By Mary Shanklin
Hypothermia and hunger clawed at us. Our once-merry band of eight friends was more than midway through a 225-mile, bike-camping trip on backroads across Florida. Now we were down to just four. Some bailed for a hotel, and at least one was lost in the woods.
Frankly, we were all lost.
We knew going into this that the weather didn’t look good. But when our Tampa cycling friend, Susan Gryder, texted us all weeks earlier with the plan, we were all in regardless. I mean, how many times do the meteorologists get it right anyway?
We pushed bikes with flat tires deeper into the Etoniah Creek State Forest. Soaked and shivering in our spandex gear, we searched for the elusive Iron Bridge Camp Shelter, where we intended to escape the tornado-warning weather and bunk overnight.
My friend Rorie scouted the trail ahead. One person had already missed one of the orange trail blazes and gotten separated from the group. We didn’t need to lose another.
“There’s a SWAMP!” Rorie yelled back at us. With temperatures dipping into the low 40s, no bullfrogs croaked. Her voice pierced only the sound of rain thrashing the cold, black bog.
Disbelief stung more than the downpour. How could there be a swamp? Rorie had purchased the trail notes for this old, natural-Florida route, and there was no mention of such an impasse. We stood paralyzed.
If we did the unthinkable—turn back—where would we go? The trail notes mentioned that a mile back there was a bathroom where people on this route had slept before.
Had it come to this: Feeling half-starved and sleeping in a bathroom at a stage in life when I should be luxuriating? Back home, my wonderful husband awaited me in our comfortable home with our sweet, little dog. I grew herbs and attended book clubs. I was a grandmother, for crying out loud. How did I get to this place? What were my sane friends doing with their Saturday night? I’ll bet they were sipping pinot noir and grilling marinated ribeyes. Their kitchens probably smelled like baking brownies that they would soon smother in Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. Bastards.
Here, on the other side of the universe, at the warped edge of a swamp, one member of our remaining crew began to crack. Another lamented that our friends at the hotel were the ones who got it right. Thanks for that insight.
And yet at some point during the many years I’ve ridden bikes, I realized that you never remember the perfect days. Flawless experiences vanish in a sea of smiley cell-phone photos, while the cataclysmic ones become the storied legends of our lives. You can’t buy these adventures, and you can’t find them at home. They are the fabric that defines us. Those shared experiences weave us together like tree limbs wrapped in wet Spanish moss.
And then there was the cold reality. Reversing course and pushing heavy bikes for at least a mile in the rain-pelted darkness—with only a hope of sleeping on a probably disgusting bathroom floor—was demoralizing.
The bunkhouse was probably just 100 yards ahead and might as well be in Budapest. The swamp was impassable. With our options played out, we turned around to pay for our mistake.
Working our way back, we saw a streaming, single light ahead. It was our wrong-turn friend and the person who went in search of him. Our spirits buoyed, but no one dared forget our situation. We spoke of pitching our tents in a power easement. Or maybe there was a barn somewhere. A nice rat-free hayloft sounded good. With every step, I clung to the idea of an overhang in front of the restroom building. I was ready for anything but the latrine floor.
Our bike lights shined on the wet trail ahead to help us traverse fallen trees and avoid slippery rocks. Then we heard the familiar sound of nearing civilization—a car. When we finally reached the dirt road, we veered left and girded ourselves for what was ahead. A sick feeling pitted in my empty stomach.
When you squinted, the shape of structures started to emerge in the murky darkness. Suddenly, about 100 feet ahead of us stood the most beautiful, new, spacious picnic shelter I have ever seen. My God, it had concrete floors! Within 10 minutes we were setting up tents, firing up Sterno stoves, unearthing camp food, and digging out sleeping blankets. (Thank you outdoor gear companies for devising waterproof stuff sacks.)
The emotional scars from our forest travails vanished overnight. The dawn brought a hint of blue skies. Starbucks instant coffee and Quaker Oats instant oatmeal further revived us. With varying degrees of success, we fixed flattened tires. That third and last day of our trip was picturesque. Our sun-carved shadows danced on the pavement of the Palatka to Lake Butler State Trail. We devoured omelets and hash browns near the St. Johns River at Florida’s oldest diner. We took in the potato fields near Hastings and rode miles of a largely abandoned brick road built in 1916, sometimes called Florida’s Ghost Highway. With the sun at our backs, we ascended the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway in Flagler Beach. Nearing the age of 70, Rorie looked like a blond-ponytailed teenager as she sailed into the parking lot where we had parked cars just days before.
When I got home, I embraced my husband and I told my friends I would never do the trip again—better to plow new ground, I told them.
Then, less than a week later, I was plotting a repeat.