6000 Miles in 8 Days
A Motorcycle Ride across America
By Tim Mayhew
Day 1: 1230 Miles in 22 Hours
I stare at the map as cars whiz by, any direction sounds mighty good. I'm tempted to ride down into the Florida Keys. Key West, out into the Caribbean, 90 miles from Cuba. My pen scribbles about along the side of the map furiously working its way across the continent. Only another 2000 miles.
As simple as it may sound, I started this trip with my only goal being to reach El Paso from Sacramento in just one straight day. A distance of 1200 miles.
This crazy notion of riding a 1200-mile day on a motorcycle was an idea that crept into my mind. It hit me while falling asleep only a few days before my departure. Half lucid, and lost in the rapture of motorcycle glory, the idea of a man pushing the envelope trying to see just what you're capable of. And the more I thought about attempting such a ride, the more irresistible it became.
I am on a tight schedule, see, the semester starts on this coming Tuesday back in Sacramento and I am now in Texas. But... there is even more...
The whole reason why this trip has become a reality is credited to an old friend of mine who called me on the phone about two months ago. The two of us haven't had any contact in years. And I never expected to even hear from her again. We all seem to go our separate ways the older we get.
Then she phoned out of the blue. We did the normal chitchat about the old days, what happened to this person, that one's gotten married, and so on. And the topic soon turns to the idea of seeing each other. Okay, okay, so she was an old flame.
Sometimes you need a reason, a purpose- from that conversation, I had the excuse I needed for my next ride. I even went and bought a second motorcycle just for this. I did my last trip 7 months ago on an '82 Suzuki GS850L across America's midsection, a 5000-mile adventure to say the least. So I gathered up every penny I had saved (and then some), and bought an '83 Yamaha Venture 1200. This bike runs like a tank. One nice thing about being young, free, and on your own is you can do whatever you want anytime you please.
Nothing clears cobwebs from the mind like endless road and a motorcycle.
It all began on... Monday, January 10
I had drill last weekend which is the main reason why I have to fit this trip into a week since it is God, Country, Corps, and not- Tim's travels, Corps, Country. Otherwise I would have left several days ago. This last weekend, myself and a couple guys from my unit were up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for Marine Corps Cold Weather Training. We go up there once a year to practice some basic warfare in a cold and snowy environment. Great fun! I figured it'd be good practice for the sleeping temperatures I am expecting. I'm good for sleeping outside in 20-degree weather. So I wasn't too worried about the temperatures I expected in El Paso, which is at around 4000 feet depending on where you stand. It is desert though, so it's warm days and very cold nights, I think. Right?
After riding home from drill Sunday evening, I finished packing the bike parked in the garage all ready to go. I slept a few hours, and eventually left at 4:30 AM heading south. The fog leaving Sacramento was so thick, I doubt I could see over 50 feet as I rode through an area known across the states for its multiple-car pileups. After a tense hour of sitting up high peering over the moisture coated windshield, the fog melted away, and Interstate 5 drowned into its straight and narrow ride through California's Central Valley.
I settled in leaning back against the sleeping bag as if I was in an easy chair. I cranked some tunes, hit the cruise, and rode off into the night. Later, I sort of woke up realizing the sun was coming up to my left. Low on the horizon, it emerged like the scrolling of movie credits that sounded the end of night. Brilliant orange shattered the hold of inky black as the bike hummed beneath me.
It was then it hit me.
The realization came hurtling over the mountains striking my lone soul as blursome shooting yellow lines shot beneath my tires. There I sat, on a motorcycle headed across the United States and back again just for the hell of it. The only reason I am doing this is because I am the captain of my own ship. No grandiose higher calling or God told me to. Simply because I am free to do whatever I choose. Right now that ability to choose finds me whizzing through 34-degree morning air somewhere in California astride my motorcycle.
A song by the Soup Dragons came on just then singing "I'm Free.. to do what I want.. any old time.." I sang along, then suddenly started laughing hysterically weaving all over the deserted highway, "I'm free, I'm freeeee..." It was a rapturous moment!
No work, no people, no deadlines, no school, no duties, and no responsibilities, absolute nothing. The bike and I. "I'm free, I'm freeee..." The feeling was sinking in.
I came upon the 'grapevine', a twisty mountainous section of freeway that separates Los Angeles from the rest of the northerly world. Up and over the Tejon Pass and Los Angeles comes hurtling at you. The ride becomes rather enticing as it snakes through the range and the posted speed drops to oh-so-slow 55 mph at times.
The Venture was mysteriously sucked into a wolf pack with one of these new Cadillac's, a boat-sized Mercedes, and a Lincoln Town Car. I was pulled into their slipstream, really, I was. The Venture starts to death-wobble in corners around 90, but 80 was so smooth I could barely hear the bike above the roar of the wind. And of course, Van Halen blaring through the stereo.
Crest a hill and all four of us in a single row are rocketing down switchback mountainside. I've heard that Los Angeles is known for its high freeway speeds. It's a wonder they don't pump out more race car drivers. We popped over the next hill, the temperature climbed an instant 15 degrees, and that's how you know you've reached Los Angeles.
I wound my way through the city carefully watching all the signs for the proper thread through Los Angeles. It's a maze of freeways in that city. I'm on a schedule. I headed east, a blazing 60 degrees out, quite a swing from the 34 degrees a few hours ago. Now that's motorcycling. Greater LA fades, on and on through the valleys, town after town, all back to back never ending, so many people, so much concrete and the air is a funny color. How strange. Air that has color?
Palm Springs fancies itself in all the windmills on the hilltops. It resonates the senior living. I feel it as I ride by. Dry climate, steady temperatures, and lotsa dirt.
Welcome to Southern California - Headed for the Arizona border
The bike glides through Arizona past mountain ranges in the distance that look painted into the sky. Forever onward, and into Phoenix. While stopping for gas on the south side at Baseline Road at a Texaco, a young lady of similar age is punching the buttons as I pay for my gas. Upon seeing the gold EGA pin on my jacket, she embarked on a curious inquiry of where I've been stationed, then blurted a cacophony of excited questions about the bike outside the window. Her main fascination was the very idea of saddling a bike, and riding it long distances.
She was quick to tell me of a friend of a friend of a 2nd cousin's friend, who got hit by a dump truck or flying cow or lightning. On his bike of course- something like that. I simply smiled and said I've heard 'em all.
If I was so fixated with being maimed or getting hurt on the bike, the only thing I would do with my life is sit in a La-Z-Boy and watch TV all day. I'd probably never leave my house, I mean gee, I might stumble on the doorstep, stub my big toe, break a nail, a leg, fall on my head, on and on. I told her this and her facial expression changed a little. It was as if an epiphanous light from heaven shown down upon her from heaven above. She had a whole new perspective on life in a single moment.
Then she started asking all sorts of questions about my Marine Corps.
"You must be in shape to ride that bike all day, and the Marines, blah, blah, blah," she rambled. Time to go.
Tucson, Arizona brought about a rise in elevation and an end to the light of day. The sun to the west dropped behind desert mountains and I realized I had been on the road since 4:30 AM. I stopped for gas at 3700 feet and sensed the chill as the elevation and darkness combined. I hope there wasn't much to see. The landscape became a blur as the only world that came to exist was in the glow of my headlight. I rode past the Saguaro National Monument and even a dry lake near Wilcox. Never even knew they were there.
I'd been on the bike for 17 hours straight hitting the 1000-mile mark somewhere around the New Mexico state border. As I rolled past mile 1001 and crossed into New Mexico, my 3rd state of the day, the elevation moved over 4300 feet around Deming. It may not seem high, but this is high desert with nothing to hold the heat in. The temperature continued to drop. And drop. And drop some more.
I was moving well into the night and also exhaustion. The last 325 miles- a 5 or 6 hour jaunt from Tucson to El Paso through the desert, became a sheer test of will. My experience with deserts is limited. In planning this trip, I failed to fathom at the drop in temperature and the chill that could accompany the 65-mph night air. The temperature dropped below freezing and kept on dropping. Bitter air became colder and colder, and so did yours truly. I crouched into the pocket of air behind the fairing of the Venture as cold siphoned away strength and warmth, but not my resolve.
I watched the temperature slowly drop on my digital temperature gauge affixed to the handlebar. 35 degrees. Then 30 degrees. Then 25 degrees. The air temperature stabilized at a bewildering 22 degrees and just sat there. All I could think is I must be crazy to be out here doing this. But I was iron-willed staring at two unforgiving digital numbers of 22 degrees. The cutting taste of desert seeped through my black flight jacket, my gloves, and my combat boots. Whitened stiff fingers clutched the handle grip as one hand rested upon the fins of the motor then traded off with the other. My heart pumped life battling chilling blasts of desert night air. The tops of my thighs lost feeling under my long-johns & jeans. I could only guess at the wind-chill of the slipstream beside me. The funny thing is I don't remember much. I was just so intensely cold, so very cold. My resolve was rock solid. I would make my 1200 miles in a single day.
The glow on the pavement in front of me parted the darkness for a short distance then nothing. The bike, ever present, hummed a steady rhythm beneath me, the tires endlessly turning, the throttle lock on, the tunes blaring away. I rode on maintaining my speed and pace. I could picture my warm sleeping bag waiting to be unrolled at a campground outside El Paso that was annotated on the map. Any other car was rare. I was alone, and the desert swallowed me up. There was only one option. I had to reach my 1200 miles.
Not only was I cold, but I was also moving into a new level of exhaustion. It was an effort to stay alert. It was an effort to stay awake. I did it all. I sang along with the music, loudly. I whistled. I did my best Pavarotti voice bellowing over the din of the motor and wind blast. I stood on the footpegs and blasted myself in the face with the coldest of air. I sang the Marine Corps Anthem over and over again. I bounced up and down in the seat singing show tunes. And it felt as though cinder blocks were sitting atop my eyelids.
All of this contains little logic.
Why 1200 miles alone on a motorcycle in the middle of winter? Why 20 hours straight? The main reason for this trip is to see my old friend. That's it. She's 2000 miles away and why not ride the whole distance in two days. Seems simple enough. That would give us more time to spend catching up. 2000 miles there, hang out for a whole week then ride back home. I only have a week then the semester starts on Tuesday. So here I am, riding around the Southwest, in the desert, in the middle of the night, and in 22-degree weather. No, not much logic in that. Especially with a woman involved.
Only a woman would possess me to go to such extremes. Most people would fly. I go out, buy another motorcycle, plan a two-day kamikaze ride in January, driving across a third of the United States, all for a woman. I must be crazy.
The worst of it is, this two-day 2000-mile ride, I have to admit I planned it just to see if I could do it. Any other motorcycle nut would at least plan 3 days but if I do it in 2, that gives us one more day to be together, right? Scrapping together all the dough for the bike, which by the way I bought 3 weeks ago, uh-huh, three weeks ago, has left me strapped for cash. This trip is on a shoestring, besides just being a poor college kid on top of that. No fancy leather chaps, insulated boots, electric heated clothing, or much of anything actually. I haven't even saved up enough money for a good motorcycle jacket. I spent it all on the new bike. Instead, I'm in jeans, two long johns, buncha shirts, two jackets not designed for motorcycling, and I have never been so cold in all my life.
All this for a woman.
The time frame of the ride is my own personal war. Logic is irrelevant. We humans love a challenge. Because it was there. isn't that the time-honored axiom? When life holds no more challenges, then what purpose is there to life? Sure sounds like a good reason, oh, and don't forget the woman.
Imagine my relief when I finally crested over a hill and began descending into the lights of Las Cruces, New Mexico. I'd made it, only a few more miles now. The city lies at an elevation of about 4000 feet. I supposed the surrounding mountaintops were over 5000, but at least the temperature had gone up to close to freezing. I had to laugh when I felt that thought go through my mind. It was now 31 degrees out.
On the outskirts of Las Cruces, and in my 20th hour of riding, I pulled off the freeway into a gas station after midnight to a gun toting gas jockey standing beside the pumps. The 9mm pistol with 16 rounds and two extra clips, 16 rounds apiece, strapped to his hip dubbed him as both the security and the gas station attendant. He was friendly upon seeing me, and smiled broadly as if it were a slow night and he could use the company. He was rather overweight, and seemed unaffected by the cold. His chubby cheeks were red and his breath formed into wispy mist in front of him.
A soon as I got off the bike, I started to shiver uncontrollably. I was practically rattling. It was an effort to form words, but I talked to the guy nevertheless. My teeth chattered away as I filled up the tank. The nozzle rattled against the lip of the tank as I inserted the nozzle and struggled to squeeze the handle. It seemed overly spring loaded. It took both hands to squeeze the trigger and release the gas into the tank.
