A Trip Begins…
In preparation, I gathered up a pile of socks, underwear, a few towels, loose fitting shirts, and cargo pants with more pockets than the Old Testament has unpronounceable words. For weeks I’d been collecting the short rolls of toilet paper that were soon to be depleted, and put them in a zip-lock bag. Those of you who pay insurance premiums can appreciate this.
Besides a toothbrush, razor and a bar of soap, I decided sun screen would be a good idea. I got the three top brands: Dracula’s Daytime Secret; Dark Side of the Moon, and Alaskan Winter Nights. Each has an SPF of a gazillion: opening any of those tubes near a birthday cake would blow out the candles. But I would soon find that the sun in South Florida is more severe than the one we have here in Georgia. Sun screen down there is as efficient as using a hog-wire fence to suffice as mosquito netting.
Before departure, I took a walk in the woods by my house. It is a peaceful place for gathering thoughts (and ticks and chiggers). Thoughts of departed friends and family came to mind, and that escapades I might share with you would not be shared with them. I turned slowly around to take in a good panoramic view of home before leaving. Such is often a tasty snack for the mind when you are far away.
My gear was packed including things I’d never need. I double checked then triple checked straps and bungee cords, then started the engine.
Grabbing a piece of freedom and with no agenda but my own, I turned right out of my driveway on two wheels. The adventure was on. Perhaps some would think taking corners on two wheels is no great accomplishment if you’re riding a motorcycle, but I say in all modesty I did it without letting either the saddlebags or my helmet drag pavement.
Arriving in Valdosta, Georgia, I connected with an old friend who took me into his home and made me welcome. This set a precedent for the entire trip during which time I met up only with agreeable folks all of whom treated me well. As some of you would surmise, this was way beyond what I might usually deserve.
The entire experience was without conflict or controversy. This was true with friends and strangers alike. It is pondersome for a cynical old man like me to meet with such kindness, and at first it was a distraction that caused me to be pensive and watchful for meanness that never came.
While I was to be a guest in the home of a dear friend, we took a short recess from each other while he went off to teach some kind of a class. I rode around by places I have not seen in a long time: the hospital where my first son was born, and the little house we brought him home to. I rode by houses where other friends had once lived but have since moved away. An avalanche of memories came at me. I went by my old college campus, and noticed the young students there didn’t seem to be able to see the same ghosts that I was seeing.
My friend and I met back up for a nice dinner and were soon joined in a nearby tavern by some others. What fun! I was surrounded by talented and versatile folk who gave me the great gift of their time. Before bedding down, I met two dawgs for the first time. They wagged their tails and licked my hand, and offered no discouragement for adventure. While day one would come to an end and is only history now, it wasn’t lost, but won. The memories are stored in the trophy case of my mind.
The Next Day…
I had coffee for the price of a smile and a handshake with my old friend, and set off to meet up with another for breakfast. The other old friend was formerly a teacher of mine. We had a fine breakfast and a good talk of current things as well as some healthy chuckles about older times. With a bit of grits and some crumbs from a buttered biscuit tucked neatly into my mustache to be enjoyed later, I was soon off again (on two wheels).
My next stop was where the ways cross. I was to meet with a man I’d never met before. By chance, and through another friend, we had previously connected only by e-mail, and had exchanged some interesting ideas. He had the presence of mind to bring a body guard with him which was sensible. It hadn’t occurred to me. Besides, I’d left mine in Valdosta.
They also took a break from a busy work day to make sure I was comfortable and welcome in Waycross. Unbeknown to me, their hospitality had begun before I ever got into town.
I arrived early at a restaurant where we were to meet. When I walked in, the hostess surprised me by saying:
“Come in Mr. Brown and make yourself at home. The others will be along shortly. I’m Kristy. I’ll take care of you ’til they get here.”
Momentarily they came in and after warm introductions, we sat down to consider menus. I was coached by local experience over the options as one of my new friends said:
“You might want to order a baked potato. They have the worst French fries in the world.”
With such a superlative recommendation as that, I could not resist ordering the fries. I told my friend that he was correct: the French fries were everything he said they would be. You could dry-wall a house with them.
When Kristy came over to check on us, she was informed that their French fried potato notoriety society had a new member. People often seem to need my opinion whether they ask for it or not, and this being no exception, I suggested she soak those potato wedges in a bucket of water before frying them. When she asked how long they should be allowed to soak, I offered:
“Until they are about to ferment.”
