15 Jan Gone South With the Dogs

Jill and I just got back from a 10-day car trip to Florida. That’s 2,238 miles, roundtrip. We took the dogs, which always makes things interesting. Cleo — our basset hound — we call “the little princess” because she’s so prim and quiet (though secretly a little shit, too, sometimes). Mason, our big American bulldog, is sloppy, noisy, and obliviously happy to be with. He’s a good traveler, spending most of his time sleeping. But he’s also a slob, snoring loudly and farting regularly. When we pass through marshlands, we can’t tell whether or not the sulfurous odor we smell is swamp gas or Mason.

Packing for a 10-day trip is like packing for a two-month trip: we take everything we might need. Our custom camper van carries a lot of cargo, including tools and various accessories, like an electric juicer and space heater. If it’s really cold, we plug in at an RV park, which gives the van full power for all the stuff inside. Our first night, in Florence, S.C., Jill kept the space heater blasting so high, I slept with only a sheet. The dogs sleep under our fold-out bed. It’s cozy, but you can’t be claustrophobic because it’s tight quarters. Also, you can’t mind dog smells. “It’s like sleeping in a kennel,” I joke.

When we travel like this, we indulge ourselves, which means we’re allowed to break all the rules about eating. For starters, we pack elaborate homemade meals and snacks. This time, we started out with a spinach calzone, green bean salad, deviled eggs, hummus, kale and tomato salad, popcorn, a full fridbge of fresh produce, including fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice and vegetable juice. We cram our little camper kitchen cupboard with bags of nuts and boxes of granola bars and gourmet crackers. We always bring way more food than we eat because we often stop at local restaurants, which we seek out online (my phone has internet connectivity, so we have 24/7 computer access in the van). I’m a pizza fanatic, so I’m always looking for the best wood-fired pizza on the road. And we always find some. Try Bravaro’s in Tampa. Also, Stuzzi’s in Richmond.

Nothing makes long-distance travel more enjoyable than lots of food on hand. I recall how, when I had to take a 10-hour plane flight as a child, the flight attendants fed us treats every hour. The problem, of course, is that while snacking keeps you busy and alert on the road, it also leads to binging. Try eating just a few handfuls of popcorn or pistachios. Can’t be done. You’ve got to go for broke and empty the bag or bowl. Then you think, “What else?” This kind of thinking is especially problematic when you’ve just bought a box of pastries. Always I want to sample everything — right now. Then, once I’ve taken a bite of each delectable, there’s no stopping me because every treat has already been compromised with a big bite . . . so might as well clear them out.

I can’t help but compare Florida to California because both states are sprawling, produce-growing, diversely populated, and tourist destinations. And both are wild in ways that most other states are not — with vast coastlines and intimidating interior wildernenesses. You may have read that Florida has just initiated a one-month boa constrictor (python) hunt in an effort to reduce the ravenous population of boas that has been eating everything in the Everglades. The state is awarding monetary prices for those who catch the most and the largest. Some of these snakes, which can eat small deer whole, get up to twenty feet long. It’s just a matter of time before one of these alien invaders gets hold of a child. But that’s Florida in a nutshell: out of control. No state taxes, developers eating into the wetlands, crowds of oldsters looking for the fountain of youth, highway billboards boasting cheap produce and a sideshow featuring a 13-foot aligator.

Speaking of which: the latest reports suggest that the crocodile — which is much fiercer, much more agressive than the aligator — is expanding its territory. They are moving north and moving inland. Crocs are (mostly) salt water, tropical creatures. The are the scourge of Africa and Southeast Asia, including Australia. They kill hundreds of people a year. But not in Florida, not yet. But they are moving up and moving inland as warmer weather makes these places more inviting. My brother Mike and his wife, Lois, have been active kayakers in Florida’s waterways. Recently they came across a large crocodile, which at first looked like a log. As soon as they realized what it was, they paddled backwards feverishly. Lois jokes that she didn’t even have time to put her paddle in the water, Mike was reversing so fast. A kayak, remember, puts you right at the water’s surface. It would not have taken the croc much effort to snatch Mike or Lois out of the kayak. Now they paddle only Florida’s cold spring-fed waterways. But it may be only a matter of time before the crocs acclimate themselves to cooler water. That said, the one thing Florida has done right has been its conservation of crocodiles and aligators. Aligators are a common sight in neighborhoods that have ponds. Mike sees them regulalry crossing the fairways when he’s golfing.

Our encounter with wildlife was more modest: we met a softshell turtle that was trekking through Jill’s father’s front yard. It seemed to have come a long distance — from the state park behind the neiborhood. We picked it up and took it the pond it was headed for. We were happy to learn that, as of 2009, Florida banned all hunting of turtles.

Orlando, where Mike and Lois live, is a great town for food because its tourism sustains many more restaurants — and really good restaurants — than you would usually find in a city that size. The most eye-opening dish we had was grilled, buttered artichokes with garlic mayonaise. Oh my. Jill and I made a pilgrimage to Baby Cakes Bakery, which specializes in treats made with healthier ingredients (i.e., no refined sugar). The bakery is based in NYC and has published a popular bookbook that Jill loves, but we don’t know why it put a satellite bakery in Orlando — especially this one, tucked into an alcove of a fried chicken franchise in Disney World’s shopping mall.

Although our trip was mainly to see Jill’s father and my brother and sister-in-law, I also made it part of my From Animal House to Our House book tour and arranged to read at the main libraries in Tampa and Orlando. Librarians are the best — who’s more enthusiastic about books? — and libraries have great facilities. The Tampa library’s auditorium is a high-modern concrete dome (circa 1970) that has such good acoustics, I didn’t need a microphone. In Tampa I partnered with Tampa Preservation, Inc., and met a number of dedicated preservationists, not to mention our good friends Luke, Sarah, Lisa, and Don.

Most people think that Florida is nothing but new construction — shopping malls and gated communities. But, remember, Florida possesses the nation’s oldest city, Saint Augustine, founded by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. Correction: oldest city established by Westerner Europeans. Cities like Tampa have a number of historic districts. Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood is too touristy for my taste, like New Orlean’s French Quarter, but its Hyde Park neighborhood is a lovely mix of early twentieth century homes. Winter Park, near Orlando, recently saved one of its landmark homes, relocating it to the city’s golf course when somebody wanted to raze it to build a new mansion.

On the way back, we emptied our sewage tanks (the van has a bathroom) in South Carolina but then, when I instructed Jill to pull the van away after the dump, I forgot that I had left the storage bin open on the other side of the van. The open lid caught against the asphalt drive and snapped off in an instant. My bad. Fortunately, I travel with tools and parts, so I was able to re-attach the lid to the storage bin — which was absolutely necessary because the bin carries our big sewage hose, something we didn’t want to transport inside the van. We stopped in Selma, N.C., to browse through the little town’s many antique stores. Somewhere in that vicinty, we saw a billboard that said: “R U text-addicted? Put down the phone!” Ironic, isn’t it, since those people who are distracted by texting are not going to see the billboard.