Over there.

Loose Lips Sink Ships
Posters like this adorned the classroom when Mr. Byers covered World War II.

Dave Byers died this week.

I found this out today, when a friend from middle school posted his obituary. The first thing I thought of? War songs. And then I thought, man, I wish I had sought him out and told him how much he’d set my life on this particular course.

You see, without Mr. Byers, I wouldn’t have a book. At least, I wouldn’t have written the book I wrote. I wouldn’t be interested in history. And I sure as shit wouldn’t give a rat’s red ass about the WPA, which kind of figured prominently in the book.

In eighth grade I didn’t know who I was yet. I didn’t know what I cared about, aside from Duran Duran and cute boys. I loved to write, but mostly poems that, honestly, weren’t exactly Pablo Neruda. And then I ended up in Mr. Byers’ history class, which was decidedly so much more than names and dates.

“Late is wrong,” he said the first day “and wrong will be punished.” Not a grand statement, of course, but if you’ve ever met a 12 year old, you know the importance of simple things. Even as he said it, though, he smiled. And you couldn’t be in his class and not smile, too.

We quickly moved from that to other things. History — a subject often relegated to phys ed teachers — often gets left behind the more practical (some would say) subjects of language arts and math. Mr. Byers would not allow this to happen; he forced us to care. With every new epoch of history, he had songs and posters. We’d walk into his class one day, and it would be covered, say, in election memorabilia from Herbert Hoover’s presidency, or war posters. When he taught us the Great Depression, he played us this song — of course, it wasn’t the Annie version. That’s how he drove home the horrors of the Depression, with this song. And then he moved us into FDR and why his New Deal was so balls-out awesome. He took an alphabet soup of agencies — FERA, WPA, CCC —and led us through them, explaining how these agencies pieced a battered economy back together and forever changed the landscape of America.

Years later, I rediscovered the WPA when I found the Guide to the Southernmost State, I remembered those long-ago classes. And while the narrative in Backroads doesn’t explicitly talk much of the WPA, the original book was a WPA project and my writing was informed by what I learned long ago in Mr. Byers’ class.

Only as an adult did I realize not everyone loved the WPA; not everyone loved President Roosevelt and his New Deal. This came as a shock to me; how could someone not love the man who saved America by using Americans? Clearly, these people had never taken Mr. Byers’ history class. I wonder, too, if I’d had a teacher less enthusiastic about the WPA, what my attitude upon discovering the writing the WPA would have been. Would I have pursued it? I want to think I would have, but honestly, when I realized the book was part of the WPA, my mind raced back to that classroom, those lessons, that man. Without his teaching, I do not know that I would have written the same book, if my writing style would have been informed the way it was.

I never told him. I never told him that, but not for him, there would be no book, not the book I wrote. Oh, yes, there certainly would have been a Backroads of Paradise, but it wouldn’t have been the same. No connection to the Great Depression so great that when I took an oral history of a woman who lived through it — just this afternoon — I asked her how she felt about FDR, and she told me she thought he was great and went on to talk about how awful Hoover was. At that instant, I remembered Mr. Byers and his “We’d Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover” song. I didn’t know he had died this afternoon, but all these years later, he was the reason I asked, he’s the reason I felt a spurt of excitement when she elaborated on why Hoover sucked and she liked FDR.

A few months after Mr. Byers covered the Great Depression, a few friends of mine and I organized the Lip Sync show at JFK. And then we got to the intermission, and nothing was planned. Dave Byers to the rescue: He stood in front of the crowd and, as was his custom, did what he knew: He led them in a political song, one that came slightly after my hero, FDR, led our great country into WWII. And every voice in that gymnasium — even the ones who hadn’t taken his class yet — every voice lifted to join him in a rousing chorus of song. Everyone loved this man and the way he taught history.

And so, tonight, with the world a little less rounded, a little less aware of itself and its history, I hear it again. Bear with me, as I play it again, in his honor, and I say, one last time…

Thank you, Mr. Byers.

Craig Pittman, Backroads of Paradise and Oh, Florida!

