The final test before the summer journey

At the end of May we will load up the family and head out on the road without turning back (okay, we’ll be back by the time school starts.) We’ll be like modern pioneers in a van instead of a covered wagon. But I’m guessing even the early settlers probably took their Conestoga’s out for a few spins to make sure they were prepared. Right? You don’t really hear about city folk in the 1800s keeping a covered wagon in the side yard and taking it out on weekends just for fun… but I bet they did it.

For our final tune-up, we were lucky to snag a campsite in John Pennecamp State Park on Key Largo, before the weather got too hot and buggy, yet was warm enough for swimming. (A razor thin margin, it seems). This quick two-night trip down to the Keys was a test of our agility.

One of the biggest battles we’ll face this summer is keeping the van clean. Our kids still make a mess like toddlers when they eat. Moments after this picture was taken, our daughter spilled her pot containing a sandwich and potato chips. Now I know why all those hipster #vanlifers have wood floors and travel with dogs.

With only a two-night stay, we let the kids play hooky from school and got an early start. We reached Pennecamp after lunch, set up camp and quickly hit Cannon Beach, so named because it has several cannons perched on it. Monica had read that there were sunken cannons just a short swim off the beach and I was sent with my mask and snorkel to investigate. I took a leisurely swim out to a conspicuous buoy and confirmed that yes, indeed, there were several cannons on an outcropping of rock about 5 feet deep. But I was unimpressed until I learned that these weren’t silly playground replicas, but actual cannons – and an anchor – from a 1730s Spanish shipwreck. The wreck was discovered further off shore, and these pieces were moved to Cannon Beach, which is something I can’t imagine would be done today. It was a great little training ground for the kids to get used to the mask and snorkel.

The park is small, and the campground portion is just one little loop. The main attractions here are the many guided snorkeling and diving excursions, and each campsite comes with a hot babe in a bikini. They also rent kayaks and stand-up-paddle boards. 

The next day, Monica decided to go solo and take a snorkeling trip out on the reef. Conditions were perfect, and I’ll admit I was a little envious, but happy she got to have a stress-free outing. We had the beach to ourselves and the water was calm as the kids became little pro snorkelers checking out fish in the shallow rocks. Watching a 5 and 8 year-old manage their own mask and snorkel made their father proud. While they were identifying puffers and baby barracuda, I watched a family with “tween” girls wade in up to their ankles, complain that there were fish in the water, and declare their intentions to go back to their hotel pool. Buh-bye.

After it closes to day visitors, the park gets very dark. We spent some time looking for constellations and wondering what the early astronomers were smoking when they decided that a half-dozen stars made the shape of a giant bear. 

On our prior trip I mentioned that we stumbled upon the boat used in the making of the Bogart/Hepburn film The African Queen. This time we booked an afternoon trip on the 106 year old relic and were lucky to have the boat to ourselves – plus our very handsome guide Brian. Brian makes Humphrey Bogart look like… well, Humphrey Bogart.

Monica went as far as to ask him if he was also a model. I’m going to try that next time we encounter an attractive young woman. I’ll let you know how it goes. Brian was handsome, and also an awesome guide who let the kids steer the African Queen and had great stories about the history of the boat and being a handsome fellow in Key West.

Once we were done with our trip with handsome Brian, we headed down to Robbie’s Marina at the westernmost end of Islamorada where one of the attractions is feeding small fish to schools of tarpon. Sounded like fun. We were shocked to find dozens of the fish, as large as seven feet long, eagerly awaiting their feeding. To add to the fun, aggressive pelicans crowded the dock, waiting for an errant fish. We heeded staff who advised that adults hold the fish buckets because the pelicans have learned that the small humans are easy to steal from. Our daughter paid the ultimate price, getting bit by a pelican as she went to toss a fish in the water. Her wound was superficial, but she’ll never look at a pelican the same way.

Sun and saltwater are a recipe for afternoon comas. Handsome Brian was a really great tour guide. The African Queen started its life as a Ugandan river boat and is not a swift vessel. Powered by a 100 year old steam engine (converted from wood-burning to diesel), it putters through the canals, makes a brief loop in the ocean, and heads back. If you want excitement, rent a jet ski (and do it in Panama City). Several charter fishing boats call Robbie’s Marina home. We watched this guy filet more than 30 fish in less than 10 minutes. 

I want to finish by acknowledging that this trip took place just after the two-year anniversary of when I suffered a Type-A aortic dissection and emergency open-heart surgery. To be able to do this is a gift. My condition requires pacing and patience. I simply can’t hurry or pack in too much. Monica likes to tell the story of how I wouldn’t run to catch a plane we almost missed at La Guardia. “I’m not dying at La Guardia Airport,” I said.

The positive side of this is that I’m so grateful to have the chance to share these experiences with my family that I don’t let myself wish for anything else. These short trips have given me a good idea of how to pace our trip so I don’t overdo it this summer. We leave in a month.

If you go: 

  1. Go snorkeling. There are few places it’s as easy and convenient as this.
  2. The campground is small and tidy. The restrooms and showers seemed new (as with every other Florida State Park we’ve visited recently.)
  3. I wouldn’t tent-camp in the Keys in the summer. It’s hot and buggy. The no-see-ums were already vicious in April.
  4. The only food offered in the “concession” shop is bags of potato chips, so whether you’re just taking a day-trip, or camping, bring what you plan to eat. There are grocery and convenience stores just outside the park entrance.
  5. The African Queen also offers a “dinner cruise” where they run you to a restaurant and take you back when you’re done. Way more interesting than Uber.

Never miss a post by clicking the FOLLOW button on the right! Do it now! We also have a public Facebook page. Be sure to “like” it for more pics that don’t make the blog, and post updates. Instagram is linked to this page. If you don’t see it, you’re not looking hard enough. 

“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 and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at Monica is a freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and connoisseur of 70s rock lyrics.

3 thoughts on “The final test before the summer journey

  1. Woohoo! You go, guys! Wishing you all the most wonderous journey! Looking forward to reading about it. Safe travels! 😄


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