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The Herald March, 17, 1989
Some of area's best-kept secrets are off the road
The sixth day of my trip to the Florida Panhandle was a shining example of the emotional roller coaster bike touring can be.
In my Perry motel room, I watched the TV weatherman describe the typically unsettled Florida morning that lay in store. I looked out the window at the clear sky and figured he didn't know what he was talking about. Just in case, however, I checked out by leaving the room key on the dresser and the door unlocked.
I cruised 2 miles through Perry and turned left to leave town. The view from that intersection was ominous. There was a gray wall of water barely 1/4 mile ahead. I dashed back to the motel like a scared puppy.
The motel room offered me the luxury of waiting that storm out while I called myself all sorts of chicken names. What am I anyway, a long-distance bicyclist afraid of some rain? An hour later, I had mustered enough courage to try again. This time I was a real macho tough-guy , so I locked the door behind me.
I splashed through the puddles left by the morning storm. The Florida sun broke through the clouds and turned the glistening pavement to steam as I headed down the lifeless alley known as U.S. 98. For the next 40 miles, I would not see a single structure that represented a human outpost. I have been scoffed at locally for having four water bottles on my bicycle. On this day I would drain them all.
Though the landscape was barren, I was not alone. A large fleet of tractor-trailer dump trucks was making shuttle runs from just outside Perry to a point about 30 miles west. I battled those suckers from both directions the whole way. They must have been talking about me on their CB's because they gracefully ganged up to harass me. Even the ones meeting me head-on would come over into my lane and stand on the air horn.
Once I looked in the mirror and saw three of them coming in a pack, smoke billowing from the stacks in reckless abandon. One was in the proper lane, and another was directly abreast of it in the passing lane. The third one was behind those two straddling the centerline to get a good look at the action. I hit the shoulder to avoid certain death and they all air-horned me in three part harmony as they roared past.
Nothing has ever looked so good to me as the big construction project where the dumpers turned off. I now hate dump trucks.
By lunch I had reached a small oasis named Newport, but the weather looked threatening again. A while later, the sky was black across my path and thunder accompanied gusting winds. The clerk at a convenience store told me of a small settlement with a motel a couple of miles off the highway. If I could only reach there without mishap, I would gladly call it quits on this nerve-wracking days with just 60 miles under my belt.
The side road came to a dead end at the marsh waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Welcome to Spring Creek, perhaps the best-kept secret in all of Florida. I went to the desk at the Spring Creek Restaurant and signed up for a room at the adjacent Spring Creek Motel. The lady who ran the operation had a bubbling personality, and she gave me a verbal tour of the area as I checked in. I could already tell this place was radically laid-back. Give me five days at Spring Creek, and I could write two full-length novels and a screenplay before I left. I'm talking slow-motion solitude.
I checked out the local gas pump/grocery, and the proprietor let the back screen door slam behind him. "Sorry if you've been standing here waiting, but I had a dang water moccasin in my swimming pool. That's the second one this month. Say you ridin' that bike cross-country? I saw you go by with all those packs on it a while ago." I gave him a loose description of my plans and he responded with a blank look. "Well, how in the heck did you ever find this place?"
Just around the corner a man rented fishing skiffs. The boats looked unusually wide, and they had an outboard motor mounted in the center of the hull where the middle seat should be. It was a strange looking arrangement. After the nearby storms blew away, I passed up the motorboats in favor of a canoe trip around the inlet.
When I returned to the dock some folks lounging around under a big porch said, "You went the wrong way. If you came to see the really big gators, they're back in yonder." They pointed to a narrow channel that meandered into some tall grass. I gave them my best grin and said, "Darn, I'm too tired to paddle any more. Maybe next time." I'd hate to know I had to outrun a giant alligator on a windy day in a canoe. The people who recommended this looked like they probably caught big snakes for fun.
I finished myself off with a helping of fried snapper at the Spring Creek Restaurant. The food was heavenly, and the portions were generous to the point of being wasteful. When I asked the lady "Who's gonna eat all this?" she said that's the way seafood restaurants in the Panhandle do business. When I was thoroughly stuffed I leaned back in the chair and gnawed on a toothpick. That's the very place and time when the thought first came to me.
The sky opened up, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir struck a saintly note in five-part harmony. It was as though the message had been delivered to me on a silver platter with all the king's servants standing at attention beside the long red carpet.
"Self," I thought, "you can see all of America like this."
Well, I just believe I will. It's bad luck to ignore such a calling.
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