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La Floridiana by Will Moriaty
   Now in our fifth calendar year
    PCR #197  (Vol. 5, No. 1)  This edition is for the week of January 1--5, 2004.

Will and Karen's Excellent Adventure to South Florida - Part Three
 by Will Moriaty
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Will and Karen's Excellent Adventure to South Florida- Part Three

A Caribbean Paradise Over a Former Appalachian Mountain Chain
Our story begins eons ago. The Florida Keys reside high above the ancient rocks that made up the southern extension of the Appalachian Mountains (isn’t it amazing that we’re still somehow connected with going to that mountain chain on our vacations in one form or another?). Ages ago this part of the mountains was worn level and the Atlantic Ocean has flowed over it many times. After each flooding, new layers of lime and sand formed. The northern ¾’s of the Keys sit atop an old coral reef comprising a soil known as Key Largo Limestone while the remaining southern 1/4th sits atop Miami Oolite, a more recent limestone rock composed of tiny round concentrations. Miami Oolite is the soil type also common in the northwest section of the Everglades and along the southeast coast of Florida. These soils have played a major role in bringing about the modern day appearance and way that life functions in the Florida Keys.

The Long Ride to Key West
Even under cloudy skies the glowing turquoise Caribbean waters of the Keys jump out at you as shown in this photo taken at the approach to the bridge over Channel Five just south of Craig Key.
As recounted in last week’s column, Karen and I left the Flamingo Inn in the Everglades National Park on the morning of Wednesday December 3, 2003 to our next vacation destination, Marrero’s Guest Mansion in Key West. Until I went to the Flamingo Inn, I had never been south of Florida City, Florida, although I was conceived in the Isle of Pines in Cuba. By the end of the day I would be much closer to where I was conceived than to where I was born (Tampa).

The portion of U.S. 1 between Florida City and the first bridge to the Florida Keys is rather desolate and non-descript. It is almost entirely built above a sawgrass prairie with occasional mangroves. To the immediate west is the Everglades National Park, and off in the distance to the east is Biscayne National Park.

42 Bridges to Key West
The first bridge to carry the southbound traveler away from the contiguous Florida peninsula into the Keys is over Card Sound. At this point you are over 110 miles to Key West and about 40 miles south of Miami. This bridge takes you to the first and the largest landmass to comprise the Florida Keys known as Key Largo. Key Largo is 37 miles in length and from the U.S. 1 vantage point, appears to be more of an extended suburb of greater Miami than is characteristic of the smaller, less crowded nature of the Keys south of there.

The backyard of the elegant and charming Marrero's Guest Mansion in Key West, complete with Jacuzzi, heated pool and resident Key West kitty "Cheesequetta".
All the typical chain restaurants and retail outlets that can be found on the mainland grace this major thoroughfare. Views to the Atlantic Ocean on the east side and Florida Bay’s estuaries on the west side are very limited on this Key. I was most impressed, however, by the thick tropical foliage that comprised this landmass. Mangrove, Mahogany, Tamarind, Gumbo Limbo, Satinleaf, Geiger Tree and other West Indies vegetation naturally occur, looking like an impenetrable wall growing right up to the roadway reminding me of Rickenbacker Causeway near Crandon Park in Key Biscayne. It suddenly dawns on the botanist in me that I have left all remnants of the temperate plant world back on the mainland.

The bays and estuaries (one of them is called Lake Surprise!) of Key Largo are home to the rare American Crocodile. The American Alligator that inhabits our neck of the woods (or swamps!) can typically be found in freshwater lakes, rivers, swamps and creeks, while its Crocodile cousin inhabits salt water marshes, mangrove fringes and estuaries in the State’s southernmost tip.

The front of Marrero's Guest mansion as seen from Fleming Street.
The first break away from Key Largo occurs at the bridge over the Tavernier Creek. From that point southward the Keys become generally smaller in size, affording slightly better views of the surrounding ocean, bays and estuaries. Once at and south of Plantation Key, the views of the water become breathtaking, improving with every twist and turn southward. The first truly breathtaking view comes at the bridge over Channel Five between Craig Key and Fiesta Key north of Mile Marker 71. To the west is Florida Bay and to the east is the Atlantic Ocean. Even on a cloudy day these waters are an effervescent, almost glowing, tropical azure and turquoise welcoming you to the Caribbean.

