I was a teenager and visiting a friend in Rome when she lent me a copy of National geographic magazine, a publication filled with glossy photographs and uncomplicated prose extolling the beauty of the world around us. You could only get a subscription by recommendation of another member of the National Geographic Society and she nominated me for membership. The idea grew in my head to visit the US as I started to receive and devour my own magazines.
I knew of an English language arts movie house in Rome and I happened upon a showing of Easy Rider, a movie that fueled my ambitions. I was going to ride a Harley across the US, though I was planning to fund the ride from my savings not by dealing cocaine. I also shelved plans to be murdered on my trip in imitation of the movie...I ended up making the trip, not on a Harley Davidson which had a terrible reputation for reliability in 1980, but on a modest Vespa which by chance was promoted as the ideal long distance ride by an Italian journalist who made his name riding a Vespa to Tokyo in 1964.
I rode south from New York city where I landed the day they shot the pope in Rome, the city I had just left. I arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed and negotiated my multiple entry visa terms with an older cheerful Immigration officer. "How long do you want?" he asked "How long will you give?" I parried. "I asked first," he said smiling. "A year?" I was tentative and he gave me six months. Plenty of time for what I had to do, which was ride to San Francisco from New York via Mexico which was on my list of interesting countries to visit.
It was, as I recall one of the wetter Springs on record, endless days of rain that washed out the Shenandoah Valley but the sun came out in the south and I was soon riding in decent weather confounded by the differences so marked in the New World. Turning right on the red felt very alien to me, as much as it annoys me now when I drive in Europe and I am hamstrung at red traffic lights.
National Geographic showed a ferry running from Key West to Cancun and my plan in those pre-Internet days was to not skip New Orleans and then back track from the Crescent City around the Gulf Coast to Key West, board the ferry and ride up through Mexico back to the US. My first night in the Keys was at Long Key State Park sitting at a picnic table writing up my travel notes when a blonde sidled up and started asking about my spending habits.
We laugh about that encounter today but Denise was always curious about foreigners and travelers and me and a Vespa were bound to be roped in as she made summer money doing a tourist survey for her college course. She invited me back to her home in Delray beach after I was done with the Keys. It was not enough to put me off the ferry but of course I agreed (in principle).
I rode to Mallory Square and asked about the ferry to Mexico. My question was greeted with guffaws and seeing my long face a beer in a brown paper bag was pressed into my hand. As usual no one was ready to believe I had ridden a Vespa from New York, but there I was and there was Key West.
It was a nice enough town but it was a long way from anywhere and after years spent living in an idyllic isolated mountain village in Italy I was ready for the bright lights of a more cosmopolitan America. Key West in 1981 really was isolated. The road took five hours as I recall to ride to Homestead on narrow bridges and a highway that was nothing like the modern high speed road. It was picturesque but the outside world was far away.
I went back to mainland Florida for more road adventures. I found them too, weaving a path through Texas and down to Guadalajara and back to the Grand Canyon before touring California within my allotted six months. The n I flew to Japan, took a boat to the USSR and from there took a series of trains to West Berlin. The woman I met in California was waiting in Florence which made the homecoming much less of a let down.
It was Valentine's Day in 2000 when we landed back in Key West, the latest arrival in a series of visits we had made since we got married six years before. This time we were toying with the idea of settling down as we had found the tropical heat of our journey much to our liking. Layne's arthritis had been much less painful in the heat compared to the cold damp climate of the California Coast.
We arrived from a long slow wet trip from Mexico and anchored at dusk west of Wisteria Island. I took the dogs ashore for a run on dry land which they appreciated which was how we came across a campfire burning on the beach. The guy tending the fire asked if we had just arrived and I allowed as how we had. He had no curiosity and I offered no details but he handed me a beer to celebrate my arrival, the planting of my anchor, as though he knew the pleasure of rest after a spell at sea. It was silent and companionable and I felt good.
A few weeks later a friend of mine confided in me that he was surprised we settled in so quickly. Usually, he said people arrive and talk about getting jobs but you settled down right away. We make a plan only when we intend to follow through and we did.
I had never and did not plan to ever sit still for a couple of decades but Key West sucked me in. Most people come for vacation and we came to earn pensions, and Layne was quite clear about that.
My life in Key West has been rich with experiences and friendships and learning curves some far too steep for my liking. I learned to love and respect statistics here, and I went back to school to learn. I've never had a drink at Sloppy Joe's or Ricks's and don't plan to, though Captain Tony's I have enjoyed a couple of times. My Key West is a humble thing but it is mine own, mangroves, watery landscapes, mosquitoes and the perils of back country walks getting lost and enjoying it.
It has not been a conventional vacation in Paradise but it has been great fun. This time next year I hope we shall be in Montana, passing through.