The Conch Republic

— South of the Real World

In 1982 the U.S. Border Patrol, in another of their futile attempts to stem the flow of drugs, decided to put a border checkpoint on U.S. Route 1, which connects Key West to Florida’s mainland. Locals were incensed over traffic tie-ups and being treated as second-class citizens. The mayor rebelled by seceding from the Union, forming the Conch Republic, declaring war on the United States, then immediately surrendering, and demanding foreign aid. The native and naturalized citizens of the Conch Republic rallied behind a foreign policy to “mitigate world tension through the exercise of humor.”

The tourist bureau wanted to put up a highway sign on Route 1 that read, “Leaving the U.S.A. Entering the Conch Republic.” However, it was thought to be too confusing for foreigners, so a replacement was ordered saying, “Entering the State of Mind. Key West.”

At dawn I sailed Sabra solo from nearby Dry Tortugas, hoping to make the Conch Republic by nightfall. My friend and roving Southern Episcopalian priest, Bud, was sailing solo alongside in Cavale. After many hours of beating into twenty-knot headwinds, we decided to anchor, short of our goal, in the lee of Woman Key, only a few miles from Key West. A night’s rest sounded like a good idea.

The winds next morning were just as bad, and it took most of the day to haul anchor and make it into the protected anchorage off Key West.

The hard parts of singlehanded sailing always occur near shore, where anchors have to be set or hauled, heavy dinghies need inflating and launching, and outboard motors need to be lowered and mounted. Another pair of hands would make these tasks so much simpler. For example, I can’t directly winch up the anchor against a stiff wind. I have to put the engine in forward releasing tension in the chain, go forward to winch up a few feet of chain, run back to the cockpit to put the engine in neutral before overrunning the chain, winch up a few more feet, run back to put the engine in forward . . . .

Searching for the Green Flash

Once anchored in Key West harbor, Bud and I quickly launched our respective dinghies and went to town for a well-deserved beer and to watch the world-famous Key West sunset and Green Flash. The beer tasted good after the windward bashing. As we relaxed enjoying our drinks and the setting sun, good-looking women in revealing bikinis passed by. Bud would look appreciatively and say, “There goes a sin and a half.” I would mentally rank them on the Bo Derek “10” scale while Bud briefly contemplated sinning.

The winds remained stiff, and getting back and forth between the anchorage and town was a wet experience, especially across the wakes of large sport fishermen. I started to carry my laptop computer in a Rubbermaid food tub (a boater’s briefcase) searching for phone connections for my email addiction. After a few drenching dinghy trips I decided to find a marina. But before leaving the anchorage, Bud invited me over for Thanksgiving dinner. We had a wonderful time over charcoal-broiled steaks with wine and a wide-ranging conversation from the “Second Coming” to the art of battery charging.

Bud R.I.P

At one point in the conversation Bud complained about replacing his alternator belt every couple of years. I asked why he didn’t mount twin belts. He said, “I keep thinking I’ll be ‘rhapsodized’ in a few years and won’t have to worry about alternators anymore.” Key West would be a good place for Bud to await the end.

[Bud passed away in 2010]

Charles Kuralt is one of my favorite travel observers. In his book Charles Kuralt’s America, he describes Key West as:

“. . . the greatest of all the end-of-the-road towns . . . It is filled with dreamers, drifters, and dropouts, spongers and idlers and barflies, writers and fishermen, islanders from the Caribbean and gays from big cities, painters and pensioners, treasure hunters, real estate speculators, smugglers, runaways, old Conchs [natives] and young lovers.”

This highly eccentric mix of island people comes from a history of being a stop-off for pirates, settled by transients and rogues, and now populated by tourists and those serving the tourist industry. Since it was given to a Spanish infantryman by King Ferdinand VII in 1815 and then sold to an American for $2,000, Key West has weathered several boom and bust cycles.

First it was a wrecker’s paradise, flourishing in the days of New England and Bahamian salvers working the sailing ships that foundered on reefs surrounding the island. Lighthouses brought an end to that business. Then the advent of sea turtle and sponge harvesting took over economic prominence, until turtles were declared endangered and the spongers moved on to better harvests in Tarpon Springs where that industry later collapsed because of plastic sponges. Cubans fleeing their revolution against Spain in the mid-1800s brought the cigar-rolling business to the island, but it also moved to Tampa. Bootlegging from Cuba during prohibition was big business for a short while. The “pink gold” of shrimping was the next new thing, but it is now threatened by cheap imports from Central America and homegrown pollution moving through the Keys from the overdeveloped mainland. For the moment, however, shrimp, tourism, and sport fishing remain the economic mainstays of the four-mile island, sup¬porting 40,000 permanent residents and over two million tourists a year.

The marina was calm and about four miles north of town. The ride back and forth to town was on a flat bike path alongside Route 1. One morning as I started out from the parking lot, my neighbor, on a well-appoint¬ed 38-foot Endeavor, offered to hang the bike on his car’s bike rack and drive me into town.

Mike recently sold an insurance business in Texas and headed for the Caribbean in search of a less hectic lifestyle on “island time.” He was disappointed by a lack of basic services, like reliable water and electricity, so he sailed back to Key West. “It’s the best of both worlds,” he says. “I’ve got the laid-back island time I was looking for plus dependable electric service, cable-TV, telephone, good water. Whatever I want.”

