When I do get around, I write about it. If you want to read exclusively about my visits to United States presidential sites, you can do that over here.

Travel: Florida

This isn't everything I've done in Florida -- I had a few trips there before I started taking travel notes -- but it's the best stuff I've done in Florida. Please note that I have never done meth in Florida, so I can't speak to the quality of that experience.

Driving to Key West

February 11, 2011

Hello! I'm just back from a delightful weekend with the wife in sunny Florida. Well, sunny for one day. And when we got back to DC, it was just as warm as it had been in Florida.

I guess what I'm saying is, get your **** together, Florida. Tourism dollars are at stake.

Seven Mile

I've been to Key West before. It was September 2001, and a couple of young swains decided to hit up a tropical party locale during the fringe of hurricane season, when flights would be a bit cheaper. That's why I was stuck on a slab of coral in the Gulf of Mexico on the Tuesday when the world exploded. There's no "good" place to experience a paradigm shift in global security and civilizational conflict. But if you can arrange it, pick a place where public mid-day boozing is perfectly acceptable, and try to have one of your best friends along. It makes for an easier transition.

I was hoping for two big changes this time: 1) no End of the World; 2) driving Route 1. In 2001, I flew into Key West on a puddle jumper. In 2011 I'm wiser, and old enough to get a rental car. So the wife and I flew to Miami early on a Friday, got a newish Tercel and headed south on the BEST DAMN HIGHWAY IN THE WORLD! It's about 150 miles from Miami to Key West, and on the way you get to see a lot of awesome things. To be accurate, three awesome things.

That's a giant lobster, and it could only be improved by putting a kiddie pool filled with butter sauce nearby. You don't get much giant sea-creature statuary in the mid-Atlantic states, and as patrons of the garish arts who also wanted to use a bathroom, we felt compelled to stop. It's already been established that our taste barrier is somewhere on the other side of Virginia's Dinosaur Land, so we really didn't have much choice. The lobster is a draw for an "artist colony," which is Florida speak for "gift shop collective." We're pretty much set on questionable decorative housewares, so we held off on the one-bottle parrot-shaped wine rack. But if you ever need one, just go to Miami, drive south and look for the giant lobster. On to the second awesome thing.

That's the real star of "The African Queen": the actual boat. It's docked outside a Holiday Inn in Key Largo, presumably because Humphrey Bogart once starred in a movie of that name. That's what passes for synergy when you make your business plans while drinking in the sun. I was thrilled to see this boat: thrilled because I love the movie; and thrilled because they must have used a stunt boat to sink the Louisa. What impressionable high school student doesn't dream of shooting the rapids in a rickety tub while being sternly disciplined by a woman with Katherine Hepburn's stern, mannish features? None of them? Oh. Well, me neither. I was just kidding about that. Cough.

And that's the Seven Mile Bridge. You know it best from when Harriers blew up portions of it during "True Lies." As you can see, they've done a bang-up job rebuilding and wiping off the missile dirt. There's something fundamentally cool about cruising over seven miles of blue tropical waters, with the wind blowing through your hair and pelicans ... uh, crapping on the bridge, mostly, the whole way. This was the Route 1 of my mind. In reality, the keys are kind of like driving the strip at the Jersey Shore, with scuba shops where the mini-golf should be. But those seven miles make it all worth it.

Coral Castle

February 16, 2011

Coral Castle is a stunning reminder of how profoundly our world has changed. Gone are the days when an immigrant could cope with rejection by his child bride by building a palace of broken dreams. Gone, I say! And I miss the elegance of rail travel!

Here's the short version: Edward Leedskalnin, a Latvian, wanted to marry a 16-year-old who was 10 years his junior. She kicked him to the curb the day before the wedding. We all deal with breakups in our own way and time. Ed decided that his way was to move to Florida, never marry, and build a fort out of huge slabs of coral. Not just ANY fort out of huge slabs of coral, mind you -- a fort that Ed would live in, hermit style, while making accommodations for the woman who didn't want him and the children they would never have. Out of coral. Torquing up the weird factor: Ed referred to the girl as "Sweet Sixteen" -- even decades later -- and she apparently never knew what he was up to.

