For many, Key West is love at first sight. We were smitten sight unseen.
When my wife and I made our wedding procession down the same strip of public beach claimed by local day drinkers for naps and deep introspection, we knew we made the right choice.
Strangers’ stories and glossy brochures didn’t lie about Key West’s funky charm, laid-back vibe or postcard-worthy sunsets.
After an efficient ceremony shared by a small group of family and friends, my wife and I rode off toward one of those spectacular sunsets in a rickshaw — truly a fairy tale moment. But unbeknownst to us, until we saw the photos the next morning, our rickety ride bore a giant ad for Bare Assets gentleman’s club.
That’s Key West, in a conch shell.
We returned to Key West for a delayed honeymoon a year later. Nine months afterward, our son arrived. A year after that , I quit my day job (again) to pursue a new labor of love: writing on my own.
When it came time to christen my one-man agency, I couldn’t shake the dream of writing from my own scenic perch in the Keys. I decided on Milepost 0, in honor of sprawling Route 1’s beginning stretch of sand-swept asphalt. Key West has served as a boozy muse for a couple of writers. You might have heard of some of them, whether you’re more comfortable curling up on a hammock with your cat and some Hemmingway or letting Jimmy Buffett be the soundtrack of your bender.
When Hurricane Irma tore through town, it toppled trailers and ripped off roofs. We saw sobering aerial footage of Route 1, where displaced dunes and rogue watercraft had taken up refuge. Stories emerged about resourceful locals who stayed behind — a surprising number of friendly, flip-flopped folks labeled as resilient or stubborn, depending on whom you listened to. They were already putting together the pieces of a paradise-turned-shaken-up-jigsaw of Old Town’s historic homes and watering holes. These were people who shared and lived my dream.
Key West is the kind of town that even takes tragedy with “a shaker of salt.” While it reopened to residents, business owners and disaster workers in mid-September, its famous Duval Street bars were serving up cold refreshments long before that. For every community cleanup effort where neighbors work to make one another’s homes more habitable, you’ll see an extension cord snaking from a generator to a blender, with pineapple wedges scattered pell-mell.
My 6-year-old son and I talk a lot about Key West. He asked about the green “0” mile marker sticker on my car and Parrot Head license plate. I’ve asked if he’d be game for leaving school, friends and our increasingly cramped Lakeside bungalow to live where most people go on vacation. He seems interested. I tell my 3-year-old daughter we’ll live where Moana (of Disney fame) lives, which is a lie whiter than SPF 70 suntan lotion.
If nothing else, I want to show my kids the importance of having and chasing down your dreams. We don’t need to share each other’s dreams, but we sure as heck better support them. That’s what family means to me. And that’s why I’m prepared to send my son to college to be a Pokémon Trainer, and look for castles on Craigslist so my daughter can be a real princess.
A few months ago, I plotted out the perfect Thanksgiving in Key West, our first trip back in seven years. It was to be a road trip, just like our others, a 1,100-mile odyssey that would include a stop at the Dolphin Research Center, a nonprofit research facility in neighboring Grassy Key we first visited nine years ago. This is a thousand miles from your typical touristy dolphin experience; I had already pictured the kids hitching a ride through the water on a dolphin fin — a thrill that no Disney attraction can compete with. It’s closed now, but rebuilding. And our trip will remain in standby mode while I keep a watchful eye on the progress from afar.
Perspective tells me this lament may not ring true. After all, my ideal Keys retreat sits safely on Cloud 9, an infinite distance from those who, in reality, lost it all. I’m not waiting in line for one of the few working phone lines to call the insurance company or shuffling through ravaged possessions looking for wedding pictures, baby photos, and any tangible signs to connect me to my past. For many, the Keys are still a nightmare they want to awake from. And I totally get it.
So consider this my love letter to Key West. It’s also a “get well soon” card. And a postcard reminder to a little patch of paradise built by dreamers like me that reinforcements are coming. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.
So put some beers on ice while I talk to my wife and kids …
Mike Ward is a writer, brand strategist and sometimes stand-up comic. He shares his Lakeside bungalow with his wife and two kids. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Mile0Creative.