Trip to Florida – November 2014

The winter of 2013-2014 was the coldest and longest in over 30 years. While waiting for spring I began to think about spending at least part of the next winter in the warm, sunny south. As the driving season started winding down in August I began to think about it more seriously. Then I met a lady on one of the dating sites who told me that she had crossed the same bridge last year and bought a trailer in Florida that she would leave down there. The more I thought about it, this seemed like a good strategy, since I could vacation for several winters at a fraction of the cost of renting hotels or condominiums. And I would have the added benefit of being able to try different sites without additional investment. Another benefit would be the opportunity to spend more time with my son and his wife, who live in Orlando.

In September I began looking at travel trailers, to learn the market for both new and used models and as many questions as I could identify to help me choose one. I also spoke with a couple of neighbours who are experienced in trailering, to pick their brains and get some advice. After a couple of weeks, I decided to look for a good used trailer, starting in Florida. It didn’t take long to realize that buying a trailer over the internet would be fraught with difficulties, especially after looking at a few used models locally. So I began looking in earnest at Ontario dealers within a couple of hours of Perth, so I could actually inspect a trailer before committing. As luck would have it I stumbled across a dealer in the adjacent town of Smiths Falls, who had a seven year old 27 ft. model for a very reasonable price. When I looked at it, I couldn’t believe my luck. It had been used very little and the dealer had been renting it to occasional users – so I knew all of the equipment and systems should work properly. After sleeping on the problem, I went over and negotiated a very good deal. They did some minor work to address small issues and prepare it for me and I towed it home September 19. I then spent the next 6 weeks checking out all the systems and equipping it with linens, dishes, a BBQ and an electrical heater.

During the same period, I found a camp site north of Orlando – Wekiva Falls Resort – and asked my son to check it out before committing. It passed muster and I reserved dates from January 12 through March 29, plus a storage arrangement starting November 3. I chose the dates to bracket the Daytona Rolex 24 Hour race and the Sebring 12 hour race. As luck would have it, on October 10 I met a wonderful woman through a dating site. We seem to mesh perfectly and may have long future together, so my plans for future winters in Florida may have to be modified.

After preparing numerous lists of things to do and things to take, I was ready to leave on November 1st as planned. The weather was overcast but dry and I set out around 7 AM, learning how the truck and trailer behaved at various speeds on the road down to Highway 401 from Perth. It drove pretty well at speeds up to about 100 km/h, but the first thing I noticed was the lousy fuel economy, at about 25 L/100km. That’s almost double the consumption with an empty truck and no trailer and 25% more than pulling the car hauler fully loaded. This was going to be an expensive trip! When I got to the bridge and border crossing, I encountered the longest line for US Customs that I’ve ever seen. It seems that November 1st is a very common date for snowbirds to head south. I stopped in the Duty Free shop and I think I jumped several places in the line by doing so. The delay was a total of about 30 minutes and the Customs agent’s questions were very brief, to keep the line moving. From then on it was an easy drive in familiar territory until I entered Pennsylvania.

Shortly after crossing the PA border the Check Engine Light (CEL) came on, which was a bit alarming. I stopped at the next opportunity and used my scan instrument to read the stored code. It said “Low voltage Oxygen sensor #2 Cylinder bank #1”, which told me the problem was not serious but that it might mean I would use more fuel, since the engine’s computer reverts to a full rich fuel mixture when an O2 sensor fails.

The next little alarm came while driving through the perpetual construction zone in Scranton, PA. I was crossing a long stretch of concrete roadway (instead of asphalt), when the truck and trailer started to bounce on what felt like waves in the road surface. The longer it went on, the bigger the bounces felt, so I was concerned that I’d had a flat tire or broken an axle. So I pulled over in a five lane portion and checked everything out. There was no obvious damage and I resumed, after waiting quite a few minutes for a break in the traffic. After getting back on asphalt the problem went away, so I can only conclude that it was caused by undulations in the concrete which happened to match the spacing of all of my axles. From then on it was a long, uneventful drive to reach my first overnight stop, at a Pilot/Flying J truck service centre in Hagerstown, MD.

