Thursday, February 2, 2012

February 1, 2012--Margaritaville

Key West Street Scene

Cheeseburger in paradise (paradise)
Heaven on earth with an onion slice (paradise)
Not too particular not too precise (paradise)
I'm just a cheeseburger in paradise.
-- Jimmy Buffett

You can hear Jimmy Buffett sing Cheeseburger in Paradise on youtube here.

Monday evening, as Kevin and I strolled around the neighborhood of our Island House home, we met Miss Yolanda who offered us discount tour tickets should we want to see the town, visit the Everglades, or go just about anywhere else in southern Florida. Now anyone who knows me knows that I've not been a great fan of the Sunshine State. Went to a conference in Daytona Beach several years ago, taking advantage of some extra time in the schedule to drive through Orlando and over to the Tampa Bay area. The state is flat. It has NO mountains, and the drivers are crazy. Plus there are just too many people. That said, one place has always intrigued me, Key West. The southernmost town in the continental US, mile post zero on US Highway 1, erstwhile home to Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Jimmy Buffett. Before we left Missoula, Kevin asked if there was anything I wanted to do while in Miami, and I said that I wanted to go to Key West. Well Miss Yolanda had a discount ticket for a tour bus that would take me there, and on Tuesday I bought one. Kevin had meetings scheduled from 8 am till 8:30 pm, so what better time for me to be gone for a day.

Wednesday morning a large white bus pulled up in front of the Island House at 7:00 a.m. and I boarded, taking a seat in the fifth row. There weren't a lot of people on board and I thought we'd have a nice, comfortable, relatively quiet ride. Mapquest had warned me that it's a three and a half hour drive from Miami Beach to Key West, the last hundred miles of which crosses over forty bridges between Key Largo and Key West. The bus driver told us it would be a four hour trip, then we'd have five hours to enjoy the town, and we'd leave to return home around 6 pm. OK, four hours on the road leaving at 6, hmm. That would mean getting back around 10, a bit later than I had planned, but damn it all, I was going to finally see Key West.

Of course we first had to get out of Miami Beach. After picking me up, the bus continued down Collins Avenue, stopping on just about every block to pick up passengers. Turning off Collins, we stopped at the Youth Hostel and waited, and waited.....and waited. Finally three young men got on, and we set off, leaving Miami Beach. Only to stop in Miami proper where we waited for the arrival of a smaller bus which unloaded its passengers who then joined us. We were no longer a small, intimate group, but a fully packed tour bus of people speaking a polyglot of languages. The driver made a final announcement. No coffee or tea allowed on board, soft drinks or water were ok, but no hot beverages, and yes, there was a rest room at the back of the bus which was for number one only. No number two. He repeated this message in Spanish and my California schoolboy Spanish was enough that I could understand that those Spanish speakers on board were forbidden cafe, te and numero dos as well. He then announced in English and Spanish that in an hour we would be passing through Everglades National Park, and in an hour and a half we'd stop for breakfast. By the way, his name was Juan. Of course it was.

Heading south, we drove across a stretch of Everglades which appeared to be a dryland wheat field gone to weeds. Florida has been experiencing a drought, and the normal two to three feet of water covering the Everglades had evaporated in southern Dade County.

Florida City is the last town on this stretch of the North American continent, and soon we were crossing a bridge which led us to the first of the keys, Key Largo. The driver shared a bit of knowledge about the island, then spoke of the 1948 John Huston film starring Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall. Now I'm not sure how many people on the bus understood the driver in the first place, or had a clue about the movie. I had a song lyric going through my head, and it wasn't Bertie Higgins' song Key Largo, but rather the Beach Boys' Kokomo. You know the one, "Key Largo, Montego, Baby why don't we go."

We'd now been on the bus for close to two hours and one passenger was getting irate. "You said we would stop for breakfast in an hour and a half, and it's been much longer than that." Juan told him to sit down, and shortly thereafter we did stop for the Key Largo McDonald's where we found another tour bus already parked. Fortunately, there was a Wynn Dixie just across the parking lot, so I headed over there to get some "real" food.

