Brenda Heist wanted to run away from life. Naturally, she went to Key West.
The first time I was down there, I saw a highway sign that, for me, perfectly captured the meaning of that place. North, it said, with an arrow pointing the way.
No South, you understand. Just the one option: North. Not that I didn't know where I was before I saw that, but it struck me as a visceral manifestation of what the little island represents. As the southernmost dot of inhabited land in the continental United States, it is the nation's designated refuge for troubled or nonconformist souls. You end up there because running any farther (by land, at least) is a geographic impossibility. It is, literally, the end of the road.
So the news that Heist, the central Pennsylvania mother who disappeared 11 years ago, fled there, feels almost too on the nose. Of course she went to Key West. Of course she did.
Heist's odd odyssey began in 2002 in the little town of Lititz. She was going through a divorce and had just been turned down for housing assistance when three strangers found her crying in a park and invited her to hitchhike with them. She said yes.
And with that, she disappeared, leaving behind a husband and two children, until last week when she walked into the sheriff's office in Key Largo and told deputies she was a missing person. The 11 years in between are a confusing pastiche of aliases, petty crime, panhandling, trailer parks, common law marriage, sleeping under bridges and even working as a housekeeper. It unfolded up and down the Florida peninsula, but largely on that half-mythic island at the bottom.
You can read the cost of Heist's journey by gazing on the before and after pictures, the former showing a middle age mom wearing lipstick and a posed smile and the latter showing a gaunt, hollow-eyed wraith with stringy blond hair and no eyebrows. It requires an effort of will to realize that they are the same woman.
But the cost of Heist's escape is not just seen on her face. It is also seen in the ruins of her relationships.
Ex-husband, Lee, who lived a while under suspicion of murdering her and who may be tapped to repay the reported $100,000 payout on her life insurance policy (she was legally declared dead a few years back), has said he sees no purpose in talking with her. Her now adult daughter Morgan posted on Twitter that she hopes her mother "rots in hell."
Who can blame them? They are more than entitled.
That said, there is something faintly recognizable in Brenda Heist's story. Not condonable, perhaps not even forgivable, but, yes, recognizable. Who among us, after all, has never daydreamed about running away from life? For the majority of us, it never becomes more than that, but it is there, just the same.
For all its joys and graces, life is not an easy proposition. Sometimes, it is a downright unhappy one. One contends with the big challenges like cancer and divorce, yes. But there are also the small ones — kids, and spouses and taxes and utility bills and setbacks and deadlines and waiting in line at the DMV — that are the true meat of daily existence.
We'll probably never know — she may not truly know — if any of this is what caused Heist to break. All we know is that something did and when it did, when she wound up weeping in that park, she responded by reaching out for the daydream. There is something pathetic about that. Something instructive, too.
See, you can run to Key West. You can sail down to Tolhuin, a tiny village near the tip of South America. You can even trek across Antarctica and come up the other side of the globe. Doesn't matter. Because as Brenda Heist's bill for damages comes due, one thing about running away from life seems painfully clear.
Life always catches up.
© 2013 Miami Herald