It is early September as I write this, more than 19 months into a pandemic that, in its earliest days, I had written off as something overhyped, much like SARs and Bird Flu were two decades prior. Of course, there is no such thing as overhyping a global catastrophe that has taken over 4.5 million lives so far (source as of 9/3/21: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/coronavirus-death-toll/).
Now, I am, if anything, more concerned than the average American that the numbers aren’t stabilizing quickly enough; the Delta variant is spreading at an alarming rate, and we have only just reached 70% of Americans with at least one dose of the vaccine. I predict that we’ll keep theme parks and campgrounds open until Fall Break and that afterwards, restaurants, museums, and other attractions will slowly re-shutter and mask mandates will slowly re-appear. I hope I’m wrong once again, but this time I think I will be right.
Despite lingering coronavirus concerns, I did manage to take one vacation this year; it was one that had gotten postponed 12 months for obvious reasons, and that fell into near-perfect weather.
Last April, I visited Savannah, Georgia!
Timing was in my favor, as my COVID vaccination category – essential telecommunications support – had opened up perhaps five weeks before my trip. My first dose of Pfizer went off without a hitch; I have always had a needle phobia but I barely felt the injection, and my only side effect was a sore arm later that evening and for half of the following day. The second dose was scheduled just five days before my departure to Savannah. I knew that I was cutting it close, but to be clear: this vacation was going to happen regardless.
The second shot was even more painless than the first. “You can expect more of a reaction with this dose,” the nurse warned me, but what little arm pain there was didn’t even kick in until 24 hours afterwards. Shew! Vaccinated and on my way!
I planned on grabbing lunch in Columbia, South Carolina, along the way, as it was a good place to gas up and stretch my legs. Previous trips to South Carolina had me preparing for heavy traffic through North Carolina, but I lucked into an easy travel day and hit Columbia after just 3.5 hours of driving (the “Hamilton” soundtrack playing on an endless loop). Another 40 miles along I-26 and I merged onto I-95, the Maine-to-Miami interstate highway that features notorious traffic further north. The route here was through lowland cypress swamps, and even though it was just mid-April and I was inside the air-conditioned comfort of my car, it looked hot. Beware anyone who has car trouble along this stretch of highway (more on that later, Loyal Reader).
I got off the interstate in Hardeeville, SC, a place most famous for being midway between Savanah and Hilton Head. The rest of the drive into Savannah was on two-lane U.S. 17, and passed the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge along the way. The sun was getting low in the sky and I crossed the SC-GA state line and ascended the impressive Talmadge Memorial Bridge, built in 1991 and named after two-time Democratic governor Eugene Talmadge. The bridge crosses Hutchinson Island and the Savannah River, 56 meters (185 feet) below. A popular thing for locals and tourists to do is to stroll along pedestrianized River Street and watch giant cargo ships sail beneath the bridge, or to simply take in the sunset. The span is often compared to the Arthur Ravenal Jr. Bridge of Charleston, and while the Talmadge bridge is impressive, the Ravenal Bridge bests it, numbers-wise, in every category.
The usual merging of various highways and interstates kept my eyes on the road all the way to my lodging for the next eight nights – the Best Western Central, near Hunter Army Airfield in the north of the city. Although it was several miles from the historic city center, the prices were half of those for a comparable place along the river, and I would stay there again. My only order of business at this late hour: dinner, at Pakwan, an Indian restaurant just five minutes by foot from the hotel itself. Good food, but a pity that they didn’t serve alcohol, as Kingfisher beer, a staple at most Indian restaurants, is a favorite tipple of mine.
The sky was overcast when I woke up for my first full day in Savannah. The breakfast room had closed by time I made it to the main lobby (mask mandates in full effect), so I grabbed something spectacularly greasy at the Waffle House next door. Those grade-Z diners have their place in the overall dining hierarchy, but are never my first choice.
I reviewed the free Savannah map from the hotel lobby and decided that with rain on the horizon, it was best to save urban exploration and beach bumming for sunnier days later in the week. Wormsloe, a sprawling plantation ruin along the southwest edge of the city, seemed a good choice, as the overhead trees would theoretically provide some shelter from any rain.