When Craig Pittman told me my publisher had asked him to read my book, Backroads of Paradise, I vacillated between thrilled and nervous (this is actually a common state for me). Thrilled because, Craig Pittman, whoo-hoo! — and nervous because, well, Craig Pittman. In Florida circles, he’s kind of a big deal.

He liked it, and said so.

Then I had the chance to review his book, Oh, Florida! Turns out we both like each other’s writing.

Here’s my review on Goodreads, which, of course, links to the full story at Creative Loafing Tampa.

Oh, Florida!: How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the CountryOh, Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country by Craig Pittman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I reviewed this for Creative Loafing, and I also know Craig, so know that. However, I was prepared to shred this book if I didn’t like it. I did. A lot. Rather than paste in my whole article about why, here’s the link to what I’ve already said. Big deal to me is how Pittman doesn’t treat Florida as though we have only idiots.

View all my reviews

Old Florida Food Comes to Tampa?

An article in today’s Tampa Trib has my attention:
Florida food is apparently hip now. I guess that’s a good thing. Here’s what I wonder, though: how does one open a Florida restaurant with no mention of consulting with Florida Food historian “Father Gary” Mormino, or noted Florida food author Andy Huse? I also wonder why this article fails to mention the recipes from Cross Creek Cookery, sour orange pies, or any number of old-school Florida dishes us Florida Studies folk know to be the real deal. Cuban food, whole roasted hog, field peas, and sweet corn? Celery and strawberries? Please tell me the writer just couldn’t include that all in the article.
Or, perhaps because real Florida dishes also include gopher tortoise, black bear, and a number of other dishes that you’d go to jail for making – much less serving – today, the owners will focus on other types of what they call “Florida food.” I find it interesting (and a little disheartening) where this chef focuses. I’m not saying he’s wrong; just uneducated and, resultantly, offering an incomplete Florida menu.
Also, this perplexed me:
“One ingredient that keeps escaping the chef’s ambition is coontie flour, used by Seminoles and early pioneers as a baking substitute for wheat flour. The fern-like plant takes three years to mature, with very little of the root being edible.
“If processed incorrectly, the plant has toxic properties. The “black water” by-product resulting from the flour-making once was a Seminole ritual drink that caused hallucinations. For those and economic reasons, no one bothers to mass-produce coontie in modern times.”
Yes, because we all know no one will go through any trouble to produce a hallucinogen. 
I wish this restaurant the best of luck, but I hope the owners do take the time to talk to people like Father Gary and Andy to learn about “real” Florida food. Because the quote “We’ll buy the whole field, can it and put it in the pantry like any other Florida Cracker family would have done,” tells me they lack a full understanding of how many, many Crackers lived. 
Until then, I’ll satisfy my Sunshine State desires with Ted Peters smoked mullet, The Yearling restaurant in Cross Creek, or Joannie’s Blue Crab in Ochopee. 

If You Ask a Geologist a Question…

So, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s web site has an Ask a Geologist section, of which I took full advantage while researching a factoid about beach erosion for a talk I’m giving on the history of Key West this week.

The great thing? Real, live geologists answer your question.

The horrible thing? Real, live geologists answer your question.

To wit:

My question:

A million years or go (give or take), a college professor taught me about erosion and how the state’s barrier islands were building up on one side of the state as they eroded on the other. This is, of course, without human alterations such as beach renourishment and seawalls.

I cannot remember on which side of the state the sands erode as new barrier islands tend to want to develop on the other side. Does this make sense?

How Science answered me:

The only constant in nature is change and barrier islands and beaches are no acceptation.  The barrier islands and beaches of Florida are constantly evolving in reaction both to the actions of man and to natural events.  The changes they undergo generally occur rather gradually over the time span of a person’s life.  These natural responses, both accretion and erosion,  are typically only noticed by the public when they occur as localized dramatic change due to exceptional events, within a person’s life time, such as hurricane landfalls and extreme northeasters.  Those events are not however exceptional when viewed over the span of geologic time.

