Driving From Florida to Wisconsin With Two Infant Children

Walter Rhein


This year on our annual trip to Peru I decided to drive from Wisconsin to Florida rather than fly. The fact that I was making this trip with my two daughters who are three years and 10 months old respectively, led many people to declare me absolutely crazy.  But hey, I like to drive and I figured that the kids were going to have to get used to doing long road trips sooner or later.

My wife arranged for us to leave our car with a friend in Tampa, and we made it with no problems.  The way back, however, was a slightly different story.

I first knew we were going to run into problems when my wife mentioned she had to be back in WI on the 21st.  Our flight was scheduled to arrive in Miami on the 19th at 5 PM, so driving all the way back to arrive in WI on the 21st at 8 AM for a scheduled work training session was a tight timeline. Still…I thought we had a shot, until a never ending series of ridiculous circumstances befell us.  Let me give you the rundown.

July 19th, 5 AM: Wake up and get the kids mobilized for our 9 AM flight

6 AM: Get to the airport, the usual idiotic battles with minimum wage security guards who are just intelligent enough to impose their authority long enough to make you miss your flight…other than this, they serve no purpose.

7-8 AM: Get through customs

9 AM: Get in line for flight, which is delayed…but finally takes off.  We were flying LAN, which is the only way to go since they serve you wine and let you pick your own movie which is then shown in the video screen that is embedded in the head rest of the seat in front of you.  This was the last relaxing leg of the trip.

5 PM: Go through typically irritating immigrations in the US.  I was standing in the “residents” line because everyone in my family is a resident and I was holding all of our passports along with my wife’s green card.  However, my wife is a Peruvian citizen, so her passport is brown.  One of the good old “eagle eyed” immigrations officers came over and said, “Whose is the brown passport?” all furious like she was going to make me go into the other line.  “My wife’s,” I replied, “here’s her green card.” At this the woman just stomped away not issuing an apology for her attitude. Just to be safe, I slipped my wife’s Peruvian passport into my pocket because I thought I wouldn’t need it, but when I got up to the immigrations counter the officer there screamed, “well…where’s your wife’s passport?”  You can’t win with these people.  But we got through that.

6 PM: At this point I had to rent a car to get from Miami to Tampa.  Yes, I checked air fare from Tampa to Lima and it was about $400 more per person at the time I was buying, so it made a lot of sense to just rent a car for $60 and make the drive.  I went through Avis, who promptly forced me to wait in line for 1.5 hours before giving me a vehicle.  Nice job.  They even sent me a survey form later asking how great their service was…consider that question answered.

11:30 PM: Arrive in Tampa and return the car. They told me they were going to charge a late fee because I’d indicated I’d only have the car until 11, but I told them they were 1.5 hours late in giving it to me so they let it slide.  That was good, since people were starting to get tired at this point.

July 20th, Midnight: I needed to get a taxi from Tampa to our friend’s house where our car was parked. Although a taxi had taken us from her house to the train station on our outward trip, the guy running the taxis at the Tampa airport refused to give us one since we didn’t have a car seat for the children. Ok…Ok…I kind of see his point, but as dangerous as it is to let kids drive around in cars without car seats, I think it’s also kind of dangerous to refuse to give a family a ride 10 miles and leave them stranded in the airport parking lot at midnight because they don’t have car seats.  This is one of those cases of excessive legislation.  They’re my kids, if we want to drive without a car seat that should be my choice.  I eventually convince the taxi coordinator to ask if one of his taxi drivers would be willing to take us without a car seat, and of course a guy showed up instantly. He had tinted windows–I gave him a nice tip, but the whole thing was ridiculous.

1 AM: Arrive at our friend’s house, get the keys to the car.  Approaching the car I hit the button to unlock the doors. Normally this makes the tail lights flash…but not in this case. That caused my heart to sink.  I unlocked the door manually only to discover that the car was going, “ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk.”  You see, Subaru has (or had) this wonderful security feature that made the flashers go on if you locked the door without using the key fob or something (this feature has gone off a couple times and I can never figure out why). So the car had been sitting there with the flashers on for 10 days.  Battery dead.

1:30 AM: I asked my wife’s friend if she had jumper cables, but she was afraid we’d blow up her car and mine if we attempted that. Luckily there was an all night Wal-Mart just down the road so we headed down there. At this point, my oldest daughter was starting to get tired, and she kept saying, “dad is sad that the car is sick.” Although when we mentioned jumper cables, she started jumping up and down so that was cute.

2 AM: Arrive at the all night Wal-Mart.  Needless to say, the crew that they have working Wal-Mart at 2 AM isn’t their “A” team. Guys were following brooms and mops around with listless expressions.  I went to automotive and started talking to a guy who I’m sure couldn’t program a VCR, but I was confident he could change a battery. I had him walk me through the process (because I’d never done it before) then I proceeded to buy every tool I needed plus a headlamp. This lead to discussions like “do you think Subaru has metric or old English bolts?”  We decided on metric, but I also bought a crescent wrench set just to be safe.

