Florida Keys

by Charles McGuigan

From the southernmost tip of Key West at Fort Zachary Taylor.

 The Florida Keys were like a magnet, drawing us down the East Coast to the very termination of the continental United States, to this southernmost extremity lapped by three bodies of water—Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf. These paradise islands revealed their jewels to us, aquatic and terrestrial, floral and faunal, human and non-human. When we were drawn back northward by the ineluctable call of summer’s end we had the good fortune of spending four days in what I consider to be the South’s loveliest city. It is a city of squares and parks, and scores of monuments; yet the statues, save for one of them, are in homage to truly honorable men and women. Georgia’s First City, the Hostess of the South, drips with a warm and flowing Southern hospitality that bears neither snobbery nor meanness. We were there just three days after white supremacists and Nazis wreaked havoc in the Old Dominion, and it was like a balm to that unbridled hatred displayed on the streets of Charlottesville. But it all began with a Low Country boil, and it would end with one, too.

 

Back in late June, Charles and I went out to my sister’s country home in Rapidan. Her husband Joel was there and two of their children, Liz and Hil, along with Liz’s husband, Matthew, and my brother Chris, his wife Margo and their youngest son Martin who would be leaving for Scotland in a couple months where he’ll attend college.

Low Country boil at Rapidan.

Hilary made the Low Country boil, which is standard fare in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, a Gullah traction, I’m guessing, cause no matter how poor you were shrimp and other seafood were always available in the Low Country, along with potatoes and corn. It was a spectacular feast—king-fitting—and stories circled the table, and carried over late into the night over drinks, Old Rag looking down on us from the distance.

That evening, Charles’s cousins showed him how to use a bow and arrow, and throughout the night, he would pull the bow taut, aim, and release the arrow, hitting the bull’s eye repeatedly. Charles, who always surprises me with his bounty of gifts, seems to be a natural archer.

 

 

The next morning we left for Cherry Hill, New Jersey, home of my cousin Kosh and her husband Antonis, and their three boys, who are all out of the house at this point, off to college and careers. To Charles they were always the three brothers, and took him in at an early age and made him part of their clan.

Charles and I were able to get a twelve-mile bike ride in along the Schuylkill, but there was no zest to any of it. Not this time.

My cousin Kosh is one of those rare people who does not have a mean bone in her body, much like my son and daughter. Over the years we’ve become quite close, and anytime we’re passing through Philly to and from Maine, we always spend a few days with Kosh and her family.

Kosh, Antonus and Charles.

Several months back Kosh was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and its crippling effects were rapid.  I had written her the following a few months ago, and every word of it is true.  “You do not judge, you do not mock human frailty, nor do you hold transgressions against the perpetrator. I’ve often thought that those who espouse Christian values should study the actions of atheists or agnostics such as yourself. They might learn a thing or two, put into practice the clear words of their savior as framed in his beatitudes, but unfortunately, all too often, they are swallowed by their own self-righteous judgement, delight in casting stones, counting beads, thumping chests, parroting empty words in the desolate spiritual chasms of their churches.”

“I learned more from you about what godliness is than from any religious text I’ve ever read. You embody the profound truths of the Buddha, Christ, Mohammad. You live as they lived. You are the best of what they preached, and, within you, it is a constant. I do hope that all who know you understand the sort of presence they are in when near you. You shower grace on all who are open to it, and it is not some hokum magic grace, emanating from some mythical spot in the heavens. It is real, the sort of grace that makes all feel welcomed and loved. This is Divinity.”

During our visit this past summer Kosh and I spent a lot of time talking. She grieves as much for her children and husband as she does for herself. And though she carries the weight of this unbelievable burden, she remains positive and loving.

That first afternoon, the Three Brothers, and one of their cousins, took Charles into the deep end of the swimming pool behind Kosh’s home. Charles has always loved the water, but he fears depths he cannot stand up in, anything over his head. His cousins worked with him, built his confidence, and inside an hour he was swimming laps across the pool from nine feet to the three-foot shallows and back.

