We anchored. I put on a wet suit and snorkel and jumped into the water. It was cold -- about 68 degrees. And, when I'd gotten my bearings and cleared my mask, I saw I was surrounded by about 20 barracuda.
Immediately I surfaced, and shouted something up to the naturalist on the boat.
"It's barracuda mating season," he said. "They won't hurt you."
Not entirely confident of his assessment -- and with teeth chattering from the cold -- I returned to the boat, where moments later, another snorkeler also returned, lashed and stung by jellyfish tentacles.
It turned out to be a good day to move over to Deer Run. My room there was smaller than at the Barnacle, and had neither couch nor coffee table; just a bed, night table, dresser and bath with stall shower -- standard motel accouterments. But there was a Jacuzzi out in back on the shallow beach. There, at sunset, I poured a glass of white wine, jumped in and settled back to watch a parade of Key deer -- three bucks, a couple of yearlings and eight does. As I toweled dry, one brave doe came up and licked my hand -- a close encounter much more pleasant than the one with flirting barracuda.
My increasing affection for the Key deer put a major crimp in my night life. Although the animals seemed ubiquitous around the guest houses, they are still endangered; local authorities estimate there are only about 800 altogether. A nighttime speed limit of 35 miles an hour is in effect along the stretch of U.S. 1 that goes through Big Pine, and like most deer-infatuated tourists, I drove even more slowly, aghast at the idea of colliding with Bambi. Since it took longer to get around, I stuck to close-by eateries on the island.
An excellent health food store, the Good Food Conspiracy, had inexpensive, delicious vegetarian pita sandwiches. At dinner, I ventured only about 12 miles to Sugarloaf Key, to the classic Florida seafood joint Mangrove Mama's, where a plate of mahi-mahi washed down with a glass of iced tea was around $18.
Key West was still on my mind, but the more attached I grew to Big Pine the less I wanted to drive down there. Finally, on my last Keys day, I did visit for about three hours. But after three days among the animals, Key West felt too much like the big city. I wandered through Ernest Hemingway's splendid green-shuttered tropical house (now a museum), where I played in the garden with the famous six-toed cats (descendants, it is said, of Hemingway's menagerie), and I ate a quick sandwich and a too-sweet slice of Key Lime pie in The Deli diner, and drove back north.
It was a relief to get back to Big Pine, even though the only room I could find on a Friday night was in the Big Pine Motel, a classic two-story highway stop with bright yellow doors and a front-and-center view of U.S. 1. High season plus weekend demand had pushed its regular price of $65 up to $89 -- too much for the bare, chain-style boxes with double beds, but since the alternative was a long drive to Miami, I took it.
No Key deer roamed the Big Pine's asphalt parking lot, but it did have one big thing going for it. Directly across the two-lane highway stood KD's Seafood and Bar. Emily Graves, the naturalist, had recommended KD's as the best place to eat and drink in town, and I trusted her judgment in night life as in wildlife. Best of all, I could walk there and have a drink without worrying about colliding with deer (at least in a car).
But how would KD's do on the Keys Bar Conviviality Test? I walked in, sat down and waited. Soon, the bartender had introduced herself, given me her thoughts on the night's menu (she steered me well, to the fish chowder), and concocted a rum punch according to my instructions. In the next 15 minutes, the guy at the next stool with the gray beard and long hair had recounted the 30-year history of KD's, complete with name changes and literary references (it had appeared in a Thomas McGuane novel, he said). He then began to chronicle the ups and downs of his three marriages. ("The last was the best. It always is.")
KD's, and Big Pine Key, had passed, with distinction.