String of Pearls: How Low Can You Go?

Key West

Florida

January 2018

First go to Key West.  If you go to Key West the way most people do, you will enter the island in a wheeled vehicle on its eastern shore on Route US-1.  Continue on this longest north-south highway in the country along the northern edge of the island.  At a certain point, get off this highway where it makes a left turn onto Whitehead Street.  Half a dozen blocks later, Whitehead Street ends at a curving junction with South Street.  Stop.  Stop here.

Lisa and I don’t actually do any of this.  We simply walk over from our hotel.

At the intersection of Whitehead and South Streets, one can’t help but notice a twelve-foot tall concrete buoy, painted a little like real buoys.  It’s the size of an airport X-ray machine, it’s the size of a small elevator, it’s slightly larger than the back seat of a 1970 Cadillac DeVille, where I once saw an entrepreneur dressed in a polyester shirt and bolo tie put a small horse after purchasing it at auction.  Ya can’t miss it.

This buoy is painted with words…

THE CONCH REPUBLIC

90 Miles to 

CUBA

SOUTHERNMOST

POINT CONTINENTAL U.S.A.

KEY WEST, FL

Home of the sunset

Before 1986, it did not have that printed business about Cuba or the sunset.

In those days, painted on the curb nearby were the words…

AMERICA BEGINS

I think AMERICA BEGINS is pretty cool.  I think 90 Miles to CUBA is dumb, particularly because it’s not 90 miles to Cuba.  It’s 95.

But how about the SOUTHERNMOST POINT CONTINENTAL U.S.A. KEY WEST, FL bit?  In a less grandiose way, instead of the buoy, a wooden sign once proclaimed, “The Southernmost Point, of Southernmost City, Key West Fla.”  This sounds good.

I’m told this was a dug-up sewer junction before the buoy was placed here.  There was a series of wooden signs proclaiming fame for this location.  The signs however, were repeatedly stolen.  A sign like this is so much more impressive in a living room or den than on a street corner, don’t you think?  Imagine this buoy in your man-cave — this would be the ultimate.  Just don’t block the big screen television, the game is on.

No such theft would be possible however;  this is a very heavy buoy.  It’s concrete.  It’s 150 pounds per cubic foot concrete.  We’ve got 30 tons in this artifact.  Not many hooligans gonna lift this puppy.

Nor hurricanes.  No hurricane will ever blow it away, even though some have tried.

That wooden sign?  The one proclaiming this unique geographical feature?  It was in place to lure tourists to the open air market where Bishop Albert Kee sold his seashells, and where his statue now stands.  See http://asiwentwalking.com/conch-republic

Back to the buoy.  Painted right on its surface is this…

 SOUTHERNMOST POINT CONTINENTAL U.S.A.

KEY WEST, FL

This claim is just plain not true.  The paint lies.


Lisa and I arrive at about 8:30 in the evening.  It is late January so we’re here hours after sunset.  There are only two people here, including us.  Being here alone is a rare event as tourists form long lines throughout the entire day, queuing up to take photos of themselves and each other standing in front of the buoy in this (not really) geographically puzzling location.

Our solitude is short-lived as two energetic, young Japanese guys who are super polite and giggle after everything they say, offer to take our photo and email it to us.  “Tee hee.  It may take while until we send photo as we are traveling.”  “Yes,” says the other one.  “Tee hee.”  We offer our email address and grin in front of the buoy while they snap our pictures.  I envision our photos seen by billions on Facebook-Asian-style.

This giant buoy that (allegedly) marks the southernmost point in the United States is a bloated, unnaturally large representation of a useful tool for maritime navigation.  But here it is, and here we are.  Except that we’re not.  In spite of the hype, the advertising and the relentless public relations, this just isn’t as south as we can get.

Look at a map of Key West and you will see that this southernmost point is very obviously not the southernmost point.  The Truman Annex Naval Air Station Key West, 2500 feet west by southwest of here, clearly extends farther south than the Southernmost Point Monument.  I was disturbed by this, with all the hype that the buoy gets.

Turns out there is a simple explanation.  The naval base was built up by humans.  It was not here the first time humans were.  It is not natural.  It doesn’t count.

Also, civilians are not allowed on this government land without a special reason (as if Southern Pointing isn’t a reason!)  So everyone, especially the general public, is forced to overlook this land.  By our fractured reasoning, if you can’t experience it directly, it doesn’t exist.

These are valid reasons for this naval base not actually being the southernmost point.  It is not accessible to regular non-military humans, but more to the point, this land was built up by humans and not by natural Earthly means.

Briefly, a question that we encounter at several state high points (Delaware, Florida and Connecticut, for example) is, Does it count as the high point if it has been built, rather than, so to speak, grown?  If I build a higher mound, can I count it as a natural feature?  I say no.  So the spit of Fort Taylor land, where you find the naval air station, is not worth a spit, as far as the southern claim goes.

No matter.  This business is all a lot of (tropical) hot air as the southernmost point on Key West, and therefore the United States, is in Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, right next door, and not on the naval base, or at the buoy, at all.


Next day.  We must scurry forth and visit this place, score this southern point, get to the <real> southernmost spot in the US of A.  This is our last morning here, vacation is progressing.  We leave our hotel in the morning, making this all-important stop to get to this elusive magical place, the southern point of the whole country.  We pay our $6.50 admission fee to enter this heavily secured Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.  Well, it feels heavily secured, the entry station by the gate in the ten-foot high, metal fence with the points on top like spears, and a few other features harken back to more bellicose, Civil War times.  These features all feel like protection against danger.  I wonder, however, how secure the place is if you can get clearance by surrendering six dollars and fifty cents.

