Do you know the story of the Conch Republic? It’s a great little yarn from the weird-ass ’80s — an odd moment in time when America’s renegade spirit collided with an overzealous government. It also tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Key West, Florida, where the whole saga went down.
The gist of the story is this: In 1982, concerned about drugs and immigration, an incredibly restrictive roadblock was set up on U.S. Route 1, linking the Florida Keys to Miami. The move proved catastrophic. It discouraged tourism and stymied locals. But more than that, it operated on a metaphorical level — offending the fiercely independent sensibilities of those living in the lower 48’s southernmost settlement.
In order to get the attention of the Federal Government, after written complaints went unanswered, mayor Dennis Wardlow and the Key West City Council decided to secede from the nation. They called themselves the “Conch Republic” and named Wardlow their Prime Minister. Sound ridiculous? The “Conchs” were just getting started. Next, they declared war on the U.S. (by breaking a loaf of Cuban bread over the head of an actor pretending to be a Navy officer), then surrendered to that same officer exactly one minute later. There were no casualties. Except the bread.
Ready for the kicker? The protest worked and the roadblocks were removed.
In 2016, that story — in which everyone was generally playful and a problem was solved in an oddball way — seems like a folk tale from a bygone era. And perhaps those days really are behind us. I don’t want to be in the business of talking wistfully about the past, considering that basic human rights around the country were in a much worse place. But that little slice of nostalgia does come naturally to mind as our brutal election cycle grinds to a finish. Especially since someone will surely be grumbling about secession come November 9th.
My girlfriend, Nikta, and I drove toward Key West with Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You” playing on the radio. We’d flown in from Southern California, partied for a night in Miami, eaten a 3am Cuban sandwich at some famous diner, crashed at a grungy hostel, and tucked into breakfast by 9am. All things considered, belting out Boyz II Men felt like a good omen.
More good omens arrived quickly on the heels of the first. After an hour of driving down the Keys, I needed a nap. A short night on a mattress covered in plastic was taking its toll. I hooked a turn off the main road, drove aimlessly for a few minutes, and found an abandoned lot right on the water. We probably only slept for about a half hour, but it was that special brand of high quality sleep where every minute counts for five — the sun was out but it wasn’t too hot, a light breeze played across the grass, we dangled our feet off the sea wall, and Nikta had her head on my chest. That’s power sleep, right there.
When we woke up, my first thought was, “Wouldn’t it be cool to see a manatee?” This was answered by the quiet voice of reason. Right before I’d left, a Floridian went out of her way to tell me, “Don’t get your hopes up about manatees, they’re more rare than you probably think.” And yet, seconds later, as if on cue, a gray-blue sea cow rose to the surface. It was grazing just a few feet from our spot. I knew, right then, it was going to be one of those special trips where everything seems to unfold like a movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.