Shadows & Reflections of Reality

Shadow-1If you seek the fountain of youth, check out Fort Dodge, Iowa. When I asked about a single room for the night of August 22, 2016, the Comfort Inn clerk immediately offered me the senior-citizen rate. “It’s our best!” she said.

Less than 90 minutes later, after a short walk to dinner and another short stroll to the grocery store for a libation to accompany my postprandial cigar, another young clerk carded me. Perhaps motivated by my confused countenance, she said, “You look young!” And then she scanned that funky black-and-white checkerboard matrix on the back of my driver’s license.

It’s possible that this was store policy for everyone purchasing alcohol. I didn’t wait around for the next suitable customer to confirm this. A bit unnerved at having lost more than 40 years in little more than an hour, and worried about my brown paper bagged Heineken getting warm, with long, determined strides I walked directly to the mirror in my room. There, as I have for about a decade now, I saw the face of my father, when he was in his late 50s, before prostate cancer started to age him.

“So much for the fountain of youth,” I said to my reflection.

Ultimately, this was a relief. The idea of resetting my life to an age worthy of being carded and having to live it over again is more unsettling to me than the reality that, if all goes well, my ultimate expiration date is but a decade or three away. But the experience in Fort Dodge planted a bean of reflection in my brain that has been growing slowly since then, sprouting questions about self-image, how others see me, and how I see myself.

The images coalesced not long ago on a sunny morning when I was walking to the bank and post office. My shadow preceded me, stride for stride. It was an accurate outline, but what filled it was the surface over which it traveled, sidewalk, street, dirt, and grass. It is surely how others see me, in the context of their environment, be it a motel or grocery store.

My outline is the same when I gaze into the mirror to scrape the little hairs off my face, and so is are the details that fill it. Regardless of the effects of time and gravity, I’ve never assigned this reflection a specific age. (Am I the only one who feels ageless, because I’m unsure how I should be, feel, and act as my chronological countdown increases?)

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Paddling around this pool of solipsism I quickly realized that how one perceives an outline’s filling applies equally to small towns. Williams, Arizona (population 3,023), immediately came to mind. It was one of my favorite towns on Route 66. What made it special was not the Canyon Club, where Jackie, the boisterous, blonde, and bawdy barkeep in her tank top and jeans, gave Ed and me some sights to see. Nor was it the superb dinner we had at the Station 66 Italian Bistro, with its craft beer and courtyard guitarist singing, “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.” It was the Laundromat.

Main Street is the William’s face to the world; from end to end, it is primped and painted and pointed at those seeking a nostalgic glimpse at Route 66. Like us, many people visit after peering into the nearby Grand Canyon.

Washing clothes at 8:17 on Sunday night was sitting on the backside of a two-way mirror that reflected the character of the good people of Williams. Life doesn’t any more real than carting your dirty clothes to the Laundromat. Rather than voyeurs, like everyone else there, Ed and I wanted nothing more than clean clothes.

The overseer, a bearded 40-something guy wearing Army-issued camouflaged pants, said with undertone of congratulations that we’d just made it. A sign explained. Because the facility closed at 10 p.m. on Sunday, its patrons could not fill and fire up a washer after 8:30 p.m.

The place opened at 6 a.m. I know this because at 9 p.m. a young man with a neatly trimmed Vandyke beard, Iberian features, and a Spanish accent popped in to count the available washers. The overseer, who stopped his nonstop cleaning, pointed to the sign, answered the man’s question about opening, and then went back to work. Clearly, the visitor had been celebrating on Main Street. “I’ll be back, if I’m awake.”

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The place was busy. Ed and I were not the endpoints on the spectrum of age or race, and we weren’t the only ones working on laptops while our clothes went round and round. People nodded friendly hellos as we passed and then went back to what they were doing. At the folding tables, they worked side-by-side with elevator politeness, offering a quick apology when elbows inadvertently met. Two women were folding sheets in the aisle; they may have been friends, or maybe just helpful neighbors. Everyone ignored the boisterous kids who raced around the room, carefully avoiding wire wheelie bins full of clothes awaiting a dryer or folding.

When I think of my time in Williams now, what stands out is the Laundromat. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time in the shadows of Main Street, but the truest reflection of the town and its people were most clearly seen—and appreciated—as we waited for a washer to rinse away the week just ended.

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Lessons Learned in the Search for New Nouns

Day9-69Crossing the burnt-brown desert leg of Route 66, I asked myself, Why am I doing this? At 70 mph, opening my helmet visor was like sticking my face in a convection oven set somewhere between 110°F and 115°F. The answer was the same as it has been when riding in the cold and wet and on perfect days: to discover and learn about new nouns—people, places, and things.

Three weeks later, while caressing the sensuous green curves of Nebraska’s Sandhills, I asked myself an equally important question. Unchallenged by traffic or wandering livestock, why was I not fully appreciating the undulating landscape that surrounded me? Why did I not see the cattle surrounding the windmill fed stock pond that would have been a good photo? And why did I not turn back to capture that image?

It became clear that I needed to include the personal pronoun in the quest for new knowledge.

Only a few days into this epic journey, I began an intracranial spanking for not posting the highlights of that day’s new nouns. Obsessed with my failings, my mind didn’t fully see the surrounding world and the unexpected experiences it displayed.

When you’re self-employed, the realization that you work for an uncompromising taskmaster really hurts. I started Small Town Traveler to further my professional development and to exhibit my abilities to potential clients. By demanding a daily post I was not only depriving myself of new noun knowledge, I was eviscerating my original goal.

Really, can any word merchant compose and revise a piece of writing, to reflect on word choice, syntax, and organization, in the time it takes to smoke a nice cigar? (For those who do not reward themselves for a productive day’s work in such a manner, a good cigar lasts me, on average, 90 minutes when I’m smoking and writing.)

There may be a few, but at this stage of my life and career, I’m not one of them. After riding 300 miles, I do not have the intellectual and physical stamina to download and caption the day’s photos, decipher and pound my handwritten notes (and their associated memories) into the computer, and then compose a clear, concise, coherent, and (I hope) interesting story about the day.

