Podcast #161 — New Crisis, Old Question; Driving Down to Key West

You have reached your destination

Things started out well, skipping out on Chicago winter for a drive down to Key West. But then last week, coronavirus hit the US and everything unraveled. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #161:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you hunkered down in the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois, trying to figure out exactly what the governor’s “shelter-in-place” directive means. Not a lot of travel since the last episode, and that’s not just because of coronavirus. No business travel booked, so it was just one trip in the back half of February to visit some friends who are snowbirding in Key West, Florida. 80 degrees and sunny vs. 30 degrees and grey skies in Chicago — tough duty. Our friends rented a nice house up a dead end street in the Historic District, just a couple of blocks off Duval Street. They had it for two months, Feb through the end of March, but left early, giving up their last 2 weeks of sunny weather to drive back to Chicago because they’re afraid hotels will be closing along their route home. 
  • Hadn’t planned any travel in March, but watched our April plans dissolve as Covid-19 spread. First, a friend from Poland canceled his wedding in Sedona, AZ shortly after the US announced the 30-day travel ban for Europeans. While their wedding date was past the 30 days, they figured this was just the start — which it was. Over the next 5 days, travel bans started popping up across Europe. We joked to ourselves, “Lucky timing — first time in 4 years we’re not doing Spring Break in Europe”, opting instead for some wine tasting in Howell Mountain and Napa Valley. Until the next day when California locked everything down, closing everything including restaurants and wineries…
  • For some families, kids home from school and mom or dad off the road and working from home — the forced family togetherness is adding to the stress. I was talking to a friend this week — “I’m usually on the road 75% of the time, and the kids are in school or sports. After 2 days of this, my wife laid down the rules — my son is in the basement, my wife and daughter are on the second floor, I’m on the third floor, and the first floor with the kitchen is neutral territory — you can pass through, but you can’t claim table or counter space there.” Last time I checked in with him, everyone was still alive — that is, they hadn’t killed each other yet.
  • But I’m nothing if not an optimist, so in the midst of this week’s unraveling, I found a deal on a direct American Air flight from ORD to Barcelona — 8½ hr 787 flight — so I booked it — 2 weeks in Barcelona at the end of September. I don’t know what we’ll do yet or where we’ll stay, but I’m already looking forward to it.
  • Bridge Music — A Foolish Game by Snowflake (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/snowflake/46164 Ft: Admiral Bob

