Some places are more “salty” than others. Not surprisingly, they all have a close relationship with water…with the fringes. Key West, Florida, U.S.A. is one of them.
Key West is the southernmost island in the chain of islands that dangles like a string of pearls off the southern tip of Florida. My wife Lynn and I visited last month while scouting retirement locations on the mainland (see previous post).
Residents call their tiny speck in the ocean the “Conch Republic.” (Conchs are small, meaty, edible monstrosities that find homes in those shells you hold to your ear to hear the ocean.) In 1982, after a stress-inducing U.S. Border Patrol roadblock, locals became angry and seceded from the United States. Sort of. It was a mock secession, but residents use the incident now to boost tourism. Key West even flies its own micro-nation flag. These folks obviously have a great sense of humor.
For such a small place, Key West has a lot going for it. Here’s a quick tour:
We stayed with friends Dave and Robin at the condo they rent every year. I met this super-friendly retired couple while hiking the Appalachian Trail last year. (Their permanent home is in the mountain village of Hiawassee, Georgia.) Although we only had a brief meeting on trail, we hit it off. They invited us to stay with them, and now we’re like old friends.
The first night the four of us ate at Half Shell Raw Bar, where I satisfied my craving for seafood with raw oysters and conch fritters. The following morning, Dave and I hiked around the island for several hours while Robin and Lynn hung out at the condo.
Then Lynn and I embarked on a whirlwind (hurricane) tour of tourist spots. First we saw the Harry S. Truman Little White House where, beginning in 1946, President Harry Truman spent 175 days of his presidency. His famous desk plaque that says “The Buck Stops Here” is on one of the desks. Other presidents, dating to William Howard Taft, have also stayed here…some, like 45, who pass the buck more than others.
Next, we had nachos and Key lime pie (a KW essential) at the original Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Duval Street, which ranks with Bourbon Street, Times Square, and Court Street at my alma mater (Ohio University) for party spirit. Although I’m closer to Deadhead than Parrothead, food is what mattered at this moment, and Buffett’s came through for us (largest pile of nachos—a veritable food castle—I’d ever seen). Also, friendly service by an actual lifetime resident…a Conch, not a recently arrived Freshwater Conch.
(NOTE: authentic Key lime pie is always pale yellow, never green. Don’t get the wrong color!)
The next stop was the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A. We actually hit this place by accident while strolling around. The spot is identified by a large, concrete, buoy-type structure painted an ugly red, black, and yellow. (The structure was vandalized this past New Year’s Eve by two drunken tourists who couldn’t get laid).
It’s important to know that this is not the southernmost point of the U.S., merely the contiguous U.S. (The true southernmost location in the U.S. is the south tip of the island of Hawaii.) It’s also worth noting that the concrete buoy is designed merely for tourist purposes. (The actual southern tip of Key West is a half mile west at the Naval Air Station.) Also, while advertised as only “90 miles from Cuba,” the distance is actually 94 miles; four miles is a lot of ocean to dog-paddle.
As John Lennon sang, “Just gimme some truth.”
But I guess a lot of people choose to ignore truth, because they dutifully line up in sweltering heat to have their photo taken while posing next to this large, ugly, recently vandalized, painted cement buoy.
Continuing on, we passed the Key West AIDS Memorial at White Street and Atlantic Boulevard near Higgs Beach (one of two sand beaches on the island). Key West has long been known as a community sympathetic to gays, and the memorial has engraved names of 1,240 people in the Florida Keys who died from complications of AIDS. It was the first municipal tribute to AIDS victims in the world.
Speaking of profound tragedies, further down is a memorial to Africans who in 1860 were rescued by the U.S. Navy from a Cuban-bound slave ship, the Wildfire. Despite their rescue, over 300 died from disease and malnourishment and were buried in a mass grave beneath the sand.
I found these last two memorials more interesting than the Southernmost Point. And, of course, there were fewer people.
The following day, Dave joined me in a jaunt to the Ernest Hemingway House on Whitehead Street. Here’s where one of America’s greatest writers lived from 1931-39. “Papa” wrote several long and short works here, including his popular short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
“You might as well take my last cent,” a disgusted Hemingway said as he thrust a penny at his second wife, Pauline. She’d recently built a pool that was two-and-a-half times the cost of the property. (Guess she thought this was cute, because she preserved the penny in concrete.) And lazing and prowling around the property are dozens of six- and seven-toed (polydactyl) cats. It’s still speculative that the felines are descended from a Hemingway cat named “Snowball.”
A writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.Ernest Hemingway
Southern-Gothic playwright Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also lived in Key West, though we missed a visit to his house. We also need to someday submerge ourselves in the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. Fisher was an American treasure hunter who, in 1973, discovered the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which had sunk in Florida waters in 1622.
That’s about it, mainlanders. Hope you enjoyed the tour, and next time you eat Key lime pie, make sure it’s not green.