We left her Cherry Hill on a bright, hot, early July morning in early July, and headed back to Richmond, where I had my work cut out for me in preparation for the long leg of our vacation through the Deep South.

Dining room.
Kitchen.
Living room.

Here’s why: To make this trip possible, I was going to have to rent our home on Airbnb.  For more than a year I had been redoing our entire house. I skim coated the walls, primed and painted them, along with all the woodwork; stripped all the doors, stained them and sealed them with polyurethane; redid all the brass hardware throughout the house; sanded the floors, brushed on three coats of marine spar varnish;

Porch.
Study.

finally, after fifteen years, created a study in the sunroom at the back of the house—an old mud room that was in rough shape; even redid the front porch. I put the finishing touches on the house the morning we left in early August and handed my daughter, who would meet and greet our guests, the key to the new locks.

With the car fully packed and our reservations made at four different Airbnb locations, and our calendar set so that we would be homeward bound in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina for the total solar eclipse, we were off, but we didn’t get that far.

Less than 130 miles down 95, just outside of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, my son hears a grind and high-pitched whir.

“What’s that noise?” he asks. I listen.

“Nothing,” I say, then point to his right. “Maybe it’s that car in the other lane.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

We pull into a rest stop, use to the facilities, and when we’re back in the car, I turn the key and the temperature gauge rockets up to the top, and we no longer have power steering.  Something is wrong and it’s after four on a Sunday afternoon, and we are miles from nowhere. My son and I scope out the rest stop, thinking, half-jokingly, that we could pitch our tent and spend the night here, if worse comes to worst.

I check my phone for nearby garages and mechanics, but none of them are open on Sunday. The nearest one is in Raleigh, but that’s an hour away. I call my mechanic, Dave Axselle, in Richmond and he tells me the tensioner pulley’s probably shot. The car’s not drivable. I am able to find a local guy named Mark who has a 24-hour towing service. He picks us up and takes us along with our Honda CRV thirty miles south to Wilson, hands me a discount coupon for a motel room, and sets the car on a slight incline behind the motel. “You’re right across the street from a Honda dealership,” Mark tells me, pointing across the highway. Then he has another idea. “I’m gonna have this guy call you,” he tells me, and gives me his number just in case.

Timmy of Astral Auto Service.

The room’s comfortable and was less than eighty bucks with the coupon. We eat barbecue because in Wilson that’s what you do, and Charles watches episode after episode of South Park—a marathon of some kind—scientology has us both in stitches. In the morning I call Timmy who, with his wife Sylvia, run a company called Astral Auto Service. He meets me outside at seven while Charles is still sleeping soundly, and immediately goes to work on the car, out of an oversized panel truck that is essentially a garage on wheels. He instantly identifies the problem—the ac compressor had seized up and sheared the serpentine belt. Timmy spent the next three hours finding the right belt and then bypassing the flywheel of the compressor. By ten we were good to go, and the bill was under ninety dollars.

In no time we began our plummet down the coast in earnest, no obstacles in our way, and the car humming, purring contentedly, rubbering away the miles beneath us, and before us.

Since we missed our reservation in Savannah the previous night, we drove straight through to St. Augustine, a healthy jaunt of about five hundred miles, eight hours of steady, but easy, driving. We stopped only for gas and drinks because we filled up on breakfast food at the motel. By the time Charles was ready to roll, they were breaking down the complimentary breakfast room, and the woman tending it all told us to eat as much as we wanted. “Just as long as you don’t use plates and glasses,” she had said, handing us Styrofoam cups and a couple of paper plates. “We’re just going to throw it out anyway.” Charles ate four eggs, a half a pound of bacon and three bagels, which tasted more like pretzels than anything else. I filled my stainless steel thermos with coffee, and pocketed three apples and two oranges.

Castillo de San Marco.

Our place in St. Augustine is the second floor apartment of a carriage house at the corner of First and Cincinnati avenues, just a couple blocks off San Marco Avenue, one of the main drags which features the legendary Fountain of Youth (which turned out to be nothing but a legend; Ponce De Leon died at the age of sixty-one) along with the Castillo de San Marco, an impressive 17th century Spanish fort, the oldest masonry fortress in the United States, built of lightweight, fossilized stone called coquina.

