The last day of January ended by our doing some of the dirtiest work we’ve ever done with Habitat but we knew that our future tasks with the Big Pine Key Habitat affiliate could only get better! After our 8 a.m. meeting and devotion on Day 2, we went off in separate directions. Lucille joined the big bus with two crews going down to Key West. One crew was painting; her crew went to the Roberts’ house to finish tearing out sheetrock so the walls behind it could be sprayed with bleach. The ripped out areas have to be sprayed three consecutive days to kill any mold left. The floors had already been torn up. We met the Roberts, Eugene and Avis, who are still living in the house but in the bedrooms above. They have food either delivered or neighbors bring them meals as the kitchen is inoperable. One of the volunteers working at the Roberts’ house was Michael, a 35-year-old family practice physician, who took a week off from his practice in Boston, MA, to volunteer with Habitat in the Keys. He’s pitching a tent in the local state parks and having a ball working off stress. What an unusual but productive way to spend your vacation. Michael provided the Habitat photos shown below.
Larry had another dirty job but not as bad as our first day. He went to a mobile home where the owner’s wife, just back from the hospital after cancer surgery, fell through their mobile home’s kitchen floor. He and fellow volunteer Steve spent the day tearing out insulation under the mobile home – a dirty and itchy job.
On Day 3, after the daily morning meeting, several of us joined Larry at the mobile home he had worked on the previous day. We tore out the carpeting and pad from the spare bathroom, closet and bedroom. The guys then cut through the flooring and exposed the joists, cut away the rotted flooring, installed new plywood sub floors, then finished with either vinyl tile or laminate. We helped the owners move clothes and stuff from the closet to other locations. There was a terrible water leak spraying from the bathroom plumbing that caused the weak floor in the master bedroom. There are several other weak spots, including the one the wife fell through, but we suspect they were caused by multiple roof leaks, so money has to be spent on fixing the roof as well as all the other areas. None of the damages are hurricane-related but Habitat took this on because it was considered a hardship case. We learned that disaster recovery repairs are different than new home building. With new homes, owners have to put in so many hours of sweat equity. With the repairs here in the Keys, the owners usually paid for any needed materials and Habitat provided the labor.
Lucille spent a couple of days working in the affiliate’s office, helping prepare a handout for an upcoming fundraiser, entering information on volunteer hours into a database and miscellaneous other office duties – volunteers are needed just about anywhere!
The rest of our time spent with Habitat in the Keys was spent repairing floor damage on the mobile home. When we left at the end of our two weeks there, the floors in the master bath, bedroom and closet had all been repaired and replaced with laminate or vinyl tile and we had started on exposing the damaged kitchen floor. Our team leader, Steve, and other volunteers, would finish the repairs the following week.
Several of the volunteers had gone fishing the weekend before and shared their catch, along with some more fish donated by Bill, Habitat’s Executive Director, at a potluck fish fry one night. We enjoyed eating a small fish called a grunt--very good as were all the potluck dishes.
The National Key Deer Refuge is located on Big Pine Key. Key deer are the smallest sub-species of the Virginia white-tailed deer – very petite looking. They are federally listed as endangered as their numbers are low – current population is estimated at between 600 and 750. Signs are everywhere not to feed them because they lose their fear of people and become trusting. Sadly, we saw signs of this as we drove down Key Deer Blvd hoping to spot some deer. Some women were feeding cheese puffs to the deer and one deer trying to get its share darted across the road in front of our truck. Luckily, we didn’t hit the deer but saw for ourselves how trusting they become and how easy they can get killed.
The Blue Hole Observation Pool, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was an easy bike ride from the church lot. The Blue Hole is an old limestone quarry. Most of the original roads on Big Pine Key were built of limestone from this quarry. There is no inlet or outlet to the Blue Hole and its existence is dependent on rainfall and from salt water that seeps through at the bottom, creating an unusual habitat for the wildlife and plants found here. The volunteer docent pointed out a large male alligator and a smaller female gator, as well as several tree iguanas and wading birds. A variety of duck species and turtles also live here.
One evening, we joined Jim, Linda, Don and Donna for dinner on Sugarloaf Key at Mango Mama’s, a restaurant we had been to years ago, at which time Larry had the best coconut shrimp. Prices are high but the shrimp was still wonderful.
One of the local Boy Scout Troops has a bimonthly fundraiser spaghetti dinner at the Methodist Church next to where we were parked. Of course, we had to support them, right? It was a wonderful meal and included our drink, salad, main course, dessert and complimentary bags of microwave popcorn – wotta deal! Another evening, we supported the Baptist Church’s dinner and had a tasty ham dinner with all the fixings.
