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.
My book has a title and a release date. Well, a release month: October.
And the title? Oh, yeah: Backroads of Paradise.
So far, I’ve seen two of the blurbs for it — Craig Pittman and Gary Mormino (those of you who know him will not at all be shocked when that link doesn’t take you to an author website), both accomplished authors for whom I have great respect — and they both have wonderful things to say.
And that’s all I have, which is a lot of me jumping up and down and going “At last! It’s been five years since I started planning this road trip, and now, it’s a book. With pages. And a cover. And a press to manage all the crappy details I don’t want to deal with!”
So, yeah, that’s “all I have” but it’s still pretty big in Cathy-world.
As soon as it’s available for pre-order, which should be a few months yet, I’ll post the links here. And, well, pretty much everywhere else.
“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.
(This is the fifth and final leg of the Lake Okeechobee tour. Read the first part here. New here? Start with What’s this, now?)
Further north, Pahokee looks poorer still, perhaps because of more of those colonial–styled estates interspersed with even more decrepit housing projects and shuttered businesses. Sugar cane is everywhere. As we drive I try and picture where the bodies of the 1928 storm were buried – not all graves were marked – and in my mind I see a jumble of arms and legs and fire and piles and piles of sugar. There’s a fire in the distance; burning cane crops is part of the farming practice. Burning the fields leaves only the stalk, making it easier for the few remaining workers – machines do most of the work today – to harvest the cane.
Port Myaca is the lone spot along the road where we can see the lake instead of a neatly mowed levee. It is also where we begin to leave the cane fields behind. Between here and the top of the lake, lunkers, not sugar cane, are the order of the day. Lunkers, or largemouth bass, make for big business here. Fishing camps dot the northeast quadrant of the lake between Port Mayaca and Okeechobee. If agriculture has attempted to triumph over the lake and Glades on its south side, fishing has learned to harmonize with both on the north end. It is a wholly more pleasant sight for me; I’ve never caught a hawg, or even tried, but after the desperation of Pahokee and Belle Glade, the unassuming fish camps soothe me with their contrast. There are still farms here (largely palms) but the presence of something at work with the environment instead of against it eases the ache I felt in Belle Glade.Taylor Creek marks the top of the lake and also the least-impoverished city along the pond, although it, like the others, contains a fair share of derelict buildings. It also caters more to tourists, although judging by the wealth of fishing camps and bait shops, visitors here have a different idea of paradise than those flocking to see Mickey Mouse just two hours away.
At the western edge of Taylor Creek we stop and walk out to the levee. I still yearn to see a water moccasin, but after Clewiston I hold little hope. We park, this time taking an antsy Calypso, and walk up the levee.
Here the lake seems less wild; there are more buildings and boaters and a man collecting trash from the ramp leading up to the levee. A tractor rests on the inside of the levee on a patch of grass, and a blue heron stares at us. East of our vantage point, a chain link fence separates the heron from a neatly mowed backyard. West of us a barge sits unattended, a colorful sign advertising “ICE SNACKS” in hand-painted lavender letters. White marshmallow clouds over the lake begin to lower themselves and darken.
It’s time to go.
On its west side, Okeechobee grows wilder as it seems to spread out. Here we find fewer signs of development, save the odd gas station, house, or government building. Fields of cattle interspersed with cabbage palm line most of the roadway. In Moore Haven, we see a landfill on the lake side of the road, easily the highest point along the route and marked by crows and vultures soaring overhead. Prison inmates help with road construction, holding “STOP” and “SLOW” signs as we chug along the lake’s perimeter. When one of them switches “SLOW” to “STOP” and stop at the front of the line, he pantomimes asking for a cigarette. We shake our heads no and I find myself wondering what one does in this area of Florida to get thrown in jail. The Moore Haven jail offers no more than medium security. It houses fewer than 1,000 inmates, all male.
