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All in the family: Iowa farmer's adventures in Florida

Structure can be a good thing sometimes, but I'm not into it as much as some people. I like to do things as freewheeling as possible sometimes without all the timetable and deadline stuff. Perhaps that is because I didn't spend as much time in the dairy industry as other members of my family did. We used to have a guy come to the farm about once a month when we milked. He would measure the amount of milk each cow would give and he'd take a sample of it. Those samples would then be analyzed and we would get a report on the components of the milk from each cow. That helped in identifying which cows were performing the best and which ones maybe needed to take a trip to town and investigate a career change. The milk tester guy would also make notes as he went from cow to cow as The Chairman Emeritus was milking. He mentioned after a few months that he had noticed something.  The Chairman wasn't just a detail guy. Nope, he was a bit more intense than that.  "You put the milker on Cow #38 at exactly the same minute every month now for the past ____ months in a row!" the tester remarked.  

The Chairman saw that as a big compliment and a testament to his military precision in doing his job with such dedication. I saw it as a reflection of how monotonous the dairy industry can be. I like stuff to change from time to time. The Chairman likes things to be the same.

Going on vacation to Florida with my folks, my wife and her mother this past winter was something I think we all enjoyed tremendously. I know I did. Part of the appeal was being able to see a lot of different things and different country than what we are used to in the Midwest. Sherill and I had driven by the Clewiston, Florida, area on a previous trip and saw a bunch of activity at the local sugar cane processing plant and related farms. We made another trip a year later and took a tour of the whole enterprise. It was great to see what goes on in the daily life of other people, so I decided to offer up that opportunity to my traveling companions on our recent trip. Technically, it was farm-related stuff, so I figured both my mother and The Chairman would like to see what goes on in that part of agriculture. They have always been big fans of behind-the-scenes type tours.  

This one did not disappoint, but it did bring up some scheduling issues. We had already spent a couple of days in Orlando at Disney World. Our next adventure took us to Homestead, Florida, where we would make the short jaunt to the Keys and get a feel for that area. Sherill and her mom are big fans of the water, so they decided they would like to do some deep-sea fishing. Me? Thanks, but I'll stay on land instead of putting myself through another test of my seasickness tolerance level. My guess was that my decision would follow a bit of a genetic trend. Sure enough, there were two people who wanted to go deep-sea fishing and three who wanted to hit the road and learn about sugar.  

That's where my life turned into a story problem once again. We were in Homestead, Florida at the time. That's pretty much at the southern base of Florida, right before you get to the Keys. The sugar tour was a good two hours north of there in Clewiston.  Our departure from Florida and return to the Midwest would take place in Fort Myers, on the west coast of Florida about two or three hours to the northwest of where we were. This wasn't Iowa. There wouldn't be nice paved or gravel roads every mile, and they sure wouldn't be straight and square. Instead, there would be a large mass known as The Florida Everglades to our north. That meant that we couldn't really zip straight from one place to another in short order.  

To complicate matters even more, we'd have the added benefit of tour schedules. The sugar tour in Clewiston started promptly at 9:45 a.m. each day. We'd have to leave Homestead by 7:30 or so to get there on time. Sherill and her mom would need to hit the road for fishing at 6:00 in order to be at their destination for a 7:00 departure an hour to the south. There was no way I could get the two of them from Homestead to Islamorada and then get myself back to Homestead in time to get the rest of my party to Clewiston by 9:45. Sure, there was a way it could be done, but that would require everyone to be ready at an appointed time and it would require all traffic situations for me to work absolutely perfectly.  

Fat chance.

We decided to try something different. A rental car outlet in Homestead would not only rent us a vehicle on short notice (because I don't like structure and planning ahead if it can be avoided, so I didn't rent it ahead of time), but they'd also send someone to the hotel to pick Sherill up to retrieve it. Bing, bang, boom, the rest of us could hit the road for Clewiston and get to the sugar tour in a timely fashion without this turning into the newest edition of Smokey & The Bandit.  

The trip to Clewiston turned out great. We got to see a few things that Sherill and I had missed on our previous trip, and we still made it back to Homestead in decent time. That left us with yet another option for the next day. We could go to the Keys and see a few things we missed the first time, or we could head northeast and see some sights along the coast before heading back across the state to get to Fort Myers for our return flight the next afternoon. As it turned out, the verdict was to make our way toward Lion Country Safari near West Palm Beach. That would send us back through Clewiston on our return trip to Fort Myers.  

