ARRIVED HERE YESTERDAY just as the planes were coming in, five jets bearing eight members of our party. Daughter #2 had found us a three-floor condo rental with a rooftop deck, splendid in all regards. I had no idea where it was but rode around the island for a while, stopped at an IGA to replenish my Fig Newton stores, then rode some more and looked for a place to sit in the shade and drink water.
The island is 2.6 square miles, but I ended up hanging just one street away from the condo, purely by chance. I gabbed with a nice woman there, Jenny, and her athletic little girl who effortlessly turned front walkovers. I remember Daughter #2 doing that in gymnastics way back when.
I never did get to see Duane Collie after I left Dominic and Thuy’s in Pennsylvania. On Sunday, Duane and his buddy Scott were at a motorcycle hill-climbing thing up around York, PA. Duane left me voicemail about it, thinking we could link up there and ride together down to Fairfax, Virginia. I was riding west around the megalopolis anyway, to avoid the interstate mayhem through Philly, Baltimore and Washington. I was getting close to York about the time Duane and Scott wanted to head back to Virginia. Duane said they could hold up and wait for me down the road, in Westminster, Maryland. I said, nah, don’t wait, I’ll see you in Fairfax this evening or I won’t. And what happened was won’t.
When I get to Fairfax, I can’t raise Duano on the phone, I don’t know if he dumped the bike, had a family emergency, fell asleep, who knows what, so I rode through and made camp farther south around Fredericksburg. I had thought of looking up John DiMarco, an elementary school classmate in Chantilly, Virginia, close to Fairfax. John had said to call if I got near there, we’d meet for lunch or dinner. Here I was passing through too late for Sunday dinner and way too early for Monday lunch.
Next day, I’m headed south out of Fredericksburg and I see the sign for the Petersburg battlefield memorial. This is more my kind of planning: no plan at all. Push the right grip and there goes the iron piggy, right off the exit.
In a siege, soldiering is mostly about whittling. Maybe because a siege is mostly about sitting around? Dunno, never been in a siege.
A peephole into the chicken entrails of the future in a nutshell: the Union wins. This way, that way, this way, that way… How do you win a war if you can’t even build a straight fence? Fodder for a Ph.D in history.
The only reason I stopped in Petersburg was because I remembered that one of the bride’s ancestors was here for the siege in 1864-65. Alvin Overlock was a Maine artilleryman, 46 years old, farmer, had a wife and four kids, joined up because it would help fill the county quota and maybe a young man just starting out wouldn’t have to go. And here at Petersburg he’s shot through the arm with a minieball. It must have dog-legged it badly, because the Army recorded it as a disabling injury. Go home, Alvin. He spent some time in a Union hospital in Portsmouth, Rhode Island on his way back to Maine. And he farmed with one good arm for the rest of his days. Had more kids and lived to be an old man.
Petersburg is no Gettysburg, the destination battlefield that everyone visits sooner or later. But it’s where U.S. Grant wins the war. When Petersburg falls, there’s no defending the Confederate capital at Richmond.
I met some nice people who work at the visitors’ center in Petersburg, gabbed the gab with Dawn, Sarah and Nona. I asked if Nona was aware that nona means grandmother in Italian. She was, but she was named for a Ukrainian saint. Saint Nona, that was news to me.
Okay, so, did the Petersburg thing on sudden inspiration, then I jump on I-85 to get to the Raleigh-Durham area to see Philip, a Fulbright scholar from Iraq who had dined with the bride and me at the humble manse four years ago. When I saw our Kenyan friend, Vincent Ogutu, in New York, he knew where Philip was and suggested that I plan a route by there. So I did. That’s why I trended west as I rode through Virginia instead of sticking to the coast. That had consequences, heat-wise.