Approaching Key Largo, the driver had suggested that if we wanted an authentic Key West experience we should take a glass-bottomed boat tour, or even better, a snorkeling tour. Silly me, I thought it sounded good, and since the driver had a special relationship with the operators (which I took to mean he got a kick back), the cost for us would be reduced a bit. I immediately sent text messages to Kevin and Ron asking if I should do it, and both responded "sure, why not." When I told Kevin it would cost $45 for a three hour tour, he reminded about that other tropical three-hour tour, that of the Minnow with Gilligan, the Skipper, the millionaire and his wife, etc.

My favorite shot of the day--the sail, before she's raised

We still had one hundred miles of water and islands to cross, and that gave me plenty of time to second guess myself. I'm sixty-two years old. I've never snorkeled. I've never swum that far out in the ocean. I'm not that strong a swimmer. What have I gotten myself in for? I was half-hoping that by the time we got to Key West, the driver would have forgotten me.

I tried taking pictures through the bus windows, but I'm not happy with any of them. I think that were I driving a car down this particular highway, I'd be stopping quite frequently to aim my camera at some stretch of water, a bridge, or some island architecture. But through a dirty bus window with lots of reflections? Nope, didn't work.

Approximately two hours after leaving Key Largo, we crossed the last bridge and read the sign, "Welcome to Key West." I don't know what I had been expecting, but it wasn't this. We might as well have been driving into a suburb of San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle, albeit with no mountains in the background. The driver explained that this was the "new" Key West and he'd be taking us to the historic district. But before we could cross Duval Street, the snorkelers had to get off the bus. When I didn't move, he looked straight at me and said, "Aren't you going?" Busted. So I climbed down along with two young men who had boarded the bus at the hostel. Well, at least I'm not going to be the only person going.

The bus drove off toward its loading/unloading point, leaving the three of us in the hands of a young woman who led us into a shack where we had to sign our lives away and give up close to $50. (They have a sales tax in Florida, so nothing costs what you're told it will cost. Montanans have a lot of trouble with that.)

A wondrous bird is the pelican

Now here's the thing. I had brought a swim suit to Miami Beach from Missoula. In Miami Beach, I had bought a new suit in a style that I prefer to the long, baggy suit I brought with me. But of course, both suits were in Miami Beach, one hundred sixty miles to the north. First order of business after lightening my wallet at the dive center was to find a new suit. I really like the one I got on Duval Street, but I didn't try it on, and I let my own self-image talk me into a Medium when reality called for a Large. Oh well. Now I had to find something to eat, as we'd been promised all the beer and wine we could handle on board the boat, but nothing was said of food.

There are lots of places to eat in Key West. Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville being just one place. Trip Advisor offers reviews of 245 restaurants on this small island. I found Sloppy Joe's--yes where the Sloppy Joe was invented. The story goes that Papa Hemingway himself gave Joe his nickname. But I was pressed for time (I'd paid my $50 and had been told that the boat would sail at 1:00 p.m., so I was afraid to go into a sit-down place). After circling much of the historic district, I found myself back at the port where I settled for a Pretzel Dog--pretty tasty, actually, and fast. Then it was just a matter of waiting till we were allowed to board the Marquesa, the catamaran owned and operated by Sebago Watersports, the company that was going to take us eight miles out into the Atlantic then throw us in the drink.

We motored out of the port, but once in the open water the crew enlisted some help to raise the sail, and from that point on we were carried by the wind toward the remains of the Sand Key Reef Lighthouse. Approaching the lighthouse, we were told that the reef was a living reef, part of one of the largest in the world, and as a part of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, it was protected within an inch of its life. We were not to touch anything. We were not to stand up. We were not to dive. We were there to float and look. Float and look. Remember now, all we're doing is floating and looking. By the way, did I mention that there was a strong wind blowing and whitecaps showing on the surface of the water. The swells were impressive, if not perfect storm type waves, but enough that I was wondering just how I would be able to keep my snorkel above water. But hey, floating and looking? I can do that. There's a three-year-old child who's going into the water. Surely if he can, I can.