So, stretching my legs at the roadside, I asked the cattle trimming the grass on the other side of the barbwire fence what I should do. A few raised their heads when I posed the question, but not one offered as little as a snuff, a grunt, or a moo, before dropping their heads toward their grassy green brunch.

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Looking down the road, I found the solution at its vanishing point, where the Sandhills met the clotted gray overcast. Professional development is Small Town Traveler’s primary reason for being. But when I’m on a journey, it tells family and friends (and readers who care) that I’m not someone’s hood ornament.

This became clear to me on this journey, when a friend posted a Facebook query about my wellbeing two days after my last STT post. I responded with a couple of the day’s most interesting photos and let everyone know that all was well.

At that moment, my solution was clear, so why did it take me three weeks to realize it? And how many new nouns had I missed while I obsessed about my self-inflicted distraction?

Instead of watering this seed of a new obsession, I congratulated myself on an unconsciously correct decision to continue my daily Facebook photo posts. Fulfilling my societal responsibilities freed me from the anal-retentive dominatrix that lives between my ears. By waiting until I returned home to convey my new noun discoveries, I would have the time and stamina—and desire—to give them the attention they deserved. This decision was an intoxicating high of creative freedom that has not yet worn off.

Still, from the back corner of my mind, a muted voice asks about the new nouns I’d passed and not fully appreciated. With more than 20,000 words of notes and 1,200 photos, I surely didn’t miss that many. And there will be more journeys in the future. But crossing any desert—in August—will not be one of them.

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Serendiculous Diversions & Nice People

Where we would sleep the night after the start of the great flat tire adventure depended on who had a Michelin 170/60 ZR17 Road Pilot 4 GT. After about a half hour of calling shops located in ever longer ridges from Fort Bragg, California, it seemed that we weren’t going anywhere because their answers to my question were all the same: Nope. We don’t have on of those.

Ozzie Ed t-shirtThen I called Ozzie’s BMW in Chico, California. Chris answered the phone and said, “How can we help you?” On my 15th phone call of the morning, I told him “I have a sad story to tell you. I’m a BMW rider from Wisconsin,” and while taking a breath to speak my next phrase, he interjected, “That is a sad story!”

His humor and our shared laugh burst the cyst of anxiety that had been growing in my mind all morning. After explaining what I needed, he asked me to hold on for a second. When he returned to the phone, he said, “Yup, we got one.” Worried about covering the distance between here than there, he said his tech made the run to Fort Bragg often, and that it took him 4 hours. It was 11 a.m., and they closed at 5 p.m. You’ll make it in plenty of time. This was reassuring, because like most motorcycle shops, Ozzie’s is closed in Sundays and Mondays.

My cyst of anxiety started building earlier that morning when I couldn’t get a hold of anyone at Street, Track & Trail, when I made a local call from our room at the Pine Beach Inn. That was all that was available in the Twilight Zone of no cell coverage. If you want to know where it is, look at Verizon’s coverage map, and the pinpoint of no-coverage white is were we spent the night.

On my fourth call, the mechanic answered the phone at 9:30 a.m. and said that they didn’t open until 10 a.m. He also said that he patched my rear tire the night before, “when I was working on a motor; I sprayed it this morning, and it’s still bubbling.” I told him to tube it, and he said someone would come and get me shortly after they opened. My ride, Casey, showed up shortly after 10 and took me to the shop, where the mech was tightening the wheel bolts with  a pneumatic impact wrench.

The kind and helpful people at Street, Track & Trail,, who serve the backcountry bike community, mitigated what could have been an anguishing trial of patience and finances. For all their good work, picking up Blue, and then me, and patching and then tubing the tire, they charged me just $127. And it was the nice innkeeper on the desk at the Pine Beach Inn that made the initial phone call, calling the owner by her first name. It’s just another example of the nice people you find in small towns.

Speaking of which, on this journey so far we have met an endless succession of nice, friendly, pleasant, helpful people of all ages, races, and ethnic origins. It has been an alternate universe from the social media cesspool of narcissistic outrage and zero-sum ideology I wade through every morning for my online clients. My face-to-face meetings with diverse Americans has planted a seed of hope for our shared future.

But I digress. Ed rolled in just after I talked to Chris at Ozzie’s, and we hit the road for Chico without breakfast or coffee. All that mattered was getting there safely before the shop closed. All of the service people I talked to had experience with tubing tubeless tires to get riders to new rubber, and they all agreed that it was safe, “If I didn’t get crazy.” They didn’t define crazy. The thought of it sent my pucker factor into the yellow zone. 

Naturally, the shortest connection between the two cities was CA 20, a twisty turny road through the mountains. I did my best not to be crazy. I can’t say the same for the people we saw parked by the roadside to watch a baby brush fire mature. A few, most of them driving pickups, grabbed shovels from the beds and went to work. The fire department wasn’t on the scene yet, but a bit farther east a fire truck, decorated with flashing red lights dancing to the siren’s wail, roared past us on its way west. “I know where he’s going,” Ed said.

At a gas stop, Ed stayed to suck down some Gatorade and suck up some air conditioning. For me it was a NASCAR pit stop, and I continued my race through the 100-degree heat. I walked in the door of Ozzie’s BMW at 3:15, and it like coming home. After introduction, Chris asked if the key was in the bike, and said that they’d get to work on it. I hauled my saddle bags and trunk into the showroom and proceeded to drain their water cooler.

Ozzie’s BMW has been serving riders since 1977, and the crew there taught me an important lesson. Family businesses don’t have customers, they have friends, even those, like us, that they have just met for the first time. Ed arrived about 20 minutes after me, and he started talking to Mike, a burly guy with working man’s hands, about a buzzing vibration in his throttle that has been annoying him since we left Wisconsin two weeks ago.

