The Florida Keys: A History & Guide, Ninth Edition

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9780375755569: The Florida Keys: A History & Guide, Ninth Edition
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The Florida Keys: A History & Guide is a smart, stylish handbook to one of the most unique locales in America. The Florida Keys--an unlikely sprinkling of coral and limestone islands that curve southwest from the tip of Florida--have always been engagingly different. Here, author Joy Williams, whose novels and short stories have won wide literary acclaim, shares with us all of the region's idiosyncrasies and delights.

From the diving and fishing meccas of Key Largo and Marathon to the funkiness and sophistication of Key West to the remote outpost of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, The Florida Keys serves the traveler as a witty and informative companion. Sensitive to and knowledgeable about the natural beauties of the Keys, Williams covers the exquisite underwater world of North America's only living reef and the eerie and delicate serenity of the "backcountry" of Florida Bay. The Florida Keys also provides fresh, up-to-date advice on the practicalities of where to stay, eat, and wander. Here is the quirkiest, most candid, and most literate guide to the Keys.

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INTRODUCTION

The Florida Keys do not run due south. They drift southwest, Route 1 running more east-west than north-south. The Gulf side is actually Florida Bay, the upper reaches of which belong to the Everglades. The Bay side is called the "backcountry" or "outback." The Atlantic side is actually the Straits of Florida, where wide Hawk Channel runs out from shore to the reef, which stretches the length of the Keys. Beyond the reef is the Gulf Stream--"out front"-that great oceanic river whose demarcation is clearly seen, the water being a profound and fabulous blue. Beyond the Gulf Stream lies, then, the ocean.

The Keys run from Biscayne Bay to the Dry Tortugas, a distance of some 180 miles. No road runs to the keys north of Key Largo-Sands, Elliott, and Old Rhodes-and the Tortugas are 70 watery, wild miles from Key West. The distance accessible by car is some 106 miles-from Key Largo to Key West. That road, originally built in the 1930s, replaced Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Extension railroad line, an amazing piece of engineering which had linked the Keys since 1912 and which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1935. The mile markers (MM #-) referred to in this guide-green signs with white numerals, posted on the right-hand shoulder-were first placed along the Keys by the railroad.

On a map the Keys look fairly improbable-and Route 1, the line that drops down their sprinkled length, improbable too. The possibilities are vast, but the road itself is simple, which explains why some travelers begin at Key Largo, hang on to the steering wheel, and don't stop until Key West, heeding the billboards' urging, GO ALL THE WAY, with all its attendant, randy implications of reckless fulfillment. Other travelers arrive in the Keys, love them, stick close to Islamorada, and wouldn't dream of going all the way, considering Key West weird if not bizarre, as though that singular and raffish place were at the bottom of an ever-darkening well.

But of course the Keys don't really go from light to dark. The Keys sparkle downward, warm and bright, full of light and air and a bit of intrigue. The Keys are relaxed, a little reckless. The Keys are water and sky, horizon, daybreak, spectacular sunsets, the cup of night. The least interesting thing about them is the road, but the road, as is its nature, allows entrance. The road is the beginning.

There are some automobile guides, such as the old Sanborn Guides to Mexico, that are wonderfully jittery backseat companions, not pointing out cathedrals and markets (because the route in question is manifestly lacking in cathedrals and markets) but taking great pains to point out everything else. A child selling an iguana is here; half a kilometer down the road you will pass a most peculiarly shaped boulder; a bit beyond that there was once a Pemex station, though unfortunately a Pemex station is no longer there, only a tire dump; two kilometers away the road curves.... And so on.

The Keys once lent themselves to this sort of innocent treatment, and in a way they still do. There is the road, and there are the dutiful descending markers accompanying your every mile, suggesting that a trip is little more than coloring your own experience between provided lines. At MM #- there is an egret; at MM #- there's a pretty view between two violet jacaranda trees; at MM #-, if you can wait that long, is a bar where the bartender wears live snakes wrapped around her neck and wrists-her "pretties," she calls them.... And so on.

Time passes, of course. The snake lady is run over one night as she is crossing the road. Someone builds his dream house in front of the pretty view, cutting down the jacaranda trees in the process. But the Keys, though no longer the empty, silent stretches they once were, still markedly lack (you might as well be told) historical and cultural monuments. And the osprey still builds his nest larger each year at MM # . And the tarpon still roll and flash each spring under the bridge at MM #

And certainly at MM #- the disreputable bar remains. The best way to enjoy the Keys is still to seek out their simplicity and their eccentricity.

