Day 1: Key West, FL to Long Key State Park - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

April 13, 2011

Day 1: Key West, FL to Long Key State Park

I always imagined starting my cross-country ride on a beach along the Atlantic, doing some grand gesture like dipping my wheels in the water, writing my name in the sand, or collecting a little bit of water to pour into the ocean on the other side. On this trip, mile one starts from a less dramatic place: a Kmart parking lot next to the UPS store where I shipped my stuff.

A few miles later I get a tingling in my stomach as I turn a corner and see the fat black, yellow, and red buoy that marks the southernmost point in the United States. Every year, tens of thousands of tourists line up in front of the thing to have their picture taken at a spot that's only 90 miles away from Cuba. This bugs me for two reasons: one, every fool who's ever spent a day in Key West has already stood next to this thing; and two, it's not even the real southernmost point. You can only get to that one from the Navy base. I'm here to see something else, though—something truly amazing that actually lives up to its name: the Southernmost Menorah. It's a giant menorah that some enterprising Jew attached to the fence that sits just behind the tourist trap. It's the kind of ridiculous send-off this trip deserves.

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When I ride up to the spot where I know it's supposed to be, my heart sinks. It's gone. The place where it used to hang now only has a sign that's been tagged with graffiti. It's a crushing disappointment, but I promise myself I won't cry in front of the kids. Instead I point my bike toward the north, pull in a deep breath of wet and salty air, and take the first of about two million pedal strokes that'll make up this long ride home. I nearly plow into a pair of recycling containers within the first half-minute, but swerve at the last second and manage to keep things upright.

That's more like it.
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I almost never ride just to ride. My bike is something that helps me explore, that lets me experience new places and meet people I'd never come across otherwise. I don't really enjoy the Interurban or Burke-Gilman trails at home because it's the same stretch of pavement I've experienced 15 or 20 times before. It's like that for overnights and longer trips that go down roads I've already ridden or driven. It's not nearly as exciting when you know to expect all the bumps and twists and angry dogs before you get to them.

I can forget about all of that now. I won't see a familiar road until I hit Kettle Falls in the northeast corner of Washington, about three-and-a-half months and 5,000 miles away.

The wide path out of Key West puts me so close to the ocean that if I crash and fall to the right I'll end up in the water. I pass at least 50 tourists on rented cruiser bikes and wave to the two or three road bikers who are out enjoying some of the most amazing riding weather I've ever experienced. I also pass a guy with "Fuck Off" tattooed on the middle of his left shoulder blade and wonder if he still thinks that it's totally hilarious, dude. Soon I join up with Highway 1, which will be my riding companion for most of the next few days as I try to reach the mainland.

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There's an island here named Ramrod Key. Hah.

Gratuitous Bud Light truck picture.
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I think about stopping for the day at the state park on Big Pine Key, and then again at Bahia Honda, but I've got something else kicking around in my head and keep pushing. That soon puts me up against the Seven Mile Bridge. As it turns out, the bridge is seven miles long. It sits about 50 feet above water that's so clear you can see all the way to the bottom. I look over to the right and see a manta ray cruising by. It's a grayish-black, arrow-shaped thing that ripples just below the little waves the break up the surface.

I immediately look back to the left, because I want to stay alive. The bridge has only a five- or six-foot shoulder and it's covered with bits of headlights, hub caps, cardboard boxes and fast food wrappers. I barely miss a two-by-four and almost run into a small plastic garbage can. While all of this is going on, cars and trucks and semis fly by at 50 miles per hour or better. It's a bit of a challenge.

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The bridge spits me out in Marathon, which is a complete turd. The stretch along Highway 1 is lined with chain gas stations and drug stores, outlet shops, Holiday Inns, a Home Depot, and hundreds of cars. At one point I swerve off of the bike path to avoid a woman walking her dog—from a golf cart. I'm dehydrated, hungry, tired, and have already done 50-plus miles this afternoon, so I think about finding a campground here, too. But I can't let Marathon win like that. I keep going.

I pick up a mostly empty bike trail separated from the highway. I can still hear the rush from all the passing cars, but I get to ride alone as the sun starts to set—away from the traffic, in the shade of the trees, singing Beatles songs to myself and the little lizards that nearly run under the bike's front tire before diving into the brush. I have a huge smile on my face as the evening turns into night all around me and that I-don't-know-where-I'm-sleeping-tonight-and-it's-getting-dark feeling puts a jump into my legs.

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There isn't enough light left to ride as I slip the bike under the closed gates of Long Key State Park. Everything had to go right for me to make it, but I do. I head a quarter mile from a back parking lot down a wooden walkway suspended above the marshy coast land and am rewarded with an absolutely amazing place to stay. It's literally within 30 feet of the Atlantic Ocean, neatly separated from the other sites, and covered by a gently sloping roof. When I sit down at the small bench I hear fish jumping. I'm one night into this four-month trip and I've already found America's greatest campsite.

It's dark by the time I get set up. My hands, shoulders, and thighs pulse with sun burn as the crickets chirp, the fireflies sparkle, the full moon shines above my head, and the ever-present roar of Highway 1 carries me to sleep.

Today's ride: 73 miles (117 km)
Total: 73 miles (117 km)

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