Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Friends and family on the homestretch

Fortunes were once made milling cotton in Augusta, Ga. The cotton mills and their jobs have moved elsewhere, but a lot of the money remains -- not in the stately Victorian-era homes on Greene Street near the Savannah River and downtown, however.

No, the money fled -- first up on the hill overlooking the old city and then out to to western Augusta, near the National Golf Club. Such is the wealth of that institution, home of the annual Masters Tournament, that it has begun buying up adjoining subdivisions and shopping centers, leveling the buildings and planting grass, providing parking for the hordes that arrive once a year for Masters Week.

Where Honolulu's modest Sony Open features hospitality tents and bleachers, around the Augusta course companies have built large, permanent pavilions to entertain customers, would-be customers and executives.

I arrived in Augusta, riding up from Savannah on the South Carolina side of the river, on Thursday, May 16. This is one of the huge, old brick cotton mills still standing near the river in old Augusta.

Our friend Claudia, who relocated to suburban Evans, Ga. after many years in Honolulu, gave me a tour of the old mill, which has been repurposed as offices and shops, part of a massive, multi-faceted investment in the Savannah river front.

Claudia took me to the Morris Museum of Art on the river, where gracious homes adorn the opposite, South Carolina, shore.

The museum houses an eclectic collection of Southern painting, including this one, which grabbed my attention. The museum's web site describes it:

Thomas Satterwhite Noble's painting The Price of Blood directly addresses the atrocities of the slave trade. A well-dressed man, who is wearing his hat as if he is a visitor, stands, reading a piece of paper, behind the table on which there are stacks of gold.

The man seated in the foreground is wearing a smoking jacket and slippers, which indicates the scene must be taking place in his home. Behind him a painting depicting the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac hangs on the wall. At the left, a young man of mixed race who is not well dressed, with a tattered straw hat and no shoes, stands assertively and looks away from the event taking place.

Looking closely, one may notice that the seated man and the young boy have similar facial features—so similar that they must be related. The old man is selling his mixed-race son into slavery. The gold on the table is the price of his blood.

After a pleasant stay at Claudia's, I departed for the one appointment I needed to keep on my ride, a high school graduation party on Friday, May 17, in Athens, Ga. Along the way, I crossed the J. Strom Thurmon Reservoir and passed through both Washington and "Lincolnton," an interesting melding of the two names.

In Lexington -- yet a third "ton" -- I found a rare cafe that served real, down-home, Southern cuisine.

I had the fried chicken, turnip greens, field peas and corn bread.

Nom, nom! Interestingly, except for at the Tabasco factory on Avery Island, every bottle of hot sauce I saw in the South was Texas Pete.

Hannah, the honoree at the graduation party, is headed to Atlanta to attend Emory University next fall, which is ranked 20th among U.S. by the 2013 edition of Best Colleges. She's smart.

Hannah's proud mom, Merrily, is a professor at the University of Georgia and has the same birthday as my wife Mary. They were undergrads together at the University of Nebraska.

I have seen Canada Geese flying in perfect V formations, but never saw them march single file like this before I stopped in Asheville, N.C. to have a new headlight and starter switch installed.

Outside Asheville, in Brevard, N.C., I stopped for the night with Doug and Susie Knapp at their beautiful home in the mountains. Doug and David, my motorcycling companion last summer and the summer before, both grew up near Geneva, N.Y. and served in the Navy together.

I wanted to ride up the Blue Ridge Parkway from Brevard to Charlottesville, Va. The weather in the morning was pleasant and sunny, but as the day wore on it deteriorated. About 30 miles north of Asheville, I found myself riding in a rain cloud, following the double yellow line, with three other motorcycles using my tail light as a guide.

When I reached Little Switzerland, a rest stop and resort right on the parkway, I ducked into a snack bar for a bite to eat and watched the heavens open. There was thunder and lightning and a river of brown water flowed through the parking lot. The woman tending the hot dog machine said she'd never seen it rain so hard.

I checked the weather radar app on my phone, saw the cell was moving northeast and there was a break behind it before the next shower would come through. There were many more cells on the radar, however, so I got off the parkway at Marion, N.C. and found a motel in Winston-Salem for the night.

My Motoport GoreTex rain suit performed flawlessly in Saturday's downpour and for the rest of the ride. I wish I could say the same for my First Gear "waterproof" boots, which didn't dry out until I got to Maine and the rain stopped.

