The Northeast Florida BMW Club calls it “Florida’s Coolest Motorcycle Rally.” The play on the word “coolest” is not lost on anyone given the rally is held in the dead of winter, especially with low temperatures dropping to the mid-twenties.
The rally is held each year in mid-January at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center near Starke, Florida. I had never been to this rally before, but Camp Blanding was familiar. For a three-year period in the late 70’s, I participated in military exercises at the Camp while flying helicopters out of the Army airfield in Jacksonville. Now, 40 years later, I re-visited the Camp from the ground on two wheels instead of from the air.
I arrived a few minutes early at the Radford, VA, rest stop on I-81 where I would meet my riding buddy Don for our 600+-mile trip to Florida. With the extra time, I de-fogged my face shield, made a final adjustment on my balaclava, and balanced the settings on my heated jacket and gloves.
The road was wet but the temperature was 37 degrees, well above freezing. There was little chance of ice, especially since the roads had been brined for the previous cold snap. The weather forecast warned of fog on notorious Fancy Gap, the 6-mile 1,500-foot descent on I-77 from the Blue Ridge Escarpment of Virginia to the Piedmont of North Carolina. Tractor-trailers, campers, SUVs, and minivans tend to fly down the mountain and suddenly roll into a thick fog bank along one of several topographic drains. Each year there will be one or more multi-vehicle pile-ups on the Gap, but usually not as bad as the 95-car pile-up on Easter Day, 2013. Happily, we were able to sail down the Gap with a fairly nice winter view of the NC landscape.
The temperature rose to 50 degrees by the time we reached Statesboro, GA, our stopping place for the night. Except for an hour-long ride through drizzle south of Columbia, SC, it was a great ride.
The temperature reached a high of 77 the next day as we visited several locations along the Suwanee River in north Florida to scout out a possible canoe trip in the spring. As we reached the rally site, the sky darkened, the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped to the mid-30s that night. But no worries; we were “warm enough” in our tents and sleeping bags.
The rally organizers closed registration at 500 people leaving many disappointed riders “out in the cold.” There were riders from upstate NY, central TX and points beyond. It is the first major rally of the year and given its location in “warm, sunny Florida” it provides an excuse to keep the machines oiled and the tires inflated. Except it wasn’t warm and it wasn’t sunny the first day of the rally. It rained most of the day, but there were plenty of indoor activities for entertainment—lots of vendors, a flea market, and bull sessions for the telling of motorcycling war stories.
A cold, 30-degree wind blowing across Kingsley Lake shook our tents the morning of the second day of the rally. The tarp partially shielding the food truck from the cold wind didn’t make the prospect of breakfast in the open anymore attractive despite the nice aroma of biscuits and frying bacon.
“Hey Don,” I said as I zipped my jacket tightly around my neck scarf, “I think there is a nice coffee shop 20 miles east of here in Green Cove Springs on the St. Johns River.” Don was ready right now for some hot coffee, but he reluctantly agreed to defer gratification and saddled up with me. Good call, Don.
Spring Park Coffee Shop was delightful! Yes, it was nice and warm, but the aroma of coffee, fresh bagels, and sweet things left unidentified were delicious. My 16-ounce latte and everything bagel with egg, bacon, and melted swiss were lovely. Other riders came to the same realization and joined us for some nice conversation.
It never warmed above 40 degrees, but the sun finally came out and raised our spirits by 10. We made a 180-mile circle around a part of Florida seldom visited by tourists. South along the St Johns River to Palatka, west towards Gainesville and back to Camp. Having lived in Gainesville for several years, I showed Don some of my favorite places.
Craig Pittman published a short column in the St. Petersburg Times on October 31, 1999, entitled Digging Ourselves into a Hole.
His opening line: “Built in the wrong century for the wrong reasons with the wrong numbers to justify it, the Cross Florida Barge Canal will forever stand as one of the biggest blunders in Florida history—-.” A barge canal from Jacksonville to St Petersburg was the dream of many for centuries. It was never shown to be economically feasible, but this environmental disaster almost came to pass before President Richard Nixon listened to the appeals of ecologist Marjorie Harris Carr who showed what a threat it was to the state’s freshwater and pristine rivers.
Seventy million dollars later the project was stopped and remnants of the canal are now a long greenway named after Carr. Don and I rode over the monstrous elevated bridge on Route 19 that was built to accommodate barge traffic below. One of the locks on the canal is still intact as is the dam blocking the Ocklawaha River. People are still wrangling over what to do with the canal’s remnants, but I think they should be left in place as a testament to this and other public policy blunders and of science speaking truth to power.
We rode west to the tiny village of Cross Creek, famous once, but now mostly forgotten. Cross Creek was made famous in the 1930s by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings an American author who lived and wrote novels about rural Florida. She lived in an orange grove on Cross Creek between Orange Lake and Lochloosa Lake. She wrote about her “Florida Cracker” neighbors in books including South Moon Under and Golden Apples, but found great success with The Yearling, a story about a Florida boy, his pet deer, and his relationship with his father.
Just down the road from Rawlings home in Cross Creek is a restaurant named after her famous book The Yearling. It was opened in 1952 and still captures the cuisine of old Florida. When Don and I stepped into the door we heard sounds of guitar and harmonica and a baritone voice reminiscent of one of my favorite Blues singer Taj Mahal. We sat for lunch at a table next to this fine musician and listened while we waited for our fried alligator, fish soup, French fries, and key lime pie.
“You boys look like motorsickilists,” said Willie Green as he lowered his guitar for a break. We had a nice chat with 82-year-old Mr. Green about his hay day riding Harleys in the 1940s and 50s and “raising all kinds of hell” with his buddies. He took up the guitar at age 17, was self-taught, has made a reasonable living, but not quite enough to retire quite yet.
The town of Micanopy (The Town that Time Forgot) lies between Gainesville and Ocala in rural north-central Florida. It was founded after Spain relinquished Florida to the United States in 1821; it became the first distinct American town in the new territory. It is now one of the best-preserved examples of Old Florida culture. The town has 600 inhabitants, a mix of shopkeepers, hippies, and retirees.
Don and I parked our bikes and strolled through the town enjoying its historic architecture, featuring Greek revival within a mix of wooden Florida cracker style homes. Most of the stores are antique shops among a few arts and crafts and bookshops and cafes along streets lined with a canopy of live oaks covered with Spanish moss. Before departing Micanopy, we had an interesting chat with two motorcyclists from Ontario, Canada, one of whom had 402,000 miles on his 8-year-old Kawasaki Vulcan that had been to Alaska 3 times. Some folks really ride and others, like me, just pretend.
Back at camp, our rally hosts cooked up a nice steak dinner with homemade desserts, and shortly thereafter we sought out the warmth of our sleeping bags (and mostly couldn’t find it) for the last night in Florida. It was 25 degrees for our 6 am wake-up but the sun was shining brightly as we rolled out of Camp Blanding at 8 am.
The roads were dry, and except for the 70 mph blast on our windscreens, there was no other wind to make the ride unpleasant. Riding up Fancy Gap in the sunshine was a real joy despite 32 degrees at the top.
It’s always good to be back in Virginia no matter from where we come. Now it’s time to hunker down for the coming snowfall and plan another trip.
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