Ridley Pearson after dark at Walt Disney World

Ridley Pearson can ride Space Mountain at 2 a.m.

Any night he wants.

That was his condition when Disney/Hyperion asked him write Kingdom Keepers, which Pearson describes as “a series about five teenagers who get inside Disney after closing hours to discover there’s a whole world they didn’t know.”

If you grew up as a teenager in Florida, that was pretty much the fantasy — sneaking into the Magic Kingdom when you’re not supposed to be there.

“That was mine when I was coming up,” Pearson admits.

Walking through the Haunted Mansion when, if there really are 999 ghosts, they might really be out in force.

Wondering if the dolls in It’s a Small World ever come to life.

Why does Pearson get to poke around wherever he wants, whenever he wants, in any Disney park in the worldwhen the rest of us have to content ourselves with the onstage areas — the Disney term for guest areas — during park operating hours?

Well, it sort of has to do with Dave Barry. Barry and Pearson played in the Rock Bottom Remainders — a rock band comprised of writers, including Stephen King, Amy Tan and Roy Blount, Jr. — together and had a friendly rivalry, which led to a game of one-upsmanship when planning a joint Disney vacation (see, famous people really arejust like you and me).

A woman at Hyperion, Disney’s publishing arm, arranged for the royal treatment — tickets waiting in the room, extra goodies, VIP treatment (OK, so they’re not exactlylike you and me). Pearson, a good Missouri boy, called her to thank her.

While on the phone thanking her, she asked him to consider writing one of his adult thrillers, only for a YA audience and set in the Disney parks (mom was right — good manners really do reap rewards).

Sound like a dream for a writer? It was — until she threw down these guidelines:

Nothing bad could happen. Kids in the story can’t get hurt, the rides can’t get sabotaged. No weapons, no abductions. Basically, a Disney-fied thriller.

“And you want this to be a thriller?” Pearson asked.

Challenge accepted: Kingdom Keeperswas born.

The series takes five teens who, in the form of holograms, guide guests through the Magic Kingdom. Something goes wrong and the teens find themselves in the park after dark — as holograms. They must battle evil (led by Maleficent, of course) for the future of the Kingdom — and the world (Editor’s note: Although these are YA books and I don’t typically enjoy YA, I find these excellent reads).

Pearson’s name sound familiar? That’s because a play based on a book he wrote concurrently with the Disney series opens locally this week. Although not part of the Kingdom Keepersseries, while he was working on the first book, his daughter asked him how Peter Pan met Captain Hook, so he and Dave Barry went on to write Peter andthe Starcatchers — later adapted for the stage and opening this week at freeFall for the second year running (last year’s shows sold out).

Here’s the fun of publishing: Although Pearson finished Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Darkbefore Peter andthe Starcatchers, Disney attorneys had to approve the Kingdommanuscript, so Peter andthe Starcatchers came out first.

The approval process took 11 months, and if that sounds like typical Disney, this doesn’t: They didn’t change a thing.

“They did not edit a word of that book,” Pearson says. “It went all the way up the ladder in Disney and they all said, ‘This is so fun and so exciting, we’re not going to make you cut any of it.’ My editor and I certainly cut things and changed things, but not the people who control the laws and the rules, not even the people like the Imagineers who might have said, ‘you know, this just steps too much on our idea.’ They said, ‘This is a fun, fresh take and let’s just let it run.'”

By contrast, editing a book can take years, depending on the publisher’s resources. And, logically, writers like Pearson — who have a following and publishing houses may consider less of a financial risk — often get through the process more quickly.

Pearson’s bankability may have had something to do with Disney agreeing to the conditions he set for writing the books.

“If I was going to write these books, I was going to have to get inside their parks when it was dark and crazy in there, including into the rides when they were shut down,” he told them.

“They said, ‘well, we just don’t let anybody do that.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I kinda figured, but you asked if I wanted to write this, and I would love to, but I really can’t if I can’t do it the way I write.'”

Disney said OK a month later. They allow Pearson into any park, any time of the day, anywhere in the world. He’s done that 30 times. 

