East Coast Tour 2013 – Day 11 – Saint Augustine, Florida to Saint Petersburg, Florida

Today I would be heading to St. Petersburg to stay with my old bass player from my eponymous band I was in from 1995 to 1997. I encouraged my Mom and my sister to get on the Brick to fill out more of the family portrait series. My mom refused to climb aboard and just stood next to the bike. I think she believes I am in some way making fun of her which could not be farther from the truth. This motorcycle is important to me and and I want my family to share in that idea. I want them to sit in the same seat I’ve sat in for thousands of miles as to join them in the legacy. I didn’t give her a hard time. As you have read in previous posts, the woman has paid her dues and was probably happy to see me get on my way after all of my grouchy moods I displayed while staying with her.

Instead of taking 95 to I-4, I decided on a more scenic route and take 16 to 301 to 75 to 275. Winding through the back roads and onto 301 reminded me of the time I was dating a girl that went to University of Florida. I took a similar route many times and even drove it by motorcycle more than a few of those. I remember almost getting stuck once while on a bike my brother John pieced together from my wrecked 1980 Honda Hawk CB400T and a much uglier orange ‘78 Hawk my dad acquired as a donor bike. I was driving in the pouring rain with my ridiculously thin yellow rain suit and the bike just bogged down as if water got in the carbs. I pulled over and whacked the throttle a few time and whatever gremlin was plaguing the fuel system quickly cleared itself out and I was back on the road. This was back in ‘84 and there were no cellphones, so getting stuck out in the middle of nowhere was a much scarier experience than it is today.

I slowed my pace through the smaller towns, Green Cove, Starke, and, Waldo, all notorious for being speed traps, and noticed a sign for a place called The City Diner. The placard had had an image of the famous New York skyline complete with the twin towers. Seeing this image threw me into a state of disbelief of how much time had gone by in my life. The World Trade Center fell 12 years ago. I dated that girl in Gainesville over 30 years ago. Where did it go? How did it slip by so fast? While trying to explain the theory of relativity Albert Einstein quipped, “Put your hand on a hot stove for two seconds and it seems like two hours. Sit with a beautiful girl for two hours and it seems like two minutes. That’s relativity.” If this in fact the case, my life as of late should have been filled with nothing but joy as fast as the time seemed to pass me. I think the truth is as I age, an hour is simply a smaller piece of my entire history. For instance, when I was 4, a year was 25% of my life, but with 48 clicks on the dial, a year is merely 2.0833% of my life and that is what makes the flipping of the calendar pages appear quicker.

I pulled into a gas station to refuel and sitting at another pump was a Kawasaki Ninja ZX14, one of the fastest production bikes on the planet. The Brick is 75 horsepower, roughly the same as my old Ducati 900SS SP. The Ninja on the other hand is 200 horses, nearly 3 times the power of my old BMW. Who would ever need that much power? But then I reminded myself of last year’s cross country trip where I spent many hours yearning for more acceleration. Speed is a funny drug. I noticed when I dropped from 80 miles per hour to 55, the slower speed was like trudging through mud. Once I acclimated to the the higher speed, I craved more as I am sure many motorcyclists do. Please note I am not an unsafe rider. I do not wheelie through traffic or do stunts. I don’t tailgate and when other cars are around I make sure I am driving within the rules of the road. But when on a desolate stretch of straight road, the temptation is too great to resist. The throttle must be twisted.

The drive went but quickly and I made it safely to St. Pete, Fl. I neared the home of Martin Rice, my old bass player from my eponymous band – Joe Popp. We started the band in 1995 after I left my other group of 4 ½ years, dogs on ice. I wanted more commitment from my counterparts and Martin and his former bandmate Jeff Wood (R.I.P. 2007) stepped in to complete the new power trio. Our rise to local success was blindingly rapid. One of our first gigs was opening for the Toadies at an outdoor venue in St. Pete, Florida dubbed Janus Landing. The gig went incredibly even though we only knew 8 songs. Nobody knew we were local boys and the 50 T-shirts Martin had printed up all sold out. I remember the feeling I had that night. I had this great band behind me and our first gig was to a crowd of 1200 and we nailed it. I felt hope. This was my time.

The band went on to record 2 CDs and we did tons of gigs. We opened for punk groups like Mike Watt, and Seaweed, but also more rock based acts like Cheap Trick and Joan Jett. We played SXSW in Austin and did a TV commercial for Fox Baseball. We won regional awards and packed out clubs. We seemed destined to be signed to a record label and even had a manager in place. The band also performed American Stage’s outdoor Shakespeare production where we served as not only the band, but the witches in the play Macbeth. I composed all of the the original music for the production. It ran just past a month and over 20,000 people attended. But all was not well in paradise. I let a bad review of Macbeth hit me too hard. I was drinking more and letting myself get out of shape. My depression was getting the best of me. The live music scene was also changing. Our live gigs were not being as well attended as they once were because of the rise of D.J.s, raves, and foam parties. I was 32 years of age and I wanted out. I was weary, and playing wasn’t fun anymore. I quit the band in June of 1997 just a few months after our two year anniversary. Martin had just scored us dates on the Florida Van’s Warped Tour dates and we bailed on those. Those shows could have been a turning point and I simply walked away.

