Sunday, June 10, 2012

Back to Nature

The second part of my ten-day trip to Georgia involved spending time with my cousin in Atlanta as well as attending a camping festival with him in northwest Georgia. We’d never spent more than an evening together before this so I was a little nervous but also excited. And because we were camping, I looked forward to the time I’d have to reconnect with nature. 

Wednesday afternoon Joseph and I made cakes for the festival with his friend Kate. That night, Joseph and I went to dinner at the “W”, where he works. We rode over on my bike and pulled in front; they have valet only parking but gladly made an exception in our case. I rarely eat at fine dining restaurants and was unnerved by all the attention: staff filled our wine and water glasses after only a few sips, replaced napkins several times and brought new silverware between courses. After a long dinner filled with sumptuous food, we rode around the city. 

Atlanta is large but riding around the streets it didn’t feel like it. It has a relaxed easeful vibe about it. I was taken in by the unique buildings. One of my friends who loves cinema, has a knack for identifying cities in movies. She’d say, “see that building right there? That’s in Seattle!” At the time I was awed by her ability to do this. Now, with all the traveling I’ve done by bike, it seems natural. Each city has its own feel and it’s own shape against the sky. Generally, I’m not a fan of riding on the expressway but on a bike it's different.  I welcome a ride around and then into a city because it provides a distinct vantage point. Riding then, has made me more aware and appreciative of not only mountain views, but city views.

The next day we packed our gear in a friend’s car and took my motorcycle to the farm where the festival was taking place. We jumped on the expressway to get out of the city then slipped off to ride among hills and fields. I rarely ride two-up so it took some getting used to. I don’t adjust my position as readily when there’s another rider on the bike so I got sore more quickly. One thing I’ve never become accustomed to, is how every movement of a passenger makes inputs into the bike that I have to counter.  At each stop sign, I’d look back and give him another instruction: “hug your knees around me when we’re at slow speeds” or “wait to reposition yourself until we’ve stopped and my feet are on the ground.” It felt foreign having another rider along, but also fun to share the experience.

Although the land where the festival was held was at a farm, it had no crops, no livestock and no barn.  The owners rent out the property for various events throughout the year. It’s a perfect location because it’s set off the road and situated between hilly meadows and forested areas. It has a stage, a pond, and a pavilion that are all connected by a winding dirt road that runs through it. Alongside the road, are group camping lots and trails that lead back into the trees for wooded campsites.

I’ve been to a few music festival camping weekends but nothing quite like this one. This gathering was organized to celebrate Beltane- a pagan festival centered around the May pole. In the interest of preserving the sanctity of the week, I won’t discuss details of the celebration.  

Approximately 200 people came out to celebrate with music, dancing, a pot-luck and bonfires. Many knew each other from previous festivals. As people arrived, they introduced themselves. Even as our numbers grew, and it was impossible to meet everyone, people made eye contact when passing each other and extended a greeting, treating each other as though they’d met somewhere before.

My tent sat some distance from the pavilion, off a long trail that lead into the forest. It was in a small clearing surrounded by a ring of trees. I collected large branches from the surrounding woods and hung them between the trees. They formed a fence-like structure that encircled my camp. A stump became a chair and several rocks topped with a board, became a ledge for my canteen and knife. I hung my hammock made from orange nylon between two sturdy trees. 

Joseph introduced me as “my cousin Lisa who drove all the way from Michigan on her motorcycle." In his simple introduction, he helped people connect to me. He told them what they were doing was so important that people would come far to experience it.  And he gave them, as one woman described it, “a whole different picture” of me.  Indeed, as the weekend unfolded, I heard again and again, “oh, you’re the one who drove down on your motorcycle!” 

Friday night, I gathered in a circle of women in a pasture lit only by stars. For hours we danced and sang accompanied by drumbeat. Afterward, I felt tired, but also renewed and purposeful.

Saturday afternoon while the women cleaned up camp and prepared food for the evening potluck the men took part in their own gathering. They sang while they worked. Their words reverberated through the camp, lending its potent energy to all we did.

