The final chapter: USA to home.

Well, it’s been a while coming. Fricking ages in fact. How do people have time to do things working full time?!?! Like UK full time, not Ecuadorean island full time. And besides that, there’s nothing quite like the cold slap of UK winter reality to destroy your travel writing mojo! But in any case, let’s think back to sunnier times. Starting with Miami.

My departure from Cuba had not gone entirely smoothly however the flight was pretty much on time and the anticipated interrogation regarding my time in Cuba never materialised. An automated passport scan and a cheery ‘good morning’ from the CBP officer at MIA. Good times.

I was genuinely excited about touching back down in the US and throwing myself into a reverse culture shock stronger than I’d ever experienced before. The plan was simple: drive down to Key West over the course of 2 days, 2 days decompression in Key West and then flying back up North. 5 nights in New York to round off my incredible trip.

Those who know me, know that I don’t do things by halves. Some things in fact are quite simply pointless doing by halves. This was a good example. Getting the bus or renting an ecobox would destroy the recreational aspect of the journey, the great American road trip. So instead…

MIA rental bay C48, my new love

Yeah, of course I rented a convertible Mustang. There was about £50 difference between this and an ecobox so it seemed rude not to.  I’ll come on to my car hire insurance tips later, however do be aware of the rabid upselling at the counter here. Having hired from Avís UK at a very reasonable £100 for 2 days, I was surprised to see the figure on the screen somewhere nearer £170.

They bamboozle you. Seriously. I’d luckily got off a short hop, but I can imagine it would be even harder to resist stepping groggily off a transatlantic flight. “So, you’ve got full coverage right?” “Yep (Avis UK bookings include zero excess insurance!)”. So then I questioned the various addons. One was rubbish personal accident cover. Yep, take that off. Still not back to £110. So what’s that? “Oh, well, extended breakdown cover if you lock your keys out”. Yep, take that off. And breathe…

I’d not fully formulated a plan, but I knew that I had loads of daylight in front of me and only had to get to the Everglades by 7pm. So, after a brief perusal of the side streets around MIA (again, and again and again), I pulled over and looked at my map. Well, I could just go South, or I could head to… Miami Beach! Why the hell not.

Happy Sam!

I eventually found the main Highway One, and decided to trawl up North for a bit, before coming down the length of Miami and heading towards my home for the night. How fricking cool was this, 30 degrees, roof down, cruising. I pulled over in North Beach to get a drink and to have a wander and I wasn’t disappointed. Straight out of Baywatch, lifeguard huts, beautiful people… it was all going on.

Another thing I noticed was just how Latino Miami is. Incredibly so, with Argentine restaurants, Spanish signs every where, A fair few ‘ay papi’s caught on the breeze. Then I remembered how much the Argentines love Miami. And indeed most upwardly mobile South Americans I ever met, they’re always up here shopping and paseando. The gateway city to the US!

So then I continued south, down to the human zoo of South Beach. Past megayachts and beautiful Art Deco architecture everywhere. Truly the Miami of my dreams. Even stuck in traffic, crawling along it felt good to be under my own steam again. Through the rainbow-flagged gay village and probably the greatest concentration of male attention I’ve ever received. The gays do love a drop top!

Courtesy of Wikitravel

Driving Fails 101

And then it happened. My almighty fuckup of the Florida section. Crossing the causeway to the mainland I rounded a corner on the freeway and there it was- The incredible Miami skyline which, for any geeks like me who like a bit of Grand Theft Auto features prominently in the game. The very same road. So overawed by this I was that I decided to grab my camera. I’d like to add that I was going both relatively slowly and there was, luckily, virtually zero traffic since it was a Sunday.

Yep, the inevitable happened. The on-ramp tightened and I didn’t compensate. BANG! into the concrete barrier then Bingbingbingbingbingbingbing as the offside tyre pressure warning went off. It was one of those moments when you just repeatedly chant swear words in a bid to keep it together. The exact point when I was coming onto the biggest 9-lane section. Elevated. No hard shoulder. Arse.

Luckily there really was no traffic. The car was still rolling. Just. We are FINE. I nursed it over to the inside lane and desperately scanned for an exit. This one will do. FUCK! Downtown Miami. This doesn’t look like a good area. Not to worry, get the wheel changed and fuck off quickly.

