Above:  I camped overnight at the Tortugas, then headed back to Key West.  After getting off the boat, I drove back to Bahia Honda State Park and camped there that evening.

Day #2 on the Tortugas

I woke at 2 a.m., trying to remember where I was.  The wind had picked up and was blowing through the small campground at a good clip, and it was whipping the sides of my tent a bit, so in the darkness I reached into my daypack and pulled out my earplugs.  Other than the breeze, I greatly enjoyed camping that evening on Garden Key, a beautiful and tranquil tropical island 70 miles from civilization, with bright stars and a half-moon overhead.  Nope, no RV generators here!  I've camped hundreds (thousands?) of nights in places all over the world, from the Australian Outback and the South Pacific to the Arabian desert, but this was a unique experience being so far from anything.

The morning dawned sunny, bright and warm, and after eating breakfast (and being the history buff I am) I wandered back into Fort Jefferson – likely the first visitor to the fort that day.  The lighting was perfect so I climbed onto a rampart and took a 360° panorama photo.  After spending a few hours exploring every crevice and cranny of the fort, I glanced to the east and spied the Yankee Freedom fast approaching across the choppy, blue sea.  Alas, I realized that my quiet solitude would soon end.  The boat pulled in at 10 a.m. and, sure enough, another swarm of visitors unloaded and scattered in all directions, thus starting the daily cycle in the Tortugas once again.

There was still one part of the Tortugas I hadn’t explored, though:  neighboring Bush Key, which adjoins Garden Key.  I walked on the sandy beach for about a half-mile to the end of deserted Bush Key, then sprawled out on a nice, sandy spot and savored the incredible “red, white and blue” view:  the red fort in the distance, the white sandy beach, and the turquoise blue lagoon with its 80-degree waters.

I glanced at my watch an hour later, got up and brushed off the sand, then reluctantly wandered back to the dock and the Yankee Freedom, where I made my way up to the top deck.  The crowded boat left the dock at 3 p.m. and we headed back to Key West at 20 knots, rolling and rocking through the three-foot swells, but everyone on deck was in a good mood and I struck up a conversation with a couple of women sitting next to me, who were in their early 30s and from Ohio.  One of them was a solar energy lab scientist and told me some interesting stories about her work. 

One last treat was in store, however – although I was probably the only one on board who knew (or cared).  An hour into our trip back to Key West, we passed a small island on our port side:  Ballast Key, the southernmost point of land in the contiguous United States. 

Many folks think Key West is the southernmost point of the continental United States but I'm sorry to disappoint both readers and the Key West Chamber of Commerce.  If you don’t include islands, then Cape Sable in the Everglades on the Florida mainland is the southernmost point of the contiguous U.S.  But if you include islands, then Ballast Key is the southernmost point.  As for poor Key West?  Well, it’s the southernmost city (and the southernmost place you can drive to) in the contiguous U.S.  But it’s not the southernmost point of anything else, despite the large and colorful concrete buoy there that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists (and their selfies) every year, which is printed with bold letters that boldly state, "The Southernmost Point in the Continental U.S."

I took several pictures of Ballast Key on the rocking boat as we cruised by it, then returned to my seat and shared this titillating information, about the southernmost point of land, with my seatmates from Ohio.  I was surprised that they seemed intrigued.  Hmm… potential Extreme Geographers?  Or maybe just being polite?

The Yankee Freedom pulled into the Key West harbor just before sunset.  It had been an amazing trip.  I’ve been to lots of places around the world but this experience, just 70 miles from Key West, was one of the very best. 

The Dry Tortugas:  Day #2



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