Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Old Roads


I got my first motorcycle, a 1974 Honda CB 360, relatively late, at the age of 24, and like all new motorcyclists, I had the idea that going faster is a sign of a superior rider. This is partly true-- the San Franciscans who led us along Highway 1 back in California had the skill to take the curves at a pace I couldn't keep up with, but it wasn't speed that made them good, it was the smoothness with which they negotiated the road.
It is certainly possible to go flat out during the straightaways, then brake to a reasonable speed for the corners, but I believe the better choice is to pick a speed that will allow you, with minor adjustment, to run the whole thing at a consistent pace. One of my friends calls it "slowing down to go faster," and while it is a lousy strategy for racing, it is perhaps a good one for everything else.
When I woke up in Missouri I had almost 1,000 miles left to go to get to Baltimore. The engine troubles and chain-checking stops had put my arrival at home back by a day. I resolved to take I-70 the rest of the way to make up time, but before noon I was exhausted, and in danger of falling asleep. One of my only complaints about the KLR was the effect wind had on it, which is exaggerated by its height and corresponding high center of gravity. Every semi sends it into a near death wobble, and every gust of wind leans it over as I fight to keep it going straight. Between that struggle and the amount of riding I had done over the preceeding weeks, I was just about finished, right when I wanted to be home the most.
Rather than continue on 70, stopping every hundred miles or so to wake myself up, I decided to cut over to U.S. 40, the "National Road," which was once, like so many of the roads we had traveled with Shepherd, a major route or commerce and tourism.
Back in Ohio, when Rod and I were headed west, we had faced a choice between 40 and 70 at a "National Road" tourist center. I had asked the elderly clerk whether 40 would slow us down much on the way to Indianapolis, and she had said that it would, but seemed disappointed by the question. As I had passed through the secondary roads that existed where Shepherd had gone-- the Santa Fe Trail, small bits of Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, I had reflected on her disappointment and even began to feel that I had failed in some way when I departed from Shepherd's path to save time. Thinking that the smaller road might be less tiring, I decided to slow down for a while, and rolled into Indiana, then Ohio, slowing at each town.
Shepherd followed the old roads before most of them were paved. They had yet to pass through their boom and eventual bust. Stretches of 40 near large cities have gone to seed-- rows of strip clubs and seedy motels. Elsewhere the motels have been turned into housing, and on some stretched the travelers' amenities still exist, as in a bubble, the way they did in Colby, Kansas.
I began to recognize the old signs of life along the once-proud route 40, where towns once welcomed tourists on their way to see America. Route 70 and its ilk were anathema to the idea of travel for the sake of it. They were simply a way to get from departure to destination with a minimum of discomfort that brought with it a minimum of change-- the ground-level equivalent of air travel-- where nothing is experienced of the local character that makes the journey worthwhile.
At one point I lost route 40 in a small city, but recognized it again a few blocks away, not because of any signs, but because I knew the buildings belonged to it, almost hidden under decades of changing tenants, but still there in the architecture, in the old brick buildings and the squat side-by-side hotels and former hotels. Between towns there was nothing, but fields and farms and houses, then a changing speed limit would indicate another town, sometimes just a gas station and a restaurant. The fatigue had left me and I began to anticipate the next town on the map and wonder what it would bring, and the miles went by.
The old road took an unexpected detour as it began to get dark, through a wooded area and across a series of dams near the Miami River. I stopped at the Taylorsville Dam to take a picture.
Nearby, a young family had also stopped.
The son was pointing across the river, saying "See, it's over there!" as he led his mother and father by the hand. I asked them what they were looking for, and the mother told me he believed there was a way to walk down to the river below.
The father-- younger than I am, with a full beard more neatly trimmed than the one I had grown over the trip, asked where I was headed, and the four of us talked for a while about the country and the places we had been, then they wished me luck on my trip and I wished them luck on their quest for the river.
I sat on the edge of the dam and smoked a cigarette, watching them negotiate the steep bank on the other side, calling to each other with the boy leading the way.
Far in the distance, I could see a gathering storm, and I decided to stop when it caught up with me, but in the fading light, as I rolled through Ohio, I felt like I could ride all night. Every town and farm was beautiful in the darkness, and when the rain finally came, it was close to midnight and I was somewhere on the edge of Columbus, Ohio, just a short day's ride from home.

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