This trip has been a series of revelations in a way that a plane trip can’t be. Something about the freedom of motorcycle travel opens up the moment the way more restricted travel doesn’t. The ability to leave makes the moments where you stay that much more special. Every moment is a choice and that’s beautiful. It’s the difference between staying with someone because they are your world and waiting out the New York winter.
"Roar, Lion, Roar And wake the echoes of the Hudson Valley! Fight on to victory evermore, While the sons of Knickerbocker rally round Columbia! Columbia! Shouting her name forever! Roar, Lion, Roar For Alma Mater on the Hudson Shore!”
~Verse two of Columbia University fight song Roar, Lion, Roar by Corey Ford, CC ‘23. Ford wrote it during his senior year. In the early 20th century Columbia was a college football powerhouse. Something Happened.
Photo of the Columbia gorge in Eastern Washington at sunset, Friday, June 25. Just to the left, a sign “Watch for Rattlesnakes.” Or listen.
I always want to make comparisons to China. The thing about the Chinese Himalayas, the thing that jumped out at me, was the water, the power of those rivers. They are the only water I’ve ever seen that would just kill you. If you got into those rivers you would die, dashed on the rocks, powered over falls, pulverized by the damn things. They looked like a loaded gun.
The rivers of the west, like the sky and storms of the American steppe, have some of that too them, a sort of restless energy. They don’t have the titanic violence of the Yangtze headwaters, but they have something of a largeness of soul about them. They engender respect. Not fear, but respect.
The rivers to the East are slow, wide and winding, like highways from the Golden Age of the automobile. They invite you in. They appear friendly. And yet in the East, the rivers have this undercurrent of menace. They run with old industrial ghosts, PCBs and mercury, like we’ve abused their hospitality.
I was raised swimming in the Eel and Trinity Rivers in the summer. They were good rivers with generous swimming holes and rapids just dangerous enough to be fun, like old-fashioned playground equipment. I missed those rivers, and it was good to see them again and meet new ones like the Kootenai River in Montana (seen above just west of the Continental Divide), a tributary of the Columbia.
Rivers and places have personalities. That’s one of the things I’ve seen on this journey. They attract people to them that reflect that personality and shape those that arrive by accident. My cousin Jimmy’s girlfriend Holly, from South Dakota near Sturgis, said she saw Helena Montana on a map, saw the water, and knew she wanted to go there. That was 11 years ago and she’s been there ever since.
The water shapes people’s imaginations, their sense of the beautiful and the possible. It shapes what they eat, what they do for fun, the way they work and travel. The fewer people there are, the harder it is to ignore.
"The thing that get’s me is that they were MOVING," Jimmy said. "They covered all that ground and came back in two and half years. That’s moving."
I’ve been accidentally following the much of the route that Lewis and Clark took to the West. These signs have been a constant companion along the way from South Dakota, through Montana, Washington and now Portland, where the expedition arrived at the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River. It’s going to be sad to leave them behind.
Two other things regarding Honor & Slavery. Greenberg says that Southern gentlemen were obsessed with gambling. Gambling got them going because in a culture where they’d kill you for calling someone a liar, gambling lets you do just that. You say that horse A is going to win. If it does, your word is good and everyone else is a liar. Honor, and money, to you.
When I was a financial reporter I liked to interview the money men were best the year before. These people were lucky. They’d hit it out of the park one year, but, inevitably, the next year they struggled to stay with the pack. But that’s not how they saw it. They saw their fluke success as vindication. They felt that finally reality had recognized that they were more savvy than everyone else.
It was sad, or would have been if these people weren’t in charge of billions of dollars. Instead, it was scary. A little success, backed by the wealth of a great nation, is a dangerous thing. It’s the kind of thing that could only make sense on its own terms.
