My wife and I have lived in Florida since the mid 1960’s. We are both “Yankee” transplants, Ann is from New York and I am from Pennsylvania. However, since we have lived in the “Sunshine State” for such a long period, we consider Florida our home state.
“Yeah, yeah, whoop-dee-do, can you just get on with the story.”
“Gees, did we get up on the wrong side of the bed today? I have to lay out a few facts first, okay. A few somewhat boring and repetitive facts or the rest of the story won’t make sense, so stifle it.”
We did leave Florida for nine plus years when my employer offered me a promotion along with fully paid move to Texas. Several more promotions followed and just as I was about to submit my retirement papers, my employer made yet another promotion offer. The only fly in the ointment was it required yet another move, this time to Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington DC.
We probably would not have even considered another offer this late in my career, but my employer had sweetened the pot to get our attention. The offer included enticements such as a fully paid move package, housing subsidies, mass transportation subsidies, and a substantial pay increase. After a lot of thought and many a “what if” along with an occasional “but I want to go home”, Ann and I eventually came to the conclusion that it was in our best interest to accept the offer but do it with the caveat that I would only commit to a two-year period. I was tired of the “rat race” and wanted to retire, heck, we were both tired of the “rat race” and wanted to return home to Florida.
“UGH, now he’s either bragging or complaining…I’m not sure which. Is this story ever going to get interesting?”
“Man, you do have your undies in a bunch don’t you. Have you ever heard the phrase “All good things come to those who wait?” Hush up…you’re beginning to bug me.”
During the twenty-eight years prior to our Texas move, like most people with a busy lifestyle, we suffered from a case of the “put-offs”. That is, we would put off fun things we would like to have done, in order to take care of more urgent career matters. Yup, we were “fun time” procrastinators, and we were very good at it. It was kind of like throwing your life away, you know, putting your career ahead of the simple pleasures in life…not taking the time to stop and smell the roses. Yes indeed, we were guilty as charged.
While living in Texas, every television ad we saw touting Florida Keys tourism reminded us that we had never visited the Keys even though it was high on our list of things to do. Every time we planned the trip, something more important would cause us to cancel. It was hard to believe we consistently placed our careers above everything else, and we never took the time to visit that beautiful area.
As you can imagine, in no time at all we developed a rather large dislike for those ads. Viewing all those beautiful images was like rubbing salt in an open wound, like having a constant reminder of how dumb we had been. When the ads aired, we became very adept at hitting the mute button. We were TV remote quick draw artists…fastest mute button pushers in the west.
Now there was a real oddity that occurred during the period when we lived in Texas and Virginia, we became tourist junkies. It was as if we were overcompensating for our past crimes. I think we saw everything there was to see and then some. Even on our shopping trips, we would delight in searching for unfamiliar and strange items that we had never seen before…yeah, it was that bad.
So, how did we go from “career junkies” to your typical, every day, camera toting, loud tee shirt wearing, stick out like a sore thumb, tourist? I wish I had an answer for you, but I have no idea.
Maybe it was because Ann and I were in a whole new world or maybe, just maybe, it was because I was suddenly in a situation where I didn’t have to work on those two extra days that followed Friday. It took us a whole month and a half before we could remember the name of those two days…“THE WEEKEND”.
In no time at all, we learned how to enjoy every minute of “THE WEEKEND”. We became quite adept at cramming four days’ worth of fun into those two days. Starting first thing on Monday, we would begin our planning for “THE WEEKEND”.
Of course, that raised a completely new issue…we spent the entire week wishing it was Friday and we were not alone. Many of my coworkers had adopted the same credo. When that day would finally arrive, TGIF was our mantra and clock watching along with willing the hands to move faster became our obsession. When the clock ticked over to four-thirty we all bailed out.
It was like watching kids running out of school on the last day of the term, eager to start their summer vacation. We could not wait to start “THE WEEKEND”. Yup, you guessed it, Ann and I had both come down with a severe case of “Weekenditis” which could only be cured by consuming large doses of fun and pure enjoyment. Needless to say, we were both very diligent about taking a mega dose of the cure.
As I said, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Texas and were still enjoying the Virginia, Washington DC area. However, it was time to face the music, since we were now a full six months beyond my original two-year commitment. Our “Weekenditis” had indeed caused us to overstay our visit but some extenuating circumstances and our love for our home state caused us to reconsider another extension of our stay.
