November 20, 80 miles to Grayton Beach State Park
Highway 98 is the only road along the Emerald Coast of Florida. A few sections of highway are not great for bicycling but there are usually no alternatives. Most of the time the road is fine. Even when the speed limit was fast and the road was crowded it had a big shoulder and many stretches of the road were freshly paved. I prefer to ride on back roads that parallel the main route but being on the main road through the area is unique in some ways. Most notably, there is much more garbage and roadkill on the side of highways than on the side of county roads. Highway 98 allowed me a unique view into what people do in their cars. And also what gets hit by cars.
Armadillos were the most frequent of road kills. Their flattened armor made them the easiest roadkill to recognize. I also saw turtles, deer, a fox, unidentifiable rodents in various sizes and plenty of house pets. Seeing pets was particularly sad. They were family members. Now they’re stiff on the side of the road with their collars still on. The sheer amount of dead pets should make us reconsider the merits of the automobile. But it doesn’t. And perhaps that’s not surprising, because I saw human roadkill even more frequently than dead feline family members.
The humans were no longer on the scene but had been memorialized with crosses and flowers. In some stretches it was hard to go an hour without seeing a memorial. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 40,000 people die every year in cars in America. Memorials on the side of the highway always spooked me, but I hoped I was somehow safer on my bicycle than in a car. At least I wasn’t going as fast.
Empty beer cans and bottles were much more plentiful than road kills. Mostly I saw Bud Light cans, but also a little bit of every beer, wine and hard liquor imaginable. Who polishes off a half-gallon of whiskey in their car and throws the bottle out the window? After that, non-alcoholic drink containers were most prominent, followed by fast food wrappers (usually McDonald’s). Work gloves, car parts and bits of metal were the next most prominent roadside items. Pieces of brakes and tire debris were the most common of the car parts, and leather-palmed Kinco gloves were the most common work gloves. Clothing items were also common, especially T-shirts and sweatshirts. Other items included tools, broken knives, sunglasses, and magnum condoms (magnums were the only condoms I saw on the road).
November 20 was a long day but I needed to cover some ground to make it to New Orleans for Thanksgiving. I woke at 6:30 a.m. and watched the sun rise while eating oatmeal, peanut butter, and honey. By 7:30 a.m. I was pedaling down highway 98 with a kind tailwind. I rode fast all morning with one stop in Mexico Beach to eat a grapefruit and do a Neti Pot. I used tap water, though I just found out tap water-dwelling, brain-eating bacteria killed a woman in nearby Louisiana after she Neti-potted with tap water.
The U.S. Military owns 20 miles of undeveloped beach west of Mexico Beach. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see much of it from the highway. I did see some signs that said I was riding through an explosive disposal range.
After the military base I rode into Panama City. I went to a pizza place and ate most of a large greasy pizza with butter-flavored crust and strapped the box with the remaining three slices on my front rack. Panama City is a beach town. The west side of town has the following services and stores: tattoos, henna tattoos, smoke shops, mini golf, bathing suit shops and dollar stores. There are roughly five of each of those places. And about six or seven different companies own all those shops. For example, there are four smoke shops called Purple Haze. They all have the same airbrushed Jimi Hendrix logo. There is also a Henna tattoo place owned by Purple Haze with the same logo. In addition, there are also 30-story rental condos every couple miles. This mixture of ridiculous stuff continues for miles down the coast.
After five miles of riding through Panama City, I was still passing mini golf courses with giant plastic alligators and airbrushed Jimi Hendrix logos. I became convinced that I was riding in circles. So much so that I dug my GPS out of the bottom of a pannier to make sure I was going West. I was, so I pedaled on. Five minutes later, another huge condo came into view and I passed another smoke shop.
I spent the afternoon riding through resort towns with names like Laguna Beach, Sunnyside, and Rosemary Beach. Near Sunnyside I saw a fellow vagrant. I assume he was doing the same thing I was, just without a bike. He had a big beard and a bigger Army Surplus backpack. I hardly noticed him but when I rode by he shouted, “looks like another rainy night.” I was so focused on spinning my legs in circles that I hadn’t notice the dark clouds moving in from the gulf.
It was balmy but I didn’t think the clouds would amount to more than a shower. I got to Grayton Beach State Park an hour before sunset. Jokingly, I asked if there were any camp sights left. The guy in a ranger outfit replied, “You might be lucky or you might be really unlucky.” There was only one campsite left. Apparently a lot of people take the whole week off and go camping in Florida for Thanksgiving. On the way to my site I passed 10 or 12 30-foot RVs. most of them had big awnings with flat screen TV’s on the outside panels with football games blaring.
I found my site, ate the rest of the greasy pizza and went to the beach to wallow in the sand and drizzle until sunset. I was encouraged that I went 85 miles but I would have to do it again the next day if I wanted to make it to New Orleans on Thanksgiving. I was really hoping to spend Thanksgiving in a hostel, where there would likely be other people, than in a tent on the side of the road.