Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Bridge Too Far

This essay originally appeared almost two years ago in November 2008. I thought it was worth running again, not least to remind myself that my Canon camera which replaced my Nikon Coolpix of that time, takes much nicer pictures. Also this essay seems an appropriate motorcycle entry while I am away trying to ride into the cold polar regions Up North to complete another Iron Butt ride.The tour guide opened it up for questions at the end of her presentation, and one member of the group asked immediately:
"How many bridges are there to the mainland of Florida from Key West?"
"I heard forty two at the last count," replied the experienced guide. People ask the oddest questions when they visit the Keys.
"Can you recommend which would be the best one to take to get to Miami?"
Flagler had the original railway bridges (the cement arches in the background) built in the early part of the 20th century, and he finally got to take the first uninterrupted train ride from Miami to Key West in January 1912. He died a short while later and its said that the co-founder of Standard Oil remarked that he would have died a rich man had it not been for Florida.

The Florida East Coast Extension Railroad never made a profit, and the last leg of the journey to Key West took about 12 hours as trains were limited to 25 miles per hour on the exposed bridge portions of the 120 mile over-the-ocean trek. Passengers then had the option of bedding down at Flagler's luxury Casa Marina hotel (recently refurbished by the way and quite lovely) or riding the rails by ferry to Havana where carriages were loaded with tropical fruit for consumption in New York a few days later.In 1935 a huge hurricane wiped out the financially ailing railroad in the Matecumbe Keys, killed hundreds of people and the connection to Key West died with that storm, in the midst of the national depression. The State of Florida bought the right-of-way and used it as the basis of an Overseas Highway which opened in 1938, allowing motorists to drive direct to Key West for the first time, without the use of any ferries along the way. When I first rode to Key West in 1981 the trip from Homestead took about five hours on a narrow winding highway. In 1982 the the Highway was upgraded and the journey to the mainland was reduced to about three hours along a modern broad roadway which in some places is even four lanes wide. The speed limit varies between 45mph and 55mph, and a lot less than that behind gaping tourists...They love to look out at the water and who can blame them? The views are quite extraordinary if you aren't looking for mountains or valleys or rivers or forests or...all the other natural features one expects to see when taking the scenic route. However this is the only route through the Keys. Most islands are a few miles wide, the inhabited ones, but the smaller islands are generally lumps of rock or mangrove and they can be literally the size of a tennis court.The waters are for the most part less than six feet deep, often less than three feet deep and on calm days one can look over the edge of the bridge and see the seagrasses growing on the bottom. Because the islands are basically limestone and coral there is not much sand and beaches are a rare commodity. The west coast of Florida has excellent beaches with very flat calm waters and the east coast is one long beach with Atlantic Ocean waves breaking spectacularly on them when the wind is onshore. The Keys are instead an intricate puzzle of land that is not quite dry and waters that are not always deep enough to wet one's ankles.The tallest bridge on my commute is the highest bridge between Big Pine Key and Key West, and thanks to the deadening effect of photography the fact that it arches fully forty feet above Niles Channel is completely lost in this photograph:From the top of Niles Channel Bridge one can see miles and miles of...mangroves, a forest of green about five feet tall, I took this picture near the sea level:Descending into Summerland Key the Highway stretches straight as an arrow through the wide spot that offers gas stations a supermarket, a Post Office, a video rental and a hardware store, boat repair, dock repair, pizza and even a landing strip for people who like to fly their small private planes directly to their houses. The highway takes a curve or two and a bridge or two and there isn't too much variation as Cudjoe Key comes and goes and Sugarloaf Key comes and goes:And all along the highway, unseen to the motorists, runs the aqueduct pipe, installed by the Navy to supply water to its Key West bases. the modern pipe along the modern highway keeps us supplied with water from the south Florida aquifer, and because south Florida is running out of water they mix in four percent saltwater and keep on pumping stuff that doesn't taste that great to me. I collect and filter my own rainwater at my house and store it in a cistern.
The pipe is hooked up under the bridge and it can get to be a big problem if they both get cut by weather or an accident. Also alongside the roadway are rather ugly power poles, huge concrete structures that march to the horizon and mark the line of traffic from afar. They are rated to withstand 155 mile per hour winds, and to its credit Keys Energy does a great job of keeping the power flowing along them, but boy, they are ugly.The bridges come and the bridges go, connecting causeway after causeway, across Sugarloaf, past the school and the lodge, all at 45 sedate miles per hour (Florida allows motorists to go 5mph over the limit without getting a citation but most visitors don't know that) and every now and again there is an opportunity for a swift pass:Then the Saddlebunch Keys come into view, a wide scattering of little mangrove islets on either side of the Highway. These specks are uninhabited, too small and scattered to support human life, and the limit rises to 55mph.The views can be spectacular especially as the sun drops to the western horizon. What a lot of people don't know is that the Keys are strung out east to west and are only nominally north to south, so the setting sun will hit a Key West bound motorcyclist in the eyes in the evening:And then finally at Mile Marker 10 the ambling Bonneville reaches Big Coppitt Key, served by the Key West Post Office so people who live here think they are in Key West but there's a ways to go yet!And then, after Big Coppitt comes Rockland Key where the road opens up to its final four lanes all the way to the Police station in the middle of Key West itself. The last five miles are industrial strength freeway curving across the mangroves and at night part of the highway is illuminated by street lights, just like on they do on the mainland in the big cities.The water tower marks the Navy base where they train fighter jets which circle endlessly overhead, practicing all those things fliers need to practice, much of it over easily accessible open waters, some of it circling overhead.

That of course is cause for much debate as some residents on the ground complain of the noise forgetting the Navy Base was there long before they were. Others talk of the jet noise as the "sound of freedom" and carry bumper stickers announcing how much they love the jets and their noise. Controversy always, everywhere! The entrance to the base is marked by a hump in the road with a proper freeway-style interchange,

and then its round a bend or two more, a few more wide water views and its time to ease off and roll into the urban agglomeration of Stock Island, and then Key West itself starts at Mile Marker 4, and a couple of miles down North Roosevelt Boulevard lies the pink Public Safety building and my ride is over.When I commuted in California with a choice of routes to and from the Santa Clara Valley I was always actively seeking out a new and different road to travel across the Santa Cruz Mountains. Now that I have but one choice the difference is in my head. Some days I'll leave a little early and meander a bit, take a dead end side road to explore, other days I'll make it my business to pass cars and stay ahead of the pack. Other days I pull over and let anyone who catches up to me pass. I make it my own rule not to leave late and not to be in a hurry. Its a road that demands a certain amount of patience because it is an easy commute, no snow no ice, few cross streets and long sight lines so its easy to get complacent and many no doubt would get bored. I do miss winding curvy roads but you can't have it all.My Bonneville is ideal for this commute as it pulls strongly from 45mph in top gear, and if I drop a gear or two it will accelerate past anything drifting along in front of me. It is such a pleasure to ride I never view slow moving cars as obstacles, just as interesting challenges, variations on my monorail commute.

And the temperatures? 80 degrees and breezy, dry with low humidity in February. No mountains but no electric gloves either.