We head as far south as we can go until U.S. 1 runs out, ninety miles from Cuba. Key West is a paradise for writers - and artists, lovers, snorkelers, divers, boaters, fishermen, campers, birders, foreigners, lesbians, gays, transvestites - ANYONE! Just the drive down is worth the trip. It takes five hours from Delray Beach, over forty-some bridges. The sea changes on both sides from deep azure far out to vibrant turquoise in the channels to beige over the sand bars to thin pea-soup green in the runoffs. Nonstop photo ops, but not at 45 mph between Key Largo and Duval Street.
The bizarre becomes commonplace here and acceptance is the norm. A young Irishman walks the sidewalk with pink dye in his blond Mohawk. The spikes on his head are outdone only by the spikes on the green iguana grazing on the sea grapes at the edge of our beach. A van in orange and white psychedelic swirls advertises a number to call for transport to "Live! Naked Dancers." As opposed to what - dead naked dancers? The mainland seems a million miles away. CNN reports that authorities have surrounded a suspect from the Boston Marathon bombings. He is lying wounded under a tarp in a boat in someone's backyard. We are in the twilight zone.
There is the drag race down Duval Street. Men in drag - sequined dresses, bright makeup, wigs, and revealing undergarments - RUN in stilettos, then jump through tires down the street. Some of the
Another event during the two-week Festival is the bed race. Beds become floats, pushed by the aforementioned "beauties," while real-life beauties sit on the mattresses, feathered, flocked, or fried. Monkeys and a lemur squat on spectators' shoulders peeling peanuts, while parrots and macaws squawk at the contestants. The pigeons are busy! We see a dog dressed in doll clothes wearing a straw hat.
The other event that is a blast, literally, is the Coast Guard's attempt to subdue the rebel Conch Republic pirates on their ship off Mallory Pier. The Pier is the site of sunset kisses, cruise or Naval ship dockings, and acts of wonder under spotlights. We've seen the same contortionist, now age 60, remove himself from a chained straitjacket for ten years. It's also the spot for the water fight. The Coast Guard, with its superior hoses, subdues the rebels, but not before it has doused the spectators to their bones. None of us care, since we all have a glow from the sun or whatever.
I no longer wear flip flops with cute crystal beads cutting between my toes, as I did when we first started going here. Charley doesn't walk in sandals, either. Instead, we ramble up Duval Street and back (two and one-half miles, total) in the morning in sturdy walking sneakers and socks. Charley dons a safari hat, looking for native Key West species. The temperature will climb near ninety. He sports a three-day beard, Papa Hemingway-style, and blends right in.
We no longer peer into the Hog's Breath Saloon, Sloppy Joe's, or Margueritaville. The stink of beer venting onto the sidewalk in the morning takes away my appetite. Instead, we stop on a porch near the Southernmost Hotel for glasses of ice water, coffee, lemonade, and muffins.
There is a problem during our walk. I must shop by memory. "I hate to shop," Charley reminds me. The first day I do a memory snapshot of the exact item I see in a window, the shop where I saw it, and where the shop is located. The following day Charley indulges me by retracing our route while I try to locate the items. He prevails upon the nearest shopkeeper to provide a plastic chair. One year a shopkeeper actually gave him a key chain as a reward for his patience. On the way back to our hotel, we look at shirts to replace what he forgot or "Y" straps that will hold his sunglasses in place, since they are slipping in the heat. It's a trade off.
In the afternoon we collapse on our hotel beach and order a late lunch from our chaises, without moving. Reminds me of a story.
We took another couple with us to Key West a couple of times. The first time we set up at the same beach but had no idea our section was designated "Topless." Tom settled in, took one look at what was in front of him, and never moved a muscle for the rest of the afternoon. He didn't even open a book. "This is where I want to have lunch the rest of the trip," he said.