Re-Introducing the Guide to the Southernmost State

(New here? Start with What’s this, now?)

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.

Cathy Salustri with Calypso
Calypso and I as we prepare to enter Florida from the North. We were giddy with anticipation. Well, I was. Calypso probably had to pee.
 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.

This tour is the best thing I have ever done.

The Grinch on the road
We also took the Grinch as part of an exchange program – my friend Leah took my stuffed hula girl to Greece.

Prologue

(New here? Start with What’s this, now?)

 July 1, 1980
 
My grandfather’s sun-honed face twisted and paled as we turned off I-10 and entered the final leg of our southwest journey down US 301. As we passed bleached wood, cracker houses and dingy brown cedar sheds, his tanned forehead furrowed, drawing his coarse eyebrows tighter and tighter until the bushy lines above his dark eyes seemed a thin ridge of curly dark hair.
 
Perched on stilts, houses sat, no shutters or covering save grime and webs. Underneath and alongside them, a ragtag fleet of pickup trucks with rusted wheel wells, oxidized roofs, and dented fenders shared weed patches with Jon boats, the only difference the boats’ marginally better maintenance and the occasional trailer elevating them off dirt patches. Washing machines, sun-bleached farm equipment, and a mise-en-scene of auto parts greeted us anew at each home.
 
My grandfather sucked in air, his silence crowding our 1976 maroon Buick Regal. “This,” I can only imagine him thinking, “is worse than what I left in Italy. This is what I have worked my whole life to give my son? That they move to a slum in the South?
 
“This” referred to Florida, the interior parts of the state detailed along US 301, the parts of the Sunshine State not photographed by the Florida Tourism Board. “They” referred to my father, my mother, and me, a seven-year-old whose greatest field trip in life, prior to the three-day journey to Florida from New York, was a dead heat between the Bronx Zoo (where a goat ate my coat) and seeing Peter Pan on Broadway (my mom and I rode the train into the city and I ate a pretzel from a street vendor).
 
In a chain of events too complex for a young brain to comprehend, my parents decided to leave Westchester County, New York and move to Clearwater, Florida. While they knew the drive’s end result – a small two bedroom just miles from then-pristine Clearwater Beach – my grandfather, who had come along to help, did not.
 
Eventually we turned our cruise-ship sized car onto Interstate 275, where the landscape grew noticeably tidier and steadily more sanitized. Our orange-striped Jar-Tran moving truck dutifully followed the car as we made our way to Clearwater.
 
I had visited before – our new home was my other grandparents’ vacation home – but the moment I saw the sparkling teal water of Tampa Bay, it eclipsed every other memory in my as-of-yet fully formed brain. 
 
The aquamarine-studded water of Tampa Bay bounced the sparkling sun into our car and the salt formed diamond crystals on my grubby, sweaty cheeks.
 
“Look at that, Cath,” my dad said, his voice reverent. “Look at how clear it is, not like Staten Island at all.” My father still made the sign of the cross on himself when we passed Catholic churches, but not until this moment had I heard that hushed worship in his voice.
 
I nodded and peered out the window, feeling something new and familiar in the sandy landscape offering itself to me. I recognized this later – much later – as that I had come to where I needed to be.
 
I fell in love with the water that day, but as I got older I felt the inexorable pull of the other parts of Florida, too. I love SCUBA diving, low tide is a sacred time, and, most surprisingly, I have fallen hopelessly in love with the weathered corners of Florida.
 
These corners don’t fit with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s image: they are our skeletons. The chambers and tourism boards want quite keenly to present a fresh and clean land of white beaches and sparkling waters. In turn we have convinced ourselves that we need to make sure our guests never see that side of Florida – that schmaltzy, chintzy, broken-down, rusted-out Florida.
 
But I love that Florida just as much as I love the one where crabs scurry around the intertidal zone, where skimming my fingers just beneath the sand yields handfuls of sand dollars. My parents, New York natives both, didn’t behave as the typical “carpetbaggers,” as my grandfather later referred to everyone who came to Florida after us. My parents didn’t travel 1,300 miles to turn a fast buck or recreate a slice of Little Italy or Whatever County, Michigan. They moved here because of what Florida offered them, not what they thought they could get her to surrender.
 
I, like my parents and countless settlers before them, have not tried to claim Florida. Instead I have let the state claim me. Almost thirty years later I travel Florida still, looking for parts I may have missed, seeking them out before they fade away under the heavy blight of strip malls and jet skis.
 
Today I seek Florida on roads that parallel the Interstates, rattling along with the same excitement I felt at age seven. My beaches have changed and the strip malls may one day win, but as I troll the back roads, I remain forever in search of that secret, schmaltzy, backwoods, state, where the sun-bleached roadside shacks remain constant. I feel the quickening inside me as a sense of the familiar envelops me. It is the same sense of simultaneous longing and recognition I first felt as the salt water opened itself before me.
 
It is the feeling of coming home.

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.

Florida road trips.