I often think about what would have happened if I stuck it out with that band. I reflect on life and realize that I’ve quit too early too many times.  I’ve left bands, theater productions, relationships, animals, and, friends, when things got tough. Do I fear my own success? Do I crave a path of least resistance? I shook these thoughts out of my head as I turned into Martin’s driveway.

I rumbled in and Martin’s family greeted me outside. He has an awesome wife Melanie, two boys, Cannon and Conrad, and two dogs, Jasmine and Todd (having recently lost his longtime dog Woody). I was happy to see him. Martin and I remained friends over the years after I left the band, and even after I moved to New York. The guy is a work machine. I remember back in the band days he would crank out posters, flyers, and album art at a staggering pace. He also showed up to practice on time and played the bass with all of his heart. He had good gear and took care of it. He loved to have fun and whenever we travelled with the band he always pulled some kind of shenanigans. I remember one time he hotwired a disconnected hot tub at our hotel so we could have a soak after a long drive from a gig. He climbed up a pole of a tent we were playing at our SXSW performance. He knocked over the master of ceremonies with the headstock of his bass at the 1995 Florida Jammy Awards when the emcee tried to cut us off after only one playing song. He’s that kind of guy – fun, intense, serious, and a huge heart.

I talked with his family for a while and then we headed out to a Greek place on Central Avenue called Acropolis. The food was great and the staff performed the traditional dances and plate smashing. I thought the latter was wasteful, but I reminded myself I have smashed a few guitars in my years so I’m not one to try and limit entertaining destruction. After dinner, Martin and I ventured over to a Hugh T. Williams’ house for a few beers. Hugh is a drummer and a talented folk artist. We never played together, but our respective bands shared a few stages. We all talked of the old band days gone by and about the various characters of the the mid to late 90’s Tampa/St.Pete music scene. I lived in Tampa for 10 years and I played live music in some form the whole time I was there. The area is where I cut my teeth as an artist and it will always be special to me. Travis, another scenester from back in the day rolled up and hopped right into the conversation. I love the phenomenon that occurs among old friends of “picking up where you left off.” I’m repeatedly surprised by this clichéd statement but it holds water. After only a few minutes, we were all joking and ribbing each other like it was 1995. We laughed like only old friends could laugh. The night grew long and my eyes heavy, so we said our goodbyes and vowed to meet again sooner – a lie told by friends as they are parting. Martin and I drove home with a few more chuckles along the way.

Martin’s guest room where I spent many a night on my visits to St. Pete was now occupied by his little dudes, so I camped out on the couch which is bigger in size than my entire NYC apartment. Todd, a Jack Russell mix, and Jasmine, a St. Bernard, settled down around me. I felt comforted by their presence. I believe those dogs sensed the melancholy waves that ran through my brain as I drifted off to sleep. I left for NYC in 2000 with dreams of writing the greatest American rock musical. Although I had a great time during my years in Tampa Bay, few artifacts remain that could ever draw me back – but a great lifelong friend like Martin is certainly one.

St. Aug to St. Pete

218 Miles – St. Augustine, FL to Saint Petersburg, FL

 

 

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East Coast Tour 2013 – Day 10 – Saint Augustine, Florida

I rose the the scent of belgian waffles that my dad was cooking up. He bought one of those flipping waffle irons after seeing one at a hotel and just had to have the gadget. He has developed his technique so the waffles are perfect every time. I get a kick out of my families quirks. We are an interesting bunch.

I goofed around the house and watched loads of television. I plunked on one of my dad’s guitars. He adopts any kind of musical instrument and over the years has collected a rough menagerie of orphans. He can play a variety of instruments in a rudimentary fashion. “Apple meet tree,” I thought to myself.

My parents and I went to a bar for lunch called the Hurricane Grill and Wings. I of course got some hot wings and a beer. I was in a better mood today and was more my usual self – cracking jokes and being a wise guy. My parents have been living in this area for a long time and I have seen it develop from zero stores and restaurants to the wide and plentiful offering the strip of CR210 has to offer. The once 2 lane road is now 4 lanes wide and subdivisions have popped up like mushrooms overnight. Where does the time go? Why does time move faster as we age? These are the questions I ponder while eating wings in a strip mall.

Back at home, I had my dad sing to me accompanied by his own player piano. He loved singing so much with my brother’s player piano that he got his own. He scored it for $100 knowing that John could fix it for him and of course he did. He has a nice collection of scrolls – the punched our paper rolls that a player piano uses. My dad has the most beautiful Irish tenor voice even though he looks like he is straight out of Goodfellas. He got his looks from his Italian mother as opposed to his German father.

My father walked me around the house showing me his latest model airplane builds. He does detailed work and even wires electric motors he scavenges from discarded Swiffer WetJet mops to spin the props. He is a crafty guy and I am lucky to have learned so much from him. He showed me his small watch repair work bench. I noticed similar tools to the ones that adorn my own bench. Watch bodies and movements in various states of repair were carefully laid out and prepared for surgery. My dad’s personality is similar to many men of his era. He is stoic and with a work ethic of a miner. His entire life, like my mom’s was about giving to the family. He worked hard to keep a roof over our heads. One time he traded a set of side pipes from his muffler shop to get me my first electric guitar. When my cheapo amp blew up he took me to Music City in Jacksonville and instead of getting me a used replacement, he plunked down over $250 to get me a brand new Peavey Classic VTX 212. It was my first real amp and it was super loud. That was a lot of money back then, but he saw my love for music and wanted that to blossom.

