Here’s a message for the faithful.
What is it that you cherish?
To find the Way to see your nature?
Your nature is naturally so.
What Heaven bestows is perfect.
Looking for proof leads you astray
Leaving the trunk to search among the twigs
All you get is stupid.
Hanshan (Cold Mountain)
I slept for about an hour and woke up hot and sweaty. Checked my phone and saw it was 6:10 pm. Time to get something to eat. I made the short walk across the stream and up to the porch which was filled with bikers rocking, smoking, drinking and talking on their cell phones. I found Skunk.
“Ready to eat?”
“Yep.” We walked into the restaurant, checked the menu that was scribbled in various colors onto the whiteboard and hemmed and hawed a bit. Finally, we gave our order to the waitress, some cute young high school girl wearing an expression of innocence, confidence and tender forbearance toward old men and their foibles.
“It’ll be about ten minutes sweetie pie.” She said. “What’s the name?”
“Monk.” She wrote it down.
We found a couple of seats back on the porch and reminisced how the place had changed over the years.
“Remember that tiered garden they used to have over there? The flowers were beautiful.”
I shook my head. “Can’t really recall that but I do remember that inside they had those stuffed animals on the wall and motorcycle shirts hanging from the ceiling.”
He nodded and we rocked and overheard bits of chatter from the other bikers.
One guy was pointing to his BMW: “It’s got dual plugs. When you roll on it there’s no hesitation.”
Two other men were speaking. One was scratching the back of his head and said: “He has to pull the choke and give it half throttle just to get the damn thing started.”
The other replied: “Needs to adjust the carburetor. It’s not a big job. By doing what he’s doing he’s advancing the timing. Could hurt the engine.”
Other snippets of conversation drifted to my ears
“Almost rolled into a bear up at Woody Gap. Just past the overlook, over the guardrail.”
“I like that road over Fort Mountain. Tight going up and sweepers going down.”
“Watch out for that blind hill. There are three curves you can’t see on. It’s tight but safe.”
Men were bent over, tipping this way and that with their phones, trying to check for satellite images of the weather. In the distance, I heard the clunk of a Harley going into first gear, turned and watched a guy ride off and then my eyes followed a couple in full leathers as they started climbing the stairs.
At the top, the man pats the woman on the back, shakes his head and says: “Honey, you need to learn how to pee out in the woods.”
“I just can’t do it.” She replies. “But you know what, when I was little and rode with my grandpaw he wouldn’t stop the car and so I had to pee into a Styrofoam cup in the back seat.”
“So you can pee into a Styrofoam cup but not out in the woods?” He replied. “Tell you what how about next time you go in the woods I’ll give you a Styrofoam cup to use!”
She gave him a little slug on the arm, they laughed and wandered past us into the diner.
“Monk!” Yelled a woman carrying a tray of food.
I raised my hand and signaled toward a picnic bench. We followed her over to the table and sat down.
“So Monk where are you heading to?”
“Out to California, to see my daughter Hannah.”
“I remember her. Cute as a button. You gonna take Interstate 40?
“No, I’m keeping to the back roads.”
He shook his head. “I understand that but you know that’ll double your time to the coast?”
“That’s okay. I’m retired now. I’m in no hurry. Might even head up to Sturgis.”
He rubbed his forehead and squinted. “Monk, not many people would go to California by way of Sturgis, South Dakota. You sure you’re all right to be riding?”
“I’m fine Skunk, thanks for asking.”
He glanced in the direction of my bike. “You got a GPS on that thing?”
“Nope, but I’ve got my Harley atlas.”
He glanced back at the bike again, leaning his head to the left and right. “I see you ain’t got no tank bag either to put a map in so you could look at it whilst you was riding.”
“Always thought those tank bags got in the way. Also, they spoil the look of Big Red.” I smiled.
He turned his head slightly sideways and stared at me. “Monk that’s a hellavu lot of blue highways to California for you to be a negotiating without a GPS or a map in a tank bag.”