I looked at several different hotel options for that evening in Fort Myers before we left our hotel in Homestead. There were several different options available, all at pretty reasonable rates and all within decent driving distance to the airport the next day. Nothing really struck me as a must-have, so I decided to play it by ear and make our decision when we got closer to Fort Myers.  

Strangely enough, someone in the group (who was not ME) decided that the evening meal needed to include some dessert. When I say "include," what I really mean is "consist of as the main and only course." Had it been me who suggested such a high-carb-based menu, I think there would have been a great deal of Home Ec 101 recited to me. Things like meat and vegetables would have played a starring role, not the dessert.  

We got to a restaurant that sure looked like it would fit the bill for our needs and desires -- Cracker Barrel. Everyone got what they wanted. I did a little work on my phone and started checking out all of my hotel options. Unfortunately, my list of limitless options had changed dramatically. I kept getting pages telling me that my request for a room was not able to be fulfilled. Perhaps it was a phone signal problem and I wasn't getting a decent Internet connection. I'd head to the car and try my other option, the one I like to call Mobile Google. That would be my sister, Jean. She does a lot of searching for me when I'm driving and can't do all of the screen work, because she's usually in front of a screen herself.  

Turns out it wasn't just my phone that was the problem. Jean was also not getting any answers for me in short order. Another call was placed to yet another sister. She soon discovered that various windows for hotel options on her computer were closing and popping up with messages to the effect of "No rooms are available."  

This was a Wednesday night in early March.  That's not exactly a tourist hotspot time of year, not in my mind, anyway.  

I found another option and called an 800 number for Travelocity for assistance. It was pretty obvious to me that the guy on the other end of the line was not in the United States, even though he wanted me to believe his name actually was Steve and the weather was great.

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Steve would help me find a room.  He'd get one set up for me and when it was time to finish the process and give him my credit card info, his computer would tell him that the transaction could not be processed and the reservation could not be made. I hadn't even given him my card yet, so I knew it wasn't a matter of my card being declined. We hadn't had that much fun on vacation so far!  

Steve kept going through the motions of finding me a room at several different hotels in the area. They were all booked solid by the time we got to the final step in the process.  Steve had no idea what was going on, even though I was supposed to believe he was practically next door in Springfield or Mayberry.  

After being on the phone with Steve for close to 45 minutes, my cell phone battery was getting low. Steve was making no progress for me, but he wanted me to believe he was. I finally gave up and hung up on him after he wouldn't take a polite hint that his usefulness to me had expired. We were parked next to a hotel, so I went over there to find out what my options were. The clerk behind the desk told me they were full for the night. When I asked if there were any other options nearby, I was told there weren't. All of their competitors were also full.  

That's when I switched to guy mode. My blood pressure was about to ring the bell and I was in a town where I'd never been before and had no apparent chance of successfully getting myself and my party housed for the night. Solution?  Get on the road and drive.  

"We're hopelessly lost, but we're making dang good time!" That was my theory. Sitting around asking questions and directions had gotten us nowhere. The answer had to be out there on the open road somewhere.  

We got on I-75 and headed south. A mile or two into our journey, I saw a sign for a variety of businesses at the next exit. One was a hotel. It was almost next to I-75. Granted, that may not be the quietest place to sleep, but it would be a place to sleep, and those seemed to be in short supply.  

The rest of my group remained in the minivan while I went in to the front desk. The clerk behind the desk looked like the diploma from his college degree was still dripping with wet ink. He had not yet mastered the phoniness that comes with dealing with the public when the public is tired and borderline hostile. I asked if he had any rooms available that night and he gave me a straight answer without checking his computer screen or going through any motions.

"Nope, we're full," he said very matter-of-factly.  

Okay, I’m not surprised, I guess. Quick question: Why are everyone and their brother packed to the rafters tonight? What the heck is going on in Fort Myers that so many places filled up so quickly?  

That question was handled as sort of a team effort. The kid in the hotel uniform was on the other side of the counter. To my right was another young guy of about the same age. He was definitely not in a hotel uniform. Not even close. He had a hat on that was about 45 degrees from being square with his head. He was not what you'd call business casual, either. He had sort of a sleeveless number on and his arms were covered with tattoos that went high enough they'd probably show up in his mug shot… on the incredibly off chance that such a photo would ever exist. It was not the kind of ensemble that made me think he was a hotel guest just hanging out at the front desk, but he jumped into the conversation without hesitation.  

