A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Diogenes in America

Caprock Canyon State Park, northwest Texas

Mine was not Diogenes’, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, search for an honest man; one of my guiding questions was the much less rigorous, “What makes a good person?”  And no, I didn’t begin with G. E. Moore; it was to be measured in my interactions along the road as I moved from New Mexico to Texas farm road to county road and small town to interstate, from local café to a Waffle House, from campground to campground and the one stay in a motel.  The summary first: in the tens of interactions only one was not generous in spirit.  This is not to say that the people were all good people (serial killers are often charming), but that the presentation of the human world across the country was, in total, a delight.

That delight was conditioned with other qualities of the interactions: neediness was one, another was the context of the road; another was the powerful contrast, almost cartoonish, that an old man in high-tech riding gear (my daughters call me ‘action figure Dad’) on an old BMW motorcycle made with the typical travelers. I was an open invitation for comments and questions, was generally non-threatening and easy to treat well.

To dispense with the one ungenerous moment: It was in the moderately sized town of Mexia, south of Dallas, on the east side of the unofficial border between west and east Texas – the less generous side of Texas in my experience anyway.  It was also an experience of no consequence; I was just the only thing available to yell at, back to the contrast thing.  I had pulled over to look at a map in preparation for finding my way to a nearby state park.  The road signs and the layout of the roads seemed to be at odds and it was the wrong time of the day for me to get lost – as much as I enjoyed that experience when fresh.  To the local toughs I must have stood out in the commonplace visuals like the sore thumb. So, the pickup drove by and an attempted, though incompetent, impoliteness was yelled.  Pretty good to be the only bad!

An interaction of a very different sort happened at a 2-pump gas station, the only one at a crossroads with Florida state road 267 that goes through the Apalachicola National Forest.  It is from such events that I am trying to divine the state of mind of my American brothers and sisters.

I had been on the road for about 4 hours after a late start on the day; it was hot with both temperature and humidity edging toward their own kind of 100.  I pulled up to the inside of one pump and began my ritual with helmet, gloves, gas cap and wallet.  A biggish pickup pulled into the pump next to me and the driver was looking at me and smiling the “my other car’s a Harley” smile.  About the same time a working van pulled into the opposite side of my pump – I didn’t pay much attention.  The driver of the pickup yelled over the introductory comments and questions.  His Harley was in Tyler, Texas, had a problem with the trailer, and his pickup in Utah or some such; just gassing up the wife’s truck for a drive to Ohio to visit relatives.  He admired my packing, that I could get a whole house of stuff on the bike.  I assured him that I also had a boat and a garage.

As we were wrapping up our little bit of rapid repartee, I noticed that a young man, thirtyish, had gotten out of the van and was shyly working his way around behind the gas pump toward me.  I devoted myself to the tank filling and turned to replace the nozzle.  The man was right there next to the bike. His voice was emotional; “That’s a great ride you have there,” he said.  I replied with something like, “Sure is. I like it.” 

I had clearly not grasped his meaning. And he repeated with emphasis, “That’s a great ride.” His voice was a little chocked up and he seemed almost teary.  I can’t speak for this specific young man, but it is my experience that especially in the rural south a country man can be taken unawares by events; rushing through my mind, ‘Could it be that he has been thunder-clapped by my apparent freedom? Could it be that he has a studied knowledge of the motorcycle that he would ride across country if he could?’  I meet his eyes, “Yes, it is.  I’ll look for you on the road.”  It was all in the emphasis: the ‘you’ was him on his own old BMW that he had built up and restored.  He smiled and I gave the throttle a little bump so that he could hear the tone of the engine as I rolled away.

I meet a man in Crestview, Florida as I was loading up the cycle after my one, less than comfortable, stay in a motel.  He came walking over from the other side of the parking lot throwing ahead of him a pretty standard observation, “You’re a long way from home.”  I said, “Yeah, five days on the road from New Mexico.”  He pointed to his SUV and at his NM plates.  Turned out he now lived near Houston, but had worked for more than 20 years in my town as a guard in the state prison: we knew some of the same people.  Further, he had been on the road with me from before Mobile and had first noticed me when caught in a ten mile long Interstate ‘parking lot’ created by the 30 MPH I-10 tunnel there.  I had gotten off the Interstate and roamed the surface streets in a rough part of town until finding a way around, but that is another story.

He was on his way to visit relatives that he had never met in a town that he had never been to: DeFuniak Springs (if the casual conversations are the humanity of the road, its place names are its poetry). 
* * * 
Throughout the trip I looked for local cafes and restaurants, both as an exercise and to stop at for my one sit-down meal a day (the rest were taken as “road food,” carried in the tank-bag).  My prototypes were the ‘Coffee Cup Café’ from my hometown in Florida, many miles and 50 years away, and a little 12 top in Watonga, Oklahoma, a locals’ place where I always got a pat on the shoulder and a wish to “ride safe” from some old man who used to ride.

They were all gone. The slightly bigger towns had “evening restaurants” and specialty lunch places, but not the gathering places where locals just naturally stopped in on their way from one place to another.  I rode through nearly 100 little towns: the Coffee Cups and the “our town” cafes were gone.  Maybe some were hiding out on side streets, but I gave these as good a look as I could at 25 miles per hour or from the occasional 4-way stop.  No, they were gone.

There should have been two hundred such places and I should have seen at least 50 of them as inviting.  The gas station “convenience store” had taken their place, along with Sonic, Pizza hut, IHop and such.  I went into one Waffle House in north Florida that was all locals.  Except for the machine stamped interior design and furnishings it was just like the Coffee Cup Café.  What did the mathematician say in Jurassic Park? “Life will find a way.”
* * *
On one of my forays onto the interstate I felt a side panel on the motorcycle come loose.  I quickly repositioned my foot and leg to keep it from flying off and found a reasonably safe place to pull over.  As I rolled to a stop my mind was fixed on holding the panel in place; I put my other foot down without adjusting to the strange position and the bike promptly responded to the wild call of gravity and fell over.  I was miles from an exit, sort of like being in the middle of a desert.  The other drivers were like space aliens who couldn’t-wouldn’t recognize me as a life form.

I tried to pick the bike up, which I can do without great difficulty unloaded; it stayed nailed to the ground.  I began to undo bungees and straps when I heard, “Could you use a hand?”  This was an impossible sound and collection of words and took a moment to process.  I looked up; parked a hundred yards down the shoulder was an 18 wheeler loaded with scrap metal and 30 feet away walking briskly toward me was a 50 year-old black man with a friendly smile on his face.

What I think these and many other moments mean will have to wait for next time.

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