“I’ll be all right. It’s a big state. Even I can’t miss it.” I laughed.
“Ha! What road you thinking of taking next?”
“Not sure. I’m open for suggestions.”
“I’ll tell you now that Highway 61 – they call it the Great Mississippi River Road- is a nice ride. Levee’s high in most places but you can catch glimpses of the old river. Road runs all the way from Louisiana to Wisconsin. Purt near 3000 miles. You could pick it up anywhere, maybe over at Memphis.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said as I forked some coleslaw into my mouth.
We finished eating and as the sun drifted down we just sat on the porch rocking and talking with other bikers. Biking is a fellowship and everyone coming up the stairs felt undefensive, eager to say hello, shoot the bull and talk bikes and trips.
We sat there until it was bordering on dusk and a veil of coolness had descended upon the mountains and trees. The dinner bell rang last call for supper. I said goodnight to Skunk and wandered across the road to the waterfall. The reflection of the moon was flickering in the water. I heard a hoarse, cawing sound, looked up and spotted a murder of crows in the twilight. Though my short-term memory was pretty shot I somehow remembered an old Chinese poem from the time my buddy Joe and I were in China, wandering around in the mountains hiding from the law.
While I watch the moon go down, a crow caws through the frost;
Under the shadows of maple-trees a fisherman moves with his torch;
And I hear, from beyond Su-chou, from the temple on Cold Mountain,
Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell.
Well, at least some of my long-term memory was still intact. I walked back across the road, across the bridge, over the stream and headed for my tent. About 50 yards ahead of me there was a gathering of folks near a blazing fire ring. I unzipped the outer cover of the tent and then heard a voice.
“Hey, mister. Come on and join us”. It came from the fire ring. I couldn’t see who had said it but I saw faces smiling and a bottle being lifted in the flickering light.
“Sure”, I replied and ambled over.
There were seven other bikers, including a married couple around the fire ring. We introduced ourselves, said where we were from and where we were heading. Jokes and stories were told, favorite routes and campgrounds were shared and then one of the bikers, a veteran, launched into the soul-wrenching song: “I’m still in Saigon”.
All the sounds of long ago
Will be forever in my head
Mingled with the wounded cries
And the silence of the dead.
We were in awed silence as he finished, thinking of his war, our own little wars, the lost and still missing from our lives. Someone passed around a bottle of fireball whiskey and the jokes began flowing again.
I felt happy as I stumbled back to the tent, guided only by the moonlight, the whiskey and my old Duck Dynasty flashlight. I climbed inside and got my stuff out so I could go and brush my teeth. Then I remembered: I’d forgotten to phone Colin. I fished out from my bag the structure sheets I had prepared for my phone calls. I had written down the questions and left space for my answers. I took out my pencil and jotted down the answers.
“Where are you?” Answer and say something specific about the place.
Suches, Two wheels campground. You remember that place. Ran into old Skunk and we had a good chat. Place has changed a lot. Flowerbeds are gone and so are the dead animals on the wall. Came up here once with Clare on the old BMW.
“How’s the ride been?”
Give the same answer always. Good, no problems. Bike’s holding up well.
“Where are you going to next?”
Not sure. Have to consult my map. Thinking about Highway 61, the great Mississippi River road.
“Feeling okay? How’s the memory?”
What? I forgot about my memory. Just joking. It’s good. I remembered all of a Chinese poem from when your uncle Joe and I were dressed as Buddhist monks in China, hiding out from the police.
The call went amazingly well. I was thrown off by a few questions I hadn’t anticipated but I think I pulled it off. One was: “Dad, I know you have my number tattooed on your arm but do you even remember your own phone number?”
“Of course I do”, I checked my other arm where I had tattooed the number and “me” above it and casually read it out. “017 4517”
I finished up by asking about his work and about Siobhan and Stephen.
“Everything okay Colly?”
“Yep, yep, yep.”
“I love and miss you son.”
“Me too dad.”
