Highway to Hell — The Harrowing Tale of How 40 Garden Writers Faced Certain Death & Inconvenience in the Pickle Capital of North Carolina

September 28, 2009 | By | Comments (23)

I first noticed our plight when I looked out the bus’s side window and found myself eye-to-eye with a gopher. Immediately, two possibilities flashed into my mind. One, I had just discovered the world’s tallest gopher. Or two, the window was just inches from the ground.

Bus 004

“Oh God, the bus has slid into the ditch!” a fellow writer bellowed. Aw nuts, I thought. Not only will this probably ruin the rest of the garden tour, but now I’ll never be famous for finding that gopher.

I and a passel of other garden writers attending the Garden Writers Association(GWA) symposium in Raleigh, North Carolina, had boarded the bus at the crack of dawn to tour several gardens that featured “sustainable agriculture” — which, to my dismay, meant no industrial pig farms (Has prejudice against gargantuan waste lagoons reared its ugly head here? Hey, pigs gotta poop too!) The tour organizers weren’t exactly clear about where we were going. They just said “down east.”

Why all the secrecy? I figured it’s because the Air Force moved that alien spacecraft that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 to down east North Carolina and doesn’t want anyone to know.

Heck, all they have to do is hide it in a waste lagoon. Who’s gonna find it?

So anyway, we ride for well over an hour to a place where, as U2 says, the streets have no names, and pull up to the driveway of A.J. Bullard. Mr. Bullard grows all sorts of weird, exotic fruits like Chinese dates, Japanese raisins, Cornelian cherry, and other things you might consume if you were really, really hungry.

Now before I continue our thrilling tale, you must understand two things. One, our tour bus is roughly the size and weight of the Carnival Glory. Two, the driveway is unpaved, elevated, roughly 12 inches wider than the bus, and has 3-foot deep drainage ditches on each side. What an exciting experience we’re about to have.

But no! Like that airline pilot who manged to safely crash-land his plane on the Hudson River, our driver makes it all the way up the drive to the parking area. We tour the farm, take pictures of some very strange plants, and then pile back in the bus to leave. We’re behind schedule and need to step on it.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what our driver does. He attempts to negotiate a curve, and misses by six inches, and suddenly we all get that sinking feeling. And I’m eye-to-eye with that gopher.

The bus is listing to its side at roughly the same angle as the Titanic 20 minutes after it hit the iceberg. Fortunately for us, we aren’t surrounded by 38-degree water, so we all jump out. Then the fun begins. All of the Northerners who’ve never seen fire ants immediately find the nearest mound and stand on it. A hopping good time for all!

Where are we? I have no idea. I only know there is no food, no drink, no bathrooms, no taxis, no shelter, and no traffic on the road that brought us here. There is, however, a chicken coop containing 5-6 very tasty-looking chickens. But they’re on to us and scoot inside to safety whenever we approach.

Chickens 010

  Ummmm……..tasty chickens. Come to Uncle Grumpy. Would like you like some Japanese raisins?

We hear there might be rescue bus on its way and, like the boats that heard the Titanic’s mayday, it’s gonna take way too much time. Then blessed are we! A huge honkin’ tow truck owned by Oliver’s Body Shop comes barreling down the driveway towards the bus. As soon as we read the address on the door, we know we’re in good hands.

Thunder 013

I mean, how can you not believe in a man from Thunder Swamp?

For the next two hours, the bus driver, a local farmer, and the Man from Thunder Swamp labor mightily to rescue the bus without flipping it completely on its side. As one attempt after another fails, I swear I can hear the faint strains of “Dueling Banjos” in the distance. At least, my name isn’t Bobby.

Bus 014

In the meantime, former Southern Living colleague Lois Trigg Chaplin (below left) is having a good old time. She’s an entomologist, see, and the thought of having to bed down in a cornfield for the night doesn’t bother her at all. Why, that just means she’ll be so much closer to those friendly, fascinating bugs and spiders! “If I could talk to the nematodes,” she’d sing wistfully, “and they could talk to me!”

Lois 018

About three hours have now passed. I’m amazed that no one has made a dash for the bushes to relieve themselves. Garden writers have the most elastic bladders known to mankind. We pass the time trading our most awful travel experiences, like the time someone got thrown up on in during a 6-hour, excruciatingly hot bus ride in Sri Lanka and the vehicle was so crowded she couldn’t even wipe off her face. No one here has thrown up yet, but for all I know, we could be in Sri Lanka.

