Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cross Creek, Old Florida, and The Yearling Restaurant

We spent a wonderful day on the bike today. The goal was much the same as it usually is, we set out to explore back roads and see rural America. Today the ride went to Cross Creek Florida, the home of author Marjorie Rawlings.

North of Orlando we joined state route 19 at Altoona, population 89. Altoona sits on the southern end of the Ocala National Forest, an area that I enjoy riding for the chance of sighting a black bear. There were none today, but there are always many types of birds to be seen. That could explain why I seldom see the bears, I am always looking up at the birds.

At Salt Springs, we turned west on 316. This road exits the forest and enters what everyone calls horse country. There are many beautiful horse farms in the area. The roll of the terrain and the pristine horse farms are reminiscent of parts of Kentucky. Yet the area is all its' own. 316 is lined with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and in many places this forms a kind of canopy over the road. It is like riding through a moss covered tree tunnel.

Turning north again on 200A, we slipped through the small town of Citra. Population not mentioned on the town welcome sign, but this is a bigger town that Altoona, I'd say it has closer to 100 residents...

It is a true pleasure to ride through this area and to enjoy the small rural towns. We turned northwest on 325 and after about 4 miles, we found a sign that welcomed us to Cross Creek Florida. It is good the sign was there as there is little else to let you know you have entered a town. Cross Creek seems to be more an area than a town and there are very few houses in the area. If I must live in a town, somewhere like Cross Creek would be about right.

What there is in Cross Creek is magical. There is a very small creek that runs between Lochloosa Lake and Orange Lake. Sitting right on this short creek is the Yearling restaurant. This place is a glimpse of Cracker style old Florida. Florida Cracker is a term used for a native Floridian, but most likely the word Cracker came from the crack of the whip the early cowhands used to herd and guide the cattle. The cattlemen were called crackers and eventually people born and raised in Florida became known as "crackers".

Outside "The Yearling" restaurant

We stopped for a sandwich at "The Yearling" restaurant. The menu includes many local favorites. I suspect the menu changes a bit with the season, but while we were there they offered; Venison, Quail, Alligator, Cooter, (that's turtle), frog legs, catfish, as well as more typical land and sea food. They also have live entertainment. There was a blues singer sitting on a chair singing the blues and chatting with the patrons. We noticed they also have a small stage that could accommodate a small band in the main dining area. The decorations are perfect for enhancing the atmosphere and include many items that a country family would have put to daily use back about sixty years ago.

Inside The Yearling

There are a few small cabins on the grounds that can be rented at very reasonable prices. They have the appearance of being either small tourist cabins from years past or possibly the homes of people that worked the orange groves or hunted and fished for their living. This would be a perfect and very quiet get-away.

The above photos are from the grounds around The Yearling

One more picture of the bikes outside the restaurant.  That is a US Motors generator in the background, used before electricity came to the area.

After leaving the restaurant, we rode about 200 yards and stopped at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings homestead. Rawlings was an author that wrote much about the life of rural Floridians and in particular, those that lived in and around Cross Creek. Florida really has two very different personalities and histories. The coast and coastal history is very exciting and interesting. At the same time, the inland history and the lives of those that made a living there is equally interesting and exciting, but very different.  There is so much history here and you can get a good look at life in central Florida by reading some of Rawlings stories.  The Yearling, the book the restaurant is named for is one of her most well known.  All are good reading though.

Above from the Marjorie Rawlings homestead

Much of the old Rawlings orange grove is still there and the buildings have been preserved so we can better see and feel what it may have been like to have lived in this very remote section of Florida 60 years ago. Wandering the grounds made me realize how far the life of today’s children and adults is from what it was when Rawlings lived here. There is a bit of sadness at what has been lost. Even the fact that these simple, yet complex times even existed have been lost to so many...

As always, it was a pleasure to get out with my good riding friend and father in law Gary. We certainly enjoyed seeing the back roads and small towns of Florida. I hope you enjoy the pictures.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Tail of the Dragon, Moonshiner 28, The Gauntlet, and other great rides

My good riding buddy, and father in law, Gary and I took a nice bike ride last week to ride the Tail of the Dragon. The Dragon is a great destination in itself, but there is so much great riding in that area as well as on the road to the Dragon that I thought I'd share some of the roads with you.

We travelled through central Florida, north through the Ocala National Forest and picked up route 100 in Stark and US 129 in Jasper, Florida. We stopped for a BBQ sandwich in Jasper before continuing north into Georgia. The Tail of the Dragon is a section of US 129 so we could have taken 129 all the way north to Tennessee, but we deviated here and there in our efforts to stay away from the larger towns.

US 129 passes through Lakeland Georgia. Lakeland is a clean small town and county seat of Lanier County. Continuing north, you begin to parallel a railroad at Ray City. The ride along the railroad is very pretty and continues for a number of miles. The road has tall trees lining both sides and little traffic. The afternoon smells of pine drifted on the air as we kept eyes open for deer and other wildlife.

A bit further north we passed through Fitzgerald, a town that was founded as a settlement community for civil war veterans. Fitzgerald is just a few miles from the location where Jefferson Davis was captured.

