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The East Coast Greenway’s 2018 edition of its Week-A-Year Tour is over after 369 or so miles across 6 days. But some of us weren’t quite ready to get off the bike, and so we joined Titusville residents for a 10-mile fun ride on its trail and its Chain of Lakes Park.

Props to the 7-year-old in the group. Not only did she ride the whole way, but when her handlebar grip went flying off, causing her to lose her balance and tumble onto the grass, she bounced up with “don’t worry, I’m fine” to her mother. That’s the attitude!

We northeners remained fascinated with alligators, stopping twice for photo ops. What a big one! It hung around for a while before tiring of our gawking, lifting itself up and waddling into the water.

Then it was time to head to the local brewery, Playalinda Brewey and a sponsor of this “bike and brew” event, to wrap up our week. I’m already looking forward to what we’ll find next year as we ride to Key West and the southernmost point on the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway. No doubt a mixed bag of trail, quiet roads and not-so-great, but it’s clear that Titusville, Brevard County and all of Florida aspires to being better for people on two wheels.

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What a day!

This is the last full day of the 2018 edition of the East Coast Greenway’s annual Week-A-Year fundraising ride, and we spent much of it pedaling on quiet roads or trails— including 34 straight miles on the East Central Rail Trail, part of the Coast to Coast Connector that will stretch from Titusville on the Atlantic side of Florida to Tampa-St. Pete on the Gulf of Mexico side. (It’s 80% complete.)

All in all, Florida made quite a positive impression on many of us.

Some trail firsts for me:

– Divided lanes. These showed up at road crossings and made me think divided highway more than pedestrian refuge island. Is this what happens when a state DOT more used to designing roads than trails?

– Roundabouts. Yes, roundabouts. And there never was another trail meeting this one. So why a circle? We heard it was for runners… let them turn back more easily.

– Any idea what these signs are for? Again, no trails merging here. We thought it might be for ATVs to switch between asphalt trail and the hardscrabble, partly grassy surface to the side, but they aren’t supposed to be on the trail. The right answer is equestrians.

Another highlight of the day was an alligator sighting. The group of five I was riding with saw it in the water with just its eyes and tip of its snout peeking out, thanks to a pair of eagle eyes, but a group passing by earlier saw it sunning itself.

Other sights:

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The sound of day 5 of the East Coast Greenway’s Week-A-Year Tour: the boom from the SpaceX rocket launched this afternoon at Cape Canaveral that we heard (and felt the rumble) 60 miles away in Daytona.

Second sound of the day: the roar of the ocean, heard from the hotel room balcony.

Yes, we are in the spring break capital of America. And we are hearing that Daytona Beach wants to change its image, attract more people like .. us.  That would be adults on bikes.

The sights of the day? We missed seeing the rocket (or were those its smoke trails, rather than an airplane?) so I’ll have to say osprey with fish in their mouth, the salt water marshes and some unimpeded views of the Atlantic and crashing surf.

Much of our route today was on A1A, the main road down the barrier islands. It was busy out of St. Augustine, though with a nice shoulder, but it got quieter The further away we got. Plus we had some trails (though the use of concrete rather than asphalt throws me because it looks too much like a wider sidewalk). I’ll rate the beach town where we stopped for lunch — seafood, of course — as the nicest of the bunch and not ostentatious at all (followed by Ormond Beach close to Daytona). Stop at Flagler Fish Co.!

I’ve discovered a new fish: wahoo, described as the  pork chop of fish because it’s so dense and cut thickly.

A couple of other sights from our detour through the salt marshes. Though I learned that gators generally stay away from salt water, so make of the sign what you will.

Finally, a safety message for all:

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We were blown down the coast of Florida today, propelled by a strong tailwind that had us hitting close to 25 mph on flat road while pedaling seemingly effortlessly. That’s a casual pace for the Tour de France, but a speed we mortals can’t hit and sustain. Wow! (And so glad we weren’t trying to go north.)

