Towing a boat never stopped me from exploring new waters that lie a hundred, or even a thousand, miles away. Adventure is what drives me, and I’ve learned with proper planning the road time can be pleasurable and add to the rewarding on-water memories.
This proved true when I made my way from Winter Park, Florida, to the Ranger Boats Factory in Flippin, Arkansas, to pick up my new boat, a 2510 Bay Ranger, a few months ago. It had a number of custom features, including a paint color and electronics that weren’t common to the dealer network, so purchasing factory-direct was the ticket.
The stage was set for 1,050 miles of boring interstate highway, according to Google Maps. The proposed route would take me through Atlanta (with a collapsed interstate bridge), Chattanooga, Nashville (with horrendous construction), Clarksville and Paducah until I entered the winding roads of Arkansas’ northern Ozarks. I’d already heard from family about most of this route: Nothing but trouble, and Google was directing me right into its ugly maw. Still, I set out ready to conquer the road.
Mapping a Quest for Adventure
I clicked the mouse and dragged the route off I-75 to I-10 West. Google didn’t like it and informed me it would be slower. I ignored Google, then grabbed another stretch of blue highlighted highway and dragged it onto U.S. 231 to Dothan, Alabama. Google grudgingly accepted the change but still suggested I reroute to I-highways ASAP. Satellite view showed me that much of the Google-disapproved route through Dothan and Montgomery to Birmingham was divided highway with somewhat limited access. I held to the alternate route.
It Worked Out How?
The stoplight intersections were not overburdensome, and the traffic-light timing proved mostly generous. By the time I got to Birmingham, I-22 gave me a straight shot to Memphis via Tupelo. The smooth ribbon of interstate tempted me to power on, even though there were good reasons to tarry.
I’m glad I second-guessed Google’s 46-mile savings. It wasn’t in the interest of my adventure. The Gone with the Wind tour of Atlanta would wait for another trip.
Construction and Traffic Control
Ironically, I overruled Google using another of its tools. Live Traffic displays snarls on a map in an angry red. But not so many people know that you can activate Typical Traffic, a predictive app that displays routine traffic snags and what times they typically occur. I screamed “Country road!” when my estimated ETA at Nashville and Atlanta displayed bright-red gridlock. I stuck to traversing the middle of the Southern U.S. on secondary highways.
There is nothing worse than navigating mazes of narrow, uneven lanes lined in barricades, cones and barrels set to clip the trailer fenders — or worse. So I consulted the Federal Highway Department of Transportation website too. It linked to state highway departments, which highlighted road closures and construction zones and also gave another view of typical traffic patterns and speeds (fhwa.dot.gov/trafficinfo/tn.htm).
It Worked How?
Traffic and construction on both legs of my towing trip were so light, I can’t point to a time when I couldn’t just power on.
Compressing the Miles
I was a laptop-wielding couch potato for most of this planning process, but then I broke out the iPhone, tapped on Trip Advisor and clicked on “Things to Do” in towns and cities along my route. Judicious stops add safety and local color to a long trip. Dropping pins on Google Maps proved a good reminder.
Dothan had the George Washington Carver Interpretive Museum, even though Carver was a former slave from Missouri who eventually moved to the Tuskegee Institute about 75 miles east of Dothan. He was a botanist and scientist and widely admired in his day as the inventor of things made from peanuts, including fuel, food and plastic. While some towns celebrate their histories with locally sponsored, decorated statues — cows in Chicago, pigs in Lexington, North Carolina, and alligators in Fort Lauderdale, Florida — Dothan boasted a vibrantly decorated parade of Planters peanuts. I skipped that selfie.
In Montgomery, I could gallop from a tour of Martin Luther King Jr.’s home to the first Confederate White House, sampling a segment of the conflicting heritage of the South in a single town.
It Worked Out How?
I hit both towns after normal business hours, but when returning to Florida, Tupelo passed under my wheels during business hours and a break was needed.
Tupelo boasts the birthplace of Elvis Presley, a modest bungalow not much bigger than most folks’ tool shed. A satellite Google Maps view showed me there was parking for the Ford and Ranger at the tourist attraction and enough room to turn around for an easy exit.
The museum was occupied with a private event, so I satisfied myself with taking selfies around the birth home and a replica of the car that carried Elvis’ family to my favorite stop on this journey, Memphis, where the crown jewel of outdoor pleasure, the new Bass Pro Shops Pyramid, rose from the sands of the Mississippi River like the monuments at Giza.
