“In staccato bursts of frenzy and passion, Salustri has written a modern love story affirming her tangled relationship with the Sunshine State. Retracing the routes of 1930s guidebooks, she re-creates the great Florida road trip.”–Gary R. Mormino, author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida
“This delightful trip through space and time gives us glimpses back and ahead at our ever-evolving Florida. Salustri stops along the way to mourn the parts of paradise we’ve lost and to celebrate what’s still around to enjoy.”–Craig Pittman, author of Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country
“A compelling, bittersweet odyssey across seventy-five years of Florida changes, a trip filled with dreams tarnished now by overdevelopment but still harboring a few unspoiled pieces of paradise.”–Brian Rucker, author of Treasures of the Panhandle: A Journey through West Florida
In the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project sent mostly anonymous writers, but also Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy, into the depths of Florida to reveal its splendor to the world. The FWP and the State of Florida jointly published the results as Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, which included twenty-two driving tours of the state’s main roads. Eventually, after Eisenhower built the interstates, drivers bypassed the small towns that thrived along these roads in favor of making better time. Those main roads are now the state’s backroads—forgotten by all but local residents, a few commuters, and dedicated road-trippers. Retracing the original routes in the Guide, Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida by Cathy Salustri rekindles our notions of paradise by bringing a modern eye to the historic travelogues.
Salustri’s 5,000-mile road trip reveals a patchwork quilt of Florida cultures: startling pockets of history and environmental bliss stitched against the blight of strip malls and franchise restaurants. The journey begins on US 98, heading west toward the Florida/Alabama state line, where coastal towns dot the roadway. Here, locals depend on the tourism industry, spurred by sugar sand beaches, as well as the abundance of local seafood. On US 41, Salustri takes us past the state’s only whitewater rapids, a retired carnie town, and a dazzling array of springs, swamps, and rivers interspersed with farms that produce a bounty of fruit. Along US 17, she stops for milkshakes and hamburgers at Florida’s oldest diner and visits a collection of springs interconnected by underwater mazes tumbling through white spongy limestone, before stopping in Arcadia, where men still bring cattle to auction. Desperately searching for skunk apes, the Sunshine State’s version of Bigfoot, she encounters more than one gator on her way through the Everglades, Ochopee, and the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters.
Following the original Guide, Salustri crisscrosses the state from the panhandle to the Keys. She guides readers through forgotten and unknown corners of the state–nude beaches, a rattlesnake cannery, Devil’s Millhopper in Gainesville–as well as more familiar haunts–Kennedy Space Center and The Villages, “Florida’s Friendliest Retirement Hometown.” Woven through these journeys are nuggets of history, environmental debates about Florida’s future, and a narrative that combines humor with a strong affection for an oft-maligned state.
Today, Salustri urges, tourists need a new nudge to get off the interstates or away from Disney in order to discover the real Florida. Her travel narrative, following what are now backroads and scenic routes, guides armchair travelers and road warriors alike to historic sites, natural wonders, and notable man-made attractions–comparing the past views with the present landscape and commenting on the changes, some barely noticeable, others extreme, along the way.
Cathy Salustri is the arts and entertainment editor at Creative Loafing Tampa and lives in Gulfport, Florida.
Read our interview with author Cathy Salustri as she
discusses traveling through Florida for a living:
What inspired you to share your journey through the backroads of Florida?
In grad school we read selections from The Guide to the Southernmost State, a WPA guidebook containing driving tours. I hadn’t heard of it, and up until that point I’d never found a comprehensive guidebook to Florida—travel guides tend to compartmentalize Florida, either into regions or by the type of person traveling (grandparents, LGBT, travelers with kids, with dogs, with iguanas, and so forth). Of course, the travel information in The Guide was 70 years old when I first read it, so it was more of a travelogue than a guide. I wanted to follow those roads, though, and see where they led.
What were some of the biggest changes you witnessed from the Florida that authors such as Zora Neale Hurston described in the WPA guidebook?
Well, geography. We’ve migrated south. Air conditioning and mosquito control made living south of the panhandle possible. Many of the 1939 tours take drivers across the panhandle, because relatively fewer people lived on the peninsula. Today, of course, that’s not the case. And, I hope, our attitudes about race have changed. I like to think we would treat poor Zora better now than we did then; she deserved a much better position with the WPA than she received, and everyone knew it, but she was black and we were not kind to black people in the 1930s.
Are you concerned about the commercialization of these areas of “paradise” as more people discover them, or do you think we can add to these locations in ways that won’t spoil them?
Of course I worry about that; anyone who loves Florida worries about our popularity causing our downfall. We have an amazing state parks system, and I think if we give these guys more land, they’ll safeguard it for us. The trick is getting a Clinton Tyree as our governor, or maybe the Lorax, because it’s not only too many people, it’s the demands on our resources and the way we allow industry to dictate how much of paradise we preserve.
What are your best tips for finding off-the-beaten-path treasures in Florida?
Don’t have a plan. Having a plan too often means you don’t want to stray from that plan. I think it’s better to have a goal: say “I want to see the springs in the middle west panhandle,” instead of “On Monday, we’ll go to Cherry Sink, and stay at Falling Waters State Park,” because that way you don’t feel pressured to meet a self-imposed timetable, and that’s how you find things you won’t discover on the internet. You have to let the road discover itself as it goes, if that makes sense—you can’t plan the road. Florida has a way of expanding along the road.
When you travel to a new destination, how do you learn about that location’s culture?
