Friday, December 28, 2012

Key West A Long Time Ago

DECEMBER 28, 2012

Well, it's a very chilly this morning here in Central Florida.  A cold front has come through and given us unseasonable temperatures for a couple of days.  Since we don't feel like braving the upper 30's to go on a "Breakfast Ride" I've decided to put up a new post.
     Due to circumstances beyond our control we haven't been able to get out on our Key West Run that I mentioned in an earlier post.  Things don't always work out the way we want, but hopefully there will always be "Next Time".  For us, our "Next Time" will most likely be a New Years Eve run to Jacksonville so we can celebrate the New Year with our old riding buddies Mel and Lou.  For now we will just make sure the Wing is ready to roll.
Since I talked about a Key West Run this month and didn't get to make it I've decided to post Chapter Three from our book Winging It, which was our first big ride and it was to Key West.  It was a few years ago, but we both decided that if we'd been able to go on the ride this year, things wouldn't be much different, most likely more and better pictures if anything.  If you've read Winging It, this will look familiar, if you haven't then this might peak your interest to find out what else is in that book.  So here it is for your reading enjoyment.
We will tell you all about the New Years Eve trip to Jacksonville, up through the Ocala National Forest on the next post.  Until then: From Us to all, hope you had a very Merry Christmas and will have Happy New Year.

It's the twenty-seventh of December, and I'd been working in our orange groves most of the day. Marguerite was putting the house back together after our big family day on Christmas. Marguerite hugged me when I came in the door. I told her I had to confess. Although I had not forgotten our twenty-third wedding anniversary, I had failed to make any plans for the evening. She gave me that smile I love and said, “That’s okay, I didn’t make any plans either.” I asked, “What would you like to do?” She thought for a moment and said, “We have a Goldwing. Key West is about 400 miles away.” I looked at her, “You want to go to the Keys on the Wing? Now?” She replied, “Why not?” I said, “Okay. Let’s do it.”
I opened the double doors to our living room and pushed the Wing outside. I looked it over quickly to make sure the helmets and other necessary items were there and headed back into the house to pack a few things. As I entered the living room, I met Marguerite. She had her Goldwing bag in hand, her jeans and boots on, and she was ready to ride. She told me to get with it because we were “burning daylight.”
 I threw some things into my Goldwing bag, left a note for Rob, checked to make sure I had money, and locked the house. We hadn’t fully equipped ourselves for long rides, but we each had a heavy jacket – old flight jackets. We didn’t have rain gear, but the weather didn’t look like it would be a problem. This time of year it’s nice. I guess that’s why all the tourists come. Temperatures were mid-seventies daytime and mid-fifties at night. We had a cover for the Wing and didn’t think we needed much else. We packed our jackets in the trunk compartment and our clothing bags went into the saddlebags. We both had on jeans, boots, long sleeve shirts, gloves, and helmets. Mounted up and headed out.