Shelley and Lucille went for a walk one morning and we both heard skittering up a nearby palm tree. Silly girls – we thought it was a squirrel. Imagine our surprise to see a tree iguana scurrying up the tree, about three feet long, half of which was its tail. We found out later there are no squirrels on Big Pine Key.
After our ‘tour of duty’ with the Keys Habitat affiliate, we headed south again, to Sigsbee RV Park, one of the two military campgrounds in Key West, and a very popular location for retired military snowbirds. Typical waiting time for a full hookup site is about 9-10 weeks this year but we chose to dry camp the eight days we spent there. Our site was near the washroom, showers and laundry – very convenient.
One day we toured Key West with Old Town Trolley Tours, found in several other cities (Savannah, Charleston and St. Augustine to name a few). We have always found these trolley tours a wonderful bargain and a great way to see the city with the driver narrating as he or she maneuvers the tricky streets. The tour allows you to get on and off the many stops, so we hopped off at Mallory Square, checking out the unique architecture found in Old Town as well as several of the shops.
Another stop was at Flagler Station, an Over-Sea Railway Historeum. Henry M. Flagler, one of the founders of Standard Oil (John D. Rockefeller the other), was one of the richest men in the world by the time he was 50. Flagler visited north Florida often but was dismayed at the mediocre accommodations and transportation along Florida’s east coast. In 1888, he built a hotel in St. Augustine, purchasing a railroad to provide suitable transportation for its guests. The railroad continued to expand south, reaching Miami in 1896. In 1905 and at 75 years of age, Flagler began the most daring and difficult venture of his life – building a railroad 130 miles out to sea to Key West. Key West, at the time, was the largest city in the state and America’s closest deep-water harbor to the new Panama Canal – it just wasn’t accessible except by sea. Combating mosquitoes, hurricanes, labor problems and the wilderness, the railroad took seven years and $30 million to complete. Flagler Station portrays what Flagler, his engineers, and workers endured to accomplish this feat. The Key West Extension, as this railroad was called, was truly an engineering and construction feat of the 20th century. Unfortunately, a Labor Day hurricane in 1935 destroyed a significant section of the railroad. It was not rebuilt but the Overseas Highway for automotive traffic eventually was built on most of the original rail bed. Impressive is how the highway was built on top of the original Bahia Honda railway bridge. Most of the bridges have since been replaced and widened. It is amazing to see how very narrow they were; yet when Larry was stationed in the Keys in the late 60s, early 70s, it was this narrow road that he traveled on frequently.
Speaking of narrow roads, most of the roads in Old Town Key West are extremely narrow with parking spaces at a premium. Bicycle and scooter rental businesses stay busy. We lucked out and parked the truck at the Visitor’s Center the day we took the trolley tour. While on the tour, we scoped out places we could park nearer to town and pedal our bikes in from there. We chose Higgs Beach, a city park with ample free parking on the Atlantic side. From there, we offloaded the bikes and pedaled to the Southernmost Point in the U.S., a frequently photographed location. We then pedaled into town, stopping at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum where we learned how Mel and his crew recovered treasure from the Atocha, a sunken Spanish Galleon ship that sank off the coast of Key West in 1622 during a hurricane. The Atocha carried gold bars, silver bullion and coins, jewelry, and other valuables, making it one of the richest treasure ships to have sunk. After a 16-year quest, Mel’s crew found the ship and slowly started recovering its treasures. Many of the ship’s treasures and artifacts are permanently on display at the Maritime Museum. In one room is a gold bar, approximately five pounds in weight, which is encased in plexiglass but with an opening so that the museum visitor gets an idea of how it feels to lift and hold a gold bar. No free samples here, tho – darn…
From there, we biked to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, getting there in time to catch a ranger-led tour. Charlotte led the tour and did a wonderful job of making history come alive, explaining the purpose of the fort. Construction of the fort began in 1845 and was one of a series of forts built to defend the coastlines of the U.S. Due to the lack of construction materials, hurricanes and disease, it took 21 years to complete. The fort was held by the Union during the Civil War – an unusual fact because Florida had seceded and was part of the Confederacy. Fort Taylor served as a base of operations for the Union Navy’s Gulf Coast Blockade Squadron, preventing supply ships from reaching Confederate ports.
Fort Taylor was modernized in 1898 by building two new batteries, placing heavier weaponry upon them, finishing up just as the Spanish-American War ended. The Army used Civil War cannon still at the fort as fill to help support the newer battery walls. Some excavations have been done which uncovered the cannon and cannonball found throughout the fort.
