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It took us two days and a few misadventures to drive U.S. Highway 1 to Key West and we enjoyed every strange minute of it.

On a sunny, warm December day, the wind whips through the open car windows as Gwen and I ride down U.S. Highway 1 toward Key West. We were still tired from the night before, but we didn’t care. There was no one in front of us and no one behind us as we sped down the highway with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. Could the water be any bluer? We thought not.

Gwen stuck her head out the window and let her hair blow out behind her. Too bad we didn’t pay the extra money to rent a convertible. We came upon something that looked a little like civilization and I slowed down a bit. Thank goodness I did because there were two patrol cars parked off the gulf side of the road. The troopers stood outside their cars talking.
"Pull in!" Gwen yelled and I turned on the car’s blinker and carefully pulled into the parking lot. Gwen grabbed the camera and was out the door before I even had the car stopped. She ran over to the troopers and told them that it was customary to have a vacation photo taken of her in the back of a patrol car. Well, the officers weren’t too keen on that.
"I don’t think that’s a good idea," one said.
"That’s OK. How about one of me with the two of you instead?" They liked that idea better. Gwen stood between them and as I steadied the camera to take a picture, Gwen put her arms around both troopers. One them jerked back from her, thinking she was going for his gun.
"Sorry! Sorry!" We apologized and I took the photo. We thanked them for their time and then hurried away, hoping not cause any more trouble.
"Do you really have photos of you in the back of police cars?" I asked.
"Oh, yes, two or three. My sister and I did one in California as a joke a few years ago and I’ve been doing that ever since."

We continued on our way with the windows down and reggae on the radio. We were almost to Marathon, the half way point between Key Largo and Key West. We had actually driven to Marathon the night before in hopes of finding some dance clubs, but all we found was a dive called the Brass Monkey with a live band of retired ZZ Top wannabes and two young men nice enough to buy us beer the whole night. We had a great time beating Travis and Brett, the nice young men, at foosball and creating a pyramid of beer cans on our table, but then the guys drank a little too much and we offered to drive them home. Brett said he didn’t live far from the Brass Monkey and they could walk home and get their cars later. Both had to work the next day so we parted company and drove the few miles back to Hawk’s Cay Resort where we were staying.

This was also the first time we had driven U.S. Highway 1 during the day since we arrived two days ago. Because of a snowstorm in St. Louis, our flight didn’t get into Miami until 11 p.m. and we still had a two-hour drive to our resort. Fortunately we met Casey at the car rental agency. His was in Florida to visit with his mother who lived in Key Largo. He said we could follow him out of Miami and onto U.S. Highway 1, the gateway to our vacation. As we drove, the bright lights of Miami quickly faded and soon we made the turn onto U.S. Highway 1 and into the Keys. In the headlights of our cars we could see the road stretched out in front of us and on each side were tall leafy palms and bushes. Somewhere just beyond those trees were the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean. Above us was the clear sky filled with stars. We drove quietly, still tired from the flight. After midnight we arrived in Key Largo.

Casey had pulled into the parking lot of the Caribbean Club, one of the best know bars in the world. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was where the movie Casablanca had been filmed. We offered to buy him a drink for his kindness and ended up spending two hours in the Caribbean Club drinking beer and talking. Casey was a scriptwriter from California and he was taking the month of December off to be with his mother for the holidays.
"There’s nowhere better in the world than the Keys," he told us. We had only been in the Keys for a few hours, yet we agreed completely. Sitting next to me was an old timer who had been listening to our conversation and decided it was time to take part. He said he was from Chicago and came to Key Largo thirty years ago for a two week vacation and never went back. Back in September Hurricane Georges destroyed his trailer home. Insurance would soon get him a new one. To him, this was only a minor setback in his Keys existence and he bought all of us another round.

At two a.m. we left Key Largo and headed even farther south. With so few towns to light the way, the highway seemed lonely, even desolate. Hawk’s Cay Resort was on Duck Key somewhere near Mile Mark 61. Mile markers are used as addresses in the Keys and it was a fairly easy system to find things by. We drove until we saw a sign that said Hawk’s Cay Resort, next left. Good thing we could still check in at four a.m.

After two nights of driving Highway 1, we were final driving it during the day, retracing some of our steps from the night before. Things look so much more beautiful, bright blue sea and sky split by vibrant green trees and the gray of the concrete road for contrast. The city of Marathon looked a little more modern with its Walmart, Taco Bell, and 7-11. We drove by the Brass Monkey. It looked almost tame compared to last night. Near the southern end of town was what looked like a marina. We stopped at the Seven Mile Grill at MM 47.5 for lunch. We enjoyed our BLT sandwiches in this restaurant that seemed to have no walls. The walls were really large doors that propped up so diners could enjoy the sun and breeze with their meal.

The farther we go the more damage we see from Hurricane Georges. Although most of the resorts and roads were undamaged or repaired quickly, you could see some private residences, mostly trailer homes, were still damaged and one even knocked on its side. The trees and shrubs on the ocean side were bent or snapped in two from the high winds and you could see through them to the water. It made you realize that there were some perils to living in all this beauty.

Gwen and I were making this journey without the benefit of a road map, yet we seemed to have no problem finding anything. We just followed the Mile Markers as they counted down to Key West. Even the town itself proved easy to navigate. The outskirts of Key West looked like any other small town, fast food places, grocery stores and car dealerships. Then we hit "hotel row" where most of the chain hotel are (Super 8, Best Western, Comfort Inn, etc). We passed the Hampton Inn where we’ll be spending the next two nights and drove straight for the land locked buoy that marks Key West as the southern most point in the United States. We didn’t actually know where this marker was, but several signs pointed the way. We parked the car illegally to take quick photos. A scraggly looking man offered to take a photo of both of us standing in front of it. We politely told him no, but he insisted and took Gwen’s camera. We were quite naive to think he was doing this out of kindness. When Gwen held out her hand for her camera, he said it would cost us a dollar. We told him we didn’t have a dollar. Gwen took the camera from him and we walked away. He yelled after us about how rude we were and how his kindness should be monetarily rewarded. Several of our fellow tourists gawked as we slinked back to the car. Not the most graceful introduction to Key West.

We quickly drove to South Roosevelt Street, which followed Smathers Beach on the Atlantic side and parked the car. As we scoured the beach for the perfect place to lie in the sun we see how much the hurricane had ravaged the area. A line was cut in the sand that looked almost like a stair step. It ran through the middle of the beach and below it all the way to the water was a tangled mess of seaweed and litter that the hurricane left. A few palm trees had been bent. The volleyball nets that lined the beach would normally be filled with players, but drooped low instead. The only other people on the beach were several of the homeless who had made their way south from winter climates. One of them camped beneath a make shift tent of sheets in a thatch of trees. Another pushed a shopping cart full of his belongings on the sidewalk. Where are all the sunseekers? The hurricane seemed to have scared away the tourists and since it was a weekday, locals were few. With the beach all to ourselves, we had a chance to catch up on our sleep while we worked on our Florida tans with nothing to worry about except what clubs we were going to hit that night. Ah, to be single in the Keys in the winter…

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