Knowing there were more showers waiting to ambush me in the mountains, I stayed off the Blue Ridge and, after an interesting night at the Motel 6 in Winston-Salem -- where a man stopped by my room to offer me "weed, coke or girls" -- I stayed on U.S.-29 north to Charlottesville. At Lynchburg, Va., I saw a sign pointing to Appomattox and detoured out to the National Historical Park at Appomattox Court House, where Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant.

Appomattox Court House is the name of the town outside Appomatox, Va. The surrender was actually signed in the McClean House, not the courthouse itself.

This is the parlor in the reconstructed McClean House where the surrender took place, with Lee at the marble-top table on the left and Grant at the small wooden table on the right. The original house was disassembled, it's parts carefully numbered, to shipped to Washington, D.C. for reassembly as a museum. Unfortunately, the project ran out of money and the pile of pieces were left for vandals and souvenir hunters.

The park at Appomattox is a peaceful spot, worth the 20-mile detour.

In Charlottesville, I stopped to visit my sister, Jeannie, and her husband, Don. We shared a fine bottle or two of Virginia wine, a delicious dinner and conversation, getting caught up on happenings since our last visit.

Monday morning, I met Linda, my wife's cousin who lives in Culpepper, Va. for coffee at McDonald's in Ruckersville, just north of Charlottesville, before reconnecting with the Blue Ridge and riding north up the Skyline Drive parkway through the Shenandoah National Park, bound for Hagerstown, Md.

After leaving the sublime Skyline Drive, I found myself on I-81. Outside Martinsburg, Md. traffic ground to a halt as the thermometer rose into the 90s. For 45 minutes I lurched slowly toward an exit. When one came into view and there were no police visible, I boogied up the shoulder lane and off the Interstate, where I found myself on a detour that led first to a GM plant and then, where the GPS showed a road, to a reservoir full of water in the back lot of a paper factory.

I spotted a dirt road that went off through a gate in the general direction suggested by the GPS and gave it a try. About a quarter mile down the gravel track, I was on a narrow overpass and stopped to take a picture of the jam on I-81. As you can see, trucks like Interstates.

Deb is a reporter for the Associated Press who shared an apartment with Mary when they were both cub reporters in Lafayette, Ind. She just returned from a three-year stint in Kabul, Afghanistan, and is happy to be back home in Hagerstown.

Deb lives in an old house in the city's historic district, which she's been fixing up for the last two decades. One of the first things she did when she got home was to buy a truck to replace an old beater. She was pretty excited about it -- a 1984 full-size Chevy Scottsdale with a V-8. We drove up into Pennsylvania and I drove it back for her. It's Deb's kind of truck. Her neighbor came over to admire it and climb into its vast bed -- it's good to know someone who owns a truck.

"What do you want for dinner?" She asked when I called to say when I'd arrive.

"Chicken?" I said. I got chicken, asparagus, corn on the cob and couscous. Life is hard on the road.

I like Deb's porch -- here's the inside ...

... and the outside.

Next stop was on Thursday, May 23, in Nyack, N.Y., which is on the west bank of the Hudson River across from Tarrytown. The Tappan Zee Bridge connects the two burgs. You can see the bridge in the distance from the waterfront, which was damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

My cousin Janice, whom I hadn't seen since about 1960, lives in Nyack. She found me on Facebook and invited me to stop by when she found out about my motorcycle ride. Janice is a painter, working mostly in watercolors and gouache, which is like watercolors but not transparent. This is her studio.

And this is Janice on Old Yeller. I wish I looked as good after 53 years!

Janice lives in this house in Nyack. The whole neighborhood is well-preserved or restored houses that pre-date the last World War. Some look like Hobbit dwellings. We went downtown for dessert at a patisserie after dinner -- it's a lively old town designed for walking and very refreshing after some of the suburban sprawl I've visited on my ride.

Friday morning I was off to Boston, meandering across Westchester County toward Danbury, Conn., avoiding the Interstates and probably riding in circles because it was raining, my GPS isn't waterproof and I put it in the tank bag to stay dry.

After several hours of this, I'd covered only the 47 miles I'd have traveled by Interstate. The scenic routes aren't as enjoyable in the rain, so I got on the slab to Hartford and Springfield and rode the Massachusetts Turnpike to Boston.

My niece Martha and her fiancé Kevin recently bought a condo in an old building on Monument Square in Charlestown, just across the river from downtown Boston. This is the monument, commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775.

