As the days slid by in our temporary island home and the holiday season rapidly approached, we found ourselves seeking out and taking part in more local and community events. The Key West Lighted Boat Parade has been an annual holiday tradition for the past 27 years attracting visitors and residents alike, as the holiday celebrations begin in the quieter weeks leading up to the busy tourist month of January. Vessels of all shapes and sizes, from kayaks and rowboats to yachts and sailboats, are adorned with lighted displays reflecting the holiday spirit of the islands as the captains compete for $20,000 in prizes. Neon palm trees, glowing Santas, and shining mermaids were just a few of the designs floating by as the 31 boats assembled for the parade past the Walk of Lights at the historic seaport. Hosted by the Schooner Wharf Bar, the event is free to the public unless of course you’d like reserved prime seating in many of the restaurants offering excellent views of the water. We walked through the harbor district enjoying the sights and squeezed through the crowds to the water’s edge to glimpse the boats as they passed.
In keeping with the lighted vehicle theme and thanks to a last-minute tip from one of our neighbors, we eagerly agreed to participate in the inaugural Christmas Eve Lighted Bike Parade through the Geiger Key neighborhood. We hastily assembled our decorations for the ride (which is to say, I put on a hat with a red light on the front used mostly for hunting and fishing) and turned on our usual head and tail lights shortly before pedaling across the neighborhood to join the rest of the group. After some quick introductions, welcomes, and photos, the biking crowd slowly wound through the evening streets covered in twinkling lights and Santa costumes with festive music pumping through a battery-powered sound system. Spectators gathered as the group rolled around town, waving from doorways and singing along with the music. Despite (or maybe because of) dealing with the after-effects of Irma, the community seemed eager to engage in this bit of celebration as most people exchanged neighborly greetings and snapped photos of the unique display.
In between holiday celebrations, I started fishing more regularly in an attempt to improve my novice angler abilities. We were invited aboard the neighbor’s fishing boat one morning for a trip out to the reef, so I set my alarm and pulled myself out of bed before the sunrise and joined Ashley’s dad along the seawall to hop on the boat as it left the canal. The seas were calm as the captain navigated the channel, growing increasingly unsettled as we headed further out to sea. The rolling seas did not deter the fish as we began pulling in yellowtail snapper, grouper, king mackerel, and even a barracuda and lemon shark, both of which were released.
King mackerel strike prey with incredible speed and power, which is awe-inspiring to see first-hand. The fish propels itself through the water with such speed that after striking the intended target, its momentum carries it up and out of the water like a torpedo launched from a submarine. The brilliant steel blue and gray coloring on the kingfish easily catches and reflects the sun’s rays, briefly transforming the aquatic creature into a sleek metallic alien aircraft as it rockets over the surface of the ocean, shortly before plunging back into the depths. I’ve heard the occasionally intense effort of saltwater fishing referred to as “combat fishing” which certainly became apparent during my painfully slow struggle reeling in the shark. Fighting the shark, which the captain estimated to be over 200 pounds judging from the size in the water (and yes, that is still quite small by ocean standards), was exhausting – even with handing the rod off to Ashley’s dad to help while I took a quick break – and made me realize how difficult it must be to catch huge tuna or marlin using a rod and reel, even with proper gear like a rod belt and marlin fighting chair.
Having caught our limits and nearly filled the fishbox during the course of the morning, we pulled anchor and returned to the marina to sort and clean our catch, all before noon. Even though I mostly baited hooks and pulled in yellowtail, occasionally reeling in a bigger catch when someone handed me a different rod, I still felt a sense of pride and accomplishment as we hauled fish-filled buckets onto the docks and hand-carried massive (to me) individual fish in two hands past curious onlookers. Familiar faces at the Geiger Marina stopped by to check out our catch while hungry customers snapped photos as we walked the various types of fish from the boat to the cleaning station. If you’re visiting the Lower Keys and looking for a chartered fishing trip, check out Knee Deep Charters with Captain Kevin Wilson for a great day on the water.
My less exciting fishing in the canal behind our parking area still produces results, markedly less so than our boat trip, but provides good practice and keeps the fridge stocked with fresh fillets. Stepping onto the seawall as the morning sun peeks over the palms provides a pleasant start to the day, and an occasional hour or two of afternoon fishing is relaxing and even social, giving me a chance to chat with the next door neighbors and the neighbors across the canal.
I was invited to tag along on a quest for spiny lobster one afternoon, so I joined the neighbor across the canal and a few of his friends as we departed on a diving trip to their favorite lobster spots. Although I chose not to dive on this outing, I enjoyed watching the three divers battling the strong current as they coaxed spiny lobsters from their hiding spots in the underwater rocks. They also graciously gifted us a few of their catch for dinner that evening after we returned to shore.
Since we now seem to have an abundance of seafood more often than not, we’ve naturally added it to our regular diet and I have lots of opportunity to practice not only cleaning, filleting, and preparing freshly caught fish but also using various parts that might otherwise get thrown back to sea. Mangrove snapper fillets quickly sauteed in butter become a delicious breakfast paired with eggs and potatoes, while fresh lobster tails split and broiled (or grilled, if you have enough to warrant firing up the grates) make a decadent evening meal. Huge slabs of kingfish marinated and smoked turn into succulent snacks and the base for the famous Keys smoked fish dip. Even grouper heads, nearly too large to fit in the biggest pot we have on hand, transform into a rich stock while providing unbelievable amounts of meat after cleaning each cooked head. The stock creates the key component to grouper chowder with potatoes and sweet corn, or lentils cooked with garlic and tomatoes. I even learned how to harvest grouper cheeks, which involves using a sharp knife to carve out the fleshy section under the fish eye and above the mouth before peeling the dense chunk of meat from the skin.
