Let's Get Lost

Six ways to do it in the Keys

Somewhere between Key Largo and Mallory Square, between Lake Surprise and Lignum Vitae Channel on that endless stretch of Route 1 below Mile Marker 111 in the Florida Keys, there may be a piece of something that precisely fits the hole in your heart.

Maybe you'll fall for the gigantic billboard of a naked mermaid. Or the sight of a record-breaking sailfish laid out on a dock. What makes you finally understand you never want to go home again could turn out to be a rescued Hawksbill sea turtle named "Randy Rudy" over at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Or it could be something simpler: a hexagonal yellow sign that reads "Crocodile Crossing." That piece of heart you've been missing might be shaped like the face of a beautiful woman sitting in the shade on No Name Key. It might even taste like a shot of Barbancourt first thing in the morning at a lowbrow place off Duval Street.

The bars are open for business in the Florida Keys by 7 a.m., and they're not short on customers: People fall into a sea- and sky-colored abyss here and never crawl out. You do your best work in the Keys or you do nothing at all. Tennessee Williams wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in a room he called "The Mad House" in his Key West conch shack. That play's most famous lines -- "What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?... Just stayin' on it, I guess. As long as she can" --could apply to half the people who've landed here and hung on.

Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tollsin his house on Whitehead Street. And Zane Grey, the pulp adventure writer who in his day far outsold both Hemingway and Williams, set a world's record fishing off Long Key practically every time he cast his line.

These days, the streets of Key West are full of hippie kids, aimless and homeless after losing another kind of Phish, who put together their meals begging for doggy bags from the tourists ambling out of A&B Lobster House. When they're hungry, they're as aggressive as stray curs.

Flush or broke, South Floridian or Bostonian, you come here to eat and drink under the trees and under the stars. Chef Norman Van Aken took his first cooking job in Key West at Louie's Backyard. Along with his buddies Douglas Rodriguez, Allen Susser, and Mark Militello -- the Mango Gang -- Van Aken coined the culinary term fusion and spawned a school of little minnows who swam back to the Keys, grew into big fish, and made it the southernmost outpost of New World cuisine. You can spin New World ingredients -- the mangos and poblanos, the passion fruit and the spiny lobster tails, the sweet potatoes and the plantains -- through 365 sunsets and never repeat yourself.

Chefs who are doing it in the Keys, like Alice Weingarten over at Alice's or Paul Orchard at Mangoes or Brian Kay at Hot Tin Roof, tack through key-lime-colored seas without ever stealing the wind from one another's sails.

So last week, my first mate and I packed up the rattling, coughing Mercedes without much of a plan. We were heading south, looking for reasons to get lost.

Reason to Get Lost Number 1: From the Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon, the horizon looks twice as far away as it does anywhere else. No matter how many times you cross that bridge, when you hit this miracle of engineering, this shining, tensile, silver carpet rolled out to the Lower Keys, you can't start across without thinking how a good summer hurricane could wipe out your only access to civilization. And you can't come to the end of the Seven Mile without wondering how the hell you're going to get from there to No Name Pub. The No Name's motto is "A nice place... if you can find it." It's somewhere on No Name Key, about a quarter mile past No Name Bridge, off Big Pine Key, down a series of swooping roads. You'll drive right by it at least twice before you see the sign that says "You found it!"

Some local might take pity and point you in the right direction, or you might drive in endless circles. But eventually, you'll walk into that mote-speckled half-light and blink half-a-dozen times before you start to believe what you're seeing. Stapled to every square inch of this decrepit little watering hole, peeling off in sheets like ancient wall paper, are thousands of dollar bills. Just about every customer who's visited the place since it was built in 1936 has put his signature, or a heart with her date's initials, on a piece of paper money and tacked it up -- weaving a carpet so green and thick, so beyond all reckoning, that it qualifies as one of the Seven Unnatural Wonders of the Keys. The No Name's Royal Pizza ($17.95) might just be the Eighth Wonder. That pizza must weigh 15 pounds, yet the crust is still crispy. The basket of spicy silver-dollar potato fries ($2.50) is better than buried treasure. If you can step down from the Paul Bunyan-sized bar stools without falling on your face after a meal here, consider yourself inducted. But there is no reason I can think of to step down any time soon.

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