Valentine’s Day: a good reason for a 24-hour escape. We drove across Florida to spend the night at a friend’s house in Boca Grande, a tranquil town on the southern end of Gasparilla Island, in the Gulf of Mexico. The drive from the Palm Beaches is a journey through another world. In contrast to the artificial lushness of tony vacation spots along the coasts, the natural landscape of this state is foreboding and wild, its central towns marked by hardship.
The Journey West
The route takes you through the agricultural vastness and sun-baked poverty of Belle Glade. “Her soil is her fortune,” says the sign as you enter town, past two jails and clumps of dingy concrete buildings, faded signs for fast food, Yoyo’s Tires, Dollar General. And then along the great, winding Herbert Hoover Dike, a 40-foot-high grassy embankment holding back the murky, toxic waters of Lake Okeechobee. It’s a shallow, enormous lake, half the size of Rhode Island, and its surface lies well above sea level.
The lake has been a scourge. Its waters repeatedly breached the previous mud dike, drowning over 2,500 people in floods from the 1928 hurricane. Failed attempts to drain the lake began in the 1880s. In this past decade, the state has labored to salvage and control it, excavating thousands of truckloads of mud polluted with arsenic and pesticides; fighting brush fires when water levels dropped and sections of exposed lake bed went up in flames; then later pumping billions of gallons out when rising waters threatened the Hoover Dike; requesting emergency aid for a 33-square-mile algae bloom contaminated with toxic bacteria; and most recently back-pumping clean water into the lake in an attempt to save the ecosystem.
You don’t see the lake when you drive by; just the steep, snaking slope of the dike. Then the endless, flat land planted with sugar cane. Rows of young plants like tufts of fat, bright grass. And the taller crops being harvested by dark, hulking machines with drill-like appendages and gaping mouths. Plumes of sepia-grey smoke roil up from where the cane is being burned, a campfire smell in the air.
We’re listening to a Lyle Lovett album, and his mournful-spiritual recording of “Ain’t No More Cane” begins to play. The resonance with this country we’re passing through sends chills down my arms. It’s an old-South prison work song, of hard laborers cutting sugarcane along the Brazos River: Ain’t no more cane on this Brazos / Oh – oh – oh / They done ground it all in molasses / oh – oh – oh —Lyle’s rich, homespun voice, then his powerful backup singers alternating verses; that slow mandolin strum, the fiddle picking up the forlorn melody. Rise up dead man, help me drive my row / oh – oh – oh…
There’s a place where you have to veer right to end up continuing straight on State Road 80; and if you don’t have your digital map zoomed way in or your navigation actually talking, you’ll cruise right by and end up on the northern route. The iPhone calls the two ways equal, time-wise, though we have our doubts. The road zigzags past another prison. An establishment called Gatorama promises “bone-crushing adventure,” a sinister albino gator grinning reptilianly on its sign.
We pass orange groves; bony cattle in fields of scrubby, spiny vegetation; abandoned buildings; a trailer camp called Paradise Park; out of the blue, a pristine Federal-style house overlooking a sparkling pond. Then a salt mine; a hand-painted sign advertising fill dirt; a metal farm gate wrapped in red and silver tinsel; a crisp four-board fence and American flag; a heap of mattresses and scrap wood laid out for heavy trash day. And power lines. Always power lines.
Mirages shimmer on the road. Trucks transport loads of desiccated sod. A pair of decrepit car carriers weaves with their towering, precarious cargo. The road goes arrow-straight for an hour, punctuated only by one treacherous intersection that requires us to lurch across two-way, high-speed traffic in order to continue on.
Nearer the opposite coast, signs of population appear: rows of mismatched mailboxes on plywood shelves at the start of each dirt road; a church with a magic-markered yard sale banner strung on its iron fence; and then finally the tropical water. We join I-75 and cross the Peace River, where a sign asks boaters to slow for Manatees. And at last, the long, arching toll bridge across Gasparilla Sound, the sun low over the shimmering Gulf of Mexico.
On Gasparilla Island
The buildings here are pale clapboard or stucco with silvery metal roofs. Houses stand on stilts along the Gulf-exposed western shore. We drive through the town of Boca Grande, past the rocket-thin lighthouse, to the island’s southernmost tip; feed three dollars into a box (on the honor system) at the gate of the State Rec Area, and get out of the car to the sounds of birdsong and washing sea. At the beach, signs warn of riptides. The sand, strewn with tiny bleached shells, is warm on our bare feet. A few people laze in the sun or tend fishing rods.
