Loading the 4Runner on a U-Haul trailer isn’t something I hope for on a fishing trip. My buddies Noah and Garth directed me, both undoubtedly feeling just as drained as I was. Nothing had gone right on this trip. I think we all half expected this part to go badly as well. Visions of my beloved Toyota canted at an odd angle; fallen partially off the trailer crossed my mind as I eased it up the ramp. Somehow all went according to plan.
At that moment we should have been fishing Boca Raton Inlet for unusual reef fish, or kayak fishing the Loxahatchee River for huge bass. Noah and I had made this pilgrimage to Florida each winter for several years only to be interrupted by COVID. This was supposed to be our triumphant return.
The 4Runner started making noise at the Georgia border. At the time, getting where we had a place to spend the night seemed the greater priority. I was able to get an appointment with a mechanic the next day; he drove around the parking lot, handed the keys back, and told me he couldn’t help me, saying it was something to do with my differential. That was the first sign that we might be cutting the trip very short.
The second mechanic whose services I enlisted was the embodiment of “Florida Man,” skinny, blonde, excessively tan, and speaking barely intelligible racial-slur-and-profanity-laced English. He was a mobile mechanic. Quite convenient, I thought, until he was a few hours late and put engine oil in my rear differential with a plastic water bottle.
While Florida Man was finishing up making things a little worse a new character arrived. He asked what was wrong with the car, who we were, and eventually if we had any money on us. His body language was suspicious. He kept surveying the inside of the truck, eyeing our fishing gear. He then insisted that he “didn’t want to rob people anymore”, while keeping his hands jammed deep in his sweater pockets. None of us wanted to open a wallet in front of him. I grabbed some change out of one of the cupholders hoping he’d take it and leave. Instead, he proceeded to tell us about his drug use and how much he’d really like to be high… “Literally fly man, ya know? I wanna be an angel in heaven.” When our mechanic popped out from under the car looking very much like the ex-con he in fact was, that seemed to convince him to make tracks.
That night the wind literally tore our tent apart. Noah bailed for the vehicle first. Garth and I attempted to stick it out. Both of us were exhausted after two fitful nights of sleeping in the vehicle. Dazed and barely conscious, I soon realized that I’d get no sleep at all when the tent attempted to take flight with us inside. We reluctantly joined Noah in the 4Runner. From inside, we watched the cold wind shred our brand new tent into tattered ribbons, its torn skin flapping over a broken and crumpled skeleton.
The next day we had some time to fish before an appointment at a Toyota service center. The fishing sucked. Lows had dipped into the 30s. Florida gar, so ubiquitous they often seem unavoidable, were so lethargic we couldn’t conjure a glance from one. A few small grunts and pinfish in the intercoastal somehow felt like a victory.
When the time finally came and a mechanic actually got the 4Runner up on a lift, I learned that my rear axle had actually broken off on one side. We were quite lucky in one sense: any of the massive potholes we couldn’t avoid driving through New Jersey could have ripped my rear axle right off. The mechanic handed me a disgustingly huge estimate. Parts alone would have cost me more than I’d paid for the vehicle in the first place. My head started to spin. Getting to fish suddenly felt like the least of my problems.
A very long traffic jam materialized on I-95 before we really got going on the trip home. The U-Haul had seemed like the best option for getting my vehicle, and all of our gear, back to Connecticut, but navigating traffic in such a cumbersome rig was a new experience for all of us. The cause of the jam eventually came to light. A small plane had crashed on the side of the highway. The upside down aircraft surrounded by emergency vehicles served as a reminder that things could go even farther south.
When asked how a bad fishing trip went, I’ll always open with, “well, nobody died”.