                                             Leaving for Key West, December 27, 1988

     We decided to take Highway 27 South as far as we could go, and then weave our way through the Homestead area until we could pick up Highway 1 at the top of the Keys, in Key Largo. From there it would be one hundred miles to Key West. We left the house at exactly four o’clock in the afternoon. I had no idea how far we would get today. Traffic wasn’t bad on Highway 27, a surprise because with all the tourists this time of year. The ride was great, temperature just right, and we were making good time until we got to Haines City. We found all the tourist traffic it just took a little longer than expected. Traffic came to a complete stop. We could hear truckers complaining about the situation on the CB, but never knew exactly what had caused the back up. I was getting an advanced workout in stop and start, slow-speed maneuvering, and was beginning to worry about the Wing getting hot, not to mention the wear and tear on the clutch. There was no way out of this mess, so we just gritted our teeth and hung with it. It was getting a little too warm. Marguerite and I were both working up a sweat. It took an hour to get through the traffic jam. When we finally got to the south side of Haines City, we managed to get back up to highway speed. The traffic was
starting to thin out. That was a welcome relief. The traffic was starting to thin out. That was a welcome relief. The bad news was we were rapidly losing daylight. I hadn’t given myself FAM 1 for night riding yet, and wasn’t anxious to push too far. FAM is an aviator expression used in training. The training syllabus for a pilot new to an aircraft is broken into different types of flights. FAM being Familiarization flights with the aircraft. Once the FAM stage was completed the pilot would move onto more advanced stages such as aerobatics, combat tactics, bombing, etc. Coming into Sebring, Marguerite spotted a Holiday Inn on the right-hand side of the road. We both agreed this was a good place to stop. At this point, I was getting quite fatigued and was more than ready to quit.
 I parked in front of the motel. Marguerite went inside to make the necessary arrangements. This time of year, space might be a little scarce. After about a ten minute wait, she came out waving a room key. I felt a sign of relief. We rode around the motel until we spotted our room number. The room was on the second deck, but we didn’t care. We parked the Wing and carried our stuff up to the room. I went back down to cover the Wing and bed it down for the night.
When I got back to the room, Marguerite was waiting for me with a bottle of champagne already iced down. She had hidden it away in the trunk compartment. We let it chill while we showered and changed clothes. Then we popped the cork and toasted our anniversary and our first “official” ride. The hotel had an excellent restaurant. That made dinner easy. We had a nice, big, leather booth all to ourselves - a couple more drinks, a lovely dinner, and headed back to the room. I was more fatigued than I would have guessed and feeling no pain. Getting to sleep that night was not a problem for either of us.
     We awoke around seven o’clock in the morning. We hadn’t bothered to set an alarm. I don’t think either one of us was too concerned about time. We dressed, packed, had a cup of coffee, and were ready to hit the road by eight o’clock. Neither of us was hungry. We thought we would ride until we got hungry, and then grab fuel and food at the same time. As we came into Lake Placid, we were both hungry. Marguerite spotted a “mom and pop” restaurant with a gas station next door, and declared it the perfect stop. It was a good idea, because from here on there wouldn’t be much in the way of amenities.
Highway 27 runs pretty much down the center of Florida, with plenty of towns along the way. However, once you leave Lake Placid or Clewiston, you had best not be hungry or need gas because from there to Holmstead it’s all cane fields and swamp. After breakfast, we continued south.
A few miles south of town, traffic was non- existent except for cane wagons and other farm vehicles. Hunks of sugar cane lying on the road are cause for worry. If you hit one on the wrong angle, it gave the Wing a good jerk. If you were able to hit it at a ninety-degree angle, it was much safer. We stayed south on 27 until we could get off on Highway 997, which is a straight shot to Homestead. Highway 27 turns a little east here and runs toward Hialeah and Miami. I wanted no part of getting anywhere near Miami at this point of my riding career, and certainly not between Christmas and New Years. On Highway 997, we eased into Homestead and then Florida City, picking up US 1 into Key Largo. US 1 is a two-lane road and traffic is heavy.
     We took a butt break in Key Largo, bought some gas, and a cold drink. The Florida Keys are a magical place. US 1 is marked every mile, from Key Largo to Key West. Mile marker 100 is in Key Largo; mile marker zero is in Key West. People refer to places based upon the mile marker they are near. As soon as you pass mile marker 100 heading south, it’s like entering another country, an island nation. In some places, the Keys are so narrow you can see water on both sides of the road. The scenery is interesting and beautiful, but if you’re the guy driving the bike you can only risk an occasional glance. The ride is tedious because the road is narrow. There is a lot of traffic. Most everyone is a tourist looking to have a good time, and maybe not paying as much attention as they should. The speed is slow, thirty-five to forty-five miles per hour. Anything faster would just be plain unsafe. Since it’s the holidays, and it’s also the Florida Keys, Marguerite and I both start thinking accommodations might be a BIG problem. We spot a tourist information center as we are coming into Islamorada Key, and decide to stop and inquire about a room in Key West. When we asked about a room, the travel lady almost burst out laughing. She was kind enough to check anyway, but told us there were no rooms in Key West or Marathon, or Islamorada for that matter. We were concerned but not surprised. “Are you positive?” She replied, “Yes, with one exception.” Our ears perked up. What would that be??? “There is one room at the Holiday Inn La Concha, on Duval Street in downtown Key West. It’s the bridal suite and its two hundred fifty dollars per night. At the moment, it is still available.” There was no time to quibble over money. In unison, Marguerite and I said, “We’ll take it.” The clerk said we had to be there by six o’clock or we would lose the room.
    Having settled the main problem of the trip so far, we set out for Key West. We had about four hours to finish our journey, which seemed like a lot of time. But, with the holiday traffic, anything might happen. The next big town is Marathon. Lots of marinas, fishing boat charters, and other touristy things. Leaving Marathon, you must cross Seven Mile Bridge. I’m sure in a car the view is great, but on a motorcycle Seven Mile Bridge is just a real rush. The beauty of the water on both sides of the bridge is postcard quality, and the wind seems to always be there. The fact is Seven Mile Bridge is just one hell of a long bridge. We would have loved to stop and enjoy the view, but with this traffic it was not only very dangerous but also impossible. So, we just enjoyed it while we could and kept going. Next stop was Key West. Marguerite had never been there. I had never been there by road. Up to this point, the whole trip was a new experience for both of us. I had flown into NAS (Naval Air Station) Key West many times, and had remained over night and gone into Key West proper, so I had a vague memory of the town layout.

