Monday, September 7, 2015

Mileage Totals and Mapping Advice

Before setting out on this excursion, I made a fairly detailed plan - where I would sleep each night, how many miles I would ride and on which roads, and a list of possible things to do in each city.

Then I proceeded to ignore the plan almost completely. The only things that stayed the same were the people I was visiting and the states through which I drove. The atlas was an infinitely better resource than a stack of printed Google Maps, even when it occasionally directed me to a campsite that seemed not to exist.

It turned out my endurance was better than I had anticipated, so even after leaving three days late, I caught up to the plan by the time I reached Colorado. Here are the final mileage calcuations for each day, and the total trip.

Day 1: Home to the Catskills, NY (114 miles)
Day 2: to Pittsburgh, PA (428 miles)
Day 3: to Indian Lake State Park, Avondale, OH (273 miles)
Day 4: to Kankakee River State Park, Bourbonnais, IL (316 miles)
Day 5: to Cedar Rapids, IA (313 miles)
Day 6: to Pammel State Park, Winterset, IA (226 miles)
Day 7: to Holdrege, NE (353 miles)
Day 8: to Littleton, CO (377 miles)
Day 9: around Boulder, CO (125 miles)
Day 10: to Pine, CO (38 miles)
Day 11: around Pine and Denver, CO (92 miles)
Day 12: to Rocky Mountain State Park (223 miles)
Day 13: to Conejos, CO (298 miles)
Day 14: to Las Vegas, NM (218 miles)
Day 15: to Sterling City, TX (620 miles)
Day 16: to Austin, TX (270 miles)
Day 17-18: 0 bike miles
Day 19: to Tyler, TX (334 miles)
Day 20: to Winnfield, LA (210 miles)
Day 21: to Marathon Lake State Park, Forest, MS (315 miles)
Day 22: to Piney Grove Campground, New Site, MS (272 miles)
Day 23: to Nashville, TN (190 miles)
Day 24: to Morehead, KY (309 miles)
Day 25: to Pittsburgh, PA (351 miles)
Day 26: 0 bike miles
Day 27: to Salt Springs State Park, Montrose, PA (363 miles)
Day 28: to home (243 miles)

Grand Total: 6,871 miles in 25 riding days, for a daily average of 275 miles.

Why an atlas and not a GPS? Firstly, because many, many places along my route lacked cell reception. And secondly, because of this:

It knew where Planet Fitness was. It dropped me in the middle of that mobile home park in the bottom right corner and told me I had arrived at my destination. What?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Salt Springs to Home

I awoke at dawn, wishing I could have a little more sleep, and crawled out of my realize that it was a brilliant moon casting all that light, and it was still the middle of the night. I crawled back in and went back to sleep.

The next time I woke, the sun was really up. I packed up my tent, sucked down some coffee, and hit the road. There were no bars of cell, so I hadn't checked in the night before, and I stopped near Binghamton, NY to let home know that I was alive and check the atlas. I texted Abel and suggested he ride Kestrel out to meet me so we could ride home together.

There was a giant cloud settled over Binghamton, and the riding became damp and foggy. I got on I88 east and rode back out into the sun, and then into another cloud bank in the next valley. I stopped for warmer gloves and then moved on.

At a gas station in Oneonta, where I picked up 23 from I88, I finally ate the peppermint Luna bar I'd brought from home. The first one got eaten on the first day, the second one on the last day. I should've called them Peppermint Parenthesis Bars.

Route 23 was gorgeous, but I already knew that, having taken some of it nearly a month ago in the other direction. I had some spotty recognition of a few sights, but it may as well have been new until I reached Great Barrington. A text from Abel told me where he was waiting, and I pulled into a parking lot and up beside Kestrel. I'd nearly forgotten what she looked like.

We hugged for so long that a woman gardening in the plaza said, "You two aren't married, are you?" I just stared at her, baffled, until she said, "You wouldn't be kissing if you were."

I let Abel lead, since as of that moment he had done 90 miles on a bike ever and I didn't want to lose him in traffic. Kestrel has also been displaying some shutting-down-while-riding issues, and we had to stop a couple of times to coax her into going again.

That ride was not the best of the trip, and it had nothing to do with a problem bike or a new rider. I was worried about going home. I'd stopped missing home somewhere in Iowa, and that fact had me concerned that I would never want to be there again, and that the homecoming process would be a terribly awkward series of interactions that would have me moving my things out of the house in short order.

Coming home from a big trip to people who have not been on a big trip is strange. When Sheila asked me if it was good to be home, I wasn't sure what to say. "No" is not right but "yes" is not quite right either. It's a pinch of everything, like seasoning soup. It'll be nice having company whenever I want it, and real homecooked food, and a shower every day. It'll be annoying sometimes having company even when I don't want it, and other people to factor into my decisions, and people depending on me to complete random tasks that I'll procrastinate on or forget about entirely. I'm looking forward to giving my clutch hand and my eardrums a rest. I'm sad to lose my new dusk-to-dawn sleep cycle. Talking to other people instead of myself will make me feel a bit less insane. Losing the subtle rhythms of life on the road will be impossible to explain or prevent but somehow unpleasant.

