I climb out of the saddle and wipe the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand. The day started out cool enough, with a nice little northeast wind. My ride south had been brisk and slightly chilled in the early light of dawn and I had the world to myself, it seemed: the birds were singing their asses off and there was the scrabbling of small animals in the undergrowth along the shoulder and the road was empty and all mine. I had planned to do my usual twenty-four mile loop that I call my daydream ride but the morning planet was so new and fresh and enticing that I turned right at my usual left hand turn and rode still further into the forest.
All these roads I use for this quiet loop were gravel or dirt up until a year or so ago. Then, for a brief and magical break-in period they were pristine blacktop, smooth and serene and like a gift of some kind. I never saw another cyclist except once, but now I see them every time I go that way. Group rides are common and a group passed me this morning. I thought about trying to keep up but quickly abandoned the idea. I am out of shape these days and riding single speed and anyway, today was a long day of saddle time and exploration, not speed.
The morning cool has collapsed into another Florida day of heat and sweat and I shoulder my bicycle and clamber over the huge mound left by the new trench down the middle of White Beach Road.
Open Heart Surgery
What the hell happened here? This little trail was a kind of road through the woods to a place on the river the locals call White Beach. For all I know, the property was at one time owned by someone named White; but we call it White Beach because after you pedal through several hundred yards of woods, you break out into a fantastic place on the Indian River that is a football field-size expanse of glistening white sand, clusters of palm trees and a dark deep woods.
For many years (decades) this has been a bonfire and hell-raising spot. It has been a prime weekend destination for boaters looking for a place to picnic and stretch out on the sand. It is a very private property, too be sure; but that never seemed to matter until seven years ago when a big development company out of Orlando bought the place with plans to erect a nineteen story waterfront condominium tower. They immediately put up a six foot fence around the whole property and tore down the ages-old wooden gate that had long ago become more of a symbol than a barrier, replacing it with a stout steel locking gate and a big stout padlock.
With A Rebel Yell
That fence and that gate suffered all manner of vandalistic humiliation over the years as outraged locals, refusing to accept the loss of what really was a beautiful spot that had been forever wide open, alternately plowed through the chain link with four wheel drive trucks, stole and scrapped the gate for money, cut and used for a bonfire the tree the owners had felled across the road and fought authority with relish and the eternal rebel/cracker energy that makes us who (and what) we are. Meanwhile, the faceless corporation behind this little war was fighting a separate battle with the zoning board over their planned gargantuan project. A nineteen story condominium in an area where the next tallest building would have been one story tall, had there been any other buildings in the area. This was just...awful.
It was a ludicrous struggle but as usual good prevailed over evil, if a jackass multimillion dollar development corporation counts as good and frustrated village vandals should be considered evil. Yeah, the county council approved the plans for this dark tower and then the recession hit and it all became just another crazy Florida story.
It's Mine! I Mean Ours! We Mean...Business!
But for some reason, this corporation was adamant about keeping out the riff-raff and now here am I, crawling over a big pile of sand with my bike on my back, scrambling across the bottom of a four foot deep ditch down the center of the old road, then back up the other side, using one hand to steady the bike and one hand to claw my way to the top of the diggings.
'What the hell,” I muttered (out loud this time). It didn't make much sense. This beach is readily accessible by boat; what would be gained by digging this ugly gash along the old forest road? They must really want to keep us out. But why? Now NOBODY could get in there, at least not by car or truck. For a realtor to show this property (and there is a big For Sale sign out front) they would have to bring prospective buyers in by boat. But then again, this is Florida. Anything goes.
Down to the River to Pray
I lean my bicycle against a handy palmetto and brush off the sand. The day is really warming up. I walk down to the river and wade out to where it is knee deep. The place seems different. It feels different. Across the river I can see Boy Scout Cut, a place where the water rolls pretty quick on a falling tide and it is deep and cool and a place of snook and trout. The Cut leads around a big spoil island to the flats on the backside; many, many square miles of crystal clear water only inches deep and it is a place of magic. It is only inches deep and it takes a boat that can be poled or paddled to get in there and move about. It is holy and there are redfish there and roseate spoonbills and water fowl and fish hawks.
I could stand here in this water all day. I have waded here and fished here; I have come here in my old boat with my old dog when she was a puppy and let her run and learn about fire and beer and shallow water and other dogs and the joy of the shallows and chasing all manner of small fry...this was and will forever be a place of my heart. There have been ashes scattered here. This is the Indian River and this is Old White Beach.
I turn from the river and (of course) stare for a moment at my bicycle, trusty and solid and ready and waiting. Made of steel and already old when she became mine, we will be together for a long time. There are all too few constants in our lives and we lose everything we cherish sooner or later, or they lose us. But somehow, through luck good or bad (it is hard to know) I have once and for all learned and gained the bonding with something that will not die or leave for another or simply turn away. With a minimum of care and a little love there will always be a bicycle to turn to, a bicycle to ride, a bicycle to get out there on and see the world both inside and out.
The dirty work done by these new owners can stop a four-wheeler, but a man and a bicycle are a different story. I gaze around at the scene of so many good times and then I walk over to my bike. I'm not looking forward to going back over that ditch. Did I mention that I am out of shape? I take a long, wistful look around.
Oh, the Dichotomy of It All
I know I will see it again, coming in by boat. But I know this, also: I make my living working for condo developers. There is a damn good chance I will one day be down here wearing a hardhat and carrying a clipboard and doing my part to take away from my beloved Florida one more Florida place.
It is painful to think about. I long ago gave up trying to reconcile my trade with my love of wild outdoor places. I am a dichotomous sonofabitch but it is a condition that I have learned to ameliorate with a little money earned and a lot of beer and rum (drunk, dranken, partook of?) and long sweaty bicycle rides; here am I : Old Tim Joe, wandering about lost and found and seeking redemption.
I shoulder my bicycle, take a deep breath, and head back over this latest scar on the earth and on my heart. The day is young, even if I am not; there is more to see and my ride home will be mostly into the wind, as usual.
I wouldn't have it any other way.
Whispering Pines Trailer Park and Forgive Us Our Trespasses