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Key West summer

Key West summer | Fort Zach, sunburn and that Old Town traffic snarl

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

06/28/2023

Sitting in the shade of a gnarly sea grape, smack upside the Navy fence and a few yards from the water isn’t what I usually get to do on a Tuesday morning. Most folks who live in Key West do what everyone on the mainland does on a weekday: work, run errands, take care of the kids; you know the drill. It’s a Key West summer.

I think it surprises off-islanders when they figure out that if one lives on a tropical island in the middle of the ocean and 160 miles or so from the real world, one doesn’t often get a weekday to do the stuff vacation-minded folks do.

Tuesday I went to the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. We had our pick of early morning shady spots with great views and we sat for four hours doing nothing but sharing the occasional desultory conversation, reading and getting ridiculously giddy when there’d be a breeze. We never got near the water, much less in it, though it was lovely.

Key West summer
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park beach, Tuesday, June 27. 2023. Don’t you wish you were sitting right there?

Summer in Key West: 3 observations from Fort Zach

Three observations from Tuesday morning:

First, a note to Dear Un-sunned People. You’re going to burn, fry, blister and assorted other horrible skin things if you don’t cover up. Beach visitors, it appears, come in three varieties:

  • The “oh, I never burn” variety who spend time in tanning beds. By the end of Tuesday, those tanned little backsides are going to be burned in ways you’ll not be able to sit.
  • The “I missed some places yesterday” folks whose attempts at self-sun-blocking went awry. There are irregular white patches in weird and hard-to-reach places, while the skin all around looks exactly like Larry the Lobster — except cooked. One guy Tuesday morning needed a shirt because with day two burning down on his day-one skin, that poor boy’s going need some painkiller.
  • And, there’s the “It makes no sense, I know, but I like the beach” folks who cover up from head to toe. These are the smart ones. They’re joined by the only slightly less cautious ones who wear a hat, shirt and shorts even in the shade. With lots of sunscreen. The all-mineral reef-saver kinds that skip the harmful chemicals. Smart folks those are. And, honestly, there are way more smart ones than you might think, though I remain worried about that hot-pink-on-white dude.

Second, yes, there are fish. Even sharks. I swear I will never again lift my head from snorkeling and say something like, “Nah, didn’t see anything.” At Fort Zach, as at Fort Jefferson when we camped there in May, snorkelers are just plain clueless about what’s around them in the water.

They paddle along, looking for something on the sandy bottom, oblivious to the school of tarpon playing tag inches beyond their peripheral vision. At least a dozen tarpon encircled one snorkeler Tuesday; she never saw them. She probably also didn’t see the shark when she wandered way past the channel markers and into the deep stuff. OK. OK. There was no shark. I think.

There was that one time at Fort Jefferson where I did, indeed, see a shark as I was snorkeling above. I think it would have been OK then to raise my head and say, “I saw a shark.” Instead, I raised my head and realized I was so deep into the main channel that my next words were “You’re gonna die. Swim. Now.”

Key West summer

What to take with you to Zach

  • Chair
  • Beverage AND water
  • A nibble if you’re peckish
  • Something to read (maybe)
  • A towel, water shoes if swimming
  • Sunscreen, the safe kind
  • Earbuds if you need tunes
  • A hat and shirt with sleeves
  • And, that’s it.

And the third observation from Tuesday? It’s Key West summer roadwork season and it’s a good thing we didn’t have to rely on Google Maps to get us around town. Pretty much you can assume you’ll be going around your elbow to get to your, well, ankle if your destination is west of Whitehead or downtown. The Florida Department of Transportation is redoing Whitehead Street from Fleming to Truman. (Yes, Whitehead is a state road; even has a number, SR5.)

Every car with a local decal is headed for the “secret” cut-overs, only to be foiled at an intersection. Every bus, dump truck, trash truck and delivery truck is doing the same. Our poor visitors are looking at GPS screens with the wild-eyed panic usually reserved for snorkelers who see sharks.

Before you head downtown this summer in a vehicle bigger than a bread box, practice that deep, chest-expanding inhale that sucks in your tummy, clenches your backside and makes you think you’re thinner than you really are and that, likewise, so is your car. You and your vehicle need to be at least that thin if you’re gonna keep your side mirrors.

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Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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