Tag Archives: Florida

NASCAR Season Kicks Off

The NASCAR season kicked off last weekend. It consists of 36 races, running February to November. I’m no racing aficionado, but I sure had a good time at the Daytona 500 on Sunday. I was able to take a “hot lap” of the track at 110 miles per hour.


Old Florida: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Park

Temperature right now in Minneapolis: -8 degrees.  It was about the same yesterday when I took my dog for a gorgeous and sunny but “brisk” walk. There’s something satisfying and contrary about going for a walk in extreme cold.

It’s also fun to talk to people where its warm and make plans for a visit. That’s why right now, as I sit under a blanket drinking hot coffee, I’m thinking Unknownabout my recent conversation with Valerie Rivers, manager of Marjorie Kinnan Rawling Historic State Park, located in tiny Cross Creek, near Gainesville. The conversation started with, “When you come to the park in spring the smell of orange blossoms waft over you.”  That’s enough to set me off to find one of Rawlings’s classic books such as The Yearling and to set me dreaming about a visit to her home, now a Florida State Park. My glasses are steaming up just thinking of it.

It’s hard to imagine Florida before the developers came. Yet, visiting Rawlings’s home where she settled in 1928 offers a glimpse of Florida before high rises and posh swimming pools, before air conditioning and even electricity–and bug spray. Rivers says fans of Rawlings’s classic novels find themselves transported into the world of The Yearling  (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) or her memoir of living on this site, Cross Creek, as they tour her farmyard, orange grove, seasonal garden, trails and home.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic_2010 contest_Brittany Dugger_Tenant House (2)“Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s books portray the land and the hardscrabble “cracker” people who first settled Florida,” says Rivers.  She broadened my definition of the word “cracker” which I have always used as a synonym for “redneck.” (My aunt who lived in Florida called it “The Order of the Scarlet Nape.”) But, by Rivers’s definition, crackers were the early Florida settlers who loved the land and made a living on it, though barely.

Visitors may stroll the homestead here and take a tour of Rawlings’s home. For the short term ccfirst1aanyway, I’ll do that in my mind with a copy of Cross Creek. As Rawlings said,”It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home.”

(photos courtesy of Florida State Parks)

Travel Before TSA: Were the Skies Really Friendlier?

3022215-slide-8267210465670e3d76e5oOne of the best things about blogging is interaction with readers who share their stories, comments and their own travel experiences with me. Of course, I especially love hearing stories of their literature-inspired travel. Sometimes authors send books they’ve written that fit into that category for a review or a mention.

I recently received a couple of volumes from a former TV journalist Unknown-1and travel writer, Walt Christophersen. In A Temporary European and By Ship, Train, Bus, Plane and Sometimes Hitchhiking he recounts his adventures as a journalist in the 1960s and 70s and includes some of his articles from that period.

What I enjoyed most about Walt’s books is the look back they provide to a time when traveling seemed much simpler. Remember what traveling was like before 9/11, TSA screening and all the other hassles we now endure? The books made me think back to the days when flying was actually glamorous. I remember traveling as a child with my parents to visit my grandparents in Florida. I wore a spiffy little knit suit, my dad wore a suit and tie, and mom was glamorous in her mink stole, which was much more useful on the return trip to Michigan than trotting around Florida’s east coast. We had actual meals served to us—with cloth napkins and silverware! We had leg room! We checked our luggage—for free!

Walt’s books are a refresher on the days when adventurous travelers could go to places such as Afghanistan and Syria without too much danger, though as he reports, not without discomfort. (If you’re a freelance writer, the really depressing part is that from his account it appears that the wages for writers, particularly freelance travel writers, haven’t changed much since the 70s.) Still, his stories remind us of the lure and fascination of travel to exotic places.

In a lot of ways, those days of air travel weren’t as idyllic as they seem in my memory. People travel all over the world now, much more than in the 60s and 70s, despite the hassle. I ran across a fun article in Fast Company that compares travel in the 50s and 60s with the present. As it turns out, the skies weren’t quite as friendly as I remember.

For example, airfares were 40 percent higher, adjusted for inflation, with the average person in the 1950s paying up to five percent of his or her yearly salary for a chance to fly. There were no movies on long flights, but plenty of smoking, drinking and, ultimately quite a bit more vomiting en route. Stewardesses looked great but had to retire when they got married. I never saw a female pilot.