Tickets are purchased just inside a wrought-iron entry gate. Placards notate the Spanish moss, one of Savannah’s drawcards, on stunning display here. A two-mile drive up an oak-shaded alley brings visitors to a parking area. A small visitor center sells crafts and features trail maps. Trails are level but muddy, and traverse the ruins of the Wormsloe family house and, further afield, a blacksmith hut and travelers’ lodge. The trails are color-coded and I of course opted for the Brown (aka Battery) Trail, a 3.2-mile loop around the periphery that supposedly passes some Confederate earthworks. I was perhaps 0.8 miles along the trail when the sky opened up. It poured with a ferocity seldom seen since Noah’s ark was tested, and the trees provided nary an ounce of protection from the elements.
Most hard rains in the southeast don’t last long, so I figured things would abate after five minutes. No such luck. I was soaked to the bone, and my trail map was useless. I kept my Nikon DSLR camera – purchased new for the occasion – snug in its case, and finally hightailed it back to (I think) the Yellow Trail, which (I thought) offered a shortcut to the carpark. It didn’t, but it did drop me off at the travelers’ lodge, which offered respite from the overhead monsoon. The rain seemed to have eased up a bit and I took a chance on photography, snapping some shots of the area, hoping that the images wouldn’t appear fogged up and that I could air dry the camera once back to the hotel.
Things finally abated enough for me to return to my car. On the way, I noticed a courtyard that had log benches and a wooden altar of sorts erected as a semi-permanent wedding venue. Though a beautiful venue on a drier day, I question the appropriateness of hosting a wedding at a place that was once run by slave labor. I did grab my tripod and chanced a few more pictures of the oak-lined drive, including one below of me simply soaked to the bone:
My original plan was to drive north from Wormsloe to the similarly-leafy grounds of Bonaventure Cemetery, made famous in the novel “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Alas, though, a warm bath and a change of clothes now seemed like the better course of action. I ran my wet clothes through two drier cycles before they had fully dried. I wore sandals for the remainder of the trip, as my sneakers took six days to dry. I extended my camera’s 26-300 lens to full zoom and left it on the bed to dry, then faced the rain once again (by now, it was back to monsoon level) for the short drive to Bonefish Grill and some succulent salmon.
City Parks and Public Squares
Full Day Two in Savannah found the skies overcast but dry, and with more patches of blue than the previous day. A quick look at the weather suggested the clouds would pass by mid-afternoon. As such, I took my time getting ready, and opted, as it was a Sunday, to explore the city’s parks and squares, which I figured would be bustling with families. The biggest and best of these, Forsyth Park, was a straightforward drive from the hotel. The north-south thoroughfare that passes immediately west of the hotel, White Bluff Road, becomes Bull Street, which circumnavigates almost all Savannah’s key squares until it dead ends one block above the river.
Before reaching Forsyth Park, Bull Street passes beneath a canopy of Spanish moss, with early 20th-century homes, many quite lovely and several transformed into boutique coffee shops. This is Starland District, and it wasn’t until after my trip ended when I learned that one of these cross streets houses the Savannah African Art Museum. Maybe next time?
Forsyth Park is enormous, and even though the day started out overcast, and the ground muddy, it didn’t prevent park visitors from picnicking, playing league volleyball, kicking a soccer ball around, or, in my case, strolling around the park’s inner and outer paths. The star attraction is the marble fountain, and it was a while before the milling crowds dissipated enough for me to have my picture taken without being surrounded by COVID-hacking throngs. First picture: mask on, to mark the Era of COVID. Second picture: mask off.
From Forsyth Park, I walked north along Bull Street past other, smaller parks and squares. Forsyth Park led to Monterey Square, which led to Madison Square, which led to Chippewa Square (where “Forrest Gump’s” park bench scene was filmed); which led to Wright Square, etc. Points of interest passed along the way include the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts; the Savannah Theatre; one of many buildings for SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design); and General Sherman’s wartime headquarters. Tourist trolleys and horse-drawn carriages plied the route in equal numbers.
Free street parking in Historic Savannah is a hard thing to come by, so I grew worried about my car and returned to Forsyth Park. It was lunchtime, and I took up a colleague’s recommendation and sought out Savannah Coffee Roasters. A popular spot, with good ambience, though the iced coffee and BLT that I ordered were merely okay. Still and all, the visit was fortuitous, as the clouds had dissipated, and the sunny skies warmed the air by several degrees.