Discussing the possible causes, Mike told Ed to pull his bike into the shop and they’d put it on the analyzer. Ed demurred, not wanting to take Mike away from his work. Mike wouldn’t hear of it. “It’s what we do here.” And in minutes Ed’s 1150R was wired up and running through the tests. Mike spent about a half hour diagnosing the possible causes. They didn’t find the source of the vibration, but the cut the number of possible causes in half. He didn’t ask for any money, and he didn’t try to sell him anything. Later, we found out that Mike was Ozzie’s son, and that Ozzie had passed a few years ago.

While Mike worked on Ed’s bike, I saw Blue up on the stand, and asked it I could watch the technician reinstall the rear wheel with its brand new Michelin Road Pilot 4 GT tire. I’d never seen this process before, because my home shop, another family business, doesn’t allow customers in the shop, for insurance reasons, their sign says. Not a problem, the said. And when it came time to tighten the wheel bolts, the tech reached not for an impact wrench, but a torque wrench, and set it to the BMW specs. And without asking, the tech gave Blue a quick physical, from tire pressures and fluid levels to the pertinent fasteners.

Day15-27Settling up with Chris, I snagged an Ozzie’s key fob from the BMW coffee mug on the counter. It replaced the Hondo National Bank fob I got in 2006, when my original fob broke on my first long trip with Blue. It was in the goodie bag given to media covering the Texas Fly-In. It was on that trip that I had my first ever flat tire, also the rear. I didn’t realize it until I got home to Wisconsin, however. I should have listened to Bruce Bohannon, who noticed that it was low when I stopped at his field outside Houston for an interview. Suffering from an intestinal bug I’d caught at the fly-in, I was distracted. Needless to say, it was an interesting ride home, but not as interesting as discovering the ruined rear tire the morning after I got home.

When Chris returned my credit card, I thanked him for their excellent service and for a delightful, memorable afternoon. He was gob smacked. “I’ve never had a customer spend $300 and then thank me for a delightful afternoon,” he said. As we were getting ready to leave, he came outside and asked our t-shirt sizes, popped back inside, and returned with an Ozzie’s BMW t-shirt for both of us. “There are on me,” he said. Rest assured that we’re wearing them with pride.

No one in their right mind plans to suffer a flat tire when 2,000 miles from home, but in the serendiculous series events of this trip, I appreciate it because it introduced us to some truly fine and nice people who treat people not with obsequious “customer service” but as friends and fellow riders. If I have one regret from our visit, it is that I didn’t think about getting a photo or two of Chris, Mike, and the tech who reshowed my mount. I grabbed a quick one of Ed with he t-shirt just before we hit the road, but the idea of capturing our new friends didn’t dawn on me until we were bedded down in the Best Western, which has a special rate for Ozzie’s customers who need a place to stay while the shop is working on their bikes. We walked by the shop on our way to dinner at the Pour House (an excellent recommendation, Chris!). I won’t forget the next time I’m traveling this way.

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Following the Scenic Dotted Line & Other Adventures

Day13-62In the 1970s, I made my inaugural exploration of California Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway or, concisely, the PCH. On a series of trips I extended it through Oregon and Washington to Seattle, a route we are repeating, with diversions to sights we have not yet seen, such as Crater Lake. Other diversions, such as todays, were unplanned.

Paul Theroux wrote that “Nothing is more suitable to a significant departure than bad weather.” And nothing adds uncertain intrigue to a voyage on two wheels quicker than when one of those wheels goes flat. Our ride north from Santa Monica has been uneventful but rewarding. My riding partner, Ed, traveled this route in the 1980s, and as we search our respective memories for roads previously traveled, our common denominator is the notion that it was easier to find our way back in the day.

Day12-4Passing through the cities is to be tolerated, the gauntlet we must run to reach the dotted lines on the map that indicated the scenic routes. You remember maps, those magical broadsheets covered with lines that show the big picture of where you are and where you want to go, don’t you?

It used to be that they were available free at rest stops and visitor information centers. When I asked the attendant on one such center, asked in return, “Don’t you have GPS?” Yes, we do, but it is secondary to a map. He said maybe the visitor center on the Interstate, four hours east of our current location on the coast might have one. We found a bookstore that was closer. Barnes & Noble charges $6 for Rand McNally’s Easy to Read! California.

Day11-45As we rode I searched my memory for images seen four decades ago. Traversing the Lompoc lobe of the California coast I had found nothing of the agricultural factory this region has become. But I will forever more remember the laser-graded fields ready for planting, the plastic covered rows that are a sign of drip irrigation, and the smell of strawberries as we passed vast fields of them. The memories stared to creep from the shadows as we twisted and turned our way into the Big Sur region. It was scenes filmed here, long shots of a motorcycle traversing the area’s iconic bridges, for the 1960s TV show, Then Came Bronson, that ignited my desire to travel by two wheels.

Day13-34More vexing is the unanswered question of how I missed these unavoidable geographic details that surely existed on my first passage? The same goes for all the small costal towns north of the Golden Gate. (And how did I forget that there is no toll when leaving San Francisco; you have to pay to get in from the north.) And I don’t remember the well-signed “Costal Access” roads and “Vista Points.” This one is above Gualala, California.

It was a stop in one of these towns where my rear tire, a Michelin Pilot Road 4, brand new for this trip, with only 3,500 miles on it so far, picked up a small sliver of metal, probably in one of their graveled parking lots. After a good day of twists and turns, an on the recommendation of Queenie and Cassandra, of Queenie’s Roadhouse Café in Elk, California, we checked into the Pine Beach Motel, an independent hostel  just south of Fort Bragg. After checking in, Ed noticed that my rear tire seemed low. The tire gauge read 8 psi. Just to make the adventure interesting, there’s no cell service and the Wi-Fi works best in the motel’s office. The innkeeper was immediately helpful and connected me with a local motorcycle shop, which didn’t have a tire, but they could put a tube in the flat one, which will get me to the nearest BMW dealer, in Chico (5 hours away) for back in Santa Rosa (4 hours south), depending on who has the tire and can accommodate my needs. Tomorrow should be interesting.

