The Best Worst Vacation

In my life I have been lucky to have the opportunity to travel. I’ve eaten fried catfish and okra in Arkansas and barrel-rolled in an open-cockpit stunt plane over the Russian River Valley. I’ve watched parrotfish glide silently through shipwrecks in the Caribbean Sea and hiked to Machu Picchu in time for the sunrise.

My adventures have been exciting, delicious, unique. But in my heart, none of them will ever come close to the vacations my family took when I was growing up.

Our annual family trip was a pilgrimage to Islamorada, a cozy resort town in the middle of the Florida Keys. The family piled into our Aerostar for the 7-plus hour trip downstate, past the tourist attractions and creepy highway rest stops, until we finally reached crossed the Seven Mile Bridge from the mainland into the Keys.

We had a relaxed vacation routine that included changing directly from pajamas into bathing suits, snorkeling or fishing, and eating snacks and cold cuts. Some afternoons we’d rest, flipping through books on fish to find what we’d spotted on the reef that day. Other times the family would stroll down to the nearby Tiki Bar resort for some afternoon libations for the grown-ups, cheese fries and lemonades for the kids, listening to whatever band was covering Jimmy Buffett.

It was idyllic and unremarkable. We made this trip year after year, and we took the every-day sunshine and routine for granted.


Then one year, it rained.

Not the usual Florida afternoon downpour followed by suffocating humidity and 90 degree temperatures, but all-day rain showers and unusally cool weather. It came down in buckets as my three siblings and I pouted by the fogged windows.

My resourceful mother produced Mad Libs and secret stashes of treats. We wrote scatalogical stories, played board games, napped and snacked and laughed. In an era before tablet computers or even the Internet, we filled the day together. The weather will get better, we wished out loud, getting ready for bed as the unrelenting rain pelted the roof.

But it didn’t. For days and days it rained.

Cabin fever set in. The sibling conflicts increased. My parents joined us at the window, watching the deluge with mounting despair. We invented games of fishing for Goldfish crackers on the kitchen table and made costumes of bags and foil. We watched it rain and rain.

At the end of the week, we risked a soggy, desparate field trip to Key West. We got mediocre burgers at Margaritaville, toured Hemingway’s home and spotted a few six-toed cats. We posed by Southernmost Point, which is just 90 miles from Cuba. That night we went to a fancy seafood restaurant with tablecloths and thick leather-bound menus. We ate conch fritters and laughed at this crazy vacation, the irony of The Sunshine State title. I’m sure someone spilled something.

At some point the rain did stop, which felt miraculous. Pictures of the trip show a tanned and smiling group, our hair frizzy and bleached from the sun and salt. My sisters are no longer little girls but still seem little to me; my brother and I are on the edge of teenager-hood. My parents look so very young; younger than I am at this writing.

As we loaded up the van and drove away on our last day, I had a sense of finality. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last year that all six of us went to the Keys together. I was headed to high school, focused on band and college aspirations and summer jobs. Vacations would become logistically more difficult to manage, and were eventually relegated to faded photos in the albums my mother arranged.

I took for granted that we would always be together.

If my travels have taught me anything, it’s that the people on a journey make it most worthwhile, not the destination. I’d give anything to go back to that crowded room and play Yahtzee with my family while the rain pounds on the roof.

This summer, my Mom, my siblings, and our families will get together for the first complete family vacation in years. We are all parents now and it will fall to us to entertain and protect our brood. I am excited to slip into that casual vacation routine of bathing suits and cheese fries, flip flops and tan lines.

We will sit around in hotel chairs and talk about those days in the Keys, of our Dad and how much we miss him, of how big our kids are getting and how life rushes by. I hope we will watch the sunset and take lots of pictures that we can look at someday and remember our time together with a smile.

And I hope it doesn’t rain.