I’ve attempted fishing from a kayak (with little success, but I’ve only been out one short time so far) and fishing from a bridge after biking, but we enjoy kayak trips and bike rides regardless of what’s happening with the fish. Thanks to Ashley’s dad, we have ready access to a single and double kayak, which we’ve used on occasion to take trips through the mangroves and around Geiger Key. We celebrated Christmas afternoon on the water, breaking out the double kayak for a paddle in the warm tropical sun.
Our neighbor across the street invited us to join him and a friend one morning on a tour of the mangroves, as he led us into areas we wouldn’t have explored on our own. After paddling toward the open sea and turning along a wide mangrove island, we found a secluded cove home to a wrecked Cuban chug (the type of makeshift boat cobbled together from any available parts used by refugees fleeing Cuba) and lashed our kayaks to a tree before climbing out to explore by foot. While we chatted and enjoyed snacks in the mangroves, the wrecked chug nearby provided a sobering counterpoint to our afternoon and served to reinforce a feeling of gratitude for even the simplest things we often take for granted.
Although much of our recent activity is centered around the water, our bikes are still being put to good use as we hop on to ride the short distance to the local marina, pedal out to the nearby beach, take a slightly longer ride to the coffee roaster on the neighboring key, and make the occasional trek into Key West for groceries or simple entertainment. This flat-land riding is probably spoiling us for our return to more hilly areas, but being able to legitimately commute by bicycle is welcome in any area we happen to visit.
Ashley continues along in her crafty ways as her Etsy store slowly picks up steam with standard and custom orders. She is often found working on a new item, creating a step-by-step written pattern, or plugging along on another small piece of a personal project. Her habit of knitting in public often attracts curious observers, and she is quick to chat with friendly people asking about her work. Our next door neighbor even gifted Ashley a large box of unused yarn from her craft room for Ashley to put to good use sometime in the future. We often joke about the irony of making knit hats in the Florida Keys, but as the temperature drops below 65 we often see locals bundled in coats with a fluffy hat pulled over their heads. We know it’s much colder further north, and we’re happy to be far south of the snow this winter.
As we were researching local activities on our journey south, I discovered the marina in our current neighborhood started hosting a weekly open mic night. I anticipated learning a few songs on the mandolin well enough to finally break it out in front of an audience, rather than just torturing Ashley with my playing. After attending the first session, I was surprised to discover that my sax would be a welcome addition to the growing group of musicians. So the following week (and every week since), I slung my tenor sax over my shoulder and we pedaled around the corner to the marina to join in the musical festivities. The evening is usually hosted by Mark Lum, a local guitar player and vocalist, who plays solo shows throughout Key West including a regular Friday night gig at the Geiger Marina. He invited me to join him on stage for an impromptu jam along with our neighbor across the canal, who happens to be the drummer in the local cover band Haywire. The three of us were quickly joined by the infamous Charlie Possum, who often shows up barefoot with his case of harmonicas and dog named Elvis in tow.
While I’m still regularly practicing the mandolin focusing most recently on improving foundational techniques, I’m happy to bring my sax out of semi-retirement to play with the locals. RV life isn’t really conducive to saxophone playing, as it can be quite loud and I don’t want to anger our neighbors during our visits to state parks and other campgrounds. So being able to freely play with other musicians is a welcome change of pace. Please enjoy this brief video clip from a recent open mic night with Mark Lum on guitar, Charlie Possum on harmonica, Vinnie Smith on percussion, and me on the tenor sax live at the Geiger Marina.
We celebrated the New Year with a bike ride to the Boca Chica Beach just down the road. Located behind the Naval Station, the beach lies along the original Overseas Highway (the section now called Boca Chica Road), long since washed away by storms and the power of the ocean. The lower beach area beyond the road’s end is locally known as a nude beach, but most visitors don’t venture too far past the traffic barricade. Even so, visitors will stumble across scantily-clad island dwellers enjoying the freedom this area provides. Warning (or welcoming) signs are posted about entering a potentially nude area, so families and others not wishing to glimpse an eyeful have ample notification to turn around or simply not walk any further. The area features shallow water perfect for viewing sea organisms or wading if you venture far enough from shore. You’ll often find colorful locals passing the days here, with hammocks strung from trees and aging RVs and vans parked along the road. An older gentleman wearing a captain’s hat and blowing a conch shell is there every morning to greet the sunrise and I’ve overheard him regaling visitors with his tales and words of wisdom. We don’t spend much time at the beach, but it’s nice to visit every now and again.
One month has already flown by as we busy ourselves with routine daily activities, periodic RV maintenance, our usual hobbies, and immersing ourselves in our current surroundings. Becoming part of the community, even if it is only temporary, is comforting and a welcome addition to our chosen nomadic lifestyle. While we are certainly enjoying our time here, this isn’t an area where we’d permanently grow roots for multiple reasons (summer weather, high cost of living, threat of hurricanes) but these past few weeks are vividly memorable. As the new year starts, we’re looking forward to spending a bit more time in the Keys before we get Cecil rolling back on the road again and then traveling on to new places while visiting with familiar faces. We hope all of our northern readers, family, and friends are staying warm this winter and we wish everyone a healthy and happy New Year!