Ponce De Leon to Gretna (with a Georgia detour)

More devastation as I near Tallahassee, but it gets less noticeable the more inland I get. I’m unsure as to whether that is due to the higher population getting more money or attention earlier than the more remote areas or if it just wasn’t as bad.  There are still signs all over with phone numbers for lawyers if “you” feel you didn’t get enough FEMA money.  Which hurt my heart almost as much as the wreckage, frankly.  Any excuse to make a buck, I suppose. Had me picturing the hurricane as a “Sharknado”, though.

Chattahoochee, Florida is just across the border from Georgia, so I added 100 yards of Georgia to my route for fun.  Rode in, turned around and rode out.  Certainly a stretch to say I rode “all of the miles I intended to in Georgia”, but it was fun to be able to say I also rode in Georgia on route.

Anyway, it was a long and somewhat arduous ride.  The farther I get during the week the harder my body takes 80+ mile rides, and the more I want to sleep by morning, even though I soak each night for up to an hour.  We had some Airbnb drama at the end of the day with a host who forgot that they had confirmed that we would be staying at their house, and had to book a spur-of-the-moment hotel. Lesson learned, for sure – and Airbnb refunded us the entire payment once it was verified that it was not our fault.

674 miles left.

Pensacola to Ponce De Leon

Between October 7 and October 16, 2018 hurricane Michael plowed through the Florida panhandle, ultimately killing 72 and causing approximately $25.1 Billion in damages.  It was the fourth-strongest landfalling hurricane to hit the contiguous United States, and the strongest storm on record to hit the Florida panhandle.

And none of that information could have prepared me for what I saw four months later.

Cleanup is still underway.  Huge trucks still throughout the countryside hauling debris and tree remnants away to who knows where?  I saw mobile homes literally upside down; ceiling fans with light globes and blades still intact – but miles from any visible structure; acres and acres of pine trees that looked like a gigantic mythical “lawnmower” set at about 15-20 feet high just lopped them all off.  At once it was magical to see how the people have banded together to help everyone and so sad to see the epic devastation from which the people and the landscape may never recover.

I was talking to a gentleman about what they will do in their area. Trees that have stood for decades and were lopped off have to be completely removed.  Families who own the land on which they stood will receive subsidized farm equipment and seed to plant so that the soil will not become unusable wetlands. The scope of recovery efforts and how the people are being redefined is inconceivable to me.  I truly cannot imagine waking up one morning and the weather determining what I and possibly my whole family would be doing for the rest of my life.

At just past Mossy Head (a small town that barely warranted a city limits sign) I crossed the 3,000 mile mark on this journey and had myself another little cry on the side of the road.  It barely feels possible.

The people have been so kind.  Much of my ride today was definitely rural, and everywhere I go people are encouraging and considerate.  Some honk and wave, some will drive completely on the other side of the road while they wave.  There is an occasional rude driver, but for the most part riding is a joy.

758 miles left.

Mobile to Pensacola

Mobile, Alabama is fantastic.  We spent the night there, and our host James gave me some tips on route that I took to heart – along with some advice to avoid a specific section of Mobile from a coworker due to safety concerns.  Looking at the map, I could ride the same number (roughly) of miles through Alabama if I didn’t go back to Wilmer and headed south from Mobile to Dauphin Island and then across to Pensacola through the bay there.

The first hour I got torrential rain.  I couldn’t  believe how much rain was coming down.  There were times I wasn’t absolutely certain there wasn’t someone just dumping buckets of water over my head.  But then the sun came out and the rain stopped.  Only the wind remained, and it came from the east.  So with 25-35 mph headwind we decided that since there was no more climb either direction, we drove to Pensacola and rode with the wind.  That was a much more pleasant ride than battling a headwind.

A few things happened that were interesting – first of all, we had dinner at the Ruth’s Chris in Mobile.  Say what you want about southern hospitality, but they’re certainly accommodating, and the meal was fantastic.  Thanks again, Josh (SLC General Manager)!  Shortly after the rain stopped the bike started to feel a little wonky. I looked down and couldn’t see anything, but it felt a little like I’d gotten peanut butter stuck in my chain.  About a minute later, I couldn’t pedal at all.  There was a piece of wire I’d picked up somewhere that I couldn’t see from above, and it had become so tangled in my chain that it took me nearly 30 minutes to get it dislodged.  I briefly thought the day would be troublesome from that, since I wasn’t sure I hadn’t damaged the chain, but it seemed to work still, so I pressed on.

