Friday, February 1, 2008

No Key to Heaven

We've now reached and spent two days in Key West, the end of the road. Or the beginning, as the locals proclaim with Mile Marker 0 for US Hwy 1 at the west end of town.

We wondered much before coming here what we would find. What are the Keys like? It's easy to get a jaundiced view out on Hwy 1, which in places was as much fun as biking down Aurora Ave. in Seattle. The light grey on the right of the photo is soft gravel, so yes, we were biking down that 20" shoulder with sometimes 2 or 3 lanes of westbound traffic next to us.
But other areas, such as this view of the entry to Key Largo from Card Sound Road through Crocidile Lake Wildlife Refuge, or this second view of a boardwalk trail on
Long Key, show what much of the Keys would be like with no human imprint: vast areas of mangrove.
There are some forested areas, but no lakes or rivers, as the Keys are simply limestone reefs that were once below ocean level and now only slightly above it.
We learned much from a stop at the quarries used to supply Flagler's railroad with building stone, seen in these two photos. The closeup taken with our macro lens shows that the limestone is in fact the skeletal remains of millions of coral animals frozen in stone.

Flagler's railroad, the Florida East Coast, greatly changed the Keys by making them accessible. As a railroad, it flopped, destroyed long before it paid for itself by the Hurricane of 1935. But the state bought out the right of way and turned it into the Overseas Highway, US 1. In time the narrow railroad bridges (built so well that they survived the hurricane) were paralleled by modern highway bridges. From Long Key we took one marvelous railroad bridge for over 2 miles over the seas, past dozens and dozens of fishermen.

With easy access, Key West changed from a small community of oddballs eking out a living from the sea (particularly from salvaging goods from vessels wrecked on the shallow reefs near the Keys), to other types of oddballs, such as Ernest Hemingway, revered in Key West as a sort of patron saint. Like Provincetown MA, another town at the end of the road, it has also attracted a sizeable gay community. But tourists truly rule the town today, ebbing and flowing with the daily arrival of day trippers and cruise ship passengers (we saw 4 in 2 days), and the annual ebb and flow of overnighting folks like us who come to stay in droves in winter and in drops by mid-summer.

The Upper Keys, especially Key Largo, were pretty disappointing. Hwy 1 dominates life, and getting off the road usually means going down a cul-de-sac, as there are rarely connecting side streets. This pair of pictures taken a few feet apart illustrate the dream view and the reality view
of this part of the Keys. If you don't own a part of it, you pretty much have to keep on moving down that busy highway.

The Middle and Lower Keys were better. The traffic
thinned out and the shoulder got a bit more bike-friendly, much of it 4' wide. The scenery improved, and there were several terrific state parks where we canoed and hiked on nature trails. Big Pine Key was actually large enough to have back streets that were paved but virtually traffic-free,
and Key Deer to look for in the extensive Key Deer Wildlife Refuge. It's far from heaven, as these two less-than-welcoming signs show (click on the second one to read the white sign...), but it was a nice respite from the highway.

Key West has been interesting. It looks
lush to us with many palms, bananas, gumbo limbo and other tropical trees, oftentimes obscuring the interesting houses behind them. A local told us that it looks fairly bare to her compared to just before Hurricane Wilma, which flooded 70% of this low-lying island and knocked down many of the tallest trees.
Indeed, "Solares Hill" is an unremarkable point near our B&B that is the highest point on the island -- 16 feet above sea level! The actual highest point in all the Keys now is the infamous "Mount Trashmore," a landfill one key to the east, at something over 100'.

While we've done the tourist thing down bar-and-restaurant-laden Duval Street, we've also enjoyed walking the many back streets through the extensive historical districts, and did a short ride on the tandem
with our luggage left at the B&B to make the obligatory visit to the so-called Southernmost Point in the Continental U.S. It's actually the Southernmost Point Accessible by Motor Vehicle in the Continental U.S., and other nearby landmarks are "Southernmost House," "Southernmost Hotel," "Southernmost Resort on the Beach," and "Southernmost Deli." The true southernmost point is yet another island out in the ocean but within Florida's borders.

Well, having reached the southernmost point in this part of our adventure, it's time to head north. We'll pick up a rental car tomorrow, put the partially-disassembled tandem in the trunk, and head up to the Everglades for a few days. More about that in our next posting. But goodbye from Key West would not be complete without a sunset picture from Mallory Square, traditional (well, maybe for the last decade or two) spot to stand and watch the sun go down.

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