Jacksonville FL, 5/14-15, 2011


When arriving Jacksonville by overnight train from Raleigh, one intensely experiences the physical differences between Piedmont North Carolina and North Florida.    I woke up at 6:00 AM gliding through a dreamy foggy world of Spanish moss and swamps.   Passing through Jessup, Georgia in the early morning fog,  wooden houses with tropical architecture were scattered around the town center.   By the time the train pulled into Jacksonville at 6:45 AM (ten minutes early!), I was ready to ride.

My initial ride was to be the twelve or so miles to Tom’s house in Ortega Forest, on the southwest part of town.  I had been coached that the northern part of Jacksonville was somehow sketchy, dangerous.   Stepping into the early morning steam heat, I rode off down a mostly vacant four lane highway.    I guess to save time and money, Amtrak put the train station far from downtown, far from really anything, next to a large rail switchyard in northern Jacksonville.   This Saturday morning there were few cars on the road.,  If there had been anything to be afraid of, I did not slow down long enough to know.   I got to downtown in about forty minutes.

Tom in his backyard

Downtown Jacksonville is like many in America, it remains a promise not yet fulfilled.  Many lovely old skyscrapers  remain unused or underused.    The JTA Skway, a people mover monorail built about twenty years ago, runs down some streets like the el in Chicago.   One whole side behind the Convention Center remains vacant, clearly where “slums” existed thirty or forty years ago.  Back in the center, there are lots of homeless people in its main square.   Down by the riverfront, things are lively with new development.  Old buildings with character, and a tropical vibe, make downtown Jacksonville a place with potential.

The ride through older neighborhoods south of downtown is more upbeat.     There are miles of wooden early twentieth century houses, most surrounded by live oaks with Spanish moss and palms.  Because of  its grid street system, the older parts of  Jacksonville make for safe and relaxing bicycling.   In its physical layout, Jacksonville spreads over inland estuaries, much like Norfolk or Portsmouth.  There are lots of bridges.   Jacksonville has a fine collection of live oak trees, maybe even nicer trees than New Orleans.

older house Jacksonville

I met Tom for coffee in the Avondale neighborhood.  We ran into some acquaintances of his.  They professed difficulty believing that I had just ridden in from the Amtrak station.   The acquaintances I guess never visited Jacksonville north of downtown, except to go to the airport.

We passed Robert E. Lee High School.   It was probably built in the 1920’s.   There is no historical marker, even though this is the school where there was a gym teacher in the late 1960’s named Leonard Skinner.   The band members went to the school.  In 2011  Alabama state license plates say Sweet Home Alabama.   There needs to be a state historic marker in front of this school.   Surely this is as important as some minor Civil War skirmish.

I pulled into Tom’s house to wake up Slice.    He was also visiting that same weekend, driving in his Porche 911 Carrera.   Tom’s son Miguel was also there.


We went on to have a fun weekend and with fine  hospitality.  It included visits to the Timuquana Country Club, grilling in the backyard, and more  bike riding on Sunday.    That day the three of us took another big ride north of downtown.     It is always more efficient to have a guide to show you how to navigate a city one does not know well.    We were able to see spooky parts of town that I would not have seen otherwise.

Miguel cooking our dinner
Juke Joint Jacksonville

The train left for Raleigh at 10:50 PM Sunday.    I contemplated riding back to the train station night in the dark, but even I realized that would have been really dumb.

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