Once we come full circle around the pond, I am still at a loss to describe the lake. Despite severe alteration to the landscape, it feels like a forgotten and untouched part of the state. It also leaves me with an alternating sense of wonder and melancholy. Part of me looks for a way to empathize with the needs filled by businesses and farms whose owners shaped these tragic decisions, but I cannot find it. Part of me is in awe of the lake and the surrounding communities; earning a living here cannot be easy, even for the wealthier: they battle mosquitoes, snakes, gators, and hurricanes with alarming regularity. This part of Florida, despite our attempt to control it, is still frontier. Despite neat rows of sugar cane and peppers and palms, the lake and the sky still rule this corner of the Sunshine State.
Neatly ordered rows of farmland escort the route east until the Loxahatchee area, where subdivisions, strip malls, and golf courses rise up to meet the road until it ends in West Palm Beach at A1A. From Loxahatchee east, the density of the Palm Beach suburbs are a blur after the wide open rolling green of the southernmost interior, and it is almost a culture shock to see farms pushed up against the rows of development. The homes line up along the road in much the same way, just moments ago, sugar cane and tomatoes and peas did.
“State 25, the direct route from Palm Beach on the Atlantic to Fort Myers and the Gulf coast, crosses the northern section of the Everglades, America’s largest swamp, its 4,000 square miles far exceeding the extent of the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and North Florida. The route follows the shore of Lake Okeechobee, encircled with fertile black fields growing great quantities of winter vegetables and sugar cane. Passing through the open range country of central Florida, reminiscent of the Old West with its cowboys and herds of range cattle, the highway follows the Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers and the Gulf Coast at Punta Rassa, fringed with sand flats and low-lying keys overgrown with mangroves.” – The Guide to the Southernmost State, 1939
Florida cowboys. If you don’t spend time in Florida’s inland areas, that sounds odd. Florida doesn’t have cowboys; the West has cowboys. Florida, by comparison, has beaches and sand and Disney. Somewhere between those beaches and the mighty mouse, though, Florida has cows. Lots and lots of cows. Since Ponce de Leon dropped off the first herd in 1521, Florida’s cattle industry has kept the interior of the state alive: today, Florida ranks 12th in the country for the number of beef cows, with four million acres of pasture and another one million acres of woodland used for grazing.
As we plod along the lower swampy third of the state, there’s no doubt that Florida’s chief land use has more to do with working the land than sunning oneself upon it: this route has pasture and planted fields in abundance.
And about that route – we added to it. In 1939, the tour ran in a straight line from West Palm Beach to Punta Rassa, but as long as we’re here we’ve decided to make a circle around Lake Okeechobee. Without stops, it should take us just under four hours. Prior to this, the only way I’ve seen Lake Okeechobee is from the right seat of a Grumman Traveler, a low-wing, four-seater prop plane. The pilot indulged me and tree-topped over the lake, swooping down low so I could get a good look at the big water. That day, our little plane followed a series of locks west to the Gulf coast. Beyond that, though, I’ve only read about the lake, heard stories about the lake, wondered about the lake.
Many of the stories come from Barry, who’s a boat captain by trade and used to do quite a few lake deliveries. If you’re trying to get a boat from one side of Florida to the other – and the owner’s paying you a flat rate – you don’t go around Florida’s southern tip. You cut through the lake, using the channelized St. Lucie River on the east and the Caloosahatchee River on the west. On the east, State Road 76 follows the river; State Road 80 more loosely follows the Caloosahatchee on the west.
A series of locks keeps the water where the state water management districts think it should be, which means they keep the lake from flooding sugarcane fields, which reallymeans the locks keep Big Sugar happy – more on that in a bit. For boat deliveries and pleasure cruises, this means captains must time their trips by when they can get through the locks and bridges. Heading towards the lake, the water level rises with each lock. Heading away from the lake, the water level drops. State engineers only allow the lake to touch outside water at roughly twenty fixed points.
Before we reach the lake we must cross State Road 80. We leave our cozy spot at Koreshan State Park (See Tour 4) and move east through the swamp.
