We invent narratives. We tell ourselves stories. "I'm too old." is a common one. Of course it makes sense. I'm older now and many have told me the same story. "This is a young man's adventure. At 48, you're just not a young man anymore."
I know a man named Tom White that I met on the Cannonball Centennial Ride. He was one of the few who rode across one way and then back the other. The last I heard he's 79 and just toured to and from the Mount Rushmore area and does off road events. He's endlessly busting my chops on Facebook. His last comment responding to my post about heat was, "95 isn't hot!".
"But he's an outlier. He must be special."
Probably so. "A much tougher man than I am." I tell myself. But that's the thing about narratives. We would much sooner exclude direct experience, namely Tom, than to consider that maybe the narrative we've adopted might not be the best model for capturing a given experience. Maybe "too old" isn't the best answer. Granted, it does seem to be the case that memory suffers and it takes longer to learn new things. "You just haven't given it enough time yet." might be a better narrative.
Audrey sent me a photo of a present Stacie had given me during the 2010 Alaska trip. It says "Give it time." I learned on that trip to ride the road ahead of me not the road that I have in my head. Somewhere, caught up in toxic narratives, I let myself fall into a narrative fallacy. But now that I see things a little differently the narratives of "too old, too ill adapted, too incapable, too much a failure" I was telling myself have been replaced by "no, the immune system was just acting up there for a while", which of couse, is just another story. Given that all the gawdawful pain I was experiencing has suddenly vanished, it seems to be a model that fits a bit better. That may, however, also be less than accurate. Maybe I got bit by a tick. Maybe I was coming down with a flu. Maybe something else happened. Who knows? There in lies the dilemma. We come up with narratives to make sense of experience but we forget that a narrative is at best an approximation of an experience and oftentimes just plain fantasy.
The Trans Am Trail is also just a narrative. It's story goes "An Epic 5,000-mile Dual-Sport Motorcycle Adventure Across America. Ever dreamed of traveling cross-country on your motorcycle, seeing sights you’d never see from a car, and meeting great people along the way?". Epic. Dual Sport. Meeting people. I ride along pondering pavement which has been causing me some cognitive dissonance because there seems to be entirely too much of it. Then when the gravel comes I ponder surfaces.
This isn't exactly what I would call "dual sport" but for the last few days, with some notable exceptions, this has been what the surfaces have been like. Loose dirt covered by a layer of, what do they call it, pea gravel? Round little evil pebbles and rocks like you would find in a creek bed. Unlike the jagged blue gravel we are all familiar with, this kind provides much less traction as the little buggers tend to roll out from under your tires. WIth car, truck, and tractor traffic, invisible little ruts are formed that the front wheel inevitably finds. Regularly, as the front wheel decides to explore these ruts without my approval the bike shakes violently as the front wheel tries to dig into the dirt under the gravel. Unsettling.
Having been in the South for some days now, one can't help but think about Christianity. There are churches everywhere. I've been told by more than a few people, 'Have a blessed day." I understand that Sam Correro lives in Mississippi. I imagine he's a Christian.
I narrate a story to myself as the bike goes all haywire, my feet come off the pegs and I nearly pitch it yet once again. "I bet he's a Christian. I bet he lives by the Golden Rule. 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'".
What if Sam is a masochist?
There was one day, the day before, where for a few hours the route resembled the kinds of paths I would ride as a much smaller me.
(Don't ask how I took this photo. You don't want to know.) I channeled back to the days where I would escape chaos, on those rare occasions when I could, and spend hours, sometimes all day, riding my little AMF Harley 90 around in the woods trying to find trails of various kinds. I had come up with a classification system. "Destination trail" that went somewhere. "Extinct" ones used to go somewhere that had been long forgotten. And so forth.
I wonder if locals, like Eskimoes do with snow, have countless words to describe conditions of gravel roads. It would seem to make sense since the conditions seem to vary moment to moment. I'm going to have to find a local somewhere ask.
Through Mississippi I encountered more closed roads than I have on any trip to date. It seemed everywhere I turned I would encounter another.
