Welp, they don’t seem to care much for Donald Trump, but the New York Times likes me.
A weeks ago, I’d shut down email for the day, except — fun fact — I’m almost always trying to clear out my email. Over at Creative Loafing, our food editor and one of my favorite people, Meaghan, always has about three or four emails in her inbox. She’s that good at clearing them out. Right now, I have roughly seventy-seven million emails waiting for me, so I feel compelled to check them from time to time, even when I’m theoretically done for the day.
So, the de facto in-laws are down for the holidays, and as we’re all watching football I start looking for easy emails to handle. I see one from a John Dorman, who says he’s with the Times and would like to do a Q&A with me. Now, we have a daily paper here we also refer to as “the Times“, so I thought, oh, OK, that’s weird, because they rejected me for the Festival of Reading and haven’t shown any interest in Backroads whatsoever, but cool.
Then I get to the signature line and it’s not the local Times. No, it’s the New York Times. Or, as I said about two seconds after I realized which paper had contacted me, The New York Fucking Times, but only in my head, because, well, I try not to say fuck so much around Barry’s parents, because I’m a goddamn lady and all.
So, um, hey, read this super-cool interview with this awesome Florida chick who’s in the New York FUCKING Times. Or buy the print version of the paper Sunday. Or do both.
At long last, the book has landed. It has a title, Backroads of Paradise, and an ISBN number and everything. Just like the velveteen rabbit, It’s real.
Well, mostly — it really real on October 4, but you can pre-order it now from Amazon and they’ll ship it to you in October. Alternately, you can order it through the University Press of Florida, where you can also read an excerpt (in case you need further persuading, or in case you don’t feel you can wait any longer, a feeling a I know quite well) from my tour across the coastal edge of Florida’s panhandle (yay, oysters!).
I don’t want to go on too much (I’ve already done that here), and I don’t want to brag or anything, but according to Amazon, Backroads of Paradise, is already #2171 on the bestseller lists for South Atlantic United States travel books, so, you know, almost as popular as 50 Shades of Gray and infinitely better written. Also, it weighs 1.7 pounds. That’s a lot of Florida right there, y’all…
And yes, I’ll compulsively track those sales numbers on Amazon, because it’s not stalking if it’s not a person, right?
Oh, and because people have asked: Yes, UPF will release this as an ebook, and that option should show up soon on Amazon; and no, it doesn’t matter to me where you buy the book, Amazon or UPF, so long as you buy Backroads of Paradise. As in, right now. For everyone you know.
“Key West was to be made the American winter resort of the tropics.”
– From the 1941 Works Progress Administration’s Key West
WHAT: To the uninitiated, Key West is just around the corner from anywhere in Florida. In reality, driving from Pensacola to Key West will take only seven fewer minutes than driving from Pensacola to Chicago. Of course, Key West is the warmer of the two places, and perhaps decidedly more quirky. The island, a seven-and-a-half square mile collection of roughly 25,000 residents, has a reputation for odd. More than one new Gulfport resident likens the town to Key West.
Key West, if you believe the stories, is filled with people who moved south to drop out. It’s a collection of extremes. In 1982 the federal government mounted a roadblock on US 1 to stop illegal aliens from entering the country. Since the roadblock was north of Key West, this meant Conchs (Key West residents) had to prove their citizenship to leave the island. In protest, they seceded from the United States, then immediately surrendered and demanded reparations.
Key West, this story seems to prove, is nothing like the rest of the United States. It’s even the cheeky cousin of mainland Florida, no slouch itself when it comes to wacky headlines. Arts of all sorts abound; Hemingway had a home here; Winslow Homer painted here. Countless artists across an abundance of mediums live and work in Key West. However, Key Weird (as some call it) attracts the arts community not by chance or the appeal of a remote bohemian community; Key West attracts artists because during the Great Depression, the federal government plugged money into the arts in Key West. Arts, and the tourists their work attracted, would save the key from economic death.
WHY: In the 1830s, Key West was the wealthiest city in the United States, with professional wreckers (also called pirates) earning a good living. By 1934, situations changed and Key West was bankrupt. This wasn’t a “paper” bankruptcy: the city had no money to pay its employees. When the city asked the federal government for help during the Great Depression, 80% of its residents already received federal aid. Its pleas were specific: Please send money so we can tell the world how great we are. The plan was to make the city a tourist destination on par with Bermuda and Nassau.
