Freewheeling through Florida

Isn’t it funny how a chance meeting or conversation can potentially change the whole course of your life?

This adventure came about because of a chance meeting with a friend, who told us of their colleague who’d just returned from a similar trip. So here we are. On our bicycles in Florida.

It happened again at the start of this week.

The original plan for the USA was to follow a route known as the “Southern Tier”. This is one of many routes from the Adventure Cycling Association to make bicycle touring in the States easy. Their maps outline safe cycling routes, places to camp and get food and water.

The Southern Tier maps took us through Northern Florida via Tallahassee (the state capital), and then west into Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Last Sunday we were in a café in Gainesville, Florida, planning the first leg of the USA crossing. We had a bunch of maps out, and looked like homeless people buying a token bagel to get on the Wi-Fi – obviously identifiable as “Bike Tourers”.

We got chatting to fellow cyclist Chris, who’d popped in to grab a coffee. He called his mate Merrick to come along who had just done a pan-USA trip similar to ours.

They were full of recommendations, and on the back of this 20 minute conversation, we changed our entire route: The new route followed Highway 98, to the Floridian coast of the Gulf of Mexico, then Highway 90 right the way to New Orleans.

Thank goodness for Chris and Merrick. – Highway 98 is stunning.

It leads you along the Florida coastline following endless beaches with sand like sugar and bright blue sea – flat as a pancake. We pedalled through beautiful little towns like Pensacola and Orange beach, and cool cities like Panama City Beach.

In the UK when people mention Florida, it’s mostly to talk about the theme parks. If you’re planning a trip out here, its worth making the time to check out Highway 98 and the surrounding coast. Perfect for road trip or bike tour – you won’t regret it.

If we hadn’t have met Chris and Merrick, there are a load of people we wouldn’t have met either. People like Roger.

We’d arranged to stay at Roger’s house in Panama City Beach through a website called Warm Showers. It’s like Couch Surfing, but all the hosts are people who love cycle touring. Everyone without exception we’ve met through it has been brilliant.

We were rolling into the outskirts of Panama City Beach on a huge eight lane highway, when we were flagged down by some guy wearing shades and flowery shirt…we pulled over to see what he wanted:

“Hey I’m Roger! Is it Katie and Euan? It’s about 15 miles to my house, follow me.”

We hadn’t seen his last email with directions, as we hadn’t been on Wi-Fi since early that morning. Undeterred, Roger had driven right the way across town, waited on the side of the highway for us to come in and flagged us down. He then proceeded to direct us, right across town through rush hour traffic, the final 15 miles to his house.

It’s the equivalent of living in Stratford in East London, agreeing to host someone you’d never met, driving right the way to Hammersmith to wait by the A40 for them, flagging them down, then directing them all the way through Central London at rush hour.

We went out for dinner with Roger and his partner Katrina who were incredibly kind, then went back to watch the third presidential debate.

The overriding emotions regarding these elections seem to be exasperation at the choice of candidates and frustration at the electoral system. People we’ve met, (which granted is a small sample of the 300 million USA citizens) seem to be reluctantly voting Trump as they are traditional conservative voters, or voting Clinton to ensure Trump doesn’t get in.  We’ve not actually met anyone in the last two weeks who is a passionate supporter of either candidate.

There’s a lot of frustration at the Electoral College system, which means the President is not actually chosen by the people, but by the “Electoral College”. In theory the Electoral College chooses the candidate who won the most votes – but not always. It’s complicated.

Once leaving Roger’s, we had another great night at Sean (brother of a friend) and Angie’s who cooked a fantastic Puerto Rican meal, then camped a few nights on Navarre Beach, and Orange Beach.

We spun through Alabama and Mississippi before entering Louisiana yesterday. It’s really satisfying to cross three state lines in two days.

Our first major USA milestone, and break, came on reaching New Orleans. We wanted to arrive by Sunday 23rd so put in our biggest day yet, 195km to get here – and finally we’ve arrived.

Had we not met Chris and Merrick we would have gone a totally different route, but now we’re here and as a result, the whole of the rest of the trip will be different. I suppose that’s the fun of travelling – never knowing what the next twist will be!

Now a few days off, then cruise through the rest of Louisiana before tackling the beast that is Texas.