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Octogenarians On The Prowl

Written by Lee Wonnacott.

Bryan, OH (06/16/2008) - By now I’m getting used to the questions from curious local residents;

   "What you doing, Mister?"
   "I’m taking pictures of this memorial."
   "Because I’ve come 16,000 miles to visit it."
   "What for?"

Today the exchange went a little differently. An old lady came toddling up to me and asked, "Are there any warnings posted?" What? "Weather warnings," she said, "that sky is pretty dark and with you on the motorcycle I think you probably keep up with the weather." Well, that’s a pretty good assumption from a lady that probably has other things to do rather than chat with a two wheel itinerant. But, I figure I should be respectful and I inform her there is nothing to worry over, the offensive looking clouds are only a narrow band of showers and will move off soon.

   "Well, what are you taking pictures of?"

Now we are on familiar ground and I launch into my spiel. "Wow! You have a few minutes to spare? Follow me. . ."

Moments later I’m strolling beside this complete stranger down an unfamiliar street and into the local Cadillac dealership. As we walk toward the waiting area I spot another elderly woman patiently reading a magazine.

"Look, Esther", says my guide, "I found us a date!" Oh, oh! I’ve been picked up by Octogenarians on the prowl! How do I explain this to my wife?

Fortunately the ladies were really interested in the Ride Around America project and both had plenty of cogent questions about how I planned the route, what I did with the photos, and what I did to keep fresh and interested in the task at hand. We talked about places we had all been and enjoyed – when you are beyond 80 years it’s very likely there have been several opportunities to see America and the world beyond. Esther and LouElla were no exception.

Esther asked if I had plans to ride to Juneau, Alaska. I explained that wasn’t possible because there was no direct road. That sparked some strong disagreement between the ladies. Esther’s considered opinion was that a road DID exist and LouElla defended me with the admonishment, "Esther, I know he’s probably researched it fully – I think he’s probably right." It seems Esther has visited Alaska several times and just never considered that she had always flown there, never attempting to take the trip by automobile.

I excused myself after a few minutes and the ladies wished me luck. I hoofed back down the street to grab the monument photos . When I came back to my bike I found the ladies parked beside me. "Follow us to Lester’s Diner for lunch," LouElla shouts out, "my treat!" I have the feeling this really is going to turn into that date . . . but I’m hungry and I was going to Lester’s anyway.

For the next 45 minutes I dined on Alaska whitefish with the two sweet old widows. The pair had been friends over 70 years and delighted in telling me how they met as schoolgirls in another state. Each had married a boy from the same nearby town and somehow, though life had drawn them away from home, they never lived far from one another. Esther raised six children and LouElla five. Both taught school and their husbands were both successful upon their return from war; one as a banker and the other as a high school athletics coach.

LouElla especially had great stories of her adventures while living in Occupied Japan during the Korean War era. Both of the women understood the goals of Ride Around America – for each had been service wives during wartime. I guess that bond across generations never diminishes. They both worry about our current generation of service families and how they cope.

Soon it was time for me to leave. I grabbed a quick photo of the friends and then thanked LouElla for the lunch and Esther for the company. In the parking lot I suited up and rolled out to the road as the old friends waved from inside the diner. Yes, Ride Around America started out to salute our veterans, but today it gave me an opportunity to spend some time with a pair of genuinely gracious ladies from an era that is fading fast.

Only a few hundred miles more and I’ll be home for ten days.

A Few Minutes in Hell

Written by Lee Wonnacott.

Hell, MI June 5, 2008 - I had wondered for years what it was like. I had heard all of the stories; tales of raucous days in summer heat and waves of humanity rolling down the highway to perdition in search of a good time. Most of all I remembered that many of those that had found themselves in Hell had actually intended on going there - at the very first opportunity and the best possible speed.

I nearly missed it.

Hell, despite all of the publicity to the contrary, isn't very big at all. There might be 100 people there, probably less. And there isn't even an official highway sign to welcome you - you just come around the curve and suddenly you are there. I always hoped there would be a warning before crossing the boundary line into Hell. At the very least I expected a church, a pastor, maybe a friendly priest to wave me down and tell me about what lay ahead if I kept to my current path.

I found a small store, a tavern, and a few tourist photo cut-outs - that's all. No writhing souls, no demons gleefully tormenting the residents, no sheets of flame - not even a Bic lighter flickering in the parking lot.

I walked into Hell's Country Store - it was like a thousand other small town convenience stores. Beer coolers in the corner, bread on the shelves next to snacks, and a big pizza oven. Obviously, the only thing getting hot around here was some pies being cooked for the late lunch crowd . . . which didn't seem to be evident, maybe these were orders for pick up.

"Is this all there is to Hell?", I asked to nobody in particular. "I really expected more. . ."

A cheerful voice behind the pizza counter responded, "Wow, that's the first time I've heard it put that way!" At that point the store owner and I began a polite 20 minute conversation about the merits of living in small towns and the particular problems encountered by her neighbors that call Hell home. "The county gave up on keeping a town limit sign here years ago", she said, "they were always stolen almost before the road crew was finished installing a new one!"

Soon it was time for me to move along, Hell was only a stopover on my life's big adventure and I had other places to be. I bade my farewell and walked out to take a photo or two before starting up the Honda and riding away. I left Hell as I found it, a small place known to many but appreciated by so few. Small towns are like that, they often gain a reputation that is undeserved. You know a place like Hell, I'm sure. But for the residents of this town I bet they like saying, "Well, I gotta run, there's some friends waiting for me in Hell!"

