The Actual Southernmost Point: Then and Now on Florida’s Beaches

Key West, Fl – May, 2019

(Key West Trilogy Part 1 and Part 3 here)

This one actually starts at….

Panama City Beach, June (I think) 1996 (I think):

Dad spotted a conch lying on the seabed about ten feet below the surface and told me to stay where my feet could touch the sandy bottom as he attempted to retrieve it.  With goggles I was able to watch him glide down through the glass-still gulf but then he slipped out of view.  A bit of a frenzy took place in the otherwise calm water as fish began darting around and between my short seven year old legs. Dad emerged a few seconds later, shell in hand, ushering me quickly towards the beach where my mom and brother Mike sat on a pair of sandy towels. Mom had a magazine and Mike was trying to capture the tide by trenching a river into a hole.  I wasn’t sure what the fuss was about – the water I stood in was hardly shoulder deep and not moving at all.

“What’s going on?” asked mom.

“I got you a shell!”

“I mean why is everyone getting out of the water?”

When diving for the conch, dad noticed a lot of activity and it “felt like it was a good time to get out.”

People on the beach started pointing seaward.  A few feet further out than where we were splashing around, a man was floating, face down, totally still.  Now this was something interesting to a beach child, grown restless from a day of what adults call relaxing.  Mike even looked up from the moat he was digging.  Another guy began to wade out toward the floating man, taking slow, unsure steps, hunched over as if walking into bigger swells than the slight ripples that currently lapped the shore.  As the rescuer got to the point where he could no longer touch bottom, the man’s face turned quickly towards him, shouted “Shark! Get back!” and went back to lying prone.  The would-be rescuer retreated just as we saw that unmistakable dorsal swirl around towards them both.  We all stood, frighteningly captivated by what was taking place, Mike’s salty river’s banks now totally neglected and falling in upon themselves.  We were then acutely aware of the lack of lifeguards, after choosing this particular beach for that reason, to avoid whistles for throwing a Frisbee or diving for shells. 

After several minutes of the charade, the man in the water switched strategies and jumped up, flailing around his arms and splashing fanatically as the shark edged toward him, withdrew at an angle, and then darted up again, each time becoming bolder in the face of swatting arms and flying water.  Finally, weary of the trouble, it slinked off to find an easier meal, ducking its fin below the surface as it headed out to sea. 

Later, we ran into the man who had been harassed by sharks outside of the restaurant/gift shop at the top of the beach and got some clarity on the situation.

“Why did you play dead at first, but then start trying to scare it away?” Mom asked.

“Two sharks” he said.

“Really?”

“Yep.  The first one was bigger, maybe six feet long or more.  Best thing to do was to stay as still as possible, make it lose interest.  I wouldn’t be able to fight that one off.”

“And the second one?”

“About four feet long.  Small one. I could be much more aggressive.”

My parents talked to him a lot more about sharks and how he knew exactly what to do in the situation but I had stopped listening.  These kinds of events are interesting to a child but only until the next thing comes along, and in this case it was a sand dollar at the gift shop.  There was a conch on the shelf next to it but I knew we didn’t need to buy that since dad had found one of his own by swimming with sharks.  At least that’s what comes to mind for years when the shell sat on our mantle. I wonder if they still have it…

At a young age Florida is wonderful and exciting and full of adventure.  It’s the land of popcorn shrimp and pirate themes and heat lightning.  I was there several times during my first decade of life but had avoided it in the twenty years since.  Sometime during young adulthood my perception of the state changed from sun soaked joy to one of cardboard condos along wide highways leading to car dealerships with palm trees in the parking lot, old guys who own boats and button two non-adjacent buttons on their flowered shirts, and where grandma and grandpa disappear to on November first. When I finally gave the Sunshine State another go, it wasn’t a typical bottom-on-the-beach locale but it was still able to capture that seaside subtropical joy of a simpler time.

There are beaches on Key West. Don’t let your uncle’s friend tell you otherwise.  Or the lady at work.  And they will tell you that, happily mind you, while wearing that smirk only a baby boomer can get when delivering news that might knock your excitement down a peg.  That’s right, once in the nineties they visited because of Jimmy Buffet and rented a posh room in a chain motel on the side of the island with the Wendy’s.  They expected it to be Daytona and left disappointed.  Quelle horreur, a rock on the beach.  Prepare for disappointment, young one. Also the parking sucks. 

Of course you don’t go to Key West primarily for the beaches.  If they were as good as mainland Florida, nobody would go to mainland Florida, because that’s all the latter has.  Most of the island’s public beaches are at the end of roads and between resorts but there are three larger ones on the southern shore. Higgs and Smathers are close to each other and are fairly narrow strips between street and sea, with Smathers appearing to be the more attractive of the two. The best is Fort Zachary Taylor Beach and it’s not close, in ranking or location.  It is as far southwest as you can get on the island and slightly lower in latitude than the famous buoy. 

