Monday, July 30, 2007

The Moods of Highway One

The road stares back at me across the clumps of mangroves, the green punctuation spots in the blues and browns of salt water. I can see a sliver of silver on the horizon which marks the Niles Channel Bridge, and at night its navigation lights are the white and reds of ant-vehicles running industriously too and from Key West.

From the top of the bridge itself I can see turquoise water, blue skies, white clouds and spilled green paint where dots of mangroves bled into a smear across the water. My house is hidden by more greenery, tall trees, all leafy and a different shades of green than the mangroves. My neighbor's three-storey white column marks my house. At night he likes to light up the island with his prison search lights which frighten evil-doers away, along with the wildlife and the night sky.

I keep waiting for the day that I grow bored with a drive to work that can only follow one, winding road. All the things that Highway One isn't are the things I keep waiting to long for. It isn't a winding mountain road, overhung with deciduous trees going yellow in the Fall and bursting with green, yet a different, fresher shade of green, in the Spring. Highway One isn't a thread of black winding through fields and farms, dipping to the streams and rising to the hard rocky humps of dirt, twisting in an effort to get away from your wheels. Highway One fails altogether to lose itself in an arid landscape of colored rocks, oranges at dawn, yellows at noon and gold at dusk before slipping away into a purple darkness at night. Highway One runs straight and true, and wobbles slightly at every bridge as it clambers up onto the cement surface over the waters, then drops back to the limestone causeway a few feet above the tide line.

I ride this road a million times a month, and I never tire of it. I ride bits and pieces of the road at different times and it never frightens me. I look forward with a thrill of anticipation when I know a trip to Miami is in the offing. Drop me on any piece of the 120 mile highway and I can tell you reasonably enough where I am within a mile or two, or an island or two.

I know the Sheriff's car in Layton is decommissioned and parked there to frighten then speeders. I also know the car that's actually occupied likes to hunt from the sole remaining grocery store, or the entrance to the dump just south of the town.

I know the Majestic gas station marks the start of endless miles of two lane highway where passing is impossible and one might as well wait patiently behind the dreaming visitors who find 50mph just a little too fast to pass the delights of neon and commerce in Paradise. The exotic promise of America's only Caribbean Islands (...with a highway attached- unlike America's real Caribbean Islands in the Virgins and Puerto Rico).

The piece of Highway One I know best is of course the ribbon I ride back and forth to work. Its the piece of road that sticks its neck furthest out into the Straits of Florida, so far, that when cruise ship passengers land at the end of the road they are astonished to find the same day's Miami newspaper for sale on the docks. They marvel at our currency ( the US dollar, rara avis) and wonder who governs the bustling community they have "sailed" to. Paradise loves to foster delusion. Perhaps paradise is delusion when seen from the inside.

And yet, for me, the illusion of Paradise remains real and in my grasp. No matter how many times I slip my helmet on my head, and my gloves on my hand prior to heading out on the ribbon to delusion, I get a little thrill. Today may be the day I have the perfect ride. Today perhaps I will see that which I have yet to see on the road, whatever that may be.

Last week I took off in a downpour, my wife shaking her head at my insistence on riding in the rain, and potentially sitting at work all night in damp clothes. The rain cleared in three miles and I stopped to strip off my clammy rain suit, and as I stood by the side of the road, a cool post rain storm breeze tugging at my shirt, I knew I was where I wanted to be, on the Overseas Highway- one road in and one road out. No more roads needed.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


It all started out in the Fall of my 12th birthday with the arrival in my life of a bright orange Vespa 50. It was my mother's surprise birthday gift which she announced to me on our way from the airport, sitting in the back of a cab, 20th century Roman ruins flashing by in the background, the Rome of Fellini, though I knew it not at the time.
It would have taken so little to pose boy and machine in the middle of those hillsides, but I guess it never occurred to me to get off and stop riding for what we call today a photo-op, even had I known what that meant.
I was appalled by the gift of such magnificence, I didn't now what to say, a vehicle of my own put me in the world of the self-propelled. This at a time when in Umbria most of my neighbors were still hoping for their first car as their cared for their oxen, ploughed fields by animal power and went to church on foot. I felt like a yokel attempting to assimilate the gift of an automobile- catapulted far above my station wondering what the consensus would be were my peers to hear of my promotion to motorized driver.

