Russ Ringsak


July 21, 2011

Overlooking the northbound lanes of Interstate 15 passing through the City of the Great Salt Lake there stands a formidable billboard, done in a gnarly Harley Davidson graphic style. As you approach you see it's a belly-down chin-level view of a dark grey pavement and you are seeing it from close to the center line, the roadway spreading wide and flat on each side.

The letters are giant stone blocks as I recall, stacked on the road just ahead and towering above you. They read:


It took a second to figure it out and by then I missed the name of the sponsor. It probably wasn't the Asphalt Promotion Council or the Tattoo Artist Guild. But it did get a smile out of this old biker.

This wasn't the highlight of the road trip from St. Paul to Nashville to Washington DC and then through only two states, Virginia and Tennessee, to get from the Atlantic to the crossing of the Mississippi River and the fifteen flooded miles of Arkansas bottomlands; then across Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico to Flagstaff. And then out to the Pacific at Seattle and back across the Rockies and the prairie to ferry over Lake Michigan and back to Minnesota, and then to Chicago and then to Tanglewood in western Massachusetts, heading to the Atlantic again. And if that wasn't enough, around Nova Scotia and down to Montreal.

But that billboard would be one highlight, after the mighty Mississippi crossing followed by the long desert ride up into that sweet little amphitheater in the high mountain forest with the 12,600-foot snowcap in the backdrop. You can see Humphrey's Peak almost from the minute you hit the Arizona line, as if the surveyors used it for the centerline of Interstate 40, and it never seems to drop from sight as the desert rises to the west, morphing from cactus to scruff to evergreen. And if we all didn't know it before, out there in the woods we found out that Jimmie Dale Gilmore can really sing.

The ride through northern Arizona and southern Utah the Sunday after the show makes you want to come right back and cruise it when you have some time. Northbound down from the dramatic red stone cliffs and peaks you slip through lush greenvalley towns and gradually realize you haven't seen a beer sign in hours, not that one would be useful from a truck but if a guy was touring, say in August, it might be a nice little luxury. Maybe they have 'em there but just don't brag about it. I didn't stop to ask. Hard to imagine the Great American West without something to slake a man's thirst, but maybe I've just seen too many Westerns.

Stopped that night in Baker City, Oregon, wondering if it might have been named after unknown kin on my mother's side; but it was named after its county which is named after Edward Dickinson Baker, the only sitting U.S. Senator to be killed in combat. This happened in October of 1861 in the Battle of Ball's Bluff, when he was a colonel commanding a regiment in the Union Army. It was a regiment he had been authorized to raise by his friend Abraham Lincoln, recruited mostly from Philadelphia and called the California Brigade. The battle, also called the Battle of Leesburg, ended with the Union forces routed back across the Potomac River.

Baker City struck me as a very livable place, although one never feels much inclined to use the big rig for local touring. Local touring sometimes happens when one has become lost or misdirected and it's never fun. So I'd like to go back there sometime in, or on, a smaller machine.

It is a town of 10,000 in a beautiful mountain setting, about big enough to be interesting but not excessively so. It was once the largest city between Salt Lake and Portland and its downtown U.S. Bank has a gold display which features a nugget weighing five pounds. It's also home to the Elkhorn Classic bicycle race, which doesn't interest myself, and the Hell's Canyon Motorcycle Rally, which might.

Northwest on I-84 from there takes you to the Dalles Bridge, paralleling the Dalles Dam, a mile and a half across the Columbia River from Oregon into Washington. The dam is 260 feet tall and seeing it this time was a shock: the spray was as high as the spillway itself and the river was a shore-to-shore foaming rapids. The place has always been vigorous but this time it's difficult to avoid using the word 'awesome.' Even an unmitigated 'mighty' seems short of the mark.

A newsreel taken just upstream in 1957 shows Indians fishing from platforms built into the rock cliffs at the base of Celilo Falls, hauling up giant salmon one after another. This just before the rising reservoir waters completely submerge the waterfalls and the village there, a trading center 15,000 years old and the longest continuously inhabited settlement in North America. At least it was up to that moment in 1957. Lewis and Clark came through in 1805 and called it "a great emporium... where all the neighboring nations assemble." Historians called it the "Wall Street of the West." It's all down there underwater now, falls and town and all, behind that gigantic concrete wall.

You can see the blue Pacific from Interstate 5 on your way through Seattle. Our venue was at the idyllic Chateau Ste Michelle Winery in Woodinville, the leading producer of Reisling in the world, where the yard animals are peacocks and large trout and the vineyards are marked with dramatic rows of neat Lombardy poplars. (Or trees that look like Lombardy poplars to a trucker.) I naturally spent more time at the Matador Restaurant and Tequila Bar in nearby Redmond than at the winery. A self-imposed Atkins diet kept me from enjoying the tequila bar as fully as I might have.

A good little downtown there with a half price book store and a terrific western wear shop. And down the street, the terrific Odd Fellows Grill, where I sat in at an open jam session. I thought it would be a blues thing but it turned out to be run by the grandchildren of the blues, a high power full bore monster rock outfit. Wow. More fun than I could have imagined. Shheeew. For two crazy tunes I fronted an actual heavy metal rock band, hollering like a dangerous happy person. Now I want to start one of my own; call it the SuperLoud-SmashMouth-AllOut-GeezerStomp.

