Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Return to Key West: 1995

It was like this: Fru and I had been living back in Champaign, Illinois since August of 1990. I was trying to get out of Champaign and get back into graduate school. Our two daughters were around, what?, two and four years old by then. I'd turned down the top spot at the University of Oregon the year before, had reapplied and did not even get in. But, I had been accepted at Colorado State--in Ft. Collins--and Florida International University in Miami. Hmm.
So, I'd been out to Fort Collins to talk to the people there and now I was in Fort Lauderdale to talk to the people in Miami. I'd chosen Ft. lauderdale because I was a little leery of Miami as a place to raise little kids, but Broward County seemed good enough. But anyway--this is about how I went back to Key West.
I hadn't been in Key West since 1983. Twelve years prior. And you've got to understand, Key West was a big thing to me. I'd gone there first in 1977--fresh out of Urbandale High School (Des Moines, IA)--and was blown away that such a place existed. An island city? With flat tropical waters that came right up to the highway? Warm all year? What wasn't to be amazed about? I'd never really been to Florida, let alone the Keys, so I was duly impressed--and influenced. And I went back, stayed for a spell, then came back every year--sometimes twice a year--from '77 to '83. But then I didn't come back. I went out west, I went to the deep south, the midwest. It's not like I forgot about Key West--I was just busy.
So, I was staying by myself at a Days Inn on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale. Fru and my little girls were back in Champaign. I'd rented a car, had driven to Miami, to FIU, and met the director of the program there (the director of the program at Colorado State wouldn't meet with me, passed me off to a student--this was all the MFA Creative Writing program) and now I had a little time on my hands. And a car. And I was in South Florida. So, I decided to take a little drive.
I wasn't going to go to Key West, just dip down into the Keys for a bit and return to Ft. Lauderdale. And so--sunny day in the spring--I took off down 95 to U.S. 1, through southern Miami and into the swampy/Everglades land of mangroves and hidden lakes and then into Key Largo.
The Keys! Key Largo!
Ah, it felt good. Good enough that I kept going to the next Key. And then the next.
I made it to Marathon--about half way down the string of islands--and stopped. In Marathon I went to Sombrero Beach and hung out. Swam a bit. This was all pretty much impromptu, an unplanned drive. In Marathon I called Fru, talked to her to let her know everything looked good, that there was the best chance we'd be moving to South Florida (which she had misgivings about, but was willing to go if that's where I wanted to go) and I told her I was in the Keys but was headed back. She said to do what I wanted. (Money was tight back in those days--so we didn't just have a room one place then take off and do other frivolous things.) So, I got back in the rental, hit the main road and started back north, towards Miami.
But something got into me. After a few blocks in Marathon, I said to myself--what the heck, I'm down here, I haven't been to Key West in twelve years, why not?--and I made a U-turn.
Headed south (and west).
I got to Key West by evening time.
And it was strange to be there. Like I said, Key West represented a magical place to me, a place that defined my independence, my adulthood in many ways, it was the exotic realm I'd dreamt about while in the lousy years of high school and living in the suburbs of Des Moines. It was my escape, my fantasy island--as much based in reality and in the power of my own imagination. So, I was back. And--though it had changed, much busier and gaudier (gone were the old-stooped houses on eastern Duvall Street)--it was still Key West. The same silky atmosphere, the same easy-going slow-time feel, the vacation-world vibe. The night with music spilling out of bars, the palms and smell of saltwater, the city itself loose and immoral and live and let live. That feeling was there. I hit a few bars, ate dinner at an outdoor spot, walked old streets and just reveled in an inner revelry. Fun. Internal excitement. A sense that I was where I should be . . . but of course, we weren't moving to the Keys, but to Ft. Lauderdale (if we even did that--had no housing or jobs lined up, no real decision of the move yet), just the same, we--Fru, First daughter and Second Daughter, me--we'd be close, but a long drive.
I hung for a while. Played with the idea of getting a room. But decided--few beers or no--I should head on back. It was pretty late--close to midnight--but the good thing about that was that the highway would be clear and easy for a return drive. I mean, Key West is only about 170m miles or so from Miami/Ft. Laud but once you hit Key Largo, it's a slow drive (a nice drive) with other cars. It takes about four hours to do that 170 miles. But, at night--late at night--you can cut that drive time in half almost.
So, that's what I did. Put all my windows down and threaded my way back through the Keys with the warm dark night enveloping me. A sweet drive with barely another car. And I made it back to my dingy beach room at the Days Inn, happy to have been back in Key West, even if just for a few hours.
Who knows. Maybe that drive to KW helped me to make up my mind to move back to Florida--to SoFla instead of the panhandle where I'd lived before. I think Fru would have preferred Colorado, but a lot of things made more sense to come to Miami.
It all ended up good.
My family knows Key West quite well now.

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