Riding to Cape Canaveral for the Final Shuttle Flight (7 - 11 July 2011)
200-mile (330 km), three-day trip from Orlando to Cape Canaveral. My plan was
to take a last-minute plane to Orlando and start from there on a plain rental
bicycle. Why last-minute? Because in the rocket business, launches can be - and
regularly are - postponed any day, hour, minute or second before the actual
lift-off. Another problem: several hundred thousand people were heading there
for the set launch date, July 8, and all the available accommodation had
already been booked for more than a week. To face that situation, I had a neat
plan: instead of a motel room, I reserved a campground site in a RV park some
35 km east of Orlando. From there, I had a very good chance of getting to the
Cape on time for the very short launch window, at 11 a.m. Actually, the final
Atlantis flight, which also was the last Shuttle flight, happened right on
time, against all odds and in spite of a heavy thunderstorm episode the day
before. As for my own trip, that unpredictable storm was very bad news: my
plane couldn't land in Orlando and had to sit it out on the tarmac in
Jacksonville for almost three hours. I did the trip as planned, but just a bit
- Campground and RV Park on Internet
GPS track records (in Garmin .gdb format), available upon request.
Putting all the Eggs in the Same Basket
A Short Tour of the Space Coast
all the Eggs in the Same Basket
July 7 – From Montreal to Kissimmee
The pessimistic weather reports kept
piling on as the final days of the countdown elapsed. I knew from the start
that my chances to actually witness the final flight of Atlantis were dim, at
best, but I left anyway the day before because it was my last chance to see a
live Shuttle launch. My plane reached Orlando on time, but it was denied
clearance for landing due to the heavy thunderstorm conditions there and it had
to go back to Jacksonville, some 160 km north. While we were sitting out the
rain there on the tarmac, I chatted with my seat neighbour, a New Yorker who
had been a custom agent in Guyana some twenty years ago. He had seen the Rev.
Jimmy Jones several times. Due to good connections, that guy could go in and
out freely without having to stop at the customs. He brought in a lot of new
people for his congregation in Jonestown, which totalled about one thousand
people. Most of them never came back.
Finally, my plane was cleared for
Orlando and landed there some 3 hours late. When I picked up my heavy 35 lb
sport bag* from the carrousel, the bike shop from which I was supposed to start
off had just closed, there were still sporadic heavy rain episodes and I had no
hotel reservation. Worse yet : when I phoned to the Airport Ramada Inn, they
told me that it was full and redirected me to the Ramada Heritage Park Hotel in
Kissimmee, some 23 kilometers west of the airport (room. $45; taxi, $35), close
to Disneyland, of all the places... That was a very bad start, indeed, but
since the poor weather conditions would probably force the postponement of the
launch anyway, I thought that I still had a chance to get there in time.
* Because United charges $27 for every bag, I took only a big one, and
was completely dependent on cabs.
Friday, July 8 - From Orlando
to Sharpes, on Indian River (71 km in 4.5 h; max. 29 km/h, av. 17.6 km/h)
After breakfast at the Denny's, I
took a cab to the bike shop, which cost me an arm and a leg - $80. Loco Motion
Bike Shop is located in Baldwin Park, a posh suburb built around small Baldwin
Lake. I chose that place because it was close to Highway 50 (Colonial Drive in
Orlando), and because it's the only place somebody answered my call directly.
For pancake-flat Florida, I rented a 3-speed, backpedal brake classic beauty
for three days ($60). The mechanic installed my baggage holder and removed the
king-size beverage holder from the handlebar - I needed that place for my GPS.
While I was getting ready, I could watch the countdown on the giant TV screen
hanging from the ceiling; weather conditions was still no-go, but NASA
weathermen were expecting a hole in the overcast sky to move over the Cape just
in time for the very short launch window at 11 a.m. The mechanic told me that
Floridians felt sad about the end of the Shuttle flights because it meant that
thousands of jobs would be lost not only in the aerospace business, but in the
tourist business as well. I said that technically, the Shuttle certainly was a
wonderful machine, but that for the Congressmen, all issues tend to boil down
to costs, and cost-wise, the Shuttle record was a very poor one. To which he
replied that billions were thrown mindlessly in bottomless pits like the Iran
and Afghanistan wars; I could agree with that. Meanwhile, beating all odds,
Atlantis lifted off right on time, minutes before I was ready to leave the
Riding on the asphalt shoulder of
the six-lane Highway 50, I was wondering if that was allowed or not in Florida.
No other cyclist was in sight to tell me, and the people I asked on the
roadside didn't know; I might as well have asked them about UFOs. Then I saw a
shop advertising mountain bike tours on the Georgia Trail, in the Lower Appalachians.
They told me that I could use any public highway in Florida except the
Interstate, and that was all right with me. While the coast-bound traffic was
rather light, the lanes going back to Orlando were absolutely plugged with
vehicles of all sizes, as the 700 000 people who had piled up around the
Cape at 11 were going back home.
Then, the 50 narrowed down to four
lanes. Going through dense palm trees forests alternating with vast,
weed-covered wetlands, there wasn't much to see, and yet, the detail was so
different. There were lots of white cranes, buzzards and other variegated small
bird species. Getting nearer to the Coast, you can see squashed baby alligators
on the side of the road, and sometimes, the remains of strange scale-covered
mammals, armadillos, a common species at that latitude. The clouds gradually
cleared up and, as the damp air was heating. That day, I had to drink a record
3 litres of water to survive in a steam bath environment.