Though it wasn’t discussed openly, all present knew that such a soaking of organic materials could lead to a finer distillation than French fries, and no Ketchup would be needed. But since I was traveling, and they had to get back to work, a glass of beer would have to do.
My next stop was in a smaller town where all the residents tend to be neighborly with each other. I knew Nahunta was to be a smaller town because the directions began with:
“When you get to the traffic light…”
I stayed with a friend I haven’t seen in over three and a half decades. He introduced me to his wife who had done a good job taming and domesticating him. Until that day, his wife and children had never met me. But at the dinner table, you would have thought I was a part of their family.
A particular high note was in the behavior and manners of their two young teenage sons who were quick to be just as kind and pleasant towards me as their parents were. The refreshing thing is that there was no pretentiousness about them, nor did they show any nervousness with me being a stranger. As a matter of fact, it was only moments after meeting them that I realized we weren’t strangers at all, but that was their doing.
It is the kind of warmth and decency that can make a person feel really good about people. It is hard for me to keep up my nasty disposition in light of such treatment. I think I behaved fairly well under the circumstances, and may have passed for civilized. Even their puppies were friendly towards me, but the cat was standoffish a bit.
The Third Day…
The morning began with a huge breakfast I had earlier insisted was not necessary. I couldn’t eat all they’d cooked, but packed some grits into my whiskers for a tasty snack later on, and jumped back on the motorcycle and escaped Georgia heading into Florida.
The road took me to the beach. I took a break to just stand there for awhile smelling the salty air and listening to the waves tap on the shoulders of the shoreline. The waves stirred up memories of my own childhood when on occasion I would run wildly and fearlessly into the surf. The ocean was always a splendid thing for me as a boy, and it maintains its mesmerizing influence still.
My father loved the ocean. As a boy, I watched him play with us in the breakers laughing, and loving life itself. I looked up to Dad, and I wanted to be grown up like he was. But for a boy, growing up seemed to take too long. Years later, I began to be aware that growing up happened all too quickly, and one summer seemed to be right on the heels of the one before it.
Back on the bike, my eyes were like the lenses of cameras transferring images to the film in my brain. Some of the pictures were instantly and permanently framed; others are still being processed. As I crossed Nassau Sound, I listened, but I was only hearing the sound of speed.
If you have not been to Saint Augustine, you should go. Mental pictures defy words.
I stopped for fuel near Ormond by the Sea just a bit north of Daytona, and went inside the convenience store for some convenience. I held the door open for a fellow who walked with a cane. He turned and smiled. He said “thank you”, and for a moment I was sure he’d called me by name. Such a thought brought on the desire for a cup of coffee before continuing down the road. The fellow with the cane bought a six-pack of beer so as not to put his walking stick out of work, and I again held the door for him as he left.
After a pleasant morning along the coast, I cut across to a highway heading inland, and went to see some friends in Sanford who treated me like a brother. They had two rather large dawgs that did not try to eat me. Instead, they simply wanted to be petted. I know we all want that sometimes, but the dawgs were refreshingly honest about it.
After a fine dinner and good conversation, the motorcycle and I were bedded down properly for safe and pleasant dreams. All this fine treatment was beginning to have a mellowing effect on me, but I wouldn’t realize it until I got back home.
Again breaking fast with a banquet, I began to suspect that soon I’d need a bigger motorcycle, or at least more air in the tires. My host and hostess normally don’t drink coffee, and it is their regular habit to eat only cereal or a bite of toast in the morning. But for me, they broke tradition and put out a spread fit for a king. The Motorcycle came out of the stable well rested and I re-packed my bags onto it for the journey.
After saying goodbye to two truly wonderful people, I decided to get on the interstate to let the cycle stretch its legs. I turned onto the acceleration lane with a responsive throttle and was soon in high gear and high spirits.
I picked up a map of Florida in a rest area. I remember thinking it was a little bit funny that I was that far along on this trip without one. I would look at it now and then more for generalities than specifics. You can get specifics all over the place (though not necessarily correct ones).
After a while, I left the interstate and headed towards West Palm Beach and picked up A1A again following it down to Boca Raton. On the way, I passed several mansions God couldn’t afford. I found a motel in more modest surroundings away from the beach, and settled in for the night.
The Fifth Day…
I took breakfast alone, so I was sensible. This allowed my pants to fit, and I wouldn’t need to buy a larger belt before leaving out again. It was a leisurely breakfast permitting time for the morning rush hour traffic to settle down before motoring into Miami. There, I met up with another former teacher, and we agreed to do this about every forty years from now on. He put it on his calendar.
