Everybody has some kind of childhood trauma. You know the kind I’m talking about-you’re afraid of monsters in your closet or your older brother once tried to bake your head in the oven and now you suffer from some irrational fear of stoves. I have several childhood fears; those of you who know me know that I am more than slightly afraid of dress forms (yes, those things that seamstresses use to hem dresses and the like) as well as a fear of open spaces, which may or may not stem from my childhood. One fear in particular though can be directly attributed to driving the “overseas highway,” US 1, out of Miami, to visit the Florida Keys.
When I was young, my family used to take an annual summer vacation which usually consisted of driving south, from New York to some warmer climate, typically Florida. I can vaguely remember the big old yellow Buick, though I know I had a comfortable spot in the back. As a child, I used to enjoy riding back there. My Dad was always a careful driver and, even though the trips were long (my Mother hates to fly) it was comfortable. In those days, we didn’t worry about any kind of “child safety seats,” instead I used to just grab a pillow, put my head against the side of the car, and sleep until Georgia. Sometimes, I would play small games, read comic books, or do other things to entertain myself. Arriving in Florida, we always visited some interesting spots. I can remember seeing the site of the future Disney World as it was just being built when I first visited Orlando, for example. I have also witnessed several space shuttle launches thanks to our summertime trips to Florida, but I’ll never forget my excursion down the causeway out to the Keys. It was memorable and not in a good way.
If you’ve never been to the Florida Keys, it might be kind of hard to picture. The Keys sort of jut out south and west from Miami; they are actually a series of islands, connected, for the most part, by the highway. The highway itself used to be a small, rickety, two lane causeway-very low to the water and seemingly not very sturdy. If you’ve ever walked across one of those swinging wooden bridges that they use in the jungle, it sort of reminds you of that-probably very sturdy but psychologically very unsettling, only imagine doing it with a car.
Another interesting tidbit about my youth is that I came from a different era. When I was young, we didn’t wear “safety helmets” when riding our bikes (we just bumped our heads) we didn’t have “flu shots” (we just got sick) we didn’t have car safety seats (we just stuffed ourselves into the backseat) and the like. One of the modern inventions of that era was what we now called the “child safety cap” on medicine bottles. You know the thing-it’s the cap that children can open usually quite easily, but keeps adults struggling to get at their blood pressure medication. I guess, in hindsight, nobody every told the pharmaceutical companies that children don’t really like to swallow pills, in fact, usually you have a hard time getting kids to take their medication, but history has proven they are more than adept at getting those annoying caps off. I’m aware of these caps being introduced about that time in my life, since I can remember my parents growing very frustrated and having to ask many times, “would you like me to open that for you?” while gesturing at a bottle of aspirin.
On one particular trip, my family decided that we would visit the Keys, so we headed the Buick down highway 1, towards Key Largo. I can remember being quite comfortable at first, paying no mind to the bridge, the causeway, the open sea, or any of it. At one point in the trip, however, I made the horrible mistake of looking out the window. Out the window, to my right, I saw the ocean. Now, I know that doesn’t sound very horrifying in and of itself, I mean, we’re in Florida, right? You’d expect to see the ocean, no? This wasn’t just the “ocean” it was like the water was splashing up against the rickety old wooden guardrail and coming into the windows of the car. The water was right up against the side of the causeway-it was close-too close for my liking. I swallowed and thought to myself, “ok, so maybe we’re up against the water on this side of the car, but I….I…I’m sure there’s land over there,” before I turned my head to look out the left-hand side of the car. You guessed it-nothing but water there either. Next I poked my head between the front seats of the car, expecting to see a big city rising up in front of me, but all I saw was water, water, and more water. It was like we were driving into the ocean itself. The horizon was blue, the side view was blue, there was nothing to see but water everywhere you looked.
“Um,” I asked my parents, “are you sure you know where we’re going?”
“Don’t be silly,” my mother responded, “there’s only one road out here. It goes for something like 80 miles. We couldn’t possibly get lost…”
80 miles? These were people who could not pop the top off of an aspirin bottle without my (then) four year old hands helping. I was certain we were destined to drive into the ocean itself or that they were navigating our trusty old Buick right into the mouth of a whale. What, was there like just a big X marked on the map and they just had to drag me out there just because? Were they too stupid to spot all the blue on the map and thought there was actually land out that way? Oh the Horror! Unfortunately, Mom was right. It was an 80 mile stretch of rickety old road, barely above water causeway, that I’d just as soon like to forget. I was certain the whale was going to eat us, the ocean was going to swallow us whole, there wasn’t any treasure out that way, and I’d never have an aspirin again. I still have nightmares about that causeway. It’s a scary, scary place, let me tell you. As Miami faded into the rear view, the wind picked up, the waves splashed against the side more and more, the ocean seemed to grow bigger and hungrier, and the causeway kept getting lower and lower-it even felt like it was swaying from side to side and, at one point, like we were going to blow off the edge. It was like we were barely floating above the water, adrift on the sea but, somehow, still struggling to keep it between the dotted lines of the road markings. It was a two lane nightmare disguised as a “summer vacation.” When we finally did make it out to the Keys, I don’t remember a thing about visiting-the only thing I could think of was that we were going to have to, sooner or later, go back, and that meant going back the same way we came in-over that road, that rickety old causeway, facing off against those big waves and that vast, giant ocean that looked like it wanted to swallow me.
The causeway has been expanded since then-it’s got four lanes now and I think they rebuilt it, making it a bit higher now. If you’ve seen the movie True Lies, with (now Governor) Arnold Schwartzenegger, it’s the place where Jamie Lee Curtis got rescued in a helicopter stunt. One of my favorite TV shows, Burn Notice, also did a scene on the causeway-it’s the spot where he drove his father’s Dodge Charger into the back of a semi. I recognize that causeway every time I see it, and it’s been in a lot of TV shows, commercials, and films. I’ve often thought about visiting the Keys as a photographer-I would probably like it once I got out there-it has interesting architecture and the weather’s nice, but I doubt I could stand the drive. Somehow, some small part of me just could never take that road again. I’m sure it’s rated one of the most scenic highways in America, and I’m sure there are people out there who just love every minute of every mile out that way, but I just can’t take it. I was traumatized there as a child and I just don’t want to go back.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I need an aspirin and, it goes without saying really, but I probably also need to find a four year old to help me get the lid off.
Until next time…