Honor & Slavery supports my long held view that the South was the most modern part of the United States prior to the Civil War. Greenberg thinks his readers will be shocked by how obsessed with the world of appearances Southern Gentlemen were. Modern America, for Greenberg, is the inheritor of the Yankee tradition, the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, who couldn’t see what was to be gained from a duel, and couldn’t see the what was gained from the Southerners obsession with honor. It’s not like there was money involved, at least not usually. But my experience has been just the opposite. America, and to some extent the whole world, has become obsessed with appearances to an alarming degree, on a scale that Southern men of honor would have understood immediately.
For the Southern man of honor, his honor was an emblem of his will to shape reality regardless of underlying facts. The classic example cited by Greenberg is when a gentleman invited a neighbor to dinner, but then regretted the invitation. When his guest arrived, he came to the door and calmly told him that he wasn’t at home. The would-be guest turned around and left. To disagree, even with an obviously lie, would have been an insult and likely resulted in a duel where the reluctant host presumably would have defended his assertion to the death.
The willingness to risk death over such inanity was an important part of the man of honor’s game. By assuming the ultimate risk, he felt entitled to shape reality to his whim. And his guest, not willing to take the same risk, was obliged to accept the lie as well as the obvious threat it implied.
This brings me to the modern world. Since World War II, the United States has created a world of wealth accepted because of the appearance and reality of our national strength. But over the past decade, without a serious opponent willing to go toe to toe with us, we have come more and more to rely on the appearance rather than the fact of competence and power. In essence, like the snubbed guest, the rest of the world has been unwilling to give us the lie.
Like the Southern gentlemen Greenberg describes, we’ve built a society on debt, violent coercion and gambling. Its most rewarded members are the gamblers of the financial services industry, men, like the host, who pride themselves on being able to shape reality to their will and monetary benefit. The social benefit of finance, after all, is supposed to be “efficient allocation of capital,” essentially, the shaping of the real world through efficient management of the world of appearances.
A few weeks ago, Paul Krugman at the Times, was wondering aloud about why Germany was willing (along with many other countries) to enact misguided economic policies because they feared the market reaction:
"German deficit hawkery seems more sincere. But it still has nothing to do with fiscal realism. Instead, it’s about moralizing and posturing… Showing strength — or what is perceived as strength — is what it’s all about.”
In the fiscal crisis of the last two years Germany seems to have noticed (whether for good or ill is hard to say) what Krugman has apparently overlooked. In the modern world, like the antebellum South, appearances matter more reality. If weakness is shown, if someone is willing to challenge the reluctant host, to “give them the lie,” all hell can and will break lose. And the economies of sovereign nations can be destroyed (ours almost was) before appearances are restored.
Kinda makes you wish for the days of Hamilton and Burr, right?
The thing about motorcycles is that you have to pay attention. You’re right in it with a sort of prolonged intensity that makes any given moment of it hard to forget. The result is a ribbon of memory, that stretches along highways and back roads. It’s a memory whose value lies in transitions. There are distinct moments that are the regions you hear about, the Great Plains, The Midwest, The Appalachians, The Rockies, Big Sky Country. But most of the moments are in between and its those moments that really stick. Rising out of the Mississippi valley into the great blast of the plains-wind. The bluffs of the Missouri River. The way the Bad Lands sink out of the Great Plains, as if eaten away. The way the Black Hills rise deliberately out of the plain with a sort of inevitability to them. The first hint of the Rockies across the Wyoming steppe. The way the way everything seems to grow to monumental proportions as you cross the Montana border; the sky, the rivers, the mountains, everything. And the way people seem smaller and smaller against the setting, and yet larger and tougher to match it. The sort of general cliche these days, and no less right because of that, is people and their institutions are socially constructed. But it isn’t just society that does the building. It’s the place too.