 Coming to the end of the 7 Mile Bridge

Passing the air station brought back a lot of memories of flying in to Key West. Just a short distance from NAS, you get into Key West proper. The traffic was getting heavier by the mile. The main drag in Key West is Duval Street. We continued on US 1 until we saw Duval, and then made a right turn into the main tourist area. Duval is very narrow. Most of the houses are quite old, designed with lots of ornate wooden trim. It really does look like another country. There is traffic everywhere, and hardly any places to park.We decide to ride all the way down to the bottom of Duval, to where it ends at the water near Mallory Square. There are bars on both sides of the street, people everywhere, and drinking seems to be a very popular pastime in Key West. There is a real party atmosphere. We pass a place called Sloppy Joes, a bar that was Ernest Hemingway’s hangout when he lived here. On the opposite corner is our hotel. The hotel has its own parking lot. It looks full. We ride on down Duval. The crowd seems to get heavier. The mix of foot traffic and vehicles makes for slow and hectic going. There are lots and lots of motorcycles parked everywhere.
     This is obviously a popular destination for the biking crowd. We decide the safest play is to go back to the hotel, park the Wing, check in, and join the crowd in their seemingly favorite pastime. It looks as if no matter where we go, it will be standing room only to get a beer. I sure hope they don’t run out before we get there! Pulling into the hotel parking lot, it is obvious there aren’t any spaces. We make a couple of passes and are trying to decide what to do. We aren’t thinking like motorcycle riders; we are looking for a car space. As we are passing a security guard’s hut, he steps out and motions to us. We pull over. He tells us to park behind his little hut.
Suddenly the light comes on for both of us. We don’t need a parking place. We just need an out of the way place to park. We thank the guard, park, and unload. While we are covering the Wing, the guard comes over and tells us our bike is too pretty to be exposed to the parking lot crowd. He adds, “These people are all drunk and partying hard.” We get the impression he’s exactly correct.