On my way out of Virginia, I stopped at a rest area 33 miles from the North Carolina line. I’m making instant mashed potatoes because they’re loaded with salt, and quite a lot of my salt has leaked out into my clothes. I get lunch down, make a mug of tea, and a minute later I’m kneeling over what I think is a dead guy, checking for a pulse. Nothing. He’s on the ground outside the cab of a big double-bottom rig. His skin’s wet and clammy. His eyes are wide open, looking at the sky, and nobody’s home. A young woman who works at the rest area checks his other wrist. Nothing. Sam, for Samantha, is about to start CPR, then I feel a weak pulse coming back. The man’s belly moves and he draws a breath. A minute later he’s up off the ground and wants to get back in his truck and go down the road. Whoa, buddy, wait for the ambulance.
When I first saw him he was down on his hands and knees. He asked me to grab a soda for him out of a cooler in the cab of his truck. He got a leg under him, sat on one hip, took a sip, then rolled onto his back and was unresponsive. Later on, I learn that from his POV he never lost consciousness, but from what I saw he was gone, baby, gone. No pulse? I believe that’s contraindicated in the land of the living. We’d pay attention to that on a label: “In the event of no pulse, discontinue use and consult a physician.” Yeah, and a mortician.
I talked to the guy when he started breathing again, and before he asked Sam and me to help him to his feet. I asked if he had pain in his chest or arm. No. Had he gotten dehydrated? No, he’d had liquids going in all day. He said the trouble started when he climbed down out of the cab; half his foot landed on a curb, didn’t land flat on the parking lot like the other half. He said the pain was so intense, that’s what felled him. He thought the shock of it must have dropped his blood pressure for a minute. He’d had an old injury to the tendons in that leg, from a tour in the Marines. I told him my nephews Dave and Rob are Marines. He looked to have a birth year of more inauspicious timing than my own lucky stars, maybe two years earlier, so I said, Vietnam? He said yes. And then Sam and I help him to his feet and he wants to drive off. I said let the ambulance guys have a look at you. You did a job for the government, government ambulance is on the way, let them do something for you now. He said he didn’t want his boss to think he was behind schedule for no reason, and what came to my mind, instantly, was that old proverb, “(Expletive deleted) the boss.”
Then the ambulance is there, two female EMTs, they talk to him but he doesn’t want to sit in the big medical box and let them check him out. I handed him my card before he drove off, said to send me an email and let me know he didn’t go wheels-up somewhere. Later, I stop for the night on a lake in North Carolina, and there’s voicemail on my phone.
“I got home fine, no problems, I appreciate what you did for me and I appreciate what everybody else did for me, I really do. I just wanted to let you know I made it back okay. Thank you all again. Bye.”
All right, so I’m headed for Apex, NC, where Philip lives and works. Saw on the map that there’s a lake nearby, Jordan Lake, and a little tent symbol. I find the place, pay $20 to the state and make my camp at a place called Poplar Point. Nice campsites, private, but close enough that you can hear families having fun, kids laughing, running around having a good time, music playing. Quiet at night. I slept like oblivion; the sleep that’s so deep you don’t exist, and you wake up feeling fully alive.
Next morning, Philip is able to rearrange some work time and we plan on meeting for an early lunch. I’m hanging around under the town water tower (one of three towers, actually, which made Philip wander around a bit before finding me) and I spy a gold earring on the ground. A fancy thing about the size of a quarter. It’s been run over. I pick it up, toss it in a saddlebag and hope the woman wasn’t wearing it when someone ran it over.
I’m always collecting oddball bits of trash, until I write about the place they remind me of, then I toss them. But this was the first time I’d ever struck gold.
A couple of my recent finds, a 4.5mm Taiwanese socket and Mr. Peanut’s monocle.
About a half hour after I find the earring, I see a woman about my age walking around slow, looking at the ground. She lost a gold earring the day before. She was pretty happy to get it back, and didn’t care at all about someone running it over. She was glad to have it for the gold value, I suppose. Or maybe it had a sentimental value that was still there.
