Florida: Conch Republic redefines normal

Before I visited Key West in Florida I had the mistaken notion that the city was a part of the United States. After a day shopping Duval Street and an evening watching the sunset from Mallory Pier, I realized the degree of my mistake. I was 150 miles from Miami, and 90 miles from Havana. I was 45 miles south of the Tropic of Cancer. I was in the Conch Republic.

Normality assumes a different definition the farther one travels south of the mainland. Normal for Key West has been hard to define since before John Simonton, an Alabama businessman, paid Spain $2,000 for the island in 1822. Only mosquitoes and pirates inhabited the forsaken speck of land and, of the two, malaria was the lesser health threat. The West India Anti-Pirate Squadron chased out the pirates by 1830, leaving the island in the domain of rum-runners and wreckers, people who lived off the ships that regularly crashed on the shallow reefs. Tourists had to wait until 1912 when Henry Flagler’s railroad reached the southernmost point of the continent.

Tonight at Mallory Pier, as though it’s an unexpected occurrence, people cheer as the sun slips into the crimson sea. Technicolor clouds frame the horizon, discordant drum and guitar cords drift above the hubbub like gulls sailing overhead, and people elbow their way past jugglers, Tarot card readers, portrait artists and self-proclaimed gurus. Mallory Pier, more famous for its sunsets than the Grand Canyon, is not the place for a tourist to blend in with the locals. But, I don’t particularly want to blend in with a drop-out stock broker with tie-died hair.

After my first day in Margaritaville, I’m not sure who owns the island, the crazies with cameras or the crazies with the Florida license plates. But twice, I was given the opportunity to own a piece of paradise myself. Time-share condo salesmen stalk tourists like barracudas after a school of sardines.

Just as seeing the sunset on Mallory Pier is obligatory, shopping Duval Street is the required introduction to the Key West scene. After strolling the first block, I realized there is no way to walk down the crowded street and maintain a shred of dignity. But if I wanted dignity, I would have bought a ticket to Williamsburg, not the Conch Republic.

Key West has never been known for attracting, encouraging, or even condoning, a dignified image. Pirates and smugglers aren’t dignified; neither are tee-shirts with lewd messages, street vendors blowing conch horns, corner musicians emulating Jimmy Buffet, or bars that start filling shortly after breakfast. Where else could the mayor protest the military by water skiing to Cuba (a six hour trip), and no one thinking it a particularly odd thing to do?

But for what Key West lacks in dignity, it compensates with style. It is the only town I know that can absorb a million tourists a year and maintain its identity. Duval Street is a study of Key West kitsch. Unlike most coastal tourist towns or the mega-theme parks in Orlando, Key West has turned tacky into authenticity. This town isn’t about to take anything seriously, much less itself. And it imparts the same carefree, accepting attitude to its visitors. If you can’t be laid back on a subtropical island, stay home and read the Wall Street Journal

What endears Key West to conchs (locals) and tourists alike is the sense of place that permeates every street in the town. Key West has roots that reach back in history and give permanence to what would otherwise be a one-night-stand tourist town. The elegant architecture of 100-year-old homes, some converted into intimate hotels, towering kapok trees and luxuriant tropical gardens, and the salubrious days and balmy nights transport visitors into a separate reality, which is what vacationing is all about.

SmallHemmingway_House-004I make my first pilgrimage into Key West’s rich historical heritage when I step into Ernest Hemingway’s home. I previously visited Sloppy Joe’s bar, where Papa was apt to spent his afternoons after a heavy morning of writing. Now, I’m seeing where he wrote 70 percent of his life’s works, including For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.

Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, filled the 19th century, Spanish Colonial house with furnishings and memorabilia from his travels in Spain, Africa and Cuba and with his famous polydactyl cats. He kept 50 of them, all with more than five toes, and all named after famous movie stars and celebrities Hemingway knew. Forty-two of the descendants still loll around the grounds and on the catwalk, which connects the house to Hemingway’s study. Feline lovers can buy a kitten, but the waiting list is five years long. Literary lovers can sit in the Nobel Prize winner’s airy upstairs room and imagine the clatter of his manual typewriter, then go downstairs and see the urinal he brought home from his favorite downtown bar to use as a cat watering trough. Tacky? No, pure Key West.

KeyWestConchTrnSmallThe Conch Train is the best way to see the historic sights of the town. Once again I swallow my dignity and board one of the decorated cars. A jeep disguised as a miniature train engine pulls the tram, while a narrator fills the trip with a blend of interesting history and senseless trivia. Somehow even the corny jokes seem appropriate here.We drive down streets lined with palm trees and bougainvilleas, past the Audubon House Museum (in which Audubon never stayed), past Truman’s Little White House (which the President loved to visit), and old Fort Zachary Taylor, which captured 1,500 Confederate ships. This is like a Disneyworld ride, except the people passing on bikes with dogs in their baskets are real, not robotic figures.

The tram rolls slowly through the streets, but nobody appears to notice something as mundane as a tiny locomotive cruising their neighborhood. I feel as if I’m in the Twilight Zone between Oz and Wonderland where Alice and Dorothy are discussing who’s more interesting, the tourists or the locals. But the conchs are too busy enjoying each other to pay much attention to the tourists. Maybe Key West’s best kept secret is that the tiny island is big enough for everybody.

George Oxford Miller is a free-lance travel writer and frequent contributor to Houston Woman Magazine.