The River Song

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

009

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

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

Attention Ms. Agent,

Attention Ms. Agent,

…When a busy life in the big city has Michael Fox feeling suffocated and unfulfilled, he leaves everything behind to follow his dreams. Crossing the country guided by the Mighty Mississippi, he puts his faith in the current and rides a bicycle along the River’s edge on a life or death journey of spiritual discovery…

Working in downtown Minneapolis and barely staying afloat financially, a young Mr. Fox becomes disgusted with society’s consumerism and the never-ending temptations of the fast life. At thirty-two, he quits his dead-end job and gives away his possessions; leaving the Twin Cities on a hand-me-down bicycle with nothing but $120.00, a guitar, and limited gear. His plan is to follow the river and camp along her banks while communing with nature and playing the people joyful music. He yearns to feel a deeper connection with the earth and dreams to write a book. This journey is his naked swan dive into the unknown.

Traveling down the backbone of America with a modern-day look at the Mississippi, he shares an intimate glimpse into the history of the river and our changing population. Trust the current and follow along on this daring ride as he finds love and the kindness of strangers within the synchronicity of life’s flow. The odds are against him as he pedals around pitfalls in the path and battles with ego, hunger, poverty, inexperience, addiction, relentless weather, malfunctioning gear, malicious drivers, and vicious wild animals! However, Mr. Fox will not return home with his tail between his legs. It’s either finish the journey and discover a way to walk in harmony with all that lives…or die trying.

This memoir is 110,000 words with pages full of child-like explorations resembling a Huck Finn mixed with the spiritual undertones of a Siddhartha. Fans of Jon Krakaur’s Into the Wild will resonate with the melody of The River Song and people from every walk of life will sing along to the tune of a universal message in this lyrical read. Narrated in a unique voice that speaks up for those who feel stuck or unable to have such a life-changing journey of the soul; the first-person present-tense perspective will put you right in the middle of it all. On this guided tour through America’s heartland, readers will live vicariously through poetic words of wisdom, finding excitement and inspiring ideas, accompanied by thought-provoking observations in a timeless, true-life adventure story.

It would be my honor to send you the manuscript. The River Song awaits you. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Michael Jason Fox

Chapter 5

5

The Devils of Bagley

Rivers are the primal highways of life. From the crack of time, they had borne men’s dreams, and in their lovely rush to elsewhere, fed our wanderlust, mimicked our arteries, and charmed our imaginations in a way the static pond or vast and savage ocean never could.” — (Tom Robbins, Fierce Invalids from Hot Climates)

 —–

            September 16, – There’s a tourist information center at the foot of the bridge leading to Iowa. I was late to wake today but not late enough for the rest area to be open for questions. Outside, there’s a big map of Wisconsin and its bordering neighbor. I take a look trying to decide which side of the river would be a more enjoyable ride. I’ve heard that Southwestern WI and Northeastern IA are both demons when it comes to hills and I hope to choose the lesser of the two evils. Unfortunately, most maps don’t provide topographical information. Eenie-Meenie-Miney-Mo… Well, this bike hasn’t seen Iowa yet and we’re off to the third state in five days.

I roll onto the massive bridge before me and begin to cross it. Coming up to the sign marking the Iowa state line, I stop and think for a moment. On the map, you’ll the see the river as the border between many states but how do these cartographers know where that line really is? The state line for Iowa isn’t even close to the middle of the river here. I picture those old politicians arguing and negotiating over such imaginary lines. Is the river not enough?When it comes to land a man can drag his foot in the sand and stand in command of what he claims as his. In this; there’s glory, defending that border from those who might intrude upon his territory. People kill over such trespasses.

There was a day in Minneapolis while staying at my friend Nelson’s house that I was mowing the lawn at the line of the property. I thought how silly it all is, this green, green grass and these imaginary lines. I made an extra pass into the neighbor’s lawn and he walked over to point out what’s his and what’s mine. It was the first time we spoke in the two months I’d been living there. All of this makes me ask myself, why do we draw these lines? Ego is the answer that comes to mind. We’ve put up fences all over the world, real and make believe. They separate us from our neighbors; more accurately speaking, they create the illusion of separation. As long as we continue to divide ourselves in the name of greed and the ownership of that which belongs to the ego, we will never work together as one. I see this to be our greatest downfall as a people.

Still on the bridge, daydreaming these thoughts; I snap back to action and proceed into Iowa, coming into the town of Marquette. I pass through the city in route to my southern path as gigantic hills wait in the distance on a road with a tiny shoulder and a rumble strip. Every fiber of my instinct tells me to turn around and head back to Wisconsin. Three miles of backtracking and I return to the tourist information center in Prairie Du Chien once again. This time it’s open and I approach the information desk.

The friendly lady at the counter says, “Good morning! What can I do for you?”

“Top of the morning to you as well,” I say with a smile. “I’m on a bike tour and not familiar with the area and I was hoping that you might have some advise on the best route to take heading south in regards to the hills and the scenery along the river.”

She’s says, “Okey-dokey. I think I can be of service.” Reaching under her desk she comes up with a map and turns it to me saying, “This should help you. There’s a four hundred mile bike loop that wraps around the southwest corner of the state here following the river roads. Now you won’t be able to avoid the hills but it should be a lovely ride.”

Folding the map, I ask, “May I have this?” She nods a silent yes and I put it in my back pocket thanking her for the help. Outside I sit down and eat my breakfast as I look at the map and plan my day’s travel. The sun is already powerful in the eastern sky and I can tell it’s to be a hot September day.

Following the bike loop from the map I pass through small farming communities but the road takes me away from the river as I enter the heart of Wisconsin’s cropland. The lady back at the rest area wasn’t lying about the hills. They come one after another in this endless sea of corn and soy beans. The climbs are painful to my muscles as I crank the pedals with everything I have; only going two or three miles per hour at times. Gripping the handle bars tightly I breathe deep and growl as I push to the top of yet another hill. On the down slopes I register speeds of up to twenty-five miles per hour so I guess it evens out in the long run with my overall average.

