Twenty-four hours of 110-mph-plus winds, followed by five days of no power, internet, or phone service.
Hurricane Ian had made landfall the previous Wednesday. Power went out that morning. I had hoped that the eye of the hurricane would pass over my house in Port Charlotte, giving me a brief respite during which I could view any damage, but the center of the storm tracked 10 miles to the east, causing Port Charlotte to get the storm at its peak power. Exceptionally high winds and rain, coupled with the storm’s slow progress, guaranteed it would cause a great deal of damage in southwest Florida.
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In the days following the storm, I cooked everything in my cold storage on a barbecue grill or over cans of Sterno, using my imagination to create palatable results. While the experience certainly increased my backwoods culinary skills, I eventually reached a quitting point.
Sunday found me driving a hundred miles east to Lake Okeechobee to get gasoline for my car and generator, avoiding the mile-long lines at the few Port Charlotte gas stations that had managed to get up and running. The 200-mile round trip became an all-day excursion thanks to downed trees, power lines, and nonfunctioning traffic lights. The rule for intersections with inoperable traffic lights is to treat them as a four-way stop, but major four-lane intersections with turn lanes become a bit unpredictable when the lights are not working. The long day’s drive was the deciding factor; with reports of services being out for at least several more days, a decision was in the offing.
Hmmm. What to do. What to do? Road trip.
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Monday I did maintenance checks and packed my bike with plans to leave early the next morning. I would visit Atlanta, stay with family, and catch up with old friends until I received word that my neighborhood’s power had been restored. To avoid the many storm-related travel problems throughout southwest Florida, I would take the long way around, heading east back to Lake Okeechobee, then north to Jacksonville before heading northwest through rural Georgia to Atlanta. The Jacksonville-Atlanta ride was a nice one that I had ridden before. An overnight stop was an option, but if I were up to the challenge, I could opt to complete the entire ride on Tuesday, although doing so would make it a very long riding day.
The Long Ride
At 6:45 a.m., I thumbed the starter and rolled out of the driveway. My early start time ensured I’d encounter the least possible traffic while leaving the worst of the storm damage in my mirrors. A full tank of gas meant I wouldn’t have to fill up until I reached the east coast, clear of storm-damaged areas and the resulting long gas lines.While the general idea was one of escape, I included some scenic routes in the planning process. I’d cross the state on state Route 74, which cuts straight as an arrow due east, and enjoy the sunrise as I headed toward Lake Okeechobee. From there, FL74 led to Highway 27 and FL78 before reaching the town of Okeechobee and Highway 441 just north of the lake.
Highway 441 is a designated scenic highway in this area, and as compared to other typically straight and flat roads of Florida, it was quite a nice ride.
As bad as Hurricane Ian had been, it had left spectacular weather in its wake, pulling out all cloud cover and humidity and bringing the first cooler temperatures of the year. With temperatures in the mid-70s and virtually cloud-free skies, the weather for a long ride could not have been better.
The parallel route from Highway 441 to Interstate 95 allowed me to ignore the interstate while maintaining interstate-like speeds through scenic open country and wildlife preservation areas. I slowed only for a few picturesque old-Florida towns along the way.
At Highway 192 and the Herky-Huffman/Bull Creek Wildlife preservation area, I headed east toward I-95. At Deer Park Road/County Road 419, I found one more detour to delay the inevitable interstate. Deer Park Road joins Nova Road/CR532 and ends at Highway 520 west of Cocoa; then it was east to I-95.
At I-95, an enjoyable morning ride gave way to the business end of the day’s travel. For the next two hours, I had 160 miles to put behind me. Surprisingly strong crosswinds meant the miles to Jacksonville were that much more of a chore. By Jacksonville, it had already been a long riding day.
I pondered the good sense decision to stop for the night, but stopping would mean a fairly large dent in the budget, and I had the entire next day to rest up. I pushed on. Taking I-295 west around Jacksonville led to FL23 and a northwestern “dead reckoning” ride by map toward Macon, Georgia.
At a road-weary late afternoon stop for gas in Douglas, Georgia, I knew I was pushing the envelope. I’d already spent 10 hours on the bike and had some four hours left to go. I knew that a stop to rest and eat was called for, but I wanted to get out of rural Georgia before sunset, when the deer and the antelope play. Providence intervened when a long slow-moving commercial train blocked my route on the north side of town. I was annoyed at first, but realized it was perfect timing; I would have kept going when I should have stopped, and when a break and dinner were thoroughly needed.
The sun had swapped places with a crescent moon by the time I reached I-16 at Macon. Another two hours and I reached Atlanta, pulling into my cousin’s driveway at 9:30 p.m. It had been a nearly 15-hour riding day, one of my longest ever.
Wednesday was a day of well-earned R&R, followed by an evening out listening to a great Atlanta band and visiting with old friends. I would be ready to take in some favorite Georgia rides on Thursday.
The Southern Georgia Triangle
The town of Monticello is about 50 miles southeast of Atlanta, but that 50 miles takes you back a century in time to a bucolic and pastoral town of old Southern charm. It’s a good starting point to enjoy three intersecting scenic highways, GA16, GA11, and Highway 129, which form a large inverted triangle with Monticello at the upper left vertex. Wanting to fill the day with as much scenic highway as I could, I rode I-75 south out of Atlanta to Locust Grove, where GA16 heading east from I-75 is also a designated scenic highway for the 26 miles to Monticello.
The three-road triangle runs through the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, forested all the way, with mild curves, long sweepers, and gently rolling hills. At Monticello, taking GA11 southeast to the town of Gray completes the first leg of the triangle, leading to Highway 129 northeast to Eatonton before returning west to Monticello again on GA16.