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Route 66 Connections: No Expectations, No Focus

When traveling without expectations, a journey is at first a series of disconnected experiences because it occurs organically, not in a series of marketing meetings that plan it from start to finish. That’s where I’ve been for the past two days, trying to make sense of disparate experiences whose only coherence is the road, Route 66, that connects them.

Day5-6It started yesterday with the round barn in Arcadia, Oklahoma. Other than its shape and free admission, there’s nothing exceptional about it. The first floor gives the history of the structure, and it was interesting to see how the mounted flat pictures to the curved walls. The center of the barn is a gift shop filled with t-shirts and related tourist items. Upstairs, the lost, said several signs, was available for parties, meetings, weddings, and receptions. Figuring that it was an empty space that made these activities possible, we didn’t climb the stairs. Instead we stopped by the bathroom, in a separate building, and it was air conditioned.

Day5-51That afternoon we stopped at the Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma. After walking the exhibits, which were segregated by decades, what I learned seem worth the $5 admission, but I was vaguely disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the museum was well organized, researched, and staged. But it didn’t offer any surprises, bits of information or artifacts that surprised me. Nor did I get a feeling for the museum’s personality or the character of the people who shared their histories with 66 on video. It reminded me of a well done high school term paper, researched for basic facts and formatted to appeal to the lowest common commercial denominator.

Day6-3This morning we crossed into Texas, and between Shamrock and Leila, at the corner of Texas 453, we came across what appeared to be an 1980s-era Phillips 66 station. Centered in the welded-wire fence that surrounded it was a For Sale sign. Inside the fence were an empty building and a collection of old cars, a VW bug, a T-Bird, and several old and older pickup trucks. It was the sad, forlorn reality of someone’s dreams for a successful business. What made it surreal was the Suburban parked in the gravel lot on the roadside. Its engine was running and inside a family was fast asleep, except for the blond youngster playing a video game in the front passenger seat. The air was certainly on full because slumped back in the driver’s seat, dad had a blanket pulled up to this chin.

Day6-14Cresting a rise I saw a water tower, on old one with four legs, a center standpipe, and a conical top. Black outline letters name the town McLean. At the corner beneath it was a boarded up gas station, a hint of things to come, I’m afraid. Main St. crossed the old 66 at a right angle, and looking down its length both ways as we slowly rolled by revealed no signs of life. No open stores. No parked cars. No people on the sidewalk. The movie theater’s marquee was a tabula rasa.

Day6-21At a gas station and convenience store in Groom, Texas, not unlike the one for sale, we stopped for a fill-up. Inside was the minimum essentials for small Interstate wayside in the middle of almost nowhere. Perched on folding chairs at one of the three folding tables with white plastic tops were three good ole boys talking about goings on in Amarillo, down the Interstate to the west. One was wearing an unusual long-round bag slung on a rainbow strap across his chest. Getting the bike ready to resume the journey, I heard an excellent trumpet rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. So that is what was in the bag. And underneath it was a Trump for President t-shirt. A trumpeter for trump in Groom, Texas, and with a good set of chops, too.

Stopping at the Cadillac Ranch, also known as Carhenge, was on Ed’s bucket list. Seeking directions at the t-shirt shop (it had all sizes up to 5X) behind a few pristine Caddies set at an angle, the surly blonde woman behind the counter pointed and said it was a half-mile that way. Cars parked on both sides of the road marked our destination a half-mile down the frontage road.

Day6-43After walking through an unusual gate that kept cattle in and fat people out, Carhenge was at the end of a quarter-mile walk down wide dirt path through a sorghum field. A good sized crowd of all ages was working busily with cans of spray paint tagging the cars and recording their creations for digital posterity with cameras and phones. And when they were finished, their handiwork was quickly covered up by someone else. About half the cars were surrounded by a mud puddle, so dry working area was in demand. 

I get the founding point of careenage, but its transition to a destination canvas for people to leave a digital image of their mark eludes me. As they walked back to the gate, a trio of 30-somethings with British accents was busily discussion not the automotive sculpture they had just tagged, it was how to post both stills and videos on Facebook at the same time.

Day6-54As we rolled across the Texas Panhandle, Route 66 jumps on and off I-40, which parallels it. Ready for lunch, a billboard for the Wildorado’s Windy Cow Café caught our eye. The food was good, but the people were better. This is Trudy, our waitress. The back of her orange t-shirt asked, “Got Wind?” Life has clearly distilled Trudy to sinew and leather that is forever fed by a positive outlook on life. “Where you from?” she asked. Learning that Ed and I were separated by two-thirds of the continent, she asked, “How’d you get together?” After explaining the roots of our 20-year friendship and how we periodically get together for a ride, Trudy said, “That’s good! It’s better than sitting around the house.”

She talked us into strawberry lemonade, which was perfect on this hot and humid day. When she returned from waiting on the café’s eclectic lunchtime clientele (cowboys with spurs, members of the school board, and some workers speaking some unknown Eastern European language) she refilled our glassed with a warning: “It’s the same stuff, but they might of made it with different measurements.” She was right. It was pucker worthy, but still refreshing.

And refreshing might be the most apt description for the surprises the exploration of this new (to me) territory. If Mother Nature allows—we watched thunderstorms bubble up to the west and north of us as we rode today—tomorrow we’ll ride the Santa Fe loop and, we hope, end up in Albuquerque. The only thing we now for sure is that the road will provide some more twists and turns that we’ve so far enjoyed on this leg of our journey.

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Route 66: There Will be Serendiculous Wrong Turns

Day4-1With a multitude of cutoff towns and rerouted roads, there is not one true path for Route 66. You pick an era and hope for the best. For the most part, Ed and I have been following the 1926-30 route because that has taken us to the most interesting places. But some of the things we’d hoped to see were on 66’s route in other eras. Those paths and turns are not so well marked, so there will be wrong turns on any 66 adventure. But that’s not something to mourn with a U-turn because something just as interesting may be around the next corner. It happened with such reliability today, we united serendipity and ridiculous into a unnatural union whose offspring is that strange looking word in the headline.

