NOTES FROM A SOLO MOTORCYCLE RIDE TO SAN DIEGO AND BACK  FOR THOSE WITH ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO READ

(July 12, 2007)


Friends:

Spent the first couple days on a high-speed grind across six states I'd already crossed and re-crossed dozens of times since college. Combatted drowsiness with various "pep" drinks: "Monster," "Z Liquid Hi Energy Drink," so on. I recommend "Red Bull": The aftertaste is the secret ingredient.

My only genuine regret is that this summer's scheduled "Midget Wrestling" at the fairgrounds near Lock Haven, Pa., didn't coincide with my pass through the region. I love the Arts.

To wile away the long hours on the bike I decided I would ponder the Great Issues. I began to do this, but my head started to ache something awful, so I stopped. When I cross the vast Great Plains I will give this another shot but this time it'll be on "Assessing My Life to Date... and Henceforth."

I did consider passing the miles by counting trees (Hey, I've done similar with kayak strokes by the thousands) but there were just too many of them. An immense gang of bikers all using little supermarket calculators couldn't do it!

I finally just shifted into Stoic mode -- which I'm good at – hunkering down and staring at the road ahead for dangerous debris.

Occasionally I see an annoying sign alongside the highway and latch onto its theme to pass the time. Case in point is a placard next to a stream in Indiana which reads "Nameless River." I say to myself, "How did this come to be?"

Visitor to Original Settler: "What's that creek's name?"

Settler: "Hasn't got one."

Visitor: "So it's nameless? Well, why don't you name it the Nameless River?"

Settler: "Because if it’s nameless, then it can’t be ‘Nameless,” cause that’s a name.”

And 'round and 'round it would go. For me, sorry as it sounds, this kind of mental exercise is entertaining.

Another irritating road sign (I'm easily bothered), also in Indiana, reads "Embarras River," but I'm going to cut the pioneers some slack for bad spelling.

So the first few days of the trip were kind of uneventful. I did have a deer bound in front of me on Route 80 in Pennsylvania but my horn-honking turned him.

And I did get pretty well soaked on the Ohio-Pa. line around midday Wednesday by the same stormfront that hit the NY metropolitan area so dramatically about five hours later. Driving through the puddles on the highway was a little unnerving but there were no overpasses for shelter, so I had to keep going.

My traveling companion (I'd say my pal) Kawasaki has been behaving and is giving me 50 mpg.

Who knows, you may get lucky and I'll be left speechless by the beauty of the Great Plains.

Next episode: Enough of these amber waves of grain!

Arnie





INSTALLMENT #2 (July 15)


Who eats all this corn?!

In the 62 years I've been consuming corn -- popped, on the cob, candy corn, tortillas, chips, corn syrup and liquor -- I'm sure I haven't eaten more than an acre's worth, tops two. But these cornfields stretch outwards hundreds and hundreds of miles from here (Grand Island, Neb.). The scale of it all is staggering.

Spent most of yesterday crossing Missouri on Route 70, a nondescript stretch of highway notable mostly for its gentle undulations -- like a kiddie roller-coaster -- and the amazing number of billboards atop 50-foot stanchions lining both sides of the road. For miles west of St. Louis they're as close together as every 100 yards.

About every 15th billboard along the road advertises an "adult" store called Passion's (sic) at Exit 103B. One by one, the signs flatly list the items you'd expect to find in such an establishment. First, "Passion's: Videos." Then "Passion's: Lingerie," and "Passion’s: Novelties."

But the one just before Exit 103B states, "Passion's: Boots and Shoes to Size 15."

My first thought was, "Man, they got some big women out here."

But then enlightenment swept over me. Yikes! An image of Shaq O'Neal wearing stillettos got in my brain but mercifully left quickly. Still, 50 miles down the road I was saying to myself: "Fifteen! Holy Cow!"


   Motorcycle riders usually wave as they pass each other on the road. I think it's to find some little bit of company and comfort out among all the larger vehicles.

But old school Harley-Davidson owners will only wave to other Harley riders. They will not acknowledge anyone on a Japanese bike, or a Ducati, or anything foreign.

I , on the other hand, wave to everyone and sometimes, because my bike looks like a Harley "softtail" model, Harley drivers will give me a half-wave in return before realizing their mistake.


