Key West On A Rented Road King

I guess this trip is OK to post on Was there touring involved? Yup. Sport? Um, not so much.

Warning - there's a fair amount of non-moto content, as this trip did involve driving 1000+ miles from New Jersey to south Florida. If you want, feel free to skip ahead to the first picture of a motorcycle and start reading there. Also warning - this is pretty long-winded :-).

I hatched the idea for this mid-winter getaway during a particularly hellacious two weeks of work in January, where I put in 60 hours of overtime in a 7-day stretch. The thought of a bike trip as a reward kept me going at 3am night after night. Living in New Jersey, there wasn't really anyplace I could ride to from here in a reasonable amount of time that would count as a real vacation. I started looking around for motorcycle rental places, and settled on getting a bike in Miami and riding to the Florida Keys, which I had never been to.

For a long time I've wanted to give a Harley a try, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I had spend some time at the motorcycle show in DC back in January checking out different models, and settled on a Road King. I needed hard bags, didn't want a huge fairing, and I wanted the most natural ergos I could find. I'm not used to riding a cruiser, and the closer my feet were to my ass the happier I was. Lot of folks here at STN gave me good advice, and the details of the trip were finalized.

Monday, February 6th, 2007

I picked up my rental car, a Saturn Ion, in Delaware on Monday afternoon. Why a rental car? Why drive? I love driving, I hate flying. I find long drives very relaxing. Granted I-95 is no Utah 12, but I still like just being on the road. As for the rental, it was less than $140 for the week, would save wear-and-tear on my car, and the gas savings almost makes up for the rental fee (29mpg on $2.09 regular versus 23mpg on $2.49 premium).

On the way back I stopped at Mike's Famous H-D to get another look at a Road King. I was trying to figure out how to open the saddle bags when Mick Eckel, the sales guy, came over to help me out. I told him about the trip I was doing, and he spent a while showing me where everything was on the bike, and generally being hugely helpful. On the way out he gave me his card, and told me to call if I had any problems with the bike on the road - he'd make sure that HOG took care of me. Considering I was renting from another outfit 1000 miles away, this was very unexpected and much appreciated. Props to Mike's Famous.

What can I tell you about the Ion? It's not a bad little car - the seats are comfy, the stereo has an aux input for an iPod, and the engine is actually very responsive for a tiny 4-banger. One unforgivable design flaw, however, is the centrally-located instrument binnacle. Looking straight ahead at the steering wheel, there's nothing in front of you. Anytime you want to check your speed, or the time, or anything, you have to shift your vision way to the right. It's doubly odd at night, where the view ahead is pitch black emptiness directly ahead. This alone would keep me from considering this car as a keeper.

I paid a visit to my Multistrada in the garage, and had to explain to her that she wasn't coming with me on this trip.

After accompanying my son to his Cub Scout field trip to the Millville Army Air Field Museum, I set off around 7:30 on a particularly cold night.

Drove to a friend's house in Laurel, MD, where we watched a couple episodes of Long Way Round. I set an alarm for 5:30am, hoping an early departure would allow me to avoid DC traffic in the morning.

Tuesday, February 7th, 2007

On the road at 5:50am, the weather channel said it was -6 with the windchill. A perfect time to head to Florida. My destination that night was Cutler Ridge FL, about 20 miles south of Miami. I did indeed do pretty well traffic-wise. Things were a bit slow on the Baltimore Washington Parkway, but at least it was moving. Once I hooked up to I-95 again I had to really pay attention, because the GPS informed me I had a turn coming up - in 792 miles.

Virginia was riddled with LEO's, as always. At least a dozen on the road, many times there were groups of 3 or 4 people pulled over in a single group. After crossing into North Carolina, pretty much no more police presence. NC - zzz. SC - zzz. GA - zzz. Finally crossed into Florida, and hit the only real traffic of the trip in Jacksonville. Passed a number of signs for H-D dealers, all claiming "World's Largest". Indeed, the size of these places is staggering - some of them seem the size of Home Depots. That's a lot of chrome and fringe. Passed a Porsche Cayenne stretch limo, and an Acura NSX with the tag 'BOOTP'.

