In times past it was known as the Big Bend Coast. Since 1991 this unofficial region of Florida has been known as “The Nature Coast”. Loosely defined, this area covers approximately 8 Florida Counties that abut the Gulf of Mexico. Culturally, it is the transition from the southernmost extent of the “Deep South” into the more tropical and urban cultures of the Tampa Bay area and Miami.

From August 22nd to August 31st we enjoyed 9 riding days that covered over 480 miles and connected us with the Florida communities of Perry, Chiefland, Inverness, Polk City, Sebring, Clewiston, West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, and Miami.

“Enjoyed” is a term I present in the literal sense. The climate was comfortable.

The scenery was inviting.

The route was bicycle friendly and included the 32 mile long “rails to trails” Nature Coast State Trail.

Henry the “rubber roach” was still making his presence known. (Here seen attracting the amorous attention of a native Palmetto Bug)

It seemed that the most challenging hills we had to navigate were the roadside curbs.

The quality of our accommodations through most of this stretch were among the finest of the summer. The most memorable were our stays in Sebring (August 26th), West Palm Beach (August 28th and 29th), Boca Raton (August 30th), and the “pièce de résistance” was the Royal Palm Hotel in Miami Beach. These night stays read like a luxury tourist itinerary.

In Sebring we enjoyed rooms in the historic Kenilworth Lodge. This expansive resort hotel was built in 1916 by George Sebring, developer of the community. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, its glory days were in the early and mid-20th Century as seen in this 1922 postcard.

During our brief stay hints of its past grandeur were apparent.

Sadly, it has lain closed and abandoned since 2016 due to a small electrical fire that lead to a detailed fire inspection and condemnation of the property.

Our stay at the Hilton Hotel in West Palm Beach was not so memorable for the otherwise typical accommodations, but for the unusual group that was also registered at the facility. Wherever we looked there were young people dressed as cartoon and fantasy characters.

One of our group asked an attendee what they were there for, “We are part of an Anime Convention.” was the reply. “What’s that?” continued the C4C rider. “A convention is a group of people meeting for the same purpose” was her response… and with that said she walked off leaving a bemused C4C rider in her wake.

In Boca Raton the oceanside Holiday Inn was anything but ordinary. Our arrival was heralded by a videographer.

The rooms looked out upon a delightful swimming pool and the sound of the Gulf waves on the beach mere feet away provided an aural backdrop for this piece of paradise.

At our 6 am departure the next morning the manager asked if we would join him for a group photo to add to his collection of hotel guest dignitaries.

And then there was the Royal Palm Hotel in Miami Beach. It was one of a group of extraordinary art-deco high rise hotels that adorn the South Beach strip. By day the hotel and surrounding environs were beautiful…

…but after sunset they transformed into a technicolor feast for the eyes.

Dating to 1939, the Royal Palm was named after the famous 1897 Henry Flagler Miami hotel that had been destroyed by fire a few years earlier. The staff at this decidedly upscale resort did not bat an eye when we asked to take our bicycles up the elevators for overnight storage in our rooms.

In spite of the changes that our venture into south Florida brought, we remained true to our established routine: An early start with Christine’s instructions for the day was followed by Father Matt’s morning prayer; “Let’s ride with peaceful minds and strong hearts…” and his concluding directive, “Buns Up Everyone!!”.

Daily Mass remained an afternoon or evening tradition. Often a “potluck” supper was served to us courtesy of a local church group. By now we had long lost count of the number of different ways that pasta could be served.

And of course we remained dedicated to the continuing mission of Cycling for Change, carrying the message of the problem of poverty in America. During this segment of our ride there were meetings and presentations with various parish groups, however the most endearing experience was our visit with the children at Miami’s Centro Hispano Catolico Child Care Center.

This child development center is one of 6 such centers operated by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of  Miami. The Centro Hispano serves up to 200 underprivileged children in the largely Hispanic community. Services include classes taught by degreed staff, 3 balanced meals a day, a curriculum to address literacy, social, and emotional development, individualized education plans, and training programs for parents that include development of language, job, and financial skills.

Ahead of us from Miami lay the final 160 miles to Key West. Ten years later a lump forms in my throat and a tear comes to my eye at the mere typing of those words.

Next: The final chapter: The Florida Keys and Key West.
Peace Everyone. Pete

PS.  Christine’s parents, William “Bill” Alden Nichols and Doris Irene (Robinson) Nichols were born in 1918. At the age of 18 they eloped to marry, fearing their parents’ disapproval. On August 27, 2010, a little over 74 years after they had married, we of C4C were riding from Sebring to Clewiston, Florida. Christine took leave of the group that day to drive 60 miles west for an afternoon visit with her parents.