Museums and the Riverfront
Two art museums, the Telfair Academy and the Jepson Center, were close, and I sought those out next. First up: the Jepson Center, an airy center of contemporary art and one of those places that takes up an entire city block yet is less daunting than one may first think. Highlights include two Picassos and a small gallery tackling Civil Rights in Savannah through photography and interpretative sculpture. A combination ticket also includes entrance to the nearby Telfair Academy, my next stop, and a timed visit the next afternoon to the Owens-Thomas House, a period home with living quarters and slave kitchen that are available for touring.
Telfair Academy is said to be the oldest art museum in the Southeast, and it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Inside is a veritable potpourri of tapestries and sculptures, including several striking Impressionist oils that I was surprised to learn were all done by Americans. The highlight is arguably Bird Girl, an introspective sculpture by artist Sylvia Shaw Judson of a sad girl whose head is tilted to one side and who has equal-sized bowls in each hand. The statue, originally located in atmospheric Bonaventure Cemetery, grew in fame after it was featured on the cover of novelist John Berendt’s novel “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” and on the poster for the film adaptation as well. Bird Girl, one of four such sculptures in existence, is now protected from the elements inside the Telfair.
I didn’t have any plans for the rest of the afternoon except to simply wander. I strolled towards the river, passing Art Deco-stylized Broughton Street, and reached a throng of crowds at City Market, where it apparently was beer-thirty. The open-air Market has the same close-to-the-river feel as the Charleston City Market, but lacks the covered stalls. No masks, either. I snapped a few pictures and made note of a kiosk selling ghost tour tickets, but otherwise didn’t linger long. I cut through nearby Ellis Square, crossed Bay Street, and headed down cobblestone steps to River Street, my favorite part of the city.
The western half of River Street heads in the direction of the Talmadge Memorial Bridge. Several industrial buildings on the inland side have been converted into upscale hotels and restaurants, and this stretch of River Street is now known as The Plant Riverside District. Photo opportunities abound, and the thing to do is to watch the passing cargo ships.
Long term plans are said to involve deepening the river to allow for cruise ships to pass beneath the bridge and dock here, but if you follow River Street in the opposite direction, you’ll see that this is a terrible idea. East of The Plant, the river side has a paddleboat station while the inbound side has a few more restaurants. Shrimp, caught locally, is the name of the game, but I did enjoy a good mahi mahi dinner one evening at River House Seafood, the kind of establishment that requires a thick wallet. I was one of the last diners of the evening, but the restaurant was slow to empty out, and this was on a random weeknight in spring, not during peak summer or on a weekend. Savannah cannot support cruise ship traffic!!!
Further east, a few covered market stalls that may have once resided in City Market sell t-shirts and other bric-a-brac and seem to do a brisk trade, while the requisite Joe’s Crab Shack caters to the more boisterous. Crowds disappeared beyond this point. River Street curves inland and waterfront access is now through Morrell Park, a quiet green space devoid of seagull droppings and a great place for aging gringos such as myself to nap in the sun.
The next two days were spent taking in the rest of what Savannah-proper had to offer. Among other things: my timed entry to the Owens-Thomas House. Though originally built in the early 1800’s for Savannah merchant Richard Richardson, it was only lived in for a little over a century. One of its future owners, Margaret Gray Thomas, bequeathed the mansion to the Telfair Academy of Arts & Sciences in 1951. Fans of the musical “Hamilton” should know that our French-born independence hero Marquis de Lafayette stayed here in 1825, and addressed the city from the mansion’s south balcony.
My other timed entry of sorts was to the nearby Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, a stunning two-tower cathedral with stained glass so beautiful that I had to choose pinpoint metering on my camera to capture it, which essentially meant blackening out the rest of the photo details, as you’ll see in the example below. I say “timed” entry because this beautiful building has limited visitation hours for non-worshippers. I suspect that this was the case for other houses of worship in Savannah as well, because the few other churches that I passed and attempted to enter were all shuttered.