So, I pulled over in an access road. To add to the archetypal “whitey’s going to get robbbbbbed!” scene a homeless man wandered past with a shopping trolley and growled at me. Great. I’m not too conspicuous or anything, in my bright red convertible.

I was beyond relieved to see that, bizarrely, the only damage I’d managed to do to the car was a blown tyre. Sorry, tire. I’ve since worked out that the design of the concrete medians is such that they curve away from the bottom. But still, stuffing a car directly into one and only hitting the tyre? I’ll take that.

Predictably, whilst I could find the spare tyre and jack, a wheelbrace was nowhere to be seen. Significant cajoling of the guy at the dive hotel nextdoor led to him producing one from a valet-parked car. Further swearing and one jack collapse later the tyre was changed. The guy received a slightly over-generous tip for his help due to my lack of change and we were back on our way.

Dollar General

Back rolling, and a slightly more cautious approach to the journey. Just find Highway One and get outta here. The initially cold hotel guy (Think of every film you’ve ever seen about American dive hotels, this was him) was now charm personified following the cash injection and he straight-up ignored some arriving guests to give me detailed directions back to the freeway.

My destination tonight was the Flamingo campground, nearly 50 miles inside the Everglades NP. To get there I had to hit Highway 1 until Homestead/Florida City and then get into the park. By 6pm. This was not looking likely.

I stopped at a Dollar General store just outside the park to grab some snacks, and beer. Essentials, in other words. I was deeply gratified to find out that, whilst food was far, far more expensive than I’d expected, beer was desperately cheap. Dollar General was a somewhat depressing place which pointed out the immense wealth and racial divide which I’d come to notice a lot in America.

Into the park, mosquito alley

I reached the park entrance around 6.10pm. Luckily the ‘closing time’ on the entrance simply meant that they opened the gates and it was free to enter, so the first $20 win of the day. It was, however, still a VERY LONG WAY to Flamingo Campground. 38 miles in fact.

Arriving at the campground in the dark, I didn’t have a clue where I was going. I had booked in advance since demand is apparently very high. And it was very, very dark. Wilderness kinda dark. I stopped the car, and opened the door. Immediately a cloud of mosquitos came in. So, I shut the door again. Right, plan Sam. Plan. By this point the 20-30 mosquitos were biting. Lots.

I lined up the car headlights, ran to the boot and grabbed my tent, erecting it in a new record time. Returning to the car I grabbed the nighttime essentials (sleeping mat, coat to use as pillow, beer), killed the car and jumped into the tent. This time only about 5 followed me… Progress!

It’s impossible to describe just how voracious the Everglades mosquitoes are. Genuinely staggering, I’ve never known anything like it and don’t expect to in the future either. Just enormous clouds of them. Even in the tent, whilst most of them were stayed by the insect netting, at any point if an arm or leg brushed against the net several would bite me from outside.

Since my super-lightweight tent was about the size of a coffin, this happened quite a lot. And it was insanely humid. All in all, not a great night’s sleep.

Everglades friends at dawn

I woke in the morning determined to get the hell out of this swamp ASAP. Donning my rainjacket with the hood up, I returned the kindly donated bowl from last night’s dinner to my camp neighbours, wished them well and threw everything into the boot. The mosquitos were still swarming so no time for niceties.

Quite why I’d bothered to book the campsite months in advance was unclear- In the cold light of day it revealed itself to be pretty much empty.

I headed back to the camp centre. To be honest, i mainly wanted to get out of there, and sorting the car’s tyre out was high on my list of priorities, but I had to do something whilst I was in the Everglades. So, I took out a kayak for a couple of hours. Sadly i didn’t see the fabled manatees which live there, nor any other wildlife of particular note, however it was a pleasant enough time. Provided I kept moving to avoid the telltale whine of more mosquito attack sorties. You gotta keep moving!

The only way to travel the Everglades

Reaching the lake, end of the line for my destroyed shoulders

Sweet, sweet peace

My return to the rental quay was made slightly more exciting by a boat which failed to spot me, and was hooning down the canal with an impressive bow wave. My first attempts at whitewater kayaking were surprisingly successful, remaining upright and safe. The crazy boaters did stop to say sorry too, which was nice. Returning the kayak, I hopped back into the car to experience wilderness American-style. The Everglades NP is particularly well catered for in terms of bite-size wilderness walks, with at least of 10 ‘stops’ signposted on the way from Flamingo Campground to the park entrance, 38 miles away.

