Tag Archives: Stetson Kennedy

Backroads of Paradise

Five. Years.

Backroads of Paradise
I don’t remember what we were going to do last night, but we ended up looking at the book and smiling.

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:Facebook "On this day" Stetson Kennedy 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.

What’s This, Now?

WPA map of Florida
The Guide to the Southernmost State, circa 1939

What’s this, now?

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.