Tag Archives: Backroads of Paradise

Jimmy Buffett, My Dad, and Florida Road Trips

A man in glasses and a woman in glasses. They are father and daughter, down by the water, like in the Jimmy Buffett song

Jimmy Buffett died last night.

This isn’t a post about that, not really.

While I’ll miss hearing new music from him, I don’t mourn him. I didn’t know him; I have no illusions that I had a clue about the man behind the legend. Few similarities exist between the Gulf and Western icon father and my own dad, but I feel a heartbreaking kinship of mourning with his daughters.

A few weeks ago, my dad died unexpectedly.

I have a lot of wonderful memories of my father. His death was so unexpected, and still so raw, that those memories still assault me at odd times. Grief is like, my friend Tamara says, a ball banging around inside a box. Sometimes it slams into the side of the box, and other times, it doesn’t, and you never know what it’s going to be.

In Backroads of Paradise, I wrote about my earliest experience with Florida’s salt water, with my dad, as we made our way to what would be our forever home in Clearwater:

“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 such hushed worship in his voice.

I nodded and peered out the window, feeling something new and familiar inside my chest as I gazed at the sandy landscape offering itself to me. I recognized this, much later, as the sense of coming to where I needed to be.

I figure today y’all will see a lot of “Margaritaville” tributes to Jimmy Buffett on social media, but I never had much use for that song. I’ve always been a bigger fan of his B-sides (so much so I wrote this review about his concert a few years ago.)

One song in particular, “Delaney Talks to Statues” has a special place in my heart. Since the day I first heard it, made me think of every wonderful thing about my dad.

Father, daughter/Down by the water

We moved to Florida when I was 7. I loved going to the beach with my dad. Some weekend mornings, we’d get up early and go to Clearwater Beach. Early mornings at the beach — before the crowds — is when you might find shells. I still have some of those shells we collected down by the water so many years ago.

Shells sink, dreams float

There’s a lot more to say about my dad — a lot that doesn’t have anything at all to do with Jimmy Buffett — but one giant takeaway is that he instilled in me a love of road trips.

Shortly after we moved to Florida, my dad had surgery, and he couldn’t work for a few months. Once he recovered enough to drive, though, we’d go on long drives and talk.

This continued for years. As an angsty teen, I’d go for drives with him, and he’d let me talk. He always treated me like an adult in those conversations, those wonderful, rambling conversations that unfolded and went in different directions, much as the roadways we traveled. We never set out with a destination; we simply drove and talked, talked and drove. I saw a lot of Florida’s central west coast on those drives with my father. I remember a lot of trees on those drives, and a lot of love.

Life’s good on our boat

While I won’t paint everything as sunshine and roses in our home growing up — I hate how people deify the dead — I will say that yes, overall, life was good on our (metaphorical) boat. I had two parents who loved each other, loved me, and made sure I knew it. We didn’t have lots of money for big cross-country or international vacations, but we took road trips. My mom and dad both embraced Florida life, never once looking backwards to what they’d left behind in New York. I credit them both with a lot: Instilling in me a love for Florida, for facing life head-on, even when it hurts to do so, and for all the good parts of me.

The Captain and The Kid

My dad and I had a wonderful relationship. Oh, sure, we fought. More than once he left my home in a fit of anger, but he always came back, and there was always a hug and “I love you” after the fight. There’s not a day I’ve been alive when I ever doubted my father’s love.

And in my memories, my love for Florida is tangled up with my parents and their love for it. My passion for road trips is forever linked to those drives I’d take with my dad.

The last drive we took was in 2019, shortly after I’d left full-time work at a local alt weekly. We drove south over the Skyway, out to Anna Maria (another beach we’d visited as a family when I was younger). We drove as far south as we could along the barrier islands, then turned around and headed north along US 41.

That would be our last road trip together.

My dad and I talked about when we could go again, but then… the pandemic came. After that, my dad had some health issues that made longer road trips unpleasant for him. Finally, a few weeks ago, when he was the healthiest he’d been in decades and at the cusp of being able to take a longer drive with me once more, a freak set of circumstances meant we’d never take a road trip together again.

And so this morning when my husband read me the news of Jimmy Buffett’s death, my first thought was of my father — and then of Buffett’s daughters. Because I didn’t know the man, but I knew a man a lot like the man who sang about his daughters.

And so I close with this thought from another Jimmy Buffett song I love; one that also evokes images of my dad, and also my grandfathers: And though I cried, I was so proud/To love a man so rare.

‘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.

How we found the best island in the Florida Panhandle

Part two: The best five days in July

Missed part one? Read it now.

Stopping only at the local grocery (no, not even a supermarket, simply a grocery store) for ice, we motor south as fast as an aging SUV pulling a travel trailer can go, which is to say not so very fast. We drive and drive and drive (this may have felt like a longer drive than it was because of the rain and the underlying fear we’d lose out on a fantastic campsite) and break out of the forest onto the shores of the northern Gulf of Mexico, head slightly west, and then cross the Bryant Grady Patton Bridge. As we cross the swooping bridge, I roll down my window and suck in a lungful of sweet, salty air.

The sand dunes at St. George Island State Park. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

We’d landed on St. George Island and had found a last-minute campsite at Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park (St. George Island State Park to its friends) through some combination of a merciful park manager and my ability to use a Florida Gazetteer.

While working on “Backroads of Paradise“, we’d tent camped at this park. I took some amazing photographs of the amazing sand dunes (I’m a sucker for sand dunes), then promptly forgot I’d ever visited it… until we returned.

The first time we’d spent any time along the coast of the Florida panhandle, I’d asked Barry if he wanted to move there. He reminded me that I put on sweatpants when the mercury dropped below 80º and suggested perhaps we should simply visit. Despite that, we haven’t spent any time of consequence in the area in almost eight years which, by my calculations, is eight years too long.

It’s a no-brainer that the beach is the big deal here, but the trails, too, are lovely. Pine trees – longleaf pines used to cover this part of the state, until the St. Joe Paper Company ripped them out for lumber and pencils and replanted with a faster-growing type of pine tree that, yes, looks almost as lovely but also changed the ecology of the area – pine trees abound here, close to the dunes.

Photo by Cathy Salustri.

We spend some time on the beach, and more time exploring the trails. There’s almost no cell service to speak of, so when it rains I read or work on a puzzle or pretend to write. We drive in to town and meander through the neighborhoods. We go back to the market – it’s definitely not a supermarket, more of a local grocer – to restock, and stop for ice cream. We take our bikes on a trail at the east end of the park, turning back when storm clouds darken the sky. I make friends with a tiny frog standing guard over our electrical hookup.

If loving a (blurry photo of a frog with a wonky leg is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

The panhandle has a long, tragic history with hurricanes, and some of the trails still haven’t reopened since Hurricane Michael. Many of the homes outside the park sit perched on concrete stilts; we even had to climb a flight of stairs to get to the ice cream shop. There are a few cheeky birds who take more than a passing interest in what we’re cooking, going to far as to swoop in on our dinner as it cooks on the grill.

At one point we had four cardinals and few other birds within five feet of our food as it cooked on the grill. The presence of two (admittedly unmotivated) dogs didn’t seem to phase them. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

We had a gorgeous, serene stay, and when the Fourth of July passes without a single firework (on behalf of my anxiety-ridden coonhound, I’d like to thank the Florida Parks Service), I’m already trying to plan a trip back, ashamed that I’d basically forgotten we’d camped there before.

I will not forget again.