One of my favorite ways to deepen the experience of a new destination is to immerse myself in a book set in that place while I visit. I first experienced the magic of layering fiction and real-life exploration with the book/destination duo of The Glass Room by Simon Mawer/Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic in 2013. Like a properly paired wine and cheese, a book and a trip can enhance one another into an experience that neither could be alone. This post is about one such blended experience, when I explored the southwestern tip of Florida while reading Swamplandia!.
As I delved into Swamplandia! on the flight from Indianapolis to Ft. Myers, I learned the title of Karen Russell’s novel is the fictional family-owned island theme park where her alligator-loving protagonist comes of age. So, you can image my delight when the AirBnB my husband and I booked in Bonita Springs, Fla. was down the street from a homegrown tourist attraction called “Everglades Wonder Gardens.” The two billboard-sized alligator eyes peering over the park’s entrance sign as we took turned east toward our house confirmed that the book selection was on point for this trip.
Swamplandia!’s fictional island is set in a real coastal region of Florida called Ten Thousand Islands, just east of Everglades City and south of our spot in Bonita Springs. We were in the area for a wedding and were able to explore two of the beautiful natural areas nearby: Lover’s Key State Park, an island we visited via boat with the wedding crew, and Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, where we covered a couple of boardwalk miles on foot.
As Swamplandia!’s protagonist lost herself in the mangrove-filled labyrinth of Ten Thousand Islands, I learned from our boat captain on the way to Lover’s Key State Park that mangroves form tidal forests at the edge of southern Florida. Their dense growth of salt-filtering roots provide important habitat for organisms that prefer the slow moving water to ocean current (like sponges!).
Then, driving east into Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, I peered down onto gator backs and heads sliding through the water. The sight helped me imagine Swamplandia!’s main attraction, a woman springing from a high dive into a pool of alligators and swimming its length. This is the magic of book/destination pairing, the author’s description transcends the pages of your book into the environment around you.
And sometimes things get real in a way you didn’t anticipate. Strolling a boardwalk in Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, home of the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America, means walking three feet above alligator habitat. While they (hopefully) can’t crawl up onto the boardwalk, my slightly elevated vantage failed to diminish the frightening quality of a bone-shaking alligator mating bellow (which I was fortunate to hear).
As I consumed the journey that brought Swamplandia!‘s family of characters through personal tragedy and knitted individual struggle into a broader collective narrative, it was fantastic to have the vibrant ecological setting of their world in front of me. While the book is worth reading on its own and southwestern Florida is certainly a visit to make, together the pair provides a memorable inauguration to the culture and beauty of life in the swamp.
Where I stayed: AirBnB Retro-style Hideaway in Bonita Springs, Fla.
Where I explored: Lover’s Key State Park and Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
The book: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell