90 miles to Cuba, and the sun was melting my bald head as we waited in line to get our picture taken at the Southernmost Point buoy in Key West. This is literally the end of the line, and when you hit Key West you’ll start seeing “Mile 0” everywhere, because that’s it, there is no where else to go except Cuba.
I’ve sweat like this before, and pretty soon my clothes looked as though I had taken a dip in the ocean, but for some reason I found comfort in my discomfort. Standing here at Mile 0 was a special moment for me because my dad had taken his father their years ago and took a picture together in the same exact spot. I lost my grandfather not too long ago, and it was cool to be able to send my father a picture of me at the same spot.
I was always interested in the Florida Keys, a 100+ mile stretch of Islands often referred to as the “American Caribbean,” because it was home to a young Ernest Hemingway in his 30’s. I have made a few trips to my own personal “Mecca’s” before, where my favorite writers have lived or worked (Jack Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Mass; and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond), and I have always enjoyed walking in the footsteps of my literary heroes.
I had just come off a seven day stomach flu that just didn’t seem to want to go away, despite my best efforts. I was holed up in a hotel room in Jacksonville, NC, and was unsure of where to go next. An old friend invited me to head south to Florida to stay with her and recover. After a week of air conditioning and home cooked meals by my awesome friend, we finally jumped in the car in and headed to South Florida.
If you are unfamiliar with South Florida, it’s the epitome of tropical weather. Its steamy humidity produces daily storms filled with lightning and torrential rain and temperatures that are seemingly mild, but because of the location, the sun cooks you like a Christmas ham.
You start to realize the immensity of it all when you drive from the top of the keys in Key Largo to Key West in just over two hours. But when we first got to Key Largo, I was disappointed as I looked around and saw nothing but a commercial strip of stores. The only redeeming quality of Key Largo to me was, is that they actually have the movie prop boat from the African Queen, a 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. I’m not quite sure why it is in Key Largo, but if you’re feeling like you want to get up close and personal, you can go on a cruise on the tiny boat.
But as you drive south the Keys start to open up and the natural beauty opens up when you hit the Islamorada chain of Keys. The disappointment from Key Largo was only momentary as we zipped along Highway 1 and could see hundreds of little islands that were uninhabited. The islands are mostly tree canopies with boat docks and sometimes beaches.
Our first night there we were blessed in getting a hotel room that looked like it was from Miami Vice, but it’s ugly furnishings grew on me, as we felt like we went into a time machine back to the mid-80s.
The next day we woke up and had breakfast at a beachfront cafe before making the long haul to Key West. When we got there, the first thing we did was get in line to take a picture at the Southernmost Point buoy before walking over to Hemingway House. I paid $13 and headed into the house with my friend, and we jumped on a group tour that was just starting.
The house has all of Hemingway’s old stuff, including his writing room, which is an upper room in a guest house like structure. As you can see, it’s furnished with animal busts, books, and his trusty old typewriter. One interesting part of the tour was the pool. There is a penny that is stuck in the concrete which he is said to have given to his wife. He was mad about the pool because it cost more than the house, and he supposedly gave her a penny and said that now she had his last penny. Well, she did get most of his pennies after the divorce. Old Ernie had quite the penchant for marrying and getting divorced to four different women (3 divorces; 4 wives total).
We spent the rest of the day having numerous cocktails and eating Key Lime Pie, which I believe is the perfect accompaniment when you’re in the Keys. Sometimes when you’re uncomfortable you can find comfort even though you are drenched in your own sweat and the sun is beating down on you. Normally it would’ve been hell for me, but when you’re traveling you should expect that not everything will go right, and that you just have to go with the flow and not try to control everything. In fact the same week before the Keys, my air conditioning in my car broke down, so I’m driving around the South without climate control.
I seemed to have acclimated to the weather well in Florida, but now it’s westward ho to a more dry climate. I love the South, but I don’t think I’ll be chomping at the bit to visit during the summer again. Lesson learned…