When I pulled into the centre I couldn’t see any other RV’s or trailers, so I parked in a line of 18 wheel transport trucks. By the time I’d gotten something to eat at McDonalds and prepared for the night, the parking area was full – of idling diesel engines. It was quite noisy all night but I got a decent sleep, in spite of external temperatures around 3 C. I actually turned on the trailer’s heater a couple of times to take the edge off the chill, because I hadn’t brought a down-filled duvet – just a light comforter. I slept in most of my clothes and managed to escape without catching a cold.

During the second day I passed through my favourite scenery in the east – the Shenandoah Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains. The views along I-81 through Virginia and I-77 through North Carolina are spectacular and must be seen to be appreciated. Some of the grades were challenging for my poor old truck, but I just stuck with it and tried to maintain a decent speed without taxing the engine too hard. Once on 1-95 in South Carolina the driving took on a whole different character, with the left lane very busy with southbound snow birds, while the right lane was very relaxed and well-spaced. I saw the most peculiar thing before sunset that afternoon. I caught up to what looked like a pick-up truck being hauled in the back of a dump truck, but rather slowly. As I pulled out to pass I could see that the whole rig was being towed – by a school bus! Only in the redneck south would you ever see something like this. Eventually I arrived at my next Pilot/Flying J rest stop near Hardeeville, SC  – just north of Savannah, GA. Once again the parking area was full of big rigs with no RV’s or trailers in sight, and it was full. I had to create a parking spot in one of the wider roadways; otherwise I’d have had to leave. It was cold again that night, with temperatures around 3 C, so I used the trailer’s heater several times to take the edge off.

I got off to an early start on the third day and arrived at Wekiva Falls exactly at noon, after phoning ahead to be sure I was expected. The drive was uneventful, except for extensive construction through Jacksonville, in which the right lane ended unexpectedly in an off-ramp! I was able to change lanes at the last minute and avoid an unscheduled tour of the city. At Wekiva I was directed to a street of unused trailer sites where I could store mine and I parked it and removed the battery and licence plate. Then I found my future home ten streets away and met my future neighbour, named Roger. We spent some time chatting and looking for my sewage drain, which eventually I told the manager to find for me before January. I left there and visited a local Chrysler dealer to see about replacing the O2 sensor, but they couldn’t fit me in. So I drove to Orlando and waited for the kids to get home from work.

I had a very nice, restful visit with them for the next 10 days, dong a lot of walking and reading, eating out a couple of times, going to an Orlando Magic basketball game and visiting the Kennedy Space Centre. I also went to an Orlando Chrysler dealer, but they couldn’t replace the O2 sensor because they didn’t have a new one in stock and were afraid they’d break the exhaust pipe because of all the rust on it. They’re not used to surface rust down there, I guess.

It seemed like no time at all before it was time to leave Orlando and begin the circuitous drive home. I had decided well before my trip to visit three friends from the Fiat club  – whom I hadn’t seen since 2011 – along the way, which I knew would make the trip longer but more of an adventure. I had used Mapquest to get directions to and from each small town, so all I had to do was follow them. It worked pretty well, but not without some challenges.

My first stop was Blairsville, GA to see my friend Craig. To get there I had to go through Atlanta, which I reached on Friday afternoon around 3:00 – the beginning of their rush hour. Traffic on I-75 was very heavy, at times spanning seven lanes bumper to bumper. I had not noted the distances between turns, so I had to keep a careful eye on all of the highway signs as I navigated the traffic. Eventually I cleared Marietta and spotted the sign for Highway 5 to Canton, which was my exit. After leaving the interstate, i went through two little villages and saw a sign saying “Highway 5 Ends”, but I persevered for another 20-30 minutes before pulling into a strip mall to check the map. At just that moment, Craig phoned me so we tried to figure out where I was and what adjustments I might have to make. It turned out that I was exactly on route but simply hadn’t reached the first milestone where Highway 5 and 575 turned north. So I kept going and had another hour’s drive before I got close to Blairsville, at which point I phoned Craig and we met at a gas station. I followed him in his BMW for a good half hour on a hilly, twisty mountain road and then made a couple of turns until we were on his road, which was narrower, hillier and twistier! It was a two-fisted drive to just keep up with him! His wife had prepared a lovely dinner of Mexican food and we enjoyed a pleasant evening of chit chat and a quick tour of his garage.