Researching the place is as much fun as going. I start with The Guide and look for place names and small towns near where I plan to travel, then search online to see if those places have endured. From there, I have a wonderful network of Florida writers and Florida-philes from the graduate Florida Studies program at USF St. Petersburg. We really are our own tribe, you know? We all have different areas of focus, and we have a Facebook group, so often I’ll ask the group for ideas. It’s a micro-hive mind. One of my favorite resources for north Florida and the Deep South is Garden & Gun; I’ve followed their advice and found an amazing coonhound cemetery in northwest Alabama, and also discovered a few places in our own panhandle. Frequently, I disagree with where they send people in Florida, but that’s OK—they have too many readers to send them all to some of my favorite spots. I look at Google Maps or Apple Maps to get an idea of the density, I look for things nearby on Yelp. Comments tell a wonderful story. I look up their historical societies to see who their market is, tourists or locals.
While traveling throughout Florida, you enjoyed a variety of foods. What, for you, is the quintessential Florida meal?
Oh, my god, seafood. You know that line from Jimmy Buffet’s “Tin Cup Chalice”? “Give me oysters and beer for dinner every day of the year”? That’s me. I could live on Apalachicola oysters, Royal Reds, Key West pinks, and maybe a few other things. I want to include sour orange pie and all sorts of things here—I love food—but Florida’s seafood came first. It’s how our first Floridians sustained themselves, and really, it’s how I do, too. We spend a lot of money on oysters in our house. We may be some of the only people in the world with an oyster budget.
You spent a lot of time on the road while working on your book. What were your road trip essentials?
Calypso, my dog, was essential. And my boyfriend, Barry. He made already great trips even better. Beyond that? If you’re going to hit the road in Florida, the least you need to take is mosquito repellant (the good stuff, none of that Skin-So-Soft stuff; get DEET), anti-itch spray (trust me, no repellant works all the time), a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, face soap, a swimsuit, a change of clothes and an extra pair of shoes, preferably closed-toe ones for hiking. In our warm months I’m already wearing flip flops and a swimsuit under my clothes. You need two swimsuits, because getting into a wet one is no fun. Seriously, that’s it. I can fit everything into one tote bag. Oh, and a smart phone. My phone is my Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So, you know, a good data plan and a company with decent Everglades coverage.
Do you have any road trips planned for the near future?
Well, every year we take a road trip to the Keys. I always have trips on my radar, but I rarely plan them, except for the ones I do for my monthly “Road Trip” column at Creative Loafing Tampa. It takes shockingly little persuasion to convince me to grab my bathing suit, the dogs, and Barry and hit the road. I want to spend more time in the panhandle, I want to stare at the abyss on the edge of a bunch more springs. I want to catch bass at a fish camp. I want to go to Flagler Beach and hang out on that cinnamon sand for a while.
What’s it like to talk about traveling in Florida for a living?
I started speaking about my travels well before I had a book, and one of the most unexpected, delightful surprises has been the way Floridians—natives, newcomers, and snowbirds—have reacted to my talks. I’ve had former Weeki Wachee mermaids in the audience, people who can trace their Florida lineage back seven generations, and newcomers who pepper with questions about things to see. After every talk, there’s usually at least one person who tells me about a new part of Florida they think I would love to explore. Talking with so many people who all have their own version of paradise gives me hope that the backroads of Florida and the secret corners won’t get sold to the highest bidder.
Which parts of Florida do you wish to explore further?
Oh, man, those WPA writers spent so much time in the panhandle—which makes sense, really, because it was way too hot south of there to spend much time, so most Floridians lived in the panhandle—and so, when we retraced the trips, I spent a lot of time there, too. And it enchanted me, not only for the powdery beaches and the tiny watercolor seaside towns, but the super-gritty working waterfront towns and the cotton fields (Cotton! In Florida!) and red clay hills and Deep South rednecks (which is not a pejorative, by the way—I love rednecks) and the heart-achingly broke small towns where tourism never made a home but where so many people proudly make lives, even if they don’t stand much of a chance of living above the poverty level. I just fell in love, so hard. And I asked Barry if we could move there and he reminded me I get cold when the mercury dips below 86 degrees, and so we visit. But if someone told me, Cathy, you need to spend a month researching the panhandle, I’d go in a heartbeat.
If you had to pick one part of Florida to live in for the rest of your life, where would you choose?
I already live there: Gulfport. We’re this un-hip little vintage town; I like to say we not only march to the beat of our own drum, we make up some extra instruments to play, too. I think our unofficial motto is “live every day like it’s a full moon,” but if you don’t know us, that sounds mean. I came to Gulfport in 2003. I grew up in Clearwater, about 40 minutes north of Gulfport in the same county, and I had no idea this town existed.
Gulfport has this delightful combination of craggy old fishermen who made a suspiciously good living flats fishing—think on what I’m saying here—and a thriving LGBT community. It’s the most beautiful, perfect thing, because you have all these people you kind of know will vote for Donald Trump, but they’re best friends with socialist liberals like myself. We co-exist because we see each other as people, and no, we don’t all love each other, but we don’t all love each other because we’re one big, incredibly dysfunctional family, and that’s how families work—it’s not about who we love or how we vote. I love my town, our rednecks and fishermen and LGBT community and dogs, and I love its flaws. Gulfport’s a tiny metaphor for Florida, because everyone’s here to find their own paradise, and if you ask 10 Gulfportians what makes Gulfport paradise, you’ll get 10 different answers and none would be wrong.