LARGO — Cathy Salustri knew spending a month traveling across Florida in a borrowed camper with a dachshund, a boyfriend and a deadline would be tough, but picking out a favorite spot, meal or memory may prove to be tougher.
The travel writer, journalist for the weekly Gulfport Gabber and a recent graduate of the Florida Studies program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg attempted to summarize the experience Sunday at Heritage Village in Largo. For her master's thesis and an upcoming book, in 2011 Salustri embarked on a month-long journey across the state following 22 driving tours outlined in the 1937 travel guide “Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State.” The book was created by the Works Progress Administration as a way to employ poor authors during the depression, Salustri said. For anyone traveling Florida in the 1930's, Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy were their guides.
But following a guidebook written before Interstates and urban planning was not without its speed bumps, Salustri said. First, she had to spend six months virtually destroying a red, shiny copy of the Florida Gazeteer atlas with re-routing. Some roads were half a mile away from where the book said they would be, and over time, street names and addresses had been changed. But in the end, every route was still there for those seeking the “ultimate road trip,” she said.
“If you follow even one of these tours, you are not going to make great time, but I promise you you're going to have a good time,” Salustri said. “You will see so much more than what's on the roadside. You will find a Florida you didn't know existed.”
Her travels revealed some valuable truths about the state, she said, perhaps most of all that despite the insane criminal acts, strip clubs and 'worst city' rankings that have cemented the state as a permanent punch line in the minds of many, Florida is truly greater than the sum of her parts.
Not far off U.S. 17 the historic headwaters of the Everglades can be found behind a gas station across the street from Sea World, she said. Along U.S. 41 in Gibsonton, not too far from Tampa, lives a community comprised mostly of retired circus acts. Fossilized shark teeth are strewn all along the Peace River even though it's well inland and in the eastern end of state road 50 there's a nude beach in view of the space center. “That's real Florida,” Salustri said.
“We're this patchwork blanket of every other culture in America and I think when you get that many people together that are so different you're going to get some weirdness,” Salustri said. “If we ignore that, we ignore our history because Florida has always meant different things to different people, and while the roads may change that's not going to.”
While Salustri drew a full crowd of older revelers Sunday, its the next generation that really needs to hear her stories, said Jim Schnur, president of the Pinellas County historical society and special collections librarian at USF St. Petersburg. That's why every year around September the Pinellas Historical Society gives out small scholarships to local high school or college students that volunteer at Heritage Village and have “proven their love of history,” Schnur said.
“When you live in a place where nothing stays the same for long, it's important to remember how things have been different, even 20 or 30 years ago, or else all that will be left are the boring strip malls and interstates,” Schnur said. “If we could find a way to connect the younger generations to our past it will help all of us in the long run.”
Those looking for something more than urban development has to offer can find 5,000 miles worth of tangible tips shared in Salustri's book, under contract with University Press of Florida with a possible December release, and her blog, www.findingmyflorida.com. For beautiful views, few places beat the panhandle beaches and a week-long drive from Fernandina Beach to Key West on State Road A1A, she said. The best oysters can be found in Ouzts Too Oyster Bar and Grill in the small panhandle town of Crawfordville, Salustri said. The Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek may be the last place to try a sour orange pie and the “world's most glamorous dive bar” may be Flora-Bama bar, built on the Florida-Alabama state line in Perdido Key.
And across the state, few communities have done as much to preserve their history and environment as Pinellas County, she said, from Fort DeSoto and Shell Key to the Pinellas Trail.
“I've been a lot of places, but I think Gulfport just might be it for me,” she said. “It's my home.”