Title blurb

"From one LIGHT come many colors." ~GJ Dürrschmidt

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Key West: The Path Less Traveled

While camping in Key West for the last two months, I've grown accustomed to going to sleep shortly after dark, and rising in the morning along with the sun. There's something so natural, so primal, about this simple routine: a sweet resonnance between the human biological clock and the rhythm of the universe.

One morning this week, right after the ritual of brewing coffee, my attention was turned for the first time to the deserted sand and coral stone road by my campsite that appeared to go nowhere. With coffee mug in one hand, and a walking stick in the other, I set out to further explore my surroundings.

The road soon narrowed and bent around to the right.

The sky was clear, and the morning sun brilliant ~ almost too bright for my cell phone camera. As I rounded the curve, there before me was a wall of tropical vegetation and what looked to be an old, somewhat overgrown path.

With senses heightened, I continued slowly and with caution. Believe it or not, even in paradise there are snakes. Fortunately, I spotted none along the way, but that doesn't mean they weren't watching me!

The ground felt soggy beneath my feet, and had a strong, earthy smell ~ much like fresh mulch. With each step, I checked the path and tree branches overhead for snakes, bofo frogs, and iguana. There was definitely an opening ahead.

Once back out in the bright light of day, I turned around and snapped a photo of the dark green tunnel from which I had just emerged. 

I was now standing on a very small, very rocky beach. To the left of me...

...and to the right...

Mangrove trees, like these here, are responsible for islands forming over time in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as along the Straights of Florida. The Mangroves send out multiple root shoots, and in no time form clusters of trees. The tree roots capture rocks and sand with the changing tides, eventually creating new islands.

Having discovered this charming little secret hideaway, I did the next very obvious thing: returned straightway with folding chairs...

...and a buddy!

NOTE: Buddy insisted on my deleting his pic, because he was self-concious about it revealing his bare chest with its flat boy titties, scant chest hairs, and girl-like biceps. Because I love him, I obligued, but not without this cartoon protest!

After all, what good is having a secret beach if no one else knows about it?

Come on in! The water's SO fine.

~GJ Duerrschmidt

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Key West: African Slave Cemetery

Shortly after sunrise, I stopped at Higgs Beach to leisurely walk the White Street Pier while enjoying my first cup of coffee of the day. From the pier, I took pictures of the West Martello Fort.

The beach had been cleaned and raked smooth earlier by city workers. The temptation to stroll across it was overwhelming, so I did.

As I approached the fort, I noticed a fenced off area with a historic marker.

I discovered a monument paying respect to 294 young Africans, most of whom were between the ages of 12 and 16.  They died enroute to Cuba chained together under inhumane conditions in the cargo holds of three American flagged vessels (William, Widfire, and Bogota) involved in the slave running.

It was a year before the Civil War. U.S. Navy ships simulataneously intercepted the three slave trade vessels in waters just off of Cuba. In all, there were 1432 Africans rescued and brought to safety in Key West, the nearest port.

At that time, the island population was barely 3,000. Almost overnight, it increased by fifty percent! The people of Key West rallied to provide the sick and frightened children with food, clothing, medical treatment, and shelter. It was going to take eighty days before a ship could be commissioned to take them back to Liberia.

The two hundred ninety four either died on the slave ships, or shortly after arriving. A local carpenter was commisioned to build 294 coffins and burry them on a remote, sandy beach. One year later, the Civil War began. Florida was a Confederate state, but the Union controlled the Florida Keys. The North decided to build two forts, called martellos, 1.5, and 3.0 miles respectively, from the existing Fort Zachary Taylor on the southernmost tip of the island.

An army engineer informed Washington that the 1.5 mile site fell directly over the graves of the Africans, and asked that the fort site be relocated. Washington refused the request. Construction resulted in the graves being destroyed and used as part of the fill for the fort foundation.

In 2002, a researcher, using a map from 1860, and ground penetrating radar, located 15 intack graves by the fort on Higgs beach. They were 4 to 6 feet in length, and about 2-3 feet below the surface.

The City constructed the African Cemetery memorial over the graves. On the huge concrete slab memorial, the location of each grave is etched out.

After over 150 years, 15 of the African children have finally gotten some public respect. And the majority of those whose graves were disrespected by the Federal Government, have now been forever memorialized. However, this is not the end of the story.

Directly across the street from the African Cemetery is an expansive City Dog Park. Strong rumor has it that additional graves have since been located within in the dog park. Perhaps because of the added expense, perhaps because of all the potential political hub bub, perhaps because city officials may feel enough has already been done ~ no known plans are underway to do anything about it.

It certainly was a very informative walk this morning. I also learned that, even with a great cup of coffee, somethings are still very hard to swallow.

