Mar 21, 2009

Easter 2001 Banzai Blast to Key West

Long weekends are for riding. As spring arrives here in cold Canada, a rider's thoughts turn to warmer weather and putting down the kilometers. The Easter weekend always means the first big ride of the year. While not technically true this time, as I had already taken a long ride in Mexico, it was the first long ride where I left home riding a motorcycle instead of pulling a trailer! During two previous Easter sojourns, I have gone to Canada's east coast. This has always resulted in at least some riding in snow, so in a fit of mature and sensible (not to mention uncharacteristic) thinking, I decided to avoid the snow this time. Well then what's left? Key West!

Now here is a destination I've wanted to hit for some time. It's extreme (it is the southern-most point in the continental U.S.), it's warm, and it's somewhat mysterious and exotic. I didn't know exactly what to expect in Key West. I had in mind a tropical paradise kind of place in the same vein as the Bahamas: beaches, palm trees, resorts, nightlife. Well, it really has all of that, with less emphasis on the beaches, more on the nightlife, with some interesting history thrown into the mix.

I ran this idea past some local riders during a regular "committee" meeting. Important topics such as prepackaged meat, and the planned summer ride were being discussed. Called the MOB (Men On Bikes), surely at least one member would bite. In the end, a rider on the STOC mailing list accepted my offer. Dominic Isabella lives in Philadelphia. He, myself, and two other riders made the trek to the Grand Canyon during WeSTOC 2000 and this small group of riders has been dubbed the Road Dawgz. While these "club" names can be fun, everyone realizes the real fun lies in not just who you ride with, but more importantly where you are going and how you get there.

As Dom and myself live far apart, he in Philly on the east coast, I in London in southwestern Ontario, we arranged a meeting point that still allows us to share a long ride on the way down. That meeting spot is Hillsville, Virginia, near the junction of interstates 77 and 81. Eight hours from Dom's home, 12 from mine, Key West is still over 1200 miles to the south!

I was ready to leave on the morning of Thursday, April 12 at 7AM, directly from work. It was raining, weather I am prepared for and willing to accept as a part of any ride, but it's never pleasant when actually leaving on a trip. Bad karma. This cleared up as I headed west on highway 401 to the Windsor/Detroit border crossing. The absent rain was soon replaced by a ripping south wind, more powerful than I have ever ridden in before.

After crossing over to Detroit, I headed south to Toledo, Ohio, then turned east heading to Cleveland where I would turn south on I77. On the southern shores of Erie heading to Cleveland, I thought less about making Hillsville, and a lot more about merely surviving another mile of the tortuous wind. If it were just the wind, I would have been fine with it. Combine the brisk wind, the occasional gust (which the news reported at nearly 100 km/h!), and traffic on a busy interstate highway and what you have is palpable danger!

Many times I was sent reeling, either by gusts or the sudden lack of any cross wind such as when passing a semi truck. And what happens when you are passing a truck, leaned over hard to the right in an effort to ride in a straight line, and suddenly you enter calm still air? You careen to the right, directly into the path of the trailer's wheels!

I pulled over into a rest stop.

I called my partner Jane, I called Dom, not exactly sure whether or not I would continue on. I contemplated stopping in Cleveland, visiting the Rock and Roll hall of fame, staying the night, and turning around. However, Dom assured me the wind speeds would lessen as I went south from Cleveland. I got back on the road hoping like hell he was right. He was indeed right, bless the weather channel and it's pocket protector-wearing cadre of weather experts! I settled into the rhythm of a typical highway drone.

Things got a little more interesting as I approached the West Virginia border. The roads on the map go from something resembling straight uncooked spaghetti to the cooked variety. And just like cooked spaghetti, these roads were a little more tasty. And I do mean a little more, the interstate experience rarely rises much above the bland level. At least the Appalachians were pleasing to look at, interrupting the monotonous horizon I had been used to.

