Circling the Pond: 1928

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

While the sweet-toothed towns like Clewiston pave the road to Lake Okeechobee, the ring around the Lake itself (SR 80/ US 27/ SR 700/ US 98/ SR 700) has a mystique all its own. The wall keeping the water just out of sight, the possibility of crossing paths with a venomous pit viper, the unapologetic migrant farm worker communities juxtaposed with the odd colonial home lined with massive palms and green, sweeping lawns. The southern edge is littered with liquor stores, markets, and other hastily–lettered Spanish signs. No middle class exists. Those colonial homes are few and far enough between that you start to believe the ruling class barely exists, either, but sugar’s silent white hand remains constantly at work. It’s not just sugar that rules the day here – anything that grows enslaves the poorest class in these towns.

Consider Belle Glade. The name itself crowns this town “belle of the swamp,” but, in reality, Belle Glade has perhaps Florida’s most tragic history.

“Welcome to Belle Glade. Her soil is her fortune” one signs boasts, and that may be so – but not for the people living here. Of the town’s 17,500 people, 33 percent live below the poverty level.⁠ The town is comprised of 56 percent black people and 34 percent Hispanic.⁠ Along the road side we see more Spanish signs than English, and the predominant roadside industry seems a mix of taquerias and drive-through liquor stores. There are over 6,000 homes in Belle Glade, over half of which are single-family homes. As we drive through town, I find myself glancing towards the lake – or, more accurately, the dike keeping the lake from washing over these buildings.

Not that it couldn’t if it wanted to. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.

“Belle Glade, 42 m. (1,646 pop.), was hastily built in 1925 and virtually wiped out by the hurricane three years later in which hundreds of its citizens perished.”⁠

Here’s the problem with putting houses down in this part of Florida: the land is low and wet, and no matter what humans try to do to make it higher and drier, it doesn’t work on a long-term basis. The Hurricane of 1928 offers the best example of this.


“At the beginning of the twentieth century, water simply flowed unimpeded from the lake’s south shore in a sheet, into the Everglades [… ] For the early settlers and farmers, that simply would not do. So between 1923 and 1925, the state built a 47-mile-long dike of earth. It was about five feet high. Twice in the next three years, it would be shown as useless as a dam made of tissue paper.

“In the early 1920s, commissioners of the Everglades Drainage District, founded in 1913, decided to build a more permanent dike around Lake Okeechobee. The plan was for work to start on the dike in 1927. It would be 110 to 130 feet wide at the base and 20 feet wide at the crest and stand 27 feet above sea level. They concluded that such a levee would resist hurricane-driven surge from the lake. But the legislature didn’t get around to approving the money for it.”


When the 1926 hurricane hit Florida, a low dirt dike burst at Moore Haven, a town of 1,200. Estimates say the water rose 17 feet, destroying the under-construction Glades County Courthouse. Officials buried the unidentifiable bodies in a mass county grave.⁠

By September 1928, no one seemed to have learned from their mistakes. The dike situation had not improved. Nonetheless, area farms still flourished in the rich black muck. Heavy late-summer rains and storms dumped more water in the lake. When a hurricane made landfall on September 16, water dammed in Okeechobee had nowhere to go.


“It woke up Old Okeechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel partially based on the 1928 storm.


The dikes did not hold. What followed was a precursor to Katrina: death of the poor black families on a massive scale. Forty miles inland, the hurricane reclaimed Florida, destroying the levee, obliterating entire towns, flooding farms, and killing thousands. The water had taken back the land, reshaping the topography of Florida’s lowest third.

Before human intervention, the natural system worked. Water flowed from the middle of the state at a shallow, slow pace down the meandering Kissimmee River. During the summer there was more of it; in the winter, less. Some water pooled in Lake Okeechobee; some went around, and still more flowed through. In late summer, heavier rains flooded the land south of the lake as well as the Kissimmee River’s flood plain. At the edge of the Everglades, the excess water drained into Florida Bay.

However efficiently it worked for the birds, trees, and fish, this system did not work for those who wanted to farm or sell the land under the water. Under that ever-moving pesky water was black gold: soil so rich from eons of wet, decaying plant and animal life that anything would grow in it. Under that water was land that could hold houses, shopping malls, and condominiums. The land failed to make anyone money while flooded with water, so why not change it – just a bit – to make it more efficient for humans?

The Everglades consists of not one but many unique, interdependent ecosystems. The Glades have more than a bunch of wet sawgrass: interspersed with the razor-sharp sedge you find hammocks of hardwood trees, mangrove islands, cypress swamp, freshwater prairies, and a patchwork of other communities. The one commonality these ecosystems all share is a persistent need for fresh water.

Tragedies rarely result from one single mis-step; more often than not, a series of poor choices lead to catastrophe. The 1928 tragedy south of Okeechobee came about because of not one but three bad decisions. Building a dike around Lake Okeechobee to contain the water proved less-than-prudent; altering the landscape so that the land surrounding and beneath the lake could be used for farm, cattle, and citrus compounded the problem; housing poor black farm workers to live on that newly-drained land completed the trifecta of bad decisions.

On September 16, 1928, these three decisions collided spectacularly.


“As the Category 4 monster raged westward, it saved its most crippling blow for the small farming communities that lined Lake Okeechobee‘s southern shore. Between Clewiston and Canal Point, 6,000 people lived and worked, and nearly half would perish before the light of day.”⁠ 

Hurricane winds can bend a bicycle around a tree. They can lift a roof off a home. They can pick up cars. In 1928, the wind powered a mighty wave of water through a wall supposed to contain it.