And no, he cannot bring a guest — we asked — except for the one time he and Dave Barry went in together to ride Peter Pan’s Flight while struggling with part of the story of Peter and the Starcatchers. They rode the ride 12 times in a row and, even then, Barry returned to the ride later to get the story the way they wanted it. 

Writing’s hard, even when it means having Walt-like privileges at the happiest place on earth. Also, Pearson says, being at Disney without the crowds? It’s not always a dream come true. An Imagineer — Disney-speak for attraction designers — always accompanies him, and Imagineers have a reputation as jokesters.

Case in point: In the Haunted Mansion, the plates on the table change every week, putting the hidden Mickey in a different spot.

These, then, are the wrong people to find out a certain famous author has a full-on fear of Maleficent.

“I’ve done so much research into her and I’ve built her into a thing in my series,” he says “I really don’t like being around her. When they found out I had a phobia about Maleficent, they hired her after hours to be in her full deal and hide.”

He came around a corner, “and there was Maleficent, all six feet of her, saying (adopts screechy voice), ‘Ridley, what are you doing in my park?’ and I just took off running.”

Even without the Imagineers’ — we’ll call it “playfulness” — even without that, Pearson says, “The most magical place on earth is one of the creepiest places on earth. It’s only under intermittent lighting and the rides that I go on are only under hurricane lights. It’s really creepy in these places.”

Pearson tends to ride the rides unlit, just as they would be for his Kingdom Keepers.

And it’s not only the lack of lighting that makes it makes it spooky.

“[It’s] just like a ghost town — when you’re in a place that looks so beautiful but there’s no music and no people. It’s really strange to be walking down Main Street without another human in sight.”

Creepy? The Haunted Mansion, although, Pearson says, “it’s almost creepier with the lights on.”

Creepier still? It’s a Small World.

“I saw those dolls move,” he says, and he’s not joking. “All the dolls were frozen when I went through. It was probably a couple of shadows, but I swear two of those dolls stepped forward and it just gave me chills.”

The Kingdom Keepers series has seven books. Pearson’s written another Kingdom Keepers series, The Return, which has three books. He’s also starting work on another iteration of Kingdom Keepers, which delves into the worlds of EPCOT. 

This article originally appeared in the 2016 issue of Creative Loafing. Link.

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

Hold Your Judgment, America: Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos (Hard Candy, Redux)

As of Friday, the United States Coast Guard officially ended the search for 14-year-old fishermen Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, the two boys whose capsized boat was found far north of where the boys were last seen. I cannot imagine the immensity of the pain ripping through their families and their community in Tequesta, not just today, but for years to come.

I’ve followed this story closely. El Cap and I have a life geared around Florida, boats, and the water. Everyone seems to have disdain for the parents and what they did wrong in regards to the boys in the boat. I’ve read and heard a lifetime’s worth of disdain and scorn about those parents. Perhaps you are one of those people who feels the parents may be partly to blame, that allowing two 14-year-old boys alone a boat was begging for this type of tragedy.

Please, Internet, hold your judgment. I know we’re Florida and the popular dog to kick right now, but odds are, you have no clue what you’re talking about. El Cap works for a tow boat company; I’ve worked for several different boat companies. Couple that with the time we spend on our own boat or kayaks, and rest assured, we’ve both seen more than our share of stupid boating tricks. I can tell you that I’ve seen teenagers on boats and I’ve seen adults on boats, and every stupid human trick I’ve seen on a boat involved grown-ass men.

Did Perry and Austin have good parents? I have no idea; I don’t know them. I do know this: Allowing two boys with local waterway knowledge and experience to take a boat they’d run many times into the Loxahatchee River and along the ICW doesn’t make their parents bad parents.

See, people in boats on rivers and in the ICW is what we’re about down here. People move here to offer their kids the kind of life Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos had from an early age. Unless you live in south Florida and know the water as they did, I’d bet money these boys would put you to shame in the water. Did they misbehave and venture out of the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway)? Perhaps. Clearly, they left the ICW but why or under what circumstances remain unknown. No one knows what happened. But even if they did leave intentionally, it was misbehavior on par with a teenager from Oklahoma sneaking out after curfew to have some beers with a friend.