Now he’s thinking of opening a small business on Duval Street, in the main tourist-shopping district. “Not another T-shirt shop?” I asked.

“Yep,” he responded.

Mike says it’s a low-risk idea. He thinks he’s found a small niche for high-end, hand-painted shirts. The paint-by-the-numbers blanks bought in Rhode Island and colored-in by local artists. He hopes to clear $50 thousand a year while enjoying the relaxed “conch” lifestyle — never getting out of short pants, T-shirts, and sandals.

The bike ride into town is a perfect “end of the line” transition from anyplace U.S.A. to the unique funkiness of Key West. Along the way are the usual strip mall establishments — fast food restaurants interspersed with Sears, Walden Books, K-Mart, Goodyear, Ace Hardware, Holiday Inn, NAPA, Radio Shack . . . . If it were not for the clear blue waters alongside the causeway, the mangrove stands dotted with white herons and an occasional slap in the face by a low-hanging palm frond, you would not know this is the heart of America’s sub-tropical Keys.

As I continued to the southernmost city, the scenery changed dramatically from trailer parks and familiar logos to “conch architecture,” a sleepy blend of New England, Victorian, and Bahamian-styled buildings with turned balustrades and gingerbread verandas. Many of the homes, converted to guest inns, have covered porches and New England-styled “widow walks.” The commerce also changes to T-shirt shops, shell shops, gift boutiques, restaurants and bars, and more T-shirt shops. The sidewalks are filled with tourists — pale white-skinned Europeans, skimpily clad sun-worshiping vacationers, a large number of fashionably dressed gay couples — and an aging resident hippie crowd with scraggly hair wearing a minimum of dirty, tattered clothes.

On one of my circuits of Duval Street, the main drag lined with knickknack boutiques and T-shirt shops, I noticed several mezuzahs on the doorways to T-shirt shops. I was mildly curious and started a mental count of these Jewish establishments. The mezuzah is a small decorative container for a prayer scroll meant to be mounted at the entrance of a Jewish home. Of twenty shops along a two-block stretch, I counted nineteen mezuzahs. I never learned how this concentration came about but it amused me to think about a Jewish Mafia taking over the T-shirt business in the Conch Republic.

Some of the island homes are run-down; others were beautifully restored. The gay population, which arrived in large numbers in the 1970s, accounts for 70 percent of the restoration and renovation. They also account for much of the relaxed and tolerant lifestyle on the island. Real estate was booming in Key West.

Key West is changing and losing much of its funkiness to chain stores and ever-increasing pressures of tourism. But residents are determined to slow the pace of change, even if they know they can’t stop it. Kuralt says, “The place has no dignity but much style.” Many visitors pick up its unhurried, don’t-worry-be-happy charm quickly and then find no reason to leave. Hemingway lived here and probably found a lot of material in the Bohemian atmosphere of the Keys.

I visited the Rodriguez Cigar Factory, where Mr. Rodriguez has been rolling cigars for thirty-five years. I watched for several minutes as he deftly plucked pieces of tobacco leaf from different piles and rolled them with the palm of his hand and a small leather mat. I asked what the various piles of leaves represented. He told me they were different tobacco blends from Cuban seeds now grown in Central America.

Later at the Dalton Coffee shop I met Jim behind the counter. I asked if this shop was soon to be a part of the Starbucks empire. “Oh no!” he shuddered. “We’re a small chain out of New York City. Much better than Starbucks.”

Jim gave up a professorship in political science in New Mexico for the dropped-out easy living of Key West. On several visits over the next few days he would join me on the stoop of the café between customers to smoke and talk. We discussed restaurants, small business problems, and good places to live.

“What’s a sophisticated guy like you doing wearing a McDonald’s hat?” he asked me.

I told him it was a trophy from the McD’s president’s office for stopping at seventy-five of his restaurants on my recent personal record of driving my VW cross-country with the top down. He laughed and told me he once corresponded with Ray Kroc, the founder, to get background material for a novel he was writing about a chef. We both agreed that McD’s is a very friendly corporation.

Sometimes I get nostalgic for a comfortable living room with soft easy chairs and ottomans. To satisfy this itch I went to La Concha, a high-class Holiday Inn with a spacious lobby, clean bathroom, and good telephones. There’s a baby grand piano in the lobby controlled by a CD player. It’s eerie to see keys go up and down automatically. “Pianomation,” the concierge called it. She was tempted to put a “tip cup” on the piano to see if the machine could attract some money from lobby guests.

When not exploring the sights and culture of this island and meeting the friendly Conchs and other residents, I was busy varnishing, repairing things that always seem to break on a boat, scraping barnacles off the propeller, and preparing for another Gulf Stream crossing of the Florida Straits. This time I was headed for Havana. I have never had a peaceful crossing of this gargantuan, fast-moving ocean river. The only way to deal with it is to be thoroughly prepared. Everything in top working order.

Busying myself everyday with boat maintenance and preparations seemed to contradict the “mañana syndrome” of the Keys. I was not ready to drop out just yet.

[First published by the author in Living Aboard, April 1996.]