Thursday, November 18, 2010


Part One
Day 1
June 5, 2010. My phone buzzes at 7:30 a.m.  I am in bed. The text message reads, “I have already made 150 miles.“  Before I am awake Warren and Jeremiah (Milwaukee and Chicago) have already put some road behind them.  The Birmingham crew has 400 miles to go today.  If the Midwesterners want to meet us in Arkansas, they have 670 miles, but they have done 150 already.  At that rate they are going to beat us to Arkansas.  
Meeting time for us is 9:00 a.m.  In an unusually responsible manner for my friends, I hear bikes rolling into the driveway at 8:30.  The road is wide and open today.  This is the beginning of what will be a 5000-mile round trip journey to Signal Hill, California and back.   Our group includes 7 young motorcyclists from Alabama and by the end of the day will include two from the midwest.  The only direction we have is the direction that brought us together in the fist place: the desire to travel on two wheels.  We each have our own idea of what kind of bike is ideal to take across country, and none of ours are “touring bikes” per se.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s the people on the bikes that matters here.  The content of their character, if you will.  I know and love several of these guys like kin or better, others I barely know.  None of it matters. 
On to make the diagonal cut from Birmingham to Memphis, corridor X.  60 miles in the first break happens.  A weld snaps on a fender mount, causing a cloud of black smoke and a disheartened rider.   Not that it couldn’t have been fixed, but the operator of this motorcycle, Chauncey, views this as a bad omen.  Soon, Big Joe and a truck are on the way from Birmingham.  We are off for Memphis.  After one sketchy gas stop in Memphis and the I 55 bridge over the Mighty Mississippi River we are eating fast food-style BBQ in Arkansas.  You know, the kind where the restaurant resembles a Dairy Queen more than a backwoods shack, and the beans and slaw come in tiny styrofoam bowels with lids.  
Taichi’s SR500 is leaking an absurd amount of oil.   He and Jonathan (known to most of his friends as J. Body) went about creating a barrier between his engine and back wheel so that his tread doesn’t become dangerously slippery.  Strangers in a truck offer us a bundle of heavy zip ties and a piece of plastic fender to rig.   They weren’t used but this was one of the many kind gestures that we would receive on the road. 
In the Ozark Mountains we find the highway that will take us to camp.  We sit at the intersection only forty-five minutes before Warren and Jeremiah roll up.   Not bad timing considering they rode a full 350 miles more than us today. 
Up the mountain we go.  The final leg of today’s ride takes us into the cool air and the darkness, up a twisted mountain road.  Then it repels us down the other side of the mountain on a grated dirt road (sometimes referred to as a washboard road).   Let the fishtails commence.  Don’t use your front brake if you have one.  Not too difficult for some of us with suspension but for the others it may have been a bit more slippery.  It didn’t fowl anyone’s mood anyway.   We make it to camp.  Immediately a ranger rolls up to remind us that this is a family camping area, we are parked wrong, and we need to be quiet, to which  Jerimiah replies in his usual politeness, “Where is the closest place to get beer?”
Actually, at this point I have just met Jerimiah, but he proves to be an unstoppable freight train of energy and humor for the remainder of the trip, even when his engine blows up.  A true Hayduke who reminds you that taking chances is one of the benefits of living, Jerimiah will be unyielding for the remainder of the adventure.   The park ranger answered his question after some hesitation.  The three of us that thought the graded dirt road was fun went for beer.  
Day 2

