Today is my dear husband’s birthday. He, and soon I, are entering the northernmost point of the end of our eighth decade. We are celebrating that milestone at the southernmost tip of the southernmost city in the United States, Key West.
We arrived on Key West for a week’s visit with friends who have relocated here. Our first three days were stormy. Tall palms bent under blustery sheets of tropical rains. When we ventured out, we made 10-foot wide detours around street corners filled with water. On a ride around this 2-mile by 4-mile coral island, we drove in the middle of the road to avoid the flooded margins. The island was polka-dotted with little lakes of water.
Mangrove forests once sheltered this island from the sea. Now much of that is gone, razed for the shopping malls on one side, and the condos and boutiques on the other. The soil is so thin, vegetables can’t grow. As the rains abated and the island dried, we set out to explore the boutiques of Duval Street, stocked with T-shirts and bikinis, paintings of Key West sunsets, and purveyors of frozen key lime pie on a stick dipped in chocolate. The streets are thronged with tourists. Vietnam vets thunder by on Harley’s. Dogs ride in bicycle baskets. People of every gender, color and everything in between are celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of the next.
There is another side to Key West. Some of the most esteemed writers on the planet quietly made or make their homes here; James Audubon painted the birds of the South here. The many non-profits ease the lives of the challenged. People greet you warmly on the quiet side streets. Key West is a community, and yet, is also a reminder of the fragility of our lives.