To those of you who don’t understand this, sending teenage boys like these two out in a boat on a Florida river or the ICW is absolutely no different than kids in Montana being able to go sledding or snowmobiling, or kids in Ohio being able to ride their bikes around town. Florida – south Florida especially – is a glorious tangle of rivers, lakes, bayous, and bays, a patchwork of dredged land held together with salty sinew. We have more water than land down there. To those boys, the water wasn’t a scary place. It wasn’t a dangerous place. It was as familiar to them as their own street. They knew the local waters; likely, they could read a chart better than most of you.

If they did intentionally leave the ICW – if they hadn’t lost steerage or had an incident that brought them there inadvertently – they were simply being teenagers, pushing the limit, testing boundaries. I’ve talked to a grown man who used to head over to the Loop Road, close to Miami off US 41, until his dad found out and put a stop to it, lest the young kid be killed. Odds are, every one of you reading this did something foolish, too, as a teenager. Drinking and driving? Jumping off the roof of your house? Showing your ass in your new car? Riding your bike in between traffic? Every one of those things could have killed you. Boys will be boys. Teenagers will be teenagers. Just because Florida boys play in boats and not on land doesn’t make their parents any worse than yours, or any worse than you are.

If you are a parent, I guarantee your kid will do something stupid that maybe could kill them one day, too. And I hope it ends better for you than it looks like it will for these two families. If it doesn’t, I hope you are shown compassion many of you are not showing these families today.

So how about you hold that judgment, eh, Internet?

Duckopalypse: The Lit Crawl

Ducks. Because Gulfport, that’s why.

Last night I read at a Lit Crawl in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District Association. With so many of the writers hailing from local media like the Tampa Bay Times and Creative Loafing, there was no small amount of Florida-related stories. For longtime followers of this blog, this may not be new information, as I drew heavily from both my blog and my reporting at the Gabber Newspaper. Here’s what I read, and yes, it is about ducks. #BecauseGulfport, right?


This weekend marks the one year anniversary of perhaps the best headline I ever had the privilege of writing.

The Gabber Newspaper, for those of you who don’t exist within the realm of the small-town nirvana that is Gulfport, is the weekly paper that serves the roughly 12,527 people who live in town. That paper was my home for almost 13 years, and even though I don’t write for them anymore, I still live in Gulfport. I love my town; nevertheless, Gulfportians – and that’s what they call themselves, Gulfportians – Gulfportians seem to have this “live every day like it’s a full moon” mentality.

Now don’t worry, I’m not going to hit you with “Weird Florida” stories. I’m not going to tell you how weird or wacky or oddball we are in the Sunshine State. I’m going to tell you about news stories I had the, uh, opportunity to cover in Gulfport. And we aren’t so much weird as we are – well, we’re a small town. I believe these sorts of things happen in larger towns, too, but there’s more room to ignore them. Here, we all just sort of bump into each other over and over again, and so it seems like we have more unusual things than, say, Baltimore.

Because the Gabber is a small paper, I had the wonderful task (and ethical dilemma) of covering news and penning an opinion column called Hard Candy. What Gulfportians now call either “Duckopalypse” or “WaterFowlGate” started with a Hard Candy column I wrote called “The Duck Snatcher”. In it, I wrote about the Pekin ducks and a cute duckling that had taken up residence at the pond by my house. The ducks had disappeared and locals were murmuring that someone had stolen them.

Cute, right? I mean, the alleged duck snatching aside, ducklings make for a warm and fuzzy topic.

That’s what I thought, until I found myself writing a headline Hefty Bill For Duck Theft not soon after.

Seriously. Bigger papers – papers with budgets for things like more than one editor and newsrooms with doors and things like that – bigger papers make the copy editors write the headlines. I wrote my own headlines, and I’ll be honest with you, it was fun. Sometimes I’d come up with them on my own; other times, I’d post a one-sentence synopsis of the story on Facebook and let my Facebook friends decide. I wish I could claim this one as mine, but it was someone on Facebook who suggested it.

