Saturday, December 31, 2011

That's All Folks

This was the very first entry in my blog, a joke told to me by my buddy Robert, when I rode a Vespa 250 GTS and this blog was called Key West Vespa.

Day One June 13 2007
This dude dies. There's a promising start for a blog. Well, anyway he dies and goes to heaven. St Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates and says:
"We have choices nowadays in Heaven. You get a free trial period in a choice of places. In your case you get to try out the celestial sphere up here, or you get to spend the rest of eternity in Key West.
Day one, among the clouds sipping ambrosia, tinkling the odd harp, lounging around chatting of this and that with the hosts of heavenly angels.
Day Two, our hero gets sent down to Key West to check out the scene. He starts the day with a proper breakfast at Turtle Kraals, fresh eggs, strong coffee, crisp bacon and a view across the Key West Bight Harbor. Then he heads to the beach at Fort Zachary for a swim, a read in a hammock under the pines and a leisurely bike ride back to civilisation for a refreshing smoothie on Duval Street while checking out the passing scene.
After a lunch on the beach at Salute restaurant he takes off from Smathers Beach dangling from a parachute, whips round the harbor and back on land takes in a ride across town to Half Shell raw bar for oysters and a frosty.
In the evening its back to Duval and a night of drinking and carousing.
St Peter barely has to ask.
"Dude," our Hero says, panting from his exertions in Paradise, "its gotta be Key West for me." Nodding gravely St Peter puts him down for eternity in Key West.
Our hero drops off to sleep under a freshly laundered sheet, a fan swirling slowly round above his head.
He awakes in a lather of sweat, the sound of hungry female mosquitoes fills his ears. His lip is swollen from a nighttime mosquito feast and his ears are filled with gritty sand.
"Hey!" A voice roars and the sound of cracking whip fills the air." Get up you lazy bugger! Work! Get to work!"
"Hey, I'm spending Eternity in Paradise!" comes the indignant protest.
"Yeah, yesterday you were a tourist. Today you're a local."

So there we have it. I'm not completely sure how to say goodbye because after all there I will be tomorrow to greet the new year at but in the meantime let me say thank you for following this blog and I hope to hear from you on the other side tomorrow. It has been fun and I can't say better than that.

Keep well. do good work and enjoy New Year's Eve with the hope of good things to come next year.

Solares Hill 2008

So here we are, the last day of Key West Diary and I couldn't let my beloved blog fade away without some pictures of the iconic hill in the middle of the city that I am pleased to call home, even though I live in the suburbs.
There are people that delight in thinking Florida is flat which in point of fact is not true at all. Solares Hill, a couple of blocks east of Duval Street is variously reported to be between 14 and 18 feet above sea level. I take the middle ground and call it sixteen feet (about five meters in new money) which is, I think, a good height for a hill to be. For instance if you were planning a fishing trip on your bicycle and came this way, west on Angela Street, you could free wheel a block:There is another hill in Key West, on Elizabeth Street near Eaton, and it, though unnamed is labeled by the presence of the Hilltop Laundry. But Solares Hill takes pride of place, by virtue of the fact that this is Key West's own Mount Everest, the top, the highest peak of all. You may even see people climbing the hill without the aid of supplemental oxygen. These hardy souls looked like visitors staying at Courtney's Place located on the South Col, just off the Hill itself:Solares Hill isn't a straight climb. The road dips on its way up from City Hall at the corner of Simonton Street:What makes this place odd is that in a town notorious for labelling every little non event in its tumultuous history, the highest point gets no marker. Here there is no souvenir stand, seashell vendor or tout with postcards. For the ardent labeller it is a do-it-yourself spot, and in that spirit I label this Key West's tallest house, the home with the front porch highest above the lapping waters of the Straits of Florida, one short mile to the south:It could as easily be this imposing home across the street:But I prefer the more modest Conch proportions of the little white house with it's sky blue trim and every time I pass I salute it as Key West's highest foundation.