Florida is quite the contrast to Georgia. Lots more money. Lots. The East Coast Greenway route took us down the coast, so start with normal beach towns. Then ramp it up and up and up some more as you hit Ponte Vedra Beach. We took the residential road one block in from the beach that ran for miles, and the estimates for the value of these mansions kept rising — a million or two dollars at a time. All ginormous. As for beauty, well, it’s a matter of taste. One rider called it F-you money. I wondered how many of them take advantage of taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance. Not that they would see it as a handout.

But let me start at the beginning of a great day. We pedaled a few miles from our hotel to the historic part of town, where East Coast Greenway had chartered an hour-long ferry ride across the St. Mary’s River to Fernandina Beach, Florida. Folks in St. Mary’s want to turn this into regular service, and I hope they succeed. There’s certainly a well-connected and enthusiastic cheerleader for the area. Amelia Island in Florida was beautiful, and more trails are being developed; St. Mary’s needs to find a way to lure tourists — in this case, cyclists — across the river. What story can it tell?

Though honestly, our ferry captain should be reason enough. He told one story after another, filling us in on the history of Cumberland Island, from Revolutionary War hero Nathaneal Greeneto the Civil War to the Carnegies. We saw white pelicans, wild horses and dolphins, and piles of oyster shells that date back to Native Americans.

In Fernandina Beach, how can you ignore the pirate?

The biking in Florida was fabulous. We were on trails for most of Amelia Island that kept us well away from traffic. We’d catch glimpses of beach between the houses, or ride through woods or along marshes.

Eventually we made it to our second ferry of the day, getting us to Mayport and our choice of seafood restaurants. My group opted for the “shack” that had been featured on “Diners, Drive-In’s and Dives” and where the default cooking technique appeared to be fried. No matter; we still had 45 miles to bike.

We had to get past the outskirts of Jacksonville, and I admit some of us took the sidewalk for a while. But once we got away from that busy road and into a residential neighborhood, we were able to reach the coast. And this is where the tailwind really kicked in. We sailed down Route A1A on a shoulder marked as a bicycle lane.

Once in St. Augustine, we were feted by the area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Having come to the city several years ago and unsuccessfully trying to find the St. John’s River to the Sea bike route (no one at the visitors center had heard of it or the East Coast Greenway), it was heartening to hear it is slowly being built (though the completed sections aren’t contiguous) and that the area wants to capitalize on bicycle tourism.

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Today’s highlights: the Georgia Coast Trail in Woodbine, the “submarine” outside a military base and tagging along with Brent for his talk to about three dozen people at a meeting of a military officers association.

Once again, worries about the weather were unfounded. No rain. We finally got the sun and heat we were expecting (while there’s snow in the forecast at home.)

The Georgia Coast Rail Trail in the tiny community of Woodbine starts at the banks of the Satilla River and follows part of an abandoned railroad line. (The hope is that one day it will follow even more of it.) Love the look from the water:

This is the look further down the trail:

And how can you not like a town when one of the sheriff deputies spots you turning onto the road just before the (steep) bridge and rides behind you to keep motorists from coming up to you too quickly?

Woodbine was our lunch stop, and given that Captain Stan’s, the barbecue spot, was closed, that left us with just one restaurant to overwhelm. And we did, so much so that some of us even bused a few tables to keep things moving along.

I spotted my sign of the day in the restaurant too:

We went even deeper into rural Georgia today, cycling on some roads that were so quiet we saw a vehicle only every 5 to 10 minutes. We’d been warned about logging trucks, but they left us in peace. There was plenty of logging, though:

As we reached St. Mary’s, we saw a section of the East Coast Greenway under construction— yay! We also passed Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay and photo possibilities too irresistible to pass up. We think the tower might be real; the rest of the submarine was a form covered with asphalt.

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The word of the day is lollygagging.

Lollygagging while writing the day’s blog entry, of course. But also lollygagging a bit during the 54 miles we rode during the morning.

Lollygagging, as the Brit learned this morning, is a southern way of saying dawdling. Can I explain that five ways to Sunday?

