Hemingway Days 2014: Celebrating His Life, His Way, On His Island

“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk.” – Earnest Hemingway

 

It was at my department’s Christmas party last year that a colleague told me about an event in Key West known as “Hemingway Days,” a week-long celebration of the birth of America’s manliest modern author and one of the most interesting men in literary history. The event piqued my interest, and as I was several IPAs deep into the night, I resolved myself to go.

Hemingway Days is celebrated over the course of the 6 days leading up to his birthday on July 21st. This, the 34th installment of the festival, was also to coincide with his 115th birthday, and being a historian by trade, I obviously couldn’t miss this. In general, the first days are a lot of intro tours, registrations, meet-&-greets, and various smaller events that are used to ratchet up celebrations toward the weekend climax. That in mind, I waited until Friday to drive down.

In keeping with Hemingway’s outdoorsy personality, I booked a campsite at Boyd’s, which is just an island away from downtown Key West and substantially cheaper than hotels on the main island. I took my bike to avoid the deadlock traffic of all tourist destinations, and packed lots and lots of water, because you do NOT want to get stuck anywhere in the Florida Keys without water.

The following is a synopsis of the trip. As usual, readers should beware of salty language, substance abuse, and general disregard for laws and personal health and safety, even though I’m sure many readers engage in all the above on a regular basis.

 

Day 1, Part 1: Arrival, The Reading, & Lots of Beer

I left work early, packed my car, and got on the road, giving myself ample time to set up my campsite and get to a public reading at 8pm. My tent was set up by 6pm, so I started pregaming before biking into town. I was swilling Modelo that evening, a beer I adopted when I moved to a tropical climate, and which tastes better when consumed near water. About three beers in, it was time to go, so I stuck a couple of road beers in my backpack, hopped on my bike, stopped briefly to talk to a Papa Look-Alike (more on that later), and made my way into town.

$65/night gets you a site on the water at Boyd's, compared to over $200/night for hotels in Key West.
$65/night gets you a site on the water at Boyd’s in the offseason, compared to over $200/night for hotels in Key West.

I got to what I thought was the address for the reading, but nobody was there. Wrong address. I mapped it again, and rode down the street to another candidate. Nope. I was now 15 minutes late for what I anticipated to be a fairly low-key event that likely wouldn’t respond well to tardiness.

I finally found the correct address online, peddled over at breakneck speed, and arrived in time to find a seat in the back of the room. Opening statements were concluding. I fake-sneezed to conceal the sound of me opening a beer, which frothed out like sea foam back into the bag of ice I’d purchased at a Tom Thumb convenience store earlier. Nobody noticed, so I thankfully began consuming beer #4.

The reading was going to be of the winning entry in an annual short story competition sponsored by Lorian Hemingway, a granddaughter to Earnest. She herself could not be there, which was attributed to her declining health at the age of 62, the same age that Earnest barely missed due to his suicide on July 2, 1961.

Hearing her regrets read aloud, I got the sense that Lorian was riding Earnest’s coattails a bit. After some research, I can’t exactly blame her for wanting to direct attention further back down the family tree. Maybe it was just the nostalgic gushing of an aging female artist who grew up under the convoluted shadow of her namesake, but her letter was full of maudlin platitudes and read as if she had won the Nobel prize in ’54. The whole ordeal felt cliquey, as if half the room were being left out of some inside joke.

Of 938 entries, Lizzy Welby of London won the contest for her story “The Breakers.” It is the recent tradition of this contest to let a local actress read the winning entry aloud, but it should be the new tradition of never letting her do that again.

While I’m sure the original prose was beautiful in its own way, the resident thespian managed to turn the story into some semi-whispered, noire fairytale where entire passages were read in contrived singsong fashion. There was no cadence, and I couldn’t follow the plot for all the theatrics. All I knew is that it was maritime in nature (pretty obvious from the title), which might explain why it won a Hemingway-inspired writing competition. It was boring enough that several people left in the middle of the reading. I myself didn’t even bother trying to conceal the sound of beer #5.

I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t submitted anything, since then I’d feel robbed of more than just my time. Also, while a majority of the boredom can be attributed to the reader, the writer didn’t exactly produce a gripping short story. Short stories, in my opinion, are easy to write for laypeople, because so many laypeople have such short attention spans as it is. If this contest is going to survive beyond Lorian, something will need to change. The fact that I was one of the youngest people in the room (by at least a decade) is a sign that this contest might be on its way out if renovations don’t take place soon.

Top floor of Casa Antigua, the hotel where the Hemingways stayed while waiting for a rental car. It was delayed for two weeks, during which time Earnest fell in love with Key West and finished "A Farewell to Arms."
Top floor of Casa Antigua, the hotel where the Hemingways stayed while waiting for a rental car. It was delayed for two weeks, during which time Earnest fell in love with Key West and finished “A Farewell to Arms.”

