Postcards From Cambodia

The title of this blog is the name of a song by Bruce Cockburn. If you’ve never heard it before, give it a listen. The song speaks aptly of the many sights and sounds, and life, Mara and I experienced while being in Cambodia this last November.

 The flight was long, seventeen hours, but the layover in Narita, at the United Club, was a worthwhile break from the grind and prepared you for the next leg to Bangkok. From there it was but a quick hop to Siem Reap, Cambodia, Gateway to Angkor Wat. Low season was just about over. In about a month, the hordes of tourists would descend on this little town, bursting it at the seams. Mara hooked us up at a little B&B, ‘La Fromager’, that was off the main drag and quiet. A perfect little spot to view the frenetic pace of traffic and commerce. Really, just crossing the street there is like playing Russian roulette. There are no real rules of the road, but somehow the seeming chaotic, accident about to happen traffic patterns, flow swiftly without interruption. It’s a totally different scene than here in the states. You gotta laugh as tourists rent scooters and attempt to navigate the streets of Anytown, Cambodia. Yeah, we did it, too. There’s nothing like taking your life in your own hands. I have to admit that driving here would take a few years to get the hang of, if you survived that long.

 To go distances longer than you’d care to walk, forget the scooter and take a tuk-tuk. It’s cheap transportation, they’ll wait for you, and the best part is they drive!

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

 With Angkor Wat a fair distance from Siem Reap town, Mara and I, taking the advice of our driver, would arrive before dawn. Because Angkor Wat is so well restored one can begin exploring before the sun is fully up.  Nearly every stone surface has been carved, with rarely a blank wall. Hindu imagery collides with Buddhist creating a mind–boggling menagerie from massive stone heads twenty feet high, to a tiny Buddha image carved into an otherwise unnoticeable niche. Then there is everything in between.

 We used up every bit of our four-day pass visiting half a dozen other temples surrounding Angkor. These other Wats are not as restored and have a mystery all their own. Giant trunks of fig trees have grown through the walls, ceilings, and, well, pretty much everything.

 These places are huge. The moats surrounding them enclosed anywhere from fifty to one hundred acres. The Khmer population at around 900A.D. had to have been in the millions to build and maintain these monstrous undertakings. Of course, the fertile plains surrounding Angkor stretch as far as the eyes can see. And everywhere is rice, the lifeblood of a nation that is still sown and reaped by hand.

 History Cambodia’s got. From the ancient and much revered distant past all the way to the more recent bloody swath Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge tore through Cambodia in the late 70’s, not so very long ago. The Cambodians do not hide that particularly dark time as remnants of the killing fields and caves have been maintained and preserved. Not so much as a solemn remembrance of the past, but as a tourist attraction.  For the young tuk–tuk drivers, who will take you to hell and back again, the sights are just another stop on the tourist trek, much like the bat cave, the bamboo train, and the winery.  It’s strange and I wonder if they really understand what went down during the days of the Khmer Rouge. Does anyone?

The older fold remember. You can see it in their eyes, behind the smile. Fear. But life goes on. Monsoons come and go, flooding the rice fields and continuing the cycle.

Bamboo Train , Battambang, Cambodia

Bamboo Train, Battambang, Cambodia

 After about a week in Siem Reap we headed, by bus, to Battambang. It’s an old town with enough of its own history to generate a thriving bit of tourism. There are Angkor era monuments and enough Wats to do some serious temple hounding. Battambang is a bit of a hub for western Cambodia so there is a lot going on and worthy of a few days exploring and eating our way across town. With tourism not being the main point of Battambang’s existence, you get a good cross section of Cambodian life.  It may not all be beautiful, but it is real and fascinating. The working class is armed with their smile and are probably lucky just to have a job. Those not working are busy starving. Landmine victims hustle the dining tables at the edge of the street where they vie for space with homeless kids and hungry eyes.

 Cambodia is not for the squeamish. There is just too much reality going on here. Just how long can you hang cow parts in an open–air market at 90 plus degrees? Plus there are more parts to a cow, or any other meat for food than you can imagine. Restaurants advertise that they don’t serve dog, rat, cat, or birds. Nice of them to let you know, but if you are a meat eater, there’s a good chance you’ve already had some.

Dried Fish at Market

Dried Fish at Market

 After four or five days of a comfortable bed and hot showers at the Lux, it was time to catch a bus for the half­­–day ride to Phnom Penh. The main road to the capitol is a little off the tourist route. Most of the towns and villages economy revolved around agriculture, not tourism. The most obvious sign of this was that the stores only sold things you needed. No shiny new plastic or impractical clothing or trinkets. Fresh fish, dried fish, fermented fish, unknown fish, trays of deep-fried bugs, veggies, flip–flops, rubber boots, and tools. What more does one need? It was only as you closed in on Phnom Penh that you began to see stuff that you didn’t need, for sale; ridiculous clothes, a lot of cell phones, plastic things, cheap booze and hookers. And once in the city, that was all you could get.

 Phnom Penh rises from the rice paddies and surrounding country like a darkened parody of western life. Modern skyscrapers jut obscenely from the crumbling early twentieth century facades. The action is along the Mekong river waterfront. The quay teams with Cambodians and tourists wandering the well–lit concrete in search of something to do. One thing the evenings along the quay had to offer was a Cambodian version of public jazzercise set to hip–hop. A couple hundred locals with matching shirts squared off a section of concrete and did their thing. Smiling faces in various degrees of physical conditioning sweated it out. Why and how are good questions! Trying to put a happy face on a ghetto of crime? Then came the fireworks. The first salvo had about half the street ducking before they realized the explosions were for entertainment. A visible police presence keeps the black market discreet. The market for flesh not so much. Hookers abound with children in tow to satisfy one of the darkest tourist markets I have ever seen. Ex–pat Russians have taken a liking for Phnom Penh and seem to own the place. There is even a Russian market that is packed at night. Shoulder to shoulder insane shopping and eating. I think Mara and I spent more time trying not to lose each other than anything else.