The sun beats down relentlessly on my already bronzed skin. Cotton candy clouds come and provide me relief from the heat ever so briefly. I packed away the boots and cargo shorts in favor of something lighter today as I ride this bike, practically naked. The thin silky athletic shorts I have on were formally worn as boxers at times in the past. They rise up on my ivory thighs as I pedal, exposing skin that’s never seen a sun like this. Sandals on me feet, a sweatband on my wrist and a binder in my hair completes the get up as I blaze this trail.

Every time I defeat a hill I see two more waiting on the horizon and morale is waning. Six and seven degree grades on these slopes force an occasional dismount. I walk the bike, heavy trailer in tow. The sting of sweat drips into my eyes as I bite my salty bottom lip, struggling to keep going. I feel like quitting! I’m too far from home to turn back now though as I wonder how long I can continue like this. I didn’t know Wisconsin had mountains. This hill is ridiculous! Cars pass by and must think I’m insane to have scaled toward this peak as far as I have. The only thing keeping me motivated at this point is my belief that the top is near. With the road winding around there’s no way to know that’s true for sure but I do have faith that this is almost over. Finally, reaching the summit, I relax and enjoy the view.

Jumping back on the saddle I pedal down the slope until the bike gears out and I coast, tucking low and reaching maximum velocity. I’m flying down this hill without braking, my trailer follows behind me. I know the dangers tearing around these corners as fast as my wheels can possibly turn. With no helmet and most of my skin exposed, one slip up and I’m dead. I didn’t come here to die though. I have a destiny to fulfill; and plus, I refuse to let fear slow this speed I’ve earned. The descent is nothing short of exhilarating and makes the climb behind seem almost worth it. Almost. Rolling to the bottom, I cruise into the town of Bagley, stopping to refill my water.

In the filling station I mention the war I just fought back there and the cashier says, “It’s not over yet. That was the smaller of the two hills. Bagley sits in the valley between them and down the road leaving the city you’ll find your next enemy waiting.”

In disbelief I ask, “Is there a way around? I’m not sure I can make it up another climb like that with this heavy load.”

He says, “Your only way out is up that next hill I’m afraid.”

I walk out shaking my head angry as I hop back on the bike. At the foot of the hill I stop for some sustenance and self talk. Beckoning the strength inside, I know this will be a case of mind over matter. I need to pump myself up though. Let’s do it! It’s a slow crawl and every rotation of my pedals sends a burn through my muscles as I claw my way up the hill. Having to walk the bike for a stretch; I feel demoralized, shedding tears and struggling to continue.

Digging deep I find the animal within, the beast I discovered during my years as a high school wrestler. As an athlete, I dominated the competition because I worked harder than anyone else was willing to work. Wiping my forehead, I summon that old beast from his resting place and as he rises from his hibernation. I let loose with a primal battle call. The call of the wild.

Visualizing myself on top, I feel that triumph as if it’s already happened and in so doing I find my second wind. I get back on the bicycle and push. I push myself further than I think is even possible and that drive inside finally takes me to the top. This type of self motivation is an art form that few practice and even fewer learn to develop. The fear that holds you back will chain you in stagnation. Now I stand upon the head of my opposition and look back at the hill and I look back at myself. To conquer the mind is our spirit’s hill; the conquest of faith, I lust for this victory as all champions must. The wind blows through my hair as I coast down the devil’s back. I see my magnificent shadow and feel exalted, gliding to flatter land.

The water bottles are empty again and thirst steps up as the new challenger. Dehydration weakens my stamina to its breaking point. An apple tree filled with fruit appears like a dessert oasis. I sit with my back to her trunk enjoying a moment of rest under the shade of her canopy. Eating four of her apples, I savor each to its core. Their juice becomes my breath as I thank this tree for the gift. With the four cardinal directions in my sights, I throw the cores as far as I can in the hopes that one day, the seeds will grow other trees on this land beneath my feet and that those trees will grow plentiful, bearing the sweetest fruit.

Satisfied and rejuvenated, I hit the road with a new energy. The appreciation of nature’s beauty always raises my life force and brings me to that special garden of gratitude where the seeds of dreams are manifested into my reality. The road finally brings me back within sight of the river and I enter the parish of Cassville. I find another river park with a shelter and pull my bike under the shade of the roof, leaning it on the table. Plugging my phone in, I sit down and poke a few one hitters. The granulated salt of my dried sweat has accumulated on my skin so I run to the river and dive in. It feels amazing to rub my body with some soap and rinse off. Swimming around, I float effortless on the water. A tug boat pushing a barge passes by sending a wake my way and I let the waves carry me toward shore. Feeling cool and refreshed, spreading a blanket out, I lie down and dry off in the sun while I read a few passages from my book. I fall asleep for a spell and wake up with a breeze that sends goose bumps over my sun burnt skin. This was a pleasant place to rest but the day is still young and I’m inspired to see where this path will take me next.

Two blocks down the way I see a group of female high school athletes getting ready to run. I spot the coach and for whatever reason, there’s one boy in the group and he’s pointing at me laughing as I pedal near.

I heard him say, “Ha-ha, look at this guy on the bike!” He has a big hole in his smile where he’s missing a tooth or two. The girls stare.

I haven’t seen many ladies on this trip so I’m staring too as I glide through without a word; but in my head I say, “You shouldn’t point. You might lose another tooth.” Looking that young man in the eyes I see his smile vanish and it’s obvious that he received my telepathic warning. I think the ladies got my message too. Until next time, Cassville -stay classy.

As I get back into the ring with the road, I take note of the Sun’s fading strength as the day begins to concede. I figure I have about three hours left to bike this evening. Those girls are still on my mind. It’s a weakness of mine and I’m definitely missing my connection to the energy of my lady friends. Women are my favorite inspiration and at the same time, my greatest distraction.

