The Maiden Voyage

Camping is nature’s way of promoting the motel business. —Dave Barry

Before striking out on our big summer adventure, it is necessary to ready the troops for battle… errr… prepare the family for the fun that is to come! My wife and I have been together for more than a dozen years and in that time we’ve camped a grand total of ONE night together. By camping, I mean in a tent on the ground. I will not count the 10 or 12 nights we spent in an RV at Disney. You can probably catch malaria in my urban backyard, but Disney has somehow rid its small Central Florida Republic of mosquitos.

As a child, camping was my family’s only form of vacation. I have cloudy memories of a Holiday Inn with a big indoor pool, which for many years stood in my mind as an example of world class travel.  Until my siblings moved out, all we did was camp in a pop-up trailer, and I loved every minute of it. After they moved out? We were flying all over the country staying in the finest accommodations that Days Inn had to offer. (Worth noting that after I moved out, my CPA father upgraded to Hampton Inn.)

Monica talks about her six week road trip across the country with a German boyfriend as if they were Lewis & Clark. But I’ll bet Sacajawea never burned a hole in her sleeping bag with hot stones from the campfire. Despite the pile of gear stashed in our garage, we never got into the habit of camping and after all of my surgeries, I assumed I would never camp again. Fortunately, the kids are getting more self sufficient, and the heaviest camp item (our tent at 53 lbs.) can separate into three much lighter parts that my doctors will allow me to lift.

So, to kick off 2018, we scheduled ourselves a five-night trip to the Florida Keys. A land of perpetual sun, more Caribbean than American, best visited in the winter. We somehow managed to land a last-minute reservation in Bahia Honda State Park, a place that is fully booked all year. We also had the honor of arriving on the day after the park reopened after Hurricane Irma wiped out everything that wasn’t on stilts.

For those keeping score: new van, new tent, and two kids who’ve never camped. What could possibly go wrong?

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We removed the captains chairs, leaving plenty of room for gear, while also putting the kids at a distance at which their voices cannot be heard over the van’s V8.

With suitcases packed full of shorts and bikinis we headed for the always beautiful southernmost point of the United States. Our first stop was Everglades City so we could split up the drive and arrive in the Keys before dark. Everglades City is a backwater town situated off the Tamiami Trail, in the heart of the Florida swamp. It was once a famous sport fishing destination. Today, its main claim to fame might be that its remote location made for a wonderful port of entry for millions of dollars worth of marijuana in the 1980s. The party was short-lived when local fisherman started flashing their cash in the form of speedboats, new trucks and homes. Florida is full of unusual little towns, and this is one of the strangest.

“The Cyclone Bomb”

As we entered the swamp, a new phrase entered our lexicon: The Cyclone Bomb. In January of 2018, an enormous winter storm, caused by a jet stream from Canada feeding off a low pressure system in the Atlantic, made it colder in Florida than it was in a Alaska. Our only access to news during this time was the radio DJ. At first I thought he was calling it Cyclone “Bob”, which makes just as much sense as “bomb.” Cyclone Bomb sounds like a storm that has picked up guns and munitions stockpiled in the midwest during the Obama years and dumped them on the eastern seaboard. I was relieved when our President tweeted that the storm signaled the end of climate change, so we can dispense with all this not-polluting business, and go back to the good ol’ days of burning rivers and acid rain.

Rolling in to Everglades City we began to see the debris piles of Hurricane Irma. But the famous Rod & Gun Club was open for guests. We couldn’t miss the chance to stay where Teddy Roosevelt used to shoot pool and skin gators, in a time when Republicans started National Parks instead of selling them. (Oh yeah, I just hotlinked that.) Once we checked in, we meandered down to the even more remote town of Chokoloskee where we visited Ted Smallwood’s store and museum – once a crossroads for trappers, bootleggers and killers – and today is half store, half collection of relics of life on our country’s last true frontier. I told my son the story of how early settlers would hunt ibises (the common skinny native waterfowl) for food. They called the ibis “Chokoloskee Chicken.” Cute, right?

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The Rod and Gun Club hasn’t changed much in 100 years. They don’t take credit cards. The old place was immaculate, with dark wood that gleamed in antique light.

The Rod and Gun Club’s menu highlights the nearest food supplier: whatever comes out of the water. But my son ordered his usual – chicken fingers and french fries. And, as always, he ate all of the fries, and studied the chicken carefully, which if not properly shaped and fried to the correct hue of golden brown, he will not eat. After finishing a plate of shrimp fried perfectly in a light batter, I tasted his chicken — only to discover that it was fried fresh grouper. It had to be the best tasting kids menu I’ve ever encountered.

Me: “Hey buddy, this is grouper, not chicken.”

My son, straight faced: “Oh. I thought maybe they used Chokoloskee Chicken.”

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The Ted Smallwood Store marks the end of civilization. Don’t worry, we don’t go on the highway with the kids on the running board.

The next morning we jumped back on Tamiami Trail, which is the old two-lane road cut through the swamp almost 100 years ago.  There isn’t much between Naples and Miami, but it’s hard not to stop at the Smallest US Post Office — which is not just a novelty, as we witnessed the person in the booth-sized office, handing over a crate of mail to the mail carrier.

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Seriously, there isn’t a building for miles, but it looks like someone still managed to hit this one with their car.

