Title blurb

"From one LIGHT come many colors." ~GJ Dürrschmidt

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Stranded - The Bitter Taste of Homelessness

We found ourselves stranded in Biloxi, Mississippi with barely a week's worth of food left on board Vintage van Go[gh], eleven dollars between us, and three weeks to go until payday. In the movies, miracles happen right about now in scenes like this, and to our amazement, one did! Out of the blue, Stephen's parents called to see how the cross-country adventure was going. Of course, he lied. Thrilled over the opportunity their son had to travel and see America, they insisted on sending him some "mad money," from time to time, via Western Union.  Any other time he would've insisted they not be so generous, but this time he accepted with gracious enthusiasm. It was like winning the lottery! To us, it was enormous, and couldn’t have come at a better time. The moment he got off the phone, we laughed hysterically, and carried on like two little kids on Christmas morning. 

Our celebration was short lived once the soberness of our situation set back in. With a grand total of sixty-one dollars, we had a tough choice to make: 1) stay put in Biloxi, where we didn't feel safe, had nothing to do to pass the time broke as a joke, and where the beaches sucked compared to Florida, but where we’d have all of the cash to buy food, or 2) fill the gas tank to take us back to Florida, where we felt safe, had gorgeous beaches with crystal clear water to enjoy in poverty, but then only have twenty bucks left to eat between now and June 1st. Considering the trip already taught us how to be creative when it came to stretching a dollar, and since we were already in retreat mode, we opted for “creativity.” We searched and found a Western Union at a Shell Station, conveniently topped off the tank, and made a late afternoon beeline to Ft. Walton Beach, Florida. Crazy, we realized, but we were pleased with the decision. After all, it would bring us 150 miles closer to our retreat destination – Key West.

We first began the road trip in the Keys with great excitement and a wild sense of adventure over the trip’s boundless possibilities, in meeting and experiences new people, places, and things. Just 1,000 miles into the trip, and after a few simple calculations, it became painfully clear then that the trip was doomed. High gas prices, low VW bus MPG, unexpected mechanical issues, quickly consumed our means to proceed much further than where were then - Panama City Beach, Florida. The fantasy bubble had burst. Stubbornness and stupidity had driven us onward to Biloxi. There had been signs all along the way from day one we chose to ignore. We were in denial since first setting out, blinded by the romance of the road, and how cool it would be to travel America in a vintage VW hippie love bus.

The bus had been tricked out for sleeping in and living out of along the way. We fully intended to overnight in it most of the trip, on short stops, and break out the tent and camping supplies for the longer stays. I told Stephen before we left the Keys that we would be enjoying some of the most pristine beaches in America as we made our way up the western coast of Florida. I told him of the endless miles of beaches with public access where one could simply park and spend the night anywhere one so chose. When we were ready to pull in for the night on day one, we couldn’t find a spot. Endless miles of beach and no place to park for the night! Thirty years back, when I passed this way in my youth, I did it all the time. 

Not so now. Now we were greeted everywhere by foreboding “Thou Shall Not” signs: No Overnight Parking…Beach Closed 11 PM until 8 AM…No Public Access…Enforced by Law...Violators Will Be Towed. The insult of signs repeated the whole 1,000 miles to Panama City, and then on to Biloxi, Mississippi. So with overnights along the beaches in a big, bright orange VW bus no longer a viable option, we were forced to seek less exposing shelter, like behind hotels, in the dark recesses of their parking lots.

Back in Ft. Walton, we soon discovered that the town, as well as all the hotel parking lots, were heavily, almost obsessively, patrolled by police. In fact, it was so extreme, it easily made one think that the President of the United States, himself, was in town! Though we felt safer being back here in a hotel lot, we also feared that at any moment we would get a knock on the window and told to move on. I dreaded that scenario, because in such a small town, once the word got out, there would be no place to hide, and we had no means to leave for another three, long weeks. 

Stranded in Ft. Walton Beach, it became quite clear that the area was infested with indigents, with hoards of homeless, with street corners and sidewalks littered with panhandlers. But for the grace of Vintage van Go[gh], go we! But, why oh why, did we have to be driving a bright orange VW bus, and not some white Toyota sedan? How the hell can we ever truly be inconspicuous?

Needless to say, I didn't get very much sleep constantly vigil, as Stephen snored away, peeking out the bus curtains each time the headlights of a patrol car appeared in the parking lot. Though were knew full well we were not, the situation we found ourselves in began to make us feel as though we were criminals of some sort, forced into becoming unwanted trespassers, like some homeless vagrants. 

Here we suddenly were, in a predicament where we unwittingly became something less than model first class citizens. Our days were filled with plotting and conspiring to come up with where we could go, and what we could do, to blend with the normal flow of tourism here, and avoid any appearance of indigence. The homeless, we soon discovered, were the reason behind the heavy police patrols. It was quite fitting, almost poetic, to find that the Florida panhandle was so infested with panhandlers. Just like you know a home has a cockroach infestation when you see the insects everywhere in the daylight, so it was in Ft. Walton Beach with the homeless. 

Everywhere one looked one would see hoards of homeless milling about, seated on sidewalk benches, and street corners littered with panhandlers. They were pests, stopping traffic, begging handouts, and creating a general public nuisance. They created an eyesore for a town that depended on tourism as its main source of revenue. The summer tourism season was quickly approaching with the arrival of Memorial Day weekend. We saw new signs being installed by the day. The homeless were the cockroaches. The police were the Raid. But for the grace of Vintage van Go[gh], go Stephen and I! 

Why oh why, did we have to be stuck here for the next three weeks in a bright orange VW bus, and not some white Toyota sedan? How the hell were we ever truly going to be invisible, or at least inconspicuous? Just like the homeless, we too, found ourselves out of line with the established materialistic system that ran off of consumerism. We were no longer capable of “purchasing,” of contributing, to the local merchants, the restaurants, the hotels. Like the homeless, we had to hide for the night. We had to “be somewhere” during the day. We had to survive the best we could, even if it meant sacrificing personal dignity. And, like the homeless, we were not criminals; we were just down on our luck, doing without, but still human beings! Our predicament was about to teach us a new lesson by thrusting us into a whole new lifestyle paradigm.

Who were Stephen and I, after all? I was a retired military officer. I held positions of responsibility at levels of high national security. I married and successfully raised five sons. I was active in the community and church. I worked as a consultant to clients in the defense and intelligence communities, and became a college professor. I’m now a writer living on a meager retirement pension, but once I had been a mover and shaker, a money maker – a “contributor” to the system. My traveling “boy Friday,” came from a stable, upper middle-class family with two graduate-level college educated parents. His dad is a thirty year veteran of prominent federal service in Washington, D.C. Stephen, himself, is a third-year college student, extremely academic, and a hard worker. But, right now we were homeless, and except for the big orange bus, no different than the other cockroaches look upon as a nuisance to the local community, and law. Our life took on new priorities: survival priorities.

The homeless wandered each night into the parks and surrounding wooded areas hoping to evade discovery, and possible arrest. We wandered each night behind one hotel after another, discreetly rolling in after 10 PM, battening down, and attempting to sleep, also praying we’d not be disturbed. At daybreak, the homeless would roll up their bedding and hide it somewhere, and hasten out of the areas they knew would be patrolled. Each morning without fail, I would be up and behind the wheel, pulling out of the hotel lot by 7 AM, before the hotel staff morning shift change. While Stephen slept in the back of the bus, I would drive to MacDonald’s to use the restroom, and just hang out for a spell. Outside were the rusted bicycles laden with personal effects. Inside were the homeless seated at tables, perhaps sipping a coffee, but always reading the free newspapers and simply hanging out.