Not much conversation for me on this trip. I did enjoy chatting with my brother and his four grandchildren when I stopped in St. Louis for Night 3, but otherwise it's been just the banter with waitresses and gas station folks. I wouldn't be talking religion or politics to folks out here anyway.

The pace is going well enough that I'm giving up the interstates for the smaller, slower roads. I left the superhighway to gas up in two villages that billed themselves on highway signs as "historic," another way of saying "people used to live here." Both (Hamburg, Iowa, and another burg in Nebraska) had short main streets of side-by-side stores, circa 1880, but they were largely vacant. Not a soul visible.

The drawback to abandoning the interstate is no longer having the shelter of the underpasses when there's rain or lightning. Without that cover overhead, you're on open country roads getting soaked and -- worse -- sitting on a big piece of metal that attracts electrical charges.


Best town name so far: "Amazonia, Missouri." I think they got some big women there!

Hope you're all well.

Arnie




INSTALLMENT #3: THROUGH A BUG-SPLATTERED VISOR.   (July 17)



We're cookin' now!

98 degrees yesterday, possibly higher today, and the engine I'm straddling ups it even further. Forecast for the next four days where I'm going in Montana-Idaho is for the same temp, with chances of afternoon thunderstorms.

But, as they tell you at the beginning or end of many church services, "This is the day we are given. Rejoice and be glad." I'm glad.

Drove up into the Bighorn Mountains yesterday to get some relief -- and it did knock 10 or 15 degrees off. The look of the Bighorn National Forest is austere, powerful, vast, a lot of rock faces with detritus heaps below. Not cozy like the Catskills or even the Adirondacks, more majestic.


The bike is humming along nicely. I was concerned the fuel injector wouldn't automatically adjust to these changes in altitude (4,500 feet on the high desert to 9,000 in the Bighorns), but it's purring wherever I take it.

Spotted a fluid leak from my rear axle, which is a concern because I have limited tools with me and even less know-how. But I was saved by the Pope! I got out the sturdy Pope Paul II church key someone gave me (OK, I bought it) and used it as a kind of giant screwdriver to tighten the fluid cover.

Yes, there's a sin there, but some good came of it. I know it sounds snide, but a few more of these little miracles and I could be turned.


I came within five miles of Mt. Rushmore the other day but didn't make the effort to go see it, which sounds vaguely anti-American even to me.

But I remember seeing it in 1952 and unless they've added some guys up there, I figure I'm covered. (See note.)

Did see the Crazy Horse memorial in progress nearby. The face is fabulous but his stallion is still buried in the mass of the mountain. It'll take years and tons of dynamite to bring it all out.


(Note: Skipping Yellowstone too. Same reason.)


This stark, barren topography of northern Wyoming looks so familiar to me, and I realize it's from that 1952 trip when the Old Man drove Mom and us four boys out here to see the national parks.

For those too young to know, long-distance car travel was nightmarish in those days, even if you had a new Nash like we did: Tires only lasted 7,000 or 8,000 miles; radiators and hoses blew out like cheap fuses; antifreeze didn’t yet exist; we ate mastodon meat (this last one is a lie). It was hard traveling, especially to make a two-week 4,000-mile round trip like the Old Man did, as the lone driver.

Traveling in the car with him was like being confined in tight quarters with a very cranky grizzly bear. But he did want us to see places maybe most kids didn't and I think he wanted to make us adventurous. So thank you, Pop, wherever you might be.


Best scenery:

Aside from the 1,500 miles of lush farmland from Ohio to Nebraska and the Bighorns, I liked the Black Hills of South Dakota lots -- if you erase the tourist towns of Custer, Sulphur Springs and Keystone, which are pure kitsch. They remind me of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and that ain't good.

The Black Hills look in some ways like the Black Forest of Germany. If you haven't seen that, the evergreens in the Black Forest are so thick they appear black, and the fields look like someone overdid it with the "Hue" control in Photoshop. They're GREEN!

Also thought the Nebraska Sandhills were striking. The formula for making them would be: Take a sea of sand about 200 miles across, stir it up a bit so you get rounded, swelling waves, top it with tall grass, sprinkle lightly with black Angus cattle and every mile or so plunk down a windmill to draw water for the cattle.