Okay, so Philip finds the tower I’m standing under. Oboy, am I ever road punchy and toasted. I hope I’m going to be halfway decent lunch conversation for him. My state of heat-induced impairment was evident the evening before, when I was talking with the bride on the phone. Actual conversation:
You saw Vincent (from Kenya), Dominic and Thuy (from Vietnam), now you’re going to see Philip (from Iraq), this is turning out to be your international trip.
Yeah, I didn’t think of that until now.
You didn’t think of it. I did.
Philip, saddled up on the mighty iron piggy. Check the next pic, snapped by Philip, and this becomes a study in before & after.
See what the road does to you? Be advised.
Philip gave me this really cool pin that went out of use in Iraq about a half century ago. When he came to dinner in 2010, he gave us the only Iraqi flag he owned. I framed it and hung it on a wall at the humble manse, where it remains today.
The last time the bride and I saw Philip, he was studying for his master’s in computer science at Rochester Institute of Technology. He landed a good job right out of school but was bored by it, because it was just about bringing in money; an old product that was a cash cow and only that. He wanted to work on new products that made money by changing things for the better. So now he’s involved in developing software that may help to save lives by reducing medical errors in hospitals. Philip says it will save lives. He’s very gung ho about what he does. Fully committed.
His other big project is to find a girl worth marrying. Someone who is “not a child,” and not a software engineer. “Someone absolutely not like me.” His complement; his counterpart. But where do you meet the girl if you don’t meet her in college? He’s looked in bars, but then you meet girls who hang out in bars, he said.
He’s keeping an eye out for girls in church now. I said watch out, you’ll meet girls who hang out in churches.
Oboy, well, headed south and east out of Apex, NC. Punishing heat on the backroads, well into the 90s. Philip led me to US 401 south and I took it from there. Picked up US 421 south, rode that down to US 701 south.
Passed under Interstate 95. No way I was getting up on it and running the iron piggy at high revs in this heat. But I did take advantage of the shade; set my wool shirt on the guard rail, drank some water.
I’m running low at this point on licorice, the real stuff made with blackstrap molasses. As addictive as it is, I’m glad licorice doesn’t make you stick up convenience stores. I’d have been put away long ago.
Stopped outside such a store at 4 p.m. and wheeled the piggy into a little patch of shade by the outdoor ice machine. Went inside and bought a YooHoo just for the ice-cold bottle to hold against my neck. Old biker trick; use the cold bottle to cool off the blood flowing through the carotid arteries. When the bottle’s warm, drink the YooHoo. Better to cool the brain than the stomach. Seriously. It works wonders. It’ll keep you going. All of a sudden your mind sharpens and you gain clarity and what you usually think is, What the hell am I doing here? Then you ride some more and your blood heats up again and you revert to the Neanderthal, Ug, ride good, Gorp ride, Gorp not care…
Outside the store I took off my jacket, shirt, boots. Would have taken off my pants but a deputy sheriff was standing by one of the fuel pumps. He was talking to a kid that I made for a criminal informant, just reading their tone and body language. I was there for about a half hour and so were they.
Okay, riding south and east, south and east. Around 6 I get that first bit of cool coastal air. Good for morale. It can’t get hotter now, only cooler, keep riding for the sea, it’s always just around the bend. Crossed the South Carolina line and picked up US 17 south; a familiar road now, my usual north/south coastal route. Riding through South Carolina, I thought of pushing on for Savannah, but on a long straightaway through the pines around Buck Hall, I spy a sign for the Francis Marion National Forest. It’s right on the Intracoastal Waterway, which has to be cooler than the blacktop. My kind of place, $15 a night. All I had was twenties, so I put a twenty in an envelope and drop it in the slot in the iron ranger. Met friendly people here (H.J. and Vickie Thomas, Richard from the San Juan Islands, Margaret, Ernie, Larry the Harley man, New York Ron…) gabbed the gab, set up my tent under a live oak, made a pasta dinner in the dark. Made it mostly for the water content. Don’t strain your road pasta, let it sit in the pot until all the water soaks up. That makes it noodley, slimy, good for you. It stays in the gut long enough to soak into your blood.