Unlike the first bridge I encountered that was out, there was no way to cross these chasms owing to the presence of countless construction workers. So I would back track and see if I could find a way around which, so far, I've been able to do without much trouble. At one bridge out, I stopped to look and in the distance I saw what appeared to be a familar form. A man wearing a camel back in full off road dirt riding gear was staring back at me equally confused, as if he was looking at something he had not seen before, pausing to make sure what he was seeing was not just an apparition in the mist. Just as it was dawning on me what I might be looking at, the same dawned on the other man, and he tentatively raised his hand to wave just as I did.
"I can't believe it, another TAT rider." I thought as I rode my bike closer, got off, and fumbled getting my helment off and earplugs out. Strangely, this is only awkward on those rare occasions when I have someone to talk to. There were two riders who told me they were riding the TAT in reverse. They had accents which I thought I recognized so I asked them. They were from Sweden.
They said the construction worker had told them there was an easy detour and we quickly agreed to stop and chat when we crossed paths. Shortly thereafter at an intersection we met. We talked for several minutes. It turns out I'm the first rider they've met on this trip. No one else stopped to talk.
"Yea, I've run across two riders but they weren't interested in talking to me." I said.
"Loneliness will do that to you. I don't talk to him either." he said laughing. I've been struck by how rarely I see human beings There are entire days I'll go where there's just no one. Nothing. They talked about some of their experiences. They said there's a water crossing that's too deep somewhere in Arkansas that involves a 45 minute detour. They talked about hail in the Rockies. They also talked about some of the run ins they've had. "We stopped at a big bridge to take some photos when someone walked to up to tell us, 'I just want to let you know the owners just called the cops.'"
"Yea, you have to be careful. Americans are afraid." I replied.
They then told me a story about a farmer who chased them for over 20 minutes because, apparently, they stopped to check a map on the road in the vicinity of his house. They went on to talk about their rides in Norway and Iceland. "I dropped by bike in the water in Iceland." the one guy explained. "I didn't think to check the oil. We got the the bike started but the next day we checked the oil and the crankcase was full of water."
Good to know. They strongly suggested I ride both Iceland and Norway. I didn't get their names but gave them cards. They are on their way to New York via GPSKevin's Shenandoah trail.
Their bikes were kick start.
And then they were gone.
The day progressed and I continued to obsessively take photos of every surface transition but I've decided I've done enough of that and will limit photos to points of interest. After these days of trying to mark gravel sections, I've decided it's just not that useful after all. But I have enough data for a mapping software experiment I want to try once I have enough time.
In Mississippi, at breakfast the previous day, there had been a pleasant waittress, whose name I have, of course, forgotten. She was very kind and I happened to mention how nice people in Mississippi had been to me even when there was nothing for them to gain from it. "Yea, people talk bad about us down here in the South but there are a lot of nice people here. You can't judge all of us from just a few." I asked to take a photo of her for the blog but she said, "Oh no, I don't look good enough. I'll send you a much better photo to use!".
I laughed. Appearances seem important down here. It's not the first time I've encountered this.
The day after meeting the Swedish TAT riders, the weather had turned properly hot. It was the kind of thick humid heat I had been concerned about. It seemed that this day would involve almost all of my concerns, except bears.
The dogs were back in force. Killer would come racing out of no where at random angles. "I want me some fresh Yermo leg. Get 'im!" Fortunately, as is the case with experience but not narratives, so far I've been able to, based on cues I am not conscious of, predict what houses will have angry dogs and which ones won't. There was one German Shepherd that was unbothered by my presence but there was one pit bull looking thing chained to a post that looked like it wanted not just the leg. "There's Yermo! Kill it! Kill! Kill! I need to feel its veins between my teeth!" I suspect if that dog had gotten a hold of me things could have gotten "interesting".
The heat was truly punishing. At one point, I stopped to take a break in some bug infested shade. I checked messages and happened to have one from Megan of Dual Sport Touring. She was responding to an inquiry about parts and a new tank bag. I gave her a call and we chatted for a few moments.
"Looking at the photos I can see just how wet everything is. It must be like 99% humidity." she mentioned.
"I suspect I'm under water and just don't know it yet." I replied as I was already dripping in sweat. She had given me an evaporative neck band and I was wearing a cooling base layer but in this humidity it wasn't doing much. Under way it was a bit better but as I've mentioned often before, I do not do well in the heat. This was the kind of 'headache that starts in your throat and ears and begins to dominate your consciousness" kind of heat. I get shaky. I start having trouble concentrating. I tend to make more mistakes. But I was dutiful. Megan had loaned me a three liter camelback which I had filled with water and I was sipping from it regularly just as I had been instructed. I had added the electrolyte solution Audrey gave me. With all these measures, the heat was bearable but still it would suck to have to do any kind of real work in this punishing steam cooker.
At one point I took a wrong turn on a pleasant section of hardpack. I had had a few incidents of the front wheel being grabbed by invisible ruts in the gravel and unsettling the bike violently so I was being cautious. I came down a hill and didn't notice the surface was about to change from hard pack to deep silt.
The front wheel dug in /hard/. It pitched left.
It pitched right.
It pitched again more violently. There was no way to save it that I was aware of.
"Ethel, this ain't gonna be good."
The front tucked hard and into a mound of dirt, rock, and silt I went hitting it with my shoulder.
I was good. I paused. I left the bike on the ground checking briefly to see if gasoline was pouring out. It wasn't. I waited for the adrenaline to stop. I waited for the pain. I stood there in the punishing sun for several minutes.
The pain never came.
This was exactly the scenario I was concerned about. Punishing heat out in the open under the oppressive yellow orb needing to exert myself.
After several more minutes, I decided to try to lift the bike. I pondered removing as much of the luggage as I could, but first gave it a try without removing anything. It took some serious effort but I was able to get it upright. I tried to pull the bike backwards off the mound only to realize that the rear caliper was locked. With some more serious effort I managed to drag the bike backwards from the mound. After some more pushing back and forth, the caliper freed itself and I was able to roll the bike backwards and put it on it's side stand.
I surveyed the bike thinking that it was going to be damaged. The "bark busters" that Francois had installed for me did their job perfectly and saved the right hand lever.
I suspected the MulePack pannier on the right side was probably damaged but it turned out to be unphased. It seemed the bike had fared the fall pretty well. I did, however, notice the idiot mechanic who installed my rear caliper after replacing the brake line with a stainless steel braided one (me) had not installed it correctly so it was moving around loose. "That explains that clunking sound I really should have investigated." I thought as I told myself a story about incompetence and inattention to details. "This is what happens when I'm left unsupervised."
At this point I was completely dripping in sweat and was in danger of overheating. I wasn't yet seeing spots, so there was stil a little time. To my surprise the bike started right up and I managed to ride to to a shady spot where I sat for some time pondering what to do. I contemplated removing the rear wheel to fix the caliper but decided it was simply too hot. As long as I don't have to sit with the rear brake engaged on some serious incline this shouldn't be an issue. "I'll take care of it at a motel. There's supposed to be rain in the forecast anyway so I can take a day when I have access to air conditioning to cool off." I thought wisely. "Pause. Give it time."
I started the bike and continued on the sadistic gravel roads. What makes these roads particularly unnerving is that they are severely crowned. So not only are you riding on what amounts to a layer of marbles on top of dirt, every time the bike starts to slide it's trying to slide off the road to the right or left into the inevitable deep irrigation ditch that so often border these roads.
But it was not without the occasional interesting thing to see. As has happened so often on this trip, I would come across old abandoned structures from times gone by.
Every now and again, I would come across a swamp.
I crossed the Mississippi river and found myself in Arkansas. The heat was ever present. I stopped at a rest station and checked maps. I was warned of approaching weather so I checked the weather and figured I could ride another fifty or so miles before calling it a day.
The farm roads continued. I came across more of the silt that had tried so valiently to harsh my ride.
