Month: May 2014

My Cover Story

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This photograph has quite the story…

A few year back, I took a road trip out west on a solo camping excursion to Yellowstone National Park in search of solitude and time for reflection. My views on money were evolving and I’d come to despise the greed and consumption in my life. I lit a campfire in the park that first night and incinerated a little over $2,000 cash –up in flames. Money can be a wonderful kindling. It was a silly thing to do looking back at it now, but at the time, that moment was an empowering act of freedom and the fire symbolizes the beginning of a path that would eventually lead me to The Fox Trails.

After camping in Yellowstone, I decided to drive up to Glacier and explore another one of our country’s great National Parks. On the way there, I drove through the small town of Seeley Lake, Montana and passed by a large hand-painted wooden sign that grabbed my attention. I turned the car around for a closer look and stepped out of the vehicle with the goose bumps of synchronicity as I gazed upon this painting that had caught my eye. It showed the depiction of a fox, sitting next to a campfire with a mountain backdrop and the inscription beneath the sign read, THE FOXFIRE.  After burning that money and having my Into the Wild moment a few nights prior to this, you can imagine why this discovery hit me so close to the heart. I took a few photographs before leaving to continue on to Glacier.

Fast forward to now…with The Fox Trails on the verge of publication, I returned to the photo that I captured in Seeley Lake, imagining how perfect it would be as the cover art for the book. That’s when I noticed a tiny signature in the bottom corner that I’d previously overlooked. The artist signed the painting -Teshia. A little digging around and I found her to be an active painter living in Montana who specializes in contemporary wildlife pieces. I decided to send her a message and to my surprise, she replied and gave me some interesting information. At the age of 16, she was commissioned by Arno Pulici to paint “The Foxfire” as a double-sided outdoor sign for his local restaurant which unfortunately burned down in 2007. This painting would mark the beginning of what would become a successful career as an artist.

I am proud to announce that I’ve been graciously granted the permission to use the image of this original artwork for The Fox Trails. I am honored to have such a special story behind the cover of this first book. It represents freedom and adventure, the fire within, the path of the heart and it takes me back to that magic Montana moment where I started on this trail to where I am today.

You can learn more about Teshia and her amazing artwork @ http://teshiaart.com/about.  Give it a look, buy a painting. My designer and I will be doing a cover unveiling in a few days!

-MJ

Chapter 20

Meltdown in Memphis

“It’s the first of the month, wake up, wake up, wake up…”

-Bone Thugs-N-Harmony

October 1, –I sing this lyric to myself as I step out of the tent in Martin Luther King Jr. River Park. In September, I encountered my three Sirens: women, gambling and drugs. I spoke to the Wind and the Sun and listened to the River. Even the gentle river has rapids. So now October begins and I attempt to visualize a smooth start but I notice my sad bicycle sitting on deflated wheels and it quickly shoots a hole in my positive outlook.

I have three flat tires again and that’s frustrating but I will fix this once and for all. Really take the time to make it right. I have nothing more important to do, except breakfast. By a lake beneath these old growth oaks, it feels like Harmony Park, down past Hope and Medford there in Minnesota where Wookie Foot celebrates with the Medicine Tribe. I have the park to myself, using the restroom and plugging my phone in for a charge, leaving it there, propped up on the sink, with a can of sweet potatoes providing the weight necessary for the charger’s connection. As I walk up to take my tent down and deal with the bike, a car pulls up. Two fishermen step out. They find their place on the lake and cast out their lines. The water looks strange to me. A blue-green hue surrounds the shoreline with poop weeds in the shallows –the slimy ones that puff out and drip. I wouldn’t eat the fish from that water but one of the anglers has a grill cook’s uniform on.

Back at camp I pull the blankets from the tent, shaking them out in the wind. I fold it all up and away, sitting with my tools at this flaky green park bench next to a bike badly in need of attention. Dismantling the bike and trailer’s flats, I watch the fishermen test the water, moving around with no luck. I’m down on mine too. A bike with no wheels stands on its head. Another car pulls in and the passengers pretend they don’t see me with my tires, tubes and rims scattered about. The ladies walk around the lake as the gentlemen sit and talk by the water. I spend two hours inspecting tubes and patching holes I missed, rotating tires and preparing to pedal south.

A Mercedes-Benz on rims pulls in, bumping music. Two men step out, one with a camera. The other one has on a hat, flat brim cocked, purple power colors with jewels, designer denim low with ten inches of underwear showing and shoes, extra white. Pictures and poses, he likes to flick his chin and fiddle with his phone for photos. He never smiles though. They polish the wheels and buff the car, repeating the pulling in and stepping from the vehicle shot. This must be a Memphis rapper shooting a music video. I hope he doesn’t try to come and battle rap me right now. I imagine my own music video shoot, here in the park, talking about flat tires and rims and I could even change clothes and do a shot in the restroom with my iPhone potato charger. I go and get that now. With the bike back together and the trailer packed, I roll out.

South Memphis is a  war zone. Gangs, drugs and violence have put the city near the top of the Nation’s ‘most dangerous places to live’ list, year in and year out. According to a recent Gallup survey, forty-three percent of Memphis residents say that they don’t feel safe in the city walking at night. I ride my bike through the communities along the 61 and I don’t particularly feel safe in the daylight. I’ve seen dozens of dollar stores, there’s one on every other block and I make a few stops to restock food supplies. In leaving, I notice my bike trailer rolling on a rim, again. Unbelievable! I pull into the parking lot of a dive motel. This place smells like danger, maybe it’s just the dumpster nearby. The seedy-green paint flakes from the building’s crummy exterior and I imagine snitches conducting controlled buys and slimy pimps slappin’ hoes behind the walls of this nearly condemned roach palace. Looking down on my bike, I see the other trailer tire is flat now but the three I worked on earlier seem to be fine. Taking my dry box from the trailer, I pull the wheel off and stick the box beneath the axle as a jack. It’s especially hard to get these little twenty inch tires off their rims. I struggle and sweat as a drug dealer retrieves dope from a drop spot nearby, paranoid about my being here. A woman speaking belligerent Spanish tells me to leave from behind her motel room door. She’s says I’m not welcome to work on my bike here and that she’ll call the cops if I don’t leave. She’s practically screaming and I don’t understand her anger. Now I’m angry too and I tell her to go ahead and call the cops. Maybe they’ll help me. I can’t move my bike until I have the tire back on the trailer.

