There's No Rush in Paradise
Just look at this.
It's the first thing I see on our second morning in the Keys. Sliding out of my mesh tube slung between some trees my feet touch soft sand, cool from an early morning rain that I have no recollection of. I walk over to the beach bordering our campground just to sit and watch the sun's first rays traipse through the passing storm clouds. Beside me, the hoofed, little beggars sift their noses through all that washed up overnight in the high tide. The crunch from biting into my breakfast apple causes a collective head raising from the key deer, but they return to picking through the debris for snacks of their own. Maybe these are the same ones I denied food last night, and they know there's no charity this direction. The dramatic sunrise is probably, definitely, causing me to over read the situation.
This zoom-in is about the closest point of reference to their size. The fawn was no bigger than the picnic table she stands behind. Adult male key deer, when full grown, do not break four feet in height. They are incredibly adorable thieves.
We're going to Bahia Honda State Park. When we first started thinking about incorporating the Keys into this adventure, this was the first thing that came to mind and was an absolute must.
Bahia Honda is special. It's that place you think of when you think of tropical paradise. It was, by all accounts, a no-nothing, remote island that steamers heading to Cuba and Key West didn't get near enough for anyone to care. That all changed with Henry Flagler's railroad.
So, a little keys history. It's the super late-1800s, and Key West has a lot of money. Like, crazy money, because of all the stuff being found in ancient ship wrecks nearby. Meanwhile, this Flagler guy has been buying up railroads along Florida's east coast, and two hard freezes have destroyed much of Florida's citrus industry being still based in the northern part of the state where freezes happen. But Miami is in the tropical climate, and Flagler gets the idea to extend his railroad down to Miami and start exporting unaffected citrus crops north. He calls this new, longer railroad the Florida East Coast Railway and it makes him filthy, stinking rich. By connecting Miami, he's that much closer to tapping into the wealth of Key West. Ain't that just the thing with these rich, old dudes? They always want more dosh.
Currently, the fastest way to Key West is from the gulf coast of Florida. You know, via one of our previous spots on this tour: Chokoloskee Island. But it'd be another forty of fifty years before that Tamiami Trail gets made, so the everglades are still an impassible mass for transportation tycoons. Ol' Henry looked into building a railroad across them to get to Key West, but it's a real pain in the ass so he gives up on that idea. Meanwhile, Miami is blowing up. Hella steamers are making their way through deepwater to get to Key West via Miami, completely ignoring the other keys in their shallow water in the process. That shallow water, that ensures the very existence of the keys, allows a route for the railroad to be built. It starts in 1905, and in 1912 a modified Chicago Pullman Car pulls into Key West and everyone has an insane party to celebrate. Henry is like 82 at this point, so I'm gonna assume he took it easy that night.
And bam, suddenly folks can get from Miami to Key West for $2.06, but more importantly the other keys, including Bahia Honda, have all kinds of Americans visiting them en masse for the first time. That railroad became the literal foundation for the original oveseas highway. There's all kinds of scandals and greed along the way, but that's like every railroad's story. Oh, right, what happened to the railroad? That great big depression came through, Key West filed for bankruptcy, and a hurricane destroyed part of the railroad in 1938, so that was that for the Florida East Coast Railway. Parts of it remain, of course, and Bahia Honda State Park is host to one of the more intact chunks.
Bahia Honda Bridge
Part of the Florida East Coast Railway, and later the original Overseas Highway.
Also pictures: literal tons of bird poop.
THE ABOVE PICTURE IS OBVIOUSLY PHOTOSHOPPED.
The early morning storm continues north in front of us, so we decide we're just gonna hang out at Bahia Honda as long as we can. All that train info is cool, but long before people ever thought to come here, migratory birds were having absolutely amazing spring breaks on this island. Despite the places we've been in the past five days, this is unabashedly the tropical paradise Florida advertises. We spend the rest of the morning combing the beach.
Today we're really able to soak it all in. It's our chillest day of the chillest tour ever, with only 34 miles to our next potential campsite. Talking to a ranger, he asks us if we stayed in the kayak/bike campsite. "There's a campsite just for cyclists and kayakers?" Apparently so. Just a single, beach-side, primitive spot for idiots using their own bodies to propel themselves through the keys. I can't find any mention of it online, so if you've found this page while looking for campsites while on bike tour in the Florida Keys, consider this a major key alert.
I mean, we do leave Bahia Honda eventually after going for a swim with the man o' war. The hesitation lies partly in the island's undeveloped beauty and partly in the fact that the first thing we'll do upon leaving here is ride across the infamous Seven Mile Bridge. Again, this one of those parts of the Florida Overseas Heritage Trail that we're not sure will be anything other than a narrow shoulder.
Well, Who Didn't See That One Coming?
SURROUNDED BY WATER
WITH NO ESCAPE
CARS SPEEDING BY A FEW FEET TO ONE SIDE
A THREE-STORY DROP TO THE OTHER
FOR SEVEN MILES STRAIGHT
The only silver lining is the quarter-mile descent into Marathon Key. My breathing relaxes while we coast downhill and the shoulder opens up back on dry land. It feels like an appropriate point, a fifth of the day's riding now done, to get off the bikes for a minute and decompress. Consequently, an old train car sits to the right with an open sign.
There's hundreds of tiny details and about as much information (as well as souvenirs) as anyone's gonna get about the old railroad at the Pigeon Key Visitor Center- that's on Marathon Key, because the bridge goes above Pigeon Key. There are maps, books, postcards, and innumerable, cheap, plastic trinkets for kids. There are no sew-on patches though, and Im bummed, so I buy some key-lime jam instead.
