Home / Travelogue Index / Fourth Season / May 18, 2009

North and West

Travelogue - May 18, 2009
"The end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
- T. S. Eliot

Our last week in Key West was very windy and therefore somewhat nerve-wracking: will it be calm when we leave or will we roller-coaster up the Gulf? We'll see.

So we visited and toured and got some work finished. Rick took himself out for the occasional beers-and-rock-and-roll, but otherwise we successfully avoided most of the available "night life" I'm happy to say, because after three weeks even "late afternoon life" was asking too much of some days.

Heritage House

Nope, unoffocial American poet laureate Robert Frost, composer of "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", did not own the Robert Frost House. But he became great friends with pioneer-descendant Miss Jessie Porter, who did. Miss Jessie is the one whose energy and finances personally saved over 30 historic Key West houses from the wrecking ball in the 1930's. Including this circa 1834 ship captain's house which we visited one weekend.

Mr. Frost wintered in Key West from 1945-1960, living in the guest cottage out back and hanging with his friends including Tennessee Williams and the Hemingways.

Our favorite parts of the house were the beautiful woodwork and floors. And the pergola which sheltered the dining room's french doors leading to the garden.

Here is the lovely garden, right. Back in the day, ships came into harbor ballasted with tons of Baltimore bricks in their holds, and so Key West streets were paved with the bricks. When the bricks were removed in favor of asphalt, Miss Jessie and her best friend Pauline Hemingway scored truckloads of the bricks to pave their patios.

The fireplace and chimney here are relics of the house's original cook house.

Appropriately enough, the property hosts the annual Robert Frost Poetry Festival in April, open to all.

Zaniness and Serenity

Rick insisted that we exert the energy to experience some of Key West's "zany antics" during its celebration of the Conch Rebellion. His motto: "If they build it, we should go."

Previous travelogues have described the parades and sea battles. This time we headed downtown for the annual Bed Races.

Don't ask me to explain the relevance of Bed Races to the mock rebellion for fake independence. I cannot.

Participants decorated beds on wheels. For example we saw a silver platform high heel (the entry of 801 Bourbon Bar, home of the female impersonators' floor show), a coffin (the Rocky Horror impersonators' entry) and a bunch of things I could not identify. Participants then pushed, pulled, dragged, and in some cases mosied, their beds down Duval. We witnessed some of the heats but since I was more interested in hiding in the shade my photos are a bit sub-par.

See above, a SWAT team, or something, I couldn't be sure, but the guy in back was buff. This was my favorite because the participants actually ran! Yeah. Let THEM work up a sweat while I'm standing on the curb in the friggin' broiling sunshine of a tropical afternoon. Hooligans.

The way I figure it, if you're going to run you may as well be running away from slavering grizzlies or charging bison. Accomplish something tangible while you're at it. Hmmm. It may just be time for me to go home, to where the deer and the antelope play...

Meanwhile. Notice the guy on the left side of the photo, above left, with his thumb out, hoping to hitch a ride on the bed. Ha.

My other favorite team consisted of the two stoney-faced motorcycle cops, above right. They had to race up and down Duval with sirens blaring to part the crowds ahead of each heat. They never so much as cracked a smile.

Rick's favorite part was watching the crowd. He thinks it's a hoot that people turn out in large numbers for the antics and that's what he finds so amusing - conveniently forgetting that we were there melting into our shoes ourselves and no doubt providing entertainment to the next cynical tourist.

Can you tell I've had just about enough?

As the sun went down the temperature and energy level descended as well. Deep breath... and release.

We finished the evening by entertaining friends Kenneth and Peter aboard Sea Gator for apps and drinks - hi guys!! - and then they drove us to their beautiful home for a perfect dinner in the garden overlooking a crystalline aqua pool. Thank you gentlemen for a delightful end to an eventful day.

Nothing in Key West is too distant so after dinner Rick and I walked home under the stars. And that was lovely, too.

Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden

On a very windy Sunday we rode our bikes up to Stock Island and the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. The gardens are the only frost-free tropical forest garden in the continental US:

A tropical environment with ample rain allows most trees to retain their leaves in the dry season (December through late May). [The garden] is home to many endangered and threatened flora and fauna. Tropical forests of the world hold at least half of all the variety of life on Earth. Moreover, the species found within the Caribbean are among the richest in plant and animal life on the planet.

The Key West Forest & Garden is a special place where you can appreciate biodiversity and learn more about its importance. For instance, the forest has two of the last remaining fresh water ponds in the Keys and is a major migratory stopping point for neo-tropical birds from places as far as South America, as well as being home to many rare birds in the Florida Keys.