 Daytime in Phnom Penh is hot and we would find ourselves working the shaded side of the streets. With a couple weeks of traveling under our belt, Mara thought a massage was in order. With massage parlors lining the waterfront we figured this to be a no brainer. After a few inquiries, we found that the place we were looking for was on the other side of town. You see, the parlors on the waterfront come with a ‘happy finish’. We found a place by the central post office where the massages were done by the blind. I must admit to being quite pleased at the end of the massage, if not happy too!

 The capitol city offers a plethora of attractions to occupy your time. Those of us who love old temples will not be disappointed. Many of the Wats have been restored or have restorations underway. The Royal Palace and grounds are being fixed at this time. The temples themselves are fantastic with a detail of construction that marvels the eye. Gold and the vibrant colors of the spectrum radiate from the repaired structures. The old ones like the Angkor era temples, 900 A.D. to around 1100A.D., are now bare rock when originally the were all painted and gem encrusted.

 Step ahead ten centuries and you have modern Cambodia. If the recent history is more your thing, any number of tours go to the many killing fields and bombed out rice paddies where the craters are still visible. You have the opportunity to view as many skulls recovered from the killing fields as one could possibly want.

Or, if you wish to wade in a little irony, you can take a half day ride to view some killing fields and then go feel what its like to create one. By that, I mean going to the shooting range and fire some extreme weaponry. Handguns, Ak-47’s, RPG’s, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, fifty caliber machines guns, and some ancient iron.

Where else could you get the chance to shoot this stuff! Cambodia! Something for everyone! Even our hotel room had a painting we had to cover with a sarong…

Modern Art - Phnom Penh

Modern Art in our Room – Phnom Penh.

 Is the country safe to visit? Absolutely! Travelling families were everywhere, from couples with toddlers to more mature family groups. Travelling in Cambodia is similar to other locations in Southeast Asia. As long as you don’t go out of your way to do anything stupid, you will be all right. A.K.A., if there are riots, stay near your hotel. Don’t poke the tiger. Health care, however, can be an issue. The rule of thumb is, anything beyond a minor cut should send you running to Bangkok for decent health services. Cambodia’s is sketchy and expensive. Best to get to Thailand, quick!

 Local food, café food, and street cart food was safe to eat and delicious. After a couple days eating lunch at one place, they will start to offer you more exciting local food to try. Take the chance and you will be delightfully surprised with your taste buds screaming for more.

 History, culture, food, agriculture, and natural beauty, yes I have to say again Cambodia has it all. In our two and a half weeks there, we had just scratched the surface of this marvelous place. There is little doubt that we will go there again and immerse ourselves ever deeper into Cambodia’s mystery and splendour.

 After a few days in the city, it was time to head out into the country again. This meant flying out of Phnom Penh to Krabi, Thailand. With more than a little reluctance, we headed by tuk–tuk to the airport, not knowing if life would bring us back again. We certainly hope so. Ahead, however, lay Thailand. It has been twenty years since being there. Change comes to everywhere and it should be interesting to see what the future has done with Krabi by the sea.

 Next: Thailand, culture shocked!

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POST TRAVELING BLUES

With four books and five hard years of writing and publishing them, a break was called for. My wife, Mara, and I have been traveling around the world since we first met. Every few years Mara gets that traveling jones for which there is only one fix. We juggled work and finances. Got a friend to sit the cat and chickens. Basically got our bases covered as best we could and mainlined it to Southeast Asia.
We had five weeks. Back in the day it would have been more like five months. Times change and so do responsibilities; still we had five weeks in which to get it on.

Honolulu to Bangkok in seventeen hours – that’s good time by any ones’ standards. We would be doing Bangkok towards the end of the journey so we booked a hotel in the old district, near Wat Pho – the reclining Buddha, as an extended layover to get our feet on the ground before flying to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Angkor Wat.
As a ‘wonder of the world’ Angkor Wat certainly lives up to its reputation. At around a thousand years old, the place is awe-inspiring. We heeded the advice of our driver and would arrive before dawn. At that time of day Angkor is virtually empty of people with just a few others, like us, nursing the last of our coffee before it is light enough to walk. By sunrise we would be deep within the ruins. Not a sound. The hefty scent of Nag Champa incense fills the air. There sits a monk shrouded in orange robe and smoke. Very old, wrinkled, eyes blank, hands curled, as he mumbles a prayer. For a few riels, he will tie a red braid around your wrist and bless you. Such a deal and of course we did. A temporary badge of honor.

Then again, when you are visiting one of the ‘killing caves’ and a monk, old enough to remember the Khmer Rouge, ties one on, it’s a totally different experience. You are surrounded by the skulls and bones of those thrown the fifty meters down to their death into the cave. In this particular instance, the Khmer Rouge chose not to waste bullets. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds… And this was in 1977, not some ancient history.
Cambodia is a country on the edge. They are still recovering from the days of Pol Pot’s regime and despite overwhelming poverty; there is a surging bit of capitalism bolstered by the tourist industry. There is something for everyone in Cambodia and the salespeople aggressively vie for your American dollar. Meditate with a monk one day and go shoot a rocket launcher the next. That’s Cambodia for you.
After due consideration, I passed on the rocket launcher. The irony was just too much. Landmines and UXO’s still kill and maim after all these years. They lie in rice paddies or buried under the jungles growth, waiting, waiting for that errant footfall to remind the little machines what they were built for. Who was I to mock a bitter past and fearful reminders of the present as witnessed by small limbless music bands who play cheerful tunes for a buck? Better to visit the countryside, and enjoy a people whose smile wipes away any grim reminders its history.

That Cambodian smile. The real thing is something worth trying. When it finds you, magic happens. It is everywhere if you but open your eyes to see it. Wandering the streets of Battambang, and even Phnom Penh – with its grim Russians, tired hookers and burnt junkies – the smile is everywhere. Along with it, there’s the chance to return the smile and share it.

Serpent's Head

Serpent’s Head

You do a lot of wandering when you travel. I mean what else is there to do. Walking a town you do not know, gives you a chance to glimpse the real life at a pace slow enough to get up close and personal. We would walk everywhere. You could always catch a tuk–tuk back to your hotel if the meanderings took us too far. Our accommodations were always low end to mid range in price, 15$ to 25$ a night. Clean with a firm bed was all we asked and generally got more than we asked for. Traveling with an open mind and positive attitude opens up all kinds of doors for you. The karma is instant and generally way beyond satisfactory. You get out of it what you put into it. It’s that simple. Still you needed to be aware at all times. All the smiles and goodwill you can muster will not take care of being dumb.