Doris resided in an assisted living community while Bill continued to live independently in their Florida home.

Doris passed away the following year at the age of 93. Bill lived past his 101st birthday, drawing his final breath in Kansas City on February 24th, 2020… “Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord…”

 

 

On the morning of August 15, 2010 we assembled to continue our journey east and south.

Ahead of us lay the final 1,150 miles, allocated between 18 riding days. Nearly 1,000 of those miles would be ridden in Florida. Certainly, we were not on the “home stretch”, but something had changed. We were excited, suffused with an optimism that had not been present over the last few weeks.

Perhaps it was the transformation that included palm trees and seashore vistas.

Perhaps it was the cooling offshore breezes that replaced the inland swelter that we had endured.

The roads had become pool table flat, except where the sea causeways arched to accommodate commercial shipping.

The sun shone brightly upon and within each of us.

However, all was not paradise in those coastal waters.

40 miles offshore from where we rode the largest marine oil spill in the history of the American petroleum industry was unfolding. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, a mobile oil rig, had been drilling an exploratory well in 5,000 feet of water. On that day the wellhead violently blew out, taking with it the lives of 11 workers whose remains were never recovered. The rupture caused the release of an estimated 210 million gallons of crude oil that continued unabated well into 2012. In Louisiana alone, nearly 5 million pounds of oil impregnated material was removed from the coastline. The direct environmental and economic damages were felt over 68,000 square miles, an area as large as the State of Oklahoma and easily visible from space.

Oil contaminated the beaches of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and extended along the coast as far as southern Florida.

As we rode we saw cleanup crews at work and witnessed the black corruption washing ashore.

What was hidden from us was the devastation to the flora and fauna. Thousands of species were impacted. The health and livelihood of millions of coastal residents were threatened, impacts that continue to be felt more than 10 years later.

Deepwater Horizon did not dampen our spirits.

Over the next 6 days we would pass through Biloxi, Mississippi, Dauphin Island, Alabama, and into the Florida panhandle: Pensacola, DeFuniak Springs, Marianna, and riding into Tallahassee we would enjoy a “rest day” on August 21st.

Between Marianna and Tallahassee we passed from Central Standard into the Eastern time zone, 4 time zones east from where we started on the Pacific Northwest coast.

It was one of a series of milestones that were reminders that the conclusion of our quest was drawing near.

On August 17th we were joined by Mark Dufva, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida. Accompanied part of the way by a few co-workers, he rode with us for 4 days and over 300 miles from Mobile, Alabama to Tallahassee, Florida.

Mark was not a veteran cyclist, but what he lacked in experience he more than made up for with enthusiasm and determination.

On the 18th, a day that was scheduled to cover about 90 miles, Mark joined me for an extension that would take the day’s ride over the 100 mile mark, a significant accomplishment known among bicyclists as “riding a century”.

Mark was also largely responsible for the explosion of publicity that we enjoyed.

There was a media event and mayoral proclamation ceremony in Pensacola, hosted by the Honorable Michael C. Wiggins.

En route to DeFuniak Springs we were hosted at a BBQ lunch in Ft. Walton Beach where another proclamation was made on our behalf.

Father Matt and Mark were interviewed via telephone on Christian Talk Radio.

Mark worked to make other connections for our meals and lodging. The most notable was the “Cycling for Change – Homeward Bound Rally” held in Tallahassee.

This was a festive family event that featured food and entertainment.

Tallahassee Mayor, John Marks, proclaimed “Poverty Solutions Week”, and County Commissioner Akin Akinyemi was not to be outdone by proclaiming “Poverty Awareness Day”.

We were treated to lodging in Tallahassee courtesy of the Newman Center of Florida State University and the endearing hospitality of its Director, Sister Christine Kelly, SSJ.

It is hard to imagine that after 10 years I could hold any regrets from my participation with C4C, but there is at least one. Over the years I have learned that I am fairly accomplished at beginnings, but quite deficient when it comes to conclusions. The child-like enthusiasm that I can barely restrain at the start of an “adventure” is balanced by my tendency to withdraw into myself when the finish line comes into sight.

As we lingered in Tallahassee, 86 days in the constant company of 15 extraordinary people were behind me. We had shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I could not shake the thought that in 2 weeks it would end and we would go our separate ways. There would be memories to last a lifetime, but it would never be the same as when together we rode across America.