We also stopped to check out the alligators at the Big Cypress Swamp Oasis Visitor Center (don’t miss this!) before hanging a right on Krome Avenue, which on a map looks like a shortcut, but is actually a two-line nightmare that leaves you no path of escape. A highway safety sign announces the number of annual fatalities (who presumably starve in traffic) as you embark on a maddening stop-and-go lurch through Homestead.

But you didn’t come here to read about traffic jams, so I’ll skip to the part where we arrive in the battered Keys. Mounds of hurricane debris — consisting of crumbled buildings, refrigerators, couches, washers, and mattresses — stretched for miles throughout the Keys. Some areas had been cleared, but most were still waiting. There wasn’t much that wasn’t affected by Irma.

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On the way to Bahia Honda, we spotted a man on the “Seven Mile Bridge” pushing a shopping cart laden with his worldly possessions. We later ran into him here, 15 miles further east, rummaging through hurricane debris at the entrance to a hiking trail. Another gentleman had interrupted his treasure hunt with a hot take-out meal. We added a few dollars to the cause and later dubbed him “Hector the Collector” after a poem by Shel Silverstein, whose former home in Key West was badly damaged by the storm.

Did I mention that we packed for warm weather? We thought we might go snorkeling! The cold northerly wind brought low 60s and high 50s with drizzling rain. Now, I’ve camped on top of a barren mountain in 19 degrees in North Carolina, but there’s just something about being cold in Florida. It’s like a mental-wind-chill when you know that the geography should offer better conditions.

The camp site was beautiful. Our spectacular new tent connects to the back of the van, creating a sort of van-tent yurt. The kids sleep on the bench in the van that folds flat into a bed, and Monica and I can stretch out in the spacious five-man tent (five men who like getting cozy).

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I’ve seen smaller apartments.

The weather was not great for the first 36 hours. The off-and-on rain scuttled any plans for outdoor activities, so we headed to Key West, where our van might have been considered multifamily housing. We ran the kids through museums and aquariums and caught a bite at Ricky’s Blue Heaven. The kids loved every minute of it, and while I don’t want to state the obvious, or sound like a grumpy old man – Key West hasn’t been “what it used to be” in a long time. It has lost what little authenticity it had left when we last visited a decade ago. As many as five cruise ships offload passengers every day, while corporate hotels and retail have sanitized the place that once inspired writers, artists and musicians. Bad backward-baseball-cap country music seeped onto sidewalks, each Luke-Blake-Jake song indistinguishable from the next. I want the locals to have a week where the island is closed to the rest of us, just so they can have some peace in the paradise they work two and three jobs to enjoy. But I digress — all my son could think of was pirates and chickens on the loose.

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Our little girl fell asleep on the trolley. Our son loved Key West, proving that marketing to drunk people and children is a recipe for tourism success.

The crummy weather had us considering packing up a day early. And then… sunshine. It was still 60º with a 20 mph wind, but the sun offered its radiant approval. We spent the next two days finding tucked-away beaches and hiking remarkably diverse trails. In Marathon we found an excellent no-frills seafood shop where I overindulged on conch fritters, shrimp tacos and cuban coffee. No crowds.

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Standing on the old Bahia Honda bridge, the state park marina and campground behind us. No, I’m not a park ranger, I just dress like one.

The trip went from “successful test-run” to “let’s come back for more.” Frankly, kids are better at roughing it than adults. Our daughter is capable of experiencing great discomfort when it serves her, but she was walking around barefoot in the gravel and begging to go swimming.

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I think Monica is wearing every article of clothing that she packed.

Our son thrives in nature — he’ll pick up just about anything he finds, and has never once complained while we’re on an outdoor excursion. I have accepted I’m becoming my father, as I enjoy the camp rituals of making morning breakfast (coffee, bacon, grits, eggs) and keeping things in order. Just my pace. My wife may enjoy nice hotels, but she’s more than willing to rough it — although the chill had her accepting breakfast in bed.

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She wakes up looking like this.

On our final night, we decided to pack up the tent and sleep in the van so we could hit the road before dawn and beat the traffic getting out of the Keys. I’m 6’3″. The width of the inside floor of our van is… not. I folded myself in half. We were definitely warmer, but I’ve already got a strategy for next time we try to “bunk” up in the van.

We took back roads getting home. I’ve lived in Florida for most of three decades, but I’ve never seen Lake Okeechobee. I don’t even think I’ve seen a decent picture of it. Due to deadly floods in the 1920s, a man-made levee does not make it easy to glimpse, but in Moorehaven — a town of 1,800 people once optimistically dubbed “Little Chicago” —  we found a park where we were able to look beyond a canal and some cattails and see the lake that Wikipedia says locals call “The Big O” (I hope that’s not true). This is Florida, so I’m suspicious about this huge lake without a condominium or time-share scheme in sight. Since when is farming — sugar in this case — more profitable than cheating Yankees?

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Climb to the top of a levee and look carefully. Beyond the canal, behold Lake Okeechobee, which is the Miccosukee word for “Lake hidden by the Army Corps of Engineers.”

The drive home reminded us that there are still stretches of Florida that even cattle ranchers only use sparingly and the largest mammals around are not humans, but panthers and bears.

The trip was such an unqualified success that my wife booked us a weekend back in the Keys in the spring (bathing suits!) and a week in North Florida for spring break. So keep checking back for updates or sign up for email notifications on the right (you won’t get spammed, just notices of new posts.)

“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Check out Jon’s periodic column, “So How’s That New Book Coming?” at Creative Loafing Tampa. His 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him here. Monica is a freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide and connoisseur of 70s rock lyrics.  

 


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