Next on the daily agenda we would head to one of several town parks, because they were there, it was legal to be there, and like the homeless, we had to be somewhere! One park on the water’s edge was a great place to cook and have dinner. But, this great spot soon lost its charm. We just wanted to be left alone, to sup in peace, to commune, meditate, comfort one another in our miserable plight, and to make it through another day toward deliverance - payday. But no, they wouldn’t leave us alone. Each day, the problem grew worse. Daytime was not as bad, but come dusk the parks were like a scene from some zombie movie: tattered, worn souls toting satchels, back packs, pushing a shopping cart, massed in numbers. Food! They saw, and smelled our food!

We had so precious little, and rationed every meal to survive the three weeks. The homeless came to us begging meal, and we had to keep turning them away. It was awkward to say the least. We felt horrible, but we were no better off than them. Most were understanding, some were just downright indignant. The word got out amongst them. Before long, there was not a park we could visit where the sight of the bus didn’t bring them running, begging food, money, or a ride to “work” - their personal street corner. After three days of this, Stephen and I abandoned going to any parks. This was a good thing – a clean break. 


We discovered an awesome public beach to hang out at across the bridge on Okaloosa Island – too far for the vagrants to walk, or want to bike in the heat and humidity. We were so relieved! However nice, the beach had its “Thou Shall Not” signs as well. Go figure. It opened at 6:30 AM and closed one hour after sunset. So, we would roll out of our nigh time hiding place early each morning hence, and hit the beach. We spent each day tanning and playing in the surf. We ate a lot of bread with peanut butter and drank Kool Aid, saving our one good meal for dinner. Late afternoon, we drove across Highway 98 to a little used beach on the bay side. There we washed up in the bathroom facilities and picnicked. The Coleman stove came out, and we would conjure up a hot meal, clean up, and be packed up and gone before the ranger came by to lock up.

The challenge became what to do from 8 to 10 PM. We solved this need with visits to WalMart, which, incidentally, was air conditioned and provided a cheap form of entertainment - people watching. Some nights we would just sit inside a MacDonald’s, share an ice cream cone, watch TV, and charge our phones and laptops. Of course we were not alone. The some of the brethren would naturally be there as well. We were beginning to be acknowledged with nods and waves. How odd, and strangely cool.

The beach began to get somewhat monotonous, so we looked for an alternative. The public library became our new hangout, in between the beach and MacDonald’s. It, too, was air conditioned, and offered a sense of personal dignity. Stephen and I walked in each day carrying our laptops, and I, my trusted notebook, like I was there for some lofty academic pursuit. But, again, we were not alone. Outside were the rusted, heavy laden bikes. Nearby on benches and laid out on the lawn in the shade…they were. Inside filling many chairs, hither and yon, hidden behind daily newspapers and magazines…they were... and, yes…we were also.

Well into our second week in Ft. Walton, we embraced that were had become fugitives, spending our thoughts and energies running and hiding; not simply from the law, but from hotel security staff, and most of all…the homeless. We were they, and they were us, and we were all together. See how they run like beggars in the sun…we’re crying. But, coo-coo-cajoo, we were never able to fully embrace them. We were in a temporary plight. Theirs was more permanent. To embrace them, we feared, would doom us to forever be them.

The word was eventually out on the orange bus. With roughly 10 days to deliverance, the local law stepped up their surveillance. Now when we pulled into MacDonald’s in the morning, within a minute, or so, a patrol car would enter the parking lot and come directly to the bus and stop… just sitting there…waiting…observing. We chose to ignore this, and went about our business. After awhile, the police would drive off. This became the daily routine. No, we were not becoming paranoid.

When at the beach, thereafter, the same thing happened, but only it was a sheriff’s patrol car there. A huge parking lot, and the Sheriff vehicle would come stop by us, linger a long while, then leave. I also began to notice we were being tailed by police while driving between our daily venues. At no time were we ever pulled over, or approached, but it was obvious that the cops wanted to make their presence known to us, and make send a clear message that, whatever we were about, we were being watched. We were not doing anything illegal, but nonetheless, this whole ordeal was adding to the level of stress in an already stressful situation. Sleeping peacefully at night was next to impossible.

The police presence stepped up as time marched on. I decided to use up the last few gallons of gas to travel 16 miles west to Navarra Beach. The bus was not known there. I felt that we could buy a few days of peace, and anonymity. It worked! The beaches were superb, and the public park just over the bridge allowed for overnight parking. We felt that we had found the perfect place, but, even though overnight parking was legal, each night we received preferential attention from the local law. Patrol cars came by all night long, and when they did, with a least a dozen vehicles scattered through the huge parking lot, they would choose to circle the bus, park by it, and wait. Our last night, I risked running out of gas, and drove back onto the mainland and parked behind a Comfort Inn. It was very secluded, and no patrols came by. I slept like a rock, and rightfully so: there would be a long day of driving ahead in the morning.

At daybreak, the morning of May 31st, and one day before my scheduled payday, deliverance was at hand! I fumbled around for my phone, and went online to check my bank account balance. For twenty six days it had been a pathetic $1.21. Today, I woke to find that Stephen and I had finally been saved; direct deposit had been made a day early! 

As Stephen slept (I’m sure you’re realizing a trend here by now), I hurriedly dressed, drove to the nearest gas station and filled the tank. With a rejuvenated debit card in my pocket, I headed back to Ft. Walton Beach to the MacDonald’s for coffee AND a big breakfast. Like clockwork, a patrol car appeared and stopped. I didn’t care anymore, and did like always - ignored it. Screw the police. This was going to be our best day ever!

After catching a bite, we headed off to WalMart to stock up on food supplies for the journey home. I parked in the shade away from everyone. A security vehicle immediately appeared out of nowhere, and pulled up alongside. So the fuck what. When I returned with the groceries a half hour later, the security guard was still at the bus peeking in the windows. Stephen was still sprawled out in the back asleep. I startled the guard. It was an awkward moment. With my best sarcasm, I suggested that he go chase after shoplifters, or members of Al qaeda, rather than snooping around my bus. He left not saying a word. After Stephen dressed and used the store facilities, we headed out.

Approaching downtown Ft. Walton Beach, we passed the park along Highway 98 where we first hung out before realizing it was a homeless enclave. Driving by the library, we passed our former brethren seated on the benches. One made a peace sign, others waved as the orange bus rolled by. At the intersection before the bridge to Okaloosa Island, traffic was slowed. We waited three lights to get through due to those pesky panhandlers, blatantly ignoring the posted signs.

Once over the bridge, we passed the row of hotels we had once hidden behind. We drove by the Boardwalk where we had rudely been reminded at 3 PM in the afternoon that there was no overnight parking. We drove onward passed the beach where we spent days tanning, and one day found ourselves eating pizza from the trash can. There was the remote beach we enjoyed our peaceful dinners and outdoor showers at. Within minutes, it was all behind us. We were on the road. We had money. We opened all the windows to allow our dignity to come blowing back in again. No longer were we the fugitives, the unwanted, the undesirable dregs of society we had become over that miserable three weeks in the Florida panhandle. Once again, we were consumers. Again we were exemplary members of society. Unlike so many we had met along the way, we had a home, and were never more grateful to be on our way to it!

~GJ Duerrschmidt

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Narrow Sidewalks - A Cold War Healing

The early morning Missouri air feels cool and crisp as I step onto the deck at the military guest quarters. The cloudless sky comes as a welcomed surprise. The last two weeks back in Washington D.C. had been steadily overcast and depressing. The warmth of sunshine upon my face lifts my spirits even higher than they already are on this special day of days. Full of excitement and anticipation I decide to brave the April frost and walk the mile to the ceremony.

There’s an exaggerated quickness to my step this morning. I first attribute it to the chilling cold, but realize it may be due to the adrenaline coursing through my veins. Off in the distance come the voices of hundreds of soldiers shouting marching cadences in unison. Competing cadences echo out of the red brick buildings, making it difficult for this old soldier to keep in step. I should’ve worn a warmer jacket, but there’s no going back now.

