There was a wreck on the Overseas Highway so our route started back before the beginning, before Key Largo and the big bridge and Little Blackwater Sound. Google Maps kicked us back east, to County Road 905: a long, hot stretch of two-lane cutting plane-straight through swampland. Past Alabama Jack’s, the rickety wooden bar at the edge of the mainland, the only building for miles. Across the small bridge over Barnes Sound and onto North Key Largo and a series of State Parks shrouded in thick, tangled mangroves. A wild, empty stretch of nearly ten miles before you hit Key Largo and reconnect with Highway 1 at the 100 mile marker.
Here’s the thing about Key Largo--and all of the keys, for that matter--it’s never what you expect. It is more and less than you expect at the same time.
Key Largo permeated my childhood when my fifth-grade music teacher made us learn how to sing the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.” Well, I can only guess they needed something to rhyme with “Montego” and didn’t feel like putting in much research. Key Largo has no dazzling beaches, no vibrant shorefront thoroughfare, or no historic town square, at least none that could be seen from the highway in the few hundred yards visible in either direction. It is not small and quaint, either, peppered with romantic bungalows snugged away beneath the palms. There are a few largish chain hotels, countless condos, beach houses, dockside bars and restaurants. There’s a Publix. Key Largo is Florida coastline, and it is fine.
And then it ends. What lies between Key Largo and Key West is 100 miles of slow driving, and the gradual, unfolding realization that this place is much more immense than you imagined, and the perfect place to find your ideal imaginary hiding spot where you’d never want to leave, but only if you were forced into it. No wonder so many people come here to lose themselves.
The land is nothing like where you are from. It’s low, saturated earth baking in a sandy pan of humidity, scoured by breezes and rinsed regularly by showers. It is equal parts breathtaking and forgettable: from one bridge you’ll see a beautiful spit of white sand dotted with palms on your left; on your right will be a cove choked with dead and dying mangroves. The beaches are lovely until you drive close enough to roll down the windows and smell the suphur-egg stench of the tons and tons of rotting Sargassum seaweed that pile up at the waterline. The sunsets will melt your heart, though.
There are bigger towns, tiny towns, stretches of nothing at all for miles. At some points you can’t see water on either side through the trees and brush on either side. You’ll forget for a moment you’re on a frail system of tiny islands cast out into the ocean like a trailing line. You forget yourself, and that’s kind of the point.
At some point, we were going to have to talk about metaphors. Sports are already oversaturated with metaphors, and college football is one of the worst offenders. But this is the offseason: long and hot. Dense and buzzing with endless distractions along the way: something for everyone. Swimming or fishing or snorkeling or flying in a bi-plane or walking aimlessly for hours through swampy wetlands to see birds and flowers more beautiful than you would have thought possible. Anything to forget that place you came from, or how far away you still were from your destination.
Seven Mile Bridge is what I thought the whole damned affair looked like in my head before I got to the edge of Florida: giant bridges spanning open ocean, connecting tiny dots of land. Only it’s not like that at all. The rest of the Keys are more like one giant island cut through with endless channels. But when you get past Marathon and jump off Boot Key onto that seven-mile stretch, no land on your front horizon at first, that’s when you begin to feel freedom. The highway parallels the old bridge, and it’s under construction. Something is always under construction in the Keys. It’s the price of weathering things by hiding out in the open. When you touch land again in Bahia Honda Key ten minutes later or so, there is a subtle difference somehow. The air feels hotter, but there is a nicer breeze, or something. Or it’s just in your mind because no matter how much ingrained faith you have in human achievement, there is a palpable relief of being off such an elaborate and ambitious man-made design, hovering spindly and straight like a frozen thread over the endless blue.
You will know when you’re in Key West. The highway dead ends into a big loop that whips all around the town, with a couple major thoroughfares in between. There’s one way in and one way out for the land-bound. The rest of the ways are infinite. Past the initial chain hubs near the highway’s end you hit the meat of it: it’s a vast amalgam of history, tourism, industry, and military. And all the rest that can’t be labeled accurately.
This is where the distractions are endless: forts and landmarks and historic homes, white-sand beaches and parasailing and clubbing and bar-hopping, and jaywalking and generally just getting loose and trying to absorb as much of it as possible without going completely insane. This is your football season, by the way: an irresponsible feast, a massive onslaught of sensory reward that you can barely contain at first. But you settle in, and you do the best you can.
Nothing is out of place in this town. A well-coiffed Wealthy Dallas Man double-checks the exterior of his red Jaguar after meticulously parking it on one of the endless cramped, shaded streets. Three seconds after he leaves the scene one of the thousands of chickens that roam the town darts after him; timeless mimicking shadow that defies any mantle you may attempt to lay on this collection of humanity. This is where those who want to defy classification find themselves: Hemingway, Jimmy Buffet. Mike Leach.
The streets are rife with beauty: classic colonial-era homes, white and pastel and lined with lime trees and colorful shrubbery. Deck chairs and widow’s walks and parrots in cages on the porches. Old-world influence adapted to the blasting sun of the near-tropics. There are squares and storefronts and galleries, endless bars and restaurants and rental agencies and tattoo parlors and ice cream stands and a vast array of liquor and sunglasses shops. There are Brits and Germans and Russians on the streets, and folks from all manner of Latin American countries as well. All sharing the same relaxed vibe, pushing strollers or arm-in-arm, smiling and sunburnt and happy.
In the early evening, the masses gather on Mallory Square to watch the sunset. They gather because they heard that’s where the masses gather. Out as well come the performers: the buskers, the magicians in garish vaudeville garb and mustaches, a man deftly chopping coconuts with a machete as performance art itself. Popcorn vendors, painters of all varieties hawk their wares. A motley group of aging Boomers dressed as pirates turn out to merely be tourists themselves. The sun sets without fanfare. A boy leaving with his father mumbles, “is that it?”
That’s it. The day has ended, and the night’s just beginning, and we’re ready to do it all again tomorrow because that’s what you do here.
This is where you put your SEC Media Days, by the way: the southernmost point in the USA. Land of fishing shirts and hush puppies and humidity. Spare me the businesslike logistical concerns and tell me that you didn’t at least envision this briefly for a split-second before you started worrying about the practical ability of the place to accommodate the hordes of media. Cut back on credentials if you have to: strip this sucker down and fill it with just enough gas to get the job done, like a speedboat on a night run across the Cuban Straits. The Conch Republic welcomes all, especially those with a kindred circus soul. It would do us a bit of good to stop taking what Spencer Hall has accurately dubbed a child’s game so damned seriously. Key West could teach us a thing or two there.
Hunter S. Thompson hid out in the Keys back in the ‘80s. When he wrote about his time with the residents there, he used the phrase “Raw and Primitive People, Living Their Lives Like Sharks.”
Sounds pretty SEC to me.