State by State

Apparently there is an entire country between Boston and San Francisco.


by Natalia

The option to visit Fort Jefferson is left to the passengers of M/V Spree and I try to lobby for it. According to Damian my public relation skills are on par with those of BP executives so I don’t expect much. But the dive master in charge of the trip planning describes it as groovy, plus the tropical wave threatens to collapse, so it’s decided we’ll skip one dive and do the fort. Hooray!!!

Tropical wave is the south equivalent of an Arctic front: one of those meteorological terms that mean the weather can change for the worse. Spree docks with a thump as the squall starts. 15 minutes later the torrential rain is over leaving fresh cool air. We are the only people left on an islet, not counting few campers and resident park staff, as Spree can dock only after all the ferries from Key West leave.

The fort appears empty and abandoned. We walk leisurely the grounds observing the scene of a battle against nature. The battle which humans are clearly losing. Contradictory preservation efforts don’t help: blowing up the barracks damaged by fire is followed by meticulous restoration of rusted iron shutters. The fort has been doomed since inception. No fresh water, hurricanes, and, most recently, tourists. Cisterns to collect rain water cracked under the fort weight letting salt water seep in. Same happened earlier at Fort Taylor in nearby Key West but do we ever learn? No enemy attack needed here. And none came: there are miles and miles of water to sail around beyond the range of guns. The strategic importance of the place, nonexistent in the age of satellites and iPads, was disputed even before the fort was built. Used as a fort, a prison and finally as a marine quarantine station now enjoys its old age as a part of the national park serving as a reminder of the typical manly overreach.

The only invasion that it had to endure came strangely from Key West when federal government closed down National Park Service during 1995 budget crisis. Closing the national park was hurting local economy so flotilla of city officials under the flag of Conch Republic arrived at the fort trying to reopen it for tourists. Columbines, bastions and moat were not part of the defense plan, a simple citation was sufficient.

The most recent restoration effort consumes millions of dollars from the latest stimulus package. Nothing stimulates economy better then maintaining remote heaps of bricks.

Fort Jefferson is in the middle of nowhere. 70 miles of water separates it from the closest American settlement - Key West. And only 90 miles from Cuba. It sees a fair share of Cuban refugees in tiny unlit boats. They use light from the nearby Loggerhead Key Lighthouse as a beacon. If they are caught at sea they are turned back by the Coast Guard, if they land on American soil they can stay. Desolation meets desperation.


It feels good to stay away from the ocean for a brief moment. The comfort of walking straight, of taking shower without being periodically thrown into the stall. Even a small comfort of pissing while standing up. But I know already what I am going to miss starting tomorrow. My inept giant strides into the abyss, coolness of immeasurable waters, an OK from Melanie on the deck responding to my fist on the head salute. I’ll miss weightlessness, the calm, the multidimensional space around me. I’ll miss hiding from the current behind coral heads and looking at graceful, never ending dance of submerged universe. And the excitement of spotting shark gliding nearby. I’ll miss the experience of being juggled in my bunk as the boat makes its way home though choppy seas. It’s the sensation not much different from skiing in the fresh powder. Except of course the there are no skis. Or snow.


Not sure how it happened, but we are suddenly lost. We are supposedly in Picayune Strand State Forest. We arrived here driving a scenic county road that was described in one of the state park guides. We could always retrace our steps but it’s getting dark and 15 miles of the narrow dirt road that led us here does not look appealing. Not to mention the fact that it would put us back in the middle of nowhere and we are getting rather hungry.