In November 1998, I was asked to attend a conference in Orlando, Florida. We discovered Florida on a rented Harley Davidson.
Florida proved to be a great bird country.
One of the advantages of my work is that I have to attend conferences now and then, and this time (November 1998) the conference was held in Orlando , Florida. Of course, I took Ernst along, to get the most out of the extra days ;-)
To get the most out of these days, a motorcycle would come in handy as well... The yellow pages of Orlando learned us that we could make a choice between a BMW or a Harley Davidson, as a rental. Well, if it would have to be a BMW, I would choose an R11GS of course, but renting a motorcycle is *the* chance to get to know another motorcycle, so the choice was easy: I would learn the joys of a Harley Davidson this time!
Well, getting to the rental shop by taxi was the first step on our Harley career. There were two possibilities in Orlando, and we had chosen one, on feeling.
We told the exact address to our taxi driver, but somehow, he was not able to find it, but he knew the location of the other rental shop Street Eagle ;-). This was a typical Harley store: you could buy T-shirts with skulls, Harley telephones, and even some motorcycles as well.
The only new Harley that comes somewhere in the neighbourhood of my concept of a motorcycle is a FatBoy. The only Harley that was available here was a Softail FLXZHLetcetcetc. We did not like it, so I told the man we were looking for a FatBoy. "You don't want to sit on the back of a FatBoy" he told me. I told him I would sit in front as well, and that I wanted to sit both in front and on the back of a FatBoy. "You don't want to sit on the back of a FatBoy" he told me again.
So we wanted to get away there. The taxi driver had been so friendly to hang around to see whether we had succeeded or not, and the shop owner was so friendly to explain the taxi driver how to get to the rental service that we had chosen, Iron Horse Rentals .
Of course, the only motorcycle that was available at the other shop was a Softail FLXZHLetcetcetc ;-)
This time, we took it. Before taking off, we had to find fitting helmets (well, fitting?...), and listen to an endless number of warnings by the cool shopkeeper. The man was an Englishman!!! Unbelievable that somebody from England is willing to live in Florida, especially considering the fact that he is a motorcyclist... Well, apart from the climate of course.
His dog, on the contrary, was rather entertaining: as soon as the man started a bike, the dog came running, to bite the exhaust pipe. It didn't mind the heat, obviously, though the red round scar on my ankle still shows that Harley pipes become very hot (it is dangerous to get off the back of a Harley without high boots)...
Unfortunately, he didn't have gloves (the shopkeeper, I mean). But never mind, Florida, here we come!!!
The United States is, as everyone knows, a very strange country. The inhabitants love Harleys, in the first place (the owner of the rental shop: " Of course, I can give you the address where you can rent BMW's. But why would you want to rent a BMW when you can rent a Harley?"). They sue each other constantly. Apparently, even when someone falls from the steps, when there isn't a warning sign ;-) A lot of my prejudices turned out to be right: not only is everything bigger indeed, but everyone is very friendly as well.
Our hotel was situated in Disneyworld . The surroundings were even more artificial than the rest of Florida...
Florida, as a guide in the Everglades would tell us later, is flat, F L A T, flat. It is much flatter than Holland, can you imagine?
Furthermore, Florida from itself is one big big swamp. Everything that is not a swamp, is created by man.
As a result, the roads could be laid down here according to American taste: long, L O N G, straight, S T R A I G H T , and of course, being in Florida, flat, F L A T . As a result, curves are very sparse. You could drive eyes-closed, straight on, if the warning signs for curves would be accompanied by an audio signal (and if your fellow-road users would be willing to cooperate of course).
So, Florida is definitely not a motorcycler's paradise. On the other hand, it would have been a very cruel torture to ride in a motorcyclist's paradise on a Harley Davidson ;-). No ground clearance at all; when you try to take a curve with some speed, the frame hits the ground...
Florida is another kind of paradise: a paradise for birders. Even in the middle of Orlando, you see ponds with Cormorants and Anhinga's on a tiny island in the middle, Ospreys (with a webcam of an Osprey nest!) and Belted Kingfishers flying above it, and different species of Egrets and Herons standing in the water.
We even stumbled upon this Great Egret in the garden of our hotel in DisneyWorld.
