I know I'm off living the dream, but the suffering of millions in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is not lost on me, and all my friends and family in the affected areas are in my thoughts and prayers. I hope you're all okay.
I left Nashville on Thursday, November 1, having spent three days and nights with my friend Randy Veatch and his wife Patty. As mentioned in my previous article, those were three memorable days indeed. We saw Andrew Jackson's plantation, Waylon Jennings' house, did a full tour of the famous record and guitar shops, and saw the best live country music I'd ever seen. As I headed down toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, I couldn't have been happier, but I was a bit nervous, having decided to take the plunge and spend my first night "car camping." I had booked a spot at a KOA campground in Northern Georgia, just across the border from Chattanooga. I wanted to get to the campground while it was still light out, but, after having a greasy dinner at a greasy spoon, it didn't quite work out that way. I arrived in the dark, spent a fair bit of time getting organized, and, since the site had a fire pit and it was getting cold, I decided to forage for firewood. I was a Boy Scout as a kid – I did it for the awesome camping trips, but I never earned many merit badges – and I went to mountaineering school in Telluride when I was 14, so I had had many years of experience camping in the Colorado mountains, and it all came back to me. It was a lot of fun. I built a nice fire, played my guitar while listening to my iPod, and watched the moon rise over the Northern Georgia woods. It was a clear starry night, and I was able to stay warm by sitting close to the fire.
Getting to bed was another matter. It was pretty late and I couldn't get settled. Everything smelled like smoke from the fire. I tossed and turned, and my super duper comfy car bed wasn't quite as nice as I had hoped. My rib injury was acting up, making it both painful and worrisome to sleep in the cramped space. By about six the next morning, I looked at my iPhone and saw that it was Friday, November 2. I couldn't believe it was already Friday. I literally did not know what day it was, which was kind of cool and kind of scary. I had hoped to be in Sarasota, Florida – a long haul from Tennessee – by Saturday at the latest. I don't really have a set itinerary in this trip, but I know I need to keep moving – I want to keep moving. Once I get it in my mind that I want to be in a certain place at a certain time, I become pretty determined to get that done.
It was about 40 degrees and just barely becoming light. I really needed a shower and thought that, at best, they'd have some cold unkempt facility. But I was surprised to find a warm, heated building with several showers. That alone made the $20 campsite fee well worth it. I drove to Chattanooga, had a nice breakfast at a hotel downtown, and headed toward Atlanta. I didn't really want to stop there, as all I've heard about Atlanta is traffic, traffic and more traffic. I know it's a cool city, but I wanted to stay off the beaten track and find small nooks and crannies in which to row. I had decided, after my Epic Row on Old Hickory Lake, that I was more interested in finding places where people had never rowed before, than to just row out of someone else's rowing club. Not that I'm averse to rowing clubs – I plan to find a few – but my new mission, as I was making it up along the way, was becoming kind of Star Trek-ish: "To boldly row where no one has ever rowed before." That said, I headed for a small town about 30 miles east of Atlanta called Rutledge, Georgia.
As of the 2011 census, Rutledge had a population of 785 people. A friend from the area had told me about a park in the town called Hard Labor Creek State Park. How could I pass that up? There's a gorgeous lake with glassy water in the middle of this gorgeous park. It's about a mile and a half long and half a mile wide. I stopped and had a little picnic lunch there and took some pictures, but I didn't get a chance to row. However, there is public access, so it's certainly rowable. I knew I had to get moving if I were to make Sarasota. After another seven and a half hours or so, I finally made it to Tampa, just north of my destination of Sarasota, around midnight. On two hours' sleep, I had driven about 700 miles in about 11 hours. My mindset from doing long rowing pieces came in handy – just put your head down and finish the piece. It's not fun, but you know how much time you have and you mentally pace yourself through as you watch the stroke coach (or odometer) click by.
When I stopped for dinner on the Georgia-Florida border, I used priceline to book a hotel room at a Hilton Suites, and I got an amazingly nice room for $50. Priceline rocks. That enabled me to make the final four hours of the trip. Plus, it was late and I was able to push it, so I did it in three and a half. Like an erg piece, where the reward is that you're done and the pain will stop, my reward was a good night's sleep.
After about 11 hours of sleep and a great breakfast, I made it to my friend Tricia Shortridge's house in Sarasota by Noon the next day. I've known Tricia since high school, but, as with Randy, we lost track of each other for about 30 years and then reconnected on Facebook. We got to know each other again through FB as adults, and we found we had much in common – namely that we were both divorced around the same time. She couldn't have been nicer or more hospitable. Once again, I was there for the company, but I can't deny that bed, shower, and laundry were significant benefits to staying with a friend. She and her boyfriend, Carl, took me around Sarasota the first night and had a great dinner. "I guess we can always go into town and look at the old people," she had said to me, and that's pretty much what we did. But the city has a nice harbor area and lots of good restaurants. In Florida, the "old people" are a phenomenon. They are a force. They don't drive well. They're crotchety. And many of them are way too tan, in an unattractive, leathery kind of way.
The next day, on my Mission To Row, I Googled rowing clubs in Sarasota and found the Sarasota Sculling Club. When I drove there, I found a bunch of outdoor boat racks behind a chain link fence, and not much else. Somewhat discouraged, I then Googled Sarasota Rowing Center, as I was determined to find the great new 2k race course that I'd heard so much about. When I finally found it, it was under construction, big time. But I had fun talking to the construction guys working for Dredge America, the company that's creating the lake out of a swamp. One of them, Jason, told me that they had been digging since July 2012 and would be done by the Spring of 2013. It seemed a long shot to me, but we can only hope. As a masters rower, I'm looking forward to Masters Nationals next August at the newly completed facility. I hope they get it done in time.
I went back to the Sarasota Rowing Club the next day, determined to row. I found a freshwater hose that worked, checked out the put-in, down a nice sandy ramp, and figured, this is perfect. I was pleasantly surprised to find a single sculler approaching the restaurant on the South side of the drawbridge (across the street from the rowing club and put-in), and I hailed him down. He's a high school rower named Colt DeWolf, and he was out with his dad, Francis DeWolf, who was accompanying him in a launch for safety. I asked where he'd launched from, and he said, "My house." Not bad, kid.
After putting in on the North side of the drawbridge, I rowed through some interesting current, dodging power boats along the way, and made it to the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs almost the entire length of the West coast of Florida. It's created by a group of long barrier islands, called keys, many of which are formed naturally, which protect the inland and provide fantastic boating and fishing. As I rowed along amidst the gorgeous houses with gigantic "pool cages," (screened in areas for the swimming pool – every house with a pool has one), fish jumped all around me. Other than a few nasty power boat wakes (it was Sunday afternoon), I had a great row. If you're ever in Sarasota and don't mind getting your feet wet when you launch (just bring a towel and some socks), it's a pretty sweet venue.