If you follow the Florida Keys long enough, one comes to the terminal end of fabled Route 1 after passing the last few traffic lights of Key West, the most westerly of the keys connected to our mainland by a series of bridges that at times hover just above the ocean waters and during others passes an endless collection of typically Floridian roadside attractions.
This, however, is not the end of the keys. There exists a continuation of the coral shelf that created the series of islands as well as continues to exist, even if in a degraded state, out into the ocean for another seventy or more miles west. The last land is that of Garden Key, better known as one of the “Dry Tortugas.”
Today an enormous ruin of a fort sits on the majority of Garden Key known as Fort Jefferson. This enormous structure allows the casual visitor a destination of some merit. Today, other than merely going out into the ocean to see yet another collection of large birds, hardscrabble fauna, bleaching sun, pounding storms, and salt spray, one can wander the largest brick and mortar structure in the United States and enjoy vistas from atop the fort gun turrets or framed by the shadows of murder holes and battlements.
Fort Jefferson has a long history starting in 1824 and continuing on for the rest of the century. There were starts and stops to construction. Not all guns were put in place. Houses held within the walls rose up and were torn down. Suffice to say; the fort was never finished, never saw a battle, and is both a testament to governmental boondoggles as it is a feat of engineering and tribute to the manual labour humans of that older age were engaged in, willingly or not. It can certainly rival any castle of the Old World and I am surprised that this structure is not used in every pirate film, every historical drama, every lost in paradise potboiler whether in print or moving image. Perhaps because it is indeed a long way off the coast and is not particularly full of amenities as there is no food, water, or comforts of home unless you bring them in and of course, since this is a national park, bring them back out.
My discovery of the Dry Tortugas was perhaps the same avenue as so many of my other discoveries of the world, the pages of the old National Geographic Magazine. It is hard not to see this as a perfect place for those early photographers. Blue and green waters. Plentiful sea life. Birds galore, if one is into birds. The plant life is rather limited, but this is understandable since, dispite the storms and bluster of summer, there is scant rain. Some measurements publically available put it as thirty to forty inches a year which may seem comparable to states on the Atlantic side of our Nation. However, these rains come all of a sudden during the wet (summer) months, and there is no system for retention since sand does not hold water but allows it to seep below and become lost to the mighty ocean.
I bought my ticket for the ferry well ahead of time in order to assure myself a space on the vessel. I try to avoid places like the Florida Keys in the winter months, preferring the hot and wet months where I have many beaches to myself and the waters are a temperature more fitting to my apparently thin and warm blood. The ferry ride was over two hours. The day was a bright sunny day, as they are for much of the winter. The boat had a number of decks, and for much of the ride I either stared to the waters in order to see absolutely nothing, or read a book I had packed for the occasion in order to pass the time in some mental endeavour.
After those hours of open ocean, the collection of keys, bumps some just above the water, are quite distinct and the fortress comes into view as does the tower of a lighthouse on another key we were not to visit. The ship swings through the channel markers and docks in front of the brick edifice. We are briefed about this and that, perhaps stalling to allow the gift shop to open, and then set loose on the island admonished again not to fall from any height, step in a hole, or drown in the moat.
One of the keys is accessible by foot but can only provide a circumnavigation at the water line since the rest of the key is a bird sanctuary, and in what little space there is, this vital role must be preserved in order to ensure future generations their opportunity to push a species or two to extinction.
I wandered the bastions and cavernous halls of the fort. While I arrived with over a hundred souls, the crowd was easy to lose in a space of a few minutes. The dark corners gave way to bright light and views of the ocean. I took the stairs to the top of the fort and marveled at the enormous cannons. I also was still quite alone until a few younger people came by, each clutching a gallon of water as if they were about to be marooned and had to provision for a desperate escape. I chatted with some elderly folks as we watch a seaplane take off. Mostly, I kept to myself and enjoyed the breeze and watched the gigantic birds cruise by (frigatebirds).
After spending some hours (one has to be aware of the time since while relaxing there are but a few hours to spend on the island) exploring the structure, I took a walk about Long Key. I placed my belongings under a picnic table in order to shade my water bottle (that I did not drink) with my shoes (I had forgotten to pack non-work shoes) and walked the sandy beach. This was a pleasant stroll until I came to the tip of the key where there were collected shells that had been tossed up. I marveled at the number of conch shells, and indeed I had not been the first nor only person to make this traverse since dead trees were decorated with the shells as there was also the typical washed up rubble of modern life. My bare feet, formerly such a great idea, was not as smart a choice when faced with these sharp ouchy pointy bits. I was going to turn back but resolved to continue to return to the fort along a new pathway so as to see perhaps something new.
After my stroll about, I resolved to do some snorkeling. I had slogged through the water on Long Key, and it was not the warm waters I enjoy but cool and bracing. Having swum at various locations from Key Largo to Key West, I needed to push beyond the cool water and ensure I had “done all the keys” (that may not actually be an expression).
Donning my gear, I wadded into the water. Fish were everywhere. I needed not to go far from the shore, from the rotting sea wall of the fort in order to see thousands upon thousands of fish. Among these large schools were various other fish most notable the barracuda with their sharp teeth, most surprising the five or so tarpon that came by me as
I explored the ruins of the old steamship dock. I managed to be in the water for over an hour, removing myself only because I was turning a little bluish and was cramping in my legs. To warm up, I walked around the fort again in the sun and took a few more pictures, and just in time for me to dry off, I and the others on this tour had to return to the boat and return to Key West.
The boat again picked its way through the channel, and in time, the fort, the lighthouse, the outlying keys vanished to specks and then fell below the horizon as we returned to the vast featureless ocean. With the bar open, I sat on the deck looking to the waves and hoped again to return to the Dry Tortugas. Perhaps to again spend a day doing as close to nothing as one can. A single speck in a huge world.