Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Key West and Beyond!

Tuesday April 22

Back in the Winter I’d mentioned to my friend that we were going to Florida that Spring.  She asked what we were going to do and I told her some of our itinerary, and then said, “And we’ll probably have some time at the end, so we might do stuff like drive out to Key West.”  She gave me the double-take and said, “No, you *are* going to drive out to Key West, you *have* to do that!”

I was glad to hear that.  For years I’d looked at the map of Florida and wondered what it would be like to drive out that long causeway, miles and miles into the ocean.  Now was the time for us to find out!

I actually woke up a little early and we got to breakfast before it became crazy-busy.  The less said about the Travelodge breakfast the better, probably.  I’d realized we hadn’t brought any beach towels and I considered bringing one of the hotel’s towels, but that wouldn’t be cool and we needed to be cool here.  We stopped at a couple of places around Florida City to see if they had towels (every place had souvenirs, so we thought beach towels were not far away).  Sarah was in one place for a while so I figured she’d hit paydirt, and then she came out with tea towels and a sun-dress.  Oh well, there would be places on the way.

The last bit of route 1 South starts in Florida City, and it wasn’t long before we were blasting with the top down on another cool-but-heating-up-quickly morning, down the straight line towards Key Largo, over the marsh, the peninsulas, and then the start of the scattered islands.  “Blasting” is relative of course; we were leading the pack and so doing the speed limit, and the other cars were piling up behind us.  After a while I had to call the 10-car rule on myself and pulled over at Little Blackwater Sound so they could all get by.  I followed and *they* were doing the speed limit and now I was stuck at the end of the pack!  Oh well, that’s human nature and we had a long way to go.  Turned right at Key Largo and headed out the long path to the sea.

The Keys are divided up into 5 chunks: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, the Lower Keys, and Key West.  All of these actually include a lot of smaller islands.  For instance, “Marathon” is not only Marathon Key but also Pigeon Key, Knights Key, Boot Key, Vaca Key, etc.  The first for us was Key Largo (then Rodriguez Key, Tavernier, etc.) and this was pretty well settled.  We found a Dollar Store and got a beach towel, then crawled past massive stretches of construction and ritzy hidden enclaves for a long way.
Probably half the people who visit the Keys stop here and don’t go farther.  As you might imagine, the glaring signs for phony “safaris,” rotting water parks, broken-down airboat rides, tired t-shirt and shell stores, seafood restaurants that were probably pretty bad, etc. proliferated here.

But as we passed into Islamorada after @20 miles there was a definite change.  Unsettled bits of beach started to pop up and the causeway got narrower.  There were places where we could see Florida Bay on the right and the ocean on the left, and then the gaps between the Keys started up and we were definitely out there.

Things got even better as we approached Long Key State Park, in the town of Layton on the last bit of Islamorada.  We had this park on our list of sites to visit but realized that we’d better concentrate on getting out to the universally-recommended Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys if we wanted to get everything in that day.  It was here that the archipelago of Florida Bay to the North finally ended and we were officially out in the Gulf of Mexico.  We pulled over before the Long Key Viaduct, snapped a few pictures, and breathed the ocean air.  It was very strange: we were way out in the sea by now, but there was a busy highway balancing on the narrow islands that was just a hundred feet away from us at the most.  Loud, but still beautiful.

Got back in the Mustang and continued cruising, over the viaduct, past Duck Key, Curry Hammock State Park (where we also would have loved to stop), and then into and out of Marathon … more on Marathon later.  After that comes the Seven Mile Bridge.  I was a little nervous if I would freak out driving on a narrow road in the middle of miles of ocean, but the long bridge from Knights Key to Little Duck Key was a piece of cake … in fact it was even better than that!  The sky was blue, the sea was green, the clouds were white, a few boats moved slowly up the ocean on our left, the old, rotting causeway on our right was covered with comical birds and their droppings, and it was pretty noisy but spectacular!  We landed in the Lower Keys and soon turned off to the left into Bahia Honda State Park.

We had to wait in a line to get in, though it turned out we were a few hours ahead of the crowd.  All the other cars turned right toward the concessions and the campground, and we turned left, back to the East along the Atlantic shore.  A few miles later the route we were on diverged from route 1 enough that it became blessedly quiet, and finally there was the end of the road with a few pavilions with picnic tables, a low building with restrooms and showers, and the Silver Palm trail stretching out beyond that.  This was the place we had hoped to visit and it was even prettier than we’d imagined it.

It’s a little laughable to look at the brochures for this park; it seems pedestrian if you read about the details, but when you actually see it then you realize what an incredible place it is.  If you’re ever out in the Keys, go there.

First things first for us: we prepared our pack and then hit the Siler Palm trail.  The beach was pretty deserted at this point and maybe we could have taken advantage of that, but it never got very crowded that deep into the park while we were there.

The Silver Palms you see on the Lower Keys are threatened, because for years people have been digging them up and moving them to their gardens.  The State Park is protected of course, and we saw some lovely specimens of the tall trees.  We also saw Gumbo Limbo trees, Sea Grapes, Poisonwood, a huge orb weaver spider on her web, lots and lots of lichens, all three varieties of mangroves in one small area (black, red, and white), holes all over the place dug by land crabs, sea oats, lots and lots of birds, and many kinds of bushes,  The Silver Palm trail has informational signs every few feet it seems, and we read all of them.  It’s amazing that the undergrowth that we’d been remarking on all along was documented and turned out to be more kinds of different plants than we could imagine.  We saw everything from wild poinsettia to wild bamboo, all crowding around us as we wound through the woods on a suddenly hot, hot day.