It served me well, taking me all over the Umbrian hillsides of my childhood, for I was no more than a child. I rode that orange machine every vacation I spent in Umbria, and at the end of each I put the Vespa away under cover and there it waited for my next release from boarding school in England. And I have no memory of regrets or longing when I put away the Vespa, put away my shorts and pulled out my pinstriped pants, black tie and black jacket- the accoutrement's of the Young Catholic Gentleman Downside Abbey struggled to make of me.

My sister, one of twins, went out with a young man who rode a Vespa, a sky blue 125cc, and it was there I took my first ride on a scooter, my sister in back sidesaddle, her husband-to-be steering and me, from time to time, 8 years old and standing proudly holding the handlebars in front. 41 years on the Vespa is still there, clean and covered awaiting its owners decision to give in to modern helmet laws and take her for a spin in the 21st century. He has little to say of the halcyon days of his youth, except to point out that the machine he courted my sister on was never very fast. "And now I've got to wear a helmet to go slow," and he shrugs, unsentimental farmer that he is.

When I first saw my sister after 25 years away from her home she took me with pride to see the old machine, freshly painted and ready to go. "We still have it," she said shyly. And I found the foot board on the left hand side where she rested her feet riding sidesaddle, a practice forbidden in my home state of Florida, a place where paradoxically one may ride without a helmet!

Time passed and the fad for off road motorcycles swept the Italian countryside. I sold the orange Vespa and traded its reliable power and its comfort for a manly 50cc Beta, an offroad rocket that pleased me at the time and took me on goat trails inaccessible to my Vespa, but that eventually gave way to a real motorcycle, a road machine, and I took those trail riding skills with me on my journeys.

Vespas always hovered on the periphery of my vision and when I read about Roberto Patrignani's trip overland by Vespa to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 I decided to take a trip by Vespa too. 6 months I spent crossing the US and Mexico in 1981 on a P200E I bought in New York. I rode south, my first brush with Florida and visited Vespa Ft Lauderdale for a service and they repaired an electrical glitch, under warranty and in 24 hours! I wasn't even surprised because Vespa was always known as a world wide operation. And there in the background you can see they were still selling orange Vespas, just as I remembered mine, even though these, the height of modernity sported turn signals and mirrors.

That journey across America was perhaps the most enjoyable trip i ever took on two wheels, a journey marked by encounters, a lack of drama, and more photos than I had ever previously bothered to take, it marked a turning point and a year later I was re-united with the white P200E in California ready to start a new life together.

By 1989 I was older and no wiser. I sold my P200E after years of service and thousands of miles commuting. Vespa in the US had folded operations, the Vespa shop in Los Gatos had long closed and I thought I was holding onto a relic. Anyway I was leaving Santa Cruz and California on my boat and had no room for my elderly, outmoded two wheeler...

...Nowadays I promise my wife I would no more sell my Vespa than I would a kidney. It may be late but I have learned my lesson and my GTS is mine till the bitter end, and perhaps when I am immolated at last, my elderly, outmoded 250cc Vespa will go with me

And with it the memories of its predecessors who left such a mark in my memory that I never have looked at a Vespa since without longing. What an odd obession.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Short Attention Span

When first it came out I pretty much ignored the children's book. My wife pays more attention to fads and was given a copy of the first book. She liked it and suggested I might. I preferred not to break the habits of a lifetime and only got around to reading a sudden best-seller long after it's public desirability had peaked.

It has always been true for me that books fell into my orbit only after everyone else had finished with them, and so it was with the first Harry Potter book. Imagine my surprise when the novel reflected so much of my strange English life early on, buried in an educational establishment fronted by magicians claiming all sorts of supernatural powers hidden beneath their black magical robes. Harry Potter resonated with me.