I couldn't resist. I couldn't help but ask about the brazen display of arms. I had never seen anything like this, a one-man army gas jockey with a gun?
"You see those lights over there," He said pointing a pudgy finger towards some housing a quarter mile away, "See, there's gangs around here, lot of gangs, and they cause trouble.... oh, I've got a license, had to go through a pistol course to wear this." He patted the pistol on his waist and the extra clips as if he were petting his cat. If the clips could purr, I probably would've heard 'em. "So now I wear my 'lil Beretta 9mm in plain sight and not much trouble lately... Nope, not much trouble at all." He smiled as if pleased with himself.
Then he saw the Marine Corps emblem on my black flight jacket and realized I was just as familiar in light weaponry as he. His eyes lit up and I could see he wanted conversation really bad and not about grandma's latest plum cake recipe. It was too cold to chat with some guy about guns, and decided I wasn't up for a conversation in ballistics. I waved good-bye, mounted the motorcycle and rode off into the night. I think that must have been the wrong side of town to get gas. I looked up as I rode away and checked for a full moon.
Back on the road, now in my 21st hour on the bike, I headed into Texas and was relieved once more to see my exit. I got off the freeway making a break eastward on Highway 62 for Hueco Tanks State Historical Park which lies at the bottom of Fort Bliss. White Sands Missile Range is a few miles north. The Space Shuttle lands out there too about an hour to the north at White Sands Space Harbor. I also see on the map now that the first atomic bomb exploded a little above that. Gee, neat.
North on Road 2775, the campground was a good trek off the freeway but a warm cozy sleeping bag is all I pictured. A ratted old sign came into the range of the headlight. It pointed the way to salvation. My sleeping bag. I turned in that direction northward off onto a dirt road. I am so close! I followed the road curving around hills surrounded by dirt and sagebrush. My brain kept saying, it must be around here someplace. It is now well after 1 AM as Tuesday begins. I reach the entrance for the campground and to my surprise its gates are locked. They were closed at 6:30 PM. I'm just a little late.
I'm baffled, it's the ultimate in poor planning. I've no idea what to do next. I am physically exhausted. The relentless chill claws at me. I hesitate to look at my temperature gauge, but do anyway. 29 degrees. What I don't know but would learn later is that I'm also sitting at 4500 feet in elevation. I debate just pressing on, turning right around back to the freeway and plunging into Texas till I hit something. The clock ticks past 2 AM as I study the not-so-detailed map with my crook-neck flashlight. I am in the middle of nowhere. I've driven myself out into the desert just like in the movies where the hero guy must somehow find his way back to civilization. I have a full tank of gas though courtesy of the pistol totting locals. I made my 1200 miles too. As long as I don't freeze to death out here, I figure I can do the remaining 800 tomorrow and be able to tell somebody about it. This is crazy.
The night is pitch black. There isn't a light coming from anything. I'm not sure where I am or how far away anything is. I can't stay here parked in front of this gate in the middle of nowhere. I mounted the bike and struggled to pull it upright off the kickstand. I don't remember it being that heavy. I find a dirt road and take it, riding a few miles per hour as the bike creeks and rattles upon bumpy rippled gravel. I go about a quarter mile and then just stop, the bike idling quietly. I can't go on any longer. I have nothing left. I pop out the kickstand, and shut the bike off right there in the middle of the road in the middle of the desert. My head drops, my eyes slam shut, and I fall asleep sitting on the bike.
The miles, the 23rd hour of riding, and the cold finally take their toll. A car rumbles by noisily bumping over the ripples in the gravel. It pays no attention to me as I awake from the noise and realize I can't feel my toes. I clamor off the bike to discover a foot-high graded ridge of excess gravel left over from the last time the road was graded smooth. Sitting down, off come the combat boots. My bare hands rub stiff toes through two pairs of socks. I work one foot until prickly needles scream their presence, then start on the other as it also bristles in revived sensation. I vow to buy electric socks on the next trip. My head droops slowly, then stiffens, and then droops again. I awake with no sense of time to find I am holding my foot in my hand. I simply resume rubbing.
Salvation arrives as I notice a faint glow in the east. By now I am shivering uncontrollably. I simply can't stop shivering. It's an effort to move. All I can think is to get warm, to find warm. I realize that just the day before I was up in the Sierras Nevada Mountains. We camped at 7500 feet with several feet of snow on the ground. We set up the tents atop the snow and trained all day. That evening we stood around a warm campfire and shared war stories. Several of the Marines had been in the Gulf War and we laughed at the temperature difference. We were toasty warm in military issue cold weather gear and Mickey Mouse boots. Our Corpsman was giving us a class on hypothermia and a day later, here I am experiencing it first-hand. It never even occurred to me how incredibly stupid I was.
Why hadn't I just laid out the sleeping bag right there? So much for hindsight.
Day 2: Tuesday, January 11 - El Paso, Texas
The 800 Mile Day
With first light, I headed back into El Paso and to the first McDonald's I saw. I pulled into the lot, parked the bike, and shuffled inside. Oh my, does that feel good as I heaved open the door. Saharan heat blasted me in the face. I couldn’t feel my hands, my fingers were ice white, and I clenched them over and over. With breakfast and steaming hot water, I couldn't wait to wrap my fingers around the warm cup. As my order was prepared, I got my hands working enough to carry the tray. After 3 cups of hot water, a half-hour, and not removing even one layer, I finally stopped shivering. This has been a hell of a first day was the thought as I smiled to myself. I could tell already this is going to be some trip.
Across from me were some oldsters carrying on conversations about 1938 or was it '42? They bantered back and forth smiling, joking, and downright badgering each other. I sat in silence studying the maps and making notes in the margins adding up the distance to Houston. I took note of the elevation markers. I have a way to go is my thought as I finish adding the miles on the edge of the map. 800 Miles. Another 800 miles.
Reunited with the bike, and soon acclimated with the surrounding temperature, on into Texas I went. She better be worth it was all I kept saying to myself. I was now less than 800 miles away and I’d be there south of Houston where she lives by nightfall.
The miles were wearing upon me. Anytime I felt tired, I’d pull off the freeway at an overpass to stop and regain my senses. I did this several times. Sometimes, just long enough to get off the bike and walk around in the middle of the road. No, these Texas roads aren’t traveled by many people it seemed.
At one such exit, I pulled into the town of Sierra Blanca, elevation 4500 feet, at the foot of the Sierra Blanca Mountains in western Texas. The sun showers warmth. The sky was infinite blue. I took a moment to grab a picture at the boarded-up movie house and the old train station. Why would anyone want to live out here is my first thought? This must be my flaw, because I can’t come up with that reason. I rode slowly through the town. What a wonderful world to be able to choose the concrete of LA, the gun totting gas jockey’s, the cold deserts of New Mexico, the fog of the Sacramento valley, or where ever it is we choose to live our lives. I wonder if it is we who choose our lives, or do our lives choose us? Is this the sort of thing you think about on trips like this?
Sierra Blanca, Texas
I rode out of the town, on to the overpass and left down the ramp onto this ribbon of concrete. Reunited with the pavement, the miles accumulated as the sun rose into crisp blue sky. At one point, I pulled off the freeway into a Truckstop and pulled the bike up on its center stand and catnapped still sitting on the bike. Years later, I would learn this is called the Iron Butt Motel. Back on the freeway all that existed is miles and miles, and the thought of reaching her. After all, that's what this trip is all about.
The endless expanse...
Every now and then, a picturesque scene presented itself and I snapped a picture. It was the utmost-boring ride. Worse than western Kansas. Approaching San Antonio the terrain became somewhat mountainous, and actual trees appeared. A 10-hour drive between cities is an excursion, especially when those cities are in the same state. Lot of land down here. Anyone who speaks of overpopulation in the United States has never been to Texas. This place is expansive, it drags on forever. Some of the scenes and vistas north of San Antonio were a welcome change in terrain. I found myself thinking that I could see how towns nestled into the little valleys and draws of these mountains become attractive as they pass by one after the other.
Another one of my frequent stops in Texas at overpasses to stretch the legs.
San Antonio enlarged upon the horizon after a 10-hour non-stop ride. It was a maze of freeways as I worked my way eastward through the city. I left the metropolis on a high-speed flat race for Houston. What a piece of art the road to Houston is, straight, flat, no traffic. Except this repeating scene of a cop and a pulled over speeder every 50 miles. I hit the cruise, popped in Tom Petty, and away we go. Running out of tapes though, I’ve brought everything from Erasure to Madonna to Van Halen to The Best of 1957.
Upon entering Houston, Texas I came upon a huge pileup on the other side of the freeway. Cars had been reduced to twisted hunks of metal including a jackknifed semi, twisted across the road. Cars were strewn everywhere, hoods pushed up or imbedded into another car. Broken glass shards lay like discarded diamonds sprayed across the lanes of freeway. Searchlights bounced brilliance upon glass walls of office buildings on either side of the freeway illuminating the scene. Ambulance lights pulsated alongside firetrucks and rescue personnel converged through the rubble. The reflective tapes on their outfits glowed white under the lights. Above in the night sky a helicopter hovered. Traffic backed up 4 lanes wide as far as the eye could see. I must be under a lucky star to have survived this trip so far.
After the huge pileup, I went deeper into the city and encountered a myriad of construction. The further I went, the more disorientated I became. Not knowing where my turnoff was or when it was coming up, I lost all sense of direction. The map I have of the city is small and not very detailed. I eventually stopped alongside the freeway underneath a street lamp and studied it in the darkness as traffic hurtled on by. I have a map light that plugs into the cigarette lighter on the bike but no go. Even stopped, I couldn't make heads or tails and construction cones stood all around me. The orange lights atop the cones blinked out of sequence in a jumble of pulsing orbs. I kicked it into gear and headed down the road. Eventually discovered I was right where I needed to be. I turned south out of the city and my turnoff was just a mile ahead. My lucky star, remember?
At the edge of the city, a deadly thick fog enveloped me, just as bad as yesterday morning in Sacramento. I wolf-packed with some other cars because I couldn't see 20 feet in front of me. Nasty, nasty fog, then I almost missed the turnoff to Clute, Texas. Finally pulled in at 11:45 PM Central Time. 15 hours to cross Texas, the distances are staggering. Yesterday I crossed 3 states in 20 some hours. Texas gobbles up the hours and you don't feel as if you've gone anywhere.
I pulled into town tired but pleased at myself and feeling relieved. I've done it. 2000 miles in two days. I'm here. Her directions on how to get to her place are exact and I’ve no trouble finding the place. I coasted into the parking lot and shut the bike down, and just sat there looking up at her place on the second floor. I made it. Through the cold and fatigue, up and over the mountains, through the grapevine racetrack of LA, the gun totting gas jockeys of Las Cruces, the hypothermia, the nothingness of wide-open Texas, the freeway pileups, past all the speeder thirsty cops. I really made it... all to reach her.
She wasn't home.
I couldn't believe it. Her cat she described over the phone was even pawing at me through the picture window. Maybe she didn't expect me at this hour, maybe she's sleeping or maybe she went to the corner market. At midnight on a Tuesday? I was clueless, stumped, she knew I was coming, we planned this whole trip and the coming week together. I would at least expect her to leave a note on the door but true to form she doesn't. I ride up the street to a payphone and call her apartment. The phone just rings on and on, she could be dead inside and I’d never know. Scenes from every bad movie I’ve ever seen pop like flashbulbs in my mind. I call again, still no answer. I call her work, no answer, I drive over to her work, closed.
I must be the most trusting, naive, faithful guy in the whole world because the thought that she stood me up just couldn't possibly exist here, not in this situation. I decide to hang around. She must have gotten tired of waiting for me to arrive, went somewhere, and would return shortly. I rode back to her place and waited a little bit sitting on the bike in front of the second floor apartment.
Wait a second, this is stupid. I've got a warm sleeping bag right on the bike. I tugged the sleeping bag and mat out, tromped up the concrete stairs to the open balcony. Mine as well camp out on her doorstep till she gets home. Maybe she’s out with friends and forgot I was arriving this evening. I unrolled the sleeping bag out on the concrete and crawled into it. She'd return. I haven't come all this way for it to come to this. I was sure of it.
