I am currently in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Megan, of Dual Sport Touring, shipped a new tank bag and rollchart holder to a Quality Inn here and found me a Suzuki dealer not far away where she had a new heat shield for my exhaust delivered. I made better time than expected and arrived, soaking wet and completely wiped out, Sunday afternoon (Day 19, TAT Day 11).
The Suzuki dealer didn't open until Tuesday so I had some down time. Sunday's ride was by far the most difficult and challenging of the trip so far so it was good to have a rest.
I spent Monday fixing a few more bugs in the software. Slowly, it's coming together. I fear it'll never become the thing I envision in my head, and if it ever does it'll likely be way too late, but hopefully before too long it'll be something useful that some people will enjoy using. Interestingly, it's often easier for me to write software than it is to write these posts.
On Tuesday, I rode over to the local Suzuki dealer, Wheeler Power Sports, here in Fort Smith. The poor long suffering DR650 was due for an oil change. I was going to do it myself but it was quite hot outside and I thought while I'm at the dealer I might as well see if they could accommodate a quick oil change. They have an 'express lane' service option for simple maintenance. The service writer, I have already forgotten his name, WIllie I think, was super helpful. They had a tech working on my bike shortly after I arrived. I went into the store to see if my parts had come in. While the service department was quick, attentive, and motivated things on the parts side of the house moved at, what shall I call it, an unhurried pace. The guy beind the parts counter was a morbidly obese man with a huge round bloated face who looked like he would be at home in a science fiction movie. He seemed to me to be in pain. Beyond his mass, there seemed to be this existential weight that followed him around. I am a bit familiar with that feeling.
In the past, I have often been quite judgemental about people like him who "let themselves go". I would invent narratives that would render reasons that made sense to me and I would use them to model my world and create a safe distance between me and their outcomes. "I would never let myself go like that." I used to tell myself.
"lazy". "undisciplined". "unproductive".
The last couple of years have fundamentally changed me and the way I see the world is radically different now, largely thanks to three women, two of them Canadian.
I have learned to distrust the toxic narratives that bounce around in my mind.
I read a book called "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma". It has strongly influened my thinking.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma: 9780143127741: Medicine & Health Science Books @ Amazon.com
There is such a stigma to "mental illness" as if it were somehow separate and distinct from other illnesses. We are slowly learning that the systems in the body are fundamentally linked. There's even strong evidence that gut bacteria imbalances correlate with psychiatric conditions.
I have been challenging myself to find honest ways to be more compassionate of other people in their own contexts instead of trying to evaluate them from mine. I now try to view other human being facing some condition, such as morbid obesity or homelessness, without a narrative. Instead of harsh judgement where I try to protect myself with the story "that could never happen to me", I ask myself the difficult question, "What would have had to have happened to me for me to be in the same situation as this other human being?" I always find plausible reasons how my life could have followed a path that would have ended in the results of anyone I've encountered. Sometimes it involves not having met some crucial person along the way who irrevocably altered my trajectory in life. "What if I never met Duncan or Bruce? What if I had never met Audrey? What if Brooklyn and Rebecca had never crossed my path? " Other times, the invented narrative involves traumatic brain injury or infection. In the US, with the exception of the wealthy, most of us are one serious illness or injury away from homelessness. If I lost use of my eyes or my hands, I would soon be homeless as there would be no way for me to earn an income or manage my life.
I guess it's this knowledge that motivates me to step up and help when I see people I care about facing Big Problems. So many of us are so alone and it's so rare for someone to be there when things are truly difficult for the long term. It's so easy to fall in this world, especially if you have no one to watch out for you. I do try to help when I can.
But having these new narratives, knowing full well that there is such a slender thread that separates my situation from the ones I see, does lead to a certain feeling of vulnerability. It does, however, also engender more compassion in me because I understand deep to my core I could easily have been them.
It's not that I felt sorry for the huge man behind the parts counter. It was more just a feeling of sadness. "Mitleid." I suspect there's pain there and I wonder if no one has ever bothered to notice.
