Friday, December 17, 2010

The Ghosts on the Last Train to Paradise*

On January 22, 1912, the American pioneer spirit succeeded again with the arrival of the first train in Key West, after having crossed 130 miles of ocean from mainland Florida.

On December 11, 2010, that same spirit encouraged me to copilot a car along the same path with a French man convinced that one should never drive over the posted speed minimum, ensuring that we and the mile-long trail of cars behind us thoroughly savored the astounding views. It was a gorgeous, perfectly sunny day, and driving on a road surrounded on either side by nothing but ocean and sky felt like nothing else, but I could not help but feel a bit of longing for the train that once traversed the same distance.

Key West is the southernmost point of the United States, and lies a mere 94 miles miles from that evil Caribbean autocracy, Cuba. Its name is actually derived from the Anglicization of the phrase "cayo hueso," which refers to the bones the Spanish found there when they first landed there in 1521. Apparently, it was actually the most populous city in Florida until the mid 19th century, and it has over the centuries developed a reputation for attracting interesting, expressive characters such as Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Henry Flagler, and myself. After experiencing it, I can promise you, this reputation is not unfounded.

On the island my chauffeur and I reunited with a Minnesotan cyclist we had met in the Everglades, who had ridden all the way from California and made her ultimate destination there. Together we stayed with a super hospitable couple who over the course of one evening exposed to us a world of cats trained to walk tight ropes, nudist bars**, holiday boat parades, various imaginatively assembled cocktails of all shapes and sizes, 90s cover bands called The Durtbags, and one man acoustic concerts covering everything from Phil Collins to the soundtrack of The Little Mermaid. I know where I am retiring.

The next day was passed admiring the beautiful homes ranging from simple, brightly colored beach cottages to ornate Victorian mansions, peering into the home of Ernest Hemingway, eating the biggest cookie that any of us had ever seen, and generally relishing the blissful environment in which we miraculously had found ourselves. We also visited the monument marking the Southernmost Point of the country, which is flanked by the equally, if not more famous, Southernmost Menorah. Yes, the place is touristy, but it has its own unique culture, history, and local population*** which keep it from losing its soul and becoming, say, Miami.

Subsequently we returned to the reality of the continental United States, but not before breakfasting on slices of the most expensive "All Authentic Key Lime Pie" in the entire world**** to properly prepare for the journey.


*This is a reference to the book I am currently reading, Les Standiford's dramatized chronicle of the rise and fall of the Key West Railroad Extension, Last Train to Paradise.
**Cleverly called The Garden of Eden, and no, we did not actually go inside, though some in our party who shall remain nameless desperately wanted to.
***Who call themselves "conchs" and made their own republic once in ----- for -----.
****I do not care if it is made with all authentic golden snitches, no slice of pie, no matter how big, should ever cost eight dollars. Blue Heaven how I resent you!

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