My friend Ted and I recently completed a 250-mile journey by train and trail from West Palm Beach to Key West. We experienced waves of change juxtaposed with unchanging ways. Who knew you could now ride commuter rail through South Florida? Who knew that next to Miami International Airport, two lines by next year will converge with Amtrak, Greyhound, public bus, rental car stations and a bike facility with showers at the mammoth new $1.7 billion Miami Intermodal Center?
We parked the car free for the week at the West Palm Tri-Rail station. Two hours brought us to the Metrorail connection, where we transferred for another hour's ride through downtown Miami. At Brickell Station, we de-trained to start cycling.
Rail worked well. Bikes travel free. Elevators let you navigate Tri-Rail crossovers between northbound and southbound tracks, and move up and down at Metrorail's elevated stations.
We finished the day with 30 miles along the M-Path that runs below the Metrorail alignment and then seamlessly links with the South Dade Trail alongside a dedicated busway to Florida City. At sprawling Dadeland, we climbed the new bike-ped bridge with its hairpin turns over on-ramps of the Snapper Creek Expressway.
We stayed the night in east Homestead, which didn't exist when I last traveled these parts maybe 10 years ago. In 2007, a hospital relocated here. All-too-familiar Florida followed with 30,000 newcomers and their car culture. Only different today were the crowds from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Central America and Mexico that call Homestead home. Walk into the new Publix grocery store and you'll find families browsing displays of malanga and yucca, speaking Spanish learned in Managua, San Jose and Cuernavaca.
Next morning, we journeyed from streets paved with gold to the still frontier-like Florida Keys that evoke Civil War America, when deserters drifted down to an empty place of bubbly springs and easy harvest, a Florida from where vanquished Seminoles were exiled to Oklahoma's climate extremes.
John Hopkins of Green Mobility Network met us early at the Hampton Inn beside the Florida Turnpike. We drove to Key Largo across the "18-Mile Stretch." Some cyclists ride the causeway's paved shoulders, despite their road-edge reflectors. Trucks whoosh by. We drove for safety.
From Key Largo to Key West, the 106-mile road and trail never run more than yards apart, much of the way on paved shoulders, occasionally buffered by trees and across bridges that start at Tavernier Creek. The seven-mile section in place between Key Largo and Tavernier undulates. It's narrow and collects gravel and trash. I picked up two flats.
Trail Specialist Monica Woll says the trail will never close every gap. At least before some far future when intentional gaps are replaced in the old Seven Mile Bridge, the current bridge will offer cyclists only shoulders—and 20-to-30 mph winds that angle across your back.
"Maintenance will remain limited until we have a bigger budget," Monica says. "We do maintenance as we can. Just collecting trash, trimming, removing exotics, mowing, filling pot holes and putting up signs keeps us busy."
It's where the old railroad bridges have been restored for exclusive use by cyclists, joggers and folks fishing that the trail claims its future. The spans are 12 feet across, the trail bed smooth, the motor roar muted.
So far, 18 bridges have been restored with conversion of another three scheduled to start in 2013. Surface improvements and widening will convert existing trail to high standard. Through Islamorada, Old Highway provides 12 miles of calm side road. Through Grassy Key north of Marathon Shores, buffering trees calm a section of almost four miles. Additional good sections are short but frequent, the last four miles on Saddlebunch Keys followed by four miles of shoulder that give way to a last 5.5 of path through New Town Key West.
Trail notwithstanding, the ride already compels because hour by passing hour the highway displays life approaching land's end that few Americans can otherwise imagine. It's all about the road.
Chain businesses appears by the few, maybe three hotels, a couple supermarkets, a few franchised hardware stores and gas stations. Few businesses bother with billboards. A small lodging by the road—Capt. Pips just before the Seven Mile Bridge—sits concealed by a sign the size of a tire patch. But people drift to the end of the road, hidden behind their beards, unnoticed without make-up, often on clunker bikes. RV park dwellers grasp happiness at the edge. Where else left to go?
The signs are fun. One says, "Warning. We play Jimmy Buffett Music." Another, "Keep it down. This ain't Duval Street." There's a fabricated lobster the size of a movie monster, and in Islamorada a behemoth arrow that looms at the highway edge that's a resort come-on.
Breakfast places are virtual trailheads. Part of their romance is how they hug the road. Locals come early; tourists roll in closer to 9, mostly in t-shirts and flip-flops. The early buzz is more about pot busts reported in the Keynoter; later, about yesterday's sun burn. Locals like the original Mrs. Mac's in Key Largo, Harriette's in Tavernier, and Midway Café nearby for its bake shop. At Marathon's Seven Mile Grille, the décor is Throwaway Moderne—beer cans, license plates and more signs: "Good Morning. Let the stress begin."
When each of these mom-and-pop places achieves legacy status, so will its lattice edging, tinny newspaper boxes beside the door and brightly painted electric meters. Shabby chic everywhere.
We rode maybe 15 miles to Key Largo, 45 to Marathon, 20 to Little Torch, and a last 25 to Key West. Rain cooled early mornings, and clouds that lasted for three days left us tan, not red. Wind stayed steadily at our backs—which explains why many cyclists who ride south return by Greyhound, or rent a one-way car. Unfortunately, county buses that serve the Keys take on only folding bikes. A five-hour ride by commuter bus that should cost maybe $20 to $30 back to Florida City instead costs two traveling together a scandalous $160 on Greyhound, maybe $100 by rental car.
The road from Boca Chica is four lanes meant for speed, but crumbled at the edge. The mangroves look healthy, but the water lifeless. Coming south, New Town Key West is surreally clamorous. It's like Disney outside the gates.
But everything's a smile in Old Town. How serious can you be about Queen Annes painted purple or yellow, and balconies with pineapple trim? Evening in the rain, mom and daughter cyclists with rear-mounted milk crates go splashing by. Two pale people dripping half-naked in swimsuits laugh.
We watched from front seats at open-air, but canopied, Martin's on Duval Street. Martin's is classy, understated and affordable for two-course dinners. It's also 250 steps from where we stayed the night at secluded Andrews Inn, emphatically for our trek to land's end at Zero Whalton Lane.