Three Days in Florence, South Carolina

Florence, South Carolina is a conundrum.

I came upon it entirely accidentally. After leaving Baltimore, I passed through Virginia Beach and Fredericksburg on my way to Orlando to see friends. I woke up early in the morning at a truck stop in Dillon, SC (just past South of the Border), got some coffee and headed south. (If this were a novel, this entry would be called a flashback. But it’s a blog, so I guess it’s just called talking about something that already happened.)

I had a ton of work to do, so checked Google Maps for nearby libraries and saw one not too far away with all 5 star reviews.

florence SC library

I pulled off the interstate and towards town and was immediately suspicious that a 5 star library could possibly be nearby. (Oh Google Maps, you keep burning me, and I keep coming back.) The road to Florence is paved with, well, some empty fields mostly. As you get to the town itself, you see the familiar signposts of a lot of small towns in America: empty buildings, for sale signs.

downtown florence sc

I kept driving. Hope springs eternal and all that. And then out of nowhere, like a mirage in the desert: the library.

Seriously. I hung out for a while until I needed more caffeine so I checked Yelp, which pointed me at a coffee shop right down the road. I drove back towards empty buildings and a desolate downtown and came upon this auditorium: florence auditorium Where did that come from? I hung out at the homey Clay Pot coffee shop and had some tomato pie. clay pot florence sc As I was leaving, I saw this poster on the door, for a concert at that crazy beautiful auditorium: 2014-09-25 14.09.55Well. You may not know this about me, but I’m an Amy Grant fan from way back. A close reader of this blog may recall that my very first concert was way back in 1980: Amy Grant at the Mabee Center in Tulsa, OK. I have seen her in concert many times since then, the most recent being just last year at the Greek Ampitheatre in Los Angeles with my sister (who I went with to the first one) and my niece (who was seriously not born in 1980). And this concert was only two days away. So what do you think I did next? Obviously I walked right across the street and bought a ticket. amy grant florence sc The woman working the box office told me that it was a great venue for concerts. “It’s really too bad you don’t live here”, she told me. So now I had two more days in Florence, South Carolina. I found an RV park just outside of town with a duck pond. florence rv park That night, I checked out the local fancy hotel with fancy bar and restaurant. It was a hip hotel you might see in any cool downtown. Except Florence’s downtown looks like this: florence sc downtownYet in between the abandoned buildings are lovely, peaceful, park-like areas, like this: florence sc The next day, I hung out at the library again, then decided to check out another coffee shop: Lula’s. Clay Pot has the cute cafe vibe, whereas Lulu’s is all hipster love. After I’d been there a while, a couple of people came in with guitar cases. Cool, live entertainment later. But then some more people came in with guitar cases. Pretty soon I realized the place was jam packed full of people will guitar cases.

Open mic night. A couple of things about open mic night in Florence, South Carolina: everyone plays guitar. Everyone is exceptionally good. 70% sing gospel music. 100% of the audience knows every word to said gospel music. And 150% of the audience is completely supportive of absolutely everyone on stage. I only heard more singing along and clapping and yelling and whistling and encouraging shouts at, well, maybe no where. You can hear a little bit of it here:

Lula’s Florence Open Mic

At first, I was thinking, oh wait, is this a Christian mic night? But then I remembered what it was like to go to high school in Oklahoma. This was just regular southern small town open mic night. I heard gospel sure, but also some pop stuff, country, Christian rap, the usual.

Then, concert day! Fresh off open mic night, I wandered over to the downtown Friday night street concert. The street (the one surrounded by abandoned buildings) was full of people. 

Free concert! A photo posted by vanessajfox (@vanessajfox) on

I hung out for a while until it was time for my own concert.

Amy Grant concert

So what is the deal, Florence? What’s with your fancy library and your fresh faced young people singing gospel music and your hipster hotel remade from an old timey bank and your abandoned buildings and your large police presence?