I've "let myself go" as well over the last two years. I've put on weight. I no longer have a washboard stomatch and my arms are much smaller than they used to be. My resting heart rate is much higher and my endurance much lower. But this trip is changing that.
My parts had not arrived. The service writer came out to tell me I had adjusted my chain incorrectly. The chain had apparently worn unevenly and I adjusted it at one of the loose spots instead of measuring the tightest spot.
Oops. "Experience is directly proprotional to equipment ruined and mistakes made."
I had a question for the tech as he was looking over my bike after having taken a quick test ride. He told me that he had just discovered that my exhaust had cracked badly at the mount right behind a frame member. In order to see it, you had to lie down on the ground and look up from under the bike. The point where it mounted was completely broken free but unless you pushed on the thing it just looked like a hairline crack.
I felt really stupid. "Details". I had thought the heat on my right boot was coming from the lack of heat shield but it was, in fact, coming from a broken exhaust.
It really is questionable letting me out of the house unsupervised. Then again, leaving me alone in the house unsupervised might not be such a good idea either.
There's no riding it the way it is. My thought was that since I'm at a dealer and they seem to know what they are doing I should have it "fixed right". Things are going to get sparse heading West from here. They pulled off the exhaust. The mount point was completely separated. (On the bike, the mount point obscured how much the hole was.)
Welding it would be an option but I have had very poor outcomes with welded exhausts. Once they break they tend to break again. A replacement exhaust needed to be found.
Stock Suzuki exhausts are ridiculously expensive so after some searching they found an aftermarket exhaust they thought they could get overnighted. Hopefully, this will be a somewhat quieter exhaust than the previous one. I suspect the exhaust failed when I got pushed into the deep water in that one errant water crossing.
It's now Wednesday shortly after noon and I'm waiting to hear from the dealer.
Five days ago, Friday, I had taken a rest day because of extreme weather. I did manage, during a break in the storm, do some needed work on the bike.
It rained extremely heavily that afternoon. I spent the next morning in no hurry to leave pondering what kind of muck I might encounter out on the "trails". Even at 11AM there was still quite a bit of standing water.
I rode back down to the closed bridge where I had stopped two days before. Applying all of my intellect to the problem and taking extra time because I know I have been error prone on this trip, I carefully reviewed the GPS, the paper maps, and Google Maps and noticed that the closest bridge across this river happened to be painfully close to the motel I had just left 20 miles ago.
So I headed back North, found the bridge in question and obsessively decided I would go around to the other side of the closed bridge to take a photo. I followed the GPS and noted that the track and the road diverged. To my surprise and embarrassment, I ended up on a brand new bridge a mile past which I found myself in the exact spot where I had so carefully planned my long detour around the closed bridge.
I turned around and headed back across the new bridge looking for the point where I had missed a turn. After a short search, I lost interest and stopped on a little access road next to a bayou.
It was a nice little spot with many flowers and distressingly many bones. I got back on the bike and followed the GPS track for some miles when I began to get the sense that something was wrong.
I had turned off "auto-recalculate" so that even if I went off course the GPS would not change the line of the route on the screen. This way I could quickly find my way back after taking a wrong turn.
Unfortunately, it looks like the Garmin Zumo 550 has a bug. Even if you set "auto-recalculate" to off, the thing will maliciously auto-recalculate if you happen to be back tracking along the track on the screen. I have since verified this. If you go off at some angle or perpendicular to the track it does not recalculate, but if you do a 180 and backtrack along the track it recalculates which means you're no longer following Sam's Trans Am Trail Route.
So I missed about 20 miles or so of gravel roads. I have since gotten into the habit of reloading the route each time I take a wrong turn just to make certain.
I found my way to the closest entry point to the route after having ridden too much pavement when, almost immediately I ran into yet another road closing.
This was starting to get a bit old. The construction site was abandoned. I noticed an easy way around to the left so I opted to go through being careful to avoid anything that looked like deep mud. I remember, as a kid, riding into 'quick mud" at a construction site that swallowed my bike up to the gas tank. Having something like that happen to me here would suck.