"Much mischief is done by teaching a false system. The time wasted in learning it is not the only evil; by the fruitless efforts of the learner to understand it, his ardor in the pursuit of knowledge, is damped, and he insensibly receives the impression that there is little to choose between truth and falsehood. But let the light of truth pour in fresh on his mind, let him penetrate mysteries heretofore thought inscrutable, — let him see there unnumbered contrivances, planned by infinite wisdom and infinite goodness, for the convenience and happiness of man, — let him see that rains and changes of wind are not accidental, but subject to laws as fixed as those which govern the planetary motions, and that these laws are not past finding out; —zeal and animation in the pursuit of knowledge, will then take the place of listlessness and despair.”
The country coming out of South Dakota into Wyoming just gets bigger and wider, the buildings and fences fewer and farther between. And then, coming over a ridge, I saw the Rockies. I spent the day driving I-90 into Montana. Here are a few more photos from along the way.
You can barely see it, but out on the horizon is Devil’s Tower. This is North-Western Wyoming.
Outside of Livingston, Montana. In Montana, everything gets bigger, more beautiful and more dramatic.
And I did make it to Winston. More on that later, but here’s a final shot from the interior of Silos, a bar between Townsend and Winston on Route 287.
On Friday night, I joined a biker gang, a motorcycle club. It was a surprisingly hassle free affair. You had to be invited (thanks to Jim and Sue from Gillette, Wyo., I was) you have to show up, and you have to pay $40, which includes two days of all-you-can-drink beer, minnow races, bands, and camping. Really, it’s a steal.
In my limited experience, I’m going to say that bikers are the nicest people outside of Himalayas. How many other groups of random people will accept you in, feed you, give you their booze, tell you their jokes and offer all kinds of wonderful advice just because you happen to be crazy enough to drive an alternative form of motor vehicle? I’m going to say none. Cyclists in New York are just as insane, but not nearly as friendly.
The Buffalo Chip in Sturgis was a huge fair-ground, built to hold the tens of thousands of bikers who descend on South Dakota for Sturgis Rally, held this year from Aug. 9th-15th. It has all the amenities, including a rifle, pistol and shotgun range on the premises.
I woke up to the sound of skeet shooting Saturday morning on an island surrounded by bikes and tents. Many people were already up, discussing the events of the last night. I heard one of my neighbors across the island (formed by the fork of a little creek running through the Chip) talking about me. “He’s alright, I think, from New York and his name is Andrew. Pretty, old bike too.” The voice was Doc:
Doc, as I recall, was a rancher out in the South Dakota plains. Like many of the older members of the Brotherhood, had a Vietnam patches on the leather vest bikers wear as a kind of instant identification system.
"I was in Cambodia and Laos," he told me. "I’m not sure if I ever actually did make it to Vietnam."
Many of the bikers were coal miners from out in Wyoming, including Jim, the man who’d told me about the meeting back in Deadwood. To them I was an exotic, but not, really a pretty mild one. And basically, if you were willing to hang out, and weren’t a complete jerk, or a thief, you were welcome. The phrase I heard over and over again was “These are good people.” And they were.
This is Shari, I think, though the memories are fuzzy after a night of all-you-can drink. She was telling me the story of the man in the upper left, looking out over the festivities. His name was Randy and he was sober, but crazy. She told me that was the safest kind of crazy. It was hard to tell at the time though. When I was taking this picture, Randy was howling, literally howling, at the moon. After he tired of that he ran down, got on his Harley and drove it up the steps onto the parapet, revving his engine and flashing his headlights. This got people excited and several had to go up and talk him down. The bike was still up there the next morning.
I don’t know how the second one got up there. After he was talked down, he took a spear of wood from the bonfire (someone had trucked in a flatbeds worth of fuel) and began throwing it, javelin style into the dark, grabbing it and then jumping back and forth with it across the bonfire. This got no comments from the crowd.
I had a long conversation with Mike Marion, a Transylvanian gypsy who had been serving in the U.S. Army for 12 years and who rode a souped up Chinese-built motorcycle with a built in side-car that “might go 70 miles per hour on a steep down hill in the pouring rain” and another biker, who had given up motorcycles for a while to raise his kids. “I’m worth too much right now,” he said. They encouraged me to join a bike gang in Brooklyn.
