From the Potomac to the Rio Grande
June 3, 2008
The Filene Center at Wolf Trap has a most excellent loading dock, the height of it exactly right so that a crew can swing the trailer doors shut without the driver having to move the rig forward. This means I can leave the trailer there, go to the hotel, sleep early and get up early Sunday; go back and hook up and leave town in light traffic.
The added bonus with this plan is that I'm on Interstate 66 in time to meet bikers coming in through Virginia from all over the U.S. for the Rolling Thunder ride to the Vietnam Wall. I see this nearly every Memorial Day.
They came by in random groupings, three to maybe a dozen at a time, and there were a couple of long strings with police escorts. The cortege went by for over an hour before they thinned out. I had the window down and waved a steady wave across the median as they passed. Some caught it and returned it.
I know some of them, Vietnam vets and their friends and wives, who feel the pull to go the nation's capitol and locate the names of comrades on the Wall. It's a powerful place any day of the year but when the Mall is filled with guys who've ridden for days to pay homage it's overwhelming. License plates from nearly every state. The bond there is generally unspoken, but you can see it in the eyes. The bikes in the background are loud but not like mortar fire.
It's hard to describe how it moves me, these old guys now who went through that Vietnam hell and then the added hell of domestic scorn when they returned. I missed that war by being discharged from the artillery just before it started. My tour felt more like a privilege than a duty. Of the ten in the family who have worn the uniform in the last four generations, I was one of only two lucky enough to miss actual combat. But I'm proud to associate myself with soldiers and consider it an incredible blessing to have been born in this country.
There are some who find the Ride an annoyance. Too bad.
* * * *
Our recent swing went from Minnesota through the Midwest to D.C. and then down here to Las Cruces. In Indiana there was a sign that read: INDIANA STATE PATROL HEADQUARTERS. Beneath it read: NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS.
As if that had become a problem. Big burly beer drinkers perhaps, unable to wait for the next oasis, busting in the front door: "Hey, you cops got someplace around here we can take a whiz in?" And his buddy saying, "Yah, and you got somewheres we can dump these empties? Tryna save the enveernment, y'know?"
The construction zones on the I-76 Pennsylvania Turnpike are intense, so narrow the yellow line on the left isn't painted on the road surface but rather on the sloped curb of the center barrier. People there believe that in a tight situation like that the less time you spend there the better and they drive like it's a NASCAR event. Get outa there. They have rid that road of dawdlers. One seldom sees a car putting along at 50 in the fast lane. It's pretty much a carnival ride.
The first note I have after the ride west through Virginia comes from the east of Knoxville: ENTERING LOWER FRENCH BROAD RIVER SYSTEM. I was vaguely hoping for a sequel, like LEAVING UPPER ITALIAN BROAD RIVER SYSTEM, but it didn't happen. And I expect someone has already made it their mission to get that name changed.
Later I saw sign that said NASHVILLE SHORES. I guess Nashville has a fair amount of shoreline with that Cumberland River running through there and that J. Percy Priest Lake there, but somehow Nashville Shores read to me in the sense of the language, as in "shore is" and "shore can." "Shore is hot out." "Shore wish I lived closer to the lake."
Another wet mattress lay on the shoulder to my right, this one partially eaten. Feral hogs, perhaps, or maybe one of those legendary mattress-eatin' alligators we northerners have nightmares about. They use mattresses for dental floss. Roughage.
I pass a car with wooden furniture lashed on the top by a slim cord, maybe a diameter less than clothes line. It looks like it's firmly on there, the cord wrapping over and back three times and then tied across the main lines to tighten them; the whole thing somehow looped through inside, maybe to the coat hanger there, or maybe over to the opposite window. Lots of lines but you can see it's really just all one skinny string and if it breaks anywhere there will soon be splinters, big and little, on Interstate 40. It's ready to go. I want to get by before it explodes, and Hank the Truck does not hesitate.
I stop in Nashville and park at the motel on the hill. Take a cab down to Broadway and my goodness if those girls don't look exactly like the background for HeeHaw. Forget Hollywood or New York City; the paradise for dirty old men is smack in the middle of the country. I had even forgotten I was a dirty old man. I was just there for the music.
It's a good t-shirt town in more ways than one: a good-sized rough-looker bad-attitude past-her-prime had this on her chest: YOU MESS WITH ME AND YOU MESS WITH THE WHOLE DAMN TRAILER PARK.
