If you read my last blog entry, Easy, Breezy, Key-Z, you can understand my hesitancy to leave my friends and their fabulous home and hospitality in Islamorada. In fact, I’ve loved many of your comments and responses requesting their address and wanting to know if they take renters! (Not just yet!)
It’s easy to covet a little here – there’s much to envy! The Key-z life is a chillaxed one. Slow-pace, laid-back, no-hurry. It’s not hard to get drawn into the easy rhythms of eat, sun, sleep, repeat. Atlantic Ocean sunrise across the street, Gulf sunset in the “back yard”, food, fun, and most importantly friends, within. Thoughts of the cutthroat pace of Northern Virginia seem downright sinful in comparison.
But while I was as content as a manatee lounging in a Florida canal, I realized that the explorer/discoverer in me was ready to move on.
Consoled with the thought that this wouldn’t be my last visit to Islamorada, I headed out. I had missed life on the road!
I had known my plan for this first leg north from the moment I decided to take this trip. In fact, it probably had something to do with deciding to come down here at all. Trading in the mountainous route that brought me all the way from home to Georgia and into the endless orange groves and sugar cane fields of Florida, I was opting for sand and surf as my view of choice for the next few days. (Fun fact for the day: Did you know sugar cane grows in Florida? I did not. As you approach the Everglades, the roads become lined with tall grass a little reminiscent of bamboo. The stalks, which grow up to 20 feet high, cover 400,000 acres of southern Florida west of West Palm Beach. Driving past it for miles, I was dying to know what it was. I’m obsessive that way. Now we all learned something new!)
My route: Florida State Road A1A for as long as it would take to reach its northernmost end at Fernandina Beach, near the Georgia border. The road originates at mile marker 1 in Key West, so I wasn’t truly driving it in its entirety. I began at approximately marker 72, which left me with 256 Florida seaside miles to go. How long can that possibly take, you ask? Well, as much of the road is 35 MPH and serves as the main drag through countless seaside towns, it’s not quick. Nor did I have any desire for it to be.
My imaginings of this drive conjured up dreams of a top-down, hair-flying, music-blaring summertime road trip. The reality was close, though more sun-roof open than top-down. For the first time on my trip, I didn’t have any sleeping plans. I had no idea how long it would take or how far I would go on any given day. In the end, I spent two nights and the better part of three days working my way up the A1A. Time to think, to stop wherever and whenever the mood struck me, to just be. A free-spirited, clock-free existence. I highly recommend it.
To provide some geographic context – once you head back to the mainland from the Keys, you must deal with Miami. It is the first and last significant-sized city I would encounter as I hugged the coast northward. I headed east to Miami Beach, and just kept moving. For the first hour or so, there was little to see beyond the staggering wealth and high-rises that flanked both sides of the road, preventing any possible ocean views, though I always knew it was just beyond the trappings of the rich and famous.
Once through the elegant clutter of it all, I began to relax and enjoy the slow-pace and the dwindling population of smaller and smaller towns. It was a Friday night and the setting sun tried unsuccessfully to hide behind a soaring cumulonimbus cloud. It appeared lit from within, like a trapped lightning bug peeking through a child’s chubby fingers. The result was a magical golden light cast on everyone and everything in its path. Tan and hungry vacationers crossed the street from beachside to rows of restaurants, trading in the sea to search for their evening meal. One by one, I passed similar scenes through little hamlets like Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Pompano Beach, Hillsboro Beach, Deerfield Beach. When the sun stopped, so did I. I hadn’t considered it before but quickly realized that traveling in the dark held no magic for me. I wanted to see every single piece of it.
After another successful AirBnB experience (I don’t even know where it was, exactly!) I headed out early. I discovered that traveling the coastal road meant that often the Intracoastal Waterway was directly on my left, divided from the Atlantic by not much more than the road on which I was driving, plus a little sand and a single row of homes. Water, water everywhere. West Palm, Palm, Jupiter . . . I drove through them all, with the morning sun shimmering on the Atlantic just outside the passenger-side wide-open window. Green-blue water turns deep blue and then turquoise before continuing on to greens again, and my head constantly on a swivel between the road and the water.