Day4-9It started when we met George Turner, a retired Marine who runs the Gary’s Gar Parita Sinclair Station on Old 66 in Ash Grove, Missouri, with his wife, Barb Turner Barnes. Her dad, Gary Turner, ran the station from 1944 to 2015, when he passed away, George said. One thing led to the next, he said, and he and his wife packed up and moved to Missouri from South Carolina. Apparently he’s an automotive collector, because he said half the stuff on display was already there, and he brought the other half with him. In the cluttered office is a memorial to Gary.

Day4-13The stone walled garage was amazing, and George is an unappreciated curator of Americana. The yellow Ford truck is perfectly situated in the garage. It is surrounded by uncountable items that you would find in any garage of the era. And George explained every item in detail to a couple of guys who were visiting at the same time. He not only explained what the item was, what it was used for, he could also recount some of the history of the company that made it. The gentlemen he was talking to must have been car guys because they were all geeking out. The only real clue that it was not a working garage was its cleanliness. It was more museum than busted knuckle grease emporium.

Day4-14What was most clear and ultimately enjoyable was how much George honestly loved what he was doing. He had a practiced but genuine patter that greeted every guest that walked through the gate. He encouraged everyone to wander around and explore the garage, office and grounds, “and if you want, I’ve got a little gift shop over there.” On post by the gas pump was a small unobtrusive box for donations. As we got ready to leave, George gave each of us two post cards, because “We live in a two-fisted world.” He urged us to keep one, and to “Send the other one home, to make folks jealous, so they’ll come visit. The postcard was a black & white photo of the station, with this quote: Folks from all over the world say it’s the dream of their life to travel historic Route 66. It’s the dream of my life to meet those folks. Friends for Life. Thank you!” Given the “Friends for Life” that graced the memorial in the office, I’m guessing that Gary Turner was this saying’s author. But George is carrying it into the future. And as we were leaving, a carload of four Spaniards, two hipster couples complete with beards and ink, pulled up, and I took three of their cameras to capture their visit while they held up a black flag with a white Route 66 logo on it. As we were pulling on our helmets, George said that yesterday a group of 30 bikers from Spain had visited.

Kansas has the shortest stretch of Route 66, just 13 miles. With the temperature climbing into triple digits, we impulsively turned right, away from the pink line on Ed’s GPS, with the idea of stopping to dehelmet and dejacket and dehumidify. That’s how we found the Rainbow Curve Bridge (and met up again with the Spanish hipsters, when they arrived shortly after us.

Day4-25Located west of Galina, Kansas, the bridge was built over Brush Creek  in 1923 and served Route 66 daily from the route’s birth in 1926 until 1960. The only surviving marsh arch bridge on 66, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. In 1994, as a joint project between the Cherokee  County Commission and the Kansas Historic Route 66 Association restored it, and you can drive across it—one way—today.

Minutes later after crossing the bridge we were in Oklahoma. And we were hungry. Rolling into Vinitia, the temperature on the bank sign read 102, and a big vertical neon sign ahead said EAT. That meant food and, more importantly, ice water and air conditioning.  And, it turned out, a bit big serving of Route 66 history.

Day4-36After two big glasses of ice water, and while waiting for our lunch, we read that Clanton’s Café is the oldest family-owned Route 66 restaurant in Oklahoma. It opened at its current location in 1947, and Dennis and Melissa Clanton Patrick are the fourth generation owners. It grew out of the Busy Bee Café that Sweet Tater Clanton opened in 1927. The menu said that it feature hand peeled and cut taters and homemade salad dressings. The pies are made from scratch from recipes little changed since they were developed in 1927. I opted for a club sandwich and more water. Every seat in the house was a booth (and they were proportioned for people with a 1927 stature), and the walls were covered with an eclectic combination of 8-by-10-inch store-bought picture frames that held images of notable Oklahomans. I didn’t recognize any of them.

With the temperature climbing higher, we took I-44 past Tulsa and are now sucking up the air conditioning at a Super 8 in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Tulsa is as far as I’ve ever traveled on the Spangler’s 1965 adventure on Route 66. From here to LA, it’ll all be new, and were depending on serendiculous decisions to surprise on at least once a day.

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Route 66: Pink Lines & Roads Previously Traveled

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Morning dawned gray and wet in Pacific, Missouri. Waiting it out seemed the best option because riding in the moist contrails of the semis barreling down the road unabated by the weather, seemed the best course of action. The Quality Inn sign out front flashed the time and the humid temperature of 68 degrees, and the canopy kept me dry, so settled in for a cigar with my coffee. It was the perfect combination to ruminate about this trip.

The point of any trip is to go someplace. This adventure will take Ed and me from Chicago to LA on Route 66 and up the coast to his home in the Seattle area. After I do laundry there, I’ll figure out which way I’m coming home, a connect-the-dot journey with the position changes being the several sources I’m seeing for some stories I’m working on. Watching the truck-smashed raindrops define the vortices of the cars and trucks speeding by, their windshield wipers working furiously, I collected and collated my thoughts and impressions so far, and it struck me that I’ve already traveled much of the forthcoming route.

Day1-35Heading into Chicago on US 41, the sign for a cross street said N. Wolcott Ave. A text-message like ping sounded in my head. I spent the first three years of my life on this street, from my arrival in 1953 until the Spangler family moved to Streamwood in 1956. And nine years later we were in the family’s brand new 1965 blue Buick Special station wagon, with its V-6 and automatic transmission, heading following whatever path Route 66 followed that year to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Heading south, none of the roads looked like the ones we were riding, especially the sections here the old route ran parallel to the even older, abandon stretches of pavement.