That coquina is ever present in Florida. Wherever you tread, just beneath the precious topsoil and the sand beaches, there is coquina, remnants of ancient sea beds, almost pure calcium carbonate. Any chunk of it reveals compressed shells and corals and traces of other marine life millions of years old. It is white to gray to straw-colored and makes the perfect filter to feed the aquifers that supply Florida with the purest of spring water.

Rock is at the base of everything. In coastal Maine—a frequent haunt—it’s granite, and you can see how the lichens there still pulverizing it into soil where wildflowers and blueberries and spruce and balsam thrive. Up there, it’s as if the earth is being born again out of rock and water.

After a quick dinner of oysters and mahi-mahi, we stroll the streets in the oldest quarter of the city, and explore an ancient graveyard.

 

Here’s the beauty of St. Augustine as opposed to Williamsburg: Where

Williamsburg is an open-air museum about the way life was once upon a time, St. Augustine is a living memorial to the past. People dwell here and do business here in buildings that are among the oldest standing structures in America. You can sense the Spanish presence here in the architecture, and the houses and shops are painted in fanciful colors.

After a ridiculously priced breakfast, we ride our bikes for several miles and then pack it in and begin the sojourn south along A1A on Anastasia Island. We stop off at one our National Parks’ many treasures, which includes a free ferry ride to an island where Fort Matanzas stands, facing seaward. It was built 175 years after the founding of St. Augustine, and acted as a sentry to the backdoor of the Spanish settlement.

Fort Matanzas.

Later that day we arrive in Jensen Beach for a single night in the home of Lisa and Doug. She works in healthcare; he is a firefighter and they are gracious hosts. They even leave a plate of cookies for us. In the morning we head south to the Keys, non-stop driving along Florida’s Turnpike, the only sure way to avoid the hell of Coral Gables and Miami, which is why they call this stretch of highway the Less Stressway.

 

My heart breaks the moment we cross over to Key Largo.  I can make out Gilbert’s Resort in the distance, and a flood of memories washes over me. Ten years ago my daughter Catherine and I first visited Florida. We flew into Orlando, and in a rented car crisscrossed Florida a half-dozen times in just ten days (You can cross the entire state at its widest in less than three hours), logging more than two thousand miles. We packed in as much as we could. Disneyworld was a let-down—it was dirty and the lines long, and every one of the employees we met was very young and from Belarus or Ukraine or Lithuania, not much more than girls really, and they were underpaid and overworked. We left this disenchanted kingdom at my daughter’s urging and got down to the business of Florida.

Subsequent trip to Blue Spring.

We swam the next morning in a place called Blue Spring, a state park not far from Deltona. Here the water is turquoise and the sand beneath it sugar white. We snorkeled there and free-dove down to the aquifer that feeds the spring. As we neared this hole punched through the ancient crust of fossilized coral we could see plumes of white erupting through the blue-green water, clouds of white sand forced from the bottom by the force of the spring water.

We spent time in the Everglades and at Boca Grande and Gasparilla Island. In South Florida we visited Coral Castle an odd structure built by an odd man who was first and foremost a maker of myths. Then at midnight of the seventh day, we came to that bridge that really begins the Overseas Highway, and we could see the harbor lights, and the running lights on boats making their way out of the docks, and we spied a place called Gilbert’s Resort—not much of resort really, kind of rundown rooms with doors that were made of stainless steel, but it would be our home the first night in the Keys. There was a big tiki bar and a bad bar band playing Jimmy Buffet songs, and every tequila-loaded patron singing the refrain from Margaritaville. At one in the morning, my eleven-year old daughter sat next to me on a bar stool and a sweet waitress brought Catherine a slice of Key lime pie and a glass of Sprite. I drank a beer, and my daughter held her blue-green blankie and stuffed panda bear, whose name just happens to be Pandy. We stopped at twelve beaches along the Keys and stayed a night in Key West where the acting manager gave us a deal on a waterfront room overlooking the Naval Base. Outside we collected a few coconuts.  Inside the lobby there were parrots who roamed free, one sidled along the counter as we checked in. The owner of the hotel was making a run to Cuba, the temporary innkeeper told us, and then he began telling stories about how many times he himself had gone to Cuba and how content the people there were and how they were all fed and educated and had access to medical care. “You don’t see poor people there like you see poor people here,” he told us.

We whirled across, and up and down Florida, which is easy to do because the roads are flat and gridded like a sheet of graph paper, all bee-line straight. And the sky is gloriously big and extremely active, always putting on a show. The clouds are like sponges sucking up water on either coast, forming these great stacks of cotton ball cumulus clouds that shower you with torrential rain and pass within ten minutes, and then in another ten minutes the sun dries up all evidence of rain, making the air thick as a sauna.

So this is the third year we have been without my daughter on our summer vacation; she’s busy with college and work and her sweetheart, Tyler. Which is as it should. But still.

Charles and I are in the lower Keys for the next seven days, just thirty miles north of Key West, on Big Pine, home of the Key deer, tiny versions of our native deer– a subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer. They’re sometimes called toy deer, and there’s reason for this. At maturity they stand no taller than a small Great Dane, and weigh considerably less at about 55 pounds for a full-grown buck. These deer are endangered as the signs along Route 1 inform you, but they seem to be everywhere on this island and the adjacent No Name Key.

Key deer on Big Pine.

This first early evening on Big Pine, Charles and I bike around the island, and in an open field next to a church of some sort we count fifteen Key deer grazing on grasses and the mangroves that ring this field. They are docile and downright friendly, not at all spooked by us when we approach them. The males look fierce at a glance, but that seems to be all show. One eight-point buck comes within five feet of us. His antlers still bear velvet, and he is inquisitive, rubs his moist nose on my outstretched palm. He’s probably just looking for food, and these deer are voracious eaters and fairly omnivorous. They eat everything of a vegetable nature, but seem particularly drawn to tropical flowers that folks down here plant in their yards—things like hibiscus. They also eat figs and mangos and other fruits native to the region. Their chief sources of nutrition in the wild are thatch palm berries and mangroves, but they truly love flowering bushes and tomatoes, which is why there is such a profusion of chain link fences on the island, and we’re told by the owner of this trailer we rent to keep the gates closed.

The owner of the trailer is a woman named Lane who lives with her partner in the trailer right next to us in the same compound. But you wouldn’t know it was a travel trailer. Living here is more like living on a boat with its tight, organized spaces. And Lane created a sort of tropical botanical paradise all around the trailers. You’re shielded by palms and scores of other tropical plants. And, of course, an abundance of lizards—Anoles and geckos primarily.

We head down to old town Key West and wander among the houses and lush vegetation, making our way over to Duval Street and the tourism, then down to Sunset Pier at the appointed hour and listen to (what else?) Jimmy Buffet songs. Then head back north thirty miles to our quarters.

Big Pine compound.

We leave the Big Pine compound early every morning, Charles opening the gate while I back out, and when I’m clear he secures it behind us, latching it to ensure that the Key deer stay out.We’d eaten eggs and English muffins for breakfast, and I packed lunch in the cooler, along with a full gallon of frozen water. I buy gallon jugs of spring water each day, fill our small bottles, which we reuse time and again, with Zephyrhills which is collected from Florida’s own natural springs. I freeze those bottle each night and let them thaw the following day in the cooler. This serves two purposes: it keeps our lunch of sandwiches and fruit cold; and it affords us brain-freezing water for the rest of the day. Works well—trick I learned doing exterior house painting back in college.

Southernmost tip of America.

We head back down to Key West, straight for the tip, the most southwesterly point on the East Coast, a place called Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.  Florida has an exceptional system of state parks, rivalling our own in Virginia. The beach here is painful on bare feet. It’s made of glaring white, pulverized coral strewn with coal black flecks, which are fossilized shark teeth, so water shoes are a must.  But the water is soothing as a mineral bath. The water temperature must be close to ninety, and the salt content of the water is much higher than what it is in the Atlantic off Virginia and the Carolinas. It renders you buoyant, and stings your eyes. Because it’s a confluence of the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico, the variety of fish species here is unrivalled, outside of the offshore reefs.  Seventy-five yards off the beach there are three breakwaters constructed of massive boulders of fossilized corral rock, which have become reefs, and eel grass grows in great abundance around them.

This is the first time Charles has ever snorkeled. He readily learns to breathe through his mouth, secures his mask properly, and then slips on his fins and takes to the water like a fish. We hover near the boulders for three hours, circling, free-diving, and we see scores of different types of tropical fish, from blue damsels to yellow tangs and, these incredible rainbow-blotched parrot fish.  Between the crevices of the rocks, we spy timid spiny lobsters, the only underwater denizens that shy away from us. This is the same spot my daughter and I, ten years ago, encountered a barracuda, and all in good time Charles will have the same experience.

Later in the early afternoon we wander through Bahama Village which is rapidly becoming gentrified by yuppie larva and uber hipsters. I’m guessing the real estate tax rate has been slowly rising, forcing out the folks who have called this area home for generations. It covers about a dozen square blocks bordered by Whitehead Street and the Truman Annex, and Whitehead and Southard. Many of the original inhabitants were Bahamian, and their ancestors still live here, some of them, at any rate. But that’s changing rapidly as the area becomes a trendy restaurant destination. It’s a sad thing to see.

Wild rooster of Key West.

Everywhere, even in the more upscale communities on the other side of Duval Street, chickens and roosters and their offspring run wild. You could easily live off the natural bounty of Key West. Between the poultry and the fruit (figs and mangoes, and, of course, coconuts), not to mention the fish that are easily caught, and the spiny lobster (in season, of course), you could easily survive. We find a mango tree on Stump Street just off Frances, and help ourselves to the fruit, which otherwise just rots on the ground. We pick a few every time we’re down in Key West.

We visit the Key West Garden Club, which has a nice presence in an old brick fort right at Higgs Beach. It’s a nice display, but a number of the botanical specimens aren’t natives, and the woman running it today has a school ma’amish attitude toward my son, which I don’t really care for. She had a reprimanding tone with him, and he was just being curious.

Fishing at Higgs Beach.

Just to the east of the garden is the Edward Knight Pier, a large concrete structure just recently repaired, and fish absolutely love the structure created by the pilings. I talk with a guy who just moved here from South Africa two years ago. He loves the place, and fishes here regularly. He shows me his tackle, which is pretty much like our top-an-bottom rigs with 2.0 hooks, and a rounded sinker to avoid snags. Charles and I watch the crystal clear water where is an explosion of yellow-and-black striped fish that look like bumblebees. Moving up and down the pilings, nibbling and scouring, there are several large parrot fish. Our fisherman friend catches two mangrove snappers, which are very good-eating. Then Charles, who has wandered to the other side of the pier calls me over. In the crystal clear water we watch a five-foot long barracuda (that’s a pretty big one, largest I’ve ever seen), lazing near the surface, pectoral fins spinning, caudal fin gently waving so it can hold its positon, steady as a hovering helicopter. It lays in wait for something and we watch it for a good twenty minutes, but it does nothing as large schools of needle fish swarm around it, some them a quarter a foot long. We’ll return tomorrow to ride the seawall trail up to the Key West Bridge and try our luck at fishing here.

Key West AIDS Memorial.

As you enter the pier there are two breathtaking monuments: one to victims of AIDS; the other marking the cemetery of Africans who died here. Many of these human beings who were going to be sold as slaves found refuge in the Keys far from the plantation mentality of the country on the mainland.

African Cemetery, Key West.

As we leave the island for our quarters on Big Pine, I’m thinking a lot about the goddamned monuments in Richmond and elsewhere that honor men who fought to preserve slavery, but I have no idea what’s coming to a city less than seventy miles from our Richmond home.