A man walks up and introduces himself, “I’m Hobo Joe. It looks like you’re having some troubles. Do you need any help?” He looks rough, curly red hair, unshaven with dirty clothes. He has a bounce in his step though.

“Hobo Joe, I’m Michael Fox. I’m stranded here with a blown trailer tire but I have everything I need to fix it.”

“Get out!! You can’t be here! You two go. Go now!” says the raging woman from inside. She’s nuts! The combination of her animosity towards me and my desperate situation almost has me on the verge of a breakdown. I hold back a childish temper tantrum.

“I’ve got this lady freeeaking oout!” I emphasize this loudly as I hardly hold it together, calming and addressing Joe, I lower my voice and say, “I need a safe spot to work on this bike, man. Do you know of a place close by?”

“You can come to my hobo camp. It’s about two or three miles from here. I may be able to find a bike pump.”

“I have a flat tire on my trailer Joe.” Frustrated with his lack of understanding, I say, “I’ve got a pump right here and a patch kit.” The lady comes out finally, cursing and making threats. Looking at Joe, I hold up the wheel and gesture toward the woman’s outburst saying, “This is the problem!” I show her the flat tire, squeezing it, pretending it’s her neck and pop the wheel back into place on the trailer, putting my dry box inside and leaving with a flat. Hobo Joe tags along, asking a million annoying questions, rambling on and on. He is the most enthusiastic hobo I’ve ever met. It’s nonstop talking, ranting and all I want is peace and quiet. I spot a fire department a block ahead.

“Joe, I’m stopping at the fire department up there. That should be a safe place for me to work on my bike. It was nice to meet you,” I say.

He continues to tag along saying, “They’re real nice people and even let me dig through their dumpster. The fire chief invited me to come in and eat with the crew once. They all know me. Tell them Hobo Joe sent you. Better yet, I’ll walk you up there.”

“No offense Joe, but I’d like to be alone. The last two days have been hard, I’m irritable, I haven’t ate much, money’s low, and I’m stranded in South Memphis,” I say this defeated, sincerely with tears rolling down my cheeks. When you learn to fly it’s hard to be this low –rock bottom.

He gets it finally and says, “I understand.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out some change, handing me fifty cents saying, “You said you’re hungry, take that. I know it isn’t much but it’s something.” He counts on his fingers, looking up and to the right saying, “I still have $4 and some change. That’s plenty for a hobo like me.”

Receiving graciously is learned through giving unconditionally. Some would have rejected his offer but I see it as an opportunity to let him have the experience of this exchange and I give him honest gratitude and genuine appreciation in return. I don’t feel bad about accepting his fifty cent donation and he deserves that for his generosity. What a rollercoaster of feelings this afternoon. I think men have a sensitive period during the month like women. Well not quite like women but I feel super emotional and that small gesture was touching. It immediately raises my energy. To break off a chunk of everything you have left for a stranger is a sharing that I love partaking in. “Thank you, Hobo Joe.” I give him a hug and send my energy to him.

He wanders off the other way as I push my trailer up to the fire hall. Another character paces around on the block, OCD like with a cursing Tourette’s, angry and shouting, waving at cars passing by, signaling to oncoming traffic, dancing for a moment while flashing gang signs. He’s a strange mix of angry midnight black and a bright laughing madness. That’s a dangerous combination. I can’t tell if he’s selling crack or attempting to buy some but he appears deranged and delusional, playing out inner dialogues and fantasies of make-believe interactions with traffic. The Madman spots me and glares disapprovingly. The fire hall is locked but there’s an intercom and someone inside. Peering in through the shatter-proof glass, I see a secure and sanitary environment. It has the vibe of a hospital here in this injured place and that gives me a strange comfort as I walk up to the intercom, ready to make contact. I press the button and the firefighter opens the door, trusting and kind.

He says, “What can I do for you?”

“I’m on a bike tour on the way to New Orleans. My trailer has a flat tire. I was run off down the way trying to patch the tube. I don’t feel safe out here.” Mr. Madman yells an obscenity towards an unknown target and I ask, “Would it be alright if I used the bench here and repaired my tube?”

“Absolutely. This neighborhood isn’t the best place to get a flat. You’re safe here though. Would you like any water?”

“Thank you. I’d love some water.” He returns with a cold bottle from inside and lets me get to work. With the trailer wheel off again, I inspect the rubber and find some little thorns stuck in the tire. They were probably thrown onto the street by mowers running over sticker bush. I pull them out with pliers and watch the traffic pass. I woman with bleached blonde hair walks by for a second time, a working lady, ragged and strung out. Prying the tire off the rim is way harder than it should be. I give up and roll a cigarette. Another lady walks by, young and beautiful, she has the style of an uptown girl, curly dark hair and a sexy walk, she makes her rounds and it’s hard for me to believe that she’s a prostitute. Another working woman joins the parade. My gypsy hooker finds a trick and gets in a car with a stranger. What a career choice.

The sirens blare and the doors on the fire hall open wide as trucks leave down the 61 in route to an emergency. It makes me wonder what my life would have been like if I’d finished college and became a firefighter. To live at this hall and respond to the fires in a war zone like this would be horrible. Hookers and drug dealing gang members hang out in your front yard while you’re called to the scene of an arson inferno. These men risk their lives running into the flames of burning crack houses, serving the people, even though their efforts are far too often unappreciated. Going to school in Duluth, I trained at the Gary campus of Lake Superior College in the Fire Science program. I took EMT training, hazmat certification, firefighter one and two, building and fire code and apparatus operations. The campus is a state-of-the-art facility and run by real firemen, current and retired. A garage full of trucks provided the opportunity to learn how to drive the apparatus, double-clutch and pump water from different locations. A mock 747 jet sits in the pit, run on propane gas, we fought fire with foam, simulating the response to aircraft fires involving fuel. We also fought real flames in trailer homes donated to the school. Opening the nozzle on the head of the hose and feeling the water’s power is a rush. I turned twenty on September 11, 2011. I was with my dad, roofing a house, listening to the KQRS morning show’s Tom Bernard when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center buildings. In the aftermath of that tragedy, with hundreds of firefighters dead from their efforts in New York, I dropped out of college with only a year left, devastated and scared. I caught a felony one year later, sealing my decision not to be a firefighter. No felons work Civil Service jobs unless they’ve been presidentially pardoned. Even though I’m temporarily broke and stranded, I know for sure being a fireman wasn’t the life for me. Seriously, I’d rather be right here with this flat than wearing the helmet and shield.

A funeral procession holds up traffic. Maybe no one died, I don’t know –what day of the week is it? This might be a motorcade for a politician. A limo with heavy security pulls into the lot across the road from the fire hall. A wealthy important man steps out in a tailored suit with bodyguards and switches cars. Security directs traffic away from the exchange, standing in the oncoming lane and waving cars around. They take over the area obnoxiously for a moment before moving on and I wonder what the big deal is. He could be African royalty for all I know, but this is certain: he and his entourage represent the opposing side of the wealth spectrum, the anti-Hobo Joe and Mr. Madman –the Anti-Fox. I swear I hear a gunshot. Maybe someone’s exhaust backfired but the motorcade proceeds northbound and leaves me with my judgments.

The thorns that pierced the thin rubber on my trailer tire have put some new leaks in the tube. I pull them out with my pliers and find the holes using the last of my patch kit to seal them up. Fire trucks return as I finish inflating the repaired tube. I give them a wave and pedal south, going into a Family Dollar to snatch a box of Snickers ice cream bars. They’re cold on my crotch as I walk by a busy cashier that never saw me in the first place. A half-mile down the road, my trailer has a flat tire again and I coast into a busy Walgreens parking lot. Plopping on the curb in the shade eating ice cream, I have two bars back to back, as two children watch, waiting in a parked car next to me. There’s three or four left and I take the box to the kids. They have the window rolled down and I hand them the ice cream bars. “I already had two and can’t eat anymore. Here, you can have the rest,” I say handing a young boy a box of ice cream. You’re not supposed to take candy from strangers but he makes an exception this time and there’s even one for mom when she returns from inside. She smiles at me before driving off.

Another vehicle pulls in and the driver has “It Was a Good Day”by Ice Cube playing on his system. He strolls by me and we say hello. It’s an ironic song for the way I feel right now, so sick of working on these wheels. I actually rip off patches from the spare tube and recycle them. When he comes back out he hands me $3 and says, “Here, take this, I wish I’d brought some loud, I would’ve given you some of that too.” He’s talking about weed. Certain marijuana has a loud odor, hence the name. I think that’s a Tennessee term. He drives off and I wave goodbye with a smile. Shortly after, a Jamaican guy parks his Mustang. I’m just finishing the repair and reassembly when he walks up to me and says, “Jah bless,” handing me $20. He runs in before I have the chance to thank him with words. Some people can just sense when another needs help. When you make eye contact and take the time to empathize, words aren’t needed. Yeah, it’s been a struggle today but I keep my head high and when cars pull up, I don’t look down ashamed. I pay attention to the work at hand as well as looking these people in the eye with my most honest, cheery disposition. It’s an unintentional street performance of attempting to be positive in the face of adversity. No instruments needed. These hold-ups have been a test of patience. I leave Walgreens before the Rasta comes out. He knows I’m grateful. I felt that he felt that.

Down the 61, I pass broken glass and roadside dumpsites, burned baby dolls and piles of rotten rubbish. I approach Mississippi’s northern border finally and I’m ready to leave the state of Tennessee behind me. Entering this new state, I think about her name and the name of the river I’ve been following. Mississippi is a word that derives from the Ojibwe language. The native spelling is misi-ziibi and it translates to Great River.

On the Old 61, a cop flies by and stops with his cherries flashing about three hundred yards ahead. A pick-up truck at the end of a driveway waits for me to pass and I give the guys a wave. They tip their hats and I ride by about ten teenagers. A few vehicles sit on the shoulder and the cop blocks the lane. Coming into a little town I notice another cop at the station and overhear him telling a guy that it was just some kids fighting. Inside the store, I get some food and beer. The friendly cashier tells me about a river campground about nine miles from here. I check my tire pressure before leaving westbound, back on the MRT. Wearing my Tommy Raines ‘Live Simply’ trucker hat, I stop for a picture with the Mississippi River Trail sign and a sunset backdrop.

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The Mississippi River Trail

The sky is on fire as I pedal into the setting sun, toward the river. It’s a peaceful ride and feels right to be moving again. All the down time in the last two days has been more than sufficient to rest my legs. I’m ready to cover some ground again and I do that now, reaching the river by dark. I set up camp and build a little fire, drinking my beer. A pickup truck pulls in and parks, the driver gets out and stretches. It’s too dark to see him well so I walk over and say hello. “These bugs aren’t eating you alive?” he says.

“Naw, I come all the way from Minnesota, the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Mosquitoes don’t bug me too much, that’s our state bird back home.”

He laughs and says, “Shit, these Mississippi skeeters are so bad-ass they’ll stand on two flat feet and fuck a chicken.” Spraying himself with bug repellent he offers me some too but I pass. “I’m Don Smith. I’ve been coming to this spot on the river since I was a little boy.”

I shake his hand saying, “I’m Michael Fox. I’ve been riding my bicycle along this river’s edge for the last three weeks. I started in the Twin Cities and I’ll finish in New Orleans. I crossed the bridge into Memphis yesterday morning and blew three tires. The other one blew out today leaving me stranded on the Southside momentarily. Memphis was rough on me.”

“You crossed the longest bridge in the world. It stretches from Arkansas all the way to Africa,” he says.

I get his joke but it’s not funny to me. He hands me a beer, Miller Light. Don and I are very different but we both love the river and that’s enough for now. He’s older than my dad, with a big fat beer belly pushing a pair of overalls in a white t-shirt beneath. He says “I come here every night and have a few beers, been doing it for years. It’s peaceful.” Another Miller Light cracks the silence. “I’m retired now but used to work as a truck driver for the railroad. I’ve seen the whole country but this is home.”

“Have you ever been to Minnesota? I ask.

“I never made it up to Minnesota. I tell you what though, a few years back two women from Minnesota were kayaking down the river and stopped here. Someone stole their gear while they came into town. They were totally stranded. Nice girls. The guys around here raised the money to buy them new equipment and we sent them on their way. We heard from them after they made it to New Orleans. I don’t remember their names now,” he says with sort of a regretful end to a great story.

“That’s amazing! Thank you for taking care of my Minnesota sisters. They’re beautiful women. I can just imagine their smiles and tears when you guys let them know you put together the money to help them continue the journey. I’ve met some nice folks along the way already. Each community has such a deep history and the river runs through it,” I say.

“Well you know where you’re standing don’t you?” Don asks.

“I’m in northern Mississippi. I know that.”

He says, “This is Hernando De Soto Park. Do you know who De Soto was?”

“Yeah, actually I do. He was the rich conquistador in search of gold and silver like that of Central America and Peru’s plunders. He was one of the first Europeans to lay eyes on the Mississippi River so they say.”

“That’s right. He saw the river for the first time, right here. That’s why they named the park after him. Did you know that before you came here?” Don asks.

“No. I had no idea.” I almost argue that. I was under the impression that Desoto saw the Mississippi for the first time down south by the mouth but it doesn’t matter. “De Soto didn’t care about the river, Don. He wanted gold and silver. He had dreams of exploiting the land and robbing the people like they did to the Incan Empire. He ended up crossing the river and exploring Louisiana and Arkansas before dying of fever and finding his burial-place in this water, a river worth more than all the gold and silver in the world. He didn’t love the Mississippi like we do. It was an obstacle to him and it would go mostly forgotten until Marquette and Jolliet. To my understanding anyways,” I say.

We have another beer and Don hands me some chicken wings from the truck. “Eat these, I couldn’t finish them. Just throw your cans in the back. There’s some cardboard and firewood there too if you need it. I take it you don’t have a wife or any children?”

“I should be fine Don, thanks though. I haven’t had any kids yet, never been married either –someday maybe. I’ve got some adventuring to do before I settle down like that though. What about you? Do you have a family?”

He says, “Nope. It just didn’t happen. There’s been women, never lasted, too much drama. I’m fine with being alone. You either get used to it or you don’t. I like to be able to come to the river and drink some beers or whatever and not have anyone to answer to, not have anyone calling. You know what I mean?”

I shake my head in agreement saying, “I’m still awaiting the answer to my own calling. Trying different jobs and traveling all over isn’t really congruent with the family lifestyle. To be a father will be an honor when I’m older and wiser but for now, I travel and see the world’s people. I’m sure glad I ended up here at Hernando De Soto River Park and met you. And to think, he didn’t even know the importance of what he was discovering. I didn’t know what I was discovering on this trip until recently either but I think I hear my calling, it’s too late to talk though as it’s been a long day. I’d like to be up with the sun tomorrow so I’m off to bed Don. I thoroughly enjoyed your company tonight,” I say, yawning with a sleepy smile. “Thanks for the beers.”

“Yeah, it’s about that time. Goodnight Michael. I enjoyed your company too,” he says, shaking my hand warmly. Before sleeping, I lay in the tent thinking about the kindness of strangers: the hobo, the firefighter, the gangster, the Rasta, and the river rat. My dude Mr. Clemons said it best, “Nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.” The kindly instincts of a traveler are also reflected in those she encounters. The folks I met today are a testament to that. I wish we could all live the dream of the traveler but then we don’t all wish for the same dreams do we?

Drifting, sleepy and dreamy, I imagine being a dad, with the most beautiful, talented little girl that a mother could wish for and I see the extraordinary way that we might interact as a family. I bestow my blessings upon the mothers and fathers who’ve poured their love into the world where I haven’t yet. Plunge into your lives as parents with a passion for exploration, just the same as I dive deep into the depths of the soul. Let us return to the surface with a report on our findings and trade our observations as I exchange my dreams with the spirit world tonight.

CHAPTER 9

PINK PONTIAC PRANK

“Water flows humbly to the lowest level. Nothing is weaker than water, yet for overcoming what is hard and strong, nothing surpasses it.”

