9 / No Wrong Turn

Crossing the start line

Week One

Day One: Miami to Jacksonville, Florida

Two Miami Shores police cars, lights flashing and occasional siren sounding, stopped the traffic at the stoplights. I blew through intersections, a big smile hidden beneath my full-face helmet. Two motorcycles and my son in his car followed through the suburbs of Miami.

The police cars halted in the middle of intersections and I carried on, hardly dropping my speed. As cars in the opposing directions waited for a procession of three motorcycles and car to go through. The paused cars surely wondered what or who was riding the lead motorcycle. I felt quite presidential, in a small way.

At the edge of their Miami Shores jurisdiction the two police cars pulled up. I waved a wave of thanks and our small procession carried on by itself. Now without an escort we merged onto I-95 heading northbound.

Police escort as I leave Miami

The sun shone in clear, blue skies. Bonnie’s northward heading had begun. My son and the two motorcycles followed to Fort Lauderdale and beyond. They peeled off one by one. As I approached Boca Raton I found myself alone in I-95 traffic. One man, a packed motorcycle, with Arctic Ride For Dreams stickers on the sides, headed up the expressway among people in cars who were living their ordinary Sunday afternoon lives.

But this was no ordinary Sunday afternoon drive for me. To the contrary, this was the beginning of a drive of a lifetime. I was headed to the Arctic.

I felt free, completely free, expectant and full of wonder.

Just north of Boca Raton grey clouds began to fill the sky. I could see patches of rain falling ahead. Life felt beautiful in the sunshine and I wasn’t in the mood to be rained on. I headed off I-95 and turned eastward along street roads towards the coast where the skies remained blue.

I arrived at the A1A junction, the road that follows the beach up the coast all the way to New York. I turned left. It dawned on me then that there was no planned route that I had to adhere to, therefore there wouldn’t be any wrong turns. Every turn felt like a right turn. God was with me surely. How could any turn be a wrong turn? Impossible. Everything would be surmountable. Every turn would have its reason for being.

Taking street roads is of course much slower and eventually I felt the need to go quicker. If I stayed on this course, with all the Sunday traffic along the coastline and the traffic lights, it would be extremely slow going. I wouldn’t make it very far.

In 2009, when I did the tour of the U.S.A., I had planned the route based on riding 300 miles a day. I learned that some days I would ride more than the goal of 300 miles and some days less. The days I rode more, sometimes up to 400 miles, were extremely exhausting in the heat and the wind, with no windscreen or faring. I learned a lesson. So for this ride I had planned an average of 250 miles a day. I’d spent time measuring the complete route very roughly on Google maps and figured at 250 miles a day, over the course of 4 months, I could make the complete distance with a full week in-hand, which would give me time for detours and staying an extra day or two anywhere I found agreeable.

At the rate I was traveling up A1A I would fall short of 250 miles the first day. I didn’t want to set that kind of precedence on day number one, so I turned left at a major intersection just south of West Palm Beach and headed back towards I-95. The grey clouds still loomed ahead of me. I was going to get wet. Rain would be the price of speed.

I pulled off into a fast food restaurant parking lot and donned my wet weather gear for the first time. As I reached I-95 and headed north again I found myself immersed in torrential rain. Still, it was okay– all a part of the experience.

One of the wisest purchases I made before setting off was a LifeProof case and handlebar mount for my iPhone. The downpour was the first test of its waterproof capabilities. It held up fine, which I was extremely pleased about because the iPhone would be my everything– my GPS, my notebook, my method of keeping in contact with MSPC, Evie, Ben, and my method of posting updates for anyone following me on social media. If the iPhone died I’d be riding somewhat blind.

The downpour continued for quite some distance, perhaps one hundred miles on and off. I’d bought new wet weather clothing, which was being put to the test for the first time. I was on the first day of a great adventure. The rain couldn’t dampen my clothing underneath, or my spirits.

It was my intention to make it to Daytona (approximately 250 miles) or St. Augustine (approximately 280 miles) but as I approached Daytona Lisa Sullivan from MSPC sent me a text. The iPhone screen lit up on the handlebars. This was great– the waterproof case and handlebar mount allowed me to receive messages and updates live and direct.

Lisa’s message informed me that she had contacted a friend of hers in Jacksonville and I was welcome to stay there for the night. Jacksonville was many more miles than I was planning to ride on the first day but my enthusiasm and the promise of a definite (free) place to stay for the night was an offer too good to turn down. Besides, I was on a mission of sorts, wherever God wanted me to go, whomever God wanted me to meet, I would surely go. I would be more than happy to! “Lead me where you want me to go!”