Late evening saw this Canadian rider sitting down to a Chinese food dinner in Hillsville, Virginia with a guy from Philadelphia. We had a good talk. The last time I saw Dom was in Massachusetts in the fall at another gathering of the STOC clan called FallSTOC. Dom, two other riders and myself were the recipients of written warnings from county police in western Mass. Dom filled me in on his plans to attempt an Iron Butt Association SS1000 on our ride to Florida. We reviewed the paperwork he had prepared. It's still warm when we press on, back on I77 south.

We were soon out of the narrow wedge at the western reaches of Virginia state and into the also-narrow western side of North Carolina. At South Carolina we were officially in the deep south and the temperatures were quite comfortable. I didn't see any banjo-playing hillbillies, but I did catch a glimpse of the insides of my eyelids once or twice. Yes, I was getting tired. I worked the night before, and here I was hoping to ride through the next without so much as a minute's snooze. It ain't happnin'.

Not being an experienced Iron Butt rider, Dom has never before slept in the Iron Butt motel. We pulled in to a rest stop, parked the bikes, and I explained my own strategies for choosing an ideal location to check in. If you want to know what those are, just plan a long ride with me and I'd be happy to explain them to you!

Helmets serving as pillows, jackets as blankets, we reposed upon the seats of a picnic table. I slept very well, but woke up sweating. I walked back to the bikes as Dom slept on. In the dimness of a gas light obscured by the many encroaching trees, I stripped off my jacket and helmet. Rumbling low nearby, the semi trucks were parked in a diagonal row. I barely noticed the incessant scream of a trailer-mounted reefer as I walked about to cool off. It was indeed very warm, even at this wee hour. I threw my long sleeve T to the ground and faced bare-chested into the slight breeze to cool off.

Dom was soon awake. We had water and snacked on junk food, and got back on the road. That wasn't the last stop for rest. Twice more I became tired enough to force us to stop, sleeping well each time up to an hour. I don't know what it is, but I enjoy these stays in the Iron Butt Motel. I think it's the solitude and peace of the rest stop devoid of screaming kids and bustling hordes. Or maybe it's the lack of any line-ups in the washrooms and at the vending machines!

We eventually ride through Georgia and are finally into Florida, still many miles to go in this elongated state filled with Snowbirds and others who would waste ballots. With Florida also came the flat terrain once again. It's a straight shot down I95 all the way to the Miami miasma of tollways that would take us to the keys.

We just rode into Florida, still some distance to go!

I was really looking forward to riding the keys. The image in my mind was one of blue-green water all around as we ride some immense bridge. A bridge so long we couldn't see either end of it. Eventually we were actually doing it!

Riding along over the bridges that join the numerous keys, the sun was setting. A large blurry reddish-orange disc still blazing as it was plunging into the water on our right side. Our Friday of riding was being extinguished in the amber light. I felt as if this captured - no commanded - the attention and imagination of every person in the cars around us. It was as if we were all seeking out the object that was disappearing before our eyes.

My first Key West sundown occurred on the highway!

I was disappointed we were not yet there. This is one of the things I had had in mind to enjoy while in Key West: to be reclined on a beach, Margarita in hand, Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" playing in the background, watching the sun set over the gulf of Mexico. No matter, there was still Saturday night.

Traffic going to the keys was almost unbearable. The mile markers were counting down much slower than I would have hoped. We were not the only ones looking to enjoy this Easter weekend on the keys.

I was expecting traffic to thin as we approached Key West, as folks stopped at various islands along the way. Every key is it's own resort area. Each is filled with hotels, boat dealers, fishing charters, restaurants, condos, and of course bars. This effect was barely noticeable. Congestion was relentlessly slow. On one bridge ten miles or so from the keys, things opened up a bit with two lanes in each direction in contrast to the city-center two lane norm.

In the darkness, we did not see the Florida State Trooper parked at the exit of the bridge. We were well over the posted limit, but perhaps he didn't see us: he stayed put. Police presence was typically paranoid as it is in most populated areas of the U.S. Paranoid also describes the mindset of those who speed in this environment while not under the watchful eye of a good radar detector.

