Well, it had to happen I suppose and happen it will. Blog Belgo has decided to relocate, a decision that he had toyed with last year and seems to have jelled into reality this year. Too bad. Christopher Shepherd and his wife Grace embody for me the joy that awaits certain people who move to the Keys and really do want to rearrange their lives. Learning to fish and forage, sail and boat, work from home, live far from downtown Key West, all this was meat and drink to them. Their blog is worth a look as I have mentioned previously, especially if living off the land and water appeals to your sense of life as it should be lived in the Keys. However, gentrification seems to have claimed one more victim, even though as victims go, these two will no doubt land on their feet in their coyly barely named new home.
Their complaints about the Keys are valid, no doubt about that, mass tourism, drinking, expense and inconvenience all play a part in their decision, yet I find myself in the position of continuing to defend the indefensible. I suppose I am lucky in that I do a job I enjoy, living in a place I enjoy in a climate that cannot be beat, in my opinion. As to the issues of gentrification they have always been here if you read the old newspapers. I read stories of people lamenting the arrival of the train in 1912 arguing it would ruin the quality of island life...The only question is: how much ruination can you handle? Everyone has their limit and I have mine no doubt. Not yet though, not yet.
For those of you who are just now tuning in, yep, we’re leaving the Florida Keys. The most commonly-asked question is along the lines of “But why? I thought you loved it here!” and they’re right. Mostly.
It’s still an amazing place to live, and I’d take it over many other places every day of the week. That’s why it behooves me not to make this a missive of angst, as I easily could as we left, say, Orlando. No, Key West still has its share of fun times if you know where to look. But I dare say none of them are on Duval Street, excepting perhaps the Butterfly Conservatory. Park for free at First State on South Simonton and drink at The Bottlecap until you help break up a fight or two. Pay Michael McCloud to play for you at Schooner Wharf while you still can.
Our reasons for leaving are twofold: Yeah, this place is going somewhere we’re not, and also we’ve decided we’re better off someplace lower key (and yes it gets a whole lot lower key than here), which is to say we’re going somewhere it’s not.
Hotels continue to get bought and renovated for the (cough) ‘upscale’ clientele. The airport keeps getting upgraded to, what is it now, two luggage carousels, AND a bathroom in departures? Sounds petty, but the days of riding Cape Air’s Cessnas into town with your Macbook stowed in the wing locker are gone, as are the Beechcrafts. These days you’re lucky to find a Turboprop, as EYW is increasingly Boeing country. And when those Boeings full of people get here, they’re rarely interested in something so boring as a kayak paddle or a semi-sober day of doing nothing. No sir, they head straight to Duval Street. And if they arrive by way of the Overseas Highway, look out. They’ll tailgate and pass incessantly as if Key West were about to run out of saltwater and overpriced drinks any moment now. Meanwhile, all of this attracts the worst kind of attention, by which I mean development and real-estate vultures, who as I write this are busy kicking people out of more-affordable housing to build more hotels, as rents even 15-30 miles out in the Lower Keys skyrocket past the $2400/month mark (I might add that purchasing offers little consolation as taxes and insurance rates are jacked up annually at a near-geometric pace). And again I say, I would tolerate all of this, even as it defies common-sense laws of budgeting, because I love the Lower Keys that much. And yeah, everything I’ve said above has likely been going on for over 20 years, but the nearly-seven I’ve witnessed have been downright head-spinning. Livingston croons “There’s Still A Lot Of Magic In Key West” every 30 minutes on Channel 5, but I wonder who he’s trying to convince. There must be a better way.
If you’ve followed the trajectory of Grace and Christopher, you may have noticed that we’ve harbored doubts since Big Pine Key a few years ago. We executed one more year’s lease here in Bay Point as we threw away and sold more items, and attempted to secure a long-term lease in an island community (which I decline to name here, but it’s no particular secret if you scroll down a little ways) so tiny that it really doesn’t have long-term single-family rentals, at least not for un-connected outsiders. We finally wormed our way into a lease there. This marks the end of the Florida Keys chapter that we once proclaimed would last forever, as of December 2014.
I sincerely hope we’re right, even as we endure (gasp) slightly chillier winters, which will give me a chance to don my sharp-looking sailor’s pea coat, and enjoy an even lower-key life than that of the Lower Keys. We’ll get around town primarily by golf cart, and not be able to purchase booze much after midnight. We’re not of any disposition to really care about that.