The other thing about Solares Hill is that it comes from nowhere and leads nowhere. It is just another street, another way to get out of town, and once you pass the crown of the hill the street levels off:It becomes, momentarily, a modest little plaza that is actually an intersection where four roads join. At night the pink house with the drooping cantilevered extension looks quite a bit different, more imposing perhaps and a lurid shade of yellow in my viewfinder:The lights in the distance mark Angela and Simonton Streets, the bright lights of downtown, but up here on the hill where every breath costs a climber effort, the lay of the land is much more peaceful, by day......and by night:In that last picture I caught the trifecta of Key West wheels; the convertible, the scooter, and the shopping cart, something for everyone. From the intersection one can turn left onto Elizabeth and head towards the Fleming/Southard corridor, or keep going straight, down the hill towards the cemetery:Or, if turning right one gets to freewheel a little bit back towards Truman Avenue and the main street out of Key West:Or you could be like me and wander the hill at 4:30 in the morning and find a bunch of little alleyways, evocative and secret that I shall have to come back to check out in the cold light of day. I keep thinking I know this town and then there is a fifty yard strip of cement lined with laundry, sleeping cats and tile decorations that make a liar out of me. How provoking.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Key West Culture

It occurs to me that over the past few years I have written about an endless array of aspects of Key West and as I close in on the end of this blog as an active daily record of my life in the Lower Keys I am at a bit of a loss as to which essays to pick to highlight on the way out. In this case I figure the Literary Seminar is coming up again pretty soon next month so here I offer a few thoughts from 2008 about life music and poetry in the Southernmost City. I am sad this blog has to end tomorrow but I am looking forward to our new endeavor at as I hope you are too.

"Carol invited me to a reading," my wife said as she curled up on the couch, leafing through the Sunday Citizen. "I wonder if I should go...?" A girl's afternoon out, thought I, which means I get to do my thing. "Friendships need to be nourished," said I sententiously so we drove into town and my wife went off with her friends to some sort of post-feminist reading circle as I thought, and I took the wife's scooter from her workplace and rode into town. Her Vespa ET4 has been languishing while her arm is in the surgical cast and the plan was for me to ride the 150 home and tart it up a bit. But first I had some culture and color to absorb.My wife's teaching assistant and office manager were salivating at the prospect of spending the afternoon at Jack Flats on Duval with their men while watching The Game, however for me an afternoon off means a meander through Old Town on my (wife's) Vespa taking pictures for future blogs ending up at the Old Pile seen above, St Paul's at the corner of Duval and Eaton, where the Philadelphia Brass Quintet was giving the first in this season's series of "Impromptu Concerts." On the steps of the church I met a couple of friends who invited me to sit with them and I did. The quintet did their bit in a concert I rated okay,interesting selection of pieces but the execution seemed uneven to me. As a former tuba player I love the instrument to death but it can too easily kill off the melody in a small, relatively small space.The sun was setting as we streamed out of the church and key West always looks lovely in the light of the dying day, with a purplish tinge on the sky and warm gray tones down below as street lights come on and open doors throw squares of orange light onto the sidewalks. I took the long way out of town along the south coast startling an ambling convertible on my 50mph "moped." The ride home was delightful on the little Vespa.Not least because it buzzes along merrily at 65mph and even allowed me to pass a dawdling kid in a souped up hatchback and I get silly pleasure from surprising people with my wife's little scooter.

That was the last pleasure of the day. Half my enjoyment of the music came from actually bothering to show up, a sense of being rewarded for the effort. The ride home was fun no doubt, always a pleasure but my wife's "post feminist reading" turned out to have been a poetry gathering at the Key West Literary Seminar. Well, bummer, she met Billy Collins. And I didn't. Grrr.

It was sometime last year I was wandering the stacks at Voltaire Books on Simonton Street when I opened a slim volume of poetry called Sailing Alone Around the Room, if only because I used to be a single handed sailor. And if you think the book is about sailing, think again. I burst out laughing at the very first poem titled Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House, and if you think it has anything to do with the Second Amendment: think again. Think of an innovative Beethoven composing for a dog abandoned at home.My always thoughtful wife brought me home a copy of another book of Billy Collins' poems, and if you look at the title you'll know why this is a book you have to own. I've enjoyed only a very few 20th century poets, mostly writers out of the trenches of World War One, and I have mostly been drawn to romantic, rhyming, poetry-like poetry from the classical 19th century. Billy Collins has been a breakout for me, and my wife knows this.So there it is, in black and white, an autographed copy of the book no less, which can join the other one in our loo. I have an autographed copy of a book by Billy Collins and I wasn't even there to get it!