Nothing of this nature could be built today. South Florida real estate is too expensive, there's no way his castle would be considered up to code as a domicile, and he'd probably be swept into the social services system and whacked out on thorazine before the first coral throne was carved.

But back then (the 1930s) they let crazy be crazy, and the world was a better place for it, as long as the crazies didn't reproduce or attack anyone with their coral-cutting axe. Even though there's something unnerving about Ed's craftsmanship -- be built a "repentance corner," where his wife might have her head restrained between two giant coral blocks -- you have to be impressed by the scope. Ed was 5 feet, 100 pounds (the size of my extremely tiny wife) but over time he managed to assemble a respectable looking fortress. I'm sure the Hun would overrun it within seconds, but that's the beauty of South Florida. There are very few Germanic hordes.

Some highlights include a table in the shape of Florida, a throne room, and a bunch of functioning, sold-coral rocking chairs. He had a coral bathtub (probably not a major appliance when your social life involves writing pamphlets in the public library), a functioning well for fresh water and an 800-pound revolving coral door. He had only his family's knowledge of stoneworking, some very rough tools and a few adapted car parts. And Ed, while undoubtedly not the most lucid man in the greater Miami metropolitan area, had the sense to charge gawkers a small fee to look around. It was his income, as he didn't actually have a job.

They say love moves mountains. Apparently disturbing obsession can move a few tons of coral, if you give it 30 years. That's worth seeing. The sign Ed posted at the door says "You Will Be Seeing Unusual Accomplishment." Amen.

Fort Jefferson (or not)

February 16, 2011

Mr. White Goes to Jefferson

After sitting through Sept. 11 in Key West 10 years ago, I was a little antsy. The plan was to go to Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park. It was two hours by boat to reach a Civil War-era fort in the middle of NOTHING. The snorkeling is supposedly awesome, and though I didn't care about the presidents (I'm much cooler now), Dr. Mudd of the Lincoln murder conspiracy was kept there for a time.

You may recall that god was generally angry that week, so a tropical depression made the seas too crappy to sail or snorkel. Plan B was a fourth straight day of hanging out with problem drunks on the west end of Duval Street. When I left Key West, I figured I'd never be there again, so Fort Jefferson would just be a permanent regret.

Then, miracle of miracles, my wife Wanted to visit the Keys! With only three days in Key West this time, it was going to take some advance planning. I reserved $150 tickets in advance. I looked up the average air and water temperatures. Realizing my wife would be too cold, because she might be a very sexy reptile (like those "V" aliens), I called a dive shop about renting wetsuits. We made a special stop arriving in Key West Friday night to get the wetsuits.

On Saturday we woke up at 6:30 to strong winds and gray skies. We packed our day-trip bags, popped some dramamine and got to the docks at 7:30. And then, in one of the strangest customer service moments I can remember, the lady in the tour company's kiosk talked us into a full refund. Apparently we were looking at 6- to 8-foot seas, which even on a big boat might mean some barfing. The chop was going to make snorkeling painful, with zero visibility. We had the option of going to see the fort, but that would have meant a two hour barfing boat ride to spend four hours at a site that takes 40 minutes to tour, follwed by a two hour barfing boat ride back. Bear in mind we went to Florida for the nicer weather.

We were still out $15 each for wetsuit rental, though. Needing to get some return on that investment, we headed back to the hotel for a photo shoot. Enjoy, ladies:

That's probably the closest I'll come to looking like a super hero in my lifetime. My superpower would be scaring people into rethinking their physical fitness regimen. Something I learned from putting on a wetsuit for the first time: black is slimming, but it's not a miracle worker.

The day wasn't a waste. We got out to the Little White House, and Ernest Hemingway's house, and the Key West aquarium. Those were all fun things to do, and they were almost empirically better than vomiting for 4 hours on the open seas. But there was that sting of disappointment when we drove back to Miami and left the dream of Dry Tortugas behind. But I remain resolved: from this day forward, every 10 years I shall return to Key West until the day I am finally able to visit that godforsaken park. Check back in 2021 for updates, assuming blogs and the internet still exist. I'm betting we'll be working in alien salt mines by then, but you never know.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2014, Chris White