When these sails go up, mountains fade away. Stars come out, I’m finally free. It’s only the ocean and me – Jack Johnson
A stunted twenty miles. That’s the distance between Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. A thirty-five minute drive that captures the multifarious essence of the southern tip of Florida. Tourist attractions beckon with promises of wildlife and key lime shakes. Small towns offer up homemade pies and tacos, while sprawling shopping malls cling barnacle-like to freeway exits. Broad expanses of open sky meeting farmland, suddenly give way to block cement homes and children playing on thirsty lawns. It’s a dizzying array of people, cars, shops, traffic signals and blacktop. I made this trip three times. Always aware of the incongruence of where I’ve been, where I’m going and where I am.
Biscayne National Park sits in the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay south of Miami and marks the northernmost reaches of the Florida Keys. Covering over 172,000 acres, ninety-five percent of which is water, the park protects several distinct ecosystems. Shoreline mangrove swamp, coral limestone keys and the offshore Florida Reef – one of the largest coral reefs in the world. Shoreline swamps act as nurseries, teeming with small fish, mollusks and a variety of crustaceans. Bay waters are home to manatees, seagrass beds and several fish species. Coral keys are covered in tropical vegetation, including endangered cacti and palms, while their beaches provide nesting grounds for sea turtles. Over 200 species of fish, birds and whales call the offshore reefs home. A small number of American crocodiles and alligators also roam Biscayne, providing the park with a hint of unseen danger. And since that’s my middle name, well…
My first trip to the park was simply to get my bearings and see what Biscayne had to offer. Everything is online of course, but at a visitor’s center you can speak to a ranger or volunteer and get the real scoop. What are must do activities and why? What’s open and closed because of Irma? Here are the three things I was told I should do over the course of two days in Biscayne. Kayak along the shoreline mangroves. Walk the boardwalk and adjoining trail. Take a boat and explore Boca Chita Key. Thank you. Have a nice day. Good day sir. I said good day sir! (The last line was inserted for the benefit of every parent who had to watch Willie Wonka 83 times.)
I have a friend that loves to kayak. She has sent me several photos of her feet in a kayak to prove it. No photos of her actually in a kayak mind you – just her feet. Yes, I find it oddly suspicious as well. In any case, I have kayaked many times on the Great Lakes, but this would be a first in the Atlantic. Since I am traveling alone, the thought has occurred to me once or twice, what would happen if I get in trouble? What if the Canadian wolf in Pukaskwa National Park had paid me another visit? (Answer: I would have wrestled him to the ground and he would now be traveling with me as a pet.) What if the wind blew me over the edge at Meat Cove? (Answer: I miraculously would have managed to grab the only branch on the side of the cliff that would hold my weight.) What if I tripped walking into Walgreens? (Answer: I would have broken both hips and my left kneecap.) So on this occasion I wondered what would happen if by some odd occurrence I rolled the kayak and got stuck underwater? (Answer: I envisioned several chubby fish, bubbles frantically reaching for the surface as they gathered to push me upright. “On three…get over here groupers. Bob, get the groupers.”) As it turned out this was needless worry. My ride along the edge of the mangroves was in shallow water. I know this because after 45 minutes of gliding along the bay, my kayak jarringly hit bottom and stayed there. At this point I should have taken a photo of my feet. Instead I stepped out and awkwardly fell in the water. I’m fine.
Heading across SW 344 street, I found Sir Woody. He was standing beside the road in front of a large cast iron double smoker. I pulled over, walked up and asked him what he was cooking. “Ribs. But I’ve been doing turkeys all morning. You need a turkey for tomorrow?” No. I’m good. But I would love some ribs. “Whole slab?” No, just a sandwich. “Sandwich? I don’t make sandwiches. Where you from?” Michigan. “I’m Woody. Sir Woody to my friends.” I’m Smitty. How many turkeys have you smoked for Thanksgiving? “Oh, I got a trailer full. Come on in and take a look.” He turned and opened the door to a small trailer, with barely enough room for two people. But there was room for a chopping block stacked with ribs, a fridge and lots and lots of perfectly smoked turkeys. “I smoked all these for one guy. Come here every year and buys about twenty big birds for his employees. Pickin em up tomorrow.” Damn those look good Woody. “I been smokin meat for most my life. Here, try a piece of these ribs. Just cooked a while ago. You like barbecue sauce?” Before I could answer he picked up an old squeeze bottle and slathered the ribs. “I make this myself. Whatcha think?” I couldn’t speak. I had entered a state of nirvana and my tiny brain collapsed on itself. Somehow I managed to nod and wink without breaking down in tears of joy. Woody just laughed. A good genuine laugh. “Come on back outside and I’ll give you some right out the smoker.” Still speechless I followed – gnawing on a bone as if God had spoken directly to me and said this is your last meal on earth.
