My wife signed the freedom pass, and I was off to Florida, the sunshine state, to not only put in some serious winter mileage, but also to find out why Beckham may be inaugurating a new soccer team out there...well, no not really, but you get my drift.
My intention was to follow the American Cycling Association's Florida Connector route, and add a leg that would take me along the Florida Keys. A maximum distance of 850 miles, of which I would complete 720 miles in 11 days of riding, averaging about 65 miles per day.
If you fly into Florida in the winter, be prepared for two things: first, the moment you step off that plane in Miami, it will feel like stepping into a sauna; and secondly, the whole state will be awash with hundreds of thousands of retired "snowbirds", who have come down from the 'weather war zone' in the north in their humongous RVs and motorhomes, and they will fill every available space (booked a year in advance) in all the campgrounds and RV parks. The humble tent camper like me, hardly gets a look in.
From Miami, I headed north, up the Atlantic coast, through barrier island estates, where many of the rich and famous have homes (Tiger Woods, Celine Dion...). The severe winter weather further north had an impact on the night time temperatures in N Florida.....they were dropping to near freezing, and I only had my summer weight sleeping bag for comfort. Answer? I wore every item of clothing in my saddlebag for four consecutive nights (7 tops, 3 shorts, 2 pairs socks, leg/arm warmers, and a buff that served as a balaclava)...and I survived... but only just.
Fed up of the north wind in my face, I turned west to Orlando, but guess what? The wind shifted to the west......I had a dispiriting day riding 65 miles into a 20mph wind. Answer? Turn south...now I know why birds fly south...they generally have a favourable wind!
My southerly route took me through the remoter parts of interior Florida, across thousands of acres of orange groves, where the scent of blossom was heady. Through strawberry fields, following the seaward flow of Peace River, to Punta Gorda, it's estuary, then on to Ft Myers where I would catch a high speed ferry to Key West, the southernmost point of continental USA.
I struggled to find vacancies in campgrounds, and what I did find was horrendously expensive (up to $72 per night!!...ouch!)....but these are the prices they command during high season (and winter is high season here).
From Key West, there is only one road for almost 125 miles, the US1 Highway, that runs the whole length of the Keys, crossing some 45 bridges, the longest being 7 Mile Bridge (just imagine riding 7 miles suspended above water). It is known as the Overseas Highway, because a large percentage of it is suspended above water.
The sea and skyscapes were mesmerising, the sun reflected back from everything.......it was hot...very, very hot. Night time temperatures were high too, so I didn't even need a sleeping bag.....what a change from a few days before just 200 miles further north.
The USA is a land of extremes: extremes of kindness, on the one hand, but also extremes of potential threats to one's safety. In one municipal campground, I was told that thieves from outside "will steal your bike, and your tent, with or without you inside it". When he told me he protected himself and his property with two permanently loaded guns, I thought "my, oh my....what do we do here?"
So I prepared for 'warfare'...I padlocked my bike to the tent (at least they would wake me if they tried to steal it), and I put the hose in my Lezyne pump, primed to blow up any potential intruder...See, we cyclists come prepared for any eventuality!
But, of course, nothing happened that night, which ruins the end of that story. Sorry about that.
But this one has an interesting outcome. I arrived at a campground an hour before dark, to find there was no room (even for my tiny one-man tent). I grumbled and cursed.....told them this wouldn't happen in the UK (exaggerating of course), and I was given written Google directions to the next campground, 13 miles away. 5 miles into the ride, I realised I had been given car (not cycling) directions, and I was being led onto Interstate 95 Freeway...! Fearing death by lethal injection if I were caught by a local law enforcement agent, I crept off the ramp leading to the Freeway, found someone who made the wise suggestion of catching a train to within three miles of the campground, and so I arrived to pitch my tent in the dark, grab a bite to eat with a couple of 'Buds', and then sleep the sleep of the exhausted.
I was now done with adventure. The journey was over. As I click 'send' on this message, I will begin preparing the bike for the flight home (Virgin Atlantic will carry your bike free) and brace myself for a change of temperature when I land at Heathrow.
If you would like to read more of this, and other stories from Frank, including his trip from End-to-End of New Zealand, visit his blog here.