Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Civil Rights, Civil Wrongs

The southern states proved to be some of the most mentally challenging places we visited. A hot bed of patriotic, political and religious tension, we made a conscious decision to avoid those topics as much as we possibly could, but they were constantly present and highly visible.  With the seemingly never-ending US presidential campaign heating up, the Trump supporters’ signs on lawns were prolific as we passed through neighbourhood after neighbourhood. I hazard a guess that the vast majority of people we crossed paths with proudly exercised their right to bear arms. The unfaltering support for the rights of American people to carry guns and the exuberant flag waving can sometimes seem a little silly and na├»ve to the outsider, but in the southern states they’re serious and they mean business. One of the hardest things to encounter was the racial tension in Alabama and at a time when homophobia in the Carolina’s was hitting the international headlines too.

 Riding towards the home of our Tentspace host #5 just outside Birmingham, Alabama I found myself reading billboards outside churches. They often made me smile and occasionally totally confused me. ‘Life without God is like dribbling a football’. I spent a while mulling over in my head why that was difficult until Evan pointed out that a ‘football’ is in fact rugby ball shaped in the US. Then there was the slightly aggressive ‘We love you and there’s nothing you can do about it’. I couldn’t help thinking that this probably needed a *subject to exclusions clause added underneath. After the fun we used to have at work talking about the existence or otherwise of dinosaurs, for several days in a row we rode past one sign that intrigued me almost enough to go along and listen to the discussion at the ‘Dinosaurs and The Bible’ study group. Unfortunately I forgot all about it and one day the sign was gone. Alas, I’ll never know. The sign that intrigued me the most though was ‘With the Bread of Life, you’re Toast!’ Any thoughts?!

Kevin and Alisha were our next hosts and what an amazing place they had. Living right by a river in a house they’d built themselves, they found us a great place to pitch our tent and then proceeded to feed us enough food to last us for the rest of our journey home. Smoked ribs cooked on the grill, sweetcorn, chicken…it was amazing and endless. We sat and talked, drank beer and Knobb Creek bourbon, accompanied by their pack of rescued dogs. Prior to arriving we’d ordered a few things to be delivered to their house – a chain and sprockets for my bike and our lovely friend Ron was sending Evan a front tyre and me a replacement front brake rotor. We’d hoped that they’d be waiting for us when we arrived, but unfortunately not. In fact they took several days longer than expected and huge thanks is due to Kevin and Alisha for putting up with us for several days rather than just the couple of nights we had first planned to stay.

Along the way we’d met several people whose faces lit up when we said we were going to be passing through Birmingham, before exclaiming ‘Oh you absolutely HAVE to go to the Barber!’ The ‘Barber’ is the Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum just outside the city, home to what must be the largest collection of motorcycles in the world. The private collection of George Barber, the museum houses around 1500 vintage and modern motorcycles, along with a handful of classic sports cars. I have never seen a museum like it. For hours we wandered the floors of the museum, dumbstruck firstly at the sheer number of bikes and secondly at the quality of craftsmanship involved in their restoration. There was no expense spared, the tiniest detail restored to original with the highest level of attention to detail I’ve ever seen. Our run of good luck continued as it turned out that a friend of our hosts was working there as a restoration technician and thus we found ourselves with complimentary entrance tickets and even better, a tour of the restoration floor and the warehouses containing all the bikes awaiting work. Several hours later and only minutes from closing time we emerged from the place still unable to take it all in. I thought my parents held the record for collecting things, but this place trumps everything. I think if we’d spent a week there we still wouldn’t have been able to take it all in.

