The first I heard about the Florida Keys was from a guy who described this string of islands at the southern tip of Florida as "jewels flung into the sea."

The first I heard about camping there was from a patrician motorcyclist who said, "If you get tired you just pull over anywhere, roll out your bag and go to sleep."

Despite the fact that these were obviously descriptions of a place too good to be public in America, I decided to see for myself. Nine winters ago, before the Arabs got avaricious and during a time when we didn't actually have jobs or anything, three friends and I rolled out the old $75 purple Mercury, filled up the oil, checked the gas and took off from Washington in a puff of blue smoke.

Twenty-four hours later we rumbled through Miami and down the tacky stretch of U.S. 1 that leads to the Keys, which are connected by bridges.

What a sight and feeling it was, finally to be cresting those bridges surrounded by crystal pale water and hot yellow sunlight in the middle of February with a few dollars in our pockets.

Now for a place to stay. Trouble is, the two-lane highway that cuts like a ribbon down the narrow islands all the way to Key West is not exactly rural blacktop. Wherever it was high ground it was crammed with motels and diners and dive shops and just plain dives. Low ground was wet mangrove swamp.

We got off the main road after a while and poked around the back roads that lead half a mile east to the Atlantic or half a mile west to the Gulf of Mexico.

We found a spot that looked good, protected under some palms and pines, but before the two pup tents were raised the owner had found us. "Can't camp here," he said. "Private land."

We trundled down a few more miles, turned off again and found another nice spot.

Harry was driving in his tent stakes when he saw something move a few feet away -- something long and green with a mouth as big as a trash can.

Then a bunch of little green things started scurrying around, too. Not a great place to camp, the middle of mama alligator's den.

It was late. We packed up in a hurry and checked in at the first commercial campground we found, setting up next to a family from Illinois that was watching "That Girl" on TV. We crashed into a deep, happy sleep undisturbed until 7 the following morning when the camp P.A. system came on with a feedback screech.

"GOOD MORNING!" it said. "All campers wishing to stay tonight should preregister now. There is a message for Mr. Green from Michigan at camp headquarters. Breakfast is served until 10 o'clock in the camp diner.

"HAVE A PLEASANT DAY!"

"Not us, baby," we grumbled.

This story is getting long, but it's all in an effort to characterize the sense of despair that gripped us before at last we found the perfect campsite at the dump in Marathon.

It didn't look like much and it wasn't, but to our tired eyes it was heaven. To get there you drove past a go-kart track near a Piggly-Wiggly store. I don't know what lured us down that sand road, but when we saw the steel cable and the sign, "No Unauthorized Dumping," we knew we were onto something big.

The purple Merc had a penchant for losing bits of sheet metal and moving parts on the highway, so we had plenty of tools. It took no time at all with the 9/16ths ratchet to bypass the lock on the cable and disassemble the clamp that held it all together.

The cable came down and the Merc rolled in. We reattached the cable behind us to keep the riffraff out.

There was a big area for dumping and behind it lay a perfect, shallow, sunwashed subtropical lagoon. The ground was littered with fresh coconuts. Backhoes had been at work cutting canals and hauling up dredge spoil that rich could build their houses on elsewhere.

The canals they left behind along the lagoon edges were deep and crystal clear. In the holes we found delicious lobsters lurking.

What a place! We drove around behind the dumping area and off to a side next to some palm trees that rendered the purple Merc invisible. Up went the tents.

Then we went to work scavenging. We found a cooking grill and two or three nice abandoned easy chairs to ring the fire. We established a men's and a women's room in the mangroves.

Once every day or two a truck would come in and dump its load. We could hear it coming down the road so we'd lay low for a half-hour until it was gone. h

Other than that no one disturbed us. We got up in the mornings and took lazy swims around the lagoon, which was a half-mile wide. We chased lobsters in the canals and went fishing off the bank. At night we had fine meals over our scavenged grill on a buttonwood fire.

One day there came a wind storm and some people on a trimaran sought refuge in the lagoon, where they sat until the wind died down.

We stayed a week and at the end we all agreed it was as close to true wilderness camping as any of us had ever been. It hadn't been easy to find the place, but after all, what good dump is easy to find?