Travels in Margaritaville

Each winter I packed up the car and headed south to Miami and then traveled the narrow two-lane Highway 1 down to the end of the world at Mile Marker 0. It was a week long tropical escape from the cold dry winter, lifeless trees and grey skies. The Florida Keys were very dog-friendly with outdoor dining and low pet fees at the hotels and other rentals.

Chase’s first experience with Key West was several months after Florida had been hammered by hurricanes throughout the summer and early autumn months. Fantasy Fest had been moved to the end of November and I brought along festive red sequined devil horns for Chase to wear during the merriment.

Our small one-bedroom cottage had an enclosed deck that kept my dog safe from roaming the streets. Off-street parking was difficult to find and once parked, I refused to drive out of fear of losing my space. Walking Chase was challenging. He preferred soft grass for his daily doggy duties. Grass was scarce in Key West and the small patches of lush lawns were secured behind elaborate wrought iron or picket fences. I found a small scrap surrounding a palm tree directly outside an Italian Bistro and it seemed to suit my dog. I also discovered a bit of dirt conveniently located next to a garbage bin around the corner from the cottage. I became a frequent visitor to that area. In hindsight, I should have avoided it as Chase will now squat in any bit of dirt regardless of location. This proved especially embarrassing on a recent walk through East Atlanta Village with my sister.

My first and only attempt to adorn my dog with the glittery devil horns was successful in the privacy of the cottage. The moment I led him out onto the street, he tossed his head to and fro until they flew off into the street. I secured them back onto his head. When he realized my determination in making him wear the horns in public, Chase tossed them off his head again and bit into them with such ferocity I had a difficult time getting him to release them. I placed them back inside the cottage and hit the streets, sans Diablo.

Besides tourists, Key West had an abundance of two things: birds and cats. Taking a bird dog throughout a city that has chickens and flocks of nautical birds can be trouble. Getting Chase out of a point was nearly impossible. The point isn’t problematic; it was what came after. The creeping and crawling low to the ground until he was ready to attack was a quandary. Rope burn from his leash was a common condition on my arms and wrists.

Thanksgiving of 2007 was spent with my entire family on Little Torch Key in a vacation home located on a canal. Large fish leisurely swam by in slow motion and Chase would peer over the edge of the sea wall, mesmerized by the ever-expanding rings that would gently form on the surface of the water. He would spend hours in the rosemary bush hunting lizards. I discovered that rosemary is the best natural dog deodorizer and Chase earned the nickname “Lamb Chop”, courtesy of my father. To prevent Chase from roaming, I tied a 50-foot lead to one of the columns of the tikki hut. I instructed all family members to only let him outside if he was securely tied to the lead. Several days into our stay, I realized that my mother and grandmother were ignoring my orders and would let him roam at will. This meant that I too had to roam from yard to yard in search of land mines planted by my dog.

On a recent trip to the Keys, we decided to try camping. I am not an outdoors sort of person but camping on the beach seemed less treacherous and cold as camping in the woods. The plan was to camp at Bahia Honda State Park. 12 hours of driving and no reservations at the fully booked park sent me into survival mode. Armed with a list of pet friendly camp grounds, I found one near Big Pine Key. I felt like an outsider as I pulled into my camp site. I was surrounded by luxury campers and busses – all snowbirds from up North. My “next door neighbors” had a parrot in a cage that remained inside their camper for the duration of our stay after our dog was spotted pointing and creeping in its direction. Tent set-up was quick thanks to my practice session back in South Carolina. I placed the sheets and pillows onto the air mattress and began to pull out chairs and small area rugs to shelter my feet from the hard coral surface. Chase immediately entered the tent and secured his spot on the air mattress. I, in turn, secured Chase to a large cooler, heavily weighed down with beer and Gatorade. After several days of observing my immediate surroundings, I noticed that other dog owners would put their pets into cages at night, unlike me who preferred the warm company of my own personal “electric blanket”. Chase spent the warm afternoons pointing at the electrical box. A lizard had taken up residence underneath it and tormented Chase at regular intervals by popping out to agitate him.

One morning, the tent was attacked by a flock of seagulls, Alfred Hitchcock style. The feathery fiends would land on the tent and fly into the sides creating a strange shadow show that drove Chase into a frenzy as he flung himself at the inside walls. Fearing a collapse, I quickly crawled out to shoo the birds away. My dog was right behind me pulling furiously at the cooler. Deep marks were left behind by the cooler’s wheels but the birds retreated permanently.

On my last morning at the campsite, one of my older neighbors wandered over to pet my dog. He asked if it was an English setter and reminisced about the setter he had loved so many years before. He told me that everyone was impressed with how well behaved he was (I nearly choked) and that he would sleep in the tent without problems. He had never known a dog to stay in a tent like Chase. This conversation reminded me of my elderly neighbors back in South Carolina who would “spy” on me. I had been pretty sure that had been occurring all week at the campground and now I had confirmation. However, I was grateful that Chase had a companion to keep him occupied while I finished packing up for our trip home.

Finished packing, I buckled Chase into his seat in the back, rolled down his window and hit the road. I stopped for some overpriced coffee and Danish at a cafĂ© on the right that I had always wanted to try, mainly because of the tacky, purple over-sized coffee cup that boasted the establishment’s name. It was a beautiful day and twenty minutes later I pulled into Long Key State Park in an effort to extend my vacation. The tide was on its way out exposing white sand, shell fragments and coconuts. I set up my chair, dug my toes in the sand and watched boats in the distance while people splashed in the salty water patterned with aquamarine, charcoal and blue. Chase napped and occasionally sniffed the air, content to dream away the afternoon. As the sun began to fade, I headed north again but pulled off at a hotel in Miami. I decided to prolong the end of my winter holiday despite knowing that my procrastination would add more hours onto my journey. I chose to follow the advice of a favorite author, James Thurber: “It is better to have loafed and lost than never to have loafed at all". I curled up on the bed with my furry companion and combed the sand spurs from his ears. I was content, sunburned and sandy. A perfect ending to a perfect week.