Day 3: Wednesday, January 12 - Clute, Texas
Early in the morning at first light, it started to drizzle. I thought no, this can't be happening. It's like out of a bad movie, she has to come, maybe she got the dates screwed up and thought I'd arrive today. The rain started coming down in sheets. The pouring runoff from the overhang above splattered onto me. I pulled the foam mat out from beneath me, and used it as a shield so I wouldn't get soaked. Well at least something is working, I thought, lying on her concrete stoop in front of the door still fully clothed inside the warmth of my sleeping bag. I didn’t even bother to remove my boots or jackets. She'd show up any time now. I decided to sleep a little more as it rained a steady drizzle.
She never showed.
Nothing. I suppose if I ever do find out what happened, she'll have some fantastic excuse. She was always good at those.
By noon I was seething ill will. I spitefully packed up, fired up the motorcycle, and rode in the pouring rain over to where she works. Still not a clue. I called her place again, no answer. Not even an answering machine. I passed a sign for the hospital and the thought flashed across my mind. I thought no way, enough is enough.
Decided I needed, no, deserved, a good strong breakfast after eating $1.27 McDonalds breakfasts and my military issue MRE's. I have some left over from my drill weekends. I've brought some with me so I won't have to buy so much food. They taste horrid though. I've eaten a little every 2 hours on the two-day drive here. It hasn't been a whole lot. I found this Denny's here in Freeport, Texas and I’ve settled in writing this travelogue of these two crazy days and studying the maps, which is little more than a road atlas of North America, state by state.
Should I wait or leave or what? She might not even be around for all I know. Then on the other hand she could have stiffed me but good. I've decided I never want to speak to her again or ever see her. I'm still seething. It’s taken me an entire platter of Texas Bacon and Eggs, on special, to calm down. To think I rode 2000 miles in two days and she stood me up? What now for the motorcycle traveler?
The only option is to go on. Key West, which simply sounds like a cool place to go, I just like the sound of it, is another 2000 miles. And then it would be 4000 miles back. That’s 6000 miles and I only have 5 and a half more days. As I finished adding up all the numbers, I laughed, you are nuts! Maybe if I had one more day, I could make a dash for the Atlantic. I'd dip my big toe in, or my front tire, then ride back across the entire United States to make my first-class Tuesday morning. Five and a half days, hmm, not quite enough for 6000 more miles. Yes, I know, I am crazy, but give me time, the trip has only just begun.
I think what I’ve decided to do is travel parallel to the freeway along the Gulf coast. Head east, get as far as I can get then just turn around and dash across the United States. Wherever I am is where I’ll be. How's that for freedom? I have very little money though, plenty for gas and a little for food, but nothing else. And... I haven't even bought my books for my classes yet.
My personal ‘motorcycle touring concept’ when I haven't anyplace to be specifically, is to just hop on the bike and see what's out there. And yes, I have been influenced by Jean Luc Picard.
I keep thinking I should try to stop worrying about how much distance did I cover today although it is difficult for me to stop riding. I stop moving, I get restless, in a matter of hours, sometimes minutes. Each stop, the bike looms ominous nearby taunting me to so much as attempt to be still.
The whole concept of looking at a map of the United States and saying, gee, I’m in Freeport, Texas. I look where Freeport is, then where Sacramento is, and the distance between the two. Traveling with no particular destination or reason other than doing it because one enjoys it, thirsts for it, longs for it, dreams of it, the open road, and that's all the more reason I need. It's beyond unique to hop on the motorcycle, ride 2000 miles, then sit down for a good meal and be able to say home is very far away.
I need to ride.
The rain never let up as I sat in Denny's after coming to my senses by spending a night on the front stoop. As I was looking over the maps though, an older gentleman in the next booth must have noticed the bike outside the window dripping wet, looked at me, all wet, my, we match!
"I used to ride too," he said with a far-off smile, "my wife and I in the 1950's. Had to give it all up though. Kids and family..." He took a sip of his iced tea with no lemon, paused for a moment, then continued. "We had some real adventures riding back then. It wasn't like it is today on that fancy machine you've got... but boy did we have some adventures..." Then he went back to his iced tea, no lemon, with a far off smile and a renewed warm look upon his face.
As I paid for the meal, the young kid behind the counter taking my money looked through the rain at the bike and then at me.
"Is that your motorcycle?" He asked and I replied that it was. "I used to have a dirt bike but I broke my arm on it and mom made me sell it."
I replied that I had broken a bone on a bike too. My brothers and I had put an enduro tire on an old Honda standard and used it as a dirt bike around our farm. One time I wiped the bike out and it landed on my right leg. Now 4 bikes and 7 years later here I am touring around the United States on one. His face spells wonder as he takes my money. He asks what happened after the leg healed.
"As soon as my busted leg mended, I hopped back on that 'ole Honda. My brothers and I rode it into the ground," I said to him smiling. Then holding my maps in one hand, helmet in the other, I turned and walked out into the pouring rain.
After tugging on my yellow rain suit, which is never easy when it's already raining, I fire up the bike and let it idle in the rain. Steam rises from the motor and mufflers as everything heats up.
The gulf coast turns out to be only 15 minutes away. An arced bridge appeared, up and over the channel that is the coastal waterway. A blast of wind and rain slammed into me as I crested the bridge and rode into Surfside Beach. There it was, the Gulf of Mexico. One more ocean that mine eyes have seen.
My rainy arrival at the Gulf Coast
I rode the bike out on to the beach. Salty waves pummeled the shore. Wind roared over cresting waves as I leaned into the sea, and canted my head into the wind. What a glorious feeling! I wanted to do like Christopher Columbus and drop to my knees in the sand, taste the salt, roll in the surf, and stare into the falling sky eyes ablaze. Instead, I just shut the bike off and laughed to myself sticking my tongue out to taste the rain. I peeled off my helmet long enough to snap a picture to record my landing on the southerly edge of the United States. There wasn't another person in sight.
I decide to drive up the coast awhile, east as good a heading as any. Galveston Island presents an entirely new scene. All the houses are on stilts at least 8 to 10 feet off the ground. Some of the houses are modern and new. Others are just tattered graying boards clinging desperately to frames sitting over idle ponds of stale water.
The temperature was around 50 degrees. I go without gloves to avoid getting them soaked, sorry, don't have any rain covers. This keeps my gloves dry tucked away in the hard bags but the rain hits my hands and travels up my wrists to my clothing underneath the rain suit. Drips fell off the back of the helmet and hit my neck as I pulled my scarf tighter. Even with the rain suit, I get wet in this downpour.
The road trails right at the very edge of the coast and the crashing waves are a few feet away. Spotting a good picture, I pull over and hop off the bike parking it along the road. Rain is still falling and the wind is blowing gusty blasts from the sea. I think I can snap a quick one before everything is soaked.
Headed into Galveston, Texas in the pouring rain.
The very first car that passes by stops to see if I am all right. It's a Caravan and a fatherly looking man pokes out his head.
"Is everything ok? Do you need any help?" He asks.
"No," I say walking up to his window, "but thanks for stopping, just taking a picture."
"Oh, well you never know, nasty weather we're having, especially to get stuck out here," he says looking at me then up at the dark gray clouds then at the pounding surf to his left. He drives on and the next car slows but doesn't stop as I search for just the right angle. Then the next car stops and the gentleman inside asks if I'm all right. I better get out of here or I will have the entire town coming out ensuring my safety. With a grin I assure the driver all is well. Rather friendly people.
As I reach the middle of the island, I come to a toll bridge at San Luis Pass. As I climb the long arcing path of the bridge, I discover that below is a wide-open expansive beach and beyond that only the crashing waves. In the spirit of picture taking, I turn around to pull out onto the beach. The sand of the beach is hard packed from the rain so the bike glides along. I look for a spot and the right angle against the boiling sea.
I find a small dune and place it between the tires so the kickstand will sink in but the bike will stay upright. It work
s and the bike balances. I hop off careful not to upset it and step back. No good, I think. Doesn't look right. Mounting the bike, I'm careful starting off not to spin the rear tire. That would be a disaster. Then I would need the townspeople to rescue me. I circle around to come in from the other direction. I'm not careful enough though and the front wheel plows, down the bike plops into the sand.
It balances at an angle on the crash bars that protect the bike from things like this so I hop off, plant my feet, and grunt the bike up. I suppose any touring purist would be aghast at me dumping the bike but bikes come and go, the picture lasts forever. I dump it two more times circling around looking for the right angle and dune. Finally, I get it right, hop off the bike and decide there's too little light since it is now dusk. So I didn't get either picture.
While riding through Galveston, I've decided this would be an interesting place to live, on an island along the gulf coast. Because of the storm, I decide to get a room for the night since there is no way I can sleep out in this weather. I can't even feel my hands anymore. The rushing wind and rain have slowly sucked out all their warmth. Upon finding an inexpensive motel at the water's edge, I settle in chatting with the mom and pop couple that run the place.
They're curious where I'm from and where in the world could I be heading in this weather. They seem surprised at the motorcycle parked outside the front window. The bike just sits there, steam rolling off the motor in the steady rain. After all, this is January. They tell me a little about the island. It's 32 miles long and only 2 miles wide at its widest point. There are a couple cool museums here and even an off-shore oil rig. Lots of retired people round here.
They hand me a portable heater to help dry my things. They also say there is an unusually large cold front coming down from the north that's expected to reach quite far south into America's midsection. Not much I can do about that. I don't give it a second thought. Just as long as it doesn't rain, I feel confident.
Nothing could be worse than this last Monday out in New Mexico. I am amazed still at the temperature the other day. 22 degrees? Nothing could be as much of a hardship as that was.
I've settled into the spartan little room here, and I can see the storm on the Weather Channel. Hopefully it'll be gone by morning. The weatherman seems to be as confident as I am. I also see the cold front good 'ole mom and pop were talking about. Seems that where I am originally from up in Wisconsin, temperatures are in the single digits.
It can't get that bad, not this far south.
Day 4: Thursday, January 13 – Galveston Island, Texas
I slept in this morning. I felt guilty for not getting an early start. It’s as if I owe it to myself to get out there. Yet after sleeping a couple hours on a concrete slab and a few hours in the desert the night before that, a real bed felt too good to be true.
In the light of midmorning, the edge of the sea is right outside the door of the motel and there is a boardwalk running along the edge of the beach. I am kicking myself for not going rollerblading. Yes, I brought my blades with me, fit right into the hardbags, but I blow the chance. I got up so late all I could think of was the road. Can't stay in one place, can't keep still, have to keep moving, have to see what's over the next hill, around the next bend.
I packed up after my first shower in a couple days. A real shower, wow, does that feel great after 3 days in the same clothes. Lug out the hardbags, which attach just like luggage, bungee down my backrest/sleeping bag, and away I go. The vibration and sound of the motorcycle soothes me like an old friend. The sensation streams through me. My this feels good, this motorcycling thing. The blue sky above, the ocean off to my right, the town here of Galveston. then I catch myself and think- motorcycling is where it's at!
I debate stopping at the car museum the couple mentioned last night. They also mentioned an aviation museum also here in town. Cars, planes, motorcycle, cars, motorcycle. I can't stop. The road was a magnet pulling me forever onward. A quiet voice whispered into my ear beckoning me. It's the morning of the 4th day into this trip. With my plans changed, I hadn't even decided where I was headed.
In order to get off Galveston Island and cross to the Bolivar Peninsula, there is a ferry that runs day and night. No bridge, thus the ferry. I have never been on a ferry so this was a new experience for me. As we started the crossing with only a few other cars, I was able to walk around and climb to the next level to look out across the water. Galveston Bay lies to the north, the Gulf of Mexico to the South. The skies were clear blue and held no rain. I felt relaxed, at ease, complacent, at peace as the ferry churned across the bay. The air tasted like salt as I gripped the handrail of the second deck bracing into the stiff wind. I just stood there and watched the world go by.
Galveston Island in the background - Headed to the mainland.
I rode through Port Bolivar and the town of Gilchrist. The road comes to an end outside Gilchrist because a hurricane in '87 washed out the road so north it is then. Marsh grasses line either side of the road, not much to look at except an occasional bridge over a waterway. Soon I hit the freeway and simply pull over still having not decided where to go except the general direction of east. Today is Thursday, four and a half more days... Out come the maps once more. I can't go back the way I came so west is out. South is the gulf so that's out too. That leaves north and east but a little voice warns me of the cold awaiting me if I head north.
East it is then as I absorb my map of the entire United States. I see where I am, at the corner of I-10 and 124 in the town of Winnie. I could go slowly across the bottom of Louisiana on back roads but it looks to be just one big bayou and riding all day through a swamp doesn't sound enticing. New Orleans isn't all that far away, hmm... I make a split-second decision looking at the nation as a whole. Pensacola, Florida sounds like a good place to head for and judging the distance it looks reachable. I guess about 500 miles, not bad for an afternoon ride.
