I let out a small sigh as Key West receded in my rearview mirror. I enjoyed my time delving into island life, but it felt like my visit was forty years too late. Though the historic buildings are unchanged, they seem diminished in the shadows of the massive cruise ships. Though the locals are still laid-back, they are incessantly jostled by the throngs of tourists. Is it possible to be nostalgic for something I’ve only read about?
The balmy weather soon brightened my outlook. How could I be surrounded by aquamarine water and swaying palm trees and not be in a good mood? Reaching Big Pine Key I turned off to explore the National Key Deer Refuge. Established in 1957, it is one of the smaller properties in the National Wildlife Refuge system. Perhaps that is fitting since it was set aside to protect the smallest deer in North America.
The Key Deer is a subspecies of White-tailed Deer that is found only in the Florida Keys. These deer are the size of a large dog, with males topping the scale at a whopping 75 pounds. As with other species that evolve on small islands, the Key Deer shrunk in size, a process known as insular dwarfism. Another example is the Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth, which once lived off the California coast.
As I roamed the trails I was struck by the similarities of the habitat with the Sonoran Desert one where I grew up. The plants were spaced out; there was very little overlapping vegetation; and some had thorns (or other protective mechanisms, like poisonous sap). In both places, limited fresh water was the responsible mechanism. Comparing the numbers it doesn’t seem possible. After all the Sonoran Desert around Tucson averages twelve inches of rain a year, while the Keys receive over three times that amount. The difference is that the Keys are comprised of fossilized coral reefs where there is very little substrate to retain the rainwater.
It was after noon and I relegated myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing one of the refuge’s namesake animals. Determined to photograph a roadside sign before I left, I drove down a side street behind the Visitor Center. Where, lucky me, I was able to watch one of the diminutive creatures from my car.
After snapping some photos I continued north a few miles to Bahia Honda State Park. The park encompasses the spit at the southern end of Bahia Honda Key and provides excellent views of Hwy 1 as it swoops over Florida Bay as well as foot-access to a portion of the historic Florida Overseas Railroad bridge. I spent the afternoon meandering the white, sandy beach; collecting tiny shells, admiring the translucent claws of Ghost Crabs protruding from their burrows, and watching the water change color as clouds shifted beams of light across the surface. What a picturesque spot to spend the day!
I tore myself away in the late afternoon, continuing north to Islamorada, my home base for the next couple nights. The small town is the polar opposite of Key West. Quaint lodgings hailing from decades past are scattered along the highway in place of new, splashy resorts; hard-working fishing vessels ply the water in lieu of monstrous cruise ships; and sunset celebrations are the highlight of the evening with the party wrapping up by 10pm instead of just getting started. I felt instantly at ease there; it was much more my style.
Everywhere, piles of debris and other visible damage remained from Hurricane Irma which stormed through in September 2017. Islamorada is nothing if not resilient. The town was obliterated by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. People, houses, shops, boats, and even the railroad tracks were torn from the island and scattered over a 40-mile radius by the massive cyclone.
Over 700 people died as a result, many of them WWI veterans who were in the Keys working on the Overseas Highway (a Depression-era program similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps). The rescue and recovery effort was chaotic and poorly organized. Anyone with a working boat volunteered, including Ernest Hemingway. By the third day, the Florida Health Department issued an order to cremate all bodies where they were found after attempting to identify and document them.
Henry Flagler’s precious Florida Overseas Railroad, that connected the Keys to the mainland, was never rebuilt. His $50 million investment, that took seven years to complete, operated for a mere 23 years before being literally blown out of the water. I learned more about Flagler while touring the new Keys History & Discovery Museum.
Flagler, and his business partner John D. Rockefeller, co-founded Standard Oil in 1870. Ruthless in stamping out competitors (earning them the moniker, robber barons), SO quickly expanded into a multinational corporation. Their manipulation of the market and questionable business practices ultimately led to the company’s demise. In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration initiated a case against Standard Oil under the Sherman Antitrust Act. It culminated in 1911 with a breakup of the company after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was an illegal monopoly. To say Flagler was no fan of Roosevelt’s is an understatement. When told Roosevelt was going on safari, Flagler replied, “I wish the African lions good hunting.”
My last afternoon in the Keys I stopped at Robbie’s, a little marina that has grown into a popular roadside attraction by feeding tarpon. While leading fishing trips is still a part of the business, the spot has morphed into a local artisan market, restaurant, and bar. The main draw are the showy, jumping fish that tourists can feed for couple dollars. I’m glad I stopped to check it out since I finally saw my first manatee!
While the crowd was occupied on the pier I wandered over to the small dock nearby. As I stood there marveling at the hubbub across the way, a large slow-moving blob surfaced in the water. Nostrils poked out for a moment before descending below. I was thrilled! The next time it came up for air, the manatee had a dead fish in its mouth. I watched for the next half hour as my sea cow slowly gummed the flesh off the fish (the herbivorous manatees only have molars). Once again proving that no animal in nature will turn down free nutrients!
Christmas Eve was my last night in Florida and I spent it in Miami’s Little Havana. I was treated to the Cuban celebration of Noche Buena with loud music, laughter, and the smell of roasted pork wafting through the neighborhood. The evening ended with fireworks. It was a cultural experience I wasn’t expecting but what a festive way to wrap up my trip to Southern Florida!