Category Archives: Narrative

US 19: Manatee Hunting

This is the third leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
 In Crystal River, scallops and manatee beckon. Tours offer scallop trips for the uninitiated, but during scallop season (July through September, although the actual dates vary) anyone who wishes may snorkel for scallops. Scallops live in the green grass, have 32 glittering blue eyes, and slam their shells shut (escalop means “shell” in French) to swoosh out of harm’s way.
 
Bay scallops, once bountiful in the Gulf coastal waters, have declined in numbers. Speculation puts the blame on water quality, as scallops (like clams and oysters) filter their food from the water. Shellfish populations cannot thrive in contaminated water.
 
So instead of scallops, I’m hunting manatee. Well, not hunting, exactly, but looking for them awful hard. In Citrus County, boat captains can take passengers out to swim with the marine mammals under the guise of education. Our boat captain does give us manatee facts and talks about preserving the species, but we’re not fooling anyone: we all boarded this boat with plans to pet a giant grey water beast.
 
It’s a gorgeous summer day, and I’m delighted to be out on the water, but I didn’t think this through. You see, all the photos advertising the tour showed manatee frolicking with humans in the opaline spring head. These gentle, awkward creatures do lumber towards the spring when the water temperature outside the spring dips below 70º, but that is not the case on a hot summer day. 
 
Now is a good time to mention that three types of rivers flow through Florida: alluvial, blackwater, and spring-fed. Alluvial rivers, often carved out by years of floods, carry loads of sediment along with them. Their levels and flow are usually tied to rainfall. Blackwater rivers rise out of swamps and generally have a dark tea color from the decaying plant matter in the water. Clear springs gush out into spring-fed rivers. One such river, the Crystal River, starts at a spring head, but do not assume that means the length of the river shares that transparency: the river grows deeper in color the further we motor from the springs. We do this, the boat captain explains, because the tiny-headed sea cows only hang out in springs in the winter.
This is how you hunt manatee.
I refrain from smacking my palm against my forehead. Of course these creatures won’t linger in the spring today. Of course they will hang out in the I-can’t-see-my-hand-or-that-alligator-in-front-of-my-face portion of the river. I enjoy paddling Florida’s rivers, but few exist in which I wish to get out and try to touch living creatures. Petting a manatee makes for a fine experience – in clear water. What if the one I pet hangs out by a gator grotto? Anyone who has seen even a picture of these unusually built water waddling animals knows those disturbingly tiny flippers will not help protect me.
 
The boat captain assures me I need not worry about gators and snakes. This strategy would have worked better had I considered the possibility of snakes before he brought them up. I do not know if I believe him, but I accept my swim noodle (we may not use our arms to swim lest we hit a manatee or, I imagine, anger a gator), slip my mask and snorkel over face, and slide into the water. The manatee wait a few yards away, the guide tells us, but the murk makes it hard to see anything. Something wraps around my leg. I scream. 
 
River grass. Not a snake. I feel like an idiot, but take solace in knowing that when I put my head back under the water, it’s too stained with tannic acid for the others to see me blush. 
This is my “What the hell am I petting?” face.
I see a great hulking shape before me. A manatee. My heart accelerates. This is actually kind of exciting. I reach my hand out to pet it tentatively, and the beast doesn’t seem to care. They’re bumpier than I would have thought, and about as motivated as one would expect. She just floats in front of us – manatees are excellent floaters, what with all their fat – and even lets us pet her calf. I can only tell she’s there by feel; I cannot see her other than to make out a massive darker blob against the ochre water. I have no visual clues what I’m touching. My only reassurance is that gators have very little body fat, ergo, this must be a manatee.
You don’t realize it, but this is what the abyss looks like.  It’s scarier in the movies…
After we’ve more than worn out our welcome, our boat captain takes us for a swim in Three Sisters, a nearby cluster of springs, vents, and boils. Our captain ties his small launch to a river tree. Here, clear water reveals tiny springs, their exit from the earth announced with a rushing gurgle I can almost hear with my eyes. I step off the boat into water far colder than 72º, the inexact standard for Florida rivers and springs. We walk towards the larger spring, through a group of wood posts set in water, designed to keep watercraft out of the spring head. The dizzying force of the water pushes against us as we move toward the springs, but as the narrow channel opens into a spring head, it gets easier. I can see the edge of the abyss; I peer over it, the clear blue sky reflected in chalky white limestone. Deeper down the color turns from an easy blue-green to a persistent and ancient blue. Cypress and oak ring the spring but do not cover it, letting the sun and sky dance rainbows across and through the spring water. We find no manatee here, but that’s just fine by me. The springs, uncluttered with kayaks and canoes and too many people, offer a rarer and more full experience.
Hudson Hole has nothing on Three Sisters.
If you don’t feel brave enough to take your chances in a Florida river, you can watch these giant freaky water cows through glass that lets you view them at their beady eye level –  Homosassa Springs State Park, just down the road, also boasts an elevated boardwalk that lets you stroll past cougar, Florida panther, deer, and the ever-present alligator, but the underwater observatory offers a less intrusive way to see manatee. It’s worth it see their fat schmoo-like bodies in all their blubbery glory, if only just to marvel that Florida folk wisdom holds that sailors used to mistake these creatures for mermaids.