Another day of picture-perfect weather found me stopping often to take photos of old churches and restored antebellum houses, quaint small-town businesses, and magnificent stretches of perfectly paved pecan-tree-lined highway. While uninterrupted travel time around the loop is only about two hours, stops for photos and local restaurants filled a beautiful afternoon ride.
Completing the triangle brings you back to Monticello, where taking GA11 north to I-20 leads back to Atlanta. While this leg of GA11 is not a designated scenic highway, virtually every road in this area provides spectacular views.
On Thursday evening, I received a text from a neighbor: The power was back on. While my house was generally undamaged by the storm, I had lost some roof shingles and a large tree in the backyard had several broken limbs hanging loose. The storm had taken the wet weather with it when it left Florida, but the dry spell would likely not last long. I wanted to make sure that the shingles were replaced and the potential tree limb danger was addressed before the next rain. I decided to head home on Saturday.
That left Friday for one more great ride. Georgia State Route 60 is right in the heart of Georgia’s piece of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it’s one of the best examples of a road seemingly made for motorcyclists, from its beginning about 9 miles north of Dahlonega until it reaches the Tennessee border at McCaysville. Its first 7 miles are also part of a three-road loop known as The Georgia Triangle, consisting of GA60, GA180, and Highway 129-19. The Triangle is as well known to Southern riders as Deals Gap is in Tennessee. While I usually make a point of riding the triangle every time I’m in the area, GA60 is a stand-alone great ride in itself, and it had been a long time since I had ridden the road from beginning to end.
From its start at its intersection with GA19-129, at a location known as Six Gap, the road climbs 1,400 feet in the first 7 miles to Suches. On the way up the mountain, I experienced a motorcyclist’s worst nightmare. Coming around a blind left curve on the twisting mountain road, a pickup truck was traveling a full 2 feet over the centerline and well into my lane, at a location where only a guardrail stood between the road and a steep drop-off to the right. Up in those parts, you remain both constantly vigilant and in dread of such a possibility, and I was prepared. Without even a moment to hit the horn, I moved as far to the right as I could without going off the road, skirting the painted yellow edge line to avoid the truck.
It is difficult for me to imagine the mindset of a driver who seems indifferent to placing another human being’s life in danger, whether that indifference comes from callous disregard, intoxication, inattentiveness, or simple ignorance. Had I been driving a car, there would likely have been a head-on collision on that twisting mountain road. I put the near miss behind me, in miles and in spirit, and continued on to enjoy the day.
Which I certainly did. Well known to riders in the southeast, Two-Wheel of Suches (formerly Two Wheels Only) is a long-established motorcycle lodge, restaurant, and campground that caters to two-wheeled travelers. It has been a favorite stop of mine for over 20 years, both for the great burgers and the informative two-wheeled conversation. As is always the case, the parking lot was full of bikes and riders of all stripes. It’s good to see the place still going strong.
The leaves were just beginning their annual color change, with the low autumn afternoon sun backlighting on an angled ecliptic. North of Suches, GA60 is a continuous series of twisted turns and short steep grades for miles. Having previously lived in Dahlonega, I knew this road well, but residing in straight and flat Florida for a number of years, I paid extra attention to my lane position, braking, and gear selection while I got my sea legs back.
Around every curve was a great photograph, but tight twists and turns with no shoulder and quick drop-offs made stopping for photos a rare opportunity. North of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church the road straightens and flattens a bit, so stops are easier. Next time I’ll have a GoPro for this ride.
My exit for the day was at Blue Ridge, with a stop at the serene blue lake for the last photos of the day, returning south to Atlanta via Highway 76 and I-575. McCaysville at the Georgia-Tennessee border is another 10 miles down SR60, but it was late afternoon and I had plans for my last night in town. Evening brought another favorite music venue with a great band and the opportunity to catch up with friends from my Atlanta days. I’d packed a lot into an impromptu five-day vacation.
And it wasn’t quite over. While the ride from Atlanta is typically another long day on the interstate, I knew from previous experience that I-75 from Gainesville to Tampa often has traffic backups that can last for miles. I don’t know of a worse travel experience than being on a motorcycle in stop-and-go traffic on an interstate highway. Checking Google Maps at the Florida border showed that traffic jams were indeed the case. Some improvisation was called for.
Putting the Bike Before the Horse
Some of Florida’s best riding can be found north of Tampa and west of I-75 in the rolling hills of Florida’s equestrian country. Even though it meant extending an already long ride, I exited the interstate south of Lake City to Highway 41 toward High Springs. It was a late afternoon and a perfect time to ride the rolling hills of northwest Florida, past horse ranches and equestrian parks, keeping up a good clip on sparsely populated, perfectly paved highways, again with only old Florida small towns to supply interest and gear changes. Riding in what photographers call “golden hour” I stopped for pics on a beautiful overhanging tree-lined section of the highway. I’m glad I took the detour.
Just after sunset at Lake Hernando, near the town of the same name, I took the last photo of the week, of the bike in front of the lake with a full moon overhead.
The Suncoast Highway, Highway 589, is a north-south toll road that runs from Lecanto to the Tampa-St. Pete area. It’s a far superior ride to I-75, usually near traffic-free and well worth the five-buck toll. Having a SunPass transponder in the saddlebag allowed forward progress without interruption. Approaching Tampa, I dodged several kamikaze drivers who would just as soon kill you as look at you. Man, the world sure is getting to be a crazy place. The detour extended the normally nine-hour ride to ten and a half; another long riding day. While I know that occasionally I ought to stop for an overnight, I am pretty used to saddle time at this point.
For an impromptu hurricane escape route, I could not have asked for better conditions; clear skies, cool but comfortable temperatures, great rides and some needed reconnections with old friends. A few days later I replaced the shingles on my roof with the help of a cousin. We finished 90 minutes before the first rainfall since the hurricane. Providence indeed.