Tag Archives: New Orleans

One Night in Tennessee

Old Weathered Mailbox

Sept. 9 | Day 3: We arrive after dark, the GPS giving me muddled directions, or maybe I was just tired and confused. Linda and I roll into the driveway around nine o’clock, I think.

And yet the woman I have come so far to see and her husband are still holding dinner, hugging us as soon as we get off the motorcycles.

“Forty years ago, did you ever think we’d be meeting like this?” she asks me, and I have to say, honestly, no, no, I did not.

Let us call her The Poet. She was a girl I’d known in high school, a true poet, a perceptive and heartfelt writer, a genius, and one of the kindest, gentlest and most Zen-centered people I’ve ever known.

She was best friends with The Artist, another girl I knew, a gifted artist and soulful poet and writer who dazzles me with her intellect, insight, empathy and clarity of thought.

We hung out together (as we used to say) but they were a binary star I orbited at a distance since I could not match their brilliance.

I admired both. I learned from them and remembered them — though it was less a case of remembering and more of never forgetting. After graduation we built our separate lives, fanning out across the country, across decades.

Forty years — what a mammoth block of time. It’s been that long since I’ve seen her and now she’s standing before me, and I’m with my wife and our motorcycles, the vehicles of my own time that brought us here, all on a dark driveway in Tennessee.

“Well, come in, come in,” they say. “Are you hungry? We’ve got dinner.”

Since we’re staying the night, I pull the bags off Terra Nova and Linda’s Vespa and we go in to eat. Over savory bowls of Thai-inspired chicken-and-rice soup, we fill in gaps four decades old:

For me, a couple of wives and a series of newspaper jobs around the country. For her, a journey of self-discovery out West, meeting a wonderful man and having children. A deep-rooted faith in their Mormon religion and church.

The night runs late and the dishes grow cold on the table. I want to hear more. She speaks of how they ran their own family dairy farm, honest caregivers of the land, their lives entwined with those of neighbors, community, and church.

I want to hear everything and she tells us this:

Their first child is a loving and happy and intelligent son, and learns to talk and walk early, following them around the house. At age five, he begins fetching mail from the box across the rural road.

An avid talker, he tells his parents about an angel, saying to his mother, “Mom, I saw an Angel and I know what they look like.”

And one day…

“He was running across the road to get the mail and a motorcycle came over the hill,” she says. “He was hit and killed.”

Time stumbles as the shock ripples through us. I had not known, even after all these years. I struggle to focus and a somber voice in the back of my mind whispers I never thought we’d be meeting like this.

I can’t remember what Linda and I say beyond oh, my God and I am so sorry and such; it was inadequate anyway. Still and silent, we listen.

She tells us how she, her husband, their families and everyone they knew were devastated beyond comprehension. She says to her husband, sometime later, “I don’t see how we can survive this.”

And he, from a place of inner strength I did not know could exist, offers the most courageous and unforgettable thing I have ever heard.

He tells her: “We can be bitter, or we can be better.”

Slowly they take up their lives again. The church and community rally around them. They forgive the rider on the motorcycle, giving him back his life. They have more children. They rebuild around the awful loss.

It is very late. We all say good-night and are ushered into a guest bedroom. But it is hours before I sleep.

It’s impossible for me to reconcile the sweet girl I adored in high school and the pain of that day; they cannot exist in the same space. I’m in awe of the strength and courage of her husband, who gave them a way forward. I grieve for the wonderful child I will never know.

And how, dear God, we’ve come to their doorstep on motorcycles.

Time has lurched on, but I am forever haunted. We were only 52 hours into the mission, with 16 days, two thousand miles, and now the rest of our lives to go.

The next day I call The Artist long-distance after we shut down the bikes in Birmingham, Alabama. We talk and I weep a little and she, with her wisdom, pulls me back from the edge.

But Linda and I are subtly changed, tempered somehow, forced to take a different perspective. The belief we can be better takes up residence in my head1.

We’ll find the New Orleans motorcycle ride will be more intense, more deeply felt, than anything we’ve done before. All that’s ahead of us — the fall in Underwood, the stranger in Selma, the lonely sadness of Bryant’s Grocery and everything else — begins this night in Tennessee.

