Re-Introducing the Guide to the Southernmost State

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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.