Last night I drove far afield and couldn't make it back to a population center where they might have brand-name lodging -- Holiday Inn, etc. So I stayed in Greybull, Wyo., at the Wheels Motel. The place looked iffy from the outside but the room was perfectly nice. For dining, about the only option I had was an A&W Rootbeer stand. I ate my Papaburger Special at a giant picnic table in front of the place, joined by by six unruly kids who piled out of a van from Missouri. Their parents looked completely frazzled. If Thorazine sundaes were on the menu I would have treated them all!

But I did enjoy my meal! As I ate, dust clouds from the adjacent road being repaved swirled around the parking lot, a crushed root beer cup was whirling in irregular circles near the table, and in the distance,  jagged lightning bolts among the dark clouds atop the Bighorns. I felt content (and I'm not joking). Sometimes when you have no choices, peace comes over you.


Yesterday morning I stopped for breakfast at a restaurant in Sundance, Wyo.

The large dining was was empty except for five young waitresses on break, sitting at a round table with a quiet young fellow about their age.

The youngest and smallest of the ladies -- I'd say she'd just finished high school, or was about to -- came over and asked if it was cold outside. I explained that my leather jacket wasn't for warmth, but for padding, in case I fell off the bike.

"Well, you wouldn't want that," she said.

I ordered the Number 1, which was a couple eggs with a choice of meat ("Cheddarwurst" was one option) and either "Hash Brown Patties or Breakfast Bubes."

"What are Breakfast Bubes," I asked.

She gave the menu a glance herself and said, "Oh, they're probably potato cubes."

"Cheryl?" she yelled over to the senior waitress at the round table, "What's Breakfast Bubes?"

"What? Where are you getting that?" said Cheryl, sounding a bit shocked. She came straight over and studied the menu intently.

"Oh, my god," she said. "There's BREAKFAST BUBES on the menu!!!"

Cheryl ran to the kitchen door and yelled in, "Carl, we got Breakfast Bubes on the new menu!"

Then she grabbed a telephone and called her boss, who apparently had composed and printed the menu. They went back and forth and Cheryl finally said, "I know, Spellcheck should've caught it."

The other waitresses had jumped up and gone through the entire supply of new menus, only finding the “bubes” misprint in four of them.

The sole waitress who hadn't budged from the table then threw out the opening line.

"All the guys who come in here are gonna want that," she snickered.

I pulled out a map to occupy myself: Yes, I was the one who found the typo, but I was laying low on this topic.

It escalated.

The youngest waitress posed a rhetorical question: "Number 1 is $3.99! How come a guy can get a piece of action that cheap?"

They all sat back down giggling.

Cheryl mentioned eggs, and volunteered that hers were "Over Easy," then she shouted over to me: "You must think we're disgusting."

"No," I said, "I think you’re a lot of fun.”

They were encouraged.

The youngest said, "A couple weeks ago I wore a top, bra-less...".

"Well yeah, there's a mistake," said the girl beside her, "when you're like a negative-A."

"I'm a 32A, thank you."

Another asked no one in particular, "How can my mom be an "E" and I'm like this?"

I didn't look up to see what “this” was.

The youngest waitress shouted over to me: "I bet you're sorry you came in here."

"No, I'm really not."

After a while, to tease the young fellow at the table, they switched the topic to "man feet...you know, those cracked toes and hairy knuckles.”

Finally, Cheryl got them all up and busy, filling sugar bowls and wiping down chairs in advance of lunch, and I left.


INSTALLMENT #4   (July 20)



Still bothered by the SUV rollover I came upon three days ago high in the Bighorn National Park.

The lone occupant of the vehicle, a Jordanian student working at a park resort for the summer, had multiple and truly grave injuries -- fractures, gashes, internal bleeding that was bloating his belly.

Although successive people held his hand and tried to encourage him -- and a passing doctor and EMT specialist did all they could -- what he really needed was an operating room, quick.

Everyone tried, but it was just too remote a place to get hurt that badly.

So he lay in agony alongside the road for almost two hours until an ambulance arrived from a town 30 miles down below and carried him to a patch of road that was flat and open enough for a medevac helicopter to put down.

I don't know if he made it alive to an O.R. in Billings or Casper.


