I caught the travel bug pretty early in life. My dad was really big on family vacations. Since we were relatively poor and lived in Florida, most of those vacations involved road trips. There’s lots to see and do in here in the gun-shaped state and not all of them involve mouse ears.
Every summer, my parents would pack up the car (or van, depending on the year) and whisk us away to someplace hot and sunny with at least one attraction that offered the coveted reward of a wax souvenir, made on demand in an injection mold machine. We stayed in roadside motels, near the highway or a large body of water, and ate our way through every diner and mom & pop ethnic restaurant in the state.
I’ve seen the mermaids at Weeki Watchi Springs and floated on a blow up raft down the Itchnatukee River. I’ve fed marshmallows to alligators at Homosassa Springs (from a safe distance) and been chased out of the Gulf of Mexico by clouds of dead fish who perished in the red tide. AND of course, I’ve been to Disney World more times than I can remember.
But my favorite summer vacation of all was a two week stay in a rental cabin, on a bay off Matlachee Island over on the west coast of Florida. Normally, I hate the Gulf Coast – the water is gross (even when the fish aren’t dead), brown with tannin and algae, warm like bathwater, and the bottom is littered with sharp rocks. That particular year, though, we didn’t hit the beach.
The bay where we were staying wasn’t really something I’d swim in either. It was deep and dark and my mom spent many an hour sitting on the dock fishing for these huge fish with pointy sword beaks. I think they were tarpon, I’m not a fish expert but I think that’s what my mom called them. All I knew is they were big and looked scary and I DID NOT want to swim with them.
The little cabin where we stayed only had one bedroom, so I slept on a day bed in the living room under a window where the breeze off the bay woke me up every morning. My mom always had something against air conditioning so open windows were just a fact of life for me. There was a little drug store within walking distance, so once a day my dad and I would hike over the bridge between Matlachee and Little Pine Island to get groceries and he would buy me Ritchie Rich, Archie and Brun Hilda comics. I still remember how that breeze felt when it danced through the curtains, the way the mini comics smelled, and the scent of boiling blue crabs.
Oye the crabs! Mom convinced Dad to buy the crab trap shortly after we arrived. He baited the cage with meat and dropped it just off the little dock. Each day my mom collected the spiny little beasts and cooked them up with special seasoning packets. I refused to eat them because they stank and they looked like little more than bugs to me, but my parents loved them.
One evening, when we were all on the dock, dad pulled up the trap to check the bait and there was a huge blue crab hanging on the outside of the cage trying to reach through the wire for the last bit of raw chicken. The startled crab jumped off and lunged at my father. His first thrust with one red-tipped claw drew blood. That crab clipped my dad right between the big toe and the second; hanging on for a moment before my father shook him off.
My mom and I were paralyzed with laughter as the thing chased my dad all over the dock and finally backed him into the water – Dad fell in, not the crab. The weird little creature stalked to the edge of the dock raising his claws in victory as Dad stood sputtering in water up to his neck. That Spartan of crabs did not end up in the pot.
Another day, in a closet of the cabin, we found a metal detector that I immediately claimed. After spending hours walking up and down the grounds finding nothing but half buried fishing lures, I decided that the metal detector could talk to dolphins. Every evening at sunset, we had seen pods of dolphin playing in the deep water, so that night as the sky turned orange, I sat on the deck turning the knob that made the metal detector whine up and down the scale, trying to summon the dolphins closer. It didn’t work, but in my child’s imagination it could have. I figured they were scared of the giant blue crab too, so they didn’t swim up to say hi.
It was simple and relaxing, a really great vacation. During those two weeks, we made little day trips to see what attractions were on offer in the area and strangely enough, the most memorable tour for me was this place that harvested Orange Blossom Honey, the best tasting honey made naturally in the US. We got to watch them smoke the bees, pull screens covered in honey comb out of the hives and they even had a hive forming behind glass to show the queen bee and her little baby bees at the center. Mmmm, there was taste testing, too. We left the honey farm with several jars of the beautiful amber serum and tubs of honey butter for our morning toast. My mother even tried out the honey butter on the blue crabs, but that still couldn’t tempt me.
In my life, I’ve traveled all over the south and the eastern seaboard. I’ve been to the Bahama’s twice, London once and even took my son to the Grand Canyon for our own family vacation. I loved it all and have plenty of stories from the road to tell, but I will never forget the two weeks when I was nine or ten, that were so peaceful even the dolphins were dancing.
Thanks Dad ❤