Monday, July 19, 2010

Marathon Key, Florida

After leaving Long Key State Park on Thursday morning, I was delighted to find that almost all of the bridges crossing channels from Long Key to Marathon Key had beautiful fishing bridges built parallel to the ones for vehicles. It's so convenient and safe. The fishing bridges are built completely separate from the vehicular bridges. If you turn your back to the vehicular bridges and gaze at the water, you almost feel free of the urban life. Although many, many people had warned me of the dangers of riding my bicycle through the Keys, in general, I had found the route to be extremely accommodating to bicyclists and pedestrians and sometimes even luxurious. The fishing bridges were my favorite sections of the path.
Fishing bridge on the right, vehicular bridge on the left.

Here you are, crossing the bluest water you've ever experienced, the sun is beaming down on your back, and you can stop anywhere you wish, peer over the edge of the bridge, see straight to the bottom of the clear blue water to the coral rock below, and dream of jumping in. The water there is just beckoning to you. The colors and clarity of the water in the Keys is so surreal that I wouldn't have been shocked to see a mermaid slowly flow by, cruising the strong current.
And the color and clarity in the sky isn't much different then that of the water. Thursday was another very clear, hot, sweaty, sweltering day. The magnificent frigatebirds were floating high in the sky. My saltwater fishing experience tells me to look for dauphin and other great sportfish when I see these birds. I did not see any big fish, but I'm sure they were hiding in the sparkling water ripping below me.
As I was saying, the bike routes were fantastic so far! Look at the great markings and the beautiful paths. (By the way, since I've ridden on this bike route, I now notice these same bike route signs in all states. It's amazing how many nice bike routes exist. If you start looking for them, you'll notice this too!)
And then, this happened. If you can't see it clearly, click on the photo and you can see a larger version.
Seriously? This amazing bike route suddenly came to an abrupt stop. And I mean ABRUPT. They warn you with a small sign, then before you know it, you're dumped off the pavement, onto a small hill without even a foot path to get you back up to the road. Now, I'm not a bike diva, but if you're going to tease my senses with a posh bike path, can you at least ease me down off extravagance gently? Is it completely unreasonable to suggest that there be a crosswalk to get me back to the right shoulder of the road?

I laughed at this great example of engineering design fail, dragged my bike up the hill to the road, looked both ways before hustling across, and hopped right back on.
I had made it to Marathon Key!

View Florida Keys Bike in a larger map

At this point I had sucked down the last of my water. The hydration bag in my camelbak had created a vacuum and was making sad slurping sounds. I stopped at the first convenience store I found. At least, it was the Keys version of a convenience store. The store/house/marina boasted an extensive inventory of bait, a deli, key lime pie, gas, and fresh fish.
It was painted bright Key West colors and looked to be a great stopping point. I needed water and possibly a little something for breakfast. The sweet dog out front looked at me as if to say "you're crazy. Why would you want to be riding around in the midday sun? Even I know that the shade is the place to be right now."
Upon entering it became clear that this store was by no means a one-stop-shop. There was no key lime pie, barely a fishing hook on the barren walls, a deli which looked like it hadn't seen a sandwich in a decade, and no one inside. But, to my excitement, there was everything I needed in this little oasis. I found a large cold water and even a snickers ice cream bar! Score! I hung out for a few minutes waiting for the shop clerk to come in and take my money. After about 5 minutes, I realized that no one was around and my ice cream was melting. I put the snickers back in the freezer and wandered out back to find someone. After a few inquiring hello yells and no response, I went back in, grabbed my ice cream and water, put a $5 bill on the table and wrote this note:
As I was leaving, a man I presumed was the owner came into the store and we agreed that $5 would cover my purchases.
I soon entered Curry Hammock State Park lands and found another fantastic bike path! This one was isolated from the main road by a wide swath of native vegetation that managed to block much of the sound from the road. This was heaven on wheels! I rode for miles, completely alone and silent in the bright sun, surrounded by beautiful native shrubs, serene open swamps, and the sound of birds and insects. While I peddled along the smooth path, I would occasionally hear small animals jumping back into hiding or rustling the leaves beside the path. Although most of these sounds were most likely the skiddish green and brown anoles, I actually saw three bright green iguanas along this stretch. Although beautiful and exotic, the iguanas and the brown anoles are both invasive species to Florida.
Poisonwood (if you're allergic to poison ivy, this plant is a tree in the same family that will cause a similar, if not worse, skin reaction. And yes, I learned the hard way!)
Back bay swamp in Curry Hammock State Park
With a little more time, this is certainly a park I would love to explore some more. There were several marsh trails that jutted off the bike path that looked interesting. I completely missed the visitor's center as it was on the south side of the road, and I was riding on the north side, hidden from all road signage. But I did find this great little rest stop. There was even a creatively designed bike rack here.
I propped up the camera and got this hot and sweaty shot. This smile doesn't even begin to communicate the joy that I was feeling during this trip! It was seriously the ride of a lifetime!
Once I reached the town of Marathon on Marathon Key, I was ready for a little in-town adventuring. I stopped at the Chamber of Commerce Visitor's Center of Greater Marathon Key and inquired about the best local spots in town. After a little prodding, the sweet lady behind the desk slowly started sharing the best kept secrets in town. Somewhat hesitantly, she marked all of the best tiki bars on the island on my paper map. Score #2 of the day!

