Sugarloaf Key, Florida: Keeping Good Company

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

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