Key West, Feb 2012 – 24

Key West, Feb 2012 – 24
Place Card Frames
Image by Ed Yourdon
Yet another sunset, another schooner, and another seagull …

Note: A large percentage of my "landscape" photos (including the ones in this set) are now copyright-protected, and are not available for downloads and free use. You can view them here in Flickr, but if you would like prints, enlargements, framed copies, and other variations, please visit my SmugMug "Key West" gallery by clicking <a href="Note: A large percentage of my "landscape" photos (including the ones in this set) are now copyright-protected, and are not available for downloads and free use. You can view them here in Flickr, but if you would like prints, enlargements, framed copies, and other variations, please visit my SmugMug "Key West" gallery by clicking here.


Key West. It’s a familiar phrase to almost all Americans, and it conjures up images of a warm climate, Key West.

It’s a familiar phrase to almost all Americans, and it conjures up images of a warm climate, proximity to Cuba, Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” and perhaps a few vague connections to Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. It is indeed the southernmost city in the continental United States (129 miles southwest of Miami), and is also the southernmost terminus of highway U.S. 1, which originates a couple thousand miles north, up in Maine.

Less well known is the fact that the island was first visited by Europeans in 1521, by none other than Ponce de Leon. Much, much earlier, the island had previously been inhabited by members of the Calusa tribe, who apparently used the island as a communal graveyard. Thus, when the Spanish arrived, they found no resident Native Americans, but they did find a lot of bones; and assuming that the island had been the location of a cataclysmic batter between tribal warriors, they named it “Cayo Hueso” — which literally means “bone key.” When Great Britain took control of Florida in 1763, they bastardized the name to “Key West,” which has obviously remained its name ever since.

I’ll skip the rest of the history lessons about Spanish and British domination of the island; suffice it to say that the Americans took charge in 1822, when Lt. Commander Matthew Perry sailed his schooner to Key West and claimed all of the Keys as U.S. property – a claim that apparently went uncontested. The Navy has been here ever since, and its first major task was ending acts of piracy which had previously made much of that part of the Caribbean a wild and wooly place indeed.

During the U.S. Civil War, the state of Florida seceded and joined the Confederacy; but because of the naval base, Key West remained in Union hands. Indeed, Key West served as the starting point for what became a relatively successful effort to blockade Confederate shipping along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, severely limiting its ability to trade with England and Europe.

Key West remained relatively isolated from the rest of Florida (not to mention the rest of the U.S.) until 1912, when it was connected to the Florida mainland via an incredibly expensive and ambitious railroad developed by Henry Flagler. Unfortunately, a massive Labor Day hurricane in 1935 destroyed much of the railroad and killed hundreds of local residents. The U.S. government subsequently rebuilt the rail route as an automobile extension of U.S. Highway 1, which was completed in 1938.

While all of this was going on, Key West also became a haven for at least a few famous artists and writers. Ernest Hemingway initially settled in Key West in 1928, where he wrote A Farewell to Arms. And during the 1930s, he wrote or worked on Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. He also used the Depression-era Key West as the setting for To Have and Have Not, which is apparently his only novel set in the United States.

A decade later, Tennessee Williams became a regular visitor to Key West, and is said to have written the first draft of A Streetcar Named Desire while staying at La Concha Hotel in 1947; he continued to list Key West as his primary residence until his death in 1983.

One other small piece of history: Key West turns out to be much closer to Havana than it is to Miami. In the 1890s, half the residents of Key West were said to be of Cuban origin, and the city regularly had Cuban mayors. Cubans were actively involved in roughly 200 factories in the city, producing 100 million cigars annually. And the South American revolutionary hero José Martí made several visits seeking recruits for Cuban independence, and he founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party during visits to Key West. The battleship USS Maine sailed from Key West on its visit to Havana, where it was blown up in an attack that led to the Spanish-American War. And finally, Pan American Airlines was founded in Key West in 1926, originally to fly visitors to Havana.

And thus endeth our short history lesson – none of which was of any particular significance to me during a recent week-long visit to Key West, motivated by a strong desire to escape the cold weather of New York City during the month of February. One other tidbit of trivia had attracted me: I had heard that there was a pier in Key West where the locals and visiting tourists gathered every evening to drink margaritas, sing raucous renditions of “Margaritaville” at the top of their lungs, and admire the sunsets as the sun sank into the western horizon of the Gulf of Mexico.

That pier, as it turns out, is Sunset Pier – and it was located just outside the hotel which I had chosen as the place to stay for the week. And while it turns out that margaritas are indeed consumed there, so are a lot of piña coladas, mojitos, and beers, along with hamburgers, hot dogs and fries: the whole place is a long, crowded, outdoor bar and grill. The raucous singing comes from an amped-up band at one end of the pier, and I’m not sure that anyone actually pays any attention to the sunset.

The sunset-watching, it turns out, is a little further down the pier: a large, open, brick-paved place known as Mallory Square fronts onto the harbor, and an even larger crowd does gather every night to watch the sun go down … as you’ll see in several of the photos in this Flickr set. There is also an amazing assortment of “performers,” for lack of a better name: wise-talking card-sharks; down-and-out guitar-playing musicians; a preacher determined to save the souls of anyone who would listen to him; tightrope walkers, sword-swallowers, and gymnasts; jugglers with machetes and flaming torches, tossed in the air with great abandon while the jugglers balance on 20-foot unicycles; and a guy with a banjo and a loyal dog who wanders around gathering dollar-bill contributions from the crowd, to be stuffed into a large bucket.

Meanwhile, schooners and catamarans drift past the crowd, out in the harbor, crammed with half-drunken tourists determined to get everyone’s attention by howling and yodeling at the top of their lungs. Ocean liners pull into the harbor at the end of Mallory Square, drop anchor and dock in the middle of the night, and then make a huge noisy ceremony of pulling up the gangplank and pulling away from the dock at 5 PM, just an hour before sunset.

Somehow, it all works: if you haven’t seen the scene before, it’s highly entertaining — and the sunsets are truly fantastic. Of course, if you go back a second time, you’ll start to notice that the same performers are there, going through the same routine with the same patter and speech — and you start paying less attention to them, and a little more attention to the more traditional vendors lined up a few feet away from the edge of the pier: people selling hot dogs, popcorn, conch fritters, drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), photographs, trinkets, jewelry, paintings, drawings, tarot readings and spiritual advice, and various odds and ends carved and woven and hand-made from bits and pieces of wood, metal, and palm fronds.

By the third or fourth night, the whole thing is completely repetitive – but the sunsets are still gorgeous. In my case, I escaped the Mallory Square scene a couple evenings to go for a sunset cruise on one of the many schooner docked in the neighborhood; I also went out for a ride in a glass-bottom boat to see the local coral reefs. But I passed up the opportunity to para-sail up in the sky above the whole scene, and I also decided to skip the opportunity to rent a jet-ski that would let me zoom around the harbor at breakneck speeds.

If you’re feeling energetic, you can also wander down Duval Street to see the gift shops, the tourist attractions, and the bars (e.g., Sloppy Joe’s, where Hemingway allegedly hung out. You can ride the little tourist “conch train” all around town, which gives you the chance to see every famous historic home and tourist spot in a little over an hour. I’ll confess that I did that, too, though it was so bumpy that I was only able to take one or two photographs …

I did have my camera with me throughout the week, of course, so I took my typical assortment of hundreds (maybe even thousands) of random pictures of anything that seemed interesting. I’m getting better about deleting things, though, so I’ve ended up with a mere 35 photos that I’m uploading to Flickr; hopefully you’ll find them moderately interesting…

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