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Travel Stories

Where the Sidewalk Ends - Key West


A quiet morning at Fort Zachary Taylor beach

Even curbside trash makes a statement in Key West

Afternoon doorway and shoes
by Melissa Cicci

[From Spring 2010] In his 1974 collection of poems, Where the Sidewalk Ends, the late poet and illustrator Shel Silverstein wrote,

“There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.”

Whether or not Shel Silverstein – a local resident - intended his poem to serve as a metaphor for Key West, this southwestern-most key in the Florida Keys chain still often feels like the last outpost. Despite the cruise ship day trippers that spill onto well-known – and clogged – Duval Street by day, Key West remains a magical place.

On a winter evening, a strong and salty breeze swirls dry leaves from the ubiquitous gumbo limbo tree along the quiet streets. Soft porch lamps hint at life inside restored bungalows, eyebrow houses and towering two-story Victorians with double porches. The Key West cemetery beckons in the half-light. Crypts and coffins rise above the ground – and the water level. One particular memorial pulls me back again and again; “to the sacred memory of a broken-hearted mother.” A life-sized limestone angel raises a finger to gently caution her young daughter, in the grave below, to be careful. Legend has it that the child fell to her death from an open window. A short while later, the mother joined her in death.

I’ve been visiting Key West for more than 15 years. A dear friend, Carol, purchased a shell of a bungalow with her husband in the early 90s and has worked hard to lovingly restore it for more than a decade. I’ve enjoyed watching the progress over the years and the pleasure of spending time in Key West. Here are a few of my favorite things.

Pretend You’re 10 Again... First things first, rent a bicycle. Key West is bike-friendly and easily the best way to see the island. Many of the one-way streets have designated bike lanes and free bike parking is readily available. A simple beach cruiser is best on the flat streets of Old Town and surrounds. Most hotels and guesthouses provide bicycles free-of-charge or for a small fee. There are also rental shops throughout town. My favorite is the Bike Shop of Key West. The bikes are new and the rates are reasonable. Most come with baskets, the ideal beach bike. No helmets required - just like 10 again. Ride the perimeter of the Key West Cemetery in the dark for a hauntingly beautiful experience.

Soak Up the Sun without the Crowds... Key West is a coral key, so there is limited beachfront. At Fort Zachary Taylor State Park on the Atlantic Ocean, a wide and protected beach lies just beyond a stand of pines. Most visitors head to the more populated Higgs and Smathers beaches, complete with water sports and food and drink kiosks. Zachary Taylor has a small concession area, some umbrellas and loungers for hire, and on a quiet winter day a good chance of sharing the beach with only a few others. On my recent visit, a photo shoot was in session on the sand; it looked like a Ralph Lauren lifestyle campaign shoot. But other than the whir and click of the long-lens camera, the photographers and models didn’t cause much of a stir.

Also at Fort Zachary Taylor that day; several art installations as part of the annual Sculpture Key West program, running through mid-April 2010. We didn’t understand some of the installations – a dumpster filled with trash? – but were impressed with Bill Woods’ “3 Card Monte,” a series of reflective panels set along the water’s edge. Also impressive was Jonathan Schork’s “Tsuki no mon ni: yurei no nori,” a circular sculpture of branches on a steel frame, inviting the viewer to inscribe the wood with words to loved ones lost. At the end of the exhibition, the transitory sculpture may be lit into a flaming hoop.

Seek Treasure... On a small stretch of waterfront near the Casa Marina neighborhood, the beach is a treasure box of milk- and depression-glass shards and derelict objects. Now part of the Key West botanical preserve, the site is the former dumping ground for Key West trash. Artisans, treasure-seekers and the curious dredge through the sand looking for remnants of the past. One local jeweler and artist weaves the shards with wire strands or mesh into jewelry, lampshades and decorative objects. Be sure to bring a large bag for collecting found objects, and bug spray.

