In Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida, Cathy Salustri takes readers on a 5,000-mile road trip from the panhandle to the Keys. Salustri retraces historic routes that used to be main roads back in the 1930s, before Florida’s interstates were built. Intrigued? Read the book and follow the author’s latest travels on her website, the Great Florida Road Trip.
Inspired by Cathy Salustri’s adventures, interns at the University Press of Florida are sharing their own stories about the roads featured in Backroads of Paradise, piecing together their own Great Florida Road Trip. Today, marketing intern Carolina Rodriguez Garcia writes about growing up near a stretch of US 41 known as the Tamiami Trail, a road that crosses the Everglades on its way from Naples to Miami. Cathy Salustri explores this road in a chapter of her book titled “Gators, Skunk Apes, and Florida’s Final Frontier.”
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The Great Florida Road Trip
Inspired by Backroads of Paradise
Part 1: The Everglades
By Carolina Rodriguez Garcia
Since the Everglades is such a large expanse of land next to my home city of Miami, I often drive past it or through it on family road trips. At times, I’ve even used a road described by Cathy Salustri in Backroads of Paradise to cross from Miami to Florida’s west coast:
Every now and then a green highway sign will announce you have entered Gum Slough or the Fakahatchee Strand. What it really means is that you’re in the swamp, you’ve been in the swamp, and, for at least an hour or two, you’re going to stay in the swamp. Once you accept or embrace your situation, you can sit back and enjoy the scenery.
In these parts, US 41 is a two-lane highway without any lights or bordering fences, so when my family packs into our SUV and sets out for this road, we try to drive while the sun is still out. Nighttime drives mean worried parents with white knuckles on the steering wheel.
Driving so close to the swampy waters, though, has its perks: one of our favorite car games, still, is seeking out animals on either side as we barrel past. To gain the prized title of “animal spotter,” we may sometimes convince ourselves that logs and old car tires are gators—but in each journey, at least a few of our frantic shouts and gestures do point to real Everglades wildlife.
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I once had a coach who wanted my soccer team to be even more fit than a cross country team, so he drafted early morning running routes for every Saturday of the summer preseason. One of these training sessions took us to Shark Valley, a section of the Everglades located right off US 41 and known for its bike trails.
Arriving at Shark Valley half asleep, we woke up with the swamp. The humidity was so thick that each breath felt like a direct gulp of the marsh. We swatted away bugs. At first we were terrified at the prospect of running right next to the water because we felt so vulnerable to predators like gators, panthers and pythons. We would have to stay alert just in case a hazardous animal got too close. We even half-jokingly played “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry as a last minute persuasive tool to get out of the run.
Before my team got started, our coach told us to expect one of the longest and most difficult runs yet. But as we began to run, I think we experienced something similar to what Salustri felt in the early-morning Everglades hours.
If you have a choice as to when you drive east on this stretch of road, drive it at or near sunrise. The sun lights up the trees, and a humming orange glow rises like fire in the Everglades. Birds take flight from every tree, starting their day with hope for swamp bugs, carrion, and fish. Seeing flock after flock take flight from the Glades is a perspective adjustment ordered up by the universe; it is impossible to believe your problems matter after you see what certainly must be millions of birds going about survival with graceful indifference.
Eventually, as we fell into our step, we became less worried. My mind strayed from my nagging preoccupations, and I relaxed into observations of moments that would never be part of my normal routine. Alligators lazily dotted the water’s edge. Snakes curled along the pavement. Birds claimed space in the sky and on the ground. And I knew that so much more was hidden from my eyes because I was not a part of that complex ecosystem. I was just a temporary witness to nature’s routine.
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Carolina Rodriguez Garcia, marketing intern at the University Press of Florida, is a public relations major at the University of Florida. She is treasurer of BLUE Missions, a Miami-based organization that travels to the Dominican Republic to combat the water and sanitation crisis, and she is a publication relations/events intern for Her Campus. She has been a coffee addict since age eight.