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All on the Same Day (Part 2: Selma, Alabama)

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Sept. 11 | Day 5: The waterproof mapcase resigns without notice somewhere between Underwood and Selma, turning my AAA Alabama issue into rain-soaked mush. We’re playing hit-and-run with Hurricane Irma’s skirts today and we soldier on, getting irreparably drenched.

We reach Selma and stop on a side street before crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge so I can switch on the GoPro camera attached to my helmet. A long stoplight separates Linda and me, so I cross the Alabama River alone.

That bridge, a symbol of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, opened in May 1940 and was named — doesn’t this just figure — after Edmund Winston Pettus, a U.S. senator, Confederate general and KKK leader in Alabama. He died in 1907 and is buried about a mile from it.

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The span was designated a national landmark in 2013. Today, it’s quiet with meager traffic moving through the rain. Weather-wise, it’s a miserable day.

We park the bikes at the bridge’s southern end and look around. A group of tourists, students maybe, files off the bridge and crowds into a tour bus, but otherwise it’s quiet.

We walk across the bridge ourselves, both ways. It’s a solid, massive structure. I try, but can’t begin to imagine, what those brave marchers felt in 1965, knowing that baton- and tear-gas-wielding state troopers were waiting for them.

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There’s a small park dedicated to Bloody Sunday and the civil rights movement, but it’s deserted and lonely in the rain. Nearby shops appear rundown; some are boarded up.

Selma is located in Dallas County, which has a high unemployment rate: 7.7% in August, compared to the national average of 4.4%. An Auburn University report sets the county’s poverty rate at nearly 37%. We see ample evidence of this as we ride through Selma.

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This isn’t white guy discovers Southern poverty — Southern poverty is not new, economic stats for other Southern counties are shockingly higher, and it’s been this way for generations. But this is the first I’m seeing with my own eyes.

And history waits patiently everywhere.

We’re wet, tired, and hungry, and Linda finds a Church’s Chicken outlet about a mile from the bridge. We park the bikes and peel off wet rainsuits with difficulty.

Behind the restaurant, we can’t help but notice an abandoned four-story brick building, its windows broken, grass growing wild. “Good Samaritan Center” is across the front.

I’ll think it’s some sort of housing unit until later, when I discover it’s the Good Samaritan Hospital.

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The Good Samaritan Hospital. Oh my God. This is where Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, a Baptist church deacon and civil rights activist from Marion, Ala., died on Feb. 25, 1965. He was shot by an Alabama state trooper following a peaceful protest for a jailed civil rights worker. Jackson, unarmed, was shielding his mother from police assault.

Jackson’s death was the catalyst for the Bloody Sunday march weeks later. The people injured during Bloody Sunday were treated at this same hospital*.

But I’m unaware I’m standing in front of a historic place as we turn away and enter the restaurant.

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There are two or three other customers. We grab a table, pile the dripping rainsuits in a corner (they’ll create a puddle roughly the size of Lake Superior, which I’ll mop up later) and order chicken.

As we eat and fuss with maps, other customers begin to drift in and soon the place is half-filled. As it happens, we’re the only whites there. A couple folks, seeing the helmets, ask about our ride and Linda entertains them with stories about the Vespa. They wish us well.

One guy in a Minnesota Vikings shirt engages us in lengthy conversation, telling us about himself and asking where we’re from. He asks, as politely as possible, if I have any money and I give him two or three dollars I find in a jacket pocket.

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Seeing this, a friend of his, a younger guy in a baseball cap, inserts himself amiably into our conversation and they exchange few friendly barbs. It’s plain they know one another. (Linda will later say she thought he was a counselor of some sort — he had that vibe.) As I pick up the rainsuits, preparing to leave, the baseball cap guy asks:

“Say, how much, how much did you give that guy?”

“Oh, not much,” I say. “A dollar or two, I think. Not much.”

“Listen, I know that guy,” Baseball Cap says. “He’s just gonna drink it up. You don’t have to give him something.”

“It’s okay,” I say.

“Here,” Baseball Cap says, pulling something out of his jeans pocket. “Y’all are traveling. I want you to be safe, to travel safe. Here, take this.” And he presses some crumpled bills in my hand.

I’m astonished. Even a non-motorcycle person can see Linda and I are not in need. We’re wearing pricey, armored riding suits (mine with patches from the places we’ve traveled — Slovakia, Hungary, Quebec and the Blue Ridge Parkway) and carrying Arai helmets, one with a GoPro video camera attached.

“Sir, this is really, really nice of you, but, really, we’re okay,” I say. “Please, I really can’t take this.”