2:30 AM: Back at the car, change the battery, the car STARTS! Hooray. We say goodnight to my wife’s friend, but as I go to sit down in the driver’s seat, I notice a ginormous cockroach is doing laps around the headrest.  Acting quickly…and trying not to draw my wife’s attention to the insect, I grabbed a piece of paper and lunged at the beast.  Unfortunately my wife saw it, “what are you….OH MY GOD IT’S A GIANT COCKROACH…THE CAR IS INFECTED WITH COCKROACHES!!!”  I quickly squished the thing but I didn’t have enough paper between my finger and the crunchy exoskeleton and I could feel every leg and wing popping beneath my fingers.  I tossed the dead body into the night and tried to relax my wife, “naw…I’m sure that was the only one…let’s go…let’s go.”

2:40 AM: Break off, put the car into reverse, hit the gas….NOTHING.  Car doesn’t move.  What the heck?  Put it into first…NOTHING. What the heck?  I put the car in neutral and got out, then I ran around it to make sure there wasn’t a boot on the wheel or something.  Nope.  Head scratcher. Eventually I just got back in the car, put it into reverse and floored it.  The car roared, and something broke free with a crack and a bellow of burning smoke.  It was as if the whole car had rusted into a solid block of metal as it had sat in the humid Florida weather awaiting our return. We rolled down the highway for a bit, but the car was going “crunch….hisss….crunch…hisss….crunch…”  At that point I asked my wife if she wanted to stay with her friend, but she said we should just go to a hotel–we’d inconvenienced her friend enough for the night.  So we headed down the road, concerned that our bucket of bolts wouldn’t make it six more yards much less the 20 hours it would take to get to WI, but after a little while it started sounding better, so we decided to go for it.

12-8 PM: Settled into a routine. The body responds after a few initial hours of tiredness and driving becomes just like any other endurance event. You start eating chocolate and drinking coffee and you hit a zone where your eyes can’t be closed. I was just starting to feel really good, when my older daughter decided she’d had enough.  “I don’t want to sleep in the car again,” she said, “I want to sleep in a ‘Finding Nemo’ bed.” That last part was kind of weird because she doesn’t have a Finding Nemo bed, nor have I ever seen one.  Still, I took pity on her because I thought I’d been pushing the whole family kind of hard. We stopped and got a hotel on the border of Illinois and Kentucky, assuming we weren’t going to make it back in time for my wife’s 8AM training, but that maybe we’d get there by the training that started at Noon.  We slept.

July 21st, 3 AM: Up and out the door again, back on the road. It’s fun to watch the sunrise when you’re driving.

8 AM: All the traffic comes to a dead halt on the highway.  There’s an accident up ahead. We wait for an hour and a half watching police and other emergency vehicles go speeding by.  At this point I realize there’s no way we’re getting there for my wife’s 12 training.  As I am waiting, a guy comes wandering over to chat, he is the ex owner of Dave the Math Dog.  He’d been on David Letterman with this dog which could do mathematics.  “How did you teach him math?” I asked.  “We didn’t, he just knew” the guy responded.  Apparently at the end of his life, the dog could do math in 32 different languages and solve any complex problem, algebra, etc., that the audience could give him. The ex owner of Dave the Math Dog said they used to give out a white board to the audience and let them devise the questions, their only direction was to make the answer less than 25 because anything bigger than that “took too long to paw.”

9:30 AM: Drove by the wreckage of the semi that had crossed the median and then flipped over in the oncoming lane.  It occurred to me that if we’d left a half hour earlier, we might have collided with this vehicle.

12:00 PM: Another big accident, this time near the Wisconsin Dells. A bus had collided with a tree and they were airlifting people out of there. Another 1.5 hour delay.

4:00 PM: Arrive home at Chippewa Falls, tears of joy were shed.

So…yeah, that trip became a little more epic than I’d intended, but hey, that’s good practice.  Things don’t always go as planned, and if it hadn’t been for the various delays beyond our control we probably would have pulled in nicely in the evening of the 20th.  I have to say, my family held up remarkably well.  Nobody went into panic mode (which doesn’t help anyway) or hysteria (which certainly doesn’t help…and even makes things worse), and we eventually made it home fine.

Honestly, I think this is why you do trips like this. You face a bit of adversity and you develop your response mechanisms for getting through it safely.  Sure, it’s a bit inconvenient, but maybe you’ll gain instincts that will guide you through a life threatening emergency you encounter later in life.

So, for those of you who think I was being irresponsible for attempting a trip like this, I guess I’ll have to counter that you are the irresponsible ones for failing to construct and take advantage of the learning opportunities that adventures provide.  I’d do it again, in a heartbeat!  But maybe next time, I’ll keep us on a looser schedule so we can get our sleep (I’m not at my best after having been awake 39 straight hours).

My girls are troopers, I’ll travel with them anywhere. I’m looking forward to those upcoming adventures.

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Walter Rhein is an author with Perseid Press. He also does a weekly column for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Chippewa Falls, WI

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