I read the second novel in the series, generally a disappointment when a sequel travels a path previously trodden and thus requires less exposition. Hogwarts was less mysterious and thus less interesting.

The third book allowed me to drift away from the plot whatever it was. Since then I have failed to follow the ramblings of the boy magician, ignored calls for his anti-Christian banning and managed not to wonder how it is the author becomes as rich as the queen of England. Yes indeed as the cliche will have it; we inhabit a strange world.
(Me, Mexico 1981, Vespa P200E).

Evading Harry Potter and not remembering my time at Downside School in England between 1971 and 1975, has become harder with the publication of the last book in the series and all the attendant noise. Living so far from the world of my school days has made the Potter story a valuable aid to providing strangers a short cut to my youth.
"Yes," I say, " my school days were like those of Harry Potter."
"Including the magic?" they ask with hopeful disbelief in their voices. Everyone wants magic, against all logic that it cannot exist.
"Yes, " I add solemnly. "With the magic."
Of course it was magical, getting up before dawn, and walking silently, like a thief down long empty corridors. magical because my presence afoot and alert was with legal cause, I was en route to the most magical mystery of them all- transubstantiation.
I was educated from the age of 13 to the age of 17 by Benedictine monks, men sworn to poverty who lived splendidly in the monastery, to which was attached my boarding school. Daily they went about monastic duties gliding silently through cloisters, down corridors and into choir stalls. And there by the dawn's early light, aided by the warm glow of candles we celebrated together the magical transformation of bread into God.
That's more magic than Harry Potter ever managed.
Like Harry Potter, the magic of that period has faded; too many pre-dawn masses, I dare say, similar in all respects to a surfeit of bestsellers: just too rich a diet for my mundane mind. Magic has lost its appeal, and I'm the poorer for it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Home Sweet Home

Its summer time, puffy clouds that tend to turn thundery, flat waters, crystal clear and hot to the touch...
.............inland from the park, the causeway that supports Highway One offers a bed for one of my favorite plants: the seagrape. Their fruit isn't at all bad either, if you can get to the ripe grapes before the birds swoop down and clear the bushes.
Money Key, a mangrove-covered spoil island just south of the 7-mile bridge is cute froma distance. Up close its a mosquito infested pile of sand and rocks, debris piled up b y Flagler's engineers when they built the seven-mile bridge just to the north.
So, back to the theme:
Yes well glad to be home and rested by a few nights at work, so it was past time to head out on the Vespa and check out some of my favorite spots around the islands. It takes a bit to find back streets in these narrow roadways but I've found a few over the years.
The weekly "Solares Hill" runs a summer time feature called "Places we Love" which makes me think I know more than I know, because they feature places I've found on my own. I've also found quiet corners never before published. In case you are wondering this place isn't a secret.
Veterans Park is no hideaway, unless you are heading south off the end of the Seven Mile bridge oblivious to all around you, because there it is, large as life for all tourists to see. Those that are dawdling and looking around will spot this little spot and feel encouraged to stop. I like the shady tables under trees, a breezy place to read and think and snap a picture or two. If one is energetic there is a smidgeon of a beach, swimmable at higher tides. Also you get a nice view north, the seven-mile bridge to Marathon, and to the south the open waters of the Florida Straits. I just love the sparkle on those waters, so call me a tourist too, even though I live here!
My european trip was memorable and deserves a mention, but I was glad to get home, 96 degrees and all.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Settling In

I made it home in one piece along with bags of stuff and hundrds of photos and enough weird memories to last me another year of routine. A mixture in my mind such that I can hardly separate the railway ride from the scooters of Albania from my sister breaking down in tears when she saw me for the first time in 20 years.
The house is as it was, the blog seems do-able after three weeks away and I shall wrestle with the camera in the days to come, and the formatting, and the controls and on and on.
The Vespa started first push of the starter and I rode home from the storage locker with a big smile.
And so, tonight, to work.