Past Interstate 95, I took the 405
southward and then, old Highway 1 following Indian River. Shortly before 4
p.m., I started to look for a motel room - there is no point to pay $32 for a
place in a RV park (assuming that you can find one that accepts campers without
a RV - not all do) when you can get a cheap motel room for $50 or less. I found
one in Sharpes; the Apollo Inn ($50) is not a fancy place, but a dry and quiet
place was all I needed for the night. Dark clouds were piling up again and
there was a short rain episode as I was moving in. Getting hungry some time
later, I rode six kilometers back on Hwy 1 to Redfish Charlie's Bayou
Restaurant. The Fisherman's Plate ($18), consisting of various breaded
deep-fried sea food served with French fries and other fried vegetables, was
anything but light, and excessive seasoning had totally smothered whatever
taste was left.
A Short Tour of the
Saturday, July 9 - A
Space Coast Tour (86,2 km in 8 h; max. 48 km/h, av. 18,1 km/h)
That day, I wanted to visit the
Kennedy Space Center and then go to Jetty Park Beach. Getting up at 6 with
another nice and hot day ahead, I had the option of moving to the Jetty Park
campground, the only one in the Cape area, hoping to find an available site
there (without any guarantee), or keeping my cabin for one more night and
travelling light without my panniers and equipment. I chose the easy way.
Leaving just after 9, I switched from Hwy 1 to the pleasant old road following
the Indian River shore. I saw a couple of cyclists there, the urban type, going
for a short morning spin. I didn't see any other cyclotourist in Florida; most
decent people there prefer to move about in a motor vehicle, the bigger the
better. After crossing Indian River on the 528, I turned north on the 3.
According to a sign at the crossroad, KSC was only 6 miles away. As it turned
out, this refers to the limit of that vast property; the John F. Kennedy Space
Center is located another 6 miles farther, on Hwy 405. There, I joined the long
and fat line of people waiting for the ticket booths to open at 11 (regular
$43, children and seniors $35). Obviously, not all the people had left the Cape
the day before.
After waiting for one hour or so, I
grew fed up and quit. Come to think of it, with only one day to spend on the
coast of the Sunshine State and its fabled beaches, I had better things to do
than visiting a museum. Trying to go through Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,
across Banana River, I was turned back at the gate, as I thought I would be.
The last time I was there, visiting the place in a rented car with my 9-year
old daughter in 1989, I drove by one of the two (then inactive) Shuttle pads,
but that was eons before 9-11. So, I had to go back on my track to Hwy 528.
However, I didn't do this 40-kilometer dead end loop for entirely nothing,
because crossing these vast and empty expanses gave me a feeling of rural
Florida. These lands, part of endless citrus orchards before, were expropriated
to build the huge Apollo facilities in the early Sixties. I was riding in a
semi-wild country with long weed fields alternating with ghost orchid areas
covered with long-dead or absolutely neglected orange trees, harboring a rich
variety of semi-tropical and water birds, with some raptors like the emblematic
bald eagle. In a place, I suddenly came upon a pride of big reddish brown
animals running away in the long weeds. They were some of the infamous Florida
wild hogs, whose ancestors had been introduced there nearly five centuries ago
by Spanish settlers and explorers like Hernando de Soto and Juan Ponce de Leon.
At 1 p.m., after going through the
municipal campground, I was in Jetty Park. The day was getting hot, some 33 °C.
I ate a very good fish taco on a shaded picnic table close to the beach.
Probably victim of severe case of hypoglycemia, I indulged in a huge ice cream
cone right after. Then, I walked to the end of the jetty, which is a protected
area for turtles. People were watching the little green critters swimming and
diving all around in the rocks. I left before 4 because showers were expected
for the end of the afternoon. The incoming dark clouds shed only a few drops,
which cooled down the air a bit. One hour later, I was sipping a cold beer in
front of my cabin.
The lady taking care of the motel
told me that the best place for a fish dinner was the Corky Bell, about 5 km
north. When I got there, there was a long file of people waiting outside,
chatting together until they were called in. The guy next to me, a big and tall
white-haired man, told me that he had served in the US Navy during the Pacific
War; he was now past ninety. He also said that Floridians didn't trust Obama
because he didn't control a thing, he couldn't get the hang of it. To which I
replied that in Canada, the reverse was true: given a simple majority, the
Prime Minister could do whatever he fancied, and that was a problem, too. He
recommended the catfish filets ($21), which I ordered after making sure that they
would be broiled, not fried, and I didn't regret it.
Sunday, July 10 - From
Sharpes to Orlando (75 km in 5.5 h)
Leaving early on yet another
beautiful morning, I headed west for Orlando, but on Hwy 528, the shortest way,
which becomes a toll road past Interstate 95. The automatic tool booth didn't
have any option for cyclists, so I assumed I didn't have to pay. Going through
the coastal wetlands area, I had to watch out for occasional small snakes
warming up on the shoulder. Then, I passed through vast wooded areas and a few
big livestock ranches, before falling back on Hwy 50 and by 1 p.m., I was back at
the Loco Motion Bike Shop in Baldwin Park. Then, dragging my huge sports bag, I
took a cab to the airport hotel ($28). The friendly Latino cab driver didn't
mind chatting, while carefully dodging any controversial topic. He did tell me
that there was something wrong with America, where the rich corner an indecent
and ever increasing part of the wealth. The Ramada Airport Suites ($50) is the
best hotel I had (huge bed, HDTV, coffee-maker, fridge, full-sized bath).
Even though I had miserably missed the last Shuttle
launch, that short trip was instructive because it shows that with some
planning, cyclotourists and bicycle campers can visit many, many interesting
places in North America without having to bring their own bike.