Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Walking Celo

When I came to the mountains of Western North Carolina last month this was what I came for:
I came to see the mountains and the views they produce, the varied elevation, the different kinds of trees, the falling leaves...
...the different shade of light and the clarity of mountain air.

Rusty and I got lucky as we hit the last hot (80 degree) sunny week of the Fall according to forecasters which also proved to be the very week that the changing colors of Fall were at their most luscious. It was well nigh perfect.

Rusty was quite intimidated by these new surroundings and stayed close to me in a way I had never expected. It wasn't until our last day (Day Four) that Rusty felt secure enough to take off by himself for a few minutes, crashing through the leaves like a yak through snow, in pursuit of who-knows-what chimera.
Nights were cold, around 50 degrees but there was no wind, so when we woke in the morning the fog hung low and dripped everywhere. Rusty usually wakes me before dawn when we are at home but on this trip he slept solidly until the sun was well up and the outside air was drier and warmer- which suited me just fine!
My sister-in-law who has lived in these woods for forty or more years took us on walks around Celo community including one spot where an Appalachian State professor of physics keeps his garden filled with tangible exhibits of physical principles.I climbed the ladder and launched a bowling ball through space:
Then we set up and played a line of swinging bowling balls in some sort of display of Foucault's pendulum ( I think, there were no instructions)...

It was someone's home in the woods and because Celo is an intentional community of like minded people, and because Geeta is an elder of the place we got to hang out in this magical spot for an hour...
...and played an automatic xylophone by rolling steel balls down a slope...
... and we checked the local perfectly formed fungus population:
Elpenor Ohle was a medical doctor who helped open the Celo Health Center after World War Two. The community itself was founded in 1939 and they also wanted to offer medical care in a part of the Appalachians where such services were rare. Very laudable I'm sure, but the good doctor's memory lives on in Ohle's meadow where members of the community come to camp and take picnics: 
Rusty really started to come into his own here, running wild and free, dipping in the pond and disappearing in the rhododendron thickets to the sounds of crashing leaves.
What an idyllic spot.
A pause to catch his breath at the remote Celo cemetery.
You wouldn't know people were buried here.
Unless you come across a fresh grave mounded rather eerily in the shape of the body beneath. Geeta told me the story of a young man who fell ill on a Thursday and was dead by Sunday. He left a young widow and much sadness and I stood there and saw his body outlined under the dirt. It was a very 19th century pioneer feeling.
Three hours later we got back to the homestead built by Geeta's husband all those years ago:

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Highway 80, North Carolina

A visit to the Appalachian mountains is a useful reminder that not everyone lives in the flatlands of the eternal summer where I earn a living. Variety we are told is the spice of life and I do enjoy periodic visits to relatives in the mountain fastness of Western North Carolina. However not every resident is glad to see me as I wear a Florida license plate on my car and that is as a red flag, proverbially, to a bull. Floridians are unwanted incomers, buyers of homes, wreckers of communities, geriatric nuisances in the purity of the mountains, their air, and their roads.
North Carolina Highway 80 is a case in point. To approach my sister-in-law's home in Celo near Burnsville you have to drive Highway 80 either from the Blue Ridge Parkway or from Federal Highway 19E and both these roads present no challenges whatsoever to a driver from the Flatlands. The parkway as winding and lovely as it is has a speed limit of a mere 45 mph, not always achieved by slow moving sightseers, and Highway 19E is now a four lane extension of I-26 from Asheville toward Burnsville.
Highway 80 is something else. Perfectly paved and striped, with guardrails and lots of twists and curves it could actually be a delightful drive.
It is however, a holy terror. The speed limit on this ribbon of asphalt is 55 mph.  And for once in my life I have found an official speed limit that does not hold me back. On the contrary I think 55 is wildly, insanely over achieving for this road. On this very mountain road you will find me hunted down and killed by junked pick up trucks driven by mountain stereotypes impatiently following my Florida tag until I find a likely driveway and pull off the road in a flurry of gravel and clouds of dust and leaves.
I was reminded of my driving deficiencies most recently when I left Celo before dawn two weeks ago and soon found myself navigating perilous hairpins and switchbacks on the descent to Marion in the relative flatlands of North Carolina. I like to make progress on the road be it by motorcycle or by car. My philosophy is when you drive you drive with no distractions. My goal when I leave on a trip of any length is to cause others not to brake or swerve when they come across me on the road.  I like to make progress, as the British Motorcycle Police Instructors like to say, speed limits be damned. I stick close to the speed limit but consistently try to stay over as much as I can. I don't do a hundred miles an hour for sixty seconds and then dawdle while I send texts. When I drive I drive and usually five or ten or even fifteen over the limit when I feel I can get away with it. Not here, never:
Because here I find myself unable to keep up. Even the slower speeds posted for the worst canyon stretches  seemed a mockery for me as commuters pulled out into the blacked out highway and roared off around me, ahead of me, into the predawn darkness.
It was with some unaccustomed relief I got back to the flatlands and aimed at South Carolina on Highway 221, a very civilized stretch of road:
Highway 80 and its locals have my respect. I try not to be a Floridian lane hog when I drive it.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Northernmost Key

