Travels chronicles ... Crossing the USA on a motorcycle
Albalister night (a translation by Kurt Ramler)
Twas a cool alabaster night, the countryside rolling slowly as I rode weightlessly along. The last moonbeams illuminate the gentle mist as I ride, fully enveloped in the cloud, floating along aimlessly. My shoulders ease and my grip on the motorcycle’s handlebars ease their grip; I ride relaxed. These low-hanging clouds illuminate me like a well-heeled nocturnal gambler, a glint of fortune in his eyes, ready to bet his life savings on a game of pinball. The church steeples and crosses peek and poke through the veil of fog along the edge of the road as I sail through, giving the impression that this road goes on forever. These churches grow smaller and more distant, half decayed but still staunch in their statement and looming presence. I sail on. The churches, always the churches, continue to loom out of the mist. I half expect three faithful figures to emerge on their way to their evening prayers, mumbling their slogans and kneeling and geneflecting just so, hoping in their way to attract their Faith. My hands feel strange on my sweet Suzie’s handlebars. I have the impression of having entered a fantasy territory, the world between dream and reality….my eyes bombarded by this fine mist of droplets somehow blinking my way to another realm, one in which I doubt the perception of what has been revealed on this side of the curtain. Suzie is my baby, my mount, my steed. She’s a Suzuki GS 400 from 1979, older than me. Her experience brings me more harm than good, since I left the small easy Autumn roads in Quebec. Tonight, Suzie is earning her keep. Midnight is coming, and I departed at 7am this morning. “Good Girl.” I voice in my head to sweet Suzie, patting her iron side. I left Steven and Jenny this morning, driving off into the rain. Since then there have been clutch cable and battery problems. The speedometer and odometer both flicker but fail to display. “Hang in there Suzie.” I mutter under my breath, willing her to find another level of endurance. I travel the last few meters of my destination by the dim light of my headlamp, Suzie coughing and sputtering – explosions coughing from inside her ribbed engine. I turn down this little sandy path winding between forests and field to find…..nothing. I am in the middle of nowhere, and here Suzie has decided, of all places, that she needs a break. I look around for a soul to help. Nothing stirs. Just as I begin to give up hope, Suzie growls back to life on my third kick. I begin to climb the slope, all of my earthly possessions in tow. There’s something magical about having everything you count on and own attached to you. Coasting, I look up and see the myriad stars of the Milky Way of South Carolina. This is not the first time that I drive for minutes at a time with only the light of the sky, and the ecstasy remains the same. It reminds me of gazing into the fire that my grandfather started as he teaches you a new card trick, the flickering rolling around you. “Here you go boy, concentrate.” He says, his wise and confident voice holding a smile. “When I return, this card is the needed card for the whole round– don’t let your eye leave it….if you lose it, you may as well burn the rest!” So I settle down, set my picture. Settling in, I set up my camp, posing to take a photo or two of the stars in the night. The pictures are good, but I go in to make more. I hear a disturbing noise. A heavy muffled penetrating noise, not more than five yards from me. Then I hear a step. I hear a scruff and my mind creates the worst, my heart beating and fluttering, my fear coming to a point……. “ Wow, man, what was it ? Did you see it ? Just listening to your story makes my heart beat faster !” It’s Jim, Scott’s apprentice. Scott, the generous grandfather, has just agreed to take a look at my bike. For Suzie, my baby, does not start anymore. I am worried about her. I have replaced her battery, her spark-plugs, and still, she is silent. I drove just this morning, 30 miles, fear of breaking down taking me off the interstate and onto back country roads. Winston, another wizened grandfather with a kind heart and patience for youthful folly, carries me through the city of Auburn in his rusty and dusty 25 or more years-old F-250 with Suzie sleeping in the back. His truck is a real diesel, one where you swim in the aroma of the fuel even as you sit. He notices a 45 year old woman in short walking her dog across the street, thanking the “Loord” for the view that was offered to him. Winston starts to become genuinely upset with the GPS’ voice butchering a street name badly, annoying computer-generated loop baking out “O-pe-li-ka……Opeliiiika….in 200 yards turn right on Opelika……(and just as I think Winston might say something)….in 100 yards turn right onto Opelika….Opeliiiiiiika” Winston gives up in frustration, reaching up and turning the GPS off. The first garage that he tried to bring me to was a failure, and now it doesn’t appear that we’ll find the second. Eventually, we find the garage. The mechanic, rubbing grease-marked hands on a rag, turns to me, and states in a diffident southern twang, “I don’t wanna be the bearer of bad news here my friend, but you have a Suzuki, and here we only work on Yamahas. It’s policy.” I get ready to explain to this pompous American mechanic that I have come almost 2000 miles, that Suzie deserves more than just “policy” and that I will have to cram his babacool ponytail down his throat and shave off his little goatee, when Winston, in his wisdom, steps in. “What would the good Lord say about this situation, huh?” he asks, and there appears to be an unspoken agreement, an unseen handshake, that transpires between the two. Some leftover codes from the 60s that just reappeared. Before I know it, Scot has brought Suzie down from her nap in the bed of the truck, and the new mechanic has his fingers on her, uttering, “I think I know what the problem is.” The new mechanic’s pleated forehead, oblique eyebrows, and tense lips does