Tag Archives: road trip

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.

Road Trip! Cockroach Bay in Ruskin is an easy paddle with mangrove tunnels, mysterious history

Since the 16th century, this cluster of mangroves has lured Floridians.

First things first: We did not see a single cockroach when we paddled Cockroach Bay. We did, however, get a lot of strange looks from our land-lubbing friends, whose most common reaction to our kayak trip was a grimace, followed by the word “yuck!

Which is too bad, because Cockroach Bay is an oasis along Tampa Bay, especially given the indignities done to the bay since Panfilo de Narvaez first reached the area in the early part of the 16th century. Narvaez and his crew were among the first Florida visitors to treat the locals — and the land — like it was worthless. Reports of the Spanish conquistadors burning crops and villages and exterminating local Apalachee Indians as they moved north from Tampa Bay to Florida’s Panhandle abound, so when Narvaez died by drowning, I can’t imagine those locals shed many tears. An appropriate end for the man who started Tampa Bay down a five-century journey of abuse.

Since the Spanish arrived, Europeans have treated the bay as a sort of aquatic Giving Tree, taking what we wanted and rarely giving much back. We fished and netted, yes, but we also dredged and filled. We made land for homes. We allowed power plants to set up along the shores. We hollowed out the bay bottom to allow for shipping and cruises. In many ways — not the least of which literal — we’ve used Tampa Bay as a toilet for the detritus of civilization. In recent memory, upper Tampa Bay has had alarming levels of cadmium, and a closed fertilizer plant makes cleaning the water runoff tough. The bay grasses — and the bay life —withered until, like the stump of the tree in the Shel Silverstein book, the once-bountiful bay had almost nothing left to give.

While we’re still learning from our mistakes, efforts to repair the bay — or, in some parts, simply minimize the damage — are underway. And if you seek proof that the waters of Tampa Bay can be beautiful, Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park and Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve offer it in shades of sapphire and emerald. 

Granted, the name is less than auspicious, but, again, blame the Spanish. When explorers first saw Tampa Bay, the waters were rife with horseshoe crabs. According to legend, the abundance of horseshoe crabs led the conquistadors to believe the crustaceans were related to cockroaches, hence the name. Whether this is true or not, of course, remains unknown.

Cockroach Bay Ruskin paddle trips SUP canoe kayak
“Cockroach Bay” is a misnomer; this chain of mangrove-ringed islands is actually part of Tampa Bay. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

In other ways, too, the name is inaccurate: the waterway isn’t a bay; rather, it weaves through a cluster of tiny, mangrove-wrapped islands. The water secrets life from one island to the next. Sometimes it flows in broad sheets; other times, it winds and twists through mangrove tunnels. Two paddlers could launch from the same boat ramp and have two wholly different experiences along the two paddling trails.  You can make a beeline for the open water of Tampa Bay, but why? The tunnels await, and even the broader water offers plenty to see.

What you might not see, oddly enough (we didn’t)? Horseshoe crabs (your best bet for seeing them is around the full moon, when they nest (three days before and after, at high tide). However, the launch has no shortage of tiny land crabs that race towards their holes as we approach. On the water, we’re treated to a ballet of mullet leaping out of the air and falling back to earth with all the grace of a puppy.

Through the clear water we see more, swimming through the lagoons between the islands in the Preserve. Stingray, too, abound — a sign that the water’s warming and spring has, indeed, arrived. Through mangrove tunnels and open water, feathers and find abound.

As we haul our kayaks at the crowded ramp, the light reflects off something in the trees: A cross, covered in ceramic tiles, planted in a crop of oyster-crusted red mangroves. Next to it, almost unseen, a statue of an angel rests on a birdbath base. A bouquet of silk flowers nestled in a mangrove crook watches over the tableau. We ask, but no one knows why it’s there, or who maintains it.

We don’t know whether Narvaez ever found his way over to Cockroach Bay, or if perhaps a later explorer named the area. Likewise, we don’t know if those mullet jump to escape predators, get oxygen or slap themselves free of parasites. A mysterious cross at the entrance to a mangrove swamp seems somehow appropriate. 

And, just as not knowing about Narvaez or the mullet, the mystery makes the paddle all the more sublime. 


If you go

Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park,with kayak/canoe/boat ramp at the west end of Cockroach Bay Road in Ruskin. From Tampa: Take US 41 south, then head west on Cockroach Bay Road. Canoe & kayak rentals, $45-$55 at Canoe Outpost, thecanoeoutpost.com. Ramp open 8 a.m.-sunset. State park office, 941-723-4536.

