From rails to trails in the Florida Keys

By Mary Logan

We are in Florida, warming up, visiting family, rehabilitating an old house, and attending the biennial Emergy conference in Gainesville in January. We are taking a break from the house rehab by bike touring from Sarasota to Key West and then back to Gainesville. Touring by bike emphasizes the difference in perspective between human-scaled travel and the machine-powered society that south Florida has adapted to.

busBoydsAs former Floridians, we have traveled many times to the Keys by car, but never by bike. From Sarasota, we biked to Ft. Myers Beach, and hopped on the fast ferry to Key West with our bikes. We awoke the next morning in the Key West campground shadowed by the recreational vehicle monstrosity at right, which was occupied by an elderly couple, their small yap dog, and two large motorcycles. As tenters, we are the exception in this campground. Most of the sites are occupied by these RV behemoths. The men spend their mornings washing and vacuuming their various gas-powered accouterments, kicking nature out of the eaves and the rugs that they have covered over their little plot of heaven, and they appear to be at a loss for ways to be useful. Then they go back inside of the air-conditioned motor home for the rest of the day. The women we generally don’t see at all.

We are sandwiched between the drone of fighter jets from the nearby naval air base, and the less common commercial jet from the Key West airport. After dark, a barrage of transport planes come piling into the air base. We have been fortunate to catch very warm weather this week, while most of the rest of the country is covered in an arctic blast–perhaps someone called an emergency meeting of the bigwigs in Key West for the navy. Have you noticed how bureaucracy affords itself increasing privilege over time? The privilege escalates until the privilege buts up against impoverishment and recedes, or it bankrupts the organization. We are there now with our government. provides us with the name of a local favorite place to eat—a food truck on Greene Street called Garbo’s Grill, with awesome seafood with a tropical/Mexican flair. A Key West Gypsy chicken panhandles while we eat on the curb in the shade. Gypsy chickens are invasives, brought over from Cuba for meat, eggs, and cockfighting. They have proliferated and populate the city, along with the remnants of a feral cat population, some of which are descendants of Ernest Hemingway’s six-toed cat called Snowball.

when touring on a bike, this carnival looks especially huge

We’ve been to Key West many times when we lived in Florida in the 1970s and 80s. Our favorite street act at the nightly Mallory Square sunset festivities is Catman (Dominique), with his performing street cats and goofy comedy. He is still there, but these days, the sunset view is blocked by one or more cruise ships. The cruise ships change the tenor of the city, with the t-shirt shops and dive bars on Duval extending further east now, and more unseen impacts such as more waste, more crime, more inequities, and even more viruses.

lowtechweatherHaving access to internet for searches when bike touring is a wonderful aid. How far is the big grocery store from here? Where is the best place to eat on this Key? Is there space available at the next campground, how much does it cost, and what do people say about it? Are we going to face a headwind today, how hot will it be, and will it rain? It saves us a lot of time and energy. But the ability to find the information is isolating—without it, we would be striking up a lot more conversations with the locals to ask questions. And life is less spontaneous, which can be good and bad.

Electricity and the internet can both be hard to come by when touring by bike, requiring creativity and sometimes a tech-restricted diet as well. Besides the sun, the Keys are powered by Turkey Point nuclear power, which was commissioned in 1972. Since its 40-year operating license was due to expire, it was just extended for 20 more years. How long can it keep running without a major accident, and what will happen when we have a Fukushima-like event occurring just south of Miami?

greeniguanaThe road leaving Key West is much wider than it used to be. Initially Henry Flagler built a railroad to Key West in 1912, which was blown out by the big 1935 Labor Day hurricane. The railroad bed was rebuilt as a highway by 1938, which was later upgraded with a newer, wider highway beside it. The old highway was left for fishing bridges, and much of that is now being rehabbed as a historic bike path. Much of the trip from Key West to Miami is on a wide, newly-paved shoulder or separate bike path, sometimes on separate bridges or

caught in the act
caught in the act

nature paths. At the slower scale of the bicycle, we see lots of critters that those in cars miss. We brake for a flock of immature ibis, or slow for mangrove crabs, and several times we almost crash into large iguanas who are sunning themselves on the verge of the road. The little iguanas are startled and dart away quickly, but some of the large iguanas make a point of stopping in the middle of the bike path right in front of us, as though to make a statement about who is the real owner of the path. On our first campsite after Key West, at Bahia Honda State Park, we are greeted by a very large

Raccoon damage
Raccoon damage

iguana who chases a smaller one away, defecates on a rock, and makes some territorial messages with pushups and his dewlap, before wandering off, as though to say, “Your food is mine.” Unfortunately the iguana is later supplanted by a night raid by raccoons, who make mincemeat out of one of our panniers. Unlike Alaska, the State Parks in Florida such as Bahia Honda have never heard of food lockers for human-powered campers. When asked what to do with our food to protect it from the rapacious raccoons, the ranger at the entrance station says, “Eat it!”