Must eat first and lucky me, there's a McDonalds not far away. I munch away as a creaking pickup coughs into the parking lot. Its doors burst open and two high schoolish looking guys clamor out. They both wear huge cowboy hats and pointy snakeskin cowboy boots. Boot cut blue jeans and loud boisterous rodeo shirts with flames stenciled in. One had a belt buckle large enough to deflect bullets. It probably prevents him from even bending over. I think though that it was I, dressed in all black alongside my helmet and jackets, that was out of place.
At one in the afternoon, I join the freeway traffic as the adrenaline surges through veins accustomed to breakneck speeds. I embrace the feeling as the last two days haven't produced much distance and toodling along the coast is nice, but slow going. I've decided to ride and keep on riding till whenever, or Pensacola comes along, whichever comes first. I'll just let the moment develop. I settle in, lean back against the sleeping bag and let the towns, cities, even states pass by. Going through some of the refinery towns is quite an ordeal for the ole sniffer. The smell is pungent, how could anyone endure smelling this I wonder. It passes as quickly as it comes.
In order to cross the bayous of southern Louisiana, an elevated freeway on stilts ferries travelers unencumbered of the soft land below. Occasionally, the bridges go on for miles. They can be bumpy as the freeway rises and falls into the mushy ground. My monoshock suspension is set all the way down so the bike rides like a Cadillac. It was a swoopy ride, mile after mile of elevated freeway, like being on a roller-coaster. Ride through Baton Rouge and across the top of New Orleans. Passing near New Orleans, the sun slams into the horizon on this short winter day. A few miles more, and then across the mighty Mississippi into the state of Mississippi I ride headlong right into Alabama.
I am realizing the reason why you don't travel in winter is because the day is so short. With night comes the plunge in temperature. The weatherman was right. At one stop for gas in the middle of nowhere, I didn't even know what state I was in. The temperature was in the low 40's. I struggled to raise a numb leg off the bike and onto the ground. I just started waves of shivering, vibrating all over the place. The cold sinks in after a few hours of this night riding. I pay the lady and away I go within minutes.
Through Gulf Port, Biloxi, up and over Mobile Bay, and I reach Florida. I have to stop just to survey where I am and how far have I come. Key West suddenly became very tempting again. Why Key West? I have no interest in Florida right now but still just to stand at the furthest southeastern point where the road comes to an end. A place where there is no more road. No more worlds to conquer. But it'd be 1000 miles back and I've got class on Tuesday. I'd be on the wrong side of the United States if anything went wrong. Now there is a funny thought.
I needed a place to sleep as the clock on my dash ticked past 10 PM. For some odd reason this ride just sped by. With night driving you just ride, nothing else exists. I am alone with the bike, my thoughts, and through the night I ride. On the map illuminated on my tank by the tiny map light, I spot Conecuh National Forest just over the state line into Alabama. So much for Florida. Country roads, the middle of the night, the steady hum of the motorcycle, this feels so good. North into the forests of southern Alabama following road signs to what I hope will be a campground. I ride surrounded by nothing but the rustle of leafless trees. Pure transcendence.
The road rises and falls over hills, a curve here, a curve there. It invites speed on this still night and I accept the invitation. Then I almost miss the turnoff. I hit the brakes and U-turn in the road. As I pull in to the National Forest campground, I misjudge the placement of the road and cut the corner. The bike sinks into inches of soft mud and just plops over on its side. It lays their idling. I feel really stupid realizing it must have just rained here. And I am standing in a mud puddle in the middle of the night in Alabama in a ditch with mud covering everything.
I shut the bike off from pure embarrassment as if someone out here even notices. I still feel real stupid standing in the mud. The smell of gasoline is pungently sweet as it trickles out of the tank and onto the ground. I struggle to find handholds on the motorcycle. It lies on its side like a wounded animal. I get a good grip, plant my feet, and start grunting trying to right my beloved 750-pound hunk of metal. The first few times I try, nothing happens. I struggle in the dark groping my way along. Finally, with a hearty oofta I get the bike upright. It obediently starts right up. I ease on the clutch going a mere 6 inches. The front wheel slides right out from under me along with the rest of the bike.
Now I feel really stupid, twice in one day in the same spot even. Same process all over again, grunts here, oofta there. Finally, I ease the bike back onto the road and ride on in to Open Pond Campground as if nothing happened at all.
I discover a glass lake right beside my little road that is merely two rutted tire tracks through the forest with grass growing in-between the ruts. Thin slivers of moon shadow the scene. Rocks clink against the fenders as tires skit along the narrow path. The bike beneath me utters a subtle relaxing tune. I find a secluded space to my liking, and in darkness roll out my sleeping bag upon a bed of leaves. I lie on my back, my arms crossed upon my chest staring into the starred sky through tree branches swaying gentle. It's 12:30 AM. I left the McDonald's 13 hours ago.
My, what a great land this is.
Day 5: Friday, January 14 – Andalusia, Alabama
Didn't bother to set an alarm and I feel guilty again for not leaving at dawn. The days are very short and I feel a sense of obligation to ride as far as I can while its daylight out. I sleep like a rock till 10 AM. The bike rests patiently beside me as I unzip my sleeping bag and peek out. I sense the scornful look of the bike for not heading out early. Lately, every time I look at the cycle it still seems to speak to me. It begs me to ride, ride off for no apparent reason.
The results of my muddy encounter, note the high-tech (cardboard) wind deflectors
I pack up and ride off through the forests on Highway 24 to the main road listening to the radio as morning DJ's hammer out a supposed witty funny banter. In moments, they are out of range as I now head west. I've mapped out a route on the main highway that continues consistently across Alabama. I keep waiting for the Duke Boys to race past in the General Lee as I ride the country roads of southern Alabama. The thought makes me laugh. I wonder where Hazard County is anyway.
I come along to a herd of goats in a pasture alongside the road. I sense a moment to pause, stretch, and drink in the scene so I pull to a stop. The head goat must have decided my big metallic blue machine was more foe than friend. He bolts at full gallop up the rise to the opposite side of the green hillside pasture. His buddies follow suit, and their buddies, and their cousins, and sisters brothers and pretty soon the whole entire goat herd is stampeding away from me as fast as their stubby legs will carry them.
At the same time, down the road is the farmer's driveway to which he just happens to be driving his pickup out to the road. He must have seen this whole episode take place. He sees his goats all running one way, which is away from me. He reaches the road and pauses. Sensing the moment for drinking from my canteen is over, I mount the bike. I start the motor letting it idle. I wait to see who will move first.
He heads my way. I decide it's too early in the day for conversation and take off. I wave as I go by, might as well be friendly to the locals. He nods in recognition. A scruffy beard adorns his face and a cap covers his brown hair. In my mirrors he does a U-turn as soon as I go by, then pulls back into his driveway. So goes my first encounter with the locals in Alabama. I'm still waiting for the Duke Boys to go shooting past in the General Lee though.
I head north on Highway 55 to Andalusia where I catch breakfast. One of the first intersections I come to after wolfing down some pancakes, I pull over to change into a different pair of leather gloves having misjudged the temperature. As I proceed with obtaining them from the hardbags, a few feet away an old 50's flatbed truck pulls from a driveway up to the road. Just as the truck reaches the road, it sputters, and with a gasp, dies.
Through the open window the driver is muttering colorful words about his ongoing relationship with his truck. It sounds as though it's been going downhill for a while now. He does battle with the door and it finally pops open with a protesting screech. He hops out to the ground with a battered metal gas can in tow. His partner in the mud-covered pickup pulls up behind him and joins in the task of reviving the tired old truck. I finish my task and leave it all behind.
Southwestern Alabama at first reminds me of northern Wisconsin with its pine forest uninterrupted only by a road cut through the forests. The temperature reaches into the 50's with the sun shining down upon a beautiful day.
After the town of Herbert, I ride into the sprawling metropolis of Evergreen, Alabama. When I see the town cop in his police car, I can't help but chuckle to myself. It's the oldest, dirtiest, most beat-up patchwork cop car I have seen in a couple thousand miles. It even sports hubcaps that look as though they were straight from the local hubcap collector. It sort of looks like an old Dodge Diplomat or probably even a Fairmont, I can't even place the car. I've never seen anything so peculiar.
I stopped laughing rather quickly. He saw me, then pulled out and followed me. He didn't tailgate, for all I know it could have been just a wild coincidence. As I hit the opposite edge of town, he stopped, turned around, and went back the other way.
The bike eats up road and towns with names of Belleville, Gosport, Suggsville, Whatley, and Grove Hill come and go, one after the other. The distances are more in like 30-mile increments rather than 100-mile chunks as it is on the freeway.
Logging trucks rumble by displacing tremendous slipstreams of air. The trucks come hurtling at me one after the other. I crouch down behind the fairing as the rush of air slams into the bike and I. They carry a type of tree I haven't seen before. With all its branches cut off and its trunk loaded to the front of the trailer, it's skinny top sticks out from the rear of the logging trailer. Must be a short tree.
Certain areas along the road have been stripped of all life from the logging. Other clear-cut areas are slowly growing back as replanted pines grow once more. At least the stripped areas devoid of all life, ugly as they are now, will be replanted soon.
I come upon Duke's Auto Sales and I pass it by laughing at the name. He is perched on a hill, no town in sight, his inventory parked right up to the edge of the road. The vehicles have been placed all over his front yard with the driveway in the middle of the yard leading up to the house. I can't help but stop after thinking about it for a half mile. So I turn around and head back to discover an original condition 1930 Chevy 2-door sedan. I've always liked the old cars.
Church, Southern Style
I once had a fetish for a '46 Chevy that I passed by every day on my way to work years ago. All original, black with wide whitewall tires. I had to stop. A picture seemed appropriate. A bright orange van that should be used as a warning beacon in the middle of the ocean is parked alongside the sedan. No good. I decide to hit the road.
I can picture 'ole Duke standing there grinning from ear to ear. I'd never make it out of here alive. I'd have to drive the rest of the way across America in a 1930 Chevy sedan. I just knew only Duke could sway my loyalty to the bike.
Zimco, Coffeeville, and Isney bring an end to Alabama and a large sign welcomes me to Mississippi. 12 twisty miles wind their way to Waynesboro, the name itself just has a nice ring to it. I fill up here with only a few odd looks from the locals.
Outside the town of Sanatorium, Mississippi I pull off at a rest stop and follow the road down to a man-made lake where an inviting picturesque scene greets me. I debate staying here and relaxing awhile but I just can't. That desire to cover distance rears its head. I can't stay more than a few minutes. It's like a sense of urgency to just keep on riding and never stop. The bike waits patiently at the waters edge as I snap a picture and freeze the moment in time. That was as long as I could get myself to stay.
Mt. Olive, Braxton, Piney Woods, and Richland precede Mississippi's capital of Jackson and I hop on the freeway making for Vicksburg. I've decided to head north, cross into Arkansas, and tour through the state. Riding over the top of Louisiana sounds good since I have already traveled through it. I know, I know, I didn't see much but nevertheless this is a game of crossing states off the list.
I'm gliding along for a few minutes when a blue Miata and a BMW pass me. I can't explain it. I was somehow pulled into the slipstream behind these two hotrodders. For the next 30 miles, the three of us travel speeds averaging 80 mph as we hurtle into dusk. I don't know why but I loved every second, the incredible rush of adrenaline, the intensity of speed.
What seems like mere minutes ends quickly as I reach my turnoff just outside the city. I break off from our charge on Vicksburg and head north as the sun begins to set. The first vehicle to impede my progress is a rusty old pickup truck covered in mud. A gentleman with white prickly stubble adorning his chin is within chewing his gums. He lazily plods along without a care in the world. A hunting rifle with clip inserted lies in a rack in the window. I drop down two gears, roll on the gas, and roar past him.
The temperature held in the high 50's for most the afternoon. In the next 30 minutes I am bewildered at the change in temperature. The sun falls over the horizon as the temperature drops 20 degrees within a half-hour leaving me astonished and quite freezing. I didn't even know that was possible in such a short time. The wind begins blowing more intensely from northerly origins. The cross winds must be 20 or 30 mph, maybe more, and I fight to keep the bike on the road. Gusts, one after the other sweep across the fields. The bike sways back and forth beneath me in my lane of the highway.
