Signs   

by Maynard Hershon 

I rode I-10 east from Tucson across southeastern Arizona, New Mexico and (nearly 900 miles across) Texas. Rain started to fall barely three miles from my home and continued on and off until I reached Louisiana, where as I write this a hurricane is ravaging the coast.

In rural Texas and in Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, people drive slowly and almost always signal lane changes. Roadside signs in Texas read Drive Friendly. Many drivers stay five or 10mph BELOW the limit. If you drive 5-over, you’re conspicuously aggressive. At first, you can’t believe what you’re seeing. Then you realize you’re relaxed and perhaps smiling.

I continued in fine weather to Baton Rouge, where I turned north off I-10 onto fabled US Highway 61 through Louisiana, Mississippi and into Tennessee.

Legend has it that blues music traveled Highway 61 up the Mississippi Delta to Memphis, where the blues spread into mainstream America. The Delta Blues Museum is in Clarksdale, Mississippi, just off Highway 61. The crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have met the devil and traded his soul for blues licks is probably there too.

Riding Highway 61 is not merely a pilgrimage; it’s a deep, soul-enriching pleasure. The four-lane roadway winds through lush, green Delta countryside, through small, un-subdivided, un-Wal-Mart-ed, perfect old-timey towns.

You see old Victorian houses, small, gorgeous houses that would command millions in “sophisticated” America. One housed a karate studio capable of paying a few hundred a month in rent, some months.

You see dozens (no exaggeration) of country churches, most with roadside bulletin boards announcing the topics of Sunday’s sermons, many with clever slogans promoting prayer or spiritual thought: religion softly sold. No one suggests you’ll go to heaven but your neighbor will not. No one claims arrogantly to speak for a God who is threatening to punish us with more gridlock if we use His name in vain.

One sign read: “Ch…ch. What’s missing?” Another suggested that “It’s okay to stop and ask for directions.”

I spent the night in Memphis, just over the line into Tennessee, and visited famed Beale Street, which is pretty much what you expect. It’s fun and more authentic than Disney World. There are lots of clubs, free concerts in the park and five-dollar beers.

I wanted to continue on 61 through Tennessee and Kentucky but couldn’t find the road north. I asked several locals and got useless instructions, not a surprise.

My bike had begun making ugly graunching noises as I started from a stop. Can’t be the chain, I thought, I’ve been lubing it with Chain Wax, walking the centerstand-less bike and spraying six inches of chain at a time. Chain Wax disappears as you apply it; you can’t tell when you’re done. I did the best I could.

I rode a combination of Interstate and two-lane highway to Bloomington, Indiana, where in the mid-‘60s I worked for Boyd Fox at Fox’s Cycle Sales. I arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and went directly to the shop, forgetting after all those years that it is closed Wednesdays.

I checked into a Motel-6 and looked in the phonebook for Boyd’s home number. The listing read: Mrs. Boyd Fox. I thought: Oh my God, Boyd’s gone. In the evening I rode my noisy bike down to my old neighborhood just off the Indiana University campus. I saw no one and nearly nothing I recognized.

Maybe I’ll never come back here, I thought. Maybe this chapter of my life is over now. Everyone’s gone here who’d remember me.

When Fox’s opened the next morning, I was waiting outside. There was Boyd, glad to see me 10 years after my last visit. I nearly misted-up with relief. After a hug and a few minutes of reminiscing, we put the bike on a lift, jacked up the rear end, adjusted the chain a bit and sprayed it liberally with lube. The noise and roughness vanished.

Boyd put me on the back of a 400ccYamaha scooter and took me all around Bloomington. We visited our old friend John Buffaloe, a national-class enduro rider in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Buffaloe had recently done a four-corners ride around the US on a Honda Helix. I’m reduced to a scooter, he said, grinning.

I rode out of Bloomington on lovely southern Indiana two-lane roads and then an interstate highway to Cincinnati, Ohio. Fuel prices, by the way, had reached record highs across America, and I’d noticed that a full tank went a lot further below an indicated 80mph, probably an honest 75.

At the moderate speeds I wanted to ride, the interstates weren’t useful and certainly weren’t fun. Good state or US highways, two- or four-lane, suited me perfectly.

After a long weekend in Cincinnati, I rode to Indianapolis and enjoyed a fine visit with what’s left of my family. On Tuesday morning, I headed west, intending to travel as much of Historic Old Route 66 as I could on the way home.

There is no official US 66 these days but thanks to organizations in each of the eight states through which the road passes, you can still ride sections of the “Mother Road.” You can find maps and guidebooks on Amazon.com.

Signs for the old road were difficult to follow in Illinois. I eventually joined Route 66 west of Saint Louis, and rode as much of it as I could across Missouri, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico and northeastern Arizona.

After a few miles on the magical road, memories of old trips, old bikes and ancient modes of travel flooded my mind. I became joyfully nostalgic and pleased to be traveling the old way, a way we’ve nearly forgotten.

I remembered my first motorcycle trip in October 1962: Indianapolis to Tucson to attend my cousin’s wedding. I rode a Honda CB72, a 250 with maybe 25 horsepower. Since then I’ve wondered how I did it, took such a long trip on such a small bike. A few miles of 66 and I remembered.

The road follows the contours of the land, so you are often sheltered from the wind. Interstates cut straight across the terrain and are exposed to wind all the time. Truck traffic on the interstates means you are either passing a truck or being passed, so you are continually buffeted by their wash.

You feel exposed and vulnerable if you ride more slowly than the traffic flow, slowly meaning under about 80-85mph. Often there’s nothing to see. There’s no reason to stop until you run low on fuel. At the speeds you have to ride, that’ll be often. Each place you stop looks like all the other places you’ve stopped.

On roads like Route 66, you’re never further than 25 miles from a town. Old highways pass through towns instead of bypassing them, so you have to slow down and maybe stop at a stop sign or two. You can eat at an independent restaurant or buy fuel at an independent station. While you’re there, you may actually enjoy human contact or a freshly baked piece of pie made with local fruit. Imagine.

There’s so little traffic off the interstates you can ride any speed you choose. The limit is no more than 10mph lower than the limit on the interstate, so you don’t necessarily lose huge chunks of time. You ride relaxed. When the section of two-lane Route 66 ends and you have to get back on the interstate, you hate it.

Interstate highway travel is all about destinations and making good time. It is not about enjoying the trip or learning something about the country or just…moving at a human pace. We ride the interstates out of laziness or lack of imagination. Our loss.

Because an editor asked me to write a piece about my trip and take photos to accompany it, I was “forced” to stop frequently and drag out a camera. Looking for photo ops and taking the shots broke the rhythm I usually follow on the road, meaning piling up miles, stopping as infrequently as possible. The assignment, which had seemed like a bother, made me appreciate that old road and all old roads.

Remember why we traveled by motorcycle years ago despite the hassles? It was fun. It still is, on secondary roads. Try it. Five miles and you’re converted.

I’d do this trip differently if I left again tomorrow. I’d allow myself more time - particularly on the way east. I’d set off a day earlier - so I’d have had time to visit the Delta Blues Museum. I could’ve had my picture taken in front of B.B. King’s guitar, nicknamed Lucille.

Maybe I’ll see you there. Meet me at Lucille. You take my photo and I’ll take yours.

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