While there, we spoke to the volunteer coordinator and checked out possibilities as a future hosting job. We got a tour of Volunteer Village, where five RVs are parked for this day use facility. A volunteer crew has already been lined up for 2007 but the coordinator will keep our applications on file. Even though Fort Taylor is located almost in the heart of town, it is like an oasis and is representative of what Florida looked like before discovered by tourists.
Charlotte, our guide, told us that the sunsets at the beach there are wonderful and not such a carnival atmosphere as found at Mallory Square. We brought a picnic supper the following night, strolled the grounds waiting for the sun to set and checked out the sculptures on display. Sculpture Key West is an outdoor exhibition of contemporary sculpture held every winter at the state park. The exhibits we saw were part interesting, part unusual proving that art is in the eyes of the beholder. And the sunset was spectacular, as promised.
Time to leave the Keys--destination Fort Myers. We left on a Sunday, just before 9 am, which worked to our benefit – traffic getting off the Keys wasn’t too bad then. Enroute, we stopped for a quick visit at Big Cypress National Preserve’s Visitor Center. From the boardwalk we saw the largest concentration of gators that we have ever seen. We also got information on some of the campgrounds in Big Cypress for future reference.
Our first few days in Fort Myers were spent at Camping World. We had an early Monday appointment so we dry camped in their lot Sunday evening. On Monday, they installed a replacement slide topper that had ripped as well as replacing our factory-provided mattress with a Sleep Number bed. We figured if we’re going to live in our home on wheels full time, we might as well be comfortable, day and night! We had also asked to have our tires balanced on the rig but found out they had been damaged too much to make any difference – balancing them at this point would have been a waste of money. Just what we wanted to do – buy eight tires - yikes! We’re not sure why the tires failed prematurely – it may have been a combination of factors. We had new tires installed at Camping World the following day. Their prices were competitive and we were already there.
At last, and after over three weeks dry camping, we finally got hookups when we got to Orange Grove Park in Fort Myers. The park is small but well maintained and landscaped with several permanent park models and mobile homes. Some of the residents are there year round but the majority are snowbirds. They have lots of activities but we homed in on the ice cream social – always a great place to meet people. Every one we met at the park was friendly. Our neighbor has two cats, one of which gets tied up outside during the day. Shelley and her cat had a staring contest. The cat finally got bored and walked away. One of the perks was the ability to pick fresh citrus right in our ‘front yard’. We had lime, orange, and tangelo trees at our site – wonderful and freshly picked. Another perk was the ability to wash vehicles. Larry spent a couple of days washing the rig – it had been months since it had seen a hose.
While at Fort Myers, we visited the Edison-Ford Winter Estates. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were friends and neighbors. The estates consist of homes, gardens, laboratory and a museum that can be visited. We opted to visit the laboratory and museum only. The museum contains hundreds of Edison’s inventions that changed the way we live today – from phonographs to light bulbs to power generators to movie projectors and more.
Harvey Firestone gave a four-foot Banyan tree to Edison in 1925. Edison, Ford, and Firestone were working on research in the pursuit of a domestic source of natural rubber. The Banyan tree produces a white milky sap that can be used to create rubber. This tree is now over an acre in diameter and is believed to be the second largest in the world.
In addition to the tree, thousands of plants were analyzed as a source for rubber but the one that came closest was the goldenrod plant. The research was done in vain as synthetic rubber was later invented and more cost effective than extracting rubber from goldenrod. A guide led us on the tour of the lab that had done this research. When the research was terminated, the engineers just walked away from the lab, leaving everything in place – what you see today is as it was when they walked out.
Another day, we drove out to Sanibel Island to the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States. We had hoped to take the scenic four-mile Wildlife Drive but found it is closed on Fridays to give the critters a day without traffic. We chose instead to walk the Indigo Trail, a four-mile round trip walk to the cross-dike, which extends from the Wildlife Drive. We spotted one gator and lots of wading birds and ospreys.
One afternoon, we drove out to Palmdale, about an hour away from Fort Myers, to visit with Harry and Marie, our Canadian friends we met in Moore Haven late January. The RV park in which they are staying is rustic but very peaceful. We may spend a month there next winter. We enjoyed a pizza dinner with them, and then made plans to meet again at our place later in the week. A few nights later, they came by for a cookout. After we gave them a tour of the park, we signed up to spend next January together at Orange Grove.
And so ends another month. Next up: back to the east coast of Florida for the month of March.