The turquoise water and mangrove islands seen from the dock sold the author on her Sugarloaf Key home. (Robert Wallis)

Sugarloaf Key, Florida: Keeping Good Company

Observing ibises and kayaking among sharks, author Barbara Ehrenreich savors life "up the Keys"

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It is not always benevolent, this Presence. Oh, it can be as seductive as the scent of joewood flowers riding on a warm November breeze, as uplifting as the towering pink, self-important, Maxfield Parrish-type cumulus clouds that line up to worship the rising sun. But then, just like that, it can turn on you. I've gone out on the water on a perfectly inviting day only to find myself fighting for my life against a sudden wind and seas that had turned into foam. I learned to take kayaking more seriously—never going out without a water bottle, some trail mix and a plastic container for bailing. I learned to keep going when survival was not guaranteed, did not even seem likely, by uttering a loud, guttural "unhh!" with each stroke of the paddle—who was there to hear?—as a way of transcending exhaustion and fear.

When my companion and I separated, I held on to Sugarloaf and still go there when I can afford to and don't have a tenant. I get up at sunrise and go down to the dock to check out the fauna—the parrotfish, the snappers, maybe a barracuda or, most recently, a fair-sized octopus. At high tide, and if the wind permits, I kayak out to the still, sheltered spots in the mangrove islands where I know I can find little sharks, two to three feet long, to keep me company. In the evening, after watching the sun set, I have my white wine and grill some local grouper or mahi-mahi. All this may sound unenviably solitary, but do not imagine that I am alone.

Barbara Ehrenreich's most recent book is This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation.

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