Before we left for the Keys, I sought the advice of people I knew had been down that way, as well as the wisdom of the Web. I quickly ascertained that the further one travels toward Mile Marker 0, the more “local color” we would be likely to encounter as far as bohemian eccentricities go, and the more the spirit of carnival would take over after dark.
So despite the tradition of watching the sun got down en masse on Key West and applauding the light show as it ended, we avoided the crowds at sunset, finding a quiet strip of beach with one or two other families and lots of crabs and seabirds among the rocks. (Click the photos for a better view.)
To save money, we spent our two nights in the Keys in a screen tent on the beach at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge at Mile Marker 33 ($180 a night for a motel versus $50 for a tent). The weather was pleasant enough when we arrived Tuesday night, and we set up the tent in sunshine with a cooling breeze coming off the channel. We checked the weather forecast, and tossed the rain fly in the corner.
We went to supper, and when we came back to the camp site to turn in for the night, the breeze has freshened to a steady wind, causing our dome tent (n) to lean away from the water in the fashion demonstrated below:
before dinner: n
after dinner: n
This tent, mind you, is more than 20 years old, with flexible, fiberglass poles that have split before in inclement weather and have been repaired. Yet it appeared to be holding its own, and we turned in to enjoy nature’s air conditioning and try to sleep. We lay on our cots looking through the screened portion of the dome roof at the moon and stars above. It was beautiful.
Sometime before midnight, the moon darkened behind the edge of advancing clouds. The neighbors, two sites down, had come back to their tents late and were joking and laughing. It was after “quiet time,” but the sounds were joyous, not overloud and not obscene, so I lay back and listened and smiled. Then the sound of wind changed, enough that Trevor sat up to look outside. I rose, too, to see a wall of cloud advancing across the channel and to smell rain in the air.
I checked the weather on my phone: 12 mph winds predicted, and a chance of rain. One of the neighbors had brought forth a guitar and had begun to sing. I lay back to listen.
Within about 15 minutes the wind freshened even more, pulling a stake near Emma’s cot, allowing the tent to flap noisily and rousing her. Tiny raindrops pattered against the seaward side of the tent. (Thankfully we had chosen to face the front toward the water, so the screen was on the lee of the tent, away from the wind.) I began to feel a light misting from the droplets hitting the door screen, so I zipped shut the window flap on the door. This, of course, caused the tent to catch still more wind, and I have no doubt that from the outside our tent looked like a comma, or a overfilled sail!
From the inside, we had the sensation of sailing the skies in a lightly built box kite. Nevertheless, there were no storms in sight and no perceptible danger aside from a tent collapse, so I lay down to try to sleep and urged the kids to do the same.
And we did. The wind and rain pelted the front of the tent, but never the screened-in back, and the poles bowed but did not break. Ultimately we drifted off, and the rain ceased, and the stars reappeared. In the hours before sunrise the breezes died almost completely, and we were introduced to no-see-ums. But that is another story.
We stayed at a fishing lodge, but due to time and money constraints, did not fish. We saw the endangered Key deer (a knee-high subspecies of whitetail for which Big Pine Key is famous), but did not pet them, although they were not shy. We visited Hemingway’s House and the Basilica of St. Mary, Star of the Sea. We saw the southernmost point marker (just 90 miles to Cuba), but did not wait in line for a photo. We ate great food and passed a brewery or two, but they did yet offer bottles, cans, or growlers, so we brought none back. We went on an Everglades boat tour, but not an airboat into the gator-filled grasslands. In short, we did what you do in south Florida and the Keys, but in our own way. More to come!