The Real-Life Adventures of Randy Wayne White
The best-selling author of the Doc Ford series far outdoes his fictional character in pursuit of exciting exploits.
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The first day I meet Randy Wayne White, he’s at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on Captiva, signing copies of Caribbean Rim, his latest novel, for some three hours worth of fans. There are framed poster-size copies of various book jackets throughout, including, of course, Sanibel Flats, his first. If you’ve been around Southwest Florida for any length of time, this is the Randy Wayne White you’re likely familiar with—the prolific, best-selling novelist who sets his mystery and adventure tales here and whose biologist/former special agent protagonist is the namesake behind three successful restaurants. That’s about all I knew about White, too, until I discovered the nonfiction works chronicling the author’s real-world escapades: brushes with sharks and with voodoo; an illicit
visit to a Guatemalan temple; a search for the mythical “Gatorman”; the time he got stabbed in Peru, the time his hotel was blown up in Peru (yes, same trip, and, no, he doesn’t go there anymore).
Sorry, Randy, I’m bypassing Doc. You are the better character.
As White celebrates the release of Caribbean Rim, his 25th Doc Ford novel, published earlier this year, we dig into a biography of Southwest Florida’s most prolific author—and discover a page-turning tale.
I meet up with White again two days later, this time at the home on Sanibel he shares with his wife, songwriter Wendy Webb. The book tour is over, and White is preparing for an extended trip abroad. He takes me around the office, a bright, breezy space carved out of an oversize first-floor garage; through an undeveloped parcel next door; and upstairs to the house where I chat with Wendy.
White, who got his start as a journalist, knows exactly the kinds of details a magazine writer wants to see, and without prompting he points out his well-worn catcher’s mitts; assorted baseball gear that he’ll bring to poor kids in Cuba; the old-fashioned typewriter upon which he wrote Sanibel Flats; the framed poster advertising “Hunter S. Thompson for Sheriff!” for his pal’s 1970 campaign. (On the day Thompson first met the barrel-chested, ruddy-complexioned White, he reportedly gasped, “Jesus Christ, you’re even scarier looking than people say!”) There are myriad fishing poles, a nod to White’s days as a commercial guide; photos taken by Raul Corrales, Fidel Castro’s official photographer; a sign culled from the Nicaraguan ministry. He won’t say how he came to possess it.
I was starting to see just how blurred was the line between real and imagined in the world of Randy Wayne White. Our trek to the adjacent lot cinched it.
For a man who spent much of his life squatting behind home plate, White, surprisingly, moves nimbly through the brush. He stops and nods in the direction of a slender tree growing in a plastic pot.
“Go take a look,” White invites. “What do you notice about that citrus?” The leaves looked lush and green, almost waxy in their sheen. They obscured what I didn’t see at first—2-inch-long thorns sprouting from its branches. I am puzzled. He explains: The orange tree may be a direct descendant of the trees introduced to the New World by Spanish explorers in the 1500s.
“We found it in a place so remote, no one could have been there for hundreds of years,” White says.
I am still puzzled.
“It started as a plot line in a novel,” he says. White’s 2016 book Seduced, the fourth in his Hannah Smith series, focuses on citrus greening, the disease that is currently threatening the state’s signature crop. Hannah ponders whether the rootstock introduced by the Spaniards might be more resilient to greening than the hybridized, genetically altered trees growing throughout commercial groves today. Archaic Spanish citrus originated in Asia; the fly that’s carrying the disease is the Asian citrus psyllid. She searches for it, with a trail of bad guys and much danger in her wake.
White decided to explore the veracity of his plot line. Along with his son and a couple of pals, the writer embarked on a machete-wielding, python-encountering, mosquito-battling trek into the state’s wild interior looking for an age-old citrus.
“And we found it. Unbelievable.”
What’s that saying about art imitating life?