|Jan/Feb 2009 Travel|
I had the traveler's itch, that gnawing need to breakaway from the routine and hit the road; to escape, even if briefly, from the same old, same old and have an adventure. The summer's heat was upon South Florida, and my first choice was to head north, towards the mountains. Time and expense being what they were, we planned a family trip to Key West. From Miami, it's a short drive, one of the great American road trips, stunningly beautiful, crossing islands than bridge, seemingly more bridge than land, going further and further south, knowing that you will eventually reach an end. That is one of its satisfactions, that feeling of reaching an end. To know there is no more to go, that this is it.
Key West exudes charm, house after house—Victorians, Bahamian Style, grand houses and simple houses—set amidst tropical foliage, all thoughtfully preserved from the old shipping days. On counterpoint to the charm but with its own attractions, lies the honky-tonk of Duval Street, packed with throngs of revelers and drinkers.
Key West attracts those who wish to drink, and those who wish to write, for in the oppressive heat and confines of island living, one needs to keep the mind nourished and the thirst quenched. That duality of pursuits was mastered by Ernest Hemingway whose home on Whitehead Street was just around the corner from our guest house. Like many, I eagerly read Hemingway as a child, and again as an adult. Till now, I skipped the visit to his home fearing a shallow, touristy experience devoid of adventure. In my travels, adventure was usually found where the tourists were not.
That first morning, we left the guest house and ventured out towards Hemingway's Home. The Hemingway Home was filled with people; naturally there were many Americans, but others travelled great distances; the British, the French, the Germans; they came to see his home, to get to know the man behind the writings. Hemingway lived an international life, he was a man of the world; so it was not surprising that Europeans had such an interest, but The Hemingway Home is more than a traveler's destination, it is a pilgrimage site. In a way, all travelers are pilgrims, seeking truth, to add meaning to their lives. In that way, unknowingly, I too had made a pilgrimage, to a place at the end.
After entering the gates of Hemingway's Home, we explored the kitchen, his bedroom, a bathroom, all of his private living spaces. It was, however, the writing loft that was, unmistakably, the most intimate. Anyone could freely wander through the bedroom or library; the bathroom and kitchen were closed off by a simple rope; but the writing loft was treated differently. One could not enter, it was forbidden. Visitors could only look through a security gate; a respectful distance had been established. It was only possible for two people to even stand at the top of the stairs and peer through the gate, so each visitor had an opportunity to have a private encounter with the intimate Hemingway. It was my turn. Peering through the gate, commanding the center of the room, there sat a wooden table with a black typewriter, to the left of the typewriter, a pen and book, to the right, a tray of writing paper and above the typewriter, a ceramic cat. On the walls were paintings, books and hunting trophies. The table was arranged as an altar; the room appeared as a shrine. This is the place Hemingway delved into the depths of the human condition; a laboratory of thought; the place he wrote Snows of Kilimanjaro and For Whom the Bell Tolls. There I stood, with Hemingway. I stared at the antelope head mounted on the wall and thought back to The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Beneath the antelope was a small black bull and it brought to mind Death in the Afternoon. Standing there, I thought of my early years, the adventures and the rebelliousness. There was a part of me in that room. I thought of my college friends and our road trip to Key West. I thought of my travels to Europe, watching the bullfights in Barcelona, witnessing the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, and lounging in cafes nestled on small alleys in Paris. I thought back to my studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, the passionate conversations with friends sipping cappuccinos in North Beach while discussing writers and art. I remember testing myself, by walking alone at night through a filthy, putrid back alley in Calcutta, a dark and dank unknown, filled with ragged beggars and the desperately poor, just to confront my fears. I thought of all the times we connected, Hemingway and I; the adventurous Hemingway and the youthful me; the ways in which his writing influenced my quest for adventure and assumption of danger; my views of manhood and bohemian lifestyle.
Besides the house and its visitors were the cats—lounging cats, sunning cats, purring cats and drinking cats—cats of varying colors and breeds, many of which were the famed six- toed cats, descendants of the original Hemingway cats. Hemingway lived life in a big way. Travels to exotic locales, war correspondent, soldier, big game hunter and fisherman, numerous lovers and wives, were all part of his life and times. Brutality and death, whether between man and man, or man and beast, were integral to his life and writing.
As we strolled through the gardens, we came to the Cat Fountain. The story told, is that Hemingway placed a watering line, which filled a large Spanish Olive Jar exported from Cuba, which in turn overflowed into a trough-shaped urinal from Sloppy Joes Bar, providing his cats a cool, fresh drink of water. There we stood on a hot summer day in Key West. A grey tabby sauntered up and took a drink of water, oblivious to our watchful eyes. In the grey light of early morning, a larger cat, a lion, unafraid, went down the riverbank for a drink of water, oblivious to watchful eyes. In a place at the end, over bridges, land and sea; past charming homes and honky-tonk; of histories remembered and those forgotten; of stories read and a life lived; of years upon years and life's simple moments; there I stood and watched a cat have its drink.
Beyond Hemingway's literary legacy, a four-footed, living legacy exists in Key West. Forty seven years after his death, cats descended from cats, descended from cats, back to the original Hemingway cats, can still get a cool drink of water in the sun scorched humidity of Key West. Year after year, the water cascades over rocks, from the beautifully stained and aged olive jar, as the cats lap their drink. Set out before me, an artful blend of aged pottery, flowing water, tropical foliage and moving cats, form a beautiful image with live choreography. The cats lounge, they drink and they live on. Hemingway had his great adventures, and I had mine. Standing across from the Cat Fountain, there were no bullfights, nor struggles between life and death. Instead of the lion's roar, there was the delicate meow of a cat. In the heat of the day, a cat quenched her thirst, a simple act of love, from Hemingway.