Today’s biking exceeded expectations. The rain we were expecting to wake up to never materialized. The stretch of Highway 17 turned out to be pretty harmless. And we had a vehicle keeping traffic off our backs while we backtracked a bit from our hotel in Hinesville to get back on the East Coast Greenway.

Our route went deep into rural Georgia, and pretty poor parts of it at that. It took us across swamps and under the canopy of trees drenched in Spanish moss, generally on quiet roads, the kind I like when the East Coast Greenway isn’t on a trail or path away from the road. We passed ramshackle homes — with tin roofs or even tarp, in need of fresh paint for decades — then double-wides near modest homes and the occasional fancier one. We dodged several yards of rumble strips that extended the width of the road designed to jolt drivers into alertness ahead of intersections. And at the self-proclaimed smallest church in America, we asked for protection from Highway 17.

This is the sign of the day. Do they know about the East Coast Greenway?

As grateful as we were for no rain and gradually warming temperatures,  we still opted for the planned shuttle option at Darien (population less than 2,000 so more economic impact when we descended on another seafood restaurant.) We leapfrogged more of Highway 17 to reach Jekyll Island, once the playground of the Gilded Age and now owned by the state of Georgia.

We made up for some of the 32 miles we skipped by bicycling around much of the island, past the former playground of the robber barons and what is claimed to be the first condos (no children or mistresses allowed) and the early plantations. There is plenty of newer construction, including half a dozen hotel chains (and more coming) and big condo communities.

TIL that coastal Georgia is so far west that it’s essentially south of Cleveland, Ohio. We And that draft legislation creating the Federal Reserve was written on … Jekyll Island.

And thanks to Chris, our friend from the East Coast Greenway bike ride in Maine two years and riding buddy on this trip, we ate at a restaurant that is the antithesis of Gilded Age extravagance. The Driftwood Bistro prices its wine bottles around what you’d pay in the store, rather than double or even triple that. (And it must bring in business: The owner, Dan, stopped by our table and told us that while his competitors might go through 20-25 cases a month, he goes through 140.) The food is reasonably priced too, without being huge portions. Fits with Dan’s philosophy of don’t be greedy.

Rain is back in the forecast for sometime tomorrow. No lollygagging for real.

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Take a look at how we’re all dressed in this year’s group photo, taken mid-morning in Savannah: long sleeves all around, and even some tights. So much for the warm southern weather we’d been expecting!

And given that it’s Veterans Day, the four vets in our group:

Today was one of those days where most of us stuck together, following our fearless leader Brent, the East regional coordinator responsible for South Carolina and Georgia and the man with his arm up high in the group shot, with few stops for photos. We were on several busy roads with narrow shoulders (or shoulders made narrow by rumble strips), so when we took a lane of traffic, one of our support cars would keep motorists from coming too close and then swerving into the left lane. Like last year, we are spending time on a section of the East Coast Greenway that isn’t well developed. (South Carolina and Georgia are big laggards.)

So now let’s talk alligators. Not live ones. But lunch. I ate some of their “fingers”. Jokes aside about whether we now have a bunch of crippled angry gators on the loose, I’d describe this as tasting like well-seasoned chicken.

One more southern food off the bucket list.

Pretty cool to see table after table filled with jersey-wearing cyclists on what normally would have been a quiet lunch service. Economic impact!

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Another adventure on the East Coast Greenway begins Sunday. About 40 of us will spend the week biking from Savannah to Titusville, Florida. But some of us couldn’t wait, so we rode through Savannah and out to the giant Bonaventure Cemetery, of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” fame.

My fellow riders seemed more intent on finding the grave of Johnny Mercer, founder  of Capitol Records. He’s also the great-grandson of Hugh Mercer, a Confederate general who was the grandson of the General Hugh Mercer killed at the Battle of Princeton during the Revolution.