Day 3 – Suches, Georgia
The world about us is full of ghostly doings. Every moment of our lives is trying to tell us something, but we do not care to listen to this spirit voice. When we are alone and still we’re afraid that something will be whispered in our ears, and so we hate the stillness and anesthetize ourselves through sociability.
The morning was fresh and crispy when I woke up. My neck and back were stiff but just needed a little stretching and would be all right. I unzipped the tent entrance and climbed out. There was the stream I had listened to all night. Mist was rising from the water and from the hillocks in the distance. The trees smelled new, fresh. Across the bridge, folks were already gathering on the deck, some smoking, some consulting maps. I wandered over to the bathroom and then came back to the tent. I leaned on Big Red and took in the beauty of the place.
I remembered another Chinese poem.
In spring hundreds of flowers,
In summer, refreshing breeze.
In autumn, harvest moon,
In winter, snowflakes accompany you.
Every season is a good season.
If useless things do not linger in your mind.
A memory of my first wife Maeve brushed through my mind and I felt a flutter of longing in my gut. We were standing outside Dunluce Castle… Monk! I said to myself. Let go of the past. Stay in the present. I moved to an open area and started doing my Tai Chi movements. After about ten minutes I heard Skunk’s voice.
“You still doing them Chinese exercises?”
“It’s Tai Chi. It’s an exercise and a martial art.”
“Ha. Martial art. You move too damn slow to fight somebody. What are you going to do, bore your opponent to death?”
I laughed and kept going through the movements: balance, breathing, empty the mind, come to the senses. “Each move has a meaning behind it for defense and health.”
“What’s that move there called?”
“Embrace tiger, return to mountain.”
“What’s that about?”
I kept slowly going through my moves while explaining. “Embracing the tiger is embracing your fear or any difficult situation you’re facing, and return to the mountain means feeling your strength, feeling grounded.”
Skunk watched, tilted his head left and right and then shook it. “I gotta head out Monk.”
I stopped, walked over to him and gave him a long hug. “See you down the road Skunk.”
“Keep the shiny side up Monk.”
I watched as he walked away.
I packed up my gear and loaded it onto the bike. I cleaned the windshield and my helmet visor, grabbed a cup of coffee and the Harley atlas, sat out on the porch and stared at the waterfall across the road. I took a few deep breaths and thanked God for another day.
I jotted some route numbers down on a yellow sticky sheet and stuck it into the see-through part of the little tank pouch.
Hwy 60 to Dahlonega
52 to Ellijay
76 to Dalton
Cut across mountain on old route
136 to LaFayette
136 – 71 Flat Rock, Alabama
117 -72 to Memphis.
Piece of cake. As they would say in Ireland, I was on the pig’s back. What could go wrong?
The sun had burnt the mist away and the sky was now azure and cloudless. I headed north on Highway 60, a mountain forest road filled with tight turns, switchbacks, gentle rolling hills, sweepers, and twisties. Big Red slalomed through the curves gracefully. There’s an art and joy to riding in the mountains. The pleasure of matching your speed and gear to the curve, smooth clutching, downshifting, picking your line, leaning into the curve, trusting that you’ll come out safely on the other side, and when you do then accelerating and upshifting. When you do it right you feel at one with the bike and with the countryside you’re riding through.
I rode through the Chattahoochee National Forest, into Ellijay, across Fort Mountain, into Dalton and over into Alabama. After initially riding in the lush mountainside I now descended into rural areas with closed and decaying stores and passed old clapboard houses and shotgun cottages. Cars for sale were parked out by driveways and the frayed shopping centers were filled with gun shops, hairdressers, and title pawns. A scent of sadness and desperation hung in the air like a mist the sun couldn’t burn through.
But beauty was also always there if you looked for it. I passed blooming magnolias with their creamy blossoms, gnarled live oaks with Resurrection Ferns and Spanish moss. There were tall sugar pines and mimosas with their silky pink blossoms. Purple wildflowers, daisies, and Mexican primroses graced some of the roads. You just had to be willing to see the beautiful and then look. What was that old saying? Some things need to be believed to be seen. A wave of thankfulness swept over me as I rode.
