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.
Is that treason? Am I going to jail now? Look, I’m not a fan of the guy. One of the main reasons? His treatment of Florida’s indigenous folk. Now, I know we had a period of time in our history when “killing Injuns” was trendy, but really, Jackson took this trend to new levels of historical douchbaggery. He didn’t care that Spain had rule over Florida, because he was damn sure going to come down here and kill himself some locals anyway, treaties and such be damned.
Last night I came home and Barry had cleaned the living room and kitchen. This made me happy. After I gazed lovingly at my clean floors, I noticed a box behind him on the counter.
“What’s that?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Who’s it from?”
“The University Press of Florida,” and then he smiled. Big smile, because the box could only be one thing, really: The author copies of my book.
The book has arrived. Finally. It’s real. It has my name on it and everything.
Then, this morning, that thing on Facebook where you see your memories on the same date in years past popped up with this: One day shy of five years to the day after Stetson Kennedy died, my travel narrative about retracing the tours he helped created in the 1930s arrives.
Five years. Five years to take the trips, write the book, edit the book, revise the book, edit the book, do all the things you have to do after you write and edit and revise and edit a book, and to get to here. That’s a long time, or at least, it feels that way.
I never met the man — he died too soon — and anyone who’s seen the book in any of its drafts knows I did my own thing — this book doesn’t quite resemble the guide he helped create — but I hope, wherever it is that Florida people like him go when they die, he doesn’t hate it and, more importantly, he knows how much his legacy has impacted my life.
You can buy the book here, and I truly hope you do. I re-read a lot of it last night and I’m certainly not impartial, but I do kind of love it.
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.
Today I spoke to a packed house at Heritage Village for the Speaking of History series. I talked mostly about US 98 and how much fun it is to eat your way through Florida’s panhandle. If you missed the talk, trust me on this: it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on (although clothing is by no means necessary). I mean, if you like seafood. If you don’t care for seafood, well, you’re kind of up a creek there, but then, you do have some of the best beaches in the world to occupy you while everyone else starts shoveling in the oysters like the world’s about to end.
I won’t rehash the entire tour, but I have to say I was thrilled the St. Petersburg Tribune sent out a reporter to cover my talk. You can read the article here. Note to my Gulfport peeps: I really did tell the audience “Gulfport is it for me” so, yeah, you’re stuck with me.
After I spoke, someone asked me if I had a web site and I directed them here. However, since I went under contract with the University Press of Florida for a book about my travels, I haven’t posted here – largely because the bulk of what I have to say, I’m saying in print, and they asked that I not, in essence, compete with myself. Since I blog for free and, ostensibly, I will one day make money from writing the book, it seemed like a fair enough request.
However, if you’re here because I directed you here at my talk, don’t go away. You can do two things: one, follow me on Twitter @CathySalustri, because every time I post to my other blog (the non-exclusive-to-Florida blog), it automatically pushes a Tweet. Don’t ask me how; I call it Inter-magic; two, you can keep this site bookmarked, because while I cannot keep including material that may appear in the as-of-yet-untitled book, I will be including new material, not the least of which is my slow-but-steady Detours & Diversions travel column that appears in print and online in everyone’s favorite weekly paper, the GabberNewspaper.
If you missed it, you can watch my presentation online, thanks to the magic of the Internet and the awesome peeps at Pinellas 18.. And I’ll get my latest travels, to one of the state’s only (legal) whiskey distilleries, online this week. So, you know, come back. I’m nowhere near as witty as the Bloggess, and certainly not as popular, but I like to think that “whiskey distillery” and “clothing is by no means necessary” will at least pique the interest of the search engines. But, again, I don’t know. It’s all Inter-Magic.
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.
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.
In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration paid writers to travel and create driving tours of each state. The Federal Writers Project hired unemployed writers. To narrow the field almost imperceptibly, the program only considered at writers who were poor and had no prospects.
Florida chose Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy.
They crisscrossed the state separately – Jim Crow would not allow black Zora to travel with white Stetson – carving the routes they would immortalize in the Guide to the Southernmost State.
Over seventy years later, I decided I wanted to go, too. I broke out my shiny red Florida Gazeteer and started trying to recreate the twenty-two tours, studying towns and researching old route numbers. In many cases, I could only recreate the Depression-era routes by jumping from city to city, sort of a geographic connect-the-dots.
Roads are living things, and for one to assume that she can look for a road in the same place someone else put it down almost 80 years ago, well, sir, you would be foolish to think that road would stay right where you left it. Especially in Florida, a land kept eternally young and youthful by its constant state of flux and change. The roads, it seem, breathe and grow and twist and turn and pulse with the fervor of Florida in much the same way her people and her land does. They are malleable. There isn’t much in Florida that won’t bend and stretch – and sometimes break. Just as often, though, it yields instead, bending until it simply can no longer, and then it stretches and bends back and we are the ones who must yield or break.
In September I climbed into a camper van with my better half, Barry, and my other better half, Calypso. We spent the month recreating those original tours, guided by a dog-eared, broken-spined 1950s-era version of the Guide, a tattered oversize Florida Gazetteer, and (on Barry’s part) on endless supply of patience.
We logged almost 5,000 miles in that van that became our home on my quest for Florida. I hoped to see the state through Stetson and Zora’s eyes. I looked for what they saw. I searched for scraps of Florida abandoned along her backroads.
Out of those miles grew the tours you will read here: the ultimate Florida road trip.
These tours share much with the Guide to the Southernmost State, but they differ, too. I was following 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 was also recreating, one more time, Florida’s story – and mine.
This tour is the best thing I have ever done.
As I work my way through a series of edits to these tours, so graciously provided my by awesome thesis committee at the Florida Studies Program at USF–St. Petersburg, I’ll post parts of my work here. I want your feedback, of course, but most of all, I’d love it if you would throw a bag in the back of your car, grab a road map, and join me on this great Florida adventure.