Day 2 – Somewhere in South Carolina
We are significant, precious, and needed, not just for the choices we make and the actions we take, but for our very presence. The scriptures of every major religion attest to it: the love in which we exist loves us for our very being. These words from Isaiah are one example: “I have called you by name and you are mine. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
I answered the phone early the next morning.
“Dad, how’s the trip going so far?” Colin asked.
“Fine son. No problems. How are you?”
“Good, good, good. Where are you?”
I honestly couldn’t remember. I looked out the window and could make out part of a number in the flashing neon motel sign. There was a restaurant across the street with a sombrero and a cactus painted on the window. “I’m at some motel with a number in its name and there’s a Mexican place across the street.”
“Well, that narrows it down quite a bit.” He laughed.
“How are Siobhan and Stephen?” I asked.
“Good. Siobhan is on Skype with her mother back in Ireland. Stephen’s online playing some internet game with his buddies.”
“Well, I’m doing fine here son. Things okay with you?”
“Yep, yep yep.”
“Well look son. I want to hit the road so I’ll give you a call later.”
“That’s fine dad. Just wanted to make sure you were okay. I heard there were two shootings over in South Carolina yesterday.”
“I heard that too.”
“Well, you be careful.”
“I will son. I love you.”
“I love you too dad.”
Last night I drank five Coronas at the Mexican restaurant hoping in vain that each one might help dull the memory of yesterday’s horror. It didn’t work. Alcohol and age seem only to take away the good memories. Why can’t we choose which memories we lose?
Before taking off this morning I did some mindfulness exercises to get my mind back into the present, to let go of what had happened yesterday as well as some painful memories from the past that had been stirred up. Violence begets memories of violence. To ride safely your mind has to be in the here and now. You have to let go of thoughts about the past and worries about the future. You can’t ride with a bunch of ruminations like mental billboards distracting you from the road. Each day is a gift in the cosmic raffle of things and you have to be present to win.
Heading west I cut back into Georgia and rode the old blue highways. On the ancient Rand McNally atlases, the back roads were drawn in blue. These were the tiny roads, the now almost forgotten roads that once stitched the USA together in the early motoring years. Now it’s all interstates. Generally, roads that have even numbers go east and west; odd numbers usually signify a north and south route. So as long as I’m on an even-numbered road and following the sun I’m heading west. That’s all I need to know for now.
I rode for about an hour, came into a small town and stopped for breakfast at a place called the FWW Cafe. It was about half filled. I nodded to folks as I entered, sat at the counter, ordered up some coffee, took off my gloves and jacket and scanned the menu. Grits. You know everything’s gonna be all right if they’ve got grits on the menu. I ordered, “The Widowmaker” which consisted of three eggs, bacon, and sausage, red-eye gravy, a biscuit, pancakes and grits. I closed the menu, handed it to the waitress and glanced around. There was a skinny old man a couple of chairs down from me who saluted me with a forkful of pancake.
“Howdy.” He said.
“Howdy to you too,” I replied and glanced around the place. Old Georgia license plates adorned the walls like trophies celebrating a better time. There were farm and tractor calendars and high school yearbook photos in black and white.
“Where you headed to?”
“You couldn’t have started out anywhere closer?”
I smiled. “Nope. Had to start in Savannah.”
“How long do you think it’s gonna take you to get out there?”
“Not sure. I’m not in any hurry. Just want to take my time. Why’s this place called the FWW cafe?”
“Stands for farmers, workers, and widows. Those are the main customers. Get a biker or two like you in now and again. He slid over a chair. My name’s Mike. Mike Crawford.” He offered his hand.
I took it. “Monk.”
“That’s an usual name. Monk what?”
“You a Catholic monk or one of them Buddhist monks?”
“Well, which one?”
“You can’t be both.”
“Who says I can’t?”
“It’s in the rules somewhere.”
“The monk rules.”
“I’ve never seen the monk rules.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” He shook his head and looked away but then glanced back. “But why ‘Monk’ anyway?”
“A friend thought I acted like a monk. He called me that and it stuck.”