~ GJ Duerrschmidt

Monday, February 21, 2011

Key West Aquarium: Quaint, Cozy, Educational, Fun!

Today we ventured over to the Aquarium at Mallory Square. It dates back to the mid 1930's, and is Key West's oldest attraction. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for with warmth and charm.

At the entrance is a small pool with a sampling of indiginous sea creatures, such as: conchs, horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, and starfish. Visitors are welcome, and encouraged, to handle the creatures. It's the only place in the aquarium where hands are allowed in the water (foreground).

A marine biologist provides information on each creature, along with proper handling instructions.

 We were treated to a Nurse Shark feeding frenzy.

Out back is the Atlantic Shores exhibit. The waters are directly connected to the open sea, with bars and fencing, of course, to contain the sea life.

Everyone was afforded an opportunity to touch a baby Nurse Shark along its tail.

The great sea turtles knew it was feeding time, and wasted no time coming to lunch.

The open sea waters extend into the side exhibits as well. There, among the mangroves are sea turtles and a wide variety of larger tropical fish species ~ my favorite being of the big, rainbow-colored  parrot variety.

Of course, no aquarium visit would feel complete without seeing at least one large iguana!  Actually, this came as no big treat to me, as I'm visited by a family of multi-colored iguana every day at the campsite on the Sigsbee Navy Base.

The Key West Aquarium is a great stop to make whenever you're in town ~ especially if you have children.

~GJ Duerrschmidt

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Key West ~ Where the Living Give the Dead no Rest

"Rest in peace" is not a possibility today in Key West for all the spirits of those who have gone before.

The island was first named Cayo Heuso, or island of bones, by the early Spanish explorers. They found it quite a mystery that the island had nothing but human remains scattered all about it upon their arrival.

No one to this day knows for sure how to explain the presence of so many remains, here, but some speculate it was once an indian burial ground, or that some great, yet unknown, historic regional battle took place here. Whatever the reason, what is known for sure, is that many have died upon this tiny, remote island; many the result of horrific circumstances, but all never allowed to rest in peace!

Key West was first settled in the early 1800's by pirates wanting to settle down, ship-wrecked victims along the reef lucky to have survived , and sick sailors routinely dropped off here to die. They were a tough, lawless lot, who came to make their living from the sea: mainly by pilaging shipwrecks (wrecking) and by fishing and shrimping. The inhabitants then, numbered roughly 300 and were mostly men.

As the island began to build up, the richest of the island inhabitants constructed grand victorian homes, many of which still stand today ~ an attempt at civility on a very uncivilized island!

Below is the home of Commodore Porter, a naval officer credited with ridding the Keys of pirates. The Commodore became a very wealthy resident of Key West, and at one time owned a sizable chunk of the island.

Since those early days, the residents of Key West continued to be stricken with tragedy and disaster. At least two major hurricanes have devastated the island: one in the 1800's and another in 1935. A great fire in the late 1800's practically leveled the town, while residents fled to the sea in boats for safety, and watched helplessly as many of their homes burned to the ground.

As if this was not enough, with each summer came another bout of the "Stranger's Disease." Each year, the island was ravaged by another bout of yellow fever, which claimed up to 50 lives each time, mostly children.

Below is the mansion of Dr. Joseph Yates Porter (kin to the Commodore), Florida's first Health Officer and local medical hero. The doctor was born, and died 80 years later in the same upstairs room in this home. He battled yellow fever over his entire career. Often he would place a dime on the eyes of patients who died of the disease under his care. Today, visitors staying at the mansion report finding dimes on the floor of the upstairs room, and often experience a sudden, unexplainable cold breeze through the room.

But, right across the street from the doctor's mansion is now the Bull and Whistle Bar, with the clothing optional Garden of Eden on its rooftop. Loud music blasts from the bars each day at all hours. Rowdy, rambunctious tourists frolic and party day and night, giving the spirit of the good doctor no rest!

Because it is said that spirits cannot travel over water, and with Key West being surrounded by water, it stands to reason that there would be an unusually high spirtual presence here. In fact, there is!

Key West is known to be the fourth most haunted place in the United States. Many spirits still roam in search of rest. Hauntings have continued to be recorded in many of the old Victorian homes on the island even to this day.

Many of these homes have become Bed and Breakfasts to accommmodate the huge tourist industry. The descendants of the early settlers still own the homes, but no longer live in them ~ after all, they are haunted! But, they don't mind letting you rent a room in them during your stay in Key West. It's a thriving industry, one which has come to replace the wealth once accumulated through "wrecking."

In fact, one such Bed and Breakfast ~ the Marerro House ~ reports so many hauntings, it encourages its guests to log them in a Guest Ghost Log Book!

