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Thursday, 31 August 2006

Key West: A Solo Voyage

Written by Michelle McAlister
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At the end of a long relationship, I responded in my usual manner by planning a Great Escape. I hastily purchased a single airline ticket from a dubious internet site that guaranteed that, if I was willing to get myself to the airport for a 3 a.m. departure, I would reach distant, exotic Key West with only two insignificant stops in Dallas and Minneapolis.

I’ve always been partial to changing my surroundings in order to achieve a sense of transition, despite my mother saying, “You can go as far away as you like, but your problems will always follow.”

As I sat waiting for my flight, I was delighted to once again hear the soft-voiced commands of the airport announcements instructing me exactly where it was permitted to smoke, where a person could and couldn’t park their vehicle, and how important it was to keep a watchful gaze on personal luggage.

At 3:00am, I was able to notice what would usually go unnoticed in the bustling daylight hours, such as the big, fluorescent bulbs that annoyingly spotlighted the ticket counter representatives. A tired looking man gently buffed the floor in a circular motion spreading a thin layer of wax. So desolate was the airport, it seemed it was all done for me. Lastly, there was cheesy xylophone music piped over the airport intercom, which I’d never noticed before, and probably better so.

I arrived in Key West in the middle of the night and settled into my rented residence, a private house on Albury Street shrouded in palms and bougainvillea. I lay down, sweating in the tropical night air, and pondered how far I’d come.

On my first morning I made the acquaintance of several natives. Because Albury Street lies on the outskirts far away from tourists, I was able to blend in and observe. On this street, I was the tourist among stray cats, feral roosters and memorable locals.

While gearing up on my rented bike, I made the acquaintance of Butch, a friendly neighbor from across the street whose roof was still gaping wide open from a previous hurricane. He sat on his front porch and watched as life both flourished and sweltered in the heat all around him. Butch was brimming with friendly advice and stories of his life in Key West, a true native and a witness to all that Key West offers.



On my second night alone in my room, I was woken by a fierce tropical storm, as sheets of rain slapped the house. I felt vulnerable, like a drop in a literal bucket filled already to the brim and about to overflow. Scared and alone, I ran downstairs and looked out through the front door.  The palm trees that shrouded my house were blown horizontal, and flapping against the ground. I had come from Seattle where rain trickles and mists. I had never before seen a storm like this, and here I was, just me, no one to yell to, no one to scream with.  I shut the door and ran to look in the yellow pages to see where the local hurricane shelter was. The Yellow pages? What was I thinking?

Shaking and out of breath, I ran to the front door again and hovered in the doorway. Across the street I saw Butch, standing in his doorway, in the middle of the night. He yelled something and kind of waved his hand. We looked across at each other and I understood that this was nothing; in Key West, this wasn’t a “big one.”  As Butch stood in his doorway (where, I learned later, his house is driest in a storm), I went back to my bed and hid under the covers.

In the days that followed, I found my routine. On my rented bike, I traveled around the seven miles that comprise the entire island of Key West. I visited beaches, narrow neighborhood streets overshadowed by lush purple flowers, and the eerily beautiful cemetery looming on the highest point of the island.

I found myself beginning and ending each day at the cemetery, which was built in 1847, and where I studied the ornate gravestones. I rode my bike through the dirt paths separating rows of graves interspersed with lazy palm trees. With each passing headstone, lives lived long ago swirled through my head. I wanted to acknowledge their existence, and I wanted to know something about their lives – simple, proud or painful as they may have been.

Some quarters of the cemetery were dedicated to Catholics while other portions were for Jews, who immigrated long ago leaving their families behind. In a far corner I stopped at the tombs of Cubans and Bahamians, and those who had lived lives distraught by war and disease. Others had succumbed to raging floods that had unearthed them in 1846 and washed their bodies up on the southern shores of Key West, where they were re-buried in the new cemetery.  I contemplated the agony of those they left behind. The most moving gravestones had photos: women with fancy hair-do's and colored lips, and men wearing brown suits. More than a hundred years had passed and here they were, looking me straight in the eyes.



During my stay, I acquired a few notable friends. In my room lived a pale, lethargic lizard that occasionally scurried out from under my bed to greet me when I returned from my outings. I liked knowing he was there, that I wasn’t completely alone, and I accepted that he was the original tenant and I, the renter.

On Key West, I also acquired a special relationship with a local stray cat, whose jaw had been dislocated from a passing car. His mouth cocked to one side lent a look of subtle insanity to his gentle disposition. Every morning I brought him food, and although his tongue poured involuntarily and helplessly out of his mouth and he smelled near death, I have never felt so much empathy or love for another creature. He was my project, my undeniable duty for the length of my stay on Key West.

At night, I laid on my bed listening to the air conditioner blow. Because the heat was so stifling, I left the air conditioner perpetually on. I found myself constantly switching it from medium to high and back to medium, and so on. I couldn’t fathom that it didn’t exhaust itself from putting out the same amount of energy, day after day. In my own life I too was exhausted. Having come so far to Key West to re-find myself, I couldn’t help but look at the air conditioner and laugh at how hard we try just to be – including the air conditioner.

As my solitary vacation came to an end, I reflected on the meaning of a quote by Vincent Van Gogh: “One may have a blazing hearth in one's soul and yet no one ever comes to sit by it. Passersby see only a wisp of smoke rising from the chimney and continue on their way.”

As I lay on my back watching the air conditioner blow, I thought about the pale lizard under my bed, the dying cat on Olivia Street, the graves atop Key West, and Butch in his doorway that stormy night. I realized that the entire length of my vacation was spent reflecting on others’ lives.  More importantly, I realized the extraordinary impact they had left on me because I had stopped to sit by their blazing hearths.


©Michelle McAlister


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012