Other places visited include the Savannah History Museum, built out of a former railroad depot on the western edge of downtown. Here, the famous bench from “Forrest Gump” is on display; the original benches from the aforementioned Chippewa Square, circa 1994, have all been replaced. The museum is an extension of the Savannah Visitor Center, a source of good maps and clean restrooms. I passed on the adjacent Children’s Museum and the nearby Georgia State Railroad Museum, but spent a good amount of time at the green space in between, the patriotically-named Tricentennial Park.
This historical park is built over the site of the Spring Hill Redoubt, a bloody campaign during our war for independence, and an early example of trench warfare. The siege is captured in good detail at the History Museum, and a costumed docent leads tours a few times a day to give a Revolutionary War-era firearms demonstration. “Hamilton” fans take note: another of A.Ham’s buddies, John Laurens, fought in the Spring Hill Redoubt. Can you find him among the miniature soldiers featured in the museum’s diorama?
Like Charleston to the north, Savannah’s harbor was thought to be prime territory first, for attacking Brits and later, for advancing Union Army forces. As such, there are two noteworthy forts in the area, with lots of placards for history buffs, canons for youngsters to scamper on, and camera angles for shutterbugs such as myself to scout out. East of downtown, Old Fort Jackson is independently run, and what it lacks in National Park Service polish it makes up for in the form of enthusiastic docents. The small fort, perched along a bend in the Savannah River, doesn’t offer the panoramic city views that brochures boast about, but you can see the Talmadge Memorial Bridge in the distance, and when cargo ships pass by, they are seemingly close enough to touch.
Named a National Historic Landmark in 2000, Old Fort Jackson includes the usual features of such a site, including bunkrooms, artillery rooms and power magazines, and lots of canons. While I was standing on the upper level, photographing passing ships (and then ridding my camera bag of fire ants, yikes!), a tireless park ranger gave a firearms demonstration and a hour-long lecture about life in the fort. I skipped some of that in favor of setting up an elaborate DSLR selfie outside the fort’s entrance, but I was sure to return at noon, when she live-fired the fort’s demi-bastion canon. I think the picture below was well-timed, how about you?
Further afield, on one of many barrier islands that separate Savannah from the Atlantic Ocean, Fort Pulaski National Monument is the best of the coastal forts that I’ve seen along the Georgia and Carolina coasts. Twice the size of Old Fort Jackson, Fort Pulaski is not visible from the main road to Tybee Island, as it resides on the far side of tiny Cockspur Island. Like most NPS sites, admission ($10.00 at the time of writing) is valid for seven days.
Getting here was an adventure in itself, as my car overheated just as I was turning into the entrance. I’ll write more about that later but will commend the NPS staff on duty there for their professionalism. I used the situation to my advantage and figured that I’d give my car several hours to cool down and spend that time exploring Fort Pulaski in depth. I hiked all of the trails on the island, explored outlying Battery Hambright, and kept a look out for alligators but didn’t see any; one placard suggested that they hide in the moat during times of drought but otherwise keep a low profile. The fort itself is an impressive piece of construction: access is via drawbridge over a moat, through a 3.35-meter (11-foot) thick, 9.75-meter (32-foot) high brick exterior wall, then along another walkway to the proper fort. The grounds inside are dominated by a 100-year-old fig tree on one side, while Old Glory herself flies directly overhead.
A spiral staircase, easy to miss but located directly across the grassy pasture from the main entrance, allows access to part of the top level. Several guns are mounted here and may seem like great spots for family photos, but do take care, as there is no railing. Almost the entire underbelly of Fort Pulaski is comprised of exhibits related to weaponry, housing accommodations, and the build up to a short siege, a two-day battle between Union and Confederate forces in 1862, after which point the Union Army took possession of the fort and used as a prisoner of war camp. I learned that late in the war, Union Army General David Hunter took it upon himself to issue emancipation orders for slaves in the area – preceding Abraham Lincoln in doing so!
I love cemeteries, and Savannah does not disappoint in that regard. The aforementioned Bonaventure Cemetery was, to me, a major drawcard in choosing Savannah as a destination, but it was one of just four that I toured.
