Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Taste of Paradise

Erika and I made last weekend a long one by taking a Thursday through Sunday jaunt to Key West with some friends and family. Though I will be publishing several posts about that tropical isle on my travel blog, I want to share a few things here as well.

Living in the same state as Key West does not necessarily make it easy to get to, since it sits at the remote end of the Keys’ archipelago and is closer to Cuba than to Miami. From my home, the drive there is an hour longer than the drive to Atlanta, and it turns up some scenery that is surprisingly interesting given the land’s flatness. A section of I-75 known as “Alligator Alley” cuts straight across the Everglades, and if you look out your car windows you will be struck by how vast and wild that part of America is:

The southernmost 105 miles of U.S. Highway 1 travel from island to island, crossing bridge after bridge, and are collectively known as the Florida Keys Scenic Highway. The mainland breaks up gradually and it is not easy to discern when you actually leave it behind…but you will know you have arrived on the Keys when you see a sign announcing that you are on Key Largo.

The next large key is Islamorada, where we stopped to browse through World Wide Sportsman (a saltwater-focused branch of Bass Pro Shops) and enjoy an early lunch at the Islamorada Fish Company. Our table was outside, facing this view that put us in a vacation kind of mood:

On an interesting note, Western novelist Zane Grey must have lived in or frequented these parts, because an upstairs lounge in the store is named after him; and framed in the men’s restroom is an inventory of his fishing gear, written in his own hand.

But getting back to our destination, I feel compelled to say I believe the common view of Key West being a seedy place with a libertine culture is not warranted. I have been there more than once and find that libertarian is a much more accurate description.

One of the gripes conservatives have about liberals is that liberals are extremely intolerant of opposing views, despite the fact that they are constantly telling everyone else to be tolerant of them. In Key West, that kind of hypocrisy is simply not seen. Every sort of lifestyle and personality is on display here, including the traditionals, yet those wide differences seem never to lead to any bitterness or lashing out.

I saw no anti-Romney shirts for sale when we were there, but did notice that several shops were selling those shirts that show George W. Bush’s face over the caption “Do you miss me yet?” And I saw the shirt below being sold right on Duval Street, which, in case you don’t know, is basically the Bourbon Street of Key West:

Liquor and beer flow freely, and I saw one business whose signage about the services it offers left me thinking that it absolutely has to be a bordello. But many of the most beautiful buildings on the island are churches. The next photo shows Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, which was established in the 1830’s and has been in its current building since 1919:

From the back deck of the townhome we rented, we could see the twin spires of Saint Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church. Every hour on the hour, its bells ring out the time. One morning I was sitting out back by myself, drinking coffee without having bothered to check the time when I rolled out of bed, and I enjoyed counting the chimes to learn whether it was eight o’clock or nine o’clock. It felt like I was in a Longfellow poem, even though it is not 1862 but 2012, and even though I was not in New England but at the southernmost edge of the continental United States. Anyway, here is a picture of Saint Mary’s:

As you probably know, Ernest Hemingway spent approximately a decade in Key West, imbibing at Sloppy Joe’s Bar and churning out such stories as A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. God only knows how many tourists go to Sloppy Joe’s thinking they are following in Hemingway’s footsteps.

If you really want to follow those footsteps, however, you should steer clear of Sloppy Joe’s and visit Captain Tony’s Saloon, one block away. This is because for all except the final days of Hemingway’s time on the key, Sloppy Joe’s was not at its current location, but at the place Captain Tony’s now occupies. A sign outside says as much:

And the scene inside embodies the Bohemian decadence you would expect Hemingway to have enjoyed:

The real Captain Tony was one Tony Tarracino, a bootlegger’s son, boat captain, gun trafficker, and raconteur who was born in 1916 and opened the saloon in 1961. He ran for mayor four times and was elected on his third attempt, when he was 73 years old. Tarracino fathered thirteen children with eight different women, only three of whom he was married to -- but he remained married to his final wife for 38 years, all the way until he died in 2008, at which time his oldest son was 72 and his youngest was 22. Along the way, Tarracino became friends with Jimmy Buffet and was the inspiration for Buffet’s song “Last Mango in Paris.”

In other words, Captain Tony was precisely the kind of carefree swashbuckler you would expect to make his home on this remote outpost that sits in a sea that is not qute the Gulf, not quite the Caribbean, and not quite the Atlantic. It is God’s job, not ours, to determine whether the totality of his life made him a scoundrel or a saint. We should all simply appreciate that there are places like Key West, where the motto “live and let live” is taken seriously and every person is free to march to his soul’s own drummer.


Betsy from Tennessee said...

Love that last picture. George and I decided some time ago to go to Key West since neither of us have ever been there. BUT--that trip got postponed.. Now--after seeing your pictures, I'm ready to plan it again... GREAT pictures and I'd love to see that area!!!! We ALL need to get out in this gorgeous country --if for nothing else, to get away from some of the 'crap' going on in DC....

Barb said...

Great pic of you and Erika, John. You remind me a little of Jimmy Buffet (can you sing?). We have friends who love the Keys (he windsurfs). I've never been there so enjoyed your photos.