I left the reading fairly dejected, looking for some craft beer to grease my engines for the 30-minute bike ride back. Yelp! directed me to Krawl Off Duval, a smallish joint with a healthy supply of good beer. This was an enjoyable transition from the Modelo, which was beginning to give me a headache (or maybe that was just the reading..). A few locals recommended my first beer (#6), and I sat down with them and chatted about living in a vacation destination like Key West.

Their take was similar to what I heard in Charlottetown, PEI, where the locals tend to be able to recognize other locals, either by memory or behavior, and everyone is generally content with daily goings-on, at least by their admission. The main difference here is that Key West is always abuzz with outsiders from all over the world (the winter being busier than the summer due to its climate), while Charlottetown’s high season is just two months in the dead of summer. Truth be told, I prefer Charlottetown, and I’d go as far as to say that Anne of Green Gables had a stronger impact on my youth than Old Man and the Sea.

After #7, I asked for my tab. The locals, three guys and a girlfriend, were very kind and told the bartender to put it on theirs. I was thankful and offered to buy them beer the next day at the Hemingway events, but they said they weren’t sure if they were going. They invited me to the next stop, so we got on our bikes and headed over to Smokin’ Tuna, where I took care of two rounds there.

This was #8 and #9 for me in a span of less than 5 hours, and compounded with an empty stomach and a day of driving, I was well beyond my daily prime. I closed out, wished them well, and headed back to camp. I can’t remark on the ride back because I don’t remember it, but I do remember staying on the sidewalk because in the state of Florida that defines me as a pedestrian, and pedestrians can’t get DUIs.

 

Day 1, Part 2: The Asthmatic Israeli, More Beer, and an Excessive Number of Apologies

I had seen this guy when I drove up to the campsite. He and his buddy were in the site next to mine. Their accents sounded almost Russian during the day, which is surprising since I’ve heard a lot of Hebrew in my life and I should’ve been able to recognize it. I was biking back into camp at 1:30am, and when I saw him at his car I asked him was if he wanted to drink some more beer with me. He said yes, and came over to my picnic table.

I cracked open #10 and started chatting with him. I found out he was an electrician. I told him I had a few electrician friends, and that I didn’t know why I went to college since all those friends made more money a decade ago than I do now. I told him that I considered my diploma no more than a piece of paper that someone handed me with an assigned value, much like a pseudo-currency, but without the benefit of an exchange rate. He seemed to feel pretty good about where he was in life, and when I asked him if he knew what was next he said that it was best to be patient. Overall, he wants to find a nice, orthodox Jewish girl and marry her. I told him to move to New York, but he hates New York because it’s so dirty. I agreed.

The peace pipe emerged, and it fueled the conversation into new realms. I couldn’t help but notice that he would exhale almost immediately upon taking a thick plume into his mouth. I questioned this, telling him that he’s really wasting a lot by doing so, to which he replied that he had asthma and he could have a breathing attack if he inhaled it.

I tried not to laugh at the situation. Here I am, now on #11, with my asthmatic, Israeli tent neighbor, and a pretty significant language/dialect barrier causing a lot of confusion already. The meeting proceeded. Ideas took form. I lost track of time.

I waxed descriptive on Earnest Hemingway, his work, the festival, and how this all applied to my Israeli pal, that last bit being pretty thin, but I owed him an explanation. I also mentioned my disappointment with the earlier reading, but this bayside conversation didn’t really get truly interesting until I asked him how often he thought about Jesus.

Let me be clear: I’m far from evangelical, but Christianity is an intriguing religion, and the one in which my paradigm was brewed. Moreover, I am interested (much like Hemingway was) in coaxing people beyond their psychological ramparts in order to determine how they really feel about the world. It keeps life interesting for me, causes my conversational partner to think aloud and respond intuitively, and it provides both of us with valuable context.

Unfortunately, he avoided a direct analysis on the Jesus topic. He said one of his favorite places was Mount Sinai, which was irrelevant to the topic since that particular mountain has more to do with Moses’ Old Testament than the New Testament of Jesus. He pointed out that beautiful woman from all over the world move to Mount Sinai because the men there are very well endowed and marijuana is apparently sold for pennies.

He said that he was walking through Tiberias, and he saw people paying to get into a church in the area. This upset me. I know how local businesses can take advantage of visitors by simply putting a stamp of “historical significance” on something they happen to own the rights to, and as far as I know, St. Peter’s (the main church for visitors there) offers free admission, so I don’t know which venue he’s talking about.

