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December 20, 2014

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Ice Ice Billy

The road to six-toed cats and Mayor Bubba

Two-lane Highway 41 blends into the grayed rain shower on the horizon ahead. The rented but dented east-bound Dodge Avenger coasts with its cruise control locked in at an easily steered 56 mph. Erica and I are putting distance between us and a bride who hit the rental car in a shopping center parking lot, and a Las Vegas Wranglers overtime loss in Game 3 of the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals.

Each event had occurred the day before.

Beyond the curtain of rain, a right hand turn will take us to the Florida Keys. All of it — the rain, right hand turns and the Conch Republic — are old stomping grounds. The rain and the Keys are platinum memories from years ago. The right turns (as well as the left ones) are a recurring habit. Some were by choice, while too many were not. But they all lead here.

There is a past, present and future to introduce to each other on this three-day break from a hockey championship quest. Beyond the Florida Everglades sits the past. It's a chain of islands linked by man-made roadways. This is my literal and bittersweet road less traveled. Erica, my wife, meets this road for the first time, and it's from this introduction where the joy of pulling all of your friends together ignites.

Near the end of the Everglades we burst through the other side of the rain, and the marshes and swamps and birds and the bugs that lined the road have been overrun by palm tree farms and nurseries. Yard statues seem to grow along the way. These, I thought, are destined for Oprah's house.

Then, through the stop lights of Homestead, where a scenic little church on some corner lined with tropical fauna is hardly noticed, the sea smell of the Keys seeping through the little damaged car's dashboard vents is imminent, as is the planting of a suggestion that someone should open a window to breathe it in.

Key Largo is first. It has been 10 years. Coming up someplace on the left and across the median lives The Fish House. It's a place that if it's not missed in a blink is ignored as a blur. The name does it as many favors as is it does not. But it is what it is. It's a fish house, so the name is spot on.

My memory tells my eyes to seek the landmarks that will bring me back to The Fish House, where a number of years ago I accompanied the owner or a manager or maybe even the accountant at the bar for a few consecutive nights during a baseball spring training. I'm sure I was offered a way into the restaurant business that would have forced a change in latitude, as the song says.

Oh, man.

It was there, on the left, under its giant billboard with an arrow pointing into its roof. We parked and walked in. Never has a line of five-posted barrel-back chairs pressed against a clunky, dark-wooded bar ever seemed as familiar. Nothing has changed. Not in 10 years since I last dined and drank, and certainly not in the 20 since I first stumbled into the place as a resident of south Florida. The T-shirts and hats for sale still hang in the same spot. The staff wears matching floral shirts. The ceiling is still strung with patio lights. And the fish case still cradles its fresh catches in diamond beds of crushed ice.

The only things I can recognize as newer are those items given away by dates that fall after 2002, including a clipping that boasts Bobby Flay's television appearance some years later – or ago, depending on one's reach for nostalgia.

"It's as good as it was 10 years ago," I said, worshipping an empty plate.

"The chef has been here for over 20," said the bus girl as she walked past our table. It's that kind of place.

Back in the car and with fresh Key Lime pie to go, the mile markers begin their tumble to zero, which when reached will mark the end of Highway 1 and the southernmost point in the United States.

But there is no rush to zero. Just two weeks ago, after all, I must have passed mile marker 5,220 driving along Alaskan glaciers in an as yet undamaged rented car. That's the driving distance from Anchorage to Key West, you know.

5,220 miles, I looked it up. But I certainly didn't drive it.

The frozen lakes and thawing streams have been replaced with blue-green pools and wind-bent trees, and the road from Key Largo is lined with flag carrying runners and joggers. There are boats in tow. Dolphin and manatee-shaped mail box posts, with some manatees donning floppy sun hats, stand cartoon sentry at driveways along Highway 1.

There are scores of other fish houses to discover, and so many stops to make. But Key West is waiting, and so is elderly and drunken, flip flop and T-shirt wearing Bubba, whose pickle-loaf complexion is the ATM receipt for the fortune he has amassed with his businesses in Key West. He is, as they say, one of the mayors of the town. Ask almost anybody.

Bubba got off a boat 25 years or so ago, he tells me, and he never left. He admits his hobby is looking at pretty girls, most of which are one-third his age. He offers much advice on how to take life a lot-a-bit easier.

"This is what I wear everyday," he says from his stool at Sloppy Joe's Saloon. "This is what I wear to funerals; this is what I wear to weddings."

I tell him we are going to catch the sunset celebration. But as it turns out Bubba is the one guy who isn't in the mood.

"It's just reminding me I don't have that many sunsets left," he says, in a tone and context that sweetly conveys that he dreads leaving Key West more than he fears death, however each is defined and with no regard as to how they are intertwined.

Here, nothing and everything is important. The conversations drift into the tides, perhaps carried towards Cuba which sits just 90 miles away.

There is much left in this introduction of the past and the present. The Hemingway House and its lazy, six-toed cats greet us by just being there. Pepe's restaurant, whose sign has been bashed and faded by a thousand tropical storms, shares its grouper sandwich.

There is even a Key Lime Pie store that holds a Koi Pond with fish named after celebrities. The white one with the orange head is named "Carrot Top." We know this because there is a chart on the wall. That Carrot Top has great handlers.

Erica and I throw some food to Carrot Top, and stroll down to Mallory Square for the sunset celebration. But in recent years Tank Island, which hovers between the pier and the western horizon, has been renamed Sunset Key. Luxury homes have been built, and the obstruction of the May sunset has climbed taller in order to create a paradise for those home owners, one of whom is probably Oprah, with all of her fancy yard statues and all.

Decompression through strolling and chatting and drinking comes quickly in Key West, even if for just a day or two. Game 4 is on Tuesday, which lies in wait just on the other side of a frame of mind known as the Conch Republic, and a 50-minute flight aboard a Cessna back to Ft. Myers and the sold out Germain Arena.

We'll let you know how we do, Bubba. But in the meantime go catch the sunset. It's going to be perfect, because you will still be here to see it.

Billy Johnson is the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Wranglers.

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