It was awkward at first, but some chatting, a shower, and some dinner helped smooth it out. I neither attempted to leave nor got kicked out. Abel opened the box of things I'd mailed home from Louisiana, and I gave him and Sheila the souvenirs I'd picked up for them, and showed off the ones I'd found for myself. I unpacked a good number of my things, spread them all over the house that was clean when I arrived, and then had to clean up the mess I made. Some of the things are still on the bike, because I wasn't all that inspired to deconstruct the last month of my life in one night. One of the weirder nice things about living in a minimalist fashion is that I never misplaced anything. Now that I live in a house again, I'll be regularly searching for objects that have gone walkabout. Perhaps if I get rid of some objects I can minimize the problem. That should be an easier task now that I've successfully lived without almost all of them for significant length of time. Salt Springs

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, leaving a biker bar after lunch in Cross Forks. I took 144 to route 6 east, and by the time I was in Wellsboro, the sleepiness had really set in. I debated getting a coffee, but decided I'd rather be sleepy now than awake at 2am.

I attempted to camp at Mount Pisgah State Park, but in my tiredness had misread my map, and they didn't have camping. I moved on to Wyalusing, stopped for gas, and was about to set off for the next campsite when I saw a bike loaded for touring parked at the bar across the street.

I moved Hades into the next space and went inside. At the bar, I found a couple with helmets, and asked if that was their bike. They said yes. I sat down and ordered a hard cider, and we got to bike talking. They were from Michigan, on their way to see the east for the first time, having already seen a lot of the western and central parts of the country.

I said I was camping, and they said they had attempted to camp the night before but didn't know what they were doing and were now looking for a motel. I wondered what knowledge they had come up lacking but didn't get a chance to ask. Questioned about my origin, I was about to explain that the western and eastern parts of Massachusetts are quite different when the woman interrupted me and said, "Boston! Why don't you sound black?"

"Ah, you mean, why don't I have a Boston accent?" I asked.

"Yeah, that!" She was very enthusiastic, but perhaps not as bright as many other people.

I again started to explain that the western part of the state is not the eastern part, and she talked over me. The conversation turned to milage, and the guy suddenly looked like he wanted to hide.

"How many miles have we done today?" she asked him. He mumbled. "It's at least a hundred," she said, laughing.

"I'd like to make a hundred today," he said to his beer, looking guilty.

"Are you kidding me!" she said, punching him lightly in the arm. "Don't fuck with me."

I didn't mention my own mileage, since he seemed to have decided that I was there to challenge him. In thirty seconds they had picked up their things, and he said he was going to look at my bike. I would've gone with him, but couldn't pay my tab and finish my cider in time, so I just stayed. It didn't seem like a conversation worth chasing.

I camped in the boonies that night, up route 706 in Salt Springs State Park. The campsite was lovely, right next to a stream, under a tree, with a fire ring. I had a roaring campfire for only the third time since I've been gone. It seemed a fitting end to a wonderful trip, and I went to sleep grateful that I had decided to camp one more night and not force myself to drive home from Pittsburgh in one day.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Pittsburgh to a Soapbox

Driving into the sun still feels strange. I programmed myself to go west when I started out, and apparently it stuck. I have to remind myself to put on my dark goggles in the morning now, instead of changing into them in the afternoon.

I buzzed out of Pittsburgh on 22, stopping at a Sheetz to get coffee and inspect the atlas. A passing biker asked me if I was lost, and I realized that sitting at a table with an open map, a phone, and my head in my hands probably made me look exactly that.

"No, just tired," I said with a smile. "Thanks." The no-sleep-in-Nashville situation was still wearing on me; this was my second coffee of the morning.

From 22, I took 53 north to 144 north, and stopped in Cross Forks for lunch. Everyone at Deb's was very friendly, including a pair of bikers at the bar, one of whom was a woman. She was only the second lady biker I've talked to in an entire month on the road, which blows my mind. She said her experience of other lady bikers is that most of them aren't friendly. She and Isabella were both wonderful, and they are the complete extent of my experience with female strangers operating motorcycles.

I've had lots of people, both men and women, say things like, "I'd be too scared to do that!" when I tell them about my trip. I've had several friends and relatives say they're proud of me for what I'm doing. I've gotten many, many comments along the lines of, "By yourself?!" and "On that?!"

I don't honestly understand what's so difficult about this project. Leaving home was the hardest part. Everything else, in comparison, has been cake. It doesn't require months of planning. It doesn't require thousands of dollars. It doesn't require four weeks of vacation; you can have an awesome experience in a few days. I just chose to make it longer because I had the opportunity.

In that same vein, I don't understand why more women don't ride motorcycles. There is no reason that biking should be a man's world. You don't have to be able to bench 200 pounds to ride a bike (I can't). You don't have to spend an assload of money to own one (I didn't). You really don't need to be special in any way to get a motorcycle license, get on a bike, and go on the road.

It makes me wonder what this fear-mongering in society is trying to accomplish. People love to tell dark stories, but what's it doing to us on a large scale? It's killing the adventurous spirit. It's killing our willingness to see and learn new things, to meet new people, to have new experiences. It's taking away that which could make us a more peaceful society: meeting each other. In person. Face to face, not over the internet.

If you are even slightly interested in going on a trip, do it. Get out there. You don't have to go today, but if you don't take a step toward it today, how will you ever get there?

