We left the Everglades to venture to the Florida Keys. Key West, the southernmost key, is located 90 miles from Miami, and 90 miles from Cuba. As with most Island Nations, this isolation has lead to unique culture and an isolationist attitude. Key West refers to itself as the Conch Republic, the name of the self proclaimed independent nation state from a brief succession from the United States in 1982. We started the drive, moving on the single highway through each island, some full of homes and businesses and some with nothing more than bushes stopping cars from driving straight into the ocean. We reached the 7 miles bridge, finished in 1982, and journeyed the lower keys.
Our first stop was in Bahia Honda, a state park with beautiful beaches that lay almost empty each time we visited. After enjoying some cloudy beach time we moved on, looking for a place to stay for the night. We had yet to secure a place to stay but began our drive into the Keys, figuring we could try to stealth camp after getting a feeling of the area. We have heard that it is hard to car camp in the keys and that the cops can be pretty vigilant about ensuring people are not sleeping in their cars.
After relaxing on the beach and dipping our heads underwater to catch sight of the puffer fish and jellies, we headed on south. Driving past The Good Food Conspiracy, we stopped, a place my aunt had worked 30 years before. Stepping inside to explore I told a woman at the counter that my Aunt Jane had once worked in this shop. She responded “Oh hi! I have a place for you to stay”. The woman was Bonnie, a friend of my aunts, and knowing we were coming, she had reached out to secure us a spot on The Long Hair Ranch. She wrote us directions and sent us on our way.
Located next the Key Deer Sanctuary on Big Pine Key, The Long Hair Ranch is canopied by mangrove trees. 30 years ago the land was cleared and the transient residents have lovingly planted trees, transported air plants and spanish moss, and curated careful roads and walking paths among the relatively new growth. A few regulars have lived on the ranch from 5-30 years and many have passed through for a few months each year, leaving as the oppressive heat seeps into the cool sanctuary. The main house, outdoor kitchen, shower, and bathroom are run on solar power and a back up generator and sinks and toilets fill with rain water. Over the years a peace walk has been cultivated, gentle reminders of mindfulness litter the trees and bushes, reminding visitors to find peace, and enjoy the silence. A fire pit and garden has been built outside of the shared outdoor kitchen. Residents bring a plethora of skills and each add their own footprint in the form of whatever they have to contribute. People are welcoming and kind, share stories, food, and company. Endangered Key Deer wander around the property, curious about what is happening on the property.
While the keys have changed a great deal since the 7 mile bridge was built in the 1980’s, it is still a unique vacation spot that feels removed from the worries and hustle of the mainland. Bahia Honda was rated one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Never crowded, the water slowly deepens, offering lots of room for wading. We rented a snorkel and explored the colonies of fish living near the rock jetties. We saw manatees playing in the inlets and accidently walked through a field of sand burrs. Most importantly, we applied lots of sunscreen and avoided sunburn. We followed out solo snorkeling expedition with a guided one on sombrero reef, off of marathon key. We donned our flippers and stepped off the boat, a few kicks later we could see the stark contrast between the living and dead coral. (names of fish) swam around us, jellies snuck up, caught in the flow of the tide, a school of fish surrounded us, swimming past my face, brushing against my arms and legs. This was unreal and I quickly learned how to laugh through my snorkel. I found my way back to the boat while Henry continued to swim and shortly after green sea turtles were spotted. They were feeding on a sea of jellies but Henry braved the storm and swam through to get a get view.
From the boat we spotted a family of dolphins, including a new,3 month old, baby. They came alongside the boat and swam hard to keep up as people whipped out their selfie sticks to get photos.
We visited the Wildlife refuge center and bird hospital. They had hundreds of birds in their care. Those that were native were released into nature, however, those that we not were nursed back to health and kept on the reserve. A scissored billed Ibis had been sent back to nature, but returned to the reserve to be fed, walking right up to Henry and nipping at him, expecting food. Gypsy chickens roam the island, living in parking lots, under bushes, and on the beach. The city gives out free traps to catch “nuisance”chickens who are then sent to farms off the islandsWhile in Key West we witnessed our first (and only) iguana fight in a tree, conch fritters, a man with a fake french accent who teaches cats to jump through hoops of fire, great cuban food and coffee, and many friendly island residents, people who were welcoming and happy to chat, share advice, and reminisce about growing up on the Island before the bridge was built. The keys served as the first of our tropical locals along our year long Honeymoon.
When our time came to leave the keys we took a long drive all the way to St. Augustine. Our 9+ hour drives are few and far between but occasionally they are necessary. St. Augstine is the first colony in the United States, founded by Spanish Colonialists in 1595. This city now offers gated historical amusement, and lots of pirate themed attractions. Its small downtown pedestrian walk is home to 2 “mancraft stores”, and lots of cheesy t-shirts shops with slogans like “I pooped today”. Our favorite part of town was located about 15 miles outside of the city at a Fort Matanzas state park. This park offers a free ferry to Fort Matanzas where you have a guided tour of the fort and can see up to 7 miles from the top lookout of the fort.
From St. Augustine we made our way back to Tallahasee to visit with family some more and then we headed to New Orleans for the Holidays (from which I have no photos!)