I checked into a nice motel in Maggie Valley, with screen doors and rocking chairs out front. The owners were busy with other tasks and the interaction was brief and all business. Not like my earlier reaction with Dale that I wrote about in part one. I couldn’t get him out of my mind especially the gratitude he expressed for simply being alive. Despite being troubled by the relentless ghosts of his PTSD, the loss of his friends and marriage, he was still thankful, still felt blessed. He reminded me of the woman Nancy I wrote about in my Day 15 blog from Deadwood from South Dakota. 80 years old and homeless, trusting God and feeling blessed.
So anyway, it got me thinking a lot about gratitude. I decided to go get a drink a Boojum Brewery in Waynesville, North Carolina and explore this idea of gratitude. On the way there I nearly dropped the bike. It was my stupid mistake in mishandling the controls on a hill, while holding my phone in my right hand and being in neutral. The bike kept slipping back and I struggled to keep her upright. I finally got her in gear and headed out. I kept thinking: Don’t relax your guard when you’re on the home stretch. One of my best buddies had a terrible accident after a long ride when he was just pulling into the driveway of where he was staying. You have to be vigilant on a motorcycle.
Fortunately, the beer at Boojum was terrific. I decided to do an experiment on gratitude. While sitting at the bar I got to talking with some of the others there. After sharing and joking around I began to ask each one what they were grateful for. The bartender had moved here from Statesboro, Georgia to work on a graduate degree in sustainability. He was grateful for the program, his girlfriend and that he got to look at that mountain behind us as he worked. (We were on the outside deck). Another guy, from Texas, who told me he had recently turned 60 years old, tinted windows for a living. He was grateful for the drumming circles he played in and the good women he had known. An attractive middle-age nurse beside me told me that she was grateful that she can make everyone feel better. I bet she was probably a very good nurse but she didn’t seem too interested in me and that wasn’t making me feel better! Her mother, on the other side of her, added that her daughter had been nurse of the year. She was thankful for her children. She and her daughter were thinking of heading to the Elk Club that evening for karaoke. They didn’t invite me to come and, of course, that didn’t make me feel better either. Someone surprised me and asked me what I was thankful for. I said the first thing that came into my mind, which was “my children”. But I have so much more. I try and give thanks for things each day. It puts me in a better mood. What are you thankful for?
I didn’t stay long at Boojum and rode back to the motel where I sat and rocked in one of the rocking chairs, smoked a cigar and did a lot of thinking.
Today was a fun day, for the most part. My friend Marge followed me over to the Harley dealer where I showed the leak. Harley dealers always try to squeeze in riders who are in transit and these guys did as well. Marge and I explored the store and she found a nice Harley shirt that I bought for her to thank her for all her help. Now she’ll be ready to hang out at the biker bars! After getting my bike up on the rack the technician showed me where he thought it was leaking from. The infamous shifter shaft seal! (A part I had had fixed twice before). Apparently, it wasn’t a big leak as all the fluids were normal. I showed him another leak which I was worried about and it looked like it was coming from the primary cover. He said: “I’ll just change the gasket.” And he did so in about one minute. They offered to wash her and in about 15 minutes I was back on the road. The bill was about 56 bucks. Thank you Harley Davidson of Knoxville, Clinton Highway!
Marge then took me over to the Great Smokey Mountains and showed me some of her favorite places. We walked a little by a stream, inhaled the fresh air and the glorious scent of the fir trees. We watched fly fishermen plying the waters. The beauty of the straight-line back and forth casting.
We drove back to Knoxville and ate at an excellent Thai restaurant. Then it was back to her house for more catching up on the weird things that had happened to us since we’d last met. Tomorrow, Maggie Valley.
The last two days I have stuck to the back roads. Highway 47 and then 150. It has been good for my soul to be on the old blue highways. Rusty red barns, grain silos, water towers with the names of the towns on them, red wing blackbirds, small towns with courthouses in the center square, rich, black agricultural fields – first no seedlings, then small plants, then larger growth the farther I headed south. My old pappy used to say: “knee high by the fourth of July” and at the rate we’re going our corn should have no problems reaching that goal.
I’ve been much more relaxed the last two days through just letting go, assuming that wherever I am is the right place for me to be. Find the road you think is the right one and just go with it. And hold onto your hat. What more can you do after you pray and open yourself, but trust? The poet Rilke once said:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Embrace the uncertainty.
In our life we can have periods of long stability and happiness and then, all of a sudden, something happens and we’re thrown off balance. Nothing’s permanent. Another Rilke quote comes to mind:
“Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divinings, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.”
Respect the silence. Embrace each moment and ride safely my friends.