I made it through quickly and unnoticed and continued on my way.
The riding became quite pleasant. I was surprised to see that there was virtually no hint of any mud on the trails despite the deluge from the previous night. The weather was cool and this section was overwhelmingly in forested areas. At one point, I came across an odd little structure.
What do you do when you want to add an extension to your camper?
As I rode along, I continued to ponder the Innuit with their countless words for snow and wondered what words I could use to describe gravel roads. Then it dawned on me. I could use the top gear that I felt comfortable in as a way of indicating the level of unpleasantness of a road.
First gear gravel is the worst. It's usually a couple inches deep and riding it means the bike is pitching and sliding unpredictably and the fastest that I feel comfortable riding is around 15mph.
It's nerve racking riding on this surface. Sometimes there are nice tracks, as in the photo above, but oftentimes it's just piles of gravel and rocks strewn about haphazardly. The rest of the afternoon would be spent overwhelmingly on this kind of surface. Making progress on this stuff is challenging as you feel at every moment like the bike is about to slide out from under you. And on several occasions despite my caution, it nearly did.
Gravel sections would be interrupted by small sections of pavement. More often than not roads are lined with these pretty yellow flowers.
Another frequent sight is the dead armadillo. While out East we usually see dead possums, here armadillo casualties seem common.
I typically see several of these a day. Poor critters.
As the day progressed, I was finally starting to get more comfortable in gravel. It wasn't that I was doing anything differently but my level of tension was lessening through familiarity. Tension has a weird way of upsetting a motorcycle and making it more difficult to ride.
After having done countless miles in FIrst Gear Gravel, coming on sections of Second and Third gear gravel felt like riding on pavement. The problem with second (25mph) and third (35mph) gear gravel is that they often turn into first gear (15mph) gravel without warning, usually in a blind corner.
It had gotten quite warm. I stopped to have a cup of coffee and some water at a country store/gas station. One of the clerks in the store started talking to me about someone he was following who had done a big trip from the US, across Alaska, and Russia down to Pakistan. This guy apparently has a series of youtube videos about his trip.
Shortly thereafter a guy approached me, 'You're a TAT rider, aren't you?" he said enthusiastically. "I see you guys come through here all the time. I've always wanted to do that trip but I own a bike shop and this is a busy time of year for me." We chatted for a few moments. I talked about my experiences so far on the route and how much of it was just gravel and pavement and how it wasn't, so far, what it has been reported to be. And then I paused. It was a dream of his to ride this route and I was stepping on his dream with reality. "People prefer the dream." I have to keep reminding myself. I felt bad for raining reality.
I tend to live in a cold grey harsh world devoid of idealized outcomes and fairytale endings. I constantly forget that despite everything I might believe about myself being a ghost, my presence and perspective as much as I would prefer to think the contrary, does seem to have an effect on other people.
In the early evening after having only traveled a total of about 170 miles, I crested a hill and across an intersection saw two riders, clearly TAT riders.
I rode up next to them and we chatted for a few moments. They were heading East and had started their trip just earlier that same day in Western Arkansas. They were going to do these Eastern section of the TAT this year and then the Western section another year. They asked about road conditions so I warned them about the gravel, silt, and water crossings and especially crossing #4 on Witt Road near Tellico Plains, TN where so many people fall.
"We're looking for a motel. I don't if you want to make more miles today but you're welcome to join us." Without hesitation I said, "Sure."
The trail has been overwhelmingly solitary. I've encountered so few people along the way. I followed them on the road for some time. The town was seemingly devoid of any motels near restaurants but we finally did manage to find a nice older motel on a tree covered lot next to a Mexican restaurant. The two riders were Jim, a orthropedic surgeon, and Ben, a financial adviser. They were both a little older than I am. We sat out in front of our rooms after dinner in the early evening talking about the TAT and other rides.
They talked about how they had initially planned to do this ride of theirs in a few years, 'but sometimes you just have to do the ride."