As with the previous few days, I enjoyed wonderful conversation all afternoon and into the night. So far, each day of the trip was well worth the effort on its own without regard to any preset destination. As it should be.
I met an iguana by a canal that was obviously also on vacation since they are indigenous to parts of Central and South America. Perhaps my reputation with varmits preceded me because momentarily the lizard leaped into the ocean to take its chances with sharks and barracuda.
My teacher and his wife were extremely kind to me and great fun. We had a wonderful time together including a fabulous dinner. Their three cats gave me no trouble, but one of them warned me that I should maintain a proper distance. Another cat was gracious and sociable, and wanted to talk on into the wee hours after everyone else had gone to bed. The third cat was suspicious of me, and to this day is probably peaking around corners should I pop back in again.
A Saturday morning brunch came with all the coffee you could drink and some of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard. I won’t write them here because you would think I’m making them up. Trust me: my imagination may not be that good.
It took me forever to say goodbye. I was enjoying myself immensely and did not want that moment to get away. After taking more time than needed to check straps and cords, I saddled up and again headed south.
Somewhere between Homestead and Key Largo, the helmet took a rest and the do-rag went on. I added more sun screen to my face which would provide all the cooking oil needed to make my nose look like a boiled crab.
The day was clear, and the view was spectacular. It was a most enjoyable ride. About half-way down, I found a second-story room with a balcony overlooking the ocean. I rode on down three or four miles to a recommended diner for some seafood and entertainment. They had TV screens all over the place and the Derby was on. There was also some country music playing in the background, and I recognized the song playing: “For The Good Times” by Kris Kristofferson.
The entertainment wasn’t just the Kentucky Derby or the jukebox: it was the sing-a-long taking place right next to me at the bar. Evidently, that lady had been sitting there awhile and was well into her cups. Her elbow rested on the bar, and her chin kept trying to find the palm of her hand, but it was too slippery. Her very much off key voice rang out the chorus:
“Lay your head upon my pillow. Hold your warm and tender body close to mine…”
Peripheral vision allowed me to glimpse her smiling face. I realized her eyes had somehow become disconnected from each other and she glared at me like a chameleon. It was an unnerving sight. I drank a brew with dinner, and the bartender asked if I wanted another.
“Thank you, but I’d better not. I’m traveling by motorcycle. Too much of that could cause my bike to get the wobbles, and the roads around here don’t appear to be so forgiving to such.”
I also thought, but did not say out-loud, that a few more beers and I’d be singing worse than the alto/soprano to my left. The bike took me back to my lodgings. I found a cigar and a bit of Scotch to soothe me through the beautiful sunset. It was a fine cigar, and long. A second bit of Scotch was required to finish it. In the cool sea breeze, any passersby would have heard:
“…But life goes on, and this old world will keep on turning…”
The Seventh day…
Mid morning I was back in the saddle again, and heading to Key West. After Marathon, you go through a stretch where the road signs might make you think you are back in Georgia. They say:
Looking to the left and to the right, I didn’t see a single tree that would be any taller than a deer, so I wondered where a deer might hide in such a situation as that. I figure they must crouch down or even crawl on their bellies or you’d see ’em! But I kept a careful eye out just the same: with all my baggage, I hardly had room for a deer.
Key West is lovely, but I was not the only person who’d decided to look at it that Sunday. In Atlanta, the traffic downtown gets like that when the Braves are having a home game. There were vendors with fifty-cent trinkets you could have for about seven bucks, but it would cost you lunch money to park even a motorcycle.
I took in the whole area for awhile, then headed out to the beach. With the boots pulled off and the pants rolled up, I waded into the surf up to my knees. The first breaker made the rolling up of trouser legs to have been a silly waste of time.
I stood there for a moment and realized I had no appointments to keep that had been set by me, or anyone else. I had spent a whole week getting here, but it was the ride–not the destination (although beautiful as it was).
Well, in Paradise, a man needs to order a cheeseburger et all, and I did. But now, it was turn-around time. Other than stopping for gas and convenience, I kept going ’til I was back at Key Largo. There was an attraction there I wanted to see. Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn had made a film together called “African Queen”. The boat they used is right there by the Holiday Inn for you to see and touch. I did both.
There were a few other tourist there, but not a big crowd. When I turned around, there was a young lady standing right in front of me with a coquettish smile on her face. I smiled back politely, thinking: “Girl I’ve got shoes older than you!” She spoke:
“Are you going to give me a ride on your motorcycle?”