Twenty miles down the road and I’m surrounded by farmer’s fields as far as the eye can see. Up and down I go like the slowest roller coaster ever. At the top of a hill there’s a bar ahead on my right with a sign advertising happy hour deals and what do you know? The hour of happiness is upon us and I stop for a cold one. Right when I get off my bike I notice a huge grasshopper on my trailer. I’m curious as to how long he’s been there. He’s most likely hitched a ride with me for many miles. I hope he likes his new home. Retrieving my cargo shorts from my backpack, I pull them up and over what I’m wearing and put a shirt on before walking into the bar. It’s a little place but there might be twenty people in here. Even though it’s supposed to be illegal, everybody seems to have a cigarette and the room is filled with smoke. These country bars do what they want. Some of these folks have been coming here for years to socialize while they smoke and drink and there isn’t a law the state can pass that would change that routine.

It’s all eyes on me as I walk to the bar and it feels like the Wild, Wild West for some reason. The bartender is at my service immediately as I take a seat. I like that about her. She’s flirty too.

She says, “Hey there, what can I do for you?” as she twirls her hair around a finger, doing a little dance.

“I’ve Got Friends in Low Places” is playing on the jukebox and I can’t help but to smile at this woman, saying, “I’d love a shot of whiskey and a PBR.”

She pours me a shot and drops the beer in front of me. “I bought the shot for ya darling. It’s a dollar for the beer,” she says with a wink.

I like this place! These are my kind of prices. I put a few dollars on the bar and roll up a cowboy smoke. Taking the shot, my belly warms and I light up, surveying the room. I’m craving the touch of woman. Unfortunately, it looks like the ladies are slim pickings around here. It feels strange to be indoors and smoke at this bar. That doesn’t fly anywhere in Minnesota. Well you know what they say, when in Rome… I have another beer and roll one more cigarette and even though PBR’s are only a dollar and I can smoke where I sit, I still feel like I could be doing something more enjoyable. The truth is, this really isn’t my scene. It was nice to stop but I finish the beer and thank my bartender as I get up to go.

Outside I take the shirt off my back and let my hair down. My grasshopper hitchhiker friend disappeared while I was in the bar. Pulling out onto the road, I’m immediately happy with my choice to leave the low price temptations of that drinking hole behind me. I’m compelled to continue this journey. It isn’t but a mile down the road and I see legs and blonde hair on the opposite shoulder in the distance. She’s far away still but I can already tell she’s fine. Must be a local girl out for a walk. A truck zips by me heading towards her and slows down to investigate. They give a honk as they pass by her and she waves back. As I get closer, I start to feel a strong magnetic pull. Her curly blonde hair flows down to the middle of her back. She has on a pair of volleyball shorts and her tan body is perfect. Damn. I slowly pulled up parallel with her, catching a glimpse of her face for the first time and she’s far more lovely than I can begin to explain. We make eye contact, smiling at each other.

Sitting up tall on my seat, I bow my head slightly in respect and say, “I’m riding this bike all the way to New Orleans. I started in Minneapolis four days ago and you are the most beautiful thing I’ve seen on my trip so far. My name is Michael. May I walk with you?”

She blushes a little and says, “I’m Charlotte. It’s nice to meet you Michael. Come over here and walk with me. You really came all the way from Minneapolis on that bike?!”

I say, “Yeah, I have a long way to go too!” laughing as I cross the road, pushing my rig next to her as we begin to walk south along the shoulder. “I feel like I’m dreaming. I’ve been craving the company of woman and this is a pleasure for me to speak with you.”

“Awe, you’re too kind. You came all this way to be here now, so I have to think we met for a reason,” she tells me as we walk.

I see a small gravel road to the left that runs along a corn field. There’s a gorgeous oak tree down the way and I direct her attention toward it. “Would you sit with me below that tree? I have a blanket in my trailer and a guitar. I can think of nothing I’d rather do right now than sing you the sweetest songs I know.”

Her eyes light up and she nods in agreement. There’s something in those eyes. Passion and enthusiasm. An excitement and appreciation for the moment. It’s contagious and inspires me to give her my best in this time we share. I spread the blanket out beneath the tree and we sit as I take my guitar out. Those blue eyes are wide and fixated on me. A breeze blows through the leaves above us and I can smell the coming of fall on the air.

I tune my guitar and begin to play. She watches, curious and encouraging. I feel so comfortable in her presence. My voice finds wings and my fingers do things they’ve never tried. The tune I sing is about the infatuation of a man with a woman he just met and whether he should run or fall. When I finish the song I notice a tear run down her cheek. Reaching up to her face I wipe it away and kiss her gently below her eye. She leans in with no hesitation and I find her lips with mine. True Divine. There’s energy between us that arks and our kiss is the spark that ignites the love flame eternal. No past. No future. Only now. We both have a magical present. I open her gift and she unwraps mine.

Looking at me in bewilderment, Charlotte says, “What really made you leave home? You’re such a talented handsome man. What would drive you to leave your family and friends behind to ride your bicycle across the country? Was it a woman? You have a broken heart don’t you?”

I think about that for a moment before answering, “No Charlotte, my heart isn’t broken. I’ve only loved three times and those women are each amazing in their own ways. I always wished for more though. I desired a mutual acceptance and appreciation that I never completely found. The balance was always off . My leaving wasn’t due to a broken heart; quite the opposite, it came from my love for life! I wasn’t enjoying my work or my living situation any longer and things got too complicated. Too fast. I wished for simplicity and the solitude I was missing. I love my bike and the river has been a great muse of mine, but more than anything I dream of being an author! Riding my bicycle along the river, camping and playing music while writing a novel: that became an idea that I couldn’t shake from my mind. Why suffer? Why not have what I really want? Tomorrow is no guarantee Charlotte. Experience what you wish for right now!”