The hotel is very nice, decorated to look tropical. It reminds me of a set from the old movie,
Key Largo. The lobby area and check-in desk are busy, but check-in is moving efficiently.
The clerk tells me we have the last room in the hotel. There are people standing near the desk, hoping for cancellations. A man tries to buy our room from us. Another guy and his wife offer to pay for the room if we would just share it with them. I feel sorry for them, but after a long day on the Wing – something we both are not used to – I am too tired and too stressed out to deal with any more issues today. We decline all offers and go to our room.
     The bridal suite was located on the very top floor of the hotel, beautifully decorated to give it the Key West/Island flavor. We decided we liked it, and for two hundred fifty bucks we were damn sure gonna enjoy it. We took our time with a shower and clothing change. After relaxing for a while to unwind from the ride, we decided to hit Duval Street and join the crowds. The sidewalks were full of people milling up and down. We crossed Duval and entered Sloppy Joe's, our first stop. Besides drinking, the other main pastime in Key West seemed to be bar hopping. The locals and frequent visitors called it “doing the Duval Crawl.” This consisted of going down one side of the street and coming back up the other, stopping at as many bars for a drink as you could, and still making it back to your hotel.
     Our first beer at Sloppy Joe's was difficult to get, but worth the wait. We moved away from the bar and stepped outside to look at the huge collection of motorcycles parked on the side street. Most were Harley’s. They were all pretty and came in all sizes. You could look around the bar and spot the riders. This crowd had settled in for a long stay. We were more interested in completing the Duval Crawl. After one beer, we headed down the street. It was just after sunset. A lot of people were coming back from Mallory Square, the “official sunset viewing spot.” We made a couple more stops, by-passed a few spots, and finally got to the bottom of Duval. We decided to take a right turn and follow the signs to one of the wonderful seafood restaurants right on the water. We selected “Turtle Kraals.” To say it was rustic was putting it mildly. Built right out over the water, with no windows, old wooden floors, and open beams; it was real Key West, and “rustic.”
     The restaurant was very busy, but we got a seat at one of the wooden picnic tables. That’s all they had. If there was room for two at a table you got a seat, and joined those all ready there. Beer came in almost any size container you wanted, up to bucket size. The menu was the paper place mat placed in front of you on the table, when you sat down. The food has the right smell, and everything we saw looked great. We started with a pitcher of beer and some Key West shrimp. We worked around the menu a bit. It was all delicious. After dinner, we headed back up Duval Street to complete the Crawl, but found after eating we had lost our edge for much more drinking. Besides, we had a long ride back tomorrow. So, we opted to go back and enjoy the room. On second look at the room, it was nice but not that nice. Not near nice enough for two hundred fifty dollars a night. The bed wasn’t all that comfortable, but after the day and the beer, sleep came easy for both of us.
     Once again, Marguerite and I woke up around seven o’clock in the morning. We took our time getting up and moving around. After drinking a cup of coffee, we hit the road. It was just a little before eight o’clock. We decided to stop for breakfast along the way. Traffic was much lighter this morning. We were making better time and got to Marathon fairly quickly. We continued on to Islamorada and decided to stop for breakfast at one of the many little places along the way.
     After breakfast, things were a lot slower on the road. The tourists had finally gotten out of bed and started moving. It took forever to get through Key Largo. Coming off the Keys, I missed the turn for Highway 997, to go back through Homestead and on up Highway 27. Neither of us noticed; we were just following the crowd. I knew something was wrong when I saw a road sign out of the corner of my eye that mentioned Miami, but I didn’t notice the mileage.
     The next thing I saw was the Miami skyline. The traffic was picking up in volume and speed by the second. All of a sudden, the road had gone from two lanes to four. Now I’m on an eight-lane road, surrounded by cars and trucks running at seventy plus miles per hour. I had only experienced this type of traffic in a car a couple of times and found it scary. On the Goldwing, it was just plain terrifying. I had no idea what road this was, or where it was going. I just knew we had to get the hell off as soon as I could get the Wing safely in the far right-hand lane. This was not going to be quickly accomplished. The speed kept increasing, and cars were changing lanes with reckless abandon. I am not an overly religious person, but I promised God if he would just let us live through this I would never come back to this place again. I knew we had to get off and head due west. If we could do that, eventually we would run into Highway 27.
     After twenty or thirty terrifying minutes, I see an exit for a county road that heads west. I don’t care how far west it runs. At this point, I just know it will get me off suicide alley and get me heading west. I hit full throttle, make a couple of moves, and make it to the exit lane. At the bottom of the exit is a stop light. Stopping the bike for just a few seconds was a welcome relief. Marguerite and I had both worked up a sweat. The light changed and I made my left turn, heading west.
     The road west was better than what we just left, but not by much. It was a very busy road, with traffic lights as far as the eye could see and bumper-to-bumper traffic. After about the third light, Marguerite said, “There are no signs in English.” I hadn’t noticed and asked, “What do you mean?” She replied, “There have been no signs in English since we got on this road.” I looked around and realized she was right. I also noticed every street corner seemed to have groups of young men standing around. The men all appeared to be Cuban or Hispanic. We decided this was probably not the most exclusive neighborhood in Miami. When we stopped at a light, a couple times the young men would yell things in Spanish and give us hand signals. At first I thought it was all derogatory, but when one yelled in English I realized they were admiring our Goldwing. I don’t think they saw many Wings in this neighborhood. The neighborhood slowly changed to a more suburban setting. Signs started appearing in English. After an hour and a half, we broke free of the city and into the country. Stopping and starting in all that traffic had been just plain old hot, hard work. I saw a road sign indicating it was another fifteen miles to Highway 27. We were heading directly at a setting sun, and I had no idea how this day would play out. It was twilight when we intercepted Highway 27. I made a right-hand turn and finally we were heading north on the correct highway.