                    




I wanted to like the Cody (Wyo.) Nite Rodeo. I really did. I drove hundreds of miles out of my way to get there because it was billed across the state as a hi-grade rodeo. It was not.

It rankled me from the opening parade. The last thing I am is a flag waver, but when the pennants of the rodeo's sponsors -- Coca-Cola, Dairy Queen, Pinnacle Bank, the U.S. Army -- get hoopla nearly equal to the Star and Stripes, something's off.

As for the rodeo action, for me it was like expecting to see the Yankees and getting the Newark Bears -- not even “single-A” ball.

Many lassoes were flung but few calves were roped, barrels mostly got knocked over in the circle-the-barrels horse races, and nearly every cowboy immediately got bounced off the bucking broncos and bulls.

I know you're saying, "Well, I'd like to see you ride a bull!"

Hey, I admit, I'd fall off. But so did they! And I'd like to think that if given the chance to get bucked off, I'd have crumbled into such a pitiful heap that the folks in the grandstand would have have gone home that night remembering me as absolutely “the best.”

The most fun of the night was when they invited all kids 12 and under to the arena floor to win a prize for snatching ribbons ribbons tied to the tails of three calves running loose. When the announcer shouted "Go!" and the mob of kids ran at them, the calves looked shell-shocked. They bolted and the kids chased them every which way, sprawling in the dirt and whatever else was on the ground. After half minute of mayhem, the boy who had grabbed the first ribbon brought his proof to the announcer in the center of the arena.

This fellow had a twangy, high-tenor way of talking.

"Waillll, where you from?" he asked the boy, a clean-cut looking kid about 12.

"New Hampshire."

"New Hampshire!?" said the announcer, astonished -- like the kid had said "The Moon."

"Wailll, welcome to the Ew-notted states!"

I was hoping the boy, who appeared bright enough to do it, would remind him that New Hampshire was one of the original colonies, but maybe he was too polite.  


             


Not sleeping much -- three or four good hours. Different beds, unfamiliar night noises won't let me settle in. But those pep drinks keep the daytime drowsiness at bay!


Another missed opportunity!

The Testicle Festival near Missoula, Mont., is in mid-August this year, and I'll be long gone. You could look it all up on testyfesty.com, but of course you won't do that.



Installment #5. Getting there. (July 25)


So many bikers around the South Dakota-Montana-Wyoming junction that everyone's
quit waving. Your left arm would be tired as the Queen Mum's if you kept it up
all day.
Bikers are already gathering for the rally in Red Lodge, Mont., and the bigger,
more
infamous one a couple weeks later in Sturgis, S.D.
Somehow I assumed the Sturgis rally -- which usually leaves half a
dozen cyclists dead in drink-related collisions -- was out in the boonies, like
the Burning Man assembly farther west. But Sturgis is right next to Interstate
90; motels 30 miles away in Rapid City double their prices that week -- because
they can.

Left Wyoming via the stunning Beartooth Pass (elev. 10,947). The endless
switchbacks to get to the flat top are an engineering marvel. Summit reminded me
of the fjord area around Bergen, Norway -- no trees, just rock and some hardy
vegetation. But the horizon here feels bigger, wider than 360 degrees,

the effect of looking down on so much. Clouds "pop"
like cotton puffs against a deep blue; What look like white golf course
sandtraps are remnants of snow, still several feet
deep in mid-July. When I walked away from the bike to take photos I found
myself straining to get enough oxygen. Yes, there's a little peak visible from
the top that looks like a bear's tooth.

In front of a lone house way out in the country, a block-lettered sign:
"WE GOT THEIR BACKS. HONK IF YOU SUPPORT OUR TROOPS."

Spent two days in Butte, Mont. That sounds like the opening of a vaudeville joke
but
I really love the place. It hits me just right: It's earthy, has great period
architecture (brick, I'd say mostly 1870 to 1910) and it's so thick with the
past, the "ghosts" are almost visible.
The Uptown District (really it’s downtown) sits hard against a vast open strip
mine -- the latest and largest of a series of digs that gave the city its early
prosperity. Negatively, entire working class neighborhoods were gobbled up by the mining company as
the pit expanded.
The Uptown District is on the National Register of Historic Places but that's
not doing much for its current economic health. They're trying to restore the
district but it still looks worn, like the subjects of an Edward Hopper painting. I love Hopper.
I stayed at the Mindlen Hotel, a 1924 knockoff of the now-demolished Astor
Hotel in NYC, but this version's only nine stories tall. The Mindlen's been
restored to its
original condition, which was that of a fine businessmen's hotel. Tall-columned
lobby, chandeliers, marble floors.
I didn't detect there were any other guests with me on the second floor, which
is maybe why I slept so well. My two-room suite was $68.