She leans in to kiss me again and with a breathy whisper, she says, “I wish for you to make love to me, right now.”

“Your wish is my command,” I say this last truth as we begin to speak the language of no words.

We lose ourselves in each other and find ourselves with the joining of spirits, transcending time and space. The love we make is more than a physical ecstasy, it’s a joyous union of soul and consciousness, a harmony of being that reverberates through the ether. We create a melody that launches off into the cosmos and travels through skies of alien landscapes as a bright shooting star upon which wishes are made and dreams come true.

In our brief time together, I appreciate her presence completely and immerse myself in the very essence of her being, as she does mine. Collapsing in the arms of my lover, our heart beats syncopate and stay this way as we breathe a breath of life together, timeless. With love like this, the conception of genius becomes possible. It wasn’t until this moment that I realized the true message that I have to give to the people I’ll encounter on the road ahead. The past is but a memory and the future is only fantasy. All we have is now, so appreciate this moment, this moment is your life!

Her phone has been beeping with text messages and it rings as we get our things together. Someone is missing her. I kiss Charlotte once more and with all of my gratitude; I thank her for seeing me, seeing the real me and appreciating me fully with those angel eyes. What a vision. Packing my things away, we say farewell, wanting nothing more and nothing less. With this maturity and understanding, our moment together remains perfect, for now and forever.

Riding off into the sunset like a scene from a movie, my face hurts from smiling and I move like the wind without looking back. I could pedal all night with this energy running through me. My heart flutters as I think about the road I’m on and the way people’s path’s cross. We seem to have an ability to manifest our desires with a faith in life’s abundance and this is no great secret.

Darkness comes in and the night sky is crystal clear. Finding a wayside rest area after the town of Tennyson, I pull over and put up my tent. Before climbing in and attempting to sleep, coyotes howl as I look up at the diamonds in the sky and ponder this existence, thanking my lucky stars to be exactly where I am, right here, in this eternal moment.

An Interview with Mr. Fox

Image

-Mr. Fox, it’s a pleasure to have you here.

Believe me, the pleasure is all mine.

-You’ve been writing a book and I understand the manuscript is complete. Will you share the title and overall concept please?

The River Song: Following the Mississippi on a Bicycle Dream Ride…Frustrated with my work environment and struggling to stay afloat, I quit my job and gave everything away, riding a bicycle and camping along the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans on a quest for a more meaningful life and the dream to write a book. This memoir is a page turning glimpse into the history of the river and its people, as well as a modern day comparison in observation with our county’s current paradigm. You’ll see me evolve and attune with nature as I confront my demons, pushing every button you have and inspiring you simultaneously. This is a real life adventure story about conquering fears, being present and dreams coming true.

-I feel as if I’m right there with you on the trip in reading the excerpts you’ve shared. I love how each chapter is a day from the trip. Tell the truth, did you fabricate some of the events and characters?

From morning until night and from page one until the very last word -I reported each event that happened to the best of my ability as a writer. Every character is a real person and many will remain lifelong friends to me. These people are reflections of myself and the story wouldn’t have been possible without them so I represent them in full disclosure -real names and all. On the road, I wrote the day’s events in my travel journal every night and the body of the book is composed of thirty-one action packed chapters. The River’s song is convincing enough in the absence of fiction and the story that unfolded could not have been dreamed into existence by anyone other than us.

-What are your plans for publishing?

Great question -I’m not sure yet. I just began the process of sending query letters to agents but I could also see the benefit of self-publishing. Going the major publisher route with an agent is appealing because my voice will be heard by a larger audience and more time can be focused on travel and writing. I believe this story has the potential to reach a huge market and possibly even the silver screen. However, I also see the benefit in doing it small and selling copies personally, using social media to market on-line. Money doesn’t really matter to me -I prefer the simple life of travel and self-expression. To have control and a final say over every aspect of the project is tempting but it also takes a greater dedication of energy invested in the business behind the writing. It’s up in the air right now. I could vibe with either or both but most importantly, I’d like my story to be heard. It isn’t a rush one way or the other though.

-What are you currently doing for work?

I live at the Teaching Drum Outdoor School in Three Lakes, Wisconsin under the mentoring of the author and founder  –  http://tamaracksong.org/  . My day’s are divided between learning wilderness skills, playing music, reading, writing, studying, working on securing a publisher for ‘The River Song’ as well as helping Tamarack’s work reach full potential in readership. I treat each new Sun like a day for schooling and dedicate attention to a number of different focuses. When I decide to be finished with my studies at the Drum; I’ll leave my seat as a student, taking what I’ve learned on the road as a teacher with the next adventure, wiser and stronger, ready to play the river’s song with a new understanding as I walk in balance with nature and all that lives.

-What are the plans for the next book, other future projects and moving into my final question, do you have any trips or destinations you’ve been dreaming of?

Sure, I’ve been visualizing myself biking through the Pacific Northwest, down through the redwoods and into SoCal. I’d love to do the Lewis and Clark Trail. I picture myself in Amsterdam or Germany biking the Rhine River. I also dream of entering the world of music journalism, snapping pictures with my words and following friends on random adventures as they tour the world. I’d like to write that book on internet dating I was imaging before I followed the Mississippi all the way to the delta. Also on the back burner, I’ve been cooking up a way to share the story of the time I served in my early twenties behind bars and how that changed my life. Right now though, I have a list of magazines and periodicals that I’ll be submitting articles to for publication. ‘The River Song’ and its publication is of course the main priority above everything I’d like to do on the list before shifting gears into any other major endeavors.

-I have to admit, I wish this interview could continue a little longer but it’s been great to share this space and ask you a few questions Mr. Fox. I look forward to speaking with you again soon. Thank you.

Like I said, the pleasure has been all mine. I wish every interview I end up doing will be as enjoyable as this one! You selected the perfect questions to ask me and for that I’d let you interview me again whenever you like. Until next time.