I remember watching my father looking over some sailboat plans he had hidden in a drawer. He had a dream to build a sailboat although he never really talked about the idea much. I am sure after pulling out those plans a few times, he arrived at the fact that he would never have either the time or the money. There was always a new baseball mitt, a dollhouse, or guitar amp to purchase to fulfill the dreams of one of his children. He made sacrifices I know I could never make, and although he is a quiet man and emotionally guarded, his actions scream what a great man and inspiration he has been to me.

After dinner I threw a post up on Facebook to see if any old Jacksonville friends wanted to meet up at one of my old haunts called Sherwood’s. It is a divey but very cool place in the San Marco section of town. Three of my old friends showed up, Natalie, Chip, and Doug. We had a great time discussing high school antics and former teachers. Natalie and Chip left after a while, but the closest of these old friends, Doug, stayed for a bit longer. We used to hang out all the time in high school and even shared a locker our senior year. We attended rock concerts and local shows. He introduced me to live punk music and we even took a few road trips to see some great bands. I have not sat with him face-to-face in over 30 years but we picked right up where we left off, ribbing each other and telling stupid stories.

I left Jacksonville in 1990 to move to Tampa and in doing so I left a lot of good friends behind. There was no internet then so when I moved a few postcards and phone calls dwindled to no contact with any of these people. Through Facebook, I have developed an online rekindling of many of these friends, but out of my 35 or so online “friends” from Jacksonville only 3 showed up to see me. I guess that’s the greatest thing about Facebook, to be somebody’s friend the only effort ever required is a simple click.

I headed home to St. Aug and crawled into my bunk. Memories of my days in Jacksonville flooded my head. I felt  stifled here when I was young because of the conservative Southern attitude, but I made the best of what I had. I found like minded friends. I played in bands and worked in a music store. I learned my craft here, and I was loved and supported my many. I often curse growing up in Jacksonville, but looking back at my 13 years here, I realize it wasn’t so bad after all. Life is what you make it. You can’t blame a place for your lack of happiness. And as a wise person once said, “No matter where you go, there you are…”

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East Coast Tour 2013 – Day 9 – Saint Augustine, Florida

I woke up early to a familiar sight, my dad doing the crossword puzzle. But today the sight had a different meaning to me. This was the first time I saw my dad in the morning not preparing to go to work. He finally retired from his part time job at a pharmacy. I often thought my father would work until he died, after all, he knew no other way, working since he was a young boy. But over the years he has picked up some cool hobbies that fill his time. He has been an active member in his Triumph car club for years, but he also dabbles in model airplane construction, odd musical instrument restoration, and most recently, repairing watches. He has an inquisitive mind and DVRs Jeopardy! as to never miss an episode – an opportunity to increase his knowledge of the world.

I ate some breakfast and practiced the two sets of songs I was going to play at gig I booked at the New World Brewery in Tampa in two days time. While I practiced my Mom interrupted and said I sounded great. Like yesterday, I snapped at her. The poor woman just wanted to hear me play and my anxiety got the best of me. What a jerk I’ve become. My bitterness and living alone has festered into an inability to relax and interact with people. I have moments where I am socially awesome, but then I will slip and snap and negate the good will I have spread. I realized in this terrible moment that I could use some professional help. In the past, therapy has helped me a great deal. My elephant like memory churns on events long after others have fogotten them – saying I have a problem letting go would be a gross understatement.

After I finished practicing I tried to explain my feelings to my mother. She was obviously hurt. I am sure she wondered what happened to the carefree funny son that used to stuff an entire dinner roll in his face to make his brothers and sisters laugh. That guy wasn’t visiting this trip. I apologized and tried to perk up a little. I think she appreciated the effort but she can read my feelings like no one else. Sometimes when I call and I say “Hello,” she responds with, “What’s the matter?” She can immediately tell from my voice that I am in pain or something is wrong. I vowed to try to be nicer for the rest of my stay. I’m not sure I pulled that off.

I sat on the couch and turned on the Indianapolis MotoGP race. My mood picked up a little as my dad was watching it with me and he was stunned to see the 60 degree lean angle the bikes get nowadays when turning. I thought about a year ago. I was at Indy watching the GP for the first time in person. I was also lucky enough to take a track lap. My trip this year was a much simpler less adventurous one, but important in the fact that instead of running away, I was trying to reconnect with the family and friends I truly love. Granted I failed somewhat with my moodiness, but I tried. My mom cooked up some awesome brats and I considered this an offer of forgivness. She is such an understanding person and realizes that people have troubles. She’s the best mom ever.

