It’s been one heck of a week here in Florida. I’ve been preparing for the the past few months, so naturally I was a little anxious to get started. I returned to Los Angeles from Paraguay on December 16 and the two weeks at home flew by at warp speed. Before I knew it, Christmas was here, and then a small BC contingent visited for New Years, which in its third year has now become a sort of tradition. There may have been a day trip to Las Vegas in there somewhere as well. It was great being home with my family and friends. As relaxing as the holidays were, the trip was constantly on my mind. With a massive trip like this, you want to be as prepared as possible. For me, that meant a few long bike rides to the beach and making sure that I had all of the supplies that I needed before I went to Florida. As January 2 arrived, I was ready to go.
As mentioned in my earlier post, I was upgraded to first class on my flight to Orlando. I was ecstatic. I was convinced that this was a sign from above that the trip I was about to embark on was truly meant to be, and that I had God on my side. I didn’t really pay much attention to the hundreds of people at the airport frantically running around trying to resolve their flights getting cancelled because of the massive storms around the country. “Good thing the storm won’t hit Florida,” I thought. Oh how I was wrong.
I landed in Orlando at 6:30 a.m. on January 3. I took a shuttle to Daytona Beach, where Darren and his lovely aunt and uncle picked me up. From there we went to Sprokets, the bike shop in St. Augustine Florida that took care of all of our gear. We took a picture with his relatives, and then they were gone like the wind. Their prompt departure startled me, and I turned to Darren and realized that our trip had just materialized. It was just the two of us, the bikes, and the open road. There was no going back now.
We went into Sprokets and met Hayden for the first time. Hayden was the guy who picked up my phone call a couple weeks earlier. The conversation went something like this. Hayden–“Sprokets, how can I help you?” Taylor–“I need two Trek 520s, and I want to buy them from you guys. But only if you can give me a deal. I can get them for “x” in LA. What can you do for me?” I think Hayden was a little taken aback. You see, Sprokets is a small ma’ and pop bike shop in the center of St. Augustine. They make most of their money from repairs as I later learned from Hayden. They don’t get many bike orders, so when that was the first thing I said, Hayden replied, “Uhhh, let me get my manager.
Brandon, the manager, was the guy who took care of ordering all of our gear and getting it to St. Augustine. Hayden helped him with the installation of the parts and the maintenance of the bike. That particular weekend, Brandon went on vacation, which left Hayden as the guy to explain to a bunch of rookies how to ride and maintain the Trek 520 while on the road. We had a couple hour crash course with Hayden, with him teaching us how to adjust the brakes, gears, etc. Towards the end of the day, as conversation spiked, Hayden asked us, “Hey where you guys staying tonight?” We told him that we were going to try and find a hostel. “Well you guys seem like pretty cool dudes,” he told us, “you can crash at my place if you want. And so the good luck continued!
We rode our new toys to Hayden’s and met his roommate, Rachel. Darren and I thought it would be a nice gesture to treat them to dinner for being so great to us. We went to a BBQ joint with unreal food and great local beer. Darren and I ordered the brisket and pulled pork shoulder, with a side of mac n’ cheese, green beans, french fries, and sweet potatoes. When the food came, we nailed down a rule for the trip–we would split everything 50-50. What better way to get bond than sharing meals? The second rule for the trip–we finish everything on the plate. No matter what. This would prove very important because we are going to need every calorie we can get our hands on. We are going to be burning 4,000-6,000 calories a day, so or daily caloric intake MUST exceed that. I’m hungry already just typing those words.
So we finished all of the food, even the extra french fries that the waitress brought. We went back to Hayden’s and he offered to take us on a night ride around town and show us the sites. A night ride through a city with a pair of bikes that we’ve only ridden for for a total of 30 minutes? Somewhere Cathy Ross and Cheryl LaFrenier are nodding their heads in disapproval. Hayden took us to see the Castillo de San Marcos, which is an old fortress used by the Spaniards that’s never been breached. We also saw the Lightner Museum (see photos below). At one point, all of us were coasting downhill together with the night wind whistling through our hair. At that point I realized that we were all riding Trek 520s (Hayden’s model was from 1979). We were our own little wolf pack, if not only for the night. The old, wise, master on his antique Trek 520 and the two idiot apprentices, eager to learn, and cocky enough to think they can cross the country with no real riding experience. It was a blissful moment, and it just felt right. The trip felt real. It had begun.