I had not expected such a question, and was taken aback. Surely this was a set-up for some kind of event not in my budget. It was not planned for, nor would such a side trip fit well into the scheme of things back home, either.
An awkward moment passed before I responded. Luckily, I remembered how a friend of mine told me he handled such situations. He is a fine entertainer and speaker; very witty and seldom at a loss for words. So, I took some of his for my closing remarks. I told her I had to be getting on back home and that we wouldn’t be spending any time together (on or off the motorcycle).
“Does that mean you won’t be giving me a ride on your motorcycle?”
My friend’s words saved me:
“Ma’am, I’m flattered. Maybe seeing that nice bike and this crazy old leather jacket with Kokopelli on the back of it got you curious. But let me ask you; would you rather remain just curious, or be disappointed?”
As I left the Keys, it was time for the helmet to replace the do-rag: heavier traffic lay ahead. I turned left onto U.S. 41 about parallel with Miami and headed west across the top of the everglades with the setting sun right in my eyes for the rest of the day. I saw alligators in the water, and what may have been one slithered across the road way ahead of me but I couldn’t be sure: it may have been a deer.
When the sun went down, the bugs came out. They have some serious bugs down there: one species of gnat seems to have been cross-bred with the rhinoceros beetle, and had wings like a bat. I saw signs warning of:
Needless to say, that kept me alert and on duty. Since I had no room for a deer, a panther was out of the question. Other than necessary stops, I continued that night all the way to Naples. I found an affordable room and sang the Doxology.
Day Number Eight…
Monday morning found me looking at the windshield of the motorcycle wondering how I could have been able to see through it the night before. I had committed insecticide. A Florida Trooper was standing nearby having a cup of coffee, so I decided to turn myself in. I told him about killing all of those bugs, and that I did not have a Florida bug hunting license. He looked at my windshield and laughed:
“Don’t need no bug license down here. From the looks of it you should be getting an award from the Governor.”
I told him about the “Panther Crossing” signs, and he replied:
“Yep. Boy, they got cats out there that to them, you’d just be a snack.”
Hotel management insisted I use their hose and any cleaning materials needed to scrub down my fine steed. When I left Naples, my bike was as clean as it was on day one of the trip. Heading north skirting St. Petersburg and Tampa, I cut back over to the coast to visit a friend from High School in Spring Hill.
Though I hadn’t seen her in forty-five years, I recognized her right away. In recent years we’d gotten back in touch through e-mails. She sends out some funny stuff, and some thoughtful things as well. It was too short of a visit, but home was pulling at me, so I headed out. I made Lake City in good time; found a nice motel and a place for dinner. Tomorrow would be the last day of this adventure…at least for a while.
The Top of the Ninth…
Not a drop of rain fell on me in Florida. It was all waiting for me at the Georgia state line. At reasonable speeds a good bit was deflected by the windshield, but as cars slowed to a snail’s pace in the downpour, the rain came straight down on me.
A gust of wind Near Valdosta brought some rain in sideways making sure every stitch of my underwear and socks were soaked. By then, I had the face shield of my helmet partially open (helmet doesn’t have defrost), and was leaning around the windshield trying to see the road. Finally I saw an exit sign, and got off at Hahira. The awning of a service station provided sanctuary, sanctuary much.
I got coffee at the station and waited out the storm. It took about an hour for the nasty part of it to pass. In the meantime, everybody that stopped for gas came over and spoke with me. They all asked me if I was okay.
They all complemented my ride, and all told stories of either ones they’d had, or of people they knew who had motorcycles. One lady introduced her husband and they both stayed there to talk. Looking back on it, I may have been the biggest thing going on in Hahira that day. Then again, it must be a friendly place where neighbors are just neighborly towards each other.
I stopped in Perry for gasoline and called a cousin to say “hello”. She offered that I come by and clean up and take a meal with them, but I declined. I was tired and too close to home. I didn’t stop again until I was in my own driveway. For the most part, unpacking happened the next day.
It was wonderful to be back in my own house. I told my wife about how nice I’d been treated during the entire trip. I must have told it over and over. After a bit she commented on how mellow I was. It was true: more so than I’d been in a long time.
It wasn’t just going to Key West or to any of the dozens of places I stopped along the way and back: it was the whole thing. I went looking for a good time, and found it. The ride and the stops became some of the best things to ever happen to me. If I saw you on the way and did not tell you that, I’m telling you now. Oh, by the way, I did take one picture to show you:
Bottom of the Ninth: Home Run!