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Down on the Farm: Off-road story

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As our tour group of 40 history teachers marched deep into Dixie, the temperature rose above 105 degrees. It was a relief to spend time in the air conditioned bus between stops at historic sites.

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After visiting colonial Jamestown, Va., in the withering heat, we settled in for a six-hour bus ride to Charleston, S.C., where we would see Ft. Sumter, site of the first shots of the Civil War.

But just a few miles down the road, the bus ground to a halt on a narrow but busy highway. Because I was in the front seat, I could hear our driver mumble.

A hose had come off the transmission. Behind the bus was a shiny liquid trail as far as we could see. The last of the fluid dribbled across the highway into the oncoming traffic.

Thank goodness the engine still functioned. We had air. But we had to find a replacement bus during a very busy time of the year for tours.

Several cheerful sheriff's deputies showed up to direct traffic around the wounded bus. We gave them water from our cooler and told them of our mission to study the Civil War.

"I am not much of a Civil War buff, given how it turned out," drawled one cop.

Even so, he pointed out that the ravine across the highway was not a ravine but was in fact a trench dug by General McClellan's Union Army as they prepared to invade Richmond.

As I monitored the bus driver's phone conversations, it became apparent that a replacement bus was nowhere near. I decided to wander down the side of the road.

Within a couple hundred yards, I came across a little sign that said, "Plantation House Tours." I walked up the drive, which in the south amounts to a forested tunnel, and came to a clearing which contained a huge antebellum mansion.

A knock on the front door brought no response, so I walked around the side and ran into the lady of the house.

No, she said, she was too busy getting ready for a wedding to be held on the grounds to give a tour to our teachers. But she would show me around so I could tell them about it in case they wanted to have a wedding there themselves.

I don't think she was aware how far Minnesota is from coastal Virginia. But I took her up on the offer of the tour.

The mansion, built in the 1820s, survived the Civil War in great shape. The dimly-lit interior was thick with period furnishings. In the middle of the house was a spectacular four-story unsupported cantilever spiral staircase.

And, added the woman, the house was haunted. The ghost of a girl who died of a broken heart waiting for her soldier lover to return from the war still comes out at night.

Forget the ghost, the woman herself was creepy enough. Layers of makeup melted down her face in the 100-degree heat.

She apologized for her appearance and said, "When I have visitors, I look fabulous." I said I was sure she did.

She took me through the kitchen and told about the parties held in the 1840s where guests from the North and the South mingled "before there were any hard feelin's."

Out the back we went to see the slave quarters. Then a massive garden. Then a stream. Then a flour mill, which still works using power from the stream.

Eventually, the woman made it clear that I was free to leave. I thanked her. Overcome by sudden panic that the bus had left me, I sprinted down the drive and back up the highway.

There had been no progress on the bus in my absence. It would be two more hours before the sheriff commandeered us a smelly bus with bad air conditioning.

Given the snakes, ticks and chiggers in the ditch, the kindly cops stopped the rush hour traffic to allow us to drag our bags a couple hundred yards to the replacement bus using the whole two-lane highway.

After a sweltering six-hour drive, we pulled into Charleston at 2 a.m., having had our fill of southern comfort for the day.

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