In the last exciting episode of Don’t Make Me Turn This Van Around, we added a second van to the family. Have we jumped the shark? Um… neither of these vans are jumping anything.
With the new (to us) Westfalia in the fleet, Monica wasted no time in setting up a dress rehearsal. Less than 24 hours after the AC was up and running, we hit the road for the long Easter weekend to Key West. (What better way to test a 24 year old engine than to drive it 6 hours to an isolated string of islands?)
To get ready for the trip I spent three days with an Armor All bottle in one hand, and my upholstery cleaner in the other. Even with more than two decades of use, the van was still cleaner than a rental car after a few days with our family. In three minutes my kids could break a cup holder that has been around since before the Internet.
While I shined things up, I determined that the propane burner for the fridge won’t light, so we can only run the fridge when we’re plugged in – for now. It’ll run off the battery, but the old thing requires the power of a nuclear reactor to run for very long. It’s the only significant thing that I’ve uncovered that doesn’t work. This repair is in my wheelhouse, but I struggled to remove the fridge and decided against rupturing an aneurysm so that we could keep juice cold. My main task was to make sure we’d be comfortable sleeping in the balmy Keys – and that meant lots of fans. 12 volt fans, battery operated fans, USB fans, house fans, we had all the bases covered.
We hit the road and the Westy ran beautifully, and we froze with the revived AC system. It isn’t the swiftest vehicle in the world – but it’s strangely fun to drive. The 70 MPH highway speed sign was more of goal than a limit. But she got up to 75 when I needed her to. Our Volkswagen is relatively modern compared to all the restored, air-cooled buses you see millennials taking to Coachella. But it’s still 24 years old – like a millennial!
Something tells me that our kids won’t be smiling after about 2,000 miles on that little back seat. We’re getting the middle row this summer.
As we departed, the forecast called for another of those “Cyclone Bomb” storms that the Weather Channel invented last year to help ratings. The first Cyclone Bomb came across the east coast on our first trip to the Keys last year. Monica came up with a brilliant idea. With the big storm expected to arrive in the evening, we decided to stop at John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo (where we camped once last year) and make lunch and do a little snorkeling off their beach. It was a good thing we did, because it was our best chance to enjoy the Keys’ main attraction: the water.
This was the first time the Westy’s features revealed their true glory. One of the memories that stands out from my own childhood road trips was pulling off the highway and having a picnic (because I’m fairly certain my dad spent less money on vacation than we did living at home). Of course, as a kid I was begging my dad to stop at the weird A&W Root Beer restaurant whose billboards lined the highway. But as I look back on it, I love that we got out and ate baloney sandwiches in wide open spaces. Last summer with our regular van, everything was packed in bins. In order to stop and make lunch, I had to find a picnic table, unpack the stove (must have coffee), the bin of pots and pans, the bin of dishes, the bin of food, the cooler and then start cooking or making sandwiches. It was a pain in the ass, but we did it.
In the Westy, I popped the top up and I was in the kitchen, ready to make a salad or cook a meal. Once lunch was ready, we clipped in the table, swiveled the front seat around, and had a place to eat with the breeze blowing through the open doors. We did this twice on the trip, and it was so much fun (healthier and cheaper too). When we were in St. Augustine in March I saw a guy lounging in his Westy in the beach parking lot – salt air flowing through unzipped pop-top windows – and I was green with envy. Now, I’m that guy. (I also assumed that he knew how to fix an old Volkswagen. I’m not that guy.)
After lunch we grabbed our snorkeling gear. Visibility was terrible from the choppy conditions, but we saw a few fish, some jellyfish the size of basketballs, and a couple of cannons from a 1715 Spanish wreck that the state park placed 100 yards out during an era before archaeologists could tell them not to.
The Westy proves to be an excellent command center. Monica looks like she’s in a James Bond movie.
As we pulled in to Key West, the sky was darkening. We had 2 nights booked at Boyd’s Campground, on Stock Island, a stones throw over a bridge from Key West. We had a waterfront site, which was pleasant. I have to say, my experience with private campgrounds has never been great. They typically shoehorn as many RVs in as they can, making them seem more like parking lots. Boyd’s has a nice layout. Their tent spaces were only slightly bigger than a parking space – but I guess it’s the price camping in the keys. Our space was in a row of small RV setups, and the water view was gorgeous. Land in the Keys is precious, so I expect a private business to accommodate as many guests as they can. Boyd’s balances quantity with quality, unlike the KOA in South Dakota that was packed like a Tallahassee tailgate party. You don’t really go to Key West to camp as much as you camp in Key West as a way to stay there.
It’s called a “cyclone bomb” because “typical cold front” doesn’t stoke fear in cable television viewers.
We set up just before the storm blew in. We brought a cheap WalMart tent to serve as a storage space for our chairs, and snorkeling gear. I also put the port-a-potty that came with the van in there, as a little emergency outhouse. What happened next, was unfortunate.
