October 29, 2016

Florida Fandango II

The real fandango couldn’t begin without some black coffee in white porcelain mugs brought to us by professional waitresses murmuring “whattya ya’ll be havin’ today, honey” at Lester’s Diner. Sheer male bonding as we scarfed the sclerosis-inducing breakfast nosh and plotted out the days ahead. With a minimal amount of time available, the three of us were keen to maximize it. We drove 100 miles the first day averaging about 45-50 mph. Not exactly burning rubber. But speed and distance weren’t the reasons we were taking this road. Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, Mike Penilski’s 50th birthday, motorcycle touring and – for me – going off the grid for a week were the main attractions.
All three of us are old-school misers, too, so we camped at the Southernmost KOA Campground in Sugarloaf Key, just over halfway along the Overseas Highway. The Campground had its fair share of low-end tourists like us, and a few long-term residents in elaborate motor homes. When we decided to cool off in the ocean swimming area, an avuncular, friendly gent ambled over to tell us that he had thrown a pig head into the water just outside the swimming area, and that a harmless small sand shark had been feasting on it. That piqued our man-interest. We swam out to see the oceanic food chain in action when he yelled out (as a bonus) that a barracuda had been spotted swimming underneath the big inflatable plastic watermelon float in the swimming area. “You ought to take off any shiny things like them wedding rings—the glint underwater draws unwanted attention sometimes,” he said with a wide I-like-to-scare-Northern-tourists grin.

I swam back and took off my shiny thing. Alas, no sand shark was visible, and the pig’s head was gone, too. We washed off the sweat and road grime, cooled down in the warm seawater, and soon departed for the local restaurant, Mangrove Mama’s, where we ordered girly margaritas and seafood. Lots of history etched into the tables and hung on the walls of that restaurant. To cap the evening and celebrate another day of life on the road we had some beers at the campsite’s plastic picnic tables, chatting amiably about the day’s drive, when I suddenly realized my wedding ring was not on my finger where it should be. ZOINKS. I‘d forgotten it on the beach chair when we left our stuff during the swim. I was freaking out a bit, I must tell you, but collected my wits and did the whole retracing-my- steps-to-where-I-last-saw-it process. Beach chair! Took my flashlight and slowly patrolled the space. No ring. Oh shit. Already concocting excuses and trying to recall the name of the German ring maker that made them (just in case), I sifted through the sand several times. Fortune smiled on me and I saw a familiar flash of metal. I was saved!
Tropical insects ruled the night – their high-pitched buzzing sound and occasional jabs for blood on my face or arms made sure that I was up early. A dip in the campground pool (with wedding band on!) perked me up. Began the morning drive to Key West. First order of the day was to go to the southernmost point in the United States. Why wouldn’t we? Hola--Cuba only 90 miles away. Then we walked around the old town at a leisurely gait, taking in the sights, and observing the other tourists, scouting the beachfront, ogling the old mansions. One hyper-social woman who reminded me of my mom quizzed us on our bike journey. We had a lively chat with two crazy, cheerfully fouled-mouthed Polish-American women who owned a novelty clothing store. Every time we offered a quip in response to their sales pitches they upped the ante with even racier stories to keep us talking. But it worked—we bought T-shirts for Penilski.

As an example, one T-shirt read: “I would appreciate if your boobs would stop staring at my eyes.” Happy 50th, Mike. He and I took in a terrific tour of Ernest Hemingway’s Key West mansion conducted by a very dedicated guide, a man passionate about his work. Short staccato sentences. Lean prose. Papa would be proud. We were abashed. Ended our time in Key West reluctantly, but the road back north beckoned. We spent our last hour there eating Cuban sandwiches, not Cheeseburgers in Paradise. But the town presented itself precisely as Jimmy Buffet’s stomping grounds.
Barreled down the highway back toward the panhandle. More male bonding as we talked our way into a discounted entry fee for the History of Diving Museum. (Mike, Bill and I originally went together to Guam in December 1996 where they acquired PADI licenses.) We bunked for the night outside Key Largo. It has an underwater hotel but we opted for the Key West Inn. Next day I got up at 0500, residual jet lag methinks, nursed my coffee in the silence while I watched the charter fishing boats heading out to sea, and counted my many blessings. Back on the hogs, Billy following with his chase van, I confess I was more than a little crestfallen when we went back over the bridge to Florida City. That meant our hours together were coming to a close. This feeling didn’t last long, as Slim Jim’s from a grimy gas station truck stop (and Mike speaking in Spanish) revived the positive vibe.
We opted for a trip to one of the alligator parks on the edge of the Everglades. Took the tour, saw one alligator – sort of – and celebrated with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream and, later on, a smoothie. God. Bless. America.
Got tickets from a scalper for the night’s Miami Marlins game. We thought we might have been scalped ourselves because the “tickets” were a QR code on a print out. But he came through, so we later watched the ballgame, drank many beers, made many jokes and recalled various old stories of our motorcycle/camping trips in Japan (we missed James S!). The Marlins were playing the SF Giants and with only seven hits, somewhat low on excitement. But we saw Ichiro Suzuki play only two days after he secured his 3,000th hit. Then, just like the good old days, Mike fell asleep. Some things do not change.
My flight back to Ottawa the next day was at an absurdly early hour so we booked a room at a Motel 6 near the airport. It had a perceptible buzz around it; like the old Ramones movie, “Rock and Roll High School.” There was a spring break vibe there despite it being August. I almost expected someone to call out “hey, look at the old nerds” as seen in the Revenge of the Nerds movies in the 80s.

I’ll tell ya, real friends are the ones who get up at 0400 to deposit you at the airport without fuss or fanfare, even facing hundreds of miles of driving ahead. Thus ended our trip. No tearful farewells, no hangover-induced moans of going back to real life. Just simple, genuine “until the next time” gruff expressions of jubilation over a trip well done, and man-hugs. My thanks to these friends for making this trip happen. Until the next time, gentlemen.

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