A Motorcycle Ride to Key West

 

 

Since 10 years after moving to Florida in early 1996 I had a dream: To rent a Harley Davidson (HD) motorcycle and ride it down to Key West! We used to go down to Key West often this time of the year with the whole family, mostly to celebrate my ex-wife’s birthday near the end of April. Since she divorced me over the course of the last half year I now alternate between the roles of a father with kids on one weekend and that of a single man on the next weekend. This gave me the opportunity to make the long-held dream come true in April 2006. After several preparatory steps including getting a new drivers license with the motorcycle endorsement on it and scouting out a Harley Davidson dealership / rental shop near my work place in Fort Lauderdale I was getting ready on Friday after work, setting up the rental and packing a small backpack with the essentials as well as clothing and computer bag in the car for Monday’s return to the office. I go to bed very late due to a lovely date – remember the new role as single man! – but that’s a different story…

 

Saturday, April 22, 2006

I wake up at 7:00am after only 4 hours of sleep. I’m very tired and there were rain showers over night and the sky is cloudy. Should I call it off and sleep some more? No – this opportunity is too good to pass up.

I drive to the dealership in Fort Lauderdale for my 10:00am check-out. The rental department of the HD dealership is a busy place on Saturday morning. After some wait and paperwork I finally get my bike, a 2006 Night Rod, a special color version of the popular V-Rod model. A V-1200ccm engine with 115 hp will provide plenty of torque and power, certainly more than enough for me.

Unlike the locals, I dress in my motorcycle cloths which I bought in Munich for cold weather trips in the Alps and to Morocco. I know that it will be uncomfortably hot here in South Florida in this kind of clothing, but the extra protection is important to me. As they say: “Better sweating than bleeding.”

This is the first time in 5 years since I’m riding a motorcycle – the last time was with the BMW in September 2001 to Morocco – and the first time I’m riding a Harley Davidson. It takes only a few minutes though to get used to this bike, very easy to ride with less weight and lower center of gravity than some of the other heavy Harleys.

Within minutes I’m on the Interstate I95 and doing 60 mph. Which is fine, were it not for the extremely loud wind noise in my ears. Without a full face helmet or other protection the wind noise becomes almost untolerable at speeds of 50mph or higher. But I can’t ride any slower in the busy 5 lane traffic without risking being run over from behind…

After 20 minutes I get to the end of I95 in Miami and follow US 1 South. I stop at a gasstation to refill the pitifully small gas tank (2.5 gallons).

I also walk in the nearby pharmacy to buy earplugs – an old trick I learned back then when riding on the Autobahn. The earplugs muffle the wind noise down to a comfortable level and with my clothing I am now ready for highway speeds. Except the next hour or so is very slow going with lots of traffic lights and too much traffic. The heat is on, both from the sun and from the hot air blowing off the engine under my seat. Now I definitely wish I could go faster and let the wind cool me down a little bit.

Finally I get through the South of Miami and back on the Turnpike for the last few miles down to Florida City. Riding on the Turnpike is again different; every time you get to a toll booth you need to stop, take off the gloves, finger out the change, then put the wallet back and reverse the procedure. But accelerating out of the toll stop into the super-wide highway compensates for the inconvenience. The engine redlines at 9000 rpm which strikes me as very high for a big 2 cylinder V-engine. And upwards of say 5000-6000 rpm the acceleration is downright brutal – and the sound adds to the sensation. Hold on tight, we’re on the fast lane now… At the end of the Turnpike in Florida City I take a long break at the Outlet Mall.

I change into my shorts, sandals and fresh T-Shirt. After eating at the food court I need some rest to compensate for the lack of sleep of the previous night. The weather is great and I sleep on a shady park-bench outside the food court. I call my friend Frank in Germany and tell him how much this trip reminds me of the Morocco adventure with him 5 years ago – wish you were here!

South of Florida City the highway soon gets out to the water and on to the Keys. There is some backup due to road work and lane closures, which gives me a chance to practice slow rolling alongside backed up cars. The first sights of open ocean besides the road also invite for a quick stop and self-timed picture.

Only minutes after this short stop I reach Key Largo. From previous trips down to Key West I know a nice hotel resort – the Marriott resort in Key Largo – with a restaurant terrace beautifully overlooking the water. This is where I stop for an afternoon coffee. My theme:

“Key Lime Pie in Key Largo is the Key to Happiness!”

