West and Back Again

Part 5 of 5
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This is a blog (in 5 parts) on my motorcycle trip west from upstate New York to southern Colorado -- and back -- in June-July 2007.

Monday, July 16: A (Mostly) Forgettable Day

I awoke in the morning to the sound of the strange, melodic birds I'd heard last night in the glen. Not quite alien, the way the ones in the boreal Adirondacks sound, but not so comforting and natural-sounding as the birds of the prairie. Why was this, I wondered? Why should the prairie birds sound better?

It could be these birds sounded like the ones in South Florida where I'd grown up. A connection back to childhood, subconscious associations of pleasure and security. Then again, perhaps the sounds of the prairie birds were the ones most prominently featured in movies. Whenever bird sounds were needed, Hollywood directors would pull out this or that Audubon recording of "Birds of the Plains", or "Thrushes of the Central States". Years of associating pastoral images in movies with these birds built their subconscious associations.

Another possibility, maybe not the most realistic but greatest in its appeal to me, relates to our race's past. We evolved on the African savannah -- having come down out of the nearby forests to walk on two legs -- and perhaps there is some commonality between birds of the grassland there and here. Difficult to confirm or deny without further research, or empirically with a visit to the east African plains. But a seductive idea, that generations of living with these birds, perhaps associating their ordinary chirping with a lack of danger, have left their indelible imprint in our auditory predelictions.

The Florida childhood theory is easiest to discard -- the birds sounded different there than on the Plains. If anything they were more similar to those in this mid-temperate forest on the Mississippi. The movie hypothesis I also have my doubts about -- I think directors and sound men are a bit more conscientious about using bird sounds appropriate to the ostensible settings. That leaves the racial "memory" hypothesis, of which little can be said without further research. There is one further possibility, however, which may be the most likely -- innate preference for reasons unrelated to birds.

In music, there are certain characteristics of melodic sequences and chord combinations favored in all cultures. These preferences are assumed to be innate, even though we would not have had experience with music during our evolution. Explanations have been advanced by music researchers, based on general tendencies of our perceptual systems. Perhaps something about these prairie bird songs match up with similar preferences -- the speed of chirps just right here, the pitch of notes just in the proper range there... If this is so, however, one is still left to explain why it is birds of the prairie that fall into this role, and not birds of some other region, or multiple places.

* * *

Today ended up being the first of the trip not filled with uplifting, spiritually energizing moments. It was cloudy when I started out on the motorcycle, and the first thing I did was enter Illinois. I'd been here before on my trip picking up this motorcycle in Milwaukee, and somehow this made me feel like I was almost home, with all the anticlimactic feeling that accompanies such act. Except I still had three days left to ride.

Moreover I was being chased by rain. The morning groundskeepers in the campsite had told me thunderstorms were expected in the afternoon. But with the speed the clouds had come up and the feeling in the air, we agreed that prediction had been optimistic.

I hit the Mississippi River not long after starting out. One point of interest: Elevation was 590 feet here according to my GPS. The Mississippi had a few hundred miles to go before joining with the Missouri, and another several hundred more before hitting the gulf. Just 590 feet drop had to propel the water the best part of 1,000 miles! (Ten times flatter than the Great Plains.)

I experienced a brief bit of blue sky on crossing the river, but things soon closed in, and north of me a huge thunderhead reached down to the earth and dumped. That it was moving south there could be no doubt. I ran eastward, thinking to scoot out from under it as I had in Colorado. But as fast as I could go it only fell back a slight amount. If I stopped for any length of time it would catch me.

More drastic evasive measures were in order, and I took a side road south, connecting to an upcoming lower east-west route a hundred miles earlier than planned. This held it at bay for a while longer.

Two hours later though it was still with me, and closing fast. This thing had followed me across half of Illinois! I considered reversing course for a while and letting it blow past me, but the thought of wet roads and dirtying the motorcycle kept me from it. Maybe head back north? A brief moment of pain perhaps, followed by dry roads on the other side.

In the end I stopped for lunch. While I chomped on a calzone the rain came in for the attack. I scampered outside and got my helmet, covered my bags. It built up to cats-and-dogs climax over 20 minutes, then fell off to absence by the time I finished. Bike a bit wet, perhaps, but dry riding for me. I congratulated myself on a job well done.

