So, we’ve arrived. The cyclists left the motel relatively early, at about 8am, with no complaints or grumbles about the hour or what lay ahead for the day. They all knew that the 48 mile journey from Marathon to Key West would be the last time they would cycle on this trip. About an hour later, I set off along Route 1, counting down the mile markers as I gradually approached zero and stopping only to pick up a bottle of champagne from a liquor store along the way.
I hadn’t passed any of the cyclists along the route, so when I arrived at the Southernmost Point, I had expected to find the cyclists already there. As it happens, they were still some distance away, so I loaded my change into a parking meter, abandoned the monster truck and set off in search of a beachwear shop so that I could finally buy some replacement swimming shorts. Finally, I managed to buy some – from a pharmacy of all places.
The Southernmost Point is a brightly painted bollard indicating that the long queue of tourists waiting to be photographed next to it are at the most southern point of the USA and only 90 miles from Cuba. The fact that one can clearly see other points that are further south did not deter the tourists, nor did it deter us from making this symbolic place the end point of the cycle ride.
I waited by the bollard for the cyclists. Eventually, Andy and Alex arrived in their trip tee-shirts (kindly provided by Armstrong UK), shortly followed by Neil and Leo. Leo’s leg was alarmingly wrapped in bandages, but thankfully it was just a spot of sunburn and not a final day cycling injury.
With everyone now dressed in the trip tee-shirts, I popped open the bottle of bubbly and poured it into some disposable Holiday Inn plastic cups. This attracted some attention from the queue of tourists, so before long we had a rapt audience listening to our tales and taking photos of us beside the Southernmost Point.
When the champagne was drained and the plaudits were subsiding, we sought out a beach on which to spend the afternoon. Most of the ones marked on the map appeared to have been replaced by building sites (presumably to turn them into private beaches for the guests at the expensive seafront hotels), but eventually we found one further to the east. Compared to the wonderful beaches at Myrtle Beach and Daytona Beach, this one was frankly a bit disappointing. The sand smelt of rotting seaweed and the sea itself was murky and shallow. Still, we splashed about for a while before checking into our motel at the east end of the island.
In the evening, we arrived in the main town centre of Key West moments too late to see the famous sunset. We dined at a seafood buffet restaurant where nutcrackers were provided to crack open the crab legs. Neil tentatively attempted to overcome his seafood phobia with mixed results, but found happiness in the ice cream section of the buffet.
On Tuesday we spent a day on another beach which was closer to the town centre, but still not particularly nice as far as beaches go. Determined to see the sunset, we headed to a bar on the north side of the island where the cyclists (i.e. not the designated driver) drank effeminate-looking cocktails. According to the Lonely Planet guide, 40% of Key West is gay, though we’re not sure if this includes the naval base. Even the taxis on this island are pink.
Annoyingly, cloud obscured any view of the sunset, so we moved on to an alleyway claiming to be the smallest bar in Key West. It really was tiny; the drinkers were a combination of people like us who had been lured in off the street and people who had been in there all day. One of the regulars bizarrely warned us to “never get caught pissing on a skunk”, which is unarguably a sound piece of advice.
The following day, it was my turn to see what all the cyclists were making a fuss about. In order that we could leave the car at the free parking of our motel, I dropped the others in town, drove back to the motel and then cycled the three miles or so back in. I don’t know what the big deal was; cycling is easy!
Andy and Alex had signed up for a scuba dive outing, while Neil, Leo and I had paid about a third of the price for a snorkelling trip off the same boat. The scuba divers had spent the morning in the swimming pool and were given detailed instructions and a mountain of equipment on the boat, whereas the snorkelers (the three of us, plus a young Dutch boy and his mother) were simply given a mask, snorkel and flippers and told to jump off the back of the boat. This was fine by us, as it meant we were allowed to swim freely around the reefs for a couple of hours, while the scuba divers had to follow their instructors around.
Apart from a couple of panicky moments when we saw a red jellyfish bobbing towards us, the snorkelling was great. We saw huge shoals of brightly coloured fish swimming only inches away from us; it was just a pity that the overcast weather reduced visibility slightly.
In 1982 the federal government decided it was time to do something about all the drugs and illegal immigrants that were entering Florida via the Keys. They built a roadblock at Homestead and checked every vehicle leaving or entering the Keys, causing severe delays and inconvenience for the residents. In response, the PR-savvy mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow, issued a Declaration of Independence, announcing the secession of the Keys from the USA. The Conch Republic was formed with Wardlow as its new Prime Minister, and it immediately declared war on the US, surrendering one minute later. They then applied for $1 billion in aid from the USA which, unsurprisingly, they are still waiting for.