Back in town, we poke around the quiet streets in the late sun. It is an unpretentious town, a tarpon-fishing mecca where shops sell touristy tee shirts and seagoing gear, shell-patterned tunics and shark-embroidered swim trunks. Awnings are tattered and briny with sea air. People coast along in electric golf carts, saying hello to each other and waving cars to go on ahead. There is wealth here, but no pomp.
By the old train depot, a group of middle-aged adults sits around a table eating ice cream from waffle cones. A stranger walking by offers to take our picture with the mural of the leaping tarpon. At The Temptation restaurant, which is also a liquor store, we sit at the bar for drinks and snacks: conch fritters, chowder, french fries. Of these things, I can eat only the fries, but they are thick, crispy, oily-sweet, salty—just right after a road trip. Signs behind the bar say, “Please no profanity,” “Plan ahead; buy two cases of beer,” and in retro tin, “Hoover for president.” Folksy photos and hand-drawn caricatures hang above rows of beer bottles, a stash of pens, notepaper and remote controls, and a pudgy male luau bobble doll.
Our friends’ house is a seaside bungalow packed with Audubon prints and brocade pillows. The big tree out back holds lanterns and orchids in its broad branches, above a narrow dock on the estuary. We have the place to ourselves.
It’s a ten-minute walk to dinner through the dark, silent neighborhood. The restaurant, PJ’s Seagrille, is a festival of seaside kitsch: burbling fishtank, giant plastic tarpon on the wall, glittery V-day balloons whose shape is kind of a heart/octopus combo, upbeat muzak at loud volume. We take a table on the back patio, beside climbing vines strung with Christmas lights. There are red and pink napkins tied with grosgrain ribbon. Our half bottle of Veuve Cliquot arrives on ice, accompanied by champagne flutes etched with starfish and sea grass. From the opposite wall, two jumbo metal crabs ogle us with bottle-cap eyes. We eat artichokes and fresh snapper—deliciously fluffy in lemony white wine, with broad diagonal slices of herby steamed carrot—and then walk home in the dark, with sounds of peepers and distant ocean.
We wake feeling we could sleep several more hours here, but obligations pull us home. After breakfast at a local joint with bright paper-map placemats and classic diner fare, we hit the road.
We stick to the primary, southern route this time and it seems to go faster. We share the road with some Harley trikes and a few RVs, their stashes of firewood lashed to little jouncing platforms on their sterns. There are tractor vendors, trailer houses, rolled bales of hay; a sprawling industrial park, its lots piled with wooden pallets and heaps of squalid plasticky material in giant compost-style windrows. And another jewel out of the blue: a vivid green field with the lettered white cones that mark a dressage court. (I do not see the accompanying barn or horses as we buzz past.)
A squat, spire-less church sits in a grove of mossy oaks. This is the town of LaBelle, a mix of rustic businesses, chain fast food, stately town buildings and abandoned storefronts. There’s a law office in a mobile home.
And the road stretches on, past long alleys of chain link fence, perpetual scraggly palms, occasional grand but dilapidated gates leading to nothing or to small concrete houses. There’s the Magnolia Packing Warehouse, and the Crooked Hook RV Resort, and a yard selling wholesale palm trees that lean on each other in a dry, dusty, expiring tangle.
Then we’re back in Belle Glade, the cane smoke rising. It stains the underlayer of clouds that sepia grey. The sky has American-west bigness, the sun beating through our windows. In the distance, white smoke billows from the staggered stacks of the power plant. A sign warns, “Caution fog-smoke area.”
In town, the largest building we pass is the methodist church, a two-story blockish structure with square windows and a tacked-on-looking steeple. As you fork east towards Wellington there’s a shooting range with its row of blue-and-white human silhouettes; then a paintball course with densely packed shields like broad gravestones.
After yesterday’s mass shooting at the Parkland school just an hour from here, the school my dear friend’s grandchildren attend—and they are safe but they lost friends—these sights feel ominous.
And soon we’re in Wellington, picking up our sweet, rambunctious dogs and arriving home. We unpack and prepare for the various things we have to do. As I settle at my desk, I’m remembering the peaceful seaside and thinking of bigger questions—how to do something, anything, to help with this problem we have, this violence and suffering afflicting our country.
*I have shared this bootleg ambivalently, but with the desire winning out for you to immediately hear the song. However, please: buy the album to really hear it right, or see Lyle and his Large Band in concert, which is a delightful, moving, wonderful use of an evening.