Fun Bus to the Keys

It costs a pittance and takes you to Margaritaville

The end of the line for the JGT is Mile Marker 50. Once deposited here, would-be travelers to Margaritaville have to cross a Publix parking lot — a 100-yard hike to the Brass Monkey. Here you can catch the northbound JGT back to Miami-Dade. Or pay two bucks to get on the Key West-bound Lower Keys shuttle.

A dark-skinned man with long curly black hair, who appears to be wearing a blue dress, is standing in front of the Brass Monkey. This is Robert Ortiz, JGT's man in Marathon. Ortiz, who has worked for the bus company for four years, explains the story of the eponymous Cuban émigré owner ("It's Julia — a she — not Julio!").

"Five or six people," Ortiz explains, commute from Florida City to here. "I don't know them personally, [but] you have to go where the jobs are."

After a 35-minute wait, the Lower Keys shuttle pulls onto U.S. 1. It's a smaller bus, more akin to the shuttle you'd take from MIA to the Hertz lot. The air conditioning is pumping furiously. At first there are only eight people on board. One guy looks like he'd gone on a major shopping spree at the Marathon Kmart. Another passenger, a largely toothless fellow, has paint all over his clothes.

There are only two carry-overs from the JGT — one is Cathi Pedersen, a fiftysomething Key Wester who is returning from a doctor's appointment in Tavernier. Pedersen whines briefly about the long ride — it took her four hours on public transportation to get to her doctor, whose office is in Tavernier. That is two hours more, she guesses, than a car ride. But she says, "I'm on so many drugs — prescription drugs — it would have been crazy to drive."

She also notes she is an old hippie and is happy to be saving gas.

The other passenger to make the Marathon connection is Lesch. On his second ride to the Keys in two days, the backpacker says he doesn't like the vibe in Miami. "I wasn't into it," he says. "Maybe I went to the wrong place."

The ride to the Keys is uneventful — no traffic, no hailing — except for Lesch's surprise. In the midst of a detailed conversation about how to travel cheaply between Bahamian islands, he abruptly gets up, picks up his bags, and exits the bus at Big Pine Key.

The whole journey, on Friday, June 2, from Florida City to Key West takes a grand total of four and a half hours. Not bad, considering the trip costs less than two gallons of gas.

Some may say the ride is irritatingly long, but according to Lesch, it's worth it. "The only thing that's cheaper than this is hitchhiking.... And hitchhiking is not as reliable."

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