The Road to Key West

By the time I met Keogh for our afternoon of kayaking, I had long been convinced that getting off Route 1 - the Overseas Highway - is the ticket if you want to know the Florida Keys, a ragged skein of some 800 islands formed of ancient coral reefs that have transformed into limestone bedrock. Only about 80 of them have names. The 20-plus islands that lie in a direct line were strung together first by an improbable railroad and later by the highway, a 113-mile-long, 42-bridge exercise in enforced linear travel, which passes through each Keys community in unalterable sequence: You cannot get to Marathon without visiting Key Largo; you can reach Key West only by way of Big Pine Key.

Even the signage makes you feel as if you're tooling along on a measuring tape: Every mile has a marker, and every Keys business or attraction or bump in the road is denoted in guidebooks and advertising by "MM" (for mile marker) followed by a number, which is smaller as you approach Key West. A man I met in Islamorada told me that since he moved to the Keys more than 20 years ago, he had lost most of his driving skills. "All you do is go in a straight line, and make [occasional] right and left turns," he said.

I was following that line, having left the Florida mainland just south of Homestead, intending to make as many of those lefts and rights as I could. Oh, I might have barreled straight down the Overseas Highway, hell-bent for Key West, and found plenty of places to eat, spend the night, shop. I might have bumped - and I did - right into the reason Key Largo is the most familiar local place-name. That reason is the Caribbean Club, a Route 1 roadhouse where the eponymous Bogart movie was partly filmed. Not that Bogie would recognize the place: It was done up in Budweiser signs and tatty Christmas decorations, with a football game on TV and a pinball machine in the corner. Outside, instead of Edward G. Robinson's getaway speedboat, there was a black Harley with a sidecar. (Another bit of Bogart memorabilia, the original African Queen, is cradled on davits at a Holiday Inn right down the road. Very occasionally it chugs out on a passenger cruise, minus the gin and the leeches.)