Tag Archives: Florida History

Here Be Dragons

Earlier this month, we visited Myakka River State Park, known for its alligators.

Myakka River State Park, Florida’s largest state park, lies less than a mile from my Gulfport home, but once you’re inside the park, if you didn’t already know how close you were to the most densely populated county in Florida, you’d never believe it.

The travel trailer’s relatively new to us, so every time we camp we find things to tweak. We bought a Viking 17FQ in March; we bought it used, but only a little bit – whoever owned it before didn’t do much to modify it. That means that, right now, every trip includes a hefty dose of wildlife, nature, and organization. One of these things, you may note, is not like the other.

On this trip, the takeaway for me was this: Unexpected digital detoxes don’t work for me.  Don’t get me wrong – I love being away from my computer and phone. Just… not unexpectedly. Not when I’d planned on using down time in the park to finish writing a pitch to a magazine, clear out emails, and start re-designing this site.

I should have known better than to trust I’d have cell service in the park. My rationale was simple, but flawed: the park’s not even 10 miles from Honore Road, a main thoroughfare in Sarasota. Reader, it’s a long, gorgeous 10 miles and, as with so many other parts of Florida, it’s metaphorically much farther, and by the time we passed the park entrance, I watched bars vanish and realized I wouldn’t get much work done.

Overall, that was OK. Sure, we did drive to a part of the park where we had a weak signal so we could send a few last-minute emails that had to go out that day, and yes, we did look ridiculous holding our phones up in the middle of this raw wild place, trying to get enough of a signal to text the petsitter, but nothing bad happened. No one died.

For the average traveler, going without cell service is no big deal. So you miss Twitter for a few days; so what? For someone who earns her living writing about traveling through Florida, though, being able to use the internet while traveling is an efficient necessity.

And so our latest tweak is a cellular antenna and mobile hotspot. I have no desire to get into the mechanics of how that works, except to say it’s delightful to explain to the quite-young clerk at Best Buy what an antenna does. By “delightful” I mean, of course, “reminding you that you’re middle aged and, to that clerk’s mind, ancient.”

I’ll let you know if it works – we’re headed into north Florida soon, and I have high hopes (and also plenty of books downloaded on my iPad in case it doesn’t. I’m optimistic but also a realist.)

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Very famous Florida cows

A return to the Florida road trip…

Last week on Twitter, someone posed the question, “What small decision did you make last February that brought *all this* about?”

https://twitter.com/MeredithIreland/status/1363884153016446977
Karma’s a bitch.

With a shocking disregard for karma, I did two things: I announced I would visit a different state park at least once a month, and, in looking at the freelance writing and speaking gigs I had lined up for the coming year, told my husband I was confident 2020 would be my best year, financially speaking, since I started freelancing in 2003.

Shortly thereafter, the Florida State Park system closed all the parks for about six weeks (the parks closed on March 23 and reopened May 4) and most of my speaking gigs evaporated. I spent most of March, April, and May taking long walks, making hand sanitizer, and, yes, baking. I also made my own ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, pressure washed the house, reorganized the back porch, made a 12-foot valance for the bedroom window, and spent a lot of time in the pool. I dipped my toes into World of Warcraft. Oh, and my husband and I – with the help of our community – bought a newspaper.

Here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t write or speak about Florida. Somewhere towards June, some of my talks rematerialized as Zoom talks. I did finish a draft of my next Florida book for my editor, who has the patience of… well, someone editing a writer, and I plodded along on my fiction series.

But man, I missed my road trips. In late September, I wanted to see a different part of Florida, and the world started to realize we could navigate the pandemic somewhat safely, so we packed the car and headed for a long weekend in Ormond Beach. We carefully chose a hotel with separate a/c units for each room, packed hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, and headed for the east coast.

I tried not to take it as an omen that a tropical storm formed over the state as we crossed Florida. We spent a delightfully cozy, wet days on the Atlantic, but hey, we’d arrived in a different part of the state, with a different body of water, and our room had a balcony fronting it.

In October, we tried again, for our anniversary. We chose an Air B&B above a barn, packed groceries, and looked forward to two nights on a farm in Vero Beach.

When our newspaper delivery driver called us in the middle of the night to tell us she’d had an accident in the delivery van, well, it wasn’t an omen, exactly… more par for the course for 2020.

When the calendar flipped to 2021, I wasn’t about to declare that 2021 would be better, or my year to travel, or any of those other karma-tempting, pandemic-inducing sentiments. But, slowly, the freelance assignments have started to return. In January, USA Today asked me to write about Florida road trips for their 10 Best website.