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Chapter 11

 

 

CHAPTER 11
THE HOME OF A HERO

September 22, – There were visitors in the night. I have the vague recall of a guard on the dam doing rounds and the conversations of three people above me. It’s early cold. I pack away the blankets and pillow, grabbing my gloves because it’s foggy and freezing. Leaving the lock and dam with the moon, I near the Expressway as a parking lot attendant gives me a wave good morning. Cars are starting. From looking at the map last night, I know if I continue south I’ll make it to the bridge into Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Samuel L. Clemons, better known as Mark Twain.

I’ve passed by Hannibal on a family road trip once but didn’t have the chance to stop and explore. Crossing the river once again on one of her many bridges, I pull parallel with another biker joining the path.
He asks, “Where are you coming from?”

I say, “Minneapolis! I was hoping to explore the home of Mark Twain before heading south.” We keep pedaling and as we chat.

He says, “Minneapolis? Where are you trying to go to?

I say, “New Orleans. After Hannibal, I was thinking to head south to Louisiana. Louisiana, MO that is. I can see a funny photo opportunity there.”

“Don’t head south through Missouri! You’re about to hit four thousand feet in elevation gains. If you’re going south then you’ll be better off heading back into Illinois,” he says to me adamantly as three other bikers join us. These four guys get together and ride into Hannibal for coffee at the Java Jive every so often. I just barely met them coming over the bridge but now they insist in showing me Hannibal as we glide down an awesome hill. These guys are in their late fifties wearing spandex touring suites and  they’re quite serious about riding.
“What do you wanna do while you’re in Hannibal?” they ask as we continue our descent.

“I’d like to have breakfast and a coffee somewhere with Hi-Fi. Do some writing, send a few emails and then explore the cave from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and whatever else you might recommend.” We come to the bottom of the hill as I say these words. They direct my attention toward the childhood house of Mark Twain; as well as pointing out the local breakfast joints, they also show me where I’ll have to go to see the caves. I thank them for the help as I turn off toward ‘breakfast.’

Sitting on a bench outside of a storefront not yet ready for business, I open a can of pineapple. One taste and I commend the first person to hack into a prickly pineapple, finding this sweet golden deliciousness waiting inside. I eat two granola bars in addition to the fruit before heading to the Java Jive. Walking in, I’m already a legend as the barista gives me a once over. The bikers are here. “Hey it’s Michael! This is the guy that’s riding his bike from Minneapolis all the way to New Orleans!” they say this amongst themselves and at the same time announce it to everyone in the coffee shop. I’ve missed baristas. This one’s name is Janelle and she’s the finest I’ve seen since Spy House in uptown Minneapolis. Mmm…good coffee.

“I heard these guys talking about you. You’re riding down the Mississippi dressed like that? What’s going on with those boots?” Janelle digs in as she hands me change for the coffee.

“Yeah! I’ve never been much for spandex and these boots are the most comfortable shoes I have. I’d like to plug my phone in and send a few emails. Is there an outlet?” I ask.

She says, “Sure,” pointing behind me, “you can plug-in there.” She’s pondering something. I sit down and plug my computer in as well, checking my email and looking at the river maps for the area. There’s another woman from my past and she’s on my mind even though we haven’t spoke in months. Writing her an email this morning from Hannibal, we’ll see if she answers. I would postpone the end of this trip to see her, if even for an hour. She is Becky Thatcher but there’s already a Tom Sawyer. Will Tom’s courtship finally win her over? Is the potential for treasure’s possibility worth her forgiveness? Would my pedaling this bike across the country to be with her, finally trump this tomfoolery? It’s lonely when we love like this.

Finishing my coffee, I have the urge to speak with Janelle before leaving. Getting up, I walk to the counter and a fancy young lady beats me to the punch. She’s on a pink phone with a jewel encrusted case, half talking loudly with someone and half ordering her coffee. I wait patiently behind her, making eye contact with Janelle; we smile a mutual frustration with Paris Hilton’s cousin between us. This lady speaks on her phone during the entire transaction! How rude is that? I walk up and Janelle says, “I just got a new phone, an iPhone and I’m not too sure what to think about it yet.”

“I know how that feels.” I say. “I have one too. They’re not evil, the phones themselves. We have this amazing technology to share truth instantly around the world and yet instead we choose to post pictures of the food we’re eating and photo shopped representations of a moment, all to put our best face forward. Just be conscious of how you use it. It’s been interesting for me to turn mine off during this tour.”

“I used to bike everywhere. I just got a car though. Be careful out there, especially on the shoulders. You’ll see the shredded rubber from blown truck tires and debris all over the road. Those tires have steel radial in them and they’ll instantly pop an inner tube. It’s happened to me, twice,” she says.

“You’re lovely, Janelle. I like you,” I say, smiling sincerely.

“That’s probably because I’m not from here,” she says, laughing.

“If I had more time in Hannibal I’d recommend we hangout but I’ll have to be leaving now. Thank you for the coffee. It was a pleasure to meet you.” She’s a spark plug of girl. Fire is burning around me and I wish I could take her with me but she’s on her way back to Samsara and I’m on my way out the door.

