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Riding The Withlacoochie

My Florida tan is beginning to fade just a bit but the high I feel from seven days of bike riding is undiminished. 

The Withlacoochie is a beautiful trail. Songbirds, hawks and even eagles flit among or soar above cyprus and oak trees. Many of the trees are draped with Spanish moss. The trail is well maintained, flat, and smells great from a mixture of herbage and firewood -- except near the dump seven miles from the northern end.


Despite lousy weather and the sorry condition of the roads in Union County, New Jersey, I had accumulated over 1200 miles on my Cannondale R-300 by the end of August. 1500 miles would be no problem; 2000 miles for the year was not impossible.

Unfortunately I got colitis. On September 4th late in the afternoon I had the worst abdominal pain I've ever experienced. I wound up in the hospital on intravenous Dilauded and antibiotics. I was in the hospital for three days and lost over 10 pounds. For a week after being released from the hospital I had to take antibiotics which made me weak, nauseous and tired. I didn't get back on my bike until the middle of the month and even then I was barely able to complete a 34 mile ride.

I had hoped to make up some mileage in October but when the Weather Channel forecasted a week of cloudy, chilly, wet weather, I mounted the Cannondale on the Thule bikerack, bound it with ropes, straps and locks, and headed for central western Florida and the Withlacoochie Bike Trail.

The Withlacoochie Bike Trail is about 50 miles south of Gainesville Florida, 25 miles south of Ocala. You can get there by I-75 or US 301. I prefer 301. I stayed in an attractive town called Inverness at the Central Motel which is a few hundred feet from the trail.

The Withlacoochie Trail was at one time a stretch of the Southern Railroad. It was converted to a bike path by the Rails to Trails people. The Trail and the railroad have a long, interesting history. I will limit myself to one anecdote.

Sometime in the 1950s an employee of Southern accidentally switched a northbound train to a southbound track. Or maybe it was a southbound train to a northbound track. Anyway, the trains were not equipped with radios because of a labor dispute.

Another train was approaching the improperly switch train and a collision was imminent. The employee's wife pursued the train in a car but did not arrive in time. The ensuing collision took several lives and left the area south of Floral City strewn with debris. There is a plaque on the trail between Floral City and Istachatta commemorating the event. Floral City has a museum dedicated to the event where you can see photos and film of the aftermath and read accounts of the accident.

The Withlacoochie extends for 46 miles if you include the extension from Ridge Manor to Trilby at the southern tip. The extension requires that you cross a bicycle bridge over US-50 and is a rather drab segment of fields and warehouses.

The Ridge Manor to Floral City section is my favorite ride. From Ridge Manor to Istachatta there are few intersections. The trail passes through deep forest and swamps with pools of black water, cyprus and oak trees often draped with Spanish moss. Although the enclosed Butcher photo is not taken near the trail, it could have been.

Istachatta offers a small plaza with a library, post office and a general store that sells snacks, drinks and a t-shirt that asks rhetorically, "Where the fuck is Istachatta?"

The Floral City to Inverness stretch is the busiest but is not without its charms. In addition to the aforementioned museum, there is a bar favored by motorcyclists and in its parking lot one may observe Harley-Davidsons with exquisite custom paint jobs, detailing and accessories. There are many benches, picnic tables and gazebos where one may stop to rest and chat with other cyclists. There is one bicycle shop in Floral City and another in Inverness. Just north of Inverness are a few spectacular lakes that host cranes, egrets and herons. And near the Inverness bike shop is a park with exercise facilities so the cyclist can exercise arms, shoulders, abs and backs as well as his legs.

The northern stretch from Inverness to Citrus Springs is close to a highway and stores for the first five miles or so, then very quiet and isolated. There is a large dump seven miles from the end of the trail on the eastern side, but for the most part the trail is quiet, sparsely populated or ridden, and the air has an intoxicating smell of dry roasted pine and burning firewood. The Gulf Junction trailhead, the trail's northernmost parking area, is usually vacant. The Withlacoochie River is a few hundred feet north of the trailhead.