Before I finished staking the corners of the tent down, the storm arrived. Wind filled the tent, lifting one side. This tipped the well-used – but never used by us – port-a-potty, which contained a small amount of water and a purple chemical tablet. I entered the tent to find the floor covered in purple toilet water. It smelled like a freshly clean restroom, which is great – when you’re in a freshly cleaned restroom – but not what I want out of a tent. I mopped up the mess with a towel before 3 inches of rain dumped on the island. We went to dinner.
That is NOT our tent on the left. This belonged to some other unfortunate soul. Ours didn’t flip – partially because it was weighted down by a portable toilet. The tent, which was lousy in rain to begin with, went in the trash.
We got stuck in a Thai restaurant like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in “Key Largo” (isn’t that an old song lyric?). Our daughter lost her first tooth as rain poured outside (and inside due to a roof still leaking from Irma). We were all smiles at bedtime, using a toothbrush to hold a fan in place.
Things got a little hairy when we went to bed. First – there’s no way two adults can sleep in the top of a Westy, and we’re not wide people (although my elbow span is great). This wasn’t a big surprise. I’d brought a piece of wood to turn the front seat into a nice bed for our daughter. The problem was, we forgot her pillow. We gave her two throw-pillows that came with the van, but hadn’t felt the cleansing tough of my Bisel upholstery cleaner. Shortly after “lights out” the poor girl was sniffling and sneezing uncontrollably. She’s allergic to some dogs – including the one belonging to the previous owners. Monica fashioned a pillow out of a packing cube and a t-shirt, but not before the allergies were triggered.
My son and I slept fairly soundly up top, but not much sleep was achieved in the lower half of the vehicle. Monica had two long marathon training runs to complete – so at 3am, in a moment of desperation, she booked us a hotel for the second night of our trip. Once she had the reservation, she promptly fell asleep.
Boyd’s Campground is a good place to sleep in a camper. I wouldn’t necessarily call it “camping.” The staff were super gracious in releasing us from our second night (they had the space filled before we left.) We didn’t get to try the pool, the showers or the wifi. We’ll definitely be back.
By morning, Monica was second-guessing the hotel. Unable to cancel the reservation (which was expensive), we looked for ways to extend our trip for a third night and booked a waterfront site at Curry Hammock State Park on just outside of Marathon.
Our next stop was someplace we’d never been. Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Florida’s coast is dotted with old forts, and Zachary Taylor is interesting because it was modernized up until World War I when the guns were removed and sent to help the fight in Europe. The location was used as a radar installation as recently as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Fort Zachary Taylor gives you an idea of what the island was like before it became a mecca for cruise ships. I cooked up a lunch of ham, rice and corn.
When Monica books a hotel at 3am, she isn’t trying to save money. There are no last minute deals in Key West on Easter weekend, so she settled on the Margaritaville Resort overlooking Mallory Square, presumably because there were no mega-yachts available. It was kind of funny turning the Westy over to a valet. You know you’re paying a lot for your room when bottled water and popsicles are free.
Jimmy Buffett lyrics are visible when his music isn’t audible. We relaxed by the pool where I realized that my head looks very fat at that angle. Monica put in a 12 mile run between first and second breakfast.
We made the requisite Key West stroll. We ate some cuban food and our son was picked to participate in the famous cat circus. The French cat wrangler’s show is a Key West tradition – but the show isn’t so much cats doing tricks as it is a man acting insane for money. Friends, this is what happens when you spend too much time in the sun.
On our way out of Key West we stopped at Higgs Beach where we got a sense of local life – like these folks offloading a full sized grill for a beach picnic, and this van turned rolling home. We also checked out the Key West Garden Club and the Key West Wildlife Center where rescued birds are rehabilitated (both are free to visit).
We weren’t ready for the trip to be over, and we wanted to put the Westy to use for another night. So we made out way down to Curry Hammock State Park in the Middle Keys. We had a perfect waterfront site that someone had cancelled at the last minute. The beach was lovely and the facilities brand new – rebuilt after Irma. When the sun began to set, we quickly learned why someone might have abandoned their plans to stay there. The biting midges, aka “no-see-ums” were in feast mode. The family retreated to the Westy while I grilled some delicious chicken.
Over the course of the night we learned that with 4 people in the vehicle, we need a couple of stabilizer jacks to reduce the rocking. The nice thing was that as the sun rose, we pulled the top down and hit the road without any packing to do.
Overall, I’m excited about the Westy because of it’s versatility. My medical condition means that I have to be mindful of strain and the Westy takes some of the labor out of the day-to-day travel and makes for a much tidier vehicle to travel in. It doesn’t roar down the highway like a 747 like the Dodge, but a lot of the work is done when you arrive.
There’s a gas station at the edge of Alligator Alley that sells one of Monica’s favorite European candies – in case you’re wondering how to spend $35 on convenience store “snacks.”
“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.