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Key to the Keys

Saturday, 1 April 2023, Key West, FL

Good morning, class, time for today's lesson. You have likely heard about the Florida Keys, those specks of land dotting the water in a graceful arc south and west from the Florida peninsula. But who knows how a key (also spelled cay) differs from an island?

On yesterday's sail, Captain Frank explained it to us. "An island is formed by a geologic process - for instance, volcanoes created the Hawaiian islands. Keys came about via a biologic process - they are the remnants of a coral reef."

I had seen that yesterday, snorkeling up to the crannies and holes of that ancient Florida reef. Now I would drive out along the 127 miles of the Overseas Highway, crossing over 30 of those keys. I had head horror stories of traffic delays along the mostly two-lane road, but I encountered only one tie-up as I passed a park where a Spring Festival attracted tourists. The drive took about three hours, not counting stops.

I enjoyed the nautical scenery, passing boats, beaches, and bridges

as I worked my way south. In the populated portions, the billboards and business signs leaned toward kitsch: "Swim with dolphins!" "Hand-feed sharks!" "4 tee-shirts for $10!" "Stop here for frozen chocolate-covered slices of key lime pie!" Hmm... I guess this IS a good spot to stop and stretch my legs. Have to keep the local economy running, right? Of course, I also enjoyed the local flair demonstrated by the flamingo and manatee mailboxes.

Yesterday, Frank had recommended that chocolate/key lime shop, and he urged me to stop in at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. This non-profit clinic focuses on rehabilitating endangered sea turtles, educating the public about their plight.

WHAT!? These interlopers are not sea turtles!!! Alright, who's the wise guy?!?

There, that's more like it. The hospital has many patients on site, recovering from boat strikes, ingesting plastic, and other ills. On a tour of the facility, you can see some in 'private rooms'

and others recovering in a group

(and possibly spy an iguana interloper).

If you time it right, you can even attend a release back to the wild.

Prior to the tour, the guide gives an introduction to the five types of sea turtles. The largest - leatherbacks - can grow to 2,000 pounds, but they are not native to the keys. Here you will more likely see loggerheads, hawksbills, and green turtles. One of the bins held a tiny hawksbill, paddling about in his pool.

The guide mentioned that sea turtles grew endangered due to the popularity of turtle soup, and because the eggs were considered aphrodisiacs. What? Do men with no social skills dream up things like this, hoping to stumble across something to deliver them from their frustrations?

After a nice break there, I crossed the Seven-mile Bridge (really only 6.79 miles) into the Lower Keys. I saw more beaches now, impressed by seeing the 'gridwork' on the beaches - the light color coming from sand, the dark from the sea grasses.

The beaches stayed shallow a good distance out. At one beach, wind-surfers

played in the calm waters. In places, the old bridge now served as a fishing pier, or an escape from traffic for bikers and walkers.

In the later stretches of the drive, I received good news - Phyllis had found my passport book! She would mail it to my home, where I could affix stamps from my final two parks of this trip. (I stamped scraps of paper with the official park stamps when I visited them.)

I reached the end of the line - Key West - mid-afternoon. A mélange of cars, bikes, e-bikes, scooters, and electric carts filled the narrow streets. Small businesses squeezed into residential areas, and none of the roads seemed to run more than three or four blocks. I failed to feel the atmosphere made popular through Jimmy Buffet songs. In fact, once I checked into the hostel there (the only option I found under $250/night), the core of a new Jimmy Buffet song sprang into my mind. How about Frustration in Paradise?

You see, the hostel provided a dormitory, each room having bunks sleeping eight. No privacy beyond sheets enclosing each bed. For security, the hostel offered a lockable cabinet where I could stash my laptop and other goodies. However, their website failed to mention that they came without actual locks. When I asked at the office, they replied, "There's a shop three blocks down the street that sell padlocks. Right after the light."

I drove down, and found only a deli just past the light. Well, if he says so... The clerk knew nothing about locks. "There's a bike rental shop next door, they might sell them."

A quick trip next door sent me traveling again. "We don't have locks, but our other storefront does. It's just four blocks north of here."

Maybe this was all an elaborate April Fool's joke. "I don't know why they told you that. We don't carry locks." Okay, maybe I should concede defeat and head for a hardware store. But right across the street is a CVS store - they sell everything! Once I explained what I needed, Leo led me to the prize: a rack of suitcase padlocks, all DHS approved. I chose one, paid him, and returned to the hostel.

And minutes later drove back to CVS. "This is a piece of shit!" I told Leo. "I have to wiggle the key back and forth five or ten times before it will open. I use this, and the key will break off in the lock. I want to get a combination lock instead."

This time I tried it in the parking lot before leaving. Set the numbers to the default 0 0 0, rotate the shaft counterclockwise 180°, push in, rotate another 90°, choose your combination, then pull the shaft out as you rotate it clockwise and use it. April Fools! The only way you can pull the shaft out is to set the combo back to 0 0 0. I tried it several times with no success. By this time Leo had gone on break, so I had to track him down. He couldn't work it either. Okay, give up and drive two miles to Home Depot.

Of course, they had a large selection - mostly Master, a reputable brand. I quickly chose a small one and executed the purchase, then walked over to Customer Service. "Excuse me. I just bought this lock, but it comes in a clamshell plastic, which no normal human can open unassisted. Could you cut the clamshell open for me?"

This is NOT the way to get back on Island Time!

I won't bother dwelling on the fiasco of finding a restaurant on a Saturday night, since the lock schlock had burned off the rest of the afternoon. I ended up with a delicious neighborhood Italian eatery, bringing my angst back under control. Afterwards I walked from the hostel to the shore to await the sunset.

One more full day, one more park for this trip...

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