Every once in while a scooter would pull over and offer you a variety of black market stuff. While the offers seemed inviting, it required you jump on the back of the scoot and go somewhere, with someone you don’t know, to acquire something you don’t really need. That somewhere is usually out in the country or in a part of town you wouldn’t be caught dead in. Either way you end up out of your environment, out of your comfort zone, and at the whim of some very unscrupulous characters. There is the chance you won’t ever come back. It happens. It’s best to just pass on such opportunities.

Which Wat is what?

Which Wat is what?

If however your tastes lean more towards a cross-cultural blend of Hinduism and Buddhism, then Cambodia is just the place for you. For more than a thousand years the dominance of one over the other has waxed and waned. You will find temples – Wats – that have morphed from Hindu to Buddhist and back again with images of the Buddha right alongside those of Shiva. Literally everywhere you look, one or the other, or both, will be in your line of sight.

The first time Mara and I went to Southeast Asia, Cambodia was off-limits with pockets of the Khmer Rouge still being eradicated from the country. Thirty years later we made it and are already planning on going back as soon as time allows. A few weeks is nowhere near enough time to really get into a country. Yet enough to allow the exotic flavors, smells, sights, and sounds of Southeast Asia to get deep under your skin. Once it is in your blood, you’re hooked.

Until that traveling jones calls once again, it is back to the books and blogs. My fifth book is well under way and I am deciphering my travel journal to blog the journey with pictures. Luckily I am one of those writers who gets to work full-time, too, so I have all the time the world to do this sort of thing.

Aloha j g rees
NEXT: Postcards from Cambodia

The Wheel Turns – 2012 X-Country Ride:; Thoughts, Observations and a Retrospective

 

Okay, what do you want first, the good or the bad? Well then I guess we’ll just toss it up a bit. I guess what amazed me most was the people across this great country of ours. What a mix up we have. Yet no matter where you were or the color of your riding apparel, there were smiling faces always willing to take a moment and show human kindness in whatever form it took. When you’re lost, a long way from where you are supposed to be and not a clue as to how to get there, it comes as a great relief when some good Samaritan gives you directions. The roles would change from time to time as well. I always travel with a pretty well stocked tool kit and it’s surprising how something like a Phillips head can make someone’s day. What goes around comes around, as they say.

Camping in the Badlands

We saw extremes of wealth and poverty. What community spirit can do and what happens when there is none. The towns that industry built and what remained after its departure. Enclaves of gentrification surrounded by slums. The unsurpassed character of older architecture next to stucco, glass, polished aluminum and plastic.

Then one leaves the urban surroundings and heads out into the countryside. From the farms to the forests, mountains to the deserts of the southwest, beauty runs rampant across the land. Yes, we saw fracking, strip mining, digging coal straight from the ground along the roadside, oil rigs – it happens. The vast tracts of green forest however had me mesmerized. So many acres, so many trees. It was good for the soul to ride amongst them. But there is something happening to the trees from the west coast to the east coast. They are dying by the millions. At first glance you don’t notice. Then you begin to look closer. The nation-wide drought has weakened the forests along with an infestation of wood-boring insects, taking advantage of the crippling effects of drought. The campgrounds we stayed at, all of them, were very strict about not transferring wood from one location to another, in an effort to slow the migration of bugs. At more than a few camps there was no burning at all due to the drought.

Rivers are streams, streams are creeks and creeks are dry. Man, it’s been a rough summer. Still the sights, sounds and smells of the country never cease to amaze you. Even the smells of a refinery caught on the morning breeze in some town in Wyoming had a certain something. One passerby took a deep breath and quipped, ‘Smells like independence!’ Oh the irony!

Perhaps that is what I had been inhaling the whole ride; independence and the very foundation on which our country stands. We take these things for granted, but think about it. You have the freedom to do what you want to do. Even jump on a motorcycle and ride across the country any time you feel like it.

Speaking of freedom, there is one thing. Sturgis. We were lucky to be passing through that area of South Dakota a few days before the opening. It was easy to see why the Sioux held this land area as sacred. Sometimes in your face, at other times, more sublime, the beauty of the land was truly remarkable. I was blown at so many Harley Davidson’s on the road. (Remember I live on an island in the middle of the ocean.) From ancient iron to brand new just off the assembly line, the variations and styles staggered the imagination. It’s quite a cool, noisy sight to see a hundred bikers riding in a pack down the road. Rolling thunder indeed! In a way it’s kind of a freedom rally.

This year though I was shocked by numbers after the rally was over. Nine dead and forty three injured in motorcycle accidents. Those are pretty rough numbers by anyone’s standards. I would hope some of the Sturgis organizers and Harley Davidson kind of step up to plate on this one and do some promotion and education on biker safety. It’s just a party. Nobody should be dying.

 

A motorcycle ride like this one is a once in a lifetime kind of deal. Oh sure, I have made a few in the past, and hope for a couple more before the ‘big ride’ is through. But there will never be another quite like the 2012 X-Country Ride: Wheels on Fire. The journey became epic as it progressed, tapping all the requirements necessary for a real adventure.

We pushed ourselves to the limit of endurance and beyond. It wasn’t the machines that were of concern. They could certainly withstand far more than we were asking of them. Nevertheless they were part of the equation requiring due diligence and attention. It was the human factor that was the X amongst the numbers, unknown yet pivotal in the outcome. Physical hardship became a tool for human growth. Digging deep and finding out just how much you’ve got, comes at a cost. Cheap it is, compared to what you get out of it. Learning your limits, not by staying within them, but by stretching them to the limit. If one snaps, you will have learned your limit by going beyond them and surviving. Having goals, meeting them and sometimes surpassing them. There are always obstacles, physical, mental, heat, cold, distance, light and dark, that will try to get in the way of the goal. Only by meeting each handicap and coming to terms with them do you succeed. As long as you do your best the real goal is always met.

