Sunday, December 26, 1999

Florida 1999 - Underwater at the Fort

   One problem that I kept running into is that seeing all this beautiful stuff underwater made me smile. This is not a good thing to do underwater because it breaks the seal on the mask and lets water in. I just got into the habit of clearing my mask of water every time I turned my head. The worst part about this was that I had gone to a lot of trouble to find a mask that fit my face perfectly. Another problem that I had was my mustache that grew qhile there; try as I might, it did let water in. The second day that we were there, like the ranger said, the wind did kick up, and while it did turn the water from a sky blue to emerald green it didn’t do to good for the air temperature or water visibility. This did not deter us from snorkeling. As soon as you got used to the water it felt warmer to be in the water then out of it. The only problem is that none of us had prepared for ANY cold weather. D. did not even bring pants. The reason for this is because the whole time we were in Key West we were sweltering, jumping in the water just for relief from the humidity. I do not recommend taking kayaks out to the islands. There are other islands close by but they are so close by (30-40 feet) that we swam to them. The other islands were to far away because of distance and a current between them. So for most of the time our kayaks just sat in the beach. An interesting thing to do at the fort was just to walk around the moat. The inside is very shallow and has a lot of plants to look at.

Saturday, December 25, 1999

Florida 1999 - Fort

   The boat ride there I thought was cool. It was raining on the way out and the boat was hitting a lot of waves giving for a fun ride. L. and C. did not agree. L. took some Dramamine and quickly fell into a drug-induced sleep. The ship was a huge catamaran (2 pontoons slice through the water to give a smoother ride instead of the normal v-hull.) The boat ride lasts for 2 hours, (70 miles). They serve breakfast on the way out and lunch on the island. When we arrived we sent up camp and decided that we had plenty of time to explore the fort later. So we went snorkeling around the moat wall. I was amazed at how much coral had grown in the couple of hundred years the fort was here. It seemed to me that this could not possibly follow the story from the park rangers that it took hundreds of years for coral to grow an inch. There were thousands of fish. Even when standing on the dock just looking down I could see hundreds. We were having such a fun time snorkeling around the moat wall that we forgot to bring our underwater cameras. When we got out of the water we realized what a bad idea this was. One of the rangers said that they were expecting a cold front to bring wind through the area, and that meant the sand around the coral would get stirred up, making for less then perfect pictures. So let me apologize in advance for the picture quality that is seen here can not possibly show the rainbow of colors that I saw.

    When I awoke I found out that they had traded a cup of alcohol for a grocery bag of freshly caught jumbo shrimp. Apparently the fishermen had a hangover and to get rid of and was willing to part with part of her catch. We boiled the shrimp and stuffed ourselves silly until we were all groaning that we could not eat anymore. D. and I went hunting for coconuts to help wash it down.

    I had never seen a coconut with its shell still intact, much less hacked one apart. It was easier then I thought it would be, but then D. had also brought a sharp machete. We were told that the coconuts were good to drink if picked from a tree, and they were. It tasted like sweet water, but did not have any meat in them. We also found one that had fallen to the ground, which means they have meat but the milk is usually gone bitter by then. I think L. said it best when trying the fresh coconut. "This does not taste like coconut", and it does not. It is juicy and not as sweet as when bought already processed.

    For Christmas Eve the forest rangers offer a little thing where everyone is invited into the fort's church to sing Christmas carols by candlelight. That was very cool and VERY different. They provided cookies and cake and we all sat around and sang. Since there was the north wind a lot of sailing ships had stopped here in their way to Cuba because the port there was supposedly impossible to get through with a north wind. None of them were too much into the singing that night but all of them that we talked to had plenty of interesting stories to tell. After the singing we snuck up to the top of the fort and looked up at the stars. With the nearest city lights 70 miles away, I saw as many stars as could rival any night I've spent in the desert. Since normally no one beside the rangers are allowed in the fort at night we snuck back down and no one was the wiser.

