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By Car or by Bike?

Two successive trips to the same location.  Two totally different experiences.  On Thursday, my wife and I drove down Florida’s AIA south of Fernandina to the Talbot Island state park for a day of sightseeing.  Two days later, I retraced the route but on a bicycle.  As to be expected, the journey by bike was more immersive, more engaging, and more enjoyable in almost every regard.  However, it was the juxtaposition of the two trips in such short succession that further bolstered my believe that to bike is indeed better.

As enjoyable as the drive is, a person is still in a car and often mired in traffic.

The road from Fernandina to Talbot unfurls through a lush maritime forest.  Wisps of Spanish moss drape a canopy of live oak , red cedar, and loblolly pine.  Thickets of palmetto, Wax Myrtyle, American Holly, and spicy bay trees form a dense understory.  The splayed fronds of saw palmetto, like giant open hands, seem to offer enthusiastic high fives. At automobile speed, this wall of green blurs by pleasingly just outside the window.  The occasional bridge spans over the emerald waters of marshland and swamp.  This is an enchanting storybook drive by any standard.

As enjoyable as the drive is, a person is still in a car, and often mired in traffic.  Many days this road is a procession of fun-seeking urbanites fleeing nearby Jacksonville or Yulee for a recharge of coastal sunshine.  At roundabout after roundabout, one can’t help but sense they are just another tourist passing through the turnstile of coastal Florida.  This feeling is compounded at any of the parking lots which serve as bustling staging grounds to those motivated to leave their automobile to snap a few pictures for Facebook.  To the motorist exploring the area in this way, the day becomes stretches of driving accented by brilliant forays into nature amounting to a strobe like effect between convenience, comfort, air-conditioning, enclosure and immersive, unbound, and brilliant nature.  Like someone continuously pausing a movie to use the bathroom, these blips of driving are disorienting and detract from the overall effect of the place.

All of this is not to say I didn’t enjoy my automobile powered foray into the area.  I did.  However, I envied those cyclists and pedestrians traversing the beautifully tailored trail that parallels the highway the entire stretch.  I viewed those people with the same envy a desk-bound grade-schooler  may view his classmates swinging from the monkey bars on recess.

Having whetted my appetite for the area, I returned just a few days later eager to explore the area by bicycle. SuperCorsa Cycles services the area with bike sales, rentals, and repair.  They set me up with a sturdy, utilitarian Salsa Journeymen in a discrete copper color and I set out with a full day to retrace the route.  As if mechanically linked, my  mood ratcheted up within just a few strokes of the pedals. Without a windshield obstruction my senses, I felt immersed in the scenery.  As Robert Prisig succinctly puts it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”

A few days prior, the drive from central Fernandina to the Talbot Island had taken all but a few minutes and condensed this beautiful trail into nothing more than a compact, abstract impression – a green backdrop unfurling beyond a windshield.  A passenger in a car could miss crossing the George Crady bridge that serves as the gateway to the island, in the time it takes to send a text message on their phone.  Crossing the bridge by bicycle however  an epic experience and provided insight and unique perspective into this intercoastal landscape.

Whereas the car could be compared to reading the mere footnotes of a brilliant work of literature, the trail allowed me to languish over every word and delicate turn of phrase.

Whereas the car could be compared to reading the mere footnotes of a brilliant work of literature, the trail allowed me to languish over every word and delicate turn of phrase.  On the bicycle I was able to feel the microclimates in the low lying pockets of trees.  I tasted the faint lick of saltwater in the breeze.  I was able to peer into the dense and hypnotic swaths of forest and actually hear the animal life scurrying about in the bramble.  My senses were alive, and therefore, I was alive.

When I finally arrived at the parking lot for Black Rock beach, I felt a small sense of accomplishment.  The arrival here was not another mindless vehicle pitstop but something I had earned.  The journey to the parking lot, which had just a few days ago been a footnote to the day, had already been an adventure in its own right.

From here, the day transpired as a languid exploration as I continued riding south through the sand dunes of Small Talbot State Park, across another large bridge, and to Alamacani park and boat dock, where the Mayport Naval Station could be seen in the distance. Throughout the day I spoke with several locals and exchanged knowing glances with fellow cyclists.  I scrounged together a makeshift lunch with the only groceries I could find at a tackle and bait shop.  The sun and wind reddened my face.  The miles accumulated in my legs.  I finished the 45 mile day with a Heineken on a sea-shell laden stretch of beach access off of Fletcher road before returning the bike to Supra Cycles 10 minutes before they closed the doors.  In total, the day carried forth like an anthem – soaring, visceral, and full of glory.

What struck me most about the ride was just how much it contributed to my sense of the place.  Sure I had just travelled the same stretch of road the day before, but I hadn’t got to know the place.  A journey by bicycle steeps someone within their surroundings and the resulting experience is far more potent.  I emerged from the ride feeling a rapport with this stretch of coast.  Like a finger running over braille to extract its meaning, I had read the lay of the land through the rotation of the tires. My sense of place had gone from a quick fly-by to something tangible I had felt in my bones.  The bicycle, as they always do, had served as a medium, transmuting movement into experience.  Through the bicycle I had come to know a place.

How does cycling contribute to or define your sense of place?  How and where do you explore by bike?  Comment below.

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