The King of Every Kingdom Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
I stay at the YMCA… da da da da dah YMCA…
And I get a lesson in race relations.
The Blue Ridge Parkway was next, a bit of road every bit as pretty as its name. Parkways have no advertising on them, don’t allow trucks, follow the contours of the land and are administered by the National Parks Service. This one follows the Blue Ridge Mountains for some 500 miles, all of it lovely, with the Appalachians rolling off to both sides like waves in an enormous, ancient slow ocean.
The Morgans, from Danby, Pennsylvania, pulled up while I was trying to take a photo of the forests, and asked about my Australian number plate. They also volunteered a beer and insisted that I take down their address and come and stay next time I was around Danby. I accepted gladly. Americans are certainly a friendly lot, rather like the Irish, and much more friendly than the British or Australians.
Although I didn’t manage to see any of the bears that supposedly inhabit the park, I felt quite ridiculously happy all day, sang little songs and waved at all the Honda Gold Wings, Harleys and Kawasaki Z1300s that went past. They all waved back, although some of them were clearly puzzled by my bike.
I stayed with friends of friends in Boone that night, which had the distinction of being my first dry town in the USA. We had to drive eight miles to get across the county line and find a bar where we could spend the rest of the evening drinking jugs of Black & Tan.
The countryside in Georgia was dull and mostly flat. So much for the moonlight through the pines.
Atlanta promised to be a bit more interesting when I discovered that the Youth Hostel had been demolished – and there certainly weren’t any campsites around. I stayed in the YMCA downtown. When I went for an after dinner walk, I was the only white person on the street although I was so naïve that I didn’t notice that.
I spotted a bar with swinging doors and cheerful music and talk spilling out, and pushed my way in. All conversation and even the piano stopped as a sea of faces – all black – turned to regard me, probably with more puzzlement than hostility but with plenty of hostility anyway.
I remember thinking, “If I run they’ll catch me”. Fortunately, the bar itself ran along the wall next to the door and a bartender was nearby. I plucked up all of my courage and squeaked, “Can I get a beer?” It was all I could think of. He looked at me curiously and said “Where you from?”- “Australia,” I said, and the talk and the piano resumed.
A couple of blokes, ex-Marines, had been on R&R in Sydney during the Vietnam War and took me under their wing. They bought me drinks, introduced me to their friends and walked me back to the Y when I told them I had to ride the next day. “You ain’t goin’ by yourself,” one of the laughed.
Everyone in Georgia speaks with that seductive southern drawl. It makes an enquiry as to one’s preferred beverage in a diner sound like an invitation to view the bedroom… Yes, I liked Georgia even though my next breakfast was taken in a chain restaurant called a Huddle House and was awful. I promised myself I’d stick to the little private diners after that. They’re almost always excellent value.
The fine for littering the roads in Georgia is a rather desultory $25, after a high in Connecticut and Florida of $500. It’s still pretty clean, for all that, and the people are very friendly. A Mustang full of young ladies followed me for two or three miles while they figured out my number-plate and all the stickers on the back of the bike, then they went past tooting the horn, waving and throwing peace signs.
Another thunderstorm caught me down in Alabama and followed me almost to the campsite out on one of the sand islands, called Keys, off the coast. There were ‘Don’t Feed the Alligators’ signs up all over the site. Can you imagine an alligator coming up and stealing your picnic basket?
The men down here were all carefully haircut, and the women even more carefully made up. But I still found no hassles, in the bars or elsewhere – as long as I managed to keep the conversation off colour. Whites in the South are a long way from accepting blacks as equals, and are very careful to make a point of that in conversation with strangers. As a visitor, I found myself in a difficult position, and I’m afraid I compromised by keeping my mouth shut.
I pondered all this one morning over that great American institution, the bottomless cup of coffee, in Hazel’s Diner in Gulf Shores. No conclusion emerged, I’m sorry to say, beyond the obvious fact that I ought to stay out of something I knew far too little about. That, much as I regret it, was my contribution to civil rights in the South.
Mobile was resplendent with magnolia and old Southern mansions, and the long ride along the coast to New Orleans rather reminded me of Australia. The road could have been running along Port Philip Bay, or through Brighton-le-Sands in Sydney, going by the architecture and the flora.
New Orleans was rather different, of course. I teamed up with Matt, a Canadian who pulled in at the YMCA at almost the same time as I did. He was on a Honda CB900 Special, a bike rather better suited to US touring than poor old Hardly. Matt and I went out to do the town together. The Gumbo Shop came first – a restaurant specialising in the traditional Creole cooking – and was surprisingly cheap.