At the southern tip of Pensacola right by the Gulf of Mexico is where the Blue Angels train.  The sky was still thick with low clouds, so we couldn’t see anything, but boy, when those things take off you sure know exactly what is happening.  “The Sound of Freedom” is what I call that, having been raised around fighter jets on Air Force bases most of my youth.  It was moving to have that punctuate my day.

The final thing I’ll mention is the bridges.  I’ve highlighted two of them on the map cutout below.  While not terribly high over the water, (maybe 60-75 feet over the water?) they are still bridges.  They are basically a concrete bridge like an overpass.  They have  concrete barriers on the sides that are really only about waist-high when I’m on the bicycle.  If I get hit, (always the fear) I’m water-bound.  Much of the time I can just put my head down a little and keep going, and as long as I don’t think too much about it, I’m good. Unfortunately on the one farthest east (the first one I came to), as I approached, I could hear sirens, and I wasn’t entirely certain which direction they were coming from.  So I kept going.  These bridges are two lanes with a slight shoulder.  So when there is an emergency and emergency vehicles are needing to cross, the rule becomes, “get across the bridge as safely and quickly as you can and then get out of the way of the emergency vehicle” instead of “pull over and let them pass you wherever you are.” (right?  who knew?) But the fire truck was coming toward me, and had a pretty good stream of cars in front of it.  The cars on my side of the bridge couldn’t see the truck for the bridge.  But as they all got closer to the top and the fire truck got closer to approaching the end of the bridge, they not only have the sirens going, they blast the horn to let people know they are going to change lanes and pull over before you get onto the bridge.  It was deafening, and it did give me quite a scare, but I was able to keep going, and the next bridge wasn’t so terrifying.  I even had a moment where I thought, “it’s going to be so cool to do the bridges between the Keys in a couple of months.”  Bridges in the Gulf

848 miles left to Key West.

Hattiesburg, MS to Wilmer, AL

Monday morning dawned early and we headed back to the last 10 miles or so of the lovely trail and into Hattiesburg.

Here’s something that may come as a shock to you, but Hattiesburg, Mississippi is predominantly African American.  I stuck out like a sore thumb.  I was riding along and a young adult man came riding up next to me and said, “Girl, you ain’t from here.”

“No, sir, that’s for sure, I am not.”

“Where’d you come from?”

“Well, yesterday I started my day in Lucien, but I started riding a couple years ago in Washington State and have ridden all the miles between the Seattle area and here.”

(Shocked look – and then the unexpected question)

“What made you choose Hattisburg?” (spelling changed to match his pronunciation)

I chuckled a little, because while the shocked look was expected, I didn’t have a ready answer for that one. “Well, when I wake up in the morning and get ready to ride, I ask God and Google to help me be on the safest route with the kindest people from wherever I was starting, and between them, I’ve always found the right way.”

He laughed at that. “Yes, ma’am, you sure did.”

We chatted for a little bit longer as we rode through town, and he wished me a safe and blessed ride (there’s that word again – “blessed”), and we went our separate ways.

Just outside Hattiesburg I took a moment’s break to sit and have a little bit of a cry – I had passed the 1,000 miles left mark.  I now have 5 digits left of riding.

As the day wore on I thought more about “God and Google”, and how often I have had either close calls or felt blessed with wisdom or some inkling that I should (or should not) go the way I had originally planned.  I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t chosen to listen to those promptings, but the more I ride the more I feel like I am trusting God and Google to lead my way.

Getting into Alabama I had some good climbs. And by “good” I mean challenging.  My legs were tired and aching, and the tongue of my left shoe was hitting the top of my foot funny and causing a pain that felt a little like it was in the “top” of my ankle.  I was getting slower and slower, and the climb I could see ahead was making me frustrated.  The lanes narrowed to a medium length bridge, and I knew I had only a few miles left to Wilmer – just on the other side of the Alabama state line – but I was tired.

Here’s the thing about my first miles into Alabama. It’s a two-lane highway with a narrow shoulder, and the rumble strip carved into that narrow shoulder, leaving about 6 inches on either side of the rumble strip before I’m either in the grass or in the road.  My best bet to keep my fillings in my teeth is to ride as close to the white line as I can.  AL 42 picture

The problem is that by the time I was there, there was a lot more cars heading to Alabama than I wanted to ride with, and it is never safe to assume that they A. see me, and B. care whether they give me the law-granted right of 3 feet of space to pass a cyclist.

