THE TIME MACHINE: North Florida Tour Revisited. by Tom Morris
Well it happened again; I found myself transported back in time. This time there was a new twist – I caught a glimpse of the future. It happened on my two-wheeled time machine at the North Florida Tour in Madison, Florida November 9-12. This twenty five year old three day tour now has a new home - Cherry Lake 4H Camp. Margaret and Michael Bokros obtained permission last year from the University of Florida to host this final SBL tour of the season. Margaret has hosted the North Florida Tour for eighteen years and this is supposed to be the last one, the Silver Anniversary North Florida Tour.
My last visit to the North Florida Tour was a dozen years ago when it was held at Camp Weed in Live Oak. Rick Cooley and I drove down together that year and found that the timing for this year’s ride was perfect to repeat our last North Florida journey since we had both divorced and were unattached. This may be the last year for “The Crowning Jewel of the SBL” due to decreasing attendance, so our window of opportunity may be closing. In its day the North Florida Tour had over one hundred and fifty riders where as now there are barely fifty. I had gone on to ride other rides these past dozen years, marketing my bicycle clothing line CYCLOSAURS Sportswear. Rick had raised a son and continued the tradition of chef of the shrimp and seafood boil for twenty four years. This year was Rick’s twenty fifth consecutive year at the North Florida Tour.
Upon arriving at Cherry Lake Thursday afternoon we checked into the boy’s cabin and snagged bunks in different rooms since we both snore and an elbow in the ribs was not forthcoming this trip. After visiting with Margaret and Michael we headed off to the sleepy fish camp coastal Florida town of Steinhatchee to have dinner at Roy’s restaurant on the river. We watched the sun set at Keaton Beach then joined a room full of local sportsmen at Roy’s for the Mullet that we both craved. Roy’s now has a beverage list unlike the last time I was there. Also the salad bar and grilled fresh catch was another improvement that reflected an upscale change in the market that compliments the owners of the fancy new condos just up the river. After dinner we drove up to Live Oak to visit Rick’s old hang out “The Brown Lantern Restaurant”. Rick noted that the waitresses at the Brown Lantern were the same girls he’d met over the past twenty something years except now they are mothers and grandmothers.
The Friday ride was the Madison Loop of forty eight miles which required a remote start in Madison to take lunch upon completion. There was also and optional kayak paddle on the Suwannee River, I think, both days led by Jim Hoey. Rick, Joe, Dave, Reggie, Bill and I opted to start our ride from camp and cut over and take the course in reverse with a final ten mile ride to Cherry Lake from Madison after lunch. Our total mileage would be fifty six miles. The course was through beautiful farm country roads with smooth rolling hills, hay fields, hardwood forest and packs of dogs near the start. I recommend riding in groups of four or more to thwart the mirth of undisciplined canines. It seemed to me that single riders were more of a target to chase where as a pack of bicycles had too many targets that yelled abrupt suggestions in four part harmony.
The wild frontier feel of this part of Florida with cattle and large animals running loose took me back to my first North Florida tour in 1989 during my racing days. I was riding a pace line with track racer John James to Blue Springs when I ran over the front paws of a Rotweiler who misjudged our twenty four mile per hour pace. I had reached for my water bottle to give the dog a squirt but managed to spout water upwards like a whale. John complimented me on my bike handling skills which I was too shocked to acknowledge. The riders behind us told us later that they approached a whimpering large black dog limping around dazed. This contrast of comedy and tragedy on that first North Florida Tour set the pattern for all my subsequent North Florida tours. My father was terminal with cancer that year so North Florida became a fun getaway. He died that winter.
Our first stop Friday was outside Greenville at “Artistic Things by Marshall”. Marshall and Barbara Norris have an art gallery, sculpture studio and large sculptures all over the grounds of their farm. Here is an artist who reveals figures hidden in his material in the classic sense but uses automobile parts and a welding torch in an expressively unique manner. I recommend a stop here for a tour of the grounds and gallery and to hear humorous stories from Marshall and Barbara. His stranger than fiction story of his near-death injury in the line duty in Rescue Work inspired him to make whimsical art that makes people happy. Bring your check book because his paintings and sculpture are for sale and they will ship. Artistic Things by Marshall is celebrated in the U.S. and Europe and was a lunch stop on the Bike Florida Tour.
Our lunch stop was at O’Neal’s Country Buffet in Madison. We met some of the local characters who were pleased as punch to have us visit and complimented us on our appetites. We gorged on red fish, fried chicken, pork barbecue and catfish and all the vegetables and trimmings for $7 each. We only missed one desert table but won’t make that same mistake. After the ride Michael Bokros and Larry Kloet took a dip in Cherry Lake. The water felt cold so I declined a swim even though Michael assured us that it was pleasant to a depth of a man’s height.