Badlands Sunrise

 

 

7843 miles of

ALOHA

The Wheel Turns – 2012 X-Country Ride: California Bound; 620 miles of Hell and Irony.

Morning in Wendover was hot, even before the sun rose. All that concrete couldn’t dump its heat during the night, so the place just gets hotter and hotter. A camp breakfast and cup of hotel coffee and we were on the road. This is perhaps the earliest start of the trip. It would also be the most miles covered in one day, thus the carpe diem. The throttle was rolled and once we hit 80 mph you settled in the seat and assumed the position. Our stops were limited to gas and go. As the day came on in earnest, they would become more frequent.

Road Shot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nevada has a unique beauty to it. Sure the land is desolate and bleak, but if you can see past the veneer it rivals any of the sights we have seen on this trip with mountains and high deserts, windswept expanses of nothing in all directions. The vistas were used as a distraction as the heat of the day poured it on. Before noon we had broken the ride’s temperature record at 107 degrees while moving. You had to laugh; I mean this was getting ridiculous. Nevada stretched on, horizon after horizon waving in the heat. Long hours later the Sierras loomed before us. Visions of riding in the cool mountain air gave a jolt to keep the wheels turning.

After an unending brown, the tree line greeted us with green. Dry but still lush to these eyes. The rivers and lakes were low yet sparkling clear blue, and cold. The temp didn’t drop so much as we would have liked. Kale reminded me to ice up as we were headed down the mountain into the Central Valley. He didn’t mention the current temperature in Davis, Ca. He didn’t have to.

Surely at some point the tires of the bike have to melt and end this madness. Especially now. We crawled through Sacramento, Ca. at rush hour. Eight lanes of solid cars supposedly heading east greeted us. ‘What the hell is that?’ I thought when tail lights started going on ahead of us. For ten miles we clutched the unforgiving stretch of asphalt surrounded by talking heads on cell phones. At least we were moving. The eastbound lanes had turned into a parking lot.

Then suddenly free. The lanes ahead opened and RPM’s came up. The wind, even though hot, was still refreshing after sucking exhaust fumes for a half an hour. The sun beat down on us, but somehow it wasn’t a killing blow. Putting together all the things learned over the course of the ride came into play, keeping you alert and responsive.

Davis, Ca. was gasping for a breath of cool air when we pulled off for our final fuel stop. I needed re-icing and a good douse of cold water. In paying attention to the ambient heat, I missed something Kale was saying about weather just ahead. The joke would be on me. Another half hour of the blistering heat and we crossed the San Gabriel Mountains into the Bay Area. The temperature plummeted with the altitude as fog rolled in across the Berkley Hills.

115 degrees to 54 degrees in a matter of minutes. Moments later I was shivering. The iced bandana, wet shirt, and salted body from sweat soaked up the cold moist air. At seventy miles an hour, it was not time to fiddle with the knot on my bandana. Turn on the heated handgrips instead and start laughing was about the only appropriate response I could think of. Having dreamt of a moment like this for thousands of miles I certainly wasn’t going to bitch when the dream came true.

A stop at a grocery store for fresh salad and ice cream. Then through the streets of Oakland to Kale’s house. Kickstands went down, a pause. Engines shut off, another pause. We both just sat there for a moment, in mindful thanks before swinging down off the saddle. A high five. A robust hug. I think at that moment, all we wanted to do was get back on the motorcycles and keep going.

As Kale put it, “It was a blast, I tell ya, a blast!”

John’s Bike

Next: 2012 X-Country Ride; Thoughts and Observations, a Retrospective

Kale’s Bike

The Wheel Turns – 2012 X-Country Ride: Frying our Way across the West at a Blistering Pace.

Never one to make Kale wait unduly, we broke camp. Unfortunately my one cup of coffee was finished. I would have to deal on my own. With an altered plan of attack, we hit the road with a mission; get me back in one piece. Backtracking thirty miles got us to US25 south. We booked it, eating up the cool of the hot morning. At 85 mph, the pace was still slow. Huge pickups blasted passed us. You could only guess at the speed. The high plains began to roll more and the surface of the road, excellent. A few herds of cows and bison went by in a blur of speed. The bikes held tight. After a leisurely pace across the country, they finally had a chance to run. High speed, well not high speed, but really fast, sweepers, rights, lefts, rises and dips. I think we all enjoyed the experience.

We spent the night in Casper. A short day for us that allowed for some time to watch the Olympics and hydrate in the cool of a hotel room. Ahead was a big stop. Independence Rock. The outcropping of stone got its name from the early pioneers who arrived at this point in their journey on July Fourth. A portion of the original trail is has been saved. A bridge crosses it for viewing and imagination. The rock itself is a massive blunt of stone rising from the floor of the plains with nothing around except the sage, gophers and distant mountain range that was appropriately out of place.

As the pioneers must have been thankful for making it this far, so was I. Even more thankful to have such a good friend and riding partner as Kale. There are only a few who enjoy long hours of riding everyday. Six to eight is tops for most folk and more than enough for anyone. We are the exception. Considering the next few days ahead…

Through the Green Mountains, Whiskey Peak and down to our old friend Interstate 80. After a lunch that was best left forgotten, we did on 80 what 80 was made for, making time. The heat pressed down on you like one of those weights they put on bacon to keep it flat. There was just no escaping it. Water, lots of it, and don’t let it get to you.

If you want to think, the road gives you plenty of time to do it. You have to remain alert enough to ride and keep the mind active, somehow. For one stretch of road I sang ‘ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall’ until reaching the next fuel stop.  A little crazy I will admit, but whatever it takes to stay on the ball is what it takes. The day rolled on relentlessly, waves of heat warping the road, melting reality. Everything you saw had that Dali look to it, like wax sagging in the heat. Kale looked like a lava light, his helmet that big glob that’s just about to break free. A turn signal, a rest area, shade and cold water. Whoo, that was close!

From here on out it would be one’s ability to endure that would make the difference. It’s just heat. Stay hydrated, iced down, and don’t lose your cool. You can endure longer if you keep your head. Lose it and it’s over.