Colonial Park Cemetery, near the Cathedral Basilica in Historic Savannah, is a beautiful place, and doubles as yet another green lung for the city. Once the only cemetery in town, the six-acre burial ground is where over 9,000 residents have been entombed. A few minor political celebrities are buried here. Among them: John Habersham, member of the Continental Congress, and his brother Joseph Habersham, three-time Postmaster General.
Colonial Park Cemetery doesn’t boast the massive oak trees, Spanish moss, and general air of mystery as Bonaventure Cemetery, but it’s worth a few minutes of your time if you happen to stroll past it. Ghost tours often start from here.
You will definitely need a car, along with a good sense of direction, for the “main event” that is Bonaventure Cemetery. Located in a leafy residential district in east Savannah, there are Bonaventure tour booking agencies that you can park at for a guided tour. Barring that, you can hire a golf cart and driver just inside the cemetery gates. Barring that, you can do what I did, grab a free map from the main office inside the gates, and walk around at your leisure. Bring water.
Bonaventure Cemetery was built in 1846 on the grounds of the former Bonaventure Plantation, whose original owner, John Habersham, would likely be miffed to discover that he was later interred elsewhere. The cemetery gained in public interest after the aforementioned Bird Girl statue, originally erected here, was pictured on the cover of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” The statue has been removed but the graveyard’s popularity remains.
It is a remarkable place – tree-lined gravel streets have you strolling or driving over a cacophony of fallen leaves at pretty much all times of year. The cemetery’s high ground offers a good view of a bend in the Savannah River, and a short walk from here takes you to the grave of Oscar-winning lyricist Johnny Mercer, who penned the song “Moon River” for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (Mercer’s Oscar is on display at the Savannah State History Museum.) A short walk downhill from here takes you to the somber World War Veterans cemetery, and another short walk leads to Little Gracie, a moving memorial to six-year-old Gracie Watson, the daughter of a downtown hotel proprietor and an unfortunate victim of pneumonia. It is not uncommon even today for people to leave toys on the ground for Gracie. Savannah is said to be a city of ghosts; is hers still lurking about?
The benefit of not having a guide is getting to take as much time as I want; a lot can be said for quiet contemplation in a place such as this. The downside is that time passes quickly and that you have to read about those interred yourself.
I was surprised to learn that two more cemeteries abut Bonaventure. A short drive took me to leafy Greenwich Cemetery by way of Forest Lawn Memory Gardens. Forest Lawn appears to be the newest of the three; a few giant oak trees provide shade on the main section of graves, which are mostly marble or iron markers, all of which were adorned with fresh flowers. The loop road splits off for access to Greenwich Cemetery, which feels like a smaller, less-famous Bonaventure. The entrance gate, which fronts a series of cypress and oak trees, is more than a bit spooky (see below). I was further spooked when I parked my car to walk around a one-acre lake and saw an alligator sunbathing!
To the beach! Coastal Georgian and Carolinian cities such as Charleston, Wilmington, and Savannah are protected by annual hurricanes by a series of barrier islands, many of which double as resort destinations during calmer weather. Near Charleston, suburban-feeling James Island ends at popular Folly Beach. Southeast of Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach is the town, beach, and pine needle-shaped island itself. East of Savannah, the L-shaped Tybee Island beckons. Each place is similar, with soft, almost-white sand, a pier, and a main street lined with shops and restaurants.
I haven’t been to Wilmington, NC, but I visited Folly Beach twice during my 2019 Charleston trip, and I’ll never forget dining at the seafood restaurant on the pier, or swimming in water so warm it felt like a mineral spring. I knew that the water wouldn’t be as warm during my visit to Tybee Island; although further south, it was also two months earlier in the year. Still, after parking at the southern tip of the island and grabbing a late breakfast at Beachview Inn & Spa, I made a beeline for the sand and was not surprised to see that several beachgoers had taken a dip as well.
Social distancing was no problem; the beach stretches for a few miles and I visited on a weekday during the off season. After enjoying a swim and a half hour of sunbathing, I visited the pier, which I had almost entirely to myself save for a few anglers, then walked around the southernmost point of the island to the quiet riverside, where most of the piers have long been washed away by hurricanes, with only pylons remaining.
