Here are two facts that you’ll probably never need again: The first is that if you Google “what is the answer to life the universe and everything”, the search engine will respond appropriately that the answer is forty-two. The second fact is that when driving to Key West from the marshy grasslands of Florida’s southern tip, you’ll wander more than a hundred miles out into the ocean – much farther out than a car has any business being – and will cross precisely forty-two bridges.
This second fact was revealed to us by our tour guide, Phil, as we jetted beneath the fleeting shade of bridge number 41, flying over the water at a speed somewhat approaching that of sound on sleek, red, Yamaha jet skis. The smell of sunscreen mixed with the plasticky scent of rented life-jackets and wave runner exhaust, and the sun bounced blindingly off the crystal clear, mangrove filtered surf. Following the bubble trail left by Phil’s machine, we nosed between sets of red and green buoys, away from the placid waters of the of the island’s gulf-side, and out toward the deeper blues and blacks of the Atlantic.
If you’ve ever spent time in a lake community, you know that absolutely everyone hates jet skiers. They make too much noise, travel way too fast, and perform absurdly dangerous stunts – barreling straight towards a canoeist say, just to watch them squirm before turning on a dime and zooming off towards some swimmers. Nobody quite understands why they do what they do. Nobody, that is, who’s never tried it. But the moment you straddle a wave runner of your own, everything makes sense. The wind in your hair and spray in your eyes as water speeds past inches from your feet. Nothing between you and certain death but your own white-knuckle, throttle-pinning grip on the controls. From front to back a jet ski is a machine built for speed, responding solely to the throttle, and is ordained by god to scare the bejesus out of pissant canoeists.
“You see that there?” Phil asked, slowing to an idle and nodding toward a patchy white sandbar which lay just beneath the water on our left. “That there’s the closest you’ll get to a real beach on Key West. The islands have no natural sand deposits, so anything touristy has to be trucked in.”
The three of us drifted for a second in silence, then Phil goosed his throttle and we were off. Waves patchworked our path like ski moguls, launching the machines out of the water, and raising the throaty hum of the engines to a whine as they sucked nothing but air before shuddering back into the sea. Explosions of salty spray stung my eyes until I couldn’t keep them open anymore and resorted to riding blind, checking every once in a while to ensure I wasn’t on land. We rode and rode, over countless waves and along seemingly endless miles of coast. Nothing else in the world existed. There was just the sun, and the surf, speed, and a couple of ridiculous smiles painted on faces.
A jet ski is only maneuverable while the throttle’s torked. Once you let off, you venture aimlessly wherever surf, and wake, and providence care to take you. This is what we did near the southern tip of the island, drifting lazily and looking to shore at the scattering of tourists climbing proudly, if wearily, out of their cars to stretch their legs and pose by the famous marker for U.S. Route 1’s Mile Zero, the end of the road. The sun hung low in the sky, still shy of sunset, but not by much. Soon the restaurants downtown would fill up. Country music would echo – comically out of place – from the darkened smoke-filled recesses of Irish pubs. Hispanic men in fedoras and aloha shirts would pedal hand rolled cigars from street carts while actors roamed the cobblestone roads in full pirate dress, working to draw couples into wedding costume, or themed lingerie shops. Sword swallowers, torch jugglers, and fire dancers would take to the pier at Mallory Square for the nightly sunset celebration, wowing crowds with their deft precision, and unleashing a sharp tongue on anyone who watched the show, but chose not to tip.
I watched as more road warriors climbed from their cars to take pictures with the Mile Zero sign, amused at the fact that I would forever be immortalized as some guy on a jet ski, way off in the background of somebody else’s profile picture. Amused that they’d crossed 42 bridges, and roughly a hundred and twenty-six miles – which is 42 three times over – of ocean to get here. We drifted for a minute and it seemed that perhaps Key West was itself the answer to life the universe and everything. Then we throttled up, and motored off, rocketing to our top speed, and scanning the horizon for the tell tale silhouette of a canoe.