To Zero and Back: On the Road Where the Wild Things Are – Florida Keys, U.S.A.

To Zero and Back: On the Road Where the Wild Things Are
Florida Keys, U.S.A.

I was having such a good, obsessive time competing with my fellow Delta Song passengers (identified only by first name and seat number on the little screen on the back of the seat in front of mine) to get the most correct answers to a music trivia game in the shortest amount of time that I barely noticed when we began to descend over West Palm Beach. Someone named Natalie (seat 31C) had been giving everyone a real run for the money, but I scored big on Frank Sinatra’s middle name, and on the name of Iggy Pop’s band (as a reward for reading this, I’ll tell you: Albert, and the Stooges). My son, Alessandro, was oblivious to the life-or-death competition being played out all around the plane; he’d found the Cartoon Network on his seatback screen. We both might have stayed on for the return flight had our screens not gone black shortly after we landed, giving us the leisure to remember that we were about to meet my husband Lorenzo (who had the misfortune to come down from New York on a different, game-and-cartoon-free airline), pick up a rental car, and embark on a roadtrip adventure through the Florida Keys.

The easygoing, friendly flexibility of the staff at the Alamo counter in the airport made me remember once again that Florida is a place where inconveniences are not the norm, and life is supposed to be easy and pleasant (as opposed to Manhattan, where the greatest rewards go to those who can endure humiliating inconveniences with the most Christlike tenacity). The exception to this endearing state trait became evident after we passed through Miami and continued south in our little red economy something, at the point where I-95 abruptly ends and becomes U.S. 1, a 2-lane mess of slow-moving cars, with traffic lights every 3 or 4 blocks. Our aggravation at that point was compounded by the fact that Alessandro, the 5-year-old with what is usually the most exquisitely hip taste in rock-‘n’-roll, decided that a Journey song he heard on the radio was the best thing he’d ever heard, and forced us to listen to it from beginning to end. (The song was still playing in my head when I woke up the next morning in Key Largo, where a Jimmy Buffett song would have at least made more sense.)

U.S. 1 became increasingly decrepit and strange – kind of what I’d imagine a Texas backroad somewhere near the Mexican border to be like. For almost an hour we drove, stopped, and drove some more past pawn shops, gun shops, flower shops (useful for funerals resulting from the merchandise acquired from the latter two), pet shops, strip-mall sushi places with odd names, and vacant lots out of which grew what appeared to be enormous, ancient bearded fig trees. Lorenzo and I entertained ourselves by trying to imagine what must go on during a radio segment called “Drunk Bitch Fridays”, which was being promoted by the station we were listening to. It was, unfortunately, only Thursday, so chances were we’d never find out for sure.

Suddenly, though, we were on a straight, pristine causeway (Lorenzo couldn’t help quoting one of his many favorite lines from “The Godfather”: “They shot Sonny on the causeway. He’s dead.”) where there was nothing on either side of the road but stretches of marsh out of which, here and there, grew bare white birches. Osprey nests hung precariously from the tops of telephone poles along the road, and the birds themselves hung almost without motion above us, changing direction with only the slightest tip of a wing. Drunk Bitch Fridays no longer seemed relevant.

Soon we were seeing the first signs for Key Largo. It quickly became evident that our MSN driving directions would be pretty much useless here, and I finally remembered that the Keys were best navigated using a “mile marker” system. I’d expected the numbers to be inscribed on quaint little pillars of stone or coquina; instead, we discovered that they are more like subliminal blips on tiny green signs along the road. It became clear that the mile markers would be our guides and our masters over the next five days.

Eventually we found Ocean Pointe Suites, in Tavernier, where we would spend the night. Our “room” turned out to be an enormous, spotless 2-bedroom condo with a balcony overlooking brush and graceful, flat-topped trees, beyond which the bay, or the channel (I never quite figured out which was which) sparkled. Lorenzo called Alessandro and me out to the balcony and pointed down to the path below, where an amazingly corpulent raccoon and several skinny cats were milling about. The raccoon, noticing our presence, stood up on his paunchy haunches and looked at us expectantly (apparently not everyone had been obeying the “Please don’t feed the raccoons” signs posted all around the property). Later, making our way along a secluded, tree-lined path toward the hotel’s beach-and marina-front bar for some celebratory we’re-here cocktails, we half-expected to be accosted by a fat, masked, furry assailant looking for treats.

