When you live in Key West at the end of U.S. Highway 1, months scroll by between trips to the mainland via the Overseas Highway.
On a good day, it’ll take four hours to do the 160 miles to Miami. On a bad day? Hope you’re wearing adult diapers or are prepared to wing it, so to speak, on the roadside in front of God and everyone. That MIA flight? It departed an hour ago and you’re stuck on the Seven Mile bridge watching emergency folks untangle some ID10T driver, his passengers and his victims as the Trauma Star helicopter huffs in for a landing.
Tourist Development Council advertising to the contrary, driving the Overseas Highway ain’t for the faint of heart. Doesn’t matter if you’re commuting to work, trying to run errands in a retail strip on the wrong side of the road, which means you’re gonna sit for half an hour hoping some nice driver will eventually let you into the never-ending stream of traffic, or naively expecting to experience what the marketing folks tout as a bucket-list tropical experience.
Driving the Overseas Highway is an experience all right. Just not the one in the tourist brochures.
To be fair, I once did have one of those TDC-style drives. Back in May 2020, smack in the middle of the Covid-19 roadblock that kept most everyone except residents and resident-pretenders out of the Keys, I had to retrieve Ranger Ed from a Miami hospital where he’d been enjoying almost a month of life-saving stuff that included a Trauma Star helicopter flight.
On discharge day, I made the drive from my door to the hospital front door in 2.5 hours without exceeding the speed limit. Ditto the return trip. I remember it fondly.
Not any more. You’ve got to think road warrior because prepping for a round trip to Miami via the Overseas Highway requires a go-bag and serious organizational skills.
I’ve made two round trips in the past two weeks and I’m prepping for another one this evening. And perhaps another tomorrow.
In May 2020, Ranger Ed got to spend almost a month in a Miami hospital. I retrieved him during the Covid-19 road block, which meant I got to make the trip in 2.5 hours instead of the usual four to infinity.
My Overseas Highway Survival Guide
With a preemptive and respectful nod to those who are forced to do this every day (contractors, delivery services and assorted mainland-based workers), here’s my Overseas Highway Survival Guide:
Don’t shortchange your timing: Plan for six hours. Pretty much every guide to the Overseas Highway says it’s four hours from stem to stern. That’s on a good day. A thunderstorm on the 18 Mile Stretch, a stuck Snake Creek bridge or a smashed-up boat trailer in Florida City can add hours to the drive. You’d rather have to kill a couple hours waiting at your destination than miss that doctor’s appointment you’ve coveted for six months.
The people in Miami have no clue how far Key West is: And, they don’t care. Make sure you step right up there and let them know. Unless you do, the doc’s office will schedule you for a return visit at, say, 9 a.m., meaning you get to (a) go up a day early and pay for a hotel room; or (b) leave your house at 4 a.m. (I have learned that in the middle of the night, one MIGHT, just might, allow five hours instead of six. Beware, though, because Card Sound Road was shut down for more than an hour around midnight this week because of a fatal crash.)
Traffic from Marathon to the mainland gets worse by the mile. I know we Key West folks groan and argue about traffic congestion on the island, but our mess doesn’t hold a proverbial candle to the catastrophe that is traffic in the Upper Keys. Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey, my heart hurts for the actual residents in the top, say, 85 miles of the Keys.
The 18 Mile Stretch isn’t always as bad as its reputation. That barrier-style roadway justifiably has earned its nasty reputation. But, despite bumper-to-bumper traffic going both ways, most drivers take it in stride. The catch? For every couple hundred patient folks, there are five, give or take a few, testosterone-fueled guys whose fantasies include having learned how to drive in some “Need for Speed” video game.
Stick to the speed limit or the flow of traffic and don’t bother passing. The temptation is to go like the speedy bat when the coast is clear. (Dear heavens, I have gone cliche crazy. Sorry about that.) Don’t. Just mosey along. You’ll arrive at the next stop light 17 seconds behind the nutcase who passed you on the shoulder and you’ll be less stressed.
Adult diapers. Enough said.