The admission for a tour of the Mark Twain Cave is almost $20. I pay it even though my instinct says this place has been tainted with the tart taste of tourism. The guide leads us into the cavern where electric lighting was installed for tour purposes. The cave seems drier than others I’ve been in. Apparently the limestone walls are lithographic and only found within a thirty-five square mile radius from here down to Louisiana, MO. The cave remains a constant fifty-two degrees. Our tour guide shuts the lights off and demonstrates what it would have been like to have explored these caverns by candle light long ago. Mark Twain played in this very cave. So did Jackie Robinson. During the time Mark was a boy, the cave was owned by a local physician. He used the cavern to do experiments on cadavers. His fourteen-year-old daughter died and the doctor put her corpse inside of a copper framed glass tube filled with alcohol in an attempt to petrify the body. The body hung, suspended in this cavern for almost two years before authorities ordered its removal. These rooms twist and turn for miles with multiple exits and entrances. Our guide directs us to the signature of Jesse James. Apparently the outlaw used the cave to hide out for a few days after a train robbery. They won’t let us sign the walls but they’re covered with signatures. Treasure hunting and run-ins with Injun Joe come to mind as I remember the adventures of Tom Sawyer. Strange thoughts of funerals and ghost hunters come and go. My mind wanders off to an imaginary Busch Brother’s Cemetery and the thought of an angry drunk hunter apparition is frighteningly funny to me. Laughing out loud in a cave is something I highly encourage you to experience. I’m happy I did this but it’s a little touristy and it bothers me to see people making money off the memory of Mark Twain. I was tempted to just sneak in and explore the caves with my youthful exuberance but I have a feeling that chance will come elsewhere.

The tour lasted less than an hour and I’m back on the road. According to the map’s legend, I’ll have to backtrack nearly twenty miles into Illinois before I can head south. It was all in the name of Mark Twain. Passing over his memorial bridge I get off the busy 72 and onto the 106. There’s a rest area on the right so I pull off and 106 and park it. I take some cardboard from my trailer and picture myself break dancing on it for a second. Today I make the sign! With a permanent marker I write: “MPLS to New Orleans. The Great River Adventure,” signing it –Michael Fox. I take the time to draw an intricate bicycle on one side and a book on the other. The book is more of a mustache really but that can be in honor of Mark Twain. It looks legit on the back of my trailer, folded over a bungee strap, secure and simple. I like it. We’ll see if it brings me any encounters I may have missed otherwise. Chicken and green beans for lunch and then I’m back on the road heading straight east. The first car to pass gives me a honk and I can tell the sign is drawing attention already. I go through the small towns of Aladdin, Spencer, Hull, Shin and finally make it to Kinderhook where the road becomes the 96. Heading south again, I’m essentially traveling down a long finger-like strip of land between the Mississippi and the Illinois River. The tip of the finger points directly at St. Louis. The meeting of the Great Rivers happens in Grafton and I’ll see that tomorrow in the light of day.

There’s still plenty of sun now and I’m smiling as I pedal a comfortable pace. This guy passes and flips me the bird. I just keep smiling and wave but he actually slows down to reach his arm out the window making sure I see his angry middle finger. Friendly people pass as well and the sign has contributed to far more honks of acknowledgment. I like the idea of that driver in her car thinking about how far it is from MPLS to New Orleans. I like to see her inspired. A truck with a boat on a trailer passes by me slowly preparing to turn left but fails to signal. An emergency vehicle comes up behind me and must have been trying to read my sign. The ambulance skids to a stop and almost rear ends the boat trailer. Maybe having this sign isn’t such a smart idea. The roads around here are distracting enough for most drivers; add in a cell phone call, a mansion on the hill, an apple orchard, an angry angler arguing over an accident with an ambulance driver and a biker with a sign…that spells danger to me.

It isn’t long down the Mississippi River Road before I reach the village of Hamburg as the sun starts to set. I ride right along the river here and the houses are something else. The road turns up and through a hill when I see a woman walking a dog. Approaching slowly, I notice he’s bright white with piercing blue eyes. She fights him on the leash as I ask about a river access in the area. I’m hoping she knows of a place I can camp and have a fire for the night but she just looks at me like I’m crazy and tells me there isn’t anything like that around here. I say thanks anyways and keep going. Up on the right I see a church. There’s a man power washing a semi-trailer. I notice the congregation’s sign reads: The Church of Christ. I have to think this is a Mormon Church. As I pedal into the driveway and make eye contact with this man, it’s clear that I’m not welcome here. He points the power washer at my feet and says, “What do you want?”

“Well I’d like to introduce myself first of all. I’m Michael Fox; I’ve been pedaling this bike along the river from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have the goal of reaching New Orleans but I find myself here now. I’m tired and I’m looking for a place to set my tent for the evening,” I say this to him and he seems annoyed.

“What do you want from me?” he says again.

“I don’t want anything from you. This is a church here and I assume you’re a member since you’re in the front yard. Wouldn’t it be a Godly thing to help a stranger out -whether that be by letting me camp here or pointing me down the road to a place that might be safe for the evening? Either would’ve been suitable. I don’t want anything from you, sir. I may have actually had something to give to you but now you’ll only get this to think about on my farewell.”

As I’m pulling out of his driveway he yells, “Hey, down the road about seven or eight miles you’ll see a sign on the right hand side for Red’s Landing. That would be a safe place for you to camp.”

“Thank you,” I say, “thank you very much.” I’m pleased that he became willing to share, not willing enough to let me camp on his property though. They don’t get many travelers coming through these parts I suppose.
It’s dark by the time my headlamp shines on the sign for Red’s Landing. I pass a truck on the way in and imagine I look quite suspicious. Down by the river I find myself alone again. I set up the tent about five feet from the water’s edge. There’s a spot nearby where someone had a fire recently. I find some birch logs and plenty of wood for the night and I have a fire going within minutes. Right on the river, stars above me, I play guitar and sing by the flames, song after song until I break a string and I lay her down for the night. I’m a little hungry and put a can of pork and beans on the coals forgetting to vent the lid. Opening the zipper on the tent, I climb in and get situated. Lying down to read for a moment, I pass out resting peacefully…Boom! I’m shaken from sleep by a gunshot outside! Springing up and out of the tent, there isn’t anyone around but I smell burnt food and realize that the can of beans I put on the fire just exploded. It was quite the bang! Pork and bean rain fell on my house and that’s funny to me. The can still sits in the fire and it looks like the metal got so hot that pressure blew the lid off like a mortar shell and shot food fireworks high into the night sky. I’ll have to try that in the daylight to see what it looks like. What a way to end the day! That old trucker probably thinks I shot myself down here. ‘I knew he looked like trouble. You won’t be killing yourself on my property, you heard me?’ That man was a trip, in my mind his voice still echoes, ‘What do you want?’ Climbing back in the tent, my heart slows and I think about that question before sleep soon returns.

Chapter 17

CHAPTER 17

THE TECHNOLOGY OF COMMUNICATION

September 28, – A special energy comes with the mind state of being open completely, it’s the prelude to falling in love and it comes with the raising of the blinds and truth’s light shining into the darkness.  A true love won’t sustain without this.  In that light, first comes an acceptance of self or settling one’s score so to say.  It can come second; through the inspiration of another but then you’ll find yourself with a weight of debt and it’s hard to fly like that.  The true second, is your communication of the acceptance of self, the sharing with the world your comfortable idea.  It’s an attractive state of being.  I feel that energy today and I am falling or rather, flying in love with this bike trip along the Mississippi.

Trucks arrive and depart with the day’s first light.  Semi’s growl to life and I Roar with a yawning stretch.  The sky is soft and mellow with an effeminate ‘hello’ from the pink and yellow’s sunny reflection. The wind woke up on the wrong side of the channel apparently, blowing around this way and that.  There’s a well with a pump on the backside of the restroom at this wayside so I water up and use the facilities.  Breakfast at the picnic table facing the rising sun is delicious as I read the ending of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”  Last night I read until the second to last page without knowing and now I finish it quickly, wishing there was more.  I look at the map and plan the day’s story.  I think it ends in Arkansas.  All packed up I head northbound on the 55 with the mean wind blowing at my back; teasing me with the assistance of his power for a short swift mile.  Finding a pass through on the interstate, I wait my turn and cross over four lanes of freeway and ride southbound again into the wind.  You just get used to it.  Acceptance helps.  The wind is a force that won’t be stopped, much like me and I respect his power.  The day will come when we work together.

My muscles are warmed up after the twelve miles to Portageville.  Stopping for coffee and plugging my computer in, I log into Facebook, reactivating my account.  It’s been about eighteen days since my sign out.  Surprisingly, I had a number of thoughtful posts on my wall from friends despite having my page inactive on my birthday.  Social networking has become so prevalent in our society and it’s bothersome to me and seems misused in my opinion.  It isn’t just the competition for ‘likes’ that bugs me.  It’s more the liking of the superficial lack of intelligent sharing and the golden idol of ego; that’s what bothers me most.  I have missed my connections though and from now on I vow to use this social networking platform to inspire and to share positivity.

Typing, “Belated thank you’s on the Birthday wishes.  I’m sorry I haven’t been in contact with anyone.  I needed the solitude.  After the eleventh, I left the Twin Cities on a great adventure.  I’ve been pedaling my bicycle along the Mississippi River, camping along its banks and trying to leave each city brighter and inspired through song and story.  I’m in Southern Missouri now and about to cross over into Arkansas.  I’ll be in Memphis tomorrow and by the time I reach the Ocean I’ll have wrote a book about this experience and the people I’ve met during my travels.  I’ll try to be better about staying in touch.  I miss you my friends.  Do what you love and love what you do.” I press enter and almost instantly people are interested in what I’ve been up to.  Is it selfish that I ignore the newsfeed, having little interest in what others have been up to?  All the bright colors and cries for attention would probably be too much right now.  I’ll ease my way back into Facebook but today’s reaching out to friends is beautiful.  They send me chat messages and my phone comes alive as comments and likes roll in.  This approval and attention is not what I seek though.  In posting what I did, I look to inspire people to wake their dreams into reality.  To be an open book is what I seek.  The reader’s impression is theirs to deal with how they will.  My phone vibrates with new messages and comments on the thread but I pay them little mind.  Even if they say I’m crazy or stupid for doing this; I wouldn’t take that to heart.  People think different things for different reasons and for this reason, I remain wary of both critique and flattery.  Even if they say they love me, I won’t judge their opinion much, for the praise of the people is not my desire.  I seek the integrity of sharing myself comfortably in the face of the opinionated; yes, but the opinion of the people is much like a horn on a semi-truck honking in passing.  Was it a honk of anger?  It was a long honk.  Or was it a honk of approval?  People have different intentions with their honking, just as the tooting of one’s own horn often comes from a place of anger rather than self approval.  The sounding of horns does not motivate me.    ­­­

I sit here sipping coffee, making some free calls on the Wi-Fi network; even having a video conference with my dear friend.  It’s a joy to chat with people so far away.  The telephone has intrigued me since the beginning of boyhood.  I can recall my very first memory of a telephone conversation.  It was at my grandparent’s house and my mother handed me grandpa’s old rotary phone.  My dad was on the other end in a different city and to be able to speak with him seemed magical to me.  I remember being completely fascinated with that.  It was way too early to fathom the cell phone on an affordable national network and the public had no computers or internet yet.   My generation would experience the evolution of each of these technologies and eventually the combination of the telephone, the computer and the internet on one device:  the smart phone.  I hold one now as I skim through dozens of notifications on the Facebook post from this morning.

We used to memorize phone numbers by heart and when you called a girl on her land line you might have to speak with her father.  I remember our first cordless phone and how awesome it was to have a conversation in the privacy of another room as an adolescent.  In 1987 there were only one million cell phones in America.  I had a pager before I owned a cell phone.  I remember the construction of the very first computer lab in our elementary school.  We played a game called Oregon Trail on the black and green screens.  We had computers in our school finally but now you can go to school on the computer.

