Letters From a Bus
June 2007: Maiden Voyage
3rd entry for June
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Drive to Florida with a Toad

St. Augustine, FL, Day Two at the home of my brother and his wife, Jerry and Marsha Barlow

Monday, June 11, 2007 — Day Twenty-seven of our life in a bus

During the first part of the week we were still in waiting mode.  We felt ready to leave Huntsville, but we had to wait until Thursday for our tow kit to be installed.

On Monday, with nothing better to do, I put our Florida destination into our GPS navigation system, Co-Pilot.  Co-Pilot came installed on the bus computer and it has an option for obtaining routes suitable for an RV.  For example it keeps you away from low elevation tunnels or bridges. 

When I compared the driving directions to MapQuest (http://www.mapquest.com)  I saw that Co-Pilot would take the RV back west to Decatur, then south to Birmingham and then east to Atlanta where it turns south on I-75.  Assuming an automobile, MapQuest would take us northeast to Chattanooga, TN and south to Atlanta.  What was the difference?  Were there difficult bridges over the river in Chattanooga?  No.  I concluded that Co-Pilot didn’t like the two-lane rural highway, US-72 between Huntsville and Chattanooga.  It kept us on freeways, I-565, I-65 and I-20.  The time and distance were about the same.  As we are rank beginners, I decided not to argue.

I also spent time looking at various RV campsite review websites so I could figure out the best way to choose an RV park on our drive to Florida.  I located an area that seemed to be about halfway between Huntsville and St. Augustine.  The distance is 623 miles and driving time is about ten hours.  I looked at campsites on I-75 between Atlanta and Valdosta, GA.  None of them had better than mediocre recommendations.  I finally settled on a location a little short of half way, High Falls State Park, GA. http://gastateparks.org/info/highfall/   I liked the sound of it for history and scenery and the reviews were decent.  It’s south of Atlanta and north of Macon (between Butts and Monroe at Unionville).  Distance: 272 miles and an estimated time of four and a half hours.  This would leave us 350 miles and 6.5 hours to cover on Saturday.  Well at least we would have our driving legs under us by then.

Having done my travel homework, I researched the locations of movie theaters in Huntsville and selected “Georgia Rules” for us to see in the late afternoon.  It’s the first movie we’ve seen in months.  It made me feel downright normal — as in, life is getting back to normal.  We enjoyed it and it seemed appropriate, as soon we would travel through that state.  Afterwards we scouted nearby restaurants and chose Romano’s Macaroni Grill.  This turned out to be a very sophisticated and hip Italian restaurant where food prep and service are out in the open and everyone is hustling as if they were in “Hell’s Kitchen.”  Several of the waiter/waitresses had trained voices and gorgeous renditions of Happy Birthday as well as Italian serenades rang frequently throughout the large open room.  It was highly entertaining and the food was delicious.

Tuesday we kept busy with errands and busy work.  I told my son Jeff that I missed the ability to program TV shows with my TIVO and he told me that I could upgrade our DirectTV to DirectTVplus DVR.  So we exchanged one box for another at Best Buy and then our Bankston technician, James, and his assistant, Jason, came out and set it up for us.  Now we have the premier channels like HBO so Dennis can find out what bad end will come to the Sopranos.  However, I found out that I can’t get the local San Francisco channels on satellite until we are somewhere west of the Mississippi.  (It depends on how broad the satellite band is.)  Right now we still must watch local channels with the antenna and those (So You Think You Can Dance, etc.) can’t be programmed and recorded with the DVR.  I can only program satellite channels.  Darn.

Assuming that Wednesday would be our last full day at our campsite, we made some travel preparations.  Translated that meant wash and iron clothes, grocery shop and — comb and wash those dogs so they’ll be presentable for Jerry and Marsha.  Several daily walks in Alabama fields brought a daily collection of foxtails or what Dennis calls June grass.  I get those out and I try to comb Rudi once a week but it’s been six weeks since their last grooming date.  I always comb and bathe them so we have a routine but it takes the better part of a day to do both of them.  Over the weeks Rudi’s long hair gets more and more mats and a concentrated combing (with scissors) to get rid of the mats can take hours.  All mats have to be combed out or cut out before they can be washed. 

