Key West: a wayward exit by bus

My business was finished in Key West, and as I prepared to leave that lovable little town at the tip of US 1 for an appointment 80 miles up the Keys in Islamorada, I wanted more than anything to catch the next train north. The trouble was, I was 45 years late.

There hasn't been a train between Key West and Miami since the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 lit into the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad, otherwise known as Flagler's Folly. From 1912 to 1935 one could get from Miami to Havana in 11 hours, the last six by steamer from Key West, following a 100-mile watery rail ride through the tufted green keys.

Today the traveler's choice is Air Florida, which brought jets into Key West for the first time in 1979 (and which now provides one-stop service through Miami all the way from New York and Washington), a rented car, or the Trailways Bus System. Car rentals are usually a good bet in Florida where competition for the tourist dollar has kept the rates among the lowest in the US, but for some reason the local agencies were quoting me much higher figures than I was prepared to pay. So I hopped a bus.

Long-distance bus riding is not may favorite way to go, but for 2 hours and 15 minutes on perhaps one of themost scenic routes in the US with a charming stranger sitting beside me, how bad could it be? I met David Eisenstein, 62, as we boarded the silver Scenic Cruiser marked MIAMI on a bright cool Saturday afternoon in January. He was traveling light: a manila envelope. He explained that he had spent only a few hours in Key West, doing what he does all over the Southeast: taking inventory on leather belts at a local department store. Now he was heading home to Miami Beach, where he had caught a bus south early that morning.

As we rolled out of the parking lot at 3:37 p.m. 7 minutes behind schedule, Mr. Eisenstein said, "I used to drive from Miami in 2 1/2 hours. Of course, that was 20 years ago. There was no traffic, no stoplights then. Now it takes twice as long." Clearly my seatmate was a good case for bus riding in these fuel-conscious times.

He said the drive to Key West and back takes 21 gallons at a dollar per, while the roundtrip bus fare is $22.25. The $1.25 difference, he said, was not worth the wear and tear on car, tires, and David Eisenstein. Besides, I could tell he was fond of the scenery along the Overseas Highway and rather liked the carefree, happy vacuum one finds on a big intercity bus.

On long bus rides I try to sit as near the driver as possible because I have seldom met one who doesn't mind acting as an informal tour guide or discussing the odds on the presidential campaign and the Super Bowl. So when a passenger got off at an early stop, Mr. Eisenstein and I moved one seat closer to the front. Unfortunately today's topic was drivers' courtesy on Florida highways, namely US 1.

"I just moved down from Boston, said the driver, "and I don't miss the cold and snow and rain one bit. Man couldn't ask for better weather or a prettier view, but these Florida drivers. . . ." He fell silent as he struggled to ease the bus back onto the two-lane road after a brief passenger pickup, but the oncoming stream would not halt.

We had passed from Lower Sugar Loof Key to Pork Key, Sugar Loaf Key, and Cudjoe Key, booming over the narrow causeways and bridges that string together the sunwashed green islets. We saw people fishing from bridges, and once Mr. Eisenstein pointed to some red and yellow markers barely visible in the blue-gray water and said, "Crawfish traps," and all the while I waited for the scenic highlight of the trip. "Here it comes," he said. "The Seven Mile Bridge."

More than anywhere else in the Keys this marvel of marine construction gives you the sensation of going to sea. The road is narrow, perilously narrow, and all you see to either side is open water and mangrove swamps. I watched the driver thread the narrow passage, marveled when he dared pass a dawdling car, and felt a windy blast when a small truck passed.

"Notice how quiet the bus gets when I drive this bridge?" he chuckled. "Especially if the wind is up. If I get knocked against the curb a couple times , you can hear a pin drop in here. It's amazing how much the wind moves this big thing: It acts like a sail."

My companion nudged me and pointed to a stretch of rusted bridge he said was left over from the ill-fated railroad. Key West was a prosperous, fashionable port at the turn of the century with all the latest amenities -- electricity, ice, streetcars, telegraph cable, and regular visits by European opera companies. But financier Henry Morrison Flagler dreamed of linking the remote island more closely with Miami, Havana, and South America. An American Gibraltar was his hope for Key West. And a Miami-Key West train was the answer.

From 1905 to 1912 (my historic source here is not my seatmate but a handsome little book called "Key West: The Last Resort" by Chris Sherrill and Roger Aiello), Henry Flagler sank $50 million into the project. There were hurricanes , mosquito swarms, labor troubles, and intense heat, and though the railroad was completed and ran for 23 years, it failed to fulfll its promise. Then in 1935 the hurricane blew it away. Three years later the Overseas Highway was built on the railroad's remains.

"In a few minutes," the driver was saying, as we pulled into the settlement of Islamorada, "We'll be at our rest stop, the Burger King. Have a Whopper." Miami was still a few hours away, but for me the trip was over. I said goodbye to my friend of 2 1/2 hours, and as I stepped down, I asked the driver how far I had to walk to my destination, the Cheeca Lodge. "It's about a quarter-mile, but why didn't you tell me where you were going? I would have dropped you right at the door.

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