Finding Florida : The Guide to the Southernmost State, Revised
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Liberal Arts, College of Arts and Sciences, University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project hired unemployed writers to create driving tours of each state. Florida chose Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy. They crisscrossed the state separately – Jim Crow would not allow black Zora to travel with white Stetson – carving out the routes immortalized in the Guide to the Southernmost State. Over seventy years later, I decided I wanted to go, too. I broke out my shiny, red Florida Gazetteer and tried to reconstruct twenty-two tours, studying towns and researching old route numbers. Often I could only recreate the Depression-era routes by jumping from city to city, sort of a geographic connect-the-dots. Roads are living things, and for one to assume that she can look for a road where someone else put it down almost 80 years ago, well, sir, you would be foolish to think that road would stay where you left it. Especially in Florida, a land kept eternally young through constant change. The roads, it seem, breathe and grow and twist and turn and pulse with Florida’s fervor in much the same way her people and land does. They are malleable. Florida doesn’t have much that won’t bend and stretch – and sometimes break. Just as often, though, it yields, bending until it simply can no longer, and then it stretches and bends back and we are the ones who must yield or break. In September I climbed into a camper van with my better half, Barry, and my other better half, Calypso. We spent the month recreating those original tours, guided by a dogeared, broken-spined, 1950s-era version of the Guide, a now-tattered, Florida Gazetteer, and (on Barry’s part) endless patience. We logged almost 5,000 miles in on my quest for Florida. I hoped to see the state through Stetson and Zora’s eyes. I looked for what they saw. I searched for scraps of Florida abandoned along her backroads. Out of those miles grew these tours: the ultimate Florida road trip. These tours share much with the Guide, but they differ, too. I followed Stetson and Zora, yes, seeking their voices in the burble of every spring and searching for visions of them in every blazing-hot, pink and amber sunset, but I also recreated, one more time, Florida’s story – and mine. This tour is the best thing I have ever done.