Being on a military post once again has a sense of home in an odd sort of way. I never thought I would miss it, but the connected way I feel says otherwise. God knows I’ve walked many military installations back in the day. Except for a few topographical differences, they all look about the same. Fort Leonard Wood differs in that its open spaces consist of barren, rolling hills, strewn with jagged rock. To facilitate walking its great spans, raised sidewalks had been laid. They’re narrow and I find I must look down often not to step too near the edge and risk a twisted ankle -- the last thing I need on a morning as important as this. Moments from now, I’ll see my son for the first time since he enlisted in the army. Suddenly I’m covered in goose bumps on top of goose bumps. Perhaps it’s colder than I first imagined.

Cresting yet another hill, I see that the sidewalk goes slightly out of the way toward the Post Exchange, but I’ve no choice. I stop for a moment to catch my breath. My pace, despite the rhythm of the cadence, is a disappointment to me. I used to cross open spaces like this as if they didn’t exist. Hell, I was only nineteen then. Good lord, my little boy will soon be twenty. How did that happen? How did that cute little toe-head in Pampers grow up so soon? My, how far we both seem to have come along life’s pathway. With the theater still a good distance away, I try to quicken my step. My thoughts drift back to when I was my son’s age. 

 I was in the military assigned to Tempelhof Central Airport (above) in the divided, island city of Berlin, Germany. As one Cold War memory after another returns to me, an anger wells up inside that I burn off by walking even faster. Rounding the corner at the Post Exchange, all the horrid memories suddenly become concrete. Towering right before me are remnants of the icon of death. I have trouble accepting the reality of this bizarre encounter. I stand once again in the shadow of the Berlin Wall! Is this some kind of cruel joke? I’ve traveled a long way to have a joyful reunion, certainly not for this! 

(Pictured are similar slabs displayed at CIA Headquarters. I can't seem to locate the Ft. Leonard Wood photos)

I don’t wish to be late for the ceremony, but can’t seem to pull myself away from the three stone monoliths arranged in an open “Z” formation. The gray concrete slabs now bear colorful graffiti: “Freiheit...PEACE...Freedom...TEAR DOWN THE WALL,” and a bright yellow smiley face. I remember nothing of the sort when I last stood in its evil shadow -- only drab shades of gray, as dismal as the colorless skies above the city and peoples it divided -- a sinister wedge driven deep between two diametrically opposed ideologies.

I spent hours upon observation decks in the West staring into the Garden of Death in the East with its miles of mine fields, tank traps, heavily armed guard towers, floodlights, barbed wire, and vicious dogs. Standing here now, I see it all again. I hear it. I smell it. 

Despite the new art, they still represent death -- death to democratic ideals, and death to the desperate souls who courageously risked life for a chance at freedom.

These very concrete slabs challenged the ideals of my youth. Like the razor sharp wire that surrounded them, they twisted the image of the world in which I wished to live and raise children. I never understood the killing. Surely those who guarded the Garden of Death had families. How could they be so intent on killing, even their own children, for nothing more than wanting to come to freedom, a distance less than one hundred yards from where I stood?

I met the enemy face-to-face for the first time crossing through Check Point Charlie, along with three other soldiers, into the heart of communism’s official show place -- East Berlin. The absence of color is striking. People are dressed in grays, blues, browns, and blacks. What few cars there are look the same. There are road crews everywhere, their jackhammers pounding - nothing unusual, if ignoring the fact that many are women. There are no billboards, marquees, or neon lights anywhere. No matter where we walk, all eyes seem fixed upon on us. The stares are uncomfortable and make me wonder what thoughts lurk behind them. By orders, we’re forbidden to communicate with anyone during our visit, so we may never know. 

