Most people sunbathe, snorkel, snap photos of themselves at the southernmost point of the continental U.S., visit some of Ernest Hemingway’s haunts and party hearty when they’re in the Florida Keys. We did some of that, too.
But our real highlights? The manatee who asked Georges for a belly rub; meeting a nice Irish couple from Dublin; smoking a Cuban cigar with Claudia, the tabaquera; and sharing a campsite dinner with new friends Don and Joanna from Orlando.
Oh, and we lodged our 11th Casita sighting of the trip.
These small, distinctive, Texas-made trailers form the heart of a loyal community of lightweight fiberglass campers, and it was fun to chat briefly with Al, who was visiting Key Largo with his wife, Peggy, from his home just 50 miles away. He pulled in right next to us just before our last night on the Keys. Our twin 17-foot trailers (his a bright shiny 2014; ours, in the foreground, a slightly worn but neat-and-clean 2007) must have looked like the Bobbsey Twins of campers at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
Yes, we did some of the touristy stuff the day we spent on Key West, including posing for pictures just 90 miles from Havana, 150 miles from Miami.
And on the way to Key West from our campsite (100 miles, two hours), we rocked out to Kokomo by the Beach Boys and Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet on our iPhones (producing ear worms, of course, that lasted all day, and all night).
We visited the Hemingway House and marveled at his studio, the six-toed cats and the story-telling by our guide Stan.
One of the stories had Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, taking special delight in ripping out Hemingway’s prized boxing ring, which she’d always despised, during one of his trips away from the property toward the end of their marriage, and replacing it with an elegant, pricy swimming pool. Hemingway was incensed when he returned and accused her of spending his “last red cent.” Pauline reportedly relished embedding that red cent at the base of a column in the foundation of the patio.
(Hemingway went on to marry the third of his four wives, Martha Gellhorn, one of the best and under-recognized foreign correspondents of her era. One of my favorite quotes is hers: “All of my reporting life I have thrown small pebbles into a very large pond, and have no way of knowing whether any pebble caused the slightest ripple. I don’t need to worry about that. My responsibility was the effort.”)
We grabbed a couple of cold beers at Amigos Tortilla Bar, around the corner from Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway’s favorite haunt. Amigos is across the street from Capt. Anthony’s, which sits on Sloppy Joe’s original site, and has a brighter, warmer buzz going for it than either of the other two darker local dives.
We enjoyed walking around various marinas. We admired a particularly huge cruise ship and found ourselves chatting with Yvonne and Ciaran of Dublin. Warm and gracious people; loved their Irish lilt!
At one of the marinas, we walked out to the very slip that G spent three night in two years ago, as he helped our good friend, Doug, sail his 55-foot Benetteau from the British Virgin Islands to Galveston by way of Key West. Suddenly G stopped and pointed to something in the water.
What’s that, he asked, pointing to what looked to me like an old truck tire floating in a slip between a big boat and the pier. Or maybe a crusty, oversized buoy bobbing where it doesn’t belong.
We looked more closely. G reached out to touch it. It was rough, with some hair. It felt like elephant skin.
It was a manatee! It seemed to be alive and well, taking a nap in the warm waters of the harbor.
G petted it. I petted it. G petted it some more while I got my iPhone out to snap some pictures. It liked G’s stroking and floated over a bit so G could scratch its head. Soon it showed us its face.
Then it rolled almost halfway over and handed G its flipper, as though to shake hands and ask for a belly rub.
G obliged on both counts.
G talked about that moment almost non-stop for the next several days: “Never in my life did I imagine myself, a little guy from Belgium, petting a wild manatee.”
The experience trumped the other “wildlife moments” of the week: Watching the guides on the returning fishing boats clean their bounty and toss the scraps to the huge tarpons and one small shark circling in anticipation by the marina’s cleaning station, the green heron with her eye on the same scraps, and two proud dragon-like iguanas sunning themselves on the jetty’s rocks.
We spent that evening at the outdoor Schooner Wharf Bar, enjoying happy-hour drinks and a shared Seafood Sampler Plate with crispy fries. This is clearly where the boat people hang out and the people-watching here was superb.
So was watching the slow, methodical, ritualized art of hand-rolling cigars. The tabaquera stationed next to us sold dozens during the four hours we were there, with per-cigar prices ranging from $2 to $12.
Turns out her name is Claudia and she’s from Nicaragua.
We loved listening to the Sushi Roll Band from Chicago. It reminded us of a smaller variation of the wonderful Emerald City band we enjoy so in North Texas.
Key West has definitely known the highs and lows. It was the nation’s richest city per capita in 1889, according to area literature, but then declared bankruptcy in the 1930s. On Key West and in other parts of the Keys – Islamorada, Long Key, Marathon, etc. – the devastation of last September’s Hurricane Irma is still obvious. Wrecked boats remain upturned on rock jetties, wasted cars half-buried in the sand and rock along the coastline, vacant lots with remnants of building foundations.
We pedaled past a lot of it – as well as lovely beaches and marinas – from our campground. But frankly, bicycling the Keys isn’t all that great. Most of the state park trails ban bikes and pedaling on the bike route on the highly trafficked Highway 1 is noisy and smelly.
On the way back from our walk to ranger station one day, G confessed that he’d reorganized the books in the Campground Book Exchange outside the men’s bathroom.
Really? Who does that?
We’d met Don and Joanna the first day we arrived in Key Largo as we were all huddling around the shaded picnic table near the marina to make use of the state park’s excellent WiFi. One evening we joined them for a campsite dinner.
G provided the pork chops, the last of our deer sausage (courtesy of Xavier Gonzalez in South Texas, see earlier post), black beans and vegetables; our hosts provided the wine, the deliciously tart key-lime-pie frozen yogurt dessert and – most important – the zip-screened, mosquito-proof tent outside their 28-foot Minnie Winnie trailer.
We had a great time that evening. We learned a bit about the software business, the ins and outs of the fresh produce industry, the art of making hand-crafted wood and acrylic pens, the joys of sewing and quilting, and so much more. We exchanged email and website addresses and have continued to stay in touch since we both left the Keys. I wouldn’t be surprised if we somehow run into one another again sometime.
Forgive the feeble attempt at a selfie to commemorate our time together:
We’d lucked into four nights at this state park in the Keys, thanks to a couple last-minute cancellations by others, but we couldn’t snag a fifth, try as we might. Perhaps there’s a message there.
Time to move on.
Miami here we come.