I am getting worried because my gas is starting to get low. I've no idea how far the next major town is. There are towns on the map but they turn out to be 3 building towns with gas at $1.75 a gallon such as one called Blanton. A couple of muddy pickups are parked outside one building. A one building town? It's been 90 cents to a dollar a gallon all over the south, and I don't feel that desperate yet. I count 11 miles to Rolling Fork and cross my fingers.
I make it without incident and pull into the first gas station alongside a muddy pickup as a 30 something farmer guy gives me a sideways glance. He looks at the bike then back at me than at the bike again.
"It get cold on that thing?" his curiosity asks as the wind whistles between us. The chill of wind tugs and pulls at what little warmth I have stored. His face spells of marvel as he looks at this man in black and the motorcycle parked next to him. Gusts blow between us and we both lean into the wind cocking our heads to the side.
"You get used to it." is all I can think to say. He is the first person I have spoken to all day. He asks where I am from in a curious tone I have gotten used to. A surprised look of wonderment spreads across his face as he discovers I'm a Californian running around Mississippi for no apparent reason in the middle of January. It occurs to me as I say the words that this trip might be a little out of the ordinary. That's funny, I never thought of that before. Californian, January, Mississippi, motorcycle, no, those don't seem to go together.
"You be careful now." he says with a thick sounding accent as he gets into his truck.
I go in to pay as a bunch of teenage looking kids are all standing around the counter, talking with the cashier and jabbering nonstop among themselves. Something about the incoming cold.
The cashier punched the machine and without looking at me stated the cost of my gas. The accent was so thick, I couldn't understand what she said. She said it once more, this time a little slower, and then I repeated it in my accent just to make sure I had it correct. Maybe I'm just not used to hearing things in this thick southern accent.
As I walk out the door, an arctic blast slams into me blowing me back a half-step. I lean into it and head over to the motorcycle. I start to shiver and shiver but there is nothing to do but push on. The refuge of a motel never even enters my mind. I punch the starter, and the bike starts up obediently. The slightest of warmth from the motor helps to quench my shivering. I always stop shivering once I am up and running. I head east to try to find a campground I spy on the map called Blue Lake. A stiff wind is still blowing me all over the road. The temperature is dropping, I sense it.
As I head into Delta National Forest, the thick trees hide me from the wind yet it's so cold. I can feel every extremity slowly losing feeling, and my hands begin to tingle. I don't think I can even feel my toes.
I ride awhile, then turn around and backtrack. I decide the only turnoff in miles that I just passed must be the road. No sign and it's a gamble. The road in the darkness is merely a muddy path through the woods. In this black night, I can see nothing beyond the illumination of the headlight. It's slippery and endless puddles of water remain from the storm that passed over me two days ago.
The muddy road is as driving on glass. Suddenly the front wheel plows. My heart skips a beat and every muscle goes tense. The most alarming rush shoots through me as the entire bike almost slips right out from underneath me. I keep the bike at idle and maneuver around the puddles. Out of the night a large puddle appears, one I cannot negotiate around quickly enough. It splashes cold water all over the bike and upon my legs. I plot a relative dry course slipping and sliding about on the Metzelers. After about what feels to be a good half-mile into this forest, a road appears. It leads into what looks like a picnic area yet I don't see any campsites. I circle looking for a spot to settle in.
As I pull off the road onto the grass, the Metzeler tires sink in the soft spongy ground. I fight to keep the bike moving and find a high spot to stop. I can't possibly imagine getting this big of a bike stuck in the mud. There are no other people for miles. I am completely alone.
As I hop off the bike careful to hold it steady, I attempt to prop it up on the center stand. The first attempt, the bike almost falls right over. I discover my strength eludes me at the end of this cold day. I hold the centerstand down with the right foot, balance with the left, hold the handlebars with both hands, position my 5'9" frame alongside the bike, and heave backwards. The centerstand sinks right into the ground. Balanced precariously on two wheels and the centerstand, the bike stays upright. Gently taking a step backwards, I pause to make sure nothing is tipping over. After unpacking the sleeping bag and my poncho, I lie down upon the wet ground upon matted grass of what once was a picnic area. I crawl in removing only my boots and curl up to create more warmth. The bike and I settle in for a well-deserved rest. Despite the cold, I'm asleep in minutes.
Day 6: Saturday, January 15 - Mississippi
1570 Miles in 37 hours
I awake as the first dim rays escape from the sun low in the horizon. Halfway through the night I had to unfold an extra blanket I keep inside my sleeping bag. I awoke several times trying to find the least lumpy part of the ground. Now entombed within my sleeping bag with only a six-inch hole to stick my nose out, I inhale a deep breath. The air has a yummy taste. Open my eyes, poke my head out, and discover I am laying upon a bed of crunchy fall leaves. Each breath hangs white in the air. I sit unmoving for a moment afraid to disturb this moment in time.
This area is deserted. I am the only one out here. No one, it seems, is crazy enough to be out here but me. The moment ends as cold drapes itself upon me. I clamor to unzip my sleeping bag a little more and look around. Unsnapping the camouflage poncho that encases my sleeping bag, it's covered in ice crystals and frost. I sit upright, my legs still encased, and quickly put on both jackets. I pause shivering as the cold fabric drains what little warmth I have away.
Birds chirp morning song. A woodpecker seeks breakfast. Wind whispers in the trees above. Leafless forest branches extend into the soft sky. Trees sway among each other, popping and cracking in the still air. A crinkly carpet of dry brown leaves covers the forest floor that scrunches each time I move. These are the only sounds. All else is perfectly still.
Even in the midst of this, I wonder what empowers me. Why am I even out here? Most people become intensely curious when I say that I tour alone on a motorcycle. The average Joe takes up jogging or stamp collecting. I've got this insatiable desire to run around the United States, forever riding off into the sunset. My license plate spells- On a Quest.
Today is Saturday, and I have to make it to my first class on Tuesday morning in Sacramento. I smile again at this thought. I have 3 days to get to the other side of the United States and I am lying here on the ground in Mississippi. It just sounds funny.
The map puts me near the Louisiana State line and the Mississippi River. I decide to move into Arkansas and head west. It is Saturday. 3 Days to ride 3000 miles. And I am going the long way staying way south along the US border to avoid the Rocky Mountains. It is too cold to write as my hand it turning white, and my penmanship is getting steadily messier.
The temperature is 26 degrees.
Sleeping on the ground on a cold Mississippi morning - The white on the sleeping bag is frost.
I have no trouble making it back to the road from the grassy area. The ground is frozen. The same muddy road I came in on last night is also partially frozen. The bike crackles through ice on the puddles sprinkled across the rutted road to the main highway. Emerging from the refuge of the forest, the wind spites me good morning. It slams me, tosses me like a plaything. It whistles, screams delight. I grip the bike with my legs and await the next assault at the ready. The road runs along the tops of the levees with endless fields below. The wind has the clear advantage. I see myself from above. This lone man and machine. I declare war, shouting into the blank sky, and ride on.
Driving through Rolling Fork, I am impressed by this quaint little town. As I pull up to an intersection, two little girls looking about six years old are riding a four wheeler that is proportional in size to these little people. They ride through the yard, ditch, around the mailbox, through the yard, ditch, around the mailbox.
I can hear their sounds of glee as I pause for a few moments at this intersection. I just sit there, both boots planted on the ground, watching. Gloved hands resting at my sides. My breath a white mist trailing from my helmet. The bike idles smoothly, patiently, while the toes inside my right boot push down on the brake. The world could have come to an end right then and it would've been okay. I smile, pull in the clutch, slap it into gear, pull out to the left and ride on.
There are pickups. Everywhere. Most of them have four-wheelers in their beds. Everything's covered in mud. It's in the driveways, tracked along the road, sprayed onto the doors and undersides of tractors and pickups. And gun racks, in every rear window.
I need to cross the Mississippi River. I skirt north alongside the levee's to reach the closest bridge. It looks to be another 40 miles. The little towns of Hampton, Foote, Erwin, Longwood, and James pass by, one after the other.
In Avon, I spot a Post Office alongside the road and stop to write a quick postcard to my father in Wisconsin. I know it's even colder up there but here I am freezin'. I flip out the kickstand, leave the bike idling, and walk over to the lone mailbox. When I step off the bike, I lack its warmth. The cold assaults me, strips me. I shiver as I put the postcard face down on the mailbox, pull off a glove, dig out a pen, and stand there shivering. What do I say? How do I describe this? I start with, "Guess where I am..."
Upon riding over the mighty Mississippi, I pull in at a tourist information place, a map of where I am is always helpful. The building's built on the tops of telephone poles over Lake Chicot that if I remember my 8th grade earth science, most likely was the path of the river at one time. The river found a quicker way thus remains a crescent moon-shaped lake.
The only other vehicle in the parking lot is a dirty Bronco. I pull alongside and shut the bike down. Wood decking leads out over the water to the info center where inside a woman sits behind the counter and a twenty something man is reading the morning paper only a few feet away. He's wearing insulated camouflage coveralls. Those look pretty warm. They both look up and extend a warm greeting.
"Where ya headed?" comes the thick accent of the man.
"Across Arkansas and after that, I'm not sure. I have to be back in Sacramento on Monday," I reply starting conversation.
"Ya must be from, let's see, Sacramento... that's California, shoo-wee, you're shore a long way from home." Looking out the window at the bike he continues, "You been traveling long?"
"A few days, just out riding around. Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Arizona, New Mexico, and has it been cold." I say.
"Well, at least it ain't snowing. This cold were havin' is pretty normal 'round here. You really traveled all that way on that there motorbike?" He looks once more at the bike then back at me. His face spells his bewilderment. Same reaction from the guy at the gas pump last night.
The young lady behind the counter hands me a map of the state suggesting a forested route to shelter me from the wind. We chat about travel, the weather, Wisconsin winters, and even the rice and cotton crops. Always nice to ride a few thousand miles around the United States and sit down for a nice chat with the locals on a cold Arkansas morning.
Up to Dermont and over to Monticello on Highway 35, the road snakes a twisty path through thick forest. A railroad track keeps pace alongside the road as a sign for Seven Devils Swamp shoots by.
Highway 35 & Highway 4 outside Monticello, Arkansas
On the outskirts of Monticello, I gas my thirsty companion up. As I do, a middle-aged man approaches. He asks where Rock Springs is. I have been in this state for two hours and haven't the slightest where anything is. I reply no at first but realizing I'm riding with a Gousha Road Atlas, I convey maybe we can find it on the map. Two total strangers in a strange place, one lost, the other, well, I'm just where ever I am.
He rushes over to the motorcycle, and I point at the state map. I have the map sealed inside a zip-loc bag scotch taped to the tank. How's that for ingenuity? Long as my roll of Scotch tape lasts the rest of the trip. We both start hunting for a Rock Springs but to no avail. He lasts about 15 seconds before becoming impatient.
I glance at him, and he doesn't have a nose. It looks to be burned off or even cut off. I've never seen anyone without a nose, it's a bit of a surprise. He takes three steps away from me as if he's decided I am no help. His brown shifty eyes dart about surveying the scene as if waiting for an Angel of God to appear and point him the way. I assure him I can find it. He steps back to the side of the bike.
"Where am I?" he asks looking at the map.
"Here right outside Monticello. There are four roads headed north from here." He thinks that is the general direction. I count 10 different roads in 10 different directions he could take once he reaches the closest town. Great place to get lost.
I'm tempted to say pick one. I have no idea so I just point them out. He leaves in mid-sentence, dashes to his car, races the motor as the fan belt squeals in protest, and peels out onto the roadway. A cloud a gravel-laden dust boils in the air. I realize later on the flipside of the map is a handy alphabetical listing of every town in Arkansas. So go my ongoing encounters with the locals.
Once more, I throw a leg over the motorcycle, fire up the motor, and lean back against my sleeping bag riding off into the countryside for Warren. As I pass through the town of Wilmar, I round a corner and see a man on a motorcycle waiting at a stoplight. I slowly do a left-hand turn in front of him. He notices me and the bike all loaded up and salutes me. I wave back to him and continue on down the road as the temperature stretches into the blazing mid-forties.
Outside of Warren, it looks to be time for breakfast as a Waffle Inn comes into view. I've been passing by these Waffle Inn's all across the south. This has been the ultimate econo-trip. No, I really don't have any money. I haven't deviated from McDonalds since Freeport, Texas. They are cheap and consistent. This urge for a waffle has been growing for the last thousand miles.