In the morning Craig made bacon, eggs and grits – my first taste of them! Then he took me out to explore some of the better driving roads in the Georgia mountains. After 20-30 minutes we came to Blood Mountain Road, which is one of the most outrageous mountain roads I’ve even been on. Switchbacks, rapid changes in camber and steep grades made for an entertaining ride, along with a tiny hint of stomach upset! Then he took me on the Richard Russell scenic drive, which flowed a little better but was equally picturesque. Finally it was time to leave and I set out on simplified directions that Craig had supplied, destined for Walkertown, NC and my friend Denise.

After a few short miles I reached North Carolina and then Highways 129 and 19, leading to the town of Murphy. This was a lovely winding four-lane road until I reached the Nantahala pass where it reduced to two lanes because of the very hilly terrain and narrow gorges along the Nantahala River. Through this section the scenery was spectacular, as I paralleled the Nantahala River through white water rafting country. The hills got ever higher as I transitioned into the Great Smoky Mountains along Highway 74, some peaks being about 1000’ above the roadway and some with dwellings at the top! The road switched back to four lanes as I crossed the Little Tennessee River and the scenery just kept getting better and better. This was now the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway and it led directly to Interstate 40 after crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway – twice! Once on I-40 it was a straight shot to Winston-Salem and just a couple more turns to reach Denise’s house in Walkertown in mid-afternoon.

We had a really good visit in the afternoon, spending some time in the garage/shop talking to her husband and looking at race cars – and trying some apple pie flavoured moonshine! They had another couple over for supper, so we had a full table with lots of chatter – and deep southern accents – about racing, Canada, moonshine, etc. They kept visiting until late in the night, but I went to bed a bit earlier, waking up to the smell of bacon from the kitchen. Denise made me a nice breakfast and I set out for Pennsylvania around 9 o’clock.

I was only an hour from Denise’s house when I reached the familiar turf of Martinsville and Highway 220, leading to Interstate 81 at Roanoke, VA. From then on it was like a reunion as I followed I-81 all the way to Mechanicsburg, PA, where I exited to get onto I-76 heading for Philadelphia. From then on, I got quite busy. I had to make eleven turns before arrival, many after dark and onto streets with no highway numbers – just normal urban street signs. But I was out in the country with no lights showing anywhere – not houses, stores or streetlights. Needless to say, I missed a couple and had to turn around a few times, but eventually I found Shaun’s house down a long dark lane that turned out to be his driveway. Fortunately I had given myself an extra hour, so I was only 10 minutes late arriving.

After a quick stop to freshen up and find my room, he and his wife and daughter and I piled into his Prius and drove to his car storage warehouse in Reading – about 15 minutes away. He owns about 180 cars, either for restoration and sale or for spare parts, and 110 of them are crammed into this warehouse. He has found a new site that is bigger and newer, so all the cars will be moved there over the next year. Most of them are Italian, but he has a few American, German and others as well. There are so many that it’s not possible to squeeze between them – one can only stand on the mezzanine and look over the lot of them from above. After this tour we went to a nice diner-style restaurant and had a good meal – and then we all retired early.

The next morning was a Monday so everyone had to go to school and work, so I left early – around 8 o’clock – and started the final leg of my journey home. Getting out of Shaun’s neighbourhood in the cold drizzle was almost as challenging as finding my way in the dark, but I managed to stay on route and eventually found the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 81. I hit snow around Watertown, NY and followed it all the way home, where I found 2-3” on the ground. The total distance of my return trip was about 2750 km – about 500 km further than the trip south. But it was worth the extra time, distance and fuel to visit three good friends at their homes. What a great trip!

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