The Florida Keys are a masterpiece of geology. Coral reefs support a series of small islands lush with tropical foliage. Among their wildlife is a miniature species of deer, found nowhere else. It is assumed that deer became trapped on the islands during the last ice age and, over time, adjusted their size to their, now extremely limited territory. Alas, the Key Deer are endangered. However conservation efforts since the 1950's seemed to have stabilized the population level. Pirates used the Keys to evade authorities, Flying over them in one of the tiny planes that leave Miami for Key West on a schedule as regular as that of a city bus, it is easy to imagine a ship being successfully secreted in one of the numerous bays and inlets of the island chain.
I visited Key West 3 times over 3 consecutive years seeking a week long respite from Chicago's wintry chill. It is the southernmost point in the U.S. It's reputation as a hedonistic playground had begun to wane by the time of my visits, although there was still a sizable gay presence. One of the highlights of the trips were the Sunday afternoon dance parties attended by scores of bare chested men held on a pier which extended out over the ocean.
The island does posses a rich architectural legacy. An architectural sub genre, appropriately named "Key West Architecture" is defined as a mixture of Victorian and Southern Gothic with a Caribbean flair. One building along Duval Street, the town';s main drag, would look at home in any southern town, except for the bounding dolphins cut out in the balustrade of it's second floor balcony. Some buildings are raised above ground level to protect them from the waters that can rage through the streets during tropical storms. Being a coral island water cannot soak in, only run off. In one area, the Bahamian Village, the homes were constructed in the Bahamas and then shipped to Key West. There was a restaurant in this area I always made a point to visit where chickens ran wild around the dining tables in the yard.
Due to the hardness of the islands coral base creating swimming pools requires explosives to blast open holes in which to construct them. Outside of Ernest Hemingway's home, featured in a James Bond movie, which has a wine cellar, basements are nonexistent. Because of the year round warm, sunny climate the foliage is full and rich. I recall a philodendron which wound around a tree in the courtyard of the guest house we stayed in whose leaves were easily 3 feet across.
There is little to "do" there. Tourists seemed to satisfy themselves relaxing by pools and eating or shopping in the numerous restaurants and boutiques. On one visit my travel companions gifted me with a beautiful silver and lapis cuff I had seen in one of the shop windows. Although I no longer wear it, it did see everyday wear for a number of years, it sits on my dresser where I can always see and enjoy it and be reminded of the deep level of love and generosity in my friends who I feel fortunate to still have in my life.
I always rented a bike, one of the best ways to explore the far corners of the island. I remember a Sunday morning ride where I encountered a young girl, perhaps 6 or 7, dancing on the sidewalk outside a church to the sounds of the spirited gospel choir singing inside. Several afternoons over my visits were whiled away sitting on the hard coral beach watching pelicans dive for fish unfortunate enough to be swimming near the waters surface. You could see the fish wiggle in the birds pouch beneath it's beak before it would throw it's head back swallowing it's unlucky prey. Evenings were spent enjoying the company of other visitors at the evening wine get togethers at the guest house and dancing in the gay bars still extant at the time.
Friendships were developed during these visits. There was the couple from New York City whose upper west side apartment I stayed in during visits to Manhattan. There was the man from Australia stationed in Nairobi while starting up an office for his company there. He not only got all my jokes, no matter how subtle, but also took them one step further. He was a joy to spend time with. During one conversation he mentioned how vacations were his only chance to express his sexuality due to the conservative social nature of Africa. When I encounter tales like this it makes me grateful that I live in a place which allows me to be myself. I have fought too many battles, personally and publicly, to let that privilege go easily.
The most important relationship forged on the island was that of my dear friends in Phoenix who met there and are still together years later. The deep and long lasting friendship between them and I is one of my life's great treasures.
Often as we get older we shed some of our more wild behaviors, settling on more refined and less adventurous pursuits. Such is the case with Key West. Even during my visits you could tell that the legendary tolerance and debauchery the island was noted for was beginning to disappear. On the downward slope from it's apex. Today it is reinventing itself as a more family friendly destination. One of the most notorious of the gay guest houses now caters to a hetero clientele. While physical places may not change times do. Particular places at particular times exist only in memories. I look forward to new places, in new times to create more of these.