Florida Before Theme Parks

Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida

Cathy Salustri, 2016

At the depth of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the federal Works Progress Administration created a program to put unemployed writers, librarians, teachers, and historians to work documenting the nation’s culture, history, and landscape. That effort, the Federal Writers’ Project, produced a series of guidebooks that covered every state.

A large part of each book consisted of a travel guide organized by route. Teams of writers drove every major road, visited cities and towns, and documented what they saw. Nearly 80 years later, the WPA guides remain priceless time capsules that capture what America was like just before World War II began to reshape the nation.

Cathy Salustri arrived in Florida in 1980 as a seven-year-old, when her parents relocated there from New York. She instantly fell in love with the Sunshine State and never left. She eventually earned a master’s degree in Florida studies and became a journalist and writer, focusing mainly on her beloved home state.

Fascinated by the 1939 Writer’s Project book, Florida: A Guide to the Sunshine State, Salustri began tracing the old routes, first on modern maps and then on the road. Ultimately, she packed herself, her hound, and her boyfriend into a borrowed camper van and spent a month traveling around Florida revisiting those routes.

In Backroads of Paradise, she invites you along for the ride, all 5,000 miles of it, crisscrossing the state from the Panhandle to the Keys. Each chapter covers one of 21 routes, each following, as closely as she can, a state or U.S. route described in the Guide. Some, like the routes slicing through the narrow Panhandle, are short. Others traverse the state from coast to coast or from north to south through the Florida peninsula. The longest, state route A1A, closely follows the Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Salustri blends her descriptions of the towns and landscapes she passes through with bits of natural and human history, Florida lore, and her own adventures on the road. Like the routes she follows, some chapters are more interesting and engaging than others. But she is unfailingly entertaining and witty and avoids bogging down her spritely narrative with conversation. Her travel companions, for the most part, remain politely in the background.

Salustri bemoans, but doesn’t dwell on, the vast swaths of the state that have been degraded or destroyed. Instead she savors what has survived a half-century of rampant development and explosive population growth.

She finds much to celebrate, including a wonderful system of state parks, where she camps most nights, that preserves unspoiled niches of natural Florida. Along the Panhandle coast, she observes, “Had the state not snapped up all these beaches—100 miles of sandy coastline in all—instead of sand dunes, bathhouses, and covered shelters, we’d be driving past condo canyons, three-for-ten-dollar T-shirt shops, and high-rise hotels.”

Salustri admires towns that have managed to resist the pressures of tourism and defy decay: “Flagler Beach escaped all this, and finding it is like finding Florida, except it’s a Florida you assume no longer exists.” The presence of a Dollar General store signifies to her a surefire sign of a town struggling to survive economically.

Many of the backroads Salustri travels pass through ranch and farm country and forested regions that haven’t changed all that much since 1939. She steers clear of most of the big cities, which would be unrecognizable to the WPA writers.

She visits Old Florida tourist attractions that stubbornly remain standing in the shadow of Disney, such as Weeki Wachee Springs, now a state park. With its famous “mermaid” shows performed in an underwater theater, Weeki Wachee “pays homage not only to generations of mermaids but also to the dying breed of Florida’s roadside attractions. The park may be paler than the bright world of modern tourist attractions, but it has a patina all its own.”

Here and there, she stops to sample the local shellfish, strawberries, or sour oranges (they’re tasty but look like “big, bumpy lemons”). She pauses to paddle her kayak down an enticing stretch of spring-fed river. “I notice a congregation of baby alligators watching me with eyes too old and mean for their oddly adorable, bright-green bodies.”

Salustri warns you about the only two towns in America that even AAA flags as flagrant speed traps: Lawtey (US 301) and Waldo (US 301 and SR 24). She labels lovely Sanibel Island “the prom queen of Gulf coast islands” and nearby and lesser known Pine Island “her mangrove-encrusted, tomboy little sister.” She is “obsessed and enchanted” with the Florida Keys. “I don’t understand why everyone—including myself—doesn’t live on this string of limestone pearls streaming off the edge of North America.”

She writes with special affection about US 98, which runs along the Gulf shore through the Panhandle. “I thought to myself, ‘This place. This is paradise.’ When we left, it would be with deep, searing regret . . . until we found the next scrap of paradise.” She finds that US 90, which traverses northern Florida, has more of an “Old South” feel than the rest of the state and seems relatively unchanged after eight decades.