The trip across the Rockies and the Great Plains was the familiar glide through paradise although this year the Absarokas and the Crazies and the Bear Tooths are unusually snow-covered and the long-rolling prairies west of the Missouri are greener than I've ever seen, looking like a travel brochure for a very large Ireland. Yellowstone River seemed wide as the Ohio.

At Manitowoc in Wisconsin Hank backed the trailer into the main truck lobby of the good ship SS Badger for a ride across Lake Michigan to Ludington. She's the last of the coal fired ships on the Great Lakes and there is the predictable plethora of pious puritanical pernicious political pontificates preaching for its permanent proscription. Somehow I can't get worked up about that when Mt. St. Helens recklessly tossed forth an explosion equivalent to 400 million tons of TNT, or 20,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs, and sits with 62 other worldwide active volcanoes constantly coughing up forbidden agents onto the planet. No cap and trade for those guys.

Hank lounging aboard ship.

The engineer took me down to the engine room, where two giant Steeple-Compound Skinner Unaflow Four Cylinder Steam Engines with 4000 horsepower each drive two fourteen-foot four-blade propellers, each weighing 8 tons. 125 revolutions per minute. They push the boat at about 15 knots, or 18 miles an hour, across and back most every unfrozen day, sometimes more. They whip the stern around and back into the pier as neatly as you please, and they expect the same from you when you back your trailer in. We got on last and off first both times. Very enjoyable. Catch it while you can.

Your correspondent in the Belly of the Badger.

The ship's name reminded me of the story about the two buzzards boarding an airliner, each with a smelly stiff raccoon tucked under a wing. The agent at the airport asks, "Will you fellas be checking those raccoons?" The first buzzard says, "No. They're carrion."

Tell that joke to anyone under thirty and they don't get it. Kids don't know the carrion word.

Our show was at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, north of Ludington. Another sweet spot in the woods. A couple of terrific young artists were on the show, a violinist and a cellist; you see that classical stuff live onstage and it sounds a lot better than over the radio. I'll not be sitting in with any of those guys; they're like the opera singers. Put you in your place without even trying to.

More endangered live steam, this up the road from Interlochen in Traverse City, Michigan.

Drove back to Minnesota then down to Ravinia north of Chicago where we were treated to a solo Texas opera singer who is also a sky diver; I didn't ask which one took more nerve but I did thank her for clearing up a truck driver's ears so he could hear high frequencies again.

Again across Wisconsin and glad to be home and then back on the superslab and all the way to Tanglewood in Massachusetts, so two more woodsy amphitheaters. But if any of our gang got ticks this season they never told me about it.

At the breakfast room at the Yankee Inn in Lenox we sat next to a couple who were wearing t-shirts writ with a lighthouse image and the words:


Which amused me in a way I don't quite get. Are we missing a couple of 'ats' in there and maybe a plural on the 'elk'?

I wondered if they're breaking new ground with the elk neck. We're accustomed to some animal attributes like White Horse and Bald Eagle but the neck opens it up to names like Chicken Shin, Goat Hock, Duck Tongue, Swine Brow. And one doesn't care about elks necking at the state park or of turkeys pointing at anything, much less a lighthouse. Or even of hanging out at or around lighthouses. Maybe they do. But Elk Neck is more than just fun to say. It's a park in Maryland.

From the Massachusetts woods we went to Boston and parked by the Airport Hilton, flew home for three days, flew back and unloaded the truck at the big container ship port there into the good ship MS Maasdam and set the truck back at the Hilton, a much appreciated convenience. Caught our shuttle to the boat in the morning and headed into the great grey Atlantic waters and then back up the St Lawrence Seaway all the way to Montreal. More about that later.

Hank must have crossed two or three hundred bridges on this trip of 10,000 miles and I never thought until now to run a count. The Mississippi, the Columbia, the Yellowstone, both Reds, the Cuyahoga, the Missouri, Ohio, St Croix, the Black, Kankakee, Sandusky, Alleghany, Hudson, Susquehanna, Housatonic, Potomac, James, New, the Canadian in Oklahoma and the Rio Grande in New Mexico; the Colorado, Snake, Umatilla, Clark Fork, Flathead, Jefferson, Sheyenne, Chippewa. Those and dozens more, plus countless creeks and coulees. And two ferry rides.

Crossing the Hudson on Interstate 90, from the passenger's window.

It's been a remarkable season, not just for us but for the country; all that water and now the heat. I recall dry Dakota winters when dirt came in through every tiny crack in the house; dirt, high winds, 40 below cold and not a flake of snow. Bitter biting long walks leaning into the wind across two railyards and the main street to school.

Might be a good time now to enjoy the damp heat and the rains before the next Dust Bowl comes around. Easy for me to say I suppose, me who now, through simple dumb luck and nothing more, sleeps 70 feet above the flood line.

© R.Ringsak 2011

russring at visi dot com

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