For anyone born north of Miami, “a Conch” does not refer to slow moving, “slug in a shell” creature that lives on the ocean floor. The term lovingly applies to the indigenous people of Key West — a magical little island at the tip of the Florida Keys. Key West claims to have seceded from the Union during the Civil War. Thus, locals still refer to Key West as an independent nation — “The Conch Republic.”
As a child growing up in Hawaii, our family took our vacations back to the mainland every other year courtesy of my dad’s job. Back then, when living “overseas,” the government paid for the entire family to go “home” every other year, back to the continental United States. Even though we were living Hawaii, we were required to pick one of the 48 states as a home base. Without missing a beat, my parents chose Key West, Florida. Even though Hawai’i is my heart, my soul and my culture, it was obvious to everyone on my home island that this little blonde haired, blue eyed girl was not from the South Pacific. I was often asked where I was from, and in a search for an answer, it was only logical for me to claim Key West… the only place I knew of on the mainland.
So, every other year of my childhood, during summer vacation, our family headed directly to the Florida Keys. We’d spend a month traveling up and down the bridges that connected the little islands between Key Largo and Key West. We’d buy smoked fish from the back of a beat up, old, pick-up truck along the side of the road and then stop and at a market to grab a couple of bags Fritos and six pack of Coca-cola. That combination, one of my Dad’s favorites, still bring me such fond memories that I can almost taste it as I write. We’d spend lazy days by the ocean, far from the stresses of my dad’s work and have quality family time as we all mastered the art of doing absolutely nothing.
While in the Keys, from time to time, we’d get asked where we were from. When we’d say, Hawai’i, no one would even question why we’d leave the glorious, island paradise we were blessed to call home, and spend a month in the Keys. They knew. You see, Key West is not only a place… it’s a state of mind. It’s a place where time stands still, where social status is a foreign concept and being fully and wholly present and in-the-moment overrides any deadline or minor crisis.
Today, over four decades later, when I take family and friends to the Keys for the first time, I tell them, “You’ll either get it or you won’t. There is no in-between,” I beg them to drop any preconceived expectation and see the Keys through my eyes. It’s not glamorous. It’s not pristine. And it’s nothing like my beloved Hawai’i. What it does have is a funky, artsy vibe, populated by unique, march-to-their-own-beat kind of people, interspersed with more than a few chickens running wild and a plethora of domestic cats with 6 toes who assume that your purpose for being there is to rub their tummy and give them scraps of fish.
Yes, there is no doubt about it, you either get it or you don’t. But like so many others who have ventured to this obscure little island, like Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Harry Truman and Jimmy Buffet… I “get it.” I get that there is something magical that happens as the sun begins to set in Key West. It’s a transformation of more than just the sights and sounds of Mallory Square or the hustle and bustle nightlife on Duval Street. When I’m there and the sun melts into the horizon, I love to close my eyes, feel the balmy Caribbean breeze, and smell the salty sun-drenched fragrance of the tropics. And it stirs within me memories that will last a lifetime. Memories of peace, tranquility and family time together surrounded by salty, aqua and azure blue water. Such memories will stay with me forever… all from a remarkable little island called Key West!
Oh yeah, this little island girl from the middle of the pacific, could have been born a conch. If you “get it” too, drop me a note in the comment section. I’d love to hear from wonderful, wacky women who also could have been born a conch like me.What do you love most about Key West? What is your favorite memory there?
Here’s a link to a fun piece I created years ago about Key West… if you haven’t seen it…you’ll either get it, or you won’t!