I felt really fatigued when I left La Crosse yesterday. Was it the late, last night talking with the man who was marrying the woman from Columbia he met on the Internet? Was it the fact that I had been on the road for 19 days? Was it a sense of interstate induced alienation that I was feeling? Had Divine Providence/ the Tao abandoned me? Regardless, I wasn’t sure which way to go. No inclinations – no funny feelings – no strange notions – no omens. I just felt sure I didn’t want to ride the roads around Chicago. Too bumpy and too chaotic. But where to head? East? South? I rode south just to get away from routes that would lead to Chicago, but I stopped a lot. About every 50 miles. Doughnut. Slice of Pizza. Ice cream. (That ice cream was really good!) When I stopped the last time, I was toying with just heading farther south and trying to get maybe another 100 miles under my belt. But as I relaxed (with that really excellent ice cream!) I realized that my problem was that I was not trusting the ride, the road, Divine Providence. And I needed to relax, let go and just trust. To not push the river. I booked a room at a nearby motel. And like other divinely inspired travelers I washed clothes, watched TV and went to sleep.
I stopped at McDonalds to get a drink. Only a dollar and you get free internet access. Two kids were sitting outside; one was jumping around excitedly. While I was taking my helmet off I watched as he threw some stones at a store window. He was about four years old. I walked over to him and he said: “When I called you old did that hurt your feelings?”
I laughed and said ‘no’ and added ‘don’t throw the stones’.
His sister, who looked around nine said: “I told him that people don’t like to be called ‘old’.”
I said I didn’t mind. “Where are your parents?”
“Inside. It was too cold for me.” Then she smiled: “We’re going camping in 3 days and we get to take our two dogs and they’re wild!”
I went inside thinking: Great place to leave your kids. At the exit from the drive through.
The roads entering Minnesota were bumpy for miles. It reminded me of the time I was riding on Route 66 near El Reno and was bounced around on the old Portland cement concrete from the 1930’s. Neither were much fun.
Minnesota and Wisconsin were filled with green agricultural fields, wind farms and sadly, dead deer by the side of the road. In South Dakota and Montana I had seen hundreds of them in fields but none on the road.
Memories of Minnesota and Wisconsin came flooding back. I had lived for two years in Fargo/Moorhead while teaching at Concordia College. Then I spent another four years in Fond du Lac, teaching at another College, Marian. Good times, the best being when my daughter Hannah was born.
I stayed at Welch’s motel in La Crosse, Wisconsin for 39$ plus tax. The reception area had a sculpture and a poem about guardian angels. A few days back I had ridden past a Guardian Angel Catholic Church in Power, Montana. I hope and pray they’re riding with me.
In La Crosse I went to Del’s Bar and the bartender, a woman named Sammy, told me to try a New Glarus Spotted Cow beer. I did and it was delicious. Then I found out that all the New Glarus beers are only available in Wisconsin. Which reminds me, why is it okay for the plural of beer to be beers when the plural of deer isn’t allowed to be deers?
I spent most of the evening listening to a poor young man’s story of trying to find love. He had been living with a woman for years, helped raise her children and the woman suddenly had an aneurysm and died. He was nearly crying as he told me how he had to fight for custody for the children from the father who had abandoned them and how hard it was being a single parent. Then his face transformed and he was smiling as he told me about how, through the internet, he had met a woman from Columbia. They had seen each other a number of times and he had traveled to her country and met her family. And now they were to be married! He was so excited.
Who knows where love is hiding? Whether you have to go looking for it or whether it just shows up at your door. I met my ex-wife, who was from Ireland, while I was walking down the street in Hong Kong, where I was teaching one summer. Love at first sight for me but she took a lot of convincing.
Love comes and goes. It’s a long ride. Ride it safely,
I headed south on Hwy 240 and got to the Badlands where a cute park ranger took my cash. I was about to ask her if there was a Mr. Park Ranger but I’m too old for that old rigmarole. Besides, look at me.
Here’s a photo of one area in the park.
The park has “sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires blended with the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States.” (Wikipedia). The beauty of the layered colors got to me – tan, orange, limestone colored, the immensity of the place, as well as the silence of the wind blowing across the prairie. I saw grazing buffalo, vigilant prairie dogs and wandering bighorn sheep.
Leaving the park I caught up with scenic highway 44, which was scenic and also bumpy, offering what was tantamount to free Heimlich maneuvers every ten yards. I drove back up to I 90 and found it much smoother. I rode it until I needed gas and after crossing the wide beautiful Missouri river I exited at the town of Chamberlain. While there, I went, of course, to McDonalds. While I was having a coffee, I heard a guy playing the flute and walked over to him. He stopped and handed me the flute. He told me he had made it, described its features and pointed to the inlaid crushed turquoise. “That’s what took me the most time. It’s a pentatonic scale in the key of F.” He told me that his grandfather taught him how to make them but that his children didn’t want to learn. I thanked him for letting me see it and that it was beautiful. I could tell he was proud of it. He should be. I drifted back to the table and listened more to the dulcet, warbling tones of his flute. The sound of the Native American flute is so soothing and ethereal.
I had only 136 miles to go to Sioux Falls and a full tank of gas. The speed limit was 80 and I cruised at that speed, forgetting how much gas Big Red drank at high speeds. At about 115 miles I realized I wasn’t going to make it. I cut my speed to 75 and started looking for gas. No Luck. My warning light came on. Then I went down to 70mph and then 65. Still no gas. Finally, after about five more miles I spotted a sign and coasted down the long exit. I managed to get her over to the nearest station without her conking out. I filled her up and then asked the clerk about the bar across the street – Big J’s Roadhouse. She said the food was very good. So Big Red and I moseyed on over and got some fries and a nice Bell’s lager. The waitress kept calling me “sweetheart”. I don’t mind that. In Georgia I get called ‘honey’, ‘darling’, and ‘sugar’. I like it. Last night, the male bartender kept calling me ‘Captain’ in what I assume was a response to my rugged and commanding bearing. Or maybe he was thinking of Captain Crunch?
I had a wonderful breakfast at the 1899 Inn and then rode down to Starbucks for some coffee and to write my blog. I kept looking for Nancy (see yesterday’s blog) but I didn’t spot her anywhere. As I sipped on my coffee and wrote, I noticed the sky was darkening. I checked the radar on my phone and it showed a big storm coming. I looked out the window again and the rain started pouring. Since I had nowhere to go and no time to be there I decided to wait it out. I keep realizing things while I’m on this trip. I was thinking about how I was tempted to say that it was “a bad day”, but where does that idea come from? It means I must have a mental construct of what a good day is and a bad one. Once again, where does that come from? Why do I label one day as good and another as bad? Aren’t all days equally beautiful if you don’t have any expectations? So much stress comes from expectations. We believe that things must be a certain way and get upset when they’re not. There’s certainly something beautiful in watching and feeling a thunderstorm, if we look and just accept things as they are. The temperature began dropping as well. The day before it was in the 90’s and today it had dropped to the low 60’s.
After 2 hours the rain cleared and I thought I’d head out. With it being colder I decided to put on my leather jacket. The only problem was that the jacket was strapped on the bike and the outside of the jacket was soaked. It was as heavy as an anchor. I put it on anyway and then put my rain jacket on top. I didn’t get far before the rain came back, puddling the road and accompanied by a wind that looked, and felt, like it was lost and in a hurry to get somewhere. This resulted in me being blown around on the interstate, and the wind trying to steal my helmet again. What’s so special about my helmet that it’s dead set on yanking it off?
I managed to ride about 98 miles and got off at Wall, South Dakota, home of the famous Wall Drug Store. I decided to find a place there. The lowest price was a Super 8. I hunkered down there, except for a brief spell at Wall Drug and the Badlands Grill and Saloon. In its own way, it was a beautiful day.
I started the morning grabbing a McDonalds takeaway and hurrying down to the Harley Davidson (HD) dealer to get an oil change. I try and change the oil about every 3-5,000 miles. The folks there were very friendly, had no one waiting, and I was out within an hour. 96 Bucks ($)! But that’s typical. Everyone knows that HD stands for ‘hundred dollars’ because you’ll spend at least that every time you walk into a Harley shop.
I continued on I-80 until I reached the town of Wells and decided to head north on Highway 93 toward Idaho. Last time I was in Idaho was in 1981. I had been staying with friends in Seattle and decided to hop a train and hitchhike home. I remember going through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. But that’s a story for another time.
Today, I had beautiful blue skies and more of the same terrain all the way to Wells. When I made it to Idaho the first thing I noticed was how flat it was. Almost like Kansas. Next, I noticed a succession of folks being stopped by Idaho state police. Then the land grew more fertile and verdant, with the long arm irrigation systems spraying water into the air. Then there were waterways and rivers, canyons.
I don’t try and conjure it up (that would be cheating) but always within a few short miles on the bike out in the country, a feeling of thankfulness and gratitude overcomes me. I thank God that I am alive, that I have this motorcycle, time and money and that I’m healthy enough for the ride. Then I thank God for family and friends, and pray for them, and their individual struggles. The list gets long, but hey, I’ve got a lot of time. Then I return to just looking out at the scenery as it goes past, and I find myself smiling. Even when times are tough, there is so much to be thankful for. And thank you for reading this and following along on my journey.
Surprise winds were the main thing that bothered me yesterday. You’ll be riding along, admiring the blue sky, watching the cloud shadows cover the land when – Wham! – a gust comes out of nowhere and blows you half way across the road. It pays to ride in the middle.
It was also a bit chillier in the afternoon than I expected. I like to ride with as little on as possible. Okay, let me rephrase that. I always ride with my special, thick riding trousers but I change what I wear on my chest. Today, I had a Harley tee shirt on, a long sleeve shirt over that, a leather vest and my thick gauntlet gloves. But still I found myself looking down the interstate to the places where the cloud shadows weren’t covering the road. This feeling of coldness was self-inflicted. I just didn’t want to stop for the final 120 miles to put my leather jacket on. This morning as I write it’s in the mid 30’s so I’ll be wearing the jacket today.
The terrain yesterday remained the same from my earlier report for the rest of the ride. Except, for a grass with a plum color to it that reminded me of the heather I’d seen on the mountains and grasslands in Ireland.
I had planned to head north when I got to Winnemucca but something told me to just keep going down I 80. So I did. Though I didn’t know where I was going, I was making good time. The speed limit was 80 mph and my trusty 2004 Harley Road King Classic Road beautifully. I was going to say ‘swimmingly’ but does anyone say that anymore?
I should mention a few things about my bike. If you don’t like bike talk then you might want to look away now. But come back and I’ll wrap this entry up!
2004 Harley Road King Classic FLHRCI. It’s Lava red and decked out in chrome.
Naked, just out of the shower, it weighs 710 pounds. (Which is why you never want to drop it! Nor see it naked, in a shower.)
The basic specs are:
• Engine Type: Four-stroke, 88 ci, 1442 cc, air-cooled, V-Twin
• Bore and Stroke: 3.75 inches x 4 inches
• Compression ratio: 8.9:1
• Valve Train: OHV, four valves, two valves per cylinder
• Induction: Fuel injected
• Ignition: Electric
• Transmission: Five-speed manual; Standard heel-toe shifter
• Final Drive: Belt
• Fuel Capacity: 5 gallons
• Estimated Fuel Economy: 37/46 mpg city/highway, which has been pretty accurate.
• Brakes (Front): 11.5 in. (292 mm) dual front disc
• Brakes (Rear): 11.5 in. (292 mm) disc
Chrome fender and seat emblems
Wire laced wheels
Vibration-isolated, Black and Chrome Twin Cam 88® Engine
Air-adjustable rear touring suspension
Electronic cruise control
Finally, it has Screemin Eagle Stage 1, 2 and 3 upgrades resulting in:
Custom ported air intake, a Power Commander custom tuned on a dyno, a geared oil – pump not one that’s chain driven, non-warping lifter rods, pistons re-ringed and polished, piston pots polished, all cables changed out to stainless outers, high performance cam culminating with @90 HP at the rear wheel.
She currently has over 95, 000 miles (152500 km) on her.
To me she’s just Big Red.
So I made it to a Super 8 in Elko and got a room for $40. I had a chat with my daughter on the phone and then went to check out the night life. I had a beer at Good Time Charlie’s which was clearly very much a biker bar.
I gathered this information astutely and stealthily when a woman at the table near me said: “This place is usually filled with bikers but they’re all over in Winnemucca at the rally.” It was a nice dive with friendly folks.
Then I went down a few blocks to the Stray Dog Pub and enjoyed a beer there. I could have gone to one of the many casinos but I’m not a casino sort of guy.
I found out there’s a Harley dealer in town and I thought I’d stop by this morning and see if they could squeeze in an oil change for Big Red before we head off to…well, wherever we’re going.
I was filled with sadness heading out this morning. My eyes were burning. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my kids, Colin and Hannah, and Hannah’s husband Bill. They live so far away. I’d already been feeling sad what with the recent bomb in Manchester and the sudden death of a friend back home. But it’s time to leave.
This is the part of my journey that I’m leaving up to divine providence, so I have no destination in mind. I hope to be guided in my choice of direction by clear omens, hunches and uncertain feelings of certainty. However, it’s one thing to trust that the old signs and portents will appear and it’s another to find oneself stuck at an intersection in the middle of Anywhere, USA and having no clear inclination, or even funny feeling as to which way to go.
In one of my novels, Hope Bats Last, I address just such a possibility and come up with this guidance for the protagonist:
Always head away from bad weather, unless some omen tells me otherwise. When I don’t know which way to go, go left and then right the next time, and then left… If I must choose between two towns and can’t, choose the one that starts with the earliest letter in the alphabet. Trust the journey.
I’ve added a few since:
Don’t book any motels in advance because you don’t know where you’re going.
When you have a choice of motels and feel no preference, choose the one with a number in its name. If there’s more that one, pick the motel with the highest number. If there are no numbers pick the one whose name comes first alphabetically.
Talk to anyone who wants to talk with you for as long as they want to talk.
Don’t avoid homeless people; they could be Elijah the prophet in disguise.
If someone mentions a place I should visit, I must go there.
If I have a funny feeling about something, I should listen to it.
What can go wrong?