    For Christmas day we went snorkeling and kayaking. L. and I had stocked up on dry foods while D. and C. had brought all MRE's (Military rations- Meals Ready to Eat.) I think that they had made the wiser decision, but for our Christmas dinner L. and I had fettuccini and Cheesecake. (Yes it was interesting making the cheesecake.) Our original plans were to leave on the 30th back to Key west because apparently there was supposed to be a huge influx of campers that were expected to try to escape Y2K away from civilization. That date was moved up sooner to the 28th when L. and I realized that the bad weather had caused us to hang around our camp too much and eat all our rations. The tropical storm that hit that day, only lasting a half-hour but still soaking everything, convinced D. and C. that it was a good day to go too. The trip back was interesting because it was sunny enough to spend the whole trip on the deck. D. and I ran around the deck experiencing a walking on the moon effect every time the boat would dip beneath you in a wave for a split second of weightlessness. This of course was ended by one of the deck hands chewing us out for acting like little kids and running. Everyone on the boat filled out comment cards about the boat ride and L. was chosen for a free trip out there again, for which we received a coupon for another trip.
This is our campsite.
This gives an idea of how big the fort is.  It covers the entire island.
This shows how unsafe a lot of the fort was, there was nothing stopping you from a three story fall.  I liked that they had not tried to improve it.
This is the remains of the coaling dock that we snorkeled around.
L. showing how little time it takes to get drenched in a tropical storm.
My version of a "snowman" on christmas.  The only problem is that is 3 inches tall. (miracles of photography.)
L.'s christmas "snowman"
The people that took this picture thought our variety in hats was amusing.  Who needs TV's with sunsets like this.
Coral would wash up onto an adjacent island and it was simply a matter of hunting through it.
Since it was a state park, you were not supposed to take anything, so we rounded some up in a 10 minuet span and took pictures instead.

Monday, December 20, 1999

Florida 1999 - Key West

Key West is a very interesting island. It is bigger then I thought it would be, it has a Sears, Kmart, and other stores that you expect in a city. There were hundreds of hotels. The highest point on the island is 8 feet so riding bikes anywhere is easy. Most people rides bikes or scooters. Scooters outnumber cars 3 to 1. There are only 22,000 people that live on the island but there were at least that many tourist every day that we were there too. It is very easy to tell a local from a tourist. The locals are very friendly. Everyone that we talked to that lived there had just come down for a vacation and didn’t leave. Locals will always say good morning to you, it gets infectious after a while. If in doubt if someone was a local- say good morning/afternoon/evening- if they respond they are either a local or have traveled there enough times that they might as well be one. Now the reason why this works so well is the usual tourist that visits Key West. Yuppies in the worst way- This is a major port for cruise ships. I swear if I see anymore golf or sailing patterns on clothing I’m going to get sick. It spooked me out how all the women looked different in the same way- Hillary Clinton multiplied by thousands, then as they get older- Mrs. Howell- I swear they type casted her well for Gilligan’s island. As for the men, well the college guys all looked like clones of Rob Lowe that just received their Dad’s Lexus when he got a new one, and every single one of them had this aloof look in their eyes when looking at any local, or talking with a shop keeper.
The beaches are very nice, and interesting. The one that we stayed at the most, Higgs Beach, I found was known as bum beach because there was park across the street Bums would sleep in then tan all day at the beach. Now these people usually were not homeless in the sense of poor destitute people. They were in Key West by choice- great year round weather, and they all had an interesting story. It made it convenient for us since there was an outside shower, and bathrooms there. We used this beach for a testing place to kayak and snorkel. Just snorkeling around this beach I saw a lot of sponges, fish, and even a sting ray, this is in the place roped off for swimmers. I don’t think I will ever be able to walk in the ocean again without wondering what I am stepping on. Florida was always humid; everything was always damp. Hanging things out to dry after we went snorkeling would only get them to a damp state. Windows were always fogging up, and this was in the dry winter season.

