It is usually this time of year when my mind becomes unfocused. I blame it on the weather. Fall days in the subtropics are drier, cooler, and a bit shorter, although not as short as some of my snow-shoveling cousins experience up north and out west.
My mind is drifting south a lot. Lately I have been reminiscing about a summer trip we took to the southernmost point, and since I seem to have developed quite an attachment to Key West since then, well, my mind drifts down to mile zero whenever the fall sky mimics the cool hues of the Gulf of Mexico.
There is value in a daydream. Daydreams can lead you to action or lure you into nostalgia. Daydreams are the voice of our true selves.
I had wanted to visit Fort Jefferson for a long time, ever since I saw a photograph of it from the air, and in the summer of 2010 I got my chance. Southward the four of us went, ready for another Florida adventure - ready to make lifelong memories.
Key West can be a bizarre carnival at certain times of the year, but its history and character draws me year after year. I can see why Key West has always attracted artists and writers. I love to see all the fishing boats and the cruise ships, tanned locals and sunburned tourists. I love Hemingway’s six-toed cats, and the roosters in the street, and I love to see all these things set against their backdrop of tropical colors.
Honestly, I’m more likely to read Hemingway than Dostoevsky, but I came across a quote by the Russian existentialist some time ago and it has stuck with me ever since:
“You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days. And even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day.” —Fyodor Dostoevsky
My own parents may have been unaware of this quote, but they certainly did their best to embrace this philosophy. When my brothers and I were kids we snorkeled and sailed and camped and swam, and because of my mother’s natural curiosity, we learned at the same time. My childhood memories are creased from the years I spent barefoot and have been liberally seasoned with the salt of the Atlantic Ocean.
Fort Jefferson is a red brick Civil War relic about seventy miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. It was built, over a period of many years (and never finished), on a small island in the Dry Tortugas chain, named so because there is no natural fresh water there. The infamous Dr. Mudd, imprisoned after setting the leg of John Wilkes Booth, was an inmate at the fort.
It is now a national park, and everything, including park rangers, must get there by boat or seaplane (boats are more commonly used). We took the Yankee Freedom II, a high-speed catamaran ferry that makes the trip in about two and a half hours. I highly recommend it. We were blessed with calm seas and a smooth, thirty mile per hour ride. Soon after leaving Key West, we were treated to breakfast and sweeping views of only sea and sky. A few more miles out into the Gulf and all land disappeared: Key West sank behind us, and we eagerly waited for the fort to rise from the blue-green waters ahead.
When I first saw Fort Jefferson I couldn’t quite believe that it was real - It is such an odd sight. Maybe that’s because you don’t usually associate red brick construction with tropical islands. But there it was. The fort sits on very little dry land, and seems to have drowned the very island beneath it with the sheer weight of all those bricks.
We were eager to get into the water, so after the boat docked we headed straight to the tiny beach and into our snorkeling gear. The most colorful and interesting corals were growing right on the submerged brick walls of the fort, and as we swam along we moved through endless schools of tiny minnows. They flashed and sparkled in the afternoon sunlight, moving out of our way as we passed through them, and also out of the way of giant Tarpon swimming with us.
Because the waters surrounding Fort Jefferson are protected the fish there are uncommonly curious and docile. The Tarpon swam lazily along with us as we kicked around the fort’s hexagonal walls. Most fish this size would not allow a swimmer to get this close, but the Tarpon seemed as interested in my video camera as I was interested in capturing them with it.
I will never forget the experience of being only arms length from a fish as big as myself. I was also well aware, during our brief time there, that I may never get the opportunity to do that again, and so I enjoyed it even more so.
I don’t think my daughters saw it with the same sense of rarity. After all, they’re still young. I do hope they remember it visually as clearly as I do. I think they will. I dream that one day, when they have children of their own, they will tell them stories about our time at Fort Jefferson.
But stories are just one part of daydreams. I sincerely hope they actually take their own children there. Not only because they want to share that experience with their kids, but because they feel they must go there again themselves.
All photos by Dean Dietrich, except the aerial view of Fort Jefferson, which appears here courtesy of Wikimedia. If you would like to see whatever became of all that Tarpon video, click here to visit our YouTube channel. (This experience was also the inspiration for our "Fin-Yang" t-shirt design).
December 3rd, 2011