We are planning our first real, solo family vacation in about twelve years. Our last trip anywhere was about three years ago when we went for our last family reunion with my father’s extended family in Pennsylvania. As much as we enjoyed that trip, there was an element of sadness to it as we knew that my great aunt was hosting her last big family event. We had fun, but we were pretty much at the mercy of the schedules of other people. This time it will be just us and whatever we want to do. It is exciting to contemplate. And my children are SO very excited! They are counting down the days–four more Sundays until we leave!
As my older girls and I were talking about it, we remembered our last trip to Florida. The year was 2002, and my wonderful husband and our oldest son stayed home. My husband had to work, our son had Boy Scout camp, and they were both going on the local mission trip our family attends every year. Our oldest daughters were participating in Teen Missions teams–our seven year old for nine days at Peanut Camp, followed by about a week of waiting until our oldest daughter, then thirteen, went to the Pre-teen camp. My grand plan was to camp out for the duration of our younger daughter’s sojourn in Merritt Island, and then we would all head south to Miami where we would pick up my mother, who my children call Omie, and then we would all head down to the Keys where we would spend a week camping. We would drop our oldest daughter off at Teen Missions before heading home.
It sounded like a wonderful plan. Later I would look back at those few weeks and remember Proverbs 16:9 ” A man’s heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.” The Lord had a LOT to show me over those few weeks, the least of which being that pride truly does go before the fall, and that He gives grace to the humble but resists the proud.
We started our trip by purchasing a new-t0-us vehicle–one we really did need for our growing family–a Chevy Suburban. (We kept that vehicle until earlier this year–it was hard to let it go.) I got to our campground the evening before I had to sign my daughter in to Teen Missions. We set up our tent, covered it with a huge tarp (I knew that Merritt Island in June was nothing but rain!), set up the dining canopy and our portable kitchen, blew up the air beds, and got us all fed and tucked in for the night. The next morning, in the rain, I delivered my seven year old to camp and took the other three girls back to the campground….where we discovered FIRE ANTS. Oh my. That was NOT in my plan. So we consulted the campground director and moved our entire operation to a different pad–one that had been inhabited all winter by a snowbird couple who had invested in ant control measures.
The second day we went to the pier where we enjoyed ice cream, and upon arriving back at our vehicle, discovered that it would not start. Six hundred miles from home, I was stranded. I ended up getting a ride to get a rental car, called a tow truck (it was almost closing time for everyone, too!), and got all our essential stuff out of our suburban. The girls and I went back to the campground. And then the rains came down. And down. And down. Six inches of rain landed in our dish pan through the screen sides of the dining canopy every single day. One night we had a violent storm, and one of the dads of a teammate to our daughter came over and told us that we needed to camp out with his wife and children in their camper. We gratefully did that night.
We survived that week–after multiple trips to the local big-box hardware store to get tarps, fire ant killer, stakes for the tarps, more string, and yet more tarps. We were flooded every single night. Mosquitoes the size of small birds threatened to carry us away each evening. The campground pool turned green and couldn’t be used. We finally got our vehicle back after about $200 worth of work. All seemed good–at least as good as it could be after a really wet nine days!
We retrieved our girl and headed south, thinking that surely the rough times were behind us. We arrived in Miami, and I made the executive decision to stay at a hotel instead of setting up camp for one night. My mother flew into the airport, and we set off on our great adventure into the Keys. I had failed to make my reservations far enough in advance to be able to stay in one campground, so we knew that we would have three nights in one and four nights in the other. As we drove onto the first causeway, my check engine light came on and my transmission began giving me problems.
We arrived at our first campground and set up our camp. The tent was a little battered, but we were good to go. We knew what to do and we had it down. The next day we drove to Key West and had a delightful day sight-seeing. It was a beautiful day. On our way home, we stopped at the other campground just to see where we would be camping. They had our reserved spot next to a water treatment plant on a little island without a working bathroom. Seriously? SIX females and not a working bathroom? I called our other campground to see if there was any way we could stay there. The sweet woman understood our plight and said that she couldn’t reserve a spot, but that one of the pull-in spots had just become available, and if we could be there in an hour, we could have it. We were delighted and hurried back to move our camp.