Then we hit the hustle and bustle. First a walk up Bourbon Street, with its tourist glitter, and then a visit to Preservation Hall, one of the few places where genuine New Orleans Jazz is still played – well, genuine for the tourists. There’s no booze available, so our next stop was Pat O’Brien’s Bar, next door, where we each put away a Hurricane, a monstrous $5 cocktail which seems to consist mostly of rum.
At Sloppy Jim’s, over a few glasses of draught Dixie Beer, we tried to collate our ideas of New Orleans. It’s a strange town. The place is full of tourists, yet it doesn’t feel like a tourist town. Everybody has a good time, except perhaps for the crowds in the assembly-line bars on Bourbon Street. Off the main drag, the people in the bars and restaurants are there to enjoy themselves – and they’re not about to be cheated of it; as a couple we met in O’Brien’s said: ‘We’re from Jackson, Mississippi, but when we want to have a good time, we come down hyar!’
I did my laundry the next day in a laundromat supervised by one of the descendants of Marie Laveau, the famous witch. At least I presume that she was a descendant – she looked and acted like it, and she was certainly in the right business. It was hot again when I braved the spaghetti of roads leading out of town and eventually over Lake Pontchartrain on the 24-mile-long causeway.
The way North was all corpses of armadillos slaughtered by cars, and poorly surfaced but pretty little roads. Then I reached the Natchez Trace, another route like the Blue Ridge Parkway, and followed that north to Nashville in serenity.I did stop off to pay my respects at Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo. The suburb is now called Elvis Presley Heights. I visited Opryland in Nashville, a kind of Country & Western Disneyland, and had a good time. The one thing that annoyed me was that I had to pay as much as a car driver to park. This is fairly common in the US – there are no parking or toll concessions for bikes.
A few days later I reached Ann Arbor, Michigan, and another friend of a friend. Victoria and her parents welcomed me with open arms and supplied a sort of replacement home for a few days. I really needed it by this time, too. It does get lonely out on the road, even if you speak the local language. One sight in Ann Arbor that I will always remember is the sign at the Farmers’ Market that says ‘No pets, bicycles or solicitors’.
The bike got a much-needed and fast service. Then it took me north again, up through the Norman Rockwell country that makes up central Michigan, to Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan. In the campsite that night I had a steady stream of visitors, fascinated by the sight of the little bike. I scored a dinner invitation, a gift of a kilo of smoked fish (fishing is big up here) and an evening sitting around drinking other people’s beer. Very nice.
Not so friendly was the gun shop I saw the next day, offering free targets – large pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini. This was during the time when the Iranians were holding American hostages. I reached the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a terrible hangover.
I had been attempting to cure a cold with bourbon, successfully, but was paying for it. John from Boulder rode into the campsite that night on a BMW R60/5, which he’d come over to the east to buy. Bikes are much cheaper in the Eastern States than in California or in John’s home state of Colorado.
He had a story about being mugged, too. Apparently a 5 ft tall mugger had approached John, who measured 6ft 4in, near Times Square and threatened him. ‘He ran away pretty quick’, said John, ‘When I pointed out the error of his ways. But you gotta give him credit…’
I received the inevitable American invitation to come and stay before we parted in the morning, and took off a little before John. He passed me not long afterwards – the BMW had longer legs than the little Honda.
Upper Wisconsin was strange, with eerie abandoned-looking farms, rusting cars and run-down petrol stations along the highway. Things got better as I went farther west, and by the time I reached Janesville (the sign outside town just said ‘Janesville – a friendly place’) I felt as though I was in the prosperous Midwest you read about. Towns like New Ulm, Balaton and Florence remind you of the many nations that supplied the settlers here. Mind you, it’s also pretty boring country. Flat as far as the eye can see…
That didn’t change the next day, but it was pleasant just the same. First, in the diner in Lake Preston, there was a complete set of Australian banknotes in a frame over the bar. I asked the bloke next to me where they came from, and he thought about his answer for a while before saying: ‘Feller useta live here now lives there.’ They’re a concise lot in the Midwest.
At my next petrol stop I was invited in for coffee and brownies and then, when I stopped to tighten the chain, the side stand broke and the bike fell on my head. Fun all day! I slept in the campground in the Badlands that night, among the grotesque landforms that give the place its name. Spooky, with spires of soft rock reaching for the full moon, not a blade of grass or a bush on them.
The Harley shop in Rapid City was very helpful, and even managed to locate someone who would weld my side stand back on for a few dollars.
Whew. That was a long episode. Let’s see if I can be a bit more concise out West – next time.
After years spent faffing around with old Harleys, The Bear rode a Honda XL250 around the world and then decided he might as well keep writing about bikes. Three books and endless magazines later he now spends his time looking for those special bike roads.
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