OK, I didn’t see all of America. I did see 4,200 miles worth, from the state and county roads as much as possible. I spoke with people from the cars and trucks parked beside me in various store parking lots, restaurants and other places; local folks mostly, other motorcycle riders sometimes. A motorcycle packed for traveling is a sign that says, “Ask me something.” Local folks in small towns would ask, “Where’r you from?” and “Where’r you going?” And much more often than you might guess, I think because of the bike, “Why are you going there?” I would talk about my ancient and infirm parents and their troubles. They would listen with real human interest about people they didn’t know and would never meet – ‘there was this old man on a big ole motorcycle riding all the way across country to see his just about dead parents; now what do you think of that?’
We talked about how hot it was. It had never been that hot… ever. And we edged at what was going to happen. People seemed to feel that something was going to happen, it was in their view like a pendant hanging from a rear view mirror. I can’t really explain it; I only talked to a couple of people about a direct concern for the future – it was more like it was on the wind, on the mind, almost ready to pop out, “Is it going to be OK?”
That is what my mother finally asked me after all the talking about what to keep, what to give to what relatives and what to give away or throw away, the other plans for their move into assisted living a thousand miles away from the town they had lived in, either part time or full time, since 1945. She finally said it, “Are we going to be OK there, are we going to like it?”
That was the question people wanted to ask an old man on a big motorcycle traveling across the country like it was nothing; the sort of man who has seen things, who might know an answer. But, of course, they couldn’t directly. So we talked directly about the heat, oil spill, government, my bike and being careful with a subtext of concern. The one man I talked to directly about it being OK didn’t know, but didn’t think it was going to be.
There were lots of people driving around, just like other times that I have traveled many of those same roads. I couldn’t see any real difference. The one place with an obvious difference was the parking lots of community colleges. It was first of all surprising how many community colleges I rode by; at least 5 or 6. I didn’t realize the importance of keeping count until I was struck by the fact that their parking lots were full, all the way out to those spaces in the farthest corner, sometimes a quarter mile from the buildings. No other places had full parking lots, not Walmart or other stores, not a Tyson chicken packing plant, not the government offices, not the beach parking areas.
Unexpected things happened. A big Harley with a big guy in full motorcycle gang colors with patches pulled up beside me at a stop light in a southern coastal town, turned to me and yelled over, “Welcome home.” I thanked him. I figured out later that he thought I was an old Vietnam vet out traveling. “Welcome home,” damn right and it is about time. If the country wasn’t going to do it, if the government wasn’t going to do, then by God, he and his guys were going to do it.
I pulled off the road in a little town in northern Louisiana to replace one map for the next in the map pocket on the tank bag (motorcycle talk!); a UPS guy turned off the road just to ask if I needed directions and tell me about a coffee shop around the corner where I could get out of the heat. Now when has that happened to you in your Chevy Caprice?
And creepy. At a gas station in Arkansas I left my riding gloves tucked in a spot under the handlebars and came back from getting something to drink to find them lying loose in my helmet that was latched to the side of the bike.
It is a big country filled with all kinds of people and way too much stuff to be healthy, way too much of everything for us to change without a major event; nobody knows how even though they know it’s coming. That was my other big revelation. There is so much stuff. There is so much waste. People talk about ‘government waste’, how about private waste. Wasted time, wasted effort, wasted resources all protected as private.
Well there ain’t anything private any more. You can see that from a motorcycle. All the effort to make a little town of 791 people habitable is of a piece. I could see the town coming (actually it was I who was coming into the town) from some miles away; fields were being worked, maybe soy beans; cars would pass me, or me them, actually going to the town for some purpose other than passing through since this was not a road to somewhere; going to the town to make it a town. They all worked together whether they realized it or not, otherwise there would be no town of 791 on that bend in the road.
If they only knew. If we only knew.