“No, no, you keep it,” he says. “Y’all are on the road. You keep it, okay?”

And this is where I fail miserably. In the milliseconds that follow, I struggle to think coherently but I can’t find a way to gracefully decline. Baseball Cap is totally sincere.

“All right. Okay.” I say. “Thank you, sir. This is very kind of you, thank you.” And we shake hands.

“Y’all be good,” he says, as we leave.

I take the crumpled bills and shove them securely into an empty pants pocket, where they’ll stay for the next 130 miles as I wonder, in the solitude of my helmet, why a stranger in one of the poorest counties in America should give us a couple of bucks.

Everything is soaked, including that helmet. At fuel stops, it’s like sticking my head in a bucket of cold water when I put it on.

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We press south through steady rain. The Vespa runs low on fuel and the Oak Hill Grocery on Alabama 21 has only 87 octane (the bikes prefer 91) and an awning that doesn’t provide much cover. I pour our 1-gallon reserve into Linda’s tank and top it off with 87 as she tries to stop the rain from falling in.

Finally, we arrive at Atmore, Ala., our destination for the night.

“All I need is a guest laundry and some old towels and I’ll be happy,” I tell Linda as we shut down the bikes. It’s after dark and the rain has let up at last.

She reports the hotel doesn’t have any rags. “They say they threw out everything a week ago.”

I won’t be deterred. We need rags to stuff inside our sopping helmets, boots and gloves, to dry them out. We end up taking Terra Nova to a Walmart five miles away, where we find they’ve just had a power outage and are waiting for their computers to recover. Holding a couple stacks of towels, we make friends in the delayed checkout line.

Our long wet day is winding down at last. Inside our room, the gear is spread out to dry. Bath towels are stuffed inside our boots and in both helmets. Washcloths are inserted into our gloves. I’m using the guest laundry machines to wash and dry everything I can. We’re good.

Until I clear out my riding suit and find the crumpled bills given me by the baseball cap guy in Selma. I thought he’d given me two dollars.

He didn’t. There were two five-dollar bills in that pocket. Ten bucks. Ten bucks from a guy who thought I needed it more than he did.

“Look at this,” I say to Linda, and we talk about what to do with it, how to pay it forward.

It’s only much later that night, when everything is dry and folded and put away, when the room is dark and silent and I’m awake and staring at the ceiling, that I think about how I didn’t even ask his name. Or those of the two landscapers in Underwood who stopped to lift the Vespa.

Or how folks who have little can be more willing to offer help than those with a lot.

And how all this — all of this — happened on the same day.

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* — Good Samaritan was built in 1944 and closed in 1983. In 2016, city and county officials proposed reopening the hospital as a specialized clinic; funding did not materialize and the plans remain in limbo.
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All on the Same Day (Part 1: Underwood, Alabama)

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Sept. 11 | Day 5: We suit up for rain that morning in Birmingham, Ala., knowing we’ll get wet this day, even though the mission navigator* has kept us away from Hurricane Irma. It’s already drizzling as I load the Vespa and Terra Nova.

We leave I-65 and head south on county roads toward Selma, Ala., a holy site of the American civil rights movement.

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It was there on March 7, 1965, a day known as Bloody Sunday, that Alabama state troopers prevented a group of voting rights protesters from marching from Selma to Montgomery by brutally attacking and beating them bloody.

That horrific assault, the savagery of which cannot be overstated — photos and videos of it are still difficult to see, even today – galvanized the American public and Lyndon Johnson ordered federal troops and National Guardsmen to protect the marchers in a subsequent attempt. They walked for five days and reached Montgomery on March 25.

The violence of that time tipped the balance of American opinion. Historians say it made it easier to pass the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.

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The courage of those marchers, who knew the awful danger they faced, has never failed to move me. We plan on stopping in Selma and seeing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an iconic focal point of the marches.

The rain grows stronger, nearly torrential, as we head south on 261 and 17 past Helena, Brantleyville and other small towns. This is classic rural country, black asphalt roads, gently rolling hills, lots of trees and fields. Traffic is almost nonexistent. The rain forces me to keep the helmet visor cracked open a bit, up enough to prevent it fogging up, down enough to keep the rain from stinging my face.

In Underwood, Highway 17 ends at 22. We turn left, passing a small Citgo gas station, then a quick right to head south on County Road 15.

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Ahead of me, Linda makes the right onto 15 and I watch in shocked amazement as the Vespa slips out below her and she falls down hard on the asphalt.

The scooter slides across the road on its right side and she is underneath. I am so surprised I find myself thinking How did that happen? Is she moving?