A young guy needing a shave bore this: 98% OF AMERICANS SAY "OH SHIT" WHEN THEY START TO GO IN THE DITCH. THE OTHER 2% ARE FROM TENNESSEE, WHERE THEY SAY "HOLD MY BEER AND WATCH THIS!"
I caught as many bands as I could on two light beers and a big glass of Red Bull and taxied back to my room. Which is where an old codger belongs on a hot Nashville Sunday night.
Next morning I passed the exit to Buck Snort and crossed the mighty Tennessee River and by the exit to Birdsong Road; a sweet name, making amends for Buck Snort and French Broad River.
I passed a pickup with the tailgate laid flat and holding the absolute Titanic of all bad loads. A box spring stood vertical on the tailgate and one skinny rope went from one tailgate latch around the back of the box spring and over to the other latch. That was all, that one dirty old rope lashed across the lower third of the bed. In front of that, piled high beyond overflow, was the rest of the household, an unimaginable stack of stuff, chairs, lamps, table, clothes, pots, bedding, television, jammed in there at various angles and all held only by blind hope and utterly misplaced optimism. (Remarkable as it seems, people who have seen pictures of tornado aftermaths will still tie a mattress to their car roof with string.)
It was anchored perhaps by something heavy lying in front of the bottom of the box spring, so heavy it could counter the leverage of the top two-thirds of the pile pushing on it. No other rope or tie down. Unbelievable. That household, I thought, if it made it across the Mississippi, would end up scattered over a whole acre of Arkansas.
I pass a truck out of Flint Michigan bearing the disgusting title of MATRIX EXPEDITED SERVICE. I would no sooner drive a truck with that ridiculous name than I'd drive one painted pink. In the sanctified name of the English language, man, have you no shame at all?
It was an interesting ride through Tennessee, a partly cloudy day beset with sudden violent showers, so intense you could barely see the hood ornament, the car in front hitting the brakes just a pair of faint reddish spots in the storm. I back down but not too hard for fear of taking my followers by surprise. This happens three sudden times, the near blindness never lasting more than three miles and then breaking back into the bright light of day. The fourth time was the worst, coming on the tight bridge construction ramp high over the Mississippi, like pushing a wheelbarrow in a hurricane on a 2 x 6 over to the skyscraper across the street.
I had to stop and sit in line at the Arkansas scale at West Memphis and in the delay the box spring and household pickup passed me. I saw him on the shoulder a few miles later, out there pushing stuff back deeper into the pile. The rope was holding and the mess was probably a bit more stable now that it was soaking wet, but I was still more comfortable in front of that chaos than behind it. They say the Almighty protects fools but even a protected fool has to show some respect for the Almighty's laws of physics.
At Little Rock I left I-40 for I-30, my route being an orderly Interstate decline: 40, 30, 20, 10. The highway has problems there for trucks, a rough surface and a cramped rest area set in the median, where you are thrown back out onto the fast lane on a short merge ramp. At Texarkana I'm happy to be back in the arms of the Texas DOT, probably the best in the country. Smooth wide highways, easy access ramps, sensible speed limits. One wonders if good roads somehow produce great musicians.
Cruise easily through Dallas and Fort Worth and stop at Weatherford for the night. Tuesday head into the real West Texas, exits with names like Cisco and Clyde and Stink Creek Road. I stop at the big lot in front of Dandy Western Wear near Sweetwater and buy two shirts with snaps, to which I am lately partial. Back on the interstate past Roscoe and Big Spring and on into the oil country of Midland and Odessa, where a sign says Cambrian Basin and the sage and greasewood desert is spotted with walking beam pumpjacks, sometimes known as nodding donkeys or horsehead pumps. Less than half are in their characteristic heavy motion, the majority resting. You have to look for them. There is minimal visual clutter here compared to the chaotic hundreds of gigantic three-blade windmills filling the skies farther east, which would quickly drive me crazy. I'd have to move out.
Somewhere back where I-20 leaves I-30 the daytime speed limit for cars is raised to 80 mph. I don't recall anyone passing me that fast, but where I-20 joins I-10 past Pecos the state troopers are out there enforcing it. They have snared their natural prey, a young man in a new Corvette.
I slip into the truck wash east of the Hueco Mountains and El Paso and get Hank spiffied up for our arrival in Las Cruces. A good place to write more about but right now I'm out of pixels.
But every time I cross it I become freshly aware that this is fabulous nation, unlike any on earth, producing genius from Washington to Edison to Bo Diddley. And I'm nothing but grateful to those who sacrifice for it.