* * *

On into Indiana. Another previously-visited state. Both of these places were more pleasant in the spring than they were now, in sultry humidity. At least the storm front and clouds cooled things off.

Indiana apparently had a few problems getting along with neighboring states. For one thing there were various time zone oddities -- apparently Indiana didn't do daylight savings time, or not at the same time everyone else did, or didn't use the right timezone for its east-west location. All I know is every computer's time setting has a special category for "Indiana". (Who knows how many programmer hours have been spent to accomodate it?) For another, more immediately relevant thing, none of the roads connected at the borders. At least not directly.

Whereas at other borders roads would hook up, federal and state alike -- even the state roads often sharing the same number -- here the map showed major highways just cutting off at the boundary. Sometimes there were other roads nearby on the other side, but never connecting directly. I investigated further on my GPS. Apparently there WERE roads connecting the highways, but very small ones. I could find no indication of whether they were paved. But going down or up to an interstate just to cross from Illinois to Indiana was more than I was willing to do. I set off for the small roads, using the GPS as a guide.

I watched in amazement as my big fat state highway really did dwindle down to a bumpy one-lane road, little more than a track really but at least paved, hemmed in by corn fields. Soon even the corn fields gave way to random vegetation and vacancy. It was a no-man's land.

A car pulled out suddenly from one of the few houses scattered here, forcing me to stop short. Not expecting any traffic I suppose. I proceeded with caution, eventually finishing on a road leading right along the border for amost a mile before connecting to the Indiana side. Was Illinois to blame also? Did it take two to make this mess?

* * *

My destination for this evening was Tippecanoe River State Park. I'd always wanted to visit someplace called Tippecanoe.

I rolled in, only to find they charged $24 for a campsite. Quite whopping. One cause was too many people working at the office. But the real problem was the same as I'd been seeing everywhere: demanding tenants. Every site had an electrical hookup, and the bathrooms featured flush toilets and hot showers. Whatever happened to the art of roughing it, I wondered? Campgrounds now were dominated by RV's and you hardly ever saw a simple tent. I wondered if motels were feeling the competition.

Unfortunately, in these days of sprawling population it was harder than ever to find the alternative of a simple campsite along the side of a road. And with gas crowding $4 a gallon in many places, it seemed like shoestring travel in the U.S. was becoming a thing of the past. Short of hopping freight trains and sleeping in gutters I suppose. It was too bad.

* * *

285 miles.

Tuesday, July 17: The Rain

Thunderstorms predicted for the night, the campsite attendants had said. I labored to repack all of my luggage after dinner, hauling it into the tent. First time doing this on the trip. One half of the tent for me, one half for the bags. Did I really need all of this stuff?

Clothes for hiking: warm hat, gloves, light raingear, primaloft pullover, convertible shorts/pants.

Clothes for motorcycling: leather jacket, armored pants, helmet, leather gloves, synthetic shorts, heavy raingear.

Clothes for both: hiking boots, 3 synthetic shirts, 2 pairs synthetic underwear, 3 pairs hiking socks, 2 pairs running socks.

"Nice" clothes: button-down shirt, shorts, socks.

Tools and other MC stuff: toolkit that came with KZ, swiss army knife, large flathead screwdriver, chain lube, oil bottle, WD40, extra ignition plate picked up in South Dakota.

Gadgetry: camera, extra battery, charger, iPod, charger, microphone, this laptop, charger, wireless card, network cable, GPS, extra batteries, extra glasses, cable lock, map for each state passed through (torn from US road atlas).

Sundries: Three books (Krishnamurthi's Commentaries on Living, second series, the Tibetan "Book of the Dead" (Thurman translation), the Upanishads (Max Muller translation, second volume)), toiletries, cook kit, fuel bottles, food.

Seems excessive indeed. I'd been trying to be minimal and thought I'd done a good job. But on a long trip it's essential to maintain one's ties to civilization on the road. Get rid of the books, the laptop, and the iPod, and I'd slowly go mad. What point of traveling then? Perhaps I could have dropped all but the laptop, loaded up some eBooks and my MP3 collection. Maybe next time.

