It wouldn't be December if I didn't find myself riding across I-10 toward Florida.
An annual tradition, Stagecoach RTE, was sitting out there on my calendar of rides, begging me to come on over. I missed Wizard's Wild Weekend in early December, being in Hawaii over Thanksgiving, so Stagecoach seemed a fitting and suitable December-end destination. And off I went.
This is a tough time for me to travel since it's so close to the Houston Marathon in January. I must weigh the "fun" factor of the trip against the possibility that I'll miss getting some running miles in. Packing space was therefore allocated to running gear: Shoes, cold-weather leggings, top, windbreaker, socks, gloves, hat. And then there was that forecast for cold, wet, and cold-and-wet all across the I-10 corridor.
But, if I continued on to Pensacola Beach for a day or two, the weather would improve (at least not be so wet) for my return trip back to Houston. So that was the plan: Join in at the Stagecoach RTE, depart for US-98 for a meander over to Pensacola, visit the History of Navy Flight Museum, and then spend a couple of nights at Pensacola Beach. I visited this museum in 2004 and have always wanted to get back.
Cold and cloudy Houston weather on December 29 meant a chilly departure, but soon I could see a sharp line between gray clouds and blue sky, demarcating the leading edge of the front that was pushing through east Texas, and the rest of the ride all the way to Satsuma AL was under sunny blue skies. Cold, but at least sunny.
This year's Stagecoach RTE would be different from past events. Apparently riders have been arriving earlier and earlier so the organizer arranged for the restaurant to serve a breakfast buffet for the early birds. I was one of those early birds, arriving at 8:45 AM. But I wasn't the first to get there! At least a dozen bikes were already parked in front, including a group just arriving from south Florida and a group of four, one of whom was from Texas.
Stagecoach RTE day was forecasted to be cloudy, rainy and cold. Not great, but better than what many other riders would be experiencing to get down to Stagecoach from more northern climes. Many who are regulars to this event had already posted on the various forums that they were snowed or iced in. Attendance will no doubt be down this year from past years, when upwards of 600-700 riders have come in to Stagecoach.
Breakfast with friends, a bit of parking lot chat, and I was off, headed toward Pensacola by 10:30-10:45. I wanted to see what US-98 would be like, having never ridden it before. It was a nice alternative to interstate and moderately scenic though slow going.
Arriving at the museum it dawned on me, when I saw the packed parking lot, that kids are out of school and this might not be an ideal day to come. But I lucked out and immediately found a driver backing out of a spot, so I backed in, left my helmet and jacket on the bike and covered it all with the motorcycle cover. My new Canon DSLR in hand, I headed for the museum, eager to pick up where I left off more than 5 years ago.
The lobby was teeming with people. One of the things I really wanted to do was see one of the IMAX movies. The lines were long and, eavesdropping a bit, I learned that they were selling tickets to showings that were a couple of hours later in the day. I wasn't sure I'd be here that long so didn't buy a ticket. Darn! Well, I'll just have to get back here and next time it will be while kids are still in school.
I roamed the halls, taking photographs, reading the displays, and generally people-watching. My most favorite display is the atrium where four Blue Angels planes fly in formation, suspended from the ceiling.
There are so many planes on display, they're layered from ceiling to floor, creating a giant play mobile effect with some really great and interesting juxtapositions of wings, propellers, cockpits, insignia.
What can seem so small from just a short distance away, readily reveals its innate power and force even when standing still.
Three hours later, I was ready to go find lunch. The Cubi Cafe was packed and had a waiting line, so I decided the best option was to leave the museum and head toward Pensacola Beach, check into the Hampton Inn on the beach, and strike out on foot for a late lunch/early dinner. It had just started to rain as I was leaving and the rain became steady as I rode through Pensacola onto 3-mile Bridge, across Sea Breeze and onto Pensacola Beach's barrier island.
I love this hotel. It's location is nearly perfect, sitting on a white sand beach, within walking distance of many good restaurants and with a paved jogging trail that runs for miles. Parked, checked in, changed into street clothes and it was off to find a good greasy burger and a Blue Moon beer to wash it down.
Next morning started out cloudy but the sun started peeking out around 9:00 AM, turning into a gorgeous day. I headed west on the barrier island toward Fort Pickens, one of the units of Gulf Islands National Seashore. This Fort has been closed ever since Hurricane Ivan struck in 2004. They had just re-opened it when Hurrican Ida hit in November 2009, closing the road once again. The road was just opened the Sunday after Christmas, so I was very fortunate..timing is everything!
This is a beautiful road, passing through unspoiled gulf beach, with the turquoise surf pounding just yards away from the road at some points. Huge drifts of white sand had been freshly plowed off the roadway, the plow marks still visible against the mountains of sand that had been moved out of the way. It took only very little to imagine that these could be drifts of snow. Even the sand that covered the roadway in patches here and there was eerily similar to how patches of snow can cling to the pavement after a plow passes by.
I lived here in the late 50's through the mid-60's as my dad was stationed here as a Navy pilot. I can remember this road and the enormous sand dunes that lined the road, hiding the beach view from the road and providing great places to tuck a blanket and belongings to get out of the wind. These giant dunes are completely gone now, torn away by hurricane Ivan. They'll rebuild eventually, as wind and other forces of nature move the sand around into natural drifts and berms.
As much as I wanted to pull into some of the turnouts to take photos, the prodigious amounts of sand remaining in these paved areas kept me on the roadway. In a few months, they'll have these turnouts cleared.
The fort is such a formidable and sturdy structure it withstood these hurricanes - and many before them - all these years. The cheery park ranger and I chatted a bit...she and her husband moved down from Chicago and now love living in Pensacola Beach.
I roamed through the interconnecting rooms of the fort, taking photos and reading the self-guided tour sheet. The fort had been in near-continuous use since its first ramparts were built in 1834 until 1947.
I climbed to the top of one of the bastions to see the Rodman cannon emplaced there.
It's a compact fort and after an hour or so of wandering about, I was ready to leave, take a ride over to the Naval Live Oak unit of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, then continue on to Navarre, cross the bridge, and ride back to Penasacola Beach along the gulf barrier island.
The perfect footnote to the day was being awakened at midnight - New Year's eve - to the sound of fireworks. Getting out of bed and walking over to the window, I was treated to midnight fireworks being fired off from the pier right next to the hotel.
New Year's Day and I was on the road heading home to Houston.