Dive into this hilarious account of a 40th birthday adventure from Kansas City to the Florida Keys. Expect underwater escapades, indulgent Key Lime pies, and a snapper-eating frenzy! Buckle up for a wild ride of fish, wrecks, and beach-side relaxation.
Keys to the Kingdom: A History of the Florida Keys (Chicken and Deer Included)
When you’re exploring the Florida Keys, you’re not just traipsing through tropical paradise; you’re stepping back in time. Each Key has its own distinct flavor, history, and, dare I say, personality. Let’s dig into the treasure trove of tales that each of these islands has to offer.
1. Key Largo: The Dive Capital of the World
Key Largo isn’t just the title of a catchy Beach Boys song; it’s also the first stop on our historical tour of the Keys. Known as the “Dive Capital of the World,” Key Largo has seen more diving masks than a squid has suction cups. Home to the largest artificial reef, the USS Spiegel Grove, and the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo has been making SCUBA divers and snorkelers giddy with excitement for decades.
2. Islamorada: The Purple Isle
Next up, Islamorada, the “Purple Isle,” is like the art hipster of the Keys. This chain of islands got its name from early Spanish explorers, who were either awed by the purple hue of its sea snails or were just really into color-based names. Today, Islamorada is known for its fishing, arts scene, and its peculiar habit of hosting seafood festivals where the crabs are guests of honor.
3. Marathon: The Heart of the Florida Keys
Marathon, the heart of the Florida Keys, has a heartwarming history. Its name doesn’t come from any long-distance running event but rather from the marathon-like efforts of the laborers working on the Florida East Coast Railroad. Today, it’s a family-friendly Key with beautiful beaches, a hospital for sea turtles, and a local deer population that thinks traffic rules are more of a suggestion.
4. Big Pine Key: Land of Tiny Deer and Tasty Key Lime Pies
If there’s one thing you need to know about Big Pine Key, it’s this: the deer are small, and the Key Lime pies are big. This Key is home to the National Key Deer Refuge, where the endangered Key Deer live their best lives, and the locals live in harmony with these adorable creatures.
5. Key West: The Conch Republic
Ah, Key West. The southernmost point of the continental USA and closer to Havana than to Miami, this Key has a colorful history that rivals its vibrant sunsets. It even declared itself the “Conch Republic” for a brief moment in 1982 as a tongue-in-cheek secessionist protest against a US Border Patrol Blockade. Today, it’s known for its historic landmarks, vibrant nightlife, free-roaming chickens, and a certain writer named Ernest Hemingway.
The history of the Keys is as diverse and vibrant as the coral reefs that surround them. Each Key, from Largo to West, has its own story to tell. But remember, in the end, we’re just visitors in the grand scheme of things. The true locals are the chickens crossing the road, the deer strolling by the beach, and the myriad of creatures under the sea, all living their own fascinating slice of Keys history.
Thursday, May 18: Wings to Wheels
If anyone tells you turning 40 is dull, let me tell you, they are hilariously wrong. As the calendar hit my fourth decade, my partner Kelly cranked up the adventure dial to “Florida Keys”.
Our flight from Kansas City to Miami on Southwest Airlines had me switching from flat plains to sandy beaches faster than you can say, “Passenger, prepare for liftoff!”. Touchdown in Miami, and it was time to swap wings for wheels. We rented a car, and like two excitable tourists jacked up on jet fuel and dreams, we drove to Key Largo, rolling up to Hampton Inn at a bleary-eyed 10 pm.
Friday Morning: Wreck-Reational Diving
Being night owls didn’t deter us from diving into the morning sun. Off we went to meet the Rainbow Reef Diving crew for a date with the ocean floor. Now, I’ll be honest. The dive company was as efficient as a cattle rancher on a Texas field, herding us into boats with precision. Though I didn’t exactly appreciate feeling like bovine heading to a barn dance, the Spiegel Grove Wreck and Benwood Wreck did make up for it.
Giant groupers graced us with their girth, and turtles drifted by in a languid parade, giving us some un-shellfish photo ops. My underwater camera hasn’t seen this much action since that infamous home fish tank photoshoot of ’19.
Friday Afternoon: Key West, Grilled Beast, and Aquatic Encounters
With the taste of salt still on our lips, we drove to Key West, a place that had been taunting me from my bucket list for too long. Touching the southernmost point marker, I felt like I’d just high-fived a legend. A quick dash to the beach later, we headed back up, our hearts fuller and our skin a shade tanner.
Hungry from the travel, we pulled into Island Grill on Windley Key, where we encountered a snapper so delicious it could make a seagull weep. Their Key Lime pies packed a punch of tart-sweet ecstasy that made me see stars in broad daylight. As we sat, a manatee and a couple of sharks swam by, no doubt lured by the smell of the fantastic food, or maybe they were saying hi.
Chickens in Paradise: The Feathered Mystery of Key West
Just when you thought you’ve seen it all in the Florida Keys, a new spectacle presents itself. Chickens. Yes, you read that right. Chickens! In the midst of all the diving, dining, and driving, the ubiquitous cluckers of Key West added a zany twist to my adventure.
It’s like stepping into an alternate universe where chickens have evolved to replace pigeons. Instead of the usual scene of city birds pecking at crumbs, you’ve got these feathered divas strutting around like they own the place. And in a way, they kinda do.
Where did they come from, you ask? Theories abound. Some claim they’re descendants of cockfighting birds set free when the sport was banned. Others argue they’re the heirs of poultry once kept by locals for eggs and meat, that got tired of the coop life and opted for sun, sea, and the open road.