Step Back in History... The 33rd President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, discovered Key West in the second year of his first term. Ordered by his doctor to seek rest and relaxation, he traveled with his staff to the naval station at Key West. He settled into the white frame duplex that had served as housing for naval commandants. Later, after Truman became a Key West regular, the duplex was converted into a single residence and dubbed the “Little White House.” He spent more than 175 days in Key West on working vacations with his key advisors. Still concerned about Truman’s health, his doctor ordered a daily morning prescription of a shot of bourbon followed by a glass of orange juice. If it was good for Harry….?

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter all visited the Little White House, but did not use it as Truman had. In 1974, this part of the naval base was closed and the house abandoned. Truman’s furnishings were put in storage. A private developer purchased the property in 1986 and deeded the house to the State of Florida. Restored to the Truman era, the house has operated as a museum since the early 1990s. Interestingly, Secretary of State Colin Powell opened peace talks here in early 2001 between the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The flags of those two countries fly near the entryway of the Little White House.

Discover Your Creative Side... Take a class at the Studios of Key West. Housed in the old Key West Armory on White Street, the TSKW offers workshops, one-day and weekly classes in photography, oil, watercolor and plein-air painting, and creative writing. The Studios’ artist-in-residence program brings artists to Key West for week- or month-long residencies. If you don’t have time for a class, take a moment to sit in the utter stillness of the small sculpture garden, or buy a piece of “art” from the vending machine in the Studio lobby. An old cigarette machine has been converted into the Art-o-Mat. With a $5 token, purchased at the Studio office, you can go home with a unique, whimsical - and occasionally R-rated - original piece of art.

Savor a Café con Leche... At M & M Laundry on White Street, a small window opens into Sandy’s Café. At the walk-up outdoor counter, order a con leche to go. Enjoy the rich Cuban espresso with sweet milk, even without the sugar.

Take an Early Morning Run on Olivia Street... Admittedly, I’m biased. My daughter’s name is Olivia. But this partly gentrified street offers a glimpse of the many faces of Key West. From its western end near Fort Zachary Taylor and the Atlantic Ocean, one-way Olivia runs through the colorful Bahama Village neighborhood, across Duval Street, along the south side of the Key West cemetery, through the quiet and gentrified residential neighborhood of the Meadows, and ends its run at the Gulf of Mexico.

Some regular sightings and sounds on Olivia Street: the laughing residents of Bahama Village beginning their day; roosters crowing and strutting across the street; the elderly black man rocking on his porch each morning; the Olivia Street Grocery opening for the day; the basketball hoop outside a dilapidated house; a couple placing flowers at a gravesite; the thrum of hammers on a bungalow renovation; the red door on a stark-white cottage; the traffic picking up at the White Street intersection; and the sound of hedge clippers and the scent of hibiscus in the Meadows.

Details:
Key West is about 165 miles southwest of Miami and is the southernmost point in the United States. Driving time from Miami is between 3.5-4 hours, depending on traffic. Several major airlines offer regular service to Key West International Airport, including USAirways, American and Delta. Connections in Atlanta, Miami or Tampa.

To See, Do and Taste:
Historic Florida Keys Foundation for Walking Tours of the Cemetery, Tel. 305.292.6718
Truman Little White House, 111 Front St., Tel. 305.294.9911
The Studios of Key West, 600 White St., Tel. 305.296-0458
Tropic Cinema, classic movies, art-house and independent films, volunteer opportunities, 416 Eaton St., Tel. 305.295.9493
Sculpture Key West 2010, various locations

Seven Fish, Intimate seafood restaurant on Olivia St. Tel. 305.296.2777
Salute, drinks at Higgs Beach. Try the Italian lemonade (sparkling wine and limoncello), Tel. 305.292.1117

The Bike Shop of Key West, 1110 Truman Ave., Tel. 305.294.1073

Quotation from Where the Sidewalk Ends
Copyright © 1974 by Evil Eye Music, Inc.


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