As it turns out, Marathon Key is a very interesting, happening town. I could easily spend a full weekend exploring the area. There is a large airport on the island...and look, biplane rides are only $55 for 2 people!

This giant Angelfish was just outside a dive shop.

I recommend Herbie's for a quick, cheap lunch (thanks for the original recommendation George!). It's nothing fancy, but it supports a local business and the food is pretty tasty. I had a simple yummy blackened chicken sandwich. The waitress wore skinny bleached jeans and sported a t-shirt that disclosed that she was "a little bit sneaky!" It made me smile.

One of my favorite, local secrets on the island is the drawbridge to Boot Key (symbolized by a sailboat on my google map):

View Florida Keys Bike in a larger map

According to the lady at the Visitor's Center, this drawbridge was put out of commission several years back. Because the island of Boot Key is only owned by two people and has no permanent homes, funding for the drawbridge was difficult to justify. There is only one building on the island and it is a radio station (the employees now have to take a boat to the island). Since the bridge has been out of working order, the city has tried several ways to get it back up and running. They even tried to sell it on eBay. Can you believe that no one bought it? With the economy in it's current state, you would think there are some trolls out of work that really need a good bridge to terrorize.
The local legend of the bridge was intriguing enough to attract me, and I was eager to check out the unwanted gate to paradise. I dropped my bike at the road closed signs and headed up to see the view of Boot Key Harbor, anchorage point for many beautiful sailboats and houseboats.
The drawbridge now appears to be the home for a small homeless, vagabond community.

Next, I began a short tiki-tour of Marathon Key. Having already passed and explored a few superb looking tiki bars on the island, I was ready to have a cold beverage at one. My first tiki bar was by far the best tiki bar I had seen in the Keys and one of my favorite secrets. You can bet I will always stop here if I'm heading to Key West! It's a great tikibar/restaurant/marina/marina gas station combo called Burdine's in viewing distance of the prettiest abandoned drawbridge.
The road to the tikibar, 15th St., runs through an old Keys-style trailer park and past stacks of lobster traps, back to a marina on the ocean side on the protected harbor.
Here's how I enjoyed Burdine's and how I recommend you do as well if you ever get the opportunity:
  1. prop your bike up on the dock
  2. head up to the second floor tikibar
  3. grab a stool at the bar, sit down, and exhale any lasting stress
  4. observe the local fishermen and discuss the fishing conditions
  5. order a cold domestic beer (they come in a coozie!)
  6. enjoy the awesome breeze that blows through this level
  7. read all the license plates hanging on the walls
  8. marvel at the big boats and yachts that pull up for gas
  9. chat up the great ladies who tend bar
  10. tip as if this will be your last beer in paradise

