It's a long, slow process squaring off a touring motorcycle's tire. As the wheels rotate, asphalt constantly gnaws at the radial's vulnerable contact patch. Like legions of amoebic strip miners, this aggregation of incisors attacks my ebony hoops - digging, grinding, and belching away a microscopic vapor of polymer that settles unseen upon the grasses swayed by the passing Triumph.
With the mean elevation of the Sunshine State a mere 100 feet above sea level, precious little geography exists to challenge a road builder's imagination. Motorcyclists simply looking for tempting twists are bound to be disappointed, but Florida manages to stand out as a rider's destination in other regards, such as the pleasant year-round riding weather.
As I'm guiding the Triumph Sprint ST into Alachua County and Gainesville, the hub of this Shamrock Tour, the number of bikes and scooters on the road increases. Two-wheel transport is undoubtedly in vogue here. A steady, spring shower has accompanied me for the past hour or so, but now I'm far from being the only one around who believes "a little rain never hurt anyone."
Horses and Keys
Yesterday's showers have marched on, and the sun is making quick work of the few droplets still clinging to the Sprint's gas tank and top case. A fresh, dry breeze like the one stirring the leaves of the nearby oak trees always gets my touring juices flowing. On13th Street, an impressive number of motorcycles and especially scooters are heading north toward the University of Florida, a sure indication that it must be getting close to class time. At the apartment community across the way, a stream of college kids are hustling toward the roadside as a campus-bound city bus lumbers to a stop. School was often fun, but I'll take riding any day.
Running through the gears, I'm heading south on Route 441 toward Ocala. Not far outside of town, the oaks and palms suddenly give way to a vast clearing that stretches out of sight. The Payne Prairie Preserve State Park is a massive 22,000-acre parcel once described by 18th-century naturalist William Bartram as the "Great Alachua Savannah." It is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife, ranging from alligators to bison and over 270 bird species.
As I close in on Ocala, the large trees again take a back seat to open country - only this time the demarcations are the perfect lines of elegant fences. Home to 1978's Triple Crown winner Affirmed, Marion County is one of the world's great equine centers. Far from the road, sprawling dreamlike estates seem to float on the great swards of green. Behind their ornate gates, narrow shaded drives are lined with huge oaks bearded in Spanish moss, and all around magnificent stallions frolic and graze as the mares watch over their knobby-kneed foals. I stop several times to get a closer view of these majestic beasts, but true to their regal, skittish natures, they only acknowledge me with indignant snorts, veering retreats, and distant stare-downs. Another exercise in futility is my wonderment over precisely how many millions of dollars have sprung from these very blades of grass.
West of Ocala, I find the town of Dunnellon on the banks of the Withlacoochee River - a good place to stop for lunch before striking out for the Gulf of Mexico. My northwesterly course leads me across the lonely stretches of the Goethe State Forest. Here the road takes another undeviating bearing through stands of tall, straight pines. Occasionally the coniferous plurality is broken by a swampy morass where egrets wade the black waters on their chopstick legs, hunting for hapless amphibians.
Finally, upon reaching Cedar Key on the Gulf, I feel nearly catatonic. The 21 miles of pavement from Otter Creek is completely devoid of turns and bends, with the only view being an endless stretch of sand pocked with scrub pines and saw palmetto. The desolation is mesmerizing at first, but turns monotonous after ten miles or so. Thankfully, Cedar Key is full of funky rewards. The small waterfront community has an old-time maritime vibe liberally seasoned with the hippy aesthetic. Art galleries and curio shops line the streets, and fishing boats laden with nets and traps of all sorts crowd the docks. And with the Gulf dominating the view, several weathered restaurants only feet from the water dish out only the freshest fare the sea has to offer. With the noon hour well past, I prod the Triumph away from Cedar Key, racing along the lonely roads north through Chiefland and Fanning Springs. Before long, I'm closing in on Gainesville and a timely intersection with the hotel's happy hour.