Post feminist readings have a lot to answer for. And so do assumptions.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Road To Pale 2007

This was not what I expected when we turned off the main road, and started driving confidently into the narrow valley off the main road from Gorazde. We were on our way to Sarajevo, but my mind was full of the civil war that had ended 12 years ago and I could clearly see a narrow winding strip of white on the map, a road that led to Pale, the former capital of the breakaway Republica Srpska,the homeland desired by the formerly genocidal Serbs.

Gorazde, seen above, was a Bosnian-Muslim outpost surrounded by Serbs in the civil war, but nowadays bolstered by European Union money it is a prosperous little town on a sunny July afternoon.

The road we were on was not following the dictates of the map and it was deteriorating rapidly into little more than a goat track. We climbed up the valley on a narrow twisting road. The sun made itself visible shining on the greenery high up the granite walls of the valley but down on the road we were deep in shadow.

We came to a steel bridge crossing the river, a fast flowing, boulder-strewn cut through the mountains. The bridge had seen some rough use and the metal plates were buckled in an abstract, interesting way. I plunged onto it lest we start thinking too hard and the heavily laden station wagon bounced as the wheels dropped into a cleft between the plates.

"Er, " Layne gurgled as the car lurched. I kept driving, it was too late now. We scrambled off the end of the bridge onto the roadway and I focused on the fact that other vehicles must use this structure too...

We passed a logging mill, wood piled up outside a classic stone and brick Balkan house with a pointy red tile roof and the road that wound close past the front door. A boy sat on a stack of fresh planks, a dog licked its paws and ignored us as we droned past. The trees closed in and the road waggled its way along the edge of the river. Until we reached the gate.

Somehow we had found some sort of power station, possibly a hydro-electric plant or something, nestled in the woods, guarded by a lonely man in a sentry booth. He let us turn around and when I asked : "Pale?" (In the local lingo pronounced "Pah- lay?") he replied in rapid fire Bosniak and I understood nothing except his hand pointing backwards.

It all came clear as we turned in the parking lot of the power station and headed back to the mill. There we noticed a little cardboard sign, hand written: "Pale Something" which I took to mean "Pale this Way" in cardboard English. We looked at each other and, saying nothing, I turned the wheel and our eager Ford Fusion scrambled up the bank onto the narrow dirt road.

At least, it looked like a road, at first; then we met this...

And then the penny dropped. This was a railroad line and apparently long disused by the trains but still in use as a road. Weird! Cool! We're on the road to Pale. Not waiting for my wife's radiating disapproval to slow us down I kept my foot on the gas and we rumbled into the tunnel.

The first one was a short one and that made it easier to get into the second one which also was short and we could see daylight seconds after starting into the gloom. The third tunnel was much longer, and darker and damper. It gave me shivers as we penetrated the darkness with tendrils of damp sliding down the walls, potholes large enough to reduce our speed to a slow walk and barely enough width to allow us to open a door and get out. that I figured would be a killer if we got a flat...

"What if we meet someone coming the other way?" my wife asked with a half giggle.

"Buggered if I know," I muttered, swinging wide to avoid a hole of particular dimensions. "Lets hope they know how to back." We kept on rumbling, the diesel engine growling in low gear.
"What's that?" she said, cocking her head.

"That, " I said with a sinking feeling , " is our opportunity to figure out who knows how best to back up."

Suddenly their headlights were upon us. A moped lurched out of the darkness and without waiting for me to engage reverse streamed past my door and buzzed out of sight towards the light. Like we weren't even there. Which would have been okay if there wasn't a compact car following close behind him.

I sighed and twisted in my seat and started backing.

I must have gone 50 yards and I'm proud to note without faltering. We pulled to one side and the graceless hulks inside the car flashed us a glare that said if looks could kill we would have been incinerated, and in a flash they were gone, my friendly wave frozen in mid air as though petrified.

And so we gave it a second shot, this time with complete success we popped out at the other end of a tunnel that curved in the middle and must have been 200 yards long, at least. maybe more. it felt longer, I will say that.

The road to Pale came out of the tunnel and coasted alongside the river for a distance, dappled sunlight playing on the trees overhead, the mountain looming over us and still cutting off the lowering sun, for it was close to 6 pm as we drove along the railbed.

