The Phoenix One Journals Stories from the dawn of RoadTrip America
"Um, I Think We're On Fire"
Just east of Knoxville, Tennessee, is an exit off the Interstate that leads to the biggest accumulation of tourist development in the galaxy. The road stretching from Sevierville to Gatlinburg is lined with shops selling wares in such variety that even the most jaded traveler will find himself parking. Dad may not want to stop at another store full of baskets and refrigerator magnets, but he'll screech to a halt in front of the knife warehouse. Whoever coined the term 'tourist trap' had probably just tried to drive through Pigeon Forge without stopping. It can't be done. It's the price you have to pay for getting to the Smoky Mountains from Tennessee.
We didn't really have a yen to be sucked into the shopping vortex, but it happened anyway. We pulled into a KOA Kampground next to the highway, but we needed a grocery store. "There's a Kroger south of here a few miles," said the young man at the desk, "And a Wal-Mart Super Center a couple miles beyond that." See what I mean? The Sevierville triangle gets you every time. We were soon in the heart of it all, in the wake of Halloween. A few pumpkins remained, but Christmas comes early in tourist land.
It was easy to resist taking a helicopter ride, because the helicopter hill was deserted. It was easy to resist the gift shops, because we don't have room for unnecessary stuff, and Christmas was far enough off to justify procrastination. So where did our resistance break down? Wal-Mart. Here we were, a stone's throw from autumn in the Great Smokies, and we spent two hours navigating a discount warehouse. When we emerged, we decided to stop for dinner in a nearby restaurant.
Here's the scoop on alcohol in the tourist vortex. Sevierville allows beer. Pigeon Forge allows none. Gatlinburg has no rules at all, which is why it has all the bars and the most tourists. "But Sevierville is changing," said our waitress. "When we first got a permit to sell beer, the Christian Temperance Alliance staged a big protest. But now we're trying for a full license." I have no doubt they'll get it. And when they do, the only tourist-trapping attraction they'll lack is gambling. Just wait.
The next morning, we headed east around eleven. Truckers on the CB radio were talking about snow. "Lawd, have muhcy," said one. The accents alone made for good listening. At milepost 56 in Virginia, the snow appeared, a powdered sugar dusting on trees still clothed in green. The grass was still green, too. Only the kudzu was suffering, shriveled and brown on the fences and trees. If it didn't die back every fall, I thought, it would have taken over the continent by now.
"I think we left our snow boots in the Phoenix One," said Mark, but as the road descended, the snow vanished. We stopped to eat at a Flying J Truck Stop in Max Meadows, Virginia. TV screens were suspended from the ceiling in the restaurant. Truckers smoked and watched the screens as they went through a five-minute broadcast of headline news, sports, and weather. We watched it three times while we waited for our food. Every so often, a woman's voice would sound over a loudspeaker. "Shower number 2-0-5 is now ready. Shower number 2-0-5 is now ready." As we left, we noticed a sign over the cash register. "Thank you for paying," it read. I guess it's all too easy to steal dinner at the buffet, and all too difficult to catch a traveler who's in the next state by the time you notice what's happened.
We stayed overnight in Lynchburg. "In the morning, as we we're driving east to Norfolk, we can stop at Appomattox," I said. "We can see where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. I like visiting that kind of place more than a battlefield."
The next morning was crisp and clear, and the parking lot at Appomattox Court House was nearly deserted. "There's the courthouse," I said, pointing at a two-story brick structure with a white porch. "That must be where they met."
But it wasn't. It was the courthouse all right, but Lee and Grant didn't meet in the courthouse. "They met in a house nearby," explained a ranger patiently. "The confusion comes from the fact that the town itself was called Appomattox Court House. They did meet at Appomattox Court House. They just didn't meet in the courthouse. You'd be amazed how many American history teachers we've set straight."
Farther east, we drove through Wakefield, a town surrounded by peanut fields. "Home Cooked Peanuts," read a home-painted sign. "The Nut House," read another, and "Peanuts—Roasted & Raw." The air was warmer now, and we drove through cotton fields and more peanuts. "I wonder where the tobacco is," said Mark. We saw only one tiny family plot in two hundred miles.
Fine weather stayed with us to Virginia Beach, where we pulled into a campground near the coast and prepared for several days of NicoVan events. The first was at the Naval Amphibious Base at Little Creek, where we parked next to the entrance of the Commissary. The day was a success, and we were looking forward to another at a Target store on Friday.
Friday morning, we were on our way to the American Cancer Society's offices in Norfolk. We were sailing along the Virginia Beach Expressway, when BAM! "Is it a tire?" I asked. Mark pulled onto the shoulder, and we got out to look.
The tires were fine. We walked toward the front of the truck. A little plume of white smoke was escaping from under the chassis. "It's steam, I think," said Mark. I sniffed it. It didn't smell like steam. "I think it might be smoke," I said. I looked closer. "Uh, Mark, I think we're on fire."
We looked at each other in disbelief, and then adrenalin took over. I jumped inside, grabbed Marvin, jumped out, and slid down the slope into a ditch full of water. Mark grabbed our two computers and an umbrella. He set them down on the grass and ran back. "Throw me a cellular phone," I shouted. Just then a truck pulled off the road in front of us. Two men jumped out. One was holding a fire extinguisher.
I dialed 911 and watched as Mark jumped back inside the truck. I saw flames leap out of the engine compartment. "911 Operator, how can I help you?" said a woman's voice. "Mark, get out of there!" I screamed. "Oh, sorry. We've got a fire in a motor home, and it's right near the propane tank." Mark didn't move. The man with the fire extinguisher jumped inside with him.
"Where are you?" asked the patient voice on the phone. I did a lousy job of telling her, because I wasn't sure what exit we were near, and no landmarks were visible from where we'd stopped. I also kept interrupting myself to yell at Mark to get away from the truck. I'd seen pictures of the aftermath of an encounter between a propane truck and a campground, and I had visions of a crater filled with charred bodies and twisted metal.
Somehow, the 911 Operator divined our location, and the Virginia Beach Fire Department arrived. A fireman leapt out of the truck and unwound a big hose. Oh, brother, I thought. There goes the inside of the NicoVan, saved from flames only to be destroyed by flood. But Mark and the other man with the fire extinguisher had pretty much knocked down the fire, and no water was needed. The firemen checked it from all sides and stayed until everything had cooled down.
The smoke alarm was still sounding when I climbed back inside. The plywood lid of the battery compartment was lying upside down on the floor. It was charred. The fire had been stopped only seconds before igniting the interior of the NicoVan. If that had happened, the entire vehicle would have been consumed in a matter of minutes. Motor homes are famous for holding up poorly under attack by tornado. They're even less well-equipped to withstand fire. Everything in them makes terrific kindling.
A Virginia State Trooper stopped to see if we needed help. He would have stayed with us until a tow truck came, but we told him we'd be fine.
When the day ended, Mark, Marvin and I were in a room at a hotel in Virginia Beach that didn't mind having a dog as a guest. The NicoVan was inside a garage at a Mack truck repair shop in Chesapeake. We'd thrown everything we thought we'd need into the trunk of a rental car, and once again, we're facing the future unsure of what it holds. We're alive, though, which means the journey continues.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
November 10, 1997