Finally we found ourselves on Key West. The sense of relief lifted my spirits immensely. The stress of the last 100 miles was immediately forgotten. The temps were still very mild. People were everywhere. Dress code seemed to be shorts and Ts, or even less. Scooters were the transportation method of choice, their riders unhindered by bothersome footwear, gloves or helmets. On my huge ST1100 dressed for highway running, I felt like a Clydesdale being buzzed and bothered by mosquitoes.

We pulled off highway 1 onto coastal A1A. Checked into our hotel room at the Sheraton, we caught the shuttle to the downtown. Our driver gave us the rundown of the downtown. Soon we were roaming the streets of this city known as Key West. For that's what it is, a city from coast to coast. Boat docks line the one side facing the Gulf of Mexico, while beaches stretch along the ocean side, with plenty of drinking in the middle!

We had dolphin fish at the A&B Seafood restaurant, one of the older eating establishments. A few brews later and the miles were once again catching up with us, I questioned whether I could even walk to catch a cab.

Standing at a taxi stand, we wondered where all the taxis were, as did quite a few others. We realized that they were being flagged down by savvy revelers while still enroute to the area. We headed in the direction of the full cabs and flagged one down ourselves. Ten minutes ago I hadn't known what a savvy reveler was, now I are one!

Sleep came easily in the air conditioned room. Ten hours disappeared in literally the blink of an eye. In the morning, we wandered outside to the beach across the street. Man, this is heaven! Warm temps, clean sand, sun, palm trees, and all we had to do was cross the street! We bought huge fruit smoothies, then sat down to take it all in as we woke up.

The scene directly across the street from our hotel.

Looking for photo ops, we jumped back on the bikes and headed for the downtown. We took pictures at mile zero of highway 1, which happened to be on a busy intersection. Being careful to avoid pedestrians and scooters, we manoeuvred our big rigs into position on the sidewalk. We took turns wedging our bikes between the fire hydrant, the highway sign, and the nearby building which began where the sidewalk ended. This just so happened to completely block off the sidewalk, we could barely get ourselves into the picture. Passersby were forced to walk onto the roadway to pass us by.

Scooters rule in this place!

Dom just parked his bike amongst the scooter throng.
"Did someone say thong???"

One of the many condo developments downtown.

Highway 1 ends on a very busy intersection downtown.

We ate at Sloppy Joe's where we watched a great singer who was playing guitar and banjo. We scoped out various landmarks, such as Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville bar. We spent the entire afternoon and into the evening downtown. After picking up a few knickknacks, we headed back to the hotel to drop off the bikes, my intention was to return to the downtown on the shuttle to finally sample a margarita in Key West.

I spotted this great photo op on the way back to our hotel, mere feet from deep water.

While at the hotel, we again bought smoothies, walked back to the beach and sat down at a picnic table. Yes, we sat down on this one instead of sleeping on it. I filled out several postcards I had bought. Life was good. The beach was a little quieter, quite peaceful actually. Of course now that the intense heat of the afternoon had left and it was actually comfortable to be on the beach, most of the folks had gone. We sipped our smoothies, the gentle breeze which rustled the palms was carrying away the hurried feeling of our afternoon of touring.

The beach across the street from our hotel, on the ocean side of the island.
The downtown area is on the Gulf of Mexico side.

Dom was feeling tired, and decided to get some extra sleep. So we parted ways as I waited for the shuttle to take me back downtown. I went straight to Margaritaville, where I had the (what else) Cheeseburger in Paradise. I drank two margaritas, one was on the rocks, the other in the form of slush, or as they call it - frozen.

It was approaching sunset and I still wanted to fulfill my dream of watching the sun go down over the Gulf of Mexico. So with margaritas in my stomach as opposed to in my hand, I headed to Mallory Square. Mallory square is the traditional place in downtown Key West where people gather to watch the sun set. There were buskers galore and people were already seated on the dock to watch the coming spectacle.

I take my own place, black motorcycle boots dangling toward the green churn below, a wide swath of dancing light stretched off to the horizon, well almost. I was a little miffed at first that what you are actually watching from this location is the sun setting over the island sitting several hundred meters off shore. But these are the islands, mon. Hell yes, we're closer to Havana than we are to Miami. So go with the flow, take it easy. Lulled into a dreamy state by the soothing sounds of a nearby busker softly singing and strumming quiet tunes on his guitar, I watched my Key West dream come true.