By some odd coincidence, my best friend Tylor’s parents also live in Saint Augustine and he and his family happened to be visiting them. They invited me over for dinner and I thought it might be nice to give my family a break from crankiness. I arrived and was greeted with hugs and kisses from everybody. Tamara his wife has cooked for me too many times to count when I lived in the same building, and I was lucky to witness their son Oscar grow up from a baby boy. Tylor’s parents Bill and Bea and the greatest. They love rock music and still go to shows. Tylor was actually in Bea’s womb at a Who concert so Keith Moon’s zany drumming is imprinted on his spirit. Tylor’s parents always make a point to see me when they visit NYC are they are ridiculously generous by picking up checks and buying rounds of drinks. Bill had the grill of full tilt boogie and cooked a mound of steaks, hamburgers and hot dogs that we chowed on for dinner.  We blabbed about fun times and memories as Oscar drew pictures of battleships and airplanes. They are part of my extended family and treat me accordingly.

After a great deal of laughs and smiles I headed for home. The night was warm and beautiful and the moon was a sliver shy of being full. I thought back to my first brand new street bike that I got in the summer of 1982. She was a gorgeous 1980 Honda Hawk CB400T showroom floor leftover that my dad financed for me for $1600. I loved that bike so much I practically waxed the paint off of it during down times at my Dad’s muffler shop where I worked. I put on drag bars and a bikini fairing and it just looked amazing. I would drive around nights like tonight going absolutely nowhere.  I would sneak my girlfriend Rebecca out of her house and we would ride around Jacksonville pulling over for a make out session. I was on top of the world when I had that bike. I was cool. The let down was that after a few months of ownership, I was hit head on by a car and the bike was totaled. I spent three days in the hospital with a concussion. The time when my life felt most perfect was shattered. I eventually got other bikes, but nothing matched the soul filling joy I felt when I was on the black Honda with the orange stripes, tearing around Jacksonville dragging from stoplight to stoplight. I need nothing else.

My low gas warning light flickered on as to snap me out of my time travel moment. I pulled into a neon fluorescent tourist trap on CR 210 and fueled my bike as dried gator heads perched on mountains of sea shells stared at me. “What a wacky state I grew up in…” I thought to myself. With the Brick’s thirst quenched, we headed the last couple of miles home, the night still wrapping me in her warm summer arms. I felt good riding on such a great night. I felt good riding on a similar night 31 years ago. Note to self: “Keep riding.”

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East Coast Tour 2013 – Day 8 – Jacksonville, FL to Saint Augustine, FL

I woke up and John and I tackled the MIDI piano controller circuit board again. This time we hooked the interface to his PC and found a public domain MIDI player. We loaded a file and eureka! The solenoid flapped the metal strip covering the air hole up and down. I am lucky to have a brother like John who never gives up when trying to figure out a problem. He has taught me skills that have turned into a career for me. He once jokingly gave me the advice, “Touch your soldering iron every day.” I think about this and laugh when I flip on my workbench light and see my Weller WSD81 ready to be put to use.

The player piano that John is modifying has been in his life a long time. He bought on the cheap and restored it to pristine condition. John’s daughter Liz loves music, especially the piano. She is autistic and has trouble communicating with people. Music is a beautiful conduit for her soul. I often sit with her at the piano and play a few chords that Liz will improvise over by playing only the black keys. Today was now exception. We sat at the piano and jammed for a while. Liz has a hard time expressing herself, but when she plays music I see her face change. Her frustrations relax and for a moment, the confusion and noise of the world seem to go silent. Music has this effect on me as well. What I can’t say with words I am able to communicate with my notes ands lyrics. Playing my guitar brings me a similar calm that riding the Brick does.

The time had come to roll towards my parents house.  I made John’s entire family get on my motorcycle for the Flying Brick family album, and we all hugged as I clipped on my saddle bags and mounted up. The journey to St. Augustine was just a short 30 mile jog, but I would be stopping at the St. Johns Town Center to get my iPhone replaced. I always have a moment of sadness whenever I leave the house of friends or family. My pulling away marks the end of a reunion. I remind myself that I have created memories and life is but a fabric constructed of these memories stitched together. The garments of my memories and experiences would fill the closets of kings. I have lived a charmed life.

I arrived at the mall and the design struck me as very odd. The stores are all separate and connected by sidewalks. This provides a level of outdoor beauty, but to a cramped New Yorker, it’s nothing but space abuse. I fear my mind has been bent into thinking that a claustrophobic environment is normal, but reflecting on my youth, I’ve always enjoyed small places. I liked camping out in my closet and enjoyed the idea of being a crew member on a submarine or space capsule.  The other flaw of this mall design is that Florida is beyond hot.  So walking from the heat to the cold and back again is ill conceived at best.

After a tough time finding a parking space I located the Apple store and was in and out in under 15 minutes. They simply replaced my phone. I created a backup of all my data on my computer before the swap and all I needed to do was restore it to the new phone. Simple and painless.

I hopped back on the Brick and drove to my parents house where my sister Catherine also lives. My mom Louise and my dad Jerry hugged me and smiled wide. I made a sandwich and sat on the couch. My mom doted on me to the point where I snapped at her. I was in bad mood thinking about Tampa where the last time I visited in 2012 I tried and failed to reconcile with my now ex-fiance. We split over a year ago, but she is already married to her lifelong pen pal who visited her during our hard times. I know we weren’t right for each other and the split was for the best, but what caused me great pain was that the relationship was my last attempt to start a family with a child of my own. We had a long distance relationship between New York and Tampa and she was going to relocate to the Big Apple where we would marry. The long distance proved to be too much and my battle with depression combined with jealousy caused me to pull away. I believe she didn’t want to relocate, and she pushed my buttons to cause us to self-destruct. Perhaps that’s just my myopic spin on the whole mess, but for whatever reason it ended hurtfully.