"Slip slip slidin' away"
I came across "foreshadowing roads" where clearly there had been some rain in the not too distant past.
"It would likely have really sucked if I happened to have come through here when these tracks were made." I thought pondering the stories of mud and muck that I've been told.
At one point, I saw a storm cell in the distance raining on the trail. As I approach the area of wet, I was relieved to see that it was a normal gravel section. The water seemed to have little effect on traction and I was able to proceed without issue. The next dirt deeply rutted section I came upon had not been touched by the rain so was still solid. I was contemplating how fortunate I had been so far to encounter wet only on gravel sections. I turned a corner and there in front of me was mud to the horizon.
"This is another thing I've been concerned about." I thought as I realized I was going to go ahead and attempt it. The rain had cooled things off a bit so it wasn't quite as oppressively hot but it was still quite warm. I cautiously made my way and was surprised at two things. There was virtually no traction. The rear wheel spun and the front wheel skidded around trying endlessly to go off the crown of the road into the deep deep muck on the side. The second thing that surprised me is how sticky this stuff is. It clumps everywhere and would later turn to the consistency of stone as soon as it dried.
At first it didn't seem too bad. I was able to ride without having to put my feet down. Undaunted I took a photo of my path.
It doesn't look too bad. Unfortunately, I failed to take any photos of what was to come. Within just a few yards the wheels started to sink in a good six to eight inches and there was no keeping the bike upright without putting my feet down. Once i have a chance, I'll post the video I took but it doesn't really capture the experience. Upon application of throttle, the rear would slide to my right, the handle bars locked at the extreme and I would duck walk the thing foot by foot as it slid closer and closer to the really deep muck at the edge of the road. Eventually I did end up there momentarily stuck unable to make forward progress the rear wheel spinning impotently. With a good mount of effort and back and forth motion I was able to get the bike unstuck and managed to get into one of the ruts which provided ever so slightly more traction. Mercifully, the deeply muddy section only lasted a few hundred yards and eventually I found myself on a semi-gravel surface again that I could ride, only to be presented by the next thing that I've been concerned about.
I had been warned to watch out for holes and deep ruts. The bike and my boots were completely caked in mud. I "duck walked" the bike through the water paying careful attention to the surface underneath which I was able to see. To my surprise it wasn't very deep and I was able to make it through easily cleaning bike and boots along the way.
It was starting to get late and I was becoming concerned about approaching storms, having lost a good amount of time in the muck. I rode along starting to think about motels when I came across this little guy.
I stopped to take a distant look at the critter. He (she) was just hanging out on the gravel road baring its clearly visible fangs at me. I didn't recognize the snake. It wasn't a Copperhead or Rattlesnake but I could tell it was most likely venemous. I kept my distance, snapped a photo, and went along my way deciding to leave the little guy alone. My concern with critters in the road is they might get squashed but there's so little traffic this guy likely made it to safety before being flattened. I asked on Facebook and was informed this was a Cottonmouth. We used to call them Water Mocassins back in the day but I had never seen one before.
These days I understand that they are also referred to as "Nope Ropes".
And, of course, it wouldn't be a day on the Trans Am Trail of Detours without:
So this was my cue to call it a day. I checked the GPS and the town of Brinkley, AK, had a Super 8. Given the forecast for rain and the need to effect some bike repairs, I decided to head there.
The size of the mosquitoes in this depressed little down is truly impressive.
I spent the early part of the next day quietly working on the laptop trying to fix some more nasty bugs on the site, notablly the code that generates the screenshots of the maps I post. The most difficult bugs, I find, are the ones that are not in my code but in the code that I use. I did manage to fix a few issues and make some improvements. Slowly the code gets better. It still has a long way to go.
I tried to write. I spent hours at it but it wasn't working so I put that on hold. I asked the hotel manager if they had a hose I could use. They were very accommodating. I rode the bike over and tried to hose off the caked on rock mud from the previous days struggle. I managed to get enough off to be able to clear the rear wheel for removal. I went to start the bike to ride it back to my parking spot. The thing wouldn't start. I had been careful not to get water on the carburetor or other critical components but I must have made an error or maybe, as the story goes, the regulator had spontenously died which I hear is a common failure with these bikes. I started pushing the bike back when a serious rainstorm rolled in. I managed to get back to my room just as a deluge came pouring down.
