Monday, April 14, 2014

Broke down in Alabama and Florida -- Marilyn the Math Bus on the side of the road!


We hit the road for a day of driving after staying over at the TA truck stop in Grand Bay, Alabama. The only items on our schedule included stopping in at the M.E.S.S. (math, engineering, science, stuff) Hall in Pensacola, FL, and then getting to an RV park in Tallahassee before the end of the day. Our connection to the M.E.S.S. Hall came from someone who overheard us talking at the Sheraton Inn in New Orleans. His name was Billy Howell, which sounds like a rock star pseudonym, and he works in robotics. At the M.E.S.S. Hall, we got an eyeful during the tour led by Megan Pratt, an associate of Billy's. She showed us an assortment of things including square flexagons, harmonographs, and fractal art. We gave her our card, a road show shirt, and a few goodbye waves as we got on our way again.

I didn't know then, but things were about to become interesting. Did you know, veggie oil catches fire at a higher temperature than diesel, and much higher than gasoline still? On the last 100 miles to Tallahassee, our engine began spraying its contents everywhere under the hood; in a regular car, this results in a fire, but for us a hot mess was all. Yes, that was all I thought it was at the beginning. Now, I see it as an adaptation of a story I know: Marilyn the math bus drove on I-10, Marilyn the math bus broke two engine tubes, all Billy Sellers Trucks (BST), and all the mechanics couldn't get her back together again. Without the rhymes you might still recognize the original story of one famous egg's plight.

Fast forward two whole days. The engine still robustly busted, Shane wound up taking an active role in unraveling the shows he had painstakingly arranged. More or less, each of us was left to our own devices: me to climbing trees, and taking naps in the shade of the bus; Shane to hours juggling, reading, carpentering; my dad to smooth talking state troopers, and emails. When the cabin fever kicked in, we took turns riding bikes first to Carryville one day, and then to Bonifay the next. Believe it or not, the smaller of the two towns afforded the greater intrigue: the Thirsty Turtle tavern in Carryville had run itself into the ground, resurfaced with the new name “Half Moon Bluff,” and joined the nationwide narcotics node network. I think I won't look at small towns in the same way for a while.  

Tragically, our time on the side of the road came to an end. The legal limit of 6 hours was a milestone long since passed, and Gordon the state trooper played a critical role in helping us leave the nest. Far from spreading our wings and regaining our independence, we needed a Ferguson tow truck to drag the bus over the BST world headquarters in Bonifay. By now, the mechanics had exhausted themselves at our remote location, but quickly recovered their morale thanks to the home team advantage. Excited mechanics are fine and good, but we were still stranded. Fortunately the BST Company loaned us a pickup truck, and we got another shot at our weekend plans. We gladly accepted, and left our spot on the side of the road behind us headed south.

Next stop, Chris DiScenza, and the city of Gainesville, FL. Even without any engine trouble, we still had a long drive from Bonifay to Gainesville. To our satisfaction, the truck worked perfectly, and I could see signs for Gainesville when I woke up several hours later. We pulled up at Chris' cute blue house on 7th Ave around 2:00am, and found him still caffeinated after a presentation he'd done earlier that day. I'll now take a moment to shed some light on his connection to our science outreach outfit: Chris has been with the Physics Factory almost since the beginning, is a veteran of three different road trips, and should be the author of the demo manual “So cool: Liquid nitrogen and you.” He is a busy graduate student in Coastal Engineering, but he had managed to arrange for a slot of our very own in the line up at the Swallowtail Farms spring festival nearby. We did an abbreviated show, and then transitioned to a platform near the stage to further enter-cate (entertain/educate) anyone who stopped by. I would be hard pressed to think of anything that was missing from the events that day.

Following the festival, the three of us went south to make visit extended family. Shane has a cousin named Lindsay who lives an hour from Gainesville, so we got in the truck and drove off in her direction. Lindsay works as a math coach for elementary school teachers, and soon enough she and Shane were talking excitedly with their computers sitting side by side on the countertop. My dad and I took our leave in order to visit my Aunt and cousin down in Tampa. It was such an incredible treat to see them especially considering the five years that had passed since our last rendezvous. After a day spent catching up with relatives, we followed our tracks back up to Gainesville for our last night in town.

A hint of trepidation hung over the events of the day which followed. We had no conclusion to the issues with the bus, and no word from the mechanics. Assuming that no news was good news, we clung to thin strands of hope. An answer came soon enough as my Dad pulled the pickup truck into the yard at BST: the bus didn't look like it had moved an inch. Our fears were confirmed when one of the mechanics named Eric began revving the engine, and great clouds of smoke began to fill up the considerable sized shop. Everyone, Eric included, looked to be thinking more or less the same thing: “the bus is still broken, now what?”

Well, I knew that one thing that we needed to take care of was in my control. I asked if we could go camp out at McDonalds, and use their wifi to update the blog. Given Eric had just left on his lunch break, my suggestion made some sense. I understand altogether too much time since a blog post had come out. That said, there is more that can be said than I have included, and certainly the reverse is true as well, but I have aimed to strike a balance in readability. If you want to know more, ask away; I'm not qualified to help you if you want to know less. Regardless, the period of silence is behind us, so feel free to stop biting your cheek.  

Tasty Bits:

The areas around Gainesville boast some serious sculpting talent, just take a look at the creature we found at the fair (picture below).

Trooper Gordon recommended visiting the Crystal Rivers along our drive. At Weeki Wachee, we found two solid swimmers sporting flippers and some beautiful clear depths true to their water's namesake.

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