I was really glad I ticked a few of these off- Not exactly wilderness experiences, rather half-hour boardwalk loops but really interesting to see the amazing biodiversity of the Everglades, and the importance of the many forested ‘hammocks’ within the park, essentially semi-floating islands of vegetation. 

Boardwalk into the ‘hammock’

Suitably National Park-ed out for one day, I hit the main strip of Florida City to find me a tyre. A little searching took me to the Goodyear store, who had one in stock. I paid my $215 stupidity tax in cash, explaining to the woman behind the counter that I really didn’t want to remember it when my credit card bill turned up. The scuff on the rim polished out beautifully. A lucky escape from a hire car company reaming!

I hit Highway One south later than I’d planned, but with daylight in hand. I wanted to reach at least the Middle Keys tonight, since the hire car was due at Key West airport by midday tomorrow. My ideal destination was John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo, although I  wasn’t holding out great hope since they’d been apparently booked up for ages.

Sure enough, the extremely chirpy ranger at the gate informed me that there definitely was not room at the inn, but provided a list of nearby places.

Accommodation on the Keys is PRICEY, and especially so during the peak December period. I started to become slightly concerned that I’d have to retrace my steps off the Keys for one of the serial killer motels in Florida City. However, all was not lost…

Kingcamp RV site provided me with a hilariously oversized pitch for my tiny coffin, and how grateful I was. Luckily it included a small patch of grass too. You’d hope so for fifty bucks. After my night under attack in the Everglades I can’t overemphasize how welcome the sea breeze and mosquito-free air really was. And indeed the power shower in the plush washhouse.

And then, you stroll through the site and encounter this.

I’ve really noticed the value of contrasts in travel. You NEED the rough to make the smooth so much sweeter. The last 24hrs had been pretty stressful and uncomfortable in parts, but now I was in a comfy, warm place for the night with a beautiful sunset, my ‘nice’ shirt was on and I was going out for dinner.

Initial plans went to pieces after I realised that ‘pretty close’ in terms of restaurant recommendations actually didn’t include walking. So I decided to limit myself to a beer, and head up to Mrs. Mac’s a few miles south, somewhat of a Keys institution and the kind of folksy, welcoming local diner that you associate so vividly with the US.

I wasn’t disappointed, with a trio of fish, sweet potato and a slice of Key Lime Pie to round off the evening, all consumed at the bar chatting with other visitors.

Sun sets on a perfect Keys day

I’d planned to leave about 8 the next morning to get moving South, however I woke up far earlier and decided to hit the road. Bird in the hand and all that- I still had a LOT of distance to cover by midday. I packed up my tent in seconds, from my hilariously oversized pitch, and moved out.

I partook in a slightly unedifying Waffle House breakfast (They reacted with incredulity when I revealed that I just wanted one face-sized waffle with my coffee. Big America. I then hit the Keys in earnest, getting the boring bits out of the way so I’d hopefully have a bit of time at Bahia Honda State Park prior to dropping the beast back. 

All of the Keys have a different character, however as you get further down the immense wealth here is extremely evident, entire private island communities with Teslas rolling around and the archetypal soccer moms taking in the air. Even in a brand new Mustang I felt somewhat pikey.

Bahia Honda

One of the natural highlights on the Keys, you end up here just before the final crossing to Key West. Crystal clear waters and beautiful beaches make this a massively popular camping spot- I looked several months before coming and even then it was completely chocka all winter.

Bahia Honda combines nature trails with really interesting Keys history about the history of the first railroad crossing down here (Still preserved) which now, sadly, is no more. Another great chance to get the zoom lens out…

Almorzando

And that was it, really. I was starting to get twitchy about returning the car (I’m completely Rain Man about deadlines, particularly when it comes to companies which love to charge like a wounded bull), so I hot-footed it to Key West Airport. In my haste to do so, I’d forgotten that I really did need to fill the car up and then spent another panicked 15 mins trying to locate the nearest gas station. Which naturally was nowhere near the airport. In spite of all this…

I was there! I’d hit the foot of the continental US, and the end of the road for my travels, really. From the tip of Patagonia to the coast of Colombia, from here it would only be a short-ish hop to New York and then the pond to cross.