We were going to visit Art and Jody Johnson, friends and classmates of my father when the all attended the Chicago Art Institute. It just so happens that we passed the school’s iconic lions when we made the left turn from Indiana to Adams, and saw that there was no way we could get a photo of the bikes with the sign that marked the start of westbound Route 66, unless we wanted to get flattened by an articulated CTA bus, that is.

The innkeeper on duty came out front to check the weather and have a smoke. Talking about our trip she thought us demented. But I sensed a tinge a jealously. Her youngest son, 27, was a truck driver, and he’d just returned from a run to Oregon, and “He had pictures of all sorts of animals he saw along the way.” Her oldest boy was a Marine. He was in California, now, after two tours in Afghanistan, and that was someplace she hoped he would never travel to again, “It’s just awful.”

As she finished her smoke, the rain started to abate, and we saddled up, and continued along the general path of Route 66 that I’d traveled in 1965. There isn’t much I remember about that trip, other than long hours of boredom in the back seat with my sister. To break the monotony for our parents, we fought from time to time, mostly about how hot we were and who was encroaching on the other’s backseat space.

Day2-23But visual memories surfaced as we rode today, and the day before. In Springfield, Illinois, we stopped at the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln, and a museum, I don’t remember, where, to rub Abe bronze nose for luck. Following the pink line that led us along the 1926-30 path, Ed and I were surprise to see that it took us past the state capital building. Parking spaces allowed us to take a rest and grab some photos, and a state worker cutting the grass took a break and offered to take our photos.

From there we pretty much followed IL 4, but we took the cutoffs to the small towns that were like points on the saw blade that was the original route. To Ed I explained that the US highway system involved some new road construction, but initially it united existing roads with the numbering system that made getting from place to place easier. As is the driving force of progress, people wanted to get to their destinations more quickly, so the highway commissions started excising the smaller towns from the route in the 1930s. That eventually led to the Interstate system and the retirement of US Highway 66.

But as our peregrinations through rural Illinois proved, these roads, now with different names, are still in service. On the east side of Nilewood, population 300, we rode a segment of Old 66 paved in bricks. And on the west side of town, there it was a narrow (maybe 12-feet wide) strip of concrete with grass growing up through the cracks. The brick road was now named Snell, and the concrete path was Gillespie, and they were still important to the people who lived on either side of them.

Day2-46Their homes, like their communities, were well neat and well cared for. On Gillespie road we saw a sign for turkey tracks, where the wild birds had left their footprints in the wet concrete. We parked at the side of the road and spent maybe 20 minutes looking around and taking photos. The grass around the sign was neatly trimmed, and not a single car interrupted our exploration. On our way out, the man cutting his lawn at the house not 50 yards from the turkey tracks looked up and waved. We returned the greeting, but with our full face helmets, he could not see our smiles that mirrored his.

One worry about this 66 adventure was that the attractions along the way would be local attempts at creating a Disney view of the past. But so far, that hasn’t been the case. Rather than presenting an idyllic look at the past, the attractions have been a presentation of honest pride in the contributions of their creators to their communities.

Crossing the Mississippi River on I-55, looking north gave us a good view of the Gateway Arch, and on our 1965 trip, I think we stopped for an up-close look. My dad and I rode the the tiny car to the top, but my mom and sister were content to look up.

Day2-32In Rolla we spent our first night in the Holiday Inn, which was a big deal. I remember reading that John Glenn was involved with the company in some way, but my parents wouldn’t let me bring my GI Joe and Mercury capsule to play with in the pool, which was filled with sparking, crystal cold water. That water would feel good now! Gauging the temperatures from the sign Ed and I pass, it is in the upper 80s, and the humidity is even higher. The wind chill of our forward speed doesn’t make the any more comfortable.

At the Missouri Route 66 Welcome Center rest stop, the last one in the state, Ed and I faced the same dilemma posed to the highway commissioners that determined 66’s path, getting to our destination in a reasonable amount of time. Three days in, we’d covered just 700 miles. With limited time to travel the remaining 1,900 miles, we’d have to determine our own cutoffs. Seeing little of interest along the rural route of the past, we opted for the paved over path that was I-44. Relying on the guidebooks, we’ll resume our trek on 66’s historic path course on the west side of Springfield, Missouri, as time and Mother Nature allows.

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Route 66: Following the Pink Line From Chicago to LA

Day1-27As an aficionado of small towns and the people who live in them, there seemed no better  way to explore those not yet visited than by following the path of the road that once connected them: Route 66. The towns still exist, and the pavement that was once called Route 66 still connects them, but the route itself has ceased to exist. The good news is that its small town wanderings west is still known, and my riding partner and traveling companion, Ed, had the software that would show us the way with a pink (or magenta, depending on your color perception) line and the willingness to ride east from his home in Seattle to undertake the quest.

The bad news is that regardless which way you’re going, west or east, Route 66 starts or ends in Chicago. Our goal was to get a photo of our BMW bikes under the signs that noted the end of the route. We were going west, but being a city, we’d call it a win with either sign. The east bound terminus is at Lake Shore Drive and Jackson St. Because it’s a one-way street west, the start of Route 66 is on Adams St. When we got down town, after following US 41 from Oshkosh south until it turned into Lake Shore Drive, we didn’t get a photo with either sign. It wasn’t worth our lives.

A festival was going on, and throngs of people in shorts and t-shirts and sports bras were heading into the fenced off area, that blocked off Jackson and seemed to keep a loud music monster caged. Circling back on Indiana we were hoping for the Adams St. sign, but it was on the corner in a bus only lane. And we’d passed an articulated CTA bus just before turning left. And a cab that wanted by thought he could use part of the lane not filled with motorcycles. Calling it a good attempt and vowing to service as each other’s witness that we’d started Route 66 from the start, we wandered around and finally found our way out of the city.

Round about Joliet we reconnected with the pink line and the brown signs that the mark the historic route. We stopped at the Rich and Cream on Broadway ice cream shop because the fiberglass Blues Brothers were dancing on its roof. We didn’t get ice cream. The line was too long. Around Wilmington we met the Gemini Giant, and not only is he taller than I am, his feet are bigger.