—Lao Tzu

September 20, – Waking up under the roof of a park shelter for the second day in a row isn’t a good feeling. I’m disappointed in myself for a moment as I stand up with a hangover and a sore back but it’s not my style to dwell on negative thoughts. It rained all night and I am thankful to be dry. Filling my water in the restroom and washing up a little I get ready for the day. Food is low and I’ll have to stop for supplies before crossing back over into Illinois. My odometer stopped working around the time I hit the casino yesterday so I take a moment to troubleshoot. It looks like the sensor spun around backwards on the spoke somehow. I turn it the right way and pull it down as close to the wheel as possible. I’m getting a reading again as I leave the park.

            The business district in Muscatine is on the north side of the city. I pedal by the Pearl again and push uphill past the river bridge that I’ll be taking back to Illinois. In the business district I find all the usual stores I’ve come to expect and disdain. Fast food options galore, gas stations and a plethora of convenience stores. It seems wherever there’s a Family Dollar there’s also a Dollar General. I make multiple stops and score some trail mix, protein bars, soups, Snickers, cans of vegetables, chicken and tuna. I’d rather not ride with this extra weight but it’s nice not to think about where I’ll get the next supplies from. I despise spending money here. I spend some though. One last stop at the Kum and Go for a coffee and I’m ready to roll.

            Back in Illinois, I’ve already clocked many miles from my trip to the north side of Muscatine and back. On the 14, the cities are few and far between but the sign says I’ll reach New Boston in seventeen miles. This country road is trashed. The ditch is filled with litter! The large majority of the garbage I see along the roadside here in Illinois is beer cans. An unbelievable amount of beer cans! Busch Light cans to be specific. Why are ninety-eight percent of the cans I see in the ditch this brand in particular? Well, it’s cheap beer that country white folks typically drink. It’s not only cans everywhere, I’ve seen cardboard cases all over the place too. This leads me to the conclusion that Busch Light customers in Illinois, are usually white males with pickup trucks who like to drink and drive all over trashy country roads while throwing their cans in the ditch without a second thought of littering. Now keep in mind, these folks may be armed and hunting illegally. They’ve been drinking and driving enough to the point where they’re actually finishing cases of beer and then proceeding to throw that cardboard in the ditch as well. Call me a beer profiler if you will but I’m out here seeing this up close and personal. If I collected cans I could probably fund the rest of this adventure. I’m scared that a drunken hunter might drive by and shoot me down in the ditch, mistaking me for a deer. I truly apologize to any responsible Busch Light drinkers out there. Help your Busch brothers, please.

            I have to say New Boston is a disappointment. I’ve never been to Boston Massachusetts but I’ve heard great things. I’m not sure what they were going for here when this city was established but if they were attempting to improve on the original Boston I have to imagine it was a huge failure. I have an early lunch in the park and play guitar. Friendly people wave as I’m leaving. I do enjoy the niceties of small town residents being welcoming to a stranger. Back on the 14, it takes me through Keithsburg and then turns into the 25. These roads are desolate and farmland is all around me. I see nothing truly notable to write about here but peace and quiet is something to embrace without much thought. The temperature dropped about fifteen degrees from yesterday but the sun is still hot and my burnt skin has had enough.

Miles of biking take me through the towns of Milroy and Oquawka. The 164 leads me through Gladstone and down to the 34 which runs from east to west with much heavier traffic. Chris Tucker traffic. I pedal down the 34 and see a sign for Burlington, Iowa. I can either turn left up the way down the Great River Road or leave Illinois and cross the river again. My instinct tells me to head into Burlington. Traffic slows unexpectedly and I start to pass cars as I ride on the shoulder. It appears there must be an accident ahead. There’s a crew of road workers diverting traffic down a detour around what seems to be a horrible crash. I can see a semi-truck turned over up the way and I’m forced to follow the detour with a long line of cars behind me. This detour takes me down about ten miles of congested two-way traffic on a tiny county road that’s only used to seeing local farmers. Semi- trucks eagerly wait for their opportunity to get around my bike. With no shoulder to ride on and a seemingly never-ending stream of angry motorists zipping by me, this stretch of road is extremely dangerous and one of the most stressful sections of my tour so far. It takes me over an hour to make it back to the Great River Road and now I have a decision to make. Should I backtrack north to the 34 and ride west into Burlington, Iowa? Or, shall I continue southbound with the uneventful landscapes of Illinois?

            Turning left on the Great Litter Road, traffic lightly lessons and stress is lifted a little as I forge onward. The shoulder is minimal but the frequency of passing cars is far lower. Two oncoming motorcycles whiz by, identical almost. My attention was captured but the wave I gave went unnoticed. Motorcycle owners normally give a wave or a nod of acknowledgement. It’s a two-wheel courtesy. These guys are ninjas on a top-secret mission obviously. I’m off in deep space mind, fantasizing about ninjas saving drugs stashed in the back of a flaming semi-trailer. Climbing a small hill, my thoughts do the Foxtrot, off in my own world and BEEPPP!!VVROOM!! Sudden cardiac arrest: pink Pontiac prank. I didn’t even hear them come up behind me and just as fast, they’re gone zooming off with dual exhaust roaring and some obscenity screamed. I yell in rage! I was so peacefully not expecting noise that loud that I instantly react with hatred and anger. Shockingly pissed at them and disappointed in my reaction, I feel miserable. I think that asshole hooked a foghorn up under his hood. Wow, still angry. Breathe deep. Relax. Murderous thoughts. Now I’ve been known to become maniacal at times but I’m not even drunk. Why am I so fucking heated? I didn’t think I had this in me anymore…

            Ten or fifteen miles ahead, the road T’s and I make a right turn into the city of Lomax. Low and behold, there sits the pink Pontiac off to the left at a biker bar on the 96. I touch the knife on my hip and imagine slashing his tires. Instantly I picture him roaring up behind me down the road with new rubberI also entertain the thought of stopping in for a drink and giving the guy a piece of my mind. Immediately I envision him not appreciating that gift.I put the knife hand back on the handlebar grip and keep moving. Turning the other cheek isn’t something I do too often. I have a devil and an angel on my shoulder, their perceptions of this reality are completely opposite. I’m happy with my choice to forgive him for that prank and leave it all behind with the thought of him just having some juvenile fun. The guy drives a Mary Kay pink seventy-two Pontiac for crying out loud. Empathy and forgiveness have an interesting relationship.