Okeechobee drains south into the Everglades, east into the Atlantic, and west into the Gulf of Mexico. On the Caloosahatchee River’s western edge, Sanibel and Captiva Islands are connected to the mainland with a bridge. Motorists pay $6 to cross over into Sanibel, the larger of the two islands at just over 10 miles long. Sanibel is barely a mile wide at most parts, with its widest part stretching maybe three miles across. The island resembles Fort Myers, Cape Coral, and the mainland cities on the other side of the bridge in much the same way a bulldozer resembles a palm tree. Sanibel has one main road, a two-lane affair lined by a bicycle path that seems more crowded than the road. The highest building on the island is the Sanibel Lighthouse, painted a deep brown that contrasts with the color-washed island.
The cottages, homes and shops that pepper the island mimic the colors of the tropical jungle they exist between: shocks of fuchsia bougainvillea explode between coral and lemon cottages, peach hibiscus frame the crosswalks, and orange birds of paradise flower between lime green traveler palms, red Poinciana, and soft green pine trees leading to the beach.
Shells on the beach mirror and mute the colors of the island: pink Florida fighting conch, cerulean lion’s paw, and lavender olive shells blot out the sand. Sanibel’s crescent shape and its position along the edge of Florida make it an ideal landing place for shells getting washed along the sea bed.
“Sanibel Island is notable for the number and variety of sea shells on its beaches. Every tide and storm wash ashore thousands of specimens of some 300 varieties. Among them are the multicolored calico shells, of which the pale lemon-yellow is the rarest; the lion’s paw, a dark orange-red; the white, bowl-shaped, yellow-lined buttercup, which comes from deep water and is seldom found in pairs; the delicately scalloped rose cockle, its interior shading from pale salmon pink to deep rose, and often tinged with orange and purple; the large red-brown cockle, used for souvenirs and in the manufacture of trays, lamps, and other objects; the fragile white angel’s wing; the Chinese alphabet, a smooth white shell with curious markings; and the slender polished olive, tapering at both ends and shading from dark brown to light tan, also called the Panama shell. Perhaps rarest of all is the junonia, a deep-sea mollusk, its creamy white exterior marked with spiral rows of square brown or orange spots. Perfect junonia specimens have sold for $200. Florida shore life is described in Florida Sea Shells (1936), by B.D.E.Aldrich and E.Snyder. The Sanibel Sea Shell Fair is held annually in February.”
Not much has changed since then. On February 17, the Sanibel Captiva Shell Cub kicked off its seventy-fifth annual shell fair (“Shellabration”) with the Sanibel Stoop. The Sanibel Stoop is named after the stooped over posture of a shell collector as they scour the beach for cockles, sand dollars, and coquina. During the Sanibel Stoop event at the fair, shellers gather along the beach en masse to stoop over as if looking for shells. The fair includes other things – shell lectures, shell salesman, shell books, to name a few – but make no mistake: people come here to hunt for shells. The hunt along the beach, the thrill at finding a perfect Scotch Bonnet, the ache in your lower back at the end of the day – this is Sanibel’s allure for shell collectors.
Shellers aside, Sanibel appeals to tourists seeking old Florida, or, at the very least, the picture they keep in their head of old Florida. The island does not disappoint. It has no stop lights, no chain stores (except for one Dairy Queen, grandfathered in when the island enacted tight growth management practices), and Sanibel still looks much as the Guide describes it:
“The island, 2 miles wide and approximately 12 miles long, is a State game preserve; native and migratory birds are plentiful and can be studied at close range; wild flowers grow profusely in spring and summer; the Gulf and bay offer excellent fishing at all seasons.”
The Guide makes little mention of development on the island, and that holds true today. While there is no shortage of colorful, quaint beach bungalows, time shares, and inns that will take your money in exchange for a night or two on the island, they come second to the natural splendor. Sanibel seems content to fade behind the brilliant colors of blue wildflowers, roseate spoonbills, and purple donax. The island explodes in a stunning array of color, from fuchsia bougainvillea peeking out from every white picket fence to buttery yellow frangipani lining the bike path that runs the length of the island. This is not an island where you come with a purpose; this is an island where you come to absorb the scents and pace of Florida.
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.