"Well, it's spring training for the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers," he declared.  

Hmm.  Okay, so I guess most of the New England area showed up tonight on short notice and is staying for a few days, right? That's why all the hotel rooms disappeared in a matter of hours.  

Then the hotel staffer chimed in. "The airlines canceled a bunch of flights out of Fort Myers because of weather this afternoon, too. They just called all the hotels and took all the rooms that were left, because they knew their passengers weren't going to be leaving.  That's why the rooms went so fast."  

Okay, that makes more sense than the sudden groundswell of support for the Red Sox. So what are my options, guys?  

"Well, there's really nothing here in Fort Myers, but you could go to Miami, I guess," said the hotel staffer. "That's about three hours or so.”  

Interesting. Drive back to more or less where I just came from in order to turn around and do it all again the next day. Kind of like being in Des Moines for a flight out the next day, trying to get a hotel room, and being told, "Hey, we're full, but there's a Super 8 in Cresco where you could stay!"                    


Okay, what about anything in between here and there?  How about Naples?

They both looked at one another with an "I'm-not-gonna-tell-him. You-tell-him" look and then back at me.  "Well, I mean, yeah, you can find a place, but it's gonna be at least three times what you'd pay here. Best guess, you're going to be $500 to maybe $700 a night there . . . per room," The Human Canvas replied.  

Well then.  Looks like my decision to skip the structure and organization of reservations and not book the room that morning could end up costing us an extra grand or two before this trip ends. A guy could buy a lot of pairs of pants with seats to fly by for that kind of money!   

"Tell ya what," The Human Canvas said. "There's a couple other options. I'd look at Fort Myers Beach."

Perhaps it was my preexisting tattoo-presence-and-sleeve-absence bias, but my first thought was that this guy could very well be talking about the beach itself! This wasn't exactly the concierge desk at The Four Seasons where we were at the moment, so sleeping on the beach may actually be his suggestion. Although, he did sound quite articulate, come to think of it. This could be the kind of guy who would be able to go out to the van and explain to The Chairman how we'd be sleeping on the beach that night, and how it would be quite enjoyable. With a crisp shirt, a collar high enough to hide his ink and the loss of his hat, this guy could almost be slick enough to sell insurance.  

He then proceeded to rattle off the names of a couple different hotels at Fort Myers Beach. Without making any notes on the actual hotel names he'd mentioned, I thanked him kindly and went out to the minivan. Another Mobile Google call was placed.  Lo and behold, one of the hotel names The Human Canvas had mentioned was not only available, it was also affordable! We wouldn't have to drive 400 miles to get to the airport 10 miles away, and we wouldn't have to spend two grand to stay for just a few hours an hour away. This was working out much better than I thought it would.  

I didn't just hop in and drive off into the sunset at that point. Nope, I decided to keep it interesting. I jumped out of the van and made my way back to the front desk. By the time I got to the front door, I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a business card. The Human Canvas stood at the front desk as I walked up to him.  

"We got a room in Fort Myers Beach, so we're all set.  Thanks," I told him.  "I write a humor column for a farm magazine's website.  You're probably going to be in it."  

With that, I handed him a card and made as quick an exit as I could before a Q & A session broke out.   

Once in the van again, I backed up just slightly so that my fellow passengers could see the front desk. I told them to take a look at the folks at the desk.  See the guy with all the tattoos and the hat on crooked? He's the one who got us a room, not the well-dressed kid who works for the hotel. Think about that and try not to choke on the irony.  

Just as the irony was starting to sink in, I was ready to leave when someone said The Human Canvas was headed our way and waving. I backed up slightly and rolled down the passenger side window.

"Oh my God, I just read the last line on your card! Man, I love that! It's just hilarious! [Thanks, Jill!] I'm definitely going to check you out. You see, I do stand-up comedy at a couple clubs around here."          
That sounds about right in my world. Next time I'm in Fort Myers, I'm going to look him up. I mean, we're both in the humor business. He's practically family.

Guy No. 2 

Accommodations compliments of the Human Canvas:

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