When I crossed the Florida state line and had gotten do I-10 from I-295, I stopped in the first rest area available and changed into my riding clothes. I did not get off of US-301 in Inverness to go to the motel. Instead I continued south to Ridge Manor. I decided to ride the six mile extension to Trilby to test my legs and my strength.

I met Jeff crossing a bridge over US-50. Jeff was riding an Italian bike worth several thousand dollars. He was more than 20 years younger than me and moved quickly but I was able to keep up. The R-300 cost a mere $800 but it can fly on its 100psi tires. It weighs 18 pounds and I can curl it. It was made in Pennsylvania by unionized workers, mostly women. I've hit 38 mph on straightaways.

Jeff lives in Dade City which is near the Trilby trailhead. During the six-mile stretch we passed two people on a tandem who Jeff greeted by shouting, "Hi Harry and Mary!" as we passed one another. After Jeff left me at the Trilby trailhead I checked my average miles per hour: 14 mph. Not bad for a 68-year-old recovering from colitis.

Recumbent bikes are the most popular on the trail. They are often trikes but there is also an abundance of two wheelers. Harry and Mary owned several recumbents. All are two wheelers. Their most impressive bicycle is a two-wheeled recumbent tandem which they had to obtain from Sweden by special order.

I caught up with Harry and Mary at Ridge Manor where they were taking advantage of the restrooms and catching their breaths. It was now about 11am and they had been riding since the sun came up. They lived a few miles from Floral City toward which they were headed.

Mary is from Michigan. Harry is from Alabama. They ride the trail every day. Everyone knows them and greets them. On Tuesday Harrry rides alone while Mary does chores. Harry and I decided to meet on Tuesday near the Central Motel and ride to the Gulf Junction trailhead at the northern end of the Withlacoochie Trail.

On Tuesday I found keeping up with Harry was no easy chore. He is a hundred-miler: he rides 100 miles a day. He estimates that he rides between 20,000 and 30,000 miles a year on the Withlacoochie and other trails in the area. He is strong from riding the hills in his native Alabama. He moderated his pace a little so that I could keep up. We averaged 13.2mph for the 35-mile trip.

Harry described himself as a right-winger. I am an unrepentant red. Yet we seemed to agree on everything from our common hatred of Bill Clinton who destroy the country's manufacturing base with NAFTA to hatred of electronic devices including smartphones and television. Harry has lived and enjoyed life on a lake near Floral City that is home to many of the waterbirds to which I alluded. His tranquility and sanity are now being threatened by the appearance of an airboat owned by one of his neighbors. These infernal contraptions make more noise than a leaf blower.

Most of the local bikers know one another. The men are mostly 60-ish, brown, leathery and lean. I fit right in especially after three days of riding in the Florida sun. There were a couple of younger guys in latex on expensive machines that I saw and saluted as they zoomed up and down the trail and at least one bike club of younger women. I met one of the members of this club last year. She was from up north but had moved down to Florida several years ago and rides almost every day even in the hot Florida summers. "You just start earlier," she explained. I kept up with her for only a few miles.

I rode for seven consecutive days and averaged 35 miles per day at an average velocity of 13.5 mph. No cramps, aches, pain, or fatigue. I never rode better in my life.

I am now back in the armpit of the world: New Jersey. The weather has turned cooler. I have not been on the bike since I returned. I think of Jeff, Harry and Mary and the other bicyclists of the Withlacoochie Bike Trail a lot.

I love living near New York City and visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick with its Turners and Vermeers, and the Morgan Library. But I'm 68, the cold and damp weather twists and bends me. I often walk like a hunchback. After walking or jogging, my legs cramp at night.

In Florida I can see the stars at night. The air smells great. The culture is college football, Fox News and Christianity. However, there are a lot of great bike trails including the mythical Withlacoochie. And I have a large pile of books waiting to be read.

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