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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Gulf Coast – The Final Leg

The final leg of my journey was a three-day, 1200-mile sprint from Fort Lauderdale, FL to Houston, TX. With the end in sight, I had to keep reminding myself to breathe deep and take it all in. Luckily, the Gulf Coast is one of the most beautiful areas of the US and can’t easily be ignored.

I started the ride by pushing due west through the Everglades, making sure to gas up and get comfortable since there aren’t a whole lot of services during that 80 mile trip through the wet wilds of Southern Florida. The highway passes through an almost endless expanse of boggy forest and reeds, separated from the road by a threatening-looking barbed wire fence. Despite my hopes, I didn’t see any gators hanging out by the side of the road but there were little white birds everywhere and the flora was nearly bursting through the fence.

The puffy white clouds under which I’d set out grew larger and thicker as I left the Everglades and hooked north along Florida’s Gulf Coast. I was amused for a couple hours by a sort of “whack-a-mole” game the clouds seemed to be playing with me where I’d pass safely beneath a half dozen or so before the seventh would reveal a white-out downpour. Once I got the hang of riding with no visibility through a solid wall of rain, these minute-long waterfall bursts were actually kind of fun. The air was warm and the sun was otherwise out so it didn’t take long to recover. It wasn’t hard to see how the land of Southern Florida got to be so completely sodden with lakes and rivers. It was a boater’s paradise.

I skipped past the white beaches of Tampa Bay since I’d been there before and I hooked away from the main highway just after Gainesville to catch some local flavor on my way to Tallahassee and the panhandle. The western coast of Florida is more tropical in general than the Eastern coast, even feeling a bit like the Virgin Islands in parts. My “shortcut” to the west, though, took me back through an unexpectedly beautiful farm country of a more conventional nature. With the weather finally cooperating, it was a great ride through cow pastures and fields spread in front of quaint family farmsteads. I even passed a flooded field that gave me a particular look of swamp country that I’d expected long before but never actually saw.

With the pastoral splendor of farm country, though, came the debris of the logging trucks and the ominous forms of commercial chicken coops. The first few times, I did the drill I’d learned the hard way and held my breath as long as I could. KFC must have recently put in a monster order, though, because all that rode the air was the faintest of reminders that the coops had once been filled with thousands of caged birds. They were all completely (thankfully) empty.

After a night in Tallahassee at the crappiest Rodeway Inn I’d ever seen, I set out west on I-10 towards New Orleans, LA. The day dawned surprisingly chilly but it quickly warmed up and I enjoyed the quiet of only sparse truck traffic. I detoured off the highway and through the massive Eglin AFB on my way to the coast.

I crossed the bridge to Navarre Beach, FL and rode when I could on the narrow barrier of land between there and Pensacola, FL. It was often no more than a couple hundred yards wide and filled with white sand and pretty stilted houses that made me think of what Galveston, TX should look like but doesn’t.

I grabbed lunch in Pensacola, a town that seems like Navarre Beach’s high strung cousin. It reminded me a lot of South Padre Island, TX, with its large hotels, beach bars, and heavy retail presence. I enjoyed the late-season quiet but it was easy to sense the many ghosts of Spring Breaks past.

I regretfully left the white-sand beaches of Pensacola and passed west through the industrial port city of Mobile, AL via a network of causeways and bridges.

The highway miles between there and New Orleans got a lot more crowded and the ride quality suffered as a result but I made it to the beating heart of Louisiana just in time to join a friend at a “Night Out Against Crime” block party he’d put together. My first trip through New Orleans many months earlier on the way east from Houston had been laden with all the requisite tourist experiences. This time, I felt a lot closer to the real local character of The Big Easy. They had a brass band playing, kids running around, and some residents just couldn’t keep from dancing. It was a scene straight from a movie.

My friend lives out in a residential section of the city and I had a heck of a time getting there through broken and battered side streets but finally made it in with only a couple of loose teeth and enjoyed some great conversation before crashing for the night.

No one can say with a straight face that I-10 is a cheerful and scenic drive between New Orleans and Houston. It’s really something to be endured. Long causeways cross the swamp until the road finally finds the forest, though it never escapes the endless train of semi trucks. I rolled by the shipping and industrial terminals of Baton Rouge, LA, Lake Charles, LA, and Beaumont, TX. The “Welcome to Texas” sign gave me a particular thrill as I zipped past.

At long last, as I fought the soreness of tense muscles and the buffeting roar of too much speed, two lanes became three became four and finally the city of Houston, TX appeared over the horizon. Under puffy white clouds and a perfect 80 degree heat, I managed the familiar highways and finally found myself stopped in front of a wooden slat fence in Montrose that marked both the beginning and the end of a titanic journey across the country.

I paused for a long moment to take in the feeling, hardly believing that it was actually over.

Then I killed the engine, stepped off the bike, and let out a long, satisfied breath before moving on to the next phase of my life. I had sore bones, ringing ears and a desperate desire to again sleep in my own bed but I also found myself in possession of a focused calm and a certain abiding optimism that whatever is over the next hill will be the challenge of my life but well worth the effort.