“I was. Twice.”
“Nope. Both wives are dead.”
“That’s bad luck.”
“One wife. Just made it to our 50th wedding anniversary last week.”
“Thanks. She’s a hoot. Said to her last week: ‘I’m proud of you.’ She pretended not to hear me and said: ‘I’m tired of you too.’ Ha! Great sense of humor.”
“You hope so.”
“What? Oh, ha! I get that!”
I grinned at him and then my food came.
We chatted off and on between bites and he told me that he had a daughter and a grandson but that his daughter was married to a “no good peckerwood son of a bitch”.
“That’s rough man. Do you get to see your daughter and grandson much?”
“Yep. She drops him off and we babysit while they’re working.”
“At least you’ve got that.”
“Yep, could be worse.” He looked away and warmed his hands on his coffee mug.
We must overturn so many idols, the idol of self first of all, so that we can be humble, and only from our humility can we learn to be redeemers, can learn to work together in the way the world really needs.
Oscar A. Romero
I couldn’t finish the pancakes but the rest of the meal was great and soothing. Especially the grits. Nothing like connecting with a memory from your childhood, unless your childhood had been awful. Having said that, grits alone, usually made by a kind grandma, have redeemed many a bad childhood. When I lived in Ireland, every once in a while I’d start jonesing for grits and I’d have my sister send some over. For Colin, she’d throw in a couple of bags of candy corn, another delicacy and southern staple you couldn’t find over there.
I paid my bill, left a tip, said goodbye to Mike and got some recommendations of his for back roads to take.
The clouds to the north and east were gunmetal gray, the wind was stirring and it was decidedly colder. My boots crunched on the gravel as I walked over to the bike and circled it to make sure everything was okay. I pulled on my helmet and gloves, cranked Big Red up and headed out the blue highway that Mike had recommended. I figure that the more I left things to chance the more easily God, Fate or the Universe could intervene.
I hit Dahlonega late in the afternoon and hopped onto GA 60. I leaned into the curves and tight turns and felt a strong connectedness with Big Red and the road. Curvy roads challenge you and bring out the best or worst in your riding skills. I passed the rock pile grave of a Cherokee princess and a place called Woody Gap where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. Colin and I used to do some hiking on that trail years ago. The bike managed the curves almost effortlessly, which is, of course, the secret to good riding.
Daoism has a concept called wu wei which can apply to motorcycle riding. Wu wei happens when you use your natural abilities and intuition to flow with the environment. Its actual translation is “no doing” but it’s better understood as a kind of effortless action. Applying this to motorcycle riding means finding the flow, going with it and then taking no action or thinking beyond what’s needed. You learn to position yourself in the lane correctly for the curve, trust your intuitions, look where you want to go, relax and just lean into the curve. Inexperienced riders think too much, panic, focus on the obstacles ahead instead of the path, tighten up, overreact and manhandle the bike, often resulting in a crash. If you find a metaphor in there for life you’re welcome to it. I’m too old for metaphors.
Here’s the place I was looking for. I pulled off the road into the parking area of Two Wheels of Suches, a rustic wooden lodge and motorcycle campground I had visited off and on over the years. It had a long porch filled with rocking chairs and picnic benches. The gravel crunched as I rode over it. I backed my bike into a parking area. I put the stand down, switched off the engine and the lights, tapped the tank with my knuckles, thanking God for my safety and climbed off the bike. Next, I pulled my helmet and gloves off, stuck the gloves in my saddlebag and put the helmet on top of my handlebar mirror.
“That you Monk?” A voice hailed me from the porch.
“It’s me.” I headed up the path to the steps. “Who’s that?” I said toward a grizzled, bearded man in a leather vest heading toward me.
“It’s me, Skunk. I ain’t seen you in years.”
“Monk,” I said extending my hand while at the same time recognizing the redundancy of my introduction.
“Don’t you remember me, Monk?”
“Skunk, my memory ain’t what it used to be. Never was actually.”
His eyes narrowed and a worried expression swept over his face like the shadow from a Sunday cloud. “You got that Alltimers Monk?”