I planned to take as many surface roads as possible and avoid expressways at all costs. Expressways get you there quickly but they don’t allow you to see the real countryside, especially when you are moving at 70 to 80 miles per hour. By the time you’ve realized you just saw something interesting you have gone beyond it and the option to stop has receded in your rearview mirrors. But on Day One I felt the push to get out of Florida as quickly as possible– I would feel like I’d made some real progress. The Florida State line was the first marker to ride beyond. I rode I-95 all the way to Jacksonville, just south of the state line. I made good time and was in Jacksonville by 6pm or so.

My first night would be spent with John Sinclair, a friend of Lisa’s from MSPC. A friend of Lisa’s would be a friend of mine. What would John be like? He was a complete unknown. I knew nothing about him other than his name, his address, that he had a motorcike and a friend’s recommendation. What would his house or apartment be like? What would the neighborhood be like?

John’s address had been sent to me via text. I plugged in the address into Google maps and followed the route. Directions flashed up on the iPhone and I’d lean over the handlebars to read them. It didn’t pose a problem reading directions on the handlebars as I rode at high speed along the expressway, but I soon discovered that I’d had to be extremely careful riding and reading on curved exit ramps and merging with traffic on joining expressways. On a couple of ocassions, as I rounded tight exit ramp bends, trying to read directions on the handlebars, I almost drove off the road. Quick course corrections and my heart pumping in my throat I kept the bike out of the ditch. Breathing sighs of relief more than once I told myself I would be much more careful– less reading and driving!

I rode around the outlying suburban areas of Jacksonville, through more wealthy manicured neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods, being watched by all– an out-of-place guy on an overpacked motorcycle.

With a couple of wrong turns and a little backtracking I found John’s house relatively easily– a typical Florida one-story home in the suburbs of Jacksonville with a Harley Davidson parked in the semi-circular driveway.

John welcomed me with a warm smile, light shining from his eyes, and a hearty handshake. He looked a little ex-military with a shaved head. He was shorter than myself and a little more rounded in body. He helped me unpack the bike and carry all of my gear into the large Florida room of his house. It was a sizable ceramic tiled-floor room that he mostly lives out of– two couches, a desk and computer, a TV and en suite bathroom.

John gave me a tour of the rest of the house– kitchen, small living room (compared with the Florida room), and a dark corridor with a closed door at the end of it. His mother, Karen, lived a secluded life behind the closed door with two dogs that ocasscionally barked. I didn’t get to meet Karen during my stay. She doesn’t come out of her room when there are visitors.

The garden was half grassed and half a work-in-progress, with chickens running around– John’s newest hobby. He explained a little of the intracacies of raising chickens, feeding them and collecting their eggs. John is a person with multiple projects going at one time– learning chicken farming, brewing his own beer, painting the floor, and knocking down the brick grill in the garden.

After settling in John, made us a dinner of chicken (not from the back garden) and curried vegetables, including yams. I was impressed with his cooking for a single guy. We talked for quite a while about his dreams and my journey. John was getting increasingly tired of his current office job in the mortgage underwriting business and dreamed of buying an Airstream. John told me how he dreamed of converting it into a gourmet food truck and traveling across the United States on his motorcycle. He dreams of owning a houseboat, and wants to go to Europe to travel down the canals and locks on a barge. John was a man of many dreams, plans and projects. We brainstormed ideas about the food truck for a while and I hoped any suggestions I came up with would be helpful in the future.

The evening wore on as we talked and then it was time for bed. We threw some sheets and a pillow on one of the two couches in the Florida room for me to sleep on. I said goodnight but John didn’t leave to his room. It was then that John explained that he didn’t have a bedroom. His normal bed for the past month (as he did some remodeling to the house) was the other couch in the Florida room, just a few feet away.

This was a little unnerving. I was caught off guard. It’s a pleasant feeling at the end of a day to shut the door to a room and settle in to sleep. Suddenly realizing that someone you’ve met a few hours beforehand is going to be sleeping in the same room, just a few feet away, feels a bit odd and requires an adjustment in mindset.

John made his couch to sleep on and we changed into sleeping clothes, lay down on our respective couches and turned out the lights. The strangeness comes in the first half hour or so after the lights are out and there’s the awkward feeling of hearing each other’s breathing, sighs, turning over, getting comfortable, and the dread that you don’t snore through the night. I was, of course, very grateful for an unexpected, free place to stay (with dinner) on my first night. Sleeping in the same room, once I’d made the adjustment in my mind, was a tiny inconvenience I had no right to grumble about.

I was indeed grateful and happy with my first day on the road– several hundred miles and almost out of the State on the first day. I was already a little ahead of schedule. I fell asleep easily.

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By Andrew Hayward Smith © 2015 All Rights Reserved. Copyright Andrew Hayward Smith. No part of this manuscript may be reproduced without the author’s written consent.