At home I would put them in the bathtub but what to do in the bus?  I went shopping, leaving Dennis and the dogs at the campsite.  Dennis was entirely engrossed in his own pre-travel project.  He’d bought a long handled soft brush and a bucket and he proceeded to clean the bus!  He was only going to do the windows and the lower half but he got carried away and did everything but the roof.  All this on a ninety-degree day!

I came back a few hours later with a clever retractable baby bathtub that I found at Babies R Us, some cheap towels, extra dog shampoo, and a spray hose nozzle.  Then Dennis helped me to bathe the dogs one at a time at the picnic table.   It might be hard to hold down a soapy, squirmy little dog but they are used to this process and submit with good grace (except when I pour water over the face). 

Dump soapy water, rinse and then envelope in a big towel to bring inside.  Oh!  Then the celebration begins.  I must hold the damp towel while Rudi attacks it viciously and we play tug of war with many vicious growls.  Someone must pay for this indignity!  Then Margot joins in and the two chase each other back and forth.  They are very funny.  I get to rest for a while until they dry.  Then both must be combed again but it is less difficult the second time around. 

On Thursday we ran through our checklist, pulled in our slides and made ready to drive.  I delivered the Honda to Bankston at 8:00 and Dennis followed in the bus.  By 9:30 we were ensconced in the Bankston Trailer lot with slides out and hooked up to 50 amps.  This allowed us to run our A/C in all three zones, which was good because it was a very hot day.  However, it was a good time for me to get manicure and pedicure so I walked a mile down the road to a Snappy Nails.  By the time I returned it was ninety degrees and I was glad to be inside our cool bus. 

The tow kit install was supposed to take six hours.  We hung out and waited until 4:00 and then Dennis went to see how things were going.  They told us to take the bus home and come back in the morning.  It would not be finished until Friday morning.  So much for making an early start on the first half of our trip.  I knew it.  Also, I’d discovered that High Falls will only take reservations for two nights on a weekend.  We could try to stop there but we wouldn’t have a guarantee that one of their eight 50’ pull-thru campsites would be available.

You might say the tracks were on the trail.   On Friday, we certainly did not get an early start on our trip of 600+ miles.  At our campsite, Dennis was expecting a package of mail from his office.  The attendant did not show up until 10:00 — a half hour late.  We waved goodbye to our campsite of 19 days and drove back to Bankston.  The Honda tow kit was finished.  A technician showed us how to hook it up to the bus and how to install the “brake buddy” on the driver’s seat of the Honda.  A foot attaches to the brake pedal.  Every time the bus brakes the Honda brakes.  Very ingenious. 

Dennis pulled out of Bankston — this time pulling the Honda, which made our total length about sixty feet — very scary.  We knew we needed groceries for the two day trip but I told Dennis it was up to him: he could try to drive into the big Target parking lot or just get on the freeway and skip the groceries.  He said, “What the heck,” and turned down three lane University Ave. and drove to the Target shopping center.  We were able to pull over to the side and park down a row of parking spaces with no mishap.  What a coup!  Finally at noon we got on I-565 and began our trip to Florida.

