Camping in the Hot Box
Camping is in my blood, but sometimes that blood doesn’t travel all the way to my brain. This summer we finally had enough vacation time saved up at work to take a short summer trip. Since we were on a tight budget, as we usually are, I thought, “why not camp?” I used to camp every month when I was in Boy Scouts as a kid and when my big kids were really little, we even took a couple of family trips, but that’s been a long time. This year I sat down and began to day dream on Google maps, which usually gets me into trouble. I started looking up and down the Florida coast for a nice, beachy, summery place to go. Somewhere we could camp at night and enjoy a semi-tourist vacation during the day. The zoom button finally got the better of me and I ended up cruising along the Florida Keys. Everything was so blue and beautiful. “Look, there are even state parks on some of these islands. You can camp right on the beach!” And so, in front of my computer in my air-conditioned house while drinking a cold beer, I made reservation at Bahia Honda State Park.
The camp site was inexpensive and the pictures looked incredible. The site was close to the bathrooms, within sight-line of the beach, and only a short drive from Key West. It was perfect. We read some reviews on the place which mainly consisted of complaints about the bugs and heat mixed with some 5-star compliments of its natural beauty. We chalked up all of the complaints to non-Florida residents who must not be used to camping in the sunshine state and moved on. “It can’t be that hot so close to the beach”, I thought. After borrowing some gear from a friend, we packed up the van and one Sunday morning in September at 4:00 am we drove 7 hours through the everglades and down the Keys to our state park. The trip was fantastic and the kids loved the sights. We took our time and stopped at several small parks along the way. By the time we got to our camp site it was late afternoon.
When we pulled into the site we noticed that we were right next to the bathrooms; the composting toilet, ventilated-in-our-direction, make-your-nose-hairs-fall-out, bathrooms. The smell was fierce. We shook it off and refused to let it ruin our trip. Carrying on, we started pitching our big 8-man tent with ten screen windows and ventilated roof. By the time we finished I was soaked with sweat. September is still summer in Florida and the temp was a steady 90+. We seemed to be in a thicket of brush and trees that had defied physics and turned into a black hole for cool air.
After a nice dinner cooked over white-hot coals and another gallon of sweat, we all got showers in the bathhouse/gas chambers and settled in for the night. The tent was great, the air mattress was comfortable enough, and there weren’t even many bugs, but the heat was something I can’t even begin to describe. Imagine the hottest place you've ever been. Then crawl inside a plastic garbage bag and take a nap. It was a little hotter than that. As I lay there hour after hour literally dripping sweat from every pore I tried to just relax and listen to the sounds of the waves over the bathroom exhaust fan. The small battery-powered camp fan that hung from the top of the tent only offered one second of relief every 30.
After four or five hours of baking and basting I began to hallucinate. I thought about taking my sleeping bag out and lying on top of the picnic table or in one of the camp chairs. I bet I can get on top of the van. Would the crabs get into my sleeping bag if I slept on the beach? I started thinking about the first pioneers that came to Florida. How could they stand this? They wore wool long pants to bed and slept in cabins. What about the Indians? Weren’t there Indians in this part of Florida? How could they survive this? After several more hours of this waking torture I even tried to think positive. At least now I know I could survive if I ever went to prison and was thrown into one of those metal hot boxes. This has to be great for my skin. Some people pay for a sweat treatment like this. It’ll be much better when the sun comes up. Tomorrow night will be better. Oh my god. That’s right. We’re here for two nights. Finally after 8 hours of the worst sleep/heat agony I could imagine, for some strange reason it began to cool off for the one hour before the sun rose. It was just enough to fade off.
That morning we all piled out of the tent as soon as it was light. My wife and I didn’t say much to each other even after we got showers, ate breakfast, and piled in the van for our day in Key West. As we left the campground I couldn’t stop thinking about the same two words over and over again in my head, “tomorrow night.” In a split second I saw a sign on the side of the road that read “Tourist Info Center: Discount Hotels” and slammed on my breaks, squealing the tires as we pulled into the small parking lot. It cost us all of our souvenir and fancy dinner money, but that night was the greatest night of sleep I have had in 36 years in that cheap, crappy, wonderful hotel room in Key West. The most uplifting and amazing thing about the entire experience? The kids never complained once and still talk about their awesome camping trip.
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