Following Up

  • Steve Frick, a longtime TravelCommons listener and Untappd buddy who also does a podcast, Travel Stories from Back and Gone Again, took some time to record and send in an audio comment on last month’s episode –
    • Gotta love the text-to-speech robot voice. Steve, would’ve been great to see that selfie on your Twitter feed. Also, check out the show notes for a link to Steve’s podcast
  • Darren Mak hit me up on Twitter
    • “Hey Mark,  just listened to Travel Commons episode 155 on my last flight… board my next one which is a Delta MD88. Look out the window and see this… thanks for putting that in my head buddy!” 
    • From the picture on his tweet, you can see he’s sitting in the window seat of an MD-88 just in front of the engine cowl. In episode 155, we talked about American Airlines’ retirement of their MD-80’s. I mentioned that when I ended up in a seat like Darren’s, my mind would sometimes wander — if the engine next to my head blows up, will the shrapnel blow out or blow into the cabin. I never heard of such a catastrophic failure on an MD-80 — but that didn’t keep me from wondering. And now, Darren can’t keep from wondering. Sorry about that, Darren. You won’t be able to un-think that. I’m guessing, though, that those MD’s were the first planes Delta parked as air traffic cratered and will be the last to return — if they ever do. Savor that pic…
  • And for our UK subscribers, a shout out to another TravelCommons listener and Untappd friend Rob Cheshire who launched This Week in Craft.Beer, a weekly newsletter covering the UK craft beer scene. He’s four issues in and is on a good roll. We’re thinking about heading over to the UK for Thanksgiving and the taproom directory in Rob’s newsletter will be key to planning that trip. I also love that he’s using a .Beer domain name. Check out the show notes for a link.
  • I think I’ve mentioned in a past episode that I’ve switched my carryon from a Timbuk 2 backpack to a Timbuk 2 messenger bag. Digitizing means carrying less physical stuff; the backpack was feeling half empty, so I switched to the smaller messenger bag. I like it except for one thing — it’ll only hold a short water bottle. The big 20oz’er my daughter gave me for Christmas? Fits great in the backpack side pocket, but is too tall for the messenger bag. I played around with a lot of water bottles, but the best one has turned out to be a 500 ml Evian bottle. Now I know that single use plastic is a bad thing, but I can get a week’s use out of one Evian bottle. Until I fill it up in the gym or the concierge lounge the morning before my flight home and forget about it — until the TSA person pulls it out of my bag on the other side of security and asks me, a bit sarcastically, if I want to go back and check it in my luggage. Yeah, no — just pitch it. Which is why I can’t have nice things — like a $35 teakwood S’well bottle. Instead, I walk down the terminal and just spend $3.50 for another bottle of Evian.  
  • For my trip to Key West, I got back to an old habit of reading some non-guidebook books — either fiction or non-fiction — about my destination before going. Before driving down the Overseas Highway, I read Last Train to Paradise about the incredible effort that went into building a railroad line to Key West 100 years ago — that was later repurposed for the first iteration of the highway, and then read Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not because, well,  it’s Hemingway and it’s about Key West, and so you just have to. I used to do this a lot more. I started when I read Paul Theroux’s Kingdom by the Sea before my first trip to the UK back in 1985. I read John Lukacs’ history Budapest 1900 before my first trip to Hungary in 1989, Watermark by Joseph Brodsky before a trip to Venice, His Bloody Project by Grahame Burnet before going to Scotland’s Western Highlands. As you’d guess, none of these were about what to do or see, but instead they gave some context about the place — even the fiction books. Gives a bit of balance to the go-here/see-that stuff in guidebooks and web sites.  Something new for this trip — a Spotify playlist of Jimmy Buffet tunes from those 1970’s Key West albums — Living And Dying In ¾ Time, Havana Daydreamin’ — for some additional context for that 3 hour drive down through the Keys.
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along — text or audio comment to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send a Twitter message to mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or our Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — ABANDONED BUTTERFLIES by THE_CONCEPT_OF_ENERGY (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/THE_CONCEPT_OF_ENERGY/55008 Ft: Doxent Zsigmond, Snowflake

New Crisis, Old Question

  • I’m not gonna try to do any hot takes on what this whole coronavirus/Covid-19/ social distancing experience means because: a) I hate the whole “insta-punditry” that social media has spawned; and b) there are so many unknowns and things are changing so fast that any attempt at meaningful analysis right now won’t age very well. Indeed, I’ve had to re-write this episode 3 times now. I gotta get it recorded before things change and I have to re-do it again.
  • At first, it felt like the Black Monday crash of 1987 (which, I hate to admit, I’m old enough to have experienced) or Sept 11, 2001 were good comparison points — significant, sharp, scary events that came out of nowhere with no warning, and when we were in it, felt like a free fall with no bottom in sight. But after a week or so, even though the stock market was still down or airports and airplanes were still empty, we could see a path to the other side — maybe not turn-by-turn directions, but at least it felt like we could point ourselves in the general direction. But with this, we’re, what 2-3 weeks in?, and it still feels like we’re in that free fall; we don’t know where the bottom is, let alone the direction to get out.
  • I remember, after Sept 11th and the 2008 Great Recession, people saying “everything has changed” and wondering if travel would rebound, if people would get on planes again in the same numbers. And it did and then some — though the growth has been driven more by leisure travelers than the road warriors. But the travel industry makes its money off the frequent business traveler, and that question pops up again — will they come back? Because it’s a bit different this time. In 2001, remote work options were pretty much just AOL or Yahoo instant messaging. Video was limited to special rooms with ISDN lines; Skype didn’t launch for another 2 years. In 2008, things were a bit better, but we’re a few months after the second version of the iPhone is released (the iPhone 3G), WhatsApp doesn’t launch for another year, and Slack doesn’t show up for another 5. But now 12 years on, we have bandwidth, we have tools. Last fall, we had flygskam — flight shaming — hit the mainstream, and now the Covid-19 pandemic that’s just about shut down international air travel. Were we ready to step back from business travel and the coronavirus is just the forcing function?
  • I’m coming up on the 35th anniversary of my first business flight, and in that time, I’ve known maybe a handful of guys (and they were all men) who went out of their way to do more business travel; when offered the choice between a conference call or a plane trip, they chose the plane trip. The vast majority got on the plane or the train or behind the wheel because that’s what they needed to do to get the job done — to close a deal, to do a project, to work with an employee. As remote tools get better and get more ingrained in the culture, the ability to get tasks done remotely increases. But we are social animals. And for all the data and processes, most business is about relationships. And as long as that’s true, we’ll want to meet people face-to-face — over a coffee or a beer or a meal — once we finally touch bottom after this coronavirus free fall and can feel safe sitting next to each other again.
  • Bridge Music — H2O by Doxent Zsigmond (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/doxent/49674