The streets are wide and the sidewalks narrow. I find this extremely odd since there are so few cars and so many people walking about. We venture down a side street taking us to a rusted, iron bridge. There are repairs underway on it as well, with only one side open for passage. At the top of bridge, we spot four Russian soldiers approaching us. They’re young like us. I remind my buddies that many people are watching the pending confrontation with great curiosity. As envoys of the United States of America, it’s crucial that we not yield an inch of sidewalk to the enemy. From the gestures we see the Russians making, it appears that they’re arriving at the same conclusion.

Conversation ceases as each military force sizes up the other. Nearing impact, nervous tension spontaneously breaks into wide nervous grins. The grins almost immediately erupt into laughter as three Americans and four Russians recognize the rules of the game, and are about to get real up close and personal.

Contact! The heavy wool uniforms of two opposing cold war super powers press tightly against one another. The coarse fabrics rustle and metal buttons clack as our bodies rub together. The ultimate fate of two world powers hangs delicately in the balance, or so it seems to all of us at the time. Each force gallantly struggles, grabbing and tugging at the other to insure that no one steps onto the roadway, and that we all walk away from the encounter saving face.

In one brief moment the Cold War changes forever. I smell my enemy’s strong, cheap cologne. I feel his hot breath on my face. I see his big, broad smile, rosy red cheeks, and the sparkle in his eyes. Above it all, I hear his laughter. I can never forget his laughter. He’s just like me!

I’m snapped back to the present by the loud Jody calls coming from the graduating platoons passing nearby. The big event is about to start. Families and friends crowd onto the narrow sidewalk eagerly searching for a first glimpse of their special someone. Today, they all look special. Their gleaming brass out-shined only by the look of pride in their eyes. I feel my eyes begin to tear as I see my special soldier marching by. 

If asked, I would try to blame it on the frosty morning. But, the growing lump in my throat would probably prevent me from speaking. The frantic aiming and clicking of cameras reminds me that I had left mine behind. Pictures would’ve been nice, but somehow I don’t think I’m ever going to forget the images and events of today. 

I take a moment from the jubilation, and walk up to the remnants of the Berlin Wall. I realized that I had been harboring a deep bitterness and hatred ever since that time in my life. What purpose could it possibly serve now? I touch my hands to the lifeless, cold slabs. I feel no evil within them. The chilling touch of the stone brings a strange sense of warmth...of inner peace. I wonder what became of those young Russian soldiers from that day on the bridge. With any luck, they too are now proud fathers with sons of their own. With that thought, I step away from this ghost from the past, render a sharp salute, then hustle the last hundred yards to the graduation ceremony at the theater. 

~GJ Duerrschmidt

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Buck Stopped in Biloxi

Well, it's been said that life is what happens when you make plans. Nothing could be more true than when summing up our recent, rather short-lived, cross-country road trip. It was a good plan... no, it was a GREAT plan! I'm not backing down on that one.

From this last December to April, me and my "boy Friday" Stephen, eked out a very austere existence living in a tent among the Swamp Cedars at the Sigsbee Naval Air Station RV Park in Key West. We sacrificed our personal comfort, and practically all civilized amenities, in order to save up the funds needed to "trick out" my 1970 VW hippie mobile for what was to be the road trip of a lifetime. 

Our quest was to embark upon a cross-country trek that would take us to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, the California coastline, the Giant Sequoias and Redwoods, and culminating at Seattle, Washington. I planned to write a long overdue fiction novel along the way, and was determined to have it completed and ready for publishing by trip’s end. But first, there were niceties and necessities to acquire.

With all the camping equipment, we needed a roof rack for sure, but not any old roof rack, oh no. Vintage van Go[gh], my 1970 VW bus, deserved only the best - a natural wood and chrome retro rack from The Bus Boys in California! The bus need, but I wanted it to have new hubcaps. And then there was the need for sidelights/reflectors for looks and pride, if not for safety. All in all, the cost would exceed my military pension for a month, and would have to be spread out over time. We endured the "canvas condo" at $12/day, ate meager meals cooked on a Coleman propane stove, and communed with countless geckos and chameleons, dozens of curious iguana, and one scrawny, pain-in-the-ass raccoon! It was all going to be worth it, or so we kept reminding one another.