The trail wound out to the beach a few times, and finally we returned to the parking lot.  The only others on the trail had been Europeans … where are all the Americans?  Oh there they were, suddenly crowding the beach a bit, though few of them really looked ugly.

It was time!  I changed into my suit and hit the calm water.  Went straight out from the shore into the Atlantic, a few hundred feet or so over sloping sand until it was well over my head, then out past a band of weeds growing on the bottom with transparent jellies hovering over them, and then out further over a vast expanse of sand, now about 20 feet deep and a couple of hundred yards or so off shore.  The water was so clear I had no hesitation about swimming underwater with my eyes open, swooping down to the bottom to pick up a handful of the coarse sand, and then rising up back towards the sun.  The water was so salty it made me tear and blink when I popped back up on the surface and tried to shake it off.

This was a wonderful experience for me.  I swam slowly back to shore, past a few snorkelers busily cruising up and down the beach, and past a small scattering of kids and parents enjoying the beach from a few yards into it.  One father was trying to teach his young daughter how to swim and was terrified when she’d pop off the kick-board and show him with a smile that she could swim on her own.  When he tried to demonstrate the right way, you could tell he really had no idea himself … his daughter had learned more about swimming in the sea in a few minutes than he had in a lifetime.

We sat at a picnic table in a pavilion and ate our daily peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that we had prepared that morning … the last of our loaf of bread.  Soon it was time for another quick swim, and then a fresh-water shower and to get saddled up to leave.  We still had many miles to go and the afternoon was getting on.

There’s suddenly lots of land when you get out to the Lower Keys and the Key Deer refuge (we were disappointed not to see one), and it was still @25 miles out to Key West.  But then we were suddenly close to the end, and the traffic, the buildings, and the confusion picked up like it had never been far away.  We had planned for this and turned left on A1A to skirt the downtown area.

There’s a beautiful park/beach/esplanade around the Southern coast of Key West, and we cruised on that for a while.  Suddenly there was nothing left to do but dive into the city, and we didn’t want to do that!  We made a sudden command decision and turned the fuck around.  We’d gone far enough into the ocean, perhaps a half mile and an endless stretch of tourists short of the official “point furthest South in the United States,” but that was close enough for us.

Cruised back up A1A and then we were on the road back.  I’d seen a coffee shop in the Saddlebunch Keys, and we stopped at Baby’s Coffee to load up on iced caffeine.  I ran into a guy from Worcester waiting for coffee.

One more person we wanted to visit … Sarah’s Internet friend Joe is one of the “Cornell hawk” people (long story), and is incongruously based in Marathon.  She’d been in touch with him off and on throughout the last few weeks about meeting up, and the timing was perfect!  We agreed to meet in his local bar, LazyDays on Marathon, and we got there a bit before he did.

What a beautiful place!  It was happy hour and the Clearwater beers were cold and cheap, they had incredible tuna sashimi (with real wasabi) and conch appetizers to die for, and the views from the bar out of Marathon Harbor were beyond fantastic.  They had slips at the bar for nautical visitors.  They had t-shirts saying, “I Wake Up Every Afternoon for Happy Hour.”

Joe is a retired finance guy who loves fishing and now works and recreates on boats out in the ocean, hunting mahi-mahi, sailfish, tuna, and a good time.  He and Sarah were really tickled to see each other, realizing that other virtual Cornell hawk friends would barely be able to believe that they’d finally met.  He showed us the boat at that dock that he worked on sometimes, and then brought us over to his harborside condo, where *his* boat was docked.  He told us tales about the Gulf Stream, what kind of fish they catch, and what kind of life he leads there.  I’ll have to admit that we were almost ready to pitch the workaday life overboard right there and sign on.

What a beautiful place, but we were finally ready to get back on the road around 6:00 or so … we had a long way to go.  The islands and the channels between them rolled by in reverse as we kept the top down, the speed at the limit (there were an incredible number of cops and cowboys on the road, see digression above), and the tunes cranked.  Finally we made it through the long haul of Key Largo, and turned left up to Florida City.

That’s when the really incredible stuff happened.  It was about 7:45 by then and we had a great view of the sun to our left, sinking into the horizon.  It exploded into spheres of color that shot through the whole sky and lit up the clouds, the birds, and the vast blue-gray spaces in shades of pink, purple, yellow, red, and orange.  We were shooting through it in a Mustang convertible, listening to Jerry and the boys turn up the volume and play the songs of ages.

OK, the straight road North through the swamp finally ended and Florida City started up, and we soon pulled into the Travelodge parking lot and Ganesh *knew* about all that we’d experienced.  Sarah was still pretty full from the late appetizer feast, but I was a bit peckish and so went for a sub at the very conveniently-placed Subway.

A French family was ordering from the guy working there, who was saddled with one of the thickest Southern accents I’ve ever heard.  There were some communication difficulties, especially when they were delighted to be asked to pick their rolls, but then puzzled when he told them that no, they could pick the kind but not the roll itself.  I managed to keep a straight face.

Watched a bit of TV and then to bed as soon as we could after a long, lovely day.

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