“A five foot muck dike, built to hold back Lake Okeechobee’s waves during summer rains, crumbled in the frenzied waters, unleashing a storm surge with the fury of a tidal wave.

“‘Nobody seemed to be too much alarmed,’ said [Frank] Stallings, 20 then and boarded up with his family in their Belle Glade grocery store, ‘until the water started coming in’.

“One family strapped the children to a fallen tree. Some in Belle Glade rushed up the water tower, kicking at anyone who got in their way. In the farming communities surrounding South Bay and Pahokee, thousands of field workers hunkered down in flimsy homes, many doomed to drown.”


Today we know those were category four hurricane winds that pushed the water around in the shallow lake, beating it to a boil. The water in the lake rose 10 feet above the lake level, bursting through almost 22 miles of levee on the southeast side of the mighty lake.⁠ The wall of water rampaged through the town, turning houses upside down, washing them away, and drowning those in its path. There was no escape; the water fiercely and wholly reclaimed the land and swallowed towns upon it. 


Even today, no one knows how many people died. The first number, 225, quickly grew to 400. 


“Ugly death was simply everywhere,” Charles Young, a Glades resident who helped collect the dead, would later recall⁠. The work was one part rescue, most parts body recovery. Young found the bodies of a family, including a dead man clutching his stilled child. Another rescuer, Festus Stalling, found the bloated body of a little girl, a toddler wearing a bracelet. 


“A month earlier, she had proudly shown him the bracelet, a gift for her second birthday. He grabbed her by that arm, lifted her up, and added her to the pile of death.”⁠


Some bodies were given a burial in a coffin, but not many. The Florida Health Department officially claimed just over 1,800 dead, but historians put the toll higher. Most of the dead were black farm workers. In 1920s Florida, an unidentified black person didn’t get a coffin, especially not with the weight of dead bodies crushing relief efforts.


No records exist of the farm owners dying in the storm, perhaps because they lived elsewhere. 


Relief workers stacked bodies in piles and burned them, burying the remains in mass graves. At some sites, they took the time to count the corpses. At others, workers were too overwhelmed to keep track. Most black survivors and many white ones never found out what happened to their friends and relatives. 


The little girl with the bracelet? She was thrown onto a funeral pyre, her body burned and buried with the others. Festus Stalling never forgot her. Memories of that child – and the many other dead – stayed with him until he died, his son Frank said. 


“He said the hardest thing he ever had to do,” Frank said years later, “was throw that little girl’s body on that fire.”⁠


Today, the majority of homes and stores by the lake line the road ringing the lake, less than a half mile from those levees.

Circling the Pond: West of Okeechobee

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


On the mainland, the route traces the crowded banks of the Caloosahatchee. East of Interstate 75 the buildings grow fewer. In parts, cypress swamps still meet the road, but farms and cattle are more prominent than low-lying swampland. As we pass Buckingham Road the road abandons all pretense of following the twisting river and shoots through the right angles of reclaimed swamp. 

This part of Florida is a study in right angles: the road, the crops lining the road, and the drainage canals dug to helpfully dry out the swampland and make the rich muck more useful as soil. Even the Caloosahatchee has succumbed to this idea of order: while the river still curves and bows in places, in parts its lines, too, straighten alongside the neat rows of orange trees, tomatoes, and peppers.

Was this the greatest idea? It depends on whom you ask. The farmers and the homes here likely think so; Everglades-huggers likely disagree. The system of drainage canals and pounds of fertilizer and pesticides used on these farms haven’t exactly encouraged the wetland to thrive. It appears that some of the farmers have sold to developers (who, in turn, sell to the unsuspecting folks from out of state), and signs of subdivisions marching south emerge along this road: a supermarket here, a diner there.

LaBelle exists at a bend in the Caloosahatchee. It is by no accounts a large city, but it is the main population center between I-75 and Lake Okeechobee along the route. It has not quite 5,000 residents and is the Hendry County seat.

“Cowboys ride into town from the surrounding ranches, wearing broadbrimmed hats, high boots, and other conventional trappings. La Belle’s big event is the Fourth of July rodeo, at which range hands compete in riding Florida broncos and ‘bull-dogging’ steers. Roping and whipcracking contests follow spirited horse races, on which wagering is heavy. A barbecue supper concludes the day, and in the evening square dances are enjoyed in jooks and homes to the music of guitars and fiddles, accented by the thumps of heavy boots.⁠”

Today the rodeo continues in LaBelle, as does the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival. The Festival includes “Grasscar” (a lawnmower race); armadillo races, which are exactly what they sound like; and, of course, the crowning of the Swamp Cabbage Queen.⁠


Swamp cabbage, for the uninitiated, comes from the white tender heart of younger cabbage palm trees. When prepared, they look like the logs of string cheese sold in grocery stores, although they taste nothing alike. I can’t get enough of the squishy, sour-ish hearts, but I freely admit they aren’t for everyone. Barry wrinkles his nose at them every time I try and get him to try one, but Florida literature professor Thomas Hallock describes in terms so eloquent I must repeat them:

“Ate some in Holopaw,” he says. “What does it taste like? For me, like urine-pickled cauliflower.”

Jono Miller, a cabbage palm expert (Seriously, the man wrote a master’s thesis on the cabbage palm. These sorts of things simply do not happen in other states), disagrees. He explains that swamp cabbage is the brand-new part of the tree. Like a brand-new baby, it doesn’t have its own personality yet, so it tastes like whatever you soak it in.