At one point they mentioned, "You're a brave man for doing this trip solo."
"I don't feel brave." I thought but said nothing.
They knew some guys who had done big rides up to Alaska. They talked about Ewan McGregor and his big trip. They knew a guy doing a similar round the world ride. They talked about these trips with a sense of excitement and wonder.
"Yea, I've ridden up to Alaska." I said at one point trying awkwardly to find something to contribute to the conversation.
"This guy went to the Arctic Circle."
"Yea, I went up to Deadhorse."
"Something like 300 miles North of the circle on the shores of the Arctic Ocean." I replied as I showed it to them on the map. I talked about the people i encountered. I talked about Danny, the Italian adventure rider who spent two years on the road. I talked about Lois Pryce, who I met at a motorcycle show, and her ride across Iran. I talked about other women world solo riders I had met.
Afterwards I would think, "Here they are on their first big ride across Arkansas and Tennessee and I was running my mouth. I should just keep my mouth shut. Talk less. Listen more."
We called it a night early and I told them I was unlikely to be up when they left. I had given them a card and told them I'd enjoy hearing about their trip.
The next morning I woke up uncharacteristically early. I was up and ready to go before 07:30. They were already gone.
"Damn. Early risers." I thought. I left the motel in search of a diner to have some breakfast. I was pretty hungry. There was one listed on Google Maps close by. As I headed out I came upon a scene I so rarely see. Morning sunshine on the mountains.
Unfortunately, the diner was an ex-diner. The next closest one was 50 minutes away and in the wrong direction so I decided to skip breakfast and set my sights on lunch. While I was futzing with the GPS, I noticed this cool scene playing out near a bridge. A heavy mist had rolled in.
I managed to not repeat the navigation errors of the previous day and was back on the trail quickly. The nature of the roads had changed and, as Jim and Ben had mentioned, the riding soon changed from gravel farm roads to country forest service roads that were more dirt than gravel. There were very few first gear sections. The weather was cool and I was making good time.
And, as I do from time to time, I came across another one of these little guys (girls?).
I stopped but there wasn't much to talk about since I don't speak turtle. I picked the little critter up and put it off the side of the road a good ways.
"Yermo Lamers, on his epic journey from town to town saving turtles."
I continued on.
One surprising thing about the Trans Am Trail is the amount of poverty you see. Overwhelmingly, people seem to live in trailers and, of the trailers I've seen, many are abandoned. Quite often you'll come across entire town fronts where everything is empty.
There are also quite a few very old structures. Multiple examples are seen daily.
Another thing that you see, mostly in the hills in the Ozarks, are these purple markers.
They are almost always a board painted purple (or whatever you call this color) nailed to a tree on the side of the road. Sometimes it's just a paint mark, same color, on a rock. Strange.
Another thing I noted was that all the streams in this area resembled dirty laundry water.
People would swim in it.
At one point I took a short wrong turn that led to the top of a hill.
It was washed out a bit with significant loose rocks and quite a step up near the top. The photos never do these things justice. I was sorely tempted but I remembered Duncan telling me before the trip, "I wish I could go with you if only to, at those points where you're tempted to go off on some difficult climb that looks interesting, talk you out of it."
I was tempted but thought better of it and turned around slowly and made my way along.
One thing you see a great deal of on these roads are downed trees. Usually, they've been cut or smashed but not completely cleared. Occasionally, they will catch you by surprise.
Things to note for this day of riding:
And for the first time on this trip, the gravel sections extended for dozens upon dozens of miles and ascended into hill country. It was beautiful. The more I wanted the road to end the longer it became. I was hungry.
I stopped at one point near a large creek to have some cashews in lieu of lunch when I heard thunder. But I thought it was just going to be another small cell. I got on the bike just as it started to drizzle. It then began to rain. It then began to rain in earnest.
Once again I was fortunate as the gravel surfaces I was riding didn't seem that affected by the water. Traction was good I wasn't sliding any more than usual. Contrary to what I had thought, it turned into a long hard soaking rain.