I pull off the highway next to a Ford pickup jacked up so high I could almost drive my motorcycle underneath it. The truck was at least four feet off the ground. Bulging Super Swamper tires pleaded for mud and more mud then a little more. The roll bar was covered in off-road lights requiring a small power plant to light them all. The bumpers were handmade out of 4-inch thick water pipe with a winch welded on. On the bumper was a Confederate license hanging in the wind attached with strands of wire. Headers stuck out from the bottom of the truck and shot straight out the back. The paintjob looked like they did it themselves, in their back yard, at night, with blindfolds on. Completing the ensemble was a stuffed animal with its head slammed into the hood and its little body sticking out.
Then right on cue, the driver walks out with his buddy to his monster car stomping truck. Cowboy hat, gruffy beard, and these two guys somehow matched the truck perfectly. The guy opens the door with a metallic creak and his armpit is level with the floorboard. He reaches his right arm in and must have hit a button because the truck turns over and howls a glasspacked V-8 roar.
With a cough and a wheeze, the truck dies. He is standing right next to me and reaches in once more and hits the starter button. This time it stays running with a wup-wup-wup that could make little gearhead children shiver in delight. He and his buddy practically jump in, a flying leap might be appropriate, and strap themselves into 5-point safety harness'. They circle the truck to the road and wait for a break in the traffic. The driver fondles the accelerator clearing all the birds out of the nearby trees. Then they take off screaming "Yeeee-hah!!" out the window over the noise of the engine. What a country this is.
By now I've got my helmet and gloves off and properly stowed. Hair on my head is sticking up in seven different directions. I suppose that after a week of traveling and sleeping on the ground, I am quite a sight. Black combat boots, which I still polish every morning, and black jeans tucked in military style- it keeps the wind out. My jeans are twice safety-pinned at the calves to keep the excess fabric from flapping in the wind at high speeds. My upper torso is Michelin-Man thick with layered shirts and my two jackets. The huge U.S. Marine Corps patch on the back of my black flight jacket sort of gives me away. Around my neck is an olive drab scarf that I tuck in all the right places to keep the cold out. It is the only other color besides black that I have on.
The boots, the black, the hair, like I said I must be quite a sight, and this guy at the counter spots me as I am walking up from the parking lot. He can't seem to believe his eyes. He stares at me through the glass doors transfixed. I see him too and stare right back. I stare piercing into the depths of his beady little eyeballs as I walk up from the parking lot to the front door.
I heave open the door of the Waffle Inn. I pull up a stool at the counter. The smells are wonderful- pancakes, blueberry syrup, sweet rolls, coffee, bacon and eggs. I don't even look at the menu. I know what I want- a plate of blueberry waffles.
This place bustles in activity and behind me a group of about 10 kids were making a tremendous racket in only a way that young southern women can. It sounded like they were having a great time. I consumed my overpriced waffle drowning in syrup in silence listening to the adrenalized banter behind me. Just as I finished, the whole group got up and left.
Standing back at the bike, I prepared to become Motorcycle Man. A beige Grand Marquis pulled up beside me and an older gentleman got out. Seeing the bike, then me, he simply stated in my general direction, "Shoo-wee, shore is cold." The emphasis on the 'cold' and then he rambled into the Waffle Inn.
I thought to myself, I suppose he's right. It was still in the mid-forties and hadn't warmed up at all. Maybe I'd better decrease my latitude. Nevertheless, I rode off into the rest of Arkansas determined to keep on riding.
The day just melted away. Leaning into the corners, riding through forests, passing through towns with names like Banks, Harrell, Hampton, and Locust Bayou. Minutes and miles meld as the steady hum from the motor beneath me sings a comforting sound. Just the bike and I traveling through this land of ours. Alone in a sea of possibilities.
I think I've known all along what possesses me to travel like this. Cutting into the cold, rain, heat, and all the strange things that happen. Each curve in the road ahead satiates a sense of wonder, of curiosity. Riding like this makes me feel alive. I feel it in the very essence of the wind as it slams my face, seeps through my hands, tears at my legs, and reminds me of what I'm doing.
A new scene unlocks at every turn, becomes real to me. Each stop I am released and step through a door into a world I don't belong to. And for a moment, just a tiny moment, I am so free, not a care in the world. I can think of nothing else I'd rather be doing than standing in that one spot, this tiny speck of life upon this spinning rock hurtling through space. Nothing else matters in that tiny moment. I know I don't belong here- my place is on the motorcycle. A traveler, only here for a few moments to observe, record what I see in a mere moment in time. And when the moment passes, I swing a leg over my iron ride, point into the horizon, and ride off in search of the next moment.
I've been traveling for 6 days straight and I finally figured out where I'm going. The thought makes me laugh. Into Oklahoma and then down into Texas where I will make tracks and head west. I am afraid to go over the mountains in the middle of winter on a motorcycle. I am not sure if that is a good idea but anything over 5000 feet is a gamble, one I don't have time for.
I pull into Hope, Arkansas from the east on Highway 4 and a sign proclaims it being the birthplace of the current president. I instantly felt I had gone through a time warp back 30 years. The place was a dump. Americana scene of run-down houses, boarded up windows, and car husks strewn upon lawns jilted me awake. It was a page out of a National Geographic. I'm not sure if I came in on the wrong side of the tracks or what, I didn't stay long enough to ask. I hope the whole city isn't like that because if it is, our president seems to have put the place behind him. The name itself is irony.
It was an astonishment to come to a place in such run-down condition, worst in 3000 miles of road in the last few days. I moved on through before I got mugged or cyclejacked at a stoplight or something weird. I wasn't at ease.
The town of Saratoga rests beside Millwood Lake in the southwestern corner of the state of Arkansas. I was getting closer and closer to Oklahoma. Along the lake edge, the Highway 32 rests upon a huge dike style dam. It is the first rather large lake I have seen in quite some time. I let off the gas and rolled to a stop at the water's edge. I paused and shut the bike off. I breathed the air, and then motored on.
Seven miles later I pulled into the town of Ashdown, Arkansas. I kept waiting for the run down houses and muddy pickups but didn't see any. Beautiful houses and neatly cropped lawns come up to the edge of the road. I turn my head from side to side in amazement, I just can't get enough. I haven't seen such an all-American town since Kiowa, Colorado.
Heading back west into Oklahoma on Highway 3
Oklahoma welcomes me with a speed limit sign that says "55 MPH NO TOLERANCE". Filtering through trees of Ouachita National Forest, I fumble around on what seems like backroads but eventually find my way. It's a strange feeling to have a total loss of direction, have no idea where you are, and just continue riding, drinking the land until something sounds familiar like a road marker or town name. An intersection somewhere in the middle of America. Two paths colliding, creating four different directions. One of them leads West.
Churches. They're everywhere, sometimes in anything that will hold people. Some churches are Civil War vintage, others more recent but there are quite a few down here. Traveling north along Hwy 98 just outside of Valliant, I saw one that blew me away in all of the hundreds of churches I have passed by on this trip.
The church was actually an old garage. It was painted blue and sat peacefully in a green field of grass, with steeple and all. It still even had the 10 foot high garage door in the side of the building.
On I go through towns of Swink, Sawyer, Hugo, Forney, Unger, Boswell, Bennington, and Blue. The road weaves lazily through the land and I raced daylight heading off into sunset's glow. A smooth 70 was where I settled in at.
Then a cop came around the corner. He popped his lights on before he even passed me. I experienced that rush of adrenaline searing through veins. I pulled over and he walked on up to me as I reached for my license.
"California," he said to himself in his Oklahoma drawl as he walked to the front of the bike and read, "Yamaha". He had a clean face and a dark wide brimmed ten-gallon hat with the two little tassels on the brim.
"Son, why don't yew come on back 'ta the car and join me in the front seat, okay son."
I think he didn't want me to stand out in the cold as the sun went down and the temperature quickly dropped. As he filled out some form with my license, he asked where I was headed and wasn't it kind of cold on that "rice-burnin' crotch rocket". A Yamaha Venture Crotch Rocket? A real aficionado. I did the normal song and dance about how yes it is cold, but you get used to it, mind over matter, blah, blah, blah. He asked where I'd been so far. So away I went with Florida, Gulf coast, Texas, Mississippi, Arizona, this great land of ours, O say can you see, land of the brave. blah, blah, blah.
I was afraid he'd give me a speeding ticket. Yet there wasn't a whole lot I could do now that I was sitting next to the cop in his car. I didn't know what he would do, so I just kept talking about where I'd been and the things I've seen the last few days. He seemed real interested and suddenly Oklahoma seemed like a strange place to tour through. No Tolerance.
"Ahm just gonna give yew a warnin' thar Tim. See, we Oklahomans, we don't drive so good, an goin' that fast, yer gonna git yerself inta a heap a trouble with the locals. Now yew head on down thar road and git on yer trip, okay?" He did a half smile and motioned down the road. Are you for real?
I was just glad for no ticket as he handed me a warning.
"Good luck on yer trip thar." He waved and wished me good journey, as long as I slowed down a little. He pulled around the other way and went off to catch the next speeder in a 55 mph No Tolerance world.
The sun set as I pulled into Durant for some food and hot water at the first McDonalds I came to. I was unsure what to do. I needed to decide whether to call it a day or go on riding.
I got my maps together, headed inside, and settled in to my own table studying all the options. It was about 7 PM by then and I noticed I had a recreation area, Lakeside, nearby. The next option after that was Lake Texoma Recreational Area and all its campgrounds. What luck to be near so many options I thought.
Today has been quite a day and I have covered a lot of ground but I am undecided if I should keep riding. Today is Saturday evening. I have to be in Northern Cal by Monday. I am in Oklahoma. I've decided to go on moving south into Texas as far as I can last. Once I reach El Paso, it will be only 20 hours to home and I figure I am 15 hours from El Paso. That equals 35 hours of high-speed travel in two days, which comes to two 18-hour days to make it back in time for my first class. I laugh to myself when I finish adding the mileage on the edge of the map. The catch is I cannot stop ridding for very long or the hours slip by and then I am stuck in some god-forsaken place.
I've been here for quite a while looking over the routes home. Had a hot meal, 3 cups of steaming hot water, and I am still cold. Being cold sucks.
I've decided to drive right past 12 different public campgrounds to do night driving through Texas. I figure based on my earlier experience with Texas, I won't miss much.
I left the country roads of the south behind for the high-speed world of the freeways after making the jaunt to Enville and Marietta. Ended up keeping pace with a huge white Chevy dually pickup who I could have sworn had no mufflers on his truck at all. It sounded as though he had bought the cheapest least restricting aftermarket exhaust, he could find. A truck that sounds like a Harley?
The many days of being cold have started to take their toll psychologically as the night settled in around the bike and me. I tried to relax and settle into riding. It was cold, I felt cold, I was cold. Every part of me was cold. As cars would pass by, I could see in their windows. They looked pretty warm. I mean really warm. I could feel myself becoming envious of those warm people. Envy? What was I thinking, I am the hard core bike traveler, I'm supposed to love this. But I didn't, and it was becoming difficult to go on. Every time a car passed by, I was filled with envy and so cold, so very cold. This chill was like nothing I had ever felt before.
When the lights of Dallas-Fort Worth appeared, the temperature went up an immediate five degrees, it was as if I'd died and gone to heaven. I forgot about my envy and being cold, all in a matter of minutes and a mere five degrees. Cruised straight into the metropolis of Fort Worth and every downtown building was lit up. There were lights on the corners of the buildings outlining the edges. The edges cut up the night sky, unbroken lines of light shooting up from the city floor. I've not seen anything quite like it in the last 10 to 15 major city's I've rode through, from LA to New Orleans to Denver to New York. The sight lifted my spirits some as the motor hummed beneath me. I threaded my way through the freeways, westward, onward. To pass the time, I counted the hours I'd been riding. Was it 8, or 10, or maybe 14 hours straight? Something like that.
When I left the city, the temperature dropped the same five degrees I'd treasured. The elevation descended to what I believed to be about 1000 feet. The evening droned on, and it was getting pretty late like around midnight. I was eating up freeway, just cruising along about 70. Kicking back, my feet up on the highway pegs, the cruise on, and leaning against my sleeping bag, I relaxed. I had been riding the motorcycle for a solid 16 hours so far and it was about 1 in the morning. I was pretty mellowed out.
Motorcycling has all different sorts of moods to it. The tail-end of a long day of distance riding creates a sense of total contentment. It's a sensation that forms a bubble around me. It's hard to describe to someone who doesn't ride, or even to another motorcyclist who has no concept of what a non-stop 16-hour day in the saddle might feel like. After a long day aboard the motorcycle, every sensation is familiar. The sound of the motor, the wind, the vibration, it’s a sensation of ease. Even the positioning of my arms and legs reach a point where I feel as though I could keep riding forever.