Took 885 miles of driving down I-95 before the landscape changed significantly. Finally the endless pine trees gave way to flat open expanse of grass on the west side of the highway as far as the eye could see. Man, I-95 is one mind-numbingly boring road.

Got to Miami in just under 13.5 hours, with an overall average speed of 74.8mph. It's amazing how much ground you can cover when you're driving by yourself, and don't have to stop for the family all the time. I would have done even better if my one stop at McDonald's went better - spent 13 minutes there while they got my order together.

Got to the hotel around 8:30 or so, wrote some notes, and passed out.

Wednesday, February 8th, 2007

After a good breakfast at the hotel I hit the road to get to EagleRider in Miami. I tried taking US-1, thinking it might be a good bike ride rather than the Shula Expressway, but it was hideous. I nearly got left-turned into twice, and I was in a bright white car! Back to the highway, which was full of crazy commuters at 8:45am.

EagleRider is located in the middle of a crazy commercial/industrial park near the airport. Even with the GPS, I spent a good 10 minutes driving around the park trying to find the place. Once I did, the folks there were very nice. In about 10 minutes I was on the bike and ready to go. I had requested a standard Road King, but ended up with a Road King Custom. The mechanic gave me the quick tour of the bike, showed me how to work the alarm, and warned me not to keep the key in the bike while moving - it will easily vibrate out. Riding around with the key to the bike in your pocket is very off - I was constantly paranoid about losing it. Now I know what the lanyard in my motorcycle jacket is for.

First impression - holy battleships, Batman - this thing is HEAVY! The wet weight of 752 pounds is nearly double that of my Multistrada, and I felt every pound of it slowly manouvering it to my rental car to move gear around. I think the fork assembly alone is probably 1/2 the difference. I mean that headlight has to weigh, what, 40 pounds?

This was my first experience with hard saddlebags - brilliant! They took all of my stuff (well, I thought so - stay tuned), and snapped closed with room to spare. While packing the bags I couldn't find my earplugs (I wear them religiously), so I planned to make a stop at the next drugstore. The Harley sounded glorious sitting still and revving it up. Without a tach, of course, there's no way to know how high you are actually revving it.

I geared up (ATGATT, baby) and hit the road.

I slowly made my way out of the complex, trying to get a handle on this behemoth. The riding position was very relaxed, and the grips weren't a reach at all. Having my feet way out in front of me (at least for me) felt very unnatural, but I hoped I would get used to it. The brakes seemed warped - very pulsy (is that even a word?) when trying to stop smoothly. Finding neutral was quite a challenge if I was already stopped, not too bad if I was still rolling. Honked the horn twice trying to signal before even leaving the complex.

The first thing you want to do on an unfamiliar bike, of course, is to take it out on the 5-lane-across major-metropolitan-area interstate and deal with commuter traffic. Which I did. Headed south on the Don Shula Expressway, stopping twice to pay tolls. Each toll stop was an adventure in taxing the patience of the toll-taker as I desperately tried to find neutral.

A short while later I hooked a left off US1 in Homestead onto Card Sound Road. I was too early for a stop at Alabama Jack's, but this road promised to be more scenic that US-1.

Well, scenic it wasn't, but busy it wasn't either. Kinda like driving though the Pine Barrens in NJ. There were signs warning of panther crossings, but I didn't see any. The Road King seemed in it's element cruising along around 50 on smooth straight blacktop. Without my earplugs all I could hear was the windroar through my full-face helmet, and to some extent the deep bass of the exhaust.

Since this was my first time on the bike to relax a bit (after the expressway), I suddenly realized why the saddle bags had some room to spare - I left my shoes in the car. I changed into my boots, and left the walking shoes in the back seat of the car. This being Florida, I didn't pack any jeans either, so that left me with motorcycle boots and shorts - quite the fashion statement. Guess I'll be doing some shopping.

