I woke up at the start of the week in Key West Florida. I left the chilly, rainy February of the Oregon Coast for warm, humid, sun-filled skies and emerald blue sea water. I am curious what it does to a body to be in one place one day and then in something so drastically different the next day. For the mind it can send shock waves, it can wake you up to totally immerse yourself in something new. I wonder if the body goes through something similar, if it is made a little new by a new place, if senses that had gotten a little lazy wake up a bit.
This was a family trip–Allyson’s parents were so kind as to treat us on lodging, lots of great meals, and many wonderful outings. I haven’t come up with something that feels like a suitable way to express gratitude for gifts like these. Travel is one of the most important things to me, spiritually speaking. The best way I’ve surmised so far to honor such a gift is to truly enjoy it, to really take it in like you would spend time with a loved one when you go to visit.
Key West is the most Southern point of the country. It is a little out-lying island in a string of islands that stretch off the bottom of the Florida Peninsula. It has been a hiding place at the edge of the world for people for hundreds of years, from Caribbean Pirates to Ernest Hemingway to Harry Truman to Jimmy Buffet. Roosters patrol the streets everywhere you go, and you hear cock-a-doodle-doos at all times of day or night. And, even though it seems that cruise ship tourists and kitschy bars and stores are starting to crowd the island, there is still this feeling that you could escape to this place and reinvent yourself. That absorbing the sun and salty air, walking the harbor shirtless, propping yourself up against a palm tree and watching the calm, blue gulf water slowly drift by could wake something up in you that you didn’t even realize was asleep.
On Tuesday, we chartered a sailing trip with Danger Charters, a group that takes small groups of people out for eco-tours including snorkeling and kayaking near coral reefs and mangrove islands that surround Key West. The wind was strong enough to carry us out without any engine assistance. The crew reminded me a lot of camp workers–they memorized everyone’s names, they tried to get strangers to mix, and they really seemed to care about the place and the work. They joked with us, explained history and helped us get to know the animals and plants swimming and flying all around us.
It took me some time to adjust myself back to the breathing of snorkeling. I am used to the more manual breathing of swimming, where you have to take your head out of the water to inhale. Each time a wave would slap against me, I’d want to raise my head higher so not to inhale seawater, even though I really didn’t need to worry about that. It became more and more comfortable, and I began to hear my breath differently. It became the soundtrack to my trip, something I was making simultaneously offered the rhythm to my movement. There was less and less need for me to consciously think about inhales and exhales, kicks and arm swipes–it just happened like a heartbeat or an eye blink.
I became part of a different world, shadowing above schools of Angel Fish. I watched Moray Eels come out of holes and retreat back in like a Jim Henson puppet. Toward the end of the swim, I found myself above a Barracuda about 4 feet long. He just floated there still, and I did the same a few feet above him. I love to just watch living things, hoping to catch them doing something natural, to see them in their regular lives. I thought about how powerful this fish must be and how humans have made his life so much more difficult, but how in that moment we were just coexisting in the same space. He soon drifted away, and I made my way back to the ship. It felt like I was coming out of a different planet onto a space ship.
Next we would take kayaks around a Mangrove island. Allyson and I got to kayak together, and it had been some time. We have both kayaked and canoed so much, that familiar rhythm came back, and we glided on the smooth gulf water as the day waned, into little groves of trees that our guide told us was strong enough that they had waited out storms inside them before. Back on the ship, headed for port, we watched the sun go down from the deck of the Danger. We had snacks and drinks, took selfies, talked more to people about what they do, what they are passionate about as other ships, small and large, crossed in front and behind us.
On Thursday, Allyson and I went to the Ernest Hemingway house, where he lived from 1931-1940. When I was an undergraduate writing major at University of Tennessee, my professors were lovers of Hemingway’s writing, and they passed that love onto me. As of late, Hemingway hasn’t been as popular with the artistic community and writers are quicker to point out their feelings about the fallibility of his writing style. As a person, Hemingway certainly had his flaws, and as I read about him and see him portrayed in movies and books, I’m not sure that I would like him, but I feel pretty confident it would be hard not to be drawn to him. He is one of those who you might describe as “great,” not necessarily “good,” mind you, but he seemed big and full of life. He was good at a few things, to a fault. He was almost certainly an alcoholic–from the outside it seemed like he was terrible to women. Yet, many, many people flocked to him, and I don’t think it was solely tied to his fame.
Walking through Hemingway’s home, hearing the stories, some I knew, some I did not, I imagined what life must have been like in the slice of history. This quieter moment in Key West’s history, but this moment people would now walk through and relive for a $13 adult admission. Looking at the tiles of the bathrooms, walking out onto the same balcony, seeing a similar view of the world. We were putting ourselves in some version of Hemingway’s history, imagining a time I can’t help but encounter with nostalgia. His writing room is a simple rooftop apartment, with some safari animal heads, bookcases, and a desk with a typewriter. They told us it was the same typewriter he had written many of his books on. There room is blocked off with metal railing to leave the room undisturbed, so I stood in the doorway trying to see every bit of the room, to take it all in. There was a man next to me who had moved to a corner so not to be in anyone’s way, but so he could have more time to take it in. I looked over to him, and I could tell we were feeling something similar.
I don’t know exactly where I stand with ghosts or spirits or thin places in the world, but I definitely felt some sort of presence in the room. Whether it was of my own conjuring or something more, I don’t really care. Maybe it was just the knowing, maybe it was the dedication to recreating the room, maybe there was some spirit left over from years of creating, years of words poured onto paper, years of demons worked out in that room to make something we can hold in our hands and read. Whatever it was, I felt drawn to stay, to go back later and spend more time there. I felt something important had happened there. I felt something was lingering. I imagined this figure who is something mythic to me, the source of so much literature I hold close. I thought about his demons too–what he must have seen in the war that not even he could completely shake through his art, how he hurt friends and lovers. But, then there was also this undeniable zest for life, this unrelenting urge to be in the world and live every moment. All that under that roof for nearly a decade. Then, we walked out of the gates, back into 2016.
Saturday, we packed up the rented van and began the long journey home. Allyson and I would be traveling for nearly 20 hours, going from one corner of the country to the other. We made the trek up Florida Highway 1, over the 7 mile bridge that connects the keys for drivers. We hugged goodbye at the airport security, because we were in separate concourses. I’d remember conversations with Albert at his favorite Key West bar, The Green Parrot. He told me how he had spent time here in the 70s, recalling how the place had changed over the years. I recall conversations on the porch with Emily about books and 2016 presidential race and the challenges of keeping up with technology. They had brought us to this new, foreign place and we had seen so much. Places have a way of attaching themselves to you with the right experiences.
Allyson and I flew to Newark for our connecting flight. As the sun sat on the Eastern Time Zone, we circled Manhattan. We were able to pick out the Empire State Building and the new World Trade Center Building. We weren’t really in New York, but we felt its presence. And, this was just the first leg of our trip. Airports are these strange portals to other lands. Holding centers that allow you a glimpse of a place. Then, we made the five and a half hour flight from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific. Stepping off the tarmac into PDX, we heard a piano player. It was 10pm local time, and it seemed like he had waited around just to play for us. We had completed the transition. One world to another, then back again. We were back in our own magical world, next to our own ocean. But, so many places, so many sights, feelings, so many ghosts stored away that we’ll keep–that we’ll wonder how best to use.