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) imported artists to create works of art that would promote Key West as a tourist destination. Murals, advertising, guidebook illustrations and postcards resulted from this glut of artists. Citizens volunteered over two million man-hours to clean streets, develop beaches, create sanitation systems, and renovate and redecorate houses. Across the nation, city planners lauded this bold community planning experiment. Talent the government could not import, it taught. Residents on the government dole took classes in how to make art, which consisted of everything from drawings to ashtrays.
WHO: Key West is the Monroe County seat. Monroe includes parts of Everglades National Park, Big Cypress Preserve, the Dry Tortugas and the entire chain of limestone islands curving around the tip of mainland Florida.
WHERE: MM0, at the end of US 1.
BEST part: The cemetery with the sense of humor. Stroll through the headstones (bring plenty of water) and find epitaphs like “Just resting my eyes,” and “I told you I was sick.”
WORST part: In the case of what FERA and 1930s Key West officials hoped to accomplish, Duval Street remains the prime example of getting what you wish for: tourists.
FUN fact: During prohibition, some homes used the negative space in the gingerbread trim to advertise guns or booze for sale. Look for homes with guns or liquor bottles hidden in second-story trim.
MAGIC Question: Key West isn’t cheap. Even the cheapest hotels cost a couple of hundred dollars a night. Parking costs about $14 a day. Just off-island, try the Sugarloaf KOA or the Sugarloaf Lodge.
This is the seventh (and final) 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 stark contrast to the spacious green country hills surrounding Monticello, the most crowded place in the state waits at the end of the tour. Pinellas County, the most densely populated but second smallest of Florida’s 67 counties (Union County has 40 square miles less than Pinellas County’s 280), greets you at with sponge docks and Greek food. After divers picked over the Key West sponge fields, they headed north to Tarpon Springs. Eventually, synthetic sponges replaced the mass need for natural sponges, but today locals still refer to Tarpon’s downtown as “the sponge docks.” The city boasts Greek food, sponge and Greek-oriented gift shops (think lots of olive oil-based products), and an annual Epiphany celebration. The Greek community celebrates the Epiphany, or Cross Day, with a blessing of the fleet. As part of the Epiphany, a Christian holiday celebrating the baptism of their Christ in the Jordan River, a processional (complete with doves) to the water ends with a priest from the local Greek Orthodox church throwing a cross in the water. Young men dive for the cross; the one who retrieves it receives a blessing from the priest and, legend holds, divine beneficence for the coming year.
US 19 runs the eastern length of the county, but Alternate 19 and the Pinellas Trail parallel and twist over each other on the western edge. The Pinellas Trail, a former railway line converted to paved trail, runs the length of the county with spurs into local communities. The trail has rest stops, water fountains, and a host of bike shops and restaurants along its 33-mile trek through the county. Like the trail, US 19 travels the length of the county, and it is here that the road is at its most crowded. Between Wall Springs Park – a historic spring once marketed as a health spa – and St. Petersburg, the route devolves into a glut of supermarkets, gas stations, and car dealerships. In St. Petersburg, a detour off the road over to Fourth Street takes you to Sunken Gardens, where you can descend into the pit of a sinkhole covered in flowers and greenery. At one time, the flowered sinkhole boasted a plastic Jesus – I’m not sure why, and no one at Sunken Gardens can tell me why when I ask, but, hey, it’s Florida, so I roll with it – but it’s long gone.
At the county’s south end, Fort DeSoto takes over. The fort and park are on five islands interconnected by a chain of bridges and lagoons; the 1100-plus acres of the park are prime beachfront real estate, fronting Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The park offers a 13-mile bike trail, fishing piers, camping, beaches, paddling, a boat ramp, hiking paths, and a beachfront fog park. The merits of the park alone could merit a book in and of itself. This park, expanses of sand and pines and pockets of nature, offers an oasis from the quick marts, Dollar General stores, and homogenized shopping experiences dotting the tour.
Off the tip of Pinellas County, two islands offer shelling, snorkeling and less crowded beach going. Shell Key, a nature preserve easily kayaked over tidal flats, has no facilities but plenty of birds. Oystercatcher, skimmers, and other beach birds nest here. Shell collectors often find sand dollars here as large as dessert plates, and the waters between the southern Pinellas mainland and the Key are rife with dolphin and manatee.