Salustri is also fond of eclectic A1A. “In parts, A1A runs right on top of the sand dunes and fronts the cobalt-blue Atlantic. In other parts, it runs through a horrid glut of T-shirt shops and low-rent tourist traps, but every inch of this road speaks to a different part of Florida’s soul.”

She later adds, “A1A is an extended metaphor for Florida: a smattering of everything, still more wild than you could possibly imagine, and entirely unlike anything else you’ve ever known.”

I’ve traveled many of the roads Salustri writes about, and I was impressed by how accurately and articulately she describes them. Her book left two impressions on me:

(1) What a great idea, retracing the old WPA routes! She made me want to find the WPA guide for Maryland in a local library, which I recently did.

(2) I really need to drive some of those routes again the next time I’m in Florida! Which I will.

If you love exploring Florida beyond the big cities and theme parks and are looking for new roads to travel, Backroads of Paradise may help you discover for yourself some unexpected scraps of paradise.

David Romanowski, 2017

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Postcards from Florida

A Springtime Road (and Cycling) Trip

In mid-March, as winter lost its rather weak grip on the Mid-Atlantic region, I packed up the car and headed south to Florida for a 2½-week trip. (See the route in Florida here.)

New Car, Maiden Voyage

A few weeks before the trip, I bought a brand new, light green, 2017 Subaru Forester. The odometer read 7.2 miles when I picked up the car to drive it home. It still had temporary license plates and less than 300 miles on its tires when I headed south.

The Forester felt like a spaceship compared to our 1997 Honda Accord. The car tracked miles per gallon in real time and got remarkably good gas mileage. Its cruise control reduced my speed as I approached a slower vehicle and increased it as I passed. The Forester serenaded me with satellite radio and mischievously kept turning on my iPhone music app when I wasn’t looking. It cleaned its rear window for me, even when I didn’t ask it to. It warned me of speeding maniacs and scolded me if I strayed toward the edge of my lane. It chimed and beeped and flashed at me; it prodded and nudged and indulged me. Quite often it confused me.

Bike Florida

This year’s Bike Florida tour differed from previous ones. Rather than cycling to two or three overnight locations during the week-long tour, we stayed in only one, St. John’s County Fairgrounds near St. Augustine, and did rides of varying distances and directions from there. This minimized packing and unpacking every day or so, but at the expense of cycling variety. Sections of routes from day to day often covered familiar territory.

I had visited many of the featured highlights—Palatka, St. Augustine, and the nearby Atlantic coast—on Bike Florida a few years ago. But for me, these tours have become less about sightseeing and more about reconnecting with cycling friends I’ve met over the years and making new ones. Thus, I tip my helmet to Tad and Lea from New York, Ed from South Carolina, and Tom and Bob from Michigan for a pleasurable week. Logging lots of miles was not our goal, so each day most of us chose to ride the shortest of the route options. A couple of times we stitched together our own route from the maps and cue sheets. We dawdled and poked along and had a fine time.

The Withlacoochee State Trail

After Bike Florida, I picked up Sue at the Orlando airport and then headed to Inverness in west-central Florida to rendezvous with Tad and Lea and bike the Withlacoochee Trail. This 46-mile rail trail is considered one of Florida’s finest. It is largely shaded and runs through lovely countryside from Citrus Springs through Inverness and Floral City to Trilby. That you’ve probably never heard of any those places is a good indication of just how far off the tourist-beaten track the Withlacoochee is.

The small city of Inverness is a good central location for exploring the trail, and the Central Motel in Inverness stands right beside the trail. Don’t be fooled by the bland name of this modestly priced and well maintained motel. Lots of people know about it. We reserved rooms many months in advance and were glad we did. When we arrived, we were told they had been fully booked since January.

We biked to the north end of the trail one day and about halfway to the south end the next day, which means we still have more to explore on a future trip. We especially enjoyed the lakeside riding in Inverness and the woodsy miles south of town.

Indulgent eating is key to any cycling adventure. The Cinnamon Sticks Restaurant, adjacent to the Central Motel, served a good breakfast, including bacon the way it should be (chewy) and excellent cinnamon buns and twisted cinnamon sticks. The Front Porch Restaurant and Pie Shop near Dunnellon is a locally popular place. Its strawberry pie—no rhubarb, thank you, just juicy in-season strawberries—is superb. In tiny Floral City, at the Ferris Groves store, we refreshed ourselves with milkshakes flavored with fresh strawberries and also indulged in silky bourbon fudge.

