It’s not easy to get from Aspen to Key West. Granted, it’s actually not easy to get to Key West from just about anywhere. The southernmost community in the continental United States is closer to Havana than it is to any major U.S. city, unless you consider Big Pine Key major.
After 24 years, the return to this subtropical colony reminds me of what changes and what stays the same. Since my last visit, cruise ships now frequent the harbor, tying up next to the Westin, which also wasn’t here in 1988. Conversely, the same guy still does the sunset festival high wire act, and the same flamboyant Frenchman’s trained cats still jump through hoops and perform other tricks to the bemusement of passersby. Both older and substantially grayer, both serving testament to constancy, even while surrounded by the transient nature of the self-proclaimed Conch Republic.
Hunter Thompson may have run for mayor of Aspen and lost, but back in 1989 Key West elected “Captain” Tony Tarracino to its highest office. Tony’s epitaph on the wall of his namesake tavern reads:
“All you need in this life is a tremendous sex drive and a great ego. ... Brains don’t mean shit.”
Captain Tony had four wives and 13 children, the last of which he fathered at the age of 70. The mock gravestone to his legacy, also on the wall of his former tavern, gives testament to his virility, stating simply, “He came.”
He won once, in his fourth election bid, and by only 32 votes. But when he lost his re-election try in 1991, it was to Dennis Wardlow, a previous mayor and local celebrity is his own right, ceremonially known as the Prime Minister of the 1982 “Conch Rebellion” movement that included a 60-second declaration of secession from the United States in response to a Border Patrol Roadblock, followed promptly by surrender and an immediate request for $1 billion in foreign aid from the federal government.
A community’s leaders often serve as indicators of its sense of place and understanding of its mission: In Key West’s case that mission, at least outwardly, is simple: irrationally exuberant raucousness. It is a place that understands the importance of not taking itself too seriously, and of accepting those things that change even while holding onto the past. While I can only imagine the tenor of those City Council meetings when they debated allowing cruise ships to dock at Mallory Square, today the ships alight and the community benefits. Meanwhile after years of consideration Aspen’s Lift 1A remains one of the most underutilized assets in the American ski industry; so much for leaders understanding their community’s sense of place.
Modern Aspen’s purpose began simply but has — at least inwardly — become more complicated. Raucousness had, and has, its place, but more as a nod to its wild-west ski town legacy than its current function. Today it’s more subdued, almost hidden, and that’s probably a good thing. Over the past several decades the escalation of civilized concerns — a music festival, an international institute, a compelling interest in impacting worldly matters, and a new generation of young families — has tempered Aspen’s appetite for the unrelenting excesses that continue to define Key West.
While Key West revels in its excesses, and apparently couldn’t cares less about what anyone thinks of it, Aspen sees itself differently. As the local deli owner confided in me at a Duval Street pub last Saturday night, “I like living in Key West. Aspen is just too uppity.”
Uppity? I don’t think Aspen sees itself as uppity. When you spend much of your time in simple places, lots of things can seem uppity I suppose. Simplicity has its place, but so does deliberation. Of course deliberating serious issues requires serious people, and such exercises are not infrequently interrupted in Aspen by the escapades of metaphorical bomb tossers and — less frequently — literal egg hurlers who would just as soon declare victory through simple minded means as consider risking the complication of an alternative perspective, or once considered and declined, peaceably permit its practice.
Such an environment drives some underground. Among those willing to speak out some prefer to risk illegalities through anonymity than endure retribution for daring disclosure as the alternative viewpoint. A wrong provoked by a wrong. Suddenly deliberation’s appeal diminishes and “uppity” resonates more clearly. Perhaps this is what happens when those originally seeking simplicity by moving to a small idyllic mountain town try on the metaphorical garments of deliberation and find themselves wanting for the patience and openness they only imagined was indelibly etched in their elusively uncomplicated gestalt.
At the core rests the ideal that individuals be free to articulate their differences without fear of metaphorical bombs, literal eggs, or more permanently scarring retribution. An ideal perhaps best catalyzed by communities with simple missions.
Email Paul at Pmenter98388@gmail.com.