A couple of years ago, a newspaper reporter called me for comment about a stretch of U.S. 41 in Sarasota and Bradenton being designated a "Florida Scenic Highway."
This was odd for two reasons: the unscenic nature of the road, and that the media was calling me for comment on anything.
In this case, however, two odds do make a right. Most of the road in question doesn’t have magnificent vistas or travel through giant redwoods with cut-outs for cars. But it does contain many 1950s mom-and-pop motels and a couple of roadside attractions from the pre-Disney era. And the reason they called me is my series of novels where the main character, a serial killer, obsessively drives around looking for old Florida. Okay, the novels are really about my life, except for the murders, which I added because, you know, you have to sell some books.
So the reporter had done his research when he called me. I gave some kind of a glib answer like it should be designated a "Florida Cheesy Highway."
But this is far from an insult. I love cheese, everything about it. I’ll be in downtown Sarasota for some reason, ready to head back home to Tampa, and instead of taking Fruitville Road back to I-75, I’ll take the leisurely drive up 41. I make sure to drive extra slow and drink in each of the old motels, especially at dusk, when the neon starts to come on. Sometimes I’ll enrich the experience by playing Ramblin’ Man by the Allman Brothers, where the singer mentions being born in the back of a Greyhound bus "rollin’ down Highway 41." Sure, cars back up behind me. Occasionally they honk and yell things. I just stick my head out the window: "Hey, buddy, don’t you know this is a scenic highway?"
This section of 41 is part of a much larger, historic stretch of the highway known as the Tamiami Trail (a contraction of Tampa-Miami Trail), which is curiously book-ended by the state’s two major Cuban communities. The route begins in Miami’s Little Havana and ends 273 miles later in Tampa’s Ybor City. Along the way, it cuts a frontier-blazing trail through the Everglades before turning north through Naples, Fort Myers and Sarasota.
It all began in the early 1920s with the necessity of connecting the east and west coasts of Florida. All that stood in the way was a giant swamp. So they diked and dredged and filled. The project was subsidized by Barron Collier, who got a county named after him in return. Eight million dollars later, the road opened in 1928. This was the beginning of the Gulf Coast’s epoch of roadside Florida.
The American Family was on the move in automobiles, traveling to this exotic state of ours, begging for places to pull over and see a real alligator or buy a Nativity scene made of seashells. Opportunity abounded for the kitschy entrepreneur, and attractions sprang up like dot-com ventures before the Disney-bubble-burst. According to Ken Breslauer’s Roadside Paradise, 15 percent of the state’s attractions would sprout along the Tamiami, including a now-defunct über attraction between Venice and Sarasota called Floridaland. Yearning to be the one-stop-for-all-your-Florida-Experience needs, it boasted "Ten big attractions at one admission price." There were porpoise shows, an Indian village, tropical birds, botanical gardens, trains, riverboats, a petting zoo and an inexplicable Wild West ghost town.
It was not enough. Floridaland closed in 1971. The year Disney opened. Call me a conspiracy nut.
But the Tamiami Trail lives on today, both in the ghosts of bygone institutions and those that still exist. The advent of Interstate 75, including Alligator Alley, was the undoing of much of the Tamiami. But paradoxically, it has also preserved the Trail, unlike certain trashed portions of U.S. 1 on the east coast.
So do yourself a favor: Change the current Florida attraction mind set. Get your head out of the Aerosmith rollercoaster at Disney-MGM, slow down and take the time to drive the Tamiami, for its own sake.
Start by fueling up with a real Cuban sandwich through a lunch window on Miami’s Calle Ocho, then head into the Everglades. If you’re still hungry, there will soon be a weather-beaten pioneer-style restaurant on the south side of the road advertising frog legs. Stop at the Shark Valley visitor’s center and take the seven-mile tram ride out to the observation tower with a stunning panorama of the "River of Grass." (Please heed the warning symbol on the national park service Web site: a circle with a slash through it of a stick man trying to pet an alligator.)
The rest of the trek across the Glades offers airboat rides and Micosukee chickee villages. Whatever you do, definitely stop in Ochopee at the Big Cypress Gallery and check out the photography of Clyde Butcher, known for good reason as the Ansel Adams of the Everglades. While in Ochopee you can also mail postcards from a tiny white shack on the south side of the road, "the smallest post office in the United States."
A final worthwhile stop in the Everglades requires a detour down route 29 to Chokoloskee and the Smallwood Store museum. Ted Smallwood opened the store in 1906, and the waterfront stilt building has been preserved in its original state, the way it was when Native Americans could arrive by canoe to trade pelts.
As U.S. 41 begins turning north, just before downtown Naples, drop by the Collier County Museum for an extensive look at Southwest Florida history, including the struggle to get the Tamiami built.
From here, it’s a matter of a nice drive. There are some more great mom-and-pop motels in Naples and again in Fort Myers, before arriving at the museum at Thomas Edison’s home (a short detour). North of Fort Myers, the roadsides thin out until you reach the fabulous Shell Factory, which doesn’t actually manufacture shells but has them in spades, and whose tropical retro architecture perfectly captures the old days.
On up through Charlotte County and past my favorite old Gulf Coast inn, the Cadillac Motel (middle of nowhere, old Caddy out front on the lawn). Then into Venice and Sarasota and the historic 19th -century Spanish Point settlement jutting out into Little Sarasota Bay, with pioneer homes, graveyard, chapel and citrus packing house.
Finally, a little farther north, we’re full circle, back up into that great stretch of newly designated highway in north Sarasota that I love to drive- home of Jungle Gardens, Sarasota Classic Cars and the Ringling Museum. All that’s left is for them to put in the scenic overlook across the street from the soon-to-be-relocating Broadway Bar.
The trail makes a quiet swing along a forgotten stretch of Florida on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay, then up through Ruskin and the carny colony of Gibsonton, before ending in Tampa’s historic Latin Quarter.