were we wrong. Evidently, Mississippi beachgoers are late risers. Even though it was a little past 8 a.m. when we pulled out, the beaches were fairly well deserted. Not only that, but traffic was very light along 190 all the way past Biloxi.

We departed the main highway for a little while at Ocean Springs, just east of Biloxi, and it was a treat. The downtown was tree-lined, creating a shady canopy on a warm morning, a farmers market at a pavilion just off downtown was bustling and featured something I’ve never seen at a farmers market — live music. I don’t know who the performer was, but she had attracted quite a few listeners, most of whom were carrying bags of fresh veggies.

Next stop from Ocean Springs was Pascagoula, possibly best known as the subject of a popular Ray Stevens song. While there for a rest break at Lighthouse Park, we learned a few things about the town:

● According to a Pascagoula Parks and Recreation volunteer, the Mississippi squirrel story popularized by Stevens is apparently based on a true life event that happened at the city’s First Baptist Church, just a couple blocks south of the park.

● Pascagoula is not a “sleepy little town” as Stevens referred to it in the song. In addition to being a port city, It is home to a massive shipbuilding operation which is the largest employer in Mississippi.

● One of the most publicized accounts of an apparent “alien abduction” occurred in the bay at Lighthouse Park some time ago when two fishermen apparently encountered some otherworldly beings, disappeared for a while and were later returned safe and sound. A historical marker in the park memorializes the event.

Earl McMahon, Toby Thorpe and Mike Stanley pose at the entrance to Alabama. (Contributed)

A few miles past Pascagoula, we put another state behind us as we rolled eastward into Alabama, and passed through a number of small towns on the way to our overnight stop near Dauphin Island. We would only spend about a day in Alabama, as our route took us through the narrow southwest portion of the state south of Mobile before heading into the final stage of our journey … pedaling across Florida.

Sunday, April 17, Day 37
Dauphin Island, Alabama to Pensacola, Florida

Each evening, following supper, our four-person crew would sit down in the RV and plan our route for the next day.

We used the Adventure Cycling Association map as a primary guide, but also referred often to posts from other cyclists who have done the route before us.

Our plans were to cycle to the Dauphin Island-Fort Morgan ferry on Easter morning, take the boat across the bay and resume pedaling on the west side of Mobile Bay, through Gulf Shores, and into Pensacola.

But, on this evening, we were a bit puzzled as to our options, thanks to conflicting information from the Alabama DOT.

We planned to have Keith ferry the RV across the bay with us. The ferry website stated that vehicles longer than 22 feet should call ahead to check for space. The ferry’s Facebook page stated that vehicles longer than 28 feet should do the same.

A phone call to the ferry office yielded a recording, stating “vehicles longer than 28 feet are prohibited.” So, we left a message asking for clarification but heard nothing until just before time to leave the next morning. The verdict was clear … our RV was too big. So Plan B went into effect … Keith would drive the RV north, through Mobile, and would meet us that evening in Pensacola. Earl, Mike and I would take the ferry and hopefully make it to Pensacola without any problems that would require a rescue.

As we pedaled south early on Easter morning toward Dauphin Island, I was impressed at the cleanliness and lack of commercialization in the town. Although one of the more popular destinations on the Gulf Coast, there were no high-rises, neon signs, or gaudy storefronts, and the natural landscaping in most areas was extremely attractive. This is what a beach town should look like.

Our ferry ride was interesting as well. We passed close to an oil rig in Mobile Bay, and could see many others in the distance. Forts on both sides of the bay dated back to the Civil War, and had been used to defend the bay then and in later wars.

We also learned that Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan are among the favorite places in the nation for those who enjoy birding, as many rare species can be found there.

Upon reaching Gulf Shores, I grew more thankful for beach towns that protect their appearance, as Dauphin Island apparently has. While high-rise hotels and rampant development surely bring in economic benefits, they also make the towns crowded, the traffic congested and the beachfront unnatural.

A little ways past Gulf Shores we reached a section called Flora-Bama, where we crossed our final state line.

We met a family who was visiting from Cincinnati, who were kind enough to take our photo at the sign.

Earl McMahon, Mike Stanley and Toby Thorpe made it to Florida with many more interesting tales to share. (Contributed)

Entering Pensacola, we immediately turned into Big Lagoon State Park, where we spent the evening hunkering down from one of the worst thunderstorms I can ever remember, complete with heavy rain, high winds and constant lightning. Only one thing saved Pensacola from extensive flooding … the fact that somehow most of the rain that fell ended up in my tent.

Despite the wet tent, wet sleeping pad, wet sleeping bag, wet pillow, wet clothes, etc., I’m incredibly thankful and blessed to have made it through that storm without getting fried.

Monday, April 18, Day 38
Pensacola to Milligan, Florida

Monday morning dawned damp and overcast, and we were a little late getting on the road since it took extra time to wring the water out of all my wet things. But despite the inconveniences, I’m still incredibly blessed at age 65 to have the health and ability to tackle this journey.

Big Lagoon State Park is on the south side of Pensacola, which is a fairly large city, and our route took us right along Escambia Bay. We were able to see Blue Wahoo Stadium (where Pensacola’s minor league team plays), a number of incredibly large and well-kept houses, and passed along what is known as “Bay Bluffs,” where high cliffs border Escambia Bay.

It was while we were pedaling through Pensacola that a middle-aged gentleman by the name of Simon pedaled up behind us and asked if he could join us for a while. We learned that Simon is a native of Britain, a resident of Austria, has pedaled basically the same route we had followed, and had also pedaled through most of Europe. He said he was 59, but didn’t look to be much over 40.

