The Songlines of Key West: The Other World

Travel Stories: In a three-part series, Bill Belleville burrows deep into the spirit of the mythic island. Part two: Into ancient reefs and mangrove islands.

01.08.09 | 9:40 AM ET

mangroves in key westPhoto by Michelle Thatcher

Capt. Victoria Impallomeni guides her center console boat carefully through a canal cut into the limerock of Stock Island, headed for a rare place where ancient reefs and mangrove islands of the backcountry conspire to create an Other World. Fossilized corals and oolitic limestone form the canal walls, transparent water allowing me to see its composition nearly to the bottom. We’re floating on air, just for now. 

Stock is the first island north of Key West, just over the Cow Creek Channel. It’s gritty in the way working waterfronts can be when not coifed up. Most of the commercial fish and shrimp trawlers migrated up here years ago, along with a few backcountry guides like Victoria. Laid back hangouts, like the Hogfish Bar & Grill, have followed, advertising themselves as “The Way Key West Used to Be.” 

I haven’t seen Victoria for three years, but it’s easy to pick up where we left off. It seems just yesterday I was standing next to her at the helm, headed out into the Gulf, anticipating almost anything. Victoria’s into having fun, and for me that often begins where the land ends. 

After a couple days trouncing about the streets of Key West, I begin to feel as if the vernacular island architecture, its out-of-plumb culture and baroque hype have settled onto my senses like limerock dust on my skin. The romantic history being peddled is illusive, more like deja vu than a flesh and blood experience. There’s only so much a shot of tequila in a bar at 4 a.m. will reveal, regardless of what famous writer sat on the same stool 50 years before you. 

MORE ON KEY WEST: Slideshow | Part one: Doing the Duval Crawl | Part three: The Conch Republic, Unscripted.

During hurricane season, the sea seems if it has come ashore onto Duval and Caroline and Fleming streets in one languorous tide of moisture and torpor and sweat. The air is so thick you may as well be underwater. 

It was the sea, after all, that first defined this place—that rare fusion of Gulf Stream and coral reef and mangrove fringed shoal. When Miami was still a coastal swamp, Key West was the wealthiest city in all of Florida, thanks to pirates and wreckers who ransacked the ships that grounded just offshore. Opportunism has prevailed ever since. 

Safely out of the canal, Victoria trims the tabs of the motor and pushes the throttle forward, and soon we are skimming over water barely 18 inches deep, cool now from the salty wind in our faces. Aboard are Susan, a publisher of a magazine in the Keys; Christian, an attorney from Seattle; and my friend Michelle. The three women seem vibrant, engaged. Christian, soft spoken, looks as if he just emerged from an extended rain, and he likely has. I’m grinning from ear to ear, happy to be where I am for the moment. 

We zoom towards the bridge for the Overseas Highway, and once under it—encouraged by our captain—we howl like wolves, letting our voices reverberate in the concrete tunnel. 

The “backcountry” here is comprised of all the hundreds of low, uninhabited cays that spread out to the westerly horizon. The shape of each usually mimics that of the Atlantic’s “spur and grove” coral reefs, with sand-covered limestone shoals carved into finger islands by the tides. Before being first linked by a railroad, and then a series of bridges and causeways, this is how all of the Keys once looked. Key West, at the tail, was the largest southerly island, underlain by just enough hard rock to keep it a few feet above water. 

Victoria’s been taking charters out here for 32 years, and in that time has morphed from a flats fishing guide to a sort of New Age sea priestess. True believers seeking transcendence rely on her to show them the way, mind melding with curious dolphins or meditating in the warm tropical waters. She sometimes drops speakers under the surface, playing reggae, blues, even polkas. Bottlenose dolphins regularly approach her boat, and she’s convinced they’re drawn in by the music. When I press her on the legitimacy of the rest of the New Age stuff, she smiles and says: It’s just good thoughts. It can’t hurt. 

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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 of "The Bight," and a few blocks from where Hemingway once refereed boxing matches in Bahama Village.

2 Comments for The Songlines of Key West: The Other World

Julia Ross 01.08.09 | 4:40 PM ET

Gorgeous writing. Thanks Bill.

Student 02.21.09 | 4:31 AM ET

It is perfectly written. Many thanks!

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