The Florida Keys

Day 3: Saturday May 7, 2022 — Florida City to Marathon (~85 miles, but not all on the bike)

I woke up early.  I didn’t get a lot of sleep, but it wasn’t the Super 8 motel’s fault.  Now that I could feel all parts of my body, it was time to worry about something else.  The first part of the ride this morning was 20-plus miles along “Card Sound Road.”  The name didn’t sound too bad, but the East Coast Greenway had two warning signs on this road and didn’t have any warning signs for other parts of the trip that I already found dangerous, like going around the Fort Lauderdale Airport.

Card Sound Road is a 55 mph toll road with no shoulders through scrub land.  Reading about this stretch online (https://floridabicycle.org/fbalibrary/stories/sfodyssey2.html) told me that parts of the road were inhabited by crocodiles and alligators.  The online writer who described Card Sound Road said “while cycling along Card Sound, particularly east of the toll bridge, if you see what appears to be a big green couch thrown onto the side of the road, look again. If it has teeth and a tail, it is probably a mean and green biting machine.”

If one of these prehistoric beasts comes after you, the goal is to just sprint since crocs and gators can go 30 mph.  I thought gators eating people was silly until I looked up the facts.  Florida has about seven people a year killed by alligators and crocodiles.  On the positive side, these animals only run in a straight line so if I could zig and zag at high speed I could shake a gator chasing me as long as no cars or trucks were trying to run me down.

Even if the odds were in my favor, I was not enthused about doing a boring stretch of road where death was my companion.  Oh, yes, did I mention it also had a 65 foot tall toll bridge at the end?  Tall bridges are not a problem in a car but on a bike they are difficult to navigate if there is a wind, which was strong from the time I woke up, and no shoulder to ride along.  One wrong move and over the side of the bridge the bicyclist goes.

The online article that scared me about the crocs and the bridge also mentioned that there was a bus which avoided this stretch of the road.  While munching on the motel’s breakfast I looked up the bus.  There was one leaving for the Keys in about 40 minutes and it started about a mile away.  I hastily finished my meal, ran back to the room and got things ready for the day’s ride.

The bus that went to the Keys from Florida City was the number 310.  It left from the main bus station at 9 am.  It wasn’t that hard to find the bus, since at that time of the morning there were only three buses at the station.  The bus was a fancy long distance motor coach, with plush seats.  The problem was that the driver only spoke Spanish and I was a moron.  I kept asking him if this bus was going to Key West, which was my final destination.  I was supposed to ask him if he was going to Key Largo, which was where I really wanted to go.

We finally got it straightened away and he stored my bike in the luggage compartment under the bus.  Then I asked him how much.  That he knew in English.  It was $2.65.  I was shocked at how low the price was and the driver smiled and said “Okay to pay more” with a big grin.

At 9 am the bus pulled out and I held my breath.  For the next 15 minutes we drove slowly through Florida City picking up people until there was almost no room to breathe.  It turns out the Keys are an expensive place to live.  The workers for the resorts cannot afford to live there; so many of these workers commute from places like Florida City each day.

The bus took about 30 minutes to cross the scrub land between the mainland and the Keys.  The driver didn’t take Card Sound Road, but instead took Route 1, which runs parallel.  On both sides of Route 1 are large fences, designed to keep the wildlife off the highway.  It was boring, but fast.

As soon as the bus got into the Keys, people started shouting for the bus driver to stop so they could get off and go to work.  The bus driver pulled over around mile marker 108 to let a couple of workers off at a hotel.  I followed them and pulled my bike out from under the bus.  Both the bike and I were safe, no croc or gator marks on either of us.  Plus it still wasn’t even 10 am and I was in the Keys with just 108 miles of pedaling to go!

I was feeling great.  When doing long distance bike rides there are moments of elation when you feel you cheated death.   I even stopped to take a few pictures at mile marker 100, which is an important number for bike riders since that is a century ride.

Then a few minutes later I hit a large bump.  My rear end hit the back of the seat and the screw holding the seat in position gave way.  The seat’s nose tilted up at a 30 degree angle, instead of tilting slightly downward.  I immediately stopped, pulled out my wrenches and readjusted the seat.  I was able to make it about half a mile before the seat’s nose popped up again.  This time I readjusted the seat and cranked as hard as I could on the wrench to ensure the screw didn’t give way.  It gave way within a block.

I could pedal by standing up, but there was no way I could ride a century without sitting on the seat.  I pulled out my phone and found a bike shop a couple of miles down the road.  The shop was called “Key Largo Bike & Adventure Tours.” For those who want the Internet link it is https://keylargobike.com/.  It was just about the limit of what I could pedal without sitting down.  It didn’t help that there was a slippery drawbridge to navigate just before the bike shop, but I made it.