Headlights bounced off my mirrors and woke me from my deep state of thought. The freeway was mostly deserted until an Intrepid whisked past me. The guy was moving. He and I are the only vehicles on the freeway this time of night except for an occasional semi-truck. Red and blue lights popped on and a cop going the opposite direction just dove right into the ditch separating the freeway. Forget about driving across the little roads connecting the two lanes, the cop just slid the car sideways into the ditch not even slowing down. Exploding grass and dust flew every direction as the car left the pavement. Almost losing control, the 3000lb car came hurtling up the other side of the ditch in front of me. Menacing headlights swung wildly around. Tires met pavement in an agonized squeal as the cop slid sideways onto the freeway hell bent on catching up to the Intrepid.
"Don't mess with Texas" say the signs.
Arrived in Abilene about 2 in the morning and kept right on going. I wasn't really low on gas but I was getting there. I should have filled up but I didn't stop. I figured I'd find a truck stop between here and Colorado City, the next major town about 60 miles down the road. Semi's seemed to be the only other thing on the road at this hour. I noticed most of them had huge gas tanks along the sides of the rigs, quite larger than the semi's I've traveled with in the rest of the United States. Should I be taking note of this?
I like the night driving. It's best when you want to cover great distances and could careless about seeing what you're riding through. The wind dies down and the night air is very still. The quiet night allows a smooth slipstream around the bike.
As I approached Colorado City, I decided to call it a day. I was getting very low on gas and I spotted a public campground at a recreation area on my map. I got off the freeway determined to find it. I headed a few miles south in the dark. There were a few lights in the distance but no major city around. It's hard to tell where you are in a situation like this.
When I got to the entrance of the recreation area, it was closed and no hope of getting in. These recreation areas lock the gate up at night and don't even open it till 7 the next morning.
I wasn't even sure if I had enough gas to make it back the 6 miles to the freeway. I thought that maybe a gas station would miraculously appear out of nowhere. At 3:30 in the morning all the world is at rest except world traveler Tim who never rests even after 18 hours in the saddle. I'd been in 4 states all in the same day.
I realized the only thing to do was park the bike somewhere where no one would bother me and wait it out till morning when something opened up. It was in the high 40's and I supposed I could survive in that. I headed down a frontage road and discovered an overpass that looked secluded. I stopped and popped out the kickstand shutting the bike off. Wait a second. I hop off, heave the bike up on its centerstand and sat back on the bike. The clock read 4 AM. 18 hours straight in the saddle.
Just sitting there on the bike as I had done all day, my head fell and I drifted into an exhausted sleep still wearing my helmet. I slept lightly as semi's rumbled on above me, their headlights illuminating the field in front of me. Then dark again until the next semi passed by.
I dream of a futuristic looking Honda Goldwing, model year 2040, coming to help me. It was a brilliant gleaming red and had bubble-like plastic covering everything on the bike. The guy on the Goldwing had a spare gas can and filled my tank so I wouldn't be stranded out here waiting for daylight.
Day 7: Sunday, January 16 – Colorado City, Texas
I woke promptly at 6 AM after two hours of refreshing sleep. I was still sitting upright motionless on the motorcycle, my head tilted forward in the helmet. The visor was fogged up from my breath and I flipped it up with my gloved hand to have a look around at my surroundings. The low temperature was bearable in all my layers of clothing and no 65 mph winds to contend with. No one bothered me as I slept on the motorcycle.
Eager to cover distance and eat up road, I prepared to leave. I just had to make it back on time. I was starting to feel a tremendous sense of urgency. I've got to get back. I must keep going. It was a chant through my head as semi's rumbled over the bridge above me.
The first gas station I came to was still closed. My only option was to head back up the freeway to the next road and hope they have fuel there. My limit on the miles per tank was approaching.
Too stubborn to just wait for the place to open, I joined the convoy of semi's and blazed a path down the road. I last a whole 4 miles. The bike coughs and dies, and I'm out of gas. I roll to a stop trying to get as much distance as possible. I can barely push this 750-lb. behemoth and my only hope was a tiny knob on the side of the bike. I have never even used the fuel petcock knob. I don't even know if it works.
It takes vice-grips from my toolkit just to move the rusted petcock. I hit the starter button and nothing happens as the motor turns over, oh boy, I twist on the choke, turn it over some more, oh boy. With a welcome howl, the bike comes to life. I threw a leg over the bike and quickly joined traffic unsure how long these fumes will last me.
Another 3 miles brings an exit along with two gas stations. I tried the first, closed, and the one across the street isn't well lit and doesn't look open. I rode across the street as the bike sputtered and died. I coasted the last few feet to the side of the pump. Glory Hallelujah, it's open! I'm saved! I filled up, and I was back on the freeway in minutes.
Oil wells dot the landscape and even the horizon. The terrain has flattened out while I drove through the night and I ride along this morning still relaxed and mellow. Texas, what a strange place I think, all this space and no people. And no trees. At least not here. A short while later, I finally pull off the freeway to a Mickey D's for breakfast. As I walk in and order, I get a couple sideways glances. I'm not sure if it's the helmet hair, if I smell, or the wind burnt face. Not many motorcyclists out here. I'm eating lots of pancakes but these things don't taste as good as when the trip first began.
Hot water rushes down my parched throat warming me from the inside out. I study the maps tracing routes with my pen and highlighting the elevation markers. As usual, the crazy idea strikes me to head straight west off the freeway across the flatlands to New Mexico. I calculate the hours I have left, the total miles, and how far I think I can get today. Several roads look attractive as they make a path for California. I go through the checklist, but when I come to studying the elevation of the route, it doesn't look good. In eastern New Mexico, I'd have to go over a mountain range. The elevation is incomplete in some spots. The real clue is the little skier guy on the map, the symbol for ski resorts.
The idea dies and the freeway it is then. It's a dead run for home now, and I suppose I'll write in another 800 miles or so.
The ubiquitous fill up
The goal became to cross Western Texas in all its expansiveness. The terrain becomes wide open and flat, just plain flat. I wished I could stop by the oil museum around Midland but I don't have the time. Alongside the freeway, oil wells extend into the horizon. An airplane plane museum passes by around Odessa and for the second time, I wish I could stop but I realize I can't stop for anything now. I rode on into my 28th hour packing my two hours rest under the overpass last night. Weird how things like that happen, sleeping under a bridge in the middle of nowhere somewhere in Texas.
The wide-open expanse allows some intense winds!
The wind picked up and it makes for a loud rushing noise around my helmet. In still air, the bike will slice right through. With heavy winds from the side, the bike must fight a two-front war. Sometimes I rode at an angle leaning into the wind for minutes at a time. In addition, the same high winds kicking across the flatlands as we neared the Apache Mountains also played havoc with the slipstreams of the semi's.
I found this out with great alarm as the winds picked up faster and gustier the closer I got to the mountains. One time passing a semi and just about to clear it, a vicious gust of wind hit the semi. The gust collided into me as it joined with the air moving around the semi. The bike almost blew right out from under me. It swayed far out at an angle beneath me. I was blown clear across the lane as I instinctively fought to keep control. The sudden alarming sensation of losing control woke me from my driving fog.
Twice more that morning, the wind almost blew the bike right off the road. I have never ridden through such high winds on a motorcycle that seems to think it is a sailboat.
At Quartzite, I pulled off the freeway. The place was a massive flea market for travelers and retirees walking around. It was a bit dusty and at times the wind would kick up swirls of dust blowing against the tents of the scores of venders and swaying the RV's back and forth. The flea market looked very inviting. I couldn't stop. I had to keep moving to make it back in time.
Somewhere in western Texas
My wheels rolled over the New Mexico state line and I liberated a map at the tourist info place. The route itself across the southern part of the state is rather uneventful and actually quite boring. Desert and occasional something interesting to look at. I was doing 100-mile increments without thinking or stopping. There probably was a great deal of things to do and see in hindsight, but my mind was focused. I was just a traveler observing what I saw along the way. If the attractions didn't come to me, then I didn't know they were there. My eyes pointed westward.
At one fill-up midday somewhere in New Mexico, I pulled off the freeway directly into a gas station at the base of the off-ramp where the attendant was waiting at the side of the pump to take my money. I filled up the 5-gallon tank and left. I doubt I was stationary for more than 3 or 4 minutes, then rode another 150 miles, which equals about a three-hour jaunt.
Occasionally I'd stop for a few minutes to eat a little or adjust my layering with the temperature but I was intent on getting back. It was if the trip was over. I was a horse heading back to the barn at the end of the ride. I was ready to go home and so there was no longer any higher purpose to take my time. The miles and light of day flew by and the clock ticked past 30 consecutive hours of sitting on the bike.
I didn't quite understand how my body was capable of pulling this off on only an hour or two of sleep but I really couldn't tell the difference. I was just riding. It was that simple. In a way, it was I who was stationary and the earth was rotating beneath me, the scene changing with every breath.
Moving into Arizona and getting nearer to Tucson, I stopped at a rest stop. I planned to stop briefly before riding the rest of the way to Tucson. I was nearing the end of daylight for the day, and I pondered what to do. Phoenix and Los Angeles are only 365 miles apart. That isn't all that far. The distance from Los Angeles to Sacramento is about the same. It would be only another 6 or 7 hours north to Sacramento from LA, and I would be home. 800 more miles? I could do that easy.
Inside my mind, the trip has pretty much come to a close. I think the last week of solitude and of traveling nonstop has taken the desire from me. I have spoken to almost no one in a solid week. All that remains is the focus on getting home. I feel I could reach it by driving on through the evening, catching some quick zz's some place. Then drive through Los Angeles very early in the morning before the city wakes and rush hour begins. It's always a bit of a strange feeling to not know where you will be sleeping the next night, but I never really worry about it. For many, that is a little too much of an unknown and call ahead to make reservations somewhere.
I figure from where I am, I can be in Los Angeles around 4 or 5 in the morning and drive straight through. I'm tired. I just want to go home and sleep in a bed instead of on the ground. I want to take a decent shower for once.
It's always a dream of some motorcyclists to just get on the bike and start riding and never stop. For man and motorcycle to become one, no job, tasks, duties, responsibilities, just the bike and I. And I must add that I do love this. I don't think I could put myself through some of the things that have happened in the last few days if I didn't have such a love for motorcycles, this nation, and of traveling. To ride and never stop, what a glorious idealistic concept. There is so much to see and so much out there beside our own region and our little secure worlds.
Now as I sit here in this rest stop somewhere in Arizona, and realize the trip is coming to a close, I feel as though I wish I had more time. Time to cover more distance and see what's around that next corner, but once the idea of going home is realized, it becomes the only goal.
Anchoring this rest stop is a rocky hillside covered in brown boulders and huge rocks. A few minutes ago, a family pulled in and they all piled out of a station wagon. It was loaded up with luggage and bicycles strapped to the roof. There was a young boy among the kids who sprang out as the car came to a stop. He raced for the rocks. I watched him climb among the large boulders as he stood precariously on the top of the tallest one in sight. If I were a boy traveling with my family, I would beg my father to let me climb and jump among those rocks. The excitement, the challenge, and the danger would be irresistible to I, the child. My father would release me and I would charge off with boyhood glee to tackle those boulders regardless of the risk, just as that young boy did.
I understand now why he let me.
The moment to relax ended and all that remained was the open road. I charged off kicking back on the bike and just absorbing the scenery of the desert as I descended into Tucson. I felt good. I gassed up and headed for Phoenix knowing that I was only a short 13 or so hours from home. Thirteen hours seemed like a heartbeat after all these days on the bike. I headed into dusk and figured I was still on schedule to hit Los Angeles about 5 AM or so on Monday morning, the 17th of January.
The bike just purred and this thing has run like a tank the last couple thousand miles, not a whimper out of the Venture. Every morning no matter how cold, it's started right up, ready to cover distance and run all day. I've only owned it a month now and what a machine!
In between Phoenix and Tucson, I came upon Picacho Peak State Park and stopped. It wasn't even on my map. I'm still not quite sure why I stopped, I figured I would have been home by noon tomorrow. I pulled into the park and just called it quits. I felt so close to home and I intensely wanted to drive straight through non-stop. Yet in truth I was exhausted and had enough of the endless miles and sitting on the bike all day.
I had been sitting on the motorcycle for 37 consecutive hours including sleeping on the bike and had ridden 1600 miles. That's almost a full workweek for some people. That thought made me chuckle too.
