It's the day before the Unchained Tour is supposed to launch from Savannah, but the bus is nowhere to be seen.
"It's still at the mechanic's'," explains producer Samita Wolfe, remarkably cool and collected considering that, along with managing venues and logistics, she's responsible for getting the performers and their stuff on the road in less than 24 hours.
Lovingly painted by artist Linette Dubois and decked out for comfort, the official Unchained '72 Bluebird schoolbus is being outfitted with yet another engine after blowing one out on the last tour.
Supporters raised $10,000 through Kickstarter for this one, but there's concern as to whether the blue bus will be road-ready for its weeklong workload of transporting five raconteurs, two musicians and a small entourage of support, including tour creator George Dawes Green and author-professor Chad Faries.
"I'm not going to go crazy about it," Wolfe shrugs as she prepares lunch for the literary army. "It's not going to stop us. Worse comes to worse, we'll rent cars and caravan."
Whatever happens, it's bound to end up as part of the story.
Seventeen or so years ago, Green dreamed up the The Moth, an event in New York where people famous and ordinary gathered to tell stories. It has since inspired countless events across the country as well as an NPR radio show that won the 2010 Peabody award.
Last year, the best-selling novelist was inspired to take that same idea on the road to bring "the art of raconteuring" to the sleepy corners of the South.
"I thought if I could get people on this bus who are an interesting mix and see what happens, we could create that intense experience of community," says Green. "That's what this is all about."
The Unchained Tour, with a few exceptions, makes its stops at independent bookstores and small galleries to shop locally as well as foster genuine, artistic interaction.
"It's also about being unchained from the Internet," he continues. "Everybody crawls into that coffin for hours every day. I don't think most people think it's living, but by now we're all sort of addicted to it. Then you go to a night of great stories and music and you see the difference. It's about a community gathering."
Whether by bus or by caravan, the route's first stop is St. Simon's, dipping down the coast to Jacksonville and bringing it back around for a slow spin around Georgia. The tour is scheduled to hit the theater at the 185-seat Savannah History Museum this Friday, Feb, 10, but sit back down: It's been sold out for weeks.
"We couldn't get the same building," laments Green, referring to the SCAD River Club, which was sold last year. "There are larger venues, like the American Legion, but they didn't feel intimate to us. I think that's really important to have an intimate space."
The simple, honest stories about vulnerability, told by live people with a minimal of theatrics, are an unlikely hit in this world of virtual reality and talking through text. According to Peter Aguero, a big bear of a raconteur in from Brooklyn, the reason why people come to events like Unchained and the Moth is because "a story is a living breathing thing."
He'll share the stage with Green, legendary writer Edgar Oliver, Mormon comedienne Elna Baker, former French Vogue editor and glamorous dowager Joan Juliet Buck and journalist and Crooked Road Straight author Tina A. Brown. "Sloppytonk" band Shovels and Rope is also on the bill.
Brown, who moved to Savannah three years ago after being laid off as a reporter in Connecticut, is new to personal storytelling. She's also a bit nervous about the whole bus thing.
"I'm not much of a road trip person," she confides as everyone finishes lunch and wanders off to the corners of Green's marvelous Eastside home to rehearse. In spite of such reservations, the former crime reporter agreed to come aboard the tour when Faries asked last spring.
"As a journalist, you tell other people's stories, and this is very different," says Brown, who worked with Green to hone her tale. "It's been very liberating. George is very good at bringing emotions out of you that you never thought you'd share with anyone."
The story Brown plans to tell involves her experiences going back and forth from South Carolina to interview a 109-year-old patriarch farmer, finagling to get gas money so she could continue to chase what she knew was compelling.
She hopes to turn the interviews into a children's book at some point, and looks forward to telling more of her own stories, though she says she'll "always be a hard-driving reporter."
It hasn't even left town, but the buzz is that the Unchained Tour is likely to sell out most of its ten dates. If the success of the Moth is any indication, it can surely support more and bigger audiences.
Says Green: "I don't see any reason why we can't start sending this bus across the country. All I'm concerned with right now is having this great tour, but the dream is there."
In the meantime, no one's sure the bus is going to make it down the block. Then suddenly, everyone's cheering at the latest news from the mechanic: The bus is up and running!
But, alas, the new engine can't be driven faster than 45 mph, adding the hours on the road.
"No problem," murmurs Wolfe, waving her wand of calm. "We'll just adjust the driving times."
Indeed, all is well when the Wolfe checks in the next morning. The bus has now hit cruising speed, heading south on I-16, right on schedule. She reports that everyone is settled in, the journey finally begun.
"So far, so good." cs
Learn more at theunchainedtour.org