The following day, still sans bike parts, we decided to head into the city and visit the Civil Rights Institute.  In the 1950’s and 60’s Birmingham was the centre of the civil rights movement, led by Fred Shuttlesworth and later Martin Luther King Jr. It was also the location of the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church which killed four young girls. With the current troubles in the southern US at the forefront of the world’s media, we decided to go and learn about the history of race relations for ourselves. Some years ago, whilst travelling in Poland, I visited Auschwitz. I went there mostly because I was nearby and it seemed only right to go. Some events in history are so much a part of the things you are taught about at school that I felt I knew the story before I went there. In reality though, nothing prepares you for the horror of the place. When booking the Auschwitz tour the agent suggested to us quite strongly that we didn’t arrange to do anything else that day. Not really understanding why they’d said this, we went first to Auschwitz and then on to the Birkenau concentration camp. We were taken on a tour of both by a Romanian lady, the granddaughter of a survivor. I have never been anywhere before or since that affected me as much. If you haven’t been there I can’t explain how it feels to stand at the end of those train tracks in such a quiet and eerily beautiful place and contemplate just what happened there. As our guide put it ‘People come here to try and comprehend the incomprehensible’. Walking through the Civil Rights Institute was the closest I’ve come to feeling that way again.

 The Institute stands right next to the 16th Street Baptist Church and opposite Kelly Ingram Park where many protests and rallies were held and is now home to memorials to Martin Luther King Jr as well as the four young girls who died only yards away. The latter reminded me of the poignant Holocaust Memorial in Washington Park, Portland, Oregon. We toured the Institute, as it happened at the same time as a group of new Police Academy recruits, an equally mixed group of both black and white officers. Again, it was a place that filled in so much more of a story I thought I already knew and filled me with a sense of great sadness that in a lot of places we have made so little progress, arguably even taken backwards steps in our way of thinking. It’s incredibly sad that in this day and age we still have the levels of racism and bigotry that we do. With the scary prospect of Trump becoming the next US President, the shock win of the Leave campaign in the recent EU Referendum vote in the UK and the worrying rise of Nationalism in several other European countries, you really do have to wonder what is happening to humanity.

Finally, our parts arrived and after a morning spent fitting them and putting the bikes back together again, we packed up our things and headed on down the road. We’d debated a fair bit about where we would head next. We talked about heading up to Nashville, but decided eventually that we’d take the advice of many people we’d spoken to who pointed us in the direction of the famous motorbike roads on the Georgia/Tennessee/North Caroline border. This meant we pointed ourselves in the direction of Atlanta and Tentspace host #6, Josh, who lived a little to the south of the city. It was a brief stop here, we arrived in the evening and set off the following day, but not before sharing a lovely evening with Josh and his family which included a great dinner of freshly caught red fish cooked by his dad and some local craft beers on the porch.

For some unknown reason during the ride to Atlanta, Evan’s front tyre went from acceptable to critically worn and fitting the new tyre that Evan had decided not to fit in Birmingham, but had instead carried, became top priority. Josh had kindly drawn us a map and called around to find somewhere that could change it and we were on our way into the city to meet his friend who could do this for us. Unfortunately during what proved to be a disastrous morning we first lost the map and thus the address we were heading for, as google maps at the same time decided to delete the little gold star we’d dropped to save the place we were heading for. With no idea where we were heading, no internet connection and a tyre that was starting to feel increasingly unsafe, we went from garage to garage until we finally found someone who could change it. Thinking our problems were over, the tyre then wouldn’t seal to the rim and we lost more time while the guy at the bike shop went about solving the problem. With our hopes of making it to Asheville that night, as well as taking in all the roads we wanted to ride well and truly out of the question, we decided that heading in the right direction was the sensible choice and that we’d stop when we decided we’d had enough. As it happened we reached that point right as we were about to pass Two Wheels of Suches, a motorcycle lodge and campground a couple of hours north of the city.

We’d originally heard about Two Wheels from some people we met in Nicaragua and it was one of those many coincidences that we just so happened to ride right past it. Despite the cost of camping and two BBQ brisket dinners, we decided to suck up the cost and set up camp before sitting down to chat with the multitude of other bikers hanging around the lodge. Most were fairly local, a few had made the trip from neighbouring states in order to ride the famous twisties in the area. There was a KLR rally there that weekend which prompted a discussion on what the collective name for a group of KLR’s should be. We settled on a ‘doohickey’ of KLR’s as the only logical choice. It was a mixed crowd and a pleasant enough evening, but one night was enough and after some clutch adjustments on my bike and a good night’s sleep we set off for Deals Gap to see what the all the fuss was about.