In a Butte restaurant:
A kitchen worker has 'NATIVE PRIDE" tattooed in exotic, three-inch-high
script on the side of her neck. She's pretty, probably a Nez Perce. I don't love
the type-face she picked -- too many angles and swirls -- but I admire her
attitude.
In the booth next to me, a taciturn young man eats with his parents; the three
of them say not a word during the meal. About 17 years old, he's attempting to
grow a beard but it's
sketchy and mostly fuzz. His scruffy baseball cap has a patch that
says "I (Heart) Bikinis" and his T-shirt sports a drawing of a cherub and
reads, "Cupid is my Homeboy."

The local Butte paper reports that a retiree (not wealthy -- he delivers pizza part-time) has
donated $20,000 toward the restoration of the Dumas brothel on Mercury Street. He had
fond memories of the place, which police shuttered in 1982 after 100 years of operation.

Went out for a beer in Uptown, but the bars were too raucous. I've found that in the
grittier towns, if "you're not from around here," skip the beer.
But on the way back to the Mindlen Hotel I happened upon a quiet lounge and
chatted with the bartender
for 10 minutes while savoring a pint of "Moose Drool."

I'm saving one Butte mystery for another visit: How a bar in a
blue-collar neighborhood next to the pitmine got the name Helsinki Yacht Club.




INSTALLMENT #6  (July 23)


Turning south now, from Missoula toward San Diego.

The road west through the Lolo Pass into the Bitterroot Mountains overlies, in part, the path of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1805-06.

For me, to travel over the same ground covered by these 32 brave and resourceful men (never forgetting the remarkable Sacajewea with her baby) is an electric experience.

The expedition's days in the Bitterroots were among its most trying, most desperate. Picking their way along Indian trails and bushwhacking through the towering evergreens, Lewis and Clark had no idea how deep this forest would be, only that the Pacific lay somewhere ahead. Winter was approaching, and the party's hunters were having no success in finding game on the steep slopes of these unending woods.




One of the diarists, Lewis I think, wrote at this point that there was "no hope of subsistence" until they could get the forest behind them.

For me, to drive along this pathway -- now Route 12 -- was a privilege and an honor I can't properly put into words. I stopped along the way to read every historical marker, each keying the location to a specific entry in the two expedition leaders' daily journal. History alive.

The journals of Lewis and Clark are among the great American documents and the best kind of adventure tale -- a true story experienced by people we hope we could emulate.


I've seen only five blacks between central Missouri and Nevada. Is this possible?

Two of them were in a motel in Grand Island, Neb., two in a passing car in South Dakota and one in a roadside softball game in Nevada.

True, I haven't gone through any real cities, but I'm wracking my brain and I can't recall seeing any other African-Americans.


I get the impression a lot of folks out here don't much care for Easterners, or maybe
it's just me personally they don't like.
Repeated digs about "Joisey" when they see my license plate; complaints about
crowds and high prices in New York City ("In one restaurant, coffee was $7 on
the menu.") (Uh, maybe Starbuck's?); extreme defensiveness about the past
week's heat wave ("At least it's dry here" -- unlike you know where.), and gibes about Hillary Clinton, who carpet-bagged to New York.

I may be warping this.


In the category of What Else Is New?:
In Riggins, Idaho, a rough-feeling former mining town on the Salmon River, now a
summer rafting center, a 50-ish tourist I'd seen an hour earlier strolling on the street
lurches away from the Salmon Inn, a billiards joint that sells beer and pizza.
Someone has popped him on the cheekbones as perfectly as as you can be punched -- pinpoint
shots. Bleeding now, he's going to have an amazing set of shiners in the
morning. He's doing a speedy stagger-walk back to where he's staying. A redhead,
about 30, who I’d seen walking with him earlier, chases after him for a
while,
calling his name. She gives up after 100 feet, turns and runs back to throw her
arms around the neck of the guy who did the thrashing, a very beefy fellow about
25 in a muscle T-shirt.
"Why, why?" he whines like he’s been victimized, "Why, whenever there's a fight, am I always involved?"
A town girl on the bar porch has the answer."Because you always start it.”

