You might say that the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson sit at the end of the road in the continental U.S. Except there isn't any road. That's why I'm standing on the tarmac at the Key West International Airport, waiting to catch a seaplane.
Even though two high-speed passenger ferries make daily crossings to Dry Tortugas National Park, I want to go by air. It sounds like a fun adventure.
At a small office near the main terminal, Peter Green, who manages Seaplanes of Key West, issues passengers snorkeling gear and small coolers with water and soft drinks. He explains the ground rules for a day trip to the nation's most remote national park. Basically, you have to bring everything with you, including lunch. There are no concessions―not even drinking water.
Flying With Fred
Instead of boarding passes, seaplane passengers get plastic cards with background information about the pilots. I'm with Fred Cabanas, a stocky, easygoing aviator and fourth generation Conch, born and raised in Key West. He looks as if he parachuted right out of a Hemingway novel. One of the instructions on his card tells passengers, "Please do not ask him to fly upside down." Fred, who learned to fly when he was 16, ranks as one of the nation's top aerobatic pilots. When he isn't flying seaplanes, he regularly headlines air shows in his Pitts Special S-2C. His daughter pilots a Navy fighter on a carrier in the Persian Gulf.
In the Air
Fred races the single-engine seaplane down the runway, and we lift off, swooping past Key West and out over the aquamarine waters. I'm aboard with a couple from Austria and their 14-year-old daughter, who plan to spend their day snorkeling the coral reef around Fort Jefferson.
Flying low over the clear water makes me feel as if I'm looking down on a giant aquarium. I watch a pod of dolphins play and see dozens of sea turtles rise to the surface and descend. Ponce de León discovered the Tortugas in 1513 and named the string of islands for the abundant turtles his men loaded aboard their ship for food.
We pass over the Marquesas Islands and an area known as the Quicksands. I can see the forlorn mast of a sunken salvage vessel. It sits near the site where Mel Fisher's divers continue to bring up the vast silver, gold, and emerald treasures of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
In a few more minutes, what is believed to be the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere comes into view, rising like Gibraltar out of the Gulf. It's an astounding sight.
Tourists look forward to day trips now, but many of the travelers who came to Fort Jefferson at its zenith arrived in chains. Abraham Lincoln swelled the population in 1861 when he commuted the death sentence for military deserters to imprisonment on the Dry Tortugas.
A self-guided tour leads to the dank, dark cell of the most famous prisoner, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, convicted as a conspirator in Lincoln's assassination. "My legs and ankles are swollen and sore. . .imagine my gait with a bucket and broom, and a guard, walking around from one corner of the fort to another. . ." Dr. Mudd wrote when he was put in irons after trying to stow away on a departing ship. After his heroic efforts in a yellow fever epidemic, Dr. Mudd was pardoned and released in 1869.
Outside the thick walls, sunbathers rest on a white-sand beach, and snorkelers prowl the reef for parrot fish and other brightly colored species.
In late afternoon, Fred skims the seaplane across the water and lifts off. I watch Fort Jefferson fade into the wide blue sweep of the Gulf. I'm free to go, but this strange and beautiful place captures my imagination, just as it does for everyone who sees it.
"A Little Piece of America" is from the November 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.