Monday, January 11, 2010

A Long Day and a Long Story

The day began with us pulling out of the Rainbow Plantation RV Park (so aptly described in Mary's last post), heading for an early morning appointment with a mechanic who came strongly recommended by several people at the park.

We arrived to the mechanic's garage in Robertsdale, Alabama at 8:30 and reviewed our "punch list" of items to be addressed. With Tina in tow, we tried to decide how to pass the next few hours. It was relatively cold (37 degrees F) but sunny, and the temperature was forecast to slowly rise all morning to the low 50's. We chose to spend the morning exploring the town.

Our morning was like something out of a movie by Jim Jarmusch. For those of you not familiar with Mr. Jarmusch, he makes quirky and interesting independent films which are often graced with atmospheric music by musicians such as Tom Waits. Jarmusch's early films, like Mystery Train, feature bleak urban and rural American landscapes filmed in grainy black and white, and the characters move within those landscapes like aliens dropped from a parallel universe.

For several hours, we wandered the somewhat bleak landscape of Robertsdale, walking with Tina in the cool morning air, seeing simple homes with countless barking, unhappy dogs tied on short chains in cluttered back yards. It was simply too cold to leave Tina sitting on her own outside a restaurant, and the "waiting room" at the garage was simply too foul with auto exhaust and other unidentifiable toxins to be comfortable for waiting. So, we wandered and wandered, eventually passing time in a very nice playground where Tina took a nap, I played on the swings, and Mary did yoga and meditated.

After three hours of passing the time in this way, the word came that it would be several more hours until our rig was ready. We had brought it in for routine maintenance, but a few pressing mechanical issues has presented themselves, and we chose to have them dealt with swiftly and decisively.

As the morning warmed, we made our way to a "down home" local restaurant offering a buffet-style lunch for $8. While Mary had no appetite, I was absolutely famished, and the friendly waitresses and owner guided us to the buffet where I piled a plate with mashed potatoes, navy beans, cole slaw, turnip greens, broccoli, and peach cobbler. It was good old-fashioned American fare chased down with strong decaf coffee, and they even let us bring two hamburgers and a dish of water to poor old Tina who was yelping wretchedly every few minutes from the front porch. Meanwhile, Mary's hunger awoke at the smell of food and I fed her surreptitiously from my plate, returning to the buffet for more beans, greens and potatoes with which to please her.

During the course of our meal, Mary struck up a cordial conversation with two elderly brothers at the next table, and after a fairly lengthy conversation about our lives and travels, the more talkative of the two said called us over to their table.

"Y'know, I'd like to offer you to stay for free for two days on my property on the Gulf of Mexico near Biloxi, Mississippi." He leaned forward, looked me in the eye, and said, "Just two days, mind you." I readily agreed.

"You see," he continued, "my house on the Gulf was destroyed in the big hurricane, but there's still electricity, and I'd like you to feel welcome to park there. In fact, let me write down the directions and my phone number. And if anyone asks you why you're there, just tell them Bill sent you."

I thanked him profusely since Mary had excused herself to tend to Tina, and he wrote down the directions in Mary's journal. He added that "the best barbecue in the United States" was right down the street and we just had to eat there while visiting his property.

Finally, when lunch was done, we received the call that our rig was indeed ready, five hours after we had started. The friendly mechanic presented us with a substantial bill, some good advice, some peace of mind, and news that other work would be needed down the road, hopefully sooner than later.

We returned to the RV park to discuss some other needed repairs with a local RV technician, made an appointment with him for Friday, and headed down the road to the Alabama Gulf Coast in search of a place to stay for the sunny week which was forecast to continue until Friday. Stopping to get diesel and propane, we arrived at a recommended campground on the coast just before sundown, but the park was very unimpressive and depressing, with views of an over-developed coastline filled with big hotel resorts and coastal sprawl.

Knowing that the beautiful and more remote Fort Pickens National Park was only 40 miles further east over the Florida border, we chose to drive into the darkening evening with Mary at the helm. A blood-red sunset washed through the sky behind us, and I spent a few minutes (illegally) laying on the bed and watching the sky through the rear window.

We arrived to Fort Pickens by 8:30pm, tired but happy, having driven through the touristy sprawl surrounding Pensacola. Our elation at finally arriving turned to upset when I discovered that our propane tank's knob was not turning, being for all intents and purposes frozen, making us immediately realize that we were facing the reality of a night without heat. With temperatures still forecast to be below freezing overnight, being without heat is non-negotiable for us, the danger of frozen and burst pipes a very clear reality. With our propane furnace as our only heat source, this was a dire situation in need of a timely remedy.

Anxiously calling our RV technician contacts (and even the kind National Park rangers who responded with a visit!), we were not able to glean any advice that would remedy the situation, so we were faced with the lamentable choice of driving 16 miles round-trip to the nearest Wal-Mart (a store which I have stalwartly boycotted for my entire life) to purchase a portable electric heater, taking into consideration that our campsite was equipped with reliable electrical power that would give us the energy to run it.

Arriving to the local Wal-Mart, I was informed (as I had expected) that there had been a rush on portable heaters for the last two weeks, and every store in Florida was sold out, including this one. Bare shelves confirmed the story, and the very kind salesperson listened to my tale of woe very closely.

"Well, sir" he said thoughtfully, "let me run to the back. Someone returned a heater the other day, and maybe it's still back there. I don't know if it works or not, but let's find out."

He rushed to the stock room and returned with a smile several minutes later. We plugged in the heater, which was working perfectly, and I gratefully paid for it with a gift card that the gracious Latino elders at Mary's old workplace had given to her several years ago for Mother's Day. We returned to Fort Pickens by 11pm, exhausted and spent.

Unfortunately, to top off our day, I backed the rig into a low-lying branch and bent the ladder at the top of the rig, but no permanent damage seems to have been done and it can assuredly be easily fixed. Oy vey.

When I returned to the rig after plugging in our electric cord and checking on the ladder, Mary was on the phone and in tears, having received the news that her close friend's sister had died of a sudden heart attack just hours ago, leaving two young children and a husband who had all witnessed her death despite the husband's efforts to revive her. 

This life on the road is filled with unexpected twists and turns. As I write, the portable electric heater is warming our space adequately, and our pipes are no longer in danger of freezing. In terms of cooking, we have a small one-burner camp stove that we can use outdoors tomorrow, so we are assured of a warm cup of tea and a hot meal. In terms of the stuck propane knob, we hope that this situation will be easily remedied, and we'll make calls tomorrow in search of someone who can offer us a solution. The propane powers our furnace, hot water heater and kitchen stove, so it is essential to our comfort and self-sufficiency.

For now, we go to bed grateful and tired, and the news of our dear friend's sister's death certainly puts our problems into proper perspective. We will be ready to face the day tomorrow, take in some sun, and determine the fate of our propane tank and our future ability to heat our home, take hot showers and cook. Still, we have a cozy home in which to slumber, we're safe and sound, and this vexing problem too shall pass.

Not having heat or hot water is one thing, but losing a loved (an experience with which we are all too familiar) is an incomparable challenge that truly tests an individual's ability to cope and carry on in the face of tragedy and grief. We give thanks for our relative health and well-being, and we pray for our friend and her family as they cope with a sudden and tragic loss.


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