As we drove south of Miami we passed the last turn offs to Everglades National Park and continued south. Eventually the road kept going but the land did not. The Over Seas Highway continues traveling 127 miles jumping from island to island or key to key via a series of very long bridges all the way to Key West. Instead of a landscape panorama we’d been watching through the windshield up to this point now it was all Ocean Blue. “Where are we?” “I want to live here!” Elias hollered out as we cruised along like a ship at sea.
The lower Keys are technically part of the Caribbean in several respects. The climate is considered tropical and is the only tropical climate in the contiguous United States. The history is well tied into that of the infamous pirates of the Caribbean which included Key West’s strategic location as an ideal staging ground for the US military to fight and eventually defeat piracy in the region. Then there are the people and pace of life which is totally Caribbean, meaning laid back and friendly.
We had reserved our camp 6 months ago which was for the next 7 days. It was located around mile marker 95 which is below the 25th Parralel on Bahai Honda key, a quiet and undeveloped State Park reached soon after the Seven Mile Bridge.
When we pulled into Bahia Honda State Park the gals working behind the check in desk were stoked to hear about our trip, very friendly. Our camping spot was just perfect on a very quiet lagoon with the back side of our camping spot tucked aside mangroves. The Mangrove forests that make up the bulk of the trees in The Keys actually extend throughout much of southern Florida’s coast and estuaries’ making up the most extensive Mangrove forest in the western hemisphere. During high tide at night, the sea came in just shy of camp surrounding the site by water on either side. There was definitely an organic sea grass odor that wafted in and out of the tent and our dreams. Even with the highs every day in the low 80s there were no mosquitoes.
We began each day sipping coffee and watching the many different types of shore birds on the Lagoon and in the Gulf but then spent most of the time on the beaches on the other side of the island in the Atlantic Ocean. We would home school, cook and eat dinner right there next to the beach as well. Lovely.
Through the entire week we made one trip to Key West for an evening of wacky sunset fun with Grammy and Michael (our Key guests for a few days) and a one day trip to Big Pine Key to see the tiny Key Deer species endemic to the area. Other than that we stayed very busy with an intentional meditation of soaking up the tropical sun during the last few nights of Hannukah… We called it “B’Chai Chanukah” on Bahia Key. Bathing suits were just about all we wore for the week…snorkling, throwing frisbee, swimming, home schooling , learning about the place and so on.
To the north the entire country was cold. We heard about snow in Asheville, we heard that it was even in the teens in Bellingham, which is rare. We heard that temperatures were getting well below zero in parts of the Rocky Mountains. Places through Montana and Wyoming where we began our trip were under a blanket of frigid air. The important thing is that we weren’t there. We were here where cold only existed in form of an evening beer and an afternoon ice cream. Not that I don’t like cold. I’ve made a career of being in the cold. But I seemed to have hit a threshold, perhaps it was last winter and I haven’t been able to warm up. It was not sudden though. It was year after year – there I am in the snow, in the winter, year round. Granted, there’s always the reward of cold smoke spraying my face, there’s the crystal sublime landscape that’s all mine, but there have been one too many arctic chills setting in further than my down clothing could protect. Too many hours, days trudging in white out, snow, rain, wind….lots and lots of wind. Not normal wind, wind that bites and doesn’t care. Then there’s the cold rain. The rain soaks in beyond my gortex jacket and this is my second jacket….the rain should only last for two more days; day after day of cold rain; drizzle; snow ; blizzard; My fingers are still numb, numb from cleaning out gear with cold, numb fingers that make me want to scream….and barf; But I can warm up. I am slowly warming. Here in the Keys the water and the air temperature are both in the 80s. The wind is warm and tropical and I am starting to thaw.
At the end of the week as we drove back towards Grammy’s house we were gritty from sand and browned from sun. The mood in the car was quiet and happy. It was a satisfied quiet that comes from days spent slowing down time. The evening sunsets with pelicans drifting by and the boys wrestling on the beach while we make dinner are forever imprinted on my mind.