"Look," the semi-retired biker told me. "You go in there and tell them, hey, I’m about the same thing you guys are about, and they’ll accept you. If they don’t they aren’t TRUE, and fuck ‘em."
The guys from Rushmore A.B.A.T.E. were pretty damn true. We got into politics a little bit, with one of the older guys. I told him that I was from Brooklyn, and his eyes got kind of wide, so I added that I’d also voted for Obama. If you’re going to be exotic, I figured, it’s best to go all the way.
"You like Obama?!?!" He was flabbergasted.
I asked him, really what he didn’t like about Obama. Overall, I got the sense we would have agreed on most things, politically, so I thought it had to be something else. He thought for a second.
"He’s a part of the Chicago machine, man!" he said.
"The Chicago machine!" another biker chimed in. We convivially agreed to disagree.
I probably laughed more than I have at any single party in the last decade. I was invited to stay the whole weekend, with more minnow races, a BBQ and more beer, but I’d promised my Dad I would go see him sing in Winston, Montana, Saturday night. So the next morning, with some regret, I packed up and headed off into Wyoming.
“A Hard Task: I had 12 bottles of whiskey in my cellar, which my wife told me to empty the contents of each and every bottle down the sink, or else - so I said I would and proceeded with the with the unpleasant task.
I withdrew the cork from the first bottle poured the contents down the sink with the exception of one glass, which I drank.
I extracted the cork from the second bottle and emptied the good old booze, except for one glass, which I drank.
I then withdrew the cork from the third bottle and emptied the good old booze, except for one glass, which I drank.
I pulled the cork from the fourth sink, and poured the bottle down the glass.
I pulled the bottle from the cork of the next and drank one sink out of it, and then threw the rest down the glass.
I pulled the sink out of the next glass and put the cork down the bottle.
I pulled the next cork from my throat and poured the sink down and drank the glass.
Then I corked the sink with the glass, bottled the drink and drank the pour.
When I had everything entirely emptied, I steadied the house with one hand and counted the bottles and corks and glasses with the other, which were twenty-nine.
To be sure I counted them again, and when they came by I had seventy-four. As the house went by I counted them again, and finally had the house and the bottles, the corks and glasses counted up except for one house and one bottle which I drank.”—Newspaper clipping ca. World War II (there’s a partial Victory Garden cartoon on the back) from my grandfather’s collection. He used to keep a pile of witticisms and clippings on the bar he ran in Portland, Ore., in the fifties.
Tammy made me get up there. She and Ted has just smoked a bowl or done something more serious, I don’t know. I was walking back to my bike, at the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis and she shouted at me from their Woody. GET UP THERE! GET UP THERE! I WILL TAKE A PICTURE OF YOU UP THERE! YOU WILL GET UP THERE! So, being a gentleman, I did.
I’m in biker country, about biker business. The first sign was at a gas stop just outside of Rapid City. I met some bikers from Minneapolis who had ridden through the storm, like me. They invited me to ride out to the badlands with them and get a burger at Wall Drug, a bizarre highway rode trap with no parallel this side of “South of the Border” on I-95. (Holler, Southerners.)
The badlands were loads of fun. So was Wall Drug. This man swore he was being cheated:
Then I was off to Mt. Rushmore where my day got even more bizarre. Here is Bernie, from Switzerland and George. I told him that if he gave me a $50 million budget, I’d make his profile just as famous as old hickory-chompers. He said he’d think about it.
After Rushmore, I went to Deadwood. The real Deadwood. For “Deadwood Daze” It’s really a longer story, of course. For another time, perhaps. This man was whistling at this ass:
True story. Some bikers in Deadwood told me about an A.B.A.T.E. (A Brotherood Against Totalitarian Enactments) campout in Sturgis with all-you-can-drink beer, karaoke and minnow races. More on that later. This guy (my tent neighbor) was filming ME filming the minnow races. How cheeky! So I took a picture of him:
Now I’m going back to the Chip.
for a little bit more adventure. This will probably be the best night of my life.
