There have always been places of pilgrimage. Typically these were sacred sights to some religion or other to which supplicants, sinners, and the OTs (Original Tourists) of various descriptions would make a journey to invoke some special spirit, recompense for a transgression, or otherwise better the soul.
In the sacred journey, there were trials and tribulations, dangers external or internal, self-imposed struggles and much contemplation. Rather than walking through a hundred miles of poopy-muddy bandit-infested roads, one crawled like a baby. Suffering was intended to cleanse the spirit, after all. Bleeding, stumbling, illness, and puking was part of the cathartic process.
In time, the pilgrimage expanded to include Humanist sites – places important to the Raceclassgender. Rather than to glorify g/G/o/_/d/d/ess/s it was to pay homage to an important battle such as the Seige of Sennacheribor, the Windham Frog War or honor a person or note such as the birthplace of Mary Baker Eddy, John Murray Spear’s workshop, or Wat Tyler’s barn.
As society changed, people started to include natural wonders both obvious and subtle and an expanded tradition of visiting and looting ancient civilizations invented long ago but perfected by the Mongols and British. People expanded to seeing mountains, fields, and went to waterfalls not to visit spirits or due to some battle such as the Wissantinnewag massacre, but because the physical place itself was the monument to creation sans strange statues of sacrifices.
In the world made modern, the idea of pilgrimage has been turned on its end. People visit anything and for any reason. Along with the above-aforementioned sites, people visit Tin foil balls, state lines, UFO crash sites, alligator farms, and, of course, establishments where serial killers and regular one-off murderers recreated. The one thread that remains, is the bleeding, stumbling, illness, and puking
There are many places for the Modern Pilgrim on what people now call the ‘bucket list’ of good places one must go. This bucket list may include the grand bas-relief of Stone Mountain or the star for Mr. Cosby on the Walk of Fame, the first Starbucks or Truckee Lake but generally, this means going places exclusively to binge and channel your inner Roman. Think Spring Break more than Tevi Fountain.
Of these places, there are many where the intentionality is not so much the location but the imbibement of spirits. These are places for drinking and debauchery as the focal activity, the primary reason for travel. The eternal Porky’s Revenge frat party, and endless VH1 Spring Break, a seventy-two-hour Bridesmaids movie minus the clever comedy of a Whatshername or talent of Whosherface. The drinking and festivals drive an otherwise floundering economy.
These places are many, but the best-known party-cum-pilgrimage sites include the Vegas Strip, Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and of course Duval Street in Key West. Key West is a dot of land measuring four miles by two miles that are accessed by the overseas highway, a ferry, or rather expensive direct flights. There are magnificent aspects of the natural world among all the Keys both aquatic and terrestrial. The sunsets are magnificent and uninhibited by obstructions other than the occasional storm. The weather is more-or-less temperate with only the summer heat peaking during the day between August and September but the Trade Wind maintains a level of comfort, and of course, the water is in all directions which can cool one on a hot day.
Along with Duval Street, the other attraction is a large cement buoy on the southerly end of the island to mark the southernmost spot of the continental United States. If you want to drunkenly get a selfie at this location, wake up early or stay awake all night since otherwise, one has to wait on an often long line. True to the spirit of Roadside America in Florida, this attraction does not actually mark the southernmost position since that is taken up by a radar installation operated by the military-industrial complex and is otherwise off limits to the civilian population. There are, but seven-point twenty-four square miles upon which to rage, booze, or otherwise wake up with a face tattoo and a monkey. By comparison, New York’s Manhattan Island is twenty-two point eighty-two square miles. This leaves a few locations to visit and tends to funnel the crowd into but a few locations.
Duval Street runs from one ocean to the other, depending on your personal definition of ‘ocean.’ You can go to the Banana Republic, Wendy’s, CVS, and tossed in are a few strange art stores, tee shirt shoppes, and eateries and drinkeries of a home-spun nature. The sun is strong in Key West. The days all start the same. The buses pick up visitors for various activities, the Life is Too Short Bus comes by with other excursion vans following about nine, and by ten AM the hotels disgorge their clients. While some are picked up for various activities preplanned the days or weeks prior to their visit, others start drinking those morning drinks typically associated with brunch because drinking with breakfast sounded too sad so people had to come up with an entirely new meal and then pin alcoholism on it.
