I must admit, when my husband and I went away on our 30th anniversary to Key West this past December, I was scared. Not scared that I did not love him anymore, but scared that it was boring after all these years of happy memories and adventures with kids! We only went away one other time alone in all these years and that was on our 25th anniversary. That was only slightly better this this.
Part of the problem was the destination- Key West. It was boring…for us. There weren’t even any beaches to go for long walks on or long bike trails to cycle. Lots of shops. Lots of bars. We should have known better. This family has to DO SOMETHING. And usually it involves something epic. We are not beach loungers even had there been beaches.
When we went to the Everglades last winter the kids requested, “EPIC,” and so we did, we paddled the 100 Mile Wilderness Trail from top to bottom of the national park- 10 exquisite days in the lap of watery wilderness, in canoes. Four days of that we never touched solid ground but slept on elevated “chickies” in bays , pitching our tents on tiny platforms while the circle of life happened only a few yards away, alligators hunting and splashing and devouring through the night. We made a big memory, as this family usually does.
The other problem with Key West was it was too long of a trip- 8 days. Todd longed to be home chainsaw carving- his current obsession. I longed to be home writing about Warrior Hike- my current obsession. Neither of us felt like we needed a break from our work, all we really wanted to do was to do the work that we loved.
After awhile we relaxed into the incredible slowness of the trip and began to enjoy ourselves. But it wasn’t until we ferried out to the Dry Tortugas National Park off the last key- 70 miles out into the ocean, and a 2 ½ hour ride when we realized what had been missing.
There were over thirty hermit crabs scratching around my tent on the LEFT side only, here at our campsite on the Dry Tortugas. On the right side there were a few dozen more. It is phenomenal how many there were and they were not small-some walking shells were 2 inches across. Made it a bit of a challenge to get out of the tent to take a pee. And you’d better make sure that tent fly was zipped all the way up! (And we thought Daddy Long Legged spiders were creepy crawling over you when camping back home!)
But actually, Todd and I LIKED the hermit crabs’ presence- it signified wilderness here on the tiny island that is pretty much a huge brick fort with a tiny spit of sand extending out from it, which is where the 10 secluded campsites are found. Norway rats came out at dusk too and rustled in the leaves around the tent. All food must be hung to keep it away from them. Wilderness was what this holiday was lacking- for US to be happy. Dozens of hermit crabs and Norway rats around our campsite actually made us happy.
Fort Jefferson is the largest 19th century coastal fort in America. It is surrounded by the most pristine coral reefs in the country. There are really a cluster of 7 islands but they are mostly mere sand bars. Construction of the fort began in 1846 and went on for 30 years but it never was completed. (The bricks had to be shipped down all the way from Maine!)During the Civil War, the fort served as a Union military prison for captured deserters. It also held four men convicted of complicity in President Lincoln’s assignation in 1865.
A peregrine falcon perched on a nearby pole. Hundreds of frigates circled over Bush Island a long sand spit away. It’s mating season and they’re cruising for mates. We snorkeled and walked and saw incredible sunsets.
As we walked around the fort, we stopped to make small talk with the head maintenance man at the fort, Pat Moran, who hailed from Pennsylvania. He immediately liked us because we were from “home” and we immediately liked him because he was a fun friendly Irishman.
After only a few minutes of chatter, he said, “Hey- this fort is haunted. It used to be a prison and my room was where the jail once was. I’ll tell you a story.”
When he first came to the island to work, he was walking down a dark aisle to where there was cell service and saw a man who suddenly seemed to disappear, shortly after he appeared. Since Pat was new to the job and hadn’t met everyone, he didn’t think much of it.
Weeks later, a historian was out on the island giving a presentation on the fort’s past and an image came up in her power point of a man who looked exactly like the one Pat saw in the fort that night. When he exclaimed this, the historian told Pat that he had died in his room many many years ago and Pat had actually seen his ghost.
“Would you like to go on a ghost tour of the fort tonight?” Pat asked. “It’s off limits to the public, but you can go with me.”
“You bet!” Pat said he would bring his camera and take photos and guaranteed light orbs would appear in the photos, symbolizing the presence of energy and spooks!.
We waited in the dark for Pat to come pick us up in the electric Mule cart, looking up at the incredible display of stars, believing we saw the Southern Cross winging its way down the Milky Way. It was the most excited I had been all week.
We brought a fellow camp mate along, Ross, from British Columbia whom we just met who had a quick sense of humor and a thirst for adventure.
In the fort, we walked down dark aisle after aisle, curving stairways, dark chambers and rooms, pausing to take photos with Pat’s flash Canon. We huddled around his screen to see the image afterwards ,and sure enough, there were lots of orbs everywhere. And they would move. If we re- took the pic in the exact same place, it would be at a different spot. We saw lots of these on ghost tours in Gettysburg, the destination with the most paranormal activity in the country. (lots of lost stuck souls).
It was impossible to get scared though, as Pat continually told us story after story that had us rolling.
Pat told us crazy stories of the serious law enforcement rangers there at the fort/park, how they wear Tasers and clubs and guns and bullet proof vests AT ALL TIMES! Ross was a Canadian and found this idea of armed rangers in a national park ludicrous especially out on this remote island. Bermudas and flip flops seemed a more suitable uniform!
Pat said that the leader here sometimes dresses up in full camouflaged and lies in the shadows with a night vision detector aimed right at the campsite and waits in ambush.
“I don’t what he’s looking or waiting for, maybe a camper to light up a gas stove or something, which is forbidden, so he can go fine them? He’s round and short and practices martial arts and instead of a name like “Killer” or “Fighter,” guess what his name is?” Pat asks us.
“Meat ball!” he laughs- which of course is Pat’s name for him. We roll with laughter.
“He thinks the Al- Qaeda are coming. He even bought a case of camouflaged ballpoint pens! I kid you not. I’ll go get you one as a souvenir!”
Pat told us about the Cuban boat people who sometimes come across to the island. There are two homemade boats on display in the fort to view.
“They won’t hurt you if you do see them. As soon as they touch one foot on dry land, they are free men and women. They become citizens and get $10,000 in an account to start their lives.”
“Don’t try to stop them,” he advises.
We said good- night to Pat & Ross, our new friends and hoped that a boat would come aground tonight and really top this anniversary trip off. The magnificent stars that filled the night sky as we walked back to our rat-and crab filled tent site was enough of a show.
Todd and I had such a good time with Pat hearing his stories that we realized, this is what we were missing. Good people. Company. Happy human beings to share in our lives.
Actually, a boat did not come aground that night on the Dry Tortugas, but one did in Key West, rammed itself right up into the mangroves and was suspended in the air- what a way to enter your new world. Mexicans we send back. But since Cuba is a Communist country, they get to stay.
Todd and I decided, we still love one another, of course, after 30 years and we still want to stay married, of course, but returning to Key West? Maybe when we are 90 years old and decrepit we should vacation here. Maybe never. I’d come back to the Dry Tortugas, however, especially if Pat was still here (though I doubt it) Our visit here was the best part of our whole week long anniversary trip and it was because of Pat Moran and his stories. That says a whole lot on how certain people can lift you up onto a higher plane of living, just by being in their presence.
As we lined up for the ferry, Pat motored up to us in his Mule and said, “Here’s Junior Ranger badges. They’ll give you a free ice cream on the boat. We hugged our friend and said, “Facebook us so we can keep in touch!” Here’s to 30 years and folks like Pat Moran who make occasions even more special!