Birds like water. Florida, being a swamp originally, is full of it. Very often, the water of Florida creates stunning, enchanting places.
According to my travel guide, the best place for birds in the surroundings of Orlando was Merrit Island , situated in the left-overs of Cape Canaveral.
We tried to get there by taking backroads.
Finding backroads is a special talent of Ernst. And even here in Florida, he did find some sandy roads which were, of course, flat and straight. I must say, it is an incredible experience, riding on a long long long, straight straight straigh straight, flat flat flat, sandy road, on a Harley ;-)
I don't think the poor Harley was longing for curves and hills, on these sandy roads. The poor thing had to work much harder for us than it was designed to...
And there were birds everywhere. White Ibisses , Egrets and Herons, Black and Turkey Vultures , Belted Kingfishers, Sandhill Cranes , Boat-tailed and Common Grackles , Woodpeckers, Cormorants, Anhingas, just about all the birds from my birder's guide.
However, after three hours of riding backroads, we found ourselves back in Orlando, so we did the rest of the trip (about 100 miles) to Merrit Island by Highway. I was in front this time, and I rode 90 m/h to get to Merrit Island on time (it would be closed at 5), even on stretches with a 60 maximum.
The road was rather quiet. One car behind me was even driving faster than me! This was amazing, because Americans tend to keep to the limits rather well, which is very annoying on the highway: everybody drives at around the same speed, so when it is crowded, it takes hours before the car in front of you has passed the one that drives 0.0005 m/h slower...
However, the faster car turned out to be a police car. The man on the right seat looked at me, made a gesture of "calm down, easy, easy", and drove away at even a higher speed ;-) So I could go on riding 90, and we arrived at Merrit Island on time.
Alas, when we arrived there, Merrit Island appeared to be closed because some retired moonwalker wanted to explore space again, and was expected back any moment by spaceshuttle. On such occasions, Merrit Island appeared to be forbidden territory :-( The guard didn't budge, even not after our explanation that we had come all the way from Holland on our Harley...
So what was left for us, was explore the surroundings of Merrit Island. Generally, birds and plants don't keep to one side of a border, and even in Florida, nature appeared not to obey rules. Here, we found our first (and last...) really beautiful roads ("don't take her off-road" , had the shopkeeper said, but this is a road, isn't it?).
A second sign that we were approaching a very special place was a sign in the water, with two Brown Pelicans sitting on it, obviously guarding the Manatees . In a tree, twenty meters next to the Pelicans, an Osprey was staring at us.
A Turkey Vulture checked us from above.
And then, the road ended. If we would have wanted, we could have ridden on, into the water. But we didn't, because a brown Pelican was sitting there. It wasn't afraid , and after a while, we sat next to it.
We haven't touched it, but we could have done so, just by stretching our arms... Now and then, the Pelican opened its eyes to look at us, and every time it decided that we were trustable, and it went on sleeping.
There we sat, next to a Pelican, looking onto the water, Pelicans flying all over the place. The water was full of Cormorants (poor Cormorants: when one of them came up with a fish, it was surrounded by Pelicans who had found out a very easy way of fishing), and... Dolphins !
Yes, this was paradise. I had never expected to find it in Florida!
Funny thing is, the Harley attracted much admiration of the vultures ;-)
We made two big trips, in Florida. The Merrit Island trip was rather a big one for a Harley (100 miles to get there, and the same to get back).
Sitting in front was painful, especially when trying to keep some speed: the saddle and the highway pegs enforce you to lean backward, so you have to keep yourself from laying down by grabbing the handlebars. It is really hard work for your arms.
But sitting on the back was even far worse. There is only one way to sit, so no chance to make any variation. The famous Harley vibrations make everything numb, but unfortunately not in a way that you don't feel it anymore (and I was rather disappointed to find out that the vibrations didn't bring any sexual arousal at all...;-).
I think it was the first time in our motorcycle life that we really longed to be home, just to get off the motorcycle!
Our next trip would take us on a far bigger distance from home: we wanted to see the Everglades, 400 miles from our hotel.
