Sunday, January 26, 2003

Marathon Road Trip

I think I became a "real" traveler in 1992, during the first cross-country trip Ben and I took. We drove from Maryland to California, and I feel that the drive gave me an appreciation of the places along the way. It's one thing to look at a topographic map and see where the Rockies start. It's another to drive across the half of Colorado that is nothing more than a rerun of the Kansas scenery, and then have the mountains appear on the horizon. As someone who acquires most of his knowledge abstractly, I found the concrete experience quite revealing.

While reading the in-flight magazine on my recent trip to Miami, I noticed an article about the Florida Keys. The article detailed an itinerary for someone with more time and money than I, but one sentence caught my eye.

"Arriving at Miami International Airport affords the traveler an opportunity to enjoy one of the most scenic drives anywhere in the United States: 160 miles (to Key West) of overseas highway, surrounded by the sparkling waters of Florida Bay and the Atlantic Ocean."

After the conference ended at 4 on Wednesday, the Keys were an obvious choice for a second excursion, this one on my own. I wasn't sure how far I'd get. Perhaps Key Largo, which turned out to be the first Key in the chain -- a revelation in and of itself. Or Key West? I have a thing for extremes -- I'd love to travel north of the Artic Circle some time. So it would be cool to travel to the southernmost point in the continental US. I decided to start driving and see how much time the drive was taking. I didn't want to get to Key West in the middle of the night and face a long drive back to Miami.

My first revelation of the drive toward the Keys hit a mile or two south of the hotel on US 1 (the same highway that goes 1/2 a mile from Casa Grantham, coincidentally). There was a sign that said "End I-95". I-95 ends? Weird. As a denizen of the middle East Coast, it seems like the never-ending road.

After winding through a depressingly familiar array of strip malls (though strip malls surrounded by palm trees look somehow nicer), I escaped via the Florida Turnpike, which sped me close to the Keys before ending. Back on US 1, I drove to Key Largo just as the sun was setting -- the song playing in my head the whole time.

I turned off bayside to look for a good vantage point to take pictures of the sunset. Unfortunately, all roads seemed to lead to fenced-off private property. I don't know whether Key Largo suffers from a deficit of public beach or merely a deficit of public beach signs, but I couldn't find a good spot.

So I drove on, somewhat depressed that Key Largo reminded me of Myrtle Beach (and, to a lesser extent, Ocean City) -- a shabby strip of assorted seafood joints, souvenir shops, and beachwear emporia. Had we Americans taken this neat strip of islands and transformed it into a tacky tourist attraction?

I decided to press on, to see what I could see. I realized this meant going on until the last drops of twilight washed from the sky. After that, unable to see any scenery, I really might as well be anywhere else, and I wasn't going to make it anywhere near Key West by nightfall.

As I drove beyond Key Largo, neat things began to happen. The over-development faded into the background. The area didn't exactly become rural, but I got more of the sense of a laid-back beach resort than a place that a significant portion of Miami must use as an escape.

The road also narrowed, meaning that I could see water on both sides -- the Atlantic on my left, Florida Bay on my right. Driving between the waters on a narrow strip of land was a curious experience -- I find it hard to compare it to anything else I've seen. Not as cool as being on a tiny island in the Pacific, but really neat nonetheless.

Finally, over the water, I saw spectacular colors playing across the sky. The sun had set, but there were still amazing oranges and purples and blues... I found a nice place to pull over then. It may have been too dark for any of my pictures to come out particularly well, but it was good to stop and enjoy the view.

I also found a historical marker that described a now-gone railroad to Key West. To my surprise, it was completed in the 1910s. I had no idea that the Keys were connected to the mainland for so long. (Now I have to re-watch the movie.) The story was of the "they told him it was a foolish idea, but he built it anyway" variety. The railroad was eventually wiped out by a hurricane, so it's not clear who was right. I'd be interested to look at the history of the Keys -- I imagine life must have changed dramatically once they were tied to the rest of Florida.

The sun finally ran out on me around Marathon, which I guess is somewhere near halfway down the keys. I stopped and looked at some souvenirs and grabbed some dinner. I wanted to find something for Christina, but tackiness ruled the day. I looked at some seashells, since I know she likes them. But then I spotted a sign explaining that although conch shell harvesting was illegal in Florida, the store got all of theirs from the Bahamas and Caribbean. (If I remember the regulations wrong, conch experts should feel free to e-mail me.) Am I supposed to feel better that they're despoiling a less-regulated environment? Or is there some conch overpopulation that makes the difference OK? I didn't feel like getting into an ecological discussion with the store clerks, so I turned to the postcards.

Quite a number of them featured the "Seven Mile Bridge," which is apparently a rather spectacular drive -- and a bit past Marathon on the Overseas Highway. Oh, well. I bought a couple that didn't feature the bridge and headed back to Miami.

I'd like to come back some time, drive that bridge, see the parks along the way and make it all the way to Key West. I'd want to bring Christina, of course. But I think for this trip I did about as well with my spare evening as I could have expected.