He asked me how often I though about Jesus, and I replied with something a little more descriptive, albeit lacking any eloquence due to the amount of alcohol in my system. It went something like this: “Americans love Jesus…that’s the whole reason the Arab-Jewish thing is happening. Israel would have America in their pocket if it weren’t for the Jesus thing. Anyone attacking Israel would essentially be attacking America.”

This statement, in retrospect, is somewhat contradictory. The initial implication was that the “Arab-Jewish thing” (i.e. conflict) is an outgrowth of Americhristian influence (i.e. creation of Israel), the further implication being that Israel already had the U.S. in their pocket in 1948, or at least their corner. But the last sentence pulled back some American support since Israel is full of.. well.. Jews, and the “Jesus thing” is too big of a hangup for Americans to maintain a garrison over there on par with, say, Hawaii or the Philippines.

This kind of statement could’ve led to either a fight or a really thrilling conversation, but it led to neither because my conversational partner was not keen on correcting me or elaborating on his previous statements. Instead, he agreed with me and looked off over the water again.

Just then, a fish jumped and he said “What was that? ..It is a sign, no?”

If he didn’t want to talk about an allied faith, I decided to ask him about Judaism’s widely perceived enemy.

“How much have you studied about Islam?” I asked.

“Enough,” he said.

He started talking about Palestinians, but I wanted to hear about Arabs in general, “stretching from Kashmir to Istanbul…inside that, what would you say about that group of people?”

Perhaps the peace pipe was too peaceful, because he waffled on his response after seeming so eager to talk about Palestinians. He remarked that he liked everybody, and that “this is the world,” pointing out across the water.

My eyebrows raised: “This? This is the world? Looking over the bay, drinking beer, sharing thoughts about life. That’s the world?”

“Yeah,” he said, smiling toward the boats.

I challenged him on this. Surely, this is what he thought the world should be. The people sleeping on their boats, the people enjoying their vacation…this was not the real world. I exaggerated a bit in order to get a response: “Those people don’t have to do anything, they just enjoy themselves 24/7, how do you feel about that?”

He loved it. Even coming from war-torn, volatile Israel, where Hamas was at that very moment waging renewed attacks and ignoring an Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire, he thought the world was just one big vacation. I thought the IDF was mandatory, had he ever even served in it?

The material had gotten pretty heavy for 2am on an inebriated Friday night, so I ingratiated myself by changing the subject, getting lost mid-sentence, and apologizing for forgetting the point of my new story. We both laughed. It was half intentional and half not being being able to make an appropriate segue. My brain was quickly shutting down, so while I was glad for the levity, it was a sign that I couldn’t keep up this interrogation much longer.

There was a protracted silence after the laughter. I interrupted his thoughts with another question, to which I heard a “Shhh.” I looked over at him. I thought he had shushed me, so I laughed, knowing that he wouldn’t do so in a mean way. I apologized again, even though I’m pretty sure he was merely making the sound he had made the entire conversation, where instead of going “Hmm,” he would exhale air through his partially open mouth to convey the gravity of whatever he was thinking.

The cultural and dialectic (the latter in language and argument) barrier was immense. I really wasn’t trying to kill his buzz, but this was a learning experience. If he wasn’t going to learn from me, I was sure as hell going to try and get as much raw information as I could from him. It sounds selfish, and in a way I’m sure it is, but he chose to come over there and he was free to leave whenever he wanted. I also suspected that he needed the company, given that he’d quickly mentioned how hard it was for him to sleep in a hot tent.

We changed subjects back to the people living in the boats offshore, and the wildlife living in the waters around here. I described the beautiful Cassiopeia jellyfish I’d seen earlier. He asked if there were crocodiles in Florida, and the pedantic amateur scientist in me said no, but I’m sure he meant alligators, which means I was 100% wrong.

The conversation wound down, we said our farewells, and in doing so I found out that he learned the fist bump in Spain. We were both going to be there until Sunday, but I had a lot of stuff queued up and I wasn’t sure if I’d see him again. Alas, I would not. There was one final apology for something I can’t remember, and I asked what “sorry” was in Hebrew. He told me, and in my best drunken Hebrew impersonation I slurred out “so ees sleas hoch,” and with that we parted ways.

I’d like to say the night ended there, but unfortunately my consumption of a dozen beers in six hours caught up with me in the humidity of my tent. I felt disgusting enough covered in sweat in such a cramped space, but things were made worse when the nausea kicked in.

Beer nausea has a gradual onset that aids in prediction, so you instinctively know how long you have before evacuation takes place. Liquor isn’t nearly as forgiving, and specific types of liquor are hateful bastards that tempt their way into your stomach just to show you how foolish you are to consume them. However, this beer came back at my head like a Tyson left-hook, and I knew I didn’t have long. The purge clock was ticking.