With each passing month, the highlight (for me, at least) was the Fed Ex truck arriving, when I could once again brring the bus one step closer to road worthiness. Working on the bus was always a welcomed distraction from the complacent routine of our primitive life, which consisted daily of: the beach, taking walks, reading in the hammock, watching the sunset. There was not much left in the coffer after bills were paid to do the customery Key West tourist thing. Any fun, like our food, had to be carefully rationed. Oddly enough, there was always a cooler full of beer on hand.

During this long waiiting period, we cringed, helplessly watching  the gas prices steadily climb. When we first arrived in the Keys, 87 octane was $3.60/gal.By our departure date, it had crept all the way to $4.20! Not good. Not good at all. 

In an effort to conserve, I adjusted the valves, gapped everything that could be gapped, set the timing, and toyed with the air/fuel mixture screw on the carburetor, and still barely got 15 mpg around the island. Based on this fact, I anticipated at least 20 mpg once we were on the highway. I base the trip budget on on 24.

We created checklists for the trip, and lists of our checklists. One by one everything on them got accomplished. The bus eventualy was as ready as it could ever be for a 40 year old VW transporter. By departure day, it was expertly packed, both inside and out, with camping and survival gear, food stuffs, motor oil and fluids, spare bus parts, books to read along the way, and a crap load of paper and pens for me to write the novel. Hey, I'm old school when it comes to writing. It was Stephen’s task to enter my in-progress masterpiece into the laptop. Considering all the trouble it had been thus far, alone, just getting ready for the road, the book had damn well better be a masterpiece!

Praise be to the Universe! The long awaited departure day was finally at hand. We would launch off on our great adventure first thing in the morning. Having signed out of the Navy Base RV Park, we headed downtown to take a victory lap down Duval Street. Our plan was to treat ourselves to a well-deserved congratulatory dinner, watch the sunset at Mallory Square, then find a place to park for the night. Well rested, we’d be on the road bright and early in the morning. Yep, that was the plan. We were packed and ready. We had money.  We were stupid!

Deciding it was too early for dinner, we opted to drop in for Happy Hour at the pool bar of Bourbon Street Pub. We imposed a two beer a piece, twenty dollar limit as we parked the bus in a great spot in Bahama Village.

Once at the pool bar, feeling a sense of relief and elation, the two beers led to four, agreed, and then to eight, agreed again, and then to…who cares. Happy Hour lasted until 8 PM. We were quite happy by then. Instead of a fine dinner, as planned, we dashed out next door, and each grabbed a slice of pizza from Pizza Joe’s, wolfing it down. Then with "to go" cups in hand, we took a stroll down Duvall Street stopping at points of interest along the way, and keeping our cups filled with suds. Well, long story short, sometime around midnight, we made our way to the bus, climbed inside, stripped down to our boxers, and passed out on the futon mattress in the rear.

I awoke just before 7 AM with the most awful need to find a toilet. Dizzy, and still slightly intoxicated, I hastily fumbled my way into my clothes, skipping socks and shoes, started the bus, and dashed off to Burger King, some two miles away. I barely made it in time. God, that was a close one! All the while, Stephen remained dead to the world in his boxers, sprawled out in the back of the bus. While inside, I grabbed a couple breakfast sandwiches and OJ's, and then headed to Smather’s Beach to eat, rest up, sober up, and lament. Some bright and early departure!

At Smather’s, I took aspirin and drank the juice, undressed, shoved Stephen over, and laid back down, feeling like I needed to either vomit, or just simply die. Breakfast was out of the question for the moment. The longer I lay there, the madder I got at myself…at the two of us…for totally fucking up the moment we had waited so long for.

At the crack of noon, I was in the cockpit and on the road heading up  U.S. 1, with my copilot still dead to the world in the back. Goddammit! So what if I had to stop to puke a few times along the way - the road trip was underway!