Mountain ranges loomed ahead. The thought of cool alpine air gave you something to look forward to. We pulled off for gas and supplies in Park City, Utah. The drop in temperature was a mere five degrees. There would be no relief as we dropped down into the Salt Lake valley. The pancake flat land stretched far beyond the horizon. The famous salt flats are but a small, brilliant stretch of this level plain.

We gassed again at the beginning of Bonneville Salt Flats, watered up and iced down. This last push of the day was going to be brutal. At least the sun was still high in the sky and not burning holes through your eyes. The bright glare of reflected sun off the salt crystal however made up for what would have been a small relief. Thoughts of being out on the flats without water or shade were not happy ones. Having mentioned the flats in one of my books it was nice to see memory served well when describing them. The white hot flash of an arc welder would give you an idea of the brilliance of the land. There were no plumes of salt grit rising from the raceway at the western end of the flat. The rooster tails of racing cars or motorcycles would shoot high off the rear tires describing its path across the flats. There were no tails today. It must be the heat I thought. They would race in the early day before everything melts or in the evening after it solidifies again.

The mountains on the western edge seemed to be dripping into the valley. There was no respite from the heat but there was Wendover, Utah. A border town half in Utah, half in Nevada. We spent the night in a hotel on the Utah side for the quiet. Step over the state line and its casinoville. Tonight was the last night of the trip. The moon was full as it was the day we left. Though not home yet we were coming full circle. Unbeknownst to me at the time tomorrow would be the final exam, testing all the skills we gained over the course of the last month and push us to the limit.

Next: California bound. 620 miles of Hell and Irony.

The Wheel Turns – 2012 X-Country Ride: Cool Mountain Riding, Molten Roads

 

A near full moon lit the Badlands that night. The rugged landscape took on a surreal atmosphere. The night was bright enough to walk and get lost if you were not paying enough attention. I wandered a bit in the buscus light and though the campground was always in sight, it was task to find our campsite without disturbing the other campers. I laughed at my ability to get turned around so easily. The moon set a few hours before dawn, so there was a little time for some shuteye. Sunrise came too soon along with our time in the Badlands. We stretched the morning’s cool until it was memory before hitting the road.

We took the scenic route out of the Badlands. The freshly oiled and graveled surface of the road kept us spaced a hundred feet or more apart. Rock chips and bits of congealed oil flew off the treads of our tires at a wicked speed. Getting pelted repeatedly hurts. Bypassing Wall, So. Dakota on 44, which was a more scenic route (Wall was already packed with the Sturgis crowds) we came into Rapid City through the back door. The local motorcycle dealer was open on a Sunday to handle all the bikers’ needs and ours. We were out of chain lube. I ogled all the fancy machines and those plush seats, absorbing the ac before rolling on out of Rapid City again on 44 into the Black Hills. From the heat of the high plains to the cool of the forested mountain roads that followed the river towards Spearfish, South Dakota, we shared the road with more Harleys than you can imagine. There were always friendly faces when pulling over to enjoy the views.

 

After watching the mountains for a while you could see where the artist who designed Mt. Rushmore got his inspiration. The natural rock formations are full of faces. For hours we leaned, throttled and braked our way along the pine covered Black Hills.

At Spearfish we discussed the route. The plan was to ride to Yellowstone before jamming back to the Bay Area. To do that we needed to reach Sheridan, Wyoming or better by night fall. By this time the Black Hills were behind us, the high plains resumed. The heat of the day was full on as we blasted west on interstate 90. If you were going 80mph, you were going slow. Even 90 mph didn’t cool it down. Ice lasted twenty minutes before evaporating. Shade. Shade. Shade at every stop. Without it you were alone in the sun. Drenched yourself and the gear in water for a brief respite. Suck your air in from pursed lips to create a venturi cooling of the incoming breath. It all helps but the only thing that will get you through is will power. Give until your abilities are being compromised.

Sheridan was within reach. You could almost feel it. Just over the next rise or around the next sweeper, always the next. The sun was dropping towards the horizon but not fast enough. It bore into your eyes like a red-hot ice pick. You tilted the visor, put your hand up to block the sun, but it always returned, frying your brain with a spear of molten light. Sheridan was still a few miles away. I had stopped watching the signs and was paying more attention to the road. I was pushing it. Beyond pushing it even. My limit was miles behind and had been over it for some time now. Kale had said, ‘know when to park the bike.’ It was now but there was no place to pull over that had shade. Just had to tough it out, carefully.

The exit came. All I saw was Kale’s turn signal. I was beyond perceptually narrowing. My focus was too tight and all I wanted to do was put that kickstand down, safely. Kale kept heading into town after the exit while I pulled into the first gas station with a mini store. Plunking a twenty on the counter I peeled the suit off and started slamming ice cold sport drinks to bring the body temp down. The pee was clear but I was cranking 451 degrees on the inside. I had had it. We were still a thousand miles from home.

Kale found me soon enough after not seeing the F650 in the rear view mirror. I was still shaky but coming around and leaned heavily on the cane he got for me in Sandusky.

“How you doing?” he asked seeing the pained expression.

“I don’t know. The sun. Think my brain started to boil.”

“Yeah, it is a hot one.” Kale was always good with understatements. It wasn’t until now that I realized he hadn’t been giving the whole weather forecast for days. Always staying away from the temp. Of course there wasn’t much to forecast with the exception of exceptionally hot weather and occasional thunderstorm. “You good to camp or you want to hotel it?”

“Let’s camp. Is it close?”

“Couple miles that way,” he pointed.

“Okay, I can make it.”

I wasn’t really sure about that last statement. The thought of getting on the bike and making it safely was in serious question. As long as we didn’t go fast, or far. Wobbling off the tarmac onto the gravel road that serviced the KOA gave a final rush before parking for the night. The sights and sounds of the last few days whirled phantasmagorically around my brain. Somehow a shower was taken, the tent set up and dinner eaten before the crash came on.

Morning came on slow and sluggish. Coffee cleared the haze only to find Kale with the map open. He had decided last night that we should start heading back. He could see the limits I tried not to. A very wise rider. We were still a thousand miles from home. I didn’t argue. Next: Frying our way across the west at a blistering pace.

Sheridan Finally!

