Dan and Hannah Bike Back into the Past in the Florida Keys

Seven-Mile-BridgeDriving northeast from Key West along the Overseas Highway with blue/green seas to our right and left as far as the eye can see, we are looking for a Dan and Hannah Vacation Day of biking and chilling in Marathon, Florida on the Keys. 

M Marathon sign Dan

As in Key West, Marathon has never had a snow, a frost, or a freeze.  Like much of the south Florida and the Florida Keys, Marathon has two seasons; a hot, wet season from May through October, and a warm, dry season from November through April.

M Han on bridgeToday we will explore what remains of a century old Florida Keys railroad bridge, which parallels the seven mile bridge on the main highway. 

On the Keys, we bike to explore, not to elevate our heart rates to unsafe levels as I am want to do at our local gym.  At home, I seem to be on some sort of macho head-trip determined to bust a gut and squeeze out every last bit of body sweat.  Athletic counseling has had no effect on this condition.   In fact, as a grad student working in the Human Performance Lab in the Department of Physical Education at Arizona State University, I found nothing better than to be hooked up to sensors as I ran on the treadmill and had lab technicians raise the speed and incline to see how much I could endure.  Exhausted and spent, I loved it.  Lifelong exercising has been a Godsend for Dan and Hannah.

After unpacking at the non-$65 Sea Dell Motel ($109), we walk to Wheels-To-Go and rent two sweet hybrid seven speeds.  First we inquired about their sign out front.

In front of the Wheels-To-Go Bike Rental Shop - As my one time principal John Laidlaw (Nevitt School, Phoenix, AZ) said, "Tomorrow never comes"  How true it is.

In front of the Wheels-To-Go Bike Rental Shop – As my one time principal John Laidlaw (Nevitt School, Phoenix, AZ) said, “Tomorrow never comes”                      How true it is.

Many bike rentals on the Keys are for one speed cruisers.  These one gear jobs typically are nicely suited for leisurely pedaling on the very flat terrain of the Keys or, indeed, most of Florida.  We will soon learn how fortunate we are to have bikes with gears today.

M Overseas Highway Bike path

Saddled up, we head west to the Seven Mile Bridge on a bike path that parallels the Overseas Highway.  It’s a fine highway but has no charm as it fronts wall-to-wall local businesses.  It’s not relaxing, but it’s not dangerous either.  Let’s be clear, the Overseas Highways from Key Largo to Key West is a commercial highway with semis and construction vehicles vying with touristos coming and going from Key West.  Most of the highway is two lane and, as a driver, I just settled into a nice rhythm of going a mellow 45 to 55, in vacation mode.   

Climbing the man-made incline to the old railroad bridge we are greeted by a three lane divider.   The building of the Overseas Railroad  began in 1905; a railroad that operated from the Florida peninsula to Key West from 1912 to 1935.    Dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” unfortunately the railroad had 40 miles of track and bridges washed away in a 1935 hurricane.

M Hannah on bridgePrevailing winds from east to west have been fiercely blowing every day of our vacation on the Keys.  The bike shop owner tells us these strong winds are common in the winter and will get stronger in the weeks ahead.  He adds that we’d be begging for such winds come June and July when the doldrums settle in and there is not a wisp of a breeze.

Today we are sailing along with the wind; in fact, it’s very warm on this January day of 80 degrees in the shade with unlimited sunshine (Those of you living in the winter north must be thinking, Cry me a river).  We are exercising and we are grooving.  Life is Good.  After two miles of mellow biking and talking we reach the wire fencing at the end of the railroad bridge that keeps us from going any further.

M Bridge through fence 2At this point at Pigeon Key, which costs $12 to look at some old, abandoned buildings (which is a not-so-subtle way to say “keep out,”), we turn 360 degrees and check out the blue/green water of the Florida Keys.

As we turn for home, we are slammed by the “in your face” monster winds.  In less than a minute we are in first gear and conversation is no longer possible.  We just grind our way back down the bridge for two miles and then the three plus miles to the Sea Dell Motel, where Hannah tans by the pool while I write a first draft of this blog, then nap.