Wade out a few feet into the Gulf, skim your hands just under the sand, and odds are you’ll find sand dollars. Get there early in the morning at low tide, and you’ll find a haul of shells. The island – too long to circumnavigate on foot – alternates between grassy beachfront, white sand, and scratchy sea oats. In the center at its widest part (not at all that wide) you will find the odd tree or two.
If you intend to kayak to Shell Key, beware Pass-a-Grille channel: between the shallow waters off Shell Key and Pass-a-Grille, the channel is swift and deep and well-traveled by boats far larger than kayaks or paddleboards. A more serene (and admittedly longer) paddle is from the southern end of Tierra Verde. Do not attempt this paddle at a low tide; you will find yourself walking over mud flats. Stop by the oyster-ringed spoil islands on the way out to Shell Key, though, and odds are you will stumble upon a starfish nursery or two.
Further offshore and not suggested for kayakers is Egmont Key, an island in the main shipping channel for Tampa Bay. Most of the island is open to the public, although harbor pilots have housing on a private piece of the island. Egmont Key attracts snorkelers who want to look for sea life in the sea grass or explore the sunken ruins of the crumbling Fort. Charter boats offer trips to both these islands.
In Pinellas County Gulf Boulevard offers a beachy alternative to US 19. It starts at the west end of the county, in Clearwater, and runs south along the Gulf to Pass-a-Grille. The bulk of this stretch is a two-lane road. Traffic exits a roundabout onto Gulf Boulevard south, passing first through the sandy carnival of Clearwater Beach. The beach has a marina offering every conceivable boat trip, from a yellow oversized speedboat that tempts Atlantic bottlenose dolphin to surf their gargantuan wake, to sailboats that let the wind pull them through Clearwater Harbor and into the Gulf. Pier 60, the pier at the western terminus of state road 60, has a nightly sunset celebration complete with buskers and artists.
Over the Sand Key Bridge, condominium canyons line either side of the road, the only exception the county’s Sand Key Park. Sand Key Park is a beachfront park across Clearwater Pass from the hotels on Clearwater Beach. Beach sunflowers, sea oats, and low lying beach scrub dot the park, a stark contrast to the next town south, Belleair Beach. This quiet community has mostly traditional Florida ranch homes and a handful of two-story hotels on the beach. Belleair Shores is yet another type of city, with walled-off beach mansions, gated beach accesses, and a reputation as the spoiled rich child of the county. Indian Rocks Beach, Redington Shores, North Redington Beach and Redington Beach are the next four towns along Gulf Boulevard. They are chiefly residential, with many vacation homes available by the week or month, but fewer nightly motels. The beaches here are accessible largely by walkover access with limited parking, but they are not as populated as Clearwater beach to the north and every beach to the south.
Madeira Beach is a wider city, owing largely to the dredged residential fingers on the east side. At the south point, a collection of tourist-centric shops offer everything from tacky t-shirts to exotic spices at John’s Pass Village. John’s Pass is the waterway dividing Madeira Beach from Treasure Island, another larger beach community with a mix of condominiums, hotels, and homes. The city’s main shopping thoroughfare, 107th Avenue, runs east over the Treasure Island Causeway, becomes Central Avenue, and runs through St. Petersburg’s downtown, ending at Tampa Bay.
The county’s final beach town, St. Pete Beach, is in no way associated with St. Petersburg; calling it “St. Petersburg’s Beach” tends to produce an unfavorable response from the town’s 9,000 residents, many of whom are seasonal. The city consumes the entirety of Long Key, not to be confused with Long Key in the Florida Keys (See Tour 1). St. Pete Beach bookends Clearwater Beach (which truly belongs to the City of Clearwater, a sandy extension of the mainland city) in size, amenities, and beach. It boasts a a plethora of hotels, motels, and resorts. Visitors can spend anywhere from $100 a night at a retro-styled hotel to $600 per night at the 1920s-era Don CeSar.
Pass-a-Grille, a separate city in 1939, is now part of St. Pete Beach. You will not find a single large resort here; most buildings have only two or three stories. Pass-a-Grille still retains a sense of individuality from St. Pete Beach, with special zoning rules and guidelines, houses with more foliage than grass, and the distinction of the southernmost point on the southernmost beach in the southernmost city in Pinellas County. From here you have nowhere to go – as the last motel on the point advertises, visitors have arrived at Island’s End.