 

 

 

The Wheel Turns – 2012 X-Country Ride: North and West, Into the Fires of Hell, the Badlands

After a night of sleeping through a classic mid-western thunderstorm, we woke to the evidence of its passing. Trees, already damaged by bug infestations, had toppled during the night with a few crossing the driveway. Nobody was going anywhere for a while. Large branches, like so much straw, were strewn about the open yard and gardens. It had that disaster look about it but no damage to the home or out buildings. It could have been worse.

These types of storms do little to alleviate the drought conditions. Though everyone is grateful for the water, the drop in ambient temperature and temporary fire hazard reduction, most of the water just runs off. The ground is just too dry to accept it when dumped all at once. There is generally more damage than benefit as evidenced by the work crews hard at it to clear the roads and high wires.

The work of cleaning up was one of those chores that give gratification at the cost of a little elbow grease. Good neighbors making the rounds of checking on their neighbors after the storm lent a hand in the effort. You gotta admire those young strong farm boys and the work ethic that comes along with them.

We took an extra day to put things in order before answering the call of the road. Kale’s mom and dad helped once again with the loading of the bikes with love and the best of lunches. This is one of my favorite places on the mainland and hope to have done it some wee small justice for its beauty and the people who live there.

US 30 got us across Indiana, Illinois and the Mississippi. Across central Iowa to Omaha, Nebraska. Falling barns that were remembered from previous tours were gone. Not due to development, but time. Others are taking their places, yet there was always something peculiar about the old ones. The wheel turns. Iowa was an oven on preheat.

A cool night at the Cobbler Inn, we always stop at the Cobbler when in the hood, helped to prepare us for the extreme temps that waited in South Dakota. Well rested, hydrated – though personally I could go for another six cups of coffee – we seized the day early, heading north along the Missouri River. Today would be a Sioux – Sioux run. Get to Sioux City, Iowa; keep going until Sioux Falls, South Dakota, keep going some more!

We had ridden far enough, reaching the surface of the sun. The term ‘hot’ no longer applied. One small mom and pop gas station asked that I pay for the ice that was put in water bottles and bandana. The bill was gladly paid. Ice doesn’t just appear. From then on I asked at each stop whether there was a charge for the ice. That’s how thankful you can be for something we take for granted. Without the cooling, hard can easily be turned into miserable and I knew that going there wouldn’t serve. There was too just much mindful enjoyment to be had in the miles ahead. The intense heat was taking its toll. How much longer it could be tolerated was a good question. Kale asked often, ‘How ya doing?’ There were times I wasn’t sure. As long as the riding skills aren’t compromised, there is a good chance you have a few more miles in you, if you want it. Then again there is no shame in calling it a day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The word ‘spectacular’ doesn’t go far enough for the sites and sounds of the country. The high plains of South Dakota are no exception. The expansive ‘barren’ landscape stretches the imagination to grasp its size. ‘Barren’ is a relative term. Let’s say it was barren of concrete, man-made stuff. The plains themselves are quite alive, if you look. It was an endless undulating dun brown landscape strewn with tumbleweeds and sage. A place where a run to a big box store is an all day affair. Abandoned wrecks and vehicles dot the hills, their patina of rust a few shades different than the surroundings. They look more like art than garbage and serve as a pleasant distraction to the endless road.

After hours of being mesmerized by the high plains, they suddenly start to break up into an unnavigable riot of small canyons and steep peaks more barren than the plains. We reached the Badlands. Flashes of Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen from the movie ’Badlands’ reel across the brain. The film catches some of it, but until you are standing in the middle of the eroded landscape do you really get a feel for the land.

Like the Arikaree Breaks in western Kansas, no doubt the Indians used the Badlands to elude their enemies. It was also sacred ground for the Sioux. For them this place was the heart of their heartland. We respected the beliefs and tread lightly on hallowed ground, leaving no trace. Do believe the underside of my chin had road rash from hanging my mouth open in awe of the scenery.

The campgrounds for the Badlands National Park is situated in a valley surrounded by the ragged peaks of eroded sedimentary rock. Perfect, keeping the people impact limited to a couple of low outcroppings. There are trails for hiking. Due to the fragile environment and dangerous slippery slopes it’s best advised to stay to the trails. Quiet, clean, potable water, bikers and bathrooms, what more could you want?

At midnight the roadway was still dumping its heat and over 100 degrees. It would not cool much before dawn.

Next: Cool mountain riding, molten roads.

The Wheel Turns – 2012 X-Country Ride: The Calm Before the Storm

This tired biker woke to the smell of the sea coming in through open windows. The breeze was chill and the morning sun had just crested the eastern horizon. Everyone else was still in bed. Time to figure out the coffee situation and have a few before the day kicks in. Normally on tour you get one big cup of joe in the morning and that’s it. A worthwhile sacrifice to stay hydrated. Anything beats bonking. But we weren’t riding today, or the next few for that matter. It was time to rest and recuperate in a 1924 beach house that hadn’t changed much since those days. Our hosts were generous. It was nice to see the Aloha spirit alive and well on the east coast. Good company and comfortable surroundings made the time pass all too quickly. It is perhaps the kindness I will remember most of all, and the lobster, of course!

We crossed Maine, clipped the corners of New Hampshire and Vermont, and dropped into Connecticut for the night at Black Rock State Park. Clean campsites amid the pines and ash were perfect for our needs. A thunderstorm that was the vanguard of some serious weather passed through in the night, cooling the temp and washing some seriously dirty equipment. The plan was to stop at Max BMW and have oil changes and a routine service. The BMW’s have more than two hundred thousand miles in them if you keep up on your oil changes. It was also not a bad way to spend a few hours surrounded as we were by some of the best bikes ever made.

Our destination was Baltimore, Maryland. It would be a push to make it by a reasonable dinnertime. We did. If it’s one thing the east has, it’s an incredible highway system. Tolls were paid and time was made. Our impromptu sunset tour through Baltimore was an eye opener on so many levels. A heavy inner city that is that is in desperate need of funding, to the gentrified neighborhoods around John Hopkins University. A mighty cross section of American lives and lifestyles existed here.

