Vacation from hell becomes one hell of a vacation

I have literally been to hell and back, or was it the Deep South? It was tough to tell by the temperature and the circumstances.

Our eight-day Tour de South featured record-breaking, suffocating heat without air conditioning; a back-breaking canoe trip down a river that almost required a search party; and a heart-breaking hospital stay for my stepfather. Not exactly my idea of a vacation getaway, but memories work in mysterious way.

Despite all the hardships and heat rashes, my wife, daughter and I are finally back home safe and sound. And for the physical, mental and emotional toil the trip took on all of us, it turned out to be an experience we will treasure for a lifetime. Tough times can bring out the best in friendships and family ties.

We should have known something was up when we left for the Florida and our AC went on the fritz. We laughed at an SUV full of people for duct-taping their luggage to the roof (I’ve got to send that one to Foxworthy), then felt the stares of others when we were riding with our windows down in 100-degree heat.

But with the van in the shop, we went to one of my favorite places on the planet, Blackwater River in the Florida Panhandle. We had told our 8-year-old daughter she was finally old enough to join us on the canoe trip to enjoy the ice-cold spring-fed waters and white-sand beaches and scenic beauty of the national forest.

What we didn’t know, at least until after we launched 6 miles upstream, was that the water level was so low that the local outfitters had halted trips down that stretch of river. We spent the day carrying our canoe over sand bars and fallen trees that blocked our path. It was slow-going all day, and almost all night.

As darkness fell with no cell phone service and no clue how close we were to the end, we began to consider a camping trip. We had enough shrimp, beef jerky and water to last until morning and we couldn’t see beyond the nose of the canoe. That’s when an angel (or some guy who happened to be night fishing) came to our rescue.

He gave us his flashlight and told us we were just a couple of turns from the end. Riley bravely sat up front and shined the beacon over the dark waters until we reached her nervous grandparents … and four sheriff deputies who were about to launch a search boat. I’ve never been so happy to reach dry land.

My wife and I celebrated our 17th anniversary, an occasion we have previously spent in the Bahamas, Key West, New Orleans, Chicago, Highlands and the Outer Banks. I took her to the only fancy restaurant in her hometown that turned out to be closed. We celebrated instead at the local bar and grill and by shopping at Wal-Mart (yes, she’s still with me).

As our journey continued north to Alabama and my native Tennessee, things just kept going wrong. My stepfather was rushed to the emergency room for what turned out to be an extended stay and the family reunion was postponed due to the heat. We had planned on seeing old friends and relatives – just not in the hospital.

But as usually happens when you keep the right attitude, good things came from the bad. Daddy Woodsey’s illness allowed me to reconnect with family members I hadn’t seen in three years. I got to play with my “new” 2-year-old nephew Davis, my brothers Lynn and Jamie, my sisters Bev and Stacy and my niece Tara in one day.

And my dearest friend Chuck stepped up to the plate, allowing us to stay, swim and play at his place. His wife, Brooke, and kids Winn and Audrey allowed Riley to hang out with them while we went to the hospital, and we spent a great Fourth of July with them and longtime friends in the pool and shooting off fireworks.

To sweeten the once-sour vacation, we spent the day boating with my brother on Old Hickory Lake on our last day in Nashville and Riley got to use her surfing skills to go wake-boarding, tubing and jet-skiing. We drove all night and stopped in Columbia, where we hit the Riverbanks Zoo all day before making the final leg home.

All things considered, it was a great getaway. All our grand plans got shot down at every turn, so we had to wing it and make it a great experience. Now that Woodsey is recovering, the van is fixed, the physical and emotional scars of the canoe trip have healed and and the worst anniversary date ever are over, we can laugh.
They will become punchlines in the tale of our vacation from hell that will stand as one hell of a vacation.

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