 

This stop is as refreshing for the body as for the soul. When looking out to the water the thoughts of the busy work week just evaporate in the joy of the moment. I wish I could stay here a bit longer – but I also want to keep going to catch the rest of the long road at the best time of the day, the late afternoon.

I stop and ask a fisherman on the side of the road whether he will take a picture of me. After several drive-by attempts on my part the stars finally align and he pushes the button at the right moment.

Almost felt like in driving school to turn the Harley around so many times while watching out for the relatively sparse traffic. While it is inconvenient and takes perhaps 10 minutes, I know that those pictures will be priceless when looking at them later…

Shortly thereafter I reach the socalled 7-mile bridge. I take several pictures operating the camera with one gloved hand while riding with the other one. At one point a rider in local outfit passes me doing about 65mph.

To the right is the old road, connecting a miniature island with the rest of the key chain. As I approach and drive by I take a picture similar to those I have taken on my bicycle rides.

On this trip only the camera is looking back:

On one of the next keys is the Bahia Honda State Park, a popular destination for people who want to camp right along the water, ideal for snorcheling, kayaking, fishing, jetskis etc. Right behind it is the Bahia Honda channel with another old bridge that still shows remnants of an old railway line which connected Key West to the Florida peninsula until a hurricane in the 1920’s wiped it out and it was never rebuilt. This makes for another scenic photo op.

The sun is getting lower now as it is already around 7:00pm. Going to Key West the road turns evermore to the West so you ride into the setting sun going down – and then into the rising sun coming back the next morning J The weather is great, the colors are spectacular, the road is free of traffic, everything is working out well which puts a big smile on my face. This trip is turning out to be as good as I had hoped it would be, hence my mood is terrific.

I stop one last time to take a self-timed picture of myself on the road:

Then I drive all the way down to Key West and go straight to the famous milemarker indicating the southernmost point in the continental U.S. Here I am closer to Cuba than to Miami!

The next hour or so is spent searching for a hotel room. I stop at a half dozen places and call at least a dozen more – everywhere it’s sold out and noone knows a place with vacancy, except a $500/night suite at the Marriott. I also get tipped off to a motel which supposedly still has rooms, but just as I get there, they rent out the last available room to the guy in front of me! Reminds me of the situation in June 2004 in fishing town Ely in North-East Minnesota, where I couldn’t find a place to stay for a long time either and ended up in a privately rented room. Just when I seemingly run out of options they have an idea in the motel: How about renting out the motorhome of one of their employees (who is currently on vacation)? Fine by me, as long as I can take a much needed shower. I’m thinking: That’s a first; so I will spend a night in an RV camper mobil!

Well, after a shower and fresh cloths I ride my Harley the 2-3 miles downtown to join the fun on Duval Street. I blend right in with the locals riding in sandals, shorts and T-shirt with no helmet! Of course you don’t go fast in the crowded city-streets anyway, but you do have to be careful of those hot exhaust pipes with your naked feet…

Dinner is served at the Hard Rock Café on Duval Street, overlooking the action and the many other motorcycles from a short distance.

After “joining the club” at least temporarily, looking at the many other bikers parking their Harleys curbside will never quite feel the same any more! I also take a walk along the marina and ride the free ferry over to the sunset key and back. Key West has a party town feel to it which is always fun to come back to once a year or so.

Back at the motel nearly everything is perfect, except perhaps for the heat in the RV against which the miniature AC is hardly a match. I fall asleep with vivid memories of the first 200 miles of this trip…

 

Sunday, April 23, 2006

I get up at 6:45am. I want to hit the road in the early morning as soon as the sun rises to escape traffic and the midday heat. It is still cool when I am ready to leave a few minutes past 7:00am.

At the Big Pine Key with the native deer habitat the road turns a bit to the South-East and for a little while the sun is shining from the side. This means my shadow is riding right next to me:

Back at the Bahia Honda Channel I stop for a short walk to the beginning of the old bridge, which always makes for a nice photo op.

Memories of previous trips abound, including one where my ex-wife was pregnant with our son Philip some nine years ago, as well as with daughter Sarvenaz and son Philip just one year ago:

Back to the ride this year. Another bridge invites to stop and take pictures right from the top – overlooking the water and some nearby luxury yachts.