Continued through Key Largo, stopping to get this nice shot before hitting the main drag. This was also my first experience with Harley's unusual sidestand operation. I stopped the bike, kicked out the stand, made sure the bike was stable, and got off. And then noticed the bike was starting to roll forward! Yikes! I grabbed for the front brake, hoping the bike didn't roll too far, as I'm not sure I wanted to try to lift 800 pounds of chrome (and lose my security deposit). Turns out I didn't need to worry - the sidestand has a funky groove that kinda locks when deployed. You can rock the bike back and forth all you want and it stays down. Very nice, but scared the crap out of me the first time.

Key Largo, from the road, sucks. Lotsa retail, left-turners, lights, merges, etc. I stopped at a Walgreen's for some earplugs, and got a pair of flip-flops that looked like they might fit - didn't want to take off my boots and try them on. Things were much better with the earplugs in, but as soon as I got back on US-1 I hit the rev limiter in first gear - kinda wishing for a tach, though I never hit it again. Just don't hit 40mph in first gear.

Tavernier and Islamorada weren't much better from the road. 2-lane, trees, stores, nothing exotic at all.

It isn't until you get past Lower Matacumbe Key that things start to look interesting. The best part of the ride so far were the bridges - every time you make the jump from one key to another, you get a good look at the gorgeous blue of the ocean and the bay, or the Gulf.

Marathon Key is very busy, again with all the usual retail places. I was pretty famished at this point so I stopped at Burger King for lunch - thankfully my last chain-food for the vacation.

I wanted to get some pictures while riding, so I took off my left glove to better operate the camera. Wrapped the wrist strap around my wrist, and stashed the point-and-shoot digital in my left jacket pocket. The long strap allowed just enough room for my hand to reach the grips with the camera safely stashed in my pocket.

Going great until I waved to the first biker going the other way - my wedding ring came *this* close to flying off my hand! I lost 30 pounds last year, and haven't gotten around to getting the ring resized, so it's always a bit loose. I guess with my bare hand in the wind for a while it got extra loose. Could have been worse - a friend of mine was out deep-see fishing a couple years back, and he had also lost a lot of weight. He vigorously casts his line, and watches as his wedding ring takes off and bloops into the ocean. That had to be painful. So I transferred my wedding ring to my right hand, safely ensconsed in a glove.

Leaving Marathon Key puts you on the famous Seven Mile Bridge connecting Vaca Key and Little Duck Key. As soon as I got onto the bridge my right earplug worked it's way loose, which made it sound like there was a category 5 hurricane going on in the right side of my helmet. Great.

After the Seven Mile Bridge, the ride is substantially more scenic. One lane each direction, only one traffic light in 55 miles, what little traffic there was moving along nicely, palm trees, lots of water all around. Came onto Big Pine Key and into the Key Deer habitat. Both sides of the road lined with big black fencing to keep the deer off the road. Not very pretty, I must say.

Pretty much every bike that I saw on the way down was a Harley - not surprising. What I did find surprising was that not all Harley riders waved back - even though I was now one of them, albeit temporarily. Don't despair, non H-D riders - it's not you, it's them.

Somewhere between Marathon and Key West my butt and back were starting to really ache. The Road King puts all your weight on your butt, and there's not much variation in seating position to do. I did ride quite a bit with my feet on the passenger pegs, which at least put pressure on a different part of my backside. I can't imagine doing all-day rides on a cruiser. But perhaps one adjusts?

Got into Key West and took A1A, which runs along the Gulf of Mexico. It also runs through the most built-up commercial area of the island, with tons of retail stores, scooter rental places, gas stations, etc. I saw the one and only Ducati of the trip, a SuperSport ridden by a guy with no helmet and shorts. Through some dumb luck I managed to ride by my hotel, the Merlin Guest House.

I checked in, ditched the helmet and leathers, and went to move the bike to a real parking spot (there was a 15-minute parking area right in front of the inn). Found a spot just big enough for the bike around the corner, and while I was backing her in I heard from across the street "Don't worry, my truck's not going anywhere. I'll keep an eye on your bike." The guy came across the street to start chatting, he was from Maine and rides a KLR now, or as he said it, a KL-Ah. He used to live in Key West about 20 years ago, and brought his wife down for the first time. He was sad at how the place has changed since he'd been there last, which is safe to say about pretty much anyplace.

