Trains, Bikes, and Automobiles

I have to interrupt my tales of Italy with this post about my adventure this weekend. About a month or so back some friends that I have had many wonderful outdoor adventures with posted an interesting idea for a trip. The idea was to hop on a train in Orlando and head up to Columbia, South Carolina and the bike across town to a state park to camp and enjoy nature. I agreed to join the venture.

Preparation
I’m out of shape. And I’ve not ridden my bicycle much over the past 6 months. So the first order of business was to pump up the tires and get riding. My first ride was from my house to UCF and a really round about way back to my house that was about 13 miles. With the heat it seemed a lot worse but I was able to complete it. The following weekend I rode out to Snowhill bridge that crosses the Econ River. I hadn’t intended to ride that far but I did it. When I got home from riding over 20 miles I was totally exhausted. That convinced me that I could ride (boy was I mistaken).
The second item I needed to take care of was buying the gear that I required. At first I was thinking of using my hiking backpack but then my friends told me that they purchased panniers (think saddlebags for bicycles) and that seemed like a better choice. In order to use a set of panniers you need a rear mounted rack on your bike. So I went to a local bike shop, Bike Works, and the guy there sold me the last rack he had. I took it home an didn’t give it a second thought. I then purchased a set of panniers from REI.

Uh oh, troubleā€¦
So on the Monday night before the trip I decided to install my rack. As I picked up the package to open it some pieces fell out. That’s always a bad sign. As I proceeded to install the rack it became apparent that I didn’t have all of the parts I needed to install it correctly. So mildly frustrated I removed the pieces that had been put in place and resigned myself to dealing with it the next day. I took the rack back to the store at lunchtime the following day. Knowing that they didn’t have another rack I asked them to call other stores to see if they had any racks. The main Bike Works store said they had them so I had the store I was at refund me and I headed to the other store. At that store I saw three racks and none them had their pieces. Now I’m thoroughly pissed. The manager said that if I brought my bike in he would make sure that I would have a rack installed. I was not so sure. The following day I decided to try a different shop, David’s World Cycle. They had a rack that looked like it would do the trick and, best of all, it had all of its pieces. That evening I installed it and tried out my panniers. Everything worked so I was happy.

The Departure
In order to transport a bike on the train Amtrak requires that the bike be placed inside of a bike box and that this all should be taken care of at least an hour and a half before departure. I arrived at the Winter Park station at around 6pm when my departure was at 7:41pm. I worked with Brian the Amtrak agent to get my bike boxed up and tagged. After all of that was done I still had over an hour to kill before catching my train. I decided to get some dinner at one of the many restaurants along Winter Park’s Park Avenue. I settled on a Thai Thai Sushi Bar. The Pad Thai was great and so was the service. After finishing my meal I returned to the station and hung around people watching until the train arrived. Upon the arrival of the train I rushed to board not really knowing the procedure. The conductor stopped me quickly and grabbed my ticket and pointed me to the end of the train. I saw one of my friends on the train so I boarded the car and proceeded up to where they were sitting.

The trip north
The ride up to Columbia was long and cold. Our first stop after getting on at Winter Park was Deland. Of course the announcement was for DEE Land. Everyone got a chuckle at that. As the ride continued I attempted to sleep but failed miserably. The coach seats had tons of room but I just couldn’t get comfortable regardless of how I positioned the leg rests or the seat back. So I spent the whole night tossing and turning and trying to keep warm. I might have gotten 2 hours of sleep during the 8 hour trip. So it wasn’t much fun.

the lonely bikes

the lonely bikes

Biking at night/morning
We finally made it to Columbia and I felt drained. The cool air when we got out of the train helped a little and we collected and reassembled our bikes. We got directions to an IHOP so away we went. The first thing we noticed was the ever so slight hill up to the first intersection. If only we knew what was in store for us. Another block or two and we were starting to get into the bar/night club section of town near the university. It was like 4:30-5am and there were a few groups of people still bar hopping. We passed one club that still had the dance music thumping. And then we saw…

The International House of Pancakes
I had the best blueberry pancakes totally covered with blueberry syrup and whole blueberries with scrambled eggs, sausage, and hash browns. It was wonderful. That’s all that needs to be said about that.

