I arrived at Hardeman Saturday as the crew was showing up at the warehouse. The trailer was loaded, 100 packages of bees tied together with poplar strapping, and perforated plywood panels were attached to the side to lessen the highway wind. The weather forecast predicted another brilliantly sunny day. Daytime temperatures were actually milder from Georgia through Pennsylvania than in Maine, where Meghan was suffering through an early summer heat wave. We left the trailer uncovered so the packages could shed the heat a million workers would generate, especially if I kept moving and creating a breeze on the bees. The thermometer told me the temperature inside the trailer was just a few degrees warmer than the air around it. We were good to go.
A big bunch of package bees has an aroma unlike anything else I’ve ever smelled. It is neither pleasant nor unpleasant and I spent much of the day trying to find words to describe it, to no success. It is different from the healthy, honeyed floral smell of a hive. And even though the bees were in a trailer behind the car, and maybe just because the tailgate was opened occasionally throughout the day, the swarms’ slightly sweaty aroma permeated my nostrils. It cancelled out even the 10-pound bag of Vidalia onions in the back.
I drove the first couple of hours off the main highway in Georgia, passing meadows of purple and white wildflowers, yards of goats and horses, wheatfields, an occasional peach stand, and scrubby pine forest on pale soil that reminded me of Cape Cod where the land looks like it hasn’t been above the ocean floor for very long. In my zeal to keep moving forward I missed an opportunity for a photograph I have been regretting ever since. I was listening to Bill Bryson’s memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. He describes the loss of towns where he grew up in Iowa to, among other things, the increased efficiency of our methods of farming; we just don’t need as many people to grow the nation’s food any more. And I passed a few towns in Georgia that fit the description – they seem to have merely vanished, or at least been abandoned like modern day ghost towns. The photo, that unfortunately exists only in my mind, is of a neighborhood grocery. It was a red brick building and the side that faced the road still stood intact with the name painted across the entire wall. Somebody’s Name Grocery. About a third of the building on that side still stood. The other two thirds had crumbled. Maybe there was a fire but it was so long ago there was no remnant I could see of fire damage. Maybe it was just time, abandoned neglect, and decay. But there remained a graceful arc from intact wall with a bit of roof, down to the level of the ground. Half a window remained on the crumbling facade and the tumbled down end of the building was being reclaimed by the forest. It grew wild with vines and shrubs and young trees reaching upward.
Most of the day I followed a tanker truck full of coffee. These are the trucks that supply coffee to all the Pilot gas stations in the nation. What most people don’t know is the trucks have a filling tube that can be lowered like the flying tankers that refuel B-52 bombers (remember Dr. Strangelove?) and can recharge highway drivers, like me, who know the secret signal. This, and this alone, explains how I made this whole journey solo and in a very short time.
I had been advised by Cindy and Erin, who had made a similar trip a few weeks ago, to follow the mountain route home and avoid getting stuck in hot highway traffic where I-95 passes through the massively populated edge of the east. So I headed due north on side roads through Georgia to a secondary highway through South Carolina toward Charlotte, North Carolina. As the route bent slightly north-northeast and climbed into the Blue Mountains of Virginia I was again listening to The Thunderbolt Kid. Anyone who grew up in the 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s should read (or hear) this story – I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice to say I was laughing so hard tears were streaming down my face. My head was tossing back and as I was alone in the car I could laugh with unselfconscious abandon. At that very moment a car passed me on the left and I noticed a girl of about twelve years old noticing a trailer behind my car filled entirely with bees. As she went by I saw her eyes go wide and her mouth form the words, “OH MY GOD!” Then she saw me. I can only assume she assumed the car pulling a huge load of bees was being driven by a hysterical madman. I get great pleasure telling this bit of the story. But to be a fly on the wall and hear the story that young girl is telling, now that would be something.
From there my route took me through the Appalachian Mountains where it looks on the map like somebody scrunched a giant blanket of land on the unkempt bed of the northeast. As I traversed the Shenandoah I hit the hottest part of the day. I couldn’t stop for fear of overheating the bees. Listening to Bill Bryson’s melancholy regarding the loss of a simpler time I was passed by a van full of pre-teen boys in baseball caps. They had ignored me but to the truck ahead of me they pulled their arms like mad to get him to honk his horn. The truck, as I remember well from my own pre-teen years, ignored them entirely. I was a little hurt that they didn’t try me. One time I passed a group of kids on a walking field trip from the Catholic school and they were pumping madly to everyone who went by. I honked and they exploded with unbridled joy. I had spent hours pulling for horns in the back of our Chevy wagon when my parents took us on long trips around the country and yet I’m still at a loss to understand why it remains a favorite pastime to excite kids so energetically.
As I crossed that absurd crumpled yin and yang where the border of West Virginia interlocks with Maryland the sun set in a rich watercolor crimson outside the driver’s side window and I began to think about stopping for a rest. I took a brief break then headed on toward Scranton, Pennsylvania. Erin and Cindy had also warned me about a long stretch of construction around Scranton so I got off the main road and took a winding route through the Poconos. The moon had not yet risen and the road was dark, narrow, and dipped and rose so my headlights illuminated only a short distance ahead of me. At one point they shone and paralyzed a fawn on the side of the road and my heart stopped. I’d been passing dead deer beside the highway all day and running into any large animal remains one of my deepest fears. I was exhausted and found a grocery store parking lot where I slept in the car for about an hour until a car door closing awoke me. Someone was arriving to work in the middle of the night.
I moved on through the night and stopped for another couple of hours of sleep at a rest stop somewhere, I think, in Connecticut. At sunrise I pushed on. In Massachusetts I passed a convoy of twenty or so Corvettes of every era. That’s right, I passed them in my CRV with a trailer behind it. Then at long last I arrived back at The Honey Exchange just after Meghan had opened the doors. In the growing heat I brought all the bees inside and beekeepers began coming to claim their buzzing pets. In about 36 hours all million Georgia bees had found their way to new Maine homes.