No matter what my mood or feelings, there is no justification for getting upset with my mother. The woman dedicated her life to our family. We were five kids and she tirelessly took us to our baseball games, brownie meetings, cub scout meetings, twirling classes, doctors, and dentists. Through all of this mayhem, she also found time to take us to museums, movies, plays, and zoos, providing us a strong sense of the arts and culture. She has given more of herself than anybody I have ever met in my life. She raised our family and then when times got tough for my sister, she let her move in with her 4 children and took care of them while my sister’s family fought to get back on their feet. When my sister’s kids had similar rocky patches, she also took them into the Popp home. She even took care of a great grandchild until her knee gave out and she needed surgery. My mom is a woman of faith and that faith has guided her to give her entire life to others. I am lucky and humbled to have her in my life. If there is a heaven, she’s got a glass of wine, a paperback novel, and a big comfy chair waiting.

My stoic father also gave so much to our family. He worked 60 plus hours a week to keep a roof over our heads. He found a way to get us each a used car as we came of driving age so we could get jobs. He instilled in me a work ethic that few people know. By the age of 15, I too was working 60 hours a week in his muffler shop during the summer. His love of cars, motorcycles, and music courses through me and I realize now late in my life that I am truly my father’s son. He has handed down skills and a fearlessness of taking things apart that I cherish to this day. Like my brother’s gifts, without his teachings, I would probably be unemployed.

I was feeling down and I took that feeling out on these great people. I sat on the couch like a vegetable watching The Godfather as I guzzled beer to numb the sad memories that seemed to haunt me. My parents said little after I snapped, thinking better to leave me to my own devices. My sister Catherine who lives with my parents asked me for a hug which I gave her. Catherine too has been a great source of support and inspiration in my life. When I lost my first talent show in 7th grade she made me a construction paper medal inscribed with a magic marker that read, “World’s Greatest Brother.” The disco act she was in got a second place in the show which she didn’t even care about. Her only worry was taking care of me and making sure I felt better about my loss because she knew how much it meant to me. I was supposed to be a rock star.

Being rude and distant from these great people made me feel like an idiot. I dragged off to bed and plopped onto the bottom of the two bunk beds. I called my girlfriend Nicole and we talked for two hours. She was my new hope, an old flame from my past and the mother of two really great kids. I told her of my errors with my mom and she comforted me as best she could from her home in New Jersey.

As I hung up my thoughts raced as I stared up at the slats in the upper bunk. Am I a fool again? Am I  going into another relationship thinking that it could work? Was it me? Was it them? I had tried to date a few old flames before and something always went wrong. I put these doubts aside and focused on the positive. She makes me happy. Her kids give me great joy. As my eyelids turned to lead, I accepted that I have her happiness and joy today, and that the ghosts of the past are merely sheets that need to be shredded.

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37.8 Miles – Jacksonville, FL to Saint Augustine, FL

 

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East Coast Tour 2013 – Day 7 – Jacksonville, Florida

I slept hard after yesterday’s weather beating and awoke to John’s son Michael clunking around in the kitchen. He slid a cup of coffee in front of me and continued cooking up a breakfast of donuts and assorted meats. Michael is such a hard worker. He has his own lawn care company and like his father, he always has at least a few projects in the works. He builds gadgets and tinkers constantly with electronics and engines. The saying,”The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” applies here in full force.

Post breakfast, John and I tackled the project of connecting his computer to a circuit board that he ordered to MIDI-ize his player piano. I enjoyed seeing both of our areas of expertise converge. I have used MIDI since 1983 so I was familiar with the interface, the files, and the computer side of things. John knew about the electronic side and how the circuit board needed to trigger his solenoids. We couldn’t get the triggers working but didn’t fiddle with the system for too long as we had a boat trip planned. With John, there is never an urgency about figuring something out. He knows he will eventually get to the solution, but sometimes breaks are needed to let the brain churn on the information already gathered.

John and I hitched up the boat and drove to Daily’s gas station to gas up and get some beer. We also picked up a Italian sub sandwich from Larry’s Giant Subs which is a chain but still a great sandwich. We arrived at the boat ramp and John carefully backed the boat down into the water. He admitted being self-conscious about doing this task since he doesn’t unload the boat much. I said, “Who gives a crap? We don’t know any of these people!” We got the boat launched and we were soon on our way.

We pulled away from the dock. John hit the throttle and the boat seemed to bog down. He hadn’t had her out in a while, and he thought there might be a problem with the motor as we drifted to a stop. He tilted up the engine and the problem was easily diagnosed. The prop had picked up a pair of pants! Good old-fashioned blue jeans were trying to prevent us from our time on the water. We both laughed for a while and I threatened to keep the pants and actually wear them.