We wake up to the sound of the boy scout troop that was camped five feet from us, packing and leaving.  Admittedly, we knew they were next to us because the park ranger had said it in passing the night before.   We did not, however, realize that they were only a couple of yards away.  By the noise they made striking camp and heading  out onto the trail, they may not have had the best night’s sleep.  Anyhow, I wasn’t worried that we kept them up, mostly because I know that some of them will be like us in 10 to 15 years.  We already share a common interest in nature, campfires and pocket knives.  All that’s left is for them to begin asking questions that their scout troupe can’t answer to their satisfaction.  Disillusionment is soon to follow.   Not long after that, perhaps a motorcycle and a life in pursuit of the most ambiguous answers.  
The whole point in going to this particular camp was the swimming hole.  Built by CCC workers under Roosevelt in the Depression, there is a dam that blocks off a side stream that meets the main river.  The dam creates a cascade and a deep blue hole, walled on one side by a couple of rock faces which are good for jumping.    In general I am not the biggest fan of dams but I do find them interesting as engineering specimens.   This one is of the backwoods stone and mortar variety and provides the opportunity for 5 or 6 grown men (a liberal description at best) to act like they adolescents from a Mark Twain novel.
After some time at the swimming hole we pack, then hit the road.  Not 7 miles out, Warren runs out of gas.  Everyone from Warren to the back of the group stops to break out the spare fuel cans.  When they catch up, they arrive to us fixing Taichi’s bike after a low speed spill in a tight corner.  I think part of a sleeping bag strap tied to his front fender got caught in his front wheel and it yanked his steering.  He fouled up his leg a bit and might have managed a slight face plant from the looks of his eyebrow.  
Next was lunch at the country store where they sold almost everything including gas.  We eat some delicious hamburgers and catfish sandwiches at tables that looked more like they are set up for fellowship dinner than for eating in a convenience store. What a store.  I find some replacement tools, after realizing that I have left my tool bag in my basement at home, for the first time in 5 trips across country.  J. Body finds a can of “fish assholes”, apparently a legitimate form a canned food, for our campfire eating pleasure later.  We stay at this store a while acting like kids in a candy store as each treasure is dug out of each dark corner.  We could have stayed there for days but the Great Plains beckoned.  
  There is a punching bag game at Stoney B’s bar in Independence Kansas.  Before even having his first beer Jerimiah scores the highest of the night.  The score is challenged however, by a guy resembling a skinny John Cougar Melloncamp.  The gentleman dawned a supreme angry face for his girlfriend and challenged the punching bag to a death match, topping Jerimiah’s score.  Taichi gave it the old college try with a roundhouse kick, officially declaring himself to be the only Asian person in a 100 mile radius.  Duane played too, but I think most of us agreed that it is more entertaining to watch Duane Judo fight with bottled water and his own garments as he has already begun to do as a daily routine.  More about Duane later.  Its going to take some time and deep reflection to describe him.  
 The kind locals of Independence point us to a nice camping spot on a lake.   Meantime, Warren disappears to the parking lot to buy a local’s beer collection.  This is important because we were only at Stoney B’s because we could’t find any stores that could sell beer on a Sunday night.   The helpful folks of Independence, Kansas add to what will be a repeating theme of helpful people we meet on this excursion.  These folks can be added to a growing list from my past experiences on the road.  I am beginning to believe that there is a pattern.  Nice strangers.  Once again into the cool night air for a camp sight.  These last couple of miles of the day feel the most rewarding.   
Having too much fun and loving our campsite, we stay up till the wee hours.  Only a couple hours after falling asleep we awake to violent winds that remind me of  the tornado storms of my West Texas boyhood.  The sky is barely lit with dawn and an evil storm is imminent.   I barely get a look at the face of God in the sky before    Warren throws a tarp over  Taichi and myself and pegs it too the ground to keep it from getting hauled away with the wind.  The bottom falls out of the storm and we sleep it out.   Thanks Warren.  Again, the content of the character of the people that I am with on this journey is unparalleled. 
Day 3
Tiachi’s bike won’t start. It was hard enough to start in the first place.  A true 10 to 15 kick bike.  We pull the spark plug to check for ignition spark .  Spark proves  good at this point.   My memory is vague but I am sure we must have drained the carb, as it may have taken on water (didn’t we!?).   Our legs are kicked out as we have been taking turns.   Warren and Jerimiah practice the art of pegging with Tiachi’s bike in a parking lot.   Pegging is pushing one motorcycle with your left foot on the passenger foot peg or whatever you can find while operating a separate motorcycle for pushing force.  Those of us from Alabama had never seen this before because we have hills readily available to roll start vehicles with.  Not so in the Midwest or the Great Plains.  The second check for sparks tells us that we have lost spark.  Maybe some wizard of electronic ignitions can tell me what happened in between? Maybe my theory is totally off.  We  work until 4 or 5 p.m.  Still no spark.  Time for most of the group to make miles.  They will make almost three hundred miles more across the plains of Kansas.  From what I hear, they dodged dear, Jerimiah tried to ride a ten years olds bicycle and got told no and then they got robbed on the price of a campsite called “Gun Smoke”.   Sounds like a usual Haints adventure. I wasn’t there because I stayed behind with Taichi.  
 Taichi and I have known each other for about eight months. In this time we spent one or two nights a week working on his motorbike it until it was what he wanted.  In that time he learned how to solder and use an angle grinder. In turn I tried to understand Japanese mannerisms.  We had many late night discussions through a translation barrier that actually proved to deepen the conversation, because you have to think more about what the other is trying to say.   He also helped me to prepare for the culture shock I would deal with when I moved to Japan a month after this adventure.
Taichi made curried noodles over a campfire that night while I rewired his bike to battery (it was battery-less, the capacitor may be the culprit of the ignition failure).   Still no spark… coil ohms out good, his electronic ignition may be toast.  Does anyone in Independence Kansas have CDI ignition for a 1980 sr500?  Nope. Didn’t think so.  Thanks for using the technology at your disposal to look though, Warren.  I am upset at the idea  of leaving my friend behind.   I eventually accept that he road will take Taichi a different direction.
Day 4
Goodbye Taichi:  It should be noted at this point that this is the first time for our friend Taichi to go on a motorcycle trip of any kind.   Taichi is a native of Tokyo, and possibly the best sushi chef in the Southeast U.S.  He dreamed of building a cafĂ© racer out of a 1980 Yamaha SR500.  When he met us he added the desire to ride the bike to Long Beach, CA to his dream.  Unfortunately the bike was only finished a week and a half prior to the run.  Regardless of troubles that were apparent with the bike before, Taichi’s determination and the blessing of the road got him 700 miles out.  Not bad for your first motorcycle trip.  He didn’t seem particularly sad when we parted ways.   He said he was thinking about checking out some other American cities.  We loaded him and his bike onto a tow truck, he put it in storage and the tow man gave him a ride to the Greyhound station, by which time I was 150 miles towards Colorado. 
Day 5
When I woke up in the one of those cheap motels from the golden age of motor tourism that I had found at midnight the night before, I had a message from Taichi.  He is passing through De Moines on his way to Chicago.  I was back on the road at six.  Dawn is my favorite time to get on the road, though it doesn’t happen often.  It’s a bit cold and the light exaggerates the beauty of your surroundings, that is, if you are not blinded by fog.  The moisture in the air makes everything smell intense, like a freshly  cut field or a wood stove being stoked.  You can smell it for miles.

I met the group at their camp 4 hours later.  They where just getting packed and drinking coffee around a recently extinguished campfire.  This is becoming the normal wake up routine.  Late nights, late mornings, late departures.  One thing you learn by traveling in a group of any size is that your limitations are not individual.  Traveling together, you begin to homogenize into the personalities and habits of the others for the time being.  Its part of the joy of having company.  It’s not going to be your own personal schedule, but the collective motivation that drive your onward movement.  So,  onward into the great state of Colorado.  

Monday, November 8, 2010