People will tell you all kinds of awful things in advance. They'll say you won't make it. That you'll get run over in traffic, eaten by a bear, and mugged by a criminal. Possibly all at once. They will raise their eyebrows, waiting for you to come crawling home in pieces, admitting that your venture was ill-conceived.

It was not. Sure, something bad may happen. Take reasonable precautions. Ride with care and carry some pepper spray and a backup phone. But don't stay home. Approximately 99.9% of the hundreds of people I met were wonderful, and even the .1% didn't present big problems for me.

Most of the people I spoke to seemed worried about all the other people. You know who wasn't worried? The long-distance bikers. They already had the experience to have learned otherwise. They didn't say, "Oh my god, you're doing what?" They said, "Ride safe."

The awful crap on the news every day has corrupted us into thinking that the world is a horrible place. It's easy to forget that the news media's job is to sensationalize, and that the stories they show us are news precisely because they are rare events. "Man Wishes Woman Well at Gas Station" wouldn't get them any viewers.

Doubt me? Check your confirmation bias. Stop looking for evidence that people are horrible and start looking for examples that they're awesome. You'll find it. You'll find more than you know what to do with. I promise.

Pittsburgh, Round 2

I'm back in the northeast, at cousin Carl's place in Pittsburgh. I've now officially made a full loop. It's strange to know I'm this close to home again; within 500 miles. It doesn't feel like it's been nearly a month.

Carl, Alisia and I went to breakfast this morning at the Square Café, which oddly enough is decorated mostly with circles.

After brunch, we dropped Carl off at work, and Alisia showed me some of her favorite places in the city. She has memberships to the Phipps botanical garden and the Carnegie museums, and with some quick walking, we managed to see quite a bit before picking up Viv from her first day of preschool.

All of us were tired by dinner time, so we ate and hung out and looked at my trip photos before going to bed at an entirely reasonable hour.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Morehead to Pittsburgh

After another crappy hotel breakfast, I packed up and headed out. Until Nashville, I'd been taking state and county roads, making an effort to slow down and see things. But after leaving my new favorite city, I was on a mission. I hit the interstate and put the hammer down, no longer caring what funny or historic roadside attractions I was going to miss. I discovered that putting my feet on the buddy pegs changed my body position and allowed me to ride faster, and I did most of the day that way.

There are no photos, but I did meet a cool biker at a gas station. He was alone, touring the country for the summer, living on the bike until he had to go back to his work as a teacher in New York in the fall. He was a very experienced motorcycle tourer, having done many loops of the US and at least one of Alaska. We spent half an hour talking about the wonders of bike travel and our mutually held disgust of people who "travel" by watching TV in their RVs at various campsites.

I asked for his number and he said he didn't have one, but told me I could contact his daughter in Nashville to get in touch with him.

I ate lunch in a Hardee's, and was disappointed to find that it was basically Burger King. All these famous fast food places that I've been visiting to get a better idea of what the rest of the country eats have been very disappointing overall. I can't wait to get back to real food.

At another gas station, a biker who was exiting as I was entering turned around and came back to talk to me.

"You like that little Suzuki?" he asked.

"It's not so little," I pointed out. "She's a 1200."

"I know," he said. "I know where there's one of them for sale."

"A Madura?" I asked. "A 1200?"

"Yep. I'm thinking about buying it."

"Do it!" I said. "I love this thing. She's been great to me. It'll never let you down."

"Oh I've got too many bikes," he said. "I wanna fix it up and sell it." I wanted to tell him to fix it up and ride it instead.

I arrived at Carl's in the late afternoon, and after some cheese and crackers, helped him with a set of shelves he was constructing in the basement. We had salmon burgers for dinner (real food at last!) and then visited his office to pick up more shelving.

The building he works in was constructed on an incline, with the idea that if Carnegie Mellon failed, it could become an automotive assembly line. But CMU obviously did not fail, so now they have a building with tilted halls and a funny story.

Nashville to Morehead

This post is pending publication.

Nashville, part 2

It wasn't long after that when I got a text from Frank, the guy from the boot store, saying he was on the second floor of the Honky Tonk. I found him at a table, his helmet beside him.

We ended up on the balcony, talking about bikes and travel and Nashville. I could see all of Broadway as well as the river, and I marveled at the energy and the scenery, explaining that I had never liked cities until that very afternoon. He suggested we go up to the roof of the Acme.

We made our way there, Frank pointing out various things along the way and talking about the boot stores. There was a man with an entire drum kit set up on the sidewalk, drumming and rapping.

"This guy raps about whatever he sees," Frank said, and held out his helmet as we walked past. I distinctly heard "man with a helmet" enter the song and grinned, impressed. There were two lone sax players a block apart from each other, a guitarist across the street, and a man on a corner drumming on a bucket.

At the Acme, we realized there was a cover charge for roof access and neither of us had cash. We hiked up to the parking garage so I could get my debit card and show off Hades. When I retrieved the card, I found it bent into a strange shape like it had melted. It definitely wasn't going to fit in an ATM slot, so we agreed to an exchange of roof access for a round of drinks. We spent a while at the bike, being nerdy bikers, before going back downtown. After making our way all the way through the line at the Acme again, we realized we could've just walked in, because we already had hand stamps.

There was a line for the roof, as well, but it didn't take long to get through. I followed Frank to a spot at the edge, overlooking Broadway, and was again overwhelmed at the amazing-ness of it all.

"This is my town," he said proudly.

"I can see why," I said. He told me all about his usual haunts, what brought him here, what made him stay, what he hoped to do. I shared my own stories of what I do and what I dream of doing.

Having taken up at least our fair share of time at the railing, I shoved my way to the bar to get drinks, and then we took a seat on a couch by the access door. More talk of bikes, and boots, and music, and culture shock, and travel, until suddenly the lights came on and they booted us all out because somehow it was 3am.

"I think I trust you and you're not going to steal shit," he said. "So if you want a place to crash tonight, you're welcome at my house." I had no interest in hunting for a campsite at 3 in the morning. I took him up on it.

We bounced back up the street, dodging the drunken crowds and the puddle of vomit by the sidewalk. Frank got his bike and met me in the garage, where I looked it over and ogled it properly. He rides a V-star 650, black and in beautiful condition.

I followed him out of downtown and info a neighborhood a couple of miles away, where we parked in the street and entered a cute white house. His apartment was in the basement, and it was literally a "studio" apartment, because he had built a recording studio in it. He admonished me not to look at it because it wasn't finished, but it looked pretty good to me.

Having a real shower was wonderful. I'd considered dropping into a gym earlier to clean up, but decided I'd get sweaty in the bars anyway and didn't bother. When I came back, Frank was building a playlist on his TV. He gave me the controller so I could add to it, but after adding a few songs I pressed the wrong button and deleted the whole thing. I started a new one, but our ongoing music discussion made us keep starting new songs, and we gave up on the playlist.

We were sharing bands. "Have you heard of blah?" "No, put it on - oh this reminds me of xyz, do you know them?" "No, play that next." When I said I wasn't familiar with Steel Panther, he announced that we were going to go to sleep listening to them.

"You're going to wake up in the morning and wonder why you have all these weird lyrics in your head." We lay there for a while laughing at the ridiculousness - if you've never heard Steel Panther, look them up, as long as you're over 18 and not offended by raunchy music.

I woke up an hour later to the playlist still going, and started laughing all over again. Frank turned it off, and I may have gone back to sleep, but I'm not really sure. I know I slept less than two hours before it was time to go.

Nashville, part 1

Paying for gas in a small town, the cashier was ranting about her cash register. "If you see a woman on the news who just threw her cash register in the air," she said, "That was me."

Then a man walked up and told her to hurry up, clearly thinking he was funny. "And then I have to deal with THIS!" she said, waving an annoyed hand at him. He guffawed.

"Hit him with the cash register," I told her. "Solve two problems at once." She grinned and pointed at me like she wished she had thought of that. I don't usually wish violence upon complete strangers; Tony had made me grumpy.

But the road is a fickle mistress. One day she reminds you to keep your guard up and your wits in shape, but just when you find yourself newly reluctant to speak with strangers at rest stops because you don't want to deal with what might happen, she restores your faith in humanity...

...with Nashville.

By the time the Trace was over, I was ready to be done with it. It's free from commercial crap and very easy riding, to the point where I was bored and actually leaning out of the curves to tip the bike over more and try to wear off the chicken strips.

Newly arrived in Nashville, I started my next adventure with lunch at the Loveless Café. At long last, I got to try real grits, and they're wonderful. I want to make them at home.

Stuffed full of barbeque pork, eggs, biscuits, and grits and wondering if it was nap time yet, I took 100 east into the city. Following directions toward the library brought me straight down Broadway, the heart of the live music scene.

Grateful for the first time to be inching along in heavy traffic, I popped up my shield to get the bugs out of my view and just stared. All of the neon...all of the bars and the people...all of the music already being played, long before dark. From every corner and every window there was a beat or a melody. The store fronts were either bars or boot shops, all of them bustling. People wandered along the sidewalk, sat with drinks, or carried various musical instruments around. I had to remind myself I was still driving so I wouldn't just sit and ogle the sights indefinitely.

The library only allows 20 minutes of internet access, not enough to blog, so I used their WiFi to write a little bit from my phone, and then returned to my bike when they closed for the day. I changed into a fresher shirt and put up my hair in the parking garage, then set out on foot.

Unsure where to begin, I took a random street that went toward Broadway, then followed a group of tourists down an alley. It was labeled with a neon ALLEY sign, so I thought perhaps there was something interesting in it, but it was just a garbagey-smelling alley like any other. I hurried out the other end and down to Broadway.

I've been wanting a pair of Western boots for a while, so I stopped into Broadway Boots and had a look around. I knew I couldn't fit a pair in my luggage, but I was willing to bet they'd ship. I had decided that most of them were out of my price range and was about to leave when one of the guys working in the store said, "Hey, you can't leave now, I just put on KISS for you!" I paused and heard Beth and smiled. I stuck around.

He asked me for my favorite KISS song, and I said it would have to be Detroit Rock City. When Beth ended, Detroit came on. After he finished with his other customer, we started chatting, and I started trying on boots. It turned out he was also a long-distance rider, and he'd come to Nashville a few months before from Canada, on his bike. I asked where he would go with one night to spend in town, and he made a couple of suggestions and then said if I was interested, he could show me around after he left work. We traded phone numbers and I wandered away up Broadway.