This article appeared originally in Creative Loafing.

Inkwood Books will close its doors the end of March. Here’s why that sucks.

Road trip: In Matlacha, there’s no red tide — but gorgeous water views on this Gulf Coast island

“It’s an island, babe. If you didn’t bring it here, you won’t find it here.” —Quinn, in Six Days, Seven Nights.

OK, so Harrison Ford’s character spoke these words about Makatea, a small coral island in the South Pacific, but he could have meant Matlacha just as easily. Granted, unlike Makatea, Matlacha does have a causeway connecting it to the mainland, so the village — one of five census-designated places cozied up together across two islands (Bokeelia, Pine Island Center, Pineland and St. James City are the others) — does have some supplies. But gluten-removed beer, for example, is not easily found. Sushi, too, is off the menu.

Thankfully, there’s no shortage of fresh fish and if you’re worried about red tide, well, don’t — it hasn’t seeped into Matlacha Pass yet. That means you can eat local snapper without fear, and also that the water is beautiful. 

Our first morning I lace up for a sunrise run, not as thrilled about running as I am exploring the island before the air gets warmer than my body temperature. I leave our cozy, over-the-water motel room at Bridgewater Inn and gamely run up the Matlacha Pass Bridge.

The bridge itself is something of a landmark. It’s not high; its clearance, without the drawspan open, reaches only 9 feet. Lee County replaced original wooden swing bridge, built in 1927, with a concrete bascule bridge in 1968. Its notoriety comes from its reputation: “The fishingest bridge in the world.”

We arrived late at night, filled with trepidation: When we booked the room, the hotel clerk assured us Matlacha Pass —which lies between the mainland on its east and (in order of appearance) Matlacha, Pine Island, Pine Island Sound, and Cayo Costa and Captiva on its west — remained red tide-free. That was almost a month before our getaway, though.

Nevertheless, a month later, the same holds true: no red tide here. The waters surrounding Matlacha are well protected — after all, there are two sets of islands and another body of water between the Gulf of Mexico and the fishingest bridge in the world. Kayaking and fishing here look like they look in any non-red tide year, and that’s a blessing.

Since there’s really only one main road through town, my sunrise run involves some detours, like a jaunt through Fisherman’s Park, an adults-only mobile home park on the water. As opposed to the “quirky artist village” that so many Florida chambers of commerce use as brand identification, Fisherman’s Park epitomizes a different type of quirk: the watery grit of boat captains and fishermen exists alongside service-industry types who appear to call this brightly-hued chain of mobile homes home. 

Next door, I grab a cup of blackberry brandy coffee from The Perfect Cup, an almost-hipster coffee roaster where the locals come to eat, which saves it. By the time I walk back to the bridge, I’ve slurped enough of the coffee to run up the incline and back to the room.

As the town wakes up, we make our way through some of the small cottages-cum-businesses that live along the main drag. We test the flavors at Great Licks ice cream (c’mon, it’s summer in Florida, you have to eat ice cream on vacation!) and explore the small but mighty art shop surrounding it, Island Visions. 

And by that, I mean it surrounds the ice cream shop literally. While the ice cream shop has its own front door, the only place to eat is at the few tables amidst the art. Island Visions features artists from across Florida —while they have artists from Matlacha and the surrounding communities, they also have Tampa Bay artists; both Susan Hess (Madeira Beach) and Beth Kauffman (St. Petersburg) have work here. 

Island Visions seems loosely curated — you’re not walking into an art exhibit, but all the work ties to a definite theme: the water. Don’t expect lots of sunset photographs and beach scenes; while a few sneak in, it appears owners Steve and Lisa Timcak work diligently so that you don’t mistake Island Visions for a gift shop that carries art. Unlike so many other places to buy art along Florida’s coast, the art here evokes a sense of place, and the theme crosses media — a blown-glass octopus seems right at home with watercolors of fish swimming past a dock pylon. The art doesn’t depict the immediate place — at least, the lion’s share of it doesn’t — but it definitely evokes a sense of place, and it’s not your traditional Florida beachscape, soaked with sun and margaritas.

The art in Island Visions somehow matches the general vibe of the island — subtropical without being stereotypical, and that sets both Matlacha and Island Visions apart in many ways. 

And, of course, it’s one of the few places waterfront towns you can visit in southwest Florida without breathing red tide, which, these days, is worth its weight in gold.

Or fish.