My 32-year love affair with Key West
As I prepared for my wedding, back in the dark ages when no one I knew had a cell phone and ‘the internet’ was a new, unfamiliar word, airlines had 800 numbers you could call for travel agency-type help. I told the nice lady there that I had $1000 and wanted to go to a beach, and she suggested Key West, the southernmost tip of Florida (and the continental United States). I’d never heard of it but it fit my two requirements so that May my new husband and I boarded a plane and flew to Miami. We began to drive, and when we ran out of land we found ourselves in Key West–a little over seven square miles of palm trees, beaches, naval bases and homes that list for half a million dollars but could be bought for maybe $50K anywhere else.
We had a fun time despite sunburn and swimmer’s ear. We ate at the Half-Shell Raw Bar, remarkable to me because they never overcook the fried shrimp. (Not easy, given that the difference between cooked shrimp and overcooked shrimp is approximately ten nanoseconds.) In the ramshackle plaza near the Half Shell sat a small gift shop called Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffet’s first foray into retail. I was delighted to find that among his other offerings, he stocked the complete set of John D. MacDonald books. The teenage cashier remained smarmily unimpressed with my knowledge of detective literature, though she did unbend enough to say they had been very sad when John D. had passed away only six months before.
The secret to the island is that there isn’t that much to do—a few sites of historical significance, Ernest Hemingway’s home, the house Harry Truman worked from on his frequent visits, the ruins of a Civil-War era fort, a small aquarium, a cemetery where many of the victims from the U.S.S. Maine are buried, and that’s about it. It presents no obligation to improve one’s mind, merely to swim, eat, drink—there’s plenty of drinking—and do a little shopping. One is forced to actually relax.
|My husband walking through Fort Zachary Taylor
Fast-forward fifteen years. My husband and I had moved to Cape Coral, Florida, and as our anniversary approached we realized we could drive to Key West in 5-6 hours. We went for a long weekend. When we mentioned our story to local residents they invariably asked how we could recognize the place— in their view ‘so much had changed!’ Yet even today, the Best Western where we honeymooned is still there. The Sears where we bought a camera because neither of us had brought one is still open. Sloppy Joes, of course, is still a fixture, even though (myth alert) it is not the location at which Hemingway used to hang out, that bar is around the corner and now called Captain Tony’s. My beloved Half Shell Raw Bar is still there. (When we first returned I asked the hostess if fifteen years previously there had been a store called Margaritaville across the way—it had since migrated to a national scale. Then I looked at the hostess and realized that fifteen years previously she would have been too young for preschool, and shut up.)
I’m not saying it’s a perfect vacation destination. In many ways it’s a Sin City full of alcohol, obscene T-shirts and overpriced gift shops. In many ways it’s a testament to perseverance—hundred-year-old homes here survive hurricanes because they’re built out of recovered ship timbers, as solid as granite. But to me it’s the place where I leave everything behind, all the stress, work, decisions, uncertainties of life and instead keep nothing more pressing on my agenda than debating how much shrimp I can eat in one week. Everyone needs a place like that.