Key West, FL – March 11, 2013
I want to flip a coin because I don’t want to decide. I don’t want the weight of it. Put the weight on fate, I think. Let fate decide. Heads or tails, call it in the air.
I want to flip a coin because I’m scared.
I walk down old streets with uneven pavement, past wraparound porches of Conch houses, balconies and rooftops stretched out to shade big windows with wood slates shuttering the glass. I walk and stare, thinking, wondering, wishing. Is it in me? Can I make it? Do I want it bad enough?
I pushed the idea away for so long. I told myself to wait until Key West, wait until I had to decide, but now I’m here.
There are 29 bars on one side of Duval Street and none of them have the answer. Victorian houses crowd together and peaked roofs of tin flash in the sunlight. They remind me of the old cracker house Jarry and Chuck live in, the one they bought on faith in a glance. I never told you about them or how they gave me the keys to their house in Big Pine so I’d have a place to stay, but I never told you a lot of stories.
I met a woman once who water skied in a giant loop from Gulfport, Florida, to Montreal and back. East Coast, Great Lakes, Illinois and Mississippi River. She showed me a picture of the route on a faded-yellow piece of paper. It looked like a giant ring with stars at all the cities they stopped at.
“No one believes me,” she said. “But we did it.”
I believed her.
I walk past roofs trimmed with gingerbread carvings and shotgun-style homes built to send breezes from front to back. Windows peek at me under eyebrow roofs. Roosters descended from Bahamian cock-fighters stroll the streets. I pass Hemingway’s house crowded with six-toed cats. I finger the coin in my pocket.
I wish I was here a month ago, I think.
I wish I knew the route, I think.
Put the decision on fate, I think.
Performers crowd into Mallory Square to juggle batons, balance on boxes, and turn themselves into statues. Cameras flash and hats fill with dollar bills. I disappear down Duval Street looking for space to think. My feet ache.
Someone asked me about the Erie Canal, Lake Champlain, and the Hudson River once. They thought that was how I would get down to Key West. We were in the boundary waters and they were talking about the East Coast.
“I didn’t know that was even possible,” I said.
Route 1 ends in Key West. Stickers cover the sign and tourists snap pictures of the two-thousand mile long strip of asphalt stretching from Maine. But if you walk across the street and look in the other direction, it begins again.
That coin feels so heavy.
They say the North Shore of Lake Superior is the prettiest place on the lake. I missed it by a few dozen miles, saw nothing but the hazy outline of cliffs from the northern tip of Isle Royale.
“It’s like paddling through a book of postcards,” someone said.
“One day,” I said.
Key West feels like a reckless town, an edgy place with lots of dreams and lots of wreckage. It has been the richest city in the country and the poorest. PanAm’s first international flight took off from a dirt runway here and landed in Havana. Cigar factories and workers from Cuba once rolled a million cigars a year and filled warehouses with tobacco. Pirates stalked the shores. Wreckers built empires out of splintered ships. Spongers, some Greek some Conch, and the first self-made millionaire in Florida lived here. The whole city rebelled once, formed the Conch Republic for a few minutes in 1982, then retreated into a state of mind.
There’s a second voyageur route to Lake of the Woods. They talk about in Grand Portage because it’s where the Northwest Company moved its outpost to avoid crossing international borders. The route starts in Thunder Bay and runs up the Kaministiquia River. I only know the name, but it’s there or at least it was once.
Cape Fear and Hatteras, New York City and the Hudson, Huron and Superior’s Canadian shore, I don’t know anything except that I could quit now and no one would ever know that there was more, that somewhere I always knew, ever since that first thought, that hint of possibility, somehow I knew I would have to go back.
But I need more time. I need better research and plans. I need a route and maps. I need a body that isn’t worn down. I need gear that isn’t breaking. I need months I don’t have. I need a lot of things.
The Southernmost Point is quiet after dark. The line of people waiting for pictures disappears and the giant painted buoy watches the ocean in silence. The water’s rough, splashing up and onto the sidewalk. I feel the coin in my pocket. I think it’s heavy for a penny.
This can be the end. No one would ever know if I quit now.
I look at the coin in my hand.
I’m scared. Let fate decide. Heads or tails. Call it in the air.
I watch it turn, spinning copper and light against the dark sky. I think of the Statue of Liberty and granite cliffs, of sand beaches and Spanish forts, of rocket ships and pirate islands.
The coin arcs down, still spinning, flashing copper, yes, no, yes, no, yes, no, until it falls into the sea.
Adventure is not fate. It is a decision.
There will always be a thousand reasons not to go, but you have to leap.