In the end, I don’t blame Monroe County, I blame us. Monroe County showed us a glimpse of what we were looking for. Now it is up to us to see it through. And if we don’t find it where we’re going, no worries. We now own few enough possessions to officially declare ourselves to be a band of gypsies. We might even unite my company for the first time ever in Southern California, with me no longer holding out, as unthinkable as that sounds, because we really enjoyed places like Topanga Canyon on our 2014 World Tour, itself the subject of an upcoming blog entry as soon as I finish organizing all the photographs from California, Thailand, and beyond.
Life is a journey, not a destination. Good luck, Florida Keys.
I’m not sure where this story really started, any more than I am certain of the beginning of a thunderstorm; One only knows when the deluge begins, not when atmospheric dust and water vapor came together to make clouds. There are therefore any number of correct answers as to the beginning of this story: 1996 (When I first came down to Orlando as a dreamer), 2008 (When Grace and I fled Orlando for the Florida Keys), or even 2013. One of my favorite references for the beginning, would be the November 1973 (nearly four years before I was born a Kansan) issue of National Geographic.
There isn’t much that I have said, or thought on the subject of Floridian Koyaanisqatsi, that isn’t well-documented herein, nearly 40 years ago.
Nat Geo’s commentary on the genesis of Central Florida is 40 years ahead of its time.
Supposedly, when this part of I-4 and 408 was built, one worker turned to the other and asked, “Where’s all the traffic going to come from?”
And thus was more SR-436 sprawl crapped out. The Altamonte Mall was opened in 1974; We’re very likely looking at its construction here.
What is more or less freely documented by myself, is that we fled Orlando and the mainland in 2008, seeking less traffic, less population density, and at least nights without gunfire. The island life and clear waters just made the decision that much easier. And I’ve furthermore made no secret of my conviction that it was the right decision, even as I continue to pay for an address in Orlando that will be equitably upside-down until well into the next Presidential administration. In 2008, it was incredibly easy to pat ourselves on the back for this; Life in the Florida Keys was really slow-paced, especially in the summertime, and the evening power-outage hours only served to drive the point home. Sure, things picked up a bit in the winter, but the biggest impact was that it gave us pale-looking mainlanders to make fun of.
Somehow, in just five all-too-short years, summer stopped coming.
Keys Energy Services had hardened the electrical infrastructure with concrete, Category-2 hurricane resistant tieline poles, and sailboats were restricted from most anchorages where the possibility existed of a vessel adrift hitting the tieline. The result, to Keys’ (and FKEC’s) credit, is that electrical service in the Keys is now at least as reliable as elsewhere. I still remember the day last year when Verizon’s LTE high-speed wireless coverage was turned on throughout the entire Keys, instead of just Key West. And more people than ever before drove down and filled hotel rooms year-round. Nobody expected to make a left-hand turn very quickly in early January, but by 2013, it wasn’t even possible in the summertime.
As you might imagine, this created some level of tension. The sentiment reached its zenith in late July 2013’s Lobster Mini-Season, as vacation renters kept us up until 2am on a work night, hooting and hollering, after having gone out several times in their boat, very likely resulting in the capture of some multiple of their legal limit of lobster. I wrote a poem that appeared at the top of bigpinekey.com that day, maybe you read it.
As our annual summer vacation weeks got nearer, we decided they’d be best spent in search of greener pastures. If any place still existed in Florida where you could play an informal game of football on the main highway without having to take many timeouts for cars, we were going to go there. And of course, it would be best if it were located on saltwater, for the love of saltwater that was instilled in us in the Keys is a love that does not die. We settled on Levy County, Florida, and its coastal gem, Cedar Key.
“Levy county is _not_ desirable,” intoned one well-intentioned friend, insisting that it contained primarily impoverished rednecks. Another friend of mine confirmed something similar. “I don’t think they’ll enjoy Cedar Key,” said one sister-in-law. Add in tales of theRosewood Massacre (and yes we watched the 1997 movie), and maybe you begin to form a doubt in your mind. Were we venturing into Deliverance itself? Would we return home with the most terrible red-state tales of all?
I hesitate to tell the world what we found. But where would we be if Samuel Taylor Coleridge had kept Xanadu a secret?