Albert Lea, the county’s Emergency Management Director Mark Roche said.
Back in Wadena, Scott Kern was at the Walmart store when the storm came through there. He returned to his mobile home to find it demolished and his all-terrain vehicle up in a tree. His dog, Buttercup, was missing.
Enter, the West. Highway 60 winds out of the Mississippi valley, up steep limestone bluffs and out onto the Great Plains. The Plains are apparent immediately. The horizon is longer. The farms are bigger, the farm houses further apart. Huge, insectoid farm implements straddle the road. Grain elevators grow to a monumental scale, dominating their counties like Medieval fortresses.
The first sign of the storm was a tower of clouds on the western horizon and a wind there was nowhere to hide from. Soon it was the only thing to see. It was long and flat and spread across the whole western horizon, rain hung from it in gauzy sheets, twisting on their way to the ground. The storm and I were traveling opposite ways on Highway 60, in a kind of meteorological game of chicken. The only way out I could see was an end run.
I turned south and drove as fast as I could. The wind was getting so strong I either had to double over the handle bars, or, as twist my torso so that when the wind hit my chest, the angle counteracted the torque on the bike itself.
When I hit Interstate 90 the storm was overhead. And rain was starting to fall in fat grape-like bunches, tossed though the air. The radio DJ went from “Riders on the Storm” to “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”
I was in Wal-mart looking for waterproof pants when the tornado warning came on. All the associates ran outside to pull in all of the shopping carts. The manager was telling people not to go out as I stood in line. Rain was pounding the aluminum roof. The vision of that roof getting peeled back like a sardine can was scarier than the road, where at least I could run.
100 miles later, the storm was a dark smear on the horizon, and the wind finally rested as the sun set.
The South Wind is trying to kill me. I’ve had to tack with my body just to keep going straight. As a result, I’m too exhausted to write about Andrew Delbanco’s The Real American Dream, much. But I’m going to try. Delbanco defines a culture as a shared set of symbols that give meaning and hope. America, he says, had religion (in the North only, the South, as I’ve always contended, was the most modern part of America until the Civil War) and then, after the Civil War we had the idea of America itself. Now we have nothing. The Sixties did for the idea of America what the Civil War did for religion a century earlier. Both ideas, aren’t dead, but it’s hard for an “educated” person to believe, really BELIEVE, in either. So they drink, do drugs, and dream about the Singularity where they can continue to wreck the world for ever and ever. Delbanco says this state of disbelief (“an age of unprecedented wealth” deprived in “narrative and symbol”) won’t last forever. But he doesn’t know what’s coming. He just thinks we should all be on the lookout for it.
Well, I guess I can agree. I’ve seen both stages, and been plenty confused by all the apparently senselessness of what people are going through, say, in New York. And I don’t have a clue as to what a sensible narrative might be. What I do know, is that many of the people running the show are out of their goddamn minds. So if anything is going to be figured out, it’s going to have to be broad enough to get the people here in Sioux Falls excited. Somebody tell the Tea Party.
“The reason so many people live in the Midwest is that really it’s a very reasonable place to live. The price, the space and the opportunities are all reasonable.” ~ Susan and Ethan in Mequon, Wisconsin.
I was so in love with Highway 61, “The Great River Road,” that winds up along the northern broad Lewis-and-Clark bluffs of the northern Mississippi I could leave it, so I followed signs that said camping somewhere south of Wabasha, down to river’s wooded banks. Down to the river to pray, perhaps? A Christian Life camp, 43 teenagers and God, are my fellow guests. They’re behind me, playing ping pong. Highway 61 is the finest highway in America so far. So clean, dramatic and empty. And it doesn’t hurt that Bob Dylan has been singing to me about it, all these many years.
