Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Halfway Back Blues

This is Part Two of a 3 Part Series.

As a bit of foreshadowing, a month or two previous I had felt the campervan transmission slip slightly. I checked and added some fluid at the time. When I rolled into Wilmington after 600 miles, I felt a little slip again. Half of the fluid remained from the previous month, so I added the rest. Both times, a little fluid seemed to bring the van, named The Moose by Mom, back to normal. However, a visit to a transmission shop was in order when I got back to Florida.

Right now, I’m on the road hiding out from COVID and earning a little money. Most weeks, I’m running up or down I-95; Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas. So the last thing I wanted to do was head down I-95 to get home. At the end of the last blog, I peeked at the map and headed out of Leland, NC on US-17, south toward Shallotte, Myrtle Beach, Georgetown and Charleston.

US-17 runs from Winchester, Virginia to Punta Gorda, Florida and is called the Coastal Highway. In the Carolinas it is near the coast, but not very coastal. My dreams of following the ocean back down to Florida were not going exactly as I had planned. I’d never been through Myrtle Beach and was shocked by the Vegas-style schlock and pulsating consumerism. Does any city, anywhere, need two PGA Golf Superstores? Out past Myrtle Beach, the scenery improved; low country scrub and southern Americana.

After Myrtle Beach, there was a sign for a  state park, but it was mostly swanky suburbs and golf resorts down through Pawley’s Island. Just before Georgetown there was a stretch of wilderness and I was starting to think about lunch.

In my head, Georgetown is a favorite place, but I’ve only been there once. A little more than five years ago, I was crewing on a Westsail 42, headed from New York to Panama [that story starts here]. In Norfolk, we had picked up the Captain’s father, who had caught a bug on the way up. He was really sick all the way through the Virginia/Carolina wilderness. At Georgetown, we pulled in to take the father to a doctor. It was Memorial Day and that meant going through the process at the local Emergency Room. 

The Waccamaw River flows south from up near Conway. Just before Georgetown, the Waccamaw is joined by the Great Pee Dee River, which wanders all over the Low Country but never gets very great. To the west of town, the Sampit River comes almost due east and joins the other two rivers to become the estuary of Winyah Bay. Previously, the Sampit had made hairpin curve before dumping into the bay. This was indigo and rice country in the colonial and antebellum years. Large slave plantations were established and many rivers and creeks in the area were diverted with complex earthworks built to support the trade. At some point, the Sampit made a shortcut into the bay and turned what had been the main channel up into downtown Georgetown to a quiet bayou. 

Georgetown is the second largest seaport in South Carolina. Exports were originally indigo and rice, then lumber and steel. A couple mills loom over the bayou, right next to downtown. The paper mill still operates and, depending on the wind direction, offers the usual pungent, pulp smell. The steel mill has been through a few owners in the last decades and I’m not sure it’s currently running. Heritage tourism is a big draw these days. The streets of the older side of town are quaint in all the ways you’d expect. Hurricane Hugo paid a ferocious visit here, but the bayfront has recovered and is touristy in an understated genteel kind of way.

During the previous trip, while the Captain and his dad were at the hospital, I got a chance to wander around Georgetown; cobblestones, old buildings, bookstores, and seafood restaurants. I bought a book and enjoyed some lunch. The father got some meds and we were off the next morning. 

On this trip south, I made a pass in the campervan but was uninspired. Call it a hangover from passing through the grinding tourism of Myrtle Beach, but I didn’t stop to hike around seeking seafood. Furthermore, I didn’t want to try and park The Moose on the narrow, old streets. On a residential street, a couple blocks clear of the tourists, I paused under a spanish moss laden oak tree and looked for some lunch options. I had a craving and Lamar’s Fish and Chips caught my eye. 

Lamar’s Fish and Chips was out past the Piggly Wiggly and the McDonald’s, in the westside neighborhoods that are modern, not antebellum country club. The hospital where the captain had taken his father was not far away. A block off the main drag, just beyond an abandoned CVS store, Lamar’s was a nondescript cinderblock building with a mansard looking cap on its facade. Inside, a counter was off to the left, the dining room on the right, closed for COVID with chairs atop tables all moved together. 