But we saw only a family of Egyptian (yes, I can tell) Moslems headed over to the pretty little beach, the women’s heads, arms, and legs covered despite the damp, salt-heavy Florida heat. From the bar we watched them make themselves comfortable, alone on the beach, the men and boys swimming shirtless while the women playfully wet their feet at the water’s edge. The scene was as tranquil and incongruous as a Matisse painting at a de Kooning exhibit, and yet just right.

The following morning, Lorenzo and I sat on our balcony, having our coffee, while Alessandro slept. A single cat watched us from below. The only sounds were the hisses of the leaves blowing around on the trees, the muffled hum of motorboats passing by in the distance, and the calls of redwinged blackbirds, doves, and egrets. This was shaping up to be a wildlife kind of trip, which was fine with me.

Our goal for the day was to reach Key West, home of Mile Marker Zero. There was, I thought, something kind of Zen, or something, in having Zero as one’s destination. We had 92.5 markers to go, but we weren’t in any particular hurry.

One of the pacts that I made with myself when I became a mother was that I would never subject my son (or my husband, or myself) to the kinds of marathon, we-won’t stop-for-the-night-until-the-driver’s-eyes-are-completely-closed death-drives that seemed to be the norm among family roadtrips when I was a child. Our drives would be civilized, leisurely, and humane. We would stop when we felt like it, or when anyone needed a snack, a drink, or a bathroom break. No one would be screaming by the end of the day. In short, as long as Journey could be kept off the airwaves for the next few days, we would actually enjoy our, um, journey through the Keys.

Once we got on the road again, the wildlife thing started in earnest. Our first stop was the Wild Bird Sanctuary, just a mile marker down the road. I’d been expecting a wooden-plank walkway through the woods and marshes, and occasional glimpses of egrets in the distance – nothing that I couldn’t see from the lanai of my mother’s house in Palm Coast. But as soon as we pulled into the dusty little parking lot, I realized what the place was, and yelled with joy. This was a WILD BIRD RESCUE AND REHAB CENTER!

O.K. – not everyone would find that terribly exciting. But to me, Nancy Bevilaqua, rescuer of crippled pigeons, crazed bird lady of Hoboken, NJ, and savior of drowning bugs, this was nirvana. Lorenzo likes to tease me that, whereas others get their kicks prowling around porn websites when they get some time alone, I find peace and happiness trading bird stories and advice with my buddies in the Feral Pigeon Rescue Central Yahoo group. Once they realized where we were, Lorenzo and Alessandro groaned (good-natured groans, but groans nevertheless).

We were to meet Laura Quinn, who runs the center, but first we had to pass muster with her husband, who was sitting alone in the one-room structure that serves as kind of a gift shop and wildlife education center (posters explaining how to remove fish-hooks from bird wings and the like). He wore dark glasses, from behind which he looked me up and down as if I’d arrived unannounced at the door of the Oval Office wearing unseasonably bulky clothing. What, he demanded, did I want with Laura?

I was in the middle of explaining what I wanted with Laura when, to my great relief, she walked in. Small in stature and perhaps in her late 60’s, she clearly had more important things to do than show writers around. But she was gracious as she led us through a city of aviaries where red-tailed hawks, amputee pelicans, barred owls (whose eyes looked like the dilated pupils of someone on a permanent acid trip), egrets, baby herons, and yes, pigeons, wait while their broken wings or legs mend, or safely live out their days if their injuries prevent them from ever going back into the wild (unlike some rehabbers, Laura doesn’t euthanize her “unreleasables”, and thus gained immediate admission into my pantheon of personal saints).

Suffice it to say that I was elated by the time we got back in the car to continue on our way. Even Lorenzo was impressed (but no doubt relieved that, back home, my bird rescue fantasies would still need to be tempered by the realities of living in a small apartment in an almost-urban town).

It seemed as if there were opportunities for animal encounters every few mile markers. At Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada we paid $2 for a bucketful of fish to feed to the huge, emerald-green tarpon who hang out around the dock like gluttons at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Alessandro, noting their big, upturned mouths and big, upturned teeth, demurred, but Lorenzo’s communion with the tarpon seemed so complete that he made the mistake of trying to let one of the big guys (I’m talking maybe 4 feet long) take a fish from his hand. The scream he let out upon feeling tarpon teeth against his skin amused Robbie and his friends a great deal (and I may have found it, um, slightly…hysterical).