            Down the road I come through the City of Dallas, Illinois and find an advertisement for camping. Crossing the railroad into an RV park right off the Mississippi, I see the office and stop to inquire about prices. No one’s around but the self-registry says its $16 to pitch a tent. I roll in free, passing about five RV’s and spot a couple of tents at the end of the park. I set mine up not far from theirs by a fire ring of my own. This is bad-ass! My first priority is starting a fire. The sun is setting as I gather wood to sacrifice to the future flames. I walk by my neighbor’s camp and notice how expensive their gear is. These tiny tents look like the $200 variety and both have top of the line mummy bags inside, not that I’m spying, I’m just really observant. These aren’t your average campers though and this I know. There’s a lady in a lawn chair alone by the water. She has a car. The only other people here are up towards the entrance with the RV’s. Weird.

            I sit down with the sun’s setting and eat my dinner. Chicken breast with green beans and a side of Mary Kay’s pink and purple clouds. The fire swirls around and I eat from a can. I walk over yonder and introduce myself to the closest neighbors with an RV. They’re a father and son combo from the city of Pontoosuc a few miles downriver. It’s their first time here at this park as well. They’ve got a fire going and offer me a beer. The son has Busch Light in his cooler and Pop’s has a chest of his own full of ice and Busch Originals. I can’t help but to laugh at this! Without a mention of the litter, I take a Busch Heavy, drinking half of it in a two gulps. I got to telling them about my trip as I finish my beer and open another beginning to mention the Busch Light observations of earlier. Just then, two identical cycles cruise by to their tents. Wouldn’t you know? It’s the ninjas from earlier. I thank my Busch brothers for the beers and say farewell, returning to my camp with intentions of speaking with my other neighbors.

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Bryan and Tim’s campsite on the Mississippi in Dallas City, Illinois

Walking over, I notice their bikes first. They rode in on matching off-road orange KTM 990 Adventures with top of the line panniers. These brothers must be on quite the journey of their own and I’m excited to speak with them. Approaching their camp I say, “Hello fellow travelers. I’m your neighbor tonight,” gesturing toward my tent, “and I wanted to introduce myself. I’m Michael.”

            A well dressed man, dark and handsome shakes my hand and says, “I’m Bryan. It’s nice to meet you Michael.”

            The other gentleman seems familiar to me already as he shakes my hand saying, “I’m Tim Schneider. I met a man once that shook my hand and told me his first and last name. I did the same in return and that left a lasting impression on me. Welcome, have a seat if you like.”

I like that story and offer my last name to both of them and in return, Bryan says, “I’m Bryan Phillips,” he smiles and sips on a PBR. Both of these guys are geared up to the nines. Tim has a great beard and a very unique style about him. He smells of money, from his hat down to the designer boots he wears. Functionally stylish. I can tell they’re both successful in what they do.

 Taking a seat and rolling a cigarette, I ask, “Where are you guys coming from?”

“We’re from Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” Tim says as he’s starting a fire. “We’ve been on the road for two weeks out west and now we’re on the way home. It’s been an epic vacation with my best buddy Bryan here but it’s not over yet!”

I chime in with a short version of how I came to be here tonight. I wasn’t sure if they would understand my minimalistic views on this trip but they both seem to have respect for what I’m doing. A train rumbles by only fifty yards from our camp and it’s loud! This is part of the old Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe rail. Judy Garland sang about these trains way back when. I’m somewhat of a train buff and already know about the 1996 merger of Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe. BSNF cars roll by on the tracks and I can tell the guys are more fascinated with the power than annoyed with the noise. I like that about them. Bryan is especially intrigued. He seems to be the quiet one. When they passed me earlier they must’ve been going into town to get food and beer.

There’s a pizza box near me with a few slices left over and Tim offers me the rest, saying, “Are you hungry? If you eat meat you can take that pizza. We’re finished eating so help yourself.” Popping the top off of a Corona, he throws another log from the woodpile on the flames and says, “This is what it’s all about. A hot fire and some cold beers at the end of the day. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

I eat a slice of pizza and say, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to save this for breakfast tomorrow morning. It’s delicious! Thank you for sharing.” I explain to them that this trip has been an experiment in trusting the current as I left home with only $120 and minimal gear, yearning for a more simple way of living. I walk off to my tent to put the pizza away for tomorrow’s breakfast and I hear my name yelled.

“Michael, come over here,” Tim hollers as he and Bryan are both digging through the panniers on their bikes, “do you want some food?” I walk over and he tells me, “Here take these, we don’t have too far to go now and this might be our last night camping,” he hands me a bag of powdered cheddar broccoli soup and a few packages of add water pasta sides along with some candy.

Bryan hands me some canned goods, jerky and some protein bars. He says, “These are one thousand calorie nutrition bars. They don’t taste like much but they’ll give you the energy you need on the ride ahead.”