So, OK, I had written the column and thought to myself, well, that’s a damn shame about the ducks but we’ll never know what happened. But then my phone rang and it was our chief of police, Rob Vincent.

“Hey, uh, I just want to let you know, we caught a duck-napper last night” he says.

I remember this so clearly: It was a Friday afternoon and I was looking forward to the end of the workday. I was standing in the kitchen and I just stopped and said, “Are you fucking with me?”

He was not fucking with me. One of the other cops told me later, “I read your Hard Candy and thought, ‘these people are high.’ And then Parks” – that’s another officer – “catches somebody stealing ducks the next night.”

So I write the Hefty Bill for Duck Theft story and the Chief Vincent contacts me again, but not because they’ve caught more duck-nappers but because he wants to let me know technically, it wasn’t duck theft because – and I quote – “that would imply the ducks belong to somebody.”

I realize that sounds all “born free” and very drum circle-esque for a police officer, but remember that in Gulfport, we’re now into week three of Duckapolypse and the duck nappers – excuse me, at this point they’re alleged duck nappers – are threatening to sue, and everyone’s a little uptight.

Oh, yeah, didn’t I mention that? 13 years with that local paper and the only time I ever wrote anything that made someone get a lawyer and threaten to sue was the Hefty Bill for Duck Theft article. They ultimately dropped the case, but for a while there I was pretty sure I was going to have to testify in court about ducks. And duck thefts.

WaterfowlGate – and trust me, this is one of many stories I loved writing – only got weirder from there. One time and one time only in my career have I promised to protect the identity of a source from the police. A source who feared legal prosecution because he – or she – previously harbored ducks and knows the locations of other ducks currently in what I can only call “protective custody.”

See, in Gulfport, it’s illegal to keep ducks in captivity, and this person was part of an underground duck network.

Ah, but first? The headline: Gulfport’s Duck Underground Fears Prosecution

Here’s my lede:

“Apparently in response to recent press about duck activity at Gulfport’s Tomlinson Park, local duck sympathizers, fearing legal repercussions, have returned a raft of Pekin ducks to the pond.”

That’s what you call a group of ducks, by the way – a raft.

This duck sympathizer was one of three “safe houses” – you know what? I’m just going to quote the article:

“This duck sympathizer is one of at least three home who provide assistance, nourishment and shelter to orphaned, injured or malnourished Pekin ducks.

“The duck sympathizer tells The Gabber that the unorganized underground network of duck rescuers takes in orphaned ducks … This unofficial group of duck guardians keeps the ducks safe and well fed until such time as the ducks can survive on their own at the pond.”

“One duck rescuer says that the two ducks that disappeared the first week of June are still missing from the raft, and the Gabber could not match photos of the missing ducks with any current ducks in Tomlinson Park. The fate of these two ducks remains unknown. The Gabber’s duck source says they do not believe the people accused of duck snatching (who could not be reached for comment) have a history of duck rescuing. 

“The rescuers have released the majority of the ducks back into the pond, the duck sympathizer says, because in light of recent coverage in The Gabber, they feared the city would charge them with illegally keeping ducks.

“Whereas Gulfport changed its laws a few years ago to allow for chicken ownership, it does not allow for duck husbandry.”

In about 15 years, there’s going to be a young lady in therapy because her mom had to release the ducks because of me.

That was, I thought, pretty much the end of WaterFowlGate, but some time later, I was in the Horse & Jockey, which is actually not a Gulfport bar – and I’m talking to a friend, and I make an offhanded joke about Gulfport’s sewers being on the brink of collapse but as long as there weren’t ducks trapped in them, no one cared. Half-joking, she responds that Gulfportians don’t notice city issues that aren’t duck-related.

I start to laugh, but mid-chortle, a woman I’d never met before approached our table and interrupted with, “You’re talking about ducks. You must be with The Gabber.”

We spent the next seven minutes discussing duck-related issues. I finally asked her about the sewers and how she felt about their current state of disrepair, and she developed a pressing need to be elsewhere.

It’s not all bad, though. I love my town, even if I don’t write for the small-town paper anymore. A local restaurant put duck breast on the specials menu in my honor, and when a goat was kidnapped – you see what I did there – a year later, there was no question who was covering the story.