In Marathon, we toured the Dolphin Research Center, where the staff’s enthusiasm and affection for the dolphins verges (understandably) on giddiness, and where any dolphin who comes to live at the Center is guaranteed a home for life. The dolphins repay this solicitousness with leaps, flips, dolphin talk, and excellent shark imitations. They also work with disabled children, the interaction helping to bring about miracles like the movement of a hand that wouldn’t move before.

At Big Pine Key, we didn’t even need to get off the road to see where wildlife stands in the general scheme of things in the Keys. Anyone who couldn’t take a hint from the flashing caution lights along the road, the fences meant to prevent any flustered deer in a hurry from making an ill-advised dash across the road (the concern, presumably, being more for the deer than for the impact on someone’s bumper), and signs proclaiming that SPEED KILLS KEY DEER, could probably use a little mental stimulation therapy from the dolphins.

We arrived in Key West relatively cool, unruffled, and ready to commune with the wildlife on Duval Street, where there seemed to be a strange preoccupation with Lynard Skynard songs This was clearly preferable to Journey, but not exactly what I’d expect in the land of rainbow flags and Hemingway (of course, I wouldn’t necessarily expect to find rainbow flags in the land of Hemingway, either). A passing storm that lasted a good 45 minutes drenched us, nearly ruined my frock (OK, it was a tie-died wrap skirt kind of a thing), and had us sloshing through ankle-deep puddles to find a place to eat.

But at lunch the following day the storm might have been a dream. At an outside table at the Doubletree Keys Resort, we ate Cuban food served by a Nicaraguan waiter who reminded me of a calmer version of Hank Azaria’s barefoot houseboy character in “The Birdcage”. We watched propeller planes take off against a backdrop of blue sky, white clouds that looked as if they’d exploded up from the sea, and palm trees; the scene needed only some swanky 50s lounge music, martini glasses, and a few women in pearls, beehive hairdos, and fabulous white-rimmed sunglasses.

In the evening we took the Doubletree shuttle bus into town again, and boarded a huge catamaran with what would have been, were we not intrepid seafaring people, an intimidating name – Fury – for a sunset snorkeling cruise. And once again the subject of not messing with the wild things was brought up in no uncertain terms by a beautiful, lithe, and very strong blonde girl in braids (sort of a Heidi as a 20-something) named Anna, with whom Alessandro flirted shamelessly. We were, Anna said, to touch and take nothing from the reef, because it is a living organism. She described, with the help of some of Alessandro’s vivid, vocal imaginings, the various mechanisms with which coral attempts to protect itself (the fire coral really got my son’s brain going; lately he’s been into Superheroes and things that “shoot fire”).

And I, intrepid, seafaring, New England-stock voyager and lover of the ocean, got seasick for the second time in my life (the first time being when I made the mistake of going out on a fishing boat when I was 6 months’ pregnant). While my fellow passengers emptied pitcher after pitcher of the all-you-can-drink (and they could drink a lot � not well, exactly, but a lot) beer, and howled and made sizzling sounds as the setting sun hit the horizon, I had to sit with my eyes closed and my sleeping son sprawled across my lap. Lorenzo graciously took up the slack created by my nausea at the thought of anything liquid.

In the future, perhaps, I won’t have such an attitude toward people who sport those little anti-nausea patches behind their ears on cruises. On the other hand, I have a short memory.

Back on the road the following day, heading north (we never actually saw Mile Marker Zero, which made the whole thing even more Zen, or something), we made the final stop on what had become our wildlife pilgrimage through the Keys. In Marathon, after a long search for the only place in the Keys for which no mile marker hint was offered, we pulled into the parking lot of a little green motel. This, and a nondescript concrete building next door, comprised the Turtle Hospital. Go figure.

The motel office was the museum of When Bad Things Happen to Good Sea Turtles. There were pictures of turtles in surgery, turtle tumors, and turtles on the mend. Most disturbing was a display of the contents removed from a single turtle’s digestive system, post-mortem: a rubber glove, the sole of a shoe, candy wrappers, fishing line, etc. Here was yet another chance to lecture my son on helping to keep the ocean garbage-free.

If Alessandro had never completely grasped the concept of making choices to protect the creatures of the air, land, and sea from, at least, human-inflicted misery, he got it here, in the Keys. It was a pretty good souvenir for a family roadtrip.

To see more travel stories and photos by Nancy Bevilaqua, visit her website at: