Return to the Mainland
"You Better Be Gone Before Daylight"
We take our stern yet ultimately accommodating park ranger's one condition to our camping spot not to mean that we gotta be out of the park before daylight, but that we need to be out of the campsite. We do just that, and head back for the park's beach to watch the sunrise. We nibble on fruit and granola and watch shore birds enjoy their own breakfast of morsels in the sea grass.
Coming to Long Key was a good idea, you know? It's quiet here, and the water even twinkles a little in the new day's sunlight. Some of the best moments of this trip have been sitting and looking out over the water. That laid back, island time vibe the keys are so well known for is starting to have an effect on us. Or maybe we're starting to get tired from riding our bikes every day. Maybe we're not so inclined to get up because we got bit by spiders last night while cooking dinner on a bathroom floor... Which is just the kind of worrisome thought that gets us moving. There's still TONS of Florida Keys left to see. After all, there's still the ever popular Key Largo.
Each key kinda has its own personality. Some of amazing swaths of nature, others are slowly decaying strip malls, and some are island resorts. Isla Morada's style? Tourist traps
It's a rush to see who can grab motorists' attention faster. Maybe it's because Isla Morada is the northern most key on the Overseas Highway. When you're a key right next to Key Largo, and folks come passing through with all that vacation money, you do whatever it takes to get them to stop. That's what is so great about not having any money and riding a bike. The tourist traps, they do nothing. We ride on past every decorated shop, every neon restaurant, proving you can be broke and pretentious at the same time. But there's one weakness we can't overcome: plants. You give us a state park, a wilderness area, a refuge, and we'll make it rain on ya. So it was, on Islamorada, when we came across Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park.
Once a quarry for that dang Florida East Coast Railway, then later the source of Keystone (decorative slices of rock embedded with fossils), the park's thirty six acres were spared from a third wave of development- condos- in the 80s. What's been preserved since then is an amazing hardwood hammock including the highest geographical point of the Florida Keys: a slight incline that peaks eighteen whole feet above sea level.
When you arrive at Windley Key, they give you a book with all the plant species you'll come across along their short trails. It's an insanely endearing touch. It seriously makes our brief hike better. We debate stealing this book, but you know this little park has no budget to speak of to buy a new binger and print everything out again.
Native to tropical Florida, and will seriously wreck your skin if you touch it. The beautiful tree with its red, peeling bark and glossy green leaves is literally poison wood.
If You Love The Florida East Coast Railroad So Much Why Don't You Marry It
We make one last stop in Key Largo at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Apparently the upper keys are into giving their state parks really long names? Much of the park is really best scene by kayak, but the coral reef beach lets us cool off, watch some birds, and catch up on some reading. At the end of a tiny trail next to the beach, we come across the Shaw Grove. Lime, mango, and papaya trees grow here, the grove a result of three pioneers whoplanted dynamite in the coral, blew it up, and then planted trees in what remained.
Pioneers were pretty insane I guess.
What's This Now?
MAJOR MANATEE ALERT
On my last day in the Florida Keys, a manatee (and a dozen of sunburnt tourists) swam up to my feet. It's like I was getting a going away present. The calf hung out for a few minutes, chompin' on grass underwater before gracefully departing. Since clearly nothing cooler would happen here, we headed out as well.
Suddenly we're off the island. The keys are now all behind us. Highway 1 has a generous shoulder, and it takes us all the way to a ratty, little campground halfway between Key Largo and Florida City. It's the only option for a place to sleep, residing behind a salt water channel and endless acres of mangroves. "Where else are you gonna go?"
There's lawn furniture everywhere, including our tiny, gravel camping spot. Surrounded by RVs that look like they haven't moved in years and years, we make friends with the only other group not in their 50s. Our neighbors, a band of college kids on spring break and making their way down into the keys. They seem pretty chill, perfect considering the current chill level of our tour, and we enjoy a peaceful, quiet dinner then head to the dock to watch fish swim in the illuminated water.