Three years ago, I was living in South Florida, preparing to move back to Utah. One of the places I had been dying to see was Key West, so I made time to head down. The first part of my trip was through Miami and full of mishaps. You can read about it here.
The road between the mainland and the Keys is surprisingly boring, an aging two-lane road, marshy, and surrounded by shrubs, oddly indicative of what lays ahead. Everything in the Keys is relaxed, low-key, modest, the exact opposite of Miami. The road provides a fabulous transition from the craze of the city. For 20 miles there are no turn offs, no way out, your only option to continue on to Key Largo. Even in the heavy traffic, I found it calming knowing that I was heading to the islands I’d heard so much about.
The first signs of civilizations are just after the turn into Key Largo. I was excited to finally be in “The Keys” and couldn’t stop singing “Kokomo” in my head. I pulled in to a Citgo for gas, and bathroom break, and couldn’t help but wonder about the life of the girl behind the counter and the regular customers she was chatting with. I bought a drink before I left and did some stretches before hopping back on my bike. It was now 4:30 and I still had a ways to go.
As I drove south on Route 1 I took in as much as I could. I admired all the small businesses and motels along the road. I imagined the vacations that had been taken, and all the exploring that could be done. I took in the absolute beauty of this fragile ecosystem. I looked for tropical birds and was thrilled at the mangrove islands I could see off almost every bridge. As I rode, I also started to look for a places to stay. Not because I was tired, or didn’t want to stay in Key West, but because I really wanted to experience each town I passed through.
As I rode along, looking at the different hotels, I began to notice something. Every single place seemed to have their “no” sign lit. As in the “No vacancy” sign. At first I assumed there was something happening on that particular Key. But after a while it started to become clear, every Key was booked up, and I had made a mistake. The plans for this trip were made last minute; I had trusted I would be able to find accommodations somewhere in Key West. I was in denial desperately trying to convince myself that the Keys closest to the mainland were full because people wanted a quick getaway. And then I remembered. Monday was President’s Day… it was President’s Day Weekend.
Panicked, I pulled off at a Holiday Inn Express in Marathon. I pulled out my phone and looked for lodging in Key West. There were a few options, each over $500 for the night. So I turned my attention to campgrounds, and RV parks. I contemplated turning back, I could still make it home before it was too late. But I was determined, I could find something somewhere. If I got down there early enough I could check the hostel or check into a campground, but it was approaching 7 o’clock and the sun was going down. I was still an hour away and loosing daylight fast.
I jumped on my bike and raced the sunset. I couldn’t believe it had taken this long to ride down. I had been planning on being in Key West for the Sunset Celebration. A tradition in Key West since the early 60’s, people gather in Mallory Square to watch the sunset. There are all kinds of vendors and entertainers, and I was really disappointed I was going miss it. I was only 38 miles from Key West, but still almost an hour away, as I approached the 7 mile bridge I knew I wouldn’t be making to Key West before dark.
The view from the 7 mile bridge was spectacular though, as the sun began to sink below the horizon it outlined the skyline of the all keys that lay ahead of me. I looked longingly at the old 7-mile bridge which runs alongside the new one. It is deteriorating, but oddly aesthetically pleasing, calling you to ponder all the years it has been in place, all the people that have taken this path before you, and wonder about all those that will. I really wished I could pull off and appreciate the sunset, and maybe take some photos, but there was nowhere to stop and I was on a mission.
It soon became dark, and as the sun went down it became a bit cooler, thankfully I was wearing my leather jacket. I reached Key West around 8:30. It was too late to check into the Key West hostel (which I had decided was my best bet), so I parked and re-checked the hotel websites and called a few places to check for cancellations. No such luck. I was starving having not eaten since Miami, so I decided to find food, bars and see what kind of lodging I could acquire. Knowing nothing about Key West, I parked on the corner of Fleming and Duval; based on the crowd it seemed like a good spot. I hopped off my bike and wandered into the streets of Key West.
I was energized by the atmosphere and the people on the street; the nighttime energy of Key West is exactly what you might imagine. There are obvious tourists everywhere laughing and enjoying their vacation. People who have been sipping on cocktails since
11AM (when they woke up) merrily wandering down the streets. Of course there’s also the crazy “college” crowd; at one of the bars there was a 2-story beer bong! It was a wonderful mix of crazy and laid-back island life.I wandered along taking pictures as I went. I needed food, but all I seemed to be able to find was alcohol. I saw a place just off Duval that looked calmer, and thought it may have food, it was called Captain Tony’s Saloon. I went in and was immediately accosted by bras. Bras hanging from the ceiling, and the walls, it was as though the bar was made of them. After a quick assessment I realized that this was not a place I’d find food. I snapped a few photos (all blurry) and found my way back to Duval Street.
I eventually landed at the Hog’s Breath Saloon, it was crowded with a band outside, but less busy inside. I found a seat and plugged in my phone, (my bike charger was inoperable after running over it a few weeks earlier). I poured over the menu, and everything sounded great, but I knew what I was looking for, coconut shrimp. I’m not a fan of most seafood, but when I’m on the coast, I get cravings for all kinds, but coconut shrimp is my absolute favorite. I then turned to the drink menu, the Hog’s Breath has a list of signature cocktails that come in a souvenir cup. I ordered a Goombay Smash in a souvenir cup… of course. As I ate I began to relax, and think about what I was going to do for a place to sleep. I spent time hovering over my phone, finding only a few rooms each over $500. I asked the staff for suggestions of other options for me to sleep. I was told to avoid the beach, due to police and questionable characters, but they did offer some quieter off the beaten path locations that I could get some sleep. I decided that I should try to meet some people and crash in their hotel room. Unfortunately after waking up at 5AM, the day long ride, and a now full stomach I was feeling quite tired and not very social. I sat at the Hog’s Breath a little while longer, took a deep breath and braved the streets of Key West.
