The sun rises at 6:34 a.m. Knowing the campground won’t be open for a few hours yet, I linger, basking in the scenic perfection and the surprising solitude. For now, it is a morning of sweet breezes, but it promises to be a scorcher of a day. Sometime after 8, I reluctantly leave the birds to saddle up again and ride to a Cuban coffeehouse. I order a large Cuban coffee, with milk and sugar. “You know what Cuban coffee is, right,” the barista asks me. I think I do, so I say yes. The coffee arrives in a skyscraper disguised as a Styrofoam cup. I taste it. The first sip is like diving headlong, mouth open, into a lake of pure cane granulated sugar. Apparently, Cuban coffee comes heavily sweetened from the start. My inadvertent order has made it undrinkable. I ride away with the cup and toss it into the first public trash bin I see. Then I find a patch of ground next to the darkened campground and read the day’s newspapers.
Today’s Key West Citizen has a story about a local man who fell from a balcony while trying to leap from the second floor at Rick’s Bar to a nearby tree. Also, 13 people have already died in Bike Week accidents in Daytona. The Miami Herald has a 16-page tribute to retired Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. They’re naming a street after him and building a statue of him.
At 10 a.m. I go to the office and grab the map to my address at 92A, Boyd’s Key West Campground, the southernmost camping spot in the U.S. The site is located on the ocean. I’m on a peninsula that stretches out past the mangroves, equidistant between two bathhouses, somewhere off the road where Amberjack Avenue turns into North Porpoise Point. The campground features several docks, a boat ramp, a marina, an outdoor lobster table and a fish table next to the dumping station. Near the entrance, there is a heated pool with a Tiki hut and a large-screen TV. I quickly unpack and set up my pup tent, then enter it and sleep for a couple of hours, leaving the flap open to invite any available sea breezes. But the sun beats down relentlessly, and so I wake before I want to, promising myself an early bed in the cooler part of the day. Before leaving camp, though, I decide to take a shower and then try out the heated pool. By now it’s just after the noon hour. The glare on the poolside TV washes out the image, turning it into a 72-inch radio, broadcasting the opening rounds of the NCAA basketball’s March Madness tournament. Mostly I just float, swim, sunbathe, repeat. Just beyond the pool, someone’s cockatoo calls out “Fred? Fred? Where are you, Fred? Fred?” Fred stays missing, or at least remains unresponsive to the cockatoo, during the length of my leisurely swim.
It turns out that the noisy cockatoo only ranks near the bottom of oddities at this campground. Here, people can mail coconuts to friends back home, using the husk instead of an envelope for an address, stamp and scripted message. A man named Lake patrols the grounds, selling illegal coral and shark’s tooth jewelry to willing coeds. (He always avoids me and my notebook, however, and seems to worry that I might write about his illicit trade. Which is a good call on his part.) Tourists routinely practice blowing into conch shells, which generally sounds like someone practicing tuba with a gunshot wound. The place is overrun with college kids on spring break, emptying out during the day, but visible early every morning in their sprawled-out, passed-out, prone selves, lying on the roofs of cars, on picnic tables, or on the hard ground, often without cover, collectively and unconsciously performing as a camp-wide chorus of snoring. My tent, positioned so close to one of the campground roads, turns out to be a bit of a hazard. On this night, after an early dinner and an evening watching the turtle races at Turtle Kraals, I wake to a flood of headlights and the sound of brakes squealing, with a Jeep’s tire stopped just inches away from a tent stake, about a foot from my head. The driver, drunk, leaves her Jeep there. She opens the car door, stumbles around, trips over my tent, and slurs loudly, “Jesus! It looks like a coffin. Is anybody in there?” Having woken with a start to recognize the precariousness of my life in that instant and having acknowledged that my continued existence on this planet in this dimension in this temporary timeline of human intrusion on the universe had depended on the braking ability of a wasted sorority girl who couldn’t find the road in her rented Jeep and was, at this moment, urinating on the ground next to my tent, all I can think of to say is, “Yup. Thanks for not running me over.” The trickle stops. Silence. Then the trickle starts again, Sorority Girl saying, “Jesus, that’s creepy.”