I wish that I had not become so self-absorbed. I wish that I had been more gracious and grateful to those with whom I shared the experience. To paraphrase a line from a popular song, “Regrets, I’ve had a few… but then again just one to mention.”

Next: Florida’s Heartland
Peace Everyone. Pete

 

Founded in 1718 by French colonists, New Orleans took its name from the French Duke of Orleans who reigned as Regent from 1715 to 1723 for King Louis XV. Louis inherited the throne at the age of 5 and reigned for 59 years until his death in 1774. The Duke served until King Louis reached his official age of majority, 13 years old.

New Orleans was held by The Kingdom France until ceded to Spain from 1763 to 1802, during which time significant Caribbean influences were exerted upon the city.

Its control briefly returned to the French Republic in 1802. The city and over 800,000 sq. miles known as the Louisiana Territory were sold by Napoleon to the United States the following year for 15 million dollars.

Statehood was granted to Louisiana, formerly known as the Territory of Orleans, in 1812.

By 1840 New Orleans ranked as the 3rd largest city in the United States and its largest slave market.

In 1861 Louisiana seceded from the United States and became part of the Confederacy until the United States victory in 1865. However, in 1862 New Orleans was captured and thereafter held by Union troops throughout the war.

This brief history may explain: why most of the 18th Century architecture that abounds in the French Quarter and old city are of Spanish origin;

why linguistically New Orleans and the surrounding area still present an unusual mixture of French, Spanish, and English dialects known as Creole; why Louisiana retains a French influenced “Code” legal system rather than the English Common Law followed in the rest of America; why Louisiana has “Parishes” rather than “Counties”; and why New Orleans is so ethnically diverse.

The 16 members of Cycling for Change entered New Orleans on August 12, 2010.

We remained in the city for 3 nights. The original plan had been for the group to either stay at a convent or to reside in a homeless/transitional living shelter in nearby Marrero, Louisiana. Happily, our “handlers” back at Catholic Charities in Kansas City acknowledged that our efforts deserved an upgrade to a hotel located between the New Orleans French Quarter and Garden District. It was a welcome concession to our comfort.

New Orleans should be on every North America traveler’s “bucket list”. It is unique among all the continent’s cities for its architecture, music, cuisine, culture, and of course Mardi Gras. We enjoyed a limited opportunity to see a few of the better known features of the city such as Jefferson Square and St. Louis Cathedral,

the oldest trolley system in the United States,

and of course Bourbon Street.

At the end of this post I will provide some of my 2019 images that give some insight into the tourism opportunities that New Orleans presents.

Historically, New Orleans has been a veritable magnet for hurricanes. This NOAA graphic shows the tracks of every category 3+ hurricane that came within 100 miles of the city between 1852 and 2005.

At the time of our visit in 2010, New Orleans was still reeling from the devastation wrought in 2005 by the Category 5 Hurricane Katrina. With over 1,200 dead and damages estimated at over 125 billion dollars, Katrina then ranked as the costliest storm in US history. Entire neighborhoods were erased in part because of engineering failures of the flood levee system and due to human caused ground subsidence which has left half of New Orleans’ neighborhoods located below sea-level.

Over a million people were displaced. In the immediate years following Katrina the population exodus reduced the city’s population by half. Poverty, which was already a pre-Katrina problem, became a critical issue.

Founded in 1982 by Archbishop Philip Hannan, Bishop Roger Moring, and Gregory Johnson, Second Harvest Food Bank of New Orleans is a leader in the fight against hunger in south Louisiana. By 2005 it had become the largest food bank in the world.

The 16 members of C4C spent much of August 13th volunteering at the main Second Harvest warehouse. As a part of our orientation we learned that 1 in 5 Louisiana households are at risk of hunger.

Second Harvest salvages over 35 millions of pounds of food annually… food that is still wholesome, but which has been rejected for cosmetic reasons, damage to packaging, because of expired “best by” and expiration dates, and surplusage.

Second Harvest relies largely upon over 9,000 volunteers for labor to sort, repackage, and distribute this food over 23 Louisiana Parishes (Counties).

Each year over 32 million meals are thus provided to nearly a quarter of a million people. It was an honor for us to participate in those efforts. C4C members sorted food,

repackaged and boxed food,

and visited the various warehouse facilities including the frozen storage unit.