What is the irresistible draw to the ocean? I drove alongside it, my faithful sidekick, for three days before having to leave it behind in favor of marshland and sea grasses at the edges of Georgia. I never tired of it. Unlike my trip down, I did not have set stops to explore places along the route. The route was the adventure in this case. When I needed to stretch my legs, I took Christmas morning-like pleasure in turning on my right signal and parking in one of hundreds of beach-side parking areas along the road. In 30 seconds, flip-flops off and toes in the sand. Not a bad way to spend the day.
Hutchinson Island was one such place, and I was amazed to find the beach in bloom. Long meandering vines of beach morning glory trailed down towards the surf, with bright purple flowers marking the way.
So many possible places to park for a day at the beach resulted in often unpopulated stretches of sand. I found this makes for better daydreaming. Fifteen minutes at this beach, twenty at another one down the road – a good drive.
One of my favorite finds along the way was eclectic road-side hot dog and ice cream stands. My pick for one afternoon was Moo’s Ice Cream in Indiatlanic, about an hour south of Cape Canaveral. Moo’s boasted both ice cream and hot dogs, and I had to agree with their signage, as it was indeed, “udderly delicious”.
These slow, sweet miles passing through small coastal towns fooled me into forgetting that Daytona Beach was not far into my future. Upon reaching its outskirts I clearly recognized I was not in Kansas anymore. Stuck in Saturday afternoon traffic edging slowly north, however, a completely unexpected shock of memory caused me to sit up and take closer notice of my surroundings. A strong sense of “I’ve been here in this exact place before” hit me. From the time I was a little kid, I’ve had this happen to me. Driving somewhere I haven’t been in years, I’ll often have a very tangible sense of being near something specific I’ve experienced before. Most times the feeling is spot-on, and it can be creepy. I had it now, and I suddently knew why.
I have to first say that Daytona Beach is not my kind of place. Full of hotels and t-shirt shops, vendors of all kinds line the street, old semi run-down hotels, putt-putt, etc. All the trappings of Spring Breaks gone by. And crawling with tourists. To be fair, I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy its lovelier qualities as well, but on this hot summer day, it’s the seedier side that seems to be outshining the rest. I realize that this is exactly why I know I’m very near a very average hotel, (if it still exists), called “The Mayan Inn”.
This fine establishment was home to the Jersey Shore High School class of 1984 in the spring of that same year. (Requisite note to those unfamiliar with this school. It is not in New Jersey, nor anywhere close to it. It is, in fact, in the middle of nowhere in the Allegheny Mountains of central Pennsylvania. There is a semi-logical and somewhat humorous reason for this. Click the link for more.)
In any case, for some reason my friends and I find inexplicable some 30+ years later, our school allowed us to take a senior class trip to Daytona Beach. Yes, sponsored by the school. Four buses (long live Bus #2!) of 17 and 18 year-olds headed to Florida, many of us our first time out of the state, to be basically set free to enjoy ourselves in Daytona Beach for a few days prior to heading to Disneyworld and the then-newish Epcot Center. Yes, there are stories. Many. They will not be retold here, though if you care to know them, I can provide a short list of storytellers still living in the Jersey Shore zip code who can recount a great deal of the experience, still causing the rest of us to cry ugly laughing tears. Good times.
In any case, I just knew the Mayan Inn was close by. A quick look at my GPS confirmed it was up ahead, less than a quarter-mile away. The experience seemed a little like Lucy and her siblings must have felt when they had a chance to go through the wardrobe for a return trip. (Please do not think I am comparing Narnia and Daytona. I am NOT!) And then right in front of me, the Mayan Inn stood in all it’s 1980s gold and orange glory, lording over the A1A and beach beyond. The marquis seemed exactly the same as the one in our 1984 photos. I stopped long enough to snap a few pics and send them to a friend from home. No words needed. She knew exactly where I was when she saw it.
And maybe that’s a piece of what I learned on these first two days on the A1A. That I was unwittingly reaching back in time to grab hold of something familiar. The most literal example were the memories of a few crazy days spent on Daytona Beach (days that would live in infamy!), but the entire coastal road touched something something deeper and almost lost. A slower pace, a simpler life, a walk in the sand, family vacations, ice cream, hot dogs, a sweet sunset. The entire experience conjured up feelings of a former existence, and not necessarily mine alone. I felt it was a treasure I wanted to claim as my own. I didn’t want to lose it. Things to consider for sure, but for now, windows down, shades on, music up – the cruising continues!