I hit the brakes and roll ahead of her, thinking to myself, Be careful. Don’t make this worse.

I stop Terra Nova, hit the kill switch for an emergency shutdown, kick down the sidestand, and get off as quickly as I can. She’s still on the ground as I rush over.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” I ask. The Vespa’s engine is still running and I hit its kill switch and start pulling at the scooter, trying to move it off her.

She says she’s all right. “I don’t know what happened,” she says, and starts wriggling out from underneath the Vespa.

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I start to defocus from crisis mode and realize — the perceptions arriving late, a second or two out of sync — that a couple of cars have already passed us without stopping. Some sort of white SUV glides past, barely slowing down.

Then there are two guys beside me, in the rain, and they help wrestle the Vespa upright. They’re Hispanic, two working guys, their truck says they’re landscapers. Linda gets up and we thank them profusely, in our crappy Spanish: gracias señors, muchas gracias.

They are the only ones who stop.

Linda walks back to the gas station, literally across the street, and I push the Vespa behind her. Rain is still falling. I park the scooter under the storefront awning, make sure she is all right, and fetch the Yamaha.

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We get drinks and Motrin from the gas station store, make sure we’re calmed down, and assess what happened. “What did I do wrong?” she says.

Not a damn thing. I had eyes on her the entire time she was making the turn and I assure her she did nothing wrong. She made a proper turn at a cautious speed. Her tires have good tread and were properly inflated. I had checked them myself.

Searching for a reason — we always need to know why — I walk back out in the rain, looking for oil or coolant on the road surface, something that would have thrown the Vespa. I find nothing.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. The simplest explanation, the one I believe, is that something made her fall. She’s wearing good riding gear, which absorbed some of the impact, but still…

“What do you want to do?” I ask, knowing her answer will decide whether we abort the ride here and now. “Do you want to stop or keep going?”

“I’m okay,” she says. “I might be a little sore later. But let’s keep going.”

This is worthy of comment: As you may imagine, many people get spooked after falling off a motorcycle, even a low-speed get-off, especially not knowing exactly why it happened. Self-doubt arrives and towels get thrown in. It’s really easy to quit and go home.

We saddle up and head out. She makes the same turn on 15 without incident and I find myself thinking that’s a hell of a woman as we ride on toward Selma. The rain continues to fall.

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* — That would be Linda.

 

A Couple of Souvenirs

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Day 14: Friday, Sept. 16: So this guy comes striding at me across the floor of a Tim Hortons, fixing me with his eyes and moving with such purpose I think he’s either going to shake my hand or punch me in the face.

Fortunately he shakes hands, vigorously, saying, “Welcome to Ontario. Where you from?” Ah, he’s noticed the Virginia plates on our motorcycles.

Linda and I had stopped for lunch in Harriston, Ontario, on our way to Niagara Falls after leaving Kincardine and Boiler Beach that morning. As usual, we grabbed a table with a good view of the parking lot.

The gentleman and his wife had come in on a yellow Honda Gold Wing, parked a few spaces away from Terra Nova and Linda’s Vespa. Linda’s at the counter for more tea.

He’s a bit older than I am, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, and I give him a brief mission recap. He’s impressed with the distance we’ve traveled.

“Listen, I have to go,” he says, “but I’m going to put a couple of souvenirs on your bike, okay?”

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“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” I say, envisioning some religious tracts folded carefully under the Yamaha’s windscreen. Even so, that’ll be fine with me. We shake hands again and he wishes us safe travel.

He turns to go and I see BLUE KNIGHTS across the back of his T-shirt. So he’s a Canadian police officer, most likely retired.

Linda and I finish eating and walk out to the bikes. I start looking for a piece of paper but instead see something rolled and wedged in the handle of Terra Nova’s tankbag.

“Hey, look at this,” I say to Linda. It’s two shoulder patches from the OPP, the Ontario Provincial Police. One for each of us.

I put them in a plastic bag and into an inside pocket of the tankbag and carry them home.

Weeks later, I’m still not sure what to do with them but I think I’ll have them framed so I can hang them on a wall at home. They’re more than souvenirs — they’re echoes of a brief conversation and a good memory from the road.

Why Harley Bikers in Leather are Sexy and Long-Distance Riders Look Like Grubby Astronauts

Day 6: Thursday, Sept. 8: Last night’s road to Tawas City, Michigan, was a nightmare of heavy rain in the dark, a constant downpour that soaked through my rain jacket and into my riding suit, helmet and boots. When I woke up still soggy the next day, my only thought was I don’t care what it costs, I’m getting a rainsuit today, dammit!