The tidepools, south of the pier, were fascinating – and dangerous. One pool looked ankle-deep, so I waded in and sank to my waist. Another pool, with water up to mid-calf, was safer…except I stepped on a crab that was burrowing, unseen, on the sandy bottom. Sorry, little buddy! I chatted with a coastal police officer who had cruised by to yell at a young couple that had walk far beyond where I dared stroll, and was not surprised when he told me that most drownings on Tybee Island occur in these calm-looking tidepools and not in deeper water.
I spent a surprising long time walking along the beach. I stopped off at Tybee Island Light Station and Fort Screven on my way back to Savannah, but both had closed just as I arrived. The late afternoon sun saturated any straight-on photos that I snapped of the lighthouse, though ones taken from the opposite direction had good colors, and the sky beyond Fort Screven, and North Beach behind it, was that deep shade of blue that shutterbugs love. Despite being unable to visit the lighthouse and climb to the top, this was a good day. I felt that I deserved a hearty meal, and found one at Pier 16, a bar and rooftop restaurant with good vibes. I ordered grouper, and found myself being served an entire fish! The meal was priced accordingly, and as such, I ate every bite.
Ghost Tours and Two Kinds of Shit
Each day and night, my wanders through historic Savannah frequently took me past ghost tours, some on foot, some by trolley, and one, interestingly enough, by a modified hearse! A colleague from work recommended that I take a tour, but with so much to do, it wasn’t until my last day in town that I actually booked one. The tourist information kiosk at City Market that I noticed three days prior booked me on Savannah’s Ghost and Gravestones tour, which had a late-night departure from River Street and visited two reputed haunts, The Andrew Low House, where future founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low, once lived, and, near the Plant Riverside District, the Perkins and Sons Ships Chandlery. Our goth hostess, wearing a dress that Elvira would covet, was terrific, and would offer commentary, some true and some fictitious, of the city’s sordid past while the trolley lumbered towards the Low House and the Chandlery. We were able to take nighttime pictures of the chandeliers, period furnishings and creepy dolls inside the Low House, and the Chandlery featured a couple of mock scares similar to what you might experience at a Universal Studios attraction. I also grabbed a shot of the Low House from outside; it would’ve been better with a tripod, but I made do with a high ISO:
The tour ended and everyone deboarded, seemingly satiated. But I wasn’t impressed, and the steep $36 that I paid felt like money wasted.
Hear me out. Though dark outside, it was still quite warm, and I hated having to wear a mask throughout the tour. The mask mandate made sense considering that we were sequestered together in close quarters on a trolley, but it was my last evening in Charleston, and enough was enough. Additionally, the narrator at the Chandlery, a cross between Quint from “Jaws” and the Old Man from Hemingway’s seafaring novel, sounded like he was speaking with a mouth full of marbles. I caught nary a word of what he said. Also, I sat on a park bench earlier that evening to bide my time, as I had arrived downtown a bit early, and said bench was apparently adorned with fresh bird droppings that I somehow failed to notice. I didn’t discover this for myself until I stopped off for a call of nature prior to the ghost tour, and scrubbing off the bird shit stain with a wet paper towel only drew additional attention to the stain’s existence. I had struck up a conversation with a rather lovely young lady early in the tour. The evening seemed promising, but when she turned sour towards me later on, I can now only presume it is because she had later noticed the wet spot and assumed I had fouled myself.
My bad mood, coupled with poor acoustics of the too-staged theatricality of the experience, surely contributed to my dislike of the tour. The commentary was spirited enough. Maybe one of the low-key walking tours would have been more my style?
This leads to the other kind of shit – bullshit. The ghost tour occurred on the same day as my visit to Fort Pulaski, which was capped off with my car overheating. Filling the radiator with water as I left the Fort meant that I was able to make the 30-minute drive back to my hotel without issue; the car’s temperature gauge stayed at normal levels, so as I returned to my hotel for a shower and photo downloading session prior to dinner and the ghost tour, my thought was that perhaps the coolant was just low from a pinpoint leak or a loose hose, so the short drive to River Street and back would go without issue, and I would simply stop by a quick lube place on my way out of town the next morning to see if anything needed to be tightened or topped off.
