Key West, FL — Thanks, Henry Flagler. Maybe I’m 100 years too late, give or take a few, but if not for the foresight of this early 20th-century oil tycoon, the Overseas Railroad would not have been built. Flagler financed and built the railway linking mainland Florida to the islands of the Keys; the project was begun in 1905 and completed in 1912. The railroad operated until 1935, when a ferocious Labor Day hurricane blew the train from its tracks and destroyed much of the line.
Glen, what’s your point, you ask? Well, after the hurricane, the state of Florida acquired the right-of-way and rebuilt the whole thing as a roadway; it reopened in 1938 as the Overseas Highway, now designated US Route 1. I think it’s one of the best rides in the state; indeed, “2 Wheels to Paradise.” Sure, it’s a straight and narrow 127-miles, but its 42 bridges cross some of the bluest water and clearest skies you’ll find in Florida. Key West, at the end of the line, is known for a funky, Caribbean vibe and offbeat people (and I mean that in a good way). The 50s-era wooden sign outside the Monroe County Courthouse welcomes visitors to “The end of the rainbow, and end of the route. Key West, Florida. Unlimited Opportunities, Tropical Vacationland.” Gotta love the optimism. In Key West, wild chickens roam the streets, protected by city statute (a friend who lives in the town tells me the chickens are the source of much local hilarity, “Has anyone seen my cock?” being a favorite saying).
In any case, Key West culture is certainly unique. Locals call themselves “Conchs” (pronounced KONKS). In 1982 the fierce individualists of the city issued a proclamation seceding from the Union and establishing themselves as the Conch Republic. Then they promptly surrendered and demanded foreign aid. Great move!
Many famous residents have graced Key West over the years. Ernest Hemingway spent much of the 1930s drinking, writing, drinking, fishing, and drinking here. Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s both claim to be Hem’s favorite watering hole. Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, and Jimmy Buffett have also called the island home.
Up and down Duval Street in the historic heart of Old Town Key West, you’ll find bars, restaurants, cafés, galleries and more. Each evening, locals and tourists gather at Mallory Square for a sunset celebration; the tightrope walkers, fire jugglers, and cats-jumping-through-burning-hoops street performers working for tips are as much a part of the scene as the setting sun.
A sign on a fence in front of a house in Old Town reads: “The purpose of life is to fight maturity.” It’s a slogan I always take to heart, and a ride to the Keys is a great way to live it.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
VisitFlorda.com: The Florida Keys by Motorcycle
Florida Keys Tourism Council: http://www.fla-keys.com/
Key West Chamber of Commerce: http://www.keywestchamber.org/
I’ve written a couple of magazine articles about trips to the Keys ; first in 2004 for American Iron, and last year for RoadBike. AAA’s Going Places picked up that article and ran a shorter version in the November/December 2010 issue .