We’d received mixed reviews about the Tail of the Dragon, a section of mountain pass on highway 129 that consists of 318 curves over 11 miles. Everyone seemed to agree that you should probably ride it once, but that really it’s overhyped and there are much better roads in the area. Having ridden it in both directions, the return journey in the rain, I’d have to say I agree. Yes, it’s a twisty road. I’ve talked before of my feelings about twisties, but that aside, this particular road is extremely touristy. Unfortunately we were there on a Saturday too so it was also packed. You can’t ride fast on this road, you can barely even ride it without sitting nose to tail with other bikes and sports cars, but I guess people were right, it would have been a shame not to do it while we were there. I guess too that the whole point of the Dragon is the bends rather than anything you’re passing, so it was fun to do it in that context.

After a coffee and a warm up out of the rain, we headed on towards Asheville via the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On our way to the Tail of the Dragon we’d ridden the Cherohala Skyway and coupled with these two roads I had to agree that all were much more interesting. The scenery was stunning, the roads periodically bursting out into clearings that revealed breathtaking vistas.  Our destination that night was the home of Tim, Tentspace host #7, in Asheville, albeit a day late. Tim was a retired police officer and like one of our previous hosts was about to set off on his own adventure, but this time heading north, eventually up to Alaska. He was leaving the following day on his WR250R so we’d caught him just in time. We talked about Canada over a catfish dinner at a local diner and continued talking around the fire later that night. I’m envious that Tim is still enjoying his adventure as we speak and is writing a great ride report on ADV.

Upon leaving Tim’s place we went in search of another road we’d been told to check out, highway 209, affectionately known as the ‘Rattler’. Seeing an opportunity to draw in riders from the Dragon, the Rattler is a 36 mile stretch of road through the Pisgah National Forest with tight twists and turns and substantial elevation changes and a slightly more modest 230ish curves. We took it easy as it was raining, the road was wet with gravel washed across the corners and we were in no real hurry as we made our way towards the outskirts of Charlotte, NC to spend a lovely evening with Evan’s godparents.

Whilst we’d had no real plans to hit the major cities on our way back, after some discussion we agreed that it’d be a shame not to visit Washington, DC and New York as they were almost on our route and so over the next couple of nights we made our way towards DC. We stayed in Seven Springs, NC at a camp ground belonging to Tentspace host #8, Ken. Unfortunately we didn’t get to actually meet him as we’d popped into town for food when he stopped by the say hello, but his friend and site foreman Danny was a top guy and helped us move our tent under the cover of a large open-sided roofed area as a heavy storm was forecast.  It was just as well that we did because that night the heavens opened and the thunder and lightning put on an incredible show. As we were under cover we didn’t use the rain fly and lay there watching everything through the mesh of our inner tent. The following day we made our way along the Outer Banks through the famous Kitty Hawk, site of the Wright Brothers historic first powered flights, and explored Duck and Kill Devil Hills before crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Cape Charles and staying the night with Tentspace hosts #9, Dave and Colleen in Virginia. Thanks to a last minute change in their daughter's plans, we were treated to the luxury of a comfy bed and a hot shower, along with a fantastic steak dinner. We talked late into the evening about the pros and cons of packing up and leaving on an open-ended trip, despite everyone having to be up early the following morning for work. 

It was at this point that our Tentspace luck ran out. Whilst in Cape Charles we sent messages to everyone within spitting distance of DC, but rather oddly we received no replies. We sent a few more to people a little further out and received a couple of replies from people who apologetically informed us that they were away of could not host that night. That day we hopped from McDonalds to McDonalds, drinking coffee, using the free wifi and drying out as we headed north through Virginia and into Maryland. Just as we were about to begin the impossible task of finding a cheap motel for the night the stars finally aligned in the most wonderful way. The previous day I had asked my lovely friend Ruya, being a former DC resident, if she knew anyone who’d be up for hosting a couple of itinerant bikers and she had posted a very lovely message on facebook imploring her friends in the area to come to our aid. And that was how we ended up at the home of Russ, a friend of a friend of a friend who happened to have an empty basement apartment in Hyattsville, MA that he was happy to loan us.

