Of sunsets and experiences

Sunday we drove to Key West, my first visit to the Florida Keys.

Perhaps I had a skewed view of things (a lot of what I know about things comes from books and movies), but we arrived in Key West in the late afternoon, and spent a little time walking around Old Town. A nice mix of historic and kitschy. Then we made our way over to Mallory Square, which was theoretically THE place from which to witness sunset. I was eager for this experience.

What I knew of sunset at Key West came from the 1986 Billy Crystal / Gregory Hines movies Running Scared. In the movie, they’re Chicago detectives, taking an unwanted vacation in Key West. Soon after arriving, they come upon a crowd of people, and ask a woman what’s going on. “We’re watching the sun set,” she says. “No, really. What’s going on? Did a ship sink?” ask the jaded city dwellers. “Seriously,” says the woman. “Doesn’t the sun set every day?” they ask. “Yes,” she says. “And every day, we come watch it.” As they spend some days on the island, they come to appreciate this experience with nature, just absorbing the sensation.

And that’s what I was expecting.

We got to Mallory Square, and… well… it wasn’t like in the movie. There were a piano player, a drummer, and three other musicians, all with amplifiers. There was a juggler, an acrobat, and a guy with a traveling cat circus, again, all with amplifiers. There were half a dozen food vendors, untold numbers of artists selling their wares… a huge crowd of buskers of one sort or another. And the non-sellers, non-performers? The crowd, even at the railing overlooking the water, boats, and sun, were chattering about favorite bars and alcoholic drinks, gossiping about mutual friends back home, talking sports and inanities… It felt to me as if they were all there in order to be able to say they’d seen the sun set in Key West, but it was just checking a box on a list.

I was horribly disappointed by the commercialism and the flippant way these people were there, not to be in the moment, but just because they’d heard it was a thing to do, but they couldn’t really imagine being alone with their thoughts. I was kind of depressed.

Monday, we took the train tour around town, and saw Harry Truman’s Little White House, and Ernest Hemingway’s house (and cats), and I climbed to the top of the light house for an overall view of Key West. It was good, touristy things, seeing and learning about things that interested me. A good day.

As the day was winding down, we made it to the “southernmost point buoy,” though I felt it might not be (since it seems to sit in the middle of a cove pointed south), and indeed, it isn’t actually at that point, but it’s good enough for the tourist trade.

Then we made traveled about half a mile west, to Higgs Beach (I wanted a chance to dip my toes in the water before we left). We got there about 15 minutes before sun set, and I saw the Higgs Beach Pier sticking out into the ocean maybe 400 feet (there’s a larger pier just west of it, but we wound up parking closer to the smaller one). I walked out the pier, passing 30 or 40 people, and joined the “crowd” of a dozen out at the end. They were sitting or standing, and a few had cameras, but there was no music, no minutiae, and as the sun got closer to the horizon, the only sounds I heard were the waves (though I did miss the sizzle as the sun touched the water). It was wonderful, just experiencing this moment, which comes every day, and yet is rarely seen. We were quiet as the sun dipped ever lower into the water, and then was gone. (No green flash, but I hope to see it some day.) And then the people around me quietly got up and walked in to the beach, not bothering those of us who stayed a bit longer. I was the last one off the pier. It was wonderful!

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed seeing Key West and learning about it, experiencing the fun and frivolity Sunday evening and Monday. It was all good. But I was disappointed that the peaceful experience wasn’t there, that it only existed in my memory of a movie. So I was absolutely thrilled to find that it does still exist, and we’d merely been in the wrong place. That “moment of zen” was what I needed, very satisfying. I don’t know that it’s enough to draw me back to Key West, but it was enough to let me leave feeling very good about Key West and our visit.

#keywest #greenflash #runningscared

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