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