Thursday 13 November
Day 13, unlucky for some… thankfully not us!
Our day began ridiculously early: kickstands up at 0630 – that’s back in California time before my body clock adjusted! It was a cold, grey dawn, but seemed to offer the promise of brightening later – a promise that never really materialised.
We set off looking for breakfast. We headed back out onto 98 through Destin, which is probably a very nice resort, but from the main highway is much like anywhere else. We headed through Miramar Beach, which is less built up, and through Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. This is a 1,640 acre park made up of over three miles of white sand beaches with massive sand dunes, one of which, Sand Hill Dune, stands nearly 25 feet above sea level. Sadly we didn’t see any of that.
We passed to the south of Santa Rosa Beach, where we had originally planned to spend last night, and on through Point Washington State Forest, again without really noticing. We were then back hugging the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. We passed through the small Camp Helen State Park and crossed Powell Lake, a large coastal dune lake, to Panama City Beach.
The city’s slogan is “The World’s Most Beautiful Beaches” due to its sugar-white sandy beaches unique to northwest Florida. It has been referred to as “the Spring Break Capital of the World”, so it’s luckily we are not visiting then! Panama City Beach was less smart than I expected, but again may be better once you get off the highway. Through this stretch there was once again a great number of traffic lights and volumes of traffic suggestive of rush hour – obviously not everyone gets to spend their days on the beach.
Another long, impressive bridge over the Upper Grand Lagoon took us into Panama City itself, some 16 miles further on from its beach, but it is full of the same old franchise places. We stop briefly and I voice my disappointment to Andy who says this is just how it is on American highways: to see the real place you have to venture away from the main drag. Generally on this trip we haven’t had much time to do that, but today we decided that we would venture off in search of breakfast and we were rewarded with a superb little cafe called Caffiend’s Caffe.
This was a small place with a single door from the street leading through a dark corridor into the basic interior. From the small kitchen in the back corner, however, the owner provided several different varieties of fresh ground coffee and a menu of home cooked produce plus, if we preferred, a few other things he could knock up, such as hash browns, which was my choice. It was all a million miles away from the usual franchise places: it took time to prepare, so we spent longer than planned, but it was worth it. I wish we had time to do more of this.
It was still only 9am when we arrived, so we could afford to spend some time, but eventually we moved on. The 98 took us over another bridge, crossing East Bay, to continue along the coast, past Tyndall Air Force Base and into Mexico Beach, which is beautiful, similar to Long Beach with its white sand and nice wooden houses – it seems completely unspoiled.
As we passed through I noticed a small sign announcing that we had passed into a new time zone: Eastern Standard Time. This surprised me, partly because I thought the sign should be bigger, but mostly I wasn’t sure how that works with a single community in two time zones. One person could be in a different time zone to his neighbour just a few yards away!
We begin to see forest – initially the trees look like they are farmed, appearing in serried ranks. We stop at a service station in Port St Joe where, overcome with curiosity, I buy some deep fried peanuts in the shell – apparently “so good you eat ’em shell-n-all”. My curiosity was peaked earlier in Alabama where I had seen them boiled, but these looked less messy to carry. They taste as you might imagine: peanut-y, but with a strangely coarse shell.
We continue on.
Route 98 then hugs the coast as it heads into Apalachicola, where we cross an impressively long causeway – and I mean long! – where a different East Bay becomes Apalachicola Bay. Once over the causeway we begin to come across signs warning us of bears, but we didn’t encounter any.
We were now skirting to south of Tate’s Hell State Forest and Apalachicola National Forest, which appear to merge together on the map. The latter is the largest US National Forest in Florida and the only one in the Panhandle. Here the trees look older, like a more natural forest. It is obviously still managed however, as evidenced by the large areas of new trees or bare land and the presence of numerous huge trucks on the road laden down with timber. To our right we have more beautiful beaches.
The road now turned north, crossing over Ochlockonee Bay and passed through the west side of St Marks Wildlife Refuge before turning east again, heading inland to Perry, the site of the Perry Race Riot in 1922, where we stopped for fuel. The area was obviously extremely poor and mainly black. Nonetheless, everyone was as friendly as ever.
The road becomes 27/20 passing through Mayo, to the south of Ichetucknee Springs State Park, where there is an austere looking prison, and through Fort White (named after a military fort built in the 1830s) and High Springs.
The forest continues on, becoming monotonous and making riding something of a chore. Eventually it began to open up to reveal the odd buildings – usually quite ramshackle and dilapidated – and farmland, including cows. This brought with it that pungent aroma that my dad always referred to as “the good countryside smell’.
Finally we arrived in Gainesville, the largest city in North Central Florida with a population of over 124,000. At various times it has been ranked as the number one place to live in North America and one of the “best places to live and play” in the US. However, it has also been voted the fifth meanest city in the US. Twice. To us it looked pretty much like anywhere else.
We found ourselves a hotel: a Days Inn, which was basic but good and, without much delay set off in search of food. We were looking for a place called BJ’s (titter ye not!), which was not easy to find. We had to cross 6 lanes of traffic, then spend some time roaming vast acres of car park around a strip mall complex before finally coming upon it – and it was worth it: the best beer we’ve had since tombstone, from an extensive menu, and the best ribs since San Antonio.
We had a very pleasant evening and a couple of beers: this is that middle ground that I was talking about.
Miles today: 309
Total miles: 2906