I fumbled with the inside of the tent in the dark for almost a minute before the horrible realization that…oh dear god…I had been trying to open the wrong side of the tent. Shit, this is the back, there isn’t even a zipper over here! Oh god, why now. Why here?!

Time was up.

The heaving started before I could curse my own stupidity. I dexterously grabbed some dirty clothes and created a levee that would make a New Orleans engineer proud. The thought of what was happening drove the process even longer. After about 6-7 heaves, the torture was over, and I was left on my hands and knees staring at the result.

If you’ve ever vomited at night a few yards from people on either side of you, you know that you can’t really get away with it. I’m a stealthy purger, but even I can’t stop a stomach vacuum from making noise, and I was way too embarrassed (and tired) to go through the clean up process at 2am. So, I secured my levee and promptly fell asleep next to it.

 

Day 2, Part 1: The Worst Hangover of My Life

The next morning, I awoke at approximately 7am to some douchebag motorcyclist revving his Harley a few sites away. I wanted him to die, almost as much as I wanted to die upon realizing the condition my condition was in…

I got up and walked to the showers, where I emptied the only organ of my body with any moisture left in it. The sun was only glancing off the earth at the time, but it was hot enough to provide a precursor to the hellish day that lie ahead of me. I went back to my tent, drank an entire Nalgene, popped two Advil, crawled back in, and forced myself back into a coma.

I emerged from that coma 2 hours later, just in time to catch the full effect of the hangover. This was going to be a bad one, worse than Kingsley Amis described in Lucky Jim. I didn’t have anywhere to be until 1pm, but I wasn’t totally sure I’d be alive that long.

It was depressing. How could I ruin such a great Saturday? To make matters worse, now I had to recover from the worst hangover in years at 25 degrees north of the equator, in the dead of summer, with no air conditioning and no bed. I hobbled to the showers like a blind man, hoping a shower would cool me down. It didn’t work. I staggered back to my tent, grabbed my bike, and headed for a tree across the water that looked like it would offer some shade.

I parked my bike at the tree, carefully lowered myself onto a lounge chair there, and fell asleep with a towel over my face. I was awoken 30 minutes later to the sound of thunder as it began raining. My body temperature had gone from scorching to frigid, and I began shaking like a hypothermic patient.

I climbed into the tree and squatted on a large branch like a monkey, my towel draped around me. I tried to sleep again. I couldn’t sleep. To pass the time, I watched crabs toying with the idea of emerging from their little caves. They never did, and I envied their being able to have that choice. I’ll always remember that as the only day I’ve wanted to be a crab. The rain died down, and I went back to my tent. It was now almost noon, and I knew that the ride into Key West would take longer than the normal half hour.

I took in a granola bar and some more water. I began the long haul into town. My god, it was hot. I felt like Lawrence of Arabia if he was hungover and late for his meeting with General Allenby, with no thobe and a self-powered camel. I didn’t lose a servant to quicksand, but it sure felt like I was peddling through it. I was going so slow at one point that an old lady on a motorized wheelchair passed me. I tried to laugh, but smiling hurt.

I had to stop. I could barely see. I couldn’t lift my head up to the necessary angle, and my eyes were the portal through which that damned sunlight was wreaking havoc inside my skull. I found a church with a shade tree and some grass underneath. I propped my bike against the tree and laid my head on my backpack. I overheard two men in an argument over business matters. One guy was telling the other that he was an idiot and he didn’t trust him. It sounded harsh, but it also sounded like the other guy couldn’t really defend whatever actions the angry guy was criticizing. I fell asleep.

I awoke 20 minutes later feeling much better. I was still in a lot of pain, but I was operationally human again. I made my way to Sloppy Joe’s, home of the Original Sloppy Joe and the preferred drinking/socializing venue for Hemingway when he lived in Key West. I had missed the famed “Running of the Bulls” by only a few minutes, but I did manage to see some contestants walking off with their handmade bulls and I got a good shot of one in particular. The event itself is supposed to be pretty cool, and missing it was clearly punishment for my irresponsibility the night before.

The annual "Running of the Bulls" at Hemingway Days, a fun recreation of the Pamplona encierro in Spain.
The annual “Running of the Bulls” at Hemingway Days, a fun recreation of the Pamplona encierro in Spain.

After watching the contestants scatter with their respective families and homemade bulls, I walked around for a while taking in the sights. The Caribbean Street Fair coincides with Hemingway Days on that Saturday, and Duval Street is completely shut down from Southard Street to Front Street, allowing a plethora of vendors to hock their wares in an open market setting. I tried some free shrimp as part of the inaugural Bubba Cuzzy Shrimp-Off, bought some stuff from the Pickle Baron of Key West tent, and just wandered around for a while trying to focus my attention away from my gradually improving hangover.