So I was a little nervous to say the least.

By the time I got halfway up the hill, my legs were on fire and I had 7-8 cars behind me, as there were also cars coming toward us, and the guy directly behind me wasn’t letting anybody past.

As I got to the Sweet Home Alabama sign the road opened up to the two lanes plus a turning lane, and the cars behind me sped up to go past.  I always think people are going to be frustrated and/or upset that I made them wait.  But every car that passed was yelling something encouraging – “Welcome to Alabama!” “You made it!” and the ever-present, “You go, girl!”

People in the south are wonderful, near as I can tell.  If they were getting frustrated, they hid it well and didn’t make me feel like I inconvenienced them.  The last 3-4 miles into Wilmer were pleasant and encouraging even though I was still tired.

 

Lucien, MS to not quite Hattiesburg, MS

Mississippi is amazing.  Today’s plan was not quite to Hattiesburg, but at Prentiss (not quite 50 miles in) the directions took me onto the most beautifully paved trail I’ve ever encountered, and with the most amazing weather.  It’s called Longleaf Trace, and it goes roughly 42 miles, ending in Hattiesburg.

But before I get to that, a quick pit stop had one of my favorite human encounters – I stopped at a gas station to use the restroom, and when I walked in one of the guys at the register said, “GIRL!  HOW FAR YOU GOING? I’VE BEEN LEAPFROGGING YOU SINCE LUCIEN!” He is a UPS driver.  I told him Hattiesburg, and he squinted at me and said, “Don’t tell my supervisor. He’ll put me on a bike and make me take a bigger route!”

Anyway, Longleaf Trace.  A few years back someone came up with the concept of turning old, unused railway lines into trails for people to use.  I have not been on these trails prior, at least not that I know of.  But here I was on this trail, and not only is most of it super flat, it’s shaded by mature trees and not heavily populated – at least not this afternoon.  I told Randy when I finished that when I talked to the architects of the Matrix when I planned this thing and told them what I had in mind, this was it. Sometime in the last two years somebody finally got the memo, and my dream ride came true.  Seriously, it was like a reward for having come almost 3,000 miles on some of the craziest roads, climbs, and terror I could imagine.  There are clean restrooms about every 10 miles, amazing wildlife – blue herons, eagles, hawks, rabbits, opossum, skunks, raccoons, and even a deer crossed my path – but most of all I enjoyed the lilting relative “rest” of the fully paved path that went just barely up and then just barely down, and the shade. For more information on these trails, click here:  Rails to Trails

Randy waited at one of the parks along the way, and I figured I could get 10 more or so miles in before calling it a day.  It was a perfect 82 miles (70 planned), and we headed to our Airbnb ready to relax for the weekend.

Final miles in Louisiana, over the mighty Mississippi and into Mississippi

So it was pretty evident yesterday that the “stretch goal” of 750 miles total was erroneous.  Would have been cool, but all I really needed to do is finish the “minimum” miles and I would be good to complete the rest on the next stage.

Eastern Louisiana was pretty uneventful, but the road goes past rural homes where it is pretty evident that there are rarely cyclists. Dogs are often chasing me – usually barking.  Which is fine – often they will back off when I yell back or speed up. However, in one very flat area I heard a low growl over my earbuds (I never have them very loud so I can hear things going on around me), and looked toward the house to my right. There was the stockiest “blue” (that grey shade that’s almost – well, blue!) pit bull I’ve ever seen bee-lining it for me. So I kicked into high gear and went faster, where usually I am conserving my energy for the remaining ride, especially early in the day.  I was nearly double my average speed at 18.7 miles per hour, and I hadn’t heard the dog again, so I looked behind me and the dog was keeping pace with me, roughly a foot behind me.  He let out a low growl again and I kept pedaling as hard and fast as I could, and would look back every 15-20 seconds to see when I could back off on effort, but that dog was angry. He chased for a full mile at 18.7 MPH.  Which is honestly SO FAST for that sustained effort!  It was terrifying, to be sure, but I half wished I had a GoPro taking video of it to be able to remember just how powerful and strong that dog was.

Vidalia, LA is the border town across the Mississippi from Natchez, MS, and the bridge across the Mississippi that connects the two towns is the highest bridge in Mississippi.

