My Dry Tortugas Adventure: An Escape from the Polar Vortex

Not many people can say they’ve been frost bit & sun burnt in one week. In the middle of January 2014 I was afforded this once in a lifetime opportunity. My mission was simple yet long. Drive to Key West, Florida. The Packers just lost in the playoffs to the 49ers and bad weather was coming in a day so I decided to leave early to make it ahead of the storm. However, this proved unsuccessful. As I was driving late at night to avoid Chicago traffic I started seeing signs the highway 65 was closed in Indiana because of an incoming blizzard so I was soon forced to detour west to highway 57 in Illinois. The drive went another hour without a hitch. Then the snow started coming down. It wasn’t bad at all, at least nothing worse than I’ve ever dealt with in Wisconsin. Soon the snow started to pick up with high winds. Then there would be 1-2 foot snow piles in the freeway. I knew I’d have to find a rest stop soon. Instead I found every off ramp buried and every rest stop backed up to the freeway. There was no where to be but the freeway. Traffic was stop and go and I started to see vehicles of the side of the road stuck and sometimes even upsidedown. It was carmageddon. And as soon as the blizzard started it eriely stopped. Then I noticed on the car thermostat that the temperature was dropping drastically. The radio said that wind chills were getting into the negative 50’s & 60’s and the snow on the freeway soon started to turn to ice from all the vehicles packing it down. I was driving under 20 mph and still felt barely in control. All of a sudden my car spun out and was stuck in the middle of the freeway.

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It was 3 am and no tow truck or police car could help me for hours. I went outside to kick the snow out around my car as well as the exhaust so I wouldn’t sufficate on fumes in the car. I saw semis flying past me and was sure one would slide off the ice and hit me. I wrapped a blanket around my neck and put a pillow on the side of my head to brace for impact. I was certain it would happen.

My feet were frozen and I had a third of a tank of gas left to heat my car. At 9 am a cop picked me up and took me to a truck stop. He said I could grab one bag so I grabbed the bag with my expensive camera equipment.

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I slept on a bench and overheard people talking about taking my backpack. I was told my car would be towed that day yet this tow ban would last for days. Instead after a day I decided to take matters into my own hands and hitchhike back my car in the cold. Finally a schizophrenic man with a purple fedora with feathers decorating the inside of his truck picked me up to take me to my car. He nearly wrecked in the process of driving me north. I had a couple containers of anti freeze and was going to do all I could to get my car out and get to my island paradise in the gulf. This still wasn’t working. A DNR cop drove up and started scolding me to which I responded with some strong words of my own as to why I was upset to be left at a truck stop in a city where all motels were booked when I was promised to be towed out that night. He finally calmed down and asked why I didn’t just go to the church shelter… Church shelter, no one told me about a damn church shelter. He smiled and gave me a lift with all my bags.

When I came to Neoga Grace Methodist Church I was greeted with a kindness I’ve never experienced in my life. This small town of people took me in and literally had food, clothes and blankets from their own homes for strangers like me lost in the middle of illinois. I felt blessed I was to be around such a wonderful caring community. Even the local pizza restaurant owner made everyone food for nothing. These people and the town of Neoga embody what Christianity and being an American is all about in my opinion. They will always hold a special place in my heart.

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The couch I slept on at the church.

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The church shelter where I met so many wonderful people.

After a couple nights a local man with a truck towed me out despite the state tow ban. I still saw damage on the drive after.

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This was everywhere. I’m not kidding I thought about 1000 vehicles were stuck or wrecked.

I drove to Florida as swiftly and safely as I could. My first Florida rum runner was delicious in ways I can’t describe.

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Making my way to Key West I was able to finally reach my destination.

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Then it was into my destination, Dry Tortugas National Park.

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Not my picture here btw, but it’s what it looks like overhead if I took a plane. I took a ferry with all my own food, water and gear needed to survive for a week. 150$ for camping a week here? Yes!

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The ferry

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My camp site.

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The fort Jefferson upon arrival.

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All cannon holes…

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Lots of birds around.

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Only way in.

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The moon was so beautiful here.

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An engagement I caught on camera. Don’t worry I got them the picture. They were extatic! I know a good shot when I see it.

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Made it. Phew!

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So beautiful.

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Hermit crabs everywhere!

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Replica fort I built.

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Truly an incredible place.

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What was amazing was not only the peace I had on the island, at least when the tourists didn’t come mid day, but also the swimming in the surrounding area. I saw many fish, multiple barracuda and was able to lay on the beach as long as I wanted. I made friends with fellow campers and national park workers. We made friends with random fisherman who stopped by on their yachts to share the largest jumbo shrimp, grouper or whatever seafood they caught each day.  This trip was incredible and worth every bit of effort to make the journey there. I would do it all again in a heart beat.

The lessons I learned. Kindness to strangers is important and invaluable. Peace is also something that you must seek and find. It may not be easy to find yet if you believe in yourself and your goals, you will arrive at your destination.

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