November 22, 2011. Big Lagoon State Park, Florida, to Bayou La Batre, Alabama
Before pedaling into to Big Lagoon State Park I bought tons of gas station food. It was the end of the second 80-mile day in a row and I was hungry. I didn’t finish my dessert of jalapeno chips, fig newtons, and honey buns the night before, and I was looking forward to eating the leftovers for breakfast. When I got out of my tent in the morning there was no trace of my leftovers.
I searched the bushes for honey buns while my oatmeal cooked. I had been on the road for weeks and I didn’t want to face any more mushy oatmeal. Especially now, with my heart set on honey buns and little time to mentally prepare for oatmeal. I couldn’t find a crumb of potato chip or a scrap of plastic anywhere. I don’t know what kind of animal can take an open bag of potato chips with out leaving any behind.
The morning improved quickly as i wheeled out of the campground before it opened, getting away with another free night. A few minutes later I was crossing into Alabama.
The Alabama state line was the first big milestone of the trip. I felt like I was really getting somewhere. It had taken a long time to get through Florida. The part of the state that dangles into the water is narrow, but the panhandle is deceptively long. Better yet, Alabama and Mississippi are just narrow nubs where they touch the coast – I’d be through them in two days.
While Alabama felt like a milestone, it didn’t actually look any different from Florida. At least not yet. I was still riding past white, sandy beaches and towering vacation condos.
The first 25 miles of Alabama were on Perdido Key. Once again, there were stretches where I could see water on both sides. Perdido Key is covered in vacation homes. They were big, but not as big as the mansions and condos I passed earlier in the day.
Perdido Key reaches west across Mobile Bay. A small ferry runs from the west end of the key to Dauphin Island, which is connected by a bridge to the west side of Mobile Bay. I decided to take the ferry instead of ride all the way up and around Mobile Bay.
The ferry was pulling away from the dock as I pulled into the parking lot. I didn’t mind that I just missed it. The rocks on the beach were a nice place to rest, read, and eat. I stopped in a Wal-Mart earlier to get a new memory card for my camera. I also bought a delicious cheesecake, which I ate on the beach while looking out over pelicans and oil rigs.
I saw dolphins from the ferry and talked with a local about the best way to get to New Orleans. He assured me that there was no good way and that I might die. “I’m not worried about your skills, I’m worried about the drivers,” he said. I felt the same way, but found his advice unhelpful. As I rolled off the ferry on Dauphin Island, I saw a bike touring couple. They were on the way to Key West and they also didn’t have anything good to say about the road to New Orleans. “It sucks and there’s tons of casinos but you just have to do it.”
It started pouring rain before I made it off Dauphin Island. I hung out under the awning of the Dauphin Island library/community center and watched the rain drops pool up and run down the road. After a half-hour of watching it pour I got bored and put my rain clothes on. The squall was letting up by the time I had my rain gear on so I started pedaling.
That was the first real rain of the trip. By the time I got off the island the sun was out again. I hadn’t ridden nearly as far as I wanted to because I had to wait two hours for the ferry and I spent some time waiting for the rain to stop, so I pedaled until dark.
When I rolled into Bayou La Batre, the fictional home of Forrest Gump, dark clouds were smothering the last sunlight of the day. it was too late to go any further, so I explored town looking for a place to camp. The best spot I found was behind a pile of dirt in a baseball field at the edge of town. As I was undoing the straps on my tent, a couple raindrops landed on neck. It was looking stormy and i wasn’t excited about the grim camp site behind a dirt pile. I weighed my options, and then sold out and went to a cheap hotel.
I hated to spend so much money to sleep. I felt like I made the wrong decision until I took out my tent to dry it out and realized how wet it was. Later that night, when it started pouring, I was glad not to be behind a dirt pile in the far corner of a park.
The location of my hotel demonstrated a lot about the South. the hotel was on a busy highway with no sidewalks and no shoulder. I went out to buy food and had to walk in the ditch next to the road. The only places to buy food nearby both had “dollar” in the name – Dollar General and Family Dollar. Both stores have a similar food selection to Rite-Aid. There is no produce section. If people like to cook in Bayou La Batre, or most of the rural South, I don’t know where they shop.
There really are a lot of fat people in the South. After pedaling through it, I only wonder why they aren’t fatter. In most small towns, the grocery stores have several brands of honey buns, multiple varieties of chips ranging from pizza-flavored to jalapeno-flavored, and not much else.
I bought a subway sandwich and brought it back to the hotel where I ate while lying down on a giant bed and watching TV. It was the first TV I had seen in a while. I watched some presidential candidates argue about the imminent threat of foreign attacks until I fell asleep.