The gardens reached 55 acres in the 1930s and then began a slow decline with the next hurricane. After that they continued to lose acreage to a number of unrelated uses such as a navy hospital. Volunteers are bringing the area back as funds allow, including resuscitating one of the ponds mentioned in the blurb from the website, above.

The framed Conceptual Master Plan prepared by Raymond Jungles Assoc. Landscape Architects was one of the highlights for me before we even left the visitor's center. I've been following Jungles' work - sometimes inadvertently, as when I screeched to a halt and backpeddled to photograph a striking landscape in the upper Keys that was obviously designed and built by professionals, and months afterward saw it featured in a magazine.

Once we made it outside I loved the garden's epiphyte collection:

Epiphytes, from the Greek "epi" meaning upon and "phuton" meaning plant, grow just as the name implies: on other plants. They have unique adaptations that allow them to uptake water and nutrients without soil. Our collection includes orchids, bromelaids, cacti, and ferns that are native to South Florida and the Greater Antilles, including the Bahamas...

Identification tags on plants were numerous and informative. Signs stated that many of the endangered or threatened natives in the collection were salvaged from the very jaws of bulldozers preparing to clear a site for construction. We saw a seed that looked like a coconut with the sprout coming right out of its business end, above right.

Rick's favorite part was our quiet time in the Garden. Such a short distance from Highway 1 and the bustle of Key West, we found some relative peace in a shady gazebo overlooking the water pond. The helpful docent said he comes there on his days off to read and meditate.

We took many photos of the Trex boardwalk and timber gazebo detailing. The lattice arch with flowering vines was nice, too (above left).

Wardrobe tip to the wise: the shorts were a bad idea as I learned the next morning when dozens of no-see-um bites erupted in M&M-sized blisters on my legs and ankles. For several days thereafter my legs looked like they'd taken a load of buckshot. So pretty.

The Chugs

Periodically, Cuban refugees attempt the dangerous crossing to the U.S. The Coast Guard enforces the government's "wet foot / dry foot" policy: if non-citizens are found at sea they must return to Cuba; if they've made it ashore they can stay.

Those bare facts do not really illustrate the desperate measures that people have been willing to undertake to reach U.S. shores, including braving the Straits in un-seaworthy craft.

For our edification, the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanic Garden had a special display, the Cuban "Chugs" exhibit.

Most Florida Keys residents are familiar with harrowing stories of survival across the oft-treacherous Florida Straits. Some know the faces behind those stories, and the turmoil of loss and risk that lies within the 90 miles that separate the Keys from Cuba.

But fewer people have glimpsed the handmade vessels built to carry Cuban migrants to democracy on American shores. Often these primitive vessels, called "chugs," are abandoned offshore, destroyed by the U.S. Coast Guard for navigational safety reasons or left on remote beaches after landing. The Marquesa Keys, about 22 miles west of Key West, harbor such remote beaches. It was there, in December 2005, that Key West resident Dink Bruce happened upon 14 migrants and their handmade vessel...

Several times while monitoring VHF 16 en route, Rick and I have listened to boaters report sightings or rescues of refugees in the Straits or the Marquesas. We always get caught up in the exchanges we hear, adding our hopes and prayers to an ongoing rescue. We wondered whether we had heard Mr. Bruce's call to the Coast Guard for assistance in 2005?

...That day launched a photographic and historical journey for Bruce, who began documenting the handmade vessels that, at one point, were scattered along the pristine beaches of the Marquesas...

Some were tucked into the mangroves, while others lay on their side on the sand, spilling out their left-behind contents of clothing, dehydration medicine and water bottles. They were powered by old Mercury outboards, lawn mower engines and other creative methods...

Yeesh. Eventually the boats were brought to Key West and are now on display at the Botanic Gardens (along with Bruce's many photographs and a video featuring immigrants). These are home-made jobs: several of the boats were constructed of tarps or plastic bags attached to a bent-rebar frame and filled with expanding foam for flotation (above left). Some had plastic pipes filled with foam strapped alongside, above right. Some had home-made carved wood oars.

One can read all the news blurbs one can find about Castro and the U.S. policy toward Cuba, but seeing these rickety creations first-hand, knowing that they had to be fabricated and launched in secret, really drives home the desperation of the people willing to take such a chance. And it gave us a visceral appreciation for the freedom we have, that we often take for granted.

"The incredible crossings of the Florida Straits in small, open vessels testify to the ingenuity and determination of current-day Cubans willing to risk everything to live in a new land," Bruce said. "My biggest question is where all the aluminum and other materials are coming from in Cuba."

My biggest question is, what next? Key West seems to be gearing up for the inevitable opening of U.S. relations with Cuba, going so far as to propose developments of new marinas to satisfy the anticipated rush to Havana. We'll be there.