In March of 2003, we left the hustle and bustle of the DC area. We had stopped throwing our lives away and were totally enjoying our new lifestyle. With huge smiles on our faces Ann and I headed south on I-95, literally floating along on cloud nine. We were finally going home to our beloved Florida…ain’t life grand.
It wasn’t until we had crossed the Florida state line and started remembering some of those awesome sights that were left behind so many years ago that we finally realized we were indeed back home where we belonged.
We spent our first couple of weeks in Florida dealing with the usual moving issues. Everything seemed to be falling in place with the exception of one problem that we had not anticipated…“THE WEEKEND”. Since we were now retired, “THE WEEKEND” that Ann and I had so dearly enjoyed in Texas and Virginia now extended well beyond the normal two days. In fact, “THE WEEKEND” now extended from Monday to Sunday…fifty-two weeks a year. We went from struggling to find enough time to fit “fun stuff” into a normal weekend to struggling to find enough “fun stuff” to fill our now extended weekend, “THE ENDLESS WEEKEND”…I wish all our problems were as much fun to resolve.
Once the dust had settled and we were comfortable in our new home, we set about correcting the biggest wrong of our twenty-eight years of not taking the time to smell the roses. You guessed it…Ann and I planned a trip to the Florida Keys as an anniversary gift to ourselves. We selected a small bed and breakfast in Key West as our base location and could not wait for our trip to start.
With our reservations and travel plans in place, the unthinkable happened…hurricane Dennis. Dennis the menace was about to play havoc with our long awaited trip. The early predictions did not bode well for the Florida Keys. There was an official order requiring everyone who was not a permanent resident of the Keys, to evacuate to the mainland. The tourists were running home to mama and I could not blame them one bit.
We decided to play the “wait and see” game. As much as weather experts like to think they can predict the path of a hurricane, mother nature typically proves them wrong so we were hoping that maybe, just maybe, she might be on our side this time and allow us to make our much postponed trip.
As it turned out, mother nature was indeed on our side. Although the Keys were blasted with high winds and tons of rain, they were spared a direct hit and damage was minimal as Dennis passed to the west and continued his trek northward in the Gulf of Mexico…the menace turned out to be more of an annoyance, a pesky little brat.
We spent the day before packing and getting everything ready for a quick getaway. The morning of our departure, we awoke bright and early…well, bright for Ann, just early for me. Three cups of coffee later and I was still grumbling about the early hour. We rushed through our morning routines and headed out the door to begin our exciting adventure.
In no time at all, we were turning onto I-75 heading south. After driving about an hour, the interstate turned eastward and after passing through a tollbooth, we began crossing the state on a section of I-75 affectionately known as “Alligator Alley”.
Hearing that name always triggers flashbacks of the first time I had ever traveled on the “Alley”. Its full name was a perfect fit since, back then, the road was only two narrow lanes and seeing alligators, or as Floridians call them, “gators”, crossing the road and basking in the sun was a common sight.
In those days, the areas surrounding the roadway were pretty much uninhabited and in a pristine state. That meant if you had forgotten to fill your gas tank before you got on the Alley, you spent the entire crossing worrying if you had enough fuel to make it to the other coast. I mean there were no gas stations and forget about bathroom facilities, the only thing available were bushes along the roadway. Worst of all, there wasn’t even a place to get a cup of coffee, just lots of palm trees, swamps, and big birds…and of course “gators”, lots and lots of huge and very hungry “gators”.
Nowadays, it’s a breeze traveling the “Alley”. Its four lanes with wide emergency shoulders, fences to keep the “critters” from playing in traffic, and even some rest stops, gas stations, and restaurants. It is not at all like the old days when you worried about running out of coffee, gas, or God forbid you had a flat tire or vehicle breakdown. If you had an emergency back then, you might as well just bend over and kiss your butt goodbye…oh, and did I mention there were “gators”, lots and lots of very large, hungry “gators”, lurking in the shadows just waiting for dinner to be served.
Even though it took over five hours to travel from our house to the Bed and Breakfast in Key West, it truly did not seem that long a trip. There were so many new and amazing things to see and every time we rounded a curve in the road, we were presented with a completely new palette of sights, sounds, and critters.