What a piece of desolation southeast Oregon is! Ran at 90 mph for a couple hours and it
just wouldn't end.
In the 100-degree blur, a mesa that looked five miles away turned out to be 30.
Heavy crosswinds and flying vegetation. The tumbleweeds would trip up the bike if I had an exposed drivechain.


Plan to overnight in Winnemucca, Nev., only because W.C. Fields liked to say the town's name, along with "Cucamonga" and "Lompoc." From there I'll stop near Mt. Lassen, Calif., to visit with my buddy of five decades Ted and his wife Carolyn, then wrap it up with two broiling days down Veggie Valley (California's Route 5) to San Diego.


Nearly every time I gas up, another motorist will sidle over to me to ask about my bike, my trip, then he'll tell me about the motorcycle he used to have (a "750", a Triumph, a "little Roadster,") and the trips he took to the Smokies, or Florida, or the Coast. It's a male thing -- a boy thing, really -- runnin' away like Huck Finn.


See you all.

Arnie





EASTBOUND


(Sept. 25, 2007))


Rolled my bike out of my brother-in-law's San Diego garage, reset the odometer to zero from the 5,060 miles recorded on the westbound leg, and I'm off!

Heading east, the glare of the rising sun makes driving difficult. With this kind of light ahead, I think I'll need shades every morning till about 10:00 all the way home.

The terrain turns bleak just a handful of miles east of San Diego: Barrenness, rock piles, occasional scrawny bushes. Then the Imperial Valley, which is inhuman in its sterile, mass-production agriculture way.

Pass El Centro, which is the center of nothing, and on to Yuma. The landscape is all creosote bushes about 20 feet apart and occasional gray rock ridges sticking out of the dust like the dorsals of buried lizards.

In this visual monotony, the mind drifts and I recall driving past a menacing looking blockhouse of a bar in San Diego that had a foot-square white sign on its door. It read: "Pecs, A Man's Bar." On the building's roof was a rainbow flag. Clearly, girls of either sex were not welcome at Pecs.

This got me to thinking about the nature of manhood.

Was Rock Hudson, who liked boys, a man? Was Tiny Tim, who sang falsetto but liked girls, a man?

Does muscularity have anything to do with it? Who's more manly, Hulk Hogan or Mahatma Gandhi, who probably couldn't bench-press two Wheaties boxes on a stick but helped topple the British Empire?

At any rate, I didn't go into Pecs: I don't have the pecs. What I prefer is a "Man's Man's Bar." No, that doesn't sound right. What I want is a place that sells beer and doesn't have a flag.


From Yuma east to Tucson is Moon-like landscape with scrub brush and mountains in the distance. Unpredictable gusts shove the bike sideways six feet or so. Signs read, "Blowing Sand Next 16 Miles," and "High Winds Next 25 Miles."

Other signs announce variations of "Desert Haven, an Active Adult Community. Starting in the $200s." Some even tout 'the $100s."

These are RV parks and housing developments plunked onto the parched earth. I assume folks come here to warm their old bones -- it gets to 115 degrees in summer -- and stretch their savings. Don't know if you have to bring your own water: I sure didn't pass over a flowing stream or see a lake for a couple hundred miles. That's got to become a problem as more folks migrate.


Visiting friends in Tucson and Phoenix and won't tell tales about them. I'll write again in a couple days.


Arnie.




#2

 

   Had the joy, in the far outskirts of Phoenix, of spending eight hours or so talking with Bil Canfield, the best cartoonist The Star-Ledger and before that The Newark Evening News, ever had. (Yes, Bil with one “L”: He grew up in the Depression and that’s all his parents could afford.) He's 86 now, still working at a New Mexico paper, taking drawing classes, and giving away caricatures to strangers. Bil suffers from Blatt's Sydrome, wherein the body ages normally but the mind never makes it past 18 -- well, maybe 15 in Bil's case. It's sad and hopeless, but he's blissfully unaware of his condition.



