"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." - Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
I read Hemingway in college. That was a few years ago. My husband has a degree in engineering. He sorta knew there was a writer by that name. Since we were headed to Key West, Ernest Hemingway’s old stomping grounds, I insisted we load The Old Man and the Sea onto our e-reader. I read during the long drive from Orlando to Key West.
We stopped at a convenience store when we reached Key West to put gas in the rental car. A scary looking biker dude lounged outside. I tiptoed past him to use the facilities. On my trip out, my dread of an encounter with the biker evaporated with my sighting of a rooster. I ran down the steps and started snapping pictures. I may have squealed with delight. I felt obligated to explain.
“I had a pet rooster when I was a kid.”
The biker smiled, totally blowing his mean, scary biker facade. “I like roosters, too.”
My husband walked down the steps and interrupted our chicken admiration fest. “I like them fried.”
The biker’s whiskers bristled in alarm. His eyes may have teared up. “You can’t eat those chickens. They’re protected on Key West.”
No, really. Explore Key West History – chickens: http://bit.ly/MRysLn
And that was our introduction to quirky Key West.
I finished The Old Man and the Sea as we drove into Key West.
My husband asked, “That’s it?”
I assured him the story was finished, and asked what he thought.
“Hmm. There’s no ending.”
“It’s literary fiction,” I told him.
His face had the same blank expression I’m sure mine must have when he explains some exotic engineering concept to me.
Thanks to our GPS, we found the Hemingway Home and Museum with no problems. Parking was another matter. We didn’t mind the walk down the narrow streets. There was something interesting to see at every turn, including a roadside coconut stand, more chickens and antique cars.
"After that he began to dream of the long yellow beach and he saw the first of the lions come down onto it in the early dark and then the other lions came and he rested his chin on the wood of the bows where the ship lay anchored with the evening off-shore breeze and he waited to see if there would be more lions and he was happy." - Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
You can’t miss Hemingway Home. At a little booth in front of the steps, a woman collected a modest entry fee. I opted for the tour.
“Your sister would like it here,” was my husband’s first comment.
My younger sister does have a fondness for cats. While we waited for the tour to begin, I snapped photos of the famous poly-dactyl felines to show her. Please note the signs on the furniture. Tourists and writers making the pilgrimage to the famous author’s former home may not sit on the antiques. Cats, on the other hand, have the run of the place.
Our tour guide gathered us together and led us through the house, room by room. He did an admirable job, starting with the history of the house and its original owner, who made his fortune salvaging goods from shipwrecks. Then we learned about Hemingway’s life - his four wives, his adventures and travels, his career as a war correspondent and author. His reputation for being a hard-drinking womanizer.
The moment I had been waiting for finally arrived. Our guide encouraged us to go one or two at a time up some questionable metal steps to peek into the second floor writing loft. Hemingway had converted the top of an old carriage house next to the main house for his writing "office." A tiny plexiglass alcove allowed us to see inside the room. I lingered as long as I could.
I told my husband I could become a rich and famous writer if I had a loft to write in like Hemingway’s. He mumbled something about his allergies and too many cats, and hunted down a bench in the luxurious tropical garden. One not occupied by a cat.
Yes, everywhere, the cats.
Our guide explained that Hemingway received the original cat as a gift from a sea captain. Six-toed cats supposedly brought good luck, and Hemingway was superstitious. He encouraged poly-dactyl cats to populate his home. They never left, even after he moved on to Cuba and a new wife.
My husband observed that Hemingway wrote stories based on his life experiences. He didn’t make anything up. Yes, I countered, but it was the way he wrote about those experiences that ensured his place in American literature.
What is it about Ernest Hemingway that draws so many people to his home? As I watched the next tour group going the rounds, I wondered how many had actually read Hemingway. Or even seen the movies based on his stories. Do they come out of admiration for a literary figure? Because it’s one of the obligatory Key West tour stops? To see the cats?
Visiting the Hemingway Home and Museum was most likely a once in a lifetime experience. I wandered around the grounds for a few more minutes, trying to store up enough of the tropical atmosphere to get me through the rest of the Colorado winter. I mused about the writing life.
The tour guide told us that Hemingway was a dedicated writer, “going to work” every morning at seven and working until noon or later. As writers, it’s not his lifestyle we should imitate, or his tragic, self-inflicted death we should remember. Whatever his human failings, he was serious about his craft. That’s the impression I took away from visiting Hemingway Home. Dedication, hard work, and love for the art and craft of writing. Those are worthy attributes to emulate.
And the cats are adorable, too.
(To read our top ten best Florida moments, see my January 28 post.)
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