A boat in motion is safe from thieves, a fact that leads to marathon road trips. I feel more confident overnighting in the country, and Trip Advisor showed me many small-town hotels that offered rooms for $50, not the $100 to $150 rate of city motels. Some were cheery and modern. I debated stopping at the brightly lit, modern-looking Econo Lodge south of Montgomery (advertising $50 a night on the lighted sign), but passed knowing what a short nighttime repose would be worth — zero. I poured more coffee and powered on through Dothan. A rest area lured me off the road, and I went in to get some water.
An elderly, and armed, security guard and an information clerk greeted me.
“If you feel like lying down and napping for a while, we’ll keep an eye on you,” the guard offered. “We’re not going anywhere tonight.”
Two hours of shut-eye later, I walked back in to thank them, refilled my water and pulled away refreshed.
Keep the Brain Alert
I loaded up my phone with audio books, but my surprise midnight companion was Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. At first he sounded melodramatic but soon slipped into an entertaining rhythm in episode 59, a six-hour, perfectly riveting History 201 on the effect of the nuclear bomb on worldwide diplomacy.
Gutenberg Pro is a $3 app that gives access to classic audio books, many of them dramatically read by celebrities. I chose a free version of Dark Continent: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
Food and Drink
Stopping for gas every two hours is hell on the ETA, so I carried apples, bananas and some peanut-butter-cracker tide-me-overs until I was up for a decent sit-down dining stop for refreshment and rejuvenation.
Rigging to Tow
My Ranger Trail was all set for the road with water-resistant LED lights, safety cables, stainless-steel disc brakes on both axles, and a safety brake lanyard, so there was little to do but double-check the tire pressure. At gas stops, I’d lightly touch the bearing hubs to make sure they weren’t hot from grease-seal failure — an unlikely event on this shiny, new smooth-rolling trailer.
You’ll still want a tool kit for road hazards, and there’s a complete rundown on what to take for a long tow, here.
You gain confidence in towing with experience. But what you know on your turf may not help you in new territory. That’s where proper planning comes in, and it may just ensure you never need that tool kit.
Tips for the Road
Have an Exit Plan
Never zip into a parking lot, gas station or eatery too quickly. Scan it for an easy drive-through escape route before committing to the entrance lest you get stuck with no easy way to work with the trailer.
If you know you’re overnighting, reserve a good motel no more than 12 hours from your departure point. It will give you a goal to achieve and a welcome rest after hitting it.
Take It Easy
Stop for meals. Letting down for such a break might reveal what you overlooked driving: You need a nap. Pull up under a shade tree and take one.
No Jack Needed
If you have a tandem-axle trailer and the axles are torsion suspension, not leaf springs, you can lift the bad tire off the road by pulling the good tire up on top of a four-by-four block.
Bass Pro Shops: Memphis
Along the route, I had a notion to stop in Memphis to visit the Bass Pro Shops. I expected to be impressed but was actually awed by the silver pyramid rising like the monuments of Giza, except this was along the shore of the Mississippi.
One of my great career privileges was a term at Bass Pro Shops as outdoor communications manager back in the 1990s, when owner and president Johnny Morris was just firing up his retail expansion mega machine. After helping plan media promotions at groundbreakings in Michigan and Fort Lauderdale and meeting the press at grand-opening ceremonies at Islamorada and Atlanta, I made it a point to visit every Outdoor World I passed. A call to my former co-worker, Bass Pro Shops outdoor communications manager Katie Mitchell, landed me in an unexpectedly rambling, amazing suite with a balcony overlooking over 500,000 square feet of the most dramatic outdoor adventures in retail la-la land you can have indoors or outdoors.
Big Cypress Lodge boasts 103 hotel rooms in the pyramid, and at least 90 of them have balconies affording a view down through cypress trees alive with the sound of swamp birds, crickets and wildlife. Between the cypress run 600,000 gallons of fish-filled waters also boasting waterfowl and an 84,000-gallon alligator habitat. Boardwalks and sidewalks meander through this, and a fleet of johnboats, poke boats and punts, all typical of this bayou area, are scattered throughout. At the top of the pyramid, I sampled a perfectly seared steak at the Lookout at the Pyramid and slept fabulously in a lush king-size bed. The hot tub remained unused, but the enormous all-glass walk-in shower took the weary road off my body.