That headline, by the way, was So This Goat Walks Into a Bar, but that’s another story for another lit crawl.

To Be or Not To Be

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had this English teacher, Mrs. Parker. She did not particularly care for me and I hated her with the fire of a thousand suns, because she sneered at my writing. When you’re a 14-year-old girl who has only ever wanted to be a writer and your English teacher essentially makes fun of you for writing poetry and consistently gives you C’s, it stays with you and no, I no longer hate her but if she and my ex-husband were both on fire and I had but one bucket of water, it’d be a hard decision.

One of the things she did that makes her fire-worthy? The grading criteria for our weekly composition papers. If, in our composition, we used any instance of passive voice (be, being, been, is, am, are, was, were, has been, have been, had been), she gave us an “F” on that paper.

This scarred me for life, or so editors and colleagues tell me. I, along with fellow Parker survivors, still unconsciously edit out every instance of passive voice in my writing. I have since accepted that in rare instances, a writer may use passive voice, but I am in no way OK with it. I realize I could probably benefit from some sort of therapy.

Which is why I find it so amusing that when I received the final edits back for my book’s introduction, my editor included rewording the second paragraph to read:

“There was a time when not only could you find such a book, but the presence of such a guide was considered so crucial  to the nation’s economy that our government sponsored such guides.”

The editor for the University Press of Florida – the same people who published Carl Hiaasen’s column compilations – inserted passive voice into my book. Delicious.

I can’t remember Mrs. Parker’s first name so I don’t know if she’s still alive, but if she is, I would love to send her a copy of my book, with the second paragraph highlighted.

Some days you go for the little victories.

Oh, and also, the editing process of my book is done and we are moving onto the next process: External review. I don’t know what that means, but it sound both scary and wonderful.

So, you know, kind of a big victory day, too. The editing process sucks. It took me longer to make the edits than it took me to write the book.

But either way… I’m going to have a book. It’s starting to feel real.

Suck it, Mrs. Parker. I am a writer.

Hard Candy, Redux – Race and “That Word”

{Oh, hey? The title? I may not have a column anymore – at least not one that pays in anything other than “shells and beads and good feelings” – but I still have opinions. So I’m going to call entries like these “Hard Candy, Redux” or something like that, as kind of a fair warning to everyone. Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled programming…}

Don’t believe what white people tell you. Not when we tell you we want to have an “honest” conversation about race. We totally don’t. Oh, we say we do, and I think we really believe it when we say it, but when we get right down to the business of the “honest” part, yeah, not so much. It doesn’t feel good, you know? And after centuries of suppressing black people and then deciding we’d try and fix things in a few short decades, why should we have to deal with the ickiness of those white Americans who are having a hard time adjusting? Let’s just all forget about how we raised people for hundreds of years and string them up in the town square when they have a hard time letting go of outdated mores. That seems enlightened, I think.

Since Creative Loafing published my article about how ideas about race continue to evolve in Gulfport last week, I’ve been lurking on social media as people discussed it. As everyone knows, social media showcases the best of humanity, so you may now understand the prior paragraph a little better. Now, I’d prefer you click on the link and read the article, but if you don’t, here’s the least you need to know: Gulfport used to be a sundown town, according to some of the old guard. It isn’t any longer (because, well, civil rights) but some people who live here still retain some of the old thinking. Some people want the city to be more welcoming to black people. That’s the thrust of the piece.

So, when my Creative Loafing editor and I started chatting about how we’d address Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Gulfport’s first-time-ever participation in the MLK Day of Service, we talked about the odd dichotomy that exists in my small town. You see, Gulfport is uber-accepting of the LGBT community and has been well before accepting the LGBT community was a thing. It’s weird, you know? You can walk down the street and see a transgender person, then walk another two feet and see a crusty old boat captain, and these two worlds do not typically collide. Right-wing conservatives meet Rue Paul and no one seems to notice. So, uh, weird in a good way, but weird.