That night we all gathered around the Maypole and sang and danced together to the rhythms of a celtic band. Tea and the cakes Joseph, Kate and I made were passed around to the crowd. Afterward, we shared the potluck meal while another band played for us. The evening wrapped up with a bonfire.  Masterful drummers sat nearby while women danced in small groups at the edge of the fire.

Every day was different but a similar thread ran through each. After some time with others, I returned to my camp. I climbed into the hammock and stared at the canopy of trees above. I reflected on our interactions and the rituals we engaged in. After a time, answers came to questions I didn’t know I’d asked.  They came to me as if carried on the trees that swayed back and forth above me, shaking their leaves at me. 

After this long weekend, of camping, dancing and celebrating I felt renewed and more connected with myself and nature- exactly what I was hoping for. I also felt connected in some mysterious, primal way, to many of the other campers. That was completely unexpected.  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Georgia Bound

In early May I took a ten-day motorcycle trip down to Georgia and back.  While there, I met up with my cousin and we went camping.  This was one of 3 overnight solo trips on the bike.  Each time out I feel more comfortable about how to manage the details.  A motorcycle camping trip to Northern Michigan taught me how to sort and pack essential gear.   My trip to West Virginia taught me to devise a route around ideal roads and spots of interest. Still, each ride has its own story, each area it’s own feel.  This trip feels like three different ones: the ride down, camping and the ride back.

I left a day early because rain was expected all night long and into the next day.  I took 69 south into Indiana before the storm arrived.  Just as with the West Virginia trip, I started out on highway.  I planned to ride expressways until Tennessee and northern Georgia, where I’d ride the sweeping back roads in the mountains. I wanted to break up the monotony of the freeway, by stopping at motorcycle gear stores on the way down. 

After a few hours of riding, I spent the first night at a cheap motel just outside of Fort Wayne.  I woke up early and headed south. The scenery in that part of Indiana is much like Michigan; the road was lined on either side with fields and dotted with barns and farmhouses.  Irrigation equipment stretched across the fields like giant robotic insects, spraying water high into the air.  My bike droned on, a kind of metronome to my thoughts on the ride. 

Once I got into Kentucky, I left the expressway to find the store in Louisville.  I was surrounded by homes that blended into the landscape.  The roads weren’t in a grid pattern but rather wove around linking one section of town with another. Businesses had discreet signs.  Once at the gear store, I didn’t find the 3-season touring gear I was looking for so I jumped back on the bike. I continued east on 64 into the heart of Kentucky under expansive blue skies.  As I neared Lexington, the land around me changed.  Instead of crops, there were grassy fields lined with mile after mile of 3-rail horse fencing.  Stately houses stared out over the land.  There was an aristocratic feel to the place.  Even my mind chatter took on a southern drawl.  One horse nibbled at grasses while another galloped across a field.

I settled that night in London, Kentucky - a few drops of rain on my face shield while unloading my bike promised a wet night. I grabbed a sit-down dinner at the restaurant next door before bed.  The next morning I headed out again to get some miles in before breakfast- a trick I learned from Michael, while preparing for my West Virginia trip.  I took 75 South with plans to stop in Knoxville at another motorcycle gear store. I made quick work of the miles- riding fast toward my destination. This Cycle Gear location had some gloves and boots I tried on for size. I wanted to order them via mail instead of making room on the bike.  I still had a full day of riding on mountain roads so I pushed on, taking 129 South out of the city.    

The tone of my trip changed here- from rushing ahead, to easing into the ride.  I rode through town, which felt familiar.  I passed the airport where Joe and I had stayed in a hotel on my first trip down in the Spring of 2009.  I recognized a few stores and the Princess Motel, where previous Gap riders had stayed.  Finally, I approached the turn-off for Deal’s Gap and took it.  This road begins the curves that won’t stop until I’m well into Georgia. 

I felt the anticipation building in my body- I hunched forward, my legs hugging the tank, toes up on the pegs.  I used my upper body to help me lean the bike into the corners, angling my chest toward the side mirrors.  The bike was responsive and adjusted with light pressure to the inside peg. Oncoming motorcyclists waved their welcome after my long journey.