I didn't wander very far. The Tequila Cowboy next door was rocking, so I ducked in and got some water and a "mixed anything." (I got that from a friend who died some years back, and still order it sometimes in his memory.) Jerry Don and the Last Chance Band were onstage taking requests, and I found myself a corner and enjoyed a good drink and great music.

Eventually I moved to a seat at the bar, and after a few minutes a guy walked up and asked to buy me a drink. I accepted and joined him and his friends at a table. His friends were nice, but Daniel was unfortunately more interested in me than in the music, and he gave me so many pats on the back and arm squeezes and drink clinks that anyone would've thought he couldn't hold himself upright under his own power. I told him I was meeting up with someone shortly and he looked disappointed.

He introduced his friends as Josh and Blake, and I wished one of them had been the one to buy my drink, as they had the good sense to keep their hands to themselves.

"He doesn't seem like he's here to party," I said, nodding at Josh, who was spending most of his time on his phone.

"He's deploying next week," Daniel said. "We're showing him a good time before he leaves."

Josh was in the Army and on his way to Afghanistan. I asked if he was excited or nervous to be going, and he said, "Meh, it's paid vacation."

"Thank you for your service," I told him.

"Don't thank me."

"What's your job in the Army?"

"They call me a baby killer." He said this with a laugh.

Daniel danced with me for a little while, and then his friends disappeared, and then I made myself disappear and moved on to the Honky Tonk up the street. The band onstage had a wonderful female fiddler that I enjoyed thoroughly, but I only caught the last two songs of their set. I went outside again, looking for some water, and as I was walking I suddenly felt a hand on my back. Daniel had somehow found me again.

"I had to get out of there," he said. "Your friends tried to start a fight!"

"My friends?" I asked. "I don't have any friends here."

"Well someone. Some guys. They got all up in my face." I wondered what he had done to start this battle, since Nashville really isn't a bar-fight type of town.

"You mean your friends?" I asked.

"No no, not my buddies! Some guys. They were like, You gotta leave her alone." Suddenly I understood that I had been defended by some strangers, and I wished a high-five upon them. Daniel, however, did not understand. He grabbed a rose from his friend, who had two, and gave it to me. We all went back into the Honky Tonk, then up to the second floor.

I found a spot by the stage, two feet from the lead guitarist, and Daniel parked himself next to me with his hand glued to my back. Fed up, I turned to him and said, "You know we're not a thing, right?"

"Of course!" he said indignantly. "Why would we be a thing? We're not a thing. We're friends!"

"Do you touch all your friends like this?" I asked, imagining with some amusement the scene that would follow him applying himself to his buddy Josh in this manner.

"Of course I do," he said. When the song ended, he said he had to go, and I never saw him again.

The Waterfall

I pulled off at Fall Hollow and took a hike. With Rogue in mind, I climbed the waterfall.

Tupelo and Tony

In Tupelo, I exited the Trace to find lunch and a library. I ate at a Waffle House for the first time ever - they're one of those famous names I've never experienced because they keep their business out of New England. It was...waffle. No really, the food was pretty bad. At least the servers were friendly, but it wasn't any better than the "free hot breakfast!" at the hotel in Vegas.

At the Trace Visitor Center, I made a stop on the recommendation of a park employee. I parked behind a pair of motorcycles and greeted the riders, a pair of gentlemen from Tennessee who were taking a week to jaunt around the area. They recommended I make time to do the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then the younger one asked if I would mind a prayer for the trip. I said I wouldn't mind at all.

"Father?" he prompted the older man, and we removed our various hats and goggles and bowed our heads. He said a nice prayer for safety, drivers paying attention, and no deer in the road, and we finished with an amen.

As I replaced my goggles, the first man asked me, "So have you been saved? Are you a Christian?" I'd known this was going to happen - you can't expect to visit the South and not have someone try to save your soul - but I didn't expect it from a pair of bikers.

"I don't have a denomination," I answered.

"You should think about it," he told me, while Father nodded in agreement. "Someday we are going to be judged."

I told him I would think on it and bid them a good day.

Let me say before I tell this next story that if you're wondering why I got myself into this situation, it's because I'm determined to say "yes" to the opportunity of random experiences on the road, rather than cutting myself off, talking to no one, and potentially missing out on awesome new things. Not all new things will be awesome, but you can't ever know in advance.

Late in the afternoon, I made a brief stop at one of the Indian Mounds sites.

I chatted with another traveler, who recommended I visit Memphis, and then left. I had my earplugs in and was getting back on the bike when someone else addressed me and asked where I was going. I removed the ears, returned to standing, and answered. He offered me a bottle of water, which I refused because I had no more room for keeping such things. Then he offered again, and again, until I finally took it to put him out of his misery. When I told him which campground I was looking for, he offered to show me another, better one, and I accepted. At least I couldn't get lost if I was following him.

"Hey," he said as I was getting on the bike. "You play pool?"

I said that I did, although not well, and I'd be happy to go play a game with him.

At the Piney Grove campground, run by the Army Corps of Engineers, the guy whose name may have been Tony hung around while I reserved a spot. I made note that he could well be making note of all the information I gave to the campground host, including my full name, home address, and phone number. Tony requested that I be given a site by the water, then accompanied me to my assigned site to look around. I refused to set up my tent, since I don't leave things around and then wander off. He argued that they were perfectly safe, and I said they were staying on the bike and we should go play pool.

He asked if I was hungry, and I said yes, and then I asked where there was pool, because weren't we in the middle of nowhere? He told me the table was in his house, which was nearby, and I paused and thought about it. The ways in which this could go badly were so obvious, but he seemed like he just wanted to help, so I decided to take a flyer. I said I'd follow him to his house, and he said he could drive, and I said no way. The bike comes with me. I didn't want to be at his mercy when I decided it was time to take my leave. He looked at me like I was a little nuts, and in response I started my engine. On the way out of the main gate, I stopped to tell the guard that if I wasn't back by 10, when they closed the gate, that he should call the cops.

Tony's house was nearby, also on the lake, and I was relieved to find it in a neighborhood and not alone in the woods. I parked the bike behind his truck, snuck my pepper spray into my pocket with my phone, made sure my knife was secure in my other pocket, and followed him inside.

He made hamburgers, and we watched the news and chatted while we ate them. He had an ex wife and two grown children and lived alone with three dogs. After dinner, he made mixed drinks of Gatorade and vodka, and we played pool.

After eight games, we were tied, and he wanted to bet on the tiebreaker. The eyebrow he raised when I asked what we were betting told me it would soon be time to leave.

"Let's start with a hug and see what happens." I gave him a bro-style hug, complete with a violent sportsmanlike pat on the back. We played, I lost, and he told me how beautiful I was. I said it was time to leave and thanked him for dinner. He went for another hug and tried to turn it into a makeout, and I presented him my cheek and then pushed him away. He resisted until I pushed harder.

"You've made up your mind, then," he said with a questioning inflection.

"Yes. Good night. Thank you for a nice evening." We stepped out, he pointed the way around the cul-de-sac so I could turn around, and I left.

On my way back into camp, I stopped at the guard hut and told the man I was back safely. He bid me a good night and I went to set up my camp.

My tent was uprighted and I was inserting the sleeping pad into it when I saw a black pickup come down the lane and then pull into my drive. I grabbed the mace, which was still on me, and got ready for the worst.

"Don't freak out," Tony said, hopping out of the cab and opening the tailgate. "I just came to bring you firewood." I wanted to tell him where he could stick his firewood, but I conjured a few more moments of patience and kept an eye on him while he unloaded it. When he tried to light a fire, I stopped him, saying I'd prefer to have it in the morning.

"I was hoping to light it for you," he said, sounding somewhat put out, and I stopped just short of telling him I'm a fucking fire performer and I can light my own fucking fire. He didn't need to know anything else about me, particularly anything he might find interesting.

"Do you want to stay at my house tonight?" he asked, and I almost smacked him. "No expectations, I just thought you might like a real bed and some air conditioning."

Dude, I've paid for my site, my tent is waiting for me, and it's seventy fucking degrees outside.

"I prefer camping," I said, and he threw up his hands and left.

Alone in the dark, my paranoia decided he was going to get his boat and come sneak up on my dock when he thought I was asleep. I made sure my tent was at a good angle for visibility, left the fly off for more of the same, and slept with my mace and knife, after texting his license plate number to Abel and Sheila.

Fortunately, a beautiful morning arrived without incident, proving that he was just awkward and not actually malicious. It took me several hours to scrub out the annoyance he left in my head, though. The Trace is peaceful driving, which is great if you want to be alone with your thoughts, and not very helpful if you're hoping for a distraction.

Marathon Lake

When it came time to find my campsite for the night, I glanced at the map and discovered that the site I thought I was heading for wasn't a campsite at all. I'm not sure how I misread that, but a change of plans was clearly in progress. I exited at a sign for a state park, but couldn't find the camping.

Pulling out my trusty atlas, I marked a campground and headed that way. The road went on a lot longer than I expected; following the Trace map had changed my sense of time in relation to paper. The sun went down and I still hadn't found camping. I attempted another campground and couldn't find that either. It was like someone had selected them all and pressed Delete.

I stopped for gas on 80, ate a couple of gas-station pizza pockets (yuck) and chatted with a retired man whose job in life was to watch people at the gas station and try to scare them into not stealing things. He told me where to find hotels on 35, and I took off again.

But I'd already hoteled it twice, and I didn't want to drop another $100 on sleeping, so I made one more attempt. After a quick stop to put oil in Hades, I went to start her up, and she coughed oil all over my knee. This is what happens when you're so focused on storing the oil bottle that you forget to replace the filler cap. I put it back, pulled out my GPS, compared it to the map, and rolled out of Forest to the south.

Mississippi roads are rather like rollercoasters. They're full of large bumps that will send you flying if you're not paying attention, and that's where I encountered the only road so far that has made me drive in the left lane to avoid the road surface in the right. My GPS died, and I wondered at the contents of that road sign I had just flown past. After a couple of minutes, I decided it was worth turning around to see, and that was the right move - at 9:30pm, I finally rolled into Marathon Lake Recreation Area. It was deserted, and it had running water and a bathhouse with electric lights. Sometimes a little more determination is all you need.

The next morning, I awoke to a beautiful view of the lake.

