We readied ourselves for a relaxing three-day canoeing adventure. It would be a wonderful, memorable way to spend the three-day Thanksgiving holiday. Until the tour leader called to tell us to put the paddles away — the water level was too low.
But he had a bright idea. A bicycle tour leaving the same day had room for two more. There were groans and grimaces from my husband, Les, when he found out it would be 50 miles per day. He had built up his arm muscles in preparation for serious paddling. "I worked on the wrong half," he whispered as he listened to the message.
"I'm certain you two will fit in with the rest of the group as they are not all expert cyclists," the tour leader promised. Despite my husband's frantic hand signals and lips that said "no," I heard instead myself agreeing to go. Here we were, two 60-something people about to embark on, well, I wasn't quite sure.
I was in high spirits as we drove to White Springs, a tiny town near the Suwannee River Basin. My husband's spirits could best be described as gloomy as he repeatedly reminded me that we never rode more than a mile at any time.
Our first glimpse of White Springs centered on a rusty pickup truck loaded with two freshly killed deer at the gas station next door to our check-in point at the local general store.
After choosing bicycles designed for novices, we drove to our motel, where we expected to rest before the big trek on Friday morning, this being Thanksgiving evening. Now, wouldn't you think a person should be in strict training for the arduous trip ahead? Then imagine our surprise when we learned we would be eating the traditional dinner at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. After gorging ourselves on collard greens, dirty rice, turkey, ham and our choice of half a dozen pies and cakes, we were further astounded to hear that the next activity for the evening would be a clogging workshop well into the evening.
By 8 a.m. our group was on the road, riding on the well-worn bridge spanning the Suwannee River. Suddenly, I noticed I was pedaling alone as the rest of the cyclists had vanished from sight except for Les, who came back to bolster my flagging spirits. Things looked up when we straggled into a small graveyard a few miles up the road and found the rest of the group waiting.
And there was the ever-present "sag wagon," a van with space for weary people and their bicycles, plenty of fruit, juices and water, and a "scout" who would quietly appear from out of nowhere, riding alongside us slowpokes and making small talk as if there were nothing unusual about riding 5 miles behind the rest of the group.
Each morning, after a big breakfast at a small and no doubt family-run restaurant, we took a bicycle tour of the scenic highlights of the town where we had spent the previous night. We frequently saw old mansions left unscathed from the Civil War. Each day at noon we stopped for lunch at a park along the way, feasting on homemade breads, smoked turkey and ham, and delicious salads.
I must confess I requested an alternate route each morning, less than 50 miles, whereas Les, though required by husbandly devotion to stay behind with me, increased his distance each day. By the third day, after I threw in the towel and climbed aboard the sag wagon in midafternoon, Les forged ahead with the group, freed of his wifely encumbrance, and finished the full day's ride amid rousing cheers.
Our last night was spent in the picturesque town of Jasper, close to the Georgia border, where the fortunate ones were bedded down at the famous "Jasper Hilton," a venerable frame building bought at a sheriff's sale in 1928 by a visionary whose vision had since dimmed but not her spirits. With her Great Dane at her side, she presided like a queen at court, carrying her glass of Southern Comfort with regal bearing. We went through the "walk-through" bathroom to get to our assigned bedroom, where the screens dangled precariously from the windows. Pickups equipped with gun racks and menacing dogs roared the length of the street and back again, perhaps the lone entertainment on a Saturday night.
Reminiscing more than two decades later about our great and daring adventure, we consider ourselves fortunate to have experienced a momentary loss of our senses (common, that is), enabling us to plunge into an experience that offered the companionship of cyclists ranging from retired couples to young singles from other states, an active circuit judge, a bone specialist, a hard-riding and hard-driving defense lawyer, and a husband-and-wife tandem bicycle team leading the way. Each member of the group, except for us, was experienced, yet not one failed to give us continuous support and encouragement.
Ellie Bryder, 87, is a former flight attendant and judicial assistant who raised two sets of twins. She is a twin herself.