I passed a lake surrounded by mountains and crossed a bridge.  I climbed up and around, anticipating the mountain look-off.  Before long, the road twisted around then opened up and I pulled off at the unofficial start of the Gap. I’ve taken pictures here each year I’ve visited with friends.  I stop for another anyway, marking my first solo trip there.

The "unofficial start" of Deal's Gap
The Gap is famous in motorcycle circles for its many curves in a short distance.  People often ride through on sport bikes in full leather, as though they are on a track trying to beat their best time.  I’ve ridden it aggressively but this time I couldn’t muster up the will.  In fact, I had the opposite happen: I felt compelled to ride it slowly, and I became fearful of what lay around each blind corner.  Just a few miles in, a van came around a bend half way in my lane.  It had just enough room to correct its course before I reached the exact spot it had overreached its lane.  My relaxed approached seemed to be divined.  I continued on, watching the road twist back on itself again and again.  I passed two photographers perched at a corner taking photos of vehicles riding by. 

Riding the Gap- thanks to Xtreme Sports Photography
Three mini-coopers raced past me, going in the opposite direction.  Still, my pace was easy.  My mind returned to past trips as I rode through particular curves:  here, where a full dresser rolled off the road into the forest below, and there, were I’d overshot and crossed the center line- a life threatening error in the worse circumstances. I pulled off to grab a picture of these curves, so unlike any I’ve ever traveled.  After two quick shots, I returned the camera to my tank bag.  Just then, a car came around the corner completely occupying my lane- the lane I would have been in, had I not pulled over.  This second miss in just a few miles, seemed to insist that I travel only at posted speeds the rest of the way through the Gap.  

Deal's Gap: notice the blind curves and changing camber of the road 
I passed a sign saying I’d entered North Carolina just before the Deal’s Gap Resort.  I continued on, following signs to the Cherohala.  In years past, I’d taken these sweeping curves at speed, testing myself and my skill.  This time, after riding so furiously on the expressway and the close calls just minutes before, I eased through the curves, enjoying the gentle side-to- side motion as I navigated the roads. 

The landscape is so foreign compared to Michigan with its rocky outcroppings, lush forests and valley views.  I am a traveler in a foreign land there.  The forest when seen from above, becomes a verdant sea of green.  I searched for a break in the trees while riding along, hoping to catch a glimpse. Finally, I pulled off at a roadside stop, and headed for a bench with a promising view. 

The bench is a constructed of a stone so large it is the backrest while a wooden platform wraps around it, serving as the seat.  Brush had been cleared in this corner of the roadside park, affording a view of the valley below. I sat with my back against the cool rock and looked into outward.  Directly in front on me I found a dip in the mountain range.  Staring into this cleft, I felt myself open up inside and become more expansive.  I breathed more deeply and slowly.  I felt myself loosening up and softening.  This is why I ride- to connect with myself and the land around me.

The view from a roadside park along the Cherohala

I got back on the bike and continued on these sweeping curves that wrap themselves around the mountain.  The roads were nearly empty.  Single motorcyclists slipped past me intermittently.  I was a lone wolf.  I continued on 19 heading south into Georgia, toward my cousin’s home in Atlanta.  Mountain views fell away and I found myself riding between large hills, up then down, again and again, past little towns bordered by gas stations and fast food stops.  As I neared Atlanta, I jumped on the expressway.  Six lanes wrap around the city and then turn South into it. 

This trip came about because my cousin Joseph invited me for a visit.  He and I are part of a large extended family and because we grew up in different states, we rarely saw each other and don’t know each other well.  After connecting at our family reunion held last July, we’ve been talking regularly by phone.  It seems strange to be finding the time for a friendship now, with both of us in our forties, but it also feels like a gift.

Before long, I found my cousin’s exit and rode along tentatively, searching for his street.  I turned onto a narrow road, hidden from the city by mature trees that lined the street.  I slip slowly along, the scent of honeysuckle hanging in the air.  After two full days of riding, I finally arrive - a charming bungalow with a purple front door greets me.  The first leg of my trip was complete.