Rick, Mimi Sheppard and I returned to the Brown Lantern in Live Oak for dinner that evening and we feasted on oysters and shrimp while drinking in the ambiance of an old Florida town establishment full of unpretentious people. I have eaten here and at the Dixie Grill down the street on the Suwannee Bike Festival in May for the dozen years I was absent from the North Florida Tour. I can still recall the first time Rick took me to the Brown Lantern to buy a “cruise pack” at the old drive-in window. A cruise pack is a six pack of long neck beers double bagged in ice. The trick is to cruise around and drink the beer before the ice melts. (I wouldn’t try this at home.) This year we opted for the Beverage Barn for “supplies” after dinner. You follow a long line of pick-up trucks through the Beverage Barn where attendants bring your beverage orders up to your car window.
Saturday’s Cherry Lake ride was the optional century with a shorter sixty eight miler. Wallace McRoy, Reggie, Mary from Tampa, Rick and myself rode the sixty eight mile option. This day was most like the old Camp Weed/ Live Oak Blue Springs ride but from the other direction. Basking in the kindness of drivers accustomed to cyclists riding along the loop of Madison County, we rode to Norris Pharmacy at Four Freedoms Square in Madison as our first rest stop. Here we sipped on cherry and vanilla fountain cokes and soaked up the warm weather. It reminded me of the stop we would make in Wellborn near the end of the old Ichetucknee Springs ride. We would buy cold drinks from an old man at his store.
Our destination this day was past cattle farms to Blue Springs for lunch which Margaret had boxed and delivered to us. Rick immediately jumped into Blue Springs joining some Canadian scuba divers. The divers said the seventy two degree water temperature was swimming pool temperature in Canada. In Decatur we keep the water temp above eighty two degrees where I swim. Mary and I enjoyed the clear view of the Withlacoochee from the picnic tables while we ate our turkey sandwiches. This idyllic scene was more sedate than the old days were skinny dippin’ was observed. One year at Ichtucknee Springs at the Blue Hole a park ranger wandered in upon three voluptuous SBL sirens au natural and asked them to cover up their real estate. It is recommended that you bring a towel and bathing suit to swim in for decency’s sake and cycling comfort.
Saturday night is food, drink, music and dancing. After showers, some of my companions napped in anticipation of tonight’s late night feast and party. I laid out in the sun on the pier and read while enjoying the fisher birds and boats. After a shower and change I found Rick preparing his famous shrimp boil for the thirty pounds of fresh large shrimp. Along with vegetables, dip, chips, beer and wine there was more than enough to feed fifty people. We ate shrimp with cocktail sauce to the sounds of Ned Mountain’s music review. Ned has spun tunes for the SBL for seventeen years. Shortly thereafter someone called out that “dinner was served”! A shock rippled through those who gorged themselves thinking that the mound of shrimp was the main course. We adjourned to the dining hall to pork roast and vegetables and dessert and emerged fat as ticks.
After dinner it was time to burn calories on the dance floor. I plopped down next to DJ. Ned Mountain to help him with his single malt scotch. Ned was one of my roommates in the boy’s cabin and enjoyed sharing his collection of recorded music and Bushmills Irish whiskey. I managed to dance with many women there or so I was told the next day. Cherry Lake comparisons to Camp Weed get a little blurrrred there but I do remember paddling out onto a pond in canoes in the old days. Cherry Lake is like a small ocean compared to Camp Weed so an inexperienced canoeist could get into trouble real fast.
We all slept late Sunday morning but we were determined to ride the forty five mile ride to Quitman, Georgia. Rick and I had a beer-fogged fun ride talking about women and laughing like clowns. In Quitman the pack of riders split up due to a quick turn by the railroad that is easy to miss. We rode from the turn around on a seemingly endless gradual downhill back to Cherry Lake and a tailgate party.
The drive back to Decatur was pleasant with a stop in Valdosta at Sonny’s Barbeque for lunch. I ordered a Super Combo Special and was rewarded with a camouflage Sonny’s hunter’s promotional cap. We later stopped for pecans in Cordele - a Rick Cooley tradition, then on to Decatur where we are near neighbors.
Mini Review: Ride Courses – I like Cherry Lake courses since they are more varied with a mix of rolling hills and hardwood forest rather than the flat endless pine trees I remembered. Cabins – I like Camp Weed cabins which are newer than the ancient plumbing and cramped rooms of Cherry Lake’s WPA barracks. Showers – Cherry Lake has separate latrine cabins with solar collectors for endless hot water. Food – I think the food was better at Cherry Lake. Definitely the fresh baked biscuits for breakfast. Rick’s shrimp boil was still the best no matter where. Lake - Cherry Lake is majestic as opposed to Camp Weed’s quaint pond / sink hole. Location – I like Camp Weed’s closeness to Live Oak. Cherry Lake is a remote ten miles from Madison while Camp Weed was half as far to town. Motels and B&B’s – Live Oak has more choices. As for my preference, I came for the riding so I like Cherry Lake.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few necessities like restaurants or the location of bicycle shops. Your ride package has maps and information from the Madison County Chamber of Commerce. Everyone will have to find out for themselves if the trip meets the minimum requirements. One year it rained the whole time so Henry Barner drove four of us to Cedar Key where we sat in an oyster bar on The Gulf of Mexico. Cyclists are resourceful and inventive and that is why Margaret Bokros is soliciting new ideas to improve the ride. If you have a suggestion pass it on to Margaret and maybe we’ll keep the North Florida Tour the Crowning Jewel of the SBL.