I made a beginner’s mistake: I committed to going somewhere without working out how far away it was. That’s a lesson I’m going to have to learn, as there’s a lot that I want to do and see in America… and it all looks close on an iPhone. The reality is that most of it is a very, very long way away.
But anyway, when I started talking about doing this trip, I promised my friend Beth that I’d go and visit her. She lived in my village for years, our kids grew up together, then she moved back to Jacksonville in Florida. I thought I’d just nip over there after riding the Tail of the Dragon – and so booked the bike in for a service as well.
The trouble was, I hadn’t really clocked how far it was. I emerged from the Cherohala Skyway and rode south into Georgia for 100 or so miles, then stopped for the night. Thinking I’d have a couple of hundred miles to do to get to Jacksonville, maybe 250…
No. Try 460 miles. In 37C heat and high humidity. Crossing Atlanta in heavy traffic was appalling – how on earth did they ever hold the Olympics there in the summer of 1996? I can hardly muster the energy to put the Z1000SX into neutral when the traffic grinds to a stop…
As well as my not-checking-the-distances stupidity, I had done a dumb thing when I flew out – but now I finally do a smart one. The dumb thing was packing an extra roll bag with a second jacket in it: a lightweight armoured mesh jacket from RevIt. I thought I might need that in the desert. No, I finally do the smart thing and put it on. The heat is still stifling, but at least it’s bearable (when I’m moving, at least). I think I’d have cooked in my beloved Dainese leather jacket.
The catch is that, crossing the state line (finally) from Georgia into Florida, there’s a short, sharp shower… but as I’m basically now wearing a teabag with a back protector, I’m instantly soaked to the skin. Still, I get off the interstate, find a Huddle House (chain restaurant) and get a drink then put my waterproofs on.
I’m glad I did: ten minutes later, I reach The Thunderstorm. Now, various ignorant and foolish friends and colleagues will tell you that it always rains on me; I’m a drought-sufferer’s dream, pursued across Europe by black clouds that soak everyone riding with me. Of course, that’s nonsense… But I admit that I’m not unfamiliar with heavy precipitation.
I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Cars are pulling onto the hard shoulder. The interstate seems to be an inch or more deep in water. Every truck I pass is throwing up huge curtains of spray. Visibility is down to about 25m and suddenly I’m doing about 30mph, following the rear lights of a giant pickup – and I have to follow the tail lights, because I can’t see as far as the cab… Lightning is flashing and thunder banging seemingly within feet of the road and I’m shivering with cold.
This goes on for about five miles. There’s nothing I can do but keep my inputs to the bike smooth, keep the distance to the pickup constant and try to keep the bike as upright as possible. I have to force myself to stay relaxed and loose – tensing up would be a huge mistake. I quietly thank god and Bridgestone for T31s I fitted just before shipping the bike. They are such good tyres in the wet: as well as gripping, they’re giving me plenty of feedback, which does wonders for my confidence levels.
Eventually, though, the visibility increases and there’s less standing water. The rain slackens to the point that it’s just like standing inside a car-wash machine. The pickup I’m following picks up the pace, so I match him – though I drop further back now I can see past him to read the road for myself.
Twenty minutes later, my waterproofs have become a wearable sauna as I join the Jacksonville rush-hour in bright afternoon sunshine and 33C heat.
I dry out enough for a celebratory meal (free ice-cream for the birthday boy) and next day take the bike into Jacksonville Powersports for its service. They’re quick, efficient and friendly. I reluctantly admit that I need to spend money on things I have at home but didn’t bring with me. I meant to pack my excellent Held Sambia short, cloth off-road gloves, but didn’t. So now I buy a pair of mesh Alpinestars MX gloves. They'll be cooler in this heat than my leather race gloves.
Yesterday’s 460-mile marathon exposed the fundamental hardness of the seat, so I nip to the Cycle Gear accessories store to buy an Airhawk like the one I left at home – an inflatable seat-topper to improve comfort. On the way back to Beth’s, I stop to get a picture of my bike at the Coast Guard hut on Jacksonville Beach, with the Atlantic Ocean in the background. I’ll be going coast-to-coast and unless I go onto the beach, it doesn’t get more coastal than this. And I finish the day off by posting my leather jacket to my brother in Sydney… I’ll do the rest of the journey in the mesh jacket.
Next morning, I head north on the A1A highway to Mayport, missing the ferry by three whole minutes. I wait in the baking early morning heat for half an hour before making the $5 crossing. The ride up Amelia Island is beautiful – perhaps the nicest riding I’ve had in Florida – but then it’s head down for another long day of mile-munching. I’m heading west now, through the sticky heat of Georgia, across the Okefenokee Swamp, splatting more bugs in 50 miles than in the rest of the trip so far.
It’s so hot and humid that I’m stopping for drinks pretty regularly. I know I’m in The South because almost everywhere seems to be a fried-chicken restaurant of some sort – and because everyone’s so friendly. I have a great chat with GoldWing rider Thomas Parrish, with Steve the Harley FatBoy rider, with a really charming R1 rider from New Jersey whose name I didn't catch… and with a bespectacled black chap from New York who tells me he’s lived down here for a year and it’s time to go back home because of the “atmosphere” in the south: “I’m free, but down here I don’t feel it”. That’s the stuff you don’t see yourself when you’re a middle-class white tourist.
My plan is to go to a campsite just over the state line in Alabama, by Eufaula Lake. I haven’t booked it – because I’m just a bike and a small tent. And because I don’t trust the weather, which is just as well. When I’m about 40 miles away, the sky turns slate-grey and the temperature drops from a muggy 32 to a relatively Baltic 24. I stop and put on the waterproofs, just in case. Sure enough, ten minutes later there are stair rods falling.
So, rain stops play: scrap Plan A. I find a motel up the road in Phenix City (the first one the sat nav took me to was genuinely burnt out… but this one…). I’ll hope the weather’s better tomorrow and I’ll try to find a camp site then.