By Dan Haag
“I’m moving to the Florida Keys,” I said out of nowhere.
My roommate shrugged and turned up the volume on the television. “Leave me the rent,” he said.
Not quite 20, I was living in a dingy apartment whose furnishings leaned heavily towards cinder blocks and two-by-fours. The contents of the fridge was one beer, moldy bologna, and something in a Tupperware container that my mother had made for me at Christmas. It was February.
I had just been fired from my job at a local burger joint because I had a bad habit of not showing up for my shifts.
Outside, a particularly nasty Minnesota winter was in the offing and because I didn’t have a car, I would be walking to the St. Cloud State campus in the morning to take a calculus exam for which I hadn’t studied.
The final indignity was that my roommate had begun dating my ex-girlfriend, a situation that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.
All in all, I was miserable and desperate for a change.
Change came from a brochure for a Boy Scout camp pinned to a bulletin board at the student union office.
It promised a summer living and working in the Florida Keys and the images were enticing: snorkeling in crystal blue waters, warm sunshine, and not a blizzard in sight.
About a month later I was on my way.
The Florida Keys were unlike anything I had experienced to that point.
The camp was located on a section of Summerland Key, just off the legendary Seven Mile Bridge that connects the archipelago. It was surrounded by endless warm horizons, the perfect place for a wayward adolescent to find his way.
The brochure delivered on its promise; I taught snorkeling and sailing to kids from all around the country. There was plenty of beach volleyball, swimming, and fishing.
Days off were spent lounging on numerous beaches and frequenting local watering holes.
The brochure failed, however, to adequately describe the hordes of mosquitoes, rats, alligators and snakes that were a daily part of the experience. Still, adapt and adjust.
During my time in the Keys I made another life-altering decision: I was done with the Midwest and would move to the Oregon Coast after the summer.
I remember the exact moment of that decision: I was in Mallory Square in Key West for the nightly Sunset Celebration, a spectacle not unlike a farmer’s market only with fire-eaters, knife-throwers, and the occasional botched drug deal.
I met a girl from Oregon – Salem, I think – and she fervently talked up the Oregon Coast.
Just like that, I was sold. There was no ‘why’ involved. That’s just how easily decisions are made when you’re 19. A month later, I was living in Cannon Beach.
My time in the Keys has been on my mind recently for obvious reasons: Irma blew through and obliterated many of the places I’d frequented. A friend from that summer sent me a video link showing that the camp was intact, however.
Still, much of what I remember is simply gone or at the very least irrevocably altered.
I’ve found that the Florida Keys and the Oregon Coast are very much alike; long, narrow strips of geography brimming with artists, writers, dreamers, fishermen, dog-lovers, tree-huggers, and a sprinkling of folks running away from something.
Residents of both have an intense love/hate relationship with tourists: walk into any local bar on any of the Keys in August and you’ll find sunburned locals in flip-flops nursing a beer and grumbling about the traffic and praying for the off-season. Sound familiar?
Each place struggles mightily to retain its identity and “uniqueness” while pushing back against the steady march of over-development and gentrification.
Most significantly, both places are surrounded by an incredibly beautiful, incredibly fragile natural setting that lives under the constant specter of natural disaster.
I watched a news clip of a couple returning to their home on Cudjoe Key – next door to Summerland Key – and picking through what was left. I couldn’t help but wonder if that might be me someday.
My heart breaks for the Keys, but it’s a place with too much dedicated, beautiful strangeness imbedded in its DNA not to survive.