Nearly all motorcyclists hate riding in rain. You get wet and cold and squishy and clammy, and your visibility is reduced, making you even more vulnerable to inattentive motorists. And your own attention to the road is diverted to water streaming across your faceshield and down your back.

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So you have to be smart and suit up for the weather, which is why they say Harley riders are more attractive to the opposite sex – it’s not just the cool bikes, it’s the leather. The rest of us, I’m afraid, look like helmeted vagabonds. As I’ve noted elsewhere, this is why you seldom see rain in motorcycle movies. It’s just not sexy.

But this morning in Tawas City, I feel like an absolute doofus. For all my focus on ride preparation, I’d given little thought to a rainsuit, probably because we’d been pretty lucky in avoiding rain. But now we’re hitting it like seldom before – not just small cloudbursts, but hours of pummeling by firehoses.

Linda was using a North Face rain jacket and pants that worked fine for her. My North Face jacket didn’t quite do the job and I’d mailed home the NF pants three days before in a fit of pique while trying to reduce Terra Nova’s cargo. Ah, I probably won’t need it, I thought, while stuffing it into the box. Another pound gone.

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Au contraire, as our friend Ivo would say. So I ‘fessed up to Linda and we started looking for motorcycle shops. Found a Harley-Davidson on our planned route to St. Ignace, Michigan. Perfect!

Besides leather, Harley makes well-crafted, if overpriced, motorcycling gear. But we roll up to the Harley place in Mackinaw City, Michigan, and discover it’s a yuppie-looking boutique without motorcycles sandwiched in between a wine store and a Starbucks. This won’t work, I think, all they’re gonna have is T-shirts and shot glasses with Harley logos on them.

But miraculously they have rainsuits, and I find one – well-fitting with good conspicuity.

“We just got these in,” the guy at the counter tells me. “It’s been raining a lot and we begged the main office to send them over.”

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It’s sunny as we ride away to cross the Mackinac Bridge, but I’ll end up wearing the Harley rainsuit over my BMW jacket and Rev-It pants nearly every day for the rest of the ride.

I’ll find it seals out the rain quite nicely and provides an extra layer of insulation across the northern shore of Lake Superior. So I’m much less miserable, even though I look like a grubby astronaut.

Point of Departure

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Day 2: Sunday, Sept. 4: The jumping-off point for Thunder Bay – a sort of final shakedown to see how well we prepared – was my parents’ house near Cleveland.

It’s always good to see my folks, of course, and I get special pleasure in showing Dad the modifications I’ve made to the bikes.

He’s helped on past projects; we installed highway pegs on Endurance’s crash bars and he added small washers to stop the bike’s PIAA 510 covers from rattling. Later, he had the perfect hardware for mounting Touratech brackets to Terra Nova’s sidecases so I could carry extra fuel. So his work has become part of our rides.

We arrive late Sunday afternoon and take them to dinner at Balaton Restaurant, a fine Hungarian place we’ve discovered in Shaker Heights (the beef goulash is to die for). The next day, in Dad’s garage, I start fussing with the bikes.

I’ve ridiculously overpacked Terra Nova as usual, and I really want to get the weight off, so I jettison things we won’t need: a set of tie-downs, a fleece pullover, the copy of At Dawn We Slept I was reading as research for an ambitious Pearl Harbor graphic for USAT and some other items. I FedEx a 12-lb. box home.

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We also discover problems with our riding gear: There’s a hole in the right pants pocket of my Rev-It pants, just large enough to make every coin I put into it disappear, and Linda’s Olympia jacket loses its main zipper pulltab. My parents leap into action.

“Want me to fix that?” Mom says, and she expertly sews up the hole in the Rev-It pocket as she did when repairing my jeans when I was five.

Dad finds an inch-and-a-half-wide fender washer, drills a tiny hold into it – “Here, try this,” he says – and we wire it to the slider body of the zipper, which lets Linda work the zipper while wearing thick motorcycle gloves.

Carrying these blessed talismans, Linda and I putt away Tuesday morning for points west to really start our ride.

But I’ll quietly think of my parents for the rest of the mission, through Michigan and Minnesota and across the Trans-Canada and beyond, every time I feel the secure stitching in that pocket or look at Linda’s jacket at every gas station stop.

As the miles fly by beneath our wheels, I’ll draw a parallel between my childhood home as a launch point for our ride and the start of my own journey to adulthood. The years are flowing as fast as the miles and I realize how grateful I am, for my parents, for this life, for this ride.