Post Script:  A few days later I visited Paradise, Michigan. After the trip was over I calculated the round trip distance from Hell to Paradise . . . 666 miles ! 


This Is Beautiful Country

Written by Lee Wonnacott.

Hohenwald, TN (05/03/2008) - That big wide grin seems endless for the two of us. We left Cherokee in very chilly temps, heading up toward Sevier County, Tennessee and the road just didn't disappoint us. Everything seemed to be doing well, except that when Art hit the starter button on his Pacific Coast at the county courthouse - yup, it failed to turn over. My thoughts flashed back to four weeks ago and a very expensive few days we had with his Shadow.

I pushed him off and we found an Advance Auto Parts store just three blocks away. The battery was completely drained and a quick check of the electrical system pointed toward the regulator/rectifier. Damn! We grabbed a local phone book and started calling motorcycle shops. Luckily we found one on the third call that had the part, and it was just a 30 minute ride away via ST1300. By 2:30 PM we were back on the road, heading toward US-70 to catch several more memorials before daylight left us.

Ozone Falls, TN

US-70 is one of the longer two lane routes left from the old US Highway route system. It meanders from Wilmington, North Carolina all the way out to Globe, Arizona. In many places it is a four lane road and pretty tame, but mostly it is a 45 and 50 mph road clear of heavy trucks and not much traffic at all. We've seen some really pretty spots, one of them was a treat worth a half day visit - which we managed to squeeze into just an hour.

Find Ozone, Tennessee on your maps. There is a 110 foot high waterfall there only 200 yards from highway, we found out later that it was used as a backdrop location for filming of "The Jungle Book, Part 2."

Art pulled out the video camera and we did a little video segment from the top of the falls and then turned down another trail and trekked to the bottom of the falls. Down there we found spectacular views of the falling water and got a good appreciation of the stratified rock that makes up the geological history of central Tennessee. The water is cold, and it would be possible to swim in the pool, but don't try this without a large group present. The trail is treacherous and getting a litter bound accident patient up the hill is obviously going to take a long time, that is if they find you in time to help. Beautiful areas can be dangerous.

After a night of camping near Crossville we set out again on Friday and rain was the keyword all day long. We were watching the back side of a line of storms that had torn up Arkansas on Thursday night. At Franklin we patiently waited out thunderstorm cell at the local Sonic drive-in. When it moved off we found a westbound state highway and the plan was to move toward a state park near Dickson, Tennessee. Then one of those distractions came across our path that I didn't really plan for.

Natchez Trace Parkway

The Natchez Trace Parkway is almost 500 miles of two lane highway leading from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville. It's like the Blue Ridge Parkway in concept, but without the really tall mountains. No commercial trucks, very little traffic and lots of long sweeping curves that are guaranteed to keep the rear tire of any motorcycle from squaring up. There was rain ahead, rain to the north, and the skies toward the route of the parkway was looked best. We turned left at the double arch bridge and took the southbound route.

That big grin gets bigger in a hurry here. We went FIVE miles before seeing any other traffic. It was as if the day, and the road, was made just for us. The roadway generally follows the old Natchez Trace, a wagon track through the wilderness, it was the superhighway of the 19th century that helped open the south to the pioneers of the era. All along the road there are scenic turnouts that allow visitors to glimpse what conditions travelers of two centuries ago endured. Frankly, I'd rather put up with the inconvenience of a dead battery than push and prod an ox pulling an old wagon down a path that is shared with bears, coyotes, snakes, and other denizens of the deep forest.

As dusk approached we found ourselves at mile marker 385 and the Meriwether Lewis burial place. The National Park campground there is small, only 32 spots. And, it's free. We seriously wanted to stay the night here and save a few dollars. But, as we rode into the campground area to select a spot for our little tent we took a good look at the skies. Both of us felt it might be a good idea to make the seven mile trip into Hohenwald first. We could get something for dinner and find a place to check weather before committing to a night in the woods without decent shelter. It turned out to be a great decision. The sprinkles that began to fall as we reached town quickly turned into a full fledged downpour, complete with high winds, thunder and lightning. But by that time we were checked into the only motel in town. The video on The Weather Channel confirm our good fortune. We had been lucky to avoid the worst weather all day long...and the storms through the night didn't bother us at all as were were tucked into nice dry beds.

Yes, the wide grins are still evident. Now we wander west into Arkansas for a couple of days. I will post photos of tornado damage by Tuesday.


Tornado Alley

Written by Lee Wonnacott.

Heber Springs, Arkansas (May 5, 2008) - We've been steadily picking off five to seven counties a day for the past three days. In fact, it's put me a bit behind in sorting out the photos and formatting up the memorial display pages.

The ride out of Tennessee was pretty uneventful. US-70 and TN-100 for most of the trip. TN-100 is a super road, but a bit boring. It's miles and miles of nice hills, but straight as an arrow till in connects with US-70 outside of Memphis. If you want to make time in southwest Tennessee and don't want to put up with the traffic on the Interstate then 100 is a great alternative.

The Ringer

Written by Lee Wonnacott.

Sapphire, NC (April 17, 2008) - I'm out on a short solo loop from Gold Hill through northern Georgia and southern Tennesse. The plan is to see how much better time a lone rider can make as opposed to two of us sharing the road. So far I find myself much more contemplative and focused on the task of documenting memorials. I'm also learning that it's pretty easy to walk away from the bike and follow a mountainside trail down to a waterfall or other natural attraction.

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