Alas, no. Even though I topped off the car with more water en route to River Street that evening, it almost overheated again. As such, I parked a few blocks inland, lest it overheat in a downtown parking garage. I had a gallon of water to pour in the car for the return trip, but was nervous enough that I was surely on edge until I sat down (on that shitty park bench) to kill some time prior to the ghost tour.
The car almost overheated a third time on the drive back to my hotel. I got within a mile of my lodgings and had to turn off in a gas station just to let the car cool down for 20 minutes. I was then able to make it to my hotel without further issue, but it was at this point that I knew I wasn’t going to able to simply “top off the coolant” and drive all the way back to Tennessee.
My car was a 2004 Jaguar, well cared for but with over 180,000 miles on it. Two months earlier, I noticed a Low Coolant warning and took it in to the nearest Jaguar dealer. The verdict: it needed a new radiator, and with the scarcity of after-market parts during a pandemic, I was out $2,700 when all was said and done. There were no issues until that morning’s drive to Fort Pulaski. I don’t know as much about cars as perhaps I should, and figured that the issue was likely related to whatever work was done in February. I decided to have the car towed to the nearest Savannah-area Jaguar dealer, as the car manufacturer guarantees its work. I knew, when discovering that the nearest dealership was in Hardeeville, SC, 40 miles away on the road to Hilton Head Island, and that my estimated wait time for a tow truck was two hours, that it was going to be a long day.
It turned out to be four hours before the tow truck came; the hotel staff kindly let me wait in their lobby and use their wifi to bide the time, and my insurance company either waived the cost of the tow because of the situation, or simply forgot to actually charge my card. The $70 saved was nice, but barely made a difference in the bigger picture, as I would end up spending $7,000 (!) before the day was over.
Business was booming for Jaguar-Land Rover of Hilton Head, and the harried service staff quickly determined that the radiator was fine but the water pump was not. With no parts in stock and an estimated 30-day wait for them to arrive (apparently by slow boat from England), it was then that I counted my losses and decided to simply buy a new car, lest I piss away another $2,700 in repairs on a car that, while loved, was closing in on 200,000 miles. While my mom was slowly dying of a leukemia in a hospital in 2016, I bought the car used for just $3,000 – not to distract myself from her suffering, but to get myself a more reliable means of transport to visit her, as the hospital was an hour away from where I lived during a time when I thought she’d pull through, but remain hospitalized, for some months to come.
I have never considered myself a “car guy,” but the price was too good to pass up, and I guess driving those premium wheels grew on me over the five years that elapsed, because as I gave up my old Jag, I decided that I was never going to leave with anything less than a replacement by the same brand. Earlier in the year, I was leased a 2020 Jaguar XE as a loaner while my radiator was being serviced, and – once I figured how to turn it on (foot on the brake while you press the start button, gringo) – I fell in love. In retrospect, I probably should’ve called Jaguar-Porsche of Knoxville that day and told them to “cancel the repair work, I’m buying this loaner,” thereby saving myself $2,700 and the bad ending to my Savannah trip two months later. Better late than never, I guess. After a very long day with endless reams of paperwork signed and a hefty down payment made, I left Jaguar-Land Rover of Hilton Head at 10:30 pm on April 30th as the new owner of a 2020 Jaguar XE – the last model year this incredible car was to be manufactured.
I drove through the night, calling everyone I could think of (wireless blue tooth speakers and voice dialing via the steering wheel, how neat!) to keep me from falling sleeping on the 5.5-hour drive home. It was 3 am when my last friend finally went to sleep on me, and there was a bit of nervousness as I stopped off for gas west of Asheville, only to discover that all of the area pumps were empty because some assholes launched a cyber-attack on the Colonial Pipeline. What else could go wrong?!?!
As it turns out, I had enough fuel to make it across the state line to Tennessee, where there was gas. Just in time, too; just one day later, the pipeline attack made the news and people began hoarding gas in Ziploc bags, causing fuel prices to skyrocket. For me, though, it was barely news. I was thankful that I had built a “rest day” into my itinerary, so I didn’t immediately have to return to work. After being awake for 20+ hours, I didn’t care a whit about my new ride, my new camera, or my new monthly car payment. I didn’t even care about the trip itself, flawed but still memorable.
I needed sleep!