Later, Hayden wanted to try out my new Trek 520. He had spent two weeks working on the thing, so naturally he wanted to give it a test ride. I of course agreed. He was 6’4″, so his seat was much higher than mine. It was a little uncomfortable at first, so I opted to pedal while standing. Before I knew it, my foot slipped on the pedal and my butt came crashing down into the seat, which at that time felt like it was made of rock. My entire ass lost feeling, and I bit my tongue so hard that it started to bleed. I didn’t peep a word, however. When something as embarrassing as that happens and you’re among a group of guys, if no one sees it it’s best to act like it never happened. We got back to Hayden’s and crashed on the couch.
The next morning we were up and on our way to our first stop in Palatka. 5 miles in we had a flat tire. Thanks to our makeshift crash course the day before, we were up and running again in 20 minutes. The first day’s ride brought us some tremendous scenery. We saw massive farms (mostly cabbage), and winded through neighborhoods that were shaded on each side by massive trees that had Spanish moss hanging from its roots. Imagine the big tree from Forest Gump’s house, but hundreds of them all lined up next to each other with their branches reaching across the road.
Towards the end of our ride, I started to notice Oso dragging a little behind. We passed through a pretty terrible neighborhood where the locals were outside drinking 40 oz.s and smoking Swisher Sweets. I urged him to keep up so we could keep our wolf pack nice and close in case danger approached. And soon it did. But not in the way we expected. I started to notice that we were getting barked at a lot by dogs, but nothing ever came from it so I wasn’t worried. The next thing I know, I notice something in my periphery vision racing towards me. I turn around and see a true look of fear on Oso’s face. His brow was dripping with sweat, and his eyes were looking at me screaming for help. I was too far in front to have been able to help, though. A ferocious pit bull was chasing after him and chomping at the trailer on the back of his bike. Note for future bikers–don’t buy neon yellow trailers–they attract flesh-eating pitbulls. This pitbull was foaming at the mouth. It had obviously been neglected from its owner, and looked like it hadn’t eaten in days. It saw Oso’s big rear end, then hit turbo and went primal. Keep in mind that Darren is spitting fumes at this point. He had not done much training over the past month due to weather restricts, so that day’s ride had really taken a toll on him. He eventually kicked it into survival gear and out-peddeled the mut.
Honestly, and this is terrible to admit, but the whole time I was laughing my ass off. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but in retrospect I know exactly why. I was traveling in Mendoza, Argentina in July ’13 with my friend Gunnar. We rented bikes and toured the city. We stopped by the bus station to buy tickets to Valparaiso, which was our next stop in Chile. It was a great day with perfect weather. As I was leaving the bus terminal, however, I noticed three dark black objects running at me at warp speed from my right. It turned out that they were three stray dogs that were hungry for a snack. I was used to dogs running after me like that. I lived in Paraguay for the past couple years and the same thing happens all the time when I am on my motorcycle. But this crappy rental bike, I soon realized, did not possess the power of my 200cc Shark. I pedaled as fast as I could, but I was on an incline and the dogs soon t-boned me. One of them got the first bite, ripping my jeans from my calf all the way down to my foot. He led the way for his friend to get a nice chunk of calf meat and then some. My adrenaline kicked in, much like Oso’s, and I soon jetted out of there. As flustered as I was, when I regained my composure I noticed Gunnar on a patch of grass on the flooring laughing as hard as he could. He couldn’t contain himself. He thought it was the funniest thing he has ever seen, while I was worried that I had contracted rabbis from a Mendocino stray. He apologized the whole way to the hospital. I never forgave him.
So now maybe you can understand why that the SECOND time that Oso got attack by a pitbull, I could not control myself. This particular dog looked like she had just given birth to a litter of 30 dogs. When I first saw her, she was chained to a stake in the ground. She was barking at me as if I had tried to take one of her babes. “Hey, I’m just passing by,” I thought, “No need for the hostility!” Before I knew it I heard Oso panting from over twenty yards behind me. He was screaming something. I couldn’t tell if it was, “Moooommmmmmmyyyy!” or “HEEEEELLLLPPP ME!” I noticed the dog quickly closing in on Oso. He was a good 100 yards in front of her, but she covered that ground quickly. She would have definitely had the best 40 time in the NFL Combine. I’d put her at 4.1 or 4.2. Her belly was saggy with teets, which flopped together when she was in pursuit of the Bear. Poor Oso, pedaling as fast as he could, but not fast enough. It’s like when your car is out of gas and you can see the gas station in the distance but your engine starts to flutter. For whatever reason, the dog backed off eventually. But hey! What a way to end the day. We had to pull over to the side of the road to regain our composure and laugh about what had just transpired. We quickly learned the the trip would be full of hilarious stories much like these.
