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
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.
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 He roamed the streets with his friend McGuane, trying to figure out what old funk had been replaced by the new.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.