While in Key West we slept in our cars at "House boat row". This was a stretch of highway that ran along the water that boats could pull up to for 90 days tax free. The only problem with these houses is that a hurricane would come through and sink the house. Since the water was very shallow (3 feet) people would still live in these half sunken houses because it is free to live there. These people were not poor because on two of the houses that were dipping into the water had satellite dishes. It was a good place to park because no one would bother you and it was OK to park all night. The only problem is that about after the fifth night there- sleeping in you car gets old, and for some reason we were eaten alive that night by "no-see-ums". These bugs are terrible, I’m not going to lie this was probably the worst part of the trip. Even when they were biting, I would look down and could not see what was biting me. After this happened we decided that we had spent enough time on Key west and decided to go see the coral at the state park Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortogus islands.
Mallory square and Duvall street are the two main touristy attractions.
The best way to get things off the top of the car was to use the back tire as a stepping stool.  This made for some very strange looks from people walking by.
Of course we all had to get our pictures at the southern most point of the US. (well except all those other islands, but we'll let Key West have it's one thing of fame.) The problem with this memorial is that it is in an interception in the road so tourists and traffic really had a problem of getting into each others way.

The Sunset festival
This is a Key West tradition that happens every night there is not a hurricane. At sunset street vendors and performers gather and celebrate the setting of the sun. Now this is not as good of a sunset as is seen from other islands because there is another island blocking the way, but hey it is an excuse to party. There was a man with a 15-foot unicycle, a tightrope walker, and escape artists chained upside down.

    D. was made symbol man in one of the shows. Wacking that thing any chance possible, being the only good part of this dog show.
    L. got pulled out of the crowd for this act. The man is jumping through a hoop that was touching both of his shoulders.
New Years Ev

    Now I must admit that being down in the Keys I didn’t want to get stranded there. So on New Years Eve I filled up the gas tank and gas can. (as well as a lot of other people there.) We still had tons of food left over that we had not taken with us to the fort, and lots of water that we did not use yet. We parked our cars and walked to the main drag- Duvall Street. We were headed for Sloppy Joe’s bar. This bar was the one started by Ernest Hemmingway and had a giant 6-foot conch shell dropping as compared to the ball in New York. We wondered around looking for an all you can eat seafood place that one of the beach bums had told us about.

   We found it and they had over inflated their prices like a lot of the other stores there, so we found a small Sushi house that was all you can eat. I had never had sushi before so this seemed like a good last meal of the century to have. This was the first time I had ever had caviar, conch, or eel. It all tasted okay, but I do not think I was convinced that the sushi fad was worth more then a one time experience. (I know there are plenty that have and will disagree with me.) By this time (10PM) the crowd turned into more of a concert style form. I had to push my way through the drunken people. Going to the bathroom became an hour ordeal. We had all brought our little radios that were meant for when we were kayaking but saved us many a time that night with how often we were separated. We settled on an alley out of the way of getting smashed by the crowd but where we could still see the conch shell. In front of us there was an old building where people were climbing up onto the roof. We were sure it was going to collapse but never did.

    Just watching the people around us was interesting. People would have to wade through the crowd to buy drinks. On their way out of the crowd they would have to hold them above their head usually spilling out half the contents from getting pushed around so much. I just found it amusing to look at the sea of statue of liberty like people holding the ever-precious beer. The clock struck midnight, the conch sell dropped, everyone cheered, and I kissed my wife and the firework show started. Now there was 2 firework shows going, one at each end of the island. We could see one but hear both so it made for quite a show. L. said it was the best display she had ever seen. On our way back there was a TV going at one of the open air bars there are so many of in Key West so we saw nothing was going wrong so we continued to walk. We passed a pay phone and called my Dad and L.'s Mom to tell them that the year 2000 was cool so far. I've always been on the West Coast so I've never been able to be the one calling someone being in the New Year before him or her. The only Y2K glitch we noticed was the next day when we had breakfast at Burger King and the receipt still said 12-31-99.

