The Songlines of Key West: Doing the Duval Crawl

Travel Stories: In a three-part series, Bill Belleville burrows deep into the spirit of the mythic island.

01.07.09 | 10:28 AM ET

Duval street, Key WestDuval Street. Photo by Michelle Thatcher.

In the twilight of Key West, I can almost feel the weight of its outlandish island dreams settling around me here on Duval Street. 

Roots of sapodilla trees push up through cracks in the sidewalk, and fuschia petals of bougainvillea lay like confetti on the street. Overhead, frigate birds soar in and out of the scarlet clouds. 

Down here on the thin limestone crust of the island, the nightly pub bacchanal known as the “Duval Crawl” is underway. Neon bar signs glow, music thrums and mopeds buzz like giant salt marsh mosquitoes. It seems as if the ground itself is vibrating under me. Old bodegas and buildings where Cubans once rolled cigars by hand morph into souvenir shops, pubs and designer clothing stores, almost overnight.

I get the odd feeling that I’m atop a tiny raft bobbing unsteadily in the warm turquoise sea—a raft that at once holds a carnival, a maritime museum and a giant t-shirt shop.

Some of my favorite authors have walked these same streets during the last century, from novelists Ernest Hemingway and Thomas McGuane to poets James Merrill and Elizabeth Bishop. The trick is to resist the hype that would have visitors seeing them all here at once.

MORE ON KEY WEST: Slideshow | Part two: The Other World | Part three: The Conch Republic, Unscripted.

Surely, this modern Key West is nothing if not richly tiered. Its decades of tinsel and tawdriness seem stacked, each upon the other, like an untidy layer cake. Once, novelist and poet Jim Harrison, who lived on the island, returned to Key West after being away for years. He roamed the streets with his friend McGuane, trying to figure out what old funk had been replaced by the new. “It was like a drunken ‘Songlines,’” Harrison said, referencing the Chatwin book.

Shorty’s, a downtown diner catering to locals—sometimes to the exclusion of tourists who were simply locked out—has now become a shop for tourist geegaws. The last time I checked, El Cacique, my favorite Cuban restaurant, had moved out to Sears Town because the rent was too high, taking its cafe con leche and generous plates of picadillo with it. 

I exited with my friend Michelle from a small plane on the tarmac of the tiny “International” airport just two days ago, walking under a large official sign welcoming us to the “Conch Republic.” During the next few days, I’ll be off on a Songline quest of my own, a Walkabout that allows me to burrow deep into the spirit of this mythic old island town. Despite the over-the-top marketing hype, there’s something very compelling that still draws me here and I want to identify it, once and for all.

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Bill Belleville is an author and documentary filmmaker specializing in nature and sense of place. He once lived in Key West in a little Conch house on White Street, not far from where Elizabeth Bishop wrote "The Bight," and a few blocks from where Hemingway once refereed boxing matches in Bahama Village.

3 Comments for The Songlines of Key West: Doing the Duval Crawl

DeeVon Quirolo 01.08.09 | 11:18 AM ET

Bill—you’ve done your magic again, spinning that special spell of words that bring up the very best of Key West.  So glad you came back for a visit.  See you next time.  DeeVon

jim scurti 01.28.09 | 7:39 PM ET

Hi Bill & Thanks for the “Duval Crawl” article.  I too remember Shortys…open all night…where the cabbies hung out and you could grab a great breakfast before leaving the island early in the morning. I remember watching Capt. Tony watch his patrons with world weary amusement and patience. For two consecutive nights ,a thousand years ago it seems, I danced with a dental assistant from Virginia who I was wildly in love with…and I had a few miles on me even then…35 years or so ago…I still think about her…the band was The Pacific Orchestra. I stayed at the La Concha where the walls were marbled with stains, and the Southernmost..which was only one motor lodge then…you could even walk around in Hemingways writing studio…touch the books on his shelves.  El Cacique was the first place I had yellowtail…my God, I thought I’d found heaven!  First place I ever had coconut ice cream too. God bless us all.  Thanks, Jim

Liz Randall 02.08.09 | 11:11 AM ET

Hey Bill, thanks for the great virtual trip to my favorite island. Can’t wait to swelter on the Conch Republic again.

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