View of the Caribbean Street Fair on Duval St. during Hemingway Days
View of the Caribbean Street Fair on Duval St. during Hemingway Days
Contrary to popular belief, the term "sloppy joe" doesn't refer to the ground beef sandwich at all, but rather the conditions under which food was prepared at the original location just a few doors west of this address.
Contrary to popular belief, the term “sloppy joe” doesn’t refer to the ground beef sandwich at all, but rather the conditions under which food was prepared at the original location just a few doors west of this address.

I went inside Sloppy Joe’s to get some water and decided to eat one of their famous sandwiches. My grandmother had made sloppy joe’s for us growing up, so I generally knew what to expect, but the one I had was remarkable.

It’s worth pointing out that I wasn’t really in the mood to eat, only of the mind that if I didn’t, my pain would only get worse. I’m glad I chose to obtain nourishment with their classic dish. Their secret blend of spices is what sets the Original Sloppy Joe apart from imitators, and while I’m not typically a fan of ground beef, this sandwich really hit the spot.

This ain't your grandmother's Manwich. This is the Original Sloppy Joe.
This ain’t your grandmother’s Manwich. This is the Original Sloppy Joe.

I finished this late lunch around 3:30pm and realized that I had 3 hours before the big event: the “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest’s final round. I walked around the waterfront for about 30 minutes before grabbing my bike and heading out to look for a place to nap. It was scorching hot, and the sun was beating down at a new angle to the one I had battled earlier. I hugged the sides of buildings on my bike, trying to stay in the shade. I had already earned myself a sunburn earlier in the day, a pain which was only now beginning to replace my hangover.

I made my way around the streets of Key West with no particular direction. I stumbled across some cool graffiti and a lot of neat shops, but the same shelter I had found on the way into town a few hours ago did not avail itself in a new form. All the grassy shaded areas I saw were either someone’s private yard or a place where a nap would draw unwanted attention. For instance, my favorite candidate was a municipal building with temptingly cool grass just waiting to be slept on, but it was exposed to the street where noise and passerbys were a constant nuisance.

Crossbow Mario, Geraldine St, Key West, FL
Crossbow Mario, Geraldine St, Key West, FL
Nomad & Chicken, Geraldine St, Key West, FL
Nomad & Chicken, Geraldine St, Key West, FL
Given how bad their aim is, point blank range might be best.
Given how bad their aim is, point blank range might be best.
Stormpooper, Duval St. Key West, FL
Stormpooper, Duval St. Key West, FL
One of the most common sights in Key West remains, to this day, the thousands of roosters, chickens, and baby chicks crowing, clucking, and chirping their way down streets and alleys. Good luck sleeping past sunrise if a family of them live outside your window.
One of the most common sights in Key West remains, to this day, the thousands of roosters, chickens, and baby chicks crowing, clucking, and chirping their way down streets and alleys. Good luck sleeping past sunrise if a family of them live outside your window.

I was getting more sunburned as I looked for a place to nap, and eventually I made it all the way back to the waterfront at the end of Simonton Street with no result. I came upon this place called Lagerheads, figuring they’d have chairs somewhere. I heard music, so at first I didn’t think it would be a good place to sleep. However, I sorely needed fluids so I went in and ordered a Powerade.

This was an excellent idea. Turns out, this place has great TripAdvisor ratings already. Not only was the Powerade spot-on and a lounge chair available, but the band was absolutely mellow. They were playing classic potrock like Allman Brothers (excellent cover of Sweet Melissa) and Grateful Dead (Fire On the Mountain, one of my favs). It was magnificent, and I slept like a baby even though the speaker was only 10ft from me.

I was able to sleep on a lounge chair in the shade, listen to a great band, and recuperate for what remained of the day.
I was able to sleep on a lounge chair in the shade, listen to a great band, and recuperate for what remained of the day.

 

Day 2, Part 2: A Whole Lotta Papas, a Key West Sunset, and a Crazy Storm 

I awoke just in time to make it over to Sloppy Joe’s for the Look-Alike Contest’s final round. The place was slammed, and although I was finally back to about 85%, I was in no mood to deal with a crowd like this. I slid my way into the middle where there was more room, but got stuck behind some fatheaded guy with a fishing hat on who constantly shifted his weight from one side to the other, making me peer around whichever side allowed me to see the stage. Even so, I had an adequate vantage point for the final round, which would narrow 25-30 contestants to 5. Then the previous winners in attendance would judge and announce the 2014 champion.

Many of the former winners of the Papa Hemingway Look-Alike Contest.
Many of the former winners of the Papa Hemingway Look-Alike Contest were present this year.

Let me explain a little about this competition. “Papa” Hemingway was the nickname for Earnest at a point in his life when he was a robust man with a bushy white beard, primarily the 1950s (and in his 50s). He would’ve passed as a half-way decent and youngish Santa Claus, and many men who look like that and value his work come together annually in Key West to try and win a Look-Alike contest.