Key West was nothing short of breathtaking when you looked at accommodation costs, but luckily I managed to bag a ‘cheap’ dorm bed for something like 70 bucks a night. In fairness, it was by far the nicest ‘hostel’ I’d ever stayed at, and actually more of a hotel with some shared rooms. And 3 pools, and a huge free breakfast etc etc…

…after some of the more rustic parts of Colombia and Cuba, it was really nice kicking back in some genuine luxury. And indeed good, solid heat. And wall to wall sunshine. I was looking forward to a few days here. Not Your Average Hotel- well recommended!

Plush surroundings at NYAH

Key West has long been regarded as a bit of a counter-cultural hangout for a number of reasons. It’s a friendly party town, which at the time I went was a good laugh but I imagine in peak season it’d get waaaaaay over the top. Luckily I met some great new friends at NYAH with whom to take a wry look at the ker-aziness on Duval Street.

Bad Santa

Cultural pursuits with the Dutch ambassador

The ‘scene’ in some of the more restrained bars was spot on, relaxed and with very decent craft beer. But the big ones, the “Irish” bars, feck me. PARTAY DUDE YEAHHHHHHHH Nope. The Dutch cultural attaché and I resisted the temptation of anything other than a swift pint and exited stage left pretty sharpish.

I enjoyed the quirky bits of Key West, the ‘end of the world’ vibe, the generally easy going attitude. It was there, if you scraped back the ‘made for tourists’ bit. Like the chickens…

Key West is inhabited by scores of feral chickens. Some think that the original hippies who moved here and (briefly) formed the Conch Republic, possibly America’s shortest independence bid, left the chickens. Some consider them a nuisance. I liked the way they just wandered the streets. Not a single fuck given.

There’s loads of good solid tourist stuff to do in Key West. Visit the tip of the continental US, above (Well, it’s not actually, that’s in the naval station across the road that you can’t go into because…America). There are loads of slightly shonky museums, masses of places to eat and drink, it’s a good spot to hang out. There are beaches, but they’re not much cop. So, just eat and drink. My recommendation?

Harpoon Harry’s. Right on the good end of Margaret Street. I’d fainted at the price of some of the eateries in Key West. Well, to be honest ALL of the eateries in Key West, but Harry saved my bacon. Good homely American diner food at decent prices. The all-female staff were distinctly gruff at first but after about my third meal they really warmed up. A common theme I heard around here was just how hard it was to make a living. The woman from the excellent wildlife information centre on the waterfront told me that she commuted in from a northern Key twice a week as she simply couldn’t afford to live halfway down. The manager of Harpoon Harry’s told me almost all of her, let’s be honest, over middle-aged waitresses in HH were on about 3 bucks an hour. Think about paying for healthcare and living in one of the priciest postcodes in the US and it doesn’t go far. Tip well, puppers.

Almost as soon as I’d arrived, it felt like my time in Key West had come to an abrupt halt. Only one direction to go… NORTH! I felt like I’d really lucked out with Key West, I had started to worry I was spending too long there and that it’d be a lonely few days with no solo travellers in sight. But actually, I made some ace new friends from Holland, Norway and the US- I really couldn’t recommend NYAH any more strongly, it’s cracking value and a good place to meet good people.

Off to the airport. No rush or anything, I’d splashed out on a very leisurely 11am flight. And Key West Airport is really, really tiny. But still, I get anxious about being on time so I took a cab. Can’t be that much money, surely? 18 bloody dollars for, charitably, a 2 mile ride. Redonculous. I’d taken the bus from the airport since it’s mega close and only 2 bucks, but the route was like Snake, covering virtually every street in every block in Key West. So not an option for the route out.

Beach within Key West Airport

The 45min hop from KYW to MIA adds a LOT onto the price of the ticket. But having cruised down like a king in a Mustang getting the bus back just wouldn’t have cut it. Couple of hours in Miami then onwards, upwards towards the final stop. The final final stop of the best year of my life.

New York. Bring on the cold.

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