I got up and headed back in the direction of the shuttle pick up point. I was distracted from my path by a group of excellent musicians playing traditional Spanish music, dancers nearby throwing themselves around in a rumba, or maybe it was salsa or samba or something. I've only ever seen dancing like that on television.

My pick for best busker was a rotund gentleman sitting in a lawn chair with a sign that read: "Dirty jokes, $0.50 and up. I need beer." If someone passed by who looked like they needed to have their intelligence insulted, he would belt out "get your dirty jokes right here!"

The many little shops also caught my eye with colourful trinkets and baubles, drawing me in. I couldn't resist picking up a few more little gifts, just getting some of that Christmas shopping done a little early!

December in Canada was the last thing on my mind as I wandered back to wait for the shuttle. I enjoy people-watching, and they were in no short supply. Wild dress filtered by on a continuous basis, as did tricked out trucks, cars, scooters, motorcycles, and even several electric vehicles.

Back in our room, Dom is asleep with the TV on. I watched briefly as a desert cat in Africa slowly pesters a scorpion until it becomes his meal. Fascinating, but I needed sleep.

We had planned to be up at six on Sunday, but no wake-up call arrived. It was more like 7:30AM when I awoke Dom from his slumber. We got ready and loaded our bikes. We were on the road before 8AM, but it was already hot and muggy. We were in for a hot day. Thankfully, the trip back to the mainland was much quicker at that early hour.

Our run back up north was indeed hot. Many cars were visible on the side of the road with blown tires, victims of their own slack maintenance. Sure of our own tire pressures, we rode uneventfully back along our path at a quick pace.

Once out of Florida, it began to cool off. Must be something to that Florida sunshine after all! We were gradually adding layers as we crossed northbound state borders. Before we reached the point where we must go our separate ways, Dom and I pulled over to a rest stop, shook hands, and congratulated each other on a successful trip.

Continuing on, it turned even colder. I eventually found myself riding the mountains of West Virginia in a near freezing drizzle in the middle of the night. I was becoming fatigued once again and I began to wonder about the conditions of the bridges. I stopped to get a motel, and slept for several hours.

In the morning, it wasn't much warmer. But now it was Monday morning, I would be due in to work that night. I had to press on. It warmed up some as the sun finally came out, but I was glad for having my electric jacket liner.

While crossing the border back into Canada, I lost my sunglasses over the side. Riding in the bright sunlight was getting to be quite uncomfortable. I was soon relieved of my discomfort when the sun went behind some clouds. When the flurries began, I started to curse those clouds, however.

The ground was still warm, though, and the very light flurries melted quickly when they hit the ground. But as the afternoon progressed, it began to snow harder and harder. Pretty soon it was building up on the highway! I was close to London, I debated on whether I should stop. Finally, I felt I could no longer go on, I was pushing slush, and people were looking at me like I was from Mars. I pulled over underneath a bridge and called Jane. We arranged a meeting point and I got back on the bike to try to bring it safely off the highway. I trundled along on the shoulder at slow speed.

I was a little closer to London than I thought I was, and pulled up Wellington Rd. at the exit. I parked, had a Tim Hortons coffee, and waited for the cell phone to ring. As I was not at our pre-planned meeting spot, that phone call eventually came. I felt relieved as Jane and I left in the truck, my bike sitting behind us in the snow.

From sunny and warm to cold and snowy.
Welcome back to Canada!

It was cold and I felt that it would be unwise to attempt to ride home, so there it stayed. It would stay there until I was less disgusted and the weather more agreeable. I guess I couldn't avoid that cursed Canadian Easter snow after all, so my record of snow riding is intact after all! Dom informed me later his own ride was also chilly. Back in London and the snow, the dreams of Key West were not sated but in fact heightened.

For several days afterwards, I understood the mindset of the snowbird. Who knows, one day I may find myself "wasting away again in Margaritaville…"

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