I give thanks, walking back to my tent, barely able to carry this armload of food alone. Adding this to my stuff sack of supplies puts me in a surplus that I’m not used to. My fire is out and it’s dark now. Taking my guitar from her case, I walk over and offer some music in exchange for their generosity as I sit with them by the fire. There’s something special about gathering around the flames with friends and music. I start to strum as I tell them about leaving Minneapolis to pursue my passions and dreams, beginning to sing a humble song. Telling stories by the fire is a favorite pastime of mine and I start to spin the tale of a man who went from luxurious living to becoming disenchanted by the American Dream and the consumerism around him. I find songs in parallel with the story and sing them as interludes before continuing on with my thoughts on social media and the direction of our youth. I tell them about how I’ve shut my phone off and disconnected my Egosystem account, embracing the road as I travel south. Bryan shoots video on his iPhone as another BNSF inter modal train tears by on the tracks. They ask me if I know any Eddie Vedder songs and mention their mutual love for the “Into the Wild” soundtrack. We talk about that in-depth as I too love the story and the music behind the movie. I play “Society” for them as Bryan takes another video. The flames flicker and swirl in the reflection of my guitar. I can tell they have a special connection with the message in the music and I’m extremely impressed with their abilities to listen but I know they have a message of their own as well. I haven’t heard much of their stories yet and I put the guitar down with questions on my mind, ready to ask and to take to my turn in listening.

Tim says, “Bravo! That was truly amazing! When you said you play a little guitar, I didn’t get too excited. We’ve heard many people say that over the years and all too often it’s just mediocre at best.”

“That is awesome,” Bryan says, “you need to be a singer Michael.” I tell them I am a singer and Bryan says, “Yeah, but you should be singing songs for a living!”

I thank him for the compliment and say, “I love to sing and play people music but I have no desire to make this my career. The praise of the people isn’t what I seek from music. You have to be so obnoxious and loud today to stand out from the competition. It feels unnatural to yell above everyone and the lifestyle of a musician is too stressful for me. Plus, I’ve only played guitar for two years and really I know very little. I’m just an amateur but I do know that I love to sing and share music when the moment is appropriate. My greatest passion is writing though and I have the dream to be an author. I’m grateful that you like the music but I feel like I’ve been talking too much and I’d most enjoy listening to your stories now if you’re willing to share.”

Tim says, “This trip is really special to us. Bryan and I work very hard. Every year we bust our asses and get this small window of time to go out and explore like we are now.”

Bryan agrees saying, “We’ve been out to Utah and Colorado together, riding through the dunes, camping and having fires. This time in nature, away from the city and work –it was needed. It’s been an amazing ride.”

“What do you do for a living?” I ask.

“I work at a bar in Milwaukee,” Bryan says without expanding.

Tim says, “At an early age I showed a mechanical aptitude for engineering. I could always see the way things worked and had the ability to find improvements in functionality. I started working at a production plant and made my way through the ranks to upper management. I invented a number of ways to improve the machinery and even received a couple of patents. By the time I was twenty-two I was making a ton of money providing consultation for companies on ways to improve the efficiency of their business. Although the money was great and I’d become successful, it wasn’t what I wanted deep down. I’ve always had a wrench hand and loved to ride bikes. I started to restore and race vintage motorcycles and my attention began to drift from my job. About fifteen years ago I left the shiny career I was in to follow my passions, opening a motorcycle repair business in Milwaukee called The Shop and I haven’t looked back since.” He hands me one of his last Coronas and says, “The Shop is hard work and it isn’t easy to get away for trips like this, but I love every second.”

“I imagine you’ve trusted someone to do your job in your absence. Has it been hard to be present on the road, fighting the temptations to check in and be involved?” I ask this question as I put myself in his shoes. Bryan passes a bottle of bourbon to me. Jim Beam, don’t mind if I do. I pass that off to Tim and we all have a pull.

Tim smiles and says, “It sure has! But this trip has been about turning that off and tuning in. Turning on to the moment. I’ve been in touch and called occasionally. They assure me all is well, ‘everything is under control Tim, stop worrying and enjoy your vacation’ and I trust them. You see Bryan over there with his iPhone.” He hands him back the bourbon and says, “I don’t get it,” shaking his head with a laugh.

“It’s not like I’m constantly on it texting and updating my Egosystem status posting pictures of our campsite. I don’t do that,” Bryan says, “but this trip means a lot to me and having some photos or video —look at this video of you singing ‘Society’ with the flame’s reflection on your guitar. See how you turned your guitar toward the fire as you sang the chorus there?”

“Damn! It does look amazing. Nice shot Bryan,” checking out his phone I can tell he was there in that moment as he shot this video. Bryan asks me about my family, if I have any siblings and if my parents are still together. I tell him about my sister and my mom and dad briefly and he wonders what they think of me taking this trip. I say, “Believe it or not, they don’t know yet.”

He looks baffled and says, “You mean you left home to bike across the country and didn’t let anyone know?”

“I let a few people know I was leaving but not my family. We see things so differently and I couldn’t find a way to tell them. I figured I’d cause them more worry than anything and put it off thinking I’d call them one of these days to check in and let them know what I’m doing but I haven’t found the courage to have that conversation,” I explain. “I turned my Egosystem off before leaving and haven’t really updated anyone. That time will come though. What about you?” I ask. “Are you close with your family Bryan? Do you have any kids?”

He says, “I don’t have any kids but my woman does and I’ve really enjoyed being a part of their lives. It’s challenging but has many rewards. As far as my dad goes, we just recently started speaking again. We’ve had some issues in the past and we’re still working through that.”

Tim says, “Bryan has been wonderful with his woman’s kids. He treats them like his own and I’ve seen him grow through having that experience.”

“What about you Tim? Do you have any kids? Tell me what your relationship is like with your old man?” I ask.

