After a leisurely start (breakfast, more Folgers coffee) we swing (well, crawl at times, remember those Florida drivers) down the Miami freeways, onto US1 and the Keys! The Keys are really a cross between a railway embankment (put down in the early 1900's by one Henry Flagler right down to Key West, then blown flat by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 with attendant loss of life), and natural coral islands. The Keys divide the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, and have an Atlantic-side reef to protect them (well, until the next big storm surge - the 1935 event had 15-18 feet tides and an average land height of maybe 6 feet...).
So there's an air of devil-may-care and laid-back-ness about the Keys: certainly there are a lot of folk who have bought a boat and gone charter-fishing there. Ernest Hemingway and all that imagery, too. We have a poke around, a sun-soaked lunch, more of a look (searching for sailing hires - not many on offer) and finally a sunset Key lime pie (local delicacy, like a deliciously bitter cheesecake, needs a lot of beer to wash it down) and of course the aforesaid sunset. Which slides right into an inconveniently placed Key further down. Bugger.
Then off to our accommodation, which has raccoons on the ground outside. Fat raccoons, from thoughtless guests who feed them. On Dunkin' Donuts, evidently. We refrain. The raccoons yowl away for a while, we sit out on the balcony, and a delicious scent from outside vegetation steals through the room - gardenias, perhaps. We make vague, alcohol-propelled plans to buy a boat (with a sail) and move down here.
The next day, we locate a sailing hire down at Mile Marker 82, and an Enviro-tour which goes bird and manatee watching. The Mile Marker system is very sweet - all addresses are prefixed with the Mile marker (MM) so you can see that 85430 will be between MM 85 and 86. Very logical and useful. A slight quirk, MM's on the Keys run from Key West (the end). Well, they have to start somewhere. So going down the Keys (accommodation is around MM95) is a quick study in subtraction. Or using a calculator.
There is a correlation between driving and type of vehicle that, although we laugh it off at first, gradually really does become apparent. Ford F150's house the legendary flaky drivers, it seems. US1 is all single-lane, so it's very easy to get stuck behind a raised drawbridge, someone who knows they have to turn right somewheres around here (to within oh say 10 miles) and goes 20mph to check every street sign, or the aforesaid F150. And it's literally the only way in or out of the whole 118 miles of Keys - a scary thought if evacuation really needed to happen. However, mostly the traffic rolls right along at the predominant speed limit of 45mph.
Our Enviro-tour isn't, as it turns out, in a woven flax corracle with a sail, with a SNAG captain (or captess) who sings to the fishes. It's in a 30ft Boston Whaler with a 225hp Merc out back, Captain Reed at the helm (favourite sound bite "hang on back there" as he slams the throttle right forward), making around 35mph on the water. Well, we do have some territory to cover. And the Merc is enviro, being a four-stroke. We see manatee grass but no manatees, skates and sharks and lots of fishes. And birds, who take over certain mangrove clumps and not others. Note to diary: birdshit en masse really stinks the place up. No wonder every public building through Europe is festooned with upward-pointing spikes (laid out in collated strips, like nailgun nails) to discourage roosting. We idle through narrow little backwaters amongst mangroves and islands in an ultimately unsuccessful but hugely enjoyable search for the elusive manatee.
Back at the lodge, we have arranged a one hour sail on a Hobie cat, so I take Doug and Anne out on a very laidback cruise. Mild onshore breeze, so we can reach out to sea, tack away up the beach, sail right back. There's no jib, just a mainsail - the way a catamaran can go in even a moderate breeze leads me to suspect they've had to chase one or two right out to the reef in the past. We just pootle about, staying out of the way of powercraft, and generally having a great time. So I have to buy a sailboat fleet and move to the Keys, now.
On the Enviro-tour, we have spotted a decayed-looking drinking hole (Papa Joe's) which promises a better sunset. So once back onshore, we head there and await the sunset with a beer. Or two. It sets behind land (again! but by now we don't care) and a backdrop of power lines which serves as a good metaphor for the Keys - power poles marching to a vanishing-point, water and pelicans everywhere, good bar music from a real live entertainer (taking time out from fishing charters, probably) and good company. A sunset movie, naturally. And a long afterglow with underlit jetstream cloud overhead. Why isn't every day like this?
We trail back up US1 and witness a truly dopey piece of driving by (what else?) an F150 inhabitant. He's trailing a 25ft boat, going at much less than the speed limit, accumulating a respectable tailback behind him. And when he gets to the passing zone - he (you can't make this stuff up) stays in the fast lane, forcing everyone to pass on the wrong side.... Just as well Hemingway wasn't in the tailback. Mr F150 would have had his two brain cells plastered all over the inside of the cab once Ernie drew alongside.