Natchez-Vidalia bridge

A couple of things about bridges: I don’t love them.  They are high, often narrower than typical roads, and I often feel more vulnerable on them.  Motorists often are not expecting a cyclist to be there. This bridge was a little bit different, in that the shoulder was nearly a full car-width wide, and where some of the bridges will have a significant amount of debris on the shoulder, the shoulder was quite clean.  Still, the roughly 7 minutes it takes to cross a bridge that is more than a mile long can be nerve-wracking, and the Mississippi had been hanging out in the back of my mind since I crossed the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon 20 months ago.  I can’t believe I didn’t blog about that!  I’d better go back and update that post…

Anyway, once I got across the bridge and into Natchez, MS I rode through town and saw some more kindness of strangers.

When I ride through actual towns I only have one earbud in to be sure I am hearing traffic and other things along the way and don’t have to pay as much attention to seeing the map directions, I can just hear the instructions.  I also ride slower. So the directions were taking me on some side streets through Natchez, and on two separate occasions passing homes about a mile and a half apart, elderly gentlemen came walking up their walks when they saw me coming.  To high-five me and cheer me on.  Several other people were doing something close to the street and we had brief interactions of greetings, but always there was something said that was encouraging and uplifting.  I say “good morning” to everyone I see, and one woman responded, “Yes, indeed, and God gave it to you to ride through Natchez today. Have a blessed ride.”

You gotta know that on the long days, strangers cheering, high-fiving, giving praise and acknowledging that they see me can keep me going. I remember the smiles on their faces when it gets hard.  Someone making an additional effort to walk the 25 feet from their chair to come high-five a stranger? What a difference that made in my day!

So.  What are you going to do today that will make someone feel loved?  What can you do today that will make a difference – THE difference – to a stranger?

 

 

 

Winnfield, LA to just past Jonesville, LA – 65 miles

The car & grocery pickup in Alexandria early in the morning went flawlessly, and the bike pickup in Winnfield as well – which was awesome.

At one of the breaks we met Officer Denny Pittman, who stopped to make sure we were okay.  Officer Pittman gave me some great tips on what I was looking at for the road ahead, and possible issues.  He has been a triathlete, and was very encouraging.  After we got to our Airbnb for the night I friended him on Facebook and he told me about a health issue that has taken him off the bike for a while. Denny Pittman

He has Moyamoya disease, which is a rare blood vessel disease that effects the blood vessels in the brain.  He is a true inspiration of incredible spirit and drive to keep going.  Stay safe out there, Officer Pittman!  Thanks for stopping, and for being one of the good guys!

When I got past Jena, LA, Google maps decided that I needed some climbing practice, so routed me up a pretty good hill.  While climbing may never be my forte, I just followed the directions, not realizing that Randy’s phone had taken the default driving directions instead of the cycling directions.  (normally he scouts ahead to make sure I’m not taking any weird turns onto dirt roads or anything, but he didn’t tell me to not take the turn, so I assumed he was ahead of me)

About 3 miles up that road there was a sign that said County Maintenance ends – which almost always means, “take at your own risk.” I still hadn’t realized that Randy wasn’t ahead of me, so headed up regardless.  As the road goes farther up the hill (I suspect they call it a mountain in Louisiana), it turned from asphalt to hard-packed dirt to mostly un-ride-able rock.  So I was hiking up the hill, which is a logging road, and in rural Louisiana the gun laws are pretty loose, so there are a lot of guns going off randomly (a trigger for my panic, no pun intended) from seemingly all directions.  To say I was near panic would be a vast understatement.

But the cool thing was I had been talking to my doctor about my triggers and how to combat the panic attacks, anxiety, and depression.  She’d had me “sit with” one of my smaller triggers and then logically think through the wave of emotion that comes. While that hadn’t been fun, I knew that I could do it.  So once I knew that Randy was on his way to come get me from the hill and I could just ride those waves until he got there, it became a simple practice of feeling the emotion rise and fall and anchoring the realization and knowledge that nobody was shooting at me.

This anxiety thing isn’t fun, but I’m getting there.

Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

Today’s plan

I’m going to try something different to start this stage.  Who knows if I’ll keep going this way, but it’s worth a try.

Anyway, I think it might be interesting for my people to know the plan for the day.

Last night we arrived in LA and we will drive to Winnfield this morning and pick up the bike and gear we left in storage.  As soon as I verify that the bike tires are inflated and the chain is properly lubricated I will begin riding.

