My Key West love story started in my teens.
My dad had already caught island fever in his youthful travels with the roving band of hillbilly gypsies that was the Williams family clan.
All growing up, I heard legendary tales of Papaw’s big baby blue and white tank of a 1960s RV barreling down the highway with Mamaw and kids: Lonnie, Charlie, Larry, Kim (my dad), Mary Ellen, Herschel, Dwight, and Linda in tow.
They “drove through fog and wildfire smoke as thick as soup in Florida,” Dad recounted of one family adventure, “inching along to keep from hitting the car in front of them.”
I was more than thrilled to experience my first taste of this mythical land surrounding the Southernmost point.
What allured my dad to the place was in no small part due to a favorite author of his, Hemingway.
A songwriter who rose like a phoenix from the ashes of a 1974 industrial fire that left him permanently disfigured and disabled, to world acclaim writing songs for Garth Brooks and a cadre of 1990s country superstars, my dad was my undisputed hero.
When he got excited about something, he went whole hog and swept up everyone around him in a dizzying flurry of contagious enthusiasm and childlike delight.
Always loving a long wind-up, dad got Mom and me ready for the trip by reading and assigning us books from Hemingway’s catalog.
My selection was “The Old Man and the Sea” which my teenage self found a little boring, a fact which Dad found hilarious.
When we finally got to Key Largo on the epic drive from Nashville to Key West, Dad entertained us singing the refrain “we had it all… just like Bogie and Becall…” by Bertie Higgins.
Dad would later write what some say is his legacy song, Randy Travis’ “Three Wooden Crosses” with Doug Johnson who was the young engineer on that track “Key Largo.”
The first remarkable thing I remember about the Keys was driving on those two-lane road bridges over miles and miles of ocean.
“This,” I thought, “is how traveling to the beach should be.”
The sun and expansive blue and green of sky and sea intermingling with all those excited ions energized me to the core of my 16-year-old soul.
And maybe that’s the part of me that still awakens every time I step into the sights and vibrations of Key West city and its neighbor islands in the sea.
Headquartered on Key West by the ocean at a resort, I had an idyllic mix of alone time and family time with my delightful parents including visits to Hemingway House, Sloppy Joe’s Bar (because of Hemingway even though Dad was a T-totaler at that time) and the Butterfly Conservancy.
Dad was adamantly against motorcycles, having spent all those years in burn units alongside mainly motorcycle wreck victims and not fire burns like his.
But for some reason he was a-ok and even encouraging about us renting mopeds and scooting around the island.
My fearless 16-year-old self was into it, sporting a leather top, jeans, 10 gallons of sunscreen and a helmet like a real biker chick would do, I thought.
I scooted all around the island enjoying the sandy beach one afternoon, seeking out the coffee shop poetry scene, which I found rich with people watching, along with my first experience of Cuban market cuisine, roosters and extra toed pussycats running wild in the streets.
Oh, the freedom riding around Key West at that age and time 1993.
I fell in love then with the island, and came to understand in my soul how a magical little ocean town can find its way into the hearts of generations of creative writers like my dad Kim Williams, godfather of 90s country songwriting with legacy songs like:
· “Ain’t Goin’ Down Til the Sun Comes Up,”
· “Papa Loved Mama,”
· “Cold Shoulder, and “New Way to Fly,” for Garth Brooks
· “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” for Reba McEntire,
· “Haunted Heart” Sammy Kershaw,
· “Blue Angel” Aaron Tippin
· “Goodnight Sweetheart” David Kersh
… and the list goes on.
My other favorite childhood writer that Dad turned me on to had a home and a strong character presence in Key West, Shel Silverstein, author of “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “Light in the Attic,” classic children’s poetry books who captured the imagination of a generation of latch key kids and lonely only children, the X-generation.
(Why did they label us that? I don’t know… seems kind of pessimistic?)
Lost as a teen in the wild and wooly streets of Key West, I spend a day or two by myself roaming.
One afternoon, trucking through the manicured garden labyrinth at the resort, I literally ran smack into a friend from high school. We were both here from Nashville in Key West at the same resort at the same time.
Oh, how those Music City word of mouth circles spread news of the fine destination spots.
It was glorious to find a friend and roaming companion, and we took to walking instead of riding around.
It was a good thing too, because as red heads and heat would have it, I nearly fainted in an overly warm t-shirt shop and my friend rescued me to the cantina across the street where I was revived with soda pop, chips, and salsa.
I think that friend turned out to be a doctor.
Anyway, Key West is a place of adventure and kismet.
Things work out as they shall in their own sweet time and way.
There’s no place else like it.
Every corner is a story book - every stranger, a character sketch in a one-man play.
The ghosts that haunt the streets of Key West are the historic kind, adventurous and richly veiled in intrigue, mystery and dripping in pirate booty.
And the real treasure is the people – a loving, world-wise, and creative lot, full of galleries and bookstore owners, philanthropists, artists, jesters and lovesick fools like me, the tourists who must turn around and go home after our vacation in paradise is through.
I don’t know about you, but I simply can’t wait to see Key West in November, when temperatures are still warm enough to bask in the sun but cool enough to breathe.
I’ll be performing my one woman show, A Story of Love through music and poetry at The Key West Theater on Eaton Street, right down the block from Duvall and all its world class cabarets.
Come vacation with us starting November 11 at Key West Theater and stretching into the following week at Hog’s Breath Saloon.
We’ll see you at the Southernmost City in the Continental United States, Key West, Florida.