Having bad mouthed the GPS navigation system continually, I must confess to some negligent navigation. We intended to penetrate deeply into the Everglades, but I was engrossed in writing a book review and I let Hurricane Sandy cross half the state on I75 before I realized my faux pas—she was not reticent in her criticism. It was getting toward evening as we had a late start due to pausing for breakfast with my niece, Renee, at the venue of her impending nuptials, impending as in a year in the future. We wanted to see the hundred mile transoceanic highway to Key West in the light of day, so we stopped at the Key Largo Visitors’ Center for advice. That may have been the smartest thing we have done on this trip. The major hotels fax the Visitor Center promotional rates when they think they may have vacancies during the low season. We got a room at the Key Largo Hilton with a balcony above the beach for a good price and for the following night we booked a beach front room at the Southernmost House, a beautiful boutique B&B in Key West—you guessed it, located at the southernmost point in the continental United States.
The Hilton was actually just OK. It was past its prime and looked very much like a Mexican hotel, but we could hear the waves and enjoy the sea air until some miscreant had to smoke on his balcony forcing us to close the doors. Our new pal, Kenny, at the Visitor Center raved about a restaurant on Islamorada called Marker 88 which was easy to find even in the dark because, you guessed it—it was at mile marker eighty-eight. We got to dine in a canopy covered glider, which was delightful and fun to swing as we dined, but the breeze was brisk and by the time we finished excellent meals of hogfish and seafood salad, we were a bit chilled.
I forgot to mention that the good price offered by the Hilton was tempered a little by the eighteen-dollar “resort fee” they tacked onto the rate. This was ostensibly to cover outdoor parking, internet access and something else that I don’t remember, but it wasn’t toilet paper which was in really short supply. They also gave us a very odd bar of soap. Its shape was reminiscent of a Paleolithic stone tool and it had a circle of little domes at one end. The thing was so kinky looking I turned it over to see where you put the batteries.
Being less than enamored of the Key Largo Hilton, we left in the morning without lingering. The highway south is, of course, the only way in and the only way out of the Keys, often with just one lane each direction crossing many, and frequently long, bridges. I don’t believe we were beyond Islamorada when we saw an electronic sign telling us about a “major crash” at marker 63 and to expect delays. Well, there were already plenty of delays in all the little Podunk towns that hadn’t existed in 1969 when I last made this drive, however, the congestion paled by comparison to the brick wall we hit about marker seventy-five. It was the sort of traffic jam where you stopped the engine and got out to walk around a little. I read the National Geographic while the Hurricane played with her phone. It took an hour and a half to reach the crash site which was on the downhill slope of a bridge. The participants had been hauled from the scene but we could tell where it happened by the prodigious oil slick on the pavement. Immediately on exiting the bridge, we saw a truck, actually the tractor of a big rig, spread across a flatbed trailer. I have never seen a truck cab quite as mangled and I reflected for a moment on having one less truck driver to despise. As soon as we had seen the “major crash” notification I knew with certainty that the culprit would be a truck driver. I didn’t guess, however, that it would involve two trucks, or that they would have crashed head-on. Eventually we overtook the other truck being towed south. Being much less mauled than the first, that driver might have survived.
The congestion caused by the aftermath of the accident never dissipated and it was a stop-and-go drive all the way to marker zero at the Southernmost House. At the end of South Street, where it crosses Duval, both terminating on the sand, there are numerous institutions claiming to be the southern most something. We got confused by the Southernmost Hotel and parked in their lot, but we recognized the gingerbread architecture of the place we were supposed to be on the opposite corner and eventually found our way to the lobby.
Ocean Ten Feet in Opposite Direction
Our room was a building unattached to the historic house but we were not going to complain since it was isolated from the rest and sat on a narrow concrete pad knee high above the water. Our windows opened onto the sea and the following morning we watched the sunrise from bed.
Sandy was anxious to see the town. She was excited about seeing Key West for the first time and I felt lucky being to show it to her. This was my fourth visit. As I previously mentioned, I had driven to it in 1969 with two male friends of dubious character. We were underfunded and ill quipped. My old Chevy Nova was so badly in need of front-end work it wore through a tire every hundred miles. We made the trip from Ohio on five dollar used tires that we bought along the way. In those days Key West was a pristine little paradise not much bothered by tourists. Duval Street was paved but most of the side streets were white sand. I couldn’t have loved it more. I visited twice more in the eighties, arriving by air, and of course was heartbroken by the development, but despite the rape of Eden and the huge, inexplicable influx of gay guys, it still abounded with charm.
