A Long Way Down To Key West

Florida Highway A1 south west to Key West from Miami looks a little lonely on a map. It’s a road to only one place, and once you begin, the only way back is to retrace your steps. Veering left or right will only toss you into the expanse of turquoise ocean on either side; remnants of bridges past remind you the journey wasn’t always this easy, nor this reliable.

Beads of small towns and keys, plunked down along a concrete necklace, feature the ubiquitous Florida motels and strip malls and liquor stores. Off the noise of the roadway, curved drives and hidden roads

lead to the money; gorgeous private homes and resorts hugging the sand and hogging the views, clinging to the last inch of land before it is just the causeway again.

But each time you leave another cluster of a town behind, the vistas open up, and propel you forward. The urge to speed is very nearly hypnotic: narrow shoulders and all that water. But A1 has another noticeable feature — cops, both marked and unmarked, everywhere. Everywhere.

This is a good thing, actually. A collision would tangle that necklace into a knot of a blockage that would strand thousands for its duration. Brave souls pedal on bicycles, often shirtless and always helmetless. Sharing a narrow shoulder with vehicles whizzing by, I wonder at their trust in the tiny margin for error. It’s the reverse of entering a long road tunnelled through huge mountains in parts of Europe. There, you round the first bend to artificial light, knowing this claustrophobic tube has really only one way out once committed.

Here, on the trek to Key West, the glory of sky and water make you think the option is different. It really isn’t. I wonder at the people who happily live on the edge. We’d spent the previous night in Miami, strolling in South Beach. From a bar table perch on the sidewalk of Ocean Boulevard, I ordered a ridiculously overpriced concoction called a Miami Vice. Of course. I sipped and watched the parade of cars troll by. I found out later they’re mostly rented Rollers and borrowed Jags, everyone posing and ready for their close-up.

Key West, a mere 200 km away, would prove to be far different. Floridians definitely like their big trucks, no doubt all the better to haul their big boats. Like most tropical places trying to deflect heat, they also like white vehicles, as if the sunlight dancing off the water and concrete isn’t blinding enough.

As the kilometres tick off to Key West, however, something else becomes quite noticeable. Time gears down as you reach the theoretical, as well as the actual end of the road. That laconic rhythm has notably drawn many transplants to Key West, from Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Buffett to Tennessee Williams.

The Kias we are driving (2011 Optimas and Sportages) are sleek and pretty, though Kia is already well represented here in Key West. Narrow roads that must be shared with roosters, cyclists and tourists would be hard pressed to accommodate the South Beach crowd.

I snuck out before 6 o’clock one morning, snagging an Optima from the fleet to roam the empty darkened streets. I was at Hemingway’s house, parked illegally and peering through the gates, trying for a glimpse of the famous six-toed cats —descendants of one of Papa’s own — that still roam the grounds. A garbage truck needed to get by. As I hopped to move, apologizing, the driver laughed and waved me off as he threaded around my car.

“90 Miles to Cuba” declares the stump at the tip of Key West. It’s been the aimed-for landing for many fleeing Cubans and Haitians throughout history, risking everything — including detention or death — to secure a foothold in the land of opportunity.

I considered that the A1, covering nearly twice this distance from Miami, had ushered us down with little more to worry about than a speeding ticket. I’ve been in many parts of this country, our neighbour to the south. Yet always that trailing bit of road to Key West draws my eye down, down, down. What’s at the end?

Standing on a silent beach, I ponder once again what some consider a starting point, and others consider a destination. And then I shrug. It doesn’t really matter. Key West is whatever you want it to be, just as long as you don’t speed to get there.