Sand is in continual movement on the beaches of Florida.  In the main, with some notable exceptions, sand on the beaches and in the waters immediately adjacent to the beaches of the east coast of Florida move southward.  Barrier islands on the east coast of Florida classically tend to accrete on the north side of inlets.  The flip side of the coin is that they tend to  erode on the south side of inlets.  Barrier islands also tend to move landward in response to sea level rise through, among other mechanisms, storm event over wash.   The following link is to the most recent beach critical erosion report.

Man’s efforts have caused both erosion and accretion to occur where such would not naturally happen. Take a look in Google Earth at the inlets of the east coast of Florida. Those that have been extensively modified by man tend to exhibit distinct landward offset on their south side.  This is due to the groins placed on the north side of inlets blocking the passage of sediment into ebb tidal deltas. Ebb tidal deltas are the lobe of sand bars on the seaward side of inlets created by tidal flushing. The inlet offsets are further exacerbated by the dredging of and disposal of sand from ebb tidal deltas to maintain navigation channels. Nature would have otherwise moved that sand out of the delta onto the beaches of islands further south of inlets. We maintain navigational channels across ebb tidal deltas and nature continues to fill in the holes we create thus interrupting the nature southward progressing of sand.


I think it is totally awesome I have access to this man’s brain… now, if I only could make sense of how he answered. Still, well done, FDEP. Mostly.

Hard Candy: Tell Me Your Story

The one thing I know about Gulfport is that everyone here has a story. The one thing I know about myself is that I want to know yours.

Before you stop and tell yourself, “Self, she doesn’t mean me. I’m not interesting. All I did was raise some kids/go to work/live here. I didn’t do anything of note”, hush. You are more intriguing than you realize, and, what’s more, your story matters, not just to the people who love you most, but to Gulfport. See, history isn’t just what the town council did or who founded the first whatever or what happened on what date: it’s people. You are people, therefore you qualify.
Don’t believe me? Think about the first people who lived here: they cut down trees, built houses, shot small game, and grew their own food. Honestly, I cannot conceive of something that interests me less than reading about someone planting corn. But yet, I do. We all do, to some extent, whether it’s Gulfport historian Lynne Brown’s book or reading snippets of memories one of the Facebook pages about Gulfport history (check out Gulfport Grown if you’re looking to reminisce). We all find other people’s lives interesting, admittedly on varying levels. Me? I’m a total voyeur. I love to peel back the outer shell of people’s lives and see what’s really going on with them.
In grad school we had to do oral histories. “Doing” an oral history meant talking to someone about their history and, as my professor put it, “teasing out the meaning of their life.” We interviewed people and then wrote up a description of what brought them to Florida and how living where they did shaped their life. I chose Bob Worthington, and we spent about an hour talking. I recorded him as I took notes, and later I used the recording to add more of his voice back into the story I’d written.
So, OK, most of you know some of Bob’s history – he’s related to the people who settled Gulfport – and perhaps you think that’s why I wanted to focus on him. Nope. I don’t care about his ancestry. I found – and find – him fascinating because he’s one of the few people who has spent most of his life in Gulfport, because of his passion for fishing, and because of his relationship he with his brother, Louie. Also, he was just different enough from me that he fascinated me. I didn’t judge him for our differences; I just didn’t understand him. The more I sat there and listened to him, through, the more I started to understand what escaped me before.
We printed an abridged version of his history in the Gabber, and many folks approached me and asked me about it, remarking that although they had known Bob for years, they didn’t know all of what I wrote. Not one person asked about the things that made Bob a local celebrity. They wanted to know about the smaller details.
They will find yours just as enticing. You make up the fabric of our history by being part of Gulfport, which makes my newest project something I hope we can all do together.
Come to the Gulfport History Museum and tell me your story. Please. I want to know your story. You are one of the most alluring people the world will ever meet, and I don’t mean that in some freaky self-help sort of way. I mean that in a history sort of way.
Come to the history museum any Thursday afternoon and just talk to me. I want to know why you came to Gulfport and why you stayed here, why you came back here, or why you left. We’ll chat for a while – about an hour. When we’re done, I’ll write your story. Some of them will run in the Gabber, but that’s not really why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because everyone here has a story about how they arrived here, and everyone here has played a part in shaping this community. I want to record our history through your stories so that two weeks, two years, or two decades from now, people can look back through them and see how Gulfport evolved.
Nowhere else have I lived has community mattered as much as it does in our town, and everyone who is part of ours deserves to have their part of our community’s story told. I’m at the museum every Thursday afternoon (2 p.m. until 4 p.m.), so either come in or e-mail me to set up a time. One more things: this isn’t political. I don’t care if you hate what I write in this space or love it; I just want to know more about you. Honestly, I would love to see some of the people who like me the least come through that door and give me the honor of telling their story.
Tell me your story, and let me tell the world. Because without your story, Gulfport doesn’t have one.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.