That found a pizza joint and split a large pepperoni. We stayed at a cheap motel run by the nicest Indian woman ever (from Mumbai to Palatka–talk about a culture shock!) and watched the Chiefs blow a 28 point lead vs. the Colts.
We woke up and were on the road by 9. We had a couchsurfing host that was expecting us in Gainesville, so we needed to make it there by the afternoon. We biked along a highway for the first hour or so, then found a bike trail that ran parallel to the highway. It was completely secluded by masses of trees. Rays of sunlight would seep through the leaves and hit us in the face. Gorgeous. We passed through small towns along the way to Gainesville and then arrived at a state park that had a bike trail that led right into the heart of Gainesville. Once we reached the bike trail, we thought we were home free. Turns out it was 11 more miles. The sun came out too for the first time since we started riding, so it was HOT. The bear was dripping sweat, and I had a mean sunburn–pure tomato face.
We biked through Gainesville and saw UF campus/Stadium. Took a picture with the Tebow statue. After we were off to the Hunters house. Neither I nor Darren had ever couchsurfed before, so we were initially a little skeptical. We pulled up to the house, which sat a couple miles away from campus. The lawn had a tree swing and toys lying all around the lawn. We first met Damien, the dad of five. He introduced us to all the kids–Olivia, Liam, Eli, Olivander, and Stella (photos below). They were all so lively and came at us with loads of energy–something much needed after a 65 mile day! The Hunters were great. Damien is a dentist and has his own practice. All of the kids are homeschooled. Eli showed us his knife collection, and Olivia showed us how many pull ups she could do. Stella was the cutest 2 year old ever, and Liam played with his pet snake all day. They also had a dog named Ros. With one s. We all had a family dinner where Beth and Damien told us a story about a guy named Greg. Greg is from Wales, and worked for ten years in investment banking. At age 31, he retired and decided that he wanted to bike the world. And thanks what he did. He biked North and South America, Europe, and Asia. 20,000 miles in total. He also climbed Everest at some point. Darren and I were so fascinated with his story. We use his badassness to inspire us when we are pooped on the road. Whenever we wake up exhausted and unmotivated, we say, “What would Greg do?” And that gets us right out the door. We are in the process of contacting him. Hopefully it is a relationship that can materialize. You NEED to check out the videos on his facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/cyclingtheworld
After dinner, Oso and I crashed. We were EXTREMELY tired and had planned the next day to take off early in the morning.
The more research we did the night before, we discovered that there was a national wind chill warning in Northern Florida. Temperatures would be reaching record lows, and it said that it would be easy to catch frostbite–locals said they had never seen anything like it before. Sign me up! Oso and I shared a bed, when we woke up Bethany (the mother) said, “The hot tub is ready–just to let you guys know.” We ate breakfast, and hopped in the jacuzzi. Darren was a little under the weather, so we decided that it would be stupid risking further sickness by biking in 20 degree weather. We took the day off, updated the blog, and went on a quick ride into the center of town. We hit the sack early, and were ready to ride the next morning. We hoped for better weather, and woke up with icicles staring at us from outside.
We woke up and Oso and I were both sleeping with the comforter over our head. It was that cold. But we could not afford to take another day off. Rise and grind. We packed up our stuff, said goodbye to the lovely Hunters, and took a picture outside next to a tree that had icicles growing on it. We were off to our next destination–Ichetucknee State Park. We had miserable conditions the entire day. Just awful! Blistering headwinds. Freezing temperatures. Couldn’t feel the toes. (See videos).
We made it to the state park at the end of the day and met the lovely managers, Vic and Ruth. They let us set up our tent inside right next to the fire. They were worried about Darren, who at this point had lost his voice and had developed a smokers cough. We also had the good fortune to meet two new friends, Patrick and Jess, from Novascotia. Pat had a 1960s Land Rover and a small little camper. He packed up the camper and drove south from Canada all the way to Florida to go on an excursion around the country (you can see their blog at http://www.paddlesouth.ca/#!travels/c405). We spent the whole night with the couple, and they even invited us back to their camper for a good old-fashioned “Panini Party.” Patrick manned the grill. Oso and I took down three paninis each. We went back to our indoor camp site, tended the fire, and set up the tent. Oso crashed on his sleeping back onto of a pool table, leaving me all alone in our “Hubba Hubba” tent.