Circling the Pond: West of Okeechobee

(This is the second part of the Lake Okeechobee tour. Read the first part here. New here? Start with What’s this, now?)

 
On the mainland, the route traces the crowded banks of the Caloosahatchee. East of Interstate 75 the buildings grow fewer. In parts, cypress swamps still meet the road, but farms and cattle are more prominent than low-lying swampland. As we pass Buckingham Road the road abandons all pretense of following the twisting river and shoots through the right angles of reclaimed swamp. 
 
This part of Florida is a study in right angles: the road, the crops lining the road, and the drainage canals dug to helpfully dry out the swampland and make the rich muck more useful as soil. Even the Caloosahatchee has succumbed to this idea of order: while the river still curves and bows in places, in parts its lines, too, straighten alongside the neat rows of orange trees, tomatoes, and peppers.
 
Was this the greatest idea? It depends on whom you ask. The farmers and the homes here likely think so; Everglades-huggers likely disagree. The system of drainage canals and pounds of fertilizer and pesticides used on these farms haven’t exactly encouraged the wetland to thrive. It appears that some of the farmers have sold to developers (who, in turn, sell to the unsuspecting folks from out of state), and signs of subdivisions marching south emerge along this road: a supermarket here, a diner there.
 
LaBelle exists at a bend in the Caloosahatchee. It is by no accounts a large city, but it is the main population center between I-75 and Lake Okeechobee along the route. It has not quite 5,000 residents and is the Hendry County seat.

“Cowboys ride into town from the surrounding ranches, wearing broadbrimmed hats, high boots, and other conventional trappings. La Belle’s big event is the Fourth of July rodeo, at which range hands compete in riding Florida broncos and ‘bull-dogging’ steers. Roping and whipcracking contests follow spirited horse races, on which wagering is heavy. A barbecue supper concludes the day, and in the evening square dances are enjoyed in jooks and homes to the music of guitars and fiddles, accented by the thumps of heavy boots.⁠” – GTSS, 1939

Today the rodeo continues in LaBelle, as does the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival. The Festival includes “Grasscar” (a lawnmower race); armadillo races, which are exactly what they sound like; and, of course, the crowning of the Swamp Cabbage Queen.⁠

 
Swamp cabbage, for the uninitiated, comes from the white tender heart of younger cabbage palm trees. When prepared, they look like the logs of string cheese sold in grocery stores, although they taste nothing alike. I can’t get enough of the squishy, sour-ish hearts, but I freely admit they aren’t for everyone. Barry wrinkles his nose at them every time I try and get him to try one, but Florida literature professor Thomas Hallock describes in terms so eloquent I must repeat them:
 
“Ate some in Holopaw,” he says. “What does it taste like? For me, like urine-pickled cauliflower.”
 
Jono Miller, a cabbage palm expert (Seriously, the man wrote a master’s thesis on the cabbage palm. These sorts of things simply do not happen in other states), disagrees. He explains that swamp cabbage is the brand-new part of the tree. Like a brand-new baby, it doesn’t have its own personality yet, so it tastes like whatever you soak it in.

“My suggestion?” he says, “Avoid the urine-pickled swamp cabbage – the ease of preparation is offset by the result.”

Even cabbage palm experts, it seems, have a sense of humor.
In Clewiston I hope to see my first water moccasin as part of my odd love affair with Florida’s legless reptiles. Barry tells stories of crossing the lake on boat deliveries and stopping at the Roland Martin Marine Center for the night. At twilight and after water moccasins would gather on the floating docks, patches of color darker than the dock that looked suspiciously like rope but most definitely were not. A more prevalent but decidedly less deadly evil, the mosquitoes here are so thick that when you sit down to dinner at the marina bar, the server hands you a can of insect repellant.