It’s a pretty spirited competition, complete with speeches on why candidates should be chosen and even campaign shirts and signs that supportive family members wave like crazy throughout the big events. It’s not just one group that does this. Multiple families parade around Duval Street petitioning support for their candidate. It reminds me of what a small municipal party caucus would look like, or a county election event in rural America.

You can see campaign signs to the right of the room for Papa contestant Richard Filip. They had staked out their location in Sloppy Joe's that morning. Unfortunately for Filip's supporters, he didn't win this year.
You can see campaign signs to the right of the room for Papa contestant Richard Filip. They had staked out their location in Sloppy Joe’s that morning. Unfortunately for Filip’s supporters, he didn’t win this year.

The Papa Look-Alike I met at my campsite said it may be something of a popularity contest more than it is a look-alike contest. Truth be told, they all look at least a little like the aging Earnest Hemingway, and some of their visages are uncanny.

One such Look-Alike is the fellow who won this year, Wally Collins. From the second he went up on a Key West stage in a cream sweater, I knew he was one of the guys to beat. When he ended up being one of the 6 finalists, I knew he was going to win. There was a special energy about him, which is fitting considering who he was mimicking.

He really worked the crowd, talking to the “wannabes” instead of the judges (i.e. the former winners). This tactic might have backfired, except that he stressed the importance of getting involved with the Papa Hemingway Scholarship Fund, which is given out every year to select Florida Keys students by the Hemingway Look-Alike Society. This endeared him to the powers that be, and he probably would’ve won even if he didn’t look exactly like Earnest Hemingway during the Eisenhower Administration.

I tried to get a direct shot of him, but he was a popular guy after winning. More than a few people broke in front of me to snap selfies and shake his hand. I’ll never understand those kinds of people… the ones who know you’ve been waiting for someone or something moderately important, the people with no real deadline, and yet they push in front of you as if the last food on the island was being rationed out, first come first serve. I imagine that they’re the kind of people who fatuously remark that “Good people finish last.” This turns out to be quite an ironic statement later, given that “good people” will indeed live longer than them, since they’re all rushing to their own deaths.

The winner of the 2014 Papa Hemingway Look-Alike Contest - Wally Collins of Phoenix, AZ.
The winner of the 2014 Papa Hemingway Look-Alike Contest – Wally Collins of Phoenix, AZ.

The contest went on forever, mostly because the two emcees were drawing out everything from the voting process to the trumped up marketing of “world famous Sloppy Joe’s,” which they repeated at least a dozen times while getting the crowd to scream for the video cameras and create a false sense of maniacal excitement. The truth was, everybody was really f*cking tired, not just me, and some people had waited all week to see the winner. Proof of this came when the winner was announced and over 100 people promptly filtered out the doors.

The day’s Hemingway events over, I finally felt peckish again. I even felt like having a little drink. Not beer… I couldn’t even think about beer… but perhaps a mojito or a margarita was in order. I grabbed my bike and peddled over to the waterfront again, where I had walked around earlier. Because the contest went on so long, I had missed the sunset (which the locals had told me the previous night that I should not miss). Still, a few beams lingered among the low clouds to the west, so I headed to Sunset Pier, basically a restaurant on a dock, to enjoy it. I ordered conch fritters (an island staple), ceviche, and a margarita. All of it was mediocre at best, but the conch fritter sauce was good and the view was spectacular.

Last rays of the day from Sunset Pier, Key West, FL
Last rays of the day from Sunset Pier, Key West, FL

I walked to the end of Sunset Pier because I saw some lightning. I love watching storms roll in, especially in Florida where you can watch it take place over the course of hours. This lightning was mostly cloud-to-cloud and pretty far off, but since I hadn’t noticed it earlier I knew it must be approaching the island. I hopped on my bike and made my way back home along Truman instead of Flagler, which I’d used coming in.

All the way home I was watching this storm. The lightning was getting brighter and stretching across more of the sky. As I pulled into the campsite, I could tell it was moving directly toward me. I decided, just to be on the safe side, I’d pack a lot of stuff into the car that night so that I wouldn’t have to put it in the tent with me. After that, I washed off the floor of my tent from the previous night’s destruction, went to lay down on the picnic table, and watched the weather roll in. Within just 20 minutes, lightning was striking the ground about a mile away and I could hear powerful bursts of thunder rumble across the bay. Things were picking up fast.

I decided to go ahead and get into the tent and sleep through the storm, but before I could do so a huge gust of wind came in and whipped the tent flap out of my hand. This gust came out of nowhere. The people to my left had just arrived that day and had not yet battened down their tarps. They were in for a real surprise when, a few seconds later, another gust brought rain with it, lifted up their tarp, and began blowing their things all over the place.