Once the boat was secured to a mooring buoy, the ladder was lowered and one by one we proceeded to enter the ocean. I think I was probably about number ten to go down the ladder, and the water felt good. Our instructor told me to put my mask on and then to put my face into the water, and that's when I started to panic. I had let go of the guide rope, and was bobbing up and down at a pretty good clip. Our instructor had me go back to the guide rope and hold on until I became used to being in the water. Didn't work. I let go again, and moved away from the boat, but the constant up and down was beginning to get to me, and I just couldn't get used to the idea of breathing through the snorkel. Finally deciding that returning to the boat would be a better course than a full-blown panic attack at sea, I gave up and headed in. Note please, I was not the first person out of the water. Second, yes, but not the first. I feel some small triumph in that.

Back on board the Marquesa, I was free to indulge in my favorite activity, pointing my camera at all and sundry. I got some pretty good shots, if I do say so myself, and by the time the captain blew his whistle three times--the signal to return to the boat--all but one diver was already on board. Yes, the three-year-old stayed in the water longer than I did, but he had mommy to cling to. My own mommy never learned how to swim, so that option would not have worked for me. Toward the end of our time at the reef, some folk discarded their snorkeling gear and just swam in the ocean. I wish I had thought of that. I could have had fun out there if I hadn't been worried about the mask and snorkel.

Waiting to raise the sail on the way out

With everyone back on board, we cast loose of the buoy, raised the sail, and headed back to port. I overheard the captain say he'd never known the Marquesa to move as fast as we were going. The boat was rising and falling with the swells, one of the female passengers tried her Leonardo DiCaprio "King of the World" imitation and got soaked by a wave breaking over the bow of the boat. I was sitting front and center and worrying that my camera would get water-logged, but still snapping away.

And the medium sized swim suit? I could barely pull it up over my hips. It fit ok, once I had the waist band somewhere near my waist, but I wasn't sure that I'd be able to get it back off, so I ended up wearing it home. By the time we reached Miami Beach, I was convinced that Kevin would have to cut it off me.

And since I hadn't taken a swim suit with me, what did I bring to Key West? A bookbag, of course, with three different books to read and a journal for my notes. The bookbag ended up getting soaked, as did the books inside it. Back on dry land, we had roughly an hour and a half to kill before our bus would be ready to board, so I walked back past Sloppy Joe's, cross Duval Street, and on toward the big red building where, we were told, our bus would be waiting. No bus, but it was still early, and frankly, there was room for one bus only to load and unload so they must park them somewhere else. Walking around the big red building which, it turns out, was the Custom House and is now home to the Key West Art and Historical Society, I stopped long enough on the docks to gather some more pixels in my camera, then back to the bus stop alongside the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. That complex also housed a small restaurant, so I figured it would be a good idea to eat, in case our bus didn't stop on the way home.

Preparing to raise the sail on the way back in

At five forty-five, another bus arrived, and the driver told us that our bus had a flat tire and wouldn't be available for boarding for another hour. I was ready to get on board, but the good news was that with an extra hour, I could capture the sunset over the harbor. This I did happily, getting some of the best sunset shots I've taken to date. I also got a close-up portrait of a large white bird (some sort of egret or heron, I assume), and in general had a good time.

Our bus appeared close to seven p.m. and we boarded quickly, anxious to be back on the road. The driver apologized for the delay, and promised that we would head straight to Miami with no stop. This would let us make up one half hour of the delay. No one objected too strenuously, so that is, indeed, what we did. All I can say is that four hours in an uncomfortable bus with no stops is not a pleasant way to travel. The one redeeming feature was the friendly folk sitting around me, including the young Parisian gentleman sitting next to me, with whom I tried to converse, only to find that my French is extremely rusty at this point.

And what did I eat in Key West beside the pretzel dog? Well I didn't have a cheeseburger. No sloppy joe either. Not even a margarita. But I did have some of the best key lime pie I've ever tasted, and my main course was a steaming red bowl of conch chowder. I think I'm the better off for that.

As the sun sinks slowly in the west

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