Wilmington to Miami via Charleston, Savannah and Flagler Beach

As we mentioned in the last post, buying our big bus was only the first step, we also had to get it down to Miami in time for both of us to get back to work. We aren’t retired yet! Though our salesman, Matt, had given us as much time as we needed with him to get a feel for the bus, it was up to us to learn the idiosynchrasies of driving it, and so with much trepidation we pulled out of the Wilmington RV lot pointed towards US-17 South.

J&R with Salesman Matt

J&R with Salesman Matt

We had made the quite deliberate choice to avoid I-95 for the first couple of days so we could get the hang of the bus at slower speeds, to enjoy the views a bit more than the interestate would allow, and to take a shorter route to Charleston for a nice overnight in a county park we had located on James Island. Our plan was to take it in four stages: Wilmington to Charleston, on to Savannah, on to the vicinity of St Augustine, then the last leg to Miami. The first leg was quite a learning experience, as driving any new vehicle can be, but doubly so with a large rig. The automatic transmission sequencing system took some getting used to, and we had a bit of a panic at one point when the driver’s side mirror started to slowly swing in towards the bus body, completely eliminating my side and rear views on the driver side. Fortunately this required but a quick stop to tighten a nut, and other than that the bus performed better than we could have hoped.

We took a break for lunch at British pub, which may or may not be called The Bull and Balls, conveniently located right beside the highway. Here we ran into our first significant problem in the parking lot: I didn’t properly scope it out before pulling in, we were forced to do a multi-point turn to get out… and the bus did not want to go into reverse. We would later learn this is probaby a sticky solenoid switch that, for now, needs to be gently encouraged to go into gear with the right shifting sequence rather than brute forced. After much fiddling with the transmission controls and a 20 point turn I was pointed towards freedom in a temporary though not entirely legal parking spot. We finished our enjoyable lunch complete with Scottish egg balls or whatnot, and were on our way to Charleston’s James Island County Park.

Entrance

Entrance

It was a relatively easy journey, though the bus balked at the steeper bridges and dropped down to first gear to clear them, and I balked at the few miles of narrow back roads leading to the park, but once in it was a great little place to stay. The friendly staff advertised themesleves as one of the top ten county parks in the country, and I highly recommend it. Lots of hiking and biking trails, some nice little ponds, beautiful trees and spacious RV parking. We had a bit more trouble backing it in to our spot, but with each reverse attempt I figured out the requirements a bit more and it became steadily easier to maneuver this beast. We arrived only an hour or two before dusk, so we did not have much of a chance to enjoy the park, but it is definably on our list to come back to when we make another East coast venture. Though at $39 a night (Good Sam discounted rate for a back in spot with water and electricity) it was a little steeper than the state parks we have previously used, we still thought it a decent deal.
One of several ponds

One of several ponds

Our first RV parking spot

Our first RV parking spot

We were far more tired than anticipated; the stress of a six hour drive combined with not having the time to figure out how to turn on the bus heaters combined to make us sleep in far later than planned. We took a referesing warm shower in the park facilities and got on the road close to noon, consoling ourselves with the knolweldge that we were well rested and Savannah was a shorter drive than the previous day’s. This trip went smoother though there were a few moments of tense anticipation as we approached downtown Savannah, but our concerns were unfounded; the path to Savannah’s MLK Visitor Information Center was but a couple of easily made turns right off of US-17. We had found this option with a bit of internet research: you can park even a large RV in the visitor center overnight for only $10, and this is the only place within walking distance of the riverfront that you can do so.

We had arrived in plenty of time for some daylight activity, so we bought a $5 tour book and took a self guided walking tour of the historic riverfront area, ending at the river’s edge near all the shops, bars and restaurants. Because the food at ocean and river front tourist destinations can be overpriced and of questionable quality, we intended on using the excellent Yelp and Travel Advisor reviews for a restaurant recommendation at least a few blocks off the river. But once on river we stumbled across a great and affordable craft beer oriented bar, The Warehouse, with an excellent restaurant, Fiddler’s, but a few doors down serving large, fresh and delicious raw oysters. We had two dozen and called it a night.

One of many beautiful Savannah parks

One of many beautiful Savannah parks

The Savannah riverfront

The Savannah riverfront

The visitor center parking lot had emptied considerably, we were the only large bus left, and it felt safe and remained quite for us to sleep there. We had a pretty good night, the only down side was the lack of a warm shower the next morning before we headed for the Florida border, gassing up one least time before hitting the noticeable price jump in the Sunshine State.
Savannah MLK Visitor Center

Savannah MLK Visitor Center

Though it was the shortest, this was our most exciting leg with our first major mechanical problem. The RV dealership had warned me about a very small pinhole leak coming from the driver side windshield wiper valve. The bus is heavily reliant on a compressed air system which effects the brakes, ride cushioning, and various control mechanisms. Ideally the system will pump up to 90 psi upon start, and will hold that pressure for weeks. A small leak means the compressor will kick on intermittently to maintain pressure. The dealership felt the leak was just annoying enough to warrant a temporary jury rig fix: a pair of vice grips on the hose leading to the wiper control, which worked… for a while. For three days to be precise. As we left Savannah, we noticed the leak for the first time, a tiny little sound at first, but growing louder with each mile and sufficient that we could feel it coming from below the dash. Then all hell broke loose as the hose cracked around the vice grips, causing the system to lose pressure fast, an unholy rushing sound filled the cabin such that we had to shout to hear each other, and the bus was barely able to maintain sufficient pressure to keep going. We nursed it 19 miles down the road to the nearest Love’s, having heard good reviews about their service. Such reviews are justified as the mechanics on duty there fixed us up within two hours for only $98. We still have the original tiny leak, but the aggravated hose break is repaired until I can get to the wiper control valve.