In the eighties I had been given an insider’s look at the attractions by a dear friend who lived in the historic district, so I knew where to take my favorite hurricane. We walked Duval from end to end, bought a souvenir tee shirt at Sloppy Joe’s for our long suffering dog sitter, had a drink at Captain Tony’s—the original site of Sloppy Joe’s in the Hemingway era—and we crossed Mallory Square before the loonies arrived for their sunset performances. I was glad to find the Mel Fisher museum still operating even though most of the treasure salvaged from Nuestra Señora de Atocha has been removed. When the salvage was in full swing, there was so much gold and silver that they had difficulty housing it. The loaf of bread sized silver ingots were stacked against the walls completely around the interior of the warehouse. They were too heavy to grab and bolt so there was no security wasted on them. The rather smaller gold ingots were pocket sized, so they were behind glass as was the mind-numbing array of jewelry. I remember a gold crucifix about nine inches long, three quarters inch wide and half inch thick, also a gold chain of three inch long links a half inch in diameter. The thing had to have been ten feet long. Today the remaining treasure on exhibit is modest by comparison, but Sandy had no frame of reference so she was delightfully impressed, especially by the emeralds.
On the long weary trek back to the hotel we stopped at Margaritaville for some peel and eat shrimp and a libation. Sandra had a ‘Perfect Margarita,’ that’s what they called it and she endorsed the claim. I had a less than perfect Tanqueray and tonic. For my second I had to specify a much shorter glass. (Why would a person pay extra for the taste of Tanqueray if it were going to be drowned in sixteen ounces of tonic water?) We hadn’t been in a Margaritaville since the Kingston airport in 2007 where you could not get to the departure gate without passing through the bar, which seemed strange to me, but I didn’t object. Invigorated by the excellent shrimp, we resumed our hike to the beach although we stopped in a wine shop where we bought a mature bottle of Hess cabernet that we drained on the concrete apron outside our room while watching the tide rise.
I wanted to take Sandy to dinner at the Half Shell Raw Bar which is rather iconic but we didn’t see it during our outing and I had no clue where it was. My memory of 1986 is extremely selective, but fret not. The squirrelly night clerk helped us and it was, naturally, at the opposite end of Duval Street which was much more than our aged bodies could manage, so the obliging clerk called a cab that turned out to be driven by a New Zeeland transplant. The place had not changed in twenty-seven years except possibly that the clientele was considerably more advanced in years. I got us a dozen oysters to wash down with our Tanquerays while we decided on second courses.
Succulent looking, aren’t they?
Sandy’s calamari rings were a lot better than my conch fritters which were basically hushpuppies alleged to contain trace amounts of conch. The conch chowder I had at Marker 88 was equally devoid of mollusk meat. Judging from the number of shells in the gift stores, I suppose they are an endangered species now.
As the exceedingly informal dinner in the license plate decorated bar ground to a close, I was feeling somewhat nostalgic, or maybe it was just plain pissed about the oozing blight on my lower leg that was preoccupying everything I did and thoroughly preventing me from enjoying my vacation, not to mention staining my last pair of clean pants. Later I got a reply to the latest email I directed at the little Hindu MD back in Pomona. He said, “How’s it going with the sore?” I could have choked him. I didn’t need compassionate concern, I needed antibiotics.
Our Southern Most House sojourn ended soon after the previously mentioned sunrise that I admired with coffee from bed while the Hurricane ran outside in her nightgown to photograph it framed by the foliage. She got a couple good shots which I will share if she ever downloads them from her camera.
I wanted Sandy to see the Hemingway house so we went straight there after checking out of the hotel. Of course I’d seen it in ’86 but it reignited some fond memories and I gained capital with the guide when he faltered over where Hemingway bought the shotgun with which he shot himself. It was Abercrombie and Fitch, of course. That’s where he bought all his gear.
Walking to the car, Hurricane Sandy saw a place that offered key lime pie on a stick and had to try it. It sounded like a ridiculous idea to me but I ate one and it was pretty good. For the uninitiated, there is nothing special about a key lime other than the fact that they are small and have a lot of seeds. It is the same fruit that in California we call a Mexican lime, but if you’re not squeezing them into your gin and tonic or onto your taco, there is hardly a better use for them than a pie. I’ve never had a key lime pie, even the one that Sandy made when I received a bag of key limes from my Key West connection, that didn’t look, and taste, as if it could have come from Sara Lee. For some reason I can’t help but suspect that somewhere in a musty trunk in a plantation house attic lies an antebellum recipe for key lime pie that is as it was meant to be in a bygone time.
In the next installment: Fear and Loathing in Jupiter, Florida.