And then it happened. The tropical depression moved in. We saw the clouds on the horizon as we pulled into the campground. All the camp sites were right on the beach, so the horizon really was not all that far away. We didn’t collapse both our tents or even removed our beds –we simply thought we would drag them down the road five spots and re-anchor them. We started moving the kitchen supplies first: the table, the coleman stove, the lanterns, the coolers, the kitchen boxes and dish pans. By the time we arrived back at our first campsite, the wind had picked up and our dining tent had snagged a tree. The zipper would never work again. The rain began to fall. We optimistically moved our three-roomed tent and dining canopy. And then the wind really started blowing. It took us three hours to get our tent set back up–it was raining, the wind was gusting, and our tent would NOT cooperate. I had lost a good bit of weight in the months preceding the trip, and all my clothes were a little big–and my pants would not stay up–they were just too wet. So I removed them. Here I was, wearing my shirt and underwear, on the beach, in a severe storm, attempting to set up a tent at night with my mother and daughter. It was as hilarious as it sounds.
While our oldest daughter was trying to help with the tent, my other three girls were busy in the safety of the car. The older two had blown up all the floats and beach toys, while the youngest was eating an entire bag of raisins. We finally got everyone in the tent and settled for the night, despite cries of, “Mommy, water is running under my mattress” and “Mommy, my blanky is wet.” My mother and I collapsed onto my air mattress and laughed and laughed. She called my father, and he informed her that, according the Weather Channel, we were in a tropical depression and that it looked like it would be around for a while. We slept fitfully, waking as, through the night, we heard the motor homes around us start and leave. You know you are in bad camping conditions when the motor homes begin leaving! My mother dubbed it Hurricane Snap, a fitting name for our rained-out adventure.
The next morning we re-evaluated our situation. It was raining. We had sand, seaweed, water and creatures in our tent. The bathhouse was ankle-deep in water, sand and crabs, and our coleman stove was not starting. My mother called my father again, and we made the decision to drive over to Tampa where we would camp out in a Super 8 for the remainder of our trip.
Our last stop in the Florida Keys was at the Laundry-matic where we spent $70 in quarters washing and drying all of our clothing, linens and sleeping bags. We drove over to Tampa where our adventure was a little tamer. As we drove over the last causeway leaving the Keys, the check engine light went off and our transmission stopped rumbling.
One of the girls’ favorite memories was Putt-Putt golf with my mother in Tampa. My mother is a very competitive game player, and she is very strict about following the rules. Our youngest at that time was four (she is thirteen now) and she always marched to the beat of her own drummer. Following rules was not her strong suit. My girls remembered with much laughter how my poor mother, who just wanted to play a nice fair round of Putt-Putt, was so exasperated with my youngest daughter’s refusal to understand that she was only allowed so many tries per hole. Her score was not a good one that day…which was okay because she was four and really didn’t care that there was even a score.
When we eventually got back home to Georgia and unloaded the car, we discovered we had transported some Florida wildlife as well. We had tree frogs in the back of the Suburban. Our poor tents never were the same again. We have not tried to camp on the beach again since then.
Incidentally, our last family vacation twelve years ago was also a camping trip to Florida. That one was over Labor Day weekend. The highlight of that trip, if I recall correctly, was the presence of bold raccoons that were larger than our small girls. Remembering both epic camping trips, we opted to rent a house for our vacation this year. We’re hoping a house in August will be a completely different type of vacation–one that we actually enjoy without all the work of a tent and worries about wildlife or weather. Mainly, I just hope that my children create great memories–memories over which they will laugh ten years from now.
This time in our lives is fleeting. Indeed, we may plan our way, but I know that the Lord has a plan for our lives, and even for our vacation; sometimes He rightly usurps our plans. We are grateful for this opportunity, even if we run into giant raccoons or a tropical depression. At least this time we will be in something sturdier than a tent!