Oh, did I forget to mention the large police presence? Once I started looking, they were everywhere.

florence police

I did some online town stalking, as you do.

First, I came upon this news: on Thursday night (not long after I left the singing, fresh faced teenagers in their organic , commune-like coffee shop, five people were shot in a drug deal gone bad two miles down the road.

Wikipedia put the puzzle pieces together.

“The city of Florence has recently undertaken a massive redevelopment of Downtown Florence… The historic downtown district running from the central business district toward the McLeod Medical Center, features a number of historic buildings that have been rehabilitated. The redevelopment started with the $18 million Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation Library [Editor’s Note: The Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation seems to be behind most of the investments in refurbishing Florence. But just who Drs. Bruce and Lee are, where they got all that money, and why they love Florence so much are questions I could not find answers to.], and today now has the new Florence Little Theater, some 60 new apartments and the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center which opened in September 2011… New office space has emerged from once abandoned buildings, and a police substation was added on once crime ridden Dargan Street.”

The police substation, yes (it’s right on the corner with the hipster hotel and the homey coffee shop and the tea house and the Friday night street concert). The office space emerging from once abandoned buildings? That might be a little aspirational.

Actually, quite a lot of the Wikipedia entry seems aspirational, like perhaps it was written as part of the redevelopment effort, perhaps by someone on the redevelopment committee. Portions just seem, oh, a bit optimistic:

“As of 2013, the city retains its status as a major hub, both for industry and infrastructure, while establishing itself as a regional center for business, medicine, culture and finance… Florence has blossomed into a strong center for medical care…”

And maybe a little reaching:

“Florence has benefited being located at the intersection of I-95 and I-20, approximately halfway between New York City and Miami, Florida…. his has allowed Florence to remain competitive and bringing in and sustaining major manufacturers.”

Look, I have an English degree too. I certainly admire crafty use of language.

The entry tells the tale of our world, the tragedy and triumph of our modern age:

“Special efforts are being aimed at the downtown area, which was once the center of the city’s activity but remains dormant after retailers and shoppers left for suburban malls.”

The section on crime is a study in contrasts, in contradiction, a microcosm of the town itself:

“In 2006 FBI crime statistics ranked Florence fifth in the nation in violent crimes amongst 350 metropolitan statistical areas. The city also ranked fifth in the nation in 2005 and first among comparable American cities. At the time, Florence police chief Anson Shells attributed much of the violence to gang activity, and said that “[e]very city, especially metro areas, suffer from violent crime. I’ve never considered the Florence area to be a particularly violent area. I consider this to be a very safe area.” In his 2012 state of the city address, Florence mayor Stephen Wukela stated that in November 2008 the crime rate in the city “was one of the highest in the country.”

Not surprisingly, the article about the Ku Klux Klan enclave there in the 1950s is relegated to a footnote.

Florence is slightly larger than Hudson, OH (around 30,000 vs. 20,000 people), but about 20% of the population is living below the poverty line there vs. less than 2% in Hudson. The median household income is a bit different too: $35k compared to Hudson’s nearly $113k (unrelated tangent: in Hudson, the median income for males is $87k compared to $38k for females). You remember Hudson? No downtown revitalization efforts, just a magical, movie set of small town America.

What causes such a difference? History? Proximity to larger cities? Nearby opportunities? I dunno.

As it happens, I’m back in Hudson right now. It’s still pretty magical. I started having brake problems again as I was driving west from New York and figured Hudson wouldn’t be a bad place to be stranded for a while, if in fact I needed to be stranded. Turns out, I didn’t. The Chevy dealership fit me in despite having a booked schedule, gave me a ride to the library, fixed everything up in a couple of hours, and then came and picked me up.

Someone who knows me from the internet saw I was in town and hung out with me and bought me dinner. I had fast wifi all day and a peaceful place to work from.