The motorcycle purrs and screams and roars. Cars can slither and moan and whoosh. The big rigs are giants in the land, mighty grizzlies, bull moose, the alpha goose honking and snorting and belching, often in formation, as they snort down the silver ribbon.
The wind becomes a living thing, a thing that plays and hits. As speed builds, you can feel ripples in the wind like ripples in the water. Each vehicle has a different wind signature, as does each landscape and each speed. The wind writes them through the leather jacket in blows and fisticuffs and tell tales to the short hairs on the back of your hand. The worst part about wearing gloves is not getting to hear these stories. They become more and more important, too, at high speeds, when the streams tearing off of an empty long-distance car hauler can play with a motorcycle like an 18-ton kitten with invisible velvet paws. For long trips you can’t fight the wind, you invite it in. You relax your arms on the bars and lean into it, letting it hold you, gently, like a falling leaf.
On Monday, for the first time, as I was coming across the Souther Tier of Western New York, I really looked down, at the pavement beneath the rushing the exhaust pipes. There’s a reason its hard to be afraid of it. It doesn’t look real, it looks like a slurry, a stone river, smoothed by the hand of god. This god, like the wind, also speaks. But that’s for another post.
Chicago traffic is inhuman, a beast of Blagojevich, Old Testament and Revelations. It was a day of trials and tribulations, the plagues of the Midwestern dominion.
Plague 1. Ohio and Indiana - lovely farm country that rolled on and on with the regularity of a belt sander.
Plague 2. Tolls. Every road a toll. Indiana calls itself “The Crossroads of America.” They don’t mention that they’re banking on it.
Plague 3. Cold. A chill was in the air as I traced the base of lake Erie.
Plague 4. The Inferno. I entered Chicago and came to a screeching halt. For three hours of stop and go. From Hell. And HEAT. I had to take off the jacket and gloves I’d put on during the chill.
Plague 5. The Flood. No sooner had I taken off the jacket than it began to rain. So hard a child drowned in rural Milwaukee. Buckets and buckets and buckets. I was still standing still. Soaking and cold.
Plague 6. Construction. On the one hand, I recognize they NEED to build new freeways in Chicago. On the other hand, they should find a way to do so without making the entire city impossible and plague ridden.
On the 7th plague he rested. In Milwaukee in a lovely lovely house with lovely people and feels like a human being again. But heck, that was a tough day of riding. Worthy of Dante or Moses. Let my people go!
"If you feel down, just remember Moses was once in basket." - Sign in front of a country church off of Route 6 in Northern Pennsylvania
ERIE PA: Living in New York you forget how beautiful the rest of the country is. We live in a big, magnificent, empty country. Pennsylvania is huge, and there’s no one there. No one. Which is great if you’re riding a motorcycle. And the people that are there are lovely and polite. Well, maybe not lovely exactly. But they have a lovely character. Even the children.
[A little girl and her brother, probably 4 and 6, respectively, walk up to me while I’m drinking coffee in Shroudsberg, Pa. at noon.]
Little boy: Excuse me sir, I like your helmet.
Me: Thank you!
[Two beats; I return to reading the local paper.]
Little girl [has been eying me quizzically the whole time] Excuse me sir, I like your sunglasses.
More fun things: participating in the rituals of rural male respectability. My father taught me to always call all men sir. No matter who, no matter the situation. In Pennsylvania people REALLY love that. It’s Victorian gentlemen tipping their hats to each other during an evening constitutional. Everyone is a gentleman and everyone feels better afterwards.
Another fun fact: people don’t understand the worth of prosciutto out here. I got a sandwich for lunch ($4.50) and they put a half pound of the good stuff on it. I’m thinking there’s a business opportunity in there some where.
And finally: A highway with no one it is a truly great gift. Tomorrow, Chicago.
“…Or perhaps that’s it: they dont explain and we are not supposed to know. We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable…”—faulkner, 1936 (via coldplums)