Slept beautifully just a few feet from the water. This is sunrise. When I woke up, I thought, Hmm, I’m a day ahead of schedule because I didn’t see old Duano. And I’m only about 150 miles from where I’m going. I could do with a day where all I do is sit under a tree and drink water. So I put another twenty in the iron ranger and enjoyed an on-shore breeze instead of blazing asphalt.
Saw lots of beach rats flying around.
Snapped this guy looking for easy grub at low tide. (Him, not me; I’m not eating off the tidal mud yet.) Thought it was an osprey at first, but it didn’t fly like one. Flew with flat wings. Dunno, but I guess it could be a juvenile bald eagle.
Here’s a good guy, H.J. Thomas, 71, of Rock Hill, SC. He and his wife, Vickie, volunteer as camp hosts in South Carolina, two months in the spring and two in the summer. They’re usually up at Lake Marion, at Santee State Park. Their job is to welcome campers, answer questions, enforce the quiet hours and other rules, and alert the rangers if anyone needs the boot. They welcomed me with a cup of coffee and a free chair to sit on in my camp.
H.J. rode Harleys for 38 years. He gave it up when Vickie was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. “I won’t ride without her,” he said. She wanted him to keep riding, because she knew what it meant to him. He hung it up all the same.
On my way out of the National Forest, I stopped at the gate to thank my hosts for their many kindnesses. Instead of a goodbye I was invited to breakfast. H.J. makes the best biscuits I’ve ever had in old Dixie. Had them hot with butter and topped with a spoonful of pear preserves he put up himself. Good coffee, too, and fresh cantaloupe.
H.J. was his mother’s nurse for the last six years of her life. Even in her 90th and final year, when she didn’t know who he was anymore. That’s love. Harley guy, working construction, doesn’t fit the stereotype, does he? There were two women he paid to mind Mrs. Thomas during the day, when he and Vickie were at work, then he’d take over the nursing duty in the evenings and overnight.
When we said our goodbyes, I fired up the motor on the iron piggy and saw a look of such pleasure on H.J.’s face. He stood there, listened to the bike idle and said, “That makes me want to get on it and leave you here.”
Here’s a character, Ron from New York, wandering the country in a battered old VW bus, 1973. It runs on duct tape, wire, and a red-and-white paint job done with a brush. Ron’s accent announces his New York City-ness way before his registration plate does. A handshake and introductions went like this:
“Tony! Hey, ANT-ta-nee!
“Ron from Noo Yawk.”
“Nah. From Tupulo Mississippi.”
We talk, blah blah, where we’ve been, where we’re going. When we talk about family he says, “I got five kids, one of each.” One of his sons is an actor who plays a cavemen on the Geico commercials. I’d almost bet that’s true. Who would make up such a thing?
On my second morning on the waterway, crows are caw-cawing like crazy around 6. From the van I hear, “All right! All RIGHT!” After some creaking and popping of dry door hinges, Ron climbs out and stumbles around, gets his bearings. “After the birds around here you’re not afraid of nothing!”
Lived in. Literally.
I ask about the macaroni box on the dash. Ron says, of the old van, “It ronzoni when you push it.” And, sure enough, when he gets ready to motor north for home, the VW almost doesn’t want to run. Sounds like a dead spot on the armature, then the starter spins, the motor fires, and off goes the caveman’s old man.
I get breakfast with H.J., then I’m down the road myself, into the final 150 miles of the big heat. Stopped twice to buy a cold bottle of iced coffee to hold to the side of my neck.
All set now for five days of fun in the tropics. Will try to report in when the family flies out on the 10th and I start the ride back north.
Tony DePaul, June 6, 2014, Tybee Island, Georgia