I ordered the fish and chips special, whiting; ten minutes. The bathrooms looked open, so I made a pitstop. In no time at all, Lamar emerged from the kitchen with my lunch. Steam wafted from under the clamshell’s lid as he asked what sauces I needed. Hot sauce. Thank you. He asked me where I was coming from and how I’d found his place. I told him I was on the road, headed south, craving seafood, and that I’d found him on Google Maps. 

“Well, I’ve been frying fish for forty eight years, I should know what I’m doing,” he said.

“I can’t wait to find out.”

“You’ll be back,” Lamar assured me. 

Back on US-17 headed south, I munched on the fish and chips which rested on some luggage between the front seats. Out past the mills in Georgetown, I was back in the low country and near a town called Mount Pleasant I started seeing little huts on the side of the road selling baskets. These woven sweetgrass baskets are a tradition brought to South Carolina by the West African slaves who eventually established the Gullah Community in the low country. Originally tools of rice production, these baskets are now a highly refined craft. Basic baskets sell for around $30, but as they get bigger and more intricate they can sell for more than $500. I’ve discovered since then the stretch of US-17 in the Mount Pleasant area has been designated the Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway. 

The traffic thickened approaching Charleston, and in the stopping and going, the transmission slipped again. The slip was intermittent; still didn’t seem like real trouble. I was really hoping to make it to Florida. Rather than ‘stop and go’ all the way through Charleston, I jumped on the 526 bypass. I got all the way around the city but I could feel the transmission too often. Back at US17 in West Ashley, I stopped and put in another third of a jug of transmission fluid. Once again, it seemed to help. Maybe I could make it back if I just kept adding fluid. 

I know ... I know.  

I was way ahead of schedule. My four day weekend was designed to accommodate some fixing, sealing, or tarping as necessary at the boat. Fortunately, the boat was in great shape. By some intuition, I had left Navassa midday Wednesday rather than Thursday morning. When my load assignment came in, it wasn’t until Saturday evening. I had almost two days of slack, so I thought I might find a cheap motel on the way and spend some time writing. 

Where US-17 joins up with I-95, I pulled over to look for motel options. I had my eye on Hardeeville, SC, across the river from Savannah. There is a familiar truckstop there. I picked a motel near a Chinese restaurant, but Priceline.com offered me a deal I couldn’t resist. Two nights for $70 dollars right near where I was going to be anyway. I booked it and got going toward my little writing vacation. 

Leaving the gas station where I’d stopped, the Moose stalled. That’s new, but it started right back up. Over the highway bridge, I passed a cop on the ramp and as soon as my wheels touched I-95, I heard a quiet pop and the van started trailing white smoke. I drifted over to the shoulder blowing a line of smoke like a skywriter. Under the hood, there was no fire and the smoke had stopped. I gingerly moved several yards on the shoulder, but the smoke did not reappear. It was about 4:30 pm when I started moving slowly down the highway; toward the motel about twenty miles away.  

The exit ramp ended at a stop sign; on a hill. I was worried what would happen when I stepped strongly on the accelerator to get across through the traffic. Nevertheless, the uphill left turn went fine. Down the road a half mile, I made a looping turn into the motel parking lot. There was no more smoke, no fire, but I had left a long trail of fluid which was now dripping below the Moose. I tossed a rag under the leak and checked in at the motel. 

By the time I had a key and a room, it was right at five o’clock. Neither transmission shop in town would answer their phone. Now my plan was dependent on the drip. If there was a big puddle under the Moose in the morning, I was going to need a tow. But when morning came, the rag was damp but there was no puddle. The Moose and I made the eight miles over to the transmission shop. They needed a few hours to diagnose my problems, so I called a cab. Back at the motel, the writing wasn’t flowing easily as I waited for the phone to ring. 

The news was not good. The Moose needed a new transmission. It was going to be expensive. I had to explore some options. So much for writing, now I was ciphering.  