Vacation Chronicles: The Florida Bookshelf

So we have these awesome bookshelves in our living room. They stretch almost to the ceiling from about mid-thigh height. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with the place.

If you read my earlier post about my mom, look closely.
You can see wood shavings in this photo.

The problem for book lovers is that if you give us bookshelves like these, we try and fill them. Actually, there is no “try” – filling them with beloved manuscripts happens organically. For me, that means that, 17 months after signing the lease on the bookshelves, they’re overflowing with books about Florida. When you factor in the past year spent pulling books off to find the (seemingly) random fact to add in to the spicy goodness that was (I hoped) my master’s thesis, then pushing them back on the shelf again in no particular order, you have a mess. Or, at least, I did.

So yesterday, I decided I would put things right. Part of it was to blot out the 9-11 coverage on Fox “News” but mostly, I couldn’t take the dust and disorganization anymore. Also, I’m looking for my underwater camera (that’s another post) and I’d arrived at the quirky part of the search that we all come to when we’re desperately looking for something we simply cannot find, where bizarre ideas seem possible. I thought perhaps the camera was behind a book.

No, the Emmys aren’t mine. I wish they were.
It was not, but I did get quite a few books in my pile for trade at Small Adventures, clear out a spare litter of kittens worth of fur, and reorganized my books. Here are my Florida book categories:
  • Early History through Explorative Narratives (also called “Lies told to the crown about Florida and one cool Bartram book”)
  • Essential Florida (The WPA Guide to the Southernmost State, Florida Poems, Cross Creek, Everglades: River of Grass, and Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams)
  • Everglades and Keys Fact and Fiction
  • Tour and travel guides
  • Hiaasen, MacDonald, and Randy Wayne White
  • Books about Florida for which I don’t have enough to make a category
  • Jimmy Buffett’s fiction and not-really-about-Florida-but-still-written-by-him books

There, uh, isn’t a point, really, except that the bookshelf rearrangement thing made me happy enough that I had to brag about it.

Also, I’m wondering if anyone’s seen my camera….

Tour Six, Part Three: Manatee Hunting

This is the third leg of this tour. To read the second leg, click here.

In Crystal River, scallops and manatee beckon. Tours offer scallop trips for the uninitiated, but during scallop season (July through September, although the actual dates vary) anyone who wishes may snorkel for scallops. Scallops live in the green grass, have 32 glittering blue eyes, and slam their shells shut (escalop means “shell” in French) to swoosh out of harm’s way.
Bay scallops, once bountiful in the Gulf coastal waters, have declined in numbers. Speculation puts the blame on water quality, as scallops (like clams and oysters) filter their food from the water. Shellfish populations cannot thrive in contaminated water.
So instead of scallops, I’m hunting manatee. Well, not hunting, exactly, but looking for them awful hard. In Citrus County, boat captains can take passengers out to swim with the marine mammals under the guise of education. Our boat captain does give us manatee facts and talks about preserving the species, but we’re not fooling anyone: we all boarded this boat with plans to pet a giant grey water beast.
It’s a gorgeous summer day, and I’m delighted to be out on the water, but I didn’t think this through. You see, all the photos advertising the tour showed manatee frolicking with humans in the opaline spring head. These gentle, awkward creatures do lumber towards the spring when the water temperature outside the spring dips below 70º, but that is not the case on a hot summer day.
Now is a good time to mention that three types of rivers flow through Florida: alluvial, blackwater, and spring-fed. Alluvial rivers, often carved out by years of floods, carry loads of sediment along with them. Their levels and flow are usually tied to rainfall. Blackwater rivers rise out of swamps and generally have a dark tea color from the decaying plant matter in the water. Clear springs gush out into spring-fed rivers. One such river, the Crystal River, starts at a spring head, but do not assume that means the length of the river shares that transparency: the river grows deeper in color the further we motor from the springs. We do this, the boat captain explains, because the tiny-headed sea cows only hang out in springs in the winter.
This is how you hunt manatee.