Well actually, the gators got a wee bit boring. It has always been my opinion that once you have seen one gator, you have basically seen them all. They’re either lying around trying to warm up or slowly swimming around trying to cool down and there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. Then of course, there is their favorite pastime, filling their stomachs with good things to eat, oh, and let us not forget about getting rid of the results from eating said good things. Do not let them fool you though, they can move really, really, fast if you annoy them or if you look like you would make a good dinner. However, as I said, if you’ve lived in Florida for more than six months gators are boring…well, with the exception of the University of Florida Gators.
Running along both sides of the Alley are canals, which I assume are there to keep the swampland from reclaiming the roadway property. Of course, as with any body of water, the canals are home to many different species of critters…including the aforementioned, non-football playing, gators.
As we traveled along, we could not help but notice the many “Tourist Attraction” signs, one of which was airboat tours. It looked as though it might be a lot of fun and Ann quickly added it to our ever-expanding “Things we want to do and places we want to see” list. I think she placed it just below the top item, which was to win the Florida lottery.
Eventually, we reached the east coast of Florida. As we exited Alligator Alley and drove onto the Florida Turnpike, we encountered heavy traffic traveling at a much higher rate of speed. It seemed as though everyone needed to be at some important place and were really late getting there. We were traveling at fifteen miles per hour above the posted speed limit and we still had cars behind us pushing our bumper. Ann and I were aware the east coast had a reputation for having a hectic lifestyle when compared to the laid-back west coast, but this was downright ridicules. In a flash, the “fun” was quickly being sucked out of our “fun trip”…UGH.
Just as I was about to scream “uncle” and get off the turnpike to find a quiet back road, we neared the tip of Florida and as if someone threw a switch, traffic magically thinned out and we were back traveling at the posted speed limit. In a very short time, we had our answer as to why there was a sudden decrease in the amount of cars and trucks on the road…bridges. We were just about to cross one of the many bridges that dotted the route to Key West with the longest being the famous Seven Mile Bridge.
Either the people in all those turnpike vehicles did not like crossing bridges, or the places they were late getting to were not located in the Keys. At any rate, we were glad traffic finally thinned out and the “fun” was back in our “fun trip”.
Once we drove onto the first bridge, it was smooth sailing right on into Key West and in no time at all, we were pulling into the parking lot of the Bed and Breakfast. After we had completed the check-in process, carried our luggage to our room, and unpacked, we were free to look around. Since it was already late afternoon, we decided to take a leisurely walk, do a little window-shopping, and then find a nice place to have dinner.
The first thing that jumped out and said howdy was the lack of tourists. They had all gone home thanks to Dennis the menace. It was nice not having to share the sidewalks with a horde of tourists wearing Mickey Mouse ears and complaining about the heat and humidity…yup, we were really enjoying that, kinda like being in hog heaven.
We had always been told that Key West was somewhat, to use a sixties term, far-out, but I am not sure we were prepared for what we encountered. At first, we thought we were in a quaint little town with narrow tree lined streets. It was really a pleasant walk as we headed toward the main drag.
Oh, I almost forgot, we had our first encounter with a Key West rooster…yeah, real exciting. They turned out to be a rather common sight, but after we saw the first one, additional sightings were just kind of ho-hum.
As soon as we turned onto Duval Street, we knew immediately the words “far-out” didn’t even come close to describing what we were seeing…it wasn’t anything like we expected, it was like stepping into a really strange and different world. To quote Dorothy, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Knowing we were not up to all this after our long drive, we found a nice restaurant, had a great meal, and then headed back to the Bed and Breakfast to rest up for tomorrow, which was going to be a hectic day.
The next morning when we finally returned to the land of the living, well, we were somewhat awake anyway, we headed down to the pool area to enjoy an awesome outdoor breakfast. I had never seen so many unique breakfast choices, and the coffee was beyond words…three cups later, I was still singing its praises. However, all good things must come to an end, and it was now time for us to face all the new and exciting things waiting to be discovered in beautiful downtown Key West…ugh, I sound like a travel brochure.
I am sure most people have heard tales of Key West’s Conch Train, well, it is the real deal and we headed to the “station” to purchase our tickets. Ann and I thought the train would be a good way to see all of Key West, then we could decide which areas we wanted to revisit either on foot or by car, although most areas were well within walking distance.
