Running from Matthew: Part 2 of a 2-Part Hurricane Recap

This is the second installment of a story I innocently assumed could be told in 2 parts. Fair warning, this could go on for a long time, so don’t let the deceptive title fool you. We’re barely getting started here, but if you think this is dragging on, you should have lived it. That’s all I can say.

You can find part 1 here.

After a sleepless night in my car with 3 cats, outside the sleazy motel where my elderly mom and son were sleeping, I had finally dozed off from sheer exhaustion when there was a tap on my window. Startled awake, the cats began yowling and I rubbed my bleary eyes to see a most welcome sight. My sister, with coffee. She had slept in her car with 4 dogs the night before and we were both in need of caffeine.

screenshot_2016-10-28-06-31-59I checked my phone to see my request to book the 6-stall horse barn for our evacuation-vacation from Hurricane Matthew had been approved. Despite hotels being booked for hundreds of miles around in all directions, apparently nobody was thinking of AirBNB. We couldn’t believe our good fortune. The host sent me a message to wait until around checkout at the no-tell motel before we headed her way, an hour and a half from our current location and six hours from home. She needed some time to get things freshened up for us.

While we waited, drinking coffee and killing time feeding and watering our animals, I kept an eye on my weather app and text messages. We had made it out ahead of the category 4 storm that was quickly barreling up the coast like a freight train, but my oldest son, his pregnant wife, 13 year old daughter and 2 year old son were staying behind in their block home near the river in Jacksonville. My brother and his wife stayed behind, too, in Orange Park, a half hour inland from Jacksonville. 

Just because we’d be safe didn’t mean we weren’t still terrified for the others. 

camerazoom-20161008184426859My daughter-in-law, Cecilia, texted to ask for the address of the horse barn. She was trying to convince Mark to evacuate. I was so relieved. I quickly told her how to get there and urged them to head out soon. I hadn’t even cleared it with the host, but at this point I’m thinking I could lay the back seats down in my Nissan Rogue and sleep there just fine if it meant knowing more members of the family would be safe. When I told Melodie, our host, she offered up a converted horse trailer to solve the problem of where we’d all sleep. Now, a “converted horse trailer” and “loft over a 6-stall horse barn” don’t really sound like how I pictured a dream getaway, but considering the alternative — weathering a Cat 4 hurricane in the middle of old-growth oak trees right on the river — it sounded like a slice of tranquility to me.

The Google Maps lady took us to a tiny town called Panacea, right on the Gulf of Mexico, where the road twisted and turned, and every home was built on stilts, towering in the air. When my cell phone dramatically announced “you have reached your destination” we were arguably out in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by fenced-in fields bordered by woods, a small, cheerful wooden structure up ahead beckoned to us.
CameraZOOM-20161008184759500The first thing I noticed as we pulled off in the grass to park were the horses. Four of them watching us from their place in the pasture as they swatted the flies with their tails. They seemed curious, but not especially thrilled to see us. My sister and I got out of our cars just as Melodie and her husband walked out of the barn to greet us. I had been in a panic on the phone when we were working out the details of Mark and his family also joining us, so the first thing our host did was walk right up to Lorraine and give her a big hug saying she was so happy she could help us and not to worry, everyone would be safe here. She then stepped back, looking at me, as if waiting to be introduced. That’s when I realized that my sister looks more like my AirBNB profile picture than I do. We all had a good laugh when we figured that out.

Melodie gave us a whirlwind tour, first of the horse trailer, which was a deceptive name for a really nice, decked out mini travel home, complete with kitchen, bedroom, dinette, and 3/4 bath. “Don’t use the stove as we need to get more propane, and if you have to go number two, use the loft toilet. It’s an eco-friendly toilet.” I was about to learn what she meant.

We all helped Mom, who will be 93 next month, get up the stairs where she would remain until it was time to head home. Every step she took seemed perilous as the handrail was a flat, wide, weathered board designed only for looks and efficient splinter delivery. 

IMG_20161008_183938Top of the staircase was a screened in porch filled with plants and decorated in laid-back quaint country charm. Everywhere you looked was either a pair of spurs, a plaque telling you to “forget the horse, ride the cowboy”, or a horse blanket. From the porch, we entered the loft through a sliding glass door, right into the main living area. Hardwood floors and rough hewn paneling radiated welcoming rustic charm. The first thing I did after getting Mom situated in an overstuffed armchair was to roll up all the throw rugs and stash them along the walls. She and I have a hard enough time picking up our feet without obstacles. 

The place had everything we could ask for — from dishes, glassware and pots and pans in the kitchen to a supply of bathroom amenities rivaling that of any 4 star hotel — except for maybe a conventional toilet. Not since I was 12, when we first moved aboard our 42-foot junk rigged schooner, Gazelle, have I had to have a toilet “explained” to me.

20161009_102032“You put the lid up and this lever works the plate that covers the mechanism. Push the plate aside, do your business, and then paper goes in this metal pot, not in the toilet. Push the lever again to cover things back up and that’s it,” Melodie explained as I stared at her incredulously.

“Oh, and I almost forgot. You have to feed it every 10 or so uses,” she said. And those 15 words rivaled any sentence Stephen King ever labored over trying to evoke sheer terror. I’m going to put my bum over something that apparently eats human waste and has fertilizer in lieu of an after-dinner mint?

It was at the end of our 4-day stay that I found out only a select few of us were actually using this beast. I just remember thinking that everyone seemed to be really forgetful and having to drive to town a lot for “something I forgot, be right back”. Others seemed to enjoy long walks in the woods a little too much.

In defense of this eco-friendly toilet, once you got past the idea of no water being involved and having to “feed” it, it really wasn’t so bad. There was absolutely no odor. I’m assuming that was what the old time-y stove pipe looking thing was for.

20161009_102113The rest of the bathroom was really awesome, complete with a copper tub that came straight from Mexico.

Toilet aside, the biggest inconvenience was actually the fact that there was no TV or internet access. I was staying in touch with the outside world through text messaging and reading the weather alerts on my cellphone. At one point the National Weather Service was warning residents of our home area to expect “complete and utter annihilation” and that the area could be “uninhabitable for weeks or even months”. Hard to enjoy a vacation stay in a loft over a horse barn right on the Gulf of Mexico when you thought you might be homeless after checkout time.

So in pursuit of more information, I went on a quest to purchase a mobile hot spot. The really “knowledgeable” guy at Walmart who insisted I should get the Verizon hot spot versus the one for Straight Talk (even though AT&T is my carrier) would wind up costing me more valuable time since I had to return the next day to exchange it. All the while my stress was building and back at the horse barn we were all pretty much manic. One minute screaming at each other, and the next we were all either laughing or crying…or both.

My brother Dave and his wife probably had it worse than any of us. A large chunk of his extended family was in the path of Matthew and they only knew what they learned through sporadic text messages. All the while they could see it on the news, churning up the Florida coast, headed straight for us.

Stay tuned for the next installment I’ll affectionately call part 3 in the 2-part series. With no editor to reign me in, apparently I’ll never finish this story. Besides, I never claimed to be good at math. 🙂