"When I lived here, it was all bicycles. You'd go drinking at the Green Parrot, and when you wanted to leave you had to search though a hundred or so bicycles piled up to find yours. Now it's all scooters. Thousands of damn scooters. The noise they make, all night long, it's terrible. And the planes! It used to be if a plane came in it was an event - now it's like living next to Logan".

We talked about bikes for a bit, and travelling in general, and then I asked if he knew a place I could buy some shoes. Turns out the flip-flops I bought in Key Largo are about 3 sizes too small. Duval street, he suggested.

So I took off for Duval Street barefoot, fortunately it was only a block away. Found shoes quick enough. I was a little disappointed in Duval Street during the day, at least this section of it. T-shirt shops, Haagen-Dazs, Denny's, etc. Not exactly exotic.

Everyone I told about my trip to Key West said the same thing: "You have to go to Mallory for the sunset". OK, let's check this out. Quick look at the map shows Mallory Park to be directly at the north end of Duval, so I started walking. Picked up an icy cold Corona from a girl selling them out of an ice chest in the street. Hmm, getting better.

Roosters roaming around all over the place, making quite a racket.

More generic retail.

"Watch the tram car, please"

Cats are also everywhere, and so are the people photographing them. Apparently many are descendants of Hemmingway's six-toed cats, or so I'm told. I'm not a cat person.

Mallory Square was terrific. Starting a little while before sunset, it seems half the people on the island start to gather there to watch the sunset, the boats, and the street performers. I'm a big fan of buskers, so I had a great time. Easily the largest collection of street performers I've seen in one place, with some genuinely excellent acts (and a couple who you could guess this time next year would be delivering your pizza).

Hardly needs a caption, don't you think?

This foursome was probably the best of the bunch, some incredible acrobatics, and really worked the crowd well. After wandering around for a while, and putting some money into some hats, it was time to see what the famous sunset would bring.

There are about a zillion of these "sunset cruise" boats that leave just before sunset for a 30-minute cruise for $50 or so.

I liked these guys paddling their surfboards back into land.

Problems at work? What problems?

This guy was very talented, but seemed pretty bitter and annoyed at everyone. He did some great stuff, like juggling while on this highwire, but never connected with the audience.

I grabbed a decent grilled hot dog from a cart vendor, another Corona (though at twice the price than before), and headed back down Duval to check out the action. Being here by myself, I wasn't really planning on hitting the bars, I just wanted to take it all in and see what's what. There were a fair number of people on the main drag, but the place wasn't really swinging. There's about a 2 or 3 block section of Duval that's practically bar after bar, all open-air with live music. Very promising, but tonight it was kinda dead.


For $1.50/minute, you could catch one of these rickshaws to take you around. This very cute girl had just dropped off 3 big drunken guys.

Yet another rental vehicle available. You could rent bicycles, scooters, these things, electric cars, you-name-it. I wandered up and down Duval for a bit longer and called it a night.

Thursday, February 9th, 2007

Got up around 8, decided to go walk the town. Surprisingly for an island, there aren't that many beaches. The nearest one to me was at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, so I made way over there, passing along the way the lighthouse and the Hemmingway House. I declined to pay the $11 to tour the inside of the house.

The last section before the park passes through the Truman Annex. This was the oddest place on the island, kind of like the set of The Truman Show, or like Disney's version of Key West. Every house was perfect, and practically identical. Each tiny patch of grass was perfectly manicured. They had a sign saying during the day you were allowed to walk through their neighborhood. Very odd.

Fort Zachary Taylor itself was pretty cool, reminded me a lot of Fort Delaware around here. They were setting up for a Civil War Days event that weekend. I also noticed a cruise ship (Carnival) in port, where yesterday there wasn't. Should be intereting to see what difference that makes.

Left the fort after walking the mostly deserted grounds, and rounded a corner and got to the beach proper. The water was beautiful, the actual beach not so much. I'm probably spoiled by New Jersey's perfect sand - this was very rocky. Couldn't help noticing the huge radar (?) installation off the side, and the very serious Coast Guard ship heading out to sea.

