Title blurb

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

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

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