Christine drew my attention to pallets loaded with PediaSure, a specialty nutrition supplement for growth challenged children. At that time our three surviving quadruplet grandchildren were directed to use this product by their physicians. The cost was approximately $2.00 an 8oz can.

Second Harvest Food Bank is a not-for-profit agency. It is able to stretch a dollar into 4 meals for a family in need. $0.97 of every $1 donated goes directly to programs that feed the hungry. Corporate offices located at 700 Edwards Ave., New Orleans, LA 70123. Donations are welcomed. For more information: www.no-hunger.org

Next: The Gulf Coast
Peace Everyone. Pete

PS: The following are pictures with limited commentary of New Orleans taken in 2019. If you have not ever visited this enchanting city please consider it.

New Orleans is a major port city on the Mississippi Delta near the Gulf of Mexico. There are opportunities for riverboat excursions.

The city market is delightful…

…and the architecture stunning.

Street music is everywhere.

Jefferson Square is surrounded by quaint shops and inviting dining venues.

Enjoying a cup of chicory coffee and a beignet at Café du Monde is a “must” tradition,

as is visiting one of the unique cemeteries where voodoo queens “mix” with dignitaries and figures of historical significance.

Of course there is still Bourbon Street.

 

 

When we awoke the morning of August 3, 2010 in Memphis Tennessee, 561 bicycle miles and 9 riding days stood between us and New Orleans. That worked out to an average of a little more than 62 miles per day, known in bicycle parlance as a “metric century” (100 kilometers).

For 12 cyclists who had already covered thousands of miles together, that did not seem to be a heavy lift. However, as we were to learn that day the worst was yet to come.

We anticipated a hot and humid day. Lula Mississippi lay 60 miles ahead, largely following paved farm roads. What we did not anticipate was the searing heat that would soon confront us. The sun blazed from high upon a cloudless sky. It blistered the pavement which in turn reflected “fire” through the soles of our shoes. Christine had her hands full ferrying water to the riders and monitoring our condition out of a very real concern for heat exhaustion or even heat stroke. She did require some riders to call it a day short of our destination and transported them to the end.

For me it was perhaps the most challenging riding day of the summer. I found that although I was well acclimated to higher temperatures, nothing really prepares one for a shadeless 107 degrees with a heat index in the hundred-teens. My body processed water into perspiration at a rate I had never before experienced. Taking my shoes off I could literally pour water out that had accumulated from the sweat of my feet.

Our destination was the Isle of Capri Coral Reef Hotel where we would spend that night. When I arrived I found that I had begun to shiver as if I was freezing. No doubt I was on the cusp of heat stroke. I made a quick dash into hotel’s inviting outdoor swimming pool and within 30 minutes was mostly restored. My experience was not unique among the riders.

We learned the valuable lesson to begin our rides in the pre-dawn twilight. A sideline benefit was less traffic and seeing the beauty of the landscapes as the sun’s ruby rays first burned off the morning dew.

From Lula we continued 60 miles on August 4th to Cleveland, Mississippi where we were hosted for the night at Delta State University, home of the “Fighting Okra”.

August 5th and we arrived at Roy’s Cabins on the shores of picturesque Lake Washington.

On August 6th we continued our progress through “the Deep South” on toward Vicksburg, Mississippi.

On the route we stopped at the “Onward Store” along US Highway 61 near Rolling Fork.

This delightful general store and restaurant sits upon the site of a famed 1902 visit by US President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, at the invitation of Mississippi’s Governor Andrew Longino, came to hunt bear. Roosevelt made national news for his refusal to shoot a captive bear.

Media cartoons featured Roosevelt and the “Teddy Bear”. Of course, the rest is history. Sadly the store which had operated since 1913 has since closed in 2019.

As an aside, Theodore Roosevelt is the only US President credited with coining a corporate catchphrase. To this day that slogan is nationally famous: Legend has it that in 1907 Roosevelt was a guest at the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. Enjoying a morning cup of the hotel’s coffee he declared, “This coffee is good to the last drop!” The quote caught on and was adopted by Maxwell House Coffee.

Regrettably, we did not have the opportunity to tour Vicksburg which is the site of one of the seminal battles of the Civil War. Below is the Claiborne County Courthouse located in Port Gibson Mississippi. Founded in 1729, Port Gibson was the site of the May 1, 1863 amphibious landing the Union Army and the successful campaign that presaged the victorious assault on Vicksburg.

Between May 18 and July 4, 1863 US General Ulysses S. Grant conducted the  siege of Vicksburg that ultimately drove the Confederate Army out of the fortress city. This was the Confederacy’s last stronghold on the Mississippi and the defeat effectively split the South, providing the Union with control of the entire length of the Mississippi River.