We stopped for a break in Abbeville. Abbeville has an impressive courthouse and also some older abandoned and semi abandoned buildings that add to the feel that you have travelled back in time at least fifty years.

Abbeville, Ga.

Abbeville Courthouse

From Abbeville you pass through miles of cotton fields and pecan groves. The cotton is now picked by machines, but just looking at the size and number of cotton fields makes you realize how many people must have worked the field in days past when the work was done by hand. The pecan harvest must be something to see. My riding friend and father in law, Gary told me they grabbed the tree with a special large machine and shook it to knock the nuts down.

Well Gary has been known to tell tales and I was a little skeptical that this was one of them. Pecan trees are big, and in my mind they seemed too big to shake. Turns out he was spot on. The trees are shaken with a large tree shaker until the nuts are dropped, and then a sweeping machine sweeps the ground and puts the nuts in piles. Lastly another machine scoops them up and separates all the unwanted twigs and leaves from the nuts. The tree shaker is a machine like none I have ever seen. A person sits in it and grabs the tree with a large pincher on the end of an arm, then begins the shaking process. I'd really like to see it being done, has to be a nasty ride if you happen to be the person that operates the shaker. I bet he sees double for a while afterward.

We continued the ride north toward Hawkinsville, where we picked up 129 alt to stay away from Macon. Near Hawkinsville was a large complex that seems to have been built for the training of horses for harness racing. Not much was going on when we passed by, but given the size of the facility, it must be a jumping place at times.

We meandered around the back roads and stopped in Gray by early evening. From Gray to Monticello, the road follows a railroad and once again tall trees border the road as you search the edges of the trees for deer. Last year we stopped in Monticello for lunch. We had climbed off the bikes and were wandering around the city square when a well-dressed gentleman stopped to ask if he could help us find our way. We told him we were looking for a bite to eat. He kindly told us of a couple options, but recommended a cafe called the corner cafe. The food was great and was closer to the size of dinner than lunch. Tab was around $7.00 each and we had the pleasure of visiting with the owner/cook/waitress while we ate. There are many nice towns along this route, but Monticello is among the best.

We continued north on 11, picked up 52, and then transitioned back to US 129 in Clermont. As you leave Clermont the land becomes alive with hills that slowly become mountains and sweeping curves that turn into switchbacks the higher you climb.

Once you realize the ride is the goal rather than a destination or timeline, the navigating gets pretty easy. My method of navigation amounts to reviewing a map and remembering as much of it as possible before storing it away in a saddle bag. Then I ride until I am longer sure I am still on track, or until I am sure I am no longer on track, then I stop and review the map again. Gary has a more sophisticated system than I do. You see he has a tank bag with one of those little windows in it. He writes down the route he wants to take and puts the directions in the little tank bag window and more or less follows it. The end result is about the same. That is we take turns leading the other into planned and unplanned areas. This way we get to experience the joy of new and unknown roads that may or may not be close to where we expected to be.

This was the case as we attempted to ride the Gauntlet in north Georgia. After passing Turners Corner on US 129 the road climbs steeply and the sweepers become tighter and tighter until they are nice sharp curves. Leaving 129 for 180, we rode west through some very pretty country. Using our "navigation systems" to their fullest, we found ourselves in Dahlonega. Not too far from our intended course. Dahlonega is the site of the first gold rush in America and it is believed the phrase "thars gold in them thar hills" originated here.

After a careful review of our map and tank bag navigation window we found we had accidentally blundered into Blue Ridge after leaving Dahlonega. We wondered how we could be so far off track so quickly, but didn't really care because the countryside was so beautiful. Once we sorted things out, we rode the Gumlog Road to the Unicoi Turnpike. (Don’t let the name fool you, it's a winding narrow two lane.) We missed another turn and wound up in the touristy, but very nice town of Helen, Georgia.

We stretched our legs and consulted our nav systems once again. This time we found our way to the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway. The Highway is a winding two lane that climbs and crosses a mountain ridge on its' way back to US 129. We pulled off on an overlook and while we were looking out over the mountainside we heard a car pull in behind us. When we looked at who was sharing this fantastic view with us we saw it was Santa! Yep, the old man himself. After looking at the view for a few minutes, he turned, gave a two handed wave and disappeared down the mountain. I guess we all need a vacation now and then.

Santa vacationing in north Georgia

After recovering from seeing Santa on a remote mountain top in north Georgia, we wound our way back down to 129 and rode toward our day 2 destination of Robbinsville, NC.

Robbinsville is a friendly town and home to the Two Wheel Inn and I highly recommend it. Each room has a private garage sized to fit a motorcycle. The rooms have a nice roof overhang you can sit under and you park your bike right on the sidewalk while it cools and you prepare it for a night in the garage. They also have a pavilion with a fire pit nearby. Riders sit in front of their rooms and relax while telling each other basically true stories about the days' ride and their bikes. There is a club type atmosphere to the place. What a great way to end the days' ride.

Relaxing after a long day of riding

Next morning we were up at dawn and readying our bikes for the days' adventure. We enjoyed the smell and feel of an early fall morning as we watched the fog slowly burn off from the mountains. Our plan was to ride the Tail of the Dragon, the Foothills Parkway, then spend time in the Great Smoky National Park.