But Florence was pretty awesome too. It also has a great library and hip coffee shops. Plus overflowing talent at open mic night and free outdoor concerts. And Hudson doesn’t even have a cutesy hotel or a beautiful auditorium, as far as I can tell.

So visit Florence. And visit Hudson. And experience the wonderment of the vastness and contrasts of America.

But What About Power in a RoadTrek? Don’t You Run Out?

Today, a reader question! Michael asks how I get power when I’m not plugged in.

roadtrek power

I do have to manage the process but it’s way easier than you might think. Since I have the littlest Roadtrek, I also have the least amount of power to work with. (Well, some older models may have even less — for instance, they may not have generators.) A model like the E-Trek is amazing: huge solar panels, 8 batteries, 5000 watt inverter. You basically never have to plug that thing in.

But back to my littlest Roadtrek.

First, spoiler alert: I’ve never run out of power!

My Roadtrek has two sources of power: electricity (in varying forms) and propane. Propane is the simplest. I just get the tank filled when I’m running low and it powers the furnace, stove, hot water heater, and refrigerator,which switches to propane automatically when another power source isn’t available.

The refrigerator has little status lights that tell me what type of power it’s using:

refrigerator power roadtrek

Electricity is available in several forms, which boil down to high power mode and low power mode.

In high power mode, I can run everything: air conditioner, microwave, my Nespresso machine (Mmmm, coffee….).

I’m in high power mode when I’m running the generator (which runs on gas from my fuel tank) or when I’m plugged in. My electrical system is 30 amps, so I can plug directly into a 30 amp outlet, or I can use an adapter to go plug into 50 amps (at some RV parks and campgrounds to accommodate larger RVs) or the 15 or 20 amp outlets you might have at your house.

When I’m plugged into 50 amps, I still only have 30 amps available. When I plug into 15 or 20 amps, well, I only have those 15 or 20. The outlet you plug into at a campground or RV park has a circuit breaker and you also have them inside the RV so if you overload the system, you’ll flip a breaker (or both the outside and inside breaker, like that one time I was running the air conditioner and the microwave at the same time).

roadtrek 170 breaker

But 15 amps is plenty to run the air conditioner.

I almost never use the generator. Mostly because I don’t need to, and also, noise. There are exceptions:

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No services for 100 miles? No problem. I’ll just fire up the generator and make some coffee.

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To turn on the generator, I just flip the switch:

roadtrek 170 generator

Unless I need the air conditioner because it’s thousands of degrees outside, I don’t ever really need to plug in. That is, I don’t need to plug in from a “do I have enough power to run this” perspective. If I’m staying in one place for several days, I likely will want to plug in because I’m otherwise on battery, which doesn’t last forever.

So let’s talk about the battery!

The battery is low power mode. On battery, I can’t run the microwave, the air conditioner, or my Nespresso machine. Low power mode runs off of the house battery (which is different from the engine battery). The battery charges when I’m driving, when I’m plugged into power, when I’m running the generator, and from my solar panels.

I mostly keep it charged from driving since I don’t tend to stay in one place too long. If I was out in the woods for a week, for instance, the solar panels would probably not be enough since they only charge the battery a little. In that case, I’d probably run the generator for a while to charge back up.

But if I drive a couple of hours (which I tend to do most days), the battery gets charged back up no problem.

With battery alone, I can run all the 12 volt stuff: the water pump (to flush the toilet or turn on the faucet at the sink), the roof fan, the hot water heater, the refrigerator, the interior lights, the LP gas and CO detectors).

I can also flip on the inverter (which turns battery (DC) power to AC) in order to use two of the outlets (the one for the TV/DVD player and the one above the kitchen counter).

The inverter only provides about 750 watts of power though. (Which is why the Nespresso machine, at 1500 watts, is out.) With the inverter, I can run the TV and DVD player (and hence have music through the speakers), charge my laptop and phone, and power things like my curling iron or a small fan.