We stop the van and walk out to the levee, my eyes more focused on the ground than the water. I leave Calypso in the van to keep her safe. Cottonmouth water moccasins are pit vipers with tiny, evil heads and tails but fat, snuggly bodies. Some sick part of me very badly wants to see a one up close. I don’t want to cuddle it, exactly, but I do want to know if they’re as fearsome as my childhood nightmares. I grew up a block away from a creek, and my parents warned me it was chock-full of the dastardly serpents. I never saw one, but odds are if I had seen one, it would have been a common nonvenomous water snake, not a venomous cuddly beast. Brown water snakes are far more populous in Florida, but not as good a deterrent for keeping a curious seven-year-old out of trouble.

At the top of the levee I see a canal with four empty rowboats rafted up to grassy lowland; the lake itself remains mostly out of sight. In the distance I see an empty nesting platform, ready for osprey. I look carefully at the ground and the levee wall. I step carefully. 

I see no snakes. We walk back to the van and commence circling the pond.

Re-Introducing the Guide to the Southernmost State

(New here? Start with What’s this, now?)

In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writer’s Project hired unemployed writers to create driving tours of each state. Florida chose Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy. Hurston wrote Florida fiction: her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, centered on the hurricane of 1928. Kennedy, a Florida son, infiltrated and exposed the Ku Klux Klan. Kennedy died a legend; Zora, a pauper, but for a time they joined forces, traveled the state, and showed the world what they saw. They crisscrossed the state separately – Jim Crow would not allow black Zora to travel with white Stetson – carving out the routes immortalized in the Guide to the Southernmost State.
 
Over 70 years later, I decided I wanted to go, too. These two writers, better known for other works, memorialized a Florida I wanted to know. It seemed somehow unfair that I didn’t get to go with them; I wanted to see the state through their eyes. I wanted to know the Florida they met along the highway. I needed to feel what they felt when they saw the sparkling jewel waters of the Keys or the rugged cotton fields of the panhandle. I yearned for their Florida, and feared it had disappeared underneath the three-for-ten dollar t-shirt shops and strip malls.

I chose to follow them. I wanted to take their almost-stilted language and make it real for the 21st century. I wanted to let the folks from Anytown, U.S.A. know that Florida has so much more on offer than fried shrimp and cheap beer. Zora and Stetson peeled back the state’s tourist veneer; I wanted to show people, almost 80 years later, why what they saw mattered and why today’s traveler should seek it, too.

I broke out my shiny, red Florida Gazetteer and tried to reconstruct twenty-two tours, studying towns and researching old route numbers. Often I could only recreate the Depression-era routes by jumping from city to city, sort of a geographic connect-the-dots. That alone proved quite an undertaking: retracing the routes at my weathered oak dining room table, using a rainbow of highlighters to trace city to city along possible routes, e-mailing Interstate historians for guidance, poring over maps and comparing them to the Guide until my back ached from leaning over the worn, wooden table.

Roads are living things. To assume that you can look for a road where someone else put it down almost 80 years ago? Utter folly, especially in Florida, a land eternally young through constant change and flux. Florida’s roads did not stay where the Guide left them. Over the years and continuing on, they kept breathing and growing, twisting and turning and pulsing with Florida’s fervor, in much the same way her people and land have. Roads are malleable. Geologically, culturally, and especially developmentally, Florida doesn’t have much that won’t bend and stretch – and sometimes break. Just as often, though, it yields, bending to those forces, adapting until it simply can no longer. Only then does it stretch and bend back, and we are the ones who must yield or break.

Cathy Salustri with Calypso
Calypso and I as we prepare to enter Florida from the North. We were giddy with anticipation. Well, I was. Calypso probably had to pee.
 In September 2011 I climbed into a camper van with my better half, Barry, and my other better half, Calypso. We spent a month recreating those original tours, guided by a dog-eared, broken-spined, 1950s-era version of the Guide, a now-tattered and ripped Florida Gazetteer, and (on Barry’s part) endless patience.
We logged almost 5,000 miles in that van. It became my home in my quest for the Florida I hoped to see through Stetson and Zora’s eyes. I looked for what they saw. I searched for scraps of their Florida, abandoned along her backroads.

Out of those miles grew these tours: The ultimate Florida road trip.
These tours share much with the Guide, but they differ, too. I followed Stetson and Zora, yes, seeking their voices in the burble of every spring and searching for visions of them in every blazing-hot, pink and amber sunset, but I also recreated, one more time, Florida’s story – and mine.

This tour is the best thing I have ever done.

The Grinch on the road
We also took the Grinch as part of an exchange program – my friend Leah took my stuffed hula girl to Greece.