With two hours left on our bike rental we pedal to Sombrero Beach not three miles away.  It’s delightful.  The Keys water is warm and enjoyable for wading.  Holding hands, we regale in our penultimate day on vacation.

Sombrero Beach

Sombrero Beach

Not succumbing to the siren song of corporate Papa John’s Pizza, we pick up a mushroom pizza from a local ristorante, Upper Crust Pizza, a mile down on the Overseas Highway.  Alone at the Sea Dell Motel pool, we dine on our pizza and toast our good fortune and blessings.

M Sea Dell pool

Dan and Hannah Have a Key West Morning

Just after 6A on Duval Street in Key West

Just after 6A on Duval Street in Key West

You’d be proud of Dan and Hannah for we are catching our vacation groove.  Waking in the predawn, we dress in shorts, tee shirts, and sandals and descend a set of stairs to our rented bikes in the front yard of the Wicker Guesthouse.  Still dark at 6A in January, the streets of Key West are well lit for safe morning biking.  With bikes that have front and back lights, we ride side by side on a nearly deserted Duval Street; it’s our own bicycle playground of side streets and alley ways.   Sharing the street with food-delivering semis, that could never negotiate narrow Duval Street at any other time of day, we head to the harbor and east on Eaton Street.  The antebellum (pre-Civil War) houses give a southern charm to this town of 25,000.  Even though Key West is the southernmost point in the United States, it was Yankee territory during the Civil War.

KW downtown mansionPedaling back into town now near 7A, we come across the start of US Highway One, which is 2,209 miles long and runs all the way to Fort Kent, Maine.

KW begin route oneLazily, we head by the Truman Little White House on Front Street, which takes us to the other side of the tracks.  Not all of Key West is glamorous and high end.

KW poorer housesAs we end our ride we take the obligatory picture at the southernmost monument in Key West, a city that is closer to Cuba than Miami.

KW southernmost point D and HAfter our predawn biking, breakfast by the pool is buffet style for the guests at the Wicker Guesthouse.  It’s a modest repast, but the ambience makes it a tropical paradise.   Waiting for us from 8-930A, the buffet of breads, blueberry and banana muffins, Danishes, cereals, Raisin Bran, Cheerios, Corn Flakes, French toast for the toaster, and English muffins do not disappoint.  And all this is outside under palms at poolside tables with umbrellas.  We read the Miami Herald and the Key West Courier, in a town still buzzing over Alabama’s dominance of Notre Dame in the national championship game the night before in Miami.

Poolside breakfast

Poolside breakfast

After, Hannah reads and tans poolside while I sit tucked away in the shade finishing the local papers and playing Scrabble (Lexulous and Words with Friends) on my cell phone.  By ten AM with temps in the upper 70s, we organize ourselves and walk to the Hemingway Home, a mere 100 yards from our room.

Hemingway Sign with Han

For a modest $13 each, we enter the grounds of Ernest Hemingway’s home where he wrote 60% of his canon (his collection of writing).  His canon includes To Have and To Have Not, a novel about Key West during the Great Depression.  Waiting for the tour that happens every 20 minutes, we walk the grounds.

Hem on path

Hemingway Home

Hemingway Home

Many remember Hemingway of his 60s with the white beard, but he lived in Key West in his 30s as a bon vivant just having come from Paris, France. He was a big game fisherman of some renown in Key West and took time during this era to be a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War.

1923 Passport Photo

1923 Passport Photo

Circa 1960

Circa 1960

Our tour guide Tyler energetically tells Hemingway’s story.  A local kid, maybe 30, he has the energy and passion to make the tour come alive, even though he does seven tours a day.  Tyler is a pro who reminds me of Joe DiMaggio, New York Yankee baseball legend, who said why he gave it his best every day at the ballpark, There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time.  I owe him my best.  Today we got Tyler’s best.