Above: Dennis wheels a Target cart full of groceries out to the bus parked as much out-of-the-way as possible.
Right: Unloading groceries into a bus? This seems very strange.
First fuel fill-up - $450 gift from Bankston at Texaco, Jordan Lane, Huntsville, AL 5/21/07
Dennis did very well driving at a steady 60 mph, staying in the right lane of the three-lane freeway.  We negotiated the interchanges to get around Birmingham.  The scary part is changing lanes when there is a lot of traffic and cars don’t want to let you move over and your exit is coming up in the left two lanes.  Holy mother!  Trucks push their weight around but we weren’t ready to get aggressive.  We were in Friday afternoon rush hour.  
The bus computer monitor is situated below the dashboard between our two seats. Cameras on the bus show us that our "toad" is doing OK. In front are snacks sitting on a wood shelf.
Both dogs were wearing their halters and were leashed to my seat belt.  Rudi took the motion of the bus in stride.  He curled up in one of the two little dog beds placed by our chairs in the cab.  Margot was very frightened.  She sat on my lap and shivered for the entire trip.  Her preference was to squeeze behind my back and hide her head.  I let her sit next to me or on me and helped her to hide her eyes.  She is like an ostrich.  (Yes, I know, she portrayed an outer projection of my own inner nervous state.)
Rudi sleeping in his bed next to my seat in the cab.
Then our Co-Pilot program messed up.  We were on I-20 heading east on the eastern outskirts of Birmingham when it told us to take the next exit.  What? Weren’t we already on I-20?  Were we on the wrong freeway?  We took the exit and landed in busy street traffic.  Co-Pilot gave us instructions on how to navigate the streets to get back to I-20 at the next exit.  We couldn’t move over to make a left turn and ended up driving far afield as we looked for safe places to turn our sixty feet.  Safely back on I-20, Co-Pilot again told us to exit. Why?  Did I-20 take a detour that we didn’t know about?  Again we followed instructions.  This time we ended up in a shopping center but we managed to circle around the perimeter and find room to turn at the exit.  Once again back on I-20, Co-Pilot told us to exit.  I had my maps.  “No!”  I countermanded.  “We’re on I-20 and we stay on it all the way to Atlanta.  Don’t exit.”  We didn’t and pretty soon Co-Pilot gave up and recognized I-20. 
The wireless keyboard I use to work with Co-Pilot sits on the dash along with sun visors, the little black GPS finder, the "That was easy" button and a bag of dog treats.

These diversions cost us time.  We continued to the Alabama border and pulled over at exit 2 in a Georgia Rest Stop at 4:15 PM.  There were many trucks parked there and it was a large and pleasant rest area.  We decided to stay there for the night.  We would “boondock” and not put out our slides.  We were happy to get that far in one piece.  Dennis had driven a difficult vehicle under difficult circumstances for more than four hours.  We felt that was enough for one day.  High Falls went by the wayside.

With the slides pulled in, the bus is narrow but it is possible to work on our computers and we had the Internet.  It was also possible to cook dinner and I did a simple sausage and eggs breakfast as we had not eaten anything all day and that sounded good to us.  At 8:00 it was dusk but still light when we decided to walk the dogs again.  It was still hot but less so with a little breeze.  We noticed that trucks would pull in and then pull out.  Then we saw the sign.  You couldn’t stay all night.  We had to leave. 

We're parked by trucks in a GA Rest Stop. With the slides in, it's tight quarters but still possible for us to work on our computers.

I got on the computer and found the closest Wal*Mart on I-20 about thirty miles east in Villa Rica.  I didn’t put the address into Co-Pilot because I was tired and I hoped we’d see a sign from the freeway.  We didn’t.  We bashed around between two Villa Rica exits and finally located Wal*Mart an hour after we left the Rest Stop.  There was a huge parking lot and we pulled over near the edge at 8:30.  We went straight to bed. 

It was hot and we left all the windows open with the night curtains pulled down.  Big mistake.  We should have closed the windows and run the generator and the A/C all night.  It was NOISY!  Trucks pulled in and out on the lane next to us and parked all around us leaving their generators on.  We were very hot but we slept about four hours until a train passed on the tracks right next to us.  After that the noise and heat kept us awake.  It was a night from hell.  Saturday morning at five I said, “Let’s get out of here,” and went to make coffee.  We left at six.  We had another 550 miles to go — a long ways — even in a car when you can drive 75 mph.

Dennis stuck to 60 mph and we made short stops at rest areas every few hours.  We came through Atlanta without a hitch and Co-Pilot behaved itself.  We were very glad we did Atlanta on a Saturday morning and not during Friday night commute hours.  We were amateurs at everything we did, but we managed.  We even found a Flying J at the Georgia/Florida border and got fuel.  We pulled into a trucker’s diesel bay and we didn’t know how to find the pump number.  We went inside and discovered that Flying J no longer accepts VISA.  I pulled out my Sears MC. 

On I-20E in Georgia at sunrise.
Second cup of coffee and raisin toast a few hours later at a rest stop.
$250 for 3/4 tank of diesel. After some highway driving our milage has built up from 3.4 to 5.2 mpg. The dogs agitate when Dennis & I leave the bus. They're in the driver's seat — but the engine is off!

Margot shook in my lap for the first half of Saturday.  She didn’t like all the unusual noises.  But by the end of the day she was sleeping in her bed next to our chairs.