Prologue

(New here? Start with What’s this, now?)

 July 1, 1980
 
My grandfather’s sun-honed face twisted and paled as we turned off I-10 and entered the final leg of our southwest journey down US 301. As we passed bleached wood, cracker houses and dingy brown cedar sheds, his tanned forehead furrowed, drawing his coarse eyebrows tighter and tighter until the bushy lines above his dark eyes seemed a thin ridge of curly dark hair.
 
Perched on stilts, houses sat, no shutters or covering save grime and webs. Underneath and alongside them, a ragtag fleet of pickup trucks with rusted wheel wells, oxidized roofs, and dented fenders shared weed patches with Jon boats, the only difference the boats’ marginally better maintenance and the occasional trailer elevating them off dirt patches. Washing machines, sun-bleached farm equipment, and a mise-en-scene of auto parts greeted us anew at each home.
 
My grandfather sucked in air, his silence crowding our 1976 maroon Buick Regal. “This,” I can only imagine him thinking, “is worse than what I left in Italy. This is what I have worked my whole life to give my son? That they move to a slum in the South?
 
“This” referred to Florida, the interior parts of the state detailed along US 301, the parts of the Sunshine State not photographed by the Florida Tourism Board. “They” referred to my father, my mother, and me, a seven-year-old whose greatest field trip in life, prior to the three-day journey to Florida from New York, was a dead heat between the Bronx Zoo (where a goat ate my coat) and seeing Peter Pan on Broadway (my mom and I rode the train into the city and I ate a pretzel from a street vendor).
 
In a chain of events too complex for a young brain to comprehend, my parents decided to leave Westchester County, New York and move to Clearwater, Florida. While they knew the drive’s end result – a small two bedroom just miles from then-pristine Clearwater Beach – my grandfather, who had come along to help, did not.
 
Eventually we turned our cruise-ship sized car onto Interstate 275, where the landscape grew noticeably tidier and steadily more sanitized. Our orange-striped Jar-Tran moving truck dutifully followed the car as we made our way to Clearwater.
 
I had visited before – our new home was my other grandparents’ vacation home – but the moment I saw the sparkling teal water of Tampa Bay, it eclipsed every other memory in my as-of-yet fully formed brain. 
 
The aquamarine-studded water of Tampa Bay bounced the sparkling sun into our car and the salt formed diamond crystals on my grubby, sweaty cheeks.
 
“Look at that, Cath,” my dad said, his voice reverent. “Look at how clear it is, not like Staten Island at all.” My father still made the sign of the cross on himself when we passed Catholic churches, but not until this moment had I heard that hushed worship in his voice.
 
I nodded and peered out the window, feeling something new and familiar in the sandy landscape offering itself to me. I recognized this later – much later – as that I had come to where I needed to be.
 
I fell in love with the water that day, but as I got older I felt the inexorable pull of the other parts of Florida, too. I love SCUBA diving, low tide is a sacred time, and, most surprisingly, I have fallen hopelessly in love with the weathered corners of Florida.
 
These corners don’t fit with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s image: they are our skeletons. The chambers and tourism boards want quite keenly to present a fresh and clean land of white beaches and sparkling waters. In turn we have convinced ourselves that we need to make sure our guests never see that side of Florida – that schmaltzy, chintzy, broken-down, rusted-out Florida.
 
But I love that Florida just as much as I love the one where crabs scurry around the intertidal zone, where skimming my fingers just beneath the sand yields handfuls of sand dollars. My parents, New York natives both, didn’t behave as the typical “carpetbaggers,” as my grandfather later referred to everyone who came to Florida after us. My parents didn’t travel 1,300 miles to turn a fast buck or recreate a slice of Little Italy or Whatever County, Michigan. They moved here because of what Florida offered them, not what they thought they could get her to surrender.
 
I, like my parents and countless settlers before them, have not tried to claim Florida. Instead I have let the state claim me. Almost thirty years later I travel Florida still, looking for parts I may have missed, seeking them out before they fade away under the heavy blight of strip malls and jet skis.
 
Today I seek Florida on roads that parallel the Interstates, rattling along with the same excitement I felt at age seven. My beaches have changed and the strip malls may one day win, but as I troll the back roads, I remain forever in search of that secret, schmaltzy, backwoods, state, where the sun-bleached roadside shacks remain constant. I feel the quickening inside me as a sense of the familiar envelops me. It is the same sense of simultaneous longing and recognition I first felt as the salt water opened itself before me.
 
It is the feeling of coming home.