One of my secret shames is how little sightseeing I have done in my own backyard. Occasionally, I will be in some far-away place and a local or fellow traveler will learn that I'm from Miami. This will inevitably prompt them to tell me all about a long list of attractions in South Florida that they have been to and I, invariably, have not. The closer the attraction to my home, the more I hate to own up to it. Towards the top of this long list is Coral
Castle, which is located in Homestead, about 40 minutes away. Coral Castle is one of those great, bizarro roadside attractions erected by an eccentric genius/ madman that I normally flock to whenever given half the chance. Yesterday, thanks to a slow work week and its resulting over-abundance of free time, I realized that perhaps, this was my half a chance (chance and a half?), so I grabbed Shawn, my mother and a camera and headed down to Homestead.
The eccentric in question was a tiny Latvian named Ed Leedskalnin, who, if all the promotional literature is to believed, was jilted at the alter by the money-grubbing sixteen year old love of his life. This heartbreak somehow led him to leave Latvia, bring his broke self down to Florida and construct this "castle" out of limestone in order to prove his love to her. To this day there is no conclusive explanation as to how this one man, working alone, was able to manipulate 30+ tons of limestone for the construction of Coral Castle , using no conventional tools, no assistance and no beasts of burden. The mystery is often compared to the building of the Pyramids, albeit with a slightly melodramatic angle. It is all touted as terribly romantic, yet somehow I have always found the story to be a bit too obsessive and creepy. It is a driving down to Florida while wearing diapers, carrying mace, rubber tubing and a mallet-kind of obsessive. No way was I going to sympathize with Ed. That was... until we met our guide Ray. Ray has been a guide at Coral Castle for seven years, and his passion for his work is evident. He proudly begins the tour by letting you know that the information you are about to receive can not be found in any brochure. Considering that the brochure we are given at the entrance is nothing but romantic schlock (re: the bed she would never sleep in and the cradle for the children they would never have) this, to me at least, is good news. Then for the next 2 hours or so, Ray proceeds to explain the powers of electromagnetism, astrology and geometry which he feels are the keys to solving this mystery. He does so with the contagious zeal of an evangelist. He does repeated demonstrations where he has volunteers extend their dominant arm straight out while standing outside of an electro-magnetic field. He then tries to push that arm back down, but is always unable to do so. Yet, when he puts them within the electromagnetic field, the volunteers are helpless to offer any resistance. He shows us the clever ways in which Ed left clues as to the locations of these electromagnetic currents and even how he was able to direct and re-direct the energy to be found within his compound. Ray points out references and homages to Greek and Egyptian deities hidden throughout the garden. He shows us a telescope Ed built into the compound which will always show the North Star, regardless of the season. He takes particular pride in showing us a sun dial which is precise to within minutes, even today, 56 years after Ed's death. Where there are posted signs which obviously refer to the whole love story that they are trying to sell, he dismissively tells of reporters that concocted "facts" in order to make the whole thing more interesting. He never denies the existence of Agnes, the greedy Lolita, but in the end, he paints a picture of a man who through extensive studying and sheer determination was able to unlock secrets that still are not fully known to scientists. He repeatedly reminds us that this man, who was working at the level of an advanced geo-physicist, never achieved more than a fourth grade education. By the end, we are all in awe of Ed and what he was able to accomplish. Ray's explanation, while infinitely more complicated than "man gets dumped, man builds castle" is also infinitely more interesting. I am thrilled that I did not wait any longer to visit Coral Castle because I know that the day that Ray retires, the tours will stick to the brochures, and a great disservice will be done to both Coral Castle and Ed's memory.
Now, I can not wait until the next time someone asks me if I have been to Coral Castle. 'Of course I have', I'll tell them, 'what self respecting Floridian would pass that up?' I just wonder how I can get Ray to start giving tours in the Everglades and Butterfly World...