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‘Backroads of Paradise’ in pictures

The chief complaint about Backroads of Paradise — right after “it’s too awesome! I can’t take all the awesome-osity!” — is the lack of photos. That, incidentally, was not my call; it was a budget thing. University Press of Florida did offer me black and white photos, but I asked to include the basic route maps you will find at the start of each chapter instead, because in speaking around the state it became apparent people didn’t know where a lot of these places were, and I felt the route maps would better help with context.

But I did take photos — and UPF has published them online, where you can see them in their glory. (They’re also available for sale, if you see one you just have to have)

Take a look at Backroads of Paradise in pictures.

Of course, if you don’t have your copy of Backroads of Paradise yet, get one here.

Thinking of moving to Florida?

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

After Backroads of Paradise appeared in the New York Times a few weeks ago, I received an email from a New Yorker looking to move to Florida.

 I saw your article in the NYT and I wanted to reach out to you for some insight on Florida.  My wife and I live in NY in Westchester County about 30 minutes outside midtown Manhattan. We moved to Westchester from the city to have a different life for our two young kids, 4 and 18 months. Were we live is gorgeous but the more my wife and I talk the more we are looking for a more peaceful warm way of life for us and our kids.  I’m pretty sure I cannot make the same amount of money in Florida as I do in NY but we are open to a change. My question is, we want a nice safe place for our kids with a great school district.  We were looking in Naples and I was wondering what your thoughts are on that location, and where specifically you would recommend.  Lastly, if you would suggest that type of lifestyle for young kids? Any information you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
The answer I gave him is appropriate for anyone considering a move to the Sunshine State. Here’s what I wrote:
I am so glad you asked. Every day, it seems, I meet people who had a dream of moving to Florida but bought into the fantasy without thinking it through. Florida is my Paradise —trust me, I’d argue few people love it more —  but before you move here, I implore you to consider if you’re really ready for it.
See, you see warmer weather and a more peaceful way of life, and yes, that is true. But along with the warm weather — it’s February and my town was 80º today — you’re going to see a dramatic slowdown. Life here is quite different than Westchester (I lived in Port Chester as a child and go back to visit loved ones periodically); it’s not simply slower-paced and warmer. We take our time, we laugh a lot, we make time to take time — and this comes at a cost. What that cost is, I honestly can’t say, but it’s anathema to many New Yorkers, who seem gravely offended by our slower pace: “How do you get anything done?” my cousin once asked me, and I couldn’t answer him but to say, “I have no clue, but we do.”
I have been ushered out of my office at 5 p.m. on the dot and offered a “work beer” at 11 a.m., but it’s Saturday night as I answer you and I’m still working, too. It’s a dichotomy that some people can’t stomach. Florida exists in colorful grey areas, not the blacks and whites of some northern towns. There rules are different here, our old commercial said — and it wasn’t wrong. The mistake is thinking there are no rules.
Florida exists in this weird Southern limbo, too — we are not the Deep South; we are the New South, and yes, that matters. We are not confederates, try as some may to change that sliver of history: We were the only state in the South whose capital didn’t fall the Union, yes, but in Key West — a much more strategic city than Tallahassee, militarily speaking — the Union conquered, then allowed the locals to stay because, well, the rules are different here.  But we don’t have the heritage of the Deep South; ours is not a slave culture married to white; ours is Caribbean married to transplants to indigenous people to frontiersmen. It’s… not easy. I can’t explain it, but we’re different here and no, we don’t mind a bit.
To become Floridian, you have to shift your mind when you move here; it’s not simply a smaller paycheck and better winters; it’s slower. Everything. Is. Slower. We roll up the sidewalks at dark, because, well, that sun’s hot. And yes, there are places to play after the sun sets, but there’s a lot of drinking at those places. And sometimes it’s hard not to drink too much — after all, isn’t Florida a permanent party? Actually, no, it’s not. It’s not, unless you want that. And if your kids grow up here, they’ll learn that balance, but it’s the older transplants who seem to struggle.  And that’s why I write you. Your children will love it here; Florida is a playground for a child. Your kids will learn to throw a cast net, fish for tarpon, play outside when their old school chums are bundled in snow gear and probably have at least a few friends who can take them boating. But it’s hard sometimes for adults to let go. How will you embrace Florida? How will you let go of your northern ideals?
And also I beg you: Please don’t expect things to be the same as up north — one of the quickest ways to alienate us is to remind us that the pizza, bagels, etc., are better up north or to say “that’s not how we do it up north.” We know that; that’s why we’re here. 😉
So if all that doesn’t dissuade you, let’s talk neighborhoods. Because, no, we’re not talking cities; we’re talking block by block, and the biggest thing is finding a neighborhood that works for you. Naples doesn’t strike me as family-friendly, but as much as I’ve traveled Florida, remember, we’re big — Naples is as far from my home as Delaware is from yours. How much do you know of Delaware? That’s what I’m about to tell you about Naples. From my seat, I see lots of suburbs without a lot of trees and in Florida, trees matter. It’s not Florida in the same sense, perhaps, as the Florida you seek.
Perhaps investigate Coral Gables, Marco Island, Sanibel, and others. It depends on how you see yourself living in Florida; if you want to make boating and fishing a priority, move close to the water. If you want a big city feel, go for Miami or even St. Pete (although St. Pete has a different vibe than Miami). But most importantly — and something many people don’t take time to do — if you’re thinking of becoming Floridian, do yourselves a favor and take two weeks to a month and drive the state. Stop at the local eateries, look at the schools as they get out every day. Look at the cars, look at the yards. Go to the grocery stores — we worship a place called Publix here — and see what food you can’t get. Can you live with what you see?
Before you even take that road trip — and I hope you do — consider this:
Florida has two migration patterns. To discern them, look at the Interstates. I-95 runs down the eastern seaboard, and so many of the towns along Florida’s east coast (especially, markedly southeast Florida) have a New York feel. That’s a lot for me, and my parents — and we were born in New Rochelle, Yonkers and Sleepy Hollow. Down the west coast, though, you see traces of the midwest, which is a lot of friendliness but sometimes not as much on the “things to do after dark.”
Naples is less intense than, say, West Palm Beach, but more so than St. Pete. Your kids would have a great time in any of the small towns dotting either coast, because, well, they are kids and kids love to play and they adapt. Adults, not so much.
I would, of course, heartily tell you that my town, Gulfport, is the best, but I’m biased. I love that my town feels like the Florida I remember from 1980. What I encourage you to do is find the Florida you seek, the Florida that exists in your dreams, and move there.
That may not be the answer you wanted, but really, it’s the best answer I can give. What do you want from Florida? What do you seek? Search it out and, when you find it, move there.
Let me know if you need something more specific. I fear this isn’t the answer you seek.

Road Trip: Cross Creek, sour oranges and a lawsuit

I love pie, and I love Florida.

Some people would tell you the quintessential Florida pie involves key limes and well, I’m not about to argue. I will, however, suggest a forgotten pie, one that, while less universally known than key lime, has a more distinctive Florida taste: The sour orange pie.

For half a millennia — let that sink in — sour oranges, not the juicy Valencia or eminently snack-able honeybees (also called minneolas), were the order of the orange day in Florida. Now, if you love the sweet tang of a morning glass of OJ, this was not the orange for you.

However, it makes one hell of a pie. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find.

Unless you know where to go.

Want to know more? Read more in my June 2016 Road Trip for Creative Loafing Tampa.