We arrived in St. Augustine at 3:15 PM.  Jerry and Marsha were in the driveway to wave us in.  I remembered Jerry’s yard (15 years ago) as being very wide with a very long, wide driveway.  I thought we could park on paving and cars could get around us.  In fact the driveway is narrow and gravel.  It makes a loop around a grassy island near the small, cement pad in front of the garage.  Jerry has his camper and his 350 Ford truck parked in the oval.  We had to park beside the driveway on a sandy base of Bermuda grass.  Jerry and Dennis quickly cut some planks to place under the jacks. Dennis put down the leveling jacks and dumped the air in the airbags.  Our 45,000 pound bus sank.  They had to dig a hole in the grass to make room for the exhaust pipe so it wouldn’t bend under the weight.

Margot learns to relax while Dennis drives the bus. Jerry's front yard, driveway and a small loop crowded with cars. His house in the background faces the Intercoastal waterway.
Our bus is sitting low to the ground on Jerry's lawn.

Marsha’s daughter, Nicole, was throwing a surprise birthday party for her husband, Ernesto, that evening.  Very shortly after arrival we had to shower, change clothes and get ready to join the party.  We met about two-dozen people in a private room at, Rivercreek, a popular seafood restaurant in St. Augustine.  Dennis and I had “plank fish” (mahi-mahi) and it was delicious.  We enjoyed meeting Marsha’s family and friends and we enjoyed the window views of a bay on the Intercoastal.  We are in a new and exotic land.

At 6:30 Sunday morning Dennis and I had no sooner settled in our cab seats with coffee then we received an unwelcome surprise.  Jerry’s sprinklers went off.  Long jets of water beat against our open windows as we hastily ran to close windows.  They stayed on for half an hour and Dennis worried that we would sink even lower in the wet ground.  Our full width mud flap in the back of the bus is dragging.

A sprinkler beats against the window while Margot investigates this strange sound. The exhaust pipe is so low to the ground that Jerry and Dennis had to dig a hole in the grass.
Leaving the dogs in the house, the four of us went out to breakfast at Zaharia’s Restaurant in St. Augustine Beach.  Then we set out for Camping World.  Marsha and Jerry want to trade in their camper for a fifth wheel.  They want to join us in our camping travel excursions during the summer when Marsha is out of school.  They wanted our opinion on some of the trailers they’d already seen.  This was a new experience for us.  We’ve only researched diesel pushers.  So it was interesting to look at the various styles and floor plans in the 30’ range.  However, being out in the full sun was not too great.  The temperature was up to 97 degrees and the bus registered 103 when we got back.
My brother Jerry enjoys coffee and conversation Sunday morning before we go out to breakfast. Less than a month ago he had open heart surgery.

We arrived home in the afternoon to find that Marsha and Jerry’s friend, Teri Pierce, had arrived.  From Texas, Teri came to Florida for a conference and is staying with them on holiday for a few days.  The five of us had dinner and enjoyed Jerry’s famous salmon recipe.  Marsha’s dinner was superb. 

Towards the end I saw the sun setting and ran out on the dock to take some photos.  The breeze was up and the heat was gone.  The dogs ran out with me and became different creatures.  The wind blew Rudi’s hair straight up and out and they both looked like wild dogs.  They were very excited by the dock and the wide stretch of the Intercoastal waterway.  Rudi looked like he might jump in the water at any minute.  I stayed outside to take photos.  (In Hawaii we took “A Thousand Sunrises”.  Now I guess I’m starting our Florida edition of a thousand sunsets.) 

Dennis walks from the back porch of the house onto the dock that overlooks the Atlantic Intercoastal waterway. The dogs run to escort him to the edge of the dock where they peer into the water. I am holding Rudi as the sun sets behind me and a small island in the middle of the Intercoastal.
Rudi's hair is wild in the sea breeze. Rudi would like to jump in but Margot has her doubts.
The dogs left the dock and jumped down to the waterline where tall grasses grow through the gravel.  In tandem they began to work their way down the shore sniffing and exploring.  When I thought they’d gone too far I called them and they came leaping back, making wild jumps like white bunny rabbits.  They had a fabulous time.

Elsa Walton — St. Augustine, FL, 6/11/07

Elsa Walton, Barlow Camp, St. Augustine, FL, Monday, June 11, 2007