Chillest Tour Ever: Florida

The Migration of Snowbirds

I moved to Chicago December 31st, 2007. In my first week there, a bus driver told me this joke: "Chicago has four seasons: Winter, June, July, and August." To this day I still tell that joke, so thank you, driver of the 7:20am #22 bus in 2007. But Chicago ain't the only place that gets cold. Lots of folks sit through crappy winters, their dry, sun-deprived skin desperate for warmth and humidity. Some of them escape, heading to magical Florida- Snowbirds, they call 'em. It's an enviable migration. One that the state has built an entire industry around accommodating.

Tired of being left out, two pasty bike kids decided to join the migration.

We took the train, which isn't the usual way people get out of the winter to Florida. No RV, no airplane, no cadillac with AAA and AARP cards in the glovebox. Here's the thing though: Florida is a part of The South, and The South is very under serviced by passenger rail. So, our meandering trip would first cut through the rust belt to D.C. before we could drop some degrees in latitude.

But whoever said the fastest, most-direct route was the best one? Did they get to pass through small towns nestled in the hills of Pennsylvania and West Virginia? Efficiency can be a dangerous mentality. Luckily, efficiency is an ideology thoroughly rejected by U.S. trains. It does let you spend a lot of time in pretty areas, even at the expense of how long it takes you to get to your final destination.

We have a few hours to kill jumping from one train and waiting for another. Bikes are left in boxes, shuffled from one baggage car to another (presumably), and we figure out how to casually walk around a warming capital juggling pannier bags. Taking a train across this country puts you through dramatic swings of momentum- going from eighteen hours of staying mostly stationary then being thrown into downtown hustle and bustle, trying to make the most of a layover and reminding yourself your body is good at many things beyond sitting and looking out windows. This is a very good thing to remind yourself of when you're about to live off your bike for a week, don't you think?

I actually grew up outside of Washington, D.C., in a small Virginia town that's no longer a small Virginia town. In my teenage grasps at autonomy, I'd skip school and head for the closest Metro station to go and visit the city. Having a layover here is like seeing an ex (well, like seeing an ex with whom there's no animosity) years later, enjoying what's the same about them, grappling with what has changed, and of course leaving before you remember anything negative.

Case in point, I'm walking around and the cherry blossoms and bradford pears have buds that are seconds away from blooming. Even the buds on the branches are beautiful, though they growing next to a condo building instead of an old punk arts space. But after years and years of red, itchy eyes and debilitating sneezes, it's good to know I'll be gone long before these trees bloom and fill the city with the faint scent of semen. Those who've experienced bradford pear blooms know what I mean.

Go to Florida Already

The sun comes up outside Savannah, Georgia. Humidity's haze turns the sharp rays into a soft, yellow fog. The coastal south's lanky trees form a picket fence against the flat landscape. It's early, and the passing streets are still free of traffic. It might be the weekend, but I've already lost track of what day it is.

This is fine.

Pines give way to spanish moss. Layers that kept us warm up north now protect us from air conditioning (southerners love their air conditioning) and are promptly stripped off during occasional fresh air stops. Northern Florida whizzes by in a series of farms, swamps, and creepy backwoods sheds.

The clear skies and abundant sunshine are intoxicating. No wonder people come down here! But cloud cover joins our arrival into the Miami metro area. I'm out of chocolate and am naturally furious about it. A woman seated next to us has an extended conversation on her phone about how great her shoe insoles are. Sometimes the destination is more exciting than the travel, and that's okay.

The infrastructure surrounding Miami has one goal: manage water. Everything's about water here. Move the water, stop the water, make more water. The sun sets with our arrival to Miami- the end of the line for the train. As with any great, long train ride to go ride bikes somewhere cool, we sit and wait to see if those bikes are even on the train with us.

They are. Everything's fine. Tool kits are dug out of bags jumbled from repeating digging through two days of train rides. A station attendant strikes up conversation while we assemble the bikes. He got his first bike a few months back, and really likes riding it, but the saddle is uncomfortable. "I'll get used to it," he says.

There's only one hostel in Miami, and it's in South Beach. Rolling onto the island, we realize one crucial thing has been overlooked on this adventure. Having not been in school for several years, we forgot that Spring Break is a thing. Did you know college students like to go to Miami, specifically South Beach, during Spring Break? It makes navigating the streets hilarious. Packs of college kids wander the sidewalks, communicating primarily by yelling. A phone in every hand, screen lit, with Snapchat open. It makes someone in their late 20s (read: me) feel very old. All I want to go is go sleep in a bunk bed for a few hours then ride away as the sun rises.

The room smells like chlorine, but there's no pool. Other people are in bunks, asleep, the lights are off. Now this is my kind of party. Outside, young men with British accents are listing what alcoholic beverages they've had so far that night. It's a competition, but they're all winners. I stuff toilet paper in my ears and think about what's ahead of us. Cypress trees, mangroves, small islands, even smaller crabs, and gators- for seven days we'll be riding through the great stretches of Florida's Everglades, venturing into the Gulf of Mexico, with a leisurely return to the Atlantic coast via the Florida Keys for what might just be the Chillest Tour Ever.

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