“The doctor thinks I do but I think I have something else.”
“What the difference?”
“Not much from what I can tell. Both say ‘Live in the present’. With Alzheimer’s you can’t remember the past very well; with Buddhism, you want to let go of it.”
He took a step back. “This Buddhism, is it contagious?”
“No, not really, unless you want it to be.”
He waved his hands. “No thanks Monk. I’ve got that shingles and that’s enough for me.”
I smiled, sucked in and let go a deep breath. The air was fresh, smelling like fir trees and the aroma released by freshly dug soil. There was the sound of a nearby waterfall and the tinkling tabulations of a stream.
We sat down in the rockers. “It’s so beautiful up here Skunk. Why don’t we just live here?”
“Dang Monk you say that every time we meet up here. We’d start to lose our ‘preciation of it if we lived here all the time. All things wear out. Even good things.”
“Especially good things. Where are you staying?”
“I got me a room upstairs. Too old to be camping out anymore. You?”
“I’m in the tent.” I pointed to the little bridge. “Gonna pitch it over there by the stream. This is my last trip.”
“Tent huh? Wait, what do you mean it’s your last trip?”
“Well, uh,” I stuttered, not wanting to say much. “I’m getting old. Not sure how many bike trips I still have ahead of me.” I raised my shoulders. “It’s just a feeling.”
“Huh.” He sat back in his rocker and got a faraway look. “Remember that time when my wife and I met y’all up here? You had that old BMW. Your wife was on the back. Was it Clare?” He leaned toward me and stared.
“Yep, you got a good memory Skunk. That was Clare. Hell, that was a long time ago I had that BMW. It was a black 1966 R60/2. I’d forgotten that. Thanks.”
“No problem Monk.”
“Hey, what did you ever do with that thing?”
I paused and searched my mind but couldn’t remember. “Can’t remember Skunk.”
“And how is Clare?”
“I’m afraid she’s passed. About three years now. Cancer.”
“I’m real sorry to hear that Monk.” He was shaking his head and I felt like crying.
“What about you? You were married, weren’t you? Sorry, I can’t remember her name.”
“April. Her name was April. She’s fine Monk.”
“I remember her now. She was pretty.”
“Pretty as a speckled puppy under a shiny red wagon. That’s what I used to say.”
“Where’s she now?”
“Busy babysitting the grandkids. We got five. You got any grandkids?”
“Just one, Colin’s boy. Name’s Stephen. Smart as a whip. My daughter Hannah’s married but they don’t have any kids yet.”
“What are your kids up to?”
“Colin works at the public defender’s office in Savannah. Hannah is living out in LA. She’s studying to be an elementary school teacher and is trying to get into some modeling, last I heard tell.”
He smiled, sat back, looked into the distance, rocked a few times and shook his head slowly.
“We’re lucky our kids turned out well Monk. Thank you, Lord.”
“Amen to that brother.” I sighed and looked around. The Lord thanking mood had come and gone off me over the last few years. A steady diet of loss and grief can do that to you. It’s a sad but tireless companion, which you can quickly grow accustomed to having around. And it’s hard to let it go when you don’t have anything to replace it with. But this trip was about letting go of the siren sadness of the past, and instead riding in the present, where things reveal themselves, and being thankful.
“Well, look Skunk, I’m going to go set up my tent and everything, take a shower and then I’ll be back up here later for dinner.”
“Sounds good. But if you want a steak, let me know. They sell out fast.”
“Nah, I’m okay, thanks.”
I walked down the steps to the bike, took the bungee cords off my gear and carried it over toward the tent area. I clomped across the little bridge over the stream and onto some grass and pitched it right there. Thank God the instructions for setting up the tent were still attached to the tent bag because I had poles and pegs heading every which away until I spotted them. After it was up, I threw in my gear, sleeping bag and opened the self-inflating foam pad. I am too old to sleep on the hard ground. I glanced over at the stream and watched it burble and roll. The sound of the water was soothing. You can’t step into the same river twice. The river changes but so do I, moment by moment. Each time I step in I’m a different person. I climbed into the tent.