Then, the unbelievable happens. With one mighty yank and a great deal of prayer, the Thunder Swamp truck pulls our bus back onto the driveway, obliterating the road in the process.

Bus 032

We’ll be going back to Raleigh right away, won’t we? Well, no. You see, the concrete blocks the held in the edge of the dirt driveway were in turn held in place by iron stakes. The bus ran over the iron stakes and now has a flat tire. Of course. Did we expect anything else?

In its current condition, the bus can’t travel on the highway. It can, however, limp along on the back roads to the local Wal-Mart, where we can wait for a relief bus and also tour its wonderful garden center and make use of its sparkling restrooms!

Pickles 035

It’s now about 2:30 PM and I have one desire in mind — 24 ounces of liquid happiness. I buy a giant can of Bud. Then Alaska’s Jeff Lowenfels (above) emerges from the store with a jar of Mt. Olive pickles. We pass it all around as Jeff tells me that Mt. Olive, where this Wal-Mart is located, is North Carolina’s pickle capital. I did not know that. I am ashamed. I reach into the communal pickle jar for my third kosher dill, secure in the knowledge that no pathogen, not even Iranian president Mahmoud Rosenblatt, can survive in pickle brine.

Finally, the rescue bus arrives. It is apparent as we board that many of us will survive this day. Taking my seat, I can’t help but reflect on two bits of irony that that likely went unnoticed by most of our contingent. The first is a caution from Thunder Swamp’s truck:

Careful 024

Hmmm…not much use hearing that after the disaster, is there? Kinda like saying, “If only I’d have put wings on the plane before we took off, this whole mess could have been avoided.”

The second is the bus company logo printed prominently on the door:

Take you 026

  I’ll take you there, all right. After that, you’re on your own.


Southern Living Has a New Look!

The October 2009 issue of Southern Living marks a milestone for the magazine. It has been totally redesigned for more visual impact and easier-to-find info. We’ve also added many new regular features, such as “Gardening 101,” which is aimed at helping beginning gardeners. October’s topic: “Rooting Roses.” Click here to see a video featuring our Editor-in-Chief, Eleanor Griffin, and other staff members telling you about the changes. The Grump appears for about 6 seconds, but they’re a really good 6 seconds.

The Grump is interested in your reaction to the changes, so feel free to email me and tell me and tell me what you think. All opinions, pro and con, are welcome. I seek only to learn and improve for you.


  1. espresso machine repair

    I’m excited to discover this website. I want to to thank you for ones time for this particularly wonderful read!! I definitely really liked every part of it and I have you saved as a favorite to look at new stuff on your site.

    August 14, 2012 at 12:48 am
  2. flirting tips

    I was going to ask how you don’t get bored sitting on that bus for such an extended period of time, but apparently you don’t have that issue, lol. Quite the adventure!

    April 18, 2011 at 8:23 pm
  3. Denise Schreiber

    I don’t think the hotel had a whirlpool although I understand they had some special “fantasy” rooms on a floor that had to be accessed by steps and they had no windows. It was on the 14th floor so I’m not sure who they thought would be peeping in the windows.

    September 2, 2010 at 10:22 pm
  4. Grumpy Gardener (His Grace)

    Hot water in the toilet? You sure the hotel wasn’t sitting atop a volcano? Or maybe you just confused the toilet with the whirlpool. Every time I do that, the maid goes nuts!

    May 1, 2010 at 9:05 am
  5. Denise Schreiber

    We drove to Raleigh from Pittsburgh in a work vehicle that decided it could 80+mph without putting your foot on the gas pedal. So we missed this bus tour. I am reminded of GWA2006 when the tornado struck the sign at the hotel and crushed a truck, the flooding, the 90+ temps, the Primitive convention, the herpetolgy convention that moved in right after them, the hot water in the toilet, and the handle coming off the sink in the hotel room. Was this any different????

    April 30, 2010 at 8:35 pm
  6. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    It was like being a passenger on Oceanic 815 on “Lost.”