Truth in Advertising: A Highway that Lives Up To Its Name
Once you reach the bridge over Channel Five, you feel more as if you are riding low in an aircraft over the ocean than earthbound riding in an automobile. The vastness of the Atlantic and diminutive nature of the size and detachment from the mainland of the Keys becomes breathtakingly apparent at this location. It is also here where you will begin to notice remnants of Henry Flagler’s railroad bridges and rail beds running alongside all the way to Key West. Without a doubt, the Overseas Highway lives up to its name!

The Lower Keys
Where current day Kelly's restaurant exists is where Pan American Airways started operations in this building in 1927.
Once the traveler heads south of Long Key over to Grassy Key they have entered the Lower Keys. With the exception of Sugar Loaf Key, Big Pine Key and Key West, the traversable land becomes smaller and smaller. Now the Gulf of Mexico is to your north and the Atlantic Ocean to your south. You have also left the southernmost boundary of the Everglades National Park.

Key Deer
The Key Deer is an endangered dwarf race of the white-tailed deer that stands only 25 to 30 inches tall, looking to the uninitiated more like a mid sized dog fitted with antlers than a deer! This dwarf race of deer, which evolved separately from its mainland progenitors, inhabits Big Pine Key, where the name says it all. Incredibly, this far detached from the mainland, reside dense stands of South Florida Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii var. ‘densa’) growing in Miami Oolite with a tropical understory, and the majority of the pines only appear to reach a mature height of 15 to 25 feet.

The Island of Bones, Better Known as Key West
The beginning of United State Highway 1 at the corner of Whitehead and Fleming Streets, proudly adopted by the Southernmost Parrot Head Club (long live Jimmy Buffett!)
After passing the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica Key we crossed the final series of bridges into Key West. The view along Roosevelt Boulevard looked surprisingly sterile, as if Key West was in a competition with Key Largo, but once we crossed White Street into the old part of town that would change dramatically.

The old part of Key West is an absolute treasure from an architectural standpoint. The wood frame houses were in many cases built by ship builders from the Bahamas, Cuba, New England and Europe, all bringing with them their own spin and uniqueness on house design for subtropical island living. Upon surveying these structures I knew I was “home”. Even the South Beach in Miami does not compare with the ambiance and charm that block after block of these remarkable structures with their incredible history hold.

Ever wonder how Key West got its name? A presumed terrible battle between the Calusa and Tekesta occurred prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th Century. When the Spaniards arrived to the island they found the beaches littered with the bones from this battle and named the island “Cayo Hueso”, Spanish for “island of bones”. It was also determined that the island served as a mass burial ground for the indigenous Indian peoples. Nevertheless, the term Cayo Hueso was corrupted into Key West. But I digress...

Closer To the End- - And the Beginning
U.S. 1 changes name from Roosevelt Boulevard to Truman Avenue and for additional nine block run becomes Whitehead Street. Its designation as a United States Highway ends at the intersection centerline of Fleming Street. Technically speaking, U.S. 1 does not end, but BEGINS at the centerline of Fleming Street in Key West at Mile Marker 0 and Mile Post 0.000. In engineering terms, state road designations are measured typically from south to north and west to east. U.S. 1, known as Whitehead Street, starts at the intersection of Fleming Street in tropical Key West Florida and officially ends at the United States/Canadian border at Madawaska, Maine and Edmundton, New Brunswick. You not only leave the country there, but also even enter into the Atlantic Time Zone. Now I ask you - - would you rather sip on a frozen drink beneath the swaying fronds of a Coconut Palm in Key West in 80 degree weather, or freeze your keester off with a Moose in Madawaska Maine?

A Southern boy at the Southernmost Point in the lower 48. At this corner at South and Whitehead Streets you are sixty miles closer to Havana Cuba (90 miles) than Miami Florida (150 miles).
Marrero’s Guest Mansion
Karen and I lodged at the charming and beautiful Marrero’s Guest Mansion (http://www.marreros.com/) in Key West. We only had to drive one half block from the "end" of U.S. 1 to get to it! Run by affable host John, and haunted by Enriquetta Marrero (she mainly hangs out in Room 18) and the lovable housecat “Cheesequetta”, Marrero’s is only one half block from Duval Street, the main draw to visitors of Key West. Built in 1884, in addition to a beautiful front porch area and a wrap around second story verandah, Marrero’s Guest Mansion also has modern day amenities such as a Jacuzzi, heated pool and cable television. It is close to the action, but far enough away to be quiet. I cannot recommend this fine establishment highly enough if you visit Key West.