Tour guide Tyler and Hannah

Tour guide Tyler and Hannah

The story goes that Hemingway made the acquaintance of a sea captain who owned an unusual six-toed tomcat.  As a gift, the captain gave Hemingway this cat.  Today there are 45 cats, half of which are polydactyl that have the run of the grounds; one even saws logs on the bed in the second floor master bedroom.

Six toed Hemingway cat

Six toed Hemingway cat

My personal connection to Hemingway is as a 7th grade language arts teachers in Kittery, Maine I had students memorize the first section of Hemingway’s’ Old Man and the Sea.  I still remember its beginning, An old man with steel rimmed spectacles sat by the side of the road.  There was a pontoon bridge…

You may be thinking, Dan you had them memorize.  What part of the 18th century were you teaching in?   I believe recitation , among other things, builds confidence.  In Starting Points: How to Set up and Run a Writing Workshop, I include “Rothermel’s Reasons for Memorizing.”  I have a free autographed copy to anyone who is intrigued by this idea.

But I digress.

Behind the main house, we walk up a flight of stairs to the room where Hemingway wrote.

Hemingway's writing studio

Hemingway’s writing studio

Poignantly at the end of the tour Tyler mentions that many remember Hemingway for his untimely death in Idaho.  He tells us the complicated story of his last years; after hearing these details, one may be less likely to quickly judge and indict Hemingway for taking his own life.  Tyler says, Remember someone for how they lived, not how they died.

Tyler is wise beyond his years and here are two votes for loving Florida.

Dan and Hannah Can Be Fun

Saving money?  You wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing, would you?  After the financial meltdown of 2008, one of the problems we Americans had was spending beyond our means and not saving enough.  Well just let me say it’s not always a good thing either.  Hannah and I have taken frugality to a new sad and pathetic low today.  Our eyes grow wide as the greeter at the Key Largo visitor center mentions a $65 motel room in Islamorada.  Mesmerized, we are under her spell and the result is not pretty.

Our $65 room turns out to be a Debby Downer.  True we have a king-size bed and a shower with hot and cold water; but when I asked for ice, the day manager is dismissive saying they have none, as if only a fool would ask such a question.  This is southern Florida, my good man!  They claim to have Wi-Fi, but, if so, it doesn’t reach the outer edges of the motel complex where we are.  I wouldn’t say the room is small, but the TV cabinet angles in the corner of the room not six inches from our bed.  I get that art is not a prerequisite for a good night’s sleep, but there is not a single picture on the bare walls.  There are three askew wire hangers, the kind you’d get from a dry cleaners, in the door-less closet.  Two plastic chairs out by our door are green with age spots.  Landscaping was last done during the Bush Administration (Bush I) and the wire door to the pool is damaged.

Given our sad choice, we know the maid should not be penalized and we leave her a $5 tip.  Though not a fan of the anonymity of leaving money for a maid we never see, I would have no soul if we don’t leave some money for whoever cleans these rooms at the No-tell Motel.

As overnighters, we do not take the time to find the soul of Islamorada, a town of 6000, which is from all appearances a way station on the Overseas Highway from Key Largo to Key West.  This narrow highway town with motels (from $65 and up), sandals outlets, marinas, bait and tackle shops, salons and day spas, cigars from Cuban seeds, chocolate shoppes, and pet stores) caters to the traveler.  It’s not an island hideaway as we have hoped, just a tourist mecca.  Islamorada was once home to the baseball player and avid fisherman, Ted Williams, for 45 years.  Ted left in 1988 because it was too difficult to turn onto Route One when he wanted to.

On a predawn walk along the Overseas Highway in Islamorada, we have an apercu (a mini-epiphany) and realize that this experience is a godsend.  Let me underscore we are not going all Pollyanna on you.  Hitting us like a thunderbolt, we realize we are going to screw up five days on the Keys in a big way if we go cheap at every corner.  It’s vacation.  You can write this down and no need to footnote me: Vacation when on vacation.  It’s not home.  You saved for this trip, don’t ruin it.  Welcome to the Dan and Hannah Juice Bar, where we make lemonade from lemons.

With a change of attitude and five days of freedom ahead, we drive southwest on the Overseas Highway, a road to Key West which flows nicely at 45 to 55 miles per hour on this early January Tuesday morning.  Forty-two bridges connect Key Largo to Key West.

Seven Mile Bridge is to the left. To the right is the two mile section of 100 year old bridge used for walking and biking.

As Hannah drives us across the seven mile bridge just south of Marathon, Florida, I’m reminded how vulnerable the Keys are as global warming becomes a reality despite all the deniers and those who failed freshmen high school general science.  Flat as southern fried pancakes, the Keys will be inundated in a heartbeat when Super Storm Sandy’s big brother comes acalling.  Click on this link to  see how much of Florida remains as the oceans rise.  Interestingly, Key West has not been directly hit by a hurricane since 1919.

Eight miles from Nirvana (Key West) is the Visitor Center where we don’t flinch at $149 for a room at the Wicker Guesthouse.  Ouch!  But we have learned our lesson and put down a deposit to hold the room.  Key West is pricey.

Wicker Guesthouse from Duval Street

We’ve been to the Wick last year (our nickname, not theirs) and know that it has Keys ambiance, poolside breakfasts, plush queen beds, and bikes for rent at $15 per day, which means we don’t have to move our rented car for our two days in Key West.   It’s also where the action is on Duval Street.

KW pool at WickerWith our room not yet ready, we take to the streets on our seven speed cruisers.  There is an easy mixing of cars and bikes in this busy, but not crowded, yet easy going south seas town in early January.

Key West is a place for bicycles.  Though the streets are busy and traffic has cars going 15 mph at best, we ride down Duval Street to the sea for an afternoon of pedaling along the beach.  All of the sand on the beaches of Key West has been shipped in on barges from the Caribbean.  Hannah’s left leg is functioning at 90% after her July water skiing fractured tibia; she bikes and walks easily now.   Though, descending on steps from our second floor room is slow going.

KW Hannah Butterfly

Hannah grabs her Vitamin D by the pool while I read the Sunday Review section of the Sunday New York Times that I brought from home.

KW Hannah at Wicker pool

After our late afternoon two person happy hour by the pool, we stroll (hey we are on vacation) to the west end of Duval just before six PM to get to the pier where tourists gather at sunset.  We are making the scene and getting into this vacation of ours.

KW sunset

As we walk after sunset on Duval Street, we see a sign: Happy Hour 7-9P and 2-4A.  Whoa.  Key West has more bars per capita than any other place in the country.  Checking out the pub singers singing Bill Joel cover songs from the sidewalk, we mingle with the evening revelers.   Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville is just down from the Wicker Guesthouse.  The Duval Street buzz of tourists is music to the Keys.  Restaurants and bars are busy on this Tuesday night in early January before the school kids’ winter vacation and the college kids’ spring break.

We’ll sleep well, having have gone from the outhouse to the penthouse in one day.   Despite rumors to the contrary, Dan and Hannah can be fun.

KW Heads on Bodies 2

Dan and Hannah Deal with their Love/Hate Relationship with the Sunshine State

Truth be told, I struggle with the Sunshine State.  Like every state, Florida has much to offer.  Hannah and I are drawn to its warmth each winter, but cringe at its crowds and traffic congestion.  Florida offers water sports, beaches, restaurants, and night life.  It’s not Maine, but it’s fine.  This year we have chosen the Florida Keys as perhaps an anti-Florida Florida place to visit.           

It’s a given that we are not city folks.  That’s not Florida’s fault.  We live in Maine for many reasons, one being the slower pace and fewer people.  This week southern Florida promises 80s so we are giving Florida one more shot by flying from Boston to Miami for five days.