Day1-23It was here that we started to see history of an era passed. The buildings wore engraved names and dates at their cornices. Under one cornice marking the birth of URAD in 1909 was a modern sign over the door that read “Bienvenidos.” On the corner was a building proclaiming the Newlin Block, and it had a turret that allowed people within to look down both streets. It would make an excellent writing room. It was now home to the Cyber Café Latino and the Dental Arts Care office.

While wandering the streets, looking at the past that had survived to the present day by still serving a purpose, Ed and I started to formulate a plan for the rest of our journey. What interested us were the building we were seeing and the people we were meeting there. They had history with the place and could talk about the challenges of progress in their hometowns. This we didn’t find in the city, where the new replaced the old instead of repurposing it. The people were generally from somewhere else. That last part is a guess because striking up a conversation was impossible in traffic, and whether they were driving or walking to a festival, they were too engrossed in their phones to see what was around them.

Day1-46Riding into Odell, Illinois, a series of signs said, “Odell, a small town with a big heart, where everybody is somebody,” crystalized our decisions to skirt the traffic and crowds and modernity of cities as we followed the pink line. One city looks like any other these days. The really interesting nouns – people, places, and things – were in the small towns. Cities don’t have Standard Oil Stations like this one, built in 1932, with the garage added in 1937, that are on the National Register of Historic Places. It would also save us a huge amount of time. With so many interesting places to explore, we weren’t making much progress on Route 66, which traverses more than 2,600 miles on its way to LA.

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Unrealistic Expectations and Geographic Surprises in Washington, DC

NatGeo-3As all of my past half dozen or so trips to Washington, DC, have been for business, I’ve never had the time—no, I’ve never felt comfortable taking time from my appointed business mission—to visit the headquarters of the magazine that has inspired me ever since I learned to read, National Geographic. Free of such restraints on my latest trip to the nation’s capitol, my wife and I would be there when the doors opened on one early-April Saturday morning. For me it was a pilgrimage to the source of a long revered professional interest, and my wife wanted to see the Photo Ark exhibit of Joel Sartore’s striking eyeball-direct images of the world’s critters before they all go extinct (and before the exhibit completed its run the following week).

In itself, the exhibit was spectacular! Photographed against simple black or white backgrounds, the individual animals’s portraits were striking. In most of them, the animals were looking directly into the camera, making a direct connection with the viewer. They dared each of us to a staring contest that we humans would eventually win because we can better adapt, as least for the time being, to our rapacious consumption of their habitat—the air, the land, and the fresh and salt water that ultimately sustains all of us. As noted on more than a few portraits, the images before us were all that remained of that particular animal.

In the adjacent exhibit spaces were Crocs and Pristine Seas, which reinforced my less than eager desire to see these reptiles in any other form than a photograph and my Midwestern addiction to vast expanses of salt water, especially where it rubs up against any terrestrial island whether it is a mere dot or a continent. But the visit to National Geographic’s galactic headquarters left me decidedly disappointed. It certainly wasn’t the fault of the organization, but I expected more. Thinking about this while staring at the arrangement of granite in the courtyard that separated the old and new wings of the building, the fault was ultimately my own unrealistic expectations, accumulated like a tree’s growth rings through nearly 60 years of reading this magazine with its distinctive yellow border.

NatGeo-8The one image that connected those pages to the buildings through which I had just walked was the large brass society logo inlaid in the floor at the apex between the two exhibit halls. A third, narrower hallway with the blind stainless steel elevator doors that lead to the offices above, separated those halves of the building. In the magazine, the brass disk in the floor filled a grander, airier space. Circling it, imagining different lenses and angles in my photographer’s mind’s eye, intellectually I understood and appreciated how those printed images conveyed the scene that led me astray emotionally.

The rich atmosphere and concisely set scenes in decades of fact-filled articles that nourished my insatiable curiosity and led me to become an autodidactic polymath fed my unrealistic expectations. The writers and photographers who artfully conveyed their particular looks at the world were assembled here in this factory of magazine production. It is, perhaps, more fair to trace the source of my expectations to my grandmother’s library, in the big old house on Fremont Street in Battle Creek, Michigan, than to these exhibit spaces in an office building in Washington, DC.

A member of the National Geographic Society since the early 1900s, she saved every issue, as I used to do, and spending time among them was what I anticipated most during our Christmas visits. From the time I learned to read early in my single digits, I would disappear into this room off the dining room, past the Christmas tree growing from an angular mountain range of colorful presents. With my head resting on my right shoulder I would read the stories listed on the spine of each issue to find my next adventure. And when time ended those seasonal visits, a membership of my own was the Christmas present I most looked forward to each year, a present I give myself still since my parents’s passing.

This disconnect between reality and my expectations was just the first of several such reconciliations this visit required. The next, an unexpected surprise, came as we walked along the reflecting pool toward my inaugural visit to the Lincoln Memorial. Being cherry blossom weekend before Easter, we wove our way slowly through a sea of humanity. My full attention was focused on not trampling someone one ahead of me, or being trampled by someone living their visit through the 4-by-6-inch screen of their phone—until I heard the quack.

DC-27To my right was a Mallard drake. Its green head pointed in the same direction I was walking, it was tippy-toeing its way toward the Lincoln Memorial. Not sure, I was seeing this clearly, I sat to make a closer inspection. Indeed, with every slow stroke of its orange, three-toed palmate feet, the center toe of each was clearly pushing off the bottom. I judged the water’s depth to be about 6 inches, and dipping my rigidly extended right hand into the cool, clear water confirmed my general measurement.

Having only seen the reflecting pool in movies, I’d always thought it was deeper. Immediately my mind played the scene were Forrest Gump left the speaker’s stand at the Lincoln Memorial, jumped into the pool, and waded his way to meet Jenny. As the scene played in memory, the water was clearly reached to Forrest’s knees; maybe Tom Hanks is shorter than I thought. That, or the computer graphic artists thought deeper water looked more dramatic. (Either way, it is good enough reason to watch the movie again to answer the question for sure.)