From distant December 2008 this essay on a place that still exists at place where Monroe County and Dade County meet on the 18 Mile Stretch of Highway One, the 18 miles of emptiness that connects the Keys to the mainland. I haven't been back to this spot in a few years so this replay may hold some interest.
There is a street off Highway One called Morris Avenue and it is, as far as I can tell the northernmost street in the Keys. Or possibly not. In the above photograph the US flag flying above Pirate Hat Marina is in Monroe County, but the green bushes beyond it are most likely across the county line in Dade County. Which means this is definitely the end of Highway One in Monroe County. Pirate Hat Marina (which is for sale incidentally if you know how to get a bank loan) claims it is in Key Largo:It's certainly at Mile Marker 112.5 but as far as I can tell technically speaking Key Largo doesn't extend north of Jewfish Creek, so this place is in Monroe County for sure but not technically in the Keys. I think I am being pedantic, and I can't help myself. It certainly feels like the Keys. This is Morris Avenue winding a half mile from Highway One:With mysterious boat views:And trailers hidden behind bougainvillea and the like at Pelican Cay Harbor:And that sign is pure Keys overkill. On the subject of pedantry the word "cay" is pronounced "key" across the Caribbean. In the US the Florida Cays were changed to Keys because Americans apparently had trouble bending their brains enough to pronounce "cay"as "key." When I hear Cay pronounced as it is written it sets my teeth on edge. I should be on tranquilisers if that's the sort of stuff I worry about.... In any event Morris Avenue ends abruptly at the water's edge which is hidden by development (another feature of life in the cays/Keys):And looking back more of the same:Some boats:
And then there is the road winding gently back towards Highway One:On the north side there is the Pirate Hat Marina a haul out place welcoming to liveaboards and their homey touches on their boats:And on the south side a rather more substantial gate than the hurricane fencing surrounding the other private property:Manatee Bay also has marina facilities on the north side of Morris Avenue and claims they are "Number One in the Keys" whatever that means (especially as they aren't really in Keys, any of them except in spirit, but I'm not into marketing apparently). And then after a short break away from the traffic back out onto the newly refurbished Highway One pointing to Key Largo and the Keys to the south:108 miles to Key West, about 80 miles to my home. An hour and three quarters if I'm lucky. Endless hours if there is a wreck blocking the road...

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The End Of Fantasy Fest

There is a  current that runs through Key West that gives status to length of residence. I run as fast as I can from people who interject into a conversation how long they have lived here. I find the implication that living in Key West is the only way to live to be rather too much like navel gazing. There are valid and worthwhile lives being lived all over the place, even in places, dare I say it, that are not strangers to frost and snow and ice that is not cubed in a glass.  People like their lives even outside Key West and take joy in work and seasons and the normal accoutrements of suburban living wherever it may be.  I have no particular desire to live in the tundra but that doesn't mean everyone has to want tropical scenery in their daily lives.
I like the weather. To me it is what I have always wanted: an endless summer with minor variations and no need for a winter wardrobe. However there is more to living in Key West than the weather (no, really) and Fantasy Fest happens to loom large. These two threads intersect because it has now become fashionable, more even than in past years to make loud noises about how degraded Fantasy Fest has become and how it was never meant to be like this. Well, no shit it didn't start out like this! It was a homegrown festival organized by counter-culture businesspeople who needed to create a source of income in slow season when people were going mad with boredom. Key West is no longer like that, I think its  safe to say. So if you can remember way back when, the modern iteration of Fantasy is beneath contempt.
One reason Fantasy Fest is here to stay is that the city has handed over the affair to a private company that markets it and runs it and pays the city for the inconvenience and expense it causes. Beyond that Fantasy Fest is a source of money and lots of it, and if we have to see naked flesh and encourage a certain libertine attitude for a week, well that's just good for business, isn't it?