After some hours of riding I get hungry, as I skipped breakfast to get the most of the early morning riding time. Back at the Marriott in Key Largo I stop for brunch buffet. I need to wait as all tables on the outside balcony are taken at the time – no problem, as this kind of wait is exactly what I had in mind: Life is good!

On the way back I detour slightly to the card sound road which adds a very scenic section with less traffic all the way back to Florida City. One last picture from the tall bridge next prior to the toll stop stays in my memory of the road along the water:

I won’t stop for several hours of riding on the Turnpike, now somewhat more comfortable with higher speeds and due to the few hundred miles with the bike. I don’t take any more pictures for a while except at one of the many stops when refueling and buying some water.

Even though I am now back in Fort Lauderdale near the dealership I have no intentions to return the Harley already. It’s only 1:30pm and despite a forecast with a chance of showers in the afternoon the sky doesn’t look much like thunderstorms yet. So I decide to add another big loop to my weekend trip: I will go West on 595 and then turn NorthWest on Hwy 27 to Lake Okeechobee. From there along the lake and then back East to the Ocean and back down on A1A in one big Northerly loop! That will add another 150 miles or so to the trip, but I have at least 6 more hours of sunshine, so that should be fine. About 1 hour I reach the Okeechobee Lake near South Bay and stop at the levee where I had also passed on my bicycle ride right after hurricane Wilma in October 2005.

Earlier I had stopped to buy some sunscreen for my face, as it is getting really hot and I can already feel the facial skin burning. I find some shade and again take a 1 hr long rest break. The ear plugs stay in, which allows me to rest better, were it not for the ants crawling all around and tickling/biting the legs…

And what is this? Check out the view I had of the Harley – with alligator! A Harleygator J

A total of three alligators swim past the boat ramp next to the parking spot. I always marvel at the many different sights and impressions a long day on the bike can bring.

After getting up again I ride a bit further North to Port Mayaca. There is a tall bridge over the St. Lucie canal which provides a water way from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Okeechobee. I had stopped on this bridge many times on bicycle rides, and I do so today with the motorcycle.

Turning East here and following the St. Lucie canal the scenery changes a bit. You find a more rural Florida with lush vegetation and trees, and also some cattle farms.

I remember this stretch of the road vividly from a 200 km bicycle ride from Wellington, as I ran out of water without gasstations or any other shops and it being very hot back then. It is much more comfortable cruising along today, plus I have some water in my little backpack just in case I get thirsty between refueling stops. And the 30 miles to Hobe Sound don’t feel quite so tiring on the Harley either J

I park at Hobe Sound and take time for a short stop on the beach.

The person taking this picture remarks: ‘Aren’t you over-dressed for the beach?’ Really? Oh thanks for telling me, I would have never noticed…

Again, so many memories from this area, just recently after a Kayak trip along the Intracoastal or many previous bicycle rides. The following stretch along Jupiter Island is magnificent, with expensive homes ligning the windy road. A little later along Juno Beach I stop briefly to watch the Kitesurfers playing with wind and waves.

Approaching North Palm Beach I ride over another tall bridge, going back again to get to take a picture from the other side of the bridge.

Riding up & down those bridges is among the best parts of the motorcycle day. It reminds me a little bit of riding in the alps. You can accelerate all-out on the way up, with little risk as you can break phenomenally well going uphill. On the passes in the alps you additionally get all the turns in the road and then the view on top - it’s so much fun! The third dimension is definitely missing in flat Florida.

Now I’m back near home in very familiar territory, mosty from weekend bike rides along A1A. At one spot near the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach I catch the last sunlight of the day which makes for a majestic picture of the Harley.

After some more city street traffic I reach my apartment home back in Wellington around 8:30pm. My neighbor comes over and we chat. He takes a picture of a very happy bike rider – wouldn’t you be all smiles after a day like this, when you finally fulfilled a dream held for 10 years?

I definitely enjoyed this ride to the max. I return the bike the next morning and drive from the dealership straight to the office. I added about 640 miles to the fairly new Night Rod, and had fun all the way. I plan to do this again, but next time in the winter when it’s a bit cooler. Until then I’ll be happy to watch others pass by or park their Harley curbside, which will remind me of this particular weekend ride…