It seems like I’ve hit a sore subject. Somewhat of grudge shows through as he says, “I wish I could tell you our relationship was great but the truth is, I haven’t spoke with him in years. My old man left when I young and my mom raised me on her own basically. There were guys around at times but they were always terrible with me. There’s a lot of resentment there and I haven’t been sure how to deal with that. I don’t have any children and possibly never will but if I do, I guarantee I’ll be there for them with all the love I have.”

Here we are together, three guys with different upbringings and family situations. I think about how lucky I am to have a mom and dad that stuck together and were there for me as I grew up. It makes me appreciate my family and I feel a little guilty now that I haven’t called or let them know where I am. I stare at the fire contemplating all of this as train after train fly by, clicking along the track. That’s the sound of money moving and Bryan runs off to take another video of the inter modal’s passing. Tim looks disgusted like he wishes his buddy would put it down and forget about trying to capture the moment and just live it right now.

“Differing views Tim. We all see it and remember it differently and you know what? I can’t argue with either of you. I have an iPhone with me,” pulling out I say, “I battle with balance, especially monetarily. I imagine having the highest quality equipment on a trip like this and I know I could have that but instead, I’m riding a hand-me-down mountain bike with just enough to get by. I’ve had money, fast and slow. You see, I’m a convicted felon, Tim. At the age of twenty-two I began a four-year, three-month federal prison sentence for a bank robbery. In my early twenties, I laundered money at the strip club and the casino. Fast cash doesn’t last. It’s what you work hard for that hangs around and stays relevant.”

Bryan walks up and catches the end of that. “You did four years in prison for a bank robbery?” he asks, shocked.

“Yeah man, it was like college for me, except without the girls and the raves. I lived with men and boys from all walks of life. It was a criminal tour of American culture. You learn a lot about yourself. Can you imagine going for four years without a woman?”

They both say no, having a woman home alone, even two weeks is a long while. “It wasn’t easy being a twenty-six year old felon released in Minneapolis. I worked hard though, got a job at the Hilton and fell in love; a few times, monogamously. I was making downtown money and speaking about my story to at-risk youth programs all over the place, living well in a big city and rubbing elbows with talented people. When I went single, I dated extensively chasing after an idea of love. I went on over fifty dates from O.k. Cupid, taking notes on my observations of those women with the hopes to put that in a book one day. That changed the way I perceive ladies and I grew to disdain money almost. Serving and tending bar probably didn’t help my opinion of people in the city’s light either. Depressing as that sounds, it all started to seem like a big fake dirty free for all; a greedy competition, sponsored by advertisements and marketing so clever no one knows they’re being tricked. Thoughts like this are what led me to pursue success in the opposite way of America’s majority. I sold my car, moved to a smaller apartment and downsized everything slowly to the point of my belongings fitting inside of the trailer on my bicycle. Meeting you guys gives me hope though. Hopes that I can have money one day and not use it like a dick. That challenge will come again but right now, I have everything I need.”

Their trip is obviously well-financed and lacking nothing for comforts. Mine on the other hand is mighty minimalistic. We’re so different in our financial dispositions but at the root of our muse is a common appreciation for nature and travel. I love how we find ourselves at this crossroad on completely different journeys, opposite ends of the spectrum but on the same path. With that thought, I say goodnight to my new friends and retire to my tent for the evening. The path of the heart will forever bring people like us together.

The Next Chapter

Hello friends,

I left the Teaching Drum Outdoor School yesterday with my belongings strapped to that old bicycle and a new adventure about to begin. The first phase of this journey will take me across Wisconsin to my father’s house. I’ll spend some time with my family before returning to the Twin Cities for phase two: publishing and releasing my book! There’s much to do still but I see it being available for the public with the coming of June. I started writing on October 15th, and the process has been an adventure of its own. Giving this completed work to the people will allow me the freedom to begin phase three: another bicycle tour across the country, writing the next installment in what’s to become a series of my travels and observations.

I cried in saying farewell to my new family at the Teaching Drum Outdoor School. Living within an intentional community was a new experience that brought much learning and evolution. I came to work in editing and book promotions for the author Tamarack Song, pictured below.

    This learning paralleled my own editing process as I studied the world of publishing and ways that I might promote my own book one day. Tamarack’s work ethic and desire to put his writing into the world is a huge inspiration to me. I leave to do just that, with warm memories and new skills to take with me on the road to my dreams.  My mind is clear now and hunger sharpens the senses as I track my destiny.

Hide tanning with Adjul at the klondike days

Hide tanning with Adjul at the klondike days

Chocolate makes me smile too

Chocolate makes me smile too

Jennine and her daughter Lilia

Jennine and her daughter Lilia

Bryan and his bike

Bryan and his bike

out for a ride

out for a ride

I won and essay contest and the paper with Coyote

I won and essay contest for library week and made the paper with Coyote

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Skinning and butchering a deer with Alyosha

The Foxfire is everywhere

The Foxfire is everywhere

The Teaching Drum Outdoor School

The Teaching Drum Outdoor School

    From the first time I saw this logo, I heard a calling to come to the Drum and now that same calling, the one that brought me here with perfect timing, has once again sounded. It is the call of the wild. You remain in my heart and we’ll meet again. Westward on I go…

Love,

Fox

The Argonauts

The Argonauts

My new friend Scott Stoll, author of Falling Uphill, shared one of my stories on the Argonauts page. Sweet! Check out his book, this guy biked around the world! I hope you’re enjoying the spring weather and staying active. I have so much going on right now and I’m getting ready to share an exciting update with you soon.

-Mj

 

Biking with a Guitar

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“Bicycles are almost as good as guitars for meeting girls.” ~ Bob Weir Grateful Dead

Read Chapter 5 from my upcoming book, it’s about: bicycles, guitars, and girls…https://michaeljasonfox.wordpress.com/2014/04/12/chapter-5/

#BikeMonth