Oh, no, the bike shop was closed.  The lights were off.  No one was inside.  The next shop was more than a dozen miles down the road.  I felt like crying.  The shop had a bench just outside the door.  I sat on the bench and contemplated my next move.  While sitting on the bench I noticed a small hand written sign that said to call the owner, named Patrick, if the shop was closed.

Patrick answered quickly and I told him my problem with the seat.  Patrick sighed and said he was shepherding a cycling group through the Keys and could not come back to the shop.  Then he thought for a moment and said, “There are a lot of bikes locked up outside my shop.  In the middle group there is a bike like yours.  Take the seat off that bike and see if it fits.  If it fits, pedal to Key West and then return the seat on your way back up the Keys.”

It was a brilliant idea!  The seat fit well.  It even seemed more comfortable than the original fancy split racing seat I had been using, but maybe that was because the angle was so much better.  I was able to pedal another dozen miles down the road to the next bike shop, where they were able to fix the original seat so it stayed in position.  I had to carry a heavy seat and post at least a 100 more miles, but now I knew there was a working backup available for the rest of the journey strapped to my pack.

I did this bike trip down the Keys, unsupported and figuring things out myself.  I will make a shameless commercial plug here.  If you want to do it an easier way, call Patrick (telephone 305-896-6995).  He’ll pick you up at the airport, provide you with a bike and even have a support vehicle.  It sounds lovely.  Having done so many unsupported trips, I am not sure how I would feel about this kind of luxury travel, but there is clearly a market and need for his services.

The next few hours were relatively sedate.  The sun was scorching for most of the afternoon, but much of the route was either a bike lane or a separate bridge that kept cyclists, walkers and people fishing away from the cars.  Besides watching people fishing (as a cyclist you must watch out for people casting since they don’t watch out for you) there were interesting mangroves along the side of the road where people were swimming or wading through the roots.

The one scary moment of the afternoon happened just after Craig Key.  There are 42 bridges that connect the Keys to each other.  About half of the bridges have separate companion bridges for bikes.  Half, however, do not.  The bridge crossing form Craig Key to Fiesta Key was tall and fast, with a 55 mph speed limit.  What made it scary was that a strong and gusty cross wind was blowing.  This makes staying in the relatively narrow breakdown lane challenging.  You don’t want to stay too close to the travel lane when a gust comes because moving out a foot will get you hit by a car or truck.  Conversely, you don’t want to stay too close to the bridge’s edge which has a short wall because a strong gust will push you over the bridge’s side.  Fighting to stay in the middle of the breakdown lane with the wind gusting was difficult, but I made it safely to the other side and celebrated with a long drink of water.  Wow, I certainly know how to celebrate.  Then I bought three bottles of Gatorade at the next gas station to replenish my supply.

The last part of the day was biking in Marathon Key.  Marathon is one of the longer islands.  It even had remnants of the original railroad which connected Key West with Miami.  The original railroad bed was made into a long separated bike path, which went through relatively untouched land far from the main road.  It was both pleasant and a bit boring to finish the afternoon’s ride on a long, isolated bike path.

I pulled into to the Siesta Motel, located near the end of the Marathon airport’s runway, while the sun was still high in the sky.  The Siesta Motel was just 7 rooms and looked like it had been built in the 1940s.  I picked it because it was closer to food than other fancier hotels, plus they had rooms.  Today is Saturday night and even in the middle of May getting a room in the Keys during the weekend was difficult and expensive.

How expensive?  My motel room cost $250 for the night.  As a quick comparison my hotel near the Fort Lauderdale airport the first night in a “fancy” hotel cost $180 and my night in hotel that was similar in style to the Siesta Motel at the end of the trip cost only $90.  Nevertheless, after pedaling about 65 miles I was not really interested in the price, but more interested in a shower, food and sleep.

The motel’s shower was fine but the supermarket was 0.9 miles away.  I didn’t have the energy to walk both ways so I called for an Uber and took a ride.  At the market I bought food for breakfast and snacks for the next day’s ride.  Then I walked back to the motel and stopped at Herbie’s Bar & Chowder House for an order of fish tacos and conch chowder.  I sat outside my motel room, ate Herbie’s food and watched the traffic go by as the sun set.  Then it was off to bed to catch up on all the sleep I had missed the night before worrying about the alligators and crocodiles on Card Sound Road and injuring myself.

Day 4: Sunday May 8, 2022 — Marathon to Key West (~50+ miles)

I had booked the first three nights of hotels before leaving Boston.  The Siesta Motel in Marathon was the last place booked.  On long bike trips it is easy to plan out the first couple of days, but planning much beyond that doesn’t make sense since you don’t know ahead of time how long the adventure will take.