I could not see any of this, only hear it. By then I was safe inside my tent, or so I thought. Within less than a minute the rain was pounding against my tent, and the wind had risen to a howl. The wind increased in power very quickly, and became so powerful that for a solid 15 minutes it picked up the entire left side of my tent (which had my clothes, my backpack, and various other things weighing it down) and began blowing rain in through the mesh interior lining.

I had to use my hands to hold down the left side of the tent, all the while with lightning illuminating the air above me and thunder cracking what sounded like only a few yards away. I’d hiked in bad weather before, but this was intense. For a while I really thought I was going to have to abandon my tent and move to the car, knowing that at some point rain water was going to fill the bottom of my sleeping quarters.

The left side of the tent finally lowered back to the ground, and the rain fly with it. The wind switched sides but was not so powerful on the right to pick that side up, which was good since I had moved all available weight over to the left. I laid there flat on the ground, knowing that had all 165lbs of me not been in the tent, it would’ve blown away. Eventually, I was able to fall asleep, and the remaining weather was actually quite peaceful as it gusted its way back out to sea. I set my alarm for 5:30 so that I could catch the sunrise on my last day there.

 

Day 3, Part 1: Key West Sunrise & Atlantic Bath Before Breakfast

At 5:30 I woke up, drank what little remaining water I had (I killed 4 Nalgene’s the previous morning alone), and packed everything into my car. While packing up, I noticed that my Israeli friend and his buddy had never come back, and their campsite was in ruins following the storm. One tent was totally flattened, and the other rolled over on its side, no doubt with water all over the belongings inside since the rain fly had been yanked off its mooring and blown elsewhere. I considered setting it back up for them, but some people are really picky about touching their stuff.

My Islraeli neighbors' tents, blown over by the storm.
My Israeli neighbors’ tents, flat or blown over by the storm.

I made my way back to the main island, looking for a place on the east coast to watch the sun rise. I wanted to wade out and watch it from the water. It sounded romantic, but I also really needed a bath. Unfortunately, all the east beaches are more southward facing than eastward, so I had to drive back north and find a place on the boardwalk to prop against and watch it rise.

It was beautiful, and I decided that I like sunrises more than sunsets. I feel twice as productive when I do things before people are awake, even if it’s something as mundane as watching our sun show up on the opposite horizon to the one it disappeared behind last night.

Sunrise along South Roosevelt Blvd, Key West, FL
Sunrise along South Roosevelt Blvd, Key West, FL

Instead of going back to the beaches I tried earlier, I decided to go down to the Southernmost Beach in the United States and swim there. I had someone take my picture at the Southernmost Point landmark, which is debatably the most popular thing to do in Key West. After that, I pulled my car around the corner to Southernmost Beach, grabbed my towel, and headed into the water.

It was warm, and the sea grass had been blown into the shallows, but once I got to deeper water it was fantastic. You want to shuffle your feet in shallow water to let stingrays know you’re coming, otherwise you might step on one and get a sharp probe in your ankle. I didn’t see any stingrays, only arm-length fish enjoying the pre-crowd beach shallows.

After that refreshing dip, I headed back into town for breakfast. I had Yelped this place called Havana – Key West, a sort of Cuban fusion breakfast and brunch place that opens at 8am and closes by 3pm. I ordered their Cuban special breakfast, which was really just Cuban bread, eggs to order, Applewood smoked bacon, a piece of sausage, and some potatoes. While the eggs were pretty standard and the meats also predictable in taste/texture, those were the best damn breakfast potatoes I’ve ever had. I wandered around for a while afterward and then got in my car to drive home.

 

Day 3, Part 2: The Hemingway House & His Six-Toed Cats

It should shock you that I haven’t mentioned Earnest Hemingway’s house yet, since he is the reason I went to Key West in the first place and it’s a pretty popular attraction. What’s more shocking is that if I hadn’t driven by it after breakfast I would’ve forgotten about it and kicked myself later when I realized the missed opportunity.

God has a funny way of rewarding those people who probably don’t deserve it. If you don’t believe in God, just call it the Universe or something comparably infinite and powerful, because there’s significance in having missed several turns to lead me by the house, just as it was an accident that the Hemingways stayed in Key West in 1928 while waiting two weeks for a rental car.

I parked, paid the admission fee, and walked onto Hemingway’s property after two days of celebrating his life on the island. I was just in time for the first tour of the day, led by a docent there who was very knowledgeable of the grounds and its history. I took tons of pictures, but I won’t post them all because you really need to see this place for yourself. I also recommend that you take the first tour of the day on the last day of the Hemingway Festival, just as I did. It will help you better contextualize the sort of man he was.