As the afternoon wore on, clouds, some bruised, some gunmetal gray, started filling the sky. Hula girl was still dancing happily but the fuel warning light had come on for the third time that day. Time for another gas station stop. I was about two miles out of town when the rain began bucketing down and sideways at me. The temperature dropped dramatically and a chill shivered through me. I lowered my visor and kept riding. I was half soaked by the time I spotted a station, pulled in and parked under the canopy.
I felt tired and a bit sullen. I took some clothes out of my bag and went in and changed. I looked in the mirror. My hair was stringy and almost down to my shoulders, wet from sweat and rain. I had about a three days growth on my beard. My buddy Joe used to say to me: When you were born you were so ugly your momma had to tie a pork chop around your neck to get the dogs to play with you. I laughed. If I saw myself on the street I’d be tempted to give myself a wide berth. I managed a smile and gave myself a talking to. Loving kindness Monk. Towards yourself first, then others. No matter how you look, no matter what you feel, that’s what you show.
I went inside to the restaurant and ordered some hot coffee to help me thaw and dry out. There was a couple in the booth across the aisle from me. The man reached across the table to hold the woman’s hands but she pulled them back quickly, holding her palms toward him like a warning, and for some reason, I thought of a hurricane. The body language wasn’t looking good.
“But honey,” he said in a pleading, country western tone, “When you gets to be our age you’re gonna have some baggage.”
“Cletus. Cletus darling.” She replied sternly. “Listen to me carefully.”
He leaned his left ear in her direction.
“Cletus, everybody does have some baggage. I’ve been putting up with yours for a long time now. But you ain’t just carrying baggage, you’re carrying garbage. Crap that should have been thrown out years ago.”
He sat upright. “Aw honey, that’s cold.” He cocked his head and put on his best sad face.
She stood up and shook her head. “Goodbye Cletus.” She said and then walked away.
His head bent down over his scrambled eggs, he mumbled a private threnody of loss and put his hands in his hair like he was going to pull it out.
I debated for a few moments and then said: “You all right man?”
He tightened his jaw and nodded grimly. “I ain’t gonna give my heart to no woman ever again.”
“Sorry, buddy,” I replied. “It’s tough.”
“Freaking right it is. Breaking up hurts more when you’re older.” He glanced away. “You’d think that it’d get easier but it don’t.”
“Never gets easier.” Memories of loss and grief were careening all over my insides. The great goblin of grief. It’s the country we all discover from whose visit no traveler ever wants to return. But no matter how far you paddle away every new wave of grief throws you back onto that forlorn shore. “I remember…”
His phone rang and he picked it up, putting up a finger to signal me to wait. “Uh huh. Yep, I can do that. Happy to. Bye.”
He grabbed his coat, slid out of the booth and stood up. A grin broke out over his face. “She needs me to drive her home.” I watched as he hurried out.
It was dusk by the time I reached Memphis. The bumps and potholes of Highway 72 had bounced me around a fair bit and I’d hit a ton of traffic lights heading into the city so I was beat. I drove all the way up to the Mississippi River and parked the bike at Tom Lee Park. As soon as I climbed off I realized how tired I was. I had been in the transcendental state of riding and hadn’t noticed. I took some deep breaths and stretches and walked over to look at the river. My phone rang.
“How’s the ride Monk?”
“Great. Just made it to the Mississippi River a few minutes ago. I’m looking at it. It’s beautiful. How’s Bobbie Lee?” She was his Chinese wife and she taught physics at South East Georgia University. What was the name of that town in China she was from?
“She’s doing great. She’s still working on that Stressinger Apostrophe thing. That idea that our universe is just an apostrophe to the real world.”
“Bless her heart.”
“Hey, how’s uh, that memory thing going?”
“What memory thing?”
“Ha ha! Good joke.”
I really had forgotten what he was talking about but when I realized it I played along. “You set me up for it.”
“I did that.”
“So it’s all right?”
