February 3, 2018

Florida Keys

by Rosemary

The Florida Keys are a string of small islands extending south and west from the southern end of Florida. A little over 100 years ago, the keys were connected by the construction of the Overseas Railroad. Once hailed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World", much of the railroad was heavily damaged or destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The surviving infrastructure was used to build the Overseas Highway, which is the only road in, out, and through the Keys. Many of the original bridges were eventually replaced; the old remaining bridges are now pedestrian paths called the Overseas Heritage Trail. However, in 2017, Hurricane Irma severely damaged many of these bridges, so most of the pedestrian paths were closed when we were there.

The Overseas Highway is U.S. Route 1. It begins or ends in Key West, depending on which side of the street you're standing on. Everything in the Keys is measured from this point. Locations are described as mile-marker-something or just mile-something. The drive from the mainland to the end of the road is about 113 miles, and crosses 42 bridges. The Atlantic Ocean is on one side, the Gulf of Mexico on the other. Key West marks the southernmost point in the continental U.S.

Steve poses with the southernmost marker, just 90 miles from Cuba.

Businesses in the neighborhood are all proud of being the southernmost this or that, to an extent that begins to seem a little silly after a while.

The Southernmost House is a former mansion that is now a pricey bed and breakfast.

Anything that can't quite manage to be the southernmost something is probably the oldest or the first.

If all else fails, name it after Hemingway.

In the 1940s and 50s, President Harry S. Truman spent part of his winters in an old Key West house that came to be known as "The Little White House." It is now a museum.

Truman and other people who were influential in Key West are honored in the Key West Memorial Sculpture Garden in Mallory Square.

Then there is a 25-foot-tall sculpture based on the famous photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square at the end of World War II. This really has nothing to do with anything here, but it was installed (temporarily, it seems) as part of the activities surrounding the centennial anniversary of Naval Air Station Key West.

We enjoyed Key West, but we didn't stay there. Our hotel was near Mile 54, in the city of Marathon, roughly the halfway point between Key West and the mainland. We got to know Highway 1 pretty well, since it is the only way to get anywhere in the Keys.

Seven Mile Bridge is the longest bridge in Florida. We crossed it a few times.

Enjoying the sunshine and the breeze.

It had been only three months since the hurricane devastated this part of the country. Clearly, a tremendous amount of recovery had already happened, but there was much more to be done. All up and down the highway, we saw tons of debris that had been piled there for sorting and disposal.

In addition to random household trash, appliances, furniture, and unidentifiable mush, we often saw piles of uprooted trees, chunks of concrete and other building materials, broken boats, and smashed mobile homes. The deadline for dumping debris on Highway 1 had passed, and big warning signs were posted.

Several of the beaches, parks, and other points of interest we might have enjoyed visiting were closed because of hurricane damage. Nevertheless, it seemed that most of the hotels, resorts, and restaurants were back in business. The restaurant behind our hotel, which was closed when we arrived, re-opened while we were there.

A pedestrian bridge damaged by Irma.

One of the places we were able to visit was the Turtle Hospital. This non-profit organization is dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating injured and sick sea turtles. Whenever possible, the turtles are released into the wild. If they cannot be released, they receive lifelong care.

Here is a short video showing some of the turtles swimming in their tank.

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We visited Crane Point, a nature center that is not, unfortunately, named after birds that might be seen there, but after the Crane family, who originally owned the property and planned it as a conservation area. It includes trails through swampy and jungle-like areas, views of Florida Bay, a butterfly meadow (no butterflies when we were there), and a rehabilitation center for wild birds.

A pond in the forest.

Red mangroves

Iguanas are an invasive species in Florida

It's a good thing we aren't afraid of spiders, because they were everywhere. This looks like a cellar spider. We also saw golden orbs and many others we could not identify.

We were eager to see Key Deer, an endangered species that lives only in the Florida Keys. They are the smallest deer in North America. Adult males weigh up to 75 pounds and may reach 30 inches high at the shoulder. Females are smaller. At one time, there were only about 50 individuals left, but conservation efforts have brought their numbers up to around 1000. Unfortunately, many of them are killed by cars.

Our first stop in the National Key Deer Refuge was a pond called Blue Hole, where we didn't see any deer, but did spot an alligator.

It was on No Name Key that we saw many deer, sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups, on or near the road. They were not shy, and seemed happy to stand still and pose for our cameras.

I especially liked this little buck, who gazed at me very calmly from across the road.

All in all, we had a pleasant, relaxing week in the Keys. We didn't realize it when we left, but this would be the last warm place we would stay for quite a while.

Note: We were here for New Year's Eve.

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