     My little error coming off the top of the Keys had cost us the entire afternoon’s travel. We made no miles in the direction of home. Shortly after turning north on 27, there was a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. I started to pass it up, but hit the last entrance. We would be heading into that very sparse part of Florida again. I had no idea how far the next fuel stop would be and didn’t want to make any more goofs today. Besides, we both needed a butt break and a cold drink.
      We were losing daylight and didn’t want to waste time, but we really needed a break. By the time we gassed up and had our break, it was dark. I had never ridden in the dark. Now I had to ride up through the most remote part of our trip, just cane fields on both sides of the road, and those damn pieces of cane that had fallen off the wagons. I was hoping to get to Clewiston and find a motel for the night. In the Corps, we used to joke about night flying. “Only fools and owls fly at night. Do your feet fit a limb?” or “Night operations are characterized by darkness and periods of reduced visibility.” I was a little nervous about the whole thing. I didn’t want to worry Marguerite, but this could turn in to a real bag of crap. We had a long way to go before we reached any level of civilization, there was very little traffic, and any mechanical failure or accident would be serious. I was getting tired, but had to reach civilization for any hope of a room. I kept telling myself to just keep the scan going and stay alert. After a while, everything was okay. The air was cool. Marguerite and I were getting comfortable with the sights and sounds of night riding on the Wing. We kept hearing these little popping sounds. There were things hitting our helmets and leather jackets. I could see swarms of bugs in the headlight, and watched them bounce off the windshield. They weren’t soft and squishy. The bugs were hard. When they hit the back of my gloved hands, it hurt. The swarms would come and go.
     Eventually, Marguerite noticed the dead bugs accumulating on the seat in between us. The bugs were also piling up in between my legs. I was able to take my hand and sweep some of them away. We actually thought if things got any worse, we could just stop and use the Wing cover for shelter and spend the night on the road. When we considered how many mosquitoes would descend on us, we decided to let that idea go. I was getting so tired that I knew there was no way I could ride on to Clewiston. We had to stop at the first reasonable opportunity. The bugs finally eased up after we came to a place called South Bay. The town wasn’t much of anything, just a road junction with Highway 27, a gas station, and well off the road, a small, really junky looking motel. The parking lot was full of pickup trucks with boat trailers attached. South Bay was near Lake Okeechobee.
      Fisherman obviously weren’t too particular about where they stayed. We gassed the Wing and rode over to the motel. The neon sign was partially out. The building looked like it was made out of tar paper. But, in the office window, the sign read “VACANCY”!!! I had no expectations for this place, other than shelter for the night. I knew it would be bad when I could smell the curry before I even got off the Wing. We had to ring the night bell and arouse someone to the office. The Indian gentleman on duty came out of what must have been their living quarters and got us signed up. I actually like curry, but when he opened the door to come into the office, the curry smell was so overwhelming we almost had to walk outside to catch our breath. We were glad to get the key to the room and get the hell out of there. There were no external lights, so it took a while fumbling around in the dark, to find our room. I found a safe place to park the Wing, just outside the window of our room. A guy with a pickup and boat trailer would have a hell of a time running it over there.
     Marguerite opened the door to the room and let out a whimper. It was a dump of the first magnitude. The room was mostly red. It had a red shag carpet that must have been installed in the 60s, a red bedspread that showed some spectacular stains and a red lampshade on a hanging lamp that must have come in with the shag carpet. It was the only light, and had a very dim bulb. This may have been a blessing. If there were any bugs crawling around, it was too dark to see them. The bathroom had a flavor all its own. Most everything dripped; mold on the shower curtain was suitable for penicillin production. The towels were so thin they were almost transparent. The TV screen had more snow than Minnesota. You could make out the people but it was like watching shadows, and there were only three channels. There was no air conditioning, just screened jalousie windows.
     Marguerite gingerly pulled the bedspread back and inspected the sheets; in the dim light, they appeared clean. We looked at each other and said, “What the hell? Let’s make the best of it.” We showered and slid into bed. Marguerite and I were both tired as hell, but sleep only came in short naps. We kept waking up to check and see if the Wing was okay, and to check our surroundings. This room was providing shelter from the night, but neither of us was gonna get much rest.
     The night passed very slowly but we survived. By the time we rallied and got outside, all the fishermen were gone. I never heard them leave. It was only about seven o’clock, so they all must have left early. We were on the road within minutes, glad to be heading north. Clewiston was a welcome sight. We found a nice place for breakfast. Having cleared the worst part of the trip, we both knew from here it would be an easy ride up a four-lane highway to get home. We made one more stop for gas and a barbecue sandwich, and got back to Clermont around four o’clock in the afternoon. The house and driveway was a welcome sight. When we got off the bike, we gave each other a big hug and kiss, laughed, and said, “Boy that was fun.”

No comments:

Post a Comment