One of The Market Share Company's largest ongoing accounts is Fantasy Fest Key West. The Market Share Company is contracted by the Monroe County Tourist Development Association to produce and oversee all aspects of the festival. The event, now in its 31st year, was  awarded to The Market Share Company in 1990 and now draws upwards of 60,000 spectators, hosting nearly 60 events at Key West bars, restaurants, hotels,  attractions and other establishments.
Market Share has promoted the illicit, naughty aspects of Fantasy Fest and this idea that you can come to Key West, strip off and let your inner sprite loose on the city is the modern interpretation of the cheerful costuming and the power to poke fun at the powers in the city that used to be the essence of Fantasy Fest. Naughtiness devolved into raunchiness, a difficult divide to measure and the money keeps rolling in anyway. So now the old families, the Conchs, turn their noses up in disgust (unless the money rolls their way too) and shake their heads at the moral pollution in the little town of which everyone wants to own a piece. Old timers turn their noses up in disgust as they can remember the "good old days" which leaves the supporters of this festival surrounded and hard pressed. Ah yes, the money. 
Well this year the money has become a bit of an issue too. Hotels have been accused as usual of being greedy and charging too much for rooms, four hundred dollars they say for one night in a nondescript modern motel four miles from the action on Duval Street...and what makes this worse is that it is also bruited around the city that sky high hotel prices are killing trade. Firstly there are vacancies and parking in Old Town is shockingly easy to find so it seems there could be more people squeezed in on that anecdotal evidence! Secondly the high room prices are sucking up money that could be spent elsewhere in the city according to the business people who say spending is less than usual for the week.
So now we find the forces aligned against Fantasy Fest comprise the Conchs, the old timers and the bar owners and shop keepers, so you'd think it would be curtains, no? Yet it isn't. Why? All I can think is the money stream outweighs all other considerations. No matter what people say or how much they complain about the greed of the hotels or the miserliness of the numerous tour bus visitors who arrive for day trips complete with food and drink in coolers purchased in cheaper climes, the money stream must still be plenty deep enough to keep the carnival alive. 
Fantasy Fest in my opinion is a very visible symptom of the very real policy in Key West of whoring the city out for every last available dollar. It's not strictly speaking gentrification because its not just about bringing in the wealthy though they of course have finally figured this is a great place to spend a Connecticut winter. This policy of selling everything of value in the city has only one logical conclusion and when we reach it Fantasy Fest will no doubt shut down, but we aren't there yet.
It's entirely possible the sell out will never reach a conclusion as there are always new people entranced by the qualities of Key West that have made it attractive. It may not be the bohemian retreat it was years ago but let's not forget the rest of America has been moving ever faster toward blandness and conformity spurred on by  overblown fears of nefarious terrorism, Key West remains a beacon of alternative hope, dim though it may have become. However this is how the rest of America relieves the tension once a year in this small town, taking their alter egos and parading them around in public:
In some respects Key West reminds me of our (grand)parents, the generation that survived the Great Depression and World War Two. It has been noted that anyone who has suffered misery from deprivation can be marked for life. Key West has suffered deprivation including bankruptcy in the depression and near bankruptcy in the 1960s. It seems to me that in some deep seated way the people raking in the cash are holding their collective breath waiting for the bonanza to fade away and until it does they are determined to make every last dollar they can.
There used to be a debate in Key West about the children and he needs of families. These days there is no pretense that these constituents matter. Truman Waterfront is being built with an eye to outdoor performances and noise problems nearby be damned. I don't know of anyone who thinks massing music and cars and people on the western edge of the lanes of Bahama Village is a  good idea but good or not the construction is going ahead. Noise and traffic jams will have to be borne. 
The Historic Architectural Review Commission has been approving bizarre modern structures that don't blend with the Old Town neighborhood and we are told it is good for architecture to express the spirit if not the form of the 19th century buildings that form the largest wooden historic district in the United States. The modern structures are hotels, restaurants and mansions all catering to the wealthy class. That this sort of bad planning will kill the nature of Old Town does not seem to matter as long as they get their short term gain. That's why I say its not gentrification but selling out, the process that is underway in Key West.
I believe that if anyone gave a damn about the city's future the time has come to call an end to Fantasy Fest in it's current incarnation. Obviously Key West lives by festivals and gatherings all summer long and Fantasy Fest should be part of that but the rules need to change. This needs to become a fantasy festival, encouraging whimsy and fun and not simple nudity and crass raunchiness, which can be enjoyed privately off the streets.
I have tried to be a good sport about an activity, dressing up or dressing down, that holds no interest for me. But unless something changes radically I doubt Fantasy Fest will get my attention in the future.  I doubt Fantasy Fest will miss me either.