“My suggestion?” he says, “Avoid the urine-pickled swamp cabbage – the ease of preparation is offset by the result.”


Even cabbage palm experts, it seems, have a sense of humor.

In Clewiston I hope to see my first water moccasin as part of my odd love affair with Florida’s legless reptiles. Barry tells stories of crossing the lake on boat deliveries and stopping at the Roland Martin Marine Center for the night. At twilight and after water moccasins would gather on the floating docks, patches of color darker than the dock that looked suspiciously like rope but most definitely were not. A more prevalent but decidedly less deadly evil, the mosquitoes here are so thick that when you sit down to dinner at the marina bar, the server hands you a can of insect repellant.

We stop the van and walk out to the levee, my eyes more focused on the ground than the water. I leave Calypso in the van to keep her safe. Cottonmouth water moccasins are pit vipers with tiny, evil heads and tails but fat, snuggly bodies. Some sick part of me very badly wants to see a one up close. I don’t want to cuddle it, exactly, but I do want to know if they’re as fearsome as my childhood nightmares. I grew up a block away from a creek, and my parents warned me it was chock-full of the dastardly serpents. I never saw one, but odds are if I had seen one, it would have been a common nonvenomous water snake, not a venomous cuddly beast. Brown water snakes are far more populous in Florida, but not as good a deterrent for keeping a curious seven-year-old out of trouble.

At the top of the levee I see a canal with four empty rowboats rafted up to grassy lowland; the lake itself remains mostly out of sight. In the distance I see an empty nesting platform, ready for osprey. I look carefully at the ground and the levee wall. I step carefully. 


I see no snakes. We walk back to the van and commence circling the pond.

Circling the Pond, The Beginning

(This is the first part of the chapter for Tour 13: Punta Rassa to West Palm Beach and around Lake Okeechobee. Wondering what this is all about? Read my introduction.)

 “State 25, the direct route from Palm Beach on the Atlantic to Fort Myers and the Gulf coast, crosses the northern section of the Everglades, America’s largest swamp, its 4,000 square miles far exceeding the extent of the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and North Florida. The route follows the shore of Lake Okeechobee, encircled with fertile black fields growing great quantities of winter vegetables and sugar cane. Passing through the open range country of central Florida, reminiscent of the Old West with its cowboys and herds of range cattle, the highway follows the Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers and the Gulf Coast at Punta Rassa, fringed with sand flats and low-lying keys overgrown with mangroves.⁠”
Florida cowboys. If you don’t spend time in Florida’s inland areas, that sounds odd. Florida doesn’t have cowboys; the West has cowboys. Florida, by comparison, has beaches and sand and Disney. Somewhere between those beaches and the mighty mouse, though, Florida has cows. Lots and lots of cows. Since Ponce de Leon dropped off the first herd in 1521, Florida’s cattle industry has kept the interior of the state alive: today, Florida ranks 12th in the country for the number of beef cows, with four million acres of pasture and another one million acres of woodland used for grazing.
That’s a Florida cow. You can tell because she’s a little more laid back than cows from other states.
As we plod along the lower swampy third of the state, there’s no doubt that Florida’s chief land use has more to do with working the land than sunning oneself upon it: this route has pasture and planted fields in abundance.
And about that route – we added to it. In 1939, the tour ran in a straight line from West Palm Beach to Punta Rassa, but as long as we’re here we’ve decided to make a circle around Lake Okeechobee. Without stops, it should take us just under four hours. Prior to this, the only way I’ve seen Lake Okeechobee is from the right seat of a Grumman Traveler, a low-wing, four-seater prop plane. The pilot indulged me and tree-topped over the lake, swooping down low so I could get a good look at the big water. That day, our little plane followed a series of locks west to the Gulf coast. Beyond that, though, I’ve only read about the lake, heard stories about the lake, wondered about the lake.
Many of the stories come from Barry, who’s a boat captain by trade and used to do quite a few lake deliveries. If you’re trying to get a boat from one side of Florida to the other – and the owner’s paying you a flat rate – you don’t go around Florida’s southern tip. You cut through the lake, using the channelized St. Lucie River on the east and the Caloosahatchee River on the west. On the east, State Road 76 follows the river; State Road 80 more loosely follows the Caloosahatchee on the west.
A series of locks keeps the water where the state water management districts think it should be, which means they keep the lake from flooding sugarcane fields, which really means the locks keep Big Sugar happy – more on that in a bit. For boat deliveries and pleasure cruises, this means captains must time their trips by when they can get through the locks and bridges. Heading towards the lake, the water level rises with each lock. Heading away from the lake, the water level drops. State engineers only allow the lake to touch outside water at roughly twenty fixed points.
Before we reach the lake we must cross State Road 80. We leave our cozy spot at Koreshan State Park (See Tour 4) and move east through the swamp.
Okeechobee drains south into the Everglades, east into the Atlantic, and west into the Gulf of Mexico. On the Caloosahatchee River’s western edge, Sanibel and Captiva Islands are connected to the mainland with a bridge. Motorists pay $6 to cross over into Sanibel, the larger of the two islands at just over 10 miles long. Sanibel is barely a mile wide at most parts, with its widest part stretching maybe three miles across. The island resembles Fort Myers, Cape Coral, and the mainland cities on the other side of the bridge in much the same way a bulldozer resembles a palm tree. Sanibel has one main road, a two-lane affair lined by a bicycle path that seems more crowded than the road. The highest building on the island is the Sanibel Lighthouse, painted a deep brown that contrasts with the color-washed island.
The cottages, homes and shops that pepper the island mimic the colors of the tropical jungle they exist between: shocks of fuchsia bougainvillea explode between coral and lemon cottages, peach hibiscus frame the crosswalks, and orange birds of paradise flower between lime green traveler palms, red Poinciana, and soft green pine trees leading to the beach.
Shells on the beach mirror and mute the colors of the island: pink Florida fighting conch, cerulean lion’s paw, and lavender olive shells blot out the sand. Sanibel’s crescent shape and its position along the edge of Florida make it an ideal landing place for shells getting washed along the sea bed.

