Fabiola Santiago

Life lessons on the open roads

On a summer morning of splendid blue skies and playful clouds shaped like earthly creatures, I shutter up the house, overload the aging convertible with “essentials,” and head north in search of the utopian Old Florida.

I join family in the setting of our last three decades of summers: Sanibel-Captiva, home of the crunchy grouper sandwich and spectacular causeway sunsets. Mine is the last car to leave suburban Miami in an episodic family caravan all too painfully conscious that this year we’re minus one, missing el jefe, the big-personality patriarch who set the course and tone for our outings.

I yearn only to relax, and I do — shelling, photographing secluded corners of raw beauty and dining with loved ones — but paradise is hard to find these days of turning points and change. I end up crisscrossing the state alone in stormy weather.

In Sanibel, I wake up to construction trucks rolling down the street. A long-time, second-home resident tells me about the falling real estate values. In his neighborhood, homes were valued at a million dollars at the peak of the boom, but now some have sold for as little as $375,000. The over-building, however, has not abated on this once serene sliver of Gulf Coast.

As I drive into Captiva, I see more of the McMansion construction that began with the millennium and more of the “for sale” signs of old timers fleeing what was once a community of quaint cottages. What’s going on is nothing short of rape by scrapers and excavators, and slow suffocation by concrete of one of Florida’s most scenic landscapes.

Summer trips used to be dreamy times, or so I remember, but now bad news assaults you: treacherous traffic, tropical-storm winds and rain, a wild bear on the loose, presidential elections and culture shock.

The black bear who roams Sanibel generates more whimsy than fright, despite red-lettered signs along Lighthouse Beach that warn us to beware. He’s caught while we’re there and repatriated to the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area. I later learn that the wandering fellow runs away again, this time to Tampa, causing a traffic jam before he’s tranquilized near Busch Gardens. Last I hear he was relocated to the Apalachicola National Forest, home to many more bears.

From Sanibel, I make my way to an overnight stay in St. Petersburg, with Tropical Storm Debby accosting my drive, and when I attempt to flee and cross the state, I sit in the car in searing heat, then a rain shower, for more than an hour when I-4 is shut down for President Barack Obama’s campaign visits to Daytona and Tampa.

The only warning sign — the understatement of the year — was placed right before the Disney World exit: “Road congestion 1 mile ahead.” Somebody needs to hold a communication workshop for the Department of Transportation.

I take no more chances and travel the back roads northeast, my ex-husband on the phone giving me directions out of Orlando to Route 301 and beyond. Despite the pounding rain from Debby, I smile as I drive through Waldo. The flea market, the fruit stand and the cop waiting for speeders are all still there. In Starke, the rain falls so thick and hard that I want to stop, but Florida’s execution capital is too creepy for a sojourn.

After I reach Jacksonville, I wonder if I’ve taken a wrong turn to Texas or Tennessee. I walk into a neighborhood hangout for a bite with family on karaoke night and two-for-one beers, and a man in a cowboy hat is belting out a mournful country tune. The amateur balladeers go on all night and I exhale and sway — until a pretty little girl, no older than 8, takes the microphone and sings about waiting for her cheatin’ man with a cigarette butt hanging from her lips and a shotgun by her side.

I stay the weekend, not for the landscape or community, but for the love of family. That can turn any place into paradise.

The open road is a marvelous teacher, and after all the right and wrong turns of flight, the next best thing to leaving is coming home to the familiar.