This is the sixth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
I only knew about the stilt houses because I wanted to impress a man. This particular man flew small planes, and although the very idea of taking to the skies in even a 747, much less a tiny single engine plane, made my stomach seize up like a engine with no oil, I agreed to take to the skies. To my delight, the thrill of flying stayed with me long after the man fell away.
Among the best things I saw from the right, then the left, seat of a small plane, the day I discovered the stilt homes, prodding the pilot to swoop lower so I could get a better look, will stay with me until I die. I knew, of course, of Stiltsville in Biscayne Bay, but I didn’t realize that stilt homes stood so close to my own beach home just south of Green Key.
You can’t see the stilt homes off the coast of Green Key from the road. If you’re not a boater, a general aviation pilot, or a local with a kayak or paddleboard, odds are you’ll never know they exist.
Just past Green Key’s shimmering sands, a cluster of stilt houses rises from Pasco County’s clear waters. These fish camps, perched high above the Gulf of Mexico on wooden legs, stand in silent tribute to Florida’s yesteryear. The water surrounding these camps is calm and shallow. Stand-up paddleboards dot the placid waters surrounding Green Key. Skinny strips of white, blue and pink boards let paddlers dance across key lime water, away from buff-colored shores and out toward a slice of Florida history.
As you slip into the Gulf, the world beneath your feet comes alive. Cownose rays – tiny, timid stingrays, no bigger than a dinner plate – flutter over sea grass. Mullet twist and toss themselves into the air. As your paddle pushes you through saltwater, redfish zig, then zag, just beneath the surface of this oversized aquarium.
Celebrities from Johnny Cash to Billy Graham have sought respite in these weathered bits of old Florida. The shallow, sapphire-studded waters reflect the sun-bleached wood on these houses, private residences used as fish camps in the Gulf. The stilt houses remain as long as the weather permits: State law says those destroyed in a storm cannot be rebuilt. The fish camps stand in mere feet of water, so paddleboards are one of the few ways to get close.
Tucked amidst the watery stilt city, Durney Key attracts paddleboarders, kitesurfers, kayakers and boaters. Driftwood and bits of sea glass adorn its shore and fiddler crabs scurry over packed brown sand. A cluster of trees in the key’s center offers shelter. Day-trippers and campers alike search for shells and watch the sun set over the fish camps.
On the paddle back toward Green Key, fish scurry from your path as the nightly seabreeze pushes you home. From the sand, you can see the stilt houses in the distance, waiting for your return.
The most logical launch for the four-mile round trip paddle is on Green Key at Robert K. Rees Memorial Park. Parts of this entry appeared initially as work for Visit Florida.
This is the fifth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
South on US 19 a giant dinosaur waits. I first found it as a kid, when my dad had a construction job at nearby Timber Pines. He worked for Scarborough Construction, the company that installed most of the water and sewer lines in central west Florida. The parent company, Weyerhauser, sent me through college on a scholarship, and I try not to focus too much on the fact that the company that had an active part in resurfacing much of Florida’s landscape paid for the bulk of the studies that led me to fall in love with the parts of the state they were actively destroying.
Nevertheless, I was going into sixth grade and Scarborough paid for the guys on the construction crew to stay the week in Weeki Wachee, so my mom and I spent a few days hanging out on the the-then deserted stretch of US 19. We visited the brand-new Kmart, went to the pool, and visited the mermaids. She also took me into a taxidermists’ – I guess you’d call it a shop, right? – and I stood, transfixed by all the animals rooted forever in death.
My favorite thing (after the mermaids, of course) was the great brown and green, plaster dinosaur. The hulking giant used to signal a Sinclair gas station but those, too, died out. Today an auto service station, Harold’s, changes water pumps and rotates tires beneath the belly of the beast. It’s not a traditional tourist attraction, but that doesn’t mean people don’t stop and take pictures. I have a painting of Dino in my study, and if the brute ever topples, to storm or sprawl, US 19’s metamorphosis from sleepy two-lane road to clotted arterial highway will be sadly complete.
This is the fourth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
Down the road another underwater show takes place seven days a week, several times a day. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park has real mermaids.