As we walked out of the trailer, a woman and two young girls came running up to Woody. “This is my daughter and her two girls. Just out of school for the day. Say hello to Smitty.” I shook the woman’s hand and asked the girls if they liked school. “Yes” they said in unison. That’s good. Stay in school. “Oh, they staying in school” said Woody. “No other way to go. Right girls?” “Right Grandpa.” Well you girls be good. It was nice meeting you ma’am. Woody, I can’t thank you enough for the tour and the ribs. “Sir Woody. My pleasure Smitty.” As I drove away I knew I had just met a man content with life. Sir Woody. If I ever figure it out – I’m closer today than I was yesterday – I’m going to start calling myself Sir Smitty.
During the 1950’s, as Americans prospered and Florida became a popular destination, more and more northern ‘snowbirds’ flocked to the calm waters of Biscayne. They found tranquil waters, unsoiled by the progress of man. In the 1960’s Biscayne was given a death sentence as developers, kings of discovering the unspoiled, submitted plans to build condominiums and resorts along the bay. The proposal called for the dredging of a 40-foot deep channel through the bay’s clear, shallow waters. Blueprints for Dade County’s ‘New Frontier” included the City of Islandia and Seadade, a major industrial seaport. It was then that a few locals who understood relatively new concepts like ecology and environmental preservation, got involved. And for a while it was ugly.
According to the official Biscayne website, “Lloyd Miller, president of the local Izaak Walton League, said that the opposition poisoned his dog and tried to get him fired from his job because of his support for the park idea.” Herbert Hoover, Jr., the vacuum cleaner magnate, brought officials from Washington down to the bay and gave them blimp rides to help them visualize what was at stake. Not to be outdone, developers on Elliot Key, built a seven mile long, six lanes wide strip down the middle of the key, which is still referred to as “spite highway.” To our good fortune, Congress sided with the conservationists, siting “a rare combination of terrestrial, marine and amphibious life in a tropical setting of great natural beauty.” President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill on October 18, 1968, creating Biscayne National Monument. Completely out of character, Mr. Hoover gave him a free vacuum.
Twenty five people board the boat for a 45 minute ride across the bay to Boca Chita Key, the northernmost key in the park. I am the last to board and find myself sitting next to the pilot, a woman who has clearly seen the sun on most days. She is weathered, but gracefully so. She is also cheery, a personality type that I struggle with. What do they know that I don’t? Or what don’t they know that I do? In any case, the cheeriness never wears off on me. Not that I’m drab mind you. I dare say most people find me pleasant. Like the guy who sells you a burial plot.
As we slowly glide out into the shimmering turquoise channel, our guide – who is considerably less cheery – begins to tell us about the vast diversity of wildlife in the bay. Over the drone of twin engines, I hear “yellow snapper, Nassau grouper, queen angelfish.” Something about “soft coral.” I am in the wrong seat. “Brown pelicans, pie-billed grebe” (did I hear that right?), “Audubon’s Shearwater and buffleheads” (now I think he’s just messing with us). “To the right is Elliott Key, the largest key in Biscayne National Park.” We have powered back the engines and are now drifting along the mangrove riddled shoreline. “Black mangroves reside in mostly salty, silty, saturated soils found along the tidal shoreline. It prefers higher and dryer soils than the red mangrove. White mangroves can be found inland.” As we gather speed and return to deeper, darker blue waters, I’m still wondering if a bufflehead is a real bird.
While docking, our guide launches into a brief history of the man who built a home and lighthouse on the key. In the 1930’s, Mark Honeywell, founder of Honeywell Corporation, purchased Boca Chita and built several stone structures, including a home and lighthouse. As if buying a key wasn’t extravagant enough, Mr. Honeywell also decided to build his lighthouse on the bay side of the key so that his friends in Miami could see the beacon and know when he and his wife were in residence. Naturally the Coast Guard objected to a lighthouse that would guide ships from the Atlantic into the reef and Mr. Honeywell was not allowed to ever turn it on. This did nothing to deter Carl Fisher, a wealthy entrepreneur, from sailing over to any of several soirees, along with his famous pet elephant, Rosy. The same Rosy who later gained fame for serving as President Herbert Hoover’s golf caddy when he came to Miami. My uncle claims knew the guy that followed the elephant.
As fate would have it, in 1939 Mr. Honeywell’s wife tragically died in what was officially listed as a boating accident. At the time rumors flew that she was pushed overboard by her husband. Regardless of the truth, Mr. Honeywell sold the island claiming that without his true love, the island became a painful reminder of what he had lost. I want to believe it was an accident. Because I believe that true love lost is far worse than never knowing what true love is. For only after knowing the joy of true love – deep, honest, unyeilding, embracing, unconditional, physical gut-punching love – can you experience its bottomless chasm of loss. I would have given it away.
Heading away from the dock, a short trail loops past the old stone ruins of Mr. Honeywell’s dream and into thick vegetation. Two boats lie broken, at rest in the sun. Breaks in the foliage give small glimpses of the bay and the cloud covered waters of ever changing color. As you come to the end of the trail, a small sandy beach lies directly ahead. Standing at the water’s edge, looking out at lonely mangrove stands dotting the sand, I am the only person on earth. I am the only man standing in these waters, eyes fixed on the blue-green stripes of the ocean. I am the only one seeing the African born waves, finding the shore before retreating back to sea. I turn to see if anyone is nearby. I reach for the hand I long to hold and tell myself I am not alone.