Did I really need two sets of rain gear? Until they make something that's both light and heavy duty, yes. A pair each of running socks and hiking socks could have been dropped, for sure. Maybe even a synthetic shirt, though the third had come in handy more than once on long intervals between laundry. The paper maps I would not have done without, although purists might say the GPS is enough. Too important a function to rely exclusively on technology, and besides there was no substitute for spreading out the maps in the evening and plotting out the next day's route.

Extra glasses and cable lock I did not use. Same for the large flathead screwdriver. Perhaps a little savings to be gained there.

* * *

The rain did indeed come, but unfortunately not until the morning. Around 7:30 I woke up to pitter patter, soon changing to splatter splatter, and showing no signs of letting up. I figured I'd give it a couple of hours, and if it was still going then assume it was an all-day affair and pack up the bike in the wet. Loading up was the worst part about riding in the rain -- once on the bike and moving the actual riding part wasn't that bad.

Just about two hours later though it fell back to a light drizzle and seemed about to die altogether. I wiped the tent down as well as I could and packed up. Time to move.

And move I did, fifteen minutes to the McDonalds in town. This rain was heading east, as all weather did here, and I had no desire to ride back into it. I worked my way through a leisurely breakfast and let it get a good head start before finally moving out at 11:30.

* * *

For the next five hours I rode along streets that were first dry, then progressively wetter in various stages of drying out. I paused for lunch and bought myself some more time. Based on yesterday and today I estimated the front was moving around 40 miles per hour. Fast enough to catch me from behind if I napped, but slow enough for me to run into it ahead if I rode with any degree of determination.

Finally around 4 I was getting very close. Puddles lay in the streets now, and I could see the air ahead grew misty. I examined cars coming the other way for signs of rain drops, but saw none. A misting rain, evidently. I debated stopping to watch a movie, but could find no town large enough to have a theater. At last, no alternative, I donned the rainsuit and rode into the wet.

Along came the Indiana-Ohio border, and once again I was pitched off the highways onto little-used back roads to make my way across. This time even dirt roads were involved, but I carried on unphased, having a feeling things would clear up on the Ohio side.

And they did, and the character of the land changed as well. It was a curious thing, the borders of states almost never corresponded with a geological or climactic boundary -- politics had been too arbitrary for that -- but none the less the character of the land would change. Perhaps where there had been farms there would now be ranches. Or maybe fields gave way to mixtures of forest and residential land. Somehow economic conditions were different, or being a citizen of a state led one to have a certain outlook, certain goals. "I'm in Texas, I need to get me a cattle ranch."

Or something like that.

Here in Ohio there were suddenly more trees than there had been in Indiana, more mowed lawns, more white-painted wood houses. Overall I judged it an improvement, though it would have been nicer if it were dry.

An hour later I stopped, having made enough distance for the day. Almost, I thought. A motel tonight. Dry out, use a laundromat. The day after tomorrow I'd hit the music festival that would be my welcome home. Of course the weather ended up clearing up almost as soon as I'd arrived, but that's the way things worked sometimes.

* * *

240 miles.

Wednesday, July 18: New York!

If the USA were being destroyed for recycling and I could preserve only three states, I would take California, South Dakota, and New York.

South Dakota for the prairie, of which I've already spoken. But also for its dry, rolling steppes, its forested "black hills", and the so-called badlands, which I did not see this time. A big and diverse state.

California of course typifies these qualities. Deserts so dry in the south they could film the Tatooine scenes of Star Wars there, while in the north rose forests of giant redwoods, setting for the planet of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. In between, the white granite spires of the Sierra Nevada looming over the broad San Joaquin Valley. Two further mountain ranges besides to the west and east. And along the edge, cliffs dropping down to the Pacific ocean.

And then there is New York. Not easy to describe its charms. "Rough elegance," maybe. The land has been gone over and lived upon for more than 200 years. So it's had time to assume a European, somewhat park-like aspect. Interspersed fields and woodlands, winding gracefully along the land's contours.

But this isn't Europe, this is America. There is a roughness to things -- cleared lands no longer being used, ramshackle buildings in the middle of nowhere, abandoned tractors in disused fields. The roughness is too little to engender ugliness; instead it brings a kind of comfort, makes the land more welcoming and endearing, less sterile and artificial.

