Monday, August 30, 2004

Day Twelve

Start: Bristol VA (21575)
End: Osceola AR (22138)
563 miles

Up early, I get my gear stowed away, grab a little breakfast in the miniature lobby downstairs (Lord, I am tired of these "complimentary breakfasts" with nothing but stale cereal, rock-hard bagels and instant coffee) and walk outside to check out my poor bike. Tire fairies have not magically repaired the flat overnight; however, I see the Honda dealership's service bay door across the street is open, a half-hour early! I stroll over to check it out.

Atlas Honda, in Bristol VA - HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION. The guys were helpful, friendly and eager to get me back on the road as soon as possible. They quote me prices (reasonable, not excessively cheap, I can live with that) for fixing the flat, and for fixing the flat and replacing the back tire, which doesn't have that much tread left on it. I decide to go for the replacement. I'd need to get it replaced before I get halfway across country anyway. Then I settle in to wait for the work to get done. The morning is gloomy and it rains intermittently. A couple of nice young men fetch my bike from across the street, saving me the trouble of doing so, and the wee beastie disappears into the work bay. An older gentleman pulls up on a Goldwing and hands it over to the service guys for whatever work he's having done. He wanders over in my general direction, and starts up the let's-kill-a-little-time conversation. He opens with "Looks like we're going to get a little rain," and again with the accents, I smile at the thick South in his voice, and reply, "Yeah, it does look a wee bit gloomy." Now it's his turn - his eyes goggle with surprise, and he says, "Where are you from?" "Los Angeles," I answer. "I've been on vacation up in the Shenandoah Valley, and now I'm on my way home." He laughs, "I didn't think you sounded like you were from East Tennessee!" What follows is one of the most fascinating conversations-with-a-stranger that I've ever been in. The fellow, name of John, is a retired police officer who travels with his wife on the Wing. They've been riding for years & he tells me lots of stories about places he's been. He, in turn, is amazed at my tales. He can't believe that I'm traveling cross-country solo (he thinks it's great, but worries that I don't carry a gun) and is tickled when he finds out that I am a former professional football player. Apparently, he's never met anyone like me. LOL, I get that a lot. We gab and gab, the time passes quickly, and before I know it my bike is ready to go. I load up, wish John safe travels, and hit the road once more.

Tennessee is lovely. I ride the length of the state, passing through the Smoky Mountains. It's uneventful riding, just making miles down the interstate. It rains off and on, but August rain is warm, and I never bother to put on my rainsuit. I get lost in Nashville. The freeways through downtown are under construction (apparently this is a perpetual condition for them) and all the signs are down. I find myself in the wrong lane to stay on I-40 westbound without a prayer of getting over in time, and end up getting dumped off the freeway and detouring into what I think was a pretty bad section of town. I figure as long as I keep heading west, I'll find the interstate again eventually. I pass through a nicer-looking part of town, the houses are neat and charming, and they all look old to me (of course, an "old" house in L.A. is one that's built before the 70's - an "old" house in other parts of the country is one that's built in the 1800's.) I pick up a state highway and keep heading west, and sure enough, it leads me back to I-40 and my main route.

By late afternoon, the rain is behind me and I am heading into Memphis. One of the main reasons I've chosen this return route is that I want to see the Mississippi here. One time, I flew into Memphis (I was changing planes there) and was amazed at the sight of the river from the air. Now, I need to see it from the ground, and cross it on two wheels. I really don't know why this is important to me, but I don't question it, just go with my feeling. I hit traffic going through the city, and there is a terrible-looking four-car pileup in the opposite direction which slows everyone to a crawl with all the damn rubbernecking. Once I get through that, it's pretty easy sailing, and the mile markers tell me how far I have to go until I reach the river and the state line ... nine miles, five miles, three, two, one ...

I do not see the river until I am just about upon it. The road rises up just a bit and suddenly I am crossing over a little bluff which is the east riverbank, and flying out onto the bridge that spans the water. It is really quite breathtaking. The river is impossibly wide here, much wider than where I crossed east at St Louis, and I thought THAT was huge. Mud Island stands north of the bridge, to my right. The river flows brown and slow beneath me. It's wonderful, just wonderful, to be traveling this way, I feel so free and alive and thankful to be able to see a sight like the mightiest of America's rivers like this, without a care in the world. I laugh with sheer happiness, and grin my way into the West.

Jeanne warned me about the road here in Arkansas. It's as lousy as she said. I-40 is lumpy and bumpy and patched every twenty yards or so, and it's annoying as hell. The thump, thump, thump of my wheels on the road surface is hard on my shoulders and butt. I start looking for a detour, and eventually head northbound on I-55. I have no idea where I'm going, but the road is better. The land is as featureless as anything I have seen so far, nothing but flat as far as the eye can see. Rice grows here. Looking at the terrain, I suddenly understand the importance of the levee systems here, on a visceral level. When the river floods, it spreads across these lowlands for miles and miles, with nothing to stop it. I think maybe I could detour north back to St Louis, then take the Ozarks road back to the west ... oh, forget it, the highway sign there just said it's 275 miles to St Loo. Sun's going down. I start looking for a place to stop for the night. Not a whole lot out here in east Arkansas, that's for sure. I find a hotel outside of Osceola. I check in for the night and drag out my maps, looking for a decent alternative route for tomorrow.

Next: Day Thirteen

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