How Not to Do The Florida Keys

I first started plotting a visit to the Florida Keys way back when I lived in Oregon. I envisioned long stretches of bridge snaking over blue-green waterways and landing here and there on a little plop of scrubby land, boats everywhere, old two-story cottages standing shoulder-to-shoulder amidst a jungly Key West downtown, many-toed cats languishing on front porches, and local food shacks cramming the streets.

Years went by and the time was ripe. I planned a dog-friendly trip with my mother. We booked flights to Miami, reserved a rental car to pick up at the Miami airport, and decided to split our stay between Key West and Marathon, moseying down from Miami at a leisurely pace and stopping wherever we wanted to explore. We’d do whatever was dog-friendly – kayak, go to the dog beach, walk around downtown and Duval Street, visit Ernest Hemingway’s house, eat at outdoor restaurants… there was even a dog-friendly snorkel boat trip. I made a flight reservation for McGraw, who flies under the seat in front of me in his airline-approved carrier, and filled half my checked bag with his food, toys, blanket, hair brush, paw wipes, and various other accoutrements, and the other half with my stuff. We were all set.

The night before our early flight, I stayed overnight at my parents’ house and the alarm chirped me awake promptly at 2:15 am. We dressed, filled coffee mugs for the road, loaded the bags, and made the drive to the airport, finding a spot in the parking garage.

When you fly with a dog as your carry-on, you must check your other bag, and so I smiled at the woman behind the ticket counter as I handed over my ID and set my bag on the scale. As she tossed it behind her, she looked over her glasses at McGraw, perky but quiet in his wheeled bag. She raised an eyebrow and opined “I don’t think that bag is big enough for him.” “It is,” I assured her. “He’s flown in it many times before.” “No, it’s too small,” she insisted, “Look, he can’t stand up and turn around.” “He can,” I said. “Look.” I urged him to stand up and spin around, then he lazily curled back up and gave a yawn. The woman reached out and plucked the sleeve of the man next to her, “Is that bag big enough? Look, he can’t stand up and turn around.” Again, I put Mac through his stand-up-and-turn-around routine. “See?” This was taking up valuable time and the people behind us must be getting impatient. The man stood with his hands on his hips, considering. They were both shaking their heads back and forth as they looked at him trying to doze off amidst the buzz of people. I felt my head becoming hot and red. They couldn’t really be going to tell me I couldn’t get on this flight…? Forty-five minutes after I’d stepped up to the counter, though, that’s exactly what they told me. I was livid. What the hell were we going to do now? “Ri-DI-cu-lous,” my mind spat.

I wheeled everything back over to where mom was waiting and she was floored. “That can’t be right,” she said. “I’m going to talk to someone else.” She walked straight up to a smiling woman a few spots down, and I rolled up behind her. The woman was sympathetic. “If it were me, I would let you go. But that man is the supervisor, and if he says you can’t go, my hands are tied. What if I put you on a later flight to Fort Lauderdale and you ran up the road to Walmart to get a bigger bag? It doesn’t matter if it’s bigger than the allowed size, as long as it’s collapsible so it can be squished under the seat. There’s only one seat available but your mom could stay on the original flight and drive up to Fort Lauderdale from Miami to pick you up.” Well, it wasn’t perfect, but at least we had an option. Mom sped up the stairs to head for security, while I ran/rolled back out to the parking garage and drove through the dark, empty streets. Thank God Walmart was open 24 hours. As I wheeled Mac in and we found the pet carriers, Mom called to say the line at security was a mile long now and she didn’t know if she was going to make it to the gate on time. She’d call me back and let me know what happened. I dialed the airline, hoping I could get word to someone at the gate that she was on her way. Phone to one ear, I pulled carriers off the shelves to check sizes. Each one was lashed shut with zip-ties, so with my free hand I waved over an associate to chop them open with his multi-tool. Finally finding one that Mac could stand in without a hair touching the ceiling, but which could also be squished under an airplane seat, I raced to check out and whizzed back to search for a parking spot in the much-fuller-now garage. Sweat dripped off every inch of skin as I juggled the larger, handle-less bag and my suitcase up to the counter, back to the nice lady.

I’ll spare you from the conversations that followed, but suffice it to say I once again left the counter with all of my bags. My phone rang, and mom’s voice said “Well, I didn’t make it.” “Actually, neither did I, so that’s probably a good thing.” I paused. “Want to drive to the Keys?”

So… yep, we did. We tossed all the bags back into my car, buckled Mac into his seatbelt in the back, set the bag of snacks where we could reach it, drove through Starbucks for more caffeine, and sped east on I-10. It’s about thirteen hours from where we started, and we’d been up since 2:15. In the morning. Instead of arriving in Miami at 8:35 am by plane, we drove straight through its evening rush-hour traffic, crossed in the dark all those bridges snaking over blue-green waterways, and finally dragged our bags up to our room at about 11:30 pm, completely exhausted.

Late next morning, showered and caffeinated, we chatted briefly with the concierge, mentioning how hot and muggy it felt. She said they’d had a deluge of unseasonable rain which was steaming things up. Hmmm. We hopped on the shuttle to downtown. People walked the narrow streets browsing the shops and picking through the outdoor market at Mallory Square. Chickens poked about here and there, roaming free. Our bellies were grumbling, so we followed the strums of a guitar to an outdoor table on the main street and I ordered a Pina Colada. Mac sat in my lap looking around, and then let loose a sharp howl, scrambling to get away from my grasp. I looked over my shoulder and found two small chickens scratching away at the flower beds bordering the patio, unperturbed by the ruckus. Great. I ate my fish one-handed and clung to him with the other.