The mermaids, of course, are quite real. No, not in that they really have tails instead of legs, and they don’t get their oxygen with gills. Nevertheless, they do perform underwater shows, breathing through air hoses and performing in tails.
Mermaid shows started with Newt Perry. Perry trained World War II Navy SEALS – then called Frogmen – in underwater maneuvers; in 1946, he trained women to drink grape soda underwater. They learned to eat bananas, have picnics, and swim in unison – all while battling a five-mile-an-hour current wrought by a spring that pushed 177 million gallons a day from the earth. Perry took a spring just off a two-lane dirt road and created a theme park that, long before Disney thought to do so, allowed people to pay money for the privilege of believing in a fantasy.
At Weeki Wachee, that fantasy is mermaids. The mermaids perform beneath the big top of Weeki Wachee spring, with audiences watching them from an underwater theatre. Today the shows continue, as do reunion mermaid shows that feature retired mermaids, some of whom swam with Elvis. The reunion shows – called Tails of Yesteryear shows – feature mermaids now well into their 70s. Underwater, these “grandma mermaids” as former mermaid Barbara Wynns calls herself and colleagues, have grace equal to – if not more – than their younger counterparts.
Young mermaids, of course, perform the bulk of the shows. Grandma mermaids help out with mermaid camps for those who want to swim in a mermaid’s tail for a day. The park also has kid camps for aspiring mermaids and mermen, but the reunion shows offer Floridaphiles a peek at the past.
It started in 1997, when park management called former mermaids out of retirement to celebrate the Springs’ 50th anniversary. Lines wound along park paths and out into the parking lot to see 26 former mermaids – some in their 70s – twirl and pirouette under the sea.
One show turned into three that day, and the former mermaids’ Tails of Yesteryear show found its place alongside the current mermaid shows. Once monthly, former mermaids don their tails and slip into the 72-degree water.
They look little like their younger counterparts. These mermaids bear the scars of 40 years of life on land. They birthed babies, had careers, and adjusted to life with legs. None have model-thin figures; a few are outright fat. It doesn’t matter; once they slip into the spring, they are agile, graceful creatures again, eliciting applause and tears from the crowd. The spring washes away weight and wrinkles, and they play out a script from 40 years ago – dancing on the water, suspended in time.
“It’s like water in your veins. We’re still a part of the river, a part of the spring,” Mermaid Vicki Smith, 71, says. A tiny, compact woman who lives on the river, she still giggles with glee when she talks about meeting Elvis as a mermaid.
The audience claps at the regular mermaid shows. At Tails of Yesteryear, people weep. Something – perhaps the joy on the Grandma Mermaids’ faces – speaks to the crowd.
Not everyone loves Weeki Wachee.
My friend Thom Hallock relishes Florida springs but calls this park “the dullest park I’ve ever visited,” and he’s a guy who finds early accounts of French explorers coming to Florida riveting. I love the mermaids, but I see his point: you have to truly love Florida roadside attractions to get this place. Picture yourself in the 60s, driving a Chevy big enough to hold a softball team, down US 19. Suddenly, bathing-clad ladies – mermaids! – beckon you into the park. You’re from Michigan. You have no clue what to expect, but as you take your seat in the underwater theatre and the blue curtain rises, lithe and nubile women twirl and pirouette before you. Weeki Wachee was unparalleled; these women had no competition. The wild bird show, the parrot show (because no Florida roadside attraction was complete without a cockatoo on roller skates), and the chance to meet a real live mermaid enchanted generations of visitors.
Roller coasters, castles, and water parks have all faded the glory of roadside attractions like Weeki Wachee, and folks used to Pixar animation and Disney special effects may look down their nose at those of us who marvel at ladies drinking soda pop underwater. Weeki Wachee, taken over by the state in 2008, pays homage not only to generations of mermaids, but the dying breed of Florida’s roadside attraction. The park may be paler than the bright world of modern tourist attractions, but its patina is all its own.
The springs feed the Weeki Wachee River, and that has no modern day competitor. The river runs clear with a swift current – at five miles an hour, it takes just a little over two hours to reach the Gulf of Mexico. The park service operates a kayak and canoe livery, and they will pick you up at Roger’s Park six miles down the road.