I refrain from smacking my palm against my forehead. Of course these creatures won’t linger in the spring today. Of course they will hang out in the I-can’t-see-my-hand-or-that-alligator-in-front-of-my-face portion of the river. I enjoy paddling Florida’s rivers, but few exist in which I wish to get out and try to touch living creatures. Petting a manatee makes for a fine experience – in clear water. What if the one I pet hangs out by a gator grotto? Anyone who has seen even a picture of these unusually built water waddling animals knows those disturbingly tiny flippers will not help protect me.

The boat captain assures me I need not worry about gators and snakes. This strategy would have worked better had I considered the possibility of snakes before he brought them up. I do not know if I believe him, but I accept my swim noodle (we may not use our arms to swim lest we hit a manatee or, I imagine, anger a gator), slip my mask and snorkel over face, and slide into the water. The manatee wait a few yards away, the guide tells us, but the murk makes it hard to see anything. Something wraps around my leg. I scream.
River grass. Not a snake. I feel like an idiot, but take solace in knowing that when I put my head back under the water, it’s too stained with tannic acid for the others to see me blush.
This is my “What the hell am I petting?” face.

I see a great hulking shape before me. A manatee. My heart accelerates. This is actually kind of exciting. I reach my hand out to pet it tentatively, and the beast doesn’t seem to care. They’re bumpier than I would have thought, and about as motivated as one would expect. She just floats in front of us – manatees are excellent floaters, what with all their fat – and even lets us pet her calf. I can only tell she’s there by feel; I cannot see her other than to make out a massive darker blob against the ochre water. I have no visual clues what I’m touching. My only reassurance is that gators have very little body fat, ergo, this must be a manatee.

You don’t realize it, but this is what the abyss looks like.
It’s scarier in the movies…

After we’ve more than worn out our welcome, our boat captain takes us for a swim in Three Sisters, a nearby cluster of springs, vents, and boils. Our captain ties his small launch to a river tree. Here, clear water reveals tiny springs, their exit from the earth announced with a rushing gurgle I can almost hear with my eyes. I step off the boat into water far colder than 72º, the inexact standard for Florida rivers and springs. We walk towards the larger spring, through a group of wood posts set in water, designed to keep watercraft out of the spring head. The dizzying force of the water pushes against us as we move toward the springs, but as the narrow channel opens into a springhead, it gets easier. I can see the edge of the abyss; I peer over it, the clear blue sky reflected in chalky white limestone. Deeper down the color turns from an easy blue-green to a persistent and ancient blue. Cypress and oak ring the spring but do not cover it, letting the sun and sky dance rainbows across and through the spring water. We find no manatee here, but that’s just fine by me. The springs, uncluttered with kayaks and canoes and too many people, offer a rarer and more full experience.

Hudson Hole has nothing on Three Sisters.

If you don’t feel brave enough to take your chances in a Florida river, you can watch these giant freaky water cows through glass that lets you view them at their beady eye level –  Homosassa Springs State Park, just down the road, also boasts an elevated boardwalk that lets you stroll past cougar, Florida panther, deer, and the ever-present alligator, but the underwater observatory offers a less intrusive way to see manatee. It’s worth it see their fat schmoo-like bodies in all their blubbery glory, if only just to marvel that Florida folk wisdom holds that sailors used to mistake these creatures for mermaids.