The bars on Duval Street close late and open early. Bimadee-bimadee-bop-bop goes the music from some. The live bands won’t start for a while. Musicians typically stay up far too late. As long as you do not have a glass container, you can carry your drink or get it “to go” which in most other areas is a crime punishable by a moderate fine. There are fewer obviously homeless people who differ greatly from places like Bourbon Street (and New Orleans in general) so the morning crowds are not hassled. The stumbling out-of-shape middle age men and women with clear signs of sun poisoning shuffling from rude tee shirt shop to overpriced bar and grill where the room smells like vomit and Jagermeister clutching onto some plastic souvenir cup going ‘ohmaigawdwecandrinkinpublic.’
This restriction in entry encourages visitors to feel more exclusive special than their Bourbon Street alcoholic compatriots. This then requires that many people don’t visit until they are in a comfortable financial position, which tends for many to come late in life. The golden years is when one may buy a Harley Davison, a sailboat, a convertible, or all three and finally make that trip to the Keys. While it may cost more get to Key West, this does not mean that the visiting class comes from a more rarefied class of people. Typically, they are the same sort of person as one may come upon in Lake George, Ashbury Park, or sundry other areas of similar genera. Sunburnt, older, more flab than fab out number the quick and those younger folks are often haggard beyond their years due to ultraviolet light and personal vices. One local told me that years ago the visitor was younger and that gay culture thrived. People were more naked. A lot more drugs and sex in public. Today, this has been cleaned up. People generally behave, and like the New Orleans police, you will be beaten to death by the police if you decide to revive that old spirit of 1969. While older, these clients of the street enjoy reliving their youth and while not partying until they puke, they make up a good percentage in any bar. Residents may be of a similar age but are easy to distinguish from visiting older people. Whether Freshwater or True Conchs locals tend to be crispier, more soaked in rum, and don’t wear the clothes that one sees for sale on Duval Street.
By noon come the groups of women with penis balloon hats celebrating an up-coming union of one of their party to some male who is currently in abstentia. A bartender, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed these groups were the worst. Each group wanted to misbehave to a degree, as he put it, “as if never done by women before” proving once and for all that women could be equal and perhaps greater asshats as men and their asshatery far more common than each group believes. As soon as the penis balloon hat group floated out the door, the tips vanishing over the threshold, the dick trucker hat dick candy neckless group came in and again the caterwauling and gnashing of privates resumed using the same material as the previous group as if this bar were the worst improve stage in the world. “OHMYGAWDTINAIAMSOWASTED,” one of them ejaculated holding high a two-foot long plastic beverage container that at the right angle, also looked like a dick. The ringleader proudly waved her dickish glass in the air as if she were Penny Arcade or Katie Caster Plaster, and exclaimed ‘whoooooooo.’
In other bars, there are other interesting parties representing various trends found in Key West. There are the groups of shirtless men with nipple rings. The funny vacation shirt groups. One of the group has a shirt that exclaims “Let’s Get Weird.” This shirt is typically bought in another beach location, often Fort Lauderdale, but also is found in Key West. There are the Guys-Who-Last-Night-Were Totally-Going-Deep-Sea-Fishing-But-Slept-In groups. These are generally sadder groups than the others. For one thing, they missed out on fishing. To round out there are indeed other groups upon which the commonality are that they are professionals when it comes to partying. They know how to do so for hours on end and are up surprisingly early despite how late everyone crashed. There are more than groups, of course, but these clusters dominate the promenade for much of the day.
It is a strange aspect of American culture that people travel and at great cost to get schwasted in a foreign location. So much of the tourism of certain areas is focused on the drinking life, the lookitme, I am drinking for breakfast, vacation. The locals oblige with as many, and there are many establishments set up all over the Key and up and down Duval. Places like Key West thrive on this as the cornerstone of their economic life. Were it not the endless parade of frat parties, debauched girl’s night outs, or this or that festival, the key would perhaps sink back into the ocean or the local Conks have to return to breaking, that is, luring ship to their demise and then selling the contents.
Prior to the rebuilding of the Overseas Highway (the A1) in the 1980s, the Keys and particularly Key West was nothing but a sleepy string of vacation properties closed down for most months of the year, salty fishing marinas, and a few Boy Scout camps. The long thin ribbon of a highway kept many away and the wealth that had once bloomed in Key West was but a memory. Some older residents claim that Key West was a rusty and rotten collection of buildings outside of a few well-kept areas and an expensive hotel or two, and like many Islands cum Keys, lost population as younger people moved to the mainland for better opportunities. Today the ritual existence of cleaning up after tourists perhaps is best summed up by a casual exchange between two old Conks. How’s it going? Like every day in paradise… exactly the same shit but on a different day. Penis ballons floated mysteriously down the street in complete silence, save for the roosters calling out the start of yet another day.
We visit a great many good places, but those we chuck up in, are often forever part of our own narrative and held sacred as they are by so many others.