And by the way, why do people hate flying?  Could it be the lack of control when one is in a plane?  Perhaps they dislike the inflexible deadlines of airlines with set departure times?  Crashing?  Or is it really that they just dislike traveling at all?  Driving the 1710 miles in 26 hours from York, Maine to Key West, Florida (Google maps estimate) to spend five days of vacation on the Keys is not exactly practical for us.  Statistics are funny.  Check out this link for the different statistics to support whatever your opinion is about safe travel.  Cars are safer than airplanes on a per trip basis.  It makes sense; car trips are typically shorter than plane trips.  Now, if you go by miles traveled, airlines are safer.  I like to fly because it saves me time and I’m not thrilled with the tedium of long distance miles and metropolitan traffic.

Even though we awake at 415A this Monday morning in January, we are off to an auspicious start as we are stuck in Monday morning Boston commuter traffic on I-93 heading to Logan Airport.  Who knew that we’d be going 15 miles an hour at 630A on a Monday morning?  Perhaps anyone who ventures out of his cloistered little life living in small town Maine, Danny Boy!

Once we hit the HOV lane, our son Will, our driver, is cruising at 50 mph and soon has us through the Ted Williams Tunnel, which then puts us at Terminal B.  Though it’s 30 minutes after I thought we’d get there, it’s 715A and ours is an 8A flight.  We certainly have a good shot at making our flight.  Having forgotten to print boarding passes at home, we go to the kiosk and confirm two seats in row 28 of American Airlines flight 439.  Hurrying to the TSA baggage screening area, I do the pathetic and sad, really pitiable husband thing and walk ten feet ahead of Hannah in my need/zeal/angst to make the flight, as if ten feet of hurry will make the difference. This morning the TSA checkpoint has few in line and we sail through.

Our flight is three quarters full on this day of the college national championship game in Miami between Notre Dame v Alabama.   This American Airlines plane seems so old school compared to Jet Blue and Southwest.  There are TVs in the aisle every five rows (if you are 6’ 1” and taller you’ll smack your head on them).  The TVs are of the 1950s, cream colored, boxy twelve inch squares.  You do get a free movie, in this case the weak Premium Rush, about couriers solving crime in New York City.  With borderline ADD, I last twenty minutes and take to my refuge when I fly: Sudoku puzzles and crosswords in the in-flight magazine.

In three plus hours we’ve gone from below freezing in Maine to amazingly warm 80 degrees in January Miami.  If you’ve never been to the Miami Airport, it is monstrous.  We walk at least a mile on people movers just to get to the high speed shuttle that takes us to the Rental Car center.  Since we have found a cheap (and it turns out reliable) car rental (Fox Rent a Car), we then take a shuttle van a mile to the Fox center.  When you pay $139 for five days for a car, you pay in other ways.  We wait 30 minutes, but we are in Florida, it’s 80F.  Small sacrifice indeed.

Renting the smallest, least expensive car we can, a Chevy Aveo, we are instead shown to a Chrysler 200 Convertible.

Chrysler ConvertibleBelieving that going to Key West will get us far from Florida cities, traffic, and congestion, we scurry south on Florida’s Turnpike (a toll road where scanners read each car’s license plate) and eventually to Route One South.  The transition to the Overseas Highway on the Keys takes us away.

Stopping at the visitor’s center in Key Largo, we ask about a room in Islamorada, the village of islands.  We pronounce it Islam-o-rada giving a Moslem emphasis to the first two syllables.  Sweetly, she says it’s pronounced Aisle-ma-rada and the locals call it El-ma-rada.  We must look like people who want a room for under $100 because the woman says, “I have rooms for under $100.”  We are such bumpkins.  She has a $65 room fifteen miles away in Islamorada on the way to Key West. We are ready to get out of the car and just cool our jets and settle in for the night.

Twenty-five minutes later, we arrive and check in into the last $65 room.  We unpack, check out renting bicycles for tomorrow, and later sit poolside hoping for Florida’s best.

I Dan at poolAs we sit by the pool I find solace in thinking about getting my teeth cleaned.  (Stick with me, there is a connection.)  As I lay back in the dentist chair I can see a poster above my head that has 20 reasons for happiness#1 – Choose your spouse well.  95% of your happiness depends on that one decision.

Hem on path