Categories: Features
July 2, 2019
| On 5 months ago

Rocketman

On a cool, clear morning, the Indian Scout 60 fires up and settles into a steady, V-Twin idle. I text John, my neighbor two doors down and tell him I’m getting ready to leave. From the yard, I can hear John’s well-thrashed Suzuki 650 thumper stumble to life then stall. The cycle repeats; each time the Suzuki runs for a bit longer. We’re going to take a lap of Lake George, Florida’s second largest lake and a stone’s throw (if you’ve got a cannon for an arm) from Daytona Beach.

Pulling into John’s driveway, I see the Suzuki drizzling a stream of gasoline onto the right-side exhaust header. John is smoking a cigarette. John always smokes cigarettes. He laughs as he stabs the starter button again. The gasoline puddle grows larger. “Call me Rocketman when this thing blows me to kingdom come.”

Using my body to shield the Scout’s deep metallic grey paint from the brunt of the blast, I watch as John pokes the starter button again, and I’m relieved when the Suzuki only roars to life. Rocketman crashes a heavy boot onto the shifter, the shift drum rotates into first gear with a resignation bordering on clinical depression, and John motors away towards Highway 40.

In Astor, I wheel the Scout into a Kangaroo gas station to top the thing off. “You need gas?” I ask Rocketman. “No, I’m good, I filled it up last June and I haven’t ridden it since.” “You sure?” I say. “I mean gas evaporates, man.” John wanders into the Kangaroo to buy cigarettes. Back on the road, we ride over the St. Johns River drawbridge with its squirmy, metal-grate roadbed and on into Volusia County.

We head north on back roads through Pierson and Seville then ride west into the fern capitol of Florida near Georgetown. Besides ferns, Georgetown is famous for its old ferry to Drayton Island. The ferry is a steel barge dragged from the mainland to the island by a cable. Unfortunately, the ferry operates only two days a week, and this is not one of those two days. There are only a few houses on Drayton and with John’s Suzuki leaking so much gas I’m not sure the fire services on Drayton Island would appreciate a visit from us anyway.

From the ferry we continue north along the shores of Lake George to Welaka. Smooth pavement with gentle curves takes us through a beautiful tropical pineland setting. There are so many pretty, one-stoplight towns in central Florida. I look in the Scout mirror: Rocketman has disappeared.

I find Rocketman pushing the Suzuki down Route 309. “What’s wrong?” The Suzuki is a small bike, but the thing has quite a bit of rolling resistance. I should know, I had to push start it often before John bought a new battery four years ago.

Rocketman is huffing. “Out of gas.” “Get on and I’ll push you to a gas station.” John keeps pushing. “No way,” he says. “It’s too dangerous.” Finally, a break in the road, the Suzuki coasts down a driveway and comes to rest at the entrance to Gatling Grove.

“Man, we were just at a gas station,” I say, giving a scolding, high-pitched whine on the up-stroke of the last two words. “I don’t understand it, I filled it up, the bike just sat,” John said. “Could it be that huge puddle of gas under the bike when you turn the petcock on?” I offered, by way of explaining the mystery.

“Wait here, I’ll go get some gas.” I ride east towards Highway 17, finding a Zippy Mart 15 miles away. “Do you guys sell gas cans?” The chick running the mart says no, they don’t. Looking through glass doors of the cold drink display I spot a well-constructed, plastic, two-liter sports drink. The thing is a real beauty, built of heavy clear plastic with a tight sealing, screw-on lid. This drink container was better suited to carrying gasoline than the Exxon Valdez. “That’s cool, I’ll just use this jug.” The clerk freaks out. “You can’t use that! We can only put gas in approved gas cans.”

“C’mon lady, plastic is plastic. My buddy is out of gas, don’t make an already difficult situation worse.” The agitated clerk says she’ll call the cops on me if I put gas in the sports jug. I think she’s serious. While I debate the chemical properties of plastics with the clerk the local customers give me the stink eye. Man, is that banjo music? I get back on the Scout and ride to a hardware store I had passed earlier. A red plastic, two and a half gallon jug costs seventeen bucks. I don’t just suspect, I know the gas station and the hardware store have formed a secret cabal to fleece stranded motorcyclists.

When I arrive at the spot where I left John there’s only a dead Suzuki. Rocketman has lifted off. This ride around Lake George is cursed. It’s hard to stretch out and nap on the solo seat Scout but the day is sunny and warm. I’m awoken by the sound of a car. It’s John and he has a new plastic gas can full of gas. “I got tired of waiting for you so I thumbed a ride.” Now we have to figure out how to get 5 gallons of gas to fit inside a 2-1/2 gallon tank.