On the  way home we stop at one of more than twelve fishing bridges that are scattered among the Keys. These are the old bridges that had once connected the Keys and when the new Overseas Highway was constructed the state of Florida had the good sense of preserving the old spans for both bicycle traffic and fishing. So we fish on Shark Key Bridge over Shark Channel. We can see the fish twenty feet underwater. I flick my rig out toward one of the concrete electrical pylons, where there is always good structure. Within minutes I get my first strike—a yellowtail snapper, a fish I’ve never caught before. The color is lemon yellow on a bluish white background. I throw that one back, but Charles and I each catch another, considerably larger. As a quick storm begins to move in, I gut and fillet the fish, and we run back to the car, soaking wet when we get in. In an hour we are eating yellowtail snapper baked with fresh mango.

In the morning, after breakfast, Charles and I bike out to Blue Hole, which is about four miles from our Big Pine compound. It’s early yet, but the temperature is already in the upper nineties and the humidity well over eighty percent, but the trip is well worth it.

Blue Hole is an abandoned rock quarry created by Henry Flagler to supply ballast stones for his failed Overseas Railroad. The result is now one of the few bodies of freshwater on this entire strand of islands, and is home to abundant wildlife you won’t find anywhere else on the Keys. As is our unwritten rule we give what is wild a wide berth. We spot an indigo snake that is over six-feet long, as well as two alligators, a number of Key deer, and a green iguana at least five feet long that scrambles at breakneck speed at our approach.

We return to the compound and pack lunch and a dozen frozen water bottles, then head back down to Key West. It’s going to be a long day, and a long night.

We stop briefly at The Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden on Stock Island just east of Key West across Cow Key Channel, and I set up an interview with the director, a guy named Misha, but that’s for tomorrow.

Charles and I head back to Higgs Beach and we bike the trail along Atlantic Boulevard over to South Roosevelt Boulevard. Most of this trip is along a seawall of sorts, a promenade that skirts Rest Beach and Smathers Beach, both of which have white sand, a real anomaly in the Keys. Fact is these are not natural beaches, the sand is pumped in. The only natural sand beach on the Keys is at Bahia Honda Key, which is all a state park—a place we’ll get to in a couple of days.

Male iguana just off the promenade along Roosevelt Boulevard.

Along the way we spot a four-foot long male iguana, fairly large and not at all skittish at our approach. We hand-feed it a couple of sections of an orange, then continue on our way all the way up to U.S. 1 bridge, then turn around and head back to our point of origin. For a couple hours we wander the streets of Key West and then spend the late afternoon almost until sunset snorkeling at Fort Zachary Taylor. In the car we change into dry clothes and head back over to the night-time bustle of Key West.

We visit The Cabaret at La Te Da on Duval Street, watch a couple of acts, and these girls are tremendous singers, impersonators, entertainers, dressed to the high nines with five-inch heels and five ounces of makeup. A couple of drag queens hold court outside and as we talk with them, they begin flirting with Charles and a beet-redness seeps up through his tanned face.

At Sloppy Joe’s a woman struts along the bar like a runway, dancing up a storm. I nurse a mojito; Charles a Key West lemonade, minus the vodka.

“Is she allowed to do that?” Charles asks

“She’s doing it, and everybody seems happy about it.”

“Maybe I should dance on the bar,” says Charles.

I just shake my head.

We continue the Duval crawl, sticking our heads into the bars along the way where there’s always live music. More than a few middle-aged men, sporting white beards, swagger, while others stagger, a la Papa, often down the middle of the street.

It is still in the nineties, and the humidity high, even though it’s close to ten o’clock. But if you walk on the sidewalks of Duval Street close to the storefronts lining it, you get draft after draft of icy cool air drifting out of virtually every shop. They keep their air conditioners going full blast with the doors wide open, a lure, I’m guessing, to bring tourists inside.

Late night meal at Raw on the Half-Shell at the bitter end of the harbor walk.

The further we make our way down Duval Street, the thinner the crowd becomes, and down on the harbor walk there are few people and the streets are dark. Here you can see the stars overhead, and the harbor is packed with some of the most beautiful sailboats and yachts I have ever seen, lined up in their berths like cars in a parking lot. These are large vessels—the smallest being about forty feet. Many of the restaurants are closed for the night, but down toward the end of the harbor walk, not far from the US Coast Guard station, we find a place called the Half Shell Raw Bar. Charles and I eat a late night dinner of steamed, deep-pink shrimp, and two dozen raw oysters, and when those small packets of saltwater in the oysters burst and you taste the ocean, life doesn’t get better.

