We of the night watch call it the Princess Shift. The two regular police dispatchers for that night work six pm to six am, and the overtime helper comes in from ten pm to two am. That gives the overtime dispatcher a few hours to have dinner at home, kiss the wife goodbye and jump on his Triumph Bonneville for an invigorating half hour ride to work along a darkened, deserted Overseas Highway. Then, when his colleagues have had their lunch breaks and alcohol fueled rage across the nighttime city has been quelled for the night, at least most of it, the overtime can end and a bed beckons 23 miles down the road.
I love the Princess Shift. The ride is usually still crowded on my way into town between nine and ten at night. There are still too many cars coming and going for the full lonely experience I enjoy on the way home. But four hours upstairs at the police station flies by and then I can grab my man purse, shout a quick good night over my shoulder and know that I have thirty minutes on the road in the dark, utterly alone. Fantastic.
This is the void. Beyond Big Coppitt at Mile Marker Ten, the last outpost of street lights, 24 hour gas, and a 45 mph speed limit, the Highway takes off over the sea, a mix of bridges and causeways, the roadway dipping and rising, long straights that double as passing zones...Here be dragons, too far from Key West for the revelers and shift workers to want to drive out this far beyond the dormitory community of Big Coppitt.
Stopping the Bonneville and turning off the key on a moonless windy night I might be anywhere there is wilderness. It's eerie out here, the wind moans and whistles, the mangroves rustle and the highway is invisible once the headlamp on the motorcycle is out. I can see far enough in each direction that the occasional car or delivery truck headlights are visible across the open water so I can stand on the crown of the road and own the darkness in perfect lonely safety.
It is not real desert wilderness out here. The side roads are lined with canals, docks, and houses, many empty most of the year others occupied by commuters seeking the good life away from Duval Street. At 2:30 in the morning it might as well be a desert, for this is decidedly not a twenty-four hour lifestyle. To my way of thinking life in a stilt house with parking underneath and a boat at a dock behind your house is Keys living, the way people crammed into contemporary Key West cannot imagine. This is Tom Sawyer-land, barefoot fishing from the dock, kayaks at dawn, fewer neighbors and among them less chance of urban social wreckage spilling over. The basics of daily life are here, groceries bars and restaurants within a short Vespa ride, but the allure is the water not the bar scene.
Because I have to work I enjoy having a commute. It sounds paradoxical but riding a motorcycle, working at night mine is a commute unlike the ones that city commuters on day shift Up North face. Slow traffic is a chance to practice the fine art of passing, or if that's not possible I can sit back and look at the waters rolling by, sparkling in sunlight, ruffled by the wind, reflecting pewter under hard gray skies. The black ribbon of the highway winds through the water, not over it, skirting mangroves, clinging to rocks and dirt, the soil that forms the foundation of the roadway. Highway One should get boring to ride, but not so far. It never gets icy, there are no animals crossing this stretch, no pedestrians, a separate bike path keeps bicycles away thus the road belongs to infernal combustion, unimpeded.
I can see the pleasure of life in Key West, and one day perhaps there will be time (and money) to reverse the journey and find myself riding away from my home in the city to enjoy the wilderness of the Lower Keys. That may be for later. For now the ride suspends my life, my cell phone out of reach and inaudible, my obligations at home or at work are my destination, they do not impact me during the journey. This half hour belongs to me and at this hour the road is mine. The bridges are mine. The night belongs to me and my single headlight.
People tell us motorcycles are dangerous but last week a young man drove himself to death on the Seven Mile Bridge and he was driving a car. Danger is everywhere. Bad decisions, inattention, not listening to the inner voice of good sense and reason. I have recorded a number of podcast interviews and I hear that advice in many forms from all the smart travelers. It's the advice I give myself on my modest repetitive journeys up and down the Keys. When I get home safe and sound in the dark I am grateful to the machinery that got me there, grateful that I work these odd unsociable hours, that I get to see this place as few do.
Every trip is a journey, and though I have but one road to ride it's still a trip worth riding.
And here it never snows. I nearly forgot that important detail. I hate being cold, cold is an adventure too far for me; being cold is decidedly unsafe for me.