I walked around stopping in a few shops before returning to my bike to check on my stuff. I dropped off a few things things I had bought before heading south. I had parked in more of a retail section, but could see some other bars down the street. I stopped in Cowboy Bill’s, but didn’t stay long, it was loud and not too crowded. I realized I really wasn’t in a dancing mood. I kept trekking hoping I might find a place that I felt comfortable. I took in the sights of late night Key West (let me tell you, things get weird…). I wasn’t finding anywhere that I really wanted to go into. After walking down Duval for another half hour or so, I was getting really tired, so I decided to return to my bike and find a place to settle for the night.
I got back to my bike geared up and rode around the island looking for quiet place to sleep. I didn’t feel comfortable in the residential areas, it felt too busy. I decided to try a hotel parking lot, and headed to the other side of the island. Everything was under construction and I still felt too exposed. I decided to head over to Stock Key, in my searches I had found a campground and RV park that I thought I might be able to sneak onto. As I crossed the bridge to Stock Key, I thought about bucking up and just riding home. If I chugged a Red Bull I could probably make the 4 hour ride home…. I shook the idea from my head, I hadn’t ridden all this way, to just head home. I made one of the first turn offs in Stock Key, and looked for the campground.
As I got closer, I realized there was no way I was “sneaking” anywhere with my motorcycle. I pulled into the parking lot of a warehouse, it was just off the street, not brightly lit, and they had security cameras. This seemed like the logical choice, but since I didn’t know exactly what was in that warehouse, I was leary of trespassing. I ended up finding a place on the street in front of the “RV” park, between 2 cars, and under a street light. This seemed as good a place as any, and I attempted to get comfortable on my bike. I sat there for at least 15 minutes, no longer the least bit tired, fully aware of every noise around me, and every car that passed. Suddenly the door on the trailer behind me opened, and people came out, to greet some guests walking down the street, I felt awkward and nervous, so I prepared to leave.
The minute I started my bike I could tell something was wrong. I pulled back on the throttle to rev the engine, and headed up the street. Any time I let my bike idle, it would sputter and threaten to shut down. I let out a heavy sigh as I limped my bike to the “Tom Thumb” conveneince store at the top of the street. I pulled in, cut the engine, and began rummaging around in my saddle bag for my heat seal. I had been running my bike on a patched spark plug boot. About a month prior, the boot had cracked and the gap caused the plug to spark out and the bike to shut down when idling. I had attempted to replace the part, but it was apparently on backorder. I had wanted to wait for the part before going on any trips, but this trip was really a now or never situation.
I located the small black tube, and (since the engine was hot) gingerly pulled the boot out. I applied the fix, knowing that I was now immobile for at least the next few hours while the putty dried. I decided it wouldn’t be terrible to get some rest here so I walked the bike to a parking spot on the side of the building, trying to stay out of the view of any store employees. I hung my helmet on the sissy bar, positioned my dagger in my jacket for easy access, and put my head down on my tank and closed my eyes.
I must have laid there for 45 minutes, but sleep wouldn’t come. It was cold, even with my jacket on, i regretted not bringing a hoodie, or other layers. Every noise echoed in my brain, like a bird, every noise made me startle and look for the source to make sure I wasn’t in danger. I tried to block them out, eventually growing used to the sound of the occasional car driving by, but still couldn’t relax enough to sleep. There was a man who kept walking by, every 10-15 minutes I would hear his feet shuffling along, and I would lift my head enought to make it obvious that I was awake and aware of his presence. Every time he walked by he got a little bit closer to me. After about the 7th time, I fully sat up. I was cranky, annoyed that he KEPT walking by and seemed to need to get closer to me everytime.
“I can’t believe the police haven’t come talk to you yet…” he said in a gruff voice.
“Why?” I inquired confused and even more annoyed that he now felt the need to start a conversation with me.
He continued to explain that if was him laying there, the authorities would have already come by and asked him to leave. I responded politely, acting equally perplexed at this fact (not mentioning that it was probably because I didn’t look homeless). He ended up being very nice and rather interesting. We talked for about another hour; it was now a little after 3AM. I had told him of my plight, of not having anywhere to sleep, trying to find somewhere quiet, and safe. He told me the next street over was pretty quiet, a bit darker, and that I likely wouldn’t be bothered. I thanked him, plugged the boot back in, geared up and rode off.
I rode to the next street over and headed toward the end of the block. The man had been right, the street was quiet and had fewer street lights .I still felt somewhat safe since I was only a block from a fire station. I pulled off the road and turned off my bike. As the sound of my engine died, all I could hear was the sound of the dog at the end of the street. It was smaller dog, schnauzer size; it was jumping at the gate, and incessantly barking at me. Nervous I would be discovered if the dog didn’t stop, I tried to make myself blend into my bike. I leaned down onto the tank, with all my gear on (helmet included), not wanting to make any extra movements. I lay there for a very long time and the dog kept barking. I considered riding off, but since this seemed to be the best sleeping spot I was going to find, I wanted to wait him out. I lay there, finally somewhat warm, and immune to most outside noise (save for the dog) thanks to my helmet, and before the dog stopped, I fell asleep.
Continue on here