What it lacks in pristine sand, Fort Zach makes up in tropical idyll.  A jungle of windblown coconut palms, not asphalt, form the inland boundary of the beach. The trunks, furry and segmented, leaned out over the sand like an end-parenthesis, exploding topside in a jade green canopy underneath which people lounged with sunglasses and a paperback to avoid the double-digit UV indexes. The terrain actually slopes fairly sharply by Florida standards to the point where placing a blanket near the upper edge lends a top-down view of the ocean.  Three bouldery breakwaters rise up from the waves about 100 feet out to sea, beyond which was nothing until Cuba.  A dozen or so people were either in the water or exploring the rocks but most were on the beach relaxing with a book or looking asleep.  Lauren and I enjoyed doing the former for a longer time than I would normally be comfortable but it was so pleasant out that my attention remained satisfied.  When it got too hot I would slink down to the water’s edge and wade in.  This was occasionally made difficult by the chopping waves and the rocks under the surface that seemed to alternate between slippery and sharp, almost in intentional tandem, with one forcing me to slip and catch my balance on the other.  Fortunately at about twenty feet out they gradually shrink to pebbles and become tolerable to stand on.  Still, the depth dropped quickly and it became easier to float around and paddle rather than attempt to stand.

On one of these sojourns, a woman swam by me wearing a snorkel and goggles.  “Do you think it is worth it to rent one?” I asked her.  It costed twenty dollars, which seemed like a lot if all you’d see is some seaweed and sharp stones. 

“I brought mine, saw a few fish, but I don’t know if I would rent one if you didn’t already have it, waves are pretty high. Those guys over there saw some grouper out by the rocks.” 

I told Lauren about this when I got back to the beach and we decided we wanted to swim out to the rocks, partially to see grouper and partially because my on-towel antsyness was beginning to proclaim itself.

“You want me to go first? Make sure it’s not too hard to do with the waves?”  I asked.

With side eye, Lauren said  “Why can’t we go together?”

Of course I would rather swim there with Lauren than by myself, it would be far more enjoyable to confront that challenge together, and if she got eaten by a grouper while it was her turn I could hardly forgive myself, but there was just this small matter of our stuff, which brought up one of my peculiarities. I don’t even like stuff.  I don’t enjoy buying stuff or keeping stuff, but for some reason I’m really focused on stuff when there is the potential that someone could make off with it. I knew enough to leave all but a credit card in the room, but phones, keys to the bike locks, and trail mix were all there for the taking by some grubby handed teenager with board shorts and a mean streak. 

Lauren reasoned with me enough that I decided I would be okay with it but I knew as soon as my hand touched rock, I would spin around and make sure our bag was still there.  Not that there would be anything I could do about it if it weren’t – Even if we witnessed the infraction taking place I could never swim back fast enough to catch the perpetrator, so like usual, Lauren convinced me to put aside my anxiety for a moment and go with it.

It wasn’t a particularly far swim, but the swells made it take longer than we had anticipated.  Finally we saw rocks about four feet below the surface and soon we were climbing out of the water and onto the apparently useless breakwater, which turned out to be made of rather sharp slabs.  I spun around to see what looked like our bag sitting right where we had left it, ignored by the dozing honeymooners and the child-chasing parents to either side. Satisfied for the moment, the search for grouper began in earnest.  We spent at most ten minutes on the rocks, alternating looking out to sea, under the sea, and back toward the beach.  There were a few small fish, eighteen inches long and colored with a sea green Crayola, but nothing worth renting a snorkel for.  Still, I was glad we made the swim to the rocks and I that we were able to do it together. These rocky islands were further south than the beach, which as I understand make them the southernmost publicly accessible land in the continental USA, and we couldn’t skip out on that.

Once back on shore, I occupied my time by watching birds jostle for position on top of two tall wooden pilings.  A duo of pelicans were on lookout, one perched atop each pillar until they spotted a fish, at which time one bird would swoop down, get a mouthful of lunch and then fly off for a moment.  As soon as there was an opening, flocks of gulls flapped in to fill the void.  They looked smug and satisfied with themselves as kings and queens of the castle, until the pelican inevitably came back into frame and shooed them away.  There seemed to be an understanding between the birds, as the gulls didn’t even put up a fight to hold their territory despite outnumbering the pelican several times over.  Another fish, another dive, and gulls would swarm, thinking maybe this time the larger bird wouldn’t come back, but it inevitably did and the process began anew.

Tanned and tired, we walked over to the beachside café, passing by the umbrella stand and a queue of a half-dozen smarter than us patrons. Outside of the snack cabana was one of those tall signs made of driftwood with arrows going in all directions and giving the distance to various places.  Most pointed toward Caribbean locales like Nassau and Santiago de Cuba, their proximity glaring in the glaring sun, and the very top one informed me that we were 7831 miles from Djibouti.  On the deck of the café I drank a mango Goya and ate the best Cuban sandwich I had on the island while listening to the screeching call of an undefined tropical bird and the lapping waves.

I kicked on my shoes and we walked toward the bikes across the shaded and sandblasted gravel road in advance of a several mile peddle and a sun-drained siesta. Fort Zach Beach was as close as we could get to a Caribbean coastline without going to one of the places on the colorful multidirectional sign. I am thankful for the memories of beach trips with my parents even though it took me a while to realize their value – not the traveling together, I always relished our adventures, but beaches specifically – but I see it now. On the ride back into town, I noticed that the pattern of Lauren’s bathing suit made tan lines on her back that looked like a pineapple henna tattoo, and these remained until July, but my renewed enjoyment of Florida beaches has persisted even longer yet.

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