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 Studies and the Sour Orange Margarita

 

Oranges in central Florida, perfect for sour orange margaritas
Introducing the sour orange margarita. Pictured: oranges at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, where many of the formerly orderly groves now have wild offspring. Yes, you can find sour oranges here. 
Photo by Cathy Salustri

How chasing a master’s degree in Florida Studies led to the creation of the first-ever sour orange margarita.

Ever since I took the Florida Foodways class (karma’s bitch, by the way), I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of a Florida cocktail. I even attempted to research it, which, according to my professor, didn’t work out for me, but hey, that could have been the whole itching powder thing a few years back or just crappy research on my part. Whatever. Anyway, when I couldn’t find a definitive Florida cocktail, I got to thinking that I could come up with one. I worked with key lime margaritas for a while, but when the Florida Studies program went to Fisheating Creek a few months ago, I grabbed a handful of sour oranges growing wild there. I wasted that batch on a sour orange pie that I didn’t really care for, but when the faculty went back last week two of them were kind enough to make sure I got a fresh batch. I’ll try sour orange pie again, but until then…

Florida Studies Sour Orange Margarita

Mull all but one slice of key lime covered with a healthy dose of Tupelo honey (purchased on north Florida field trip with the Florida Geography class); add to shaker.
Add ice, and then…
5 counts tequila
4 counts triple sec
and the juice from one sour orange.

Shake. Serve with or without ice; garnish with key lime slice.

See? Higher education… it’s a good thing!

Related: More than sour orange margaritas

Try my recipe for sour orange cider and sour orange pie.

This post initially appeared on my former blogspot site.

Florida road trips.