The train did indeed turned out to be a good idea, not only did we get to see many historical sites, the “Engineer” kept up a running dialog explaining the history and anecdotal stories of each place we passed.
Okay, so I led you down the garden path and closed the gate behind you…it is a train, but just not the kind that runs on a track. These trains have rubber tires and run on propane gas.
Key West is an amazing place, you could spend an entire month in that town and still not see everything there is to see or do everything there is to do. We hit the highlights and really enjoyed ourselves…and yes, we do have plans to return…someday. As for now though, we just wandered around looking at things, some touristy, some unique, and some just downright odd.
For several centuries, “wrecking” was an important economic industry in the Florida Keys and especially Key West. “Wrecking” is the term used for removing valuable cargo from ships that had collided with one of the many reefs that surround the Keys. Key West has several museums and monuments dedicated to that era, the “wreckers”, and the “wrecking” industry. Hmmm, I wonder if the ambulance chasing lawyers associated with today’s automobile wrecks are a spin-off industry of the old wrecking days.
Of course, you cannot talk about Key West without bringing up the subject of Ernest Hemmingway, his six-toed cats, and his home, which is now a museum.
Even though we were still seeing some remnants of hurricane Dennis, the threatening clouds did not dampen our spirits. We were in awe of all the different types of boats we saw during our stroll around the waterfront. It was quite a surprise to see a ship tied up at the cruise ship docks. With all the hubbub over Dennis, which was still churning around in the Gulf north of the Keys, one would have thought that every Gulf of Mexico cruise ship captain would have played it safe and fled to calmer waters…well, unless the ship was hosting a convention of “Storm Chasers”.
The highlight of our trip was going to be the Mallory Square Sunset Celebration. Once again, we had heard a lot about the celebration, but trust me, everything we had heard was polar opposite of what we experienced…I mean talk about a gathering of total weirdness, everything we saw was alien to the term normal. It was as if a UFO had landed and little green men had rewired the brains of all the street performers. Even though the “acts” were out of the norm, they were entertaining and fun to watch.
Once the street performers had completed their routines, everyone started watching all the boats as they paraded by. Now, those boats were loaded with people, who were watching the people on land, who were watching the people on the boats…weird huh? I’m not sure what to equate it to, other than zoo animals watching zoo animals but neither set of zoo animals were in cages…well, a few of the street performers were somewhat questionable and probably needed to be in cages. The boats would pass by then turn around, and come back by a second time…kind of like an expensive staring contest. I might add that this goes on every night and tourists actually look forward to taking part in this stare down.
When the staring contest had completed with no winners or losers, it was time for the main event, that golden prize at the end of the day, something Floridians never seem to tire of seeing, the sun setting in the west.
Sometimes fate has a way of jogging your memory to keep you on the straight and narrow. While Ann and I were strolling around window-shopping, a gentlemen approached us and in an excited manner said, “Take my picture”. Now, I have learned a long time ago that my conscience will beat me up later on if I refuse to take a person’s picture…that disappointed look they get on their face seems to have a direct connection to my heart. Therefore, to keep from beating myself up later on, I usually will snap a few pictures. The neat thing is that every once in a while, one of those impromptu photos produces a unique image, a real gem.
In this case, I had a strange feeling it was important that I take this guy’s picture. Maybe it was his way of asking, I am not exactly sure what was triggering that “must do” feeling. When he realized I was indeed going to take his picture, he removed his sandals, backed up about three feet, and then dove head first into a trash can. To say we were totally surprised by his actions would be an understatement.
When I finished snapping the last picture, I turned to Ann only to see her staring at me with her mouth wide open, suddenly we both knew why it was so important to capture this event. It was an eerie reminder not to revert back to our old ways of throwing our lives away. It was telling us to continue down the path we were headed, to enjoy life and the people that traveled in and out of it…moments of pure pleasure.
Another great adventure comes to an end. It doesn’t get any better than this…well, unless you’ve just completed the last item on your “Things you want to do and places you want to see” list. That might just be a step up from this story.
I guess as we travel the road of life, we can never be really sure which way the road will turn…one thing’s for certain though, if you make the most of today, you won’t be constantly saying “I wish I would have…” tomorrow.
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