The green iguanas are invasives, as are the ubiquitous anoles (lizards) and the geckos hanging out around the campground bathhouse lights at night to catch bugs. The list includes Cuban tree frogs, Burmese pythons, Gambian Pouch rats, Mynah birds, Lionfish, Brazilian pepper, Australian pine, melaleuca, and other exotics. For that matter, everything is invasive, including we humans, if you go back in time far enough. It all depends on the scale of time at which one views the changes. Man is one of the most invasive of all species, inhabiting all ecosystems. We are probably also the most endangered, because we have overshot by so much.

pelican hazing at Robbie’s Hungry Tarpon

There will be many changes in the future of energy descent, and trying to prevent ecosystems from adapting to the many changes that man has brought, or trying to protect endangered species, is probably a waste of energy in the long run, and something that can’t be sustained as changes accelerate and the energy to deal with the change wanes. Holding evolution back is kind of like plastic surgery for the ecosystem to arrest both time and nature’s progress. Everywhere in the Keys we see man’s efforts to beat back and control nature. Robbie’s Hungry Tarpon makes more money selling buckets of bait fish to tourists to feed 6-foot long tarpon off the docks than they do feeding tourists breakfast. But with the tarpon come the hungry pelicans, who poop fish slime all over their docks. So they hire someone to haze the pelicans–only tarpons allowed at Robbie’s. Development and destruction of mangroves is still occurring down here, but at a slower pace as the economy worsens. Many of the successful native bird species have learned to coexist and benefit from man’s presence. Sandhill cranes now graze the vegetation islands in the Publix parking lot in Sarasota, and gopher tortoises graze the verge of the bike path, ignoring the bikers and pedestrians.

south_flaThe pests and the natives all hang out near our trash. The biggest of the giant land crabs hand out around the dumpster at the campground. Raccoons and rats grow vigorous feeding off of us. Historically, the south Florida Indians left their waste as oyster middens or shell mounds, which are still present on the west coast. The middens were historically sifted for souvenirs, and were farmed briefly in the late 1800s for subsistence vegetables and sugar cane for trade and to produce alcohol, by the motley crew of outlaws and others that replaced the Indians. The fertility of the middens played out fairly quickly. Later the shell mounds were used to provide shell road-base for early roads by pioneers, and as fertilizer for orange groves. I wonder what will be done with our modern-day middens besides mining them for recycled substances. Our large advanced society makes fairly toxic, hazardous waste. The higher the emergy basis of society, the more toxic the waste. The trash on these islands is hauled to local trash middens on the larger islands. Is it better to concentrate the waste, or to mandate that everyone deal with their own? That way, we would see the impacts of our waste streams, and attitudes would change much quicker about consumption in general, packaging, and recycling.  We would be more concerned with the toxicity of what is disposed of if it remained on our own property or in our locale instead of “away.” And items would be more readily at hand for recycling. Eventually, most societies will not support centralized removal anyway.

At the pace we are moving, we turn into modern-day hunter-gatherers, dependent on either local food within a bikeable distance or instead catching the buses that move up and down the keys to get to a larger grocery store. The larger grocery stores have smothered the local stores, making the internal combustion engine that much more necessary for residents. Besides the large chain grocery stores spread too far apart, nothing is left but quickie marts with chemical-laden junk food that is mostly made of high fructose corn syrup. At our next campground on Long Beach State Park, we take the reasonably priced bus back to the grocery store on Marathon 15 miles away. The bus is full of workers from Florida City going to work in some of the fancy resorts on Duck Key. I wonder how long the federal subsidies for cheap bus service will remain? In the old days we would have fished for our dinner, but overfishing, regulations, and pollution diminish that likelihood, too. Grouper are long gone from restaurant menus down here, and the new subsistence fish at local dive bars is Hogfish. Fish that fishermen catch are much smaller, judging from what we see on the fishing bridges. The only big fish we see are the inedible ones like the tarpon at Robbie’s. The Keys economy has always been about commercial fishing and tourism, but both tourism and fishing appear to be hurting these days.

Pollution will increase in energy descent if the population does not decrease, making subsistence living more difficult and more toxic. Once we concentrate and expand society, growth continues until resources are expended. The only solution is to contract society’s size and complexity, until we reach a more sustainable level.

keylargocoffeeOnce we reach the Upper Keys, we begin to experience the wealth effect of Miami, in the proliferation of gated communities and private gated estates, which limits accessibility to the oceanfront. Fossil fuels have provided us with a different perspective of normal. The esthetic and function of big, square, windowless, air-conditioned strip malls and banks, modern art, even the electronic music in stores is jarring when seen from the human scale, on a bike.

The Adventure Cycling route from the keys to Miami bypasses the urban throughways, routing us among the tree farms and several large waste dumps south of Miami, marked by circling hundreds of gulls and vultures, and then suddenly onto very wealthy Cutler road at the Atlantic coast, where the biggest hazard is overgrown banyan tree roots in the bike path. We overshoot the cheap hotels in south Miami, and end up peddling through downtown Miami at rush hour to get to the cheaper hotels out on the beach, as there are no campgrounds to speak of on the Gold Coast of Florida. Dade county is very bike friendly, with bike lanes, bike paths, and shared lanes. Drivers appear to be used to road bikes, and are respectful of the shared lanes. Miami Beach now even has its own heavily used bike share system.

atlanticatI highly recommend touring the Florida Keys by bike. The Florida Dept. of Transportation and Keys residents have done a great job recently of improving the bike lanes. If you go by bike, you might consider biking southwest on A1A to Key West (rather than up A1A to Miami) and taking the ferry back to Ft. Myers, as the prevailing winds from the east are then tailwinds. Also consider a side trip to the Dry Tortugas—a historic civil war fort and good snorkeling are there, and the park service now has a daily ferry run. The pace and scale of the trip is much more enjoyable than by car, where the tendency is to hurry and miss a lot of things at the natural, human scale. Touring by bike only magnifies the ridiculous scale of modern society. Biking allows us to enjoy the beauty of south Florida at a natural scale and pace, rather than machine-centered.

Atlanticat ferry Ft. Myers Beach to Key West, bikes on the bow