Last summer I relocated from Southern California to Central Florida, primarily to pursue a job opportunity, but in the back of my rider’s mind was the added lure of roads untraveled in what my SoCal riding homies refer to as the “Far Side” of the USA.
But the day I rolled my Hona VTX1300 down the ramp of the rental truck in front of my new digs, the temperature was an egg-frying 98 degrees and the air was so hot, so humid, it was like breathing through a hot, soggy blanket. And then those ugly dark clouds rolled in, followed by lightning and thunder, climaxing in a tropical downpour that would have worried ol’ Noah himself. And apparently this was a daily occurrence.
As the new rider on the block, hailing from the temperate Left Coast, this wasn’t looking too promising. But my neighbors assured me, be patient, just wait.
Riding Reboot #1: On the West Coast the prime riding season tends to be summer, but in Central Florida the prime riding season is anytime BUT summer.
So I bided my time and beautiful fall weather arrived before I knew it. A cool morning found me in my garage straddling my V-twin, adjusting mirrors, the engine thumping like a frisky racehorse. The skies were clear, afternoon temperatures were slated for the low 80s, and there was not a hint of rain on the radar. I found what looked like a good course on my AAA map, clanked the gearbox into first and was off.
Riding Reboot #2: When riding out of Central Florida’s major metropolitan area, well, you have to be patient.
After slowly battling my way through Orlando’s endless congestion, heavy traffic on Interstate 4 west and a couple short hops on connecting expressways, I eventually reached the Florida Turnpike. This took me 25 miles to Interstate 75 north, a major north-south interstate I was counting on to carry me into the hinterlands where the prime riding awaited. Traffic was light and it took me no time at all to cover the 50 miles to U.S. Highway 27, where my ride really began.
Highway 27 is a divided road that makes a northwesterly cut through what is considered the heart of “Old Florida.” You pass stands of upland forests, idyllic green fields and numerous horse ranches on the 20-mile jaunt to the small town of Williston. This area is also known for a couple of ancient freshwater springs that attract sport divers from all over the country.
Riding Reboot #3: When heading out on any Florida bike ride, leave early, and leave hungry.
My 8 a.m. departure enabled me to dodge a lot of turnpike traffic, plus it got me to the outskirts of Williston at about 10 a.m. Which turned out to be perfect timing, because 10 a.m. is when Frogs BBQ Pad opens. Frogs is a funky roadside eatery that’s been serving up barbecue sandwiches since World War II. Inside there’s a stand-up order window, a couple of long tables, and that’s about it. You can get either a beef or pork sandwich with special sauce in three levels of spicy—add some greasy fries and a soft drink and you still come out well shy of 10 bucks.
After my barbecue break, I climbed back aboard and rode into Williston, a quiet town that was founded at the end of the 19th century but somehow seems older than that. It was here that I swung onto State Highway 121 heading southwest toward the Gulf Coast. In terms of quiet country, of solitude in the saddle, this was where the ride really came into its own. While lacking twisties of any kind, the 121 treated me to some prime two-lane riding, sweeping curves and mellow rollers through some exquisite real estate. It was nearly as pretty as any backcountry road I’ve seen in rural California, and that, in my highly prejudiced opinion, is really saying something.
This stretch of heaven didn’t last nearly long enough; before I knew it I had arrived at the junction to U.S. Highway 19/98 which would take me south to the town of Crystal River, which sits on the edge of Kings Bay and is connected to the Gulf via the river that bears its name. The Crystal River area is all about water sports and it exudes a serious appreciation for the natural world—no surprise that it’s called Florida’s Nature Coast. There are a number of parks and preserves to explore, but its most popular attractions are its seasonal inhabitants, the West Indian Manatees. Each winter, these big harmless creatures, weighing over a ton, migrate in from the Gulf to hang out in the shallows where the water is warm and the grazing is easy. Unfortunately, I showed up a little too early to see any of them in person.
From Crystal River, I continued south for another 15 miles before turning in at Old Homosassa, a historic little burg dating back to the 1840s that’s tucked between the highway and the Gulf. A narrow road winds through town past Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, the remains of a sugar mill that was part of a huge Civil War-era sugar plantation, and, oh yeah, Neon Leon’s.
Since I had—let’s call it—a late breakfast back at Frogs, I was ready for a late lunch in Old Homosassa, which put me in front of Neon Leon’s Zydeco Steakhouse in a perfect frame of mind. Owned and operated by the family of former bass guitarist Leon Wilkeson of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame, Neon Leon’s offers some delicious Cajun-style food at good prices. After a big bowl of seafood gumbo (another great meal for less than 10 bucks), I was on the road again.
The autumn sun was slipping toward the horizon faster than I liked, so I cut over to State Highway 50 and headed east for the ride home. Highway 50 had its up and downs—pleasant open highway skirting the north end of Florida’s Green Swamp, broken up by a couple of extremely annoying stretches plagued by long red lights and bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Forty miles later I was at the outskirts of Clermont; in other words, back in civilization. I jumped onto the turnpike and threaded my way through interstate traffic to my off-ramp. Five miles farther along, as the sun was going down, I pulled into my driveway after racking up about 275 road miles and closing the circle of my first Florida loop.
Next weekend, maybe it will be a day ride over to the Space Coast, or maybe an overnighter to the Florida Keys. Then there’s always the Panhandle….
Riding Reboot #4: When it’s all new, and it’s all good, just take it one ride at a time.
(This Favorite Ride: Crystal River Riding Reboot article was published in the October 2013 issue of Rider magazine.)