I do love learning bits of history on bike rides, and there’s  more Revolutionary War history in Savannah. The Siege of Savannah in 1779   is a mystery to me, something not taught in U.S. History classes. I learned of the contribution of Haitians and the death of Count Pulaski (remembered through New Jersey’s Pulaski Skyway).

Colonial Cemetery, the first resting place of Nathanael Greene (until he got his own spot in one of Savannah’s famous squares), is the only city cemetery devoid of Confederate graves, I overheard a tour guide say.

This New Jersey connection was a surprise. Though it’s Rocky Hill, not Rock Hill:

No proper Lafayette sighting, unlike further north. Sure, there’s a square named after him, but he seems to have only come through on his Grand Tour on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Away from the past … how can you not find the tastes of the South? Roasted pecans, sweet potatoe pie, barbecue…. Two out of three at the farmers market.

We’re staying above a bakery that does fancy cakes — got to love the sign in the shop:

And then this sign outside a church:

Didn’t I say that bike rides are all about the food?

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Looking for No. 6

In a couple of weeks, we’ll be pedaling out of Savannah, Georgia, headed south for around 300 miles on our bicyles. We’ll follow the East Coast Greenway for six days, to the trail town of Titusville, Florida, near Cape Canaveral, where we will play on the seventh day.

Once again, our route will be a mix of trails away from traffic (sometimes lined with Spanish moss), quiet roads, roads with bike lanes or shoulders — and some not-great stuff, like more of U.S. 17, our nemesis last year. That’s the reality of creating a 3,000-mile route down the East Coast that goes through cities, rather than opting for the middle of nowhere to avoid anything difficult.

We’ll also get a couple of ferry rides, including one chartered just for us. Be sure to bike those 6 miles and arrive before 8 a.m. or miss the only crossing!

Eventually we’ll reach St. Augustine, then Daytona Beach and then Titusville, one of only three designated trail towns in Florida. I love this video that shows how Titusville got big into trails. It’s now a town where three trails meet — the East Coast Greenway, the St. John’s River to the Sea Loop and the Coast-to-Coast Connector that goes across Florida (and 80% complete). I’m excited to see how businesses are benefiting from bicyclists coming through town and spending money. Plus I want to go through the nearby wildlife refuge. And there will be a community bike ride on our day in Titusville.

This bike ride is another installment of the East Coast Greenway Alliance’s Week-A-Year ride from eastern Maine to Key West (2019!). I have ridden 400 miles in Maine on one organized ride, about half of the Connecticut route on my own, and then from Newark, NJ, to Savannah (from Philadelphia with the group). This blog is full of stories and photos of those adventures, and I hope you’ll follow along this time.

As many of you know, this is also a fundraising ride for the Greenway. The Alliance works with local, state and federal officials to get trail segments built and wayfinding signs installed. It doesn’t actually own any of the land or build the trail. But without its small cadre of paid staff (plus volunteers and enthusiasts like the 40 of us on this ride), this vision of linking trails and connecting cities for cyclists, walkers, runners — even sometimes people on horseback and on ATVs — would never become reality.

If you’d like to donate in support of my ride, here is the link. All the money goes to the Greenway; we riders cover our own expenses. Donations are tax-deductible if you itemize, and a contribution of $25 or more gets you a one-year membership with the East Coast Greenway.

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When you think New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen has to be high on the list.

So I can’t explain why it took me so long to come up with the idea of a Springsteen bike ride, given that I live in the state. But I finally did this year, after being one of the lucky ones to see him on Broadway.

My ride focuses on Freehold, where he grew up, and leaves out Asbury Park, the Stone Pony and other Shore points. The borough doesn’t mark Springsteen spots, but if you’ve read his autobiography, you know some of the highlights. Or use this article as your cheat sheet. Or this one.

Think of this ride as a search for the ghost of a young Bruce, to mangle “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

I’ve got two options to get you to Freehold — a longer road ride that requires comfort with traffic, and a shorter ride using the Henry Hudson Trail.