    Drove -- and drove some more -- east through the startling sprawl that is Phoenix and into the Pinal Mountains. The old copper mining towns of Miami and Globe have great potential for photos but the light was wrong and I couldn't wait for it to get right.



    I drove nearly all the way across New Mexico staring at the
skies: Fortunately, the straightness of Interstate 10 let me do it without
wrecking. Wow, has New Mexico got sky! Powder blue on the horizon deepening to a rich azure overhead. And the clouds, which are soft and thinnish at eye level, become brilliant white, three-dimensional puffs directly above. Their shadows scoot over straw-colored hills that are shaped like Hershey Kisses. Amazing!



   I know it's a vestige of my time in the military, but I have a great
aversion to people in uniforms. Even UPS drivers give me the creeps.

Well, this strip above the Mexican border-- from California across to Texas -- is positively crawling with uniforms. Border Patrol personnel, guys wearing "ICE" baseball caps (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), all armed with 9mm handguns.

You see them in McDonald's, they're racing around in trucks, they're in helicopters scouring the desert, they're at random checkpoints miles north of the border. I got quizzed at three of the latter.

   It's a marvel an illegal could sneak through this screen.



    Stopped overnight in El Paso, Texas. I really wanted to hop over to Juarez, Mexico, which abuts downtown El Paso, but my bike is too slick looking, and I knew I'd be asking for grief from Mexican cops and/or robbers.

    Before dinner in El Paso, I drifted through the Sunland Casino. Played three singles in the slots and won $9, so I quit. The place bored me quickly: Only the cowboy hats distinguish this casino from the the East Coast brand.

    I figured I had to have beef here: It's Texas. But the ribs I got at the "legendary" State Line beef parlor defied dismemberment. Even a frighteningly sharp serrated knife didn't help. I thought maybe they had given me the plexiglass model from the
food showcase in the lobby and slathered barbecue sauce on it.

   The waitress was a bubbly local girl named Cindy who was pleasant enough but had a voice so shrill it pierced to the bone. If only she could have turned that weapon on my ribs.

   When I left the restaurant my gum felt somehow "different": An old crown on one of my molars had shattered during the course of dinner.

   These are the kind of meals you remember.



   A mammoth cloud sits behind and above the ridge
next to downtown El Paso. Billowing several thousand feet in the air, it
looks like the product of the largest explosion that ever was, but it
doesn't float away or change in any way. I don't know if it's there every
day, but it was for the two days I spent in El Paso.



   There's a lot of guys in these parts driving pickup trucks in what I would call a hostile manner.



   The 140 miles of Route 180 north from El Paso to the Guadelupe Mountains National Park are little-traveled but gorgeous. Wide-open grazing land with no trees and only a few short palms.

   I left the bike on the shoulder of the highway and walked off 100 feet to try capturing the scene with my camera.

   I saw a car pass the bike, then double-back from about a mile down the road. The driver was from Utah -- and a look-alike for actor Charles Laughton -- who had doubled back to see if I needed help.

   "I'm fine, thanks. Just taking pictures," I told him.

    "Well, I'm a motorcyclist myself and I've been stuck
on the side of the road a bunch of times."

   A very kind gesture. If my bike had been disabled, he'd have committed himself  to driving me 75 miles to arrange for repair, and he knew that.



   Consulting my map in the parking lot of Wal-Mart in Carlsbad, N.M., I hear a booming voice say, "If you're lookin' at a map, you're sure not from around here. What can I do for you?"

   He's a large, affable guy with huge hands -- like Honus Wagner-era baseball mitts.

   He introduces himself as Steve and shakes my hand with one of those immense paws.

   I ask him how long it'll take me to get to Lubbock or Abilene, Texas.

   He gives me the exact mileages, tells me how long it'll take to get there, says where to turn en route and notes that there's 18 miles of construction along the way but it shouldn't slow me down.

   A hugely likable guy, he even sends me off with
"Happy trails!" just like Roy Rogers used to do at the end of his show.

   He explains that he knows all about the roads because he's a retired state
trooper.

   I got fooled because he was out of uniform.


#3


        My aim for the day was to make Lubbock, Texas, because it was Buddy Holly's hometown. I loved his sound and wanted to see where he came from.

       The sky heading north into West Texas was all bright and blue except for one dark patch, which grew larger as I rolled onward As the black area expanded I could see lightning strikes and columns of rain in its core.