Security?  Start with the names of interest here:  Navy Lodge and the Fort Key West Fortress.  There is Battery Seminole, Battery Osceola, Battery Adair, Battery 231.  A battery is a collection of artillery such as guns and cannons.  There are cannons here!  At one time Fort Taylor boasted 140 guns including 10-inch beasts capable of firing up to three miles.  I mean, it’s a fort!

Fearless, we drive the park road until we get to the picnic area parking lot.  Strolling out to the south-facing beach, it is clear where the ever-changing shoreline is at this moment.  Is this an ever-changing southern point?

We are told that this beach hosts Key West’s most spectacular sunsets where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Gulf of Mexico.  That would be fun but it’s eight o’clock in the morning.

We stroll along the beach, getting our bearings, carefully watching our compass needle point north so we can continue to move 180° in the opposite direction.  We pass numerous Lycra-clad, middle-age bodies engaged in Yoga on the Beach.  We briefly watch a short, sturdy man putting up beach umbrellas in straight rows…

UMBRELLA SET WITH 2 LOUNGE CHAIRS     $30

…getting ready for the day.


Rocks inlaid with fossils are scattered, huge pieces of driftwood have washed up along the shore.  Pelicans remind us of what graceful, nearly effortless flight looks like.  A large fence divides our beach from the Naval Base beach.

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park is the southernmost park in the US of A.  Zachary Taylor however, was definitely not the southernmost president.

We scramble onto a rock jetty, getting a sense of the local geography.  Adjacent are four rock piles just off shore, one clearly farther south than the others.  This is our target.  This is the southernmost point in the United States!  (Um, no it isn’t.)  We can almost get to it but the water is just too deep.

This rock pile, just off the shore, looks about as south as you can get in the whole danged country.  But y’know, it’s just not as far south as the country gets.  Still, we are not at the southern point.

This is turning out to be tougher than it appeared at the start.  I mean, someone says here it is, so you come here and celebrate, until someone else says, no, here it isn’t, and they’re right.  So you do it again in another location and so on.  Why the difficulty?

For one thing, much of southern Florida is swampland.  Go far enough south on this gigantic peninsula and Florida just kind of peters out in a ragged edge.  But a lot of that edge is variable swamp which gradually transitions into ocean waters.  Where does the land end and the marshy swamp begin?  If you are looking for the southernmost point on the mainland, be prepared to change your mind.  Often.

Then there are all these islands, this String of Pearls, maybe as many as 1700 of ‘em, making up the Keys.

And more, how do you distinguish between an island and, say, a plain ole rock that sits a little further out in the ocean?  And then maybe there’s a partially submerged rock that’s even farther south.

Truth be told, Key West isn’t even the southernmost island in the String of Pearls.  Nope, that honor goes to the privately-owned Ballast Key, between Man Key and Woman Key, surrounded by ocean ten miles west of Key West and about two miles south.  Two miles south!  Seems a gimme to visit here and make the southernmost visitor claim, eh?

Ballast Key was owned by David Wolkowsky, a visionary and preservationist who helped transform Key West from a boisterous Navy town into a bohemian haven and tourist destination.  He entertained numerous hot shots like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Edward Heath and dignitaries from other countries, the Bee Gees and hoards of other famous folks.  He gave Jimmy Buffett his first break by having him perform at his bar.

If you want to hit the southernmost point, I recommend you not go to Ballast Key to visit with David Wolkowsky, the developer.  For one thing, he is currently dead and gregarious as he was, he may not appreciate your visit.  Second, unauthorized visitors, which means uninvited visitors, are strictly prohibited.  Third, upon his death, the Monroe County Commission voted to rename the island David Wolkowsky Key.  Ballast Key is no more.

And fourth, this is not the southernmost point in the United States.

Seriously?

To clear up a loose end, David Wolkowsky Key is the southernmost land permanently above waterline.

Or maybe it is Western Dry Rocks.

It really is Western Dry Rocks, but if you choose Western Dry Rocks, in spite of the name, you’ve got to depend on the tide.  Which is to say that sometimes it’s there, and sometimes “Western Wet Rocks” might be a more accurate description

So of all these southernmost places — the buoy, the naval base, the pile of rocks in the state park, David Wolkowsky Key or Western Dry Rocks — none of these are the southernmost place.  None.  In fact, the southernmost point in the United States isn’t even in Florida.  All that precedes is just plain hype.

Oh really?  Is there even a southernmost point?  If so, just where the hell is it?

I am pleased to report that, in our Highpointing endeavors, Lisa and I have visited the southernmost American place.  Yes, we have.  It is on the beach on the Big Island of Hawaii.  It’s called Ka Lae and is the actual southern point of the whole, entire United States of America.  Yes it is.


Umm…  No it isn’t.  You can actually go farther south and be in the United States.  Rose Atoll in American Samoa, considered to be United States controlled territory, is way out there in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, in the southern hemisphere, very far southwest of Hawaii.

And there you go.

No, there you don’t go.  If you include American jurisdiction, there is technically a more southern place.  Get yourself down to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the scientific research facility owned and run by American people.  This is Antarctica.  Even if you don’t understand geographical coordinates, you will appreciate the location of this outpost.  Find it at 90°0’0”S 0°0’0”E.  You can’t be any more south of here and still be on Earth.

Lisa and I are going with Hawaii.  Ka Lae is the southernmost point in the United States of America.  Okay, to put a fine point on it, Ka Lae is the southernmost point in any of the United States of America.  And that’s that.

Also, Hawaii is very romantic, good for an end to this column.

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