Except for black people. I’ve heard more people than I care to admit use the n-word, not in anger but in conversation. I hate “that word.” Always have. I don’t make my decisions about what I think or how to treat people based on the color of their skin, but I’ve come to realize  not everyone who finds “that word” acceptable bases those things on skin color, either. I think I failed to make that clear in the article, because while the commentary on the CL site has been pretty tame, the comments on the Gabber’s Facebook group, Gulfport Ideas and Opinions, went off the rails (I won’t link to the group, but you can find it if you really need to see it) Someone posted about the article and much flogging and berating ensued.

The thrust of the anger centers around Louis Worthington, a 71-year-old man who lived through the sundown town bullshit and is married to our vice mayor. He used “that word,” and Creative Loafing printed it. According to many people, that makes him a racist. But let’s look at what Louis actually said:

“There’s black people and then there’s n——.” (Creative Loafing printed the word; I will not.)

He goes on to explain what, in his mind, is a class distinction. I see the point he’s trying to make but I cannot agree with it, although my opinion isn’t what counts. Many people make that distinction but don’t make decisions based on skin color.

I know Louis and his family – not all of it, because the Worthingtons are to Gulfport as the Kennedys are to Hyannis Port and you can never know them all – and I see no evidence of racism in Louis’ behavior. Ever. His use of “that word”? Degrading, yes. Ignorant? Perhaps, but I’d argue he knows why he’s using it, even if he doesn’t understand that it offends a class of people to whom he doesn’t believe he refers. Bear in mind, as I point out in the article, his teenage daughter is dating a black teenager who lives in the projects. This young man is being raised by a single mother. His dad is, um, not in the picture. This young man is, if you take both the teenager and Louis at face value, not the sort of man you would think Louis wants his daughter dating. But Louis respects the young man because he didn’t see skin color and decide the man was “that word.” He admits he struggles with the idea of his daughter dating a black person, but he makes it clear: When he thinks of “that word” he does not think of this young man, who has enlisted in the Marines and is trying desperately to break the cycle he sees around him. Also, I see how Louis feels about the white boy his daughter dated last, and I’m hard-pressed to think Louis would be thrilled with his baby girl dating anyone, ever.

But people are crucifying Louis and his wife and totally missing the point of the article: Even this man, this 71-year-old man who was raised in a time and town when and where segregation thrived and racism sat down to dinner with you, can evolve on ideas of race. But some people refuse to see that, and while I understand the shock value of seeing “that word” in print, let’s look past the words and look in Louis’ heart and actions, because his actions don’t speak of hatred. I can point to many elected and appointed officials whose actions drip with racism, but they would never dream of using “that word.” And so I ask you, which is worse? Please don’t blindly bash someone and try to suppress them for speaking honestly. Look, I wish people wouldn’t use “that word.” But they do. Telling them they’re jerks and that they should shut up doesn’t change anything but what you hear.

Louis Worthington doesn’t like people who feel they can steal because the person from whom they’re stealing has more than they do. When those people happen to be black, he uses “that word” to describe them. Is it racially based? Of course. But notice that in his mind, the behavior is first and race is second. To him, yes, I know. But still, I think that’s worth exploring. Of course, we won’t, because we’re all too upset that he dared utter “that word”, which is, pardon me, fucking ridiculous.

So, we want to have an honest conversation about race? Let’s take Louis and, say, the president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association (a predominantly black neighborhood across the 49th Street corridor, and I single him out because he’s a black leader in the local community, and I think, capable of adding insight I think will help foster growth) and let’s allow them to have a conversation. Will it be uncomfortable? Hell, yes, but that isn’t a reason not to have the discussion; actually, it’s a pretty good argument in favor of it.

Instead of berating people who think like Louis does – and believe me, there are a LOT of folks out there who feel that way – why not attempt to understand what they mean and why they feel that way? Why not talk with them instead of about them? Look, the problem in places like Gulfport isn’t that a few people are horribly racist; it’s that many more people have muddy ideas about race and we’re only telling them to sit down, shut up, and change how they feel.

That actually doesn’t help, and it doesn’t signal an enlightened populace. Suppressing something doesn’t make it go away; it just makes us feel better, but the feeling won’t last because it isn’t real.

I’d rather be real.