Two notch
After breakfast we hopped back on our bikes and made a quick stop at a CVS for some last minute supplies and a gas station for a quick bathroom break. After chatting with a local for a bit we struck out on our 12 mile trek. Our route was basically on a single road, named Two Notch Road, that would take us all of the way to the park. From where we too off from the gas station we had a couple of short roads before joining onto Two Notch the second of these short roads had our first major downhill where we picked up a LOT of speed. We were using the sidewalks instead of the road and at the very bottom of this hill there were some steps for the sidewalk. One of the riders in the group misjudged it and the consequence was the loss of about a gallon of Arizona Arnold Palmer Tea/Lemonade. The ride was long with tough uphills and quick downhills. Stress was high as there were a few technical problems with some bikes and problems with stamina on the uphills. The passed through the more run down sections of Columbia. We rode over sidewalks that had seen better days. The temperature went from the 60s to the high 80s with a very clear sky letting the sun bake the blacktop. After about 3 hours we came to the end of the sidewalk along Two Notch Rd. With less than a mile to our destination we didn’t really have a way forward. We pulled the maps out and figured out that the last stretch was on a parallel road that started about a quarter of a mile back. So we back tracked and headed up through a residential street, past a Korean church, and up a dirt road. When we exited at the end of dirt road we were less than a 100 feet from the entrance to Sesquicentennial State Park.

the dying fire

the dying fire

Sesquicentennial State Park
From the entrance there was a short uphill to the booth where a ranger would typically be located to collect day use fees and direct traffic. But when we got there (about 10:45am) there was no one manning the booth so we continued on to the campsite. After another short climb we reached the summit of the hill and then had an exhilarating downhill ride all of the way down to the turn to the camping area of the park. I swear we must have hit 30 mph and I wasn’t quite ready for those kind of speeds so I was on my brakes for much of the ride. We turned off and weaved among the campsites that seemed to be completely populated with various incarnations of RVs and fifth wheels. In fact I don’t recall seeing any other tents on the way in to our site. Once we all congregated at the site we relaxed for just a bit and then started to unpack and set up camp. After the tents were up, sleeping bags laid out and the firewood was prepared we retired to our tents for naps. I know I was extremely tired from the no sleep on the train and the 3+ hour bike ride.
The heat and the sun didn’t help the nap but I was still able to get about 2 hours in before getting up. After a short while everyone was up and we decided to go to the BBQ joint at the entrance of the park.

Maurice’s BBQ
We had a very long uphill hike as we were too tired to attempt it riding. We brought our bikes with us as we knew it would make the return trip faster and more fun. We arrived at the restaurant sometime around 4pm and the place looked deserted. We stacked our bikes and went in. There was an all-u-can eat buffet so we decided to indulge and proceeded to eat all we could. The BBQ was so-so. The ribs were good but they were cold. The pulled pork was mediocre. The problem was that everything was absolutely slathered with a mustard based sauce and although good was overpowering the food. That didn’t stop any of us from having seconds and some had third helpings plus something that passed as dessert.
After filling up we decided that we wanted to chill out around the restaurant, there wasn’t much else around, before heading back to camp. We loitered on the side of the building where there was a picnic table. It was good just hanging out. After a bit it was time to head back so we grabbed our bikes and headed back up the hill. We passed by the pay booth which was empty again then to the top of the hill and finally down the steep downhill. That was fun.

College Football
This being a Saturday in the fall season there was of course college football going on. The University of South Carolina, the Game Cocks, located in Columbia was fighting it out with Alabama, the Crimson Tide, and there were more than a few RVs in the campsite rooting for either team. We returned to out site and played a few rounds of Uno but were continually interrupted by the rooster crowing of inebriated S. Carolina fans. I can’t imagine how crazy it would be at the actual game based on the few individuals that surrounded our campsite. After a short while my friends headed over to one particularly loud RV to watch the remaining quarter of the game. They encouraged me to join them so we watched for a bit. The Game Cocks won which caused another slew of rooster crows.

Camp living
As is tradition with any camping experience you always have to have a fire. So we had a nice little one which felt really good as the sun went down and the temperature dropped. We were all tired. I went and took a nice long hot shower and then returned to my tent and crawled into bed. It was before 8pm.
I slept relatively well throughout the night with only waking up a couple of times to readjust. The temperature was quite cool but I was very warm in my sleeping bag. At around 6am someone in the campground set off their car alarm and didn’t shut it off for about 30 seconds. So it was time to wake up.
We all slowly re-emerged from our fabric caves and set about repacking everything in preparation to leave. We took our time as we had many hours before we needed to be anywhere.