Regardless of their origin story, these chickens have made Key West their own personal hen-house. They’re everywhere – on the sidewalks, in the parks, and outside bars, looking like they’re about to order a mojito.
These Key West locals are like no chicken you’ve ever seen. They’re beach-bod ready, probably from all the pecking and running around (the chicken version of a low carb, high exercise lifestyle, I guess?). And the roosters, oh, the roosters. They cock-a-doodle-doo to their own beat, any time of day, not caring if it’s dawn, midday, or midnight.
In a way, their audacious presence adds to the quirky charm of the Keys. A gentle reminder to embrace the unexpected and to strut through life, no matter what. Because if a chicken can become a beach bum, then anything, truly, is possible.
Bambi Goes to the Beach: The Curious Case of Key Deer and Their Street-Savvy
Just when you thought that the chickens held the title for “most unlikely residents of the Keys”, let me introduce you to the Key Deer. Imagine Bambi, but miniaturized, and with a penchant for beach life.
Seeing “Deer Crossing” signs in a place known more for beaches and boats than forests and fur might seem a little off. It’s like discovering that Santa Claus has traded his sleigh for a speedboat. But in the Florida Keys, the unexpected is the norm.
The Key Deer, local celebrities in their own right, are an endangered species found only in the lower Florida Keys. They’re about the size of a large dog, and far too adorable for their own good. Don’t let their size fool you though; these little guys have adapted perfectly to their unique environment, even if it’s worlds away from their woodland cousins’ homes.
They roam around Big Pine Key and the surrounding islands like they’re the main characters in a tropical reboot of Bambi. Forget the meadow – these guys have ocean views! They’ll casually munch on plants, take leisurely strolls down the road (hence the crossing signs), and basically just go about their business as if they’re not causing tourists to stop in their tracks for a photo op.
It’s not uncommon to see a Key Deer chilling on the side of the road, looking like they’re waiting for an Uber. Remember, though, these are wild animals, not pets. The temptation to pet them might be strong (they are unbelievably cute), but it’s better to admire from a distance.
So, there you have it. In the Florida Keys, chickens rule the roost, deer prance about like they’re on vacation, and us humans are just along for the ride, marveling at the mad, beautiful spectacle of it all. Truly, paradise is a place on earth, and it comes with feathers, fur, and a whole lot of laughter.
Saturday Morning: From Waffles to Waves
Saturday morning was no time for lounging. Doc’s Diner, known for its legendary waffles, was calling our name, and who were we to resist? Stuffed and satisfied, we returned to the hotel for a quick ocean dip that made the pool look like a kiddie splash zone.
Saturday Afternoon: The Dive, Dine, and Drive Trifecta
Feeling like seasoned Keys locals, we set out for an afternoon of exploration. A quick detour into Divers Direct reminded me that the price of SCUBA gear can sometimes be as breathtaking as the dive itself.
Lunch beckoned, and we found ourselves at El Framboyan Cuban Cuisine, home of the most expensive snapper I’ve ever eaten. It was good, but it didn’t rock my boat the way the Island Grill’s had.
On the way back, we stopped at the Key Lime Factory, a necessary pilgrimage for any self-respecting Key Largo visitor. Their pie was a slice of sunshine that carried me straight back to the hotel for a much-needed nap.
Awaking rejuvenated, I spent the evening bidding the sun adieu, mentally preparing myself for the flight home in the morning. After all, every great adventure has to end. But between the diving, dining, and driving, I’ve got a treasure chest of memories to keep the post-vacation blues at bay.
So, here’s to turning 40, and to many more unforgettable journeys ahead. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a plane to catch.
My Ambulance Conversion: From Lifesaver to Life on the Road
As if turning 40 and going SCUBA diving with a parade of sea turtles wasn’t enough of a midlife adrenaline rush, I decided to add another adventure to the mix: converting an ambulance into a camper van.
Just picture it. There I am, proudly parked between a Winnebago and a teardrop trailer, nonchalantly flipping burgers next to my hulking mass of life-saving machinery turned life-enhancing road-tripper. Talk about being the life of the campground party!
The Conversion Conundrum
Turning an ambulance into a camper van isn’t just about slapping on a coat of paint and sticking a mattress in the back. Oh no. It’s a delicate dance between keeping the van’s life-saving soul and infusing it with home-away-from-home comforts.
Do I keep the siren as an anti-bear device, or swap it out for a satellite dish? Do I repurpose the oxygen tanks into propane tanks for a cheeky barbecue, or should they become funky light fixtures? Should the gurney serve as a pull-out bed, or a mobile picnic table? So many possibilities, so little time!
The Joy of the Journey
The best part of converting an ambulance isn’t the quirky design decisions (though they’re pretty fun), but the promise of the open road. The idea that home isn’t a place, but a state of mind – and a state of mobility. That you can roll up to the beach, the forest, the middle of the desert, or even the parking lot of a Florida Keys dive shop, and say, “This is home. At least for tonight.”
So, there you have it. I, a humble resident of Lees Summit, Missouri, now owner of a once life-saving, now life-giving, marvel of machinery. And who knows? Maybe one day, you’ll see me rolling down the highway in my ambulance-turned-camper, beeping my (siren-free) horn and living my best converted life.
Here’s to new adventures, to SCUBA diving, to turning 40, and to the open road. Because life, just like an old ambulance, is all about what you make of it.