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Casual Key West

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

The blazing sun is about to sink into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving a long twilight to smile
on the tiny island of Key West. Gathered at Mallory Square for the nightly ritual are
artists and authors, preachers and performers, musicians and mimes, and, most of all, the
most-eclectic assortment of tourists to be found anywhere in the country. It only measures
four miles by two miles and has a checkered history, but Key West attracts 2 million
visitors every year who go to hobnob with the Conchs, as the natives are called, and the
“newcomers” who initially came for a visit and never left. Anybody who makes the drive on
the Overseas Highway to the end of the Florida Keys has a singular purpose, and that is to
experience the sights, sounds and aromas of Key West. It is not on the way to anywhere; it
is literally the end of the road. It’s closer to Cuba than it is to the mainland of
Florida, and its residents remain as independent as they were during the 1700s, when
ownership of the island was bantered about between the countries of Spain, England and the
United States. By visiting the island’s abundance of museums and natural features, visitors
can trace the rich history of Key West. The island itself is not RV friendly; the streets
are narrow and parking is limited and costly. By leaving your rig at one of the RV parks on
the nearby islands, you can enjoy everything Key West has to offer. Drive your tow vehicle
over the bridge onto the last Key and follow the signs to Old Key West. This is where the
first Spanish settlement was established in 1822. From the parking lot at Mallory Square
you can walk to nearly all of the most-publicized attractions in Key West. But first, you
want to stop by the Chamber of Commerce office at Mallory Square and pick up a map. A good
place to begin your Key West experience is the Shipwreck Historium. Here you will learn
about the industry that, in the early 1800s, made Key West the richest city per capita in
the South. Unfortunately, this wealth was accrued at the expense of ships that went aground
on the reef just off Key West. When the cry “wreck on the reef” resounded through the tiny,
waterfront community, the race was on to see who would be the first captain to reach the
doomed ship and be designated as wrecking master. After saving the crew and passengers,
much of the ship’s cargo of silks, laces, satins, lumber, silver, china, fine wines and
other valuable goods became the property of the heroic captain and his crew. Many of them
lived in homes that were lavishly furnished, and anything not used for this purpose brought
high prices on the market. When not salvaging passengers and goods, the ships were used for
fishing, but the community’s economy was built on the wrecking industry. After your tour,
climb to the top of the 65-foot tower for a magnificent view of Key West. For another
chapter in the history of Key West, visit the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens. During a
visit to Key West and Dry Tortugas in 1832, ornithologist John James Audubon sighted and
drew 18 new species for his “Birds of America” collection. It is believed that many of
those paintings were created in the garden of the home that was built for Captain John
Geiger, whose family occupied it for 120 years. Today’s visitors to the home and garden
will see 28 original Audubon engravings and a gallery featuring 500 Audubon lithographs.
Not far from this attraction is the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and its
fascinating display of treasures that the famed underwater explorer retrieved from the
ocean floor. What you will see is only a small collection of the treasures from Spanish
galleons and other sailing ships that fell victim to the treacherous reef and turbulent
ocean more than 300 years ago. Your next stop should be the Little White House. It is here
that President Harry S. Truman spent 175 days during his presidency, using it for a
vacation retreat as well as a place to continue the business of running the country. In his
own words, it was a place to escape from the White House, which he referred to as the
“great white jail.” The large wooden structure was a duplex built in 1890 to house the base
commandant and paymaster of the U.S. Naval station. When President Truman decided to make
this his vacation home, it was converted to a single home. Although other presidents
visited the quarters, Truman is the only one who actually stayed overnight in the bedroom,
which has changed little since he occupied it. If you are willing to walk a little farther,
continue on down Whitehead Street to the Hemingway House, which author Ernest Hemingway
purchased in 1931 for $8,000 at a tax sale. He resided there with Pauline, his second wife,
until the early 1940s, and he still owned the home at the time of his death in 1961. His
presence is still felt in the island community. The Spanish mansion, which was constructed
of native rock hewn from the grounds, was 80 years old when Hemingway acquired it from a
shipbuilder and wrecker. Hemingway reveled in the raw atmosphere of Key West, where he
would write in the morning in his studio above the carriage house and spend his afternoons
fishing or in local bars, which were rather crude. The 1930s were productive years for the
author. While in residence in Key West, he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Have and Have
Not, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and A Farewell to Arms. Across the street from the Hemingway
House is the Lighthouse Museum. The structure was completed in 1848 in an effort to warn
ships about the treacherous waters and shoreline of the island. For a panoramic view of Key
West, climb the 88 steps to the top of the tower. You can also view the keeper’s quarters
for a glimpse into what it was like to live as a lighthouse keeper. It’s only a few blocks
more to the southernmost point in the continental United States, a popular photo stop for
tourists. After returning to the center of Old Key West, you’ll probably be ready for some
food and beverages. You’ll find an abundance of eating and drinking establishments, but a
favorite with visitors is Sloppy Joe’s Bar, one of Hemingway’s preferred hangouts. Although
it is not in its original location, it is a good place to enjoy the atmosphere of Key West
and, at the same time, some good food. On your way back to the waterfront, stop in to see
one of Key West’s newest attractions, the Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden. Dedicated in
1997, the focal point of the garden is a sculpture that is 18 feet long and 25 feet high,
depicting the wreckers who were instrumental in establishing the community. There are many
other museums and places of interest in Key West. It would be difficult to find another
venue with so much history in such a small area. Every visitor to Key West goes away with
his or her own memories of the best this unique area has to offer, but nobody who has been
there can forget the vivid images that the island community imposes on its visitors.

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