I saw the sign and just pulled off the freeway in a split-second decision. I'll go through Phoenix and Los Angeles tomorrow and take my chances during the day. I've made good time across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Tomorrow will be Monday, which will give me a full day to get home across Arizona and ride north up the midsection of California. Probably make it back late Monday and it gives me no room for error though. The semester starts the day after tomorrow and I have to be sitting in my first class at 9 AM Tuesday.
I entered the park and couldn't see much in the darkness but found a secluded site and settled in. My hands laid out the sleeping bag on the ground for the last time. I lay there with my hands clasped on my chest staring into the night. Sleep came quickly.
Aside from the few stolen moments of sleep under the overpass, I have covered 1600 miles in 37 hours.
Day 8: Monday, January 17 - Picacho Peak, Arizona
958 Miles, The final day...
My eyes awoke as the sun, a golden yellow, dawned across the desert floor. There was a forest of cactus surrounding me that clawed for moisture upon the barren sides of Picacho Peak. In a moment of silence, an awe-striking vista enraptured me up from my sleepy state.
Placed upon a desert valley was a barren mountain pushing up from its place on the earth. Newman peak, 4508 feet, was a golden color as the soft morning glowed across its eastern side. Sun shadows held a mountain side captive, as each moment became brighter revealing the mountain to me in all its desolate grandeur. It was a chilly but wonderful morning and I felt refreshed after the night's rest. A quick survey of my surroundings revealed I was alone. The campground felt empty, untouched and waiting for something to happen.
The temperature gauge read 31 degrees, and my breath formed wisps of mist in front of me. I had slept under a picnic table upon the ground fully clothed. I needed every available article of clothing I had to stay warm. Curled up in a tiny cocoon in an attempt to stay warm. It worked and despite the sub-freezing temperatures, I slept soundly although one might suppose it was a direct result of my sheer exhaustion from riding for 37 hours. I lay there for a few more moments looking out from beneath the picnic table and smiled to myself in a satisfied way. There was a sense of marvel at what I had just done. To make it home in one day, I had to ride a 1000-mile day.
Newman Peak, Arizona
I needed to make tracks. I headed due north into Phoenix and made my way towards Los Angeles. Another uneventful ride except an occasional peculiar looking vehicle or a smart looking semi that faded into the mirrors. At one point I passed one of those huge news trucks with a great big 6-foot satellite dish on the top. The markings said it was a TV station from Phoenix. I wondered to myself what in the world is a huge truck like that headed towards Los Angeles for. I passed on by and quickly forgot about it.
The motorcycle smoothed across the desert pulling me onward into the horizon. I started hitting civilization, signs for towns, one after the other. A name on a sign, the population, and concrete, lots of concrete, just another town. Tens of thousands of lives huddled in alcoves of humanity, yet each an individual life. The temperature went soaring up and it was the warmest it had been the entire trip. It felt nice but I sweated underneath all my layered clothing. The freeways were busy but not congested and I hit Los Angeles about noon. Popped over the hill and there it was, shrouded in a smelly green cloud of smog.
Descending into the basin of Los Angeles, I just wanted to get through and head for home. I was 6 hours away and all I could think of after this long trip was of reaching home.
As I switched freeways and headed north on I-5, the traffic started getting thinner and even more sparse till there were almost no other cars on the road. So there I was just humming along on a 4 or 5 lane freeway on a Monday afternoon all by myself in the middle of Los Angeles. Is something wrong with this picture? Then up ahead, I noticed there were orange cones shunting people off the freeway.
What in the world? I took it all in stride, hey, this is LA, where they have fires, riots, unrest, yadda, yadda- all sorts of weird things go on here. I thought nothing of it nor did I think to ask anyone why. There must be another way to get out of LA. All I wanted to do was get out of the city and get home. There was a cop car by the off ramp parked, unmoving. The officer stood near the vehicle as if waiting for something to happen. It still didn't strike me as odd. I just figured it was normal for LA. As I got off the freeway, there were people milling around and not doing anything. People sitting on cars or standing there in groups talking. Everyone seemed to be outside. I thought to get gas maybe while I was there but the gas stations were all closed in the middle of the day on a Monday.
Kind of weird, but this is probably normal for around here, only in LA I thought. Well, I'd just find another route out of LA. I got back on the freeway and headed back south the opposite way. I ended up getting really lost and real confused. My unfamiliarity with Los Angeles worked against me and my United States road atlas proved difficult to read compared against the labyrinth of options. There were signs for everything and I wasn't sure what freeway went where. I missed the turnoff for 101 somehow and so I took 10 instead going east. I rode awhile then the same thing happened. A big roadblock and all the cars in a long line being sent to the street. I was at a loss, how do I get out of this city? Stuck in LA with no way out. I should have kept on riding last night. I'd have gotten through early this morning was the reoccurring mantra. Maybe there is a jack-knifed semi up ahead or something like that.
This time I pulled the bike to a stop beside the long line of cars being shunted to the city streets. I spotted a motorcycle cop standing in the middle of the freeway, just standing there all by himself. I hopped off the bike, peeled my helmet off, and strode over to him carrying the helmet. He saw me and met me halfway.
"How do I get out of Los Angeles, all the freeways are closed," I said in a rather nonchalant way.
"Where've you been?" he replied flatly looking at me as though I didn't belong. Freakin' tourists he was probably thinking.
He looked a bit unkempt, disheveled and I thought that a bit odd. It was also an odd answer. I was still clueless.
"Well, I went through Phoenix early this morning," I said, "and before that came through New Mexico and Texas.
"Los Angeles got hit by an earthquake a couple hours ago. We know of over 30 people dead and there are a lot of fires and rescue personnel everywhere. The epicenter is just a couple miles over there in Reseda" He sort of trailed off a little bit and motioned to the west.
I was stunned, an earthquake?
"The freeway up ahead has collapsed and an elevated section of I-5 up on the north side of town also collapsed," He spoke while looking at his motorcycle. He sort of half spoke to it and me at the same time. "A fellow officer was riding to work this morning on his motorcycle when the freeway gave way and he was killed." He paused for a moment and the words hung in the air. "You can take 101 north, it's the only thing open right now." And with that, he turned and began walking to his motorcycle as if I were no longer interesting.
It suddenly occurred to me, like getting hit upside the head. I couldn't help but ask the question.
"What time?" I called to him before he was out of ear shot, "When was it?"
"Oh, it was early this morning fortunately about 5 o'clock." He replied not looking at me and continued walking back to the middle of the deserted 4 lane elevated freeway rather alone and out of place. There his white and black motorcycle sat with all of its emergency lights flashing. There was no sound of busy freeway, there was no motion anywhere.
I was stunned for a moment and just stood there in the slow lane because it finally all came together. Guess where I was supposed to be at 4:30 this morning, or could have been if I hadn't stayed outside of Phoenix for the night. After all the things that have happened, I was amazed to have missed a major earthquake by mere hours? It started to all make sense now and I slowly realized the entire city of Los Angeles with its millions of people was at a standstill. I was standing on an elevated freeway in the heart of Los Angeles moments after one the of largest earthquakes in decades to hit the city. I'd ridden right into the middle of a major disaster. The people were all standing in the streets because they were waiting out the aftershocks.
The time had come to get home before anything else happened. It took me awhile to find all the right paths to 101 but once I was on the freeway it was clear sailing. I hadn't looked at the mileage on this road or even where exactly it went. I didn't even have a map of where I was. I didn't stop to buy one to figure out the shortest route. Admittedly, maybe I wasn't thinking all that clearly. All I knew is that 101 went northward to San Francisco and from there it's pretty easy to finish the remaining 80 miles to Sacramento and I would be home. I didn't care. As long as it was headed out of this city, I would've taken it north. I had to get home. I had to start another semester of college the following morning.
My last sunset on the road
What I had failed to take note of is that 101 heads all the way out to the Pacific Coast and pretty much stays there snaking its way north along the low mountains along the ocean. It adds quite a few hours to the distance. It would've been rather easy to find a way around the section of I-5 that had collapsed but I didn't know where it was. It had been only hours and I wasn't listening to the radio or reading newspapers or any mass communication. The earth could've been discovered to be flat in the last week and I would not have known it. No mass communication with anyone for over a week. I was simply out of the loop.
The temperature dropped quite a few degrees and the cities still all butted up against each other. People, people, more people, I love California, yeah, right. Santa Barbara came and went and the sign for Highway 1 did too.
San Luis Obispo came and went and the mileage markers for San Francisco sure didn't seem to be decreasing in mileage very fast. Maybe the road is too curvy or the number was too large or something. I felt like I was getting nowhere fast and I just wanted to finish off this last leg.
As I was riding along without a care in the world, I heard a popping noise beneath me, almost like a gasp. Now that couldn't be the Venture, no, not now, I had already passed the 5500-mile mark earlier today and she'd been running like a tank since I left. A little while later, there it was again, a gasp, that's really what it sounded like.
Dusk was coming on and the sun dropped rapidly out of the sky leaving me all alone with the road and the bike. Night driving once more. Once more settling into that little world of just I and the bike and whatever appeared in the path of my headlight. Fortunately, no major animals or even people popped up in the beam of my single headlight as I ran at full speed. I kept looking at the miles remaining on the signs and saying, that many more?
The occasional popping sound I was hearing I finally isolated to the exhaust or in the carburetors. I've got 4 carbs and 2 mufflers and I couldn't quite figure it out. It sounded almost like a motor coughing every now and then. Although it didn't sound serious like metal grinding on metal, it was increasing in frequency as the minutes ticked into hours. The miles crept by, 50, 100, 150, geez this takes forever.
As I finally neared San Francisco and entered into the city traffic, the bike was popping and coughing its way home several times a minute. Now I was getting a little worried.
I hit the home stretch near Vallejo running dead straight northeast to Sacramento, only a little more than an hour to go. I felt as though I had thoroughly bonded with my new motorcycle as we have traveled together these last 6000 miles. Now if only it can gasp and weez its way home. Halfway there the popping noise, or rather, noises, were constant. Sporadic, but constant and I was losing power in the motor. Not a good sign.
The Venture would no longer run in top gear with traffic. It was fading fast. I had to get home. I was less than 45 minutes away. I pulled into the slow far right lane, dropped it down a gear, and ran it at a high RPM to make up for the losing power. The bike was coughing and wheezing and spitting, I still wasn't quite sure what it was but it sounded like gas. As if it were getting too much and it was gagging on all of it. A motorcycle gagging? You say your motorcycle does what?
To say the least I made it home in the nick of time because the bike was a constant coughing and popping noise coming from the motor. I finally exited the freeway and pretty much coasted the rest of the way home. I was exhausted. My mind was exhausted. My body was exhausted. The bike was ready to die at any second. A perfect finish to a rather short and whirlwind tour of the south. Although I didn't experience as much contact with people as I might have wanted, the trip was more about diving into a nation and seeing what's out there.
William Hazlitt, the off-center British writer and philosopher wrote in 1822:
"One of the pleasantest things in the world is going on a journey... The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases."
The passion for riding is real to me and this burning desire to taste this land of ours and feel the hum of the bike beneath me has been stemmed for now. I'd just ridden nearly 2600 miles in less than 3 days.
But just, for now.
I made it to class the next morning still heavily worn out from the trip. I'd slept only a few hours having gotten back after midnight in the wee hours of Tuesday. The popping noise was a very tired air filter, too much gas, not enough air- easily solved.
I never did find out why my friend wasn't there in Clute, Texas when I arrived at her house after riding 2000 miles in less than two days. I never spoke to her again.
The cold front I experienced turned out to be the worst my father could remember in quite a few decades. In my hometown in Wisconsin the temperature dropped to 60 below zero and a number of people died that winter as a result of the extreme cold. 22 degrees is still the coldest I've ever experienced while motorcycle riding.
The Northridge 6.72 Earthquake of January '94 will be remembered as one of the worst in decades. Aftershocks followed for over a week as people slept on their lawns too scared to sleep indoors. 57 people died, nearly 9000 injured, the damage inflicted on the people of Los Angeles accounted to $13-44 billion dollars. I had unknowingly ridden right to the epicenter when I encountered the policeman in the middle of the freeway.
Seven months later after finishing out another semester and working all summer, I left on another trip on the same motorcycle. My quest took me through Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Vancouver Island, Alberta, the Yukon Territory, and the great land of Alaska. I chose Alaska simply because it was there. I traveled alone 10,000 miles and spent 30 days, a whole month, riding on the motorcycle across this great land of ours.
But that's another story...