If there’s one thing I could count on with Ruth, it was that I was going to eat. I may get wind blown; I may get rain drenched, but I’d never get hungry. It was another 199.9 miles to Key Largo where I was to meet Gus, Carl, and Bill at Ed and Ellen’s Motel. I had rain. I had a very heavy, low cloud cover. I watched trees and palms whipping in the wind. But, I munched contentedly and continuously from a packed, insulated lunch sack that was straining its seams. Another new experience was passing nine highway caution signs for panther traffic, and panther crossing areas. Just to emphasize that they were serious, two had double flashing yellow lights while they warned of “Panther Crossing, Next 3 miles.” We were entering the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail, a 165-mile road that leads through marshes, wildlife areas, camping areas, and Indian villages.
L-R: me, Carl Anderson (Fernandina Beach, FL); Gus Bianchi (Orange Park, FL)
The Thin One, AKA Bill Finley (Hernando, FL)
I passed Ed and Ellen’s Motel four times. Once you find it, it’s quite pleasant to find yourself buried in a thick, wooded grove, but from the highway, it’s all wooded grove and no motel. The little yellow sign for the motel is high in the tree branches and almost impossible to see. It was only about another 15-minutes before Gus, Carl and Bill pulled in towing their boats on a trailer. We threw our bags in the room, and headed off for dinner. Gus, the one with all the local knowledge, was bound to show us the sights, so he took us on a road trip.
Credit: Florida State Parks
Our first stop was Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, an elaborate title for a quarry. The fossilized coral was cut in large slabs for the construction of the Florida East Coast Railroad by Henry Flagler in the early 1900’s, and smaller cuttings continued until the 1960’s. The display allows you to see the coral, and how the huge sections are cut and moved. The sign on the steel gate across the drive explained that the park was open Friday through Sunday. It was Wednesday.
Credit: Yachting Magazine
The next stop was at the World Wide Sportsman, a Bass Pro shop on Islamorada Key. They have anything you’d expect to find at any Bass Pro, but one thing was unique. They have Ernest Hemingway’s M/V Pilar, or at least her sistership. Indeed Hemingway fished from this boat in 1933. He loved it so much, he decided he needed one just like it, and in 1934 contracted for her construction by Wheeler Boat Yard in Brooklyn, NY, for $7,500. With this, he knew he could pursue the great game fish of the Gulf Stream. She was christened ‘Pilar” as his pet name for his wife, Pauline, and also the heroine in “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” The two boats are as identical as can be. Both shared berths in Key West through the 1930‘s. Both participated in World War II for the Navy. Hemingway used his to patrol for U-Boats off the North Coast of Cuba. This boat appeared in the Bogart and Bacall movie “Key Largo” in 1948, bearing the name “Santana”. In the 1950’s, she showed up in the Bahamas as the “Blue Heron” in a movie of the same name.
Hemingway and his beloved Pilar
After his divorce from Pauline in 1940, he relocated to Havana with Pilar, and berthed her in a small fishing village that was the inspiration for “The Old Man and The Sea.” He came to the U.S. in 1960 with his fourth wife, Mary, expecting to return, but the Cuban Revolution and the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 cut off his return to his beloved Pilar. He became clinically depressed. In July, he put a bullet through his head, and Mary gave Pilar to his long-time friend and Pilar’s captain, Gregorio Fuentes. Fuentes was so distraught over the loss of his friend, he never used Pilar again, and it was eventually moved and blocked on the tennis court at Hemingway’s home, where it remains in poor condition. Fuentes passed away in 2002 at the age of 104.
The Bass Pro boat was completely rebuilt and then rechristened by Mina Hemingway, Ernest’s granddaughter, as M/V Pilar in October, 1997. Sadly, the boat was surrounded by so many racks of men’s fishing shirts, a photograph of the boat was hardly worth the effort, so I’ve used some pictures found on line.
Gus coaxing tarpon at Robbie's Marina.
The next stop was the famous pier at Robbie’s, where 50-100 huge tarpon gather at the pier to be fed by hand, as they leap at the dangling bait fish hard enough to occasionally engulf half your arm. Well, on some days. On this day, it was still cold, windy, and gray. The tarpon were in no mood for gymnastics. If you dropped the bait in front of their mouth, they’d swallow it with a loud smack, but they weren’t about to work for it.
Credit: Tod Madar and Robbie's
My son once wrote a paper for school while living in St. Thomas about American tourists. It was so derogatory that the teacher sent us a note to express her concern over his apparent dark state of mind. In other words, his article was honest and insightful. When the girl on the pier at Robbie's tried to exlain why the fish acted barely alive, I decided to play the tourist card just for the heck of it. I said, “Well, it’s been raining. They don’t want to get wet.” She shot me that blank look that says, “Okay, your lights are on, but there’s no one home.”