    March 29, 2010 at 6:45 am
  7. Sharon Beasley

    Steve: I was on the other bus. Since my friend and I have had other “oh no” experiences on our GWA trips, I can’t believe we missed this one. Your article was so funny. Sorry I can’t say -“Wish it had been my bus.”

    March 29, 2010 at 2:23 am
  8. Ellen Zachos

    Ah Steve, you were clearly not looking behind the right bushes! Several of us very intelligent, non-elastic bladdered, females organized to provide cover and moral support to whomever was doing the deed. Don’t mean to burst your bubble…but we ARE only human (although I realize it sometimes seems otherwise).

    November 5, 2009 at 7:35 pm
  9. Dency Kane

    What a kick….first time reading this and I laughed all the way through….even though the experience must have been soooo frustrating and scary too

    October 8, 2009 at 11:31 am
  10. Eva Monheim

    This is a perfect account of the day! I was towards the back of the bus and saw it slip off the edge – sitting righ in front of you – but – I didn’t see the gopher – darn!
    All ended well at the herb farm a perfect ending to the day.

    October 6, 2009 at 11:33 pm
  11. coconut

    was doing a bit of research on bus travel in sri lanka. not what i was expecting to find, but good fun. i’ve forwarded it on to my mum, a somewhat perky gardener.

    October 5, 2009 at 11:39 am
  12. Betty Mackey

    I was there! Accurate account in all respects! That’s me in funky hat yukking it up with Lois Trigg Chaplin. We were all later rescued by a bus driven by “Wide Awake Wilson” and all was well.

    October 1, 2009 at 2:40 pm
  13. Kathleen H

    Great story! I heard it was not a fun experience…. at least the company was entertaining!

    September 30, 2009 at 3:32 pm
  14. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    You know, the toilet scenario did not even occur to me and I’ve seen “Slumdog Millionaire.” We’re lucky it didn’t dump or we’d all have to ride on top of the bus.

    September 30, 2009 at 10:44 am
  15. Cor

    Thanks for putting the experience into some sort of perspective. Oh, it was funny; we had to laugh. There was little else to do. My biggest fear, as I felt the bus tipping to the opposite side from where I was sitting, was the toilet would dump along with the bus. I had visions of us sliding out the door along with toilet paper and other stuff.

    September 30, 2009 at 9:25 am
  16. Jean

    Grump does this story have anything to do with the decapitation thought?

    September 30, 2009 at 4:43 am
  17. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    What I want to know, Cameron, is why you so selfishly withheld your tractor-driving expertise. 40 people could have died out there! Thanks for not showing up!

    September 29, 2009 at 7:29 pm
  18. Cameron (Defining Your Home Garden)

    Man, you are a city-slicker aren’t you? 🙂
    What I DON’T understand is WHERE WAS THE TRACTOR? My gosh, we always use a farm tractor before calling a tow truck! Geez! You’d have been rescued in minutes, instead of hours, with a good tractor hitched to that bus!
    Looks like you were definitely in a pickle! HA HA!
    PS I learned to drive on a 1949 tractor. Never let off the clutch too fast or the thing will rear up like a wild horse!

    September 29, 2009 at 3:55 pm
  19. Kathy J, Washington Gardener Mag

    OMG! I was on the other bus trip to sedate, ornamental Raleigh-area gardens. We heard rumors thru twitter and such about your plight but yours is the first actual account I’ve read. Bravo to you all for making the best of it. Me? I might’ve sat on a fire ant pile and wept.

    September 29, 2009 at 3:51 pm
  20. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    At least we didn’t have to sleep out there. I had dibs on the spare bedroom, but everyone else would have to squeeze in with the chickens.

    September 29, 2009 at 3:14 pm
  21. Cindy, MCOK

    Steve, thank you for your hilarious personal account of the harrowing events of September 27th, a day that will live in GWA infamy, I’m sure. Those of us on the other tour were most sympathetic to your plight. It puts our experience with Helen Yoest’s cranky neighbors in perspective!

    September 29, 2009 at 1:29 pm
  22. Helen / Gardening With Confidence

    Well, st least you can laugh about it…or should I say, you got us laughing about it. H.

    September 29, 2009 at 12:36 pm
  23. Pam/Digging

    A comedy of errors, it sounds like. Still, those travel adventures always turn out to make the best stories afterward.

    September 28, 2009 at 10:43 pm

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