I rock exit early in the morning. The Tampa ground is wet from a week of constant rain. There is more rain in the forecast, but I don’t have time to wait it out. I wait for the realization that, oh, I left something behind, as I merge onto the highway. It never comes. In fact, nothing comes at all. There is no voice in my helmet, no stream of terrible reflection. So fresh on the road, I attend only to the movement of traffic and the feel of my bike.
The revelation of the road is a product of the temporal attitude toward it. The first ten miles of a fifteen mile trip are experienced quite differently than the first ten miles of a fifteen hundred mile trip. Cats like to say that "the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step" on some inspirational, let’s-get-it-started foolery. But the first step of the thousand miler feels and means something much different than the first step of a cat who is looking for the bathroom at Starbucks. One settles into the bike differently. There is a different kind of investment as you look down the road. I wonder what it must be like for the riders who have ridden down the entire continent.
The dampness of the morning quickly fades and what is left is sunshine and moist air. All vents are open; upon my face, there is alternating sweat and salty dryness. Hours pass before I form a single continuous thought. I pass the town where the race track is. I heard from a guy at a dealership that the track only has a few years left. The owners will not repave once the asphalt has degraded past ride-ability, he said.
I have to get back to that track soon. It is the place where I beat my ghost, the spot that holds evidence of my levels up in my lap records. If I don’t ride it before it closes for good, I will be without a valuable self-reference, unsure exactly what my confidence levels should be. That race track is my measure of man.
In Atlanta I meet insane traffic and a friend who is in an insane process. She is in “depletion,” the final stages of diet before a kind of bodybuilding championship. She is loopy from a lack of food and spends the evenings standing naked around the house as her layers of spray tan dry upon her skin. For two days we speak about body politics and the education of black women. At a local dealership she gets fitted for a helmet and I buy some waterproof gloves for the rain that I know will be coming soon on this trip. On the second morning, she leaves to rock the stage and I hit the streets for Kentucky.
On the way I think yet again about a friend’s son. The kid is recently out of jail. I spoke to him once about his notion of his future. I was dismayed, though not surprised, to learn that he didn’t really have such an idea. He did not dream. I tried to build a space for hope with the best words I knew. But prep talks are only as good for the moments just before a game. There are zones from which I don’t know how to recover; I wish that I could have spent more time with him.
Outside of Nashville I stumble upon a breakfast spot that looks good. I leave it though, overtaken by a kind of nausea brought about by the reality of gentrification. I have never had such a feeling in New York; this is quite mysterious. Instead I hit Nashville proper. I dismount after parking on a downtown street and hear music from a metal box installed on a corner. It is playing Johnny Cash. Further down the street is a museum for the Man in Black. Closed. I have come too early, like Nietzsche's madman.
In some back alley diner I eat a sandwich and learn that a friend of a friend has died under terrible circumstances. Once again I think of people that I wish I could have spent more time with. I also think that the problem with the world is not that there is so much suffering, but that the wrong people suffer. My tea is bitter.
On the next stretch I sing rap songs in my helmet to keep the voice from creeping in. After awhile I see signs for caves. Mammoth Cave. Cave City. Finally I stop and ask the women at the gas station to point me to the nearest cave, which is atop “Gun Town Mountain.” The cave entrance is near an event space at which one can see gunfights and cancan shows. The cave guide is short dude wearing a shirt that says “slacker.” He. Knows. A. Lot. About caves. “From the book of rocks comes the history of the earth," he says.
In the not so distant old days, people didn’t know that caves were an ecosystem. They nearly destroyed entire cave systems with artificial light and the oils from their hands. Not because the knowledge about this wasn’t available back then; it’s just that America didn’t care so much about science for a while. Not until after Sputnik, says the guide. It was the race to beat the Russians to the moon that caused us to care about the lessons of the natural sciences. It is kind of a pathetic motivation for knowledge, but it is also essentially American, I feel.
On the exit from the cave, I see a huge building with a statue of a Tyrannosaurus out front. The cave guide said that there weren’t any fossils in Kentucky. Guess the people at Dinosaur World thought they would address that.
Why are roadside attractions so strange? A palace made entirely of corn. A cafe staffed by naked women. A “Mexican” theme park in a racist ass state. I suppose that there is no hope for a high minded roadside lecture on existentialism or a history lesson on the housing crisis. But I would totally pull over for that shit.
In a short time I hit Louisville. In a neighborhood full of little boxes made of ticky tacky, I meet the brother of an old friend. It is always a bit strange to see the family of someone you’ve known for a long time. For some reason I always default to a notion that my homies just emerged fully formed from an egg or some such shortly before I met them. But here I get an intimation at least of the history, the zone in which these cats came to be. Even a small picture can give a deep glimpse.
I talk with man and mother over BBQ then sleep soundly. On the exit from town I run into a Harley rider who has clocked 219,000 miles on his bike, which he bought new in 1988. I have no anti-Harley jokes in the face of this legend of a man. His bike looks brand bloody new. Says he once rode from Daytona to San Diego. I tell him that I will make such a ride one day, though I will probably end in the land of the East Bay Dragons instead of Cardiff by the Sea. He looks at my bike and wishes me the luck that he knows I will need.
On the highway I see a pink SUV. Happily Homeless, it says. Has a link to a blog. At a gas stop, I look it up. Looks like the woman is on the road contemplating love and grief. I wonder if one can consider anything else while going place to place but never ending up at home.
The road drones on. In Michigan the road quality drops off as the cop presence increases. Fine with me. I slow down and cruise until I finally land at the campus of MSU. It is a city unto itself, a kind of terrible island of undergraduates and low speed limits. I meet some professors and come to rest in a hot dorm room. I am grimy and sore.
I hit the bed and stare at the ceiling. In the next four weeks, there is only a philosophy. But already I am looking further forward to some nameless moment of peace, with my kid maybe. Or in a woman's arms. Or out on the road alone between nowheres. Like the woman in the pink SUV, I am homeless. But fuck if I can figure out the happiness part.
I park my bike so that I can see it just outside of my window. In soaks up halogen and moon light. In the day I go walking and come to a bridge. Beneath it are truths that can only be recorded in spray paint. Okay, right, I remember. I'm not the only one.