I woke up a little after sunrise feeling very good.  I could feel my private parts!  My legs felt good.  The temperature did not seem unreasonable.  I was sure I could make it to Key West in one shot that day.  I was also sure I did not want to pedal back the way I had come.  While the route was mildly interesting, doing it a second time with all the traffic seemed like unnecessary punishment.  I booked a one-way rental with Avis from the Key West airport to the Fort Lauderdale airport starting Tuesday morning.  Then I booked two night in the “Gates Hotel,” which was advertised as a 4-star hotel with a $40 per night extra resort fee.  It sounded nice.  I could imagine being pampered for a few hours in a fancy resort.  Plus, since I was booking for a non-weekend stay the daily room rate at this resort was cheaper than the no-frills Siesta Motel.

I microwaved a macaroni and cheese bowl that came from the supermarket the day before and chatted with my wife before setting off.  She told me that the day’s big challenge was only a few miles away from the motel.  The big challenge for bicyclists is 7-Mile Bridge.  As the name implies it is seven miles long, there is no place to stop and to make things more fun the speed limit on the bridge is 55 mph.

I was concerned about the bridge so I set up the trip so that I crossed it on a Sunday morning, when traffic was typically lighter and fewer tractor trailers were on the road.  The most frustrating part of 7-Mile Bridge is that there is a separate fishing-pedestrian bridge running about 100 yards away for the entire seven miles.  Unfortunately, this other bridge has two large breaks, which unless you have super hero powers makes it impossible to get across forcing me to stay with the cars and trucks.  It is so tantalizing and exasperating to see another nicer bridge so close, yet impossible to use, while pedaling for what seems to be forever on a crappy modern highway.

The wind was much calmer crossing 7-Mile than it had been the afternoon before.  There was even some cloud cover so it was not scorching all the time.  The most maddening part was the debris in the bridge’s breakdown lane.  Debris is always a problem, but on the bridge it presented more of a problem since getting a flat tire meant there was no safe spot to stop and fix it.

I dodged broken bottles, some rebar, boat cushions, and even a beach chair.  There is a lot of junk because many people tow boats in the Keys.  The boats are open and, at 55 mph or faster, items that are not secured come flying off the boats into the roadway when the boat trailers hit bumps.  It took about 35 minutes but I made the crossing without getting a flat tire or having any more bike seat difficulties.

At the end of the bridge I pulled over, took some celebratory pictures and ate some fruit.  While sitting there I glanced up and saw a waterspout, also called a sea tornado.  The waterspout was heading away from me and toward where I had come from on 7-Mile Bridge.  I was worried about many things when preparing for this trip, but the thought that I could be hit on the bridge by a waterspout with no place to shelter was not even considered.  Luckily, I was back on dry land and the spout was heading in the opposite direction, so I was safe and thankful.

The waterspout made me more cognizant of the clouds.  Some were white and fluffy.  Others were dark and menacing.  There wasn’t much I could do about the weather so I hopped on the bike and pedaled off to complete the ride.  About an hour later I was on an isolated bike path, just like one I had ridden the day before in Marathon.  The path was smooth, clean and quiet when I felt a rain drop hit my face.  The clouds overhead did not look particularly threatening so I kept going.

Then another drop hit, followed by a quick barrage of water.  It was like someone suddenly turned on a garden hose.  It was time to start sprinting for shelter since I was getting soaked.  The bike trail ended about a mile later.  At the end of the trail was a realtor’s office and in front of the office were two carports, which are small tents designed to keep the sun from baking the paint color off a car.

I dove under the first one.  It was big enough to keep the deluge away.  The ground was covered in broken coral.  It was uncomfortable to sit on, but it beat being drowned in the rain.  A few minutes later an older couple came cycling out from the same bike trail and dashed under the second carport for shelter.  The road in front of me started to flood.  I was about 8 inches higher than the roadway.  The roadway at the peak of the storm was covered in 2 to 3 inches of water, which is nothing if you are in a car or truck but a lot if you are pedaling a bike since this is over my rims.

After 30 minutes the rain stopped.  The older couple hopped back on their bikes and pedaled away.  I was unsure.  The road still had a lot of water on it and I was not interested in pedaling across more bridges in slick and wet conditions.  Waiting was a great idea.  A few minutes later the rain came back with a vengeance and the road flooded again.  This next storm only lasted 20 minutes before it stopped.  I gave it ten more minutes to ensure there wasn’t a third storm coming through and pedaled off.  One of the great things about the Keys is that once the rain stopped, things dried off very quickly.  After another ten minutes of pedaling it was almost impossible to see any evidence of the torrential rain.  The road surface was dry and fast, plus the puddles were gone.