little for my personal ease, but I mutter under my breath to Suzie, “Won’t be long, darling.” “- And the beast … what was it?” The steps become closer and closer, and more and more urgent. My heart throbs in my chest, fear taking my senses to a new level. I peer into the darkness, and see nothing. I listen with every nerve of my body, the hairs on my arms reaching to identify…… “What the hell could be big enough to make that loud of a noise!?” CLACK! There are sounds that you hear, and others that you perceive. Then there are those sounds that you feel, that penetrate your soul, that run along your spinal cord, that smell of a hint of death, that excite your nerves with electrical signals, bringing with them a cold sweat, neurons firing and firing again from one dendrite to another. I lean into the silence, taut. The silence shouts back at me, heavy with impending doom. My cranial box works overtime, imagining all the cruel ways that this could end, my bones shattered and dragged through the bush. The ball in my stomach grows, clenching and turning. “Fuck! It’s a goddamn alligator! Ostie de tabarnak ! Ostie de tabarnak !* a real GODDAMN alligator!!” I hear it’s jaws slam shut, no more than fifteen feet from me. Adrenaline, late to the party, finally arrives and I feel the desperate need to survive surge through my veins. I must think, and quick. Quick! Before I know it, I am standing fully upon Suzie, trying to find my balance in the moonlight. Here I am, in the middle of nowhere, balancing precariously on the narrow saddle of my moto, thin hiking sticks in my hands, pointed meekly at the undergrowth. What good these thin graphite walking sticks might be escapes me, but I have to hold something, as I am not yet a Crocodile Dundee beast-carving knife expert. I wait, and the crickets eye me suspiciously, achirp. Then I hear it. It moves. How the hell can it be that big!?!? One step, then another, and another. It’s right fucking there in the brush. My heart tries to tear itself out of my chest. Then nothing. And more nothing. After what feels like an eternity, I finally come to terms that I must act. However, Suzie barely starts, and I have 45 items to pack up before I can go elsewhere. Should I make as much noise as possible, so as to scare off the beast? No, I shall do the opposite; I shall go to bed and make as little noise as possible, so as not to disturb this gigantic demon. I take some photos, so that my family can have proof that I was here, and I crawl into my sleeping bag, beyond tired. For a second I think of what would happen if he decides, in the middle of the night, that my leg would be a tasty treat? I can’t help but see my leg, mangled and twisted like a chicken drumstick…… I sure hope he’s not hungry. Can I really fall asleep? Warily, I slip into a comfortable position, wondering if I can sleep with one eye open. Sleep, somehow, finds me. Sleep always wins. “- Well man, I don’t’ know how you did it!” Jim says as I finish telling the story. In my mind, I had no choice. In the morning, eyes opened up with the rising sun, and I was still there, my leg and body still fully intact. “Hey Scott! Did you hear? This crazy man slept next to an alligator!” “You must have a guardian angel, boy.” tones in Winston deeply. “No other explanation. Just your flashlight? An angel watched you for sure.” He is deep inside Suzie, taking a good look at what’s been ailing her. “Ha! Here it is……I suspected. Just like a fucking Suzuki to have a train late. But you’re lucky again son. Now, I ain’t no angel, but I’m one of the few people on this side of the Mississippi that knows how to fix a Suzuki, given it’s age.” “Reallly?” I respond. He explains; the Recession. A third of motorcycle shops across America closed following the crises of 2007, and all the old shops are gone. Winston, fortunately, is 67 – not yet old enough in America to retire, but old enough to still know how to fix a Suzuki. In 30 minutes the case is folded and he shows me how to make the adjustment, then makes me do the work myself to prove I was paying attention. “Don’t be fooled by appearances, my friend, we’ve modified this scooter, and it’s not for amateurs. It’s got more power than most of the big bikes we repair.” I offer to pay, but he refuses. “Solidarity of biker.” he tells me just before he rides off, offering me a tip of his cap before riding off on his small yellow scooter. Scott had been helpful and had provided information for of a national park to stay at where I could pitch a tent, but I have a bed waiting for me in New Orleans. It is 5 am. I have 600km left. I plan to drive all day and all night. I will stop for supper in Montgomery, a city where Rosa Parks, 62 years ago, refused to sit in the “black” back section of a bus, her bravery changing the course of history. After Montgomery I will head off to Atlanta, which will bring me back to childhood memories of sitting in England in Celia’s small cottage to watch on the miniature TV the Olympics and Donovan Bailey’s victory in the 100 meter dash. This reminds me of small walls and grey moods, rocking myself to sleep at night with dreams of becoming a great athlete. Suzie needs my attention once again. I find myself escaping from everything, pulling off the road and hiding behind a building for what I hoped would just be a quick nap. An hour and a half later, and a car roars around the corner, jolting me back to life. At 6:30 I am riding once again, my eyes stinging. I feel myself nodding and slipping to the edge of sleep while I grip Suzie’s handlebars. Suzie has great character and strength but is not, like other ladies I have loved, endowed with self-determination. She requires that I guide. Awake. I give in and pull over for a new nap, while some lady walking by offers me a pillow. After 14 hours of driving, Suzie’s vibrating handlebars ever-present upon my hands and arms. The sun rises on Lake Pontchartrain, it’s brilliant orange glow radiating through the mist of a fresh flamboyance in dawn colors. I roll between two skies. New Orleans, here I am.