Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Highway Home

I think it's safe to say Cheyenne and I had a memorable day in the Everglades last week. By the time we were at Plantation Key the sun was setting in another of those ridiculously picturesque Keys sunsets.Even taking point and shoot pictures as I drove produced images I could live with, though I do prefer to take a little more time to compose the shots under less frenetic circumstances. I wanted to try to capture that most elusive of Keys' experiences, the drive down Highway One.Most people who choose to live in the Keys, particularly the Lower Keys, and even more so Key West city residents, take as one of the highpoints of island living as being the ability to do without a car much of the time. The freedom from driving is frequently celebrated as a desirable attribute of life in these connected islands, as much as the pleasant winter weather.I, by contrast love driving, I enjoy road trips and if it is a question of riding the motorcycle, well i would do that all the time if I didn't have to haul my dog or my wife from time to time. To me living 27 miles from my work is a source of pleasure, the drive across the bridges, the views of open water and mangroves that city residents rarely see if they never leave Key West...these are all aspects of life ion the Lower keys that I love. I also enjoy the fact that we ar eindeed connected to the mainland by a contiguous road- the belssing and the curse of the Keys.In the photo above I caught a shot of a pick up truck passing a slower car on one of the stretches of road in the middle Keys, Matecumbe Key I think, where passing ios not only allowed b ut it is quite easy and safe. Travel on the overseas Highway can be slow and tedious, especially in winter when visitors drive badly and slowly as they take in the sights of the unfamiliar views across bridges and open water. Gas stations line the highway including several that are open 24 hours, because despite all claims to the contrary modern industrial civilization is as much present here as it is anywhere else in Florida. Indeed much of the landscape of the Keys is a hodge podge of terrible zoning, or lack thereof, billboards disfigure the skyline and buildings pop up whereever space allows with minimal landscaping. The situation seems likely to get worse as the governor is abolishing the state oversight agency and local county commissioners have shown a marked lack of enthusiasm for putting the brakes on developers.Happily the open water views don't change, though they do tend to be distracting for the uninitiated. I never get bored with twists and turns in the Overseas Highway and a drive once a month at least is always a pleasure. I cannot conceive of nte being able to take the occasional trip to the mainland. Shopping for me is mostly Costco for foodstuffs and motorcycle gear from specialty shops; my wife likes Target, Nieman Marcus and the Container Store so we make the rounds when in Miami. Then there are the longer road trips like last year's drive to California and drives to see friends, or the odd Iron Butt endurance ride...they all start with a two hour roll down the Overseas Highway.To live in the Keys and to be fearful of the drive down the 42 bridges between Key West and Florida City would be just too limiting for me. I watch the price of gas go up and I know a shorter commute would make more sense, but I well remember the feeling of being trapped when I lived and worked in key West and rarely got out. The Highway is a life line and it creates dependence because we expect it to be there and we expect trucks to come rumbling down every day bringing supplies. On the rare occasion the road has been closed, typically by a vehicle wreck, if the closure is too prolonged things start to get gnarly in a hurry. I recall a tanker fire on the Seven Mile Bridge ended up closing the road for 36 hours and panic shopping set in almost immediately at the Big Pine Winn Dixie supermarket...I know the Overseas Highway well enough that I can time myself pretty accfurately coming and going. To get from my house at Mile Marker 27 to the Long Key Bridge at Mile marker 71 just north of Layton takes me about 50 minutes.Speeding on the highway is a fool's game for visitors as it's hard to know where the traps are and how to spot them in the midst of everything else that is unfamiliar. Getting pulled over by the cream and black cars of the State Highway Patrol is almost a guarantee of a ticket. If you don't know what the county Sheriff's unmarked cars look like you might want to play it safe too. Florida is quite generous with speeds as there is a weird speed limit plus 5 law, which says speeds five mph over the limit can only get written warnings...Speeding though isn't the point here. Limits vary betwene 45 and 55 mile sper hour and the drive can be as relaxing as you wish. radio stations run the gamut from the usual top 40 and country western stuff to NPR at 91.5 or Radio Rebelde from Havana at 620 am for anyone who wants to listen to the Forbidden Isle (590 am is classical music, advertising free, on Radio Nacional).It's an odd thing when you think about it, driving out a hundred miles across the water on this thin ribbon of asphalt. Really the highway makes all the islands part of an extended peninsula, like it or not. The tall communications towers along the way are visible reminders of our dependence on the mainland.I try to imagine what life would be like in teh absence of say, the Seven Mile Bridge, creating the requirement to schedule a ferry ride to get out of the Lower keys. Perhaps a blessing and a curse. Certainly such a stumbling block might boost Marathon's tourism if it were that complicated to get to Key West... but we have bridges which make everything convenient.I'd miss the road trips and the drives down Highway One if the bridges weren't there.And of course the best known connector of them all is the Seven Mile Bridge, seen here at dusk at the end of a 14 hour day's drive around south Florida.It may seem limiting to have but one way in and one way out and one route only to get around, but in point of fact it is liberating considering the alternative. Lucky for me I enjoy traveling it so much.