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.”
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 rubber…I 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.
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.