So it’s Christmas 1993. I just finished celebrating the holiday with my family and I’m wondering what I’ll do for the remaining time I have off before school resumes in a week. Then it hit me! Somewhere warm, I mean really warm. I’ll pack some swim shorts and jump into my red Jeep and drive to southern Florida. And to add to the adventure, I’ll also bring my 100 pound German Shepherd named Blitz along with me for the ride.
As we were making our way across the southern border of Illinois and heading into Kentucky, the Jeep started running into some mechanical failures. My suspicions were confirmed when the car simply stopped running. I pulled over and coasted along the shoulder until the vehicle came to a stop. No car phone and clueless of how to remedy the problem, I put on the hazard signals, prayed, sat on the rear bumper and patiently waited for help to arrive.
Within a couple minutes a young man pulled over driving a pick-up truck. He exited his car and approached me wearing an Army coat (pictured above). I told him the problem and asked if he know anything about automotive mechanics. He replied that he had just returned from the war in Bosnia where he repaired military vehicles. Thank you, Lord! He took a look and detected the problem was a broken water pump. He made some temporary repairs, filled the car with more water and followed me to the closest gas station. The temperature gauge was redlining much of the way, but thankfully we made it there before the car overheated.
This small town in Kentucky on the cold Sunday night was deserted, however we did find one service station that was still open. They didn’t repair cars, but they knew of an off-duty mechanic in town that did. A call was made and the gentleman offered to repair my Jeep if I would meet him at his house. When I arrived I pulled into his personal garage and he took it from there. Thankfully he was a very kind man (along with his son), making for great conversation over the next few hours and offering a very reasonable fee for the parts and his labor. Once he finished I took a picture (below – you can also see Blitz posing for the picture from within the car), expressed my gratitude and continued on my journey south.
After a night of sleeping in the Jeep (that wasn’t very comfortable), I arrived in Florida the next day. I pulled over at a rest stop just across the border and noticed a small alligator in a pond. The kid in the picture went a little closer than I was comfortable pursuing, but my main objective was keeping my very curious German Shepherd at a clear distance. After returning to the car, I continued south on Interstate 75 and spent the night in Naples on the Gulf Coast. What a blessing it was to have recently departed from frigid Chicago and walk outside and see Palm trees in the morning!
From Naples I drove across the state on Route 41 passing through Big Cyprus National Preserve and skirting the top of Everglades National Park. This was a great road that provided an awesome understanding of life in the deep Everglades. There was everything from native fruit stands to air boat rides to alligator wrestling to bird watching. I pulled over frequently to take a closer inspection of the area. One such time I came across this big monster (below) not too far from the side of the road.
Biscayne Bay National Park and The Florida Keys
After crossing the state I intersected with Highway 1 and took it south directly into the Florida Keys. As you can see from the map below, the Florida Keys are strip of Islands (keys) curving southwest off the coast of Miami. The drive from Miami to Key West (the furthest point accessible by road) will take you a little over 3 hours. The climate is tropical and the beautiful Caribbean environment is filled with dive shops, seafood restaurants, mangrove swamps, endless beaches, blue water, pirate tales and calypso music.
Since the place really swells during the winter and spring school breaks, I was thankful to find a campsite relatively early in my hunt. I stayed in Islamorada, a larger town approaching the middle of the Keys. I pitched my tent (I’ve had this orange beauty since elementary school – can’t you tell!), tied up Blitz and gave him a big bucket of water (pictured below).
Since I had the dog with me I was somewhat limited on activities over the next couple of days. There was a small sunken boat just off the shoreline of my campground. On occasions I would keep Blitz in the car parked nearby, grab my mask and explore the area. Much of our time however was spent at a unoccupied beach I found not too far from where we were staying (pictured below). Most of the day was spend chilling out and tanning this white northern skin. Every once in a while I would get up and run Blitz in the shallow water by tossing his tennis ball as far and as long as my arm would permit (pictured on the far right below).
Near the end of my stay, I took the drive into Key West. Key West is the most populated city in the Keys and is located at the end of the line so to speak. Blitz and I went for a walk around town. I stopped off at the “Southernmost Point Marker” and had one of the locals take my picture. Not only is this the most southern point of the continental United States (only 90 miles from Cuba), but it also memorializes the thousands of lives that are lost at sea as Cuban refugees try to flee to the shores of America (as you can see from the picture of the plaque below). I also found it interesting that there was another inscription on another plaque celebrating our country’s popularity saying, “God Bless America.” Someone etched out the word, “God,” so now it read, “Bless America.” Just what we want, the blessings but without the God part. Okay, enough preaching!
As I left Key West late in the evening my Jeep once again broke down. After I pulled over, a man was once again nice enough to stop and give me a hand. It was late so once I was up and running I began looking for a campground. Everything was booked. Finally, I found a place that let me pitch my tent on the corner (it wasn’t even an official site) of a small patch of grass. It was nothing fancy, but it did the job as you can see from the picture below.
From here I spend some time in Key Largo and then departed for the 2-day trip back to Chicago. More car problems along the way, especially going uphill in the mountains, but I thankfully did make it home and home safely after a great vacation.