Four hundred miles (and back) of straight, long, flat roads, on a Harley... We covered most of the distance by taking the highway. We counted about 5 curves ;-) . But then, approaching the Everglades, and see signs with "Panther Crossings" (the Panther lives in the Everglades) is almost worth it...
We approached the Everglades from Everglades city (city is a very very big word for this village), and decided to try a guided boat tour, though the idea was rather repulsive (but it seemed to be the way to see as many birds as possible).
Well, the guide was fantastic ("You see that Turkey Vulture over there? Seems rather impressive doesn't it? Well, the problem of the Turkey
Vulture is, its claws are not impressive at all. Its bill is not impressive at all.
So, in order to fulfill the expectations, it uses its stomach as a weapon. It vomits on enemies. Can you imagine? Give me your wallet, or I'll vomit on you.")
He was able to entertain us all along the long boring trip. We did see some birds, but to be honest, we had seen more along the highway.
The boat took us between the Ten Thousand Islands. Islands of mangrove.
It is strange, but it is very often the case that famous bird paradises disappoint, while you stumble upon paradises where you don't expect them, like Merrit Island.
I understand of course that the Everglades is an incredible vast area, that there are an incredible number of birds there, and that it is not easy to get to see them, but somehow, I was slightly disappointed.
For me, the Everglades have become the symbol of what is wrong with Florida. The Americans turned most of the swamps into boring roads and boring cities. What was left over, has been turned into a well organised National Park.
A few straight roads through the swamp, some very short tracks to walk, and a guided boat trip here and there.
Like the rest of Florida, things are designed for rich, retired Americans.
The straight road that we took to the East through the park, was really depressing. We came along some Indian villages. What I liked about them is that they were uninviting, they faced away from the road. The only inviting Indian reservation was the one with the Gambler's Palace.
Apart from the Indian villages, the scenery consisted of what is called the saw-grass prairie. Everybody who remembers Flipper knows what it is: the grassy waters, where the boat of the Flipper family raced upon. But without Flipper, it is just an endless grassy sight...
Anyway, when we crossed the 997, where we turned left, it was dark.
We were very lucky to visit Florida outside the mosquito season, because even now, we had to ride through clouds of flies and mosquitos.
I was the lucky one in front this time, and we would turn places at the first gas station that we would see. Well, I rode on and on and on and on, seeing nothing at all. No lights, no houses, no cars, just plain nothing.
The road was one of the straight ones, of course, but this one was extremely straight, and kept on being like that for 150 miles.
During most of those 150 miles, the only thing I could see where the lights of the Harley cockpit.
Halfway, I saw other lights, far, far away. It seemed to take hours before the lights began to approach, and from then on, they came closer very very gradually. It was a big disappointment when we found out that the lights were somewhere far to the left of the road!
I must say, we almost began to hallucinate. Imagine sitting on a bike which allows for one, very uncomfortable position, riding straight, in nothingness.
The only thing you see is the glowing cockpit. On the other hand, you feel the mosquitos, the pain in your back and arms, and all your other muscles as well.
Never in my life have I longed for a red traffic light, but this time, I could kiss it!!! I should have done it when we found one, now that I think of it.
After those 150 miles, instead of kissing the red light, we headed for the gas station, to get off the bike.
At this stage, stretching our legs didn't help anymore. The only thing we could think of was Home, Bath (we had that great big two-persons-bath in the hotelroom), Steak (to be consumed lying in the bath). We even didn't fancy food right then, though we were very hungry.
So we sighed, got on the bike again, and went on. From this time on, we drove through villages from time to time, some of them even had red traffic lights ;-) I still don't know how we managed, but finally we were home.
But, to be honest, when you have a big bath, and roomservice to bring you an American steak, a Harley is bearable ;-)
When we returned the Harley, I was rather fed up with it, and promised myself never to force myself again on such a motorcycle for masochists. I was now convinced that Harleys are the most ugliest motorcycles that existed.
As always, reality surprizes: the first thing I saw in the Harley shop was a very beautiful Harley customized with Arlen Ness stuff, which I would not mind owning (only for in the living room, of course).
Yes, I could live with such a Harley in the living room...
It was made for the girl friend of the shop owner, but after riding it once she decided she didn't like the riding behaviour ;-) I can imagine that...