Tour Six, Part Two – Fanning Springs

This is the second leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here.

Our tour crosses the Suwannee River at Fanning Springs, close to the river’s communion with the Gulf of Mexico at Cedar Key (See Tour Three). One does not come to this area of the state for beaches, though; one comes for the springs. Every hole and dip in Florida’s limestone floor glitters with teal and sapphire sparks of water, and Fanning Springs burns its radiance as brightly as any.

 Florida springs burble and prattle along their way, their blues and greens coalescing to the moonless midnight as they traipse through pine flatwoods, swamps, and hardwood hammocks. At the spring heads, though, the halcyon water shimmers in shades of teal sunshine, an aqueous rainbow revealing infinite depths. Fanning Springs State Park fronts the route, offering primitive camping for hikers, bikers and paddlers. Car and camper travelers can opt for a cabin (no pets permitted) or, as we did, head to nearby Manatee Springs State Park (See Tour 3) for RV camping or tent camping. Either spring offers a glimpse into Florida’s depths, and both feed the Suwannee. I do not trust my ability to outswim a gator quite enough to relax in Florida’s blackwater rivers, but I snorkel, swim and  dive the springs with abandon. Manatee and Fanning Springs alike allow and encourage these things, their crystalline waters the perfect invitation.
I learned to SCUBA dive after my first trip to the Florida Keys. I wanted to get closer to the rainbow of life on the reefs. My first SCUBA dive, though, took place in a murky, frigid sinkhole south of these springs: Hudson Hole. I had no intention then to dive freshwater, and that morning at the sinkhole cemented that decision.
It was my first for-real dive. It was January. It was not fun. Our dive instructors, clad in snuggly warm dry suits, laughed at us as they dumped hot water down the backs of our wet suits. Their breath made little steam clouds as they smirked and suggested we pee as soon as we hit the water. We entered the sinkhole and snorkeled a circle around the lake, then dropped to a platform 20 feet beneath the dismal, dusky surface. We ran through drills – clearing our mask, recovering our regulators, and clearing them – but the entire time I wasn’t thinking about drowning. No, I was too busy worrying about hypothermia and alligators. At least, I thought to myself at one point, if a gator bites me, I’ll be too numb from the cold to feel it.
Hudson Hole did nothing to entice me out of the saltwater and into the fresh. However, Florida’s first magnitude springs – springs that push over 100 million gallons per day out from the state’s spongy limestone center – have little in common with that dank, creepy place best used to train rescue divers. Manatee Springs is a glorious, serene, and – this is crucial – warm, first magnitude spring. Fanning Springs “only” pumps out 65 million gallons of inner earth water daily, which ranks it a second magnitude spring. Those are just words, though, and don’t truly convey the force of the water out of the earth. It gushes over limestone and out into the sun, tumbling over itself in its rush for the surface. You can’t, in all practicality, dive to the source – the pulse of the water will push you back to the outer edge of the planet. You can, however, often find tiny fissures where infinitesimal jets of water stream upwards, a small but unique delight in a wild aquarium.
Back on dry land, we head south.
At Otter Creek, the route passes State Road 24, the one way in and out of Cedar Key (see Tour 3).
As the road approaches Yankeetown (south of the more populous Chiefland), it turns towards the coast and traces its contours closely for the remaining 137 miles.
In 1962, Elvis came to Yankeetown to make Follow That Dream, a movie about a family that moves to Florida when their car runs out of gas on a deserted stretch of road. The family starts what becomes a thriving fishing business, outsmarts the mob, and befuddles bureaucrats, emerging triumphant at the film’s end. The short story on which it was based, Pioneer Go Home!, sets the stage in New Jersey rather than Florida.
In tribute to the film – and Elvis – the town renamed State Road 40 “Follow That Dream Parkway.” The sign still hangs between the traffic lights as the tour crosses the “Parkway.”

