A man with convictions in Florida

NEW ORLEANS, La. – I was walking along the dark streets around our hotel, alone, when I stepped on something that couldn’t have been bigger than a frog but made a sound like a hurt squirrel and then skittered away. Skittered! Like that creature in The Grudge. What does that? Omigod.

Creepy end to a creepy day where we drove in and out of the most intense thunderstorms I’ve experienced. The worst hit us before we were out of Florida and we had to take shelter in a McDonald’s (again). Rain or not, I was headed back outside for a calming smoke – my legs had been shaking for 10 minutes, and that makes it really hard to maintain a safe speed in high winds.

There was a guy out there in a blue scrub-type shirt with something stamped on the left-hand pocket. His grey hair was shaved nearly completely and his eyes were watery blue. His arms were covered in monochrome tattoos, from wrist to shoulder; not one pattern but dozens of separate pieces. There was a large, unevenly ornate cross on the inside of his upper arm.

He bummed a smoke and said, nodding toward the truck, “Are you all really from Quebec? What’re you doing here in sunny Florida?”

I told him we’re on our way to Texas and he shook his head like we’re crazy (I’m beginning to believe he’s on to something there). “I’ve been to Canada,” he told me. “Not Quebec, but lots of other places. Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C., the Yukon.”

“The Yukon? That’s intense.”

He shrugged. “My dad worked there for a year, I was young. I went up later when my cousin moved to Alberta cuz he needed someone to drive the truck. Stayed a while, came home to Texas and Louisiana.”

“We’re spending two days in Louisiana – I can’t wait.”

“You gotta get you a piece of boudin,” he said, meaning a kind of Creole sausage. “Anyone who goes to Louisiana gotta get them some boudin.”

“And gumbo. The real stuff, not like we make at home.”

He licked his lips. “I’m gonna make me a pot of gumbo soon as I get home. I just got … I haven’t been home in a while. Waiting for someone to pick me up. A friend was supposed to take me home, but he just brought me far as his place and I had to call another friend to come pick me up here.”

“Nice friend,” I said.

“Yeah. He was on his way to drinkin’. I just hope the next one shows up soon.” We were nearly finished our cigarettes and he could see I was moving toward the door. The sky was clearing, miraculously. “You have a good rest of your trip, y’hear? Lots to see.”

“Sometimes I think life’s too short to see all the things.”

He laughed. “I dunno ‘bout you, but my life’s feeling shorter every day.”

In which we are nearly led astray by buzzards

CLERMONT & ONA, Fla. – Of all our planned roadside attractions, the monster-truck eco-tour was the one I was most looking forward to: a 45-minute tour of a cattle and citrus farm, seen from the world’s largest 4×4.

I’ll spare you every delightful detail (“We have 350 cows and just seven bulls, each of them named L-L-L-Lucky.”) through mud and sand and across cow paths, past gators and banana spiders and into an angry thunderstorm that nearly drowned out our chipper guide, Chris.

Florida is all about the thunderstorms. As on the Prairies, you can see it coming. You have a few minutes or half an hour to prepare, tighten your seatbelt or take cover. Often you can see patches of lbue sky in the black cloud and you just hold on and hope the wind is in your favour.

* * *

Solomon’s Castle appealed to each of us. Trevor, because he’s pretty much up for anything, Melani because it’s a castle, and me because it’s made from discarded objects including old printing plates.

Our GPS, Alpha, loved it because it meant he could take us on back roads and threaten to get us lost.

The rain tapered off as we pulled away from the monster truck. We drove along the wide highway for a bit, past fruit and gator-meat stands, a gas station and a strip mall before turning left onto a well-maintained side road. Citrus groves were interspersed with fields of cattle. I’d never thought of Florida as cow heavy, but with 1.1 million head of cattle, this is the third-largest beef-producing state east of the Mississippi.

Trevor spotted the herd of deer in some scrub on the other side of the ditch. “I bet the citrus farmers love these,” I said sarcastically and wondered whether the fences were good enough to keep them at bay. Moments later a deer with huge black eyes nodded as we went past. She was on the orchard side of the fence. Farther along, two wild boar dodged out of the ditch and into the tall grass.

“Ahead, turn right,” Alpha instructed, putting us on a narrower road where the trees creeped closer to the asphalt. The clouds had somewhat lifted and we couldn’t see lightning any longer, but the low growl of thunder penetrated the closed windows. The car was very quiet.

The trees fell away, opening to an empty field ringed by an uneven fence and more than a dozen dark silhouettes.

“Buzzards,” Melani breathed.

My foot lifted from the gas pedal. The buzzards turned as one to watch us approach. One lifted his head, as though he were about to speak. We were almost past them, my head turned sideways because I would not look away.

“Turn right now!” Alpha commanded and my foot, which had hovered over the gas, came down hard on the brake. The buzzards lifted, disappeared.

“Umn, yeah,” I said as I threw it into reverse. “Let’s go where the buzzards hang out. Because that’s a good idea.”

And, yes, the next road was narrower still, pitted and uneven. Branches hung over us from both sides, Spanish moss reached toward the windshield; the road curved. A faded sign promised Solomon’s Castle just ahead and – here! – the white gates. We finally approached.

Solomon’s Castle. Reopening in October. Bet it’ll be spectacular.

How desegregation changed American Beach

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. – We told our friend Michele we prefer the roads less traveled, and so when we showed up on her doorstep, exhausted after too little sleep following a too-long drive to the Georgia-Florida border, she had a cooler full of ice water and a plan.

Later, she and her husband, Tom, would take us on a tour of Amelia Island, home of the Shrimp Festival and the filming location of Mary Poppins – “The house is still there,” Tom would tell us, “But it’s been condemned.” We’d eat at Pablo’s, the best Mexican resto I’ve been to in a long while and the first place on our trip where the portions were reasonably sized – we didn’t leave with boxes and boxes of leftovers.

Michele’s road less traveled took us beyond the dunes to American Beach. What struck me immediately were the homes. More than half were surprisingly modest; a few were barely more than shacks overlooking one of the most beautiful beaches on the Atlantic. We were alone on the sand but for couples passing through to a more popular beach and two men sitting a ways away, fishing.

American Beach and the surrounding community was established by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, head of Afro-American Life Insurance and Florida’s first black millionaire.

From American, you can see where the plantation house sat. American, you see, was a blacks-only vacation resort, a central gathering place for families and church functions. Such celebrities as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles performed at Evans’ Rendezvous nightclub and no doubt walked along this beach, which is now a registered historic site.

Life here changed drastically in 1964. Hurricane Dora charged the beach in September, causing widespread damage to the Floridian coast as far north as the Georgian border. Local homes and businesses were destroyed. The same year, Florida beaches were desegregated.

Blacks began to abandon American once they were legally welcome on any beach in the state and didn’t have to travel all the way to Amelia Island. Strangely – or perhaps not, because cultural biases take a long time to fade – no one flooded into American and it remains unspoiled. Less traveled.