With the Levi’s brake released, we made our way along the St. John’s river. I recalled when I used to sail in these waters with an old friend John Bush. We were the two new kids at San Jose Catholic and both got picked on and teased accordingly. He was pretty wealthy as his dad owned the Toyota dealership and he was somewhat socially awkward. As outcasts we became friends and would sail the St. John’s in his Sunfish sailboat and later a Hobie Cat. My youth is Jacksonville was a troubled one. I had a violent streak and got into a lot of fights. I was also becoming aware of the difference in class status as I would go to fellow classmates parties. The city itself never realized the potential our family dreamed of when we moved here in 1977. “The Bold New City of the South” was the motto to lure new professionals to the area, but visiting some 37 years later not much has changed. There are empty store fronts and once promising structures have fallen into disrepair.

Each landmark we floated by triggered a memory. Passing the Gator Bowl, I remembered seeing the Jacksonville Tea Men play and dreaming of being a soccer star. I also recalled the time the city was courting the Baltimore Colts and my mom brought us to the stadium for “Colt Fever.” We rolled by the Jacksonville Landing, a horseshoe shaped mall with a large public performance area where I played a great show with my band Ant Farm. We passed the Riverwalk, a now dilapidated boardwalk with many closed businesses where I was hassled by a cop for playing my guitar late one night. The cop said I wasn’t allowed to play. I told him there was no one around for miles and I wasn’t busking. He said he would arrest me if I didn’t pack up. I packed up alright and moved away to Tampa shortly after in October of 1990. I often wonder what my musical career path would be like if my family remained in Northern New Jersey. Would I have made it big by playing the clubs of NYC? There are no control groups in life, we simply make the best of what we have or make a change. When that cop harassed me I knew it was time for a change.

We covered a great deal of the river in John’s beautifully restored boat but the rains started to roll towards us. We took cover along a pillar of the Acosta Bridge and lashed the boat. We watched the torrential rain move along the river and I reflected on the melancholy tone of the city where I spent 13 formative years. I had some sad times here, but I also had some great ones. Hanging  out with my brother on this boat trip added to the great pile.

The rain quickly let up and we turned for home. We got the boat up on the trailer without much ado and returned to John’s house to get cleaned up for dinner. We gathered the family and went to a great seafood place called Trent’s and everything was plentiful, delicious, and cheap. I had a huge plate of lobster and crab legs and washed it down with loads of light beer. We talked about our journey with the pants clogging the engine and the rain, and everybody had a great laugh. The meal was a fitting end to a full day.

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East Coast Tour 2013 – Day 6 – Woodstock, GA to Jacksonville, FL

I am an early riser, even when on vacation. Maybe it’s a combination of being excited to ride and high anxiety. I was up at 8 a.m. My brother Tom’s wife Georgia cooked up a huge breakfast of french toast and sausage. And when I say sausage, I mean like 3 pounds of it. Everything was delicious. Georgia’s parents are Greek and she grew up working in their restaurant, so hospitality and cooking skills are in her blood. I am amazed by the influence parents can have on their children. I worked in my dad’s muffler shop as a boy, and no matter how much I denied wanting to be a mechanic, I have somehow returned to those roots by performing my own repairs and maintenance on my motorcycle. In many motorcyclist’s eyes, half of the beauty of owning a bike is maintaining it. There is a satisfaction to knowing that you did the work and it was done correctly. I know my drain plug is torqued to factory specifications because I had the torque wrench in my hands on the drain plug and I heard the wrench click when reaching the appropriate amount of foot pounds. That is the satisfaction and it is described wonderfully in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Reading this book inspired me to own a motorcycle again after a 20 year hiatus. The book also contains intriguing philosophical points of view. It is so much more than a book about motorcycles – a certain must-read for any mid-lifer heading out on a motorcycle tour.

Since Tom is an avid fan of Formula 1 racing, we decided to pay a visit to the Andretti Indoor Karting and Games in Roswell, GA for a race. I thought the karts would be the typical underpowered hogs found at the local mini golf, but I was dead wrong. Approaching the attendant, I saw helmets in a rack and pondered, “helmets for go-karts?” The reason became apparent once we started to race. The karts are the Stratos iS Andretti Edition Superkart, custom made for Andretti and feature a Honda 8.5 horsepower 4 stroke engine. This is almost double the horsepower that was on my brother John’s kart he had as a kid. Tom and I tore off and pulled close to each other and with an announced “go!” we started racing. The karts handled unbelievably and I was shocked by the amount of g-force in the turns. When I hit the straight, I stomped the gas and I was stunned by the acceleration. Perhaps the kart seemed faster than it was because of the proximity to the ground, but my heart was pounding in my chest. We caught and passed each other a few times, clipping apexes while laughing and smiling the entire race. In the end, Tom beat my best lap by 5 tenths. A testament to the driving skill he has acquired by paying careful attention to both Grand Prix racing and simulator games.

Heading back home after the race, Tom and I both commented on how much fun we had. As boys we hung out all of the time, but as adults we live in two cities far apart. Here is this guy I used to see everyday of my life and now I see him once a year if I am lucky. While chasing my dreams I abandoned the nest of my nuclear family. I guess I could have stayed in Jacksonville and taken over my dad’s muffler shop, but the notion of pleasing one’s self forces one to sacrifice in other areas of life. I wanted to be a rock star so I followed the path that lead me that way. I was not concerned with anything else but my dream. I am certain I have made the right choice, but that doesn’t mean I am not bothered by the distance from my family. That is what this trip is all about – closing that distance.