Here's Old Yeller parked across the street from Martha's building.

Martha greeted me with a glass of wine and some cheese before we went out for dinner at a nearby tavern, which has been in operation since Revolutionary times. The Bruins were on the TV and the place was rockin'.

The battle is famous for the historic order grom one of the American commanders: "Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes." This has been attributed to a shortage of ammunition rather than uncommon bravery.

Although they technically won the battle, the British sustained some 1,000 casualties, a third of the troops they committed to the assault. American Gen. Nathaniel Greene was to write: "I wish I could sell them another hill at the same price."

Col. William Prescott led the American forces and his bronze statue adorns the grand monument.

Here's the view from Martha and Kevin's living room.

From Boston, it was a short ride on Saturday morning to my sister Betsy's in Portsmouth, N.H. I was hanging out at Martha's until I checked the radar map on my phone and saw rain rolling my way. That sight sent me packing to avoid more wet feet.

After a pleasant dinner, Betsy and I sat up talking until 9:30 or so -- a late night in our old age -- and packed it in, with me hoping for a dry Sunday ride to my final destination, Ellsworth, Maine, Gateway to Mount Desert Island, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.

Betsy's cat Mabel (above) seemed to think she might want to come along.

Unfortunately, fair weather was not to be and it was a wet slog up the Maine Turnpike and I-95 to Bangor and out U.S.-1A to Ellsworth. I could have used a pair of truly waterproof L.L. Bean boots, like the extra-large one my sister Jane photographed outside the outlet store in Ellsworth.

Wet boots are no rarity in Maine. For my soggy arrival, Jane started up the fireplace, hauled out her boot dryer and soon had me and my footwear on the road to recovery.

7,200 miles and almost five weeks after it began, my ride from the southwestern-most city in the U.S. to the southeastern-most and to almost the northeastern-most was over. It was time to regroup and plan a flight back to Honolulu, where boot dryers are seldom found.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Bygone; bypassed; repurposed

Traveling through the South on the old U.S. Highway system, avoiding the trucks and boring sameness of Interstates, one becomes aware that the gasoline-station/convenience store -- with its pizza and fried chicken, canned food, lottery tickets, beer, chips, over-the-counter drugs, motor oil and energy drinks -- has triumphed over all other models of business activity. What were once bustling little downtowns otherwise have become strips of empty storefronts and vacant lots.

Churches and schools survive -- and occasionally, but infrequently, an independent cafe, bank or insurance office. Also surviving are the old filling stations that turn up at most highway junctions and every downtown, stripped of pumps and familiar signage and repurposed, usually as car repair shops, but often as interesting and surprising new enterprises.

There is always a concrete island out front where the pumps used to stand, as at this tiny station, which is now an insurance agency in Crawford, Ga.

Sometimes the new business is a temporary one, like this flea market, with it's pipe racks and sawhorse tables.

This old station outside Hagerstown, Md., now sells soft-serve ice cream instead of high-test gasoline.

Melvin's Used Cars near Lynchburg, Va., was one of the few old filling stations I saw that still has an oil company sign out front.

Besides old cars, such as this four-door 1953 Chevy, Melvin sells used parts and offers towing services and still has an old fuel pump. There were lots of vintage hub caps hanging on one wall of the building.

Only the pump island revealed the original purpose of this Georgia log cabin trophy shop.

Newer stations feature big canopies to keep self-service gasoline buyers out of the rain, but the shelters don't guarantee surviving in the fuel business. This station in Athens, Ga. now sells only tires.

This old station in rural Georgia is now home base for Pig O's Bar-B-Que. The economic dominance of convenience stores seems only rivaled by barbeque restaurants in the South.

This South Carolina station downsized from the automobile service business to the lawn mower industry.

Riding north outside Athens toward Ashville, N.C., I saw this sizable old garage converted into an antique shop.

This old wooden filling station might also have sold groceries back in the day.

Today, it occasionally sells bait ...

tomato plants and ice.

In Hagerstown, this old station now houses a Roto-Rooter franchise.

Gas stations were built to last, like this Cities Service building in Appomattox, Va.

Perhaps someone will refurbish it as a Subway sandwich or cell phone shop. Probably not. It's a relic of a small-town America that no longer exists, like this old brick warehouse and its Bull Durham tobacco sign in Estill, S.C.