I will, however, post a few pictures that I think will help illuminate Hemingway, as a person, particularly the person with whom I share a lot in common.

This is the "Wall of Wives," four in all, and each one a different expression of what Hemingway sought in a woman at a particular point in time. More often than not, his next wife was friends with his existing one, but this house belonged to only one: Pauline.
This is the “Wall of Wives,” four in all, and each one a different expression of what Hemingway sought in a woman at a particular point in time. More often than not, his next wife was friends with his existing one, but this house belonged to only one: Pauline (t-r)
This was Earnest and Pauline's bed, which was actually two twin beds that he manually lashed together into what might have been the first King Sized bed. No headboards were big enough for it, so he used the gate to an old Spanish monastery instead.
This was Earnest and Pauline’s bed, which was actually two twin beds that he manually lashed together into what might have been the first King Sized bed. No headboards were big enough for it, so he used the gate to an old Spanish monastery instead.
Hemingway was a renowned outdoorsman, and loved everything from fishing to boxing to big game hunting. This is a picture of him with a prize sailfish.
Hemingway was a renowned outdoorsman, and loved everything from fishing to boxing to big game hunting. This is a picture of him with a prize sailfish.
This is Hemingway in an Italian hospital bed during  WWI. He had been hit by numerous pieces of shrapnel whilst saving an Italian soldier at the front, where he worked as an ambulance driver. It was in this hospital where he fell in love for the first time, with his nurse, who was 7 years older than he. they planned to marry, but she broke up with him via a letter, something that many people think helped form his general distrust for women.
This is Hemingway in an Italian hospital bed during WWI. He had been hit by numerous pieces of shrapnel whilst saving an Italian soldier at the front, where he worked as an ambulance driver. It was in this hospital where he fell in love for the first time, with his nurse, who was 7 years older than he. they planned to marry, but she broke up with him via a letter, something that many people think helped form his general distrust for women.
This is a Spanish birthing chair, which is what he took to sit on at bull fights. This often caused a lot of confusion and/or amusement among strangers. He often did things to get a rise out of people and inspire character development and dialogue in his work, and shaking up his life in this way helped him manage his manic depression.
This is a Spanish birthing chair, which is what he took to sit on at bull fights. This often caused a lot of confusion and/or amusement among strangers. He often did things to get a rise out of people and inspire character development and dialogue in his work, and shaking up his life in this way helped him manage his manic depression.
This is the typewriter in his study where he produced 2/3 of his work. The study is on the top floor of a separate building from the house, and a staircase leads up from the outside.
This is the typewriter in his study where he produced 2/3 of his work. The study is on the top floor of a separate building from the house, and a staircase leads up from the outside.
The Hemingway House is known for its six toed cats (over 50 of them on the grounds), all of whom are descendants of the original six toed Hemingway cat, Snowball.
The Hemingway House is known for its six toed cats (over 50 of them on the grounds), all of whom are descendants of the original six toed Hemingway cat, Snowball. The pinned back ears are clearly a sign that they hate being photographed.
The block to the left is coral rock, a completely non-porous rock that an engineer used to build Hemingway's basement. To this day, it has remained as dry as the day it was built, even through rainy seasons and a few direct hit hurricanes that flooded most of the island. It is so dry, in fact, that Hemingway was able to build quite an extensive collection of wine, and cats retreat to it when the rains pick up.
The block to the left is coral rock, a completely non-porous rock that an engineer used to build Hemingway’s basement. To this day, it has remained as dry as the day it was built, even through rainy seasons and a few direct hit hurricanes that flooded most of the island. It is so dry, in fact, that Hemingway was able to build quite an extensive collection of wine, and cats retreat to it when the rains start.

I left the Hemingway House with a new understanding of the man. I had just spent a whole weekend celebrating his birthday, without ever having read a lot about the guy. I’d read some of his work, I knew about his manly, outdoorsy pursuits, and I knew that he was labeled a misogynist by most feminist English professors in the 70s and 80s (a common misinterpretation of his four marriages and unknown number of mistresses).

Still, it’s what I didn’t know that continues to define him most of all, namely that he suffered from chronic manic depression (i.e. bipolar disorder), and he knew that he did. He dealt with it by self-medicating, sometimes forcing himself deeper into an emotional hole and sometimes completing Nobel Prize works of literature. Manic depression is a veritable roller coaster of self-worth, with productive highs and diffident lows. I can certainly relate. The only reason you’re reading this is because a recent mania drew it out of me.

It was a fascinating weekend at Hemingway Days, and I recommend you check it out if you have any interest in the man, his work, or simply having a good time in his name.

After all, to paraphrase Hemingway himself: If you’re not having fun, what’s the point of living?

 

 

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