The great thing about beyond Texas hill country is that climbing is less sloped and fewer of them.  Often the momentum I catch going down one slope will be enough to get me almost halfway up the next if I keep pedaling and I don’t slow nearly so much.  My hope is that my mph will go up significantly over the course of the next several hundred miles.  The faster I go while expending the same amount of energy, the farther I can go.

The goals and minimums for this stage are as follows (though I won’t cover exact stops along the way for safety reasons):

89 miles – 62 min

104 miles – 76 min

106 miles – 78 min

72 miles – 73 min

98 miles – 78 min

90 miles –  73 min

108 miles – 74 min

80 miles – 73 min

0 miles – 72 min

You might notice that I’m aiming for one fewer days on the bike than I “must”.  If I don’t reach all my goals, there is an extra Saturday into which I can put those.  I can also, if I choose, make some of the days shorter but not others.  The minimum will leave me with just under 15% of the ride to complete in April, and if I reach my goals in the 8 days, I will smash my personal best rides in miles three times (the most I’ve ever ridden in one day was 102 miles), and the most I have done in 8 riding days by 142 miles – an average of not quite 18 miles per riding day.

Deep breath.  Things are about to get really interesting.  Keep me in your prayers.

 

Elm Grove, LA to Winnfield, LA

So yesterday when I said it rained – it didn’t rain all day. But as soon as I started to get dry, it would start to rain again.  That was the exhausting part.

I discovered that while riding in it was exhausting (and filthy – it took a lot of scrubbing to get my legs clean!), it also had a nasty effect on the roads.

Louisiana has a trail system that goes for many miles in between towns.  On a good day, I suspect you can ride through the lush green trees without seeing a road for hours.  Though it was a clear day, I would not call this a good day, at least as far as “trail riding” in Louisiana is concerned.  The GPS kept trying to make me get on the trails, but as near as I could tell, there was no trail.  Randy checked several times in the car, and where he could turn onto roads, they quickly turned into mud bogs.  So I stayed on the road.  But taking the trails would have been 6 miles shorter than the roads.

Ultimately I had to climb some hills that I hadn’t expected, and the six miles didn’t kill me, and we made it to Winnfield.  I got the bike cleaned up and the chain re-lubed and into storage, with a grand total for 9 riding days of 651 miles.

We got into the car and started driving home.  I crashed HARD.  About two hours into the drive I woke up and instinctively looked at the back of the car, where I saw – nothing.  Sweet Randy, upon hearing my gasp, taps my hand and says, “It’s in storage.”  I still panicked every time we stopped and I came out to the car and didn’t see the bike, thinking someone stole it or something, but eventually I just got used to it.

Folks – I have 1,227 miles left in my ride.  I have come 2,573 miles.  I will complete the next 1,227 in two stages instead of three, and barring unforeseen issues will be done before my 50th.

 

The Grub Sack, Scottsville to Elm Grove, LA

When we woke up this morning (Nov. 30) I had a message from my friend Lisa in Dallas – she was worried that I was going to be out in the weather, and there were severe thunderstorms in the forecast with the potential for tornadoes.

November typically does not have tornadoes, so while Randy and I didn’t have a plan in place for this event, we made a quick revision of our normal travelling plan such that he would leapfrog me at 5 miles out, wait half an hour and drive 10 miles, and then continue to leapfrog until the severe weather was done.

The Grub Sack is 12 miles from the Louisiana border, with some rolling hills, but not too bad.  The wind was coming from either side, but not steady, with gusts that made me nervous, but I was able to keep upright and not worried.  It rained all 12 miles.  I found out later that from the time I got on the bike to the time I hit the Louisiana border Harrison County (where I started) was under a tornado watch, but just over the border in Caddo Parish, LA they didn’t.  Either Texas is more cautious, or Louisiana doesn’t know how tornadoes work, but… either way I’m saying I outran a tornado.  I’m just that good.  😉  (in truth, there was never any real danger, though a small tornado did touch down in Harrison County that day, I was safe in bed when it did.)

The rain would stop and then restart all day.  Thankfully it wasn’t terribly cold, but 71 miles in I was exhausted.  I have been riding for 8 days, and have come 600 miles.  I took an ice bath, which frankly is excruciatingly painful, but helps the muscles not swell and allows them to release the lactic acid.  Then a warm epsom salt soak and I was off to bed.  One day more this leg.