By then, I had a long history (at least in my limited experience and mind) with Key West. Had been there once a year--sometimes twice--since 1977. It was a magical place for a midwesterner--especially an unhappy one--and I often felt like I had discovered the island myself. Of course, now it's old hat: everyone knows about Key West and the Keys and almost everyone has been there. But in 1977, I was fresh out of Urbandale High School--in a suburb of Des Moines--and I owned a van and I got some pals together (Kevin, Bobby, Mark) and we went to Florida in the spring. I was working full time, not yet in college, and we went to Daytona Beach. Which was fun. But I'd heard of the Keys, of Key West, and since it was my van, I insisted we go further, all the way down to where the highway ends. And we did. And I never looked back after that: in my mind, for many years, Florida was about the Keys and Key West and nothing else.
I went to Key West twice--no, thrice--before I went to college. Once, I went by myself with the intent to stay and slept in my van (the old bowling alley parking lot on Roosevelt Blvd. was always a good spot to spend the night, better than the White Street Pier), but I did not get a job or an apartment. Instead, I decided to return to Iowa and go to college. It was a good decision. But in school, the real and official Spring Breaks took over and I could travel back to Daytona and the Keys, bringing my new-found friends along.
Oh those long car trips--straight through with only bathroom breaks and multiple drivers. Ah the sudden warm weather after months of snow and cold and low light. The beach and palms and bikinis. All the usual stuff. The vacation from the vacation that was college life. Spring Break as a right of passage. I know nowadays the kids travel to Cancun or the Bahamas or Hawaii. When I went it was still about piling into cars and getting by as cheap as possible. By the time I went, Ft. Lauderdale had been supplanted by Daytona, just as Daytona has now been supplanted by Panama City--though it sounds like Cancun has supplanted them all . . . But as I said, I went to the Keys. To Key West.
By 1983, I had the trip down. I knew of places to stay, camp, eat in Florida--I always drove and had that long stretch of highway from Iowa down also. But in 1983, I was teetering on the edge of graduation. I was headed for the Keys in a big old vehicle with a bunch of people (instead of a small car with maybe four at tops).
I did not think of it as my last spring break. I'm not sure I fully realized what graduating from college would hold for me (just as I did not think deeply about moving on from high school). But Spring Break meant a lot to me: no classes, yes, but travel, friendship, sun and new landscapes--out of Iowa and into Florida. I wrote a lot about Florida, about the Keys and Key West by 1983. I always thought I'd move to the Keys, at least for a while, and I always thought I'd eventually settle down in Washington or Oregon.
I usually camped at the state park, Bahia Honda, but that spring they were full and we could only get a spot at the private campground. (I'd camped at Boyd's on Stock Island my first few times in the Keys--always camped, was too cheap for a motel/hotel room.) Matt had brought an unconscionable amount of dope and so we were stoned all the dang time we were down there. Also--because we were poor and cheap college students--we bought a slew of bottle of alcohol, stuff to make Long Island Iced Teas with, and we got very drunk to go along with getting very stoned. So, we didn't really make it to Key West every day (KW was about forty miles down the Overseas Highway), but instead sat around the picnic table and the Winnebago just being idiots in the sun. Fitting. But, really, Spring Break was never so much about sex and debauchery to me (that's what weekends in Iowa City were for), but more about new landscapes, the beach and warmth, camaraderie among my fellow travelers.
Okay. This little memory isn't really going anywhere, just like I wasn't really going anywhere. I mean, physically I did. Just a few months after being in the Keys, Matt, Brock and I drove to Alaska for that summer. And I was back in Iowa City by the fall and graduated in December. I finished my undergrad degree and took off for more of the same without the classes to hold me back. But I never went back to the Keys, to Key West. Not for a good twelve or thirteen years. I was living in Los Angeles when I found out that Brock had moved to Key West and that Matt had joined him there. I was envious. I don't know why I didn't just drop everything and head on down there myself, I really don't. I don't know why I never--outside of sleeping in my van for a few months--moved to Key West by myself. It was my #1 favorite place for so many years. It was the destination I always had in mind when I thought of wonderment and escape and where I'd like to live. Yet I never did "live" there. I just visited.
I have been back since, numerous times. The Key West I knew is not the Key West of now, yet it also is. Which is a common feeling as you get older. The Key West I knew when I was in my teens is not the Key West other people knew from when I was born. Cities, towns, worlds are not museums. Everyone knows this but it takes quite a few years to experience this.
I remember that, after I graduated from the University of Iowa and left Iowa City, I used to joke that everything would stop afterwards: "Man, I thought they'd close down the University after me, keep everything the same," I'd say. And the people who 'got it', understood the sentiment behind it, would laugh. But the problem is, deep down, I wasn't really joking.
It was the same with Key West for me.