A Long Day on the Gulf of Mexico

November 21, Grayton Beach to Big Lagoon

Sorry for the break in reportage. I took a week off the blog to concentrate on better paying work. I hope, dear reader, that you didn’t spend all your time thinking about me.

On November 21st I woke up early in Grayton Beach State Park and prepared to ride a lot of miles. My tent and gear were pretty wet but I couldn’t wait around for them to dry. The Thanksgiving crowd was firing up their RV-mounted flat-screen TVs as I pedaled out of the park with a variety of wet clothes strapped to my bike to dry.

By noon I was sick of the Gulf Coast. From Panama City to Destin it’s covered in tourists, condos, and jet skis. The highway was crowded with vacationers. A long stretch of road near Destin had just been refinished, but the shoulder wasn’t paved yet. Cars constantly whizzed by at 60 miles an hour, so I stayed on the bone-jarring unfinished shoulder. I stopped in a parking lot to eat lunch and take a break from the traffic. While eating a melted snickers, I searched a map for a less touristy route.

I discovered that in 20 or 30 miles, I could take a detour from Highway 98 and ride on Santa Rosa Island for about 20 miles. With that in mind, I got back on the crowded highway and pedaled as fast as I could. On the way, I stopped at the Fort Walton Beach library. Before checking my email, I used Google maps to calculate the distance to New Orleans. What I found out shocked me so much that instead of checking my email, I left the library immediately and got back on my bike. I was 243 miles away from New Orleans. I wanted to be there in two and a half days.

The bridge to Santa Rosa island had a bike path between a railing and a jersey barrier. The space was a few inches wider than my handlebars. It was a slow ride but the island at the end was beautiful. At first, colorful vacation houses lined the side of the road. Santa Rosa island is long and narrow, I could see water to my left and right during the whole 20-mile trip across the island. The flat, sandy spit of an island narrowed as I went west. Eventually, the houses lining the road gave way to white sand.

A seven-mile stretch of the island was deserted. There were no houses in sight and I could ride for miles without even seeing a car. I stopped at a park in the middle of the island to savor the experience. The park was closed for winter, so I pushed my bike around the gate and went to the empty beach. It was mid-afternoon and at least 70 degrees. I still had a long way to go but I took some time to hang out on the beach and let my tent dry out. I spread my tent out on a picnic table and put every water bottle I had on it to keep the wind form blowing it away. The tent was bone dry by the time I packed it up.

At the end of the island there was a long bridge to a town called Gulf Breeze. Less than a mile later, there’s an even longer bridge to Pensacola. In between the two bridges I stopped at a gas station. After advising me about which flavored peanuts to buy, the clerk showed me a grammar error in the day’s newspaper. We discussed the error for a while. He told me he finds errors in the paper all the time. I suggested he start sending the errors into the paper. Maybe they would put him on the payroll eventually. “I doubt there even is a payroll,” he replied. Smart fellow.

I liked what I saw of Pensacola. My route through town took me by some big parks and old buildings in the middle of the city. I wanted to get a beer at the Pensacola Bay Brewery, but it was getting late and I needed to get out of town to find a place to sleep. My Adventure Cycling map showed a campground 25 miles away at Big Lagoon State Park – I wouldn’t be there until after dark. I called the campground to make sure they weren’t filled with Thanksgiving vacationers. The guy who answered the phone said they had plenty of spaces but the gate closed at 5 p.m. I decided to go there, hoping to get in after dark and avoid paying.

At 5 p.m. I was still five miles from the campground. It was pretty dark and I had all my lights on. I finally found the campground at 5:30 p.m. To my surprise, the gate wasn’t closed and a ranger jumped out of the office as I rode by.

Luckily, The ranger just wanted to talk to me about my ride. He had already shut down the computers and he told me I could pay in the morning. “If you leave before eight then it’s on us,” he said. That was a relief because camping was $25.

I had Big Lagoon State Park mostly to myself, so I picked out a better site than the one the ranger had assigned me and started eating honey buns. I was still 200 miles from New Orleans but it wouldn’t be too hard to get there by the end of Thanksgiving.

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