The bridge situation the closer I got to Key West became more frustrating.  While the day before had many alternate bridges for bikes open, there were lots of small bridges close to Key West that were closed, forcing me to either cross the highway or sprint against traffic along a bridge to where the bike lane restarted.  It would have been very helpful if the state had spray painted signs on the bike path saying things like “bridge closed ahead” or “cross here.” However, the state of Florida seems to feel a bike path ending in a barbed wire fence was more appropriate.

I crossed the last bridge and made it into Key West in the middle of the afternoon.  My hotel, “The Gates,” was located just yards from that first bridge into Key West.  Mile marker zero was over three miles away so I thought it best to check into the room and drop off my pack.  No sense carrying an extra 15 pounds plus an extra bike seat around town.

I had high expectations for my 4-star resort.  However, the Gates destroyed every one.  It turned out to be a renovated two story motel.  The lobby was being renovated so check-in was at the hotel next door.  The lady at check-in told me that biking in Key West was great and that they had bikes to rent.  I found this funny since when I am on a bike trip the bicycle is with me at all times.  I rarely lock it up.  I had a fancy racing bike leaning against my body, while she was extolling the virtues of renting their beater bikes with big fat cushy seats.

I told her that I was more interested in eating than biking.  It turned out the Gates Hotel had two highly rated food trucks, instead of a restaurant.  Unfortunately, both food trucks were closed on Sundays and Mondays.  I have never heard of a 4-star resort without a real restaurant.

The closest place to eat that didn’t need reservations was at a boat marina back over the bridge, the way I had just come.  The place was called “Hurricane Hole.”  It fit the bill for what I was looking for.  It had a lot of local seafood on the menu.  Plus, it was completely outside, which helped prevent me from catching Covid.  Most importantly, at 4 pm in the afternoon, it was open and serving food.  Many other places were not open until 5:30 pm.  I needed food, since I had only eaten some fruit after 7-Mile Bridge and more fruit while waiting for the rain to subside.

At the marina I ordered conch fritters, a cheese Quesadilla and a piece of key lime pie.  The conch fritters didn’t have much taste.  I guess conch is relatively bland.  The Quesadilla was quite good, which made sense since the chef spoke fluent Spanish to the waiters.  The key lime pie was okay, but nothing special.  I remember thinking “I biked 200 miles for this?”  Whatever, the taste, the food had energy.  The view sitting on the dock and watching birds fly by while boats came in and out of the marina was beautiful.  I walked back to the motel determined to finish the trip but the bed was comfortable, the room was cool and I was tired, so finishing the trip got pushed off and a nap became the next order of business.

I woke up in time to take some photos of sunset in Key West.  I also wanted to walk around the neighborhood a bit to figure out what was available.  There wasn’t much besides a gas station convenience store and a McDonald’s hamburger restaurant.  I went back to the motel and spent the rest of the evening answering emails, primarily from Boston University students with end of the year questions.

Day 5: Monday May 9, 2022 — Key West (~12 miles)

The Gates Hotel might not be a 4-star resort but the room was quiet and the bed was comfortable so I got a good night sleep.  I woke up early and walked over to McDonalds, which was the closest place that served breakfast.  It wasn’t great food, but something is better than nothing.

I then pedaled the last few miles to the southern tip of Key West.  I expected the ride to be short and pleasant.  Well, it turned out to be short.  Drivers in Key West, especially in New Town, didn’t seem to care at all about bicyclists.  It was clear I was viewed as a nuisance even though most of the roads I was pedaling on were labeled official “bike lanes.”

I made it without getting clipped or run over to the “Southern Most Marker.”  I heard there was likely a line and sure enough even around 8 am, there were people lined up to take pictures.  I was prepared and lugged a selfie-stick that weighed almost one pound the entire 200 miles.

It turns out no one needs a selfie stick there.  Each person in line asked either the person in front of them or behind to take a photo.  The line flowed quickly even though no one was officially organizing it.  The problem with asking strangers to take photos is that the quality differs depending on who is behind the camera.

I went through the line four different times to get the picture I really wanted.  Why so many times?  One time someone accidently took the pictures in movie mode.  This gave me some 2 second long clips.  One time I was making strange faces and squinting into the sun.  It just took a while to get things right.

Once the photos were done it was time to celebrate.  I find it almost impossible to drink alcohol on long distance bike trips.  My body no longer has the ability to pedal for hours at a time and then process alcohol so a celebratory toast was out.  I pedaled down Duval Street, which is one of Key West’s main tourist areas and found a smoothie shop.  My celebration was a large Mango Smoothie, sipped while sitting at a sidewalk cafe table.

The rest of the story getting home is quite boring.  I rented a car at the Key West airport and drove back to Fort Lauderdale.  Pedaling one-way through the Keys was more than enough for me.

 

Economist Biking Around America