But how long can I do those things? For that, we look at amp hours. How many does my battery hold and how quickly do my solar panels replenish the battery? How much power does everything take? It’s math, people. Math! No one told me there would be math.

I have one 12 volt battery, which gives me 95 amp hours. Under optimal conditions, my solar panels recharge the battery with 3.5 amp hours (and the conditions are never optimal). An overhead light is maybe 2 amps, the fan is around 4.

When I’m parked even for a couple of days, I’m probably only going to use the fan and charge up my laptop and phone. Sure, I’ll need the water pump every so often, but I’m not really using that much power. Turning something on generally takes more power than keeping it running too (I tried using a lower wattage coffee maker once and the instant I turned it on, it sucked up half my battery).

But the point is, I really don’t have to do math. If I were out in the woods for a week, maybe. Parked in a Walmart parking lot all night and then parked by the ocean all day, not really. I find that I’m not using much power and the solar panels do OK to keep the battery from dipping too low.

I can monitor everything on a handy panel. The battery status is on the far right. Right now, it’s just below fully charged. The propane, however, is almost empty (it’s the status on the far left). (The second set of lights is the fresh water tank and the third and fourth set are the black and grey water tanks, respectively.)

roadtrek 170 power monitor

On mornings when I’m not plugged in, I generally heat water in a kettle on the stove and make coffee via Aeropress or Starbucks Via.

When I’m driving, I charge my phone, iPad, and laptop (I use an inverter I plug into the cigarette lighter).

See Michael? No sacrifices needed. And I have coffee available no matter the circumstance. And that’s really the most important thing.

Working on the Road: Listen as I Ramble on the Roadteking RV Podcast

Did you know that there’s an RV podcast? Well, there is, and on today’s episode, you can listen to me! I talked a bit about why I’m traveling around the country in my little RV, working along the way. And I talked a bit how I plan out my trip (spoiler alert: I don’t!) and how I find places to work and stay the night.

I’m still working a lot so my second priority each day is figuring out where to work. My first priority, obviously, is coffee (but that’s a post for another day). Since I bring my office (and the rest of my house) with me everywhere I go, I really only need a place to park and wifi. But part of why I’m traveling around and not at home is to experience the country, so whenever possible, I try to work from libraries, cafes, or parks.

Like, check this out. Last week, I was at Myrtle Beach State Campground ($5 for a day pass). This was my view:

myrtle beach

Not only did the park have free wifi, but it had these great buildings with not only tables but POWER OUTLETS. Seriously.

myrtle beach office

I’ll have to do a future post just about my experience with libraries. Some have great wifi; some have wifi that barely exists. Some ban food and drinks so you have to smuggle in your coffee and hide it behind your big bag (I mean, maybe that’s what some people do. I wouldn’t know).

library coffee

Some libraries have a cafe right inside with free coffee refills. (I miss you Hudson, Ohio!)

I’ve worked from just about anywhere.

myrtle beach

south carolina beach

folly beach

south carolina

ok wifi

aspen

beach office

Of course, coffee shops are always great (when you can find them). But sometimes, there’s just no great place nearby. Which is why you might find me hanging out in my RV working from a Walmart parking lot (with free wifi courtesy of McDonalds) or a Flying J truck stop (monthly internet plans available).

Inside My Roadtrek 170 Popular: The Non-Cartoon Transformer

When people hear I’m traveling the country in an RV, they generally think I’m navigating windy roads and low clearance bridges in a huge monster-truck size vehicle, which doesn’t sound relaxing and peaceful at all. Then they see my Roadtrek. And well. They think I’m living in a van.

Seattle

But friends, I am NOT living in a van. (Well, OK, it’s a van, but it is an ENTIRE house in the inside!) Shall I bring you inside for a tour?

First, let’s hang out for a while in the living room. Lovely, no?

roadtrek living room

You are looking for the dining room? Here you go. Also, the dining room can be the office.

living room office

And just like that, one room has become three. But I’m more ambitious than that.