It Really, Really Depends on How You Say It

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Day 8, Saturday, Sept. 10: Intrigued by a billboard on Route 28, Linda suggests we stop at a local bakery in Wakefield, Michigan. She wants to try a pastie.

(Interjection from the mission linguist: The pasties we’re talking about are pronounced past-tees. We are not talking about the items pronounced paste-tees. You’ll understand the distinction later.)

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These.

We park in a side gravel lot and clomp into Randall Bakery, a homey place with scuffed tables and old cafeteria chairs that’s instantly familiar and inviting. Big glass cases hold scads of baked goods, the real thing, not the boxed Entenmann’s stuff at the Safeway.

Pasties are hamburger-sized meat-and-potato pies with origins in Ireland and Cornwall, Great Britain. Immigration brought them to Michigan, where they remain popular, a part of state lore.

I’ve never had one, but I remember Bill Bryson writing about them in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. Bryson, who lived in England for years, finds a pastie seller in Michigan and eagerly buys one. He hasn’t had one since moving back to America and can’t wait to try it; he takes one bite and sadly puts it back in the bag and throws it out. He never tells the hopeful seller, though.

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I scrawl in my notebook as Linda looks over the rolls, turnovers, cookies and other items. She talks to the woman behind the counter, who’s originally from Poland, lived in Chicago for a while, and owns some rental property by the lake.

The pasties look good when they arrive, but I’m aghast to see they have onions, which I’ve hated since forever. I’m more disappointed than Bill Bryson. But it’s really good once I extract the offending vegetable, through intensive mining operations.

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Not these.

So we finish our pasties and suit up and by this time Randall’s is starting to fill with locals coming in for a late lunch. We wheel away toward Duluth, but I sorta get stuck on the dichotomy of pasties, the food, and pasties, the adhesive nipple coverings required for strippers in gentlemen’s clubs.

That’s where precise pronunciation comes in. I suppose it would be possible to order a “paste-tee” from a bakery in the risqué part of town and the waitress would say, “well, okay,” and start to unbutton her shirt. At least it wouldn’t come with onions.

Boiler Beach

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Day 14: Friday, Sept. 16: I spend most of the morning hustling around Kincardine, Ontario, fueling up the bikes and looking for a tire pump at nearby gas stations. The Vespa and Terra Nova have lost a pound or two in both tires.

It’s a brief comedy of errors: I find the Petro-Canada station serves only trucks, and the Esso station’s tire pump isn’t working. I feel lucky to get gasoline into both motorcycles.

I hate leaving things unfinished, especially bike maintenance. But Nancy, at the Marriott TownePlace Suite’s front desk, sees I’m carrying a helmet and asks about our ride. When I say we’re heading for Niagara Falls, she says, “Oh, you should stop and see Boiler Beach before you go.”

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“Boiler Beach? What’s that?” I say, imagining some sort of Yellowstone-like thermal spring in Lake Ontario.

“There’s a ship that blew up in the 1800s not far from shore,” she says, instantly warming to the story. “The only thing that’s left is the boiler and you can see it from the beach. That’s why they call it Boiler Beach. It’s a couple of miles away.”

Her enthusiasm and my interest in shipwrecks convince us to go. Linda gets directions and we set off with me promising myself to attend to the tires later.

We locate the correct road but can’t find the beach. After Linda queries a woman walking her dogs, we cruise on and catch a glimpse of something through a break in the trees. We park the bikes and walk down to the shore.

And there it is, the rusting hulk of a ship’s boiler, in a few feet of water about 20 yards from shore. We later learn it’s from the Erie Belle, a 112-ft. steam-powered tow tug that exploded and sank Nov. 21, 1883.

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The Belle was struggling to free the J.N. Carter, a schooner that ran aground during a storm. Why the Belle blew up is a matter of conjecture, but they say a pressure valve on the boiler had been wired shut to build up more steam power.

The boiler exploded and the tug sank. Four of the 12 crewmen died and the stranded schooner rescued the rest.

Afterwards, the Belle was pulled closer to shore and taken apart for salvage. Later, others used a winch to drag the boiler inland, intending to cut it up for scrap, according to the Kincardine News. They were stopped by police.

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So the beach became known as Boiler Beach, and its namesake has been quietly rusting away. People have been coming to see it for decades, apparently.

Our photos don’t do it justice, I think. My only wish is that my good friend Don Lee, an authority on all things with Great Lakes shipping, could see it, too. It’s kind of a quiet, sad place, as is the site of any shipwreck, I suppose. We stay a bit, lost in the memory of this tragic sinking, then go on our way.