The constant flow of vehicles was clear evidence that I’m not the only one who finds the end of the road compelling. When that road ends at a Caribbean Island with a romantic history of pirates, rumrunners, Cuban exiles and Ernest Hemingway the 100-mile conga line of RVs, convertibles and a heavy preponderance of Harleys is not surprising. What I found hard to imagine was where all those vehicles were going to end up given that the island of Key West is no more than 4 miles long and maybe 2 miles at it’s widest. I was wondering if drivers dazzled by the sun dappled, turquoise waters, foreheads sticky from the humid air just kept driving off the southernmost point of the continental U.S. into the Florida Straights. Given the identical character of the returning traffic it’s clear that March is a massive game of musical chairs, all those Massachusetts and Minnesota license plates taking turns at escaping the northern winters, the dockside thatch bars filled by Bermuda short clad refugees scoffing at the silent loop of the Weather Channel showing the latest snow-pocalypse back home.
With Rachael’s gracious assistance I was able to ditch my gear and hop on my bike for the long arcing ride from Key Largo to Key West. Formed over 100,000 years ago the Keys are a chain of coral reef outcrops linked by a series of bridges and causeways built on the skeleton of Henry Flagler’s hurricane wrecked Overseas Railway. With a small bit of effort it would be a world-class bike route, the paths and wide shoulders not very contiguous yet. As it stands it’s a pretty great ride if you’re comfortable having a steady flow of cars just off your hip. Being on a bike allowed me to see the mangroves and tropical waters close up. It also meant that in the steamy sun my forehead and everything else was sticky and hot when I reached roads end, so I went ahead and dove off the southernmost point into the reviving waters of the Florida Straights.
The Keys have island ecology issues. Islands, by their physical separation, have a high rate on endemism – plants and animals unique to that place. By attaching these islands to each other and to the mainland with a road, aggressive, non-native species start to show up. Being this far south everything was exotic to me so it’s difficult without prior study to know what is native. The hundreds of big Green Iguanas scampering into the mangroves as I rode by, not native. The attractive, grey-green palm trees, also not native. In fact the warm frost-free climate that has attracted folks for all these years also means it’s a place where exotics can thrive and some of those folks brought exotics with them with that in mind. On many islands essentially all life is invasive. On a brand new volcanic rock rising from the sea there is going to be that first coconut that floats in and takes root or that first colorful songbird that gets blown way off course and makes a home. Over generations these creatures adapting to local conditions can become new and unique species. Our modern dilemma is the much-accelerated rate that a highly mobile and somewhat careless humanity brings to these changes. The biodiversity that is essential to a healthy and adaptable ecosystem is diminished each time a Norway Rat jumps ship or a oversized pet Python gets dumped in the Florida swamp. Some newcomers can wipe out whole classes of native life.
Nature is well at hand in the Keys once you find your way off the main drag. There are mangroves filled with unique birds you can’t see elsewhere in America and those alluring waters are rich with fish. I suppose that to the vast majority of travelers, on that narrow strip of congested pavement, nature is the tarpon they hope to hook on their half day fishing charter or the conch fritters they wash down with a rum punch. If they were lucky like I was they might have spotted the diminutive Key Deer that was grazing behind some secluded mobile homes. Like a lot of island mammals it is much smaller than it’s mainland cousin the white tailed deer and is found only on a few Keys towards the end of the line. Endangered and protected with a special reserve on Big Pine Key it’s hoped that they can coexist within the laid back Keys lifestyle. Unfortunately, with over 30 deer killed so far on the busy highway it looks like this year might be worse than the last. Paradise can be irresistible and with so many crowding in to get a taste, both the lifestyle and the deer can suffer. With our feet up on a chunk of coral and an improvised rum cocktail in our hands while watching the sun set into Florida Bay I guess I was grateful for a chance to get our little piece of this paradise.