I was glad not to be out on the "trail".
I tried to write. Still nothing. After over an hour the rain passed leaving behind a soaked landscape.
I checked the bike and tried to start it to no avail. It smelled like it was getting fuel so I pulled out my tools and started taking the bike apart. I wanted to check to make sure it had spark but that entailed taking off the side covers, seat, and tank so that I could get at the plug. Yup, it had spark. So it's not the regulator. I figured maybe I had gotten some water in somewhere but wasn't sure. I went to the gas station and got some starting fluid. I sprayed it into the open air cleaner and cranked the bike. After a number of repeat attempts, it sputtered to life and after a few seconds started running normally. Starting fluid is a cheaters way out, but it seemed to do the trick in this case. I let the bike idle for a good long while and shut it off. I then restarted it without issue.
I then went to reinstall the brake caliper correctly. I took the panniers off when a couple in a big pickup rolled up. The guy said, "You really look like you know what you're doing. That's good."
I said, "Thank you." but was thinking, "Yea, I'm the idiot who installed this thing incorrectly in the first place."
I got everything apart, situated the caliper correctly this time, and put everything back together. The problem is that I don't have a torque wrench and wouldn't want to carry one. It's too big. The bolt holding the axle on has to be tightened pretty seriously tightly and there's no cotter pin to prevent it from coming off. So I did my best approximation based on how much force it took to take off. I have parts coming in to Fort Smith, thanks to Megan, and maybe the shop there will let me use a torque wrench to check it. In the mean time, I'll just keep an eye on it.
The weather forecast for the next several days looks pretty good. I'm not sure how long it takes these mud roads to dry so I'm in no particular hurry to leave the motel but it's slowly coming on time for me to leave and see what I will find Out There today.
People have asked me quite often if this is fun. I'm not experiencing this as "fun". It's not "vacation". But what it is is "motion". Motion every day with an ever present feeling of "leaving" in a way that I don't experience in my sedentary life when I'm encased in the four walls of an empty house having no reason to move. Is it an adventure? I'm not sure. Adventure is such an overused word that it's largely lost any agreed upon meaning. It's not like being an operative trying to stealthily cross North Korea or Iran on some intelligence gathering mission without any support whatsoever and where error means unlimited down side. It's not a Shackleton style expedition. I'm not sure if there are any "real" adventures left.
In some ways, it feels like a ritual hazing or challenge without an external purpose but one that yields some internal benefit. There are so many places where there's a fork in the road. Crowned pea gravel, dust, silt, mud, and muck to the left for dozens of slow miles in punishing heat or a couple of miles of perfectly good pavement to the right both leading to the same location.
I could go right onto the pavement and get there in no time.
But the point Out Here is not to get There. There is no There. There is only motion on a motorcycle carrying a damaged unhealing mind and heart overland. The time in motion seems to be what I need, for the moment at least. You can't run away from your problems, they will chase you where ever you go, but you can take a break from them if you keep moving for a while. "Time, Distance, and Shielding" as Bruce likes to say.
So while it is not "fun" it is what I irrationally feel I need to be doing at this juncture for reasons that are not entirely clear to me and may never be. Any reason I could come up with would just end up being a narrative. I have begun to develop a strained relationship with narratives preferring, at least for the moment, to try to ride the road as if it had no story. And of course, the road knows no story. It is we humans that layer stories, often grossly incorrect stories, over our experiences and end up allowing the narrative to completely color the experience. We do the same with ourselves, telling ourselves stories about why we feel a certain way or things have turned out as they have.
If anything has been developing, it's the sense to try to ride this road "storylessly".
I won't be doing the incessant transition photos in upcoming maps so they should prove to be more interesting. I'm going to have a down day or two in Fort Smith. My thought is to improve how the photos are rendered so they can be viewed fullscreen.