In 2015 Christine and I revisited Vicksburg and took time to tour the city and battlefield. We highly recommend the visit.

From Vicksburg we enjoyed a remarkable 87 mile ride that featured travel upon a portion of the picturesque Natchez Trace.

 

This historic trail runs approximately 440 miles from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi. It was a well-traveled forest route used for centuries by pre-Columbian Native Americans. Today it is a limited access National Parkway that is maintained by the National Park Service.

On August 8th we rode to St. Francisville, Louisiana, where we were afforded the honor of a police escort. It was from St. Francisville that we toured Louisiana’s State Penitentiary at Angola. (See “The Death Chambers at Angola”)

August 9th and we were on the road to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

We enjoyed a “rest day” there before continuing on to Convent, Louisiana, where we spent the night at the remarkable Manresa Center.

The Manresa Center is a 130 acre Jesuit operated retreat center that was originally founded in the early 1800’s as Jefferson College, a private school for the sons of plantation owners.

The Jesuits purchased the property in 1931. Today the facility provides “men only” spiritual retreats. Strictly speaking, women are not permitted to remain on the grounds, however the “rules” were bent to allow our entire group to spend the night as guests of this extraordinary place.

From the Manresa Center we rode into New Orleans on August 12th, following the levies that channel the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Next: New Orleans, the “Big Easy”.
Peace Everyone. Pete

 

Have you ever walked into a room that was exclusively designed to take a life? A room where fewer living beings exited than had entered? Until August 8, 2010 I had not.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is the largest maximum security penal complex in the United States.

It covers over 28 square miles and currently houses over 6,500 inmates and 1,800 staff. It is naturally secure in that it is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and the inhospitable insect, snake, and alligator infested swamps that precede the river’s edge and surround the prison. As we were to learn, over 95% of the inmates inhabiting Angola will not live to see freedom.

Angola was founded in 1830 as one of 6 plantations owned by Isaac Franklin. Franklin’s wealth came from his establishment in 1828 of the firm Franklin & Armfield, the largest slave trading company in America. Angola remained a plantation until 1880 when it was sold to former Confederate States of America officer, Samuel L. James who had been leasing prison labor in Louisiana since 1869. James was unable to run the plantation profitably with paid labor, but he could do so by utilizing leased prison laborers (mostly Black) from the State of Louisiana.

Post-Civil War Louisiana and other Southern states found that they could recreate a slave labor force by implementing a convict leasing program which was primarily targeted at the Black male population. Arrested for minor infractions, a defendant who could not pay the fine was pressed into convict servitude. Plantations and businesses leased the inmates for a fee and became responsible for the convict’s housing and necessities. At one point in the late 1800’s, over 70% of the State of Alabama’s annual operating revenues were derived from this system. Convict leasing was abolished in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Samuel L. James’ extensive use of leased convicts in the late 1800’s effectively created the Angola Penitentiary. This was formalized in 1901 when the plantation was officially acquired by the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

We 16 members of “Cycling for Change” arrived in St. Francisville, Louisiana on August 8, 2010. Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge, including David Aguilard and Ms. Tonna Fournet (who graciously hosted us for lunch) were instrumental in obtaining access to Angola for a lengthy and unique tour that included the “Red Hat cellblock” and the State’s current lethal injection chamber. Our tour guide was the prison’s youthful Chaplain, Brad Delaughter.

Brad provided insights into the history of Angola from its early days as an abusive and corrupt system through the reform efforts of then Warden Burl Cain. Cain served as Warden from 1995 to 2016.

Our tour included the Reception Center…

The inmate cemetery…

The inmate rodeo facility where an annual event is held by the inmates that is attended by up to 10,000 paying members of the public…

… And a “road trip” that provided us with views of the various maximum security compounds that are located throughout the 18,000 acre grounds.

Photographs of the interiors of facilities then in use were not allowed. Fortunately, I was able to photograph the infamous “Red Hat” cell block which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003. I have also supplemented this post with images from the internet which are in the public domain.

The “Red Hat” cell block stands alone among open fields as a somewhat non-descript one story concrete building.

It was created after the bloody 1933 escape engineered by Charlie Frazier of George “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s gang. After Frazier’s recapture he was placed in the end cell of Red Hat and his cell door was welded shut. He remained entombed in that cell until near the time of his death 7 years later. Red Hat was finally taken out of service in 1972.