More often than not, I head upriver and then lazily drift back. The sojourn past the houses by Rogers Park takes little effort and gives me plenty to look at: on one side of the river redolent with palms and marsh life, on the other, cartoonish sea life murals adorn sea walls, residents pay homage to Jimmy Buffett with Middle American Tiki-bar decor, and every variation of rope and tire swings dangle from spidery oak trees standing guard over the Weeki Wachee.
Further upriver the homes thin out and the water gets clearer. The odd rope tied to a branch lets people climb trees, dangle over the river, and plunge, feet first, into the crystal clear water. I’ve paddled the river on weekends when the lines for these ropes are long; today is a Tuesday and the lines don’t exist.
As the river gets closer to Weeki Wachee, the homes disappear into copse after copse of trees. The river twines a thin cordon of blue around a march forest. At a stand of trees with a wood platform, I tie my kayak painter to a slender tree trunk and stretch my legs while I eat a sandwich. The water is clear and I see no gators, so I let Calypso stretch her legs, too. When we set off again, we’re headed for home, carried by the current. Calypso curls up on a towel drying on the kayak’s bow. We float by a school of mullet, struggling their way upstream. Like a shot Calypso heaves herself in the water, but we’re moving too fast for her to catch the mullet. She paddles instead to where I sit and puts a paw on the side of the boat. I pull her in the cockpit, use the towel to squeeze river water from her black fur, and have a moment of thanks for clear water and no gators.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the second leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here.
Our tour crosses the Suwannee River at Fanning Springs, close to the river’s communion with the Gulf of Mexico at Cedar Key (See Tour 3). One does not come to this area of the state for beaches, though; one comes for the springs. Every hole and dip in Florida’s limestone floor glitters with teal and sapphire sparks of water, and Fanning Springs burns its radiance as brightly as any.
Florida springs burble and prattle along their way, their blues and greens coalescing to the moonless midnight as they traipse through pine flatwoods, swamps, and hardwood hammocks. At the spring heads, though, the halcyon water shimmers in shades of teal sunshine, an aqueous rainbow revealing infinite depths. Fanning Springs State Park fronts the route, offering primitive camping for hikers, bikers and paddlers. Car and camper travelers can opt for a cabin (no pets permitted) or, as we did, head to nearby Manatee Springs State Park for RV camping or tent camping. Either spring offers a glimpse into Florida’s depths, and both feed the Suwannee. I do not trust my ability to outswim a gator quite enough to relax in Florida’s blackwater rivers, but I snorkel, swim and dive the springs with abandon. Manatee and Fanning Springs alike allow and encourage these things, their crystalline waters the perfect invitation.
I learned to SCUBA dive after my first trip to the Florida Keys. I wanted to get closer to the rainbow of life on the reefs. My first SCUBA dive, though, took place in a murky, frigid sinkhole south of these springs: Hudson Hole. I had no intention then to dive freshwater, and that morning at the sinkhole cemented that decision.
It was my first for-real dive. It was January. It was not fun. Our dive instructors, clad in snuggly warm dry suits, laughed at us as they dumped hot water down the backs of our wet suits. Their breath made little steam clouds as they smirked and suggested we pee as soon as we hit the water. We entered the sinkhole and snorkeled a circle around the lake, then dropped to a platform 20 feet beneath the dismal, dusky surface. We ran through drills – clearing our mask, recovering our regulators, and clearing them – but the entire time I wasn’t thinking about drowning. No, I was too busy worrying about hypothermia and alligators. At least, I thought to myself at one point, if a gator bites me, I’ll be too numb from the cold to feel it.
Hudson Hole did nothing to entice me out of the saltwater and into the fresh. However, Florida’s first magnitude springs – springs that push over 100 million gallons per day out from the state’s spongy limestone center – have little in common with that dank, creepy place best used to train rescue divers. Manatee Springs is a glorious, serene, and – this is crucial – warm, first magnitude spring. Fanning Springs “only” pumps out 65 million gallons of inner earth water daily, which ranks it a second magnitude spring. Those are just words, though, and don’t truly convey the force of the water out of the earth. It gushes over limestone and out into the sun, tumbling over itself in its rush for the surface. You can’t, in all practicality, dive to the source – the pulse of the water will push you back to the outer edge of the planet. You can, however, often find tiny fissures where infinitesimal jets of water stream upwards, a small but unique delight in a wild aquarium.
Back on dry land, we head south.
