2000s Archive

Counting Sheep

Originally Published May 2003
Brake before you hit Key West. Enter a tragicomic realm of outlaws and rumrunners, pink flamingos and yellow limes that drop off trees into the palm of your hand. These are the other Keys—languid, laid-back, full of light and salt air.

Few lines are as clear as the line between life and death when “breaking” a stone crab. Pull a live stone crab from a trap off Marathon, as I am hoping to do in a minute, and the only part of the crab that can be harvested are the claws. To be specific, one is allowed to break off any claw—the crusher and/or the cutter—as long as the business end measures at least two and three-quarter inches in length. The crab itself is then tossed back in the water and commences the process of regenerating its appendages.

“It takes around three years for them to regrow legal claws,” says my host, Butch Hewlett, a second-generation fisherman and a native of Marathon, which is two thirds of the way down the serpentine string of coral limestone islands that drip off the southern coast of Florida like a coccyx.

But there is a catch.

The best way to harvest the claws, he says, is to grab the crab with two hands and bend the claws toward each other until they break off. If you do this at the “shoulder” joint, a small diaphragm slides over the hole so the crab doesn’t bleed to death. If you snap off a shoulder socket with the claw, however, the crab dies.

“In the old days, we used to break the crabs on the way back to shore. Now, I got a crew of three who can do it right away, out on the water. We’ve nearly doubled our performance rate.”

He slows the boat down as we arrive at the first traps, a few dozen miles offshore. “Let’s see if you qualify to be a part of my new crew,” he says, as he reaches over, grabs the buoy, and begins to pull in the trap.

To hear the guidebooks tell it, the Keys are the last bastion of paradise in the continental United States, an idyllic Eden of sandy beaches and emerald isles, a necklace of romantic sunsets and majestic bridges that transport visitors to shimmering heights of escape. “Ours is a land of dreamers, doers, and do-si-doers,” writes one breathless tour guide, “of train makers, treasure trovers, and time-honored tranquillity.”

Has she been on U.S. 1?

This is what the Keys are and this is what they aren’t: The Keys are a chain of nearly 800 mangrove-wrapped islands that stretch south by southwest off the tip of Florida in the direction of Cuba. They have virtually no beaches. Only 46 of the Keys (the word key is believed to derive from the older English word cay, which in turn derives from the Spanish word cayo, or “island”) are inhabited, and they are connected to one another by 43 bridges. These bridges form the backbone of one of the more impressive engineering feats of the early 20th century, which has become one of the more egregious tourist monstrosities of the early 21st century: U.S. Highway 1, also known as the Overseas Highway.

For hundreds of years, the Keys were an anomaly—closer in personality to Cuba than to the U.S. In the Civil War, for instance, Navy-dependent Key West never sided with the Confederacy. By 1890, it was a thriving community of 18,000 (the largest in Florida), made up of cigarmakers, pineapple farmers, and outlaws making a living by looting wrecked vessels. But it was still isolated, until Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler hatched a preposterous plan to stretch a railroad 128 miles from Miami to Key West, over solid rock islands, open waterways, and mosquito-infested flats.

“Flagler’s Folly” commenced operating on January 22, 1912, and brought with it increased trade but few tourists. Bugs were too plentiful, freshwater too scarce. And then, on Labor Day 1935, a hurricane blew the entire railroad away.

It was never rebuilt, though its foundation became the basis for the Overseas Highway, in 1938. Today, that highway is the only direct thoroughfare between Miami and Key West. U.S. 1 is so vital that all addresses in the Keys are referred to by Mile Marker, as in MM 26, Oceanside, or MM 97.5, Bayside. Until recently, even mail was delivered this way.

These days, U.S. 1 is a virtual 100-mile traffic jam that gives drivers time to marvel at the endless line of pink flamingo motels, sand-dollar bazaars, and tiki-carving stands. The Keys were once home to the Millionaires Club, but things have changed. When I stopped at a gift shop in front of the historic Seven Mile Bridge, I was overwhelmed by the array of plastic pelican toilet seats and talking Key lime flashlights. “Is there a giant knickknack factory someplace where all this comes from?” I asked the attendant.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s called China.”

The unending parade of look-alike kitsch actually masks a quiet revolution in the life of the Keys. During most of the last century, Key West was the only incorporated municipality on the Keys, which gave it a lock on all tax dollars. Key West viewed the Upper and Middle Keys as mere funnels and discouraged even stoplights that might slow people from arriving at land’s end. But the other Keys have been fighting back, incorporating themselves, husbanding tax dollars for road beautification, and—gasp—installing stoplights. Today, for the first time in Keys history, the Upper and Middle Keys together boast more residents than Key West—a total of two thirds of the 80,000 people who live permanently on the islands.

So how are these other Keys different? For a start, they are less about debauchery and crowded cruise-ship nightclubs, and more about a small-town pace. Outside of a few dolphin shows and Hollywood’s African Queen incongruously docked on Key Largo (the connection seems to be Humphrey Bogart), there is little of interest in the Upper and Middle Keys.

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