We woke up and said bye to Pat and Jess in their camper. At this point Oso was very sick and had terrible knee pain. We passed through a small town called Wellborn. We stopped at a gas station and split a pizza. We didn’t think we were going to be able to make it to our site for the day–Suwanee State Park. The weather was miserable, and their indoor cabins were too expensive for our tight budget. Then, as if a sign from above, Damien messaged me and asked about Darren’s health. I told him that it was deteriorating, and that we didn’t really have a place to stay. He told me that Beth’s (his wife) parents lived just north of Live Oak, and that he could call them and see if we could crash there for the night. I was looking at our map while I was on the phone with Damien, and it turned out it was only about 8 miles away from us! Even more, it wouldn’t take us off route. Things like this happening further reinforce my belief that this trip is just kind of meant to be.
We biked to Beth’s parents house, who lived about 2 miles off of the nearest paved route. We were biking dirt/sand roads all the way to their house. We finally met Arlo, Beth’s dad. He explained to us that he owned 30 acres and that he frequently hunts on his property. He is 63 and retired. He has a dog named Jenny, who arguably loves him more than his wife, Lyla. Lyla is a school teacher in Live Oak, and teaches ESL to immigrant students. We connected a while over dinner about her work, and also what we are doing in Paraguay. She prepared guacamole, a delicious dip, baked potatoes, and venison that Arlo had hunted. We feasted like beggars, and then all camped out on the couch and watched TV. Arlo even made us “Hot Toddys!” I’d never had one before, but it was delicious. Darren grew up on them, and it definitely helped his sore throat because he woke up energized and ready to go. Nothing like a little home cookin’ to remedy a sickness! We had a hot shower, and hit the sack. We each had our own bed. Oh, how spoiled we have been so far.
We grinded to Madison, FL. Oso was enthralled with the peanut farms. As we entered Madison, we were looking for a cheap hotel to crash at. We were following our directions on my iPhone to the nearest motel, and a woman pulled her window down and yelled at us, “Hey! You doing the Souther Tier? Looking for a place to stay?” “Well yes, ma’am, we are!” Cindy, who worked at the Madison Chamber of Commerce & Tourism, directed us to the local B&B. She said the woman who ran it did a lot of non-profit work with underprivileged kids. Seemed like the perfect fit! We rang the doorbell and met Linda, the nice lady that Cindy told us about. She welcomed us with open arms. After having a long conversation about our work, she directed us to our rooms. We have the whole B&B to ourself! She even prepared us a delicious tea with lemon and honey.
This trip has been quite the adventure so far. It’s taught me that if you treat people with courtesy and are amicable, they will normally act the same. I’ve had a lot of time to get lost in my head on the road as well. I’ve been reflecting on decisions I’ve made in the past, and the transformation that I have undergone as a man in the past few years. I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationships with different people, and how things have changed over time. This trip, although only a week long, has given me great perspective. I’m beginning to see how I want the next few years of my life to take shape.
My work in Tobati has had such a significant impact on me. This trip is the most thrilling thing that I have ever done in my life. The support we have received has been overwhelming, and it humbles me every time I think about it. Whenever I get tired on the road, I think of my students back in Tobati who are probably trying to outlast the intense summer heat. Or all of donors who have been so generations with their financial support. You guys really keep me going when I want to quit. I’m trying to hold onto the comments of skeptics who don’t think that we can really do this. Although it’s just a bike trip, I think that it’s just another way for Darren and I to further emphasize that truly “todo es posible.” Everything is possible if you really want it. I’m sure years ago no one would have thought that a kid by the name of Joel Unzain, who lived out in the jungle in Punta del Este (Tobati), would be able to get a $240k scholarship to study at UPENN. But he thought he could, and so did I. And it happened.
Chose something that you want to accomplish, and don’t stop until you do it. Spend your life doing something that allows you to make sense of the noise around you. For me, that’s the only way I ever find happiness.
Thank you to all of those who have messaged me with their support. I love all of you. Les quiero muchisimo!
Saludos a todos mis amigos de Paraguay. Yo y Darren estamos pensando en ustedes cada dia. Les deseo lo mejor y que pasen bien el verano!