I have not migrated. I was in Key West attending a writers' seminar, of which more in a minute.
Two days after my frustrating search for the sea, I decided greater determination was needed. I asked for directions to the sea at my bed and breakfast place. "Fort Zachary Taylor," the young woman who presided over breakfast told me.
"Will I be able to touch the sea?" I asked. I wanted the sea up close and personal, complete with smell and sound. I did not want a distant vista.
"Sure," the young woman said, humouring me. "There's a beach and picnic tables and everything." Uh oh.
I set out, consulting my rudimentary map. It was a cold, grey day, particularly for Key West. The sun contract with the tourist had been broken. I walked though the streets of old town, noting places I might return to eat and after about twenty minutes, found myself at the entrance to a gated community. I hesitated. There was no barrier at the entrance, but there was a little sign explaining that this WAS a gated community, and while visitors were welcome, they were to behave themselves and be out by six. I checked my map. I looked at the sign for Fort Zachary Taylor beach - yes, it was definitely directing me into the gated community.
Expecting to be challenged by a security guard, I walked through the community. It was fake old town, but well done for all that. The houses ended in a kind of ruined industrial park. There was a chain link fence with plastic threaded through the chain link to obscure the view. There was a sign saying the site was the property of the US government, and no matter how mashed up anything looked, it was not to be taken! Words to that effect. There was some kind of navy-type ship moored on an unseen sea - so it was definitely there. The ship was painted in sea and sky camouflage. On my left another kind of industrial facility - perhaps water treatment or even sewage. I felt lost in concrete and the works of men.
I saw a rectangular, low, closed up building to my right. It had a nature mural on the outside, a large, empty car park and a big sign: "Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center." To discover the ecosystem you have to go inside?
I came to a ranger post which proclaimed the entrance to the Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. There was a fee - US$1.50 for a walker. "What's that place over there?" I asked the ranger and pointed to the Eco-Discovery Center.
"Oh, it's the Eco-Discovery Center," he said.
"I see that," I said, "but what's inside?"
"Displays and stuff," he said. "A small aquarium. A theatre. You should go. It's free and air conditioned."
"So you have to pay to see the real thing but the fake thing is free?" I said. The young man shrugged, stopping just short of an eye roll.
The road curved through mangroves and big sea grape trees. A woman was weeding the beds around young trees. I came around a corner and saw the sea through a grove of casaurinas; the sea at eye level. The beach was almost empty - one couple waded in the shallows. There was a small restaurant to the right and to the left, a fence right into the sea and a military looking satellite dish.
I sat at one of the picnic tables and eased off my backpack. The public beach was clean and pleasant, the seascape was wintery, grey and white and grey. A sailboat heeled way over and a pelican battled the wind. Breakwaters of huge stones were striped with bird droppings. The brochure the ranger had given me said the sea was teeming with fish. I doubted it. It felt strange to feel cold while sitting on a beach.
After awhile, I got up and climbed out on the breakwater. And there I could hear and see and smell and touch the sea, which sucked and churned between the rocks. At close range, the sea turned acquamarine and I could believe I was in Florida. I saw no mobile life - no fish, no snails, no whelks. The only living thing I saw was algae.
Walking back, I went to the Eco Center. It was a well designed and informative facility and probably the only place many who visit the Keys will see a healthy coral reef - in a tank. There was a film feed of a an artificial reef in the sea, the blurb explained the scientists were trying to grow coral and encourage fish to come back. The film feed showed nothing but silt laden water. I asked the cost of the Center - US$6 million. I wondered what US$6 million might have been able to achieve for the real park.
The woman was still weeding as I left. I stopped to talk to her, under the oldest sea grape tree I had ever seen, with huge round maroon leaves, the veins orange and green. "They're replacing the exotic trees with natives," she told me. "Like the casaurinas. When the hurricanes blow them down, they don't put them back." I remembered the casuarinas out at Palisadoes, where my grand aunt had taken us for picnic lunches when we were children, how we had spread a cloth on the fallen needles and hunted for pine cones afterwards and listened to the shushing sound the trees made. I loved casaurinas then.
I told the woman goodbye and walked back through the industrial park and the gated community. At least I had found the sea.