Cycling has treated him better than it has treated me.

Simon hung with us through Pensacola before pedaling on at our first rest stop, but we would see him again.

As we entered the town of Milton, we left highway 90 and headed up the Blackwater Heritage Trail, a rails-to-trails project whereby an abandoned rail line has been converted to a bicycle-pedestrian trail. The trail took us through swamplands where we saw numerous flooded woods and fields, by-products of the previous night’s storms.

After about 10 miles on the trail, our route took us through country roads to the town of Holt, where Keith was (we thought) waiting with water and snacks.

But there was no Keith.

Holt is not very big. It’s about the size of Aquadale, minus the Dollar General. So Earl checked one street, Mike another, and I took a third street.

Still no Keith.

Meanwhile, I saw Mike and Earl headed eastward on highway 90 without me. They were too far away to hear me call, so off I went, trying to catch them and wondering what I had done to make them leave me behind.

And the fact that they are both fast didn’t help my cause either.

Eventually, I got in Mike’s rear-view mirror range, but he was still a good quarter-mile behind Earl. I could see Mike waving his arms, trying to get Earl’s attention, and apparently it wasn’t working. But, after about a one mile chase, Earl had to slow down for a broken-down car on the side of the road, at which point Mike got his attention.

When I arrived, it seemed Earl had seen a cyclist that he thought was me going east on 90, so he took off to try and catch him and Mike joined the chase. What Earl had seen was indeed me making a loop after checking my street, after which I turned off to try to find him and Mike. Earl didn’t see me turn and blew on by, thinking I had continued down 90.

Fortunately, we were now all back together, but there was still no Keith.

And here came another cyclist up the road as we talked … Simon. We asked him if he had seen Keith and the RV, and he said Keith had passed him a couple times earlier in the day, but he had not seen him lately.

So, we got out our old friend, the cellphone, and learned that Keith was stopped in Milton rather than Holt.

We gave him new directions to meet us at the next community (Milligan) where we would stop for the day.

After the adrenaline from the high speed chase (sometimes exceeding 17 mph) had settled down, we all slept well that evening.

Tuesday, April 19, Day 39
Milligan to Bonifay, Florida

What do you think of when you hear the word “Florida?”

Most responses would probably include words like “sunshine and sand” On the other hand, “chills and hills,” would be unlikely to make the top 50.

But Tuesday was not a top 50 day for western Florida. First, the temperature fell to the mid-40s, which, by Florida standards, is frigid. Second, the wind, which predominantly blows from west to east, was a steady 15 to 20 miles per hour in the opposite direction … right in our face … and bringing the chill factor at the start of our ride into the 30s.

But what was most unexpected to us came from our own ignorance.

All of Florida is not like Jacksonville, Orlando, Cape Canaveral or Miami. There is a Florida “panhandle,” and it has hills.

We aren’t talking mountains, but we aren’t talking rolling hills either. These were long, but not very steep climbs that would not have been much of a hindrance in calm conditions, or with a tailwind. But combined with a stiff headwind, some of these slopes were downright tough, and made our 69-mile pedal from Milligan to Bonifay seem much longer.

But the best part of the trip came upon arrival at Bonifay.

We had communicated with Mike Taylor and Lonnie Swanner, both former administrators at Stanly Community College, who are fellow cyclists with whom we’ve shared a trip or 10. They were in Georgia doing some historical touring, and offered to meet us for supper.

Doing so gave us time to catch up on some old memories while telling a lot of funny stories, some of which were actually true.

Wednesday, April 20, Day 40
Bonifay to Quincy, Florida

The hills continued on Wednesday, although the chills were lessened somewhat as warmer afternoon temperatures made the last half of the day’s ride bearable. But between the cool overnight temperatures and the continued headwinds, the morning hours were borderline brutal.

Today’s 68-mile ride seemed a little skewed time-wise as midway through the trip, we crossed the Apalachicola River between Sneads and Chattahoochie, thus returning to the Eastern Time Zone for the first time since we headed west on March 7. While that may not seem earth-shattering, consider this … our group of four has now had the equivalent of starting daylight saving time once at the New Mexico border, once again east of El Paso and once more in western Florida. That’s “spring forward” three times in two months. I don’t know how airline pilots and long-haul truckers do it without sleeping at the wheel.

We seemed to pass through a lot of small towns with unique names along the way. The first, Ponce de Leon, is named after the “fountain of youth” explorer, but I had never heard of it. I’ve already mentioned Chattahoochee, named after a river Alan Jackson apparently knew well, but my favorite was a town off our route that we saw signs for.

Its name? Two Egg. I wonder how many breakfast restaurants are located there.

Our daily trek ended in Quincy, about 20 miles west of Tallahassee. It is a fairly large town, and our wayfinding was hindered because Google Maps has not updated a recent street name change. Google directed us to turn on Atlanta Avenue, but as we rode through, Atlanta Avenue was nowhere to be found. By piecing together parallel and connecting streets, we were able to learn two things.
First, Atlanta Avenue is now “Barack Obama Avenue.”

Second, all roads leading south in Quincy eventually reach Interstate 10, where our overnight destination awaited. We found it, and we are hitting the sack soon.
Thursday will take us to Greenville, east of Tallahassee, where we will take a rest day on Friday, and finish our final three days of pedaling early next week.

Stay tuned for details!

Toby Thorpe is a retired parks and recreation director and a freelance writer for The Stanly News & Press. He will file reports from the road for The SNAP. To donate to his fundraising effort (the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering – North American Missions Board), visit https://www.namb.net/give or www.northalbemarle. com/ways-to-give. Follow along as well using #pedaling4annie.

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