After some pub grub we got a hotel in the heart of downtown. The Oriole’s had a home game, won, and the locals were spilling out into the streets in celebration. It looked like a lot of fun but this biker needed rest.

Across Maryland into West Virginia, the low green mountains, and history. This was Civil War country. The pride in their history is evidenced by the preservation of the sites of skirmishes and battles. We stopped often to read the brass plaques and learn of the place’s moment in time. It was as humbling as it was awe-inspiring and not to be missed by anyone.

West Virginia and southern Ohio is also coal country. It showed. Tough to hide a chopped off mountaintop. And tougher yet to disguise the lives created and destroyed in the process. Never the less, the countryside was beautiful. One sight was the Rushing Wind Bikers’ Church in South Ohio. It was next door to the god of motorcycles, a Harley dealer. We wondered if they were open on Sundays. That night we camped along the Ohio River, as sweet a spot as you can think of. Another thunderstorm in the middle of the night was hinting at the weather to come.

We kicked it up a notch the next day to cross Ohio and returned to the farm in Valparaiso, Indiana. After lunch we were both eyeing the weather. It was a coin toss. Kale had already tossed his.

“Let’s suit up, we are going to be hitting some weather.”

I looked at they sky again thinking ‘no way.’ Long before this moment in the parking lot I had learned to follow his advice. Even though I had a couple of tours already over the years, he still had way more experience. The learning never ends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No sooner had we pulled out of the parking lot, the first drops hit. By the time we rocked the throttle onto the highway entrance the thunderstorm was full on. Kale’s theory is that if you keep on going, you will punch through the other side of the storm. A little water never hurt anything. The theory holds, however there is one exception. If lightning bolts are dropping around you, forget it and get under an overpass or gas station awning and wait it out. You don’t want to be a rolling lightening rod! Chances are you will see some other bikers standing around talking story, so the time is not lost. And you get to meet some really good folk.

This is the way the rest of the day went. Most of the time we rode right through the storms, other times, talk story. On the final push, around sunset, we hit a mother of storms that threatened to stop us ten miles from the farm. No lightning, so we rolled on. Speed was dictated by weather conditions and the amount of water on the road. There was no punching through this time, just a never-ending down pour. No complaints here. We put our kickstands down in the dark and driving rain, grabbed a few necessities and headed for the mud room to dump the wet gear.

Home is where the heart is. It was good to be at a home away from home. The previous days had brought some wicked weather to northern Indiana and with more due in the very near future there would be plenty of storm damage clean up to pass the time.

Next: North and West, into the fires of hell, The Badlands

The Wheel Turns – 2012 X-Country Ride: The East, Traffic, Sweltering madness and Serenity.

A few days of mindful work brought me fully into the heart. Replacing deck boards and stairs, pouring a little concrete and cleaning the gutters brought a peace of mind and oneness with the tasks. The work came easy as lemonade and light conversation fulfilled the moment. Here I was not a tourist but part of the pulse. We wanted to stretch the time into an eternity and in a way we did. The clock however was ticking, the road began to call. All good things don’t have to come to an end, you just keep scattering the good all along the road.

Morning came and with it a breakfast you only dream about. Kale’s mom made sandwiches for our lunch while his dad helped with loading the bikes. Time idled away as there was no rush. The next couple of days would be cruisers, 250 to 350 miles, tops. The last sight was Kale’s parents waving, captured in the rear view mirror as we idled down the long twin strip gravel drive. We meandered through the farms and countryside before picking up Route 6. From here on out the deer would be everywhere and you had to remain double alert. They just jump out in front of you for no apparent reason. But there are other things that can stop you in your tracks, too and I would be finding out soon enough.

Route 6 rolled and dipped on way across Ohio. Green was all around us but if you looked close everything needed water, reminding me to drink more at every chance. The heat changed too, it was just as hot as Nebraska but now there was abundant humidity. Rolling down the road, it wasn’t an issue. Standing still however was. Kale kept to his word and the day was short. We camped about twenty miles east of Toledo in the lushness of the deep woods near the coast of Lake Erie. It was quiet with a fair number of campers filling the sites. Like most of the campgrounds we stayed at they were surprisingly full. There is a good feeling in seeing so many people taking advantage of the beauty of our country away from the major attractions. Sleep came easy as we were both still a bit tired from working the farm.

The morning came with a jolt of reality. Backing the f 650gs out of the gravel parking, I slipped and the bike leaned passed the point of no return. I stabbed my left leg out to ease her to the ground. Kale was already rolling, ever aware he caught sight of me in his rear view mirror. I was busy stripping the bike when he got back. Shame, stress, adrenalin rush and extreme effort to get the bike upright did something I hoped wouldn’t happen. After a quick talk down the best thing to do was get back on and hit the road. We did for about ten minutes when at a stop sign I pointed to some soft grass and signaled to pull over. I parked the bike just in time. A disc in my lower spine just had a blowout.

The next 24 hours were spent in bed at a hotel in Sandusky, Ohio. The only way out was to pack myself in ice and not move. Was this over? Is this it? Not even half way! No way! The reality was looking more and more like a flight back and have the motorcycle shipped. With only one thing to do I did it well, do nothing.

Kale brought dinner back from a local grubhouse. If he was disappointed he didn’t show it. These things happen. The timing always sucks. We tossed around different scenarios, route changes and destinations. It all came down to, ‘see how I feel in the morning.’

It was quiet in the room that night, too quiet. We were both coming to terms with the near future. We had both taken time off from work, a month, to fulfill the dream. But there was more at stake here than an aborted vacation. To get the whole story of both the inner and outer journey, you will have to be patient. The 2012 X Country Ride is being put to book form as I write this blog. Here we are getting the outline and I am sticking to the motorcycling touring aspects. This will be reference material for the novel.

We were both up early. A couple of hours wouldn’t make any difference at this point. I had been hobbling back and forth along the outside corridor with a cane to get a feel for life as it would be for next few weeks. ‘It could be worse,’ I thought. Since we were following a pioneer trail my thoughts drifted to them. What happened to those poor souls who’s back went out along the trail? They went on is what they did. For them there was no turning back. My spine and I have been friends and antagonists for a long time. It would hold, just hurt like hell. My coffee needed a refill and Kale was up. “Let’s do it!”