The Dragon is a great ride. We started at Deals Gap (another great place to stay, but with a different atmosphere) and rode north into Tennessee. For those that have not ridden the Dragon, let me say that the road is a safe road but it is challenging. There are many sharp and changing radius curves as well as a number of off camber curves. Something like 318 curves in 11 miles. It feels like one big curve that changes direction frequently. All the while you are steeply climbing to the ridge top then steeply descending into the valley below. It is fun from start to finish and I recommend it if you get to this part of the country.

Deals Gap

Aside from the enjoyable challenge of the road, riders must be aware that a leaned bike takes much more road space than an unleaned bike. It is easy to have your wheels in an autos' left wheel path, or even in the center of the road, and have your head and shoulders in the oncoming lane even at pretty low speeds. Also watch for oncoming traffic that may blunder into your lane. The scenery is pretty and the road challenging so riders need to pay extra attention to what is going on and not get distracted. The road is narrow and the curves are very tight.

From the Dragon we turned onto the Foothills Parkway. The Parkway is very much like the Blue Ridge Parkway, but with even less traffic. It is about 70 miles of climbing and descending sweepers. All the way the views are outstanding.

From the Parkway we rode down into the Great Smoky National Park and into Cades Cove. Cades Cove was an area of settlement in a largish valley that lies in the Smoky Mountains. There is plenty so see there, old cabins and barns as well as churches and mills. Just beware; it is pretty crowded with the automobile types.

Cades Cove

It was in the Smokys that we saw eight black bear fattening up for the winter. They look so adorable, but give them plenty of room as mommas separated from their cubs can be very un-understanding of intruders.

Leaving the Great Smoky Mountains, we rode south to Cherokee, and then picked up highway 19 through the Nantahala Gorge. The gorge is known for the scenery and for the spectacular whitewater. The river varies from mild to wild, so check with an outfitter if you are planning any rafting or kayaking.

We made it back to the Two Wheel Inn tired and content after only about 200 miles of riding.

Next morning we were up early getting our bikes ready and enjoying breakfast while we waited for the fog to burn off. The plan for the day was to ride back to the Nantahala gorge and pick up the Wayah road. Some maps and most locals call Wayah road Warrior road. We planned to ride Wayah into Franklin and join US 28, known as the Moonshiner 28, for a ride south into Georgia. The Moonshiner actually runs from the Dragon all the way down to Walhalla, South Carolina.

Wayah road is a pretty ride as it climbs and winds its' way through forested mountains. Wayah road ends before reaching Franklin, but, using our navigation system we wandered into town without much trouble.

Franklin stands in the midst of what was once the Cherokee Nation in times past. Then it was known as Nikwasi. You can still see some of the Indian Mounds in downtown if you know where to look.

As it turned out, US 28 was one of the most scenic roads we travelled. The curves are not quite as tight as some other roads so you have more time for sightseeing. There are a number of falls along the road. Bridal Veil Falls is well known and you can ride your bike behind the falls for a cool photo if you like. We stopped at Dry Falls. They were spectacular when we were there. US 28 winds and snakes south into South Carolina, but we turned off on Warwoman road in Georgia. From there we poked around the Georgia mountains for a while before turning north again in Clayton. North took us back to Franklin where we backtracked the Wayah road to the Two Wheel Inn.

Moonshiner 28

Dry Falls

As we climbed along the Wayah road, the air was still and the leaves were dropping slowly and gently from the trees. The falling leaves reminded me of that beautiful and gentle snow that is sometimes seen on a still winter day. It was on just such a section of road that we saw four bears getting ready to cross the road ahead of us. The momma bear saw us and said something that sent the three cubs scurrying back up the side of the mountain. She then took to high ground and stood on her hind feet to show us we had no business there and that we should continue on. You can just see her as the black dot over Gary’s' left shoulder in the picture.

Momma Bear

That evening we sat around chatting with our Two Wheel Inn neighbors and comparing rides. Our last day in North Carolina was approaching, so we decided to ride the Dragon once again as well as spend time on the Foothills Parkway.

Bright and early the next morning we climbed to Deals Gap for another ride on the Dragon. We were there early enough that the smell of the fog and dew still hung on the leaves and fall flowers. What a ride! The air was cool and crisp and we saw very little traffic.

At the bottom of the Dragon, we discovered the Foothills Parkway was closed so we turned our bikes west.

Using our Navigation Systems, we chugged and whirred into Tellico Plains. Tellico Plains sits on a past Indian settlement. The area has a busy past that includes the Cherokee Nation among others and gold mining that continues today.

We had a great lunch at the Tellico Grains Cafe. After lunch we wound and wobbled our way through miles of eastern Tennessee mountains and found ourselves back in camp just as darkness set in.

Tellico Grains Cafe

We stayed up far too late talking with other bikers, comparing bikes and adventures. We slept in later than usual the next morning and reluctantly packed our bikes for the ride home. It was another fantastic early fall ride that was coming to an end. Already we have started plans for next year.