As I pulled away from the garage, I am sure the Brick left behind a few drops of oil on Tom’s alabaster driveway. I hope that he doesn’t scrub them out but instead lets one or two remain as a monument of my visit. I zig-zagged out of the subdivision and looked back in my mirrors at Tom’s looming house. I thought back to our high school days when I would see him feverishly clacking away at his computer keyboard as I left to go to some kegger. Perhaps he didn’t have too much fun back then, but he is reaping the benefits now with a good paying career. Meanwhile I’m buried in debt with nothing to show for it but a few cool guitars and a 25-year-old motorcycle. Would I trade what I have for what he has? No way. I am sure he wouldn’t trade either. We both took the path that suited us best.

I drove for about an hour until the pang of hunger kicked in again. I was hypnotized by three big letters on a billboard that indubitably trigger a pulling over: B-B-Q. My low fuel warning light was also glowing red so this was a sure sign from the motorcycle gods to take the exit. The place is called O.B.’s BBQ and advertises a real barbecue pit right in back of the establishment. As I pulled in I got a call from my girlfriend Nicole. We chatted for a while and it was nice to know she was concerned about me. I told her about my nice stay at Tom’s and the go karts, and her laugh conveyed that I was nothing but a big kid. No argument from this mouth. She didn’t keep me long as she knew I was about to eat.

I wandered in and the decor was the typical wagon wheel affair that seems to embrace the barbecue culture. I asked the waitress what I should order and she said “ribs,” with a big smile. She brought me a half sweet/half unsweet iced tea that was the size of a 5 gallon joint compound bucket. I grew up in Jacksonville which is really like south Georgia so I am well-versed in the abundant beverage tradition. Most restaurants even ask you if you want a “to go” iced tea at no charge and hand you an enormous styrofoam cup filled to the brim with still more of the brown liquid as you leave. The south is a hot place. Folks get thirsty.

My ribs arrived along with baked beans, macaroni and cheese, and a slice of Texas toast. Everything was spot on delicious. New York City is a place where the highest quality of almost any cuisine can be obtained. I can find good barbecue, but it’s pricey and crowded. In the South there are tons plentiful cheap choices with no waiting time.

I filled my gas tank and took back to the highway. The skies were dark and the rain started to fall. I quickly found an overpass and parked the brick under the dry cover of highway. I took my iPhone out of the RAM mount and dropped it on the pavement. My worst fears were realized when I saw that the screen glass was shattered. I clicked it on and it still worked much to my relief. I use my phone as a GPS so without it I would have to resort to paper maps. Something a navigationally challenged person like myself hates to do. I put on my Dainese rain suit and got back on the rode. The downpour was nasty at times and visibility was poor but I soldiered on like a trooper. Cars whizzed by me and I am sure they were shouting, “What is this nut doing driving in the rain!?”

After a decent drenching, the rain subsided. I drove until my rainsuit dried out and took it off at a rest stop. The skies were clear and during a lapse of judgement I came to the notion that I had to break one hundred miles per hour. This is referred to by café racers as doing “the ton.” I screwed on the throttle and watched the speedometer rise past the 100 MPH mark. I didn’t stay there long for fear of either a ticket or the Grim Reaper. Maybe I am nothing but a big kid, but I’m out here living life and touring on a motorcycle and that brings me great joy.

I crossed the Florida border and onto I-10. I thought I was clear of the wet stuff, but still more rain came down as to punish me for the horrible act of breaking 100 miles per hour. I needed gas so I pulled into a touristy truck stop where I would fuel and don the wet weather gear once more. I went into the shop to use the restroom, and I saw amongst the toys for kids were pink muskets, obviously aimed at the young girl demographic. I was taken aback by this because of the recent awareness regarding guns in our culture today. As a kid I loved toy guns and I often played S.W.A.T. and Army with the neighborhood gang. I don’t remember there being mass school shootings back when I was growing up. I lamented how our society has changed. Kids are acting out their fantasies using real guns now instead of toys.

I drove on into the rain that was steady but not terrible. I was about 10 miles from my brother John’s house and I was looking forward to getting dry. I only brought one pair of shoes which were Adidas Samba Classics and they were soaked through at this point. Then it happened. The rained turned into a river from the sky. My visibility was damn near zero, but I pressed on following the taillights of the trucks in front of me. I figured this beat standing on the side of the road and being drenched further. “Okay, I swear I’ll never do 100 miles an hour again!” I shouted through my helmet, my brain soaked to the point of insanity. I finally pulled into my brother’s house with a sigh of relief.

John didn’t rush out to meet me me. He along with his son Michael, were working the kinks out of his boat motor, as he promised me ride on the river. As soaked as I was, there were the two of them racing the old engine billowing smoke in a garbage can as water splashed furiously onto Michael. I laughed so hard thinking they were as wet as me and twice as dirty.

John and I had a beer and chatted for a while and then walked with Michael to a nearby restaurant called Harpoon Louie’s that has great wings and cheap beer. There was a motorcycle game in the bar that John and Michael forced me to play. I was terrible at it ands crashed several times. Michael roared with laughter and joked about the impossibility of me traveling this far on two wheels.