Key West Cemetery at night.

We finally pull out of Key West at around two in the morning after a visit to a cemetery where the tombs are raised above the ground because the water table is so high. If you were to bury a casket on Key West the earth would simply spit it out.

As we cross over to the Saddle Bunch Keys, I pull onto the shoulder and cut the engine and the lights, and as our eyes adjust to this darker darkness, we both look skyward and can see millions of stars above us and the milky whiteness of the galaxy we call home.

 

 

 

We spend most of the next day at the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, which bills itself as the only “frost-free” botanical garden in the continental United States. Misha McCRAE, executive director of the garden, gives me a guided tour, while Charles wanders off with Deanna, the garden’s education manager.

Charles with Deanna at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden.

As we stroll along the boardwalks, all made of recycled plastic, Misha narrates a history of the garden, which has been around in one permutation or other for more than eight decades. Almost twenty years ago Misha began working here, and four years back was made the executive director. He is impassioned about his work and shows me tropical tree after tropical tree that found sanctuary here—venerable tropical trees from other Keys that would otherwise have become the victims of development.

Fan palm.

Old man palm.
Cuban petticoat palm.
Cuban wax palm.

I have no idea how many varieties of palm trees there are in this veritable jungle, but I count at least eighteen, many of which are indigenous to the Keys. There are thatch palms and silver palms, date palms and Washington palms, buccaneer palms and petticoat palms, which host layered fronds at their base calling to mind frilled women’s undergarments from an earlier age.

In the wildest part of the forest where there are no boardwalks, just well-travelled paths, Misha cautions me as I reach out for the mottled trunk of a tree. I love to touch bark and memorize its texture with my fingertips. With eyes closed I can tell the difference between a pin oak and a willow oak.

The bark of this tree, which I do not touch, is reminiscent of crepe myrtle or sycamore, in the way the bark seems to be shedding. But Misha tells me the layer peeling away is not bark at all, but rather a lichen.

Every single part of this tree from the root to the highest branch is poisonous. If, during a rain shower, you are unlucky, or unwise, enough to stand under this tree for protection from the rain, drops of water that come in contact with the trip and drip on you will be as molten lava. Poisonwood, as it’s called, is not for tree-huggers. Any slight contact with any part of this tree will result in an almost immediate skin reaction, blisters rising to the surface in moments, and a stinging burn ensuing. Think of poison ivy, oak or sumac on steroids.

Directly across from the poisonwood stands a tree I have seen countless times throughout Florida. It is sheathed in a smooth reddish-brown bark, and the limbs are long and elegant as swan necks. It is called gumbo-limbo.

 

As jewelweed (touch-me-nots) is to poison ivy, gumbo-limbo is to poisonwood. It’s one of those weird occurrences in nature where the antidote to poison often grows right next to the toxic culprit. If you are so unfortunate as to touch a poisonwood, (also called chechém) and suffer the resulting burn, just look around for a gumbo-limbo and make a quick poultice of its bark and apply it to the affected area of skin. Relief is almost immediate.

An hour later we enter an opened field ringed by trees. Here it is not the plants that are on display, but rather the hulls of a dozen boats that memorialize humanity’s quest for freedom. Many of these vessels seem barely seaworthy and they are made of every conceivable material, even tarps and blocks of Styrofoam—anything that floats.

 

 

They are the Cuban chugs, and for years have washed up on the shores of the Florida Keys, some with passengers jammed in tight as packed sardines, others literally ghost ships with no human presence, the passengers swallowed by the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Over the years, tens of thousands of Cubans escaping the totalitarian reign of a dictator, risked everything to make it to our shores. Many were returned to Cuba, others found sanctuary here.

When I say it’s unfortunate how the current administration views refugees, Misha shakes his head and says, “You heard about what happened in Charlottesville?”