Stone cherub praying


Note: It took more than a year for me to write this story. I’ve shown it to my two friends; they have kindly given permission to post. I could not have done so otherwise.
Addendum: In later correspondence, she tells me, “Following his death I imagined his sweet spirit running across the road into the arms of an Angel while his earthly body was waylaid and left behind.”
1 — Where it stays to this day. And I will testify his words helped me deal with Steve Wargo’s death, 164 days later.
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The Mission Soundtrack, or: How Louis Armstrong and Arlo Guthrie Got Us There

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And in the morning when you filled my eyes 
I knew that day I couldn’t do, ahh, no wrong, I couldn’t do

— Cat Stevens

Sept. 7 | Day 1: We leave well after dark on the first day, just to get underway and put some distance between us and home. The destination is Woodstock, Va., about 85 miles. The motorcycles — and the first song — are ready at 2230 hours.

Two years ago, I started the tradition of playing a song for Linda at the start of each riding day, and this trip is no different. Since we’re heading for New Orleans, choosing her first song, the one she listens to this dark night, is easy: The City of New Orleans, by Arlo Guthrie.

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I loaded about 30 songs on the iPod for New Orleans, with some mission-specific tunes from Louie Armstrong, Ike and Tina Turner, and a few others. Other pieces were meant to lighten the mood after visiting somber places like Selma, Alabama, and Money, Mississippi.

This is what Linda heard during the ride:

Day 1, Sept. 7: The City of New Orleans / Arlo Guthrie

Day 2, Sept. 8: Fill My Eyes / Cat Stevens

Day 3, Sept. 9: Just a Ride / Jem

Day 4, Sept. 10: You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice / The Lovin’ Spoonful1

Day 5, Sept. 11: Dog & Butterfly / Heart

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Day 6, Sept. 12: Proud Mary / Ike & Tina Turner

Day 7, Sept. 13: When the Saints Go Marching In / Louie Armstrong

Day 8, Sept. 14: Edge of the Ocean / Ivy

Day 9, Sept. 15: Chelsea Morning / Joni Mitchell

Day 10, Sept. 16: Baby You Know Me / Wolfboy Red

Day 11, Sept. 17: Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans / Louis Armstrong

Day 12, Sept. 18: I Only Have Eyes for You / The Flamingos

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Day 13, Sept. 19: Two Hearts / Phil Collins

Day 14, Sept. 20: Chattanooga Choo-Choo / Glen Miller & His Orchestra

Day 15, Sept. 21: Count On Me / Jefferson Starship

Day 16, Sept. 22: Captain of Her Heart / Double

Day 17, Sept. 23: It Don’t Come Easy / Ringo Starr

Day 18, Sept. 24: Sentimental Lady / Bob Welch

Day 19, Sept. 25: We Are the Champions / Queen

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The list wasn’t perfect, of course. I anticipated Chattanooga, but we changed course going home and unexpectedly stayed in Memphis. I would have given much for the haunting Walking in Memphis by Marc Cohn. Alas, I wasn’t packing a laptop, so there was no way to download it.

Not all of the songs were directly related to New Orleans. We heard You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice at dinner one night at the Italian Café, so it was sort of a touchstone in addition to the nice sentiment.

Two Hearts was blasting across the night in 2009 at a remote Shell station in Slovakia2. We had left Hungary, crossed the Danube River enroute to Zvolen, and got lost after dark. I shut down the rented BMW motorcycle to refuel at the gas station, where the song was playing, incongruously and very loud.

Louie Armstrong also carried a poignant reminder of Jozef Pavlovic, the husband of Iva, one of my relatives in Slovakia. He passed away unexpectedly in 2012 at a young age. We met him during our travels to Slovakia and Hungary and he was a truly wonderful person.

He liked Satchmo’s music and I thought about Jozef quite a few times during the ride. I deeply regret the inability to get to know him better, but I’ll always remember him.

Music preserves memories, they say. Accordingly, our mission soundtracks constitute a special archive all their own.


1 — I love the 1965 video of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Notice how someone hastily put a piece of paper with the band’s name on it over the front of the bass drum.
2 — Curiously, we heard American music everywhere during our two motorcycle trips in Europe. It may be common, but I had not expected it.