Driving Down to Key West

  • Back to the pre-lock down days of February, it was the first time I’d been to Key West. We decided to drive down, run the whole Overseas Highway, the 113-mile stretch of US 1 from Homestead, south of Miami, to Key West. We flew into FLL because — well, it’s a bit less of a zoo parade than MIA. We landed, walked straight out of the terminal, across the street and into the rental car center — no shuttle bus ride to the back-40. RSW is the same on the Gulf side. There are damn few on-site rental sites left, and so I appreciate them when I can. Walking down the Hertz Five-Star aisle with Irene (I fell out of top-tier President’s Circle a few years back; too many in-city clients where Uber and Lyft were more convenient), I see a bunch of Hyundai Konas — which is a new model for me, it’s a subcompact SUV — a few Chevy Malibus and, as always, the requisite bunch of Nissan Altimas. I do my normal drill — looking for non-beat up cars (so I don’t have to argue about damage when I return it) and low mileage (so it won’t break down during the rental). Irene, she’s looking for a cute color. Lucky for us, the car that was at the intersection of all those criteria was right in front of us — a Surf Blue Hyundai Kona with 126 miles on the odometer. We threw our luggage in, dialed up Key West on Google Maps on Car Play, and pulled out — into a 15-minute line to get out of the Hertz lot. Somehow that partnership with Clear doesn’t seem to be making much of a dent.
  • When we were planning this trip, everyone warned us off the drive — “It’s slow”, “you’ll get caught behind a bunch of trucks”, “an accident will shut the whole road down” — but I was as excited for the drive as I was the time in Key West. I think the Overseas Highway is one of the iconic drives in the US — in my mind, it’s in the same league with Pacific Coast Highway between San Francisco and LA and Route 66 from Chicago to LA. 
  • Even before we left the mainland, the drive was cool, with the Everglades on one side and the marinas and ocean inlets on the other. The drive through Key Largo was less interesting — not much more than bait shops and boat parking. A bit further along, we crawled through Islamorada and Marathon in heavy traffic on a Monday afternoon.
  • Everyone talks about Seven Mile Bridge (we clocked it at 6.8 miles) and have seen it in movies, and it is very cool, but what was more interesting to me were the sections of the highway before that, that run across the low-lying keys along the route of the old Overseas Railroad which I read about in Last Train to Paradise — time and again we’d be driving across what was nothing more than just a bit of a road bed and a 100 or so feet of beach and vegetation. After that, it’s ocean. 
  • The warnings were right — the highway is not a fast drive. It squeezes down from four lanes to two lanes for a bit, and Monroe County sheriff cars are parked where the speed limit dips when you pass through towns. But speed isn’t really the point. Just like you don’t run through Big Sur at 70 mph on PCH, you don’t blow past people surf fishing for snapper, snook, and grouper, or not slow down and try to spot Key Deer on Big Pine Key. If you just want to get to Key West as fast as possible, spend $100 or so for a flight from FLL or MIA. Otherwise, throttle back and remember — on this drive, it’s as much about the journey as the destination.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #161
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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1 comment on “Podcast #161 — New Crisis, Old Question; Driving Down to Key West

  1. La says:

    I’m with Irene…pretty colors should win.

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