Tour Six: Georgia State Line (Thomasville) to St. Petersburg, Part One

“From red clay hills covered with oaks and magnolias, this route descends into a region of flatwoods and runs straight as an arrow for many miles, passing numerous turpentine and sawmill settlements, and then ascends to limestone hills, with lakes between. Green citrus groves, cypress hammocks, and scattered clumps of cabbage palms relieve the somber vista of cut-over pine land and scrub palmetto. Little of this sparsely settled territory is under fence, and free range cattle are a constant menace to motorists. Upon reaching the west coast the highway is within sight of the Gulf of Mexico, with its palm-fringed bayous and ribbon of low-lying keys, on which are miles of glittering white sand beaches.”⁠ – Guide to the Southernmost State

Inscribed over the Monticello courthouse doors:
“Suum Cuique”, Latin for “To each his own.”
You could also pronounce it “Sue ’em quick”, as the locals do.
US 19, in the more populous areas of the state, is a nightmare for commuters. In its northern parts, it is a delight, a series of rolling hills and red clay and leafy green trees.

Monticello, at the intersection of US 90 (See Tour 7), emits a distinctly southern vibe, with antebellum homes, an 1890s opera house, and a crumbly cemetery. The pre-civil war construction, so rarely seen in Florida, exists solely by virtue of poverty – when residents couldn’t afford to build new homes during the Great Depression, they instead renovated the older homes. Today they can be seen on a leisurely drive through the town, or by taking a Chamber of Commerce historical walking tour beneath the stately live oaks lining the streets. Homes have roomy porches, maid’s quarters, and gingerbread trim. 

This, I note, does not feel a bit like the Florida I know. The Florida I know overflows with sandy ranch houses, Florida rooms lined with cool tarazzo floors, and salt-crusted boats bobbing in emerald bays. But Monticello presents itself not as aquamarine waters and streaky pink sunsets but with muted colors of the forest–green pine trees and carmine-kissed clay soil. 

I linger in Roseland cemetery, trying to make out the inscriptions on the moldering tombs. The cemetery dates to 1827 and I find out later that I could have taken a ghost tour through the cemetery. I do not regret not taking the tour; the old stones, aging brick, and moss-draped trees gave the burial ground a desolate, haunted feel without help from paid storytellers.
Every summer, Monticello crowns a Watermelon Queen. In the late 1800s, Monticello and surrounding Jefferson County provided the country with the bulk of its watermelon seeds.⁠ The annual festival honoring this juicy slice of the town’s history includes bed races, plenty of food, and watermelon carving. I will leave the pageantry of the crowing of the Queen to your imagination.

Further down the road at Capps, the road joins with US 27 and US 19 and runs south through Perry and the Steinhatchee Conservation Area. If you love jellies and jams, this stretch of road has Florida’s finest on offer. I re-stock my supply of mayhaw jelly, Tupelo honey, and whatever vegetables the unfailingly cheerful roadside salesmen have on offer. Mayhaw berries, which grow in wet, low lying areas with sediment-rich, acidic soil, look like cranberries but don’t taste like them. They taste like… well, they taste like mayhaws, sweet and tart and gentle and sharp, which tells you nothing, I realize. 

The trees grow in swampy north Florida, in the panhandle and along the east side of the state as far south as Marion and Volusia (think Ocala and Dayotona Beach) counties, but I find the tastiest jelly along this stretch of US 19.

And what a lovely stretch of road it is, yawning greatly before us as we trundle towards the Tampa Bay area: trees in a thousand shades of green, the odd store or gas station, and not much else. I wouldn’t want to break down here, but I love the drive along the wooded highway. If one gauged the wealth of the residents by the number of shopping malls, they would deduce this is poor man’s country. If instead one looked at the number of birds, pines, and foliage, one might think the people here quite wealthy.

Circling the Pond: Top of the Pond

(This is the fifth part of the chapter for Tour 13: Punta Rassa to West Palm Beach and around Lake Okeechobee. Read the fourth part here.)