Russ fitted what was becoming a bit of a theme with our American hosts in that he was soon to be on the move. Not in this case off on an adventure though, but from the place he was living into a geodesic dome house he had just bought a few miles away. This meant his current house was up for sale, his lodger had moved out and hence he had a room to offer us for a few nights. Staying with Russ felt like stopping in to visit an old friend, despite the fact we’d never met. He cooked us breakfast and dinner and gave us a ton of advice on what to see in the city. It was the Smithsonian Institute and the numerous memorials that had drawn us to DC in the first place and so we spent the following days touring the city, mostly on foot. 

We visited the Air and Space Museum (surprisingly disappointing), the Natural History Museum (even more disappointing and so packed full of bratty school kids we could barely move) and the Museum of American History (much more interesting). It’s rare to find museums in North America that are free to enter and in hindsight I’d have been happy to pay a small fee if it had meant that they weren’t full of people who were less interested in seeing what was inside and more so sheltering from the rain. To make matters worse there’s strict security screening at the door so the queues were horrendous.

One of the things I wanted to see most was the Lincoln Memorial. No, not because of the scene in Forrest Gump, but because of the famous MLK speech that took place there, something that had been on my mind a lot since leaving Alabama. The memorials were mostly very well done, but they still lacked something. We struggled to put our finger on exactly what it was.

Washington, DC is the capital of the USA and the administrative centre of arguably the most powerful nation on earth. Therefore we were surprised to find that it lacked much substance. Sure, there was the White House and the Capitol building. There were the dozen or so memorials to various events and former presidents and of course the numerous museums, but few really moved or inspired us. The city was sterile and matter of fact, as if it had been created purely with tourists and school groups in mind. We talked about this a lot and we agreed that if we had to sum up DC in one word it’d be ‘meh’.

There were a couple of places though that were worth braving the rain for. The first was the WONDER exhibition at the Renwick Gallery. Art was a big thing on this trip for me, mostly street art, but this exhibition was a highlight of our time in DC for me. A small gallery just around the corner from the White House and a branch of the Smithsonian, we were just in time to catch the WONDER exhibition, something Russ suggested we should do. The exhibit consisted of the work of nine different artists and the write up stated that the works were created with the intent to ‘startle us, overwhelm us and to invite us to marvel – to wonder – at their creation’. They certainly did this. A hollow tree created by John Grade from lots of tiny blocks of wood suspended from wires so it floated in mid-air, touching nothing. A shocking pink room, its walls covered in thousands of exotic bugs pinned in patterns and creating pictures of skulls by Jennifer Angus. Patrick Dougherty’s woven bird nest like structures on a human-sized scale. And then there was Gabriel Dawe’s rainbow made of very fine threads, a real life light refraction you could reach out and touch. Well, not really…but it didn’t stop an inquisitive toddler from repeatedly trying to and his obnoxious parents from finding this cute and amusing, much to the security guards dismay.

On our last day in the city we wanted to see the place by night, so we started late to avoid early burn out. Having walked countless miles over the previous days we caught a subway train to the famous Arlington Cemetery, the final resting place of over 400,000 military personnel. Covering more than 600 acres, there are around 30 funerals held here every day. We only walked around a very small part of the site but it was overwhelming, both in terms of its atmosphere and its sheer size. It was a very peaceful place, the grounds impeccably manicured with small white headstones as far as the eye can see. It is sobering to think just how many lives have been lost in pointless wars over the years and here it was plain to see. We watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a moving ceremony attended by veterans and visitors overlooking Washington Hill with the Washington Monument in the distance. We also visited the grave of JFK and other Kennedy family members buried at Arlington.

After leaving the cemetery we headed into the city and as night fell we walked back up the National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial and around the lake past the memorials to Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson, the Vietnam War and the Korean War. We lingered a little at the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial to read the various quotes and to pause and reflect on just how little we seem to have learned as a population since his death in 1945. His quotes, carved into vast stone walls apply as much now to the issues of today as they did 70 years ago. It seems we’re not quick learners.

With our trip into its final days we would have one last city stop to make before the last push north and across the border.

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