Last Days

We had dinner with Wyoming friends Joe and Susan Moore. It was an excellent evening of interesting conversation, at a good restaurant that Rick and I had not patronized previously. After dinner we all mosied through the lovely Truman Annex to another harbor-side place for Key Lime Pie - our first of the season! - and on the way we saw a 180' sailing yacht that Joe and Susan had told us about. Later they came to the dock and we exchanged books, which is our way of increasing the odds that we'll get together this summer for the book return.

Brad "Are-You-Taking-My-Picture?" Stambaugh of Dive In Again, left, cleaned Sea Gator's hull and prop free of new barnacles so we should skim right along. He told us that the nick on the prop we'd been informed of previously was in fact also a slightly bent blade. Brad is equipped to handle the prop exchange underwater, but after much discussion the three of us agreed it would be OK to leave well enough alone for now. Rick will attend to it after Sea Gator is hauled and dry.

I did four loads of laundry and perversely (although predictably) the dryer stopped ten minutes shy of dry on the last load. Ordinarily you can't put clothes away wet here like you can in the arid west, but at this point I was willing to chance it.

We bought groceries and prepped our abandon-ship supplies. Rick pumped out our holding tank and filled our water tanks, and we all generally battened down. Feeling slightly foolish now, knowing from our visit to the Cuban "Chugs" exhibit that entire families undertake a much more dangerous passage without all the luxury and safety measures, but we do have the welfare of innocent Goldie to consider, so we left no stone unturned.

One last time I visited a group of good folks to discuss common problems and common solutions. When I gave them my thanks and goodbys I felt as bereft as I did when Vesta and Ann dropped me off at the curb the last time. These are good people we've come to know and love.

Northbound - Key West to Estero Bay

We have been SO lucky with our overnight crossings, knock on varnished teak, but there's no reason to push our luck. So we decided that, instead of cruising from Key West to Estero Bay overnight in 21 hours straight, we would take it in three easier hops.

Friday, May 1st. At first light, one-two-three boats peeled off from "D" Dock in turn, and Sea Gator followed sailboats Windfall and Das Boot out to the Northwest Channel. On the way we saw Vandenberg from the water, and we watched an enormous cruise ship edging toward its pier at Mallory Square.

When we came into the open Gulf we set our course northeast. It would be 11 hours (and 66 nautical miles) to the Little Shark River and as soon as we left the channel we encountered the expected head winds directly on our bow. We experienced 3' to 5' seas, which doesn't sound like much until you imagine driving your car up a series (66 miles) of angled 4' ramps one after the other, and then crashing down the backside. We were grateful for Sea Gator's high freeboard but even so we took spray at the upper helm station. I crawled on hands and knees when I had to go below. It was much less uncomfortable than beam seas for Rick and for me, but Goldie hated it.

We kept looking back over our shoulder to confirm that the cruise ship at Mallory was visible for hours, long after all land had disappeared below the horizon.

The waves flattened out as we came into the lee of the mainland so our last 90 minutes were relatively easy. The sailboat convoy preceeded us into the Little Shark River anchorage.

We decided to continue northward to the adjacent Ponce de Leon Bay, where we dropped the hook offshore but in the lee of the mainland, and settled in for a serene and beautiful night within sight of a spectacular sunset over the open Gulf, left. It was the complete opposite of the noisy nights at Key West Bight marina!

Saturday's cruise of seven hours was nearly glassy calm. It was wonderful and relaxing after the previous day as we cruised past the scenic Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands. Sea Gator was riding so smoothly that a little bird blundered in to rest with us for several hours - where did he come from? We rolled him some sunflower seeds which he declined and some water which he sipped.

He finally fluttered off when we neared land at the Pass and we were sorry to see him go. We came through Coon Key Pass at high tide and set the hook with the entire Tripod Key anchorage to ourselves.

Sunday dawned clear and beautiful, and our first hour brought us up the Marco River, which is one of my favorite passages. We emerged into the Gulf again at Capri Pass near Marco and immediately got slammed with beam seas blasting up from the south. Rick headed us north and Sea Gator rode following seas for the next five and a half hours. Here is a south-bound trawler taking the waves.

Finally we pulled into Estero Bay just behind Das Boot and about six other boats all at once - what a bottleneck - and a jackass in a fast boat blasting through all the incoming traffic at full throttle. Rick did a great job. I didn't: it took numerous attempts before I could successfully bring a mooring tether on board, which is unusual, but oh well. We tied up and breathed a sigh of relief.

Bless their hearts, Das Boot dinghied over to fill us in on the status of their cruising companions (we'd been following their mechanical difficulties on the VHF) and to see whether we wanted a lift to shore to register so we wouldn't have to mess with Bump Head. We declined with sincere thanks, and after a nice rest and some nurturing of Goldie we launched the Bumpster and motored in.