We took the road option. From the Princeton Junction train station, plan on about 25 miles each way. (If you want  a shorter ride, consider parking at a shopping center in Monroe Township or even James Monroe Park on Dey Grove Road.) We went through Cranbury; Google Maps takes you through Hightstown. Either way, once you get to Woodward (later Main Street in Tennant), traffic really picks up, even on a Sunday morning. And there’s no proper shoulder for some of it. Be warned. (Turning those unused railroad tracks into a trail would be a game-changer…) The good part is you’re less than 5 miles from Freehold once the bad stuff starts.

After the 1778 Battle of Monmouth battlefield, we rode under Highway 9, immortalized in “Born to Run,” before crossing Main Street and then the railroad tracks into what looks like the poorer part of town. If you’ve read the autobiography (and I recommend listen to it instead, because you get the added experience of hearing Springsteen read his words), you know it was pretty much this way when Bruce was growing up.

His early life centered around St. Rose of Lima Church, where we began our Springsteen pilgrimage. The imposing brick church, the church school (which Springsteen attended through 8th grade) and assorted church buildings take up the better part of a block. Springsteen first lived next door, at 87 Randolph Street, with his parents, sister and grandparents in a house that has been torn down and turned into the church parking lot.

When the Springsteens moved, it was a few blocks away to 39 1/2 Institute Street. I remain amazed that there was no hot water upstairs, per his autobiography. This, in the 1950s, in the richest country on Earth!

When you’re on Institute Street, keep going one more block … to E Street. (No, that’s not where the band’s name comes from … that’s E Street in Belmar, at the Shore. We guessed this is a nod to Bruce’s fame.)

The Springsteens later lived at 68 South Street, still within a few blocks of the church. The house is bigger, but the street is lots noisier too. I’m not sure if this was a step up … or down.

People still live in these homes today, so we didn’t want to disturb them. I just snapped a photo and moved on.

Then we biked through downtown to take a look at Freehold High School, his alma mater, before heading to Federici’s, an Italian restaurant on Main Street. Go for the impressively ultra-thin-crust pizza. Bruce apparently likes it too. We had been in Freehold in 2011 to check out the Metz Bicycle Museum (an amazing private collection that was broken up and sold following Mr. Metz’s death, alas, and unknown to us was housed essentially around the corner from the Springsteen ‘hood), and I remember one of the locals telling us how Bruce had attended a high school reunion event there and had picked up the tab.

No sign of Bruce for us.

Downtown Freehold is a mixed bag. Lots of traffic rumbles down Main Street, but there’s no sense that this is a hot destination. There’s restaurants for the county courthouse crowd, but also empty storefronts. At least it may not be quite as dire as in “My Hometown,” where he sings:

“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more”

Dessert was Jersey Freeze, where a neighborhood runs into Highway 9. Bruce as a child may have liked empty cones best, but not me. When Springsteen was a kid, it was just soft serve, either chocolate or vanilla. Today there’s ice cream too, and plenty of flavors to choose from. A rich chocolate ice cream, or one with bits of apple pie? We opted this time for seasonal.

Still no Bruce sighting.

Then it was time to head home, going back under Highway 9 and past St. Rose of Lima Cemetery, where his father is buried, as are the grandparents he lived with in that first house. We tried a different, more northerly route that, honestly, was less pleasant than the way we’d come, even with no-shoulder Woodward. More county roads, less quiet time. And that’s without the hill. Don’t try it.

And the trail option I promised?

Head north of Freehold to Marlboro and jump on the final, five-mile segment of the paved (and road-bike-friendly) Henry Hudson Trail. It dumps you out on East Main Street, next to the Shell station. Then turn right and you’ve got perhaps a mile on Freehold streets to the heart of downtown.

There’s more of the Henry Hudson Trail if you want to start even further north and can handle a bit of road. You could even come from Atlantic Highlands, where there is ferry service from New York City. All told, it’s 24 miles. Here’s the map.

Whatever you choose, just remember — to mangle another Bruce song —  that tramps like us, baby we were born to bike.

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