While I technically didn’t need to re-create my first assignment (Anna Maria Island to Fort Pierce, A1A north to Vero Beach, back to Clearwater, and through Pinellas to return to AMI), I think most people can understand the strong desire to get out of the house in 2021. An overnight bag went into the car, just in case we needed to spend the night somewhere, along with the (by now) standard sanitizer/masks/wipes combo pack.

overgrown mural at Shonda's Souvenir's in Florida – photo by Cathy Salustri
The deserted but ever-colorful Shonda’s Souvenirs has a new resident: a pair of osprey (not pictured, clearly)

I say “just in case” but I wasn’t kidding anyone: Once I had a paying reason to drive across Florida, I was getting a full road trip out of the deal. I saw scrub jays at Lake June-in-Winter, and not just a couple – for the first time in my life, I saw a sentinel scrub jay, which is exactly what it sounds like. I watched two osprey build a nest atop a colossal pineapple at Shonda’s Souvenirs. I soaked in every salty and oak-covered scrap of the innards of Florida.

That was day one. Day two brought me back to Lake Kissimmee State Park, where I once spent a petrified night convinced a serial killer was lurking outside my tent (spoiler alert: it was a family of sandhill cranes.) On this trip, I visited the 1876 cow camp exhibit, where volunteers re-enact life at a 19th-century Florida cow camp.

I normally don’t love re-enactments, but, again, this was for an assignment, and I felt duty-bound to check out the cow camp. We plodded along a serene, wooded trail to the camp, and I’m so glad we did.

The Florida cowboy – and Florida cattle – aren’t quite like Old West cowboys. They crack whips to control cattle, hence the “cracker” moniker. And Florida cows – the original Florida cows – have the honor of being the first cows in North America, brought her by Spanish conquistadors and raised by the ancestors of the Seminole Indians and early Euro-American settlers. The breed, Andalusian, still exists, and at Lake Kissimmee State Park you can visit their descendants, which, you have to admit, is pretty damn cool.

For a first road trip of the year, it served two purposes: One, I had the pleasure of traveling the backroads of Florida again, and two, those cows reminded me that, despite a pandemic and what amounted to a year off from Florida for me, Florida endures.

I can’t wait to get back on the road again.

The Great Miami Hurricane and COVID19

And yes, they are related.

For the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about the Hurricane of 1926 in Miami and how it relates to a global pandemic. 

The Hurricane of 1926 made landfall in Florida just before midnight on September 17, 1926. Most of the people in southeast Florida were new to the area (thanks, land boom!) and thus had never endured a hurricane but they hunkered down in their Miami homes as the first bands of the storm blew in from the Atlantic.

And then the eye passed over, and all was calm. Anxious to get out of their houses (if you’ve ever ridden out a hurricane you know the feeling), everyone went outside and checked on their neighbors and started clearing debris. 

U.S. National Weather Service Forecaster Richard Gray kept telling people that it wasn’t safe yet, to go inside, that the storm wasn’t over. But the people didn’t listen. The sky had cleared and the winds had all but come to a stop. Plus, they had work to do. They had destruction all around them, downed trees and construction debris everywhere (Miami and surrounding areas had quite a bit of construction happening at this time, again, yay, land boom.)

It must have felt vitally important to those folks that they do something. The storm had all but torn away all semblance of their normal lives, and they likely wanted to get back to normal as quickly as possible. How foolish was Gray, they must have thought, not to see that the storm had cleared. I have no proof of this, but I’m fairly certain at least one person probably suggested Gray was perpetrating a hoax to help get more money for National Weather Service funding come federal budget time. 

And so they left their homes and started clearing debris.

But after the eye comes, as every Floridian knows, the back side of the storm. And the back side of the storm is the worst part. When the second wave washed across Southeast Florida (literally; there was a 10-foot storm surge,) the people outside didn’t have time to seek adequate shelter. Gray had warned them, but there was no other warning before the winds picked up again and started blowing around all those downed trees and lumber from the first part of the hurricane. After the eye passed the and hurricane’s second half started, storm winds hurled those trees and lumber around at speeds of 155 MPH. 

The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 killed almost 400 people and injured more than 6,000 others. Damages totaled what would be, in today’s dollars, $164 billion. The storm damage propelled Florida into the Great Depression three years ahead of the rest of the country.

The Miami Hurricane didn’t only damage south Florida, however — it continued on to Pensacola, where it struck Florida again and raged for 20 hours on Sept. 20, destroying pretty much every wharf, building and boat in the city. After that, it finally made landfall a third time in Mobile, Alabama.

What gets me about this story is simple: They were warned. They were warned and they went outside anyway.

Smart Floridians know that the storm isn’t over just because the wind has stopped. Do with this story what you will, but me? I’m with Forecaster Gray, and I intend to ride out the rest of this storm in my house. 

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