Tupelo, MS to Morganton, NC
That's What I Like About the South
I play a quick game of confuse-a-squid,
and bid a fond adieu to Southern manners.
My morning began as usual. I downed a caffeine/protein speedball of Mountain Dew and beef jerky while sitting on my bike in the hotel parking lot, listening to the engine warm up and looking at the map. I needed to make Decatur, Alabama by around lunchtime, which looked feasible. I planned to meet up with my college buddy Mark, whom I hadn’t seen since maybe 1984. He’s a Christian educator and a great guy.
State Road 24 across north Alabama is pleasant, rolling and hilly but unremarkable. Spending just a day there, I felt like Alabama gets a bad rap from all the southern stereotypes. Decatur has a rejuvenated downtown and lots of great old houses, not to mention friendly residents. When we bumped into some of Mark’s friends at a restaurant, he introduced me, and once again the difference between Southern manners and what I face daily in Philadelphia made me want to move south. The children I met in Decatur looked me in the eye and shook my hand better than many adults in my neck of the woods. But the folks in Philly and northern Delaware don’t mean anything by it. There, politeness takes a different form. They see immediate warmth and friendliness as phony. I see it as giving someone the benefit of the doubt and treating someone decently until given reason not to.
We sat and talked for a couple hours, bringing each other up to date on families, jobs and friends who had died since school. Really, it was more fun than it sounds! I got back on the road in mid-afternoon. I gassed up in Decatur, then crossed the bridge toward 565, planning to pick up US 72 in Huntsville.
Right after the bridge the road opened up, and some squids who had been hovering in my rearview finally passed me. The group held traffic back while one rider rode a lame wheelie. Then another took a turn. Their tentativeness amused me. Were they worried their parents might see them? After a few minutes I was done slowpoking just so they could have fun. I gassed it and rode right through their group kind of aggressively, but giving them a friendly wave, which confused them. Unsure whether they were being dissed, they left me alone. They slowly caught up to me though, and for awhile I was the old guy on a loaded-down Triumph in the middle of a bunch of squids on Gixxers. Finally they got tired of my cramping what little style they had and sped off. I had fun ruining their fun. I felt like a dad walking into a high school party.
That was the last interesting thing that happened to me in Alabama. I picked up Interstate 24 toward Chattanooga, Things got a little prettier, but the big change comes toward Knoxville on I-40. Hills, curves and beautiful scenery more than outweighed the irritations of the Interstate.
I passed Knoxville once again, just as I did on my way out. I had planned to spend a day with my cousins there, but my Oklahoma rain delay screwed my schedule. I would feel like a jerk coming in late, eating dinner and leaving early the next morning. So I pressed on as dusk neared.
Mark and I hadn't seen each other in 30 -- that's 3-0 -- years. We were freshmen together at SMU and both of us played in the Mustang Band. We agreed to declare that neither he nor I had changed a bit.
Why are Southern manners so much better? The children I met in Decatur looked me in the eye and shook my hand better than many adults in my neck of the woods.
Road Rager Cager
Somewhere in the mountains between Knoxville and Asheville I had a problem with some guy in a Volvo. Riding up a mountain in the left lane of the Interstate, I misjudged my line into a curve. The road was wet so I let off the gas just a touch rather than leaning in. I didn’t realize a car was passing me on the right and when I changed my line I danced right up to the edge. This freaked out Volvo Guy, who honked and flashed his lights more than necessary. As a motorcyclist I’m accustomed to near misses, so I thought little of it. But he wasn’t finished. He pulled up next to me and flailed his hands around, his face twisted in anger. It was definitely my fault, the kind of thing you do when you’ve ridden too long in one day, but Christ, it wasn’t that big a deal. Maybe I came closer to him than I realized.
I pulled off in Asheville, NC, ready for the Waffle House and a hot shower. Two hotels shut me down immediately. At the third, the clerk pointed to a poster for a big music festival, and told me everything was booked up. He advised me to keep riding east. I must have looked beaten down, because he seemed genuinely sorry that I had to keep going. It’s times like this that I don’t want to get back on the bike. I did though, and rode about 60 miles down the road to Morganton. I could have stopped earlier, but I didn’t want to waste time and get shut out again.
At the first hotel, the desk clerk couldn’t be bothered to stop talking on the phone, droning on about someone’s frequent guest points. I stood and waited a couple of minutes. Then a couple minutes more. At five minutes the guy still hadn’t even looked at me or whispered “sorry, just a second” or even acknowledged my presence. Screw this. I walked out and rode next door, where I had a room in less than five minutes. Ten minutes after that I was ordering at the Waffle House across the street. I washed down some Tylenol for my back, shoulder and whatever else planned to ache while I tried to sleep. In the end it didn’t matter – I was gone the second I hit the pillow.