The Artist House was once the home of artist Eugene Otto, and his possessed doll Robert. Robert doesn't live there anymore, but has now taken up residence in the East Martello Fort, today a museum.

Robert is known to be the single most possessed child's toy in America. He's been featured on MTV's Real World Key West, the Travel Channel, CBS News, and recently on the History Channel. His former home is also now a Bed and Breakfast.

The Curry House is another Bed and Breakfast that is still haunted by Noseby, the handyman servent of Ms Grace Kemp. Residents frequently find their room doors deadbolted from the inside when they leave to use the restroom.

The ghost of young Elvira Edmunds, hanged at the Hanging Tree at age 19 for hacking her husband and child to death with an axe, still haunts her gravesite and the place of death ~ Captain Tony's Saloon on Green Street!

Capt. Tony expanded his saloon to encompass the courtyard. He was going to cut the huge tree down when he learned that it was the island's Hanging Tree. He built around it to give his bar character.

In what is now the pool room, lay the remains of Elvira beneath a tombstone that few bar revelers ever notice as they trample upon it while guzzling beer and shooting pool. The apparition of a young girl in a blurry blue nightgown has frequently been seen, mostly by women visiting the Ladies Room.

At any given time, there are five times more spirits on Key West than tourists and residents. Many of these spirits have unfinished business and still roam the Island of Bones. Many are like the spirits of Dr. Joseph Porter and Elvira Edmund, disturbed by the non-stop pounding of guitars and drums, the drunken laughter of droves of tourists, the constant roar of motorcycles, scooters, taxis, and cars.

For now, there is no rest to be had by the spirits still roaming Key West. The party goes on. Few who visit this tiny tropical island will ever know its true history. While they peacefully sleep off hangovers in their comfy Bed and Breakfast beds, little will they know that they are not alone!

~GJ Duerrschmidt

Friday, February 11, 2011

Shopping Key West ~ Fun and Elegance in a Small Package

Fast Buck Freddies!

Fun, fashion, and fine furnishings presented with eclectic, creative elegance nicely describes this small department store on Duval Street, Key West. This is a MUST stop-in and browse for anyone visiting the island.

I had a blast this afternoon, window shopping...

and taking a slow, very satisfying stroll through the myriad of artful displays...

There's a little something for everyone at Fast Bucks! I got some great gift ideas for friends and family for next Christmas.

Now, all I have to do is win the lottery!

~GJ Duerrschmidt

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Key West ~ A Serendipitous Sojourn

No matter where one happens to live, somedays seem to turn out best when not planned. This is the way I've found it to be here in Key West. Time spent on the island is so much more enjoyable when it's explored and experienced as the spirit leads. 

The first big challenge of any day while camping in Key West, is rousting out of the comfort of the Canvas Condo...

Even in paradise, no day officially begins without first checking Facebook, while grabbing "some hair of the dog that bit you" the night before!

Don't feel like cooking? No problem. Chips and salsa makes a fine island "breakfast of champions." Finally, off we go with no plan or direction in mind. Along the way we spot a Dairy Queen, and, well...the spirit made us do it!

The beach seems like a great idea, so off we go to Smather's Beach on the ocean side of the island, find us a parking spot, and then attempt to walk off some of the ice cream, or at least, some of the guilt.

After an hour or so, we head to Old Town and walk, and walk, and walk some more. It's not too hot or humid today, so the walk is very enjoyable. There's certainly no shortage of things to see: like beautiful Victorian-style homes richly embraced by tropical vegetation...

flowers in full bloom in February...

cars with retro and exotic appeal...

We watch as an artist works on a sand sculpture of President Harry S Truman on the grounds of Truman's Little White House...

Walking down Duval Street to the docks by Mallory Square, we can't help but spot the Disney Magic in port...

With daylight wanning, and both feeling a bit fatigued, we decide to get away from the crowds and head back to the Naval base on the Gulf side of the island intime to catch a quiet sunset.

Driving by the spot we have named Pelican Rock, we find it strangely void of pelicans...

However, rounding the curve in the road to the base marina we discover the rest of the flock. A fisherman, cleaning his catch, has inherited a dinner party of twelve.

We pause there a moment to watch them feed off of the scraps being tossed heir way. It's impressive to see how courteous and well behaved the flock is: no pushing or shoving, just each politely waiting its turn...

As the sun sets on yet another pleasurable day in paradise, one more time, we are not disappointed by the view...

Starting out with no plan in mind, it's turned out to be a great day. However, the rest of the evening warrants a disciplined regimen: go back to the Canvas Condo, kick back, drink some beer, and then call it a night. 

~GJ Duerrschmidt