Walked along the shore for a while, and headed back to the hotel to go riding. Along the way I found the most fun thing about the cruise ship being in - watching everyone try to figure out how to ride their rented scooters. Quite the hoot, everyone weaving all over the place, practically driving into the sidewalk, etc. Glad I was on foot.

Left the earplugs out for the cruise around the island - I have to say the Harley sounds great going from a stop to about 30mph. I'm sure everyone knows what the sound is like, and for me that was the best place to experience it. Narrow street lined with shops to bounce the exhaust back to you, ripping up through 1st and 2nd. Any faster and the wind noise takes over. There was a fair amount of traffic in town, and the Road King is not at it's best crawling along and trying to zip around turning cages. All that weight and the lazy steering geometry do not shine in this situation.

On the way out I took 1A on the south side of the island, and that was much nicer than the way in. Pretty much just open water to your right, and hotels to your left. No lights, just a nice easy cruise.

Half and hour later I was on Big Pine Key and starting the search for the No Name Pub. It's a couple miles down a very empty street off the main drag (and also past the Deal's Gap of the keys - one 15mph bend). Got a seat at the bar, and was served the cheesiest pizza I've ever had (and that includes Ray's on 6th and 11th in NYC).

The place is very interesting, as the entire interior is plastered with dollar bills from patrons. Practically every square inch - I'd love to know the value of the place including the 'wallpaper'.

Feeling completely stuffed, I got on the bike and headed East. At the light on Big Pine on US1 there were a guy and a girl on 2 Harleys in front of me, he on some Big Twin and she on a Sportster, waiting to turn right. He took off, pulling way too close in front of a car coming from his left, and she went to follow, and then thought better of it and grabbed the brake. And promptly fell down. A couple folks who were walking by rushed over to help her get the bike up, while I sat there and tried like hell to get the Road King in neutral. She seemed OK, and when she finally turned right I followed here for a bit - her partner was nowhere to be seen.

Stopped at a park just before the bridge to Bahia Honda State Park for some pictures.

Practiced taking more pictures while on the road.

Rode over 7 Mile Bridge, and stopped to walk a section of the old bridge.

It seems much too narrow to support heavy 2-way traffic, it must have been a nightmare back in the day. Pretty much zero margin for error. After walking about a mile on the old span, I got back on the bike and headed back to Key West. I made a quick stop at the Southernmost Point - if you come back from a vacation in Key West and don't have one of these shots people look at you funny.

Noticed that I had a nice sunburn on my left (ungloved) hand.

Parked the bike back at the hotel and headed back up Duval to Mallory. Picked up my usual Corona from the ice bucket along the way.

Only $1 to take a photo of the pirate. There were many more people around today, I suppose from the cruise ship.

It seems on every corner there was someone selling hand-rolled cigars. The downside was walking around at night in a haze of cigar smoke. At least it was good-quality cigar smoke.

Mallory was 5x busier than it was the night before, you could barely move around.

"Bring out the gimp".

Dominique and his Flying House Cats. This guys been here for over 20 years, making his house cats jump through hoops and flaming rings. He sounds pretty much insane, speaks with a barely intelligible french accent, and laughs like a loon every 20 seconds or so. I watched for about 10 minutes, more out of stunned confusion than anything else. I'm not a cat person, but the guy definitely has quite the persona. If you're ever here, at least give this guy a look - he's local color defined.

Another serious Coast Guard ship.

As I said, there were tons more people in town this day, and the energy level was really high. I wandered back down Duval, and this time all the bars were hopping. The 2 or 3 block section where the majority of the bars are located is really excellent. They mostly open to the street, lots have live music, and all seem very 'accessible'. You can just stroll from bar to bar, drink in hand, and take in some music. I noticed zero police presence on the street. I had dinner at Fogarty's, and then headed across the street to listen to a great singer at The Bull. The whole street was a great scene, easily the best place I've been to for bar-hopping. It would be a great place to come back to with the wife, stay at one of the places near Duval, and just hit the bars every night.

Eventually made it back to my room for the last night in Key West.

Friday, February 10th, 2007

Suited up for the ride out of Key West and cruised around town. Saw a guy on a scooter wipe out right in front of me when the lady in front of him tapped her brakes - he locked up the front wheel and down he went. She pulled right over to make sure he was OK.