The geography itself is crinkled, with a rolling aspect, bringing wide views from multiple perspectives. You aren't hugged in by the land, but rather lifted up and cast over it by the hills, looking out across broad valleys.

Set in these valleys, at the ends of lakes, and at the edge of plains are the towns and cities. Each state in the northeast has its own personality in this respect. In Connecticut you see a lot of grey stone, in Massachussetts dark wood, brown rock. In Vermont there are storybook villages. New York again is a bit rougher and readier in its upstate towns, usually preferring simple red brick to fancier masonry. Yet brick that was for the most part assembled in the 1800's, when craftsmen were hired to take time over appearances, and downtowns were the center of life.

And again, perhaps because economic development had its heyday here a hundred years ago, things are better preserved here than in other states. Prosperity was sufficient to maintain appearances, but not to destroy and rebuild.

Through much of this I rode now, having wended my way through a brief 80-mile stretch of Pennsylvania, this after dispensing with the remainder of Ohio in the first part of the morning. These seemed preliminaries; it was good to be back in familiar territory.

At the same time I lamented the coming end of my journeys. For the last month, excepting the week of backpacking in the Rockies, I'd more or less lived on the motorcycle, spending the majority of my waking hours there. Each day I'd make some progress on the road, see some new places and things I'd never seen before, awaken with a new position and a new perspective on life. Today was the last true day of this; tomorrow I'd end with my friends and more or less be home, a mere 50 mile hop separating me from my house itself. I tried to enjoy while I could.

* * *

I camped at Alleghany State Park, tucked along the western part of New York's southern tier. At the campground I met a fellow long-distance motorcyclist, albeit without his motorcycle. Kevin was a 6' 4" crew-cut redhead with angular features. He was in his late twenties. His bike, a Kawasaki KLR 650, dual purpose on- and off-road, was stored in Ecuador, awaiting continuation of a classic down-the-spine trip through Central and South America. He was up here earning money for six months to finance the remaining year and a half or so of the sojourn.

Currently this landed him as the leader of a British tour group on a low-budget "trek" trip through the northeastern U.S.. These folks had flown into New York, spent a couple of days there, driven to Boston, done the same, then Niagara falls, now Alleghany State Park, and next Washington, DC. Actually camping outside of all of these places. It seemed a strange way to see the cities, but it worked well for places like Niagara Falls. Last night they'd camped on a broad expanse of grass right on Lake Ontario.

Kevin and I polished off a six pack of Budweiser, that being one of the only beers they sold at the campsite store, telling each other tales of motorcycling while supervising his rambunctious group of British 18-24 year olds.

* * *

250 miles.

Thursday, July 19: To the Roots

As before in Indiana the last time I'd camped, it started raining early in the dawn and kept at it, with varying but usually high levels of intensity, for a few hours. Once again I packed up a wet tent, wet bags, and left the rain suit off, as it seemed to have shut down for a while.

Indeed I remained fortunate for the duration of the trip all the way until the last few miles. I took the 417 across the bottom of New York State, curving in and out of the north end of the Alleghany mountains. The roads were mostly dried out, but it was always clear that rain had been a visitor here in the recent past.

Finally, I rolled through Watkins Glen and up out of the Seneca Valley towards Trumansburg. Dark clouds boiled ominously above. But I had just 15 miles to go and hit no more than light drizzle until Trumansburg. As I passed out the south end, larger drops started falling, building to near downpour as I came up to the festival entrance.

Cars were parked for a mile along the road on either side. My motorcycle though, I could have slipped it in anywhere. But I went right up to the gate, where I saw two bikes parked in the grass in front of a building. I wasn't sure whether this was officially-sanctioned parking, but in this rain there was no time for deliberation. I gunned the bike up the hill leading to it, ignoring an orange-jacketed parking attendant scurrying in my direction. I decided on the "look like you know what you're doing" approach, and it worked. Once I got my helmet off and the bike on the kickstand, I looked around and he was gone.


I went in search of my friends. They would be the first I would see in the past eight days. But the traveler's road has a way of extending time; it felt more like eight months.

* * *

160 miles.