I’ve been living in the van, first while working on the boat and now on my weekends off the road. The Moose is chock full of stuff; boat stuff, life stuff, and food. I have five kinds of flour, dry beans, rice, and other provisions. There are two expensive lithium batteries for the boat on the floor of the van’s shower. Any option to ditch the Moose would have to include getting back to South Carolina somehow to pick up my stuff. I’d have to pay storage in the meantime and trust that wherever it was stored was secure. 

My overall plan is to remain in Florida through February; depending on COVID, the economy, et al. Basically, all my options for moving forward would be nearly as expensive as the transmission. The only real difference is that after moving from the van to the boat I will get some money back out of the van when I sell it. I decided to fix the van. The shop needed a half down deposit to get started. A big chunk of my ‘boat money’ disappeared into the van.  

Now I needed to get back to work. Because I had left North Carolina early, I actually had time to arrange for alternative travel plans back to Florida. I called back the little local taxi company and arranged a ride into Savannah. My trip back to Florida would mostly be by Greyhound bus. As luck would have it, the Greyhound station in Savannah is directly across the street from a funky motel where I’ve always wanted to stay. I booked a room at the Thunderbird Inn and the trip on my Greyhound app. I tried calling an airport shuttle that I’d seen nearby to work. They flatly rejected coming to get me from Greyhound. So I left the last leg’s arrangements for after I arrived. 

The Thunderbird Inn is an awesomely funky spot; bright colors, neon, and southern hospitality. There were moon pies on my pillow, complimentary RC Cola, and mid century modern decor. In the morning with coffee in the lobby: real Krispy Kreme Donuts. Before the sun the next morning, I walked a few blocks over to the Maple Street Biscuit Company; downtown, exposed brick, old wood floors, cool people. I had southern biscuits and gravy, but gravy made with shiitake mushrooms rather than sausage. Divine.

I hiked back to the Thunderbird, packed my bags and walked across the street. Eight hours on the bus to Orlando included a service dog, nonstop nervous natter, COVID conspiracy, apples, China, Afghanistan, the book of Revelations, Trump, Bush, Obama, Kennedy, and End Times. It was all I could do to stay out of the discussion that never stopped from the seat behind me. I was never so glad to arrive in Orlando. 

I got a ride on my Lyft app and began to relax. If I’d have stayed on my game a few more minutes, I would have reacted to all the taillights that appeared on the ramp to the Turnpike. Instead, Cinthya, the driver, and I had a wide ranging chat while we waited through a 45 minute delay. There was a multi-car accident between us and the next exit, so there was no escape. Cinthya is from Ecuador and has one kid in college with another starting high school. She enjoys life in the Orlando area but has much family back in Ecuador; including her Mom who moved back in retirement. 

The last turn toward the terminal is a very dark, lonely country road. I could feel a rise in the tension. I quickly apologized and assured my driver that just around the corner was a giant, well lit complex with a security guard, lots of trucks, and other people. We’d had such a long chat that I think there was a bit of trust, but that trust was tested staring down a lonely country road with some ol’ trucker in the back seat. I unloaded my bags by the guard shack and hit Lyft’s tip button extra hard as Cinthya headed back toward Orlando.  

The next day I was back on the road; back to earning money. I’ve arranged with the shop to come back in a month to pick up the fixed Moose. In the meantime, I don’t really have anywhere to go on my weekends. Yesterday, in the present, I hiked a four mile round trip to visit a produce stand with a taco food truck. Tacos Carnitas, real Mexican street style -- worth every step. 


Editor’s Note: I was in Publix this morning wearing my Thunderbird Inn t shirt. I had thought that I remembered the Thunderbird from visiting my now ex in-laws in Savannah thirty years ago. The cashier, a lady old enough to have been a snowbird for a very long time, asked if the Thunderbird was still open. I assured her that I had slept there a week ago. She told me that she and her husband had often stopped there on their way south for the winter from Ohio. The wistful tone of her voice made it seem like also a long time ago. 

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