 

A Guy and His Dog

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(With apologies to Harlan Ellison for the title)

Sept. 16 | Day 10: We got up early on our last full day in New Orleans and walked over to Café Du Monde, where the beignets and cold milk are the best, and cut through Jackson Square on the way back.

The Square1 is crowded with tourists, street vendors and what looks to be homeless people, who’ve taken the lead in commandeering metal park benches that line the street.

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Linda wants to look at some shops along St. Peter Street and I investigate one or two myself and find high-priced stuff I don’t need. She’s in someplace that sells linen or something and I’m dawdling on the sidewalk when I hear raised voices across the street behind me.

I turn to see a group of six or seven apparently homeless guys on a bench angrily yelling at another guy nearby, also apparently homeless, with a medium-sized black-and-white dog. The dog owner is folding up a sheet of plastic.

“Don’t you hit that dog!” one of the bench dwellers says to the owner.

“That is not cool, man!” says another.

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The owner says nothing. I’m standing there trying to figure out what’s happened. The dog is on a leash and is following the owner, who’s finished packing his stuff and is walking off. The dog — and this is important to me — does not seem cowed or afraid.

The bench guys, briefly united against a perceived cruelty, settle down.

Linda returns and I tell her what happened, adding that I did not see the guy hit the dog and that the dog seemed okay.

We walk around the Quarter for a while longer, trying to savor this last day, knowing we’ll suit up and head into Mississippi on the motorcycles tomorrow.

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But now there’s a nagging thought at the back of my mind as we range from Chartres to Royal to Bourbon Street and beyond. Is that guy abusing his dog?

Linda and I have two dogs and four cats back home at Starbase 8 in Virginia. So we love dogs and cats and the notion that there’s a dog suffering out there on Jackson Square starts to consume me.

We make a reservation at Irene’s Cuisine for that night, our only dinner in the Quarter. We’ll walk there, of course, but now I have an idea.

“This is going to sound crazy, but I want to go by Jackson Square,” I say to Linda. “Let’s see if we can find that guy and his dog. I want to know.”

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My understanding wife consents to this ridiculous reconnaissance. Night falls as we regain the square, still sprinkled with tourists, and we walk the length of St. Peter Street twice under streetlights.

“We’re probably not going to find them,” I say, resigning myself to it, and suddenly, there they are.

There they are. We sort of surreptitiously follow them for a short distance — I want to see the relationship between the guy and the dog.

He’s a young guy, middle 20s, I think, and there doesn’t seem to be any abuse going on. We approach by asking about the dog, what he is, his age and that sort of thing. Linda pets the dog, who looks happy.

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Like this, sorta.

The guy thinks his dog is a mix of Dalmatian and some other breed. He came from friends who couldn’t keep him. The guy says he was living somewhere but has been on the street for a while.

“Would you have some change you could give me?” he asks, and I make the biggest mistake of the New Orleans ride and give him three measly dollars from a pants pocket, not wishing to pull out my wallet on the street.

He takes it with thanks but I sense he’s a tad disappointed that it’s not more. Or maybe that’s my projected guilt.

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Linda gives the dog a final pat and we say good-bye and watch them disappear into the night. The intersection ends there; we go to dinner and back to our lives, and he and his dog continue with theirs.

I’m relieved — greatly relieved — that the dog is okay but I kick myself a hundred times for not giving more to his owner. I’ve failed to live up to the example set by the baseball cap gentleman in Selma, Alabama, six days ago. All because I didn’t want to take out my wallet.

Later that night, I offer a bit of karmic atonement by donating online to the New Orleans Humane Society. But it isn’t enough.

The next day, two guys — the first with a baseball cap, the second with his dog — haunt me as I pack up the bikes. They stay with me as we ride north toward Hattiesburg, Miss., to pay tribute to a U.S. Navy pilot who died in Korea 67 years ago.


1 —  Jackson Square is named after President Andrew Jackson, considered the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The battle was a series of skirmishes between U.S. and British forces in 1814 and 1815, and is considered the last major engagement of the War of 1812.

