Riding a Straight Line

Once when my son was questioning why I was driving to the park via a different route, my late Father In Law (who got me) told him, “Your Daddy hates a straight line.”

Boy do I.

Today I rode the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail this abandoned railroad bed that goes from the easily missed intersection known as Mabel, Florida to the thriving metropolis of Polk City, Florida. If the trail sounds rural and far away, it’s because it is. It’s in the woods. Deep. Halfway between Tampa and Orlando, the Van Fleet winds it way through a few farms and meadows, but mostly through the Green Swamp of the Withlacoochee State Forest. (Withlacoochie is an Indian word that means With The Coochie). Only, it doesn’t really wind, winding implies a bit of meandering, gentle curves, or even a turn or two. Not the Van Fleet, it is advertised as having one curve, but I must have missed it, it is a straight line designed by the Southern Railroad, 8 feet wide and 29.2 miles long of rural splendor.

I saw a deer today, a beautiful doe hopped across the trail early this morning, yards in front of me, as surprised to see me as I was to see her. I also saw 1 painted turtle and 4 Gopher tortoises. And an alpaca farm, which is presumably gator proof, but not stink proof, I will testify that alpacas stink badly. Mostly I saw the Green Swamp, the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi, at least I think that’s what the guidebook said, if you’ve seen 1 mile of Green Swamp, you’ve seen the whole Green Swamp, and I saw mile after mile of the Green Goddamn Swamp today as I rode up and back the 60 miles to Polk City. (I added an extra couple of miles onto the trail because, well, how can you miss Polk City’s beautiful mobile homes and satellite dishes once you’ve ridden all the way there? Actually, I wanted to get an even 60 miles in for this ride, I made sure I hit exactly 60; but when my Garmin uploaded my ride it somehow only credited me with 59.96 miles, it got bored too.)

The Garmin also claims I got 1100 feet of elevation, but it must have been pretty gradual, I don’t remember any hills, speed bumps, or even bottle caps. Mostly what I got was bored. And hot, it gets very hot in Florida in July, in case you don’t watch the Travel Channel, and aside from a few other cyclists I saw no one, heard no one, and mostly just got the miles in. And that’s okay, I ride this torture trail a couple of times every summer to experience the pain and 2 years ago, midway through the trail, in the middle of the day, I encountered a bearded guy, walking along with a long stick and a burlap bag over his shoulder. He was at least 5 miles from the nearest parking place, and with the heat rising off the trail he looked like Moses in the desert. As I approached him, wondering if he was going to be the last person I’d ever see, and if they would find my body before the gators did, he asked,

“Hey, have you seen any rattlesnakes.”

Oddly, no one had ever asked me this question before. Not while visiting a zoo, not in a Walmart, and especially not in the middle of the Green Swamp in the middle of summer in the middle of the Van Fleet Trail. If Moses’s goal was to lure me in he’d won, I stopped my bike.

“I’m sorry, did you say Rattlesnake Snakes?”

“Yes, have you seen any?”

“They have those here?”

“Well, yes, that’s what I’m looking for.”

“No, I gotta go.”

Miles later, still wondering if I’d imagined all of that- don’t laugh on this same trail I once rode with a 70 something year old for several miles who I later decided was the ghost of future me- I saw what must have been Moses’s car parked and, of course, it had a clergy sticker on the back, he must have needed the serpent for Sunday service.

So actually, 60 miles of straightness was just fine with me today, no rattlesnakes, no prophets in the wilderness.

I like to ride the trail because it is hard and because it forces me to stay focused on the ride, there are no distractions, no chance to bail out, just do your 60 miles, alone, and be done with it. I have some very long rides coming up this fall and I just have to stretch it out a little. Today I finished the 60, but not strongly, I went out a lot faster than I came in and the Van Fleet, if nothing else, is a good measuring stick. If you want to ride it, bring lots of water, sunscreen, and a burlap bag for the rattlesnakes.



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