At Otter Creek, the route passes State Road 24, the one way in and out of Cedar Key. As the road approaches Yankeetown (south of the more populous Chiefland), it turns towards the coast and traces its contours closely for the remaining 137 miles.
In 1962, Elvis came to Yankeetown to make Follow That Dream, a movie about a family that moves to Florida when their car runs out of gas on a deserted stretch of road. The family starts what becomes a thriving fishing business, outsmarts the mob, and befuddles bureaucrats, emerging triumphant at the film’s end. The short story on which it was based, Pioneer Go Home!, sets the stage in New Jersey rather than Florida.
In tribute to the film – and Elvis – the town renamed State Road 40 “Follow That Dream Parkway.” The sign still hangs between the traffic lights as the tour crosses the “Parkway.”
If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
“From red clay hills covered with oaks and magnolias, this route descends into a region of flatwoods and runs straight as an arrow for many miles, passing numerous turpentine and sawmill settlements, and then ascends to limestone hills, with lakes between. Green citrus groves, cypress hammocks, and scattered clumps of cabbage palms relieve the somber vista of cut-over pine land and scrub palmetto. Little of this sparsely settled territory is under fence, and free range cattle are a constant menace to motorists. Upon reaching the west coast the highway is within sight of the Gulf of Mexico, with its palm-fringed bayous and ribbon of low-lying keys, on which are miles of glittering white sand beaches.” – GTSS, 1939
US 19, in the more populous areas of the state, is a nightmare for commuters. In its northern parts, it is a delight, a series of rolling hills and red clay and leafy green trees.
Monticello, at the intersection of US 90 (See Tour 7), emits a distinctly southern vibe, with antebellum homes, an 1890s opera house, and a crumbly cemetery. The pre-civil war construction, so rarely seen in Florida, exists solely by virtue of poverty – when residents couldn’t afford to build new homes during the Great Depression, they instead renovated the older homes. Today they can be seen on a leisurely drive through the town, or by taking a Chamber of Commerce historical walking tour beneath the stately live oaks lining the streets. Homes have roomy porches, maid’s quarters, and gingerbread trim.
This, I note, does not feel a bit like the Florida I know. The Florida I know overflows with sandy ranch houses, Florida rooms lined with cool tarazzo floors, and salt-crusted boats bobbing in emerald bays. But Monticello presents itself not as aquamarine waters and streaky pink sunsets but with muted colors of the forest–green pine trees and carmine-kissed clay soil.
I linger in Roseland cemetery, trying to make out the inscriptions on the moldering tombs. The cemetery dates to 1827 and I find out later that I could have taken a ghost tour through the cemetery. I do not regret not taking the tour; the old stones, aging brick, and moss-draped trees gave the burial ground a desolate, haunted feel without help from paid storytellers.
Every summer, Monticello crowns a Watermelon Queen. In the late 1800s, Monticello and surrounding Jefferson County provided the country with the bulk of its watermelon seeds. The annual festival honoring this juicy slice of the town’s history includes bed races, plenty of food, and watermelon carving. I will leave the pageantry of the crowing of the Queen to your imagination.
Further down the road at Capps, the road joins with US 27 and US 19 and runs south through Perry and the Steinhatchee Conservation Area. If you love jellies and jams, this stretch of road has Florida’s finest on offer. I re-stock my supply of mayhaw jelly, Tupelo honey, and whatever vegetables the unfailingly cheerful roadside salesmen have on offer. Mayhaw berries, which grow in wet, low lying areas with sediment-rich, acidic soil, look like cranberries but don’t taste like them. They taste like… well, they taste like mayhaws, sweet and tart and gentle and sharp, which tells you nothing, I realize.
The trees grow in swampy north Florida, in the panhandle and along the east side of the state as far south as Marion and Volusia (think Ocala and Dayotona Beach) counties, but I find the tastiest jelly along this stretch of US 19.
And what a lovely stretch of road it is, yawning greatly before us as we trundle towards the Tampa Bay area: trees in a thousand shades of green, the odd store or gas station, and not much else. I wouldn’t want to break down here, but I love the drive along the wooded highway. If one gauged the wealth of the residents by the number of shopping malls, they would deduce this is poor man’s country. If instead one looked at the number of birds, pines, and foliage, one might think the people here quite wealthy.