“Sanibel Island is notable for the number and variety of sea shells on its beaches. Every tide and storm wash ashore thousands of specimens of some 300 varieties. Among them are the multicolored calico shells, of which the pale lemon-yellow is the rarest; the lion’s paw, a dark orange-red; the white, bowl-shaped, yellow-lined buttercup, which comes from deep water and is seldom found in pairs; the delicately scalloped rose cockle, its interior shading from pale salmon pink to deep rose, and often tinged with orange and purple; the large red-brown cockle, used for souvenirs and in the manufacture of trays, lamps, and other objects; the fragile white angel’s wing; the Chinese alphabet, a smooth white shell with curious markings; and the slender polished olive, tapering at both ends and shading from dark brown to light tan, also called the Panama shell. Perhaps rarest of all is the junonia, a deep-sea mollusk, its creamy white exterior marked with spiral rows of square brown or orange spots. Perfect junonia specimens have sold for $200. Florida shore life is described in Florida Sea Shells (1936), by B.D.E.Aldrich and E.Snyder. The Sanibel Sea Shell Fair is held annually in February.⁠”

Not much has changed since then. On February 17, the Sanibel Captiva Shell Cub kicked off its seventy-fifth annual shell fair (“Shellabration”) with the Sanibel Stoop. The Sanibel Stoop is named after the stooped over posture of a shell collector as they scour the beach for cockles, sand dollars, and coquina. During the Sanibel Stoop event at the fair, shellers gather along the beach en masse to stoop over as if looking for shells. The fair includes other things – shell lectures, shell salesman, shell books, to name a few – but make no mistake: people come here to hunt for shells. The hunt along the beach, the thrill at finding a perfect Scotch Bonnet, the ache in your lower back at the end of the day – this is Sanibel’s allure for shell collectors.
Shellers aside, Sanibel appeals to tourists seeking old Florida, or, at the very least, the picture they keep in their head of old Florida. The island does not disappoint. It has no stop lights, no chain stores (except for one Dairy Queen, grandfathered in when the island enacted tight growth management practices), and Sanibel still looks much as the Guide describes it:
“The island, 2 miles wide and approximately 12 miles long, is a State game preserve; native and migratory birds are plentiful and can be studied at close range; wild flowers grow profusely in spring and summer; the Gulf and bay offer excellent fishing at all seasons.⁠”
 
The Sanibel Light, arguably the least colorful thing on the island.
The Guide makes little mention of development on the island, and that holds true today. While there is no shortage of colorful, quaint beach bungalows, time shares, and inns that will take your money in exchange for a night or two on the island, they come second to the natural splendor. Sanibel seems content to fade behind the brilliant colors of blue wildflowers, roseate spoonbills, and purple donax. The island explodes in a stunning array of color, from fuchsia bougainvillea peeking out from every white picket fence to buttery yellow frangipani lining the bike path that runs the length of the island. This is not an island where you come with a purpose; this is an island where you come to absorb the scents and pace of Florida.

 

Destination Clearwater: 1987

I turned 15 in 1987, so I couldn’t drive yet. I spent a lot of time in the front seat of my friend Chad’s maroon Ford-type car, heading to Rocky Horror at Countryside Mall, driving up and down a pre-roundabout Clearwater Beach, and taking trips to the airport to ride the trams back and forth and page each other over the loudspeaker.

Chad’s car actually belonged to his parents, but they let him drive it all the time. As the declared ringleader of our merry band of misfits, he spent hours chauffeuring us on his latest adventures. At the hands of teenagers, this marvel of midwestern engineering took one hell of a beating. The gray headliner sagged. The electric windows went up and down as the spirit moved them and not in response to us pressing the flaking metal switches on the heavy doors. The air conditioner had two levels: “Arctic Tundra” and “Good Luck With That.” Lumbar support? This was the 80s. We didn’t even know what that meant.

The radio worked, though, and that’s all I cared about, because this was the age of the hair band. Namely, Poison. Whenever “Talk Dirty To Me” came on the radio, we’d turn up the radio and turn into the greatest air band that ever lived.


Fast forward to 2012. I’m on the front side of 40. I’ve traded passenger-ship for a sporty red Volkswagen Rabbit, and I can plug my iPhone into the auxiliary jack and hear Poison at a moment’s notice. I still turn it up to an unsafe decibel level, but it doesn’t feel the same as when I was wholly at the mercy of a disc jockey’s mood. 


A couple of weeks ago my friend Kelli and I took a trip up to the Saint Somewhere Brewery in Tarpon Springs. We followed Alternate 19 back from the brewery, and just as we left the inky black sea to our right and traded Edgewater Drive for Fort Harrison, she turns up her radio. Within seconds, I hear it: that sliding, repeating guitar that pushes the music into a big intro, followed by an insistent, definite drum beat.


