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I try and give my road trips a rough outline as to route and schedule, but I also like to leave a good amount of room for alternative plans. Sometimes I just wake up, and realize I'm done with a place. It doesn't feel right, and it's time to move on. When I'm at home I can't indulge in these sorts of impetuous moods, but on the road I can blow with my whims. Tuesday, I woke up and felt antsy. Something was wrong with the atmosphere, a storm was brewing, and I could tell it was time to move. I packed up, said goodbye, bought a few provisions, and headed south for the Florida Keys.
I drove from Miami all the way to Key West without stopping. It was a beautiful drive, all clearing skies, iridescent waves, and island adventure. Have you ever visited a chain of islands and longingly started out as they receded into ever smaller gems? Perhaps it fills you with a strong and unrequited emotion? You want to follow the islands, but lack a boat, and a boat would take too long anyway. If only you could fly in a single, low swoop over them! Right? Well, driving Route 1 that runs the length of the keys, as much bridge as road, is like flying, passing small beach towns, mangrove swamps, and shallow channels in one solid, smooth push of an afternoon drive. That is until suddenly you come up short in Key West at the southern most point in the continental United States, and the sun is setting.
Key West was disappointing, bloated plastic tourist trap, family-friendly yet decadently oozing common vices like alcoholism and consumerism. Neither dangerously exciting, nor comfortably pleasant, downtown Key West was just plain overwhelmingly an average overpriced vacation destination. While scoping the joint, I got lost the back allies of a local neighborhood where chickens and barefooted children ran wild, and my every curious look was met with a hard lean stare. This was not where I was supposed to be. I had heard that there was a monument marking the southern most point, and had come with a mission to gather photographic evidence of my presence there. Finally finding it on the corner of a side street, I waited in a long line of other tourists, the only person there by themselves, and asked a couple to take my picture with the concrete column painted to declare it's location, only 90 miles from Cuba. Then I quickly got back in my car, turned around, and headed back north to find a Key that better suited me.
I had decided to spend the night camping at Long Key State Park, a secluded looking place on the ocean, but discovered that gates where shut and locked at sunset. There was no way to come in late and pay in the morning as I usually did at public campgrounds. By that time it was dark, and I knew any motel would be expensive, so I just pulled off the side of the road, and decided to spend the night in my car instead. I rolled down my windows, dug out some potato salad, broke open a bottle of cheap white wine, and had a small summer feast by my estimation. Happily stuffed and alone, I curled up in the backseat and fell asleep. Around 3am I woke up covered in bug bites to a bone rattling crash of thunder. The atmosphere was oppressive, lighting crackled across the horizon, and a sickly wind was blowing a briny stench into my sweat-soaked pores. Groggily watching the storm advance, I hung my head out the window and felt wretchedly at the whims of the natural world. With all my windows down, I took a short drive to try and get the bugs out. It never rained, just threatened to, menacingly hanging heavy and low, but never giving relief. Moist and itchy, I tried to go back to sleep, but it was fitful and tiresome.
Around 5am I gave up, decided to try and find some breakfast, and ended up at a local diner complete with friendly middle-aged waitresses, a menu saturated in fat, and coffee blacker than tar. Just what I needed. Slowly ate a huge meal, made use of their bathroom, and got better. Asked directions to a local beach ocean-side, and went out to catch the sunrise. No luck. Thick, flat, grey clouds had swallowed up the sky. In the dim light, I sat on a coral beach, the crushed bones of a million salt water microorganisms, above a strip of trash marking the high tide line, and wrote postcards to friends. The whole scene was kind of bringing me down. Tired and wrecked with indecision, I got back in my car and started to wander north, desperate for a shower, and vainly hoping for the Keys to redeem themselves.
I went back to the state park, paid a small entrance fee, and did their nature hike. It was deserted. No normal sane person would want to be out in that weather. I slogged through more bugs and heat, which brought me down so much I could barely appreciate the hundreds of hermit crabs and tiny lizards that scurried across the path. Plus, compared to nearby Everglades National Park, the scenery was beat. In shear desperation I changed into my swimsuit, showered in an outside rinse station, laid a towel over the driver seat, and started driving north soaking wet, half-naked, and slightly crazed. I just wanted to be happy and sit on a beach with my toes in the water while I read a book. Was that really asking so much?! I decided to see if the weather was better in Pensacola and try my luck there.
My car, Sal, was starting to hurt for an oil change and tire rotation. I knew that it would need to happen by about halfway to Pensacola, and I also probably wouldn't be able to get much further than that before I collapsed from exhaustion. All through the suburbs of southeastern Florida I searched for an open Toyota service center, but to no avail. I finally had to give up, and head inland, planning to spend the night north of Orlando and find a shop locally in the morning. Cutting across the state on backroads, I came to realize that I was in fact actually in the deep south. There were expansive miles of pasture lands, cows, anti-abortion billboards, tropical fruit plantations, evangelical churches, and rusty pickup trucks that made up the forgotten parts of the state in between sprawling tendrils of modern development. The weather began to clear up in towering columns of fluffy clouds that looked like cotton candy as the sunset around the exit for Disney World. Along the highway from Orlando to Gainesville, I found a sweet deal on a motel room and stopped for the night. Basking in air conditioning, free internet, a real bathroom, and a respite from the mosquitoes, I felt as if every penny had been well spent.