Town of the Tacky. Only in Key West are you likely to see a car colored through the use of terrazzo!
In retrospect, Karen and I wish that we spent our entire vacation there! For me, an added amenity was the low flying aircraft on approach to Key West International Airport. Since its “name is longer than its runway”, commercial operations are limited to commuter turbo props and regional jets, but they turn real low over Key West, adding to that detached tropical island oasis ambiance of the city.

Conchs and Crackers
Florida folk have often worn these two labels. Those born on the mainland of the state, particularly in the northern and rural areas were often referred to for years (and in some cases still are) as “crackers” (I remember for years my mother exclaiming “You’re a Florida Cracker!”). Presumably derived from our cowboy heritage, the term was borne of the cracking of a whip that was used to herd cattle through the grazing lands of the state. Predominantly white and southern by heritage, the “cracker’ is a primary component of Florida’s more modern anthropology, being primarily agricultural, rough hewn and fiercely independent.

Much like the Key Deer, the disjunct peoples of the Keys are a whole different breed. Calling themselves “Conchs” in respect to the Fighting Conch, they are also a fiercely independent breed that out of their diverse ethnic backgrounds are a more tolerant people than the Crackers. That is in large part why there are so much more open and accepting attitudes towards alternative lifestyles and iconoclastic thinking in Key West than in Keystone Heights. Key West is definitely ground zero for the home of the Conch, referring to itself as the ‘Conch Republic”.

Pre-Birth Memories
Although we didn't go there, I knew that everyone reading this column would want to see Ernest Hemmingway's old haunt, Sloppy Joe's Bar.
In the late 40’s and early 50’s, my parents often went to Key West or Cuba on the weekends. One place in Key West that they often visited was the La Concha hotel (now the La Concha Inn), the only ‘skyscraper” in that city. Possibly because my mother described it in such great detail, I seemed to actually remember it or recognize it, though I had never been there. I could easily imagine once I saw it the building (it was only half a block from Marrero’s), my mother looking out her third story window during that time to see an aircraft engine fall past her window. On that fateful day, a navy plane from Boca Chica N.A.S. collided with a passenger aircraft over downtown. My father saw the passenger aircraft plummet into the nearby Atlantic Ocean killing all aboard. Little did I know that the ghosts from the past would take me back to this grand old hotel.

Conch Train Tour
The best way to get an overview of the treasures of Key West is to take the Conch Train Tour near Mallory Square. This way you can plan which historic home (the Audubon House or Ernest Hemmingway House for example) or neat site (the City Cemetery or Ft. Zachary Taylor) you would like to visit as for as relatively small as Key west is, there is a ton of neat stuff to see and do.

Ghost Tours of Key West
Ghost Tours Key West guide Jason describes the ghost of Enriquetta Marrero in front of her namesake house.
On our final evening in Key West, we took a tour of old houses and structures where ghosts inhabit and strange tales were created. Key West is one of Florida’s most colorful and historic places, and with the possible exception of St. Augustine, has earned the reputation of being Florida’s most haunted city. Known officially as “Ghost Tours Key West “ (www.hauntedtours.com), the tours are the brainchild of Mr. David Sloan, who also authored the book "Ghosts of Key West" (1998, 117pgs, Phantom Press, Key West, Florida). Dressed in black, with a top hat and lantern, our ghost, er host, Jason, met us at 9:30 P.M. at the lobby of, class, anyone? The La Concha Inn! There were six of us guests and Jason roaming the Key West streets that night hearing ghost stories. In order to prepare us for any hecklers, we were instructed to, in unison, point to the hecklers and shout “YOU’RE DOOMED!!!” We only had to do it once.

The tour was possibly the highlight of Key West. Karen and I continued to blab with Jason, who is a great guy, after the other guests went their own way. I pointed out the unique character that Key West has in that it is an intermediary between the living and the dead. In addition to its long human history, the very town itself is one of the few whose bedrock is that of former life itself in the form of coral!

As the evening came to a close, I did not want to leave. I could most seriously entertain living in Key West due to its climate, vegetation, sea life, history and character. On Friday December 5th we jumped back in to “Phooka” and headed back up the Overseas Highway to our eventual and last vacation destination, the National hotel in Miami Beach. After the Keys even Miami looked somewhat temperate to me for the first time (while on the south part of Old Cutler Road, I exclaimed, “Look Karen! A Live Oak grove!”)

Next week it’s on to Miami Beach as we wrap up our Four Part Vacation Adventure story in PCR!

"La Floridiana" is ©2004 by William Moriaty.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2004 by Nolan B. Canova.