as I’ve done in San Diego and Portland, I felt compelled to take in the views from the top of the lighthouse in Key West. the original structure, built in 1825, stood on the shore and was flattened by a hurricane in 1846. the keeper, Barbara Mobrity (who succeeded her husband who died in 1832), survived but six of her children perished in the storm.
|seriously — you have to climb these!
rather than replace it with one on the same spot, they erected the new lighthouse and keepers quarters in the middle of the island. the new building rose to 46 feet (compared to the original’s 65 feet) initially, but was extended in to 86 feet in 1894 to make it visible above the rising tree line. Barbara stayed on as keeper upon its completion in 1847, but lost her position at the age of 82 after making statements against the Union (which controlled Key West and the lighthouse) during the Civil War.
the Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse in 1969 and turned the property over to Monroe County, who leased it to the Key West Art & Historical Society, which now runs it, in 1972.
of all the lighthouses I’ve visited, climbing the one in Key West unnerved me the most. generally, I don’t have a problem with heights, but something about ascending 88 narrow, open-backed, iron stairs up the center of the structure unsettled me and made it somewhat difficult to enjoy the remarkable views from the deck.
perhaps it also had something to do with the warning, immediately inside the door, not to stay in the tower when there’s a thunderstorm. so much of the damn thing is metal and isn’t what one might consider “safe” to stand on and/or in during storms as I understand iron makes a pretty good conductor, making the 86 foot tower an effective lightning rod that can kill you.
the first European visitor to Key West was Ponce de Leon while native peoples populated or at least used the island prior to his arrival. when de Leon’s men arrived, bones covered the island, possibly from a battle or because it served as a burial ground, which prompted them to call it Cayo Hueso, or Bone Island. when Florida became a Spanish colony, the island became a fishing village and small garrison. original Spanish settlers relocated to Cuba following when Britain claimed control, but back-and-forth between the powers resulted in a lack of oversight of the island for a significant portion of the 18th and early 19th centuries. at various points in its early history, the island was sold simultaneously to two men who subsequently fought one another; a military officer controlled the island using martial law as a military dictator; served as a strategic salvage village on a crucial deep-water channel through the Gulf of Mexico.
during the 1800s, immigrants from the Bahamas, known as Conchs, began to populate the island. today Key West is often referred to as the “Conch Republic,” with it’s own flag and strong sense of identity among natives (and accepted “freshwater” transplants). they were later joined by all manner of famous and infamous Americans, from Dr. Samuel Mudd to Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Buffett to Harry S Truman.
Key West has long served as an important military and shipping outpost, as it sits on the northern edge of Florida Straits, separating the Atlantic from the Gulf. there’s a Naval Air Station on Boca Chica Key, where pilots train; the USS Maine sailed from there to its fate and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War; all number of cruise ships dock in the port before heading to more Caribbean locales. all those non-native short-term visitors certainly don’t help the feeling that the town is something of an unapologetic tourist trap though, as I mentioned before, if you get away from Duval Street and Mallory Square, it doesn’t seem like a bad place to while away some time.
you hear it everywhere from everyone — Key West is “weird”. residents pride themselves on being weird, being counter culture, thwarting expectations.
maybe it is and maybe residents do. if you get rid of all the tourists. or get away from Duval Street and Mallory Square. when we saw what were obviously native islanders, they certainly seemed a little off — exactly what you think of when you think of someone “quirky.” mostly, though, Key West is a slightly offbeat tourist magnet with kitschy gift shops, touristy museums, overpriced sights, and plenty of street performers. I cannot imagine being on the island during the summer or in the height of Spring Break season. it must a different world.
we did manage to get slightly off the beaten path, thankfully. after our attempt to eat at a very Popular Spot was thwarted by a 70 minute wait, we walked the mile and a half to its sister restaurant on Higgs Beach. in the end we probably didn’t get our food any sooner than if we’d waited at the first place, but the walk afforded us with an alternative view of Key West that we hadn’t yet encountered on our shuttle rides or walks around the northwest end of the island.
on Higgs Beach, despite the wind coming off the water, a group of leathery-skinned locals sat on chairs in the shade of a palm tree, chatting. a sign warning of jellyfish danger greeted you on approach to rather murky-looking water. and, perhaps the best example of Key West’s alleged “quirkiness”, a peace sign composed of coconuts that had fallen from a nearby tree.
in spite of the crowds and aggressively touristy nature of Key West, there is a lot to recommend the place. the off-the-beaten-path places that are truly unique and don’t try to foist themselves on you and whose merit speaks for itself, for one thing. and the sunsets, for another.
|waiting for security to open at DCA
at the end of February, I went to the Florida Keys for the first time. it was also the first time I’ve been on vacation in the winter with the expressed intention of escaping the weather. for the most part this winter has been eerily warm but, as if to mock my attempt to “get away to someplace warm,” one of the worst storms of the season swept through the Midwest and completely knocked out Chicago. and O’Hare. due to a transposition error on my part, we got to the airport later than intended and the shuttle bus to Chicago (which was ferrying passengers on our canceled flight to O’Hare to, theoretically, make their connections) had already left.
really, the whole situation turned out for the best since by 2:30 Thursday afternoon most of the Friday flights out of Chicago were already canceled. after dealing with one of the oddest (but surprisingly competent) gate agents to figure out a solution that wouldn’t leave us stranded in Dallas or Denver overnight with no guarantee of getting out in the morning, we found a workable solution that gave us about six hours of sleep in Washington D.C. unexpected layover (which, on balance, turned out much cheaper than making it to Key West as intended) in unseasonably warm weather! besides, seeing that skyline at night is really something.
it was also nice to be able to enjoy the drive down the Keys in the daylight, too, rather than arriving after midnight on Thursday. traffic in Miami was about as gnarly as I expected (due mostly to construction re-routes, delays, and related accidents), but once we were away from the airport and Dolphin Expressway it was smooth sailing. I had my first iced tea of the season and, perhaps more than anything else, I wished to bring that seasonal feeling back with us. I miss the fact that I could enjoy my iced teas at the Coffee Bean year-round when I lived in San Diego.