I hadn’t. I hadn’t been checking the internet, and no TV. Not even social media.

But back at the Big Pine compound late that night I finally get on-line and read about Nazis and racists converging on Charlottesville, an army of them. I watch clips of torch-yielding white supremacists spewing racial and religious invectives, and then a terrorist among them killing a woman and injuring others. And a sitting president refusing to condemn these Nazis for what they are.

For our last two days on the Keys Charles snorkels for hours off Bahia Honda Key, just to our north, perfect water for snorkeling. We then head up to Savannah, Georgia, where Catherine and Tyler are planning to join us for a Low Country boil before heading up to Mount Pleasant, South Carolina for the total solar eclipse.

Bahia Honda has the Keys’ only natural sand beach.

We stay four days in this remarkable city of parks and squares, and some of the gentlest folk I have ever met. We ride bikes everywhere, along its active riverfront and through its myriad greenspaces. We spend a fair amount of time over on Tybee Island, and visit Fort Pulaski on the way over.

 

Tybee Island.
Staircase at Fort Pulaski.
Tybee Light.

Jimmy Oglethorpe is to Savannah as Billy Penn is to Philadelphia. They were founders of their respective cities, but more than that they were both ardent believers in equality and fairness for all.  In a word: They were progressives.

For one thing, Oglethorpe welcomed Jews, Lutheran Salzburgers, and other persecuted religious minorities to settle in Georgia. He also wholly opposed African slavery of any kind in Georgia, and never wavered on this. He had a deep respect for all American Indian tribes, honoring their customs, language, and needs. Any land cessions were agreed upon only by treaties shaped by the Indians, whom he also protected from unscrupulous white traders. He lived up to the motto of the Georgia colony which was: “Non sibi sed aliis,” which translated from the Latin means, “Not for self, but for others.”

Flannery O’Connor’s childhood bedroom.
Savannah’s active riverfront.

 

Savannah’s World War II memorial.

 

 

 

A city of squares and parks.There are statues galore in this city, honoring men like Lafayette and Pulaski. But we find only one that references the Civil War, and it is to ordinary soldiers and sailors, not the leaders of the fabled Lost Cause.

 

 

Before our final night in Savannah I pick up fresh corn and red potatoes and a pound of andouille sausage for the Low Country boil. I wait to buy the seafood. I’ll get it fresh, hours before my daughter and her boyfriend arrive. But that night, my daughter, in tears, tells me she is not going to come after all. She and Tyler are getting ready for classes to start at VCU. I tell her it’s fine, that we’ll have a Low Country boil when Charles and I return to Richmond.

Awaiting the total solar eclipse on Mount Pleasant with the Kambourians.
Sky hours after the eclipse in North Carolina.

On the appointed day we head north to Mount Pleasant, South Carolina to a KOA campground where we meet up with a Richmond contingent of the Kambourians, and we watch and marvel at the moon utterly blocking out the gargantuan sun, if only for two minutes. And though it does not alter us, this celestial event fills us with profound gratitude for being part of such a mysterious universe.

Low Country boil redux.

Two nights after our return, Catherina and Tyler and Amanda, along with the Kambourian clan, join us for a Low Country Boil, which is the official end of this long, protracted vacation.

And today, as I write the final words in this story, the sky is filling with clouds and fall is in the air after an eternal summer of blue sky days, and the president of our country has decided that it is okay to deport as many as 800,000 young Americans whose parents struggled to find them refuge in a land of freedom, not unlike the men, women and children who had crossed the Caribbean in the Cuban chugs my son and I had seen in the Florida Keys, which are now under the threat of an assault from a superstorm called Irma that promises destructive winds and intense rains and a storm surge that may shove a wall of ocean across these beloved islands, possibly scraping away so much of their frail beauty—these places we’ve been, these things we’ve seen, these plants and animals and human beings we have come to know and love. And the culprit behind this hurricane may well be man in all his thoughtless arrogance and his cavalier destruction of our environment which has led to global climate change, something the same president, who obviously doesn’t care about young people or people of color, thinks is nothing more than a hoax, fake news.

 

About CharlesM 97 Articles
North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

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