US 1 from Conchs to Callahan
Part 1 — Key West to Homestead
This road trip refuses to be a linear thing that starts at mile marker (MM) 0 and heads north in an orderly way because that is not the way most folks experience it. No, most people making that trek are focused on getting from away from the mainland into the islands and finally all the way to Key West which is where US1 begins its 2377 mile run that ends in Fort Kent, Maine at the Canadian border.
Because that’s how most people see the journey, from about MM 100 down to MM 0, that’s the way I’ll cover it here. When we get to US 1 Part 2 that runs from Miami north toward the Florida-Georgia border at the St. Marys River we will take the orderly way of doing things and put Cuba to our backs and Canada in front of us and head north.
US 1 has 547 of its miles within the state of Florida. It’s considered the easternmost north-south road. For large portions of its layout in Florida is carries others names. In the Keys it is the Overseas Highway, beyond the Keys it is sometimes Dixie Highway and sometimes Federal Highway and frequently one of the main thoroughfares like Brickell Avenue and Biscayne Blvd in Miami. Throughout the entire state it is also the Blue Star Memorial Highway though only a few markers refer to that.
At first glance it seems there is nothing of the old left in the Keys but that’s not true. As it was decades ago, it’s still the same one-road place filled with a combination of stunningly beautiful nature and honky tonk motels and roadside stores offering rafts and discount sandals that somehow still cost as much as they do anywhere else.
Of course there is plenty of newer homes and condos and a few really snazzy resorts but the less polished side is not far beneath the surface. And like most truly magical destinations, there is an ethereal sense of place that is more based on the feeling it evokes than any set of physical realities.
But remember as you cruise down US 1, this used to be a lawless place reached only by boats and the hardy souls who called these keys home a century ago were busy just keeping a thatched roof over their heads and the snakes out of the bed. Bugs were fearsome, fresh water was in short supply and you were on your own for just about everything.
Read Peter Mattheissen’s “Shadow Country” if you want to get an idea of how rough this place was before the railroad connected these rough island beads into the civilized necklace we now see.
Still, it’s one road in, one road out. And there is just something about that single road access that makes you feel you are truly headed for the end of the road, the last resort, the edge of the world and you are. Even the Winn Dixie or the lone K-Mart feels different, more exotic than the ones back on the peninsula.
It is difficult to head into the Keys without experiencing a sense of awe and a feeling of letting go as one begins to get glimpses of the turquoise waters stretching toward the horizon behind mysterious stands of mangroves. Each bridge from key to key takes you further from the mainland in both a literal and figurative sense and pretty soon you are living on island time or at least what you imagine that to be.
All along the way there are parks, state and local, to guarantee you will always have your own private hideaway on the beach (if you get there early enough). In all there are 10 state parks that offer beaches, fishing, camping on the water and more. Read more at Keys state parks here.
You can think of the Keys as three “sections” starting with the Upper Keys nearest the mainland including Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada. Though you have barely gotten started you can already feel the pull to let go. In the Upper Keys John Pennekamp Park is a constant lure for those who want to experience the waters and the reefs. Bogey’s African Queen is tied up waiting to take you away in the Upper Keys and you can swim, dive, snorkel, fish, boat and shop or just laze around. Read more about the Upper Keys here.
A little further down is Long, Duck, Conch and Marathon making up the Middle Keys. Looking for the elusive best grouper sandwich ever? You may find it here, I did. So many places to stay and make tough choices between a day on the water or a day in the hammock. So many Tiki huts to sit under or fish softly calling your name. Read more about the Middle Keys here.
And finally, there’s the Lower Keys starting with Big Pine terminating in and Key West itself. This is where you find the legendary No Name Pub and the almost unbearably cute Key Deer. Read more about the Lower Keys here.
When you run out of road but not out of options you have landed in Key West. If you can’t find something to do here and can’t discover something new about yourself and the world around you, you may already be dead. From great food and music to the wildest assortment of people still allowed out on the street, this is it. Read more about Key West here.
© Copyright 2012: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison & Lee Brock for MyOldFlorida.com.