DC-23Climbing the stairs to the Lincoln Memorial I complimented its designers for their perfect rise and tread. Inside, a solid human gyre adorned with smart phone sequins slowly circulated around his seated figure. He would have been pleased with the diversity of humans as his feet, and at their gracious good manners as they shuffled about for a closer look.

Working my with half-steps back to the stairs the crowd parted for a moment, when some Asian newlyweds stepped aside from a few set into the…is it marble? “I have a dream…,” they said, where Martin Luther King stood for his civil right proclamation in 1963. Standing in the same spot, I looked out over the diverse ocean of people who lined the stone shoreline of the Reflecting Pool with its visual echo of the Washington Monument. Their numbers were clearly shy of the quarter million people who heard King’s speech that sweltering August day in 1963, but it was close. The panoramic connection to history sobered me and dispelled my lingering pontification of unrealized expectations planted in my youth. What I saw faded from color to a grainy black and white image seen in the other magazines of my youth, and that moment fixed itself in my mind as the singular memory of this visit, and all that came before it.

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Community and Culture Survives and Thrives at Camp Lejeune

BCS-20It has been 40 years since I was last immersed in the culture and community of the United States Marine Corps. At the time, I was a Navy photojournalist stationed on the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), an amphibious command and control ship that was the command post for a number of their Western Pacific exercises. Curiosity of what changes time had wrought was an undercurrent of my recent visit with my son Braden, a Navy critical care nurse working in the emergency room at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

As I approached the main gate, I expected a dramatic difference between the Marine communities at Camp Hansen and Camp Foster in Okinawa (where I learned that the Quonset huts are long gone and the gravel streets are now paved). Established in 1941, Camp Lejeune is the Marine’s largest East Coast facility, covering 246 square miles with a 14-mile oceanfront view, perfect for amphibious operations, a Marine Corps specialty. Little did I know that the paperwork I filled out for a temporary vehicle pass was a ticket to the past, to a community and culture that Americans who live outside the gate haven’t enjoyed since the days of President Eisenhower.

My son and his wife, Carrie, also a Navy nurse, and their three kids live in a trim two-story white house that was built in the 1950s. He wasn’t there when my wife and I arrived. He was still in intensive care. An overachiever, he was recovering from almost every post-surgical complication possible following an appendectomy. Without this unhappy situation, I would have never learned about the time shift. With his wife leading the way, when we arrived at their base housing home, stacked on the back porch were plastic containers and pans covered with aluminum foil. It was dinner, for all of us, provided by one of the neighbors, in the family’s time of need.

It was, said Carrie, standard operating procedure, an effort coordinated by the street’s Facebook page. The neighbors provide similar support for those being deployed, packing a household for transfer, unpacking upon arrival at their new duty station, bringing home a new baby, and celebrations from birthday to promotions. The hospital set Braden free the next morning, but dinner was on the back stoop every night during our four-day visit. And it would continue until their lives resumed their normal daily routine. “It’s just what we do,” said Carrie.

But that wasn’t all. At the workday’s end, when all the husbands returned home from their duty day, with their wives they congregated in one of the driveways while the kids ran freely through the unfenced yards in boisterous clusters. Each in turn, kids flew across the grass on tire swings dangling from tall and sturdy front yard trees. The slow, pendulum flights modulated their laugher and screams of joy with the Doppler Effect. “Again!” punctuated the glee of those whistling to and fro.

Watching quietly from a comfy chair near the head of my son’s driveway, the carefree panorama across the street recalled my free-range childhood youth in Chicago’s northwest suburbs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Unrestricted by fences or over-protective parents we played ball and army and built tree houses and underground forts in the woods that was our refuge at the end a long narrow park, the leafy dot on a lowercase i. During the summer, our only unbreakable responsibility was to be home before dark.

Streamwood-017Several years ago, I returned to the neighborhood of my youth for a summertime stroll. Rare was a yard not defined by a chain-link perimeter. The grass grew long in the park and the base lanes that defined the ball field were smooth and footprint free. Our beloved woods was a shadow of its former expanse, halved by a car wash and 7/11 that faced Irving Park Road. Our youthful adventures there challenged the undergrowth and cut paths that were the shortest distances between our forts and tree houses. During my visit, I circumnavigated this leafy island in a sea of sprawl and found its undergrowth impenetrable. Most noticeable by their absence was the current generation of youngsters. I knew they existed because many of the empty yards I passed fenced off accumulations of playtime detritus dropped wherever boredom dictated.

The situation is similar where I now live, though small town kids do seem to range more freely than those in metropolitan suburbs. But I was sure that the era of a free-range youth was something lost to time, at least until I visited base housing at Camp Lejeune. Discussing this later with my son and his wife, after the kids went to bed, my observation seemed to surprise them. This has always been part of their military family life. Maybe it was because most of the wives don’t work, with my daughter-in-law being the rare exception. Or maybe it was their isolation from the surrounding community and the naturally limited access to a military installation. Perhaps. It certainly has an unusual sound track with the distant thud-whumpf of artillery and the constant thrumming buzz of CH-53 helicopters and sonic rush of the V-22 Osprey.

There has to be something more. What these families enjoy is community, an interdependence nurtured by shared experiences and social needs that have atrophied among those Americans living beyond the main gate who have surrendered neighborly interactions to the narrow, hypnotic view of the world on technology’s LED display. Of no doubt, however, is the benefit of their free-range childhoods to my grandkids and their compatriots. Instead of clicking their way into the deep recesses of technology’s echo chamber of shared perceptions and prejudices, they learn to deal with and peacefully accommodate the variety of life and the challenges posed by others face to face. If this sense of community is, indeed, the rule at most military housing communities rather than the exception, as the experience of my son and his wife portends as true, then those who serve are defending more than the nation’s freedom, they are sustaining an essential element that once defined our nation’s culture.

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