More Florida: State Parks, Rocky Shores, Alligators, and More

After the Withlacoochee, as Sue and I meandered around Florida, we revisited favorite spots and explored some new to us. We indulged in Florida Sunshine Cake at the Camelia Court Café in the Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville. We strolled around the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, a lovely oasis just outside of Gainesville. We stocked up on locally made treats at Whetstone Chocolates of St. Augustine. We gawked at the hundreds of crocodilians and roosting tropical birds at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. We stayed two nights in a charming rock-walled room in a 1930s motel now called the Palm Coast Villas. We strolled around Princess Place Preserve, a former estate on a river near Palm Coast. A motel desk clerk told us about it; we never would have discovered it on our own.

We also visited a slew of Florida State Parks: Rainbow Springs, O’Leno, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Fort Clinch, and the former estate and rocky coquina shore at Washington Oaks Gardens. State parks are some of our favorite Florida destinations.

Coastal Cycling: Amelia Island and Jekyll Island

On our way home, Sue and I returned to Amelia Island at the northeastern tip of Florida to do more bicycling. We stayed at the conveniently located Hampton Inn in downtown Fernandina Beach. We biked down the long canopy road at Fort Clinch State Park and along the Atlantic shore to the southern end of the island.

The next day, we stopped at Jekyll Island in southern Georgia for more cycling. We biked a flat, mostly off-road route, much of it under a canopy of trees draped with Spanish moss, from the historic Jekyll Island Club Resort to the northern end of the island and back.

In short, we had a typically outstanding Florida spring vacation.

David Romanowski, 2017

Posted in Bicycling, Driving, Florida, Georgia | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Remembering David Lamb

While reading an article about the Trek 520 touring bicycle in a recent issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine, these startling words snagged my attention: “But when it comes to finding out what the bike is truly capable of, I tip my hat to the late great David Lamb.”

I had not known that the man who inspired my passion for bicycle travel had died.

I learned from obituaries I found on the Los Angeles Times and New York Times websites  that David Lamb passed away in June 2016 at the age of 76. The obituaries summarize his many notable achievements as a journalist and author. My brief connection with him related to the bicycling adventure he wrote about in one of his books.

As the Adventure Cyclist article summarized it:

In 1994, the veteran Los Angeles Times correspondent rode his 520 more than 3,000 miles from the Potomac to the Pacific, eventually spinning the three-month journey into a book, Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle.

I bought Over the Hills when it was published in 1996 and also heard Lamb speak at the Smithsonian about that trip. What struck me most was that, when he set out on his Trek 520 from his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for Santa Monica, California, Lamb was in his mid-50s and a cycling novice. Yet he managed to cross the country under his own power with no significant mishaps, not even once getting caught in the rain.

His trip struck a chord in me that continued to reverberate as I reread Over the Hills during the next few years. Through his book I discovered the Adventure Cycling Association and a culture of bicycle travel I had never even known existed. Each time I closed the book, I thought to myself, “I could to do that!” As my 50th birthday approached, I began to consider the idea of embarking on my own “midlife escape.”

That trip, which I finally undertook in 2006, was a self-contained Adventure Cycling tour down the Pacific Coast from Bellingham, Washington, a few miles from the Canadian border, to San Francisco. For me it ended a half-day’s ride farther south at my sister’s home in Half Moon Bay. Before I embarked on the trip, I wrote David Lamb a letter of appreciation:

All of this—these last four years of dreaming, planning, and preparing— have happened because of the inspiration I gained from reading Over the Hills. As this adventure approaches, I just wanted to write to you and simply say, thank you.

I was on the tour in Washington when I received his reply.

David, thanks for the great letter. Can a writer have any greater reward than knowing he has inspired a reader to travel down a new road? Your upcoming Bellingham–San Francisco ride definitely qualifies as epic! You will make it with ease because half the challenge of long-distance biking is mental, not physical, and mentally you’re obviously already psyched.

He extended an invitation to meet him for lunch after I returned from my trip and concluded with words I would reread time and again along the way, and that would help me over my own hills:

When you pull into your sister’s home in Half Moon Bay, you’ll feel like a hero. And you’ll be one, too.

For the rest of the trip, we kept up a sporadic email conversation. I had no smart phone back then, so I looked for public libraries along the way where I could access a computer. His brief messages cheered me on as I biked through Oregon and California and reached my final goal.