Of course, the Conch Republic was never intended to be anything more than a PR stunt to boost tourism to the Keys, although they did briefly repel a US military island invasion practice with water cannons. More than 20 years later, the Conch Republic and its pink shell symbol live on as a camp tourism trap. The best bit, though, is their motto: “We seceded where others failed”.
On Thursday morning we lay in and missed breakfast, so we went to the Waffle House that was connected to our motel. The waitress warned us as she took our drinks order that they were out of both waffles and orange juice; this made Leo irate. The service was crappy, the food was rough (the hash brown was essentially almost-raw grated potato) and the officially non-existent waffle batter was being splashed across the floor by the staff. In the end, however, it was OK because our waitress was so inattentive that she entirely failed to bill us for one of our meals; she got a $5 tip for this.
We had intended to ride the Conch Train (a guided tourist road train) around Key West, but it turned out to be $27 per person. Instead, we split into two groups: Neil and Leo went off to some pirate museum, while Alex, Andy and I visited Truman’s Little White House. The Little White House was President Truman’s retreat away from the formalities of Washington DC. Even in the face of press criticism, he spent 10% of his Presidency in Key West between 1945 and 1953. Apparently, he got more work done there than he did in Washington, perhaps because of the relaxed atmosphere and the loud shirt competition he forced upon his staff. The tour of the Little White House was given by a woman from London who had a bizarre habit of doing dreadful Churchill impressions occasionally.
Moving along the road, we visited Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home, where the writer had lived during the 1930s. Having never acquainted myself with “Papa’s” work, almost everything the entertaining tour guide told us was news. Interestingly, the house is a home to around 50 cats and, even more interestingly, half of them have six toes per paw. They are all descendents of a mouser that was given to Hemingway by some sailors.
Cultured to the brim, our next museum was the Key West branch of a chain that I’d been pleading to visit for weeks. Ripley’s Believe it or Not began as a series of newspaper cartoons in 1918, featuring weird and unbelievable facts; the museums of the same name feature exhibits and images to illustrate some of these facts. We bought our tickets with our tongues firmly in our cheeks, but left hours later, grinning. Almost to our disappointment, Ripley’s Believe it or Not is actually, genuinely quite good.
Yet again, we tried to watch Key West’s famous sunset, but unfortunately it was once again obscured by the only clouds in the sky. Nevertheless, it was pretty impressive and we watched it until the sky’s darkening was accelerated by storm clouds rolling over. We ate at a Jamaican restaurant where the food was distinctly average, but perhaps we should have considered that the owners of a restaurant called Jamaican Me Crazy may have actually thought of the name-pun before they thought about whether they could cook Jamaican cuisine.
On Friday morning we packed up to leave Key West, stopping only to buy Key Lime Pie (a local delicacy and absolutely delicious) and for Neil to buy Key Lime Wine (a less well-known local delicacy which is apparently “surprisingly nice”). On the way along the Keys we walked a trail in search of the endangered Key Deer; we saw a few through the undergrowth. Our journey was bizarre for two reasons: firstly, we were travelling north for the first time since we reached Toronto six weeks ago. Secondly, we were retracing steps that I had previously driven and the cyclists had already ridden. This was the beginning of the end of our adventure.
Hours later we arrived at the final motel of our trip, just south of Miami in Florida City. We couldn’t get settled for long, though, as we had an appointment in Miami. The previous evening I had checked the baseball listings to find that finally our visit to a city coincided with a game. In this case, it was the Florida Marlins at home to the San Francisco Giants.
After a little confusion as to where the stadium was, we paid our $16 (how cheap is that?) and took our seats in the empty stands at the start of the third innings of a total of nine. Baseball is a strange game; it is even slower than test cricket, but with those awkward quiet moments filled with cheerleaders, mascots and co-ordinated crowd sing-a-longs of unwieldy club songs to prevent any problems with the audience’s attention span.
As far as I could tell, baseball is essentially a complicated version of the British schoolgirl’s favourite, rounders, except a run is scored perhaps only two or three times in three hours. A frequent American criticism of football/soccer is that it is too low scoring; I think maybe they need to look again at baseball.
Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the game and I’m sure it can have the same hypnotic appeal as test cricket, but even the atmosphere was a little disappointing. Considering the crowd has literally minutes between moments of excitement, they have done a pretty poor job of spending this time productively by coming up with amusing songs or chants. In fact, they have just one chant: “Let’s go Marlins”, which is shouted repeatedly until eventually three batters have been outed on each team nine times, then everyone goes home without caring all that much about the final score. The following evening the same players repeat the match, and then again the next night and the night after that.
This morning we awoke to the news that Hurricane Dean was unlikely to come close to Florida, but was predicted to strike Jamaica full-on. The newscasters seemed far more concerned about whether Jamaica would take the bite out of the storm before it hits Texas than they did about what would actually happen to Jamaica and its people. I also noticed that despite it being a big island right in the middle of the on-screen map, Cuba is never ever mentioned by weather forecasters or reporters. Dean might well be about to hit southern Cuba, but as far as the US networks are concerned, it doesn’t exist. It’s as though an enormous Communist elephant is sitting off the Florida coast, but nobody wants to admit it.
Andy, Alex and I set off into the Everglades (Neil had been bitten by insects all night, so decided that stepping into a mosquito’s den for the day was not a good idea). At the visitor centre in Flamingo (a town with no flamingos at the far western end of the Everglades road), we saw a rare sight: a saltwater crocodile swimming around the marina. Alligators are very common in the Everglades, but their skinnier, greener cousins are quite rare here, although it is the only place in the world where both live side by side.
Crocodiles and alligators are tough, primitive creatures. They have evolved little since dinosaurs existed more than 65 million years ago, making them just about the closest things to them alive today. It is an indicator of how perfectly evolved they are that they have barely changed in a period of time 250 times longer than humans have existed for.
After being harangued by mosquitoes on a few forested trails, we took to the boardwalks back at the eastern end of the Everglades. In the surrounding marshes we saw several alligators and I was alarmed to see that the source of a loud squawking was a pair of large vultures sitting on the branch above my head.
We returned to the motel to begin the solemn task of emptying the monster truck of six weeks of accumulated crap. After vacuuming and washing the car, we went for our final evening meal in the USA at a seafood and steak house down the road. I ordered surf and turf again, and this time it was perfect. I now do see why people make such a fuss about lobster. To round things off, we ordered five slices of Key Lime Pie.
So that’s about it. Tomorrow evening, we board flights IB6120 and IB3164 (for the benefit of our parents), arriving in Heathrow at 2.45pm on Monday. Six weeks is a long time and we’ve seen so much since stepping off that plane in Chicago back in early July. We’ve witnessed one of the planet’s greatest natural wonders in Niagara Falls, and one of mankind’s greatest ever achievements at the shuttle launch in Florida. Along the way, we witnessed a tragedy unfold as a steam pipe exploded in New York City, enjoyed the theme parks of Orlando and were treated as a novelty in the Deep South, simply for being English.
By the time we reach Miami Airport tomorrow, I’ll have driven my monster truck almost exactly 5000 miles. If you were to drive in a straight line from London, that sort of mileage would take you to Zimbabwe, Brazil or almost to North Korea.
It is a very long way, but it is nothing compared to the 1600 miles or so that the cyclists have pushed and pulled themselves through to get from Niagara to Key West. Every one of them has put themselves through a personal hell at one time or another in order to drag that bike up a hill or along a scorching hot road, so my first thank you is to them for allowing me to tag along on their adventure with minimal discomfort of my own.
Secondly, thank you to our kind sponsors, Armstrong UK, who provided us with free clothing for the trip. Also a thank you to my other college son (the one I didn’t run into in Orlando), Andrew Goodchild, who I believe built the http://www.unihouse.co.uk website, which has certainly made the financial side of the trip so much easier to handle. If you live in a student house, you really should give it a try.
Thanks to everyone who has opened their wallet and sponsored one of our five good causes: your money is going directly where it is needed. Through donations to my nominated charity, Wateraid, there are at least ten people in the developing world who now have access to a lasting supply of clean water. Those ten people would probably be dead without your generosity.
I’d also like to thank everyone who has followed our trip on this website and everyone who has offered us support over the last month and a half. The number of people visiting every day (close to 150) has been way beyond what any of us could have expected. People that we met once along our travels and even people we have never met have been logging on, so thank you for giving all of us an incentive to blog our experiences.
Finally, I’d like to thank America for having us. This country has been surprisingly… surprising. It is easy to feel that one already knows the country, having been bombarded by its culture back in the UK. In fact, it has provided the unexpected at almost every turn, which has made the blog more interesting if nothing else.
Thanks for reading my glorified holiday diary. I’m off to London to get a job and pay off this trip.