Got a better picture of the Southernmost point, then stopped to get a picture of the US1 Mile 0 sign.

Left via US1 again, stopped to put the earplugs back in as soon as I left the island.

Stopped on Big Pine Key to get a picture of the Corbin car, the first one I've ever seen. Got to be one of the ugliest things ever put on wheels.

Driving off the main drag on Big Pine there are all these dirt side roads - tempting, but not on a rented Road King.

Stopped at the same Veteran's Park as yesterday, but this time I was prepared with my bathing suit on under my leathers. It was neat to go from full ATTGATT to swinmtrunks in 30 seconds at the side of the road. Probably would be even quicker with an Aerostich. Parked next to me were a pair of dualie crew cabs with Quebec plates, and a big family of French-Canadians buzzing about. Now that's a drive.

The water was super clear, and full of these little guys:

I'm pretty sure I didn't want to step on them. Being from NJ (and originally from NY), I'm not used to seeing anything in the ocean. I think I prefer it to be a big mystery when I'm in the water.

Going over 7 Mile Bridge for the last time was pretty exciting - primarily because right in the middle of it (just after taking the shot above), the bike quit on me. I noticed the rumbling stopped, and then I was coasting over to the shoulder. As you can see in the picture, not the best place to have a bike breakdown. Fortunately it started right up again and I was on my way. And no, I didn't hit the kill switch by accident.

Saw a bunch of black and gold rental Shelby GT-H's on their way south. Passing through Key Largo, temperature was 91 degrees. It's been a long, long time since I cooked on a bike, that brought back a lot of memories. The Alpinestar Bat pants have perforations panels that move some air, but with the cruiser ergos they were out of the windstream.

I did Card Sound Road again, and stopped at Alabama Jack's for lunch.

Got a table right on the water's edge and had a great lunch while enjoying the view. A couple groups of bikers there.

Finished the sucky ride back up the Shula Expressway and dropped the bike back at EagleRider. They looked it over for a minute, and I was on my way.

So what did I think of my first real experience on a Harley? Did I place a deposit on one when I got home? No. I liked the relaxed lope of the ride, the whole smell-the-flowers vibe you get into, and I think most H-D's look great. I didn't like the ergos, my legs were way too far forward for me. Almost everytime I started from a stop I had a second of confusion on where to put my feet - then I had to swing them way up on the ottoman. For me, that made manouvering around town a hassle. While I didn't ask anything of the handling that the bike couldn't deliver, I was always wary that I might. Not an issue with the Ducati. I know my personal tilt-o-meter will be off the scale before the Duc starts dragging anything.

The weight was also a deal-breaker, at least on the Road King. I'm still at the stage where I like the idea of something nimble. When I got home, I took the Multi out for a ride and it was like getting on a Schwinn. I felt like I could toss the bike around like an old 10-speed.

Got back in the Saturn and stopped for gas somewhere just north of Miami, in what I gather is not the nicest area. I went inside to get some snacks for the big ride home, and to pay for them I had to hold each item up to the girl behind the bulletproof cage so she could point the scanner at them. Slid the money through the slot, and she slid back a bag. Nice.

Stopped at Boomer's in Dania Beach to ride the rollercoaster. I'm a big fan of rollercoasters, and a member of ACE, and I don't often get this far south.

Now that's the kind of crowds I like to see at a ride.

The Dania Beach Hurricane.

Got stuck in a wicked traffic jam (construction) on I-95 about 50 miles south of Jacksonville. After crawling at 2mph for about an hour I saw something I'd never imagined before. A girl in the Sebring in front of me got out, walked around to the front of the car, and squatted down and peed in the middle of her lane on I-95. Not in the bushes, not over on the shoulder, not partially obscured by the car door, just right out in plain view of the truckers and everyone else in traffic. Not 10 minutes later her girlfriend did the same. Class.


Saturday, February 11th, 2007

Not much to say - a long drive back to NJ from Jacksonville. Some traffic around DC, but otherwise smooth sailing.

Finally got home around 7:45 or so, and my 6-year old was very, very happy to have daddy back. And I was happy to be back.