Detours & Diversions – Winter Sunsets and Solstice Celebrations

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but perhaps not for all the reasons you might think. While the rest of the world dreams of tropical vacations as they shovel snow, Floridians know a winter Florida seascape has staggering beauty unparalleled by (although breathtaking in its own right) northern snow-covered vale. 

Fort DeSoto Sunset
Sunset along Fort DeSoto’s North Beach.

  One of the finest venues for watching our winter skies slowly turn from a bright white-and-blue watercolor into a streaked pink and orange and purple symphony is Fort DeSoto, the county park at the southwestern edge of Pinellas county. 

WHO:Pinellas County runs Fort DeSoto, with a spot of help from the Friends of Fort DeSoto.



Visit the park anytime between sunrise and sunset, although the sky grows gradually more beautiful as sunset gets closer. From about 3:30 p.m. on is optimal sky viewing time in the winter months. Remember, too, most of the park closes shortly after sundown, so you’ll want to park by one of the two fishing piers if you plan to stay much past sunset.

WHAT: Sunsets in winter seem to take longer. Although technically a sunset takes roughly seven minutes, winter twilight lasts longer than summer twilight. But don’t go for the sunset alone: the seaside has a beauty unparalleled in winter. December 21 marks the Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and since ancient times cultures have celebrated the signs of rebirth that come with longer days following the Solstice. To find signs of new life, head for the trails along the East Beach or Arrowhead Picnic Area. The beach daisies popping up, the new shoots of growth on the trees, the blossoms you do not see in summertime beachscapes – these are all signs of a new growth cycle.


WHERE: Anywhere you have a clear view of the water makes for excellent sunset viewing of course, but Fort DeSoto remains the crown jewel of Pinellas beaches. People flock to the north beach and the fort itself for sunset, but the overlooked East Beach showcases a brilliant display of twilight colors this time of year. The Arrowhead Picnic Area makes for a great place to explore the winter foliage, although its water views face east. Finally, the Paw Playground, fishing piers, and surrounding beaches remain open after rangers close the gates to the east and north beaches.

WHY: Christmas coincides with winter solstice because celebrations already existed and it was easier to convert pagans if they could switch one holiday for another. Those pagan celebrations happened for a reason, and if you step outside and look around, you will understand on a primitive level why, even before we grasped the formal concepts of cell division and germination, we celebrate new beginnings in the world around us this time of year.


Question: Five dollars for Fort DeSoto; parking fees vary elsewhere along Pinellas beaches.

Contact Cathy Salustri.

Sebastian Inlet State Park

Not too much now, because I’m sitting on the dock of the bay. Well, the inlet. The past two days have been… wonderful and horrible. Wonderful because a leisurely drive down A1A reminded me that not all of our coastlines are 3-for-$10 t-shirt shops and trinket stores; horrible because I can’t believe a few miles inland at Pahokee such poverty exists in stark contrast to the riches funneled out of the town to those who raise cane. Sugarcane, that is.

One more day to go on this pilgrimage into sunshine. I alternately crave my Tempurpedic and regret every little hovel I will not see this trip.

By the way, if you ever camp at Sebastian Inlet State Park, try and get site #14. The view is inspiring.

Sour Orange Pie, Where Art Thou?

I just checked in to Highlands Hammock State Park, and there’s a lot on my mind but it’s been a long day involving Gertie The GPSs’ cranky attitude and insistence on taking me an hour out of my way. I am out of the hell that is Orlando and into the woods. I had heard the restaurant here had sour orange pie, and that kind of kept me going, except the restaurant is no more. This makes me sad. Now all I can focus on is the pie I am not eating.

I will find you, sweet pie, and when I do, I will eat you.

I’m going for a walk in the woods. It’s gorgeous here. But then, it’s been gorgeous at every camp site. The state park service knows their shit.

After that, I’ll map out my route and perhaps transcribe my notes. Also, does anyone know anything about a now-closed orange souvenir shop on 27 called Shonda’s Souvenirs? It had a pineapple out front.

Why? Because this is Florida. It’s how we do, people.

If you want to see photos, check out my Picasa gallery.

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.