     I sped up --  to 90 mph at one point -- figuring I would outrun it or outflank it, but the storm always stayed directly before me.

    Within a mile of where I guessed the worst was, I decided to bail. I veered off the road next to a small town's grain elevator, which I thought might give me some cover. But there was no overhang on the structure to protect me from rain or lightning.

    Up the road a hundred yards I saw the "Welman Diner" sign and raced the bike up there.   

      While I was struggling to put a tarp over the bike, a blocky lady sheriff in a gray-panted uniform ran out of the diner to her cruiser.




“You made the right decision, mister," she yelled over to me. "It's fixin' to hail." She got in her vehicle and roared off toward the storm.

I covered my bike, took a photo of the nastiest looking sky I've ever seen and sprinted to the safety of the diner. Its occupants turned out be a skinny kid in charge, who stood about six-foot-six, somebody working the kitchen, me, and about a thousand flies.

    The young fellow, wearing a Texas Tech T-shirt, brushed dead flies off my table next to the front window.

    "Sorry about the flies," he said.

    Half a dozen were bouncing against the window pane and others were flitting on and off about every surface in the place.

    "That's all right. I know flies."

    "Well, I hate 'em" he said.

    I told him that the particular look of the sky was new to me.

    "Oh, we get that all the time," he said.

    I asked, "Are we going to get it?"

    "Don't know," he said. "I don't know which way it's moving."

    He pointed out the side window. "You see way past that gas station sign, just to the right of it, that white area? That's hail, but I can't tell if it's coming this way. We can get some big hail. here."

    I thought of my bike's unblemished pearl-gray gas tank and fenders.

    I ordered a coffee and burger and waited, taking comfort in being in a safe place with a kid who seemed to understand weather conditions I didn't. On the road outside, local drivers were racing home before the storm.

    Between bites, I covered my burger with a paper napkin to keep away the flies. Four of them were feasting on the conical tip of the ketchup squirter.

    The storm didn't hit. After about half an hour the kid said, "If you're goin' to Lubbock, you should be all right now. The storm's gone south. Now, I'm not sayin' you won't get anything: They can travel in groups. But you should be OK."

    I left him a dollar tip on a $3.65 bill, collected my stuff, got on the bike and left.

    Five miles up the road, the gray clouds above and before me turned black. I could still see a thin strip of blue sky and sunshine before me along the horizon, but raindrops began pelting my windshield.

     In another few minutes I gave up trying to clear my helmet visor by hand: I lifted it and took the rain in my face. Hailstones began to mix in with the rain, pellets about the size of peas ricocheting off my plastic windshield and helmet. My pants and coat were soaked through and water was streaming into my boots.

    I couldn't judge which way the storm was traveling, so there was no evasive action
to take. And there was no place to hide. I just kept driving, trying to stay upright on the slick, puddled road.

   On my right a rope of lightning hit in the field about a quarter mile off. Ten seconds later, another flashed into a pasture on my left. Above the road before me I saw a jagged bolt strike laterally, from cloud to cloud.

    I just kept rolling forward; This was completely out of my hands, and it was terrifying.

    I wished it would never stop.



#4

  

   As the old song goes: "Ok-lahoma, where the wind goes rushing through the trees..."

   Actually, it just about rips the trees out by their roots.

   I spent the better part of one day crossing the length of Oklahoma east to west with a 30 mph blow going on. I was hanging off the right side of the seat and still had to tilt the bike a couple degrees in that direction to counter-act the northbound wind. Kansas is about the same as Oklahoma wind-wise. Now I understand how a drought, plus that wind, created the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.


   It's clear to me that a car out-performs a motorcycle for long-distance touring. With a car you're protected from the weather, you can travel marginal roads, you'll come out better in a crash, you can hide your "stuff" in the trunk or keep it handy in the back seat, and when the road gets dull you can put the car on cruise control, listen to tunes, drink coffee and snack. The pluses with a bike are limited to the physicality of the travel -- if you like that -- and a natural buzz from rolling along out in the open.


   After taking a day off to visit my brother in St. Louis, I’ll hit the road Monday morning for two final sprints home. I'll send along a couple pix when I get there. Thanks for all the notes and kind words.


Arnie








 
 

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