A few weeks after my trip ended, I arranged to meet him for lunch at Chadwick’s in Old Town Alexandria. I biked from my home about 15 miles away; he walked from his a few blocks away. The notes I wrote afterward recall, “I almost didn’t recognize him when he walked up. He was shorter and thinner than I expected. His hair was sort of blonde. His voice was a little faster and raspier than I remembered when I heard him speak at the Smithsonian about ten years earlier. But he seemed like an affable guy.”

We chatted for about an hour and a half. I asked if he had any regrets about his cross-country trip. No, he replied, other than not stopping longer to smell the roses. (I said I regretted that too.) I asked if anything surprised him about his own reaction to his trip afterward. Not really, he said. It ultimately didn’t change his life.

He told me about his time living in Hanoi, his travels in a recreational vehicle to write a book about minor league baseball (he loved living in an RV), and the supported cycling trips he had since taken with his wife and friends in a half dozen countries. Like me, he’d thought about cycling the Florida coast someday, would prefer staying in motels rather than camping on such a trip, and liked riding about 50 miles a day.

Afterward, we went outside and I showed him my Trek 520, very similar to his own. “The 520 is a great bike for touring,” he had written me. “The best, I think. I was in Trek’s Wisconsin factory and met the guy who designed it. I got fatter tires at his suggestion for my trip. Wish [like you] I’d thought of lower gears.”

“To David Romanowski –
Who saw the mountain,
and climbed. With admiration.”
David Lamb,
November 2006

He signed my copy of Over the Hills, and I gave him a signed copy of a book I had written. Then we wished each other well, said we hoped our paths would cross again, and parted ways. I contacted him a couple of times over the next few years for one reason or another, secretly hoping he might someday invite me on one of his biking trips, or that we might plan one together. But our paths never did cross again.

David Lamb’s bicycle journey may not have changed his life in a lasting way, or so he believed, but it profoundly changed mine. It inspired me to challenge myself and undertake my own epic adventure that took me farther beyond my comfort zone than I had ever gone. In the end, I did feel like a hero, even if just for a while. And in the years since, taking bicycle trips has become an important part of my life, and I have found my own circle of touring friends.

And so I bid a belated Godspeed to David Lamb for cresting that final hill, and I offer him one last heartfelt thanks.

David Romanowski, 2017

Posted in Bicycling, Musings and More, Pacific Coast | Tagged , | 4 Comments

More for “My Hall of Bicycles”

During this historically mild Washington winter, I’ve done plenty of local biking and walking but not much driving. I haven’t had anything travel related to write about.

I have been getting a lot done around the house, including sorting through, scanning, and tossing decades worth of paper in anticipation of an eventual move.

One of the surprising things I came across was this page from a Peugeot bicycle brochure. It depicts the lovely “Peppermint and White” St. Laurent Express I bought at a bike shop in Arlington, Virginia, around 1987. On the flip side is the equally attractive “Jamaica Blue and White” Montreal Express. The St. Laurent cost $365; the Montreal cost $310.

I’ve never seen more beautiful bicycles. Makes me wish I kept my mint-green Peugeot!

You can read more about “My ‘Hall of Bicycles’” here.

St. Laurent Express

Montreal Express










David Romanowski, 2017

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A Christmas Visit to “National Parks and Historic Places”

A tradition we have embraced over the last several years is a Christmas Day visit to the U.S. Botanic Garden on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Not only is it one of the few local attractions open on Christmas, but it also has one of the best holiday displays around. Each year the entire East Gallery becomes a huge, walkthrough G gauge model train layout built into a landscape adorned with structures all made of plant materials.

The display has a different theme every year. This year’s is called “Season’s Greetings: National Parks & Historic Places.” It honors both the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. The various sculptural elements in it represent 45 national parks and historic sites.

One of my favorites was the Grand Canyon display, which includes the historic train depot and Bright Angel Lodge (at the top in the photo below), both on the South Rim.

Don’t miss the West Gallery, where you will find a large Christmas tree decorated with national park ornaments and an amazing plant-material sculpture of Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, complete with a working Old Faithful Geyser! Be sure to walk behind Old Faithful Inn, where you can look into its soaring atrium.

The Garden Court between the two galleries displays models of landmark buildings and  monuments in Washington, D.C., also made from plant materials. This display has become an annual tradition. It includes sculptures depicting monuments on the National Mall, the U.S. Capitol, White House, Smithsonian Castle, American Indian Museum, and more, all surrounded by more than 30 varieties of poinsettias.


The Smithsonian Castle, one of many buildings and monuments on display in the Garden Court.

“Season’s Greetings: National Parks & Historic Places” is on display through January 2.

David Romanowski, 2016


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