Our 2019 Spring Break trip was a highly anticipated opportunity to put everything we learned on the road last summer to the test. We would pack lighter and smarter. We would camp with finesse. We’d make it look easy – like those pretty people on Instagram who live in a utopia with no dirty laundry or extra shoes or potato chip bags lurking in the corners. (Seriously, where is all their crap?)
The itinerary was beautiful in its simplicity. Three nights at Anastasia State Park, steps from the Atlantic Ocean, and just across the bridge from St. Augustine’s historic old city. I used campsitephotos.com to book the best looking spot available. We had a couple of other friends with kids who happened to be making the journey as well. We’d follow three nights of camping with three nights in Fernandina Beach at the home of Monica’s late grandmother.
The biggest lesson from our trip last summer was that we brought WAY too much stuff. I mean, we had a bin full of books when we left, and then bought enough to fill a library along the way. Prior to this trip, it was my goal that each family member would pack their clothes in a backpack that they could carry. This almost happened, except that Monica packed herself and Anna into a small(ish) rolling suitcase. It didn’t cause any space issues, but it also didn’t give me a sense of how much our six year-old can carry. (Monica correctly guessed that amount was zero pounds.)
I carefully culled our camping gear down into three small bins. Those bins, along with our tent, the chairs, sleeping bags, folding table and stove, fit nicely into the back of the van. This left the entire front section of the van available for the small amount of clothes we needed.
And our food.
And 6 pillows.
And beach toys.
And a clothes drying rack.
And our rollup mattress.
And… a lamp. Putting the the “light” in packing light. (We barely had room left for all my puns.)
I teased Monica relentlessly all summer for the lamp we carried for 9,000 miles, but never used (only to discover once we got home that it didn’t even work). But the sites at Anastasia Island have electricity, so a new lamp came along – not some fancy LED from REI – but the decorative lamp from the table next to our couch.
Once we were loaded up, it didn’t look much better than when we set out for our two-month summer trip. But, the reality was that it was a big improvement. Gone was the large food bin, which took up too much space regardless of how much it contained. Gone was the extra bin of shoes. Gone was 125 lbs in literature.
The main difference in the volume of stuff is the height of the pile.
Arriving at the park, Monica scoped out her running course while I set up the tent. Within an hour, we were comfortable. The campsites at Anastasia Island State Park vary greatly in size and shape. I managed to select one that could accommodate the 17 feet of van and 8+ feet of tent we needed in order to dock the van to the tent. (One of our friends, who booked his site late, almost had to put his tent over the campfire ring.) An added bonus was the playground 100 feet away. From the sound of things, our kids met a rival gang and engaged in an elementary school version of West Side Story.
The lamp – in action! (I admit, it casts a pleasant light.)
Once we were settled, I decided that we packed enough food to get through our first couple of meals without stopping at the grocery store. I was right – we had enough to last days without starving. But I did not pack the main ingredient that Monica and our son subsist on – salt.
I can enjoy something that isn’t salted, but I can’t even eat something that they’ve salted. We made it through dinner with some smoked sausage and boxed Zatarains Red Beans and Rice which comes packed with its own sodium. But things got dicey in the morning when I made grits. (Note: Grits are a Southern dish of corn meal – pretty light on flavor until you add copious amounts of fatty food.) I dumped in plenty of extra cheese to make up for the lack of salt – but that wasn’t enough. So then I poured in a bunch of bacon grease and – my friends – it was AMAZING. But they still wouldn’t eat it. I’m sad for their ruined tongues.
Like the early settlers, I used bacon grease to liven up my grits. My companions thought that the comforts of home should include a lamp and a salt shaker. After breakfast they went on a hike to find a salt lick.
We had absolutely perfect weather. The days were warm and sunny enough to enjoy the beach and the nights were cool enough that the mosquitos were nonexistent. Monica made several long training runs along the park’s miles of uninhabited beach. The great thing about camping there is that if it rains, St. Augustine is packed with things to do – without the $159 Disney ticket price.
Empty beaches aren’t that hard to find in Florida, even during Spring Break.
I would visit St. Augustine a thousand times before spending another day at Disney. Osprey Tacos had some of the best tacos I’ve had east of the Mississippi. And the Alligator Farm is a great throwback to the old roadside attractions. The Castillo de San Marcos is run by the National Park Service and has great rangers, volunteers, and re-enactors. The only disappointment was that an old friend of mine who works there had the day off.
After three glorious nights, we pulled up stakes (ha, literally) and headed an hour (or so) north to Fernandina Beach. Monica was born in Fernandina Beach and her grandmother lived to the age of 94 there. The simple little house, where she raised 8 children as a widow, is still in the family and offered us a free place to stay. The weather continued to be perfect as we split time between exploring another old Florida town, fort, and beach. We mixed in a couple of rounds of mini-golf and we had a chance to visit with some family.
We stayed on A1A on the trip to Amelia Island, even taking a ferry to avoid I-95. And we figured out where Sasquatch likes to relax.
Fort Clinch State Park is another must-see. The US fort was construction when the Civil War broke out. The Confederates quickly abandoned the town, which spent the war under Union occupation. That didn’t stop the park from populating the fort with Confederates. We met a stone-faced rebel re-enactor who answered some questions. We crossed his path again in town – where it appeared he didn’t break character in his time off.
At the Amelia Island History Museum we found an impressive set of exhibits giving the island’s history from Native Americans to the present. This included an amusing depiction of popular music in which we were reminded of poodle skirts and Nirvana. In fairness, this small section of the museum was a high school history project put together by kids who see Elvis and Kurt Cobain as contemporaries. By night, we had intense games of Uno in which our daughter’s unpredictable play is a diabolical weapon.
The biggest success from this trip is unseen. Not once did we want to drop the kids at a YMCA camp. Sure, the 6 year-old set a modern record for tattle-taling. But overall, we managed to plan a trip that avoided the pressure-cooker situations that occasionally bogged us down over the summer. It helps that the kids are older and can be trusted on their own – and that Monica had 10 mile training runs as free therapy. We came home with renewed confidence that we’ll all survive the summer together.
“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at email@example.com. Monica is a marathoner, baker, freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and prolific bath taker.