We got quite lucky with the weather, skirting under the rain for almost the entire trip, and apparently missing a deluge just before we arrived in Flagler Beach at Gamble Rogers State Park, one of the only places in Florida where you can park your rig right up to the dunes in front of the beach. We were quite lucky to get a spot here; I had been checking every day for weeks looking for a cancellation, and two days before arrival one popped open. This is a fanstastic RV campground, about 5 miles from the intestate with warm showers, nice sized spots, and you could not ask for better views. We had plenty of time for a walk on the beach before dinner and a solid night’s rest listening to the waves crash outside our window.

Right on the ocean at Gamble Rogers State Park

Right on the ocean at Gamble Rogers State Park

A walk on the beach before sunset

A walk on the beach before sunset

Fancy handmade highball glasses for a cocktail

Fancy handmade highball glasses for a cocktail

The last day was a grind: six hours of driving, mostly down I-95, which deserves all of its reputation as a stress inducing highway. We were at least able to start the day with a fantastic cruise for 15 miles down A1A, and I highly recommend this stretch of coastal road from Flagler Beach to Ormand Beach for a fun and scenic cruise. We turned inland before reaching Daytona Beach, and then it was hundreds of miles of interstate. Truth be told, I-95 in Florida on a weekend other than holiday travel periods is not that bad South of Jacksonville until you approach the Fort Lauderdale area, where it picks up significantly, culminating in every driver’s nightmare in Miami. I drive this road every week, but this was the first time in a bus, and it was… not fun. We managed it, but arriving at our storage area on the Opa Locka airport was quite a relief, doubly so since before arriving we were not entirely sure if our big boy would fit in the spot formerly held by the 26′ GMC, but it did with no more than 2 feet to spare. Exhausted but exhilarated, we piled into our waiting Saab and headed to our condo, mission complete.

It’s a Bus! Welcoming the Big Kahuna.

Art has to move you and design does not, unless it’s a good design for a bus.

– David Hockney

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, we sold our GMC Motorhome, the Silver Shell, in order to upsize to a rig more spacious and suitable for full time living. This last week we made the purchase: a 35’ vintage 1963 GM PD-4106 bus! As our vehicle ownership history indicates, filled as it is with odd models like the Suzuki X-90, an Isuzu Vehicross, and multiple Saabs, we like our rides unusual. So in looking for a larger motorhome within our price constraints, a used bus was a tempting option from the minute we started our research; we just needed the information, confidence, and right rig to come along.

The first two requirements were provided by the adventurous couple who run Technomadia and other online RV-oriented endeavors. They purchased a slightly older version of our bus, a ’61 GM 4106, and significantly upgraded the existing motorhome conversion with modern tech wizardry. Having followed their blog for the last year, we had a good feel for the pros and cons of a vintage bus, and were reasonable prepared to assess options as they presented. We had narrowed our search to Flexble, MCI, and GM busses from the ‘50s through the ‘80s.

When we ran across the ’63 GM on eBay, saw that it was conveniently located next to relatives in Wilmington, NC, and noted that the auction bidding was stuck below half of the original asking price and well within our expected range, we thought we might have a bargain. When we learned that the most recent owner, a nuclear engineer, had lovingly converted, upgraded, and maintained it during his four decades of ownership, including with a full engine rebuild, we knew we had found our future home if we could win the bidding. In a tense evening of constant refreshing, last minute research, and more than one glass of wine, we executed a last second “sniper bid” on the eBay auction, effectively eliminating a psychological bidding war, and watched as the last seconds ticked down without anyone exceeding our offer. We committed to the purchase with a deposit the next day.

This last week we flew to Wilmington, stayed the night with my mom and father in law, and then we all piled into their SUV filled with our travel bags and folding bicycles, and met our new bus at Wilmington RV. Matt Rancourt had been working with us since well before our arrival to conduct routine maintenance and storage accommodations, and gave us the grand tour and as much of an operational and technical rundown as possible. We signed the papers and drove off the lot headed toward Miami.

Now, I know there must be some skepticism out there about the wisdom of switching from one old ’78 vehicle to an even older ’61, but the reality is that diesel buses, real buses meant for passenger service as this one was, were designed to go a million miles, and the Detroit 8V71 engine is a well-regarded workhorse that will serve for decades more. A new “diesel pusher” motorhome would run us at least a $100K, so the $22K we paid for this one leaves us lots of budget room for upgrades. Our four day shakedown cruise from Wilmington to Miami proved that this big boy is comfortable on the road, and having had 750 miles along a steep learning curve, I think he is significantly more reliable than our somewhat finicky Silver Shell. We will post more about that first road trip another day, along with information on the upgrades and interior changes we are looking at, but for now, enjoy some pictures of the Big Kahuna.

For a size reference, here is Wilmington RV salesman Matt giving me the first tour of the Big Kahuna:
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Mom, Tim, and I in front of the bus:
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Closing the deal:
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