I came upon a small paved section in the middle of nowhere. No restaurants were close by. I came upon the next gravel section and thought, "I wonder how bad this might be if it gets slick?" I turned in figuring I should find out sooner rather than later.
I was mistaken. I soon found myself on very wet red clay roads going up and down steep grades where traction was almost non-existent. The roads here were almost all off camber where sliding to the right meant tumbling down steep grades. "In these hills no one would find me." I would think as I tried to stay to the left, the danger of a head on collision much less than the danger of falling off the mountain.
I have never ridden on surfaces like this before. It was a combination of slick and sticky. The front wheel would turn to the left but my direction wouldn't change. The rear end would start to slide out. It was as if I was in one constant state of slide as if on oil. The locals, I would later be told, call it "Red Snot". Traction would resume for short periods and then the slick stuff would reappear. The problem was there was no visible difference between the slick and not that I could ascertain. It was just all of a sudden the bike is going all squirrelly for no apparent good reason.
I spent hours in first gear doing less than 15mph constantly reminding myself every time the bike was upset to "express my tension through my legs." The more you grab onto the bars the worse the bike handles. Regardless of what I tried, it seemed like every few minutes the bike would get all skewed, start sliding, and I would panic. Familiarity after a couple hours of this made it no better.
I was cold, wet, hungry, and very tired. Riding on these surfaces this slowly for this extended period had once again tapped my reserves. I came out of the hills onto pavement, finally, and came upon a small gas station/cafe where a number of cruiser riders were taking refuge from the rain under an overhang. They eyed me suspiciously as I rolled up. I was soaked. My boots were full of water owing to their water proof nature. It turns out my pockets are also water proof as they, zippers left open, also filled with water. I walked inside and bought a cup of coffee and stood quietly amongst the tatooed and leather clad Harley riders. Eventually, the rain started to let up and I saw what i recognized from my rides with Duncan so many years ago.
A sucker hole.
I followed pavement for a while and found myself on more muddy hill country roads and trails.
And before I knew it, I found myself at Warloop Road, which I had read is a challenging road and should be avoided "by big bikes". I was soaked, starving, and very tired. So, of course, I decided to go take a look see.
It turned into a very nice single lane little jeep trail looking thing. I figure if a car can't drive through it it should be called a "trail" and not a "road". All was fine until the trail turned left.
I should have taken more photos but I was more concerned about making it through in one piece. The road degraded to trail which then degraded to a steep washed out baseball sized loose rock covered descent. Photos and the video I took just don't do it justice. Inappropriate for big bikes is not an exaggeration.
Some people consider the DR650 a big bike. Towards the bottom of the descent there was actually a piece of ancient pavement that terminated into a steep step with a nice drop off to the left and a downed tree trunk to the right. However, immediately after this the trail becomes completely civilized.
I made it out the other side without pitching the bike. Falling on this road would have been Bad(tm).
Fort Smith was only a couple dozen miles down the road. I was thoroughly spent by this time. So on Sunday late afternoon I arrived in Fort Smith and have been holed up in this motel room since.
There's something about motion, constant motion, that changes my perspective and deeply alters how I feel. Being a ghost leaving before I've even arrived, I keep my gear in a constant state of ready. But as soon as I pause for more than a day, it's as if the demons catch up with me invading my joints. I stagnate almost immediately and I begin to feel the way I do in my day to day life.
It's past time to leave this place.
The plan had been to try to make it to New Mexico to visit my buddy Bruce before his next business trip, but with the additional day I've had to spend here in Fort Smith that possibility is no more. I'll have to stop by there on the return trip.
I picked my bike a couple of hours ago. The new exhaust is nice. I think it's an improvement. I'll bid farewell to this town tomorrow morning and will head back out onto the trail now with a repaired exhaust, heat shield in place, new rollchart holder, and a new tank bag. Hopefully this will all add up to more pleasant riding.
And as an aside, if you're riding the trail I'm going to try to keep this map of road and bridge closings up to date as I travel.