We softened the suspension to the limit so I wouldn’t get hammered. You lose a little of that tight feeling but then we weren’t pushing the envelope either.  We rode along the Erie lakefront following the train tracks to Lorain, Ohio, then skirting Cleveland, jumped on Interstate 90 and made some time. The traffic was furious, as were the drivers. The heat, construction and probably an accident or two had everyone going like mad. Cell phone in hand and 80 plus miles an hour are a bad combination. It made for real passive/ aggressive riding, your head forever on a swivel eyeing everything around and ahead of you. From Ohio to Maine the large and small highways were like racetracks. If you were going too slow, or in someone’s way no doubt you would hear about it from the driver yelling at you through open windows. It sure kept things interesting.

The back was tolerable, just merely unbearable. Still the best was made of the situation and my riding partner, Kale, considerate in keeping the number of hours in the saddle down. We still rode into the night to make up for a slower pace. There was strip mining and fracking along with unparalleled beauty. In a couple of hops, we were heading up the famous Maine coastline. Maine is a National Geographic moment in progress. We stopped often to enjoy the vistas and soak up the cool of the far northeast. Perfect riding temperature and some sweet roads to go with it. Enjoying life from a two-wheeled point of view. There is nothing quite like it. We rode into the night again to reach our destination, Southwest Harbor, Maine.

Next: Days of peace. The calm before the storm.

The Wheel Turns – 2012 X-Country Ride: Heart of the Heartland

The high plains greeted us with a blast of heat like the furnace door had just opened. Hot as it had been, the ride to this point was just a warm up. Before the touring began, you thought, ‘man it’s gonna be hot,’ and were clueless to the reality that waited just down the road. If anything the road teaches.

The endless plains stretched on and on and on. Only interrupted by the irrigated corn, soy and wheat fields. Without the pumped water only the plains survived the harsh conditions. There were as many wet, green fields as withered dried up patches of what could have been a good harvest. Water is king and water rights in some desperate regions have been cut back to 1884 levels. This is an attempt to keep from sucking the meager supplies dry. On the brighter side, golf courses have stopped watering and you know what? The brown grass doesn’t stop the golfers and the water can go to where it is needed.

You looked forward to the long sweeping arms of the irrigators. They brought a moment of damp, near cool, when passing them. Then passed and the furnace doors opened again. Shade became a sought after friend. It was the first thing you looked for when parking. If none was available you put the kickstand down nearest the closet shadow, then made a dash for it to dump the suit and cool down.

Regardless of the temp, it was Sturgis season. Harleys ruled the roads and small towns on their way to that single location. The population of Nebraska doubles for the week of the rally and close to that number for the weeks before and after. It was still a few weeks before the official days of thunder and already thousands of bikers were on the road. In a fortnight, on our way back, the party would be in full swing. The thousands of bikes would surge geometrically in number creating that never-ending rolling thunder. More on Sturgis when we pass through South Dakota.

Nebraska stretched on before us. Every five to ten miles you’d slow to roll through a farming community. The silos were the town square and where the action was. Then every so often you hit a big town with a population of five thousand. What got me was the architecture. The late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen’s were the boom time for these places and little had changed since then. The folk that live along Route 6 take a certain amount of pride in keeping their history around them. Fast food joints and fuel stops, stuccoed and glitzed, seemed oddly out of place in these places of beauty out of step with time.

The pauses at towns in no way slowed forward progress. The stretches in between were a posted 70mph and we used up every bit of it. 5PM and it’s still hot as hell. The heat really doesn’t kick in until around 11AM at which point the some sadistic weather person keeps dialing up the temp until you are riding on the surface of the sun. It’s not until the sun sets that a respite is given. We rolled into the Lincoln, Nebraska KOA just after sunset and just a little toasted. I will admit, for once, I showered like a tourist, letting the cool water do its thing. By the time I got back to the campsite Kale had the Jetboil fired and dinner was a few minutes away. Heads up, getting a good loaf of bread at some point during the day makes for better dinners.

We talked of the road, the things we saw, what went right and equally as important what wasn’t right and planned the next day. This got to be a pretty standard routine. Debriefing, followed by a briefing. It works. You touch on all the necessary stuff then drift into talking. We were both tired. Tomorrow would be our first deadline.  Kale needed to be in Chicago while I had to stop in the Quad Cities. There was only one other. Catching my flight back.

We rode into the sun, the cool of the morning still with us. The 1200gs and f 650 gs were quiet intruders upon the rolling hills of Iowa. The omnipresent dun brown of the prairies began shifting to ever greener pastures and fields cruising into the Mississippi River basin. The waning cool was offset by a rise in humidity. If its not one thing, it’s another. You accepted it, what else were you going to do?

The riding was quick. We were making time today. One more fuel stop before the Big Muddy. We shook hands. “See ya in Valpo.” Kale rolled out first, the big 1200 r taking on the freeway effortlessly. I was right behind him, having no intention of losing my navigator until the river.

Eighteen hours of rest and it was back on the road to meet up with Kale in Valparaiso, Indiana. This small stretch of road, that should have taken no more than four or five easy hours, stretched on into the night while I poorly navigated the country roads of northern Indiana. Herds of deer were forever bounding across the asphalt in front of me, giving the rider ample opportunity to test those new abs brakes. Riding around in circles began to take its toll. I called Kale and laid down in a Kmart parking lot, basking in the orange glare of high-pressure sodium lights. Kale picked me up a few long minutes later and I went to bed.

I woke to the pulse and rhythm of the heart of the heartland. Sixty acres of forest and pasture. The deer were grazing and eyeing the garden beds as coffee brewed. A train whistle, off in the distance, heralded in a new day. Heavy dew shone off the bikes making them look cleaner than they were. No washing until the motorcycles returned home in Oakland with the exception of windscreen and mirrors. All those bug guts and sprays of mud had meaning.

Walking the open grounds around the house and barn revealed a dozen small projects that needed attending to. It was something to do and a way to earn your keep. Nobody rides for free, nobody.

Next: The East, traffic, sweltering madness and serenity.