“Yep. Didn’t get lost once today. Sort of disappointing.”
“There’s always tomorrow.” He chuckled. “Look brother, what the hell kind of trouble did you get into in South Carolina and why did you give the troopers my number?”
“You’re still my attorney aren’t you?”
“Hell, you know I am.”
“I’m on my trip. You can handle it.”
“I could if it were straightforward but something’s happened over there you might not know about. You did a video interview right?”
“Yeah, so what’s the problem?”
“Problem is that they lost the DVD.”
“They could just cut another.”
“They could if the hard drive hadn’t somehow been erased.”
“Yeah. The police are okay with it because they have so many eyewitness accounts from troopers that were there and they’re all singing the same tune.”
“But their Internal Affairs guys want to talk with you.”
“Well, they can’t. I’m retired and on holiday.”
“So you gave them my number thinking they might try and contact you?”
“Well, can I give the IA folks your number so they can talk with you? Might clear this thing right up. It was a righteous shooting wasn’t it?”
“I don’t like those words ‘righteous shooting’. Makes it sound like killing a person, even if it was justified, is somehow a moral thing to do when it’s always immoral, maybe necessary at times, but always immoral.”
“You know what I mean! I mean that it was a good shooting.”
“Hold on for a second Joe.” I took a deep breath and thought about things. How much should I tell him? If he knew I had a copy of the interview DVD it could put him in danger. Only Smitty and I know I have a copy and I’m damn sure he’s not going to say anything about it. Joe doesn’t need to know about the DVD but he does need to know what happened. They’ll think he does regardless of whether I tell him or not. I lifted up the phone.
“Joe, one of the cops killed a disarmed man in the act of surrendering. It was cold-blooded murder.”
“Aw damn.” A silence ensued.
“You still there Joe?”
“I’m still here. I’m just thinking. You saw this?”
“And testified to it on the recording?”
“On the tape, did you identify the shooter?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“But you think you know who it was?”
“I didn’t say that. Let’s just leave it at the fact that I didn’t identify anyone on the tape as having pulled the trigger.”
“So that’s why the police don’t care about talking with you but Internal Affairs does.”
“That’s how I see it.”
“Aw hell, Monk. We’re gonna have to just see how this plays out. I won’t give the IA folks or anyone your cell number but you know they could get a subpoena for you to testify.”
“Let them try and serve it. Hell, I don’t even know where I am, least of all where I’m going.”
We said goodbye and I leaned against Big Red and felt a zephyr of coolness blowing off the river. I felt relaxed and happy. I looked up at the sky, the indeterminable stars in our galaxy and wondered: Do we have a soul? If so, where does it come from and where does it go? I’ve always felt I had a soul, some connection with God; a conduit between the eternal and the finite, which contained all the holy lost and found parts of ourselves.
Scanning the sky for a sign of a motel I noticed the Econolodge, the Super 8 and the Hudson. Which one? The guidelines for the road I came up with said that when I couldn’t decide on things I was to pick the choice which came alphabetically earlier.
I pulled into the parking area for the Econolodge and got a room. I parked Big Red and then carried my gear across the long parking lot and to the elevator. I was sweating up a storm under the weight of all my stuff. The elevator door opened and a woman started to walk out, saw me, checked the floor number and stepped back inside.
“Hello, ma’am,” I said. “It’s hot out there.”
“Don’t you have air conditioning?”
“Air conditioning. On your bike.”
I smiled and stared at her thinking she was going to laugh but she didn’t. “No ma’am, I guess I never got around to that.”
“You should check it out.” The elevator stopped and she walked out.
I dumped my stuff in the room, took a shower, got a little map of the downtown area and walked the few blocks into the city center. I got lost a few times, normal enough, but finally made my way to Charley Vergos Rendezvous restaurant for ribs and brisket. Damn, they were good! Then I walked down to Beale Street to listen to the music and check out the bikes since it was biker night. Saw some magnificent old Indians, Harleys, and BMW’s. Then I went back to the motel and fell asleep.