Four from the Quarter

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Sept. 13 | Day 7: We parked the motorcycles inside the hotel garage and spent four days in New Orleans, most of them prowling the French Quarter, which utterly fascinated me. I was seized by the energy and vibrancy of those streets, the architecture, the music on every corner, the people crowding the sidewalks. It awakened a long-dormant desire for street photography, to document every moment in Henri Cartier-Bresson style. These musicians were really good.

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Elaborate wrought-iron balconies and posts are everywhere. I liked the solitary figure of the postman against the dark door, the color of the walls, the overhead fans on the balcony.

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This couple was married in a public ceremony in Jackson Square and — in classic New Orleans tradition — celebrated all the way down Chartres Street to their reception, accompanied by the Jaywalkers, a second-line brass band.

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I was desperate to capture the intensity of the violinist’s face against the dark doorway behind her, but I didn’t get it. I distracted her, I think, violating the first rule of what not to do when photographing someone. I had only a wide-angle lens and was lying in the street, oblivious, shooting upward, searching for the best angle. Her nervous companion stood guard and prevented a delivery truck from running over me.

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We took a streetcar named St. Charles to the Garden District. The car itself was right out of the 1950s, with marvelous old woodwork and small brass eyelets for the cord you pulled to signal the driver to stop.

 

A Date at the Loveless

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It took me a while to punch through work and the other obligations that kept crowding in, but we finally have a mission profile that will take us to New Orleans and back.

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This year’s ride won’t be on a par with Long Way Round but it will offer some high points:

We may see an old friend of mine from high school – 40 years ago! – if our schedules allow.

We’ll ride the Natchez Trace again. We rode the Trace exactly once 15 years ago and we’re looking forward to seeing it.

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We’ll get to ride along the Gulf Coast from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans and we’ll ride part of U.S. 61, immortalized by Bob Dylan in his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.

We may get the chance to visit the African American Military History Museum, which has a special permanent exhibit for Jesse Leroy Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first black aviator.

And on the way home, we’ll do a one-day layover in Nashville and have dinner at the Loveless Café, one of our favorite places. We’ve been there before, but never on the motorcycles.

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Note from the mission historian: The Loveless Cafe has no relation to The Loveless movie, a 1981 film noir by Kathryn Bigelow starring Willem Dafoe.

The restaurant began in 1951 when Lon and Annie Loveless sold fried chicken and biscuits out of their home to travelers on Highway 100. The food proved popular, they converted the house to a restaurant and later built a motel.

The motel eventually closed – small shops occupy the rooms these days – but the restaurant’s Southern culinary fare has become part of American mythos. You may have seen the Loveless Café on TV, on shows that venture out of big cities in search of country fare.

So Linda and I have made a date at the café. Being there on the motorcycles at the end of a ride will make the Loveless Café part of our folklore, too.

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Getting Back on Track

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“Yeah, I’m hip about time. But I just gotta go.”

– Peter Fonda (as Wyatt), “Easy Rider”

After much procrastination, delay, and downright dithering, we’ve decided to forgo The Great River Road for now and head to New Orleans in September for this year’s motorcycle ride.

It’s never taken us this long to decide where the annual motorcycle ride will go and I can’t explain the delay. Time, age and work have been more of a distraction this year.

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We figure about 2,400 miles total, but we don’t have a real mission profile yet. There are some good possibilities, including Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Tennessee, then southwest to Mobile, Alabama, where we’ll pick up coastal roads to New Orleans.

Then maybe we’ll head northeast on the Natchez Trace, which we haven’t been on since 2002.

Linda’s been to New Orleans twice, the last time for an Investigative Reporters and Editors seminar last year, but I’ve never been there.

Closest I got was I-10 north of Lake Pontchartrain in 2000 in my uncle’s car during a madcap dash from San Diego to Flagler Beach, Florida, to my grandmother’s funeral. Not much joy then.

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But I’ve always wondered what it would be like to arrive in New Orleans aboard a motorcycle. Perhaps that comes from reading too many Tennessee Williams plays, or being swept away by the romantic history of the French Quarter, or simply watching Easy Rider too many times. But at last, I’ll be there.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t end like Easy Rider.