I’ve lived in Florida for over 20 years now, but I’d never been to Gulfport before this month. Gulfport is a small artsy town on the west coast of Florida, bordering St. Petersburg and Boca Ciega Bay. To outsiders, Gulfport is most well-known for its annual GeckoFest and twice monthly art walks. It is also the stomping grounds of local writer, Cathy Salustri.
Cathy is one of my favorite local writers. I was introduced to her work via Creative Loafing, an alternative weekly newspaper available for free in Tampa (and Atlanta). I am a big fan of their Arts & Entertainment section, and Cathy is the A&E editor. Reading Creative Loafing is like having a dozen cool friends invite you to all the hottest events in town week after week.
This month I finally got the chance to meet one of those “friends” at the Hickman Theater in Gulfport. On Friday, November 4, 2016, Cathy Salustri was at the Hickman sharing photos and stories from her Florida Backroads adventure. If you are a fan of epic Florida adventures, then you need to know about this one. Using a 1930’s Florida tour book as a guide, Cathy traversed Florida via the state’s oldest roads in what she calls “a journey to rediscover old Florida.” And she wrote all about it.
In Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida, Cathy Salustri details her month-long, 5,000-mile, road trip through Florida in a 21-foot camper van. Accompanied by her dog, Calypso, and her boyfriend Barry, she traveled the state one backroad at a time, spending the night at State Parks along the way. On the road, she compares what she sees to what the old guide reports, rediscovering old Florida and seeing all the ways in which it has changed.
Although many of Florida’s small towns and natural attractions remain, many have been lost or diminished by a combination of hurricanes, failed crops, environmental indifference, and new development. Of these, development and the environment are major themes in Backroads of Paradise.
What surprised me most about this book was the amount of Florida history and environmental issues that were covered. I wasn’t exactly expecting a traditional tour book, but I had no idea that the author had such a vast knowledge of the state. As it turns out, Cathy has a Master’s Degree in Florida Studies from the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.
I probably learned more about the state of Florida from this book than I have learned from any of the other Florida-inspired books I’ve read up to this point. Not only did I learn a bunch of interesting new facts about my home state, but I also now have a map of Florida’s backroads and a list of new places to go. If you really want to know Florida, Cathy teaches us, you have to get off the interstate. Drive some backroads. Paddle some rivers. Or you can at least start by reading this book. It’s a good one.
Cathy Salustri’s new book, Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida is now available on Amazon.