Further north, Pahokee looks poorer still, perhaps because of more of those colonial–styled estates interspersed with even more decrepit housing projects and shuttered businesses. Sugar cane is everywhere. As we drive I try and picture where the bodies of the 1928 storm were buried – not all graves were marked – and in my mind I see a jumble of arms and legs and fire and piles and piles of sugar. There’s a fire in the distance; burning cane crops is part of the farming practice. Burning the fields leaves only the stalk, making it easier for the few remaining workers – machines do most of the work today – to harvest the cane.

Port Myaca is the lone spot along the road where we can see the lake instead of a neatly mowed levee. It is also where we begin to leave the cane fields behind. Between here and the top of the lake, lunkers, not sugar cane, are the order of the day. Lunkers, or largemouth bass, make for big business here. Fishing camps dot the northeast quadrant of the lake between Port Mayaca and Okeechobee. If agriculture has attempted to triumph over the lake and Glades on its south side, fishing has learned to harmonize with both on the north end. It is a wholly more pleasant sight for me; I’ve never caught a hawg, or even tried, but after the desperation of Pahokee and Belle Glade, the unassuming fish camps soothe me with their contrast. There are still farms here (largely palms) but the presence of something at work with the environment instead of against it eases the ache I felt in Belle Glade.

Taylor Creek marks the top of the lake and also the least-impoverished city along the pond, although it, like the others, contains a fair share of derelict buildings. It also caters more to tourists, although judging by the wealth of fishing camps and bait shops, visitors here have a different idea of paradise than those flocking to see Mickey Mouse just two hours away.

At the western edge of Taylor Creek we stop and walk out to the levee. I still yearn to see a water moccasin, but after Clewiston I hold little hope. We park, this time taking an antsy Calypso, and walk up the levee. 

Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes along the Lake.

Here the lake seems less wild; there are more buildings and boaters and a man collecting trash from the ramp leading up to the levee. A tractor rests on the inside of the levee on a patch of grass, and a blue heron stares at us. East of our vantage point, a chain link fence separates the heron from a neatly mowed backyard. West of us a barge sits unattended, a colorful sign advertising “ICE SNACKS” in hand-painted lavender letters. White marshmallow clouds over the lake begin to lower themselves and darken. 

It’s time to go. 

Storm a-comin’

On its west side, Okeechobee grows wilder as it seems to spread out. Here we find fewer signs of development, save the odd gas station, house, or government building. Fields of cattle interspersed with cabbage palm line most of the roadway. In Moore Haven, we see a landfill on the lake side of the road, easily the highest point along the route and marked by crows and vultures soaring overhead. Prison inmates help with road construction, holding “STOP” and “SLOW” signs as we chug along the lake’s perimeter. When one of them switches “SLOW” to “STOP” and stop at the front of the line, he pantomimes asking for a cigarette. We shake our heads no and I find myself wondering what one does in this area of Florida to get thrown in jail. The Moore Haven jail offers no more than medium security. It houses fewer than 1,000 inmates, all male.⁠
This young inmate asked for a smoke.
I think the love bug splatter adds a gritty realism here.
Once we come full circle around the pond, I am still at a loss to describe the lake. Despite severe alteration to the landscape, it feels like a forgotten and untouched part of the state. It also leaves me with an alternating sense of wonder and melancholy. Part of me looks for a way to empathize with the needs filled by businesses and farms whose owners shaped these tragic decisions, but I cannot find it. Part of me is in awe of the lake and the surrounding communities; earning a living here cannot be easy, even for the wealthier: they battle mosquitoes, snakes, gators, and hurricanes with alarming regularity. This part of Florida, despite our attempt to control it, is still frontier. Despite neat rows of sugar cane and peppers and palms, the lake and the sky still rule this corner of the Sunshine State. 
Neatly ordered rows of farmland escort the route east until the Loxahatchee area, where subdivisions, strip malls, and golf courses rise up to meet the road until it ends in West Palm Beach at A1A. From Loxahatchee east, the density of the Palm Beach suburbs are a blur after the wide open rolling green of the southernmost interior, and it is almost a culture shock to see farms pushed up against the rows of development. The homes line up along the road in much the same way, just moments ago, sugar cane and tomatoes and peas did.