You know, I never seen you look so good…


By the time we pass Nicholson Street, I’ve gotten the band back together. Forget about deadlines and healthcare and power bills, I’m back in my tight-rolled acid washed jeans, shoulder pads and big hair. The green traffic lights and amber street lights blur back in time. Chanel No. 5 suddenly smells a lot like Love’s Baby Soft, and even though Kelli and I don’t smoke, I swear I can smell the reek of Chad’s Dorals in her leather-interior Envoy.




At the drive in, in the old man’s Ford, behind the bushes, until I’m screaming for more…

I’m a drummer and a vocalist. It takes little encouragement to get Kelli – restaurant owner, mother, and a beach suburbanite of sorts – to join me on vocals:




Down the basement, lock the cellar door, and baby…. and baby, talk dirty to me!


As the last of C.C. DeVille’s guitar work fades into the next glam rock song (apparently some sort of Hot Tub Time Machine wormhole exists between Edgewater Drive and Fort Harrison), we look at each other and giggle.


It must be my imagination, but for a second, the time it takes to blink, Kelli’s sleek, close-cropped hair sprouts a hairsprayed wall of bangs, uniform permed curls, and smells ever so slightly of Sun-In.

What’s this, now?

In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration paid writers to travel and create driving tours of each state. The Federal Writers Project hired unemployed writers. To narrow the field almost imperceptibly, the program only considered at writers who were poor and had no prospects. 
Florida chose Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy. 
They crisscrossed the state separately – Jim Crow would not allow black Zora to travel with white Stetson – carving the routes they would immortalize in the Guide to the Southernmost State.
Over seventy years later, I decided I wanted to go, too. I broke out my shiny red Florida Gazeteer and started trying to recreate the twenty-two tours, studying towns and researching old route numbers. In many cases, I could only recreate the Depression-era routes by jumping from city to city, sort of a geographic connect-the-dots.
Roads are living things, and for one to assume that she can look for a road in the same place someone else put it down almost 80 years ago, well, sir, you would be foolish to think that road would stay right where you left it. Especially in Florida, a land kept eternally young and youthful by its constant state of flux and change. The roads, it seem, breathe and grow and twist and turn and pulse with the fervor of Florida in much the same way her people and her land does. They are malleable. There isn’t much in Florida that won’t bend and stretch – and sometimes break. Just as often, though, it yields instead, bending until it simply can no longer, and then it stretches and bends back and we are the ones who must yield or break.
In September I climbed into a camper van with my better half, Barry, and my other better half, Calypso. We spent the month recreating those original tours, guided by a dog-eared, broken-spined 1950s-era version of the Guide, a tattered oversize Florida Gazetteer, and (on Barry’s part) on endless supply of patience.
We logged almost 5,000 miles in that van that became our home on my quest for Florida.  I hoped to see the state through Stetson and Zora’s eyes. I looked for what they saw. I searched for scraps of Florida abandoned along her backroads.
Out of those miles grew the tours you will read here: the ultimate Florida road trip.
These tours share much with the Guide to the Southernmost State, but they differ, too.  I was following Stetson and Zora, yes, seeking their voices in the burble of every spring and searching for visions of them in every blazing hot pink and amber sunset, but I was also recreating, one more time, Florida’s story – and mine. 
This tour is the best thing I have ever done. 
As I work my way through a series of edits to these tours, so graciously provided my by awesome thesis committee at the Florida Studies Program at USF–St. Petersburg, I’ll post parts of my work here. I want your feedback, of course, but most of all, I’d love it if you would throw a bag in the back of your car, grab a road map, and join me on this great Florida adventure.

Hard Candy: Here, Here

Orlando, you have broken my heart.

In the 1990s I lived on Morse Boulevard, just outside Orlando, and I loved it. Other than buying groceries I did all my shopping by walking around the corner to Park Avenue. I found birthday gifts at local shop. A local florist make me a Christmas wreath for my front door. I sipped coffee at a non-Seattle-based shop that was neither trendy nor pricey. Friends and neighbors would walk down the street and get sushi at a hole-in-the-wall; the bookstore next door always had a lively game of checkers at its sidewalk table. The Mill restaurant had food for non-sushi lovers and we could walk there in 10 minutes.

Orlando seemed very far away, but it wasn’t. Not really. We’d drive to Church Street to get terrified at Terror on Church Street and marvel at the tourists who’d managed to wander away from the theme parks for an evening. We’d use the parking garage that had flowering bushes on its outside so we didn’t have to fight street traffic, but we’d move the car if we wanted to head down Colonial to Dekko’s to go dancing.

I worked, once or twice, as a stagehand for Orlando Opera Company, and the company shared space with Southern Ballet in a building donated by Florida Power. Before every matinee my friend Angi and I would climb a narrow ladder up to the roof and spread Visqueen over the long, narrow skylight. Lake Ivanhoe curved along the building and, while I hated the climb, I loved the view.

In case it isn’t clear, I loved everything about Orlando and Winter Park. The only thing wrong was that it was way too far from the beach, and I need salt water like beagles need to howl. I moved back to Pinellas county.

At first I visited frequently, but over time the visits grew less frequent. I went back this week, and what I saw shattered my heart.

Dollar General, automotive chain stores, and fast food chains dominate the landscape. My college and early 20s memories are all that remain of a unique, untouched community. I don’t just mean Orlando; Park Boulevard has changed utterly, populated with the smaller chain stores you see in every small town trying to make itself distinctive from the next small town 20 miles over. A few holdouts remain, but the personal feel has disappeared under a cloud of assimilation.