Despite the ups and downs of air travel, Walt certainly enjoyed the adventure and his readers do, too.

He says, “To borrow a modern cliche, it was a great ride.”

Dreaming of Warmer Places and New Literary Travel Adventures

Dreaming of balmy weather and tropical sunsets in Miami Beach, Florida.
Dreaming of balmy weather and tropical sunsets in Miami Beach, Florida.

January. It’s the same routine every year. The relatives go home, the last toasts to the new year have been made, and I’m feel slightly blue–partly because my kids have left and partly because it’s been crazy cold here in Minnesota.  It didn’t get above -11 on Monday.  I’m talking Siberia cold.

Though it’s a bit of a letdown when the holiday frenzy is over, the quiet time of January provides a time to reflect on what I’ve done over the last year, new things I’d like to do this year, and after enough procrastination, to get fired up to do a few of those things.  Since it’s been too frosty to go out, I’ve had plenty of time to hunker down and “reflect” (okay that’s my word for not getting to work). I looked back at the first post I made on this blog, which was called “Book Club Traveler” then, and I’m glad I took the time to revisit it.  I always have giant lists this time of year of all the things I wish I had accomplished, a lot of “should-have-done this and why-didn’t-I-do-that,” things I need to do now. But looking back a couple of years at those first days of blogging, I’m feeling pretty good, optimistic even. My goal was to encourage readers to take their love of literature to the next level and actually travel to the places they read about. I concluded my first post with: “So, this blog will explore the places where literature and travel intersect, how to escape with a good book and understand the places we travel, with or without a book group, through the eyes of authors who have gone there before us. Let’s get out of the living room and hit the road.”

I got enough positive feedback on the concept and enough comments like, “I wish my BeatenPage_12book club would do that,” that I gradually I came to believe that the concept was worthy of a book. And, as a result, Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways (Chicago Review Press) came out last May, hence the new name of the blog. The book features 15 U.S. destinations with essays, an extensive reading list, and a detailed itinerary for each.  People always ask what was my favorite destination.  In January, my favorite getaway is South Beach/Miami, Florida.  I’ve written several posts about that trip like this and this.  It was just arduous doing research there as you can see from this video.  Notice that no one is wearing bulky sweaters or long johns.

However, if you’re dreaming of Florida right now, but not exactly getting there as soon asdotr you’d like, pick up any book by Carl Hiassen for a crazy look at south Florida, especially Miami; Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief; Peter Mathiessen’s Shadow Country about the Florida frontier; or Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! I’m snuggled in with new books to read and dreaming up potential new adventures for the year based on those books. One benefit of travel and reading is that even if I’m home in the deep freeze, I can conjure up previous tropical sojourns to warm my heart if not my fingers and toes.

Vivid: South Beach Lifeguard Houses, Miami Beach, Florida

The 5th Street Guardhouse– beach yoga and a cruise ship leaving port.

The hotels and other buildings in the South Beach art deco district of Miami Beach, Florida, get all the attention.  But if you’re there, you should lift your head up from your beach chair and take notice of the collection of whimsical and funky lifeguard stations that extends from the jetty at South Point to 74th Street.  If you can’t make it to South Beach, take a look at photographer and former newspaper journalist Susan Russell’s book, aptly titled South Beach Life Guard Stations to see what I’m talking about.

While there have been elevated lifeguard stations here almost since the area became a resort, they weren’t so interesting until Hurricane Andrew swept most of them away in 1992.  They were rebuilt with panache typical of South Beach. They serve a very practical purpose for lifeguards, but also make great landmarks when you stroll the beach and an excellent place to meet for beach yoga at sunrise.  Here are a few of more….

The Towers Guardhouse, a.k.a. The Surfboard, South Beach, Florida
Lifeguard station at the jetty, where you can see the entire vista of South Beach
The 5th Street Guardhouse, with a version of the Miami Beach logo.

Shadow Country and Swamplandia! in Florida's Ten Thousand Islands

Grinning gators galore in the Everglades.