Just Mom, kissing some guy 😉

A long hour later, I finally set him free on the ground to walk on his leash as we followed Google Maps to the Ernest Hemingway house. Five minutes into our walk, we were both drenched in sweat, the sun blazing hot overhead, and the thick tropical greenery everywhere holding a curtain of steamy moisture all around us. We trudged on, oohing and aahing at grand Victorian homes and quaint cottages and old stone buildings. My perspiring feet slid to and fro in my flip-flops. Chickens rambled across the streets, stopping traffic. Roughly every five minutes, a loud group of motorcycles rumbled by, making us pause our conversation. Who the hell knew this was a biker haven? Not me.

Hot Dog

After about 45 minutes that felt like four hours, mom spotted a sign for frozen custard and, with a “don’t you dare stop me” look, slipped into the doorway. Scooping up Mac, I followed. The air conditioning blew chilly air straight down on our sweatiness. Mom ordered a waffle cone, and I said screw it, why not? I needed something to cool me down. I poured some water for Mac and licked my fast-dripping butter pecan. Heaven. We could have stayed there for hours, Mac resting his body on the cool concrete floor. But, across the street, we’d finally reached our destination. After sticking band-aids to the blistering spots on each of my feet, we entered the Hemingway house.

Now, I’m an avid reader, but new to Hemingway. I’ve read A Movable Feast, about his years in Paris with his wife Hadley, which I loved, and want to read more. Walking through his house, you’d swear it was the 1930’s and he’d just stepped away from his typewriter for a minute to wander the gardens. Many-toed cats do languish on front porches… as well as on windowsills, by the pool, peeping out from the foliage in the gardens, popping out from the crawl space onto the path in front of you, etc. The bathroom tiles feel like Art Deco; the porch shutters like New Orleans; the gardens like a botanical garden in St. Lucia; the pool like a Grecian fantasy. I love, love the painting above his bed. Portraits of the man himself dot the walls.

Once we’d had our fill and were ready to brave the heat, we trudged drearily back to the shuttle stop, my band-aids sweated off my feet by now. We were too tired to go to dinner, so grabbed vegetable soup and guacamole and fruit from Publix to eat in the room.

The next day, finally feeling more like humans than we had so far on the trip, we made another shuttle trip to town and toured the cool, dark aquarium; browsed the shops for t-shirts and key lime cookies, and then found our way to Schooner’s on the Dock for lunch. Another guitar player, more chickens, a Mojito this time, and a big salad topped with crab meat. Luckily, Mac had run out of chicken-fussing steam by now and watched them peck around underfoot, trailing baby chicks behind. I have to say it’s pretty darn charming!

Cooled and full, we got ourselves into the car for the drive up to Marathon, an hour north. We finally gazed over the waters and dots of land and mangrove marshes. The derelict Bahia Honda Rail Bridge stands abandoned to the elements. Far out to the east, we spotted a red open-work structure rising from the sea like a mirage. Later, we found it’s the Sombrero Key Light(house).

Sombrero Key Light(house)… if you squint

After settling our bags into our canal-front room in Marathon, I noticed a trail of tiny sugar ants busy in the bathroom. Ugh. I sat on my bed and we started to talk about dinner ideas, when I felt something on my arm and brushed at it. Another sugar ant. I hopped up. What the hell? Scanning the floor, I found a handful of pistachio shells and a peppermint, with ants scurrying around. That was the last straw. I called the front desk and they offered us another room, so we lugged our things a few doors down. I found one peanut M&M in the kitchenette and tossed it in the trash. I mean really. What if Mac had gotten a hold of it? Luckily, this room was nicer than the original and seemed up to par otherwise. But reviews would be written.

Chuck, the iguana

For dinner, we found a friendly place where mom got a thick clam chowder and key lime pie, and I got a grilled fish sandwich and a piece of lemon cake. The next morning, mom was queasy and said it had been too rich for her. I looked out to the canal and saw large iguanas sunbathing up and down the sidewalk. It was heating up quickly. We hemmed and hawed over what to do. It was too hot to explore outdoors unless it was water-related. “What about that dog-friendly snorkel boat?” mom asked. “That was in Key West.” “Isn’t there a glass-bottom boat ride somewhere?” “That’s in Key Largo, two hours north.” Hmmm. We decided to check out the Dolphin Research Center, and crossed our fingers it would be partly indoors, or at least shady. We arrived just in time to see the next education session, with dolphins jumping and splashing us and making their squeaky little chirps. McGraw was curious, watching the fins and noses swish towards him. Sweltering in the heat, we ducked into an air-conditioned hut to hear a talk about the resident sea lions. It felt so good we listened intently, thankful for anything to keep us out of the heat a little longer.

Afterward, we poked around a couple of t-shirt shops and then picked up another handful of things for dinner at Publix. Really, as long as it was chilled it sounded good.

The next morning, we checked out at 7 am and began the long drive back. Sporadic downpours were like driving through whiteouts, with vehicle lights impossible to see and passing semi-trucks sending waves of grey water over the windshield. We inched along, white-knuckled.

Home. Late. Finally. I AM glad we went. It was very cool to see this place I’ve imagined in my head for so long. The Keys are such a unique world, like nowhere else I’ve been, and filled with iconic sights and places which I’ve now seen firsthand. We both want to read up about the history of the Keys, and about Hemingway. So, it wasn’t a wasted trip. But. I’ll tell you what: I feel sure there’s a better way to do it than how we did it.

Bridge fishing by headight… One way to enjoy the sunset