The Keys had been largely ignored until the 1970s, the lack of fresh water being the real inhibitor to development. The Navy had built an 18-inch pipeline in 1942 that ran the 130 miles from the Everglades wells in Florida City to Key West. The water took a week to travel the route. In 1982 the old pipe was replaced with a 36-inch pipe, increasing the quantity fourfold, providing indeed an oversupply of water and accelerating building and population growth. Oddly, the pipeline, as well as the construction of new bridges and wider roads, took place seven years after the state had designated Monroe County, which is the Keys, an "area of critical state concern" in an attempt to slow development (a perfectly nice word that unfortunately has been stolen away-undoubtedly while we were not looking-by the developers). In the 1980s realtors dressed up in wood rat costumes and organized motorcades and rallies to protest new state guidelines that would restrict development in the Keys. It's true. People who felt themselves endangered by environmental laws dressed up like the cotton mouse and the wood rat-present inhabitants of mangrove swamp and hammock--and, aroused by lawyers and politicians, made a long, noisy trip down the highway to Key West, where the governor was speaking, picking up additional incensed rat- and mouse-garbed people along the way. This was typical oddball Keys, but in this case, peculiarity had a threateningly modern and consumptive edge, which is familiarly Floridian.

W. C. Barron, the founder of Wall Street's Barron's, said early in this century that the only values in the state of Florida are the values created by man. This was how the state was perceived by the wealthy who came from elsewhere to exploit it. Florida, that splendid, subtle, once fabulous state, has been exploited, miscomprehended and misused, drained and diked, filled in and paved over. The values of man have been imposed with a vengeance.

Half of the historic Everglades is now farms, groves, and cities, and this marvelous ecosystem isn't working anymore. Over the last 50 years, 90 percent of the 'Glades' wading-bird population has been lost. To read the roll of its endangered species is heartbreaking. The reef is becoming increasingly stressed by sewage that flows quickly through the porous rock of the Keys and into the ocean, as well as by agricultural runoff from the mainland that gets dumped into Florida Bay from the Everglades. The rat-garbed protesters of the '80s recrudesced in the '90s as noisy foes of the National Marine Sanctuary, a designation conceived in 1990 that would protect and preserve the waters around the Keys, which need every bit of protection and preservation that they can get.

In 1996, in a nonbinding referendum, Keys residents voted 55 percent to 45 percent against the final Sanctuary plan. The plan had been five years in the making, during which time it underwent extensive public review. There were fears of a federal takeover, fears that people's property rights would be stripped away, despite the fact that the Sanctuary was intended to protect water-specifically 2,800 square miles of water from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas. It was not designed to protect a pristine ecosystem, but rather as an emergency measure to prolong the life of an already impaired environment. Because of local public concerns, only one half of 1 percent of the Sanctuary waters have their use restricted-such as "no take" zones-compared with the original proposal of 14 percent. Even a half percent was too much sanctuary for the opponents who urged voters through print and radio ads not to "surrender." The Sanctuary, despite the local vote, was endorsed by the state and implemented. Its one half of 1 percent of restricted use survived further cuts and will be monitored as a research and replenishment preserve.

The bill is coming. It's not like the bill from a wonderful restaurant, Louie's, for example. It's not the bill for the lovely fresh snapper, the lovely wines, the lovely brownie with bourbon ice cream and caramel sauce at the lovely table beside the lovely sea. It's the bill for all our environmental mistakes of the past. The big bill.

"Keys" comes from the Spanish word cayos, for "little islands." The Keys are little, and they are fragile. They cannot sustain any more "dream houses" or "dream resorts." The sustaining dream is in the natural world-the world that each of us should respect, enjoy, and protect so that it may be enjoyed again-the world to which one can return and be refreshed.

Time passes. There are more of the many, and they want too much. What the traveler wants, of course, is not development but adventure, and this is still possible in the Keys. The Keys have always been different. May they remain that way. Here's to them.

Review:

“One of the best guidebooks ever written.”—Condé Nast Traveler

“A magnificent, tragi-comic guide.”—Condé Nast Traveler

“From Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas, novelist Joy Williams has captured the local nuances of the Keys, providing a galaxy of information, including the history of each islet. Flora and fauna, gingerbread architecture and buried treasure—every hamlet, hangout, hotel and eatery is candidly appraised. There’s plenty to see and do in the Keys, and here’s the lowdown from a native.” —The Literate Traveller

“Interwoven with the tourist details are nature lore and historical nuggets guaranteed to change the way you look at the social and ecosystems of the Keys.”—BookPage

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