I'd gone many miles out of my way to find the lake, so I headed north and caught back up with the Trace in Kosciusko. At a stop in one of the Trace's many pullouts, I noticed a butterfly that had been sucked into my radiator and was damaged but still alive. Unfortunately I don't think it lived long after this, but I put it in a sunny patch on the grass and left it in peace.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Finding Traces

I seriously considered making a swing in the direction of New Orleans. Alex has recommended it, Sarah lives there now and invited me, and Gypsy also invited me; but it would've added a minimum of three days to my trip, and I need to get home someday. I think it will be its own trip in the future.

I returned to my neighbor's campsite in the morning to wash my dishes, and he offered me a cup of coffee. I accepted, and sat and enjoyed good, strong, non-instant coffee with him and his wife and their two Yorkshire Terriers. He told me a secret to camping in the west, which I wished I had known two weeks ago: Bureau of Land Management. Apparently their land is extensive, public, and free to camp on. If you go to a maintained campsite, it's not free but still cheap. He gave me an extra guide to Texas camping that he had lying around, and showed me his map of the western half of the States with all the BLM land marked. It was impressive, and I'm looking forward to planning a trip around it.

From Kisatchie, I continued east toward Natchez, Mississippi. I crossed the river a little after noon and wandered until I found a found a casino. I didn't want the contents of the casino, particularly, but it overlooked the water and I figured I could get lunch and a decent drink, to make up for the one I poured out the night before.

What kind of casino has cheap food and no cocktails? This one. I waited twenty minutes to sit on the porch for five, munching on fried catfish and watching the expanse of brown water go by. Distinctly underwhelmed, I returned to my bike and went to the Natchez Visitor Center. I found a map of the Trace, but it didn't tell me how to get there, so I got thoroughly lost and then Googled it. Finally I found it with the help of technology.

The Trace is gorgeous. There are no commercial enterprises allowed, either in the traffic or on the roadside. There is very little signage and very few exits available, the road is never more than two lanes, and the lack of distractions are perfect for enjoying the beautiful scenery. It pretty much all looks like this...

I stopped at Sunken Trace and found myself in spiderland. I stepped carefully, and managed to avoid getting tangled in any webs.

Tyler to Kisatchie

Repacking after the storm involved washing the sand off the tent, the fly, and my boots under the camp spigot. The tent and fly went into the luggage wet, because there was no other option. I attempted to take a shower but found the shower house closed.

My boots had been protected in the vestibule of the tent, but all the splashing had doused them thoroughly anyway. Fortunately the insides were merely a little bit sandy, nothing worse.

From Tyler, I took I20 into Shreveport, Louisiana, where I stopped to buy a long-sleeved button-down shirt, on Gypsy's advice. No one down here rides with a jacket, because it's too damn hot, but riding in a tank top means you get sunburned and sandblasted. TJ Maxx had a lightweight blue-and-white plaid shirt that was exactly what I wanted.

I got back on state routes after that, headed south toward Alexandria. It was a different small-town scene than what I'd been through in other states. All the town had gas stations, but two out of every three were closed, long-dead relics being taken over by woods or used as parking lots. Most of the buildings were broken and empty, and most of the people were wandering aimlessly along the roadsides, some of them pedaling ancient bicycles.

In Clarence, I took 84 east into the Kisatchie National Forest. I actually bypassed the campground and found myself in Winnfield, got a tank of gas and a drink, then turned around and went back to the ranger station. The rangers were gone for the day, but the campground was open. I felt triumphant at having managed to get a campsite while there was still daylight, and set up my tent to dry.

It turns out the creepy meat-hooks are actually lantern holders, but they work as rain-fly-dryers too.

I realized pretty quickly that this campsite, while beautiful, had no running water. I asked the only other occupant, a man with a van and a trailer, if he knew of a water source. There was one on his site, and he welcomed me and my empty bottles. He told me there were two more somewhere on the campground, but a couple of searches didn't reveal them to me. I poured out the awful canned "hurricane" drink I'd bought in Winnfield, ate my boxed mac 'n' cheese, and slept with the fly off the tent under a gorgeous starry sky.

Austin to Tyler

On my way out of Austin on Monday morning, I took a large chunk of something to the chest. A fleeting glimpse of blue and white and the fact that it left a big powdery white mark on my shirt tell me it may have been a bird, but when I looked down, I found a rock in my lap. Maybe it was a bird carrying a rock? A bird that was stuck by a rock and then fell into me? I'll never know, but I know it hurt.

I took the interstate to Dallas, more interested in making time to see my friend Randy than in seeing every tree between the two cities. On the outskirts of the city, the bike started to jerk and slow, and I took an exit. The ramp was uphill and the engine died halfway up, but I had enough momentum to coast into the parking lot of a towing company. I didn't make it into a parking space, but at least I was off the freeway.

With the seat and a side cover off, I was able to see that there was fuel in the inline filter, and a fold in the hose above it. After unfolding the hose, Hades started again. I set off toward Randy's house, and made it another couple of miles before Hades stopped again, this time in the parking lot of an auto parts store. (At least she has excellent timing.) I bought a couple of feet of fuel hose and set off once more, this time leaving the side cover in my luggage to give the hose as much room as possible to do what it wanted. The fuel light came on, and I was perplexed for a moment before deciding that the pressure buildup between the pump and the kink must have caused a leak. She died a third time, and I put her on reserve and rolled up to a gas station.