Somewhere before Marathon Key, Stephen regained consciousness, groggily got dressed, and joined me up front. He was full of questions: “Where are we? What time is it? What the hell did we do last night?” For the next six hours, he drifted in and out of sleep. I persevered behind the wheel, fighting off nausea, driven by brute determination not to waste the planned first day of travel, and
I suppose, as punishment.

We managed to punish ourselves north, past Naples, making to Sarasota. There, we pulled in between a Taco Bell and Red Roof Inn, grabbed some grub at the Bell, enjoyed a late night Happy Hour in the back of the bus, then retired for the night.

Day two of the road trip, we toured around Sarasota, spent a couple hours at the beach on Siesta Key, then opted to push our way further north before dark. We made it to fifty miles south of Ocala, and set up camp, for night two, between a Denny’s and Comfort Inn just off Interstate 75. It was 8 PM. We drank. It wasn’t a happy hour at all. We just drank. I was still pissed. He was pissed. We drank. We passed out.

The morning of day three was beautiful. We decided to make it a good day. Our sights were set on making it to Panama City to spend night three. After ten hours of scenic back roads, and then Highway 98, we arrived. By this time, I wanted to kill Stephen. He manned the radio all day long, and was incapable of listening to one song all the way through on a single station! And, god were there stations!

He pushed the station button, and pushed the station button, and pushed…you get the idea. I endured that torment the whole freaking way, except for brief interludes of peace, when he would drift off to sleep. Three days into our journey, and we were already getting on one another’s nerves.  I didn’t see that one coming. In fact, I was having difficulties seeing in general.

The whole trip, I was having trouble with my glasses. I had gotten a new prescription designed to compensate for the cataracts developing in both my eyes. As I drove, I had trouble reading road signs and had to count on Stephen to stay alert to assist me. I had to constantly adjust my glasses to find the sweet spot in the progressive lenses. I noticed my sense of depth perception was off, especially in judging stopping distances at traffic lights. How was I ever going to make it to the west coast and up to Seattle like this? I wanted this trip to go “see” while I still could, but it had already been delayed almost a year due to VW breakdowns and finances. The whole time, my eyes only continued to worsen. I kept this to myself.

Panama City Beach was simply beautiful. I suggested to Stephen that we stay a few days to work on our tans, and to simply enjoy some playtime in the surf. He was pleased to agree, and so we did just that, by day, and camped in a Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot by night. I desperately needed the break. I was exhausted from only three days on the road. I love the bus dearly, but the relentless clutching and shifting, and not having power steering, was kicking my ass – something else I chose to keep to myself.

We had traveled roughly 1,000 miles. I thought this would be a good time to give the estimated trip expenditures a reality check. One morning, while Stephen slept, and with a McDonald’s cup of coffee in hand, I began number crunching. Bottom line? The trip was doomed! Gas prices and poor mpg, cost just over $300. We had to repeat this segment of ravel three more time to Seattle, and then four times in return.

Payday is the first of each month. It was only May 5th, and we were already dangerously low on cash. My credit card had been maxed out on bus parts and supplies before we departed. We had barely enough money to breech the western border of Florida, let alone go further. No matter what the intended destination, romance of the road and imagination can only get you so far. I thought of the Life Is Good sticker we had put on the bus window: Optimism Can Get You Anywhere. Not true in this case.

I broke the bad news to Stephen once he had finished breakfast. Essentially, we were stuck. There was little left to advance our journey, and there wasn’t enough to call it off and return to Key West. In the face of pending adversity, the spirit of the American pioneer emerged (or, it may have been raw insanity). WTF! If we’re stuck, then, we’re stuck. At this point, we unanimously agreed to push on as far as we could on what we had left - all, or nothing.

The end point of our journey would be determined by the delicate balancing of gas money against our need to eat for the next 25 days. Well, as it turned out, we made it to Biloxi, Mississippi. We had, at best, barely enough food to last a week.

Author’s Note: What happened next, and how we survived, is the topic of my next blog entry. Stay tuned!

~GJ Duerrschmidt