"Does this seem like a good idea?" My wife asked after a couple of minutes of silence.
"Umm," I replied. The thought had been occurring to me that we might not be headed towards anything good. Pale had been home to the gruesome killers of Ratko Mladic, the "hero" of the Bosnian-Serb militias. These were the people famous for the slaughter of Srebrenica and the torture by sniper fire over Sarajevo. Pale was their headquarters where they planned the reduction of the Bosnian Muslim capital city. As we bounced along the railroad track with no end in sight ( another quick tunnel) I was mulling over the wisdom of following this trail to nowhere.

I imagined us arriving in some Carmen-like bandit camp high in the mountains and stepping out of our Austrian registered car with weak smiles on our faces and then being lost forever to the rest of humanity. Just two more mounds of dirt in a country littered still with mass graves. It was not a pleasant picture.

"Do you think we should turn back?" I asked.
"Only if you do," she temporized.
"Um, " I temporized.
This trail had probably been pressed into service during the war to connect Pale to the rest of the Serb-held Western Bosnia. Now it was probably just a short-cut across the mountains for a few hardcore people who really want the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina split into two, or three parts.

In any event we stopped, we took pictures, we turned around. I was ready to not keep going, we knew the rail bed went somewhere, and we didn't want to arrive in the dark, or get stuck in the dark and Pale was there somewhere ahead, on a proper paved road, I was pretty sure. This track led to Pale but through God knows who's back yard.

The relief in the Ford was palpable as we back'ed and forth'ed and got facing the way we'd come.
"I expect those guys who passed us called ahead and now the bandits are waiting for us."
"Long wait," I said. We passed the long tunnel, and two more and finally found the sawmill, dropped onto the pavement, crossed the funky bridge , went back down the valley, turned left on the main road away from Gorazde and took the long way round the mountain.

Pale was easily accessible by main road and a drab, down-at-heel town it was too, about as threatening as a page from a history book. 'The banality of evil' was all I could think as I checked the Soviet style apartment blocks and the hurrying hunched pedestrians on their way to nowhere. We drove through, not stopping, and went on our way to Sarajevo and a night in America at the Holiday Inn. We wanted service with a smile and a pretense that outside the door lay midwestern suburbia in all its unthreatening glory. We got a Lego building inhabited by surly Slavs instead. The good ole USA was still a long way away.

We were a little tired and stressed by the Balkans at this point.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Biscayne Bay National Park

This essay was originally published on the page in September 2009. 

When I pass cars on the Overseas Highway I sometimes notice a box sitting on the dashboard, carefully obstructing the driver's view of the actual road with a picture of the road on the GPS screen. I wonder why drivers on the only road available even need a Global Positioning System receiver in their cars. Except of course to block their view.And when on a mainland road trip I am an advocate of leaving at least some of the route to chance, a concept that GPS cannot compute. Which is a rather long way round explaining how I found myself here and not at Matheson Hammock State Park as originally intended..."Here" in this photograph is the picturesquely named "North Canal Road" heading towards Biscayne National Park east of Homestead.It was the day I left home with no fixed plan and no fixed route, other than the inevitable ride North on Highway One. After I took my pictures at Anne's Beach I figured it was early, not yet ten o'clock and I wasn't working that night so I pressed on. The (paper) map of Florida i carry in my saddlebag has only the faintest representation of South Florida on it and I really didn't look too closely. I followed Highway One north out of Homestead following my nose, ready to turn right or left as the mood and the signposts urged me. I paused under the cover of a gas station to fill up with premium and allow a rain cloud to move away while I drank with fizzy high fructose corn syrup with caramel and zero calories at 99 cents a can. I also chilled off with a frosty glance from a bandanna'd Hardly Ableson driver next door keeping his hot leather chaps out of the rain.I followed a brown sign into the void of South Florida agriculture. "Biscayne National Park" it said, an organization that had yet to penetrate my consciousness. It sounded rather watery and I was game so off I went, leaving behind the four lane madness of pawn shops, car dealers and Latin hairdressers lining the highway. And indeed there is a marina next to the National Park, and for some unaccountable reason this large sub tropic spider got caught up in the web of my lens: I am quite fond of spiders and bats and any creature that eats insects, though I like to leave them to their habitat as long as they leave me to mine. It is generally an easily digested agreement.It was a hot overcast humid morning but there were a few cars in the parking lot, transportation as we shall see for some hunter-gatherers with fishing poles and a couple of other gawkers, tourists like me with nothing better to do of a weekday morning. I at least had a camera with me to record the immortal moment in this unheralded place:There was a massive imposing visitor center, but I wasn't in the mood for statistics (Biscayne National Park comprises x number of tennis courts if you stuck the bay end to end, that kind of thing) so I went for a walk instead,
and took a look around at a National Park out of season, and thus peaceful:

It's when you visit places like this that you know that people who hate the gummint are full of crap. I loved the combination of wilderness area spilling over into the crisp organized park ambiance on shore, the mowed lawns, the wandering boardwalk, with rocks growing... ...out of the post-consumer recycled plastic planking: A playful conjunction of natural and not. All overseen by the heavy summer clouds promising more rain later:
Where we would be, I wonder, without the tradition of open spaces and parks instituted a hundred years ago by the Federal Government?
I envy the anglers their patient ability to sit and stare out at the waters of Biscayne Bay while waiting for good things to snaggle themselves on their hooks. Just above this woman's head the black spots highlighted against the bay waters are dragonflies. There were hundreds of them eating mosquitoes, the mossies repelled by my chemical layer: This fisherman was dangling a delightfully old fashioned cigarette holder:

A little to the south of the Biscayne Park Headquarters lies Florida Power and Light's Turkey Point Nuclear generating station. FPL claims lots of good things from this plant, including warm water habitat for manatees in the winter from the plant's cooling system and a park around the plant has helped endangered American crocodiles breed and flourish in peace. However plans to expand the plant's generating capacity are being opposed at the moment because the cooling waters apparently produce salts that drastically change sea water salinity. Which I am told is a problem even as Miami gets hundreds of megawatts from these light water Westinghouse nukes, and gets the electricity without spewing carbon by-products into the atmosphere.

However should this thing decide to go mutant the neighbors have a warning system set up, just in case:

Turkey Point has been operating for decades with no history of major problems and it survived a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew in 1992. So I guess it's okay to paddle in the waters of the bay. I've done it and come away unharmed...
Camera-less tourists. I think they were foreigners which may explain that eccentricity.

I watched the dive boat coming into the marina down a long, well marked channel. The coastal waters around here are shallow enough it would be difficult to drown a grasshopper.
Then I got inspired to walk all the way down the causeway that sticks out into the bay. I crossed the path of the camera-free tourists here and he gave me a decidedly Francophone "Bonjour" about here, where they gave up and turned around. I pressed on.And what a magnificent edge this is. I love the look of the flat waters of summer:

There was somebody out enjoying the waters of the bay. I had some memorable sails on Biscayne Bay when I lived on my boat anchored at Jack's Bight on the Coral Gables waterfront.

Even modest breezes give good performance on protected shallow waters like these.I was getting near the outer end of the little causeway and wasn't I surprised to see Spencer Tracy organizing his lure. I had been under the misapprehension the actor died years ago:
Up close he was actually fishing with a younger Latino, quite possibly his son. They nodded amicably and kept their eyes on their lines. I stared out at the empty waters for a minute and pondered the meaning of this sign:
Far to the landward side lay the magnificence of the visitors center and the footbridge out to this causeway:
I have been hunting for manatee desultorily for some time and I have no doubt I will try again this winter. This was the best I could do here in summer: It was too hot to lounge and enjoy the day so I stood in the shade and ate a granola bar and drank some of my home-collected rain water from a carbon neutral flask and got back on the road back to civilization. Here represented by the Homestead Speedway track, a castle lurking in the middle of the fields, suspended between the bay and the noise of the city of Homestead. I dodged rain clouds and got back on the Highway home, arriving two hours later, only slightly rained on, enough to be cooled down, but not enough to stop and put on my waterproofs. Just think, had been following my GPS to my real destination I'd never have found this place. Matheson Hammock will still be there, when I get it together to go, but now I need to plan to come back here and wander the lush visitor center. And I won't need GPS to show me how to back track there.