It was then that I thought back on my last stop for gas. I remembered pulling up to the pump, resetting the trip meter, chatting with a woman selling vehicle cleaning products, going inside, getting a bottle of water and a banana, eating the banana...and leaving. I hadn't put gas in the tank.

I filled up the tank, replaced the side cover, tucked the spare hose away in my bag, and made a mental note never to reset the trip meter before getting gas.

Randy introduced me to his cat menagerie and then took me to lunch at a Mexican-Asian fusion restaurant. We talked a lot about comics and cats and a little about a lot of other things.

When his wife got home, I realized how late it was and gave her a nice-to-meet-you-I've-gotta-go-now hug, and got back on the road.

I passed another lady biker on the highway and waved. She had a Barbie-pink crotch rocket, with a matching helmet that had a raccoon tail hanging off of each side. She fell in behind me and tailed me for about thirty miles, until I got off in Tyler. I turned north, trying to track down a campground on my map. I'd gone a couple of miles when I realized I must have taken the wrong exit. I stopped on the side of the road and waved at the traffic behind me to go around, but a white pickup truck pulled in behind me.

"I'm sorry," I said to the driver as he got out, "Were you trying to turn here?" I gestured at the parking lot beside me.

"No no," he said. "We've been following you. We're looking for food. You ride better than most guys I know!"

I laughed, thanked him, and went through the process of replacing my sun goggles with my clear goggles while he talked. He introduced himself as Gypsy and offered to buy me dinner. Since I try to avoid cooking in the dark, and it looked like I'd be setting up camp after sunset again, I agreed and followed him back to the highway.

The only game in town was a McD's, so I had a salad. Gypsy and his friend had picked up the brand-new truck in Texas and were on their way back home to New Orleans. We exchanged phone numbers so we can go riding if I ever get down that way.

Significantly after dark I finally found myself in Tyler State Park, choosing a campsite. There was a place to park, a picnic table, a fire pit, and a pole I couldn't explain with two creepy-looking meat hooks on it. I tried not to look at it and pitched my tent as fast as possible, skipping the annoyance of removing the sleeping bad from my luggage and inflating it. I debated about the rain fly and finally decided to put it on but leave the front open.

And thank god for that. I slept horribly, and it wasn't quite dawn when I was awakened by a great boom of thunder.

"Oh, here we go," I said to myself, and leaped out of the tent to finish staking out the fly and make sure everything on the bike was covered. I debated packing up quickly and running for it, but Tami had warned me that the usual lack of rain in Texas makes the roads shockingly hazardous when they do get wet, so I decided I'd be better off hunkering down and waiting it out.

A ranger came by a few minutes later to give me a campground pass, and warned me there were bad storms coming. I felt like saying I had noticed, but he was kind, so I stowed the sarcasm. I counted the storm in, enumerating the seconds between lightning and thunder, until the sky opened up.

The tent area was a sand pit, which had fortunately made staking quite an easy task, but it turned into a riverbed when the water came down. It poured and rumbled and flashed, and I alternately read a book and mopped out the corners of the tent with a bandanna. A couple of hours later, the monsoon had passed and I'd stayed remarkably dry. The tent gets two thumbs up.

Snakes and Snake Charmers

Tami and I set out for lunch on Sunday and were stopped in the middle of town by a passing train. We decided to use the time to get a slice of pie...

But unfortunately, they were closed. After a tour of the back roads to find our way around the end of the train, we had lunch at her favorite Thai restaurant, where we met up with her boyfriend Tony. Then the three of us headed toward San Antonio, making a spontaneous stop at the snake zoo on the way.

From there, we moved on to the Alamo museum. They don't allow photography in the building, so this all I have for pictures, but the museum was quite interesting.

Then we crossed the street and wandered down the Riverwalk. Descending the stairs toward the river is a series of fountains and plantings that surround the footpath. I had stopped for the umpteenth time to take a photo when Tony pointed out that we weren't even at the Riverwalk yet. I was confused...

...until we reached the Riverwalk.

Tami and I shared a champagne margarita and admired the ducklings.

We ended the night at Dirty Dogs in San Marcos. We had finished our dinner and were considering the possibility that it was time to go home when a guy walked up and sat down beside me in the booth. He introduced himself as Beau, told me he had put the music on the juke box, and then got up again.

A moment later the music changed to one of my favorite songs, and I started singing along. Then it stopped. I shook a joking fist at whomever was messing with the juke box. A moment later it came back, then disappeared again. The bartender was attempting to fix the music and Beau was messing it up. Finally someone got it to play for real, and Beau appeared at my side again, grabbed my hands, and pulled me into the middle of the deserted restaurant to dance.

"I don't know how," I began, aiming to tell him that I didn't know what kind of dance he was going to do.

"That's why I lead," he told me, and I did my best to follow while still singing along. He grinned and said, "You know how to flip?"

"What?" I asked, and then I was upside-down. Somehow he managed to turn me all the way over without hitting my head on the floor, although in the video that Tami took it looks like that's what happened. When he learned it was my last night in Austin, he informed Tami that he'd be keeping me and she could go on her way.