Thursday, July 15, 2010

Change of plans

We are at the Columbus-Belmont State Park, in Coumbus, Kentucky (map), overlooking the Mississippi. We have a "premium" site with a river view and 50 amps for a princely sum north of $25, but we needed the power, and once here figured we might as well go for the high-zoot digs. How we ended up here is something of a story, with a happy ending but much drama in the middle.

Tuesday evening, after checking the hurricane forecast (still blank) and the nationwide heat-index charts (grim), we decided to abandon our lazy amble down the river, with its concomitant daily hunt for power outlets, in favor of picking a destination along the gulf coast and heading there more or less directly. After looking at weather, driving distances, and tarball forecasts, we chose Fort Walton Beach, Florida, at the western end of the panhandle. Not only is that more or less equidistant from both ends of the gulf coast, but it is also striking distance from the eastern seaboard hurricane belt, is somewhat cooler than anything further west, and has an Elks lodge right on the beach with a 30-amp power outlet.

Having made the decision to head expeditiously to the coast, we then faced a choice of perhaps three or four sensible routes, all about the same length. Ultimately we made the decision based on maximizing the number of associate clubs we'd pass along the way, as our membership gets us a free meal at each club we visit. The route we settled on hits clubs in Nashville, Huntsville, Birmingham, and Montgomery before landing us on the beach.

The most direct route from Sikeston to Nashville cuts across the southern tip of Illinois, but having done that more than once, now, I was looking for an alternative. Besides, while we were still ambling down the river, I was looking forward to passing through New Madrid, famous for being close to the epicenter of a destructive earthquake, and across the river from a piece of Kentucky disconnected from its mother state. From there to Nashville the most direct route crosses the river at the Dorena-Hickman Ferry, which met my objective of avoiding the now-familiar Illinois route.

We have a love-hate relationship with ferries. I love them, and Louise hates them. In part that's because Odyssey's low ground clearance and long front and rear overhangs can make ferry embarkation and disembarkation challenging or sometimes impossible. Many ferries across flat water have been no trouble at all, including the Cape May -- Lewes ferry, all the North Carolina ferries, the Port Aransas Ferry, and, once we got the hang of it, the Cameron Ferry in Louisiana. Other ferries have been less kind, including the Baja Ferries' Topolobampo -- La Paz ferry, which took a chunk out of our bodywork, the Dauphin Island ferry near Mobile, whose ramp was so steep we could not board at all, and our first encounter with the Cameron Ferry where we dropped an air bag before we understood the technique.

Because of the issues, I do as much research as possible before heading towards a ferry, and this one looked OK. However, when we arrived at the landing, in the middle of nowhere, after a long drive down minor state roads, we discovered the ramp at the landing to be steep enough to be of concern. We waited patiently for the ferry to arrive, and when it did, Louise went down to talk to the ferryman about our concerns. On top of everything else, it turned out the ferry had one busted ramp, which meant we'd have to either back on, or back off at the other end.

We opted to back on, and with Louise on deck with a radio, and the rear suspension at full elevation, I carefully backed down the concrete towards the ramp. Due to safety concerns with the loading ramp, they made Louise stand a good 40' away, and so it was that she could not really see that we were about to bottom out on the ramp, and that's exactly what happened. And there we were, front wheels on land, tail skid firmly on the ferry, and the drive wheels completely off the ground. I'm sorry we did not get a photo, but we were both very focused now on how to get unstuck.

(Actually, the left drive wheel was on the ground, and the right one was just barely touching. When the ferry captain asked Sean to pull forward, the right wheel spun, making just enough contact with the concrete to smoke and stink. -Louise)

I won't bore you with the details of the next half hour, other than to say that the now very annoyed people behind us in line got out of their cars in the 95° heat to watch the unfolding drama. The ferry captain was very resistant to my plan, but after trying it his way for half an hour with no success, and, in fact, inching the whole time further onto the ferry and closer to becoming a submarine in the Mississippi, he finally relented. (All the negotiations between the ferry captain in the tow boat cockpit and Sean in the bus cockpit were via two radios: our little FRS walkie-talkies and another radio link between the captain and the bemused deck hand standing next to me on the ferry barge. -L)

I put our two massive rubber chocks under the front wheels and released the brakes, and the ferry backed slowly out from under us. This ultimately destroyed one of the chocks, but it worked, and I was able to drive back up the concrete to the road.

Louise says we are never taking a ferry again. (He can take all the ferries he wants, but I'm not going. -L)

In any case, we then ended up driving north to US-60 and the bridge to Cairo, Illinois. We stopped at the parking lot of the closed Fort Defiance State Park and the still-defunct toll house museum to regroup. This state park in Kentucky would be the closest power option, and we were past done for the day after the ferry experience. Today we will leave the river and the Great River Road behind and head east to Nashville.

Photo by jocelyn.aubert, used under a Creative Commons license. Note: Not the ferry we were on. Because you know, it could have been worse. But I'm still not going on any more ferries.


  1. Honk has you go through Birmingham ... if you need anything please contact me ...

  2. what's an associate's club? Like the Elks, or something else?

  3. We recently did a day trip to New Madrid. The gps said go on the ferry. I said NO WAY. We live about 30 minutes from Paris Landing. The Land Between the Lakes Piney Campground near Paris Landing is also a good spot but not sure about big rigs.

    B Hart

  4. O.
    I am having nervous palpitations, and I am only reading about this AFTER the fact. I agree with Louise. No more ferries. It's too stressful for your readers!

  5. @JP: We'll wave as we pass. Not sure if we'll stop longer than it takes to eat, since parking options are scarce.

    @Linda: I belong to the Silicon Valley Capital Club, a business club in San Jose, California, a holdover from the days when I worked in that city and we lived in a condo across from that club's athletic facilities. Once I retired and we moved away from San Jose, we would have given up our membership had it not been for an optional dining program the club offered wherein we can get a free meal for the two of us each month at any of the dozens of affiliated clubs around the country.

    Since we pay only non-resident dues (having officially moved to Washington), access to a club and a free meal in many major cities is a great deal. In addition to dining facilities and cocktail lounges, most clubs have nice sitting areas, internet access, telephones, and other business amenities. Some also have athletic facilities, swimming pools, and other amenities that we can use for a small fee. Many clubs are located on the upper floors of some of the tallest buildings in their respective cities and provide stunning views.

    @B. Hart and Debbie Cohn: Well, I still like ferries, even if many are off-limits to Odyssey. In fact, I regret that we started our odyssey a few years too late to have done the Mississippi by barge. At least we got to do the Copper Canyon train before that, too, passed into oblivion.


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