If you’re a fan of Peter Matthiessen’s National Book Award winner, Shadow Country, you

Smallwood Store, scene of E.J. Watson's murder.

may already have taken a day out of a Florida vacation and traveled to the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida to get a look at where the story happened.  Shadow Country is a fictionalized account of the story of the notorious real-life Everglades sugar cane planter and outlaw E. J. Watson at the turn of the 20th century.  But now, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (the fictional story of Ava Bigtree, a 12-year-old alligator wrestler who embarks on a strange journey through the area’s mangrove wilderness in search of her lost sister) creates another reason to investigate this section of the Everglades. So, last week a friend and I made the two-hour trip from Miami (it’s much closer to Naples on Florida’s Gulf Coast) to get a view of the mysterious watery world of these books.

We set out with fishing guide, Captain Rodney Raffield, from his home on Chokoloskee Island. Unlike the northern saw grass portions of the Everglades where the water is fresher, this section consists mostly of thousands mangrove islands in saltwater near the Gulf of Mexico. The Watson place is now a remote National Park Service campsite.  There isn’t

What's left of the Watson Place.

much left of the homestead except a huge vat where they boiled sugar cane to make syrup.  However, the Smallwood Store, the site where E.J. Watson was murdered by his neighbors, is still there on Chokoloskee Island and open as a


A boat ride around the area offers an impressive glimpse of the seemingly unending expanse of the Everglades.  To a visitor, there seem to be very few landmarks, so it was a pleasure to travel with Raffield, an affable fifth-generation resident of the area and a former stone crab fisherman who knows the place like the back of his hand and has plenty of stories to prove it.  As we wound our way through the mangrove islands, which are really just clumps of tangled roots rather than solid ground, we saw huge numbers of nesting birds. And, the alligators lolling on every open bank (some as much as twelve feet long), were the kind one might see on a tour of Russell’s fictional alligator park Swamplandia! Neither sea nor land, the Ten Thousand Islands make the perfect setting for Ava’s ghostly and gothic travels through the backwaters.

White pelicans near Rabbit Pass Key, Ten Thousand Islands, Florida

It’s a place where anything could happen… even something as unlikely as we non-fishers casting our lines for a few minutes and catching a “mess a fish,” as Raffield says. We then hustled over to the Havana Café in Chokoloskee, where they cooked ‘em up and we ate ’em, back on solid ground.

Beach Reading in Florida

I just spent a few days in the charming St. Augustine, Florida, area.  Packed with history, fun restaurants, and beautiful beaches—St. Augustine Beach and Crescent Beach—the area offers fun for just about everyone.  I sipped a beer and  my 80-plus-year-old mother downed a pina colada on the porch of a bar called Scarlett O’Hara’s where we ran into a fun group of women visiting St. Augustine from St. Louis.  They recommend the city for a great girls’ weekend, though it looked like their trip was shaping up to be a bit rowdier than our mother-daughter jaunt. Stayed at the Hampton Inn–right on the beach. Very nice staff.

But, since my view is always through a literary lens, I have to offer a few thoughts for Florida-related beach reading and maybe some heavier reading when you’re not on the beach.  Here’s a screamingly mixed bag of  Florida writing that provides an interesting cultural perspective, especially for Yankees like me….

For some St. Augustine-related fiction, try Eugenia Price’s “Florida Trilogy” of  Maria, Don Juan McQueen, and Margaret’s Story.  Good old fashioned romance.  Zora Neale Hurston, was born in Florida. Check out her biography: Dust Tracks on a Road and the classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Then there’s the always entertaining satirical writer, Carl Hiassen, the “blazing conscience of the Sunshine State.”  According to his Web site, “Tourist Season, published in 1986, was Hiaasen’s first solo novel. GQ magazine called it ‘one of the 10 best destination reads of all time,’ although it failed to frighten a single tourist away from Florida, as Hiaasen had hoped it might.” He’s written many books since and has continued to attract a loyal following of readers though he’s apparently still trying to keep the tourists away, as in Team Rodent, a rant a against the Disney empire.

Finally, I highly recommend Diane Roberts who is a professor of English at Florida State University in Tallahassee and one of my favorite essayists on National Public Radio.  To hear one of her recent commentaries go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130302999

I picked up a copy of  Roberts’ book Dream State in which she writes about Florida, “the land of orange groves, theme parks and mobile homes with a torrential outpouring of love and hate, affection and disgust. Weaving her own family history into that of the state—she’s related somehow or other to many of Florida’s pioneering families—she chronicles the greed, political corruption and deceit that turned the swamps of the Sunshine State into a haven for retirees, wealthy or otherwise.”  She has also written, The Myth of Aunt Jemima, and Faulkner and Southern Womanhood.