I reached the end of the road in Key West on a balmy December afternoon and headed straight over to the Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park for a little exploring. Presumably, the soldiers stationed there during its 100 years (1845-1947) suffered through some hardships but wow – what a location! After touring the fort and admiring the view I wandered over to the beach to dip my toes in the inviting Atlantic Ocean.
Ouch! The beach that looked like soft, white sand is actually comprised of small, angular chunks of decomposing fossilized coral. There is nothing soft about it! If I lived there I’m sure my feet would toughen up and get used to it. Whiling away a warm day; watching turquoise water gently lapping the shore under gently swaying palm trees – not a bad introduction to Key West.
After sunset, the music wafting over from Duval Street enticed me over to Sloppy Joe’s. It seemed fitting to hang out at the bar where Ernest Hemingway spent so much time. It was also a great place to indulge in the endlessly entertaining hobby of people watching. I lost count of all the different languages I overheard.
I didn’t even remotely try to match Hemingway’s drink count (he seemed to treat drinking like an Olympic sport). Joe Russell, the bar’s original owner and namesake, once said that Hemingway bought his house next to the Key West Lighthouse so that he could find his way home after a long night at the bar.
Thanks to the low battery alert on the smoke detector in my room I was up well before dawn the next morning. So, I was showered, breakfasted, and out the door by 7:30am. Which I discovered, in Old Town Key West, is a good two and half hours earlier than everyone else. Old Town retains much of the same anything (and everything) goes attitude that it had during Prohibition. Locals reportedly viewed Prohibition as “an amusing exercise dreamed up by the government”. Their late nights are not conducive to early mornings.
So I meandered through neighborhoods, admiring architecture, random yard art, and recognizing locations mentioned in Jimmy Buffett songs. Next time I hear “Woman Goin’ Crazy on Caroline Street” I’ll know exactly where she lived. I like picking up these tidbits of knowledge about places I’ve visited, connecting these pieces creates a clearer picture. Much like putting together a puzzle.
Needless to say I was one of the first in line at the Ernest Hemingway House. My early morning turned out to be a good thing as I was able to wander the grounds and spend time with the polydactyl cats before the crowd arrived. According to my tour guide, polydactyl (six-toed) cats were considered good luck by ship captains and it was a captain friend of Hemingway’s that gifted Snow White to him. The 56 cats currently residing on the property are all descended from Snow White.
I was pleased to see how well the cats were tended. The specially fenced property is clearly their domain and they roam freely through the house and grounds. Some of the staff even disobeyed evacuation orders during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and stayed with the cats in the home’s basement. They all survived unscathed.
I enjoyed my morning at Hemingway’s and I’m glad that it has been so well-preserved. Though I had to shake my head at the paradox of people getting married there. Yes, it is a beautiful property but I doubt Hemingway’s approach to marriage is what one wants to emulate (he was married four times and cheated on at least three of his wives).
Afterward, I crossed the street and climbed the Key West Lighthouse for a glorious bird’s-eye view of Old Town. Sadly, the tallest nearby point is Mt. Trashmore, the old landfill that dominates the skyline over on Stock Island. My day ended with another dose of toe-tapping live music, this time over at the Green Parrot.
On my final day I stopped in at Truman’s Little White House. It was built in 1890 as the First Officer’s Quarters for the Key West naval station. After WWII the building was vacated. In the fall of 1946 President Harry S. Truman’s physician recommended a relaxing vacation somewhere warm. Unsurprisingly, stepping into the presidency mid-term and wrapping up WWII had strained Truman’s health.
Since the house was not in use and securely located on a naval base it was a perfect choice. Truman and his entourage (staff, Secret Service, and reporters) arrived in November. While he may have been relaxing, Truman was not on vacation. Technological advancements kept him in close contact with Washington D.C. and documents were hand delivered every few days.
The location proved to be quite popular, Truman visited a total of eleven times during and after his presidency. General, and later, President Eisenhower also stayed in the home. President Kennedy visited in 1961 and returned right after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Though the U.S. government deeded the property to the state of Florida for use as a museum in 1987 the house is still occasionally utilized by former Presidents. Carter and his family visited in 1996, Clinton stayed here with his wife, Hilary in 2005.
Key West, the pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow…