This morning I eased out of Homestead and headed down to Upper Key Largo and the Crocodile Lake Wildlife Refuge. I did so via Card Sound Road — which I recommend — and needed only about 10 minutes to realize today was going to be very different. All of the sudden, there is nothing. Mangrove and grass flats as far as you can see, interrupted only by the power lines and a few areas of ground high enough and sturdy enough to have low pines or buttonwood trees on them. I was struck by how much the area looks like the prairies of the Midwest. Looking across them side by side, it would be hard to tell the difference — of course today all of it is growing in a water, but that’s the sensation of seeing it.
Further south, about the middle of Key Largo, I picked up US 1 again and settled in — only road south, only road back. There is traffic on it, but today at least, everybody was cruising along at 45 mph, windows down, just getting ever more relaxed with every mile.
I discussed all the geologic bumping and grinding that got the Florida land mass here and the keys are the result of a part of that. 130,000 years ago changes in glaciation associated with the Sangamonian Stage meant that the sea was somewhere around 25 feet higher than it is today. During this time, most of South Florida was covered by a shallow sea. Along the edge of the Florida plateau, which was under this sea, reefs formed — basically from Miami around to the Dry Tortugas. Then, about 100,000 years ago, more stuff froze during the Wisconsin glaciation, and the sea level dropped 300-350 feet below where it is now. Bingo. The keys were born. Essentially, the exposed reef eroded, vegetated, and formed limestone cap rock in the loose chain we now know as the Florida Keys. Rising sea levels created this geology, and falling sea levels created this place.
The further south on US1 I got, the more I noticed what looked like masses of dead trees in the hummocks and roadsides and across the flats. Brown and naked of vegetation, they had a day of the dead sort of effect. This was Irma’s doing. In September of 2017, a cat 4 smacked Cudjoe Key, and several keys north got the worst of it. It’s amazing how little structural damage I saw. What is visible is what happens when mangroves and buttonwoods root deep into the limestone and grow stunted and short because of the dry season and can’t physically be overturned. They get undressed by 130 mph winds. With no leaves, and therefore no source of energy, many of them have died. A few are re-sprouting from the base, but many are dead. Standing dead. Their dry, brown limbs clawing at this glorious sky that once, not so long ago, brought them Irma.
A typical post-Irma tree framing a typical Keys vista – glad this buttonwood is coming back
Along the route I was trying to sort out why it all seems so much more relaxed today. I was on a single, two lane road, with no options and a decent amount of traffic volume, but it was completely not stressful. I thought, well, stunning blue green water to each side of me that flashes bright white over the sand flats and spangles the southern sun in a thousand directions — maybe that’s it. But it clouded up later, and still no stress. Then I was thinking it was the lack of commercialization, but hey, even in the keys they need a dollar, and there is plenty of parasailing, glass boating and sandal shopping down here. But no stress. Most all of the bridges have a little side section for the fishermen, and they were out early, jigging and hauling. I never crossed a bridge with fishermen that at least one wasn’t landing a fish. Everything just seemed to be easy going.
Finally, I gave up wondering about it all and just let it be. Stopping wherever I saw an interesting view, or sandy lane. Never caring that most of them amounted to nothing any more special than what I’d been looking at for hours. On Big Pine Key I saw a few of the Key Deer. They are an endangered species of deer that are about the size of my dog Geraldine. Maybe a hair taller. Like a white tailed deer, only reduced in size down to something that can survive on an isolated island with a long dry season and not much to eat. They all seemed very easy going too. Not in a hurry to cross the street, or worried about you or the car. The place has this effect on everything.
I turned off one time at a sign because I thought it was funny — “No name key.” You have to be seriously relaxed to say, when you get asked to name an island, “it’s called no name.” Turns out there is a little hole in the wall bar at the edge of no name key, called no name pub. And that place is where I learned a lot about living stress free. And about meeting people where they stand.
The bartender was a young guy, maybe early 20s. Happy, welcoming, attentive. I ordered a draft of no name amber (these folks no a good angle when they see it) and settled in to figure out this perpetual bliss.
“You from here specifically?”
“Yep. Lived here all my life.”
“Obviously you like it.”
“Can’t imagine anywhere else.”
“You stay here for Irma?
“No. Man, I had my sister and her boyfriend down here and they kind of freaked out the night before, so I took them to Miami.”
“You seem disappointed.
“Oh man, my friends all stayed and one of them has a video of waves 6 feet high breaking under the stoplights on the highway. Seriously.”
“Was there water in here?”
“Yeah. Six feet deep where you are sitting.”
“This was all in September, 2017, that’s barely a year ago.”
“I saw how all the trees are dead, from Irma, right?”
“Well it used to be a lot worse. A lot of them are turning green again.”
“I guess hurricanes are gonna come and go, but one thing that sounds worse is having the sea levels rise from warming. Y’all worried about that?”
“I don’t know. I mean some people are saying like in 10 years the water is going to come up like 8-10 inches. So, I don’t know.”
“You are three feet above sea level, 10 inches would change a lot of stuff.”
I should point out that at no point (other than his apparent shame at having run from the hurricane) did his pulse quicken or his demeanor change at all. Catastrophic weather, the potential for dramatic geographic change from sea level rise, nothing. This-is-today-I-am-here-in-the-bar-with-great-people-on-a-lovely-day-in-one-of-the most-beautiful-places-on-earth-and-that’s-awesome. More than anything, that sums up the ethos down here, and it is contagious.
The guy in the seat next to me at the bar came back from wherever he’d been and tucked into a basket of wings. I scooted sideways a little and said, “let me give you a little elbow room, you got some serious work to do there.” He said, “I appreciate that, you know that. I really do.” And that started a conversation wherein we discovered many things about each other and shared many laughs. Big Tony, and his son Little Tony are delightful people and as good a bar partners as you could hope for. We come from different places, but we share a common recognition (mine at least more recently acquired) that meeting someone where they are is more important than finding out if they stand with you.
Oh, and if you get tot he No Name Pub, I can recommend the grouper sandwich.
Key West is cool. It holds a little over a third of all the residents of the keys, so it’s dense, but it’s cool. As the destination, it’s crowded with tourists too, but by the time they get there, they’ve all been infected with the same “Keys ethos,” so its cool. At the far southern end of Key West, at the Fort Zachary Taylor State Park they were setting up a wedding — white columns, filmy backdrop, silver chairs, the works. Pretty cool to get married with that backdrop. A group of six fairly rowdy tourist showed up on their rental bicycles and began exclaiming “there’s going to be a wedding.” They rambled over to a picnic table and several folding tables with a couple of dozen folks sitting around them and said “hey, there’s going to be a wedding did you see?” The folks at the tables said they did and that in fact that’s what they were here for. Long story short, 30 minutes later the rowdy group had explained it was a 35th anniversary trip and the state park wedding party had invited them to the wedding. See? It’s cool.
I will say that I found the touristy shenanigans to be very manageable in Key West. It felt like New Orleans with a blue water view and only about a tenth of the French quarter. I’d like to come back, maybe rent a house for a month or so and see if I could get permanently infected with the vibe so I could take it anywhere.
Tonight, I’m back up mid-keys, just at the north end of 7 mile bridge in Marathon. I’m going to spend the evening at a bar recommended to me by the guy cleaning the pool at an apartment complex. I expect to learn more and will report the same. Tomorrow, I head back to the mainland and across the Tamiani Trail though the Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Reserve. I’m going on an airboat trip into the Everglades. I will stay on the western corner of the Everglades before turning north up the coast to see what I can find there.