We walked over to the beach and our rolling stomaches could not look at the waves for long, even though there was an interesting TowBoatUS rescue happening right there in the surf where a day-boat had turned beam-to and floundered. We had had our fill of drama so instead we had an early and pleasant dinner and returned home, where Rick was sound asleep by 8:30.

Monday we motored in for breakfast with a view of the beach - and it was calm and placid out there again! The rest of the day was Work and work, and Rick accomplished an on-line demo with a potential client, and we had dinner, and we were restless to continue north.

Cayo Costa to La Marina

We enjoyed our last few days on the water at Cayo Costa, Working and socializing with Don and Pam of Gallivant. As mediocre hosts we entertained them aboard Sea Gator with the dregs of our provisions.

One day we all rode Fancy Dinghy to the restaurant at Cabbage Key and after lunch we managed enough energy for a climb up their water tower, right. That and an easy stroll to the hidden beach that afternoon made our day. Thanks Don and Pam, see you next year!

The morning before our departure we went for a hike up the island and down the beach side, left, and spent the day Working and prepping for our departure. That evening we returned to the island to stroll the beach at low tide, below right, where there were lots of stranded sea urchins and I rescued as many as I could while Rick swam in the warm waters.

We departed Pelican Bay on Friday, May 7, and motored east across the harbor to Burnt Store Marina.

There to our delight we picked up Lu and her girlhood friend Claire, below left. What a treat is was to see them coming toward us down the dock! We lunched on the sundeck as Rick and I alternated pilot-duty during the easy and calm northward leg up the harbor, then we all clustered at the upper helm station to enjoy the scenery of the canals for the last hour.

We arrived safely at La Marina and began the rote process of off-loading and cleaning and waxing. By Monday we were ready for Sea Gator's haul-out at All American Boat Storage, and our last cruise up the South Gulf Cove canal and landing at All American was relatively uneventful.

Thanks to Brad, Sea Gator's hull was clean and in good shape. Al of Albacore Marine Service happened along and he and Rick pulled and replaced Sea Gator's prop - the bent prop will be reconditioned and stowed for a spare. We waxed and cleaned and Rick treated all necessary engine parts appropriately, and we put everything up in the air for maximum air circulation and locked up.

This represents a record: one week to put up the boat and the house. It was pretty easy since there were no really big jobs to tackle.

While we were occupied with that, Lu, Claire and Goldie had some excitement one day as a thunderstorm blasted out of nowhere and the wind drove water into the lanai so violently and suddenly that the three had to run for cover and barricade themselves in the bathroom. But everything eventually dried with no problems and the ladies made it to the airport for their flight home in good time.

Goldie had her pre-flight vet check and we closed the house and got ourselves to the airport with no problems. And home after a long day but no problems.

Back in the Saddle

Safe and sound. It's beautiful here and we're happy to be home. We carried our laptops with us, of course, so got back to Work right away. The snow is all melted around the house so we've also been working in the yard and getting some plants in. It's taking awhile to adjust to the very dry air but we'll manage.

Rick wasted no time, but busted out his bad boy telemark gear.

Several days after our return - on a bright beautiful morning following a hard freeze the previous night - he left the house (elevation 6,500) about 6:30 a.m. and drove to the trailhead up the nearby Cliff Creek. He strapped his metal-edged telemark skis to his backpack and hiked for an hour through trees and across patchy snow, but by 8:00 a.m. he had reached continuous snow and was "skinning" upwards on his skis. In the photo you can see that there is still plenty of snow in the high country! What a contrast to our beach-walking just over a week before.

And you can see his goal - it's the ridge on the skyline in the center of the photo, above right. The saddle is at elevation 10,000, and there he paused for a snack and a self-portrait, left.

Then he pointed 'em down.

"With the first turn it was like I'd never been off my skis. It was an awesome day, sweet run, perfect spring snow." Although he commented that he could tell that his legs are a few years older than they were the last time he had made that particular climb.

So he stopped once to rest his legs and take this photo of the valleys and peaks in the distance, below right. Our home is in the green valley at the base of the farthest row of peaks, just left of center. He still had a way to go to get home!

While Rick was communing with his wild side and enjoying the incredible blue sky and sunshine, I was basking under the buzzing fluorescent lights of a hotel conference room in Pocatello Idaho. The seminar I attended was enlightening and I'm very glad I went, but it had no snow nor sunshine.

Meanwhile, as for Goldie, she is such the seasoned traveler. She settled in right away and has been enjoying herself, circling the house and pouncing in the tall grass, and snoozing between my arms when I work at my computer.

Well. That's it for this season's Travelogues. Let us know what you are up to this summer! And thanks for listening.

Pat, Rick and Goldie

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