Informed, but not deterred (even by the fact that our 5-year-old car battery was in its death pangs), we drove some 500 miles, starting with the Overseas Highway, then the entire length of Florida’s Turnpike, and finally some two-lane, 60MPH roads that took us through Dunnellon, Goethe State Forest, and finally Cedar Key. We set up camp at a guest house near the airport, itself not a bustling hive of activity, but rather the shortest public airstrip in Florida, used by approximately six Cessnas, and bisected at one end by the road going to our neighborhood. There was a boathouse behind the house, providing enjoyment of the bayou, where we caught over two dozen blue crabs one night. Also, the sun rose over the bayou near the Cedar Key water tower. You might not believe me if I told you we saw a bottlenose dolphin in that shallow bayou one day, but we did.
We got up early on the first morning to discover that our Honda’s battery had turned its last crank. It had had just enough cranks left in it to restart at the gas stations along the Turnpike, but not one more (even the battery charger that we had brought with us, was unable to persuade it with protracted charging sessions and starter-assist mode). We took the house’s golf cart into town and talked to a very helpful, and very barefoot, auto parts dealer, who dug up the only battery he had in our size. He asked if we had a core for him. I replied that the Honda wouldn’t even make it out of the garage right now, but that I’d come right back and drop it off. He said that was just fine, and when we came back to drop off the core, he’d test our alternator too.
It worked exactly like that. The new battery was swapped in, and the fellow verified that our alternator was putting out plenty of juice when Grace pushed the gas pedal. We continued out of town to explore Chiefland, a Levy County city most famous for containing the nearest Wal-Mart, not to mention a Hardees. The Honda didn’t give us any more trouble.
We got pretty familiar with most every street in Cedar Key by golf cart, and only somewhat rarely had to pull over to let cars pass us. 700 people live in Cedar Key, and they estimate that the number only moves up to about 1200 in the winter.
On our eighth anniversary, Grace and I walked around the Lower Homosassa Shell Mound Trail, until the persistent insects and the serious-business growls of a nearby wild boar drove us away. Then Marve called Grace and asked if I was ready for a plane ride. I am not one to resist a short ride in a Cessna 170.
A quick inspection of our ride…
… and we were off. The tour took us around the Cedar Key area at about 1550 feet, from which vantage point you can see the entire area.
Yes, there are still plenty of mangrove islands
Cedar Key, with Dock Street in the foreground and SR-24 (the former Florida Railroad right-of-way) going off towards the mainland
Northern Cedar Key neighborhoods
Atsena Otie, the original Cedar Key
Cedar Key, with the original Florida Railroad bed visible in foreground
All too soon, the air tour was over and back on Terra Firma, we still had a city (and county) to explore.
We drove miles and miles of back roads. We visited with realtors and discussed the possibility of moving (hint: It is both possible, and incredibly reasonable). We did do Dock Street one day, and although it looks delightfully like something from a Secret Of Monkey Island game, the commercial/bar scene isn’t our destination. We met up with a young couple from Gainesville who were, sadly, not rednecks at all, but rather more of an educated libertarian mindset. We were the only ones at both bars we visited.
We spent more time geocaching and exploring. Grace made the most wonderful blue crab, clam, and scallop dishes. Did I mention that clams are about $18 for a hundred? And man do we love clams. The blue crabs, of course, are free.
The most amazing dinner to be had in Cedar Key, or anywhere else for that matter (I mean I’ve seen nothing in Monroe or Orange counties that even compares), is to be had at The Island Hotel, home of perfectly-cooked escargot, crab imperial, steak… even the sides and garnishes are exactly perfect.
And of course, the sights on your golf cart ride home are endearing as well:
Unfortunately, the sun arose on the day we had to leave the guest house and drive all the way back home. Once more we, our luggage, three dogs, and several dozen clams and crabs, all piled into the Honda Element and went through Dunnellon, down the entire length of the turnpike, and back home.
We’ve been back home for a full day now. Average wait time to turn left to get to the grocery or drug stores is on the order of five minutes. Even a right hand turn takes nearly as long. Don’t get me started on the parking-lot confusion, once you manage to get there. Here at home, my across-the-canal neighbors are busily feeding key deer (illegal) and allowing their family members to stay in their illegal downstairs enclosure (uh huh). And just wait till they start giggling and yelling at 2:00AM, once they get a good buzz goin. To a family with their choice of zipcode, it is difficult to justify double the housing cost and double the food cost to endure this year-round.
To the amazing people and places of Levy County I say, we’ll be back.
As to the title of this article, what exactly is wrong with Levy County? Do me a favor and forget everything I’ve told you. It’s my terrible secret. Avoid it at all costs.