These new style gas cans are nearly unusable. Pushing the sliding safety cap thingy releases a swollen-prostate trickle into the Suzuki’s tank. John gets impatient and removes the filler neck. Gasoline cascades over the tank onto the engine. We are a two-man environmental wrecking crew. The stuff is everywhere, man. Some of the gas goes into the motorcycle’s tank.

John turns the Suzuki’s petcock to the on position and fuel begins trickling out of the carburetor. “Listen, let me get this Scout away from the fireball before you hit the starter.” I remove the Scout and myself to a safe distance and the Suzuki sputters to life. “I don’t understand it, I’ve checked everything in the carb but it only leaks when the engine is running.” John points down at the stream of fuel leaking out the carburetor overflow hose. We head north again leaving a thin trail of gasoline to mark our passage.

It’s a long-standing tradition to stop at Angel’s Diner just over the bridge in Palatka. I’m not going to be the one to break that tradition. Angel’s claims to be the oldest, real train car diner in Florida and I believe them. It’s a cramped, narrow space with a small counter for single guys and a few tables for everyone else. The burgers are good, the waitresses salty, and the interior paint is hundreds of layers thick. We order burgers and unsweet tea, and for at least 40 minutes nothing goes wrong.

Angel’s is also a good jumping off spot to explore Ravine Gardens only a mile or two away. Surprisingly, the Suzuki still has gas so we motor slowly along the west side of the river checking out the faded mansions. Palatka is another cool town if you stay in the older areas; the modern part further west is the same as anywhere else in Florida. I guess one day chain stores will be cool, too, but I’m not waiting around for it to happen.

Ravine Gardens State Park is a giant sinkhole. Called the Grand Canyon of Florida, there is a mile long road that drops to the bottom of the ravine. A little pond and a sawmill are down there. The gardens are spectacular. If you like flowers, or know someone who does, taking them here will earn many bonus points to offset your next stupid stunt.

Just our luck on this cursed ride, the road to the bottom of the Ravine is closed for repairs. “I’m not walking a mile to see a pond,” John says. He drops the clutch and weaves the Suzuki between barricades, over a small pile of dirt and disappears down the road. I’m nothing if not responsive to peer pressure. So, I follow along on the Scout.

I don’t get far before a green golf cart slots into my draft with a guy waving at me. I catch up to John and ask him if the guy in the golf cart is his buddy. “Nah, never saw him before. Just ignore him.” At the bottom, we pull into a small parking area and the green golf cart pulls up next to us. The guy is sputtering mad, “You ran the barricades. You’re not supposed to be down here!” John lights a cigarette and asks the guy if it’s OK to look around.

Now the guy really loses it, “No! No, you can’t look around!” His face is red, angry. “We put those barricades there to keep you out of here! It’s a construction zone!” John takes a slow drag from his cigarette and says, “Well, we’re here now. Why can’t we look around?” That was the final straw. “I’m calling the police if you two don’t get on those motorcycles and get out of here right now.” This is the second time someone has threatened to call the police on us today.

We hastily leave Ravine Gardens and head towards Highway 19 where we turn south for the run along the west side of Lake George. This side of the lake is less populated, and after crossing the ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal, we stay out of trouble all the way to Salt Springs.

In Salt Springs, a short jaunt on Highway 314 takes you to Cactus Jack’s, a classic Florida Cracker bar in the Ocala National Park. Cactus Jack’s has a pretty good antique auto collection out back and all the cold beverages you can afford. They serve bar food, but John and I just order drinks to knock the dust down, like cowboys in a movie.

We’re not far from home now. I ride to the Salt Springs gas station and top up the Scout. John parks his bike and goes into the store for some of those little cigars, the ones that come in a bag of four and have woodsy scenes on the packaging. They look inviting, almost healthy. “Are you gonna gas up?” I ask John. “No, we don’t have far to go.” I point to the puddle under the Suzuki and tell John I’m leaving him for dead if he runs out of fuel on the way home, but we make it.

You know, I like adventure as much as the next motorcyclist and Rocketman made this motorcycle ride a memorable one. The gas, the cigarettes, all we were missing was 5 dollars worth of lotto tickets and a 40-ounce malt liquor. John is threatening to remove his carburetor to sort out the leakage, and the world will be a sadder place if he ever does.