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

Florida 1999 - Traveling

The trip from California to key west is 2950 miles, or 47 hours of pure driving, which ever sounds worse to you. Because of this we decided to visit L.’s friend in Arizona. We left Phoenix at 3PM on Friday, and the car did not stop for more then a half hour until Sunday night at 10PM at which time we both flopped out of the car into the warm sand of Key West. While driving through Arizona and New Mexico we received some very strange looks for having the kayaks on top of the car. Some of the questions we received were: where are you planning on sailing those things, aren’t the rivers a little cold for that right now, so how do those two fit together into one boat, and my all time favorite- don’t you get bugs in your teeth when you ride them on the car like that? - Yes, she was serious.
Texas is a long state to drive through- it took us 12-13 hours to get through it. The west half of the state is very boring desert- luckily we passed that at night both ways to spare the boredom. Once you get to east Texas things get more interesting. There are hills- and deer. When driving through Texas I kept seeing deer crossing sign after deer crossing sign. Then I saw why there were dead deer all over the freeway. There must have been 11-12 an hour for the 3 hours I was driving at night. This spooked me out considerably as I did not want my vacation to end because of venison. I drove in the passing lane with my brights on as much as possible through the rest of the night. When sunrise did come I could see why. Over the next hour or so that I drove there were 18-19 deer just standing at the side of the freeway. The good part about Texas and the other southern states is that Gas is cheap- the cheapest on the trip was for $1.08. It was interesting that we only saw 2 Japanese car dealers in Texas and we could only find import vehicles with Texas plates in the major cities. Every second car was a full size truck. We really stuck out in our little purple Toyota with the kayaks on top.

Louisiana I found interesting. I liked the accent better there; it sounded more like a southern drawl instead of people just talking with something in their mouth. I also found the drivers to be more courteous. I knew that we were in the South for sure though when crossing over from Texas one of the first signs I saw was "Bridge may be cold in cold weather."- All other signs said, "Bridge may ice in cold weather" so I’m not sure where they went wrong with the fist sign. The Waffle Houses caught me off guard. If someone has never been to the south then they may never have heard of the restaurant chain. However in the south it is an integral part of the culture. There was one at EVERY freeway exit. It reminds me of Wawa’s in New Jersey, outside of New Jersey they don’t exist, but in the state they are every 2 miles on any road. These restaurants remind me of a cross between a little diner and an IHOP. My favorite there was the pecan waffle.
    Alabama and Mississippi went by during the night but still the whole time I was driving through Alabama I couldn’t get the song "Dueling banjos" out of my head. It was obvious when driving through a swamp because of the smell in these states, I guess people get used to it after a while. The drivers in these states seemed as if they were very offended if they were passed. They would speed up their car, pass, then return to their previous speed. It was very annoying when this happened time and again. To pass someone I would have to floor it and kept accelerating until at least a quarter mile in front.
    Once we did get into Florida, the drive seemed to go quicker just because most of it was behind us. The driving there was very interesting; the rule of the "right lane for passing only" is very strictly followed. Even when traffic was heavy, people would change over to the left lane when passing even if only for 2 seconds before passing the next car. On both sides there was jungle, complete with palm trees and vines, and they had just carved out areas for cities and the freeway. When I saw that all the houses had what looked like an extra one or two rooms added in the back yard just made from mosquito netting I was glad that we were there in the winter. Some houses just had mosquito-netting running from their roof to the fence. Driving through the keys was tedious after such a long drive because we were so close to where we wanted to be but the seep limit ranges from 40-55 the whole way to save the key deer. L. got a little spooked out when she saw an "Alligator X-ing" sign, but we never saw any live ones on the trip, although D. and C. saw plenty going through "gator highway". When we arrived in Key West we went to our rendezvous point with D. but since he was not there and they were setting up a carnival for Christmas we pulled our car in with all the carnival workers cars and went to sleep.