View from Burdine's across the harbor

Tiki bar #2 on the mini tiki-tour was Sunset Grille and Raw Bar, just before the Seven Mile Bridge. Of all the advice that I was given before my trip, the most urgent warnings were concerning the Seven Mile Bridge. This is because it is the longest bridge (yes, seven miles, captain obvious!) in the Keys, there is no bike route around it, and traffic can be relatively bad at this point. So I was a tad nervous. The Sunset Grille and Raw Bar helped to boost my courage.
Not only does this bar have a great view of the Seven Mile Bridge, but it also has a pool that its patrons can use! Although it feels nothing like an authentic tiki bar, the pool more than made up for that! I cooled off in the water, sipped a beer, and reflected on my seven mile destiny. I drank my second beer and got on the road again quickly after the kids in the pool started splashing and yelling...I'm too old for those shenanigans and plus, I had seven miles before my next home.
See the tiny bump after the electric poles end? That's the elevated part of the bridge and the halfway point.

As it turned out, the Seven Mile Bridge was no problem. I kicked it in gear and made it across in 20 minutes!! That's 21 mph...faster than I've ever ridden on this bike. This was for several reasons:
  1. I had timed it right, and started over the bridge at about 4pm when most of the traffic is heading north rather than south.
  2. There was actually a good size (approx 5 ft) shoulder on the bridge to ride on, so the cars and trucks that passed had lots of clearance
  3. There was no debris on the shoulder to dodge around
  4. There is only approximately 1 mile of the bridge that is elevated, the rest is completely flat
  5. The wind was at my back
That was a satisfying bridge. I took some pictures from the southern end of the bridge.

Then I rode the last three miles to Bahia Honda State Park at my typical 10mph pace. I felt accomplished and empowered.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a creacy women you are.
would you like to publish this trip as a book?
I`m sure they are a lot of swissbiker would trey it.
Monika

Kristina said...

Yes, I may be crazy, but I had an amazing time and I would do it again in an instant! I don't know about writing a book, but I am having a lot of fun writing down the memories and sharing them on this blog. Thanks for reading them! Maybe we could get a Swiss biking tour together to go through the keys! That would be fun! Do you want to be the first to sign up?

Bonnie said...

Kristina,

What an interesting report and what great photos. I plan to check out some of these spots on my next Keys trip.

Meanwhile, I wrote a story about your trip for my site, floridarambler.com, with several links to your blog.

It's here: http://floridarambler.com/florida-outdoor-news/bicycling-through-the-florida-keys/

Bonnie gross

Kristina said...

Thanks Bonnie!! I checked out your story on Florida Rambler and it is really exciting that you are helping me to spread the information about this type of bike ride. It is truly so easy and life changing that I want to help many others if they want to try something similar. I'm already planning to do this ride again when I return from graduate studies in Switzerland. I can't wait!!

Also, your blog is really fantastic. I wish I had known about it and followed it when I lived in Florida. You've got some great stories about all the places I loved the most in Florida and many other places as well.

Conchscooter said...

Nice pictures. The fishing bridges are the original Flagler railroad bridges built in the early 20th century. they carried the road after a hurricane blew out the railroad in 1935. the new Overseas Highway was built in 1982 and reduced travel time by half. Meeting trucks on the old bridges was not for the faint of heart.
Marathon is a city, not pretty, but not a Key. Visitors frequently talk of Marathon Key but Marathon is built on Vaca Key, Knight's Key and the now detached Boot Key.

Rick said...

Great story! I've been fishing in the Keys twice in the last 3 years and it's my favorite place, and I can't wait until I can go again! Thanks for sharing!

Rick

Anonymous said...

Lovely pictures im currently in the homestead area i have to take a trip here soon

elisabeth montero said...

ahh this was amazing! i plan on making this trip in a few weeks! about how long was your trip and how many miles did you do a day? i will be riding a fixed gear bike and this will be my first biking trip! reading this made me feel a lot better since everyone especially my mother thinks i am crazy for wanting to do this alone (especially since i am a girl). Any tips you may have for me?