There is just something about Key West. I've visited so many times, and every time I turn my car into the town's small side streets to pull into the bed and breakfast, I get reminded that I have come to the right place, and I feel like the town is all for me. For some reason, I feel connected to it? I don't know what it is, but that tiny island just feels like it fits in my life.
Located ninety miles from Cuba, everything about the town streets, the humid air, the tranquil nostalgia that floats from street to alley, from eclectic Key West home to its lush green foliage, seeps into my very soul's essence and leaves its permanent mark on me. I will always remember how to get here.
The first time I visited was when it was my father's first time entering the world famous Ernest Hemingway Look Alike Contest held at Sloppy Joe's bar -- and it was such a crazy and hilarious idea at the time that we all had to travel to Key West to watch this happen. The amazing thing is that Key West itself isn't about the beaches, but rather Key West is about the personality. I didn't realize that the very first visit to Key West would result in me falling in love with this tiny island "nation." And a "nation" it actually is. Back in 1982, a border patrol blockade was set up on Route 1, and it cut off the Keys' residents from the mainland. The Florida Keys protested, and at noon on April 23, 1982, the mayor announced that the Keys had seceded from the Union, thus establishing the Conch Republic. (And yes, 1982, not 1882. No typo there!) After exactly 1 minute of rebellion, the former Mayor, now Prime-Minister, surrendered to the Navy base. See what I mean? There's something so incredibly fun and relaxed about this place -- all for the sport of humor and indignation! So I made a decision this week that for the next four weeks, to get me into the Key West/South Florida spirit, every page I turn of every book I read, will be dedicated to only those set in Florida, with a little bit of Key West thrown in -- all the books reminiscent of that "Old" Florida that creaks of humid days and sweltering nights, trees dripping with Spanish moss, and alligators lazily sunning themselves on the banks of the Everglades...
(Ernest Hemingway is the first picture, obviously, my Dad is next. Not bad, huh?)
I used to think of Florida as only representative of palm trees and beaches and especially the extremes in ages -- retirees or young South Beach nightclubbing fans. No in-between at all. Maybe a shark or two. Needless to say, when I moved to Jacksonville, in North Florida, I had no idea how much I would end up loving Florida and the Old Florida charm. And I especially didn't realize how daggone big this state was. To get to Key West, and to save some time and money, I take a Southwest flight from Jacksonville to Ft. Lauderdale, and then I rent a car to drive the four remaining hours to Key West. To fly directly into Key West is way outta my pay grade.
But I love that drive, those four hours of getting closer and closer to my heaven. I don't drive through the Everglades, but I do skim just a tad of it on the East side, but I don't get to really see anything. This summer's trip down, I may make an exception in my trip, and it's all thanks to Carl Hiaasen's storytelling. I wanted to pick up something light and fun and of course, set in Florida, and I was surprised that Skinny Dip ended up being a combination of an intellectual discussion and debate on the loss and corruption of the Everglades, with a comical mystery thrown in. Chaz Perrone, silly, lazy, egotistical, and barely a biologist (always correcting those that don't call him "Doctor"), has decided to kill his wife, Joey, by flipping her over the deck of the Sun Duchess cruise ship on their 2nd anniversary. He's got it all planned out, and he knows that not one person who knows him would ever think that he had the backbone to pull off a murder, especially that of his wife. It even surprises him that he's able to carry it out. What he doesn't expect is that she'll survive the fall and be picked up by a retired cop, and that she would subsequently plan to slowly freak him the hell out.
There's no doubt of anyone's true internal character with Hiaasen's storytelling -- you get a clear sense of the personality for all of them. For good ole Chaz sloshing around in the Everglades performing his duties as a bad scientist, and a biologist at that, Hiassen writes:
...Chaz's sole instrument of defense was a boron-shafted two-iron, which in his hands was far more efficient at scaring off aquatic reptiles than striking a golf ball. Chaz swung the club haphazardly and yowled like a hemorrhoidal bobcat as he hacked a soggy trail through the saw grass. Nature recoiled as he threshed the water, launching clumps of algae and splintered twigs and shredded lily pads. In the cumbersome waders Chaz clomped and teetered like the Frankenstein monster, but the desired effect was achieved: every living vertebrate within a hundred yards of the dike fled the scene. (pg.77)
I loved this! I got an immediate understanding of Chaz's hypocritical nature. It made me laugh out loud, and I watched in my mind's eye as Chaz pitifully made a mess out of his life, never once realizing that he truly was simply cold-blooded, but he was too much of a wuss and too stupid to be anything more than a failed murderer. The author, Hiaasen, was born and raised and currently lives in Florida, and he takes pride in the beauty of the state that extends much further than just Las Olas in Ft. Lauderdale or South Beach in Miami. We usually think about the Everglades as just a big swampy mosquito-laden area, but do we really understand what a national treasure it truly is? Hiaasen makes it clear, and he doesn't leave anything out that is essentially hurting his state. Corruption does breed in the 'Glades, too, and Hiaasen doesn't forget about the corporate hoo-hahs that help make a mess out of it all. The degradation of the area wasn't believed until the late '90s, and finally, finally, grants were funded to ensure that pesticides and other chemicals didn't directly drain into the Everglades, which had been rapidly destroying the natural habitat. I loved every moment of each page. And I will pick up another Hiaasen book, without a doubt.
I'm excited to visit the Keys again this summer -- and I will always continue to visit during the off season, when rates are low and the Ernest Hemingway Look Alike contest is kicking in at Sloppy Joe's Bar, and the summer heat is at its most intense. I will certainly not be religiously straightening my hair, and will instead allow it to get increasingly curly with each humid and tropical day, and I'll be able to forget about any frivolous "needs." I might also just divert my trip into the Everglades before stopping into Key West, and take a quick tour, just to see and witness the crazy and beautiful lush wildlife that exists right here in America. I'm pretty proud to now call myself a Floridian.
(Republished with updated links...)