The internet wasn’t nationwide until about 1994 and I didn’t have Facebook until 2009, nine years after graduating high school!  Before the World Wide Web, my parents bought an expensive set of encyclopedias.  I used them as a reference to write papers and satisfy my strange curiosities.  Heavy dusty old things they soon became.  My parents were moving to Wisconsin in 2003 and decided they would give the Britannica’s to Aunt Bee’s.  The thrift store wouldn’t even accept them as a donation.  “That information is all online now and the books would only take up space,” they said.  My parents had quite the Foxfire, burning the whole collection if you can picture that.  Consumed by the flames!  You can look anything up instantly now.  How hard is that wind blowing today?  I wonder this and look up the local weather in Portageville.  Today’s wind blows from the south at fifteen miles per hour.  This is an amazing piece of technology in my hand.  The computer in front of me weighs at least ten pounds and does little more than my handheld companion.  Although my writing has been strictly done with pen and paper, I brought the laptop with for a time down the road when I’ll be typing the story that’s unfolding.  The burden of carrying this extra weight is what gives the device its true power.  I wouldn’t feel right to type such a saga on a keyboard that hasn’t earned the power of the road we travel.  With it, I have the right to write these truths and the ability to stand on my head where few dare walk.

One would think these advancements in our ability to share information would lead to better education, stronger democracy, economic efficiency, healthier lifestyles, happier people and a more conscious human race, right?  You’d think being able to access knowledge and to send and receive the truth at lightening fast speeds would allow humanity to be more connected and improve communication on a global level, right?  Then why are we so misunderstood and why are we so divided?  Why do we suppress knowledge and information and how have we become so selfish?  Why has our economy faltered and our debt soared?  And what could possibly be our justification to continue the destruction of our environment?  Why are people so weak, so sick and so miseducated?  Has technology exceeded our intelligence?  Is it this stupid phone?  It doesn’t have anything to do with electronics.  It’s the people.  It’s us.  It’s our illusory sense of self.  It’s our ego and it dictates the way we use technology.  The problem isn’t the technology.  The problem lies in the way we communicate!  Lies in the way we communicate

Leaving Portageville on the 55, progress is slow as I ride directly into the strongest southerly wind I’ve encountered.  The challenge and rewards seem unbalance as loud trucks pass me and honk.  Honestly, I’m not enjoying the ride so I stand the truth on its head; pedaling with my hands, turning everything upside down to see differently.  Closing my ears, I see sounds and sight speaks.  The eyes are the evolution of the Creator’s greatest vision balanced with the equilibrium of a drum to see life’s music heard.  To look at the world differently, through each others eyes, that would be evolution created –and this would please the Creator of Evolution, if she has the sense of opinion to Judge like I’ve judged.  We will never solve our dilemmas from the same views that created them.  Tuning in is a tuning out of sorts when viewed upside down.

Leg muscles protest the monotony of motion as the pedals revolve.  I picture the kinesiology involved and solve pain’s puzzle with new angles, changing alignment with the challenge.  Using my heels rather than toes, I dig in and focus the brunt of the workload on my hamstrings and change the aerodynamics.  I pedal with a different part of my foot’s sole, putting the strain almost entirely on my quadriceps.  After exhausting all angles, I pedal with the soles of my soul’s bare feet; they process energy from the ground, fuel from thin air –all burdens of work’s mechanics are left to the wind.

Meeting up with my old friend 61, I leave the Bootheal and pass beneath the stone arch state line, ‘Entering Arkansas’ says the inscription.  The Blues Highway runs all the way from Duluth, MN and the Great Lake Superior all the way down through the Twin Cities following the Mississippi River to Memphis, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and finally the Ocean.  “61 Revisited” plays in my head and with a Bob Dylan glance about, I decide the Old Highway 61 is far more scenic in Minnesota.  It passes through my hometown and all the cities I knew so well in my youth.  From the hillside port city and it’s ocean like view of Superior, down through lakes surrounded by forest greens seldom seen, sprinkled with the dust of a farmer’s dream and realized in the Twin Cities.  From the first lock and dam to St. Anthony Falls, the largest, most conscious metropolis at the top of the list for all things you want to exist on this hop, skip and jump of a journey along the Mighty Miss is St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The skyline from the Stone Arch Bridge and the view from Thomas Beach over Lake Calhoun on a hot summer day will make you swing from the branches of weeping willows with a Tarzan meets Jane smile while Judges play house in mansions on Lake of the Isles.  Women with the softest hair you’ve ever smelled walk the chain of lakes where bikers and joggers circle canoes, kayaks and dogs on paddle boards.  Hipsters in uptown would stylishly complain but the art scene in the Cities is hard to explain without a deep sense of awe.  I’ve come to love the most talented people of all.  My friends are starting to attain fame in the dark game as I play a modern day Mark Twain.  The Blues Highway has me missing home now.

The Old 61 takes me into Blytheville, Arkansas.  The sun sets behind me while the river waits for my arrival on the eastern horizon.  With intentions of camping along the water, I ride through this spread out town and find some back roads, pedaling directly east; and in so doing, I come across a wicked big pile of weird wood.  Someone’s been out here on this farm road having bonfires and I can’t resist putting my tent here for the night to do the same.  I’m in the middle of nowhere and I see no houses.  Before anything, I start the fire and add fuel until I have flames that are as tall as I am.  This is my camp and I’ll call it Zion.  If an angry farmer came to me even with a loaded shotgun I’d charm him with the communication of acceptance.  I set up shop with a tent and a spot to sit by the fire as my kitchen.  Water boils in the cast iron and I combine the cheddar and broccoli soup with chicken.  Crumbled crackers complete the concoction and dinner is awesome!  Not one car has driven by me as I sing, smiling and dancing around this enormous fire.  The flames light my page and I write the days thoughts.  Tomorrow I may reach Memphis!   It’s hard to believe I’ve biked this far.  I smell rain on the air and stash some firewood in the trailer as my insurance for breakfast, entering into Tent-town for my sleepy overnight investment.  The river sings her sweet song in the distance and the dying fire reflects the echo as I listen to my listening, thankful to have these ears to see her truth, reflecting on how to better share mine, dissolving into the mind of the Universe once again.