The ride back
We hopped onto our wheeled steeds and pedaled out of the campsite. When we reached the beginning of the incline we attempted to pedal up it but each of us dismounted and walked our bikes to the top. One of the group had some minor technical issues with their bike so we stopped at the top of the hill while he rigged his bike to survive the rest of the day. We then proceeded out of the park and in the general direction of downtown Columbia.
The first order of business was food. We knew there was a Waffle House around so that was the objective. We were all hungry and as we rode back down Two Notch we weren’t seeing much in the way of any kind of restaurants. I was at the front of the pack and I finally saw a Burger King at the top of a hill and I figured that would be better than nothing. When I crested the hill I saw a Waffle House on the other side and therefore I didn’t stop at the BK. There was also a Texas Roadhouse right behind the Waffle House. Once we had regrouped we came to a decision that since it was basically lunch time that we would go for the steakhouse instead. We all enjoyed the fresh rolls with cinnamon butter and the peanuts. Our salads and steaks were also very good and we were stuffed by the time we stumbled out the door. It was around noon when we mounted up and rode out again.

The Better Way
Very shortly after leaving the restaurant we grouped together and decided to take a different route back to town. We knew we had plenty of time so even if we got lost we would be fine. We ended up on a Trenholm Road that diverged away from Two Notch but seemed much gentler and more scenic. It ran through some middle class neighborhoods with very few strip plazas or other businesses. The ride was very enjoyable and we ended up making better time than was expected. About two thirds of the way back we turned onto Forest Road which was more commercialized and took us directly back into town. We ended up back into town sometime around 2 to 2:30pm. We stopped at a bike shop and hung out there for a bit.

Too much time
Our train wasn’t going to leave the station until 1:45am. The station didn’t even open up until 10pm and we were in town at 2:30pm. It was a wonderful fall Sunday so we decided to find a sports bar and watch some football. The first spot we found had a very nice patio but they were packed and didn’t have that many TVs so we got some directions to another couple of locations. One location was very close to the train station so we headed in that direction. We ended up at the Carolina Ale House which was vaguely familiar to the Ale Houses around Orlando. There was an open air seating area on the second floor so we headed up there and commandeered a table. We then proceeded to drink copious amounts of water (and Diet Coke for me) as well as munching on chicken nachos and apple pie a la mode. The football was entertaining even though the Bills had lost before we had even sat down. I guess I’m glad I wasn’t there to watch that game. We stayed for about 5 hours and we were all getting antsy to go somewhere else. We settled our tab and went back to our bikes and headed to the station.

Still too much time
We arrived at the station around 8:30pm and so we had about an hour and a half before the doors opened to the building and almost another 4 hours after that before train to take us home would arrive. Some of us tried to nap, others fiddled with their bikes, and I listened to music and started writing this post. The time seemed to drag on. When the doors to the office were finally opened we were all happy as we could finally use the facilities. We could also get our bike boxes back from the station’s storage and pack up our bikes for the trip home. After much trouble with a faulty packing tape gun we had our bikes secured and ready to go. Now we had another 3 hours to go (or so we thought). We moved our bags into the building and sat around inside attempting to kill time. We should have busted out the UNO game but we didn’t. At about midnight the train personnel changed the arrival time of the train to 2:05am. Then the arrival time was changed again to be about 2:15am. I know I already felt like the walking dead and this waiting wasn’t helping much. I went for a walk around the streets near the station. I returned and waited a while longer. Finally around 2:05 I decided that I didn’t want to wait inside anymore and I grabbed my bags and stood on the landing. I guess I started a trend because everyone started to pile out onto the landing. When the train arrived there were quite a few people disembarking so we had a little longer to wait before being assigned our seats and boarding.

The Return
We stored our bags and situated ourselves in our seats. I tried to get comfortable, a relatively impossible achievement, in my seat in order to get some shut eye. The train departed and shortly afterward, maybe 10 minutes, the conductor and his assistant walked through our car determining our final destinations. When he came to our row I told him our destinations so that he wouldn’t disturb me friends who were asleep or very close to asleep. When he got to the row 3 back from us there was a small incident. He asked a man what his destination was but the man wouldn’t wake up. He was nudging him, repeating the question, threating him with being kicked off the train and onto an ambulance. This lasted a good 5 minutes and then the passenger finally responded. That’s what I call deep sleep.
Speaking of sleep, I was finally able to get just comfortable enough to pass out in my seat. I didn’t even realize how long I had slept until I heard the announcement that we were at the Jacksonville station. Right about that time the sun decided to start to creep above the horizon and my body said that I had enough sleep for that night. I sat up and watched the wonderful colors as the sun came up. From there it was a couple of hours before we arrived at the Winter Park station where I disembarked and the journey came to an end.

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