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