Thursday-Sunday, July 19-22: Grassroots Festival

Morning comes to the festival grounds, sun rising up into a clear sky, revelers still going from the night before crossing paths with early risers. A city that never sleeps: not quiescent but now quiet. A state only relative, but in its fashion as peaceful as morning out in the country could be.

I'd gone to bed late in the night, in a tent on the side of an avenue leading through the camping sea, lulled to sleep by the sound of a late-night reggae band playing in the dance tent. Small groups of people walked by now and then throughout the night, tossing random bits of conversation into our site. Words born of joy and good spirits, their presence enhancing rest rather than disturbing it. Even now in the early morning an occasional group still passed, gentle sounds to wake by.

I crawled out of the tent, gathered my things, lurched towards the bathhouses. No one else up in my campsite. Now was one of the best times of day to get a shower without waiting and with hot water.

I walked past the infield stage area, scene of last night's "Donna the Buffalo" reggae / blues / Dylan-esque band set. Amalgamation was the name of the game here. Amalgamation, alchemation, syncopation, juxtaposition, jammification.

Starting with bluegrass, hip hop, West African, Irish folk, reggae, gospel, and -- preferably in minor proportions only -- country.

Jazz them up, immediately, progressively, or suddenly. Electrify, accelerate, augment mix ferment -- and purify.

The results?

I was nullified
By a lullaby --
Musical tone,
That had me in the zone.
(Like Rod Serling .. serling ... serling)"

(festival hip hop artist Mic Wrecka of "Slo Mo")

Now in the morning the infield stage glistened in the early light, a sea of cups, cans, and other debris strewn out in front of it. Unnoticed the night before, presently to be quietly removed by a small army of volunteers before most saw it. These giving souls fanned out across the grounds every morning armed with gloves, plastic bags, and rakes. Septic tankers came and pumped out porta-johns, water trucks refilled foot-pump sinks outside them. It all functioned beautifully, a bedrock of order expressly constructed for the creative forces of chaos to play upon.

Two members of those forces stood up now on the stage, making bird calls into the main mic. The PA, somehow on, broadcasted this artificial chirping and warbling out across the grounds, where drowsy, unsuspecting campers such as myself awoke or turned over on their mats, taking them for the real thing.

Nearby a man blew into some kind of a giant plastic bag. It was perhaps 30 feet long and tubular in shape, just a foot or two in diameter. A giant sausage balloon. Twenty feet of it were already inflated, and for some reason sticking up into the air. Because of the air being warm from his lungs, perhaps, or, as someone later suggested, from the sun shining on the black bag. Two or three people stood by, paused like me trying to see exactly what this guy was up to.

* * *

Grassroots was a kind of ordered chaos, a Lagos, Nigeria-like flux of human improvization, given shape by creativity, held together by curiosity and love.

Certain things were given: four stages, a schedule of bands, a network of avenues and streets laid out in the 30-acre camping area, set off by purple and yellow tape wrapped to wooden stakes. The rest was up to us.

Along the campground avenues sites ranged from the private to the public, from the functional to the demonstrative. Some people inclined to be Hosts, others Wanderers. Hosts set up inviting havens, open canopies sheltering camp chairs or maybe even couches facing each other in a vaguely circular arrangement. The accomodation most conducive to interaction. In the middle would sit a set of coolers, a camp card table, or maybe a battle-scarred wooden relic of an actual coffee table. Hosts served drinks, often stocking full bars, sometimes food or other delicacies.

Into these dens filtered Wanderers, coming to sit for a time, soak in entertainment, or more often, provide it. They regaled all present with tales of where they'd been, what they'd seen and heard, within the festival or out on the seas of life. Meanwhile the Hosts tended to stay in their havens, venturing out into the festival at large only rarely, preferring instead to let it come to them.

And these havens became bases, convening points, essential meeting places without which the festival would be a more empty place. It really would be chaos then, a sea of faces bound by chance encounters and point-to-point cellphone contacts. A molecular gas, instead of a slowly swirling, admixed liquid, crystallizing and remelting between open cells.

Physicists tell us that life exists on "the edge of chaos", a fuzzy boundary between rigid order as of a crystal, and random motions as in a gas. At that boundary, random variations from chaos are selected and allowed to grow unchecked in their own directions. It is the contribution of order that allows this -- otherwise any unique variation is soon swamped and destroyed by collision with other variations. The selected variations expand and interact with one another on a longer time scale, adapting to each other's presence. And so a new process takes shape, alternative to static rigidity and to fluid motion: call it "construction". Or, to use another word, Creation.