The living room can also become the bedroom with a push of a button. OK, sure, a push of a button + the addition of a tempur-pedic mattress pad, soft sheets, comfy pillows, and a warm comforter. But still, that’s five minutes well spent.

roadtrek bed

Where is all that stuff the rest of the time? The mattress pad and comforter stuff right down behind the couch and the rest fits nicely in the cabinet above, with space left over for a little bookcase (the temper-pedic pillows are on the left, the sheets are in the packing cube in the middle labeled “sweaters” (however, my sheets are not made of sweaters), my books are on the right — mostly books not available on Kindle, like the autobiographies of John Madden and Ken “Snake” Stabler, which yes, I am currently reading right now).

Roadtrek storage

But let’s say I’ve gotten ready for bed, but I still have some work to do. I just head over to my second office (with bonus skylights). Both chairs in front swivel around and a table pops up from nowhere! (Actually, in between the closet and the kitchen, but as though from nowhere!)

Front Office Roadtrek

Here’s my kitchen, complete with two-burner stove, sink, refrigerator, and microwave.

roadtrek 170 popular kitchen

And then my amazing, transforming bathroom. By day, just a regular bathroom. By.. well, also day, I just open the door, roll up my rug and remove the drain cover, pull the shower curtain around the hall, and I’ve got a roomy shower.

Here you can see the bathroom with the door open and the curtain rail:

bathroom

A closer look at the shower controls:

roadtrek shower

And here’s what it looks like inside the shower:

roadtrek 170 shower

Except in that photo the door on the left is closed so you can see inside. This is what it would actually look like if I were inside the shower and not outside taking the photo. You can’t really tell, but the door is open and the curtain is pulled around it:

roadtrek 170 popular shower

I also have a TV, DVD player, and surround sound system that includes speakers throughout the RV so I can rock out whether I’m hanging out in the living room or the front office. Normally, I listen to music by plugging my iPhone into the DVD player, but sometimes I connect my laptop to the TV and watch TV from bed (yes, I’m watching Grey’s Anatomy; so do you):

roadtrek tv

I could hoist up the antenna and watch TV over the air and at most RV parks and campgrounds I could also plug into cable, but I’m more a stream over the internet whenever I want kind of girl, so I haven’t done either of those.

But what about storage?

I’ve got a closet just to the right of the kitchen (behind the driver side door) to hang up my clothes up in (I keep my shoes in a bin at the bottom):

roadtrek wardrobe

Above that is a little shelf where I keep tools and things.

The Roadtrek used to have a third seat, but I removed it and put in lightweight drawers. There’s also storage in the cabinet underneath (I keep a bunch of shoes and nice clothes that I don’t need every day in that section).

roadtrek storage

In the bathroom, I’ve added a few containers (held in place by Command velcro) to keep everything in place.

bathroom storage

You’ve seen the storage for my bedding to the right of the air conditioner (er, also there’s a couple of bottles of gin and tonic back there). The cabinet on the left has a box of electronics and other various items like my curling iron and window screens.

I’ve also got storage above the front seats. And I keep coffee and other vital essentials in bags in the upper shelving on both sides.

I keep kitchen stuff (plates, cups, pots, and pans, whatever) in bins under the sink. I have a little pantry with stuff like peanut butter above the stove. And I keep towels and first aid kit and odds and ends in the cabinet above the counter. (Yes, I have 6 bath size towels in there! They are magic towels!)

kitchen storage

And then there’s all the storage under the couch (that I get to from the back doors) for things like my lawn chairs.

Of course, I spiffed it all up a little too. Here’s a few before and after photos:

2014-07-12 06.42.38

roadtrek afterYes, I can even light the vanilla candles for even more peace and relaxation. Well, as long as I take the battery out of the smoke detector first. Otherwise, that’s a path to less peace and relaxation for everyone.