Taxiing into Key West on an Airbus A319, I was struck by just how small and inconsequential the airport was. One would expect, considering the spike in tourism to south Florida, a sprawling complex with sophisticated terminals and baggage systems. Nope. But you know what? This place has small island-style charm and class that bigger cities will never have. Exiting the aircraft from rolling ramps out on the tarmac, I was immediately greeted by a sign WELCOME TO KEY WEST.
Behind the entrance sign was something amusing but especially meaningful to me—the southernmost buoy! Well kind of. It was a replica of the buoy that I was about to set off from but this one was surrounded by a life-size family of tourist figurines! I flashed a quick smile and made my way inside. There were only two baggage carousels in the whole airport, one of which was out of service so locating my backpack that had been wrapped in a blue travel-type bag was a breeze. Hailing a taxi to my hotel, I got my first glimpses—apart from the aerial views flying in—of the pristine aqua-marine colored ocean water. The cabbie was from the Bahamas and at one point was speaking (and shouting excitedly) his native language to an acquaintance on his smartphone. My plan was to arrive a day early before touching the buoy (southern terminus of the ECT) and heading out on this magnificent journey. By doing this, I could get some chores done, see the sites, and get some rest before the big day. I stayed at a house-turned-hotel called the Caribbean House near the heart of Key West in what is called the Little Bahamas.
The next morning was prep day but was also to be spent taking in the unique offerings of Key West. After a continental-type breakfast and a conversation with a lovely couple from the UK—who coincidentally would later see me on my roadwalk—I moseyed over to the post office and picked up the Priority box I’d sent myself. Having now configured my Hyperlite backpack and loaded it with all the contents for the first leg, I was ready to explore the Conch Republic (a term expressing Key West as a “succession” or supposed micronation).
Just down the street was Ernest Hemingway Home, which presented an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. As an aspiring writer myself, being at the Hemingway home was an absolute thrill. Touring the home of the man who authored such American classics as For Whom the Bell Tolls, Where the Red Fern Grows, and A Farewell to Arms, was simultaneously enriching and sad. It was enlightening because of all the literary history in the place but it was regretful to learn that the man who had written a memorable book called The Sun Also Rises, required reading when I was in college for American Lit, suffered deep depression and alcoholism leading him to end his life tragically. In 1961, he took his own double-barreled side-by-side shotgun and discharged the weapon at his head, blowing his brains out. Depression ran deep in the Hemingway family as Ernest’s supermodel granddaughter Margaux would also commit suicide in 1996. On a lighter note, Ernest had numerous polydactyl (six-toed) cats. Interestingly, the museum today has some 60 cats, many of which are feline descendants of the original Hemingway cat. After the Hemingway visit, the late afternoon was spent visiting Truman’s “Little Whitehouse,” eating conch fritters (a staple of the Conch Republic), and watching the spectacular sunset at the pier. It was the perfect ending before my hike was to begin. I was ready. I was born for this!
Finally my start day came. It was the morning of December 1st. After touching the buoy in the wee hours of the morning, I began the first part of my ECT journey on what is known as the Florida Keys Oversees Heritage Trail (FKOHT). It’s basically a 108-mile roadwalk extending from Key West in the Lower Keys to Key Largo in the Upper Keys.
Crossing the famed Seven-Mile Bridge was a highlight of this section. Much of the original bridge, which parallels the new, is now used as pedestrian walkways, bicycle paths, and piers from which to fish. Since the old bridge is damaged or missing in sections, I had to take the auto bridge to get into Marathon. Hiking against traffic with a narrow shoulder and fast-approaching cars, the crossing of the Seven-Mile Bridge took me 2 hours and 27 minutes. Along the way, I received a few “toots” of encouragement. Upon crossing I stayed at Captain Pips and ate a Hogfish sandwich at Sunset Grille overlooking the ocean. The seafood in the Keys is absolutely delectable! All in all, the FKOHT went incredibly well albeit hiking on hard pavement surfaces is never the preference of a thru-hiker. Both the Lower and Upper Keys provided a remarkable experience and one making sweet memories that will surely hang around for years to come.