"Double, double, boil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble..."

And thus, besides the Hosts and Wanderers, there were the Exhibitionists. These folks built dioramas, put up windmills, flew kites, flags, and other aerial displays. Peace signs, pagan symbols, shrines. The most elaborate effort I saw was a walk-in circular labyrinth, laid out in grass and flour, flags marking the center and periphery. The color purple played a prominent role.

Many Exhibitionists were also part Host, their sites serving social as well as aesthetic funtions. But in another way everyone was part Exhibitionist. People decorated everything -- themselves, their campsites, their clothing. Some things were sold at the festival to help out -- light sticks, glowing rings, tie-dye shirts... But much, much more was collected and brought from home. Kitsch anywhere else, but here, especially at night, striking beauty.

Then there was human art. For example, one day a friend wore a white t-shirt that announced in big, black letters, "FREE HUGS". It worked. We'd be standing around talking with him only to be suddenly interrupted by a group coming by, one or more members stepping up to embrace him like a bear. In the evening we asked him how it had been going, and he summed up, "I must have received between three and four hundred hugs today." Both women and men. We felt awed at such definitive proof of universal human affinity.

Human art took many forms. At the larger, night time music performances people would toss light sticks into the crowd, which would be caught or retrieved from the ground and thrown again. Up into the sky they would arc, and then come down towards the people, flashing, spinning glows. Again, the bubbling cauldron -- or sparking fireworks -- or one of those fountains where brief water jets are shot up to travel and be absorbed somewhere else, translucent creatures cavorting in joyous display.

"It was peace and love everywhere
Beneath, right underneath the streets!
And the rapists, the thieves, the apists, police,
And killers and priests
Were running straight from their beliefs."

Mic Wrecka again -- on a shamanistic journey to the Underworld. A place that in these traditions houses a vast reservoir of healing energy, to which the shaman journeys and draws upon to help members of his tribe. On a spiritual level, the festival environment was surely such a place. The music. The hugs. The decorated havens. And I heard thousands of conversations but not a single angry word for four days.

"It's subterranean!
Down here it'll never rain again,
The pain will end.
It'll never be the same again."

One can hope..

* * *

How is it that such concentrations of goodness and positive emotion exist within the U.S.A., one of the most belligerent, competitive nations in the world? Is it somehow a compensatory reaction, as with the Vietnam war? Arts festivals emerging to balance negativity, a natural movement to neutral social charge? Does a shared distaste and revulsion at crimes perpetrated by wreckless leaders help bind us more closely together? And if so, is the negative truly needed to produce the positive? Without the neocons and chickenhawks, would half the people at this festival just be monotonously going to their jobs, earning their salaries, taking ordinary family vacations to the beach? Unable to connect with or relate to the remaining half of organic grocery store workers, outdoor instructors, dread-headed hippies? Would the festival itself lose energy, fading to a pale reflection of what it could be?


Sunday, July 22: Motorcycling's End

All things come to a close, and on the last day of the festival, people were leaving in singles and pairs, just as they'd arrived. An organic whole, disintegrating back into component molecules. Sunday, and many wanted to get home with some time remaining to ease the transition back to Monday's work. The collective was disassembling, the city being broken down around us.

Late afternoon around 5:30, at the end of a set, I told my companions I was leaving. I needed to be home before dark. We walked back to our site, I gathered my things, said the last goodbyes, and lugged everything out to the bike.

Sadness, but a sweet version of it, for the warmth of friendship and good cheer remained, a soft glow physically palpable throughout my body.

And then I was on my way, 50 easy miles through the loveliest areas I'd seen on the trip, set by blue sky and sun. No traffic. It felt good to be on the road again after four days, and I savored it. For this was the end. When I parked the bike on my driveway later today, it would revert to mere recreational implement, my livelihood would change, and my car would resume again the role of primary mode of transportation. And no longer would my life be defined each day by beginning and end points on a map, two campsites, and the vast, inspiring, ever-changing real life spaces between them.

* * *

50 miles.

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