Sadly, this is not confined to Orlando. Over the past few days the joke in our small camper has become “Look – a Dollar General. We must be downtown.” At times I feel adrift in Anytown, USA.

My thesis chair and Florida guru Dr. Gary Mormino wrote an article for the Tampa Tribune years ago. In it he referenced a 1990s postcard of the Orlando skyline. “Welcome to Orlando!” the postcard read. One problem: the skyline didn’t belong to Orlando. When polled, area readers thought it might be Halifax.

“There is no here, here,” Dr. Mormino laments in his article, and as I drove down US17 and 441 through the Orlando area and a dozen other smaller towns, my heart breaks for Orlando, for Winter Park, and for every little town in Florida who has lost its “here.”

Dollar General stores all look the same, whether they’re nestled under live oak trees or set amidst palm trees, and, after eight days of driving Florida’s back roads, those stores symbolize the loss of our “here.”

I see Florida towns as we travel from stoplight to stoplight through sand, forest and lakes, and some of these roads reveal the very worst of Florida: her homogenized outer skin, a veneer that is peeling up like cheap pressboard furniture that’s been through a flood. This is the US 19 through Largo or the Ulmerton Road of the state. This is the worst Gulf or Gulfport Boulevard we could conceive. This is neon and sandy asphalt and Anytown, Anywhere. This is hell.

I believe St. Pete Beach is trying to keep some of its “here”, despite what the people throwing around threats and yelling at commission meetings may say. I believe Gulfport wants that, too. I do not know they have the funding or the leadership, but I hope it finds the former and suspect it may have the latter. I’ll be honest, I’d feel better if the city planners had been more vocal about how to keep our here, here. I’d feel better if Gulfport hadn’t already started the march toward low-budget chain stores along its namesake boulevard. I would feel better if we could at least agree on what our “here” is.

Take a drive yourself and search for the here: some of it remains throughout Florida. It bleeds through in old diners with Cuban coffee and restaurants with frogs legs and catfish. It traces the rolling hills of north Florida and it invites you to roll down your car windows and breath in south Florida’s salt air. It knows who it is and can’t try and pretend differently. Each here has its own identities, filled with its own history and imperfectly beautiful. It has no apologies.

It has no Dollar General stores.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.

Goofy Golf

Goofy Golf.

I spent about 20 minutes taking pictures at the Goofy Golf – octopus, dinosaur, Easter Island head (he was my favorite, and also apparently an institution at any Florida minigolf that is not a chain establishment. Only in Florida do we have franchised minigolf.) and the gamut of the sorts of things you would expect to find at a minigolf establishment along Florida’s coast.

Panama City Beach offers untold riches of chintzy touristana. They did it first, and they did it best. Before them there was only gator wrestling and mermaids. Come on Florida, you can do better than that!, Panama City Beach must have said.

Unlike the newer, glitzy flavors of chintzy tourism, the shalmtzy flavor syrups that drizzle throughout the city are more traditional ones: wooden roller coasters, Ripley’s and a more authentic version of International Drive. The gimmicks here hatched I-Drive; the extreme and the overdone cut its teeth on Panama City Beach’s gritty fluffy sugar sand before corrupting our state’s chewy center.

Goofy Golf remains. Established in 1959, it stands in tropical shades of purple, gold and lame´. You do not feed live gators here (as you may at some of the chains); you do not see a plane crashing into a faux mountain. You are surrounded by high rises and planned shopping experiences; nothing is left to chance. The beach, glittering aquamarine against fluffy buff sand, is down there, if you care to look.

It is tourism for tourism’s sake, and the technicolor icons of the minigolf course sum up this pastel tourist life.

The Florida Sleep

I can’t sleep. It’s 4:30 in the morning and I’ve been lying awake for two hours. Even a cheezy dime store romance from the KOA lending library (Why is it that the two times I’ve been in Tallahassee I’ve ended up at the KOA? What’s wrong with me?) didn’t help. The healthy shot of 151 I poured myself didn’t help. If this blog doesn’t put me to sleep I’m heading over to Facebook to play some stupid time wasting game.

{Time passes}

Not working. It’s now 5:05 and all I can think about is everything of Florida I am not going to see in the next two weeks. There just isn’t enough time; there’s too much of her and not enough of me.

Picture Florida as a piece of orange slice candy. You know the ones I mean: chewy orange slices with a crusty sugar coating. You can’t eat too many; the flavor will overwhelm after one or two.

I’ve spent the past few days peeling at the state’s chewy orange center, and now I’m worried I won’t have enough time to lick at its sugary outer layers. There’s just so much to see, so many places almost no one knows about that I’ve yet to explore, and I really don’t have enough time to give them the attention they deserve.

Take today: we have a less-than-three-hour drive to Port St. Joe, where we will camp on the beach. Sounds great, right? Yeah, I thought so, too. Then we drove through Monticello yesterday and I realized that I really wanted to walk around the town and explore the idea of poverty juxtaposed with pre-civil-war architecture. I want to spend enough time there to make the place breathe for the people who haven’t been there.

So, OK, add an hour. If we leave our campground at 9 (this has yet to happen but hope springs eternal), we can still be in Port St. Joe by 1, right?

Not so fast, math wizards. Because there is still Natural Bridge Battlefield, which is only important because I just two days ago realized it referred to the river disappearing underground rather than some land formation arching over the river. So, OK, add another 30 minutes.

1:30.

PLUS there’s Tallahassee, our capital and an awesome town even if it weren’t. We need to take a look there.

2:30.