"Heart of the Keys." Because it's in the middle, maybe? Marathon Key is our longest developed stretch of the keys so far. Being in the middle, I guess it's a good stopping point for keys travelers judging by the non-stop strip malls, grocery stores, and gas stations. It's suburban in feel, though we don't take the time to get off the main drag and see what lies on the edges of this key.
We make one stop at a health food store to replace grub stolen by key deer the night before. It has one of those insufferable names all health food stores had in the early 2000s, but the cafe inside serves good sandwiches. I get a box of dark-chocolate-covered-raisins and we wander back onto the sidewalk-trail and leave Marathon for Long Key.
Long Key is, ironically, not that long. But it hosts another state park with primitive campsites. Multiple primitive campsites, as a matter of fact, and this gives us the confidence to just show up in lieu of making any kind of earlier reservation. It's a very lax, some might say chill, way of handling the problem of needing a safe place to sleep. One that never comes back to bite on the the rear. Even the trail chills out, leaving the shoulder for a more secluded, rougher section.
Long Key has had a few past lives. The bulk of the island only became a state park in 1969, wherein before it had a few iterations as destination fishing camps, one of which had a two-story hotel (though each time destroyed by a hurricane and, more or less, abandoned) as well as a coconut plantation. The whole key, and much of these middle keys, are just big hunks of pre-historic coral reef from when this area of the atlantic was far deeper. Now, native mangroves and poisonwood cover much of the state park. The white sand beach fronts of the southern keys disappear up in the middle keys. In their place lie extensive, salty, mud flats, covered in submerged weeds. It makes an ideal habitat for all types of bugs, snails, and saltwater fish. A short trail runs through the park, taking you from beachfront through a salty cove, then deep into the mangroves via an elevated walkway. We ride along the walkway, and those little, dark, mangrove crabs, used to only having to wide from people strolling the jungle boardwalk, are having heart attacks trying to skitter away. It's hilarious.
We've been enjoying the park for a few hours, our bikes leaned up on one of the platforms of the primitive campsites. No one else has walked through the boardwalk, and all the sites are empty. It's kinda nice having the whole spot to ourselves, with a view of the ocean. A ranger walks through as we're both sitting, reading books. Jana is finishing the third book in Cormac McCarthy's trilogy, I'm taking my time with a paperback book I picked up back on the mainland about the pioneer history of Chokoloskee Island. (It, at one point, was the main exporter of avocados- though at the time they were called alligator pears. I now want to only refer to avocados as alligator pears.) The ranger is stout, with state-trooper-styled sunglasses on and a goatee.
Men with goatees are rarely pleasant.
Anyway, he takes a look at our loaded-down bikes and strikes up a conversation with us.
"You know these are primitive campsites?"
"Well, these campsites are closed."
"Closed for sitting in?"
"No, for camping. We have a volunteer group coming in either tonight or tomorrow morning, and they're staying in these sites."
"Oh, so they're reserved already?"
"No, they're closed."
"But how are they closed if the volunteers are staying in them?"
"They're only open if the volunteers show up tonight. Otherwise they're closed."
"So then they're open?"
"No, they're closed."
"Unless the volunteers show up."
"Yes, then they're open."
Men with goatees are rarely pleasant.
That's fine, we roll over to the fancy campgrounds with showers and electrical hook-ups. There are several open spots, and we catch the campground host. All the sites are booked. "But the primitive sites are open, no one's staying there tonight." We relate the information kindly given to us by the ranger, about the closed campsites that are open unless they're not. "Oh, those volunteers won't be here until the morning."
The campground host suggests we talk to the ranger. The sun is setting as we pull into the front office at the park's entrance. Walking in, a different ranger stands at the computer. Judging by the facial expression that greets me I suspect all the rangers have already talked to one another about the two bikers hanging out in the closed, but open, but closed, primitive sites. This ranger is compulsively swatting at gnats in the room as I sheepishly enter. There's not a lot of time to decide how to play this one. It's clear though that this is one of those moments, and nowadays they feel quite frequent, where being honest and direct won't get you anywhere.
A sob story. Fretting eyebrows. A lodging host in town who suddenly can't accommodate us. The highway is scary at night. We don't have enough money for the nearest hotel- which is actually true. The insanity brought on from gnats that this person must suffer through every day puts up a strong defense. I offer the reassurances. We're on bikes, we have a long day tomorrow so we're leaving before sunrise. We've already eaten and don't need to use anything other than the platform for the tent. Pity and nothing to clean up, it's a hard combination to argue against. We're told to wait, outside, for Mr. Goatee to return. While we do I fill Jana in on the details, and we stand around, hunched over and looking pathetic as possible as if we didn't just spend half the day lounging around the park. I watch the two rangers talk inside, and we swat at mosquitos real and imaginary. If it would help our case, we'd be making whining puppy sounds and faking injury.
"You Better Be Gone Before Daylight."
We swat at all-real mosquitos in the dusk, setting up our sleeping arrangements. We ride back through darkened mangroves to the restrooms at the trailhead, and inside a humid women's bathroom we cook pasta and watch spiders crawl around the plastic floors. Lots of spiders mean very few mosquitos, much to our delight. We eat until we're stuffed. Sweating profusely, I inhale half the box of chocolate-covered raisins I'd bought earlier in the day.
I watch the last few seconds of sunlight linger over the ocean from my hammock. We are lucky little shits, and we know it.