Sunday, January 13, 2019

To Walk, Perchance to Learn

Every now and then, you've got to stop sipping rum and tanning your legs on the deck and learn a little something.

That meant setting out on a 5+ mile walk south, my first attempt at heading toward Key West beyond a half mile stroll to the Midway Café, which didn't count. Once I discovered the Old Road - which was the main road before the Overseas Highway aka Route 1 took over as the main drag - it had become my go-to for walks.

But once I determined to head toward the equator, my plan was to give Route 1, with its wide bicycle/pedestrian walkways, a try. It worked out well because the strip between here and Indian Key Channel was so narrow that I had views of the Bay and ocean almost the entire walk and I thrive on water views.

It was also a good way to scope out oceanfront cottages (quaint places like the Pines and Palms), marinas with diners dating back to the Hemingway days (like Bud 'n Mary's, with a hand-painted sign out front pleading, "NOW Hiring!") and, a personal favorite, a small blue sign reading "Roadside table."

And because this is Florida, the roadside table was blue and purple and under a palm tree.

My walk took me as far as milepost 78.5 where a trio of historical markers rewarded my inner nerd. One was to the Cuban rafters who have died trying to reach these shores, one was to Ponce de Leon because he'd stopped there for well water (and, who, I learned, was governor of Puerto Rico and never actually looked for the fountain of youth, despite myths to the contrary) and one to the Spanish treasure fleet that got lost in a hurricane.

I may have been hot and sweaty by that point, but the history lesson made it all worthwhile.

More schooling followed late yesterday afternoon when Mr. Wright and I took a walk over to the Islander Resort which, for reasons I can't explain, is where the pastel blue Florida Keys History and Discovery Center is located.

Bypassing tanks of beautiful but voracious and predatory fish, I went straight for the exhibits detailing local history. I don't need no stinkin' science on vacation, just extra portions of history.

Like how Key largo only became the name after the Bogart movie. Before that, it was known as Rock Harbor, which doesn't sound nearly romantic enough to attract Bogie or Bacall.

Because the Over-Sea Railway is such a huge part of the history down here, I spent time ogling photos and artifacts from the days when the train was the only means beyond boating to access Key West.

Given my food fixation, perhaps most fascinating of all was a dining car menu from 1926-1930 that featured six kinds of marmalades. The breakfast menu was as notable for the prices as for the offerings. Sliced bananas in cream? Never heard of such a thing, but at 25 cents, worth a try.

An omelet with Florida grape fruit (apparently, it was always two words back in those days) marmalade would set you back 75 cents, while a Virginia corn muffin was only 15 cents.

You know what was a steal when you needed a hearty breakfast? Lamb chops at 55 cents a piece.

Eventually, we tore ourselves away from photos and stories to head upstairs to the theater to see moving pictures of the history we'd been seeing in stills.

A Chevrolet Leader newsreel showed the new train tracks to Key West, pointing out that automobiles could drive the route in between train trips, the tires absorbing the bumpy railroad ties. Considering the size of the cars in the '30s, it probably wasn't all that uncomfortable.

But the truly compelling film was the one about the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, which to this day is still the most intense storm to ever hit the U.S. with winds that reached 185 mph. Down here, it's legendary and we'd already been to the hurricane monument where the remains of over 300 are entombed, but I wanted to know more.

The film provided first hand accounts of the hurricane from seniors who'd been children when the storm hit. One, who admitted she'd always loved hurricanes before the Labor Day storm, felt differently after this one.

Hemingway - who loved Islamorada for its sport fishing - was quoted in the film as saying about this stretch of islands, "There is no autumn, just a more dangerous summer." He also came down after the storm to assist in any way he could. Many of the workers who'd been helping build the railway were, like him, World War I vets who'd been celebrating the Labor Day long weekend by getting drunk when the storm hit.

Many chose to cling to the railway bridges because they were 8" above sea level, although the storm surge was 17', leaving them 9' underwater. Footage of their dead, bloated bodies along the shore made for a solemn reminder that men who'd made it through "the war to end all wars" had been taken down by Mother Nature. Tragic.

The survivors spoke about how in those days, there was little to warn people of major storm beyond a falling barometer, which they lived by. All had memories of their clothing being stripped from their bodies by the ferocity of the storm.

Almost to a person, the survivors recalled what their fathers had said about the storm that day and afterward. Probably the most poignant was the man who, as a child, had asked his Dad what they were going to do after the devastation of the islands.

His father told him that their piece of land in the Keys was all they had, so even if all their possessions were gone, they were going to stay and rebuild because this was home. And, as of the time the film was made, they were all still here.

Walking out of the theater severely sobered by what we'd seen, it took a while to regain our emotional footing. This sunny place that we've been reveling in since last weekend is a testament to the strength of spirit of people who loved it long before we got here.

But never mind that. Now that I've fed my brain, we can go back to our debaucherous vacation lifestyle.

Can I get a Rumrunner over here?

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