Wakulla Springs. That’s where Rico Browning worked his magic with Creature From the Black Lagoon; it’s where Tarzan and Cheetah frolicked. There’s a great boat ride there and a lodge.

4:00.

Just hell. Oysters. Because we’re going right through Apalachee Bay. And with oysters come beer. It’s the law in Florida, in case you didn’t know. Indian Pass Raw Bar and Moe’s are currently vying for our dinner business, but who knows what we’ll drive by that I don’t already have on my radar?

6:00.

And then we get to the park. The beach. The panhandle’s diamond gulf coast, except by the time we set up camp we’ll have about an hour to enjoy it. Then it’s sunset, dinner, bed, and time to do this all over again. All the while all I can think about are the people and places I’m missing.

Just bloody hell. These are the places that everyone visits, and I’m going because I want to go there; it’s totally selfish. But what about the other places? What about the Sopchoppy cemetery? What about Double Bayou? What about Blount’s Bay? What about all the little places with real people and real lives who deserve to be seen? They are no less valuable than the hairdresser who bought Moe’s; they are of equal interest as the people who narrate the tour down the Wakulla.

I am failing you, Mr. Kennedy. I am failing and I am sorry. I just don’t have the resources to do this on an extended basis. There’s too much of Florida to see.

Florida has too many riches; she simultaneously has too much chewy orange center and sugar sand coating. I love all of it and wish I could gather it up in my arms, weave it into some great lime and sand afghan, and spread it out over the state for the whole world to grab a corner and snuggle up.

The Florida Sleep. I would love it if everyone could snuggle under the blanket of Florida and rest, knowing that they would all meet at some point. But that won’t happen; the chances of a Miami boy meeting a girl from Panama City are slim, as are the chances of the two respective worlds coming to a mutual place of understanding.

What is my point here, I wonder after a few scant hours or sleep and even more hours of fretting? Do I want everyone to find the best oysters, or am I after something more?

Of course, I am after something more. Florida is more than oysters and sand. She is more than Disney and the Keys. She is salt and sun and citrus and pines, but she is more.

She is sleeping with your windows open in August and feeling like you could disappear in a pool of sweat.

She is watching the sun set over the shallow turquoise Gulf and knowing that you are home.

She is wading through the swamp, knowing that each step could invoke the wrath of a gator or – more realistically – a snake.

She is railing against big sugar and the oil rigs and everything else that threatens what you love, whatever that is.

She is Florida, and she is sunshiney and wonderful and perfect in all her flaws.

If only I could know I could show you all that, I would sleep. It wouldn’t be just any sleep.

It would be the great sleep, the one that bears the weight of our history and our future.

It would be the Florida Sleep.

Bartram. Damn Him.

Ravine Gardens State ParkI really, really wished I had paid more attention in my Nature Writing class with Dr. Hallock, because here in north-ish Florida there’s all this Bartram stuff. We just left Ravine Gardens State Park, pretty in its own right thanks to the last Depression America had, and on the way out – after touring the loop encircling the ravine and enjoying a quiet lunch by the terraced amphitheater – I see a cabin with a sign, “William Bartram Trail.”

For those of you not familiar with early Florida literature (although I’m not certain that Bartram, who wrote shortly before the Revolution), let me put it to you this way: Bartram was a breath of fresh air compared to the flat out lies told to the crowns financing Florida expeditions. See, “early Florida literature” is really just a euphemism for “reports to my boss to justify my large government travel budget.” That’s right, folks, besides from providing graduate students with scads of archaic language to wade through, these writers weren’t writers at all – they were government workers who had to justify their jobs. 500 years and nothing’s changed, except for the lack of brave new lands to visit and irrevocably alter in the name of “keeping your job.”

When you consider this body of – we’ll call it literature just to give it a name, if not an accurate one – literature consists of self-serving accounts of what the king’s money was doing for the home country, you start to realize that these books are aggrandized reports home designed to make the explorers look good (and therefore stay employed, because if your explorers look good, you look good.)

Consider the narrative of LeMoyne, who explored La Florida in the mid 16th century with a group of Frenchmen: the pictures contained in this government report include water dragons and reptiles (I’d guess alligators) with snake-like heads and man-like arms (for those of you not intimate with crocodilians, gators have comically small, useless arms.) There’s also a touching sketch of the Indians (yes, I said it) stabbing a man through the penis (clearly the source of all his power) and sawing off his other extremities with Stryker-like precision.

Fun stuff, good times, but wholly inaccurate as far as I can tell. Of course, that’s just how Europeans described the natives. Couple that with how a few Europeans can beat down limitless earlier Americans (don’t believe me? Read Pizzaro’s account of what he did in Peru) and you’ve got yourself pretty much every exploratory account of the New World.

Enter William Bartram. The guy liked plants, mostly, and as nifty as they are, it’s hard to make plants into man-eating vicious beasts. Well, mostly. It also helped that he explored Florida well after the Spaniards and the British wove themselves along the eastern coastline of America; it’s harder to lie when there isn’t an ocean between you and your boss. They could pop in any old time and see that those dragons were, indeed, tarpon. Fun to work on the end of a line, but not exactly fire-breathing beasts.

I like Bartram. He wrote real words. I mean, he’s no chamber of commerce travel writer, but I like that, too. He wrote about what he saw up and down Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas in what I consider more realistic terms. He loved his birds and plants, so that was a lot of his work, not massacring injuns.

Sunday morning before I left the house I took one last look at my bookshelves. I have great bookshelves in the house I rent: they cover one wall from floor to ceiling. My hand paused over my copy of Bartram’s Travels. I wanted to take it. I knew I would want it; knew I didn’t remember half of his expedition. All the same, I had packed a lot of stuff. I ended up leaving the book.

Manatee Springs State Park
So, of course, within two days we’re at Manatee Springs State Park, with a spring so blue and encircled with knobby-kneed cypress that I never want to leave the waterside. As I take it all in, I notice a plaque that tells me William Bartram discovered this spring in the late 1700s. The plaque bears a transcription of his notes about the springs, but says nothing of how he happened across the cerulean oasis. I assume he navigated his way down the Suwannee River to find it, but that’s just a guess.

It is also just a guess how today’s lunch stop ended up on the trail. I’m not surprised, mind you, just curious. I can picture my copy of Travels sitting on the top shelf of my bookshelf, right hand side. Taunting me.

What a fun thesis it would have been, following Bartram. Of course, that would have taken me out of Florida, and we all know that I turn to stone if I look directly at another state’s history. Also, I’m having a lot of fun now. After lunch we stopped at Angel’s Diner, Florida’s oldest diner (it opened in 1932), and had milkshakes (pusalows, actually).

Angel's Diner
Try the pusalow. Seriously.

Bartram, I would like to note, never stopped there. I’d like to believe either Stetson Kennedy or Zora Neale Hurston did.

Hard Candy: Following Stetson Kennedy

Originally published here on September 1, 2011.

 Think of me as a skeptical inquirer. I’m not much one for seances, but I’m open to the possibility – just not very open. I see things in black and white, except when I dream. Then I see things in all their glorious color. I take dreams far more seriously than I take fortune telling and Ouija boards.

 Last week I dreamt of Stetson Kennedy, a 94-year-old Florida treasure, whom I’d been meaning to call.

 Those of you who have heard of Stetson Kennedy probably heard of him because he infiltrated and exposed the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s. A smaller group of folks may know him for his writing about Florida folk life. The man told Florida stories. But there’s one other thing he did that most of you, I’d wager, never knew. He edited a guide book to Florida, a chamber of commerce type of affair that led people down shell and dirt roads into palmetto-fringed hamlets in every corner of, at the time, the southernmost state.

 During the Great Depression, the federal government had this idea that they would pay writers who had “pauper” status and few prospects to write about their state (Are you listening, Mr. President?), thus stimulating the economy by encouraging Americans to travel and celebrating American culture. The Federal Writers Project, part of the WPA, hired a young man named Stetson Kennedy to write and edit the book about Florida; he and fellow Floridian Zora Neale Hurston traveled the state to collect vignettes and document what the average traveler would see along Florida’s roads.

 Courtesy of Jim Crow, the duo traveled separately. In 1939, the Federal Writer’s Project published their work as The Guide to the Southernmost State, and it is the last time anyone saw the state with one set of collective eyes. No one prints this marvelous collection of driving tours anymore;  if you want to tour the Sunshine State (Hawaii robbed us of the “southernmost” honor years ago), you can either research us online or you can buy a book catering to your specific interest or location (Think “The Dachshund Lover’s Guide to St. Pete Beach” or “Shopping for Bamboo Along Florida’s Forgotten Coast”) but you can’t get a solid tour book for the entire state. Some of the larger publishers hit the highlights of many towns, but if you want to crack open the state and see her spongy limestone insides, you’re out of luck. 

 This is our state’s most tragic loss. Not knowing what we stand to lose allowed us to swallow miles of beach with condo canyons and surrender the Everglades to sugar cane and irrigation. Our state’s beauty has become a commodity with the most beautiful parts garnering the most  pages in tour books. If your town doesn’t fit with the accepted view of paradise, well, you don’t get the prize: visitors.

 Certainly this “glove compartment guide” to every nook and cranny of the state pales, for most, in comparison to Kennedy’s courageous infiltration of the KKK. I love it anyway. I love it because, through the tours and histories in the pages of my weathered copy of the Guide I find the beating heart of forgotten Florida, the undercurrent pulsing beneath Disney and water parks and gator wrestling.

 For my thesis, I will retrace Stetson Kennedy and Zora Neale Hurston’s routes and follow in their footsteps, now cold for 74 years. Over the next three weeks, I will be poking around the edges of Florida fish camps, ranches, and small towns, no matter how anonymous. I will go where they went, recording what I find no matter how “pretty” the paradise.

 When I met with one of my thesis advisors about my work last week, we talked about me interviewing the 94-year-old Kennedy. It is his massive work I seek to replicate, and, among Florida scholars he is a pillar of Florida culture.

 “You’d better hurry,” my advisor said. I told him I would do it this week.

 Stetson Kennedy died Saturday morning. The item on my to-do list is now crossed off as yet another incomplete regret, something else lost in Florida.

 Last night, I dreamed of him. I was covering a crime watch meeting in Gulfport and he walked in and sat down. I knew he wasn’t there for the crime watch; he was there for me. I approached him and asked him how I was supposed to know what parts of the book were his. What I really wanted to know was, how could I show others the state that captured his heart and mine? Where would I find bit of the past he saw? How could I possibly hope to pay homage to his Guide to the Southernmost State?

 “You can hear my voice,” he said. “When you go, you can hear my voice.”

 I start my travels Sunday. The ghost of Stetson Kennedy, I hope, will lead the way.

 Goodbye, sir. Godspeed, and thank you.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com. For the next month, follow her as she retraces Stetson Kennedy’s tours of Florida at this web site.