With a belly full of Miller Lite and too many wings, we walked home. Upon our return, John’s wife Lauralyn had prepared a bed for me in the living room. She is a nurse by occupation and an unbelievably giving and energetic person. She is into pottery as evidenced by several kilns in the back yard, and she grows orchids in a greenhouse that John fabricated from the metal of bed frame rails and a discarded satellite dish. Her collection of plants in mind blowing. John took me out to his workshop that is stacked with projects in various states of completion. He restored a player piano many years ago and his latest idea is to modify it to be able to play MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) files from a computer. This involves making 88 tiny solenoids (one for each key) to control the airflow to each note. He wound each solenoid on a machine on his own design that counts the wire turns around the bobbins. I am forever in awe of John’s ingenuity and creative mind. Sometimes when I solve problems at work or for friends they say “Joe Popp, you are genius.” I smile and say, “Well, you’ve never met my brother John.”

After goofing around in the shop for a while, we went back inside and sat at the kitchen table. We talked past midnight. As kids John and I were not that close. I tried to follow him around because I looked up to him, but being 4 years apart he wanted to hang with his friends. Now that we are older and we have many of the same interests, we are closer than we have ever been. I don’t see him enough, but the time we do spend together is very dear to me, blabbing a technical things and gadgets. My dream is to retire to Florida and have a little shop with him that we can work on amps and old radios together. As I age I am realizing those days are not too far off.

I crawled into my makeshift bed and thought about the day. I came from far away and braved terrible weather and high winds to be with another piece of my family. The last ten miles were some of the worst I’ve ever had in the saddle. But to feel the sense of family that enveloped me as I drifted off to sleep, I wouldn’t think twice about riding the same wet trail again.

363 Miles - Woodstock, GA to Jacksonville, FL

363 Miles – Woodstock, GA to Jacksonville, FL

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East Coast Tour 2013 – Day 5 – Boone, NC to Tail of the Dragon to Woodstock, GA

I woke up early because I had a big day ahead of me. Today I would ride US 129, a road with 318 curves in 11 miles famously dubbed the Tail of the Dragon. I was anxious to roll. Ann prepared a lumberjack sized breakfast of bacon and eggs. My family all knows of my hearty appetite, so the provisions are always plentiful when I roll into town. “Joe’s coming? Get a case of beer, a package of brats and a pound of bacon.” This sounds like a joke, but I often tap deep into the surplus, especially while travelling. I live, I experience, I overindulge.

I know the price I am paying. 2 years ago I was down to 175 pounds from working out and taking care of myself. I was running the Warrior Dash and religiously hitting the gym. But since my broken engagement of 2011 something left me not caring. I started eating and drinking more leading to my current scale tipping of 210. I currently subscribe to the ideology of immediate gratification. What the hell? A truck might roll along and flatten me at any moment so I’d better be grinding on a chili dog rather than a rice cake if that is my fate. I realize I am being short sighted. Maybe this behavior is to escape, or at least bury the sadness that I haven’t been able to sustain a stable relationship. Since that breakup in 2011, my esteem has been in the trash. My present situation with Nicole is helping matters. She is certainly good for my esteem, but there are shards left behind from every broken relationship. I went from being divorced, to an old high school flame, to long distance failed engagement, all within the period of 3 years. Three relationships started and ended and here I am trying again with another old flame. Yet, I retain hope as a survival instinct. I must believe the thoughts of a brighter relationship future.

One of my auxiliary driving lights broke a wire somewhere along the way. Brian hooked me up with a soldering iron so I could make the repair. Brian does high end cabinet work, a commodity in high demand due to the amount of medium-density fiberboard that pollutes kitchens everywhere. He is a salt of the earth kind of guy and treats Ann well. He is also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and I am glad he and Ann married after her first marriage ended. They eventually found each other but it took time – 50 years in her case. Her long journey towards happiness encouraged me on mine. Patience is a practice I need to study more often. Again, thoughts of a brighter future

I had about 3 ½ hours to the Tail of the Dragon, one of the most famous motorcycle roads in the world. I had a knot in my stomach as the road is one of the most challenging I have yet to ride. I am not sure that knot was nerves or excitement because this drive will be a first, and as I age, firsts are hard to find.  The roads going in were all gorgeous pieces of tarmac. I wasn’t rushing but I was riding at a relatively sporty clip, enjoying the overhanging trees and twisting uncrowded roads. This is the zone where I think best. I never play music when I ride. I instead listen to the hypnotic hum of the road. I find this one of the most therapeutic and calming things that I do, driving through nature and thinking about life. this is the place where the noise in my brain finally halts for a few hours and I achive a clarity that people talk about finding when meditating or waiting for a set of waves to roll into shore.

My calmness was abruptly interrupted by none other than a 12-foot-tall dragon constructed out of chrome plated, repurposed motorcycle, car, and truck parts. This is the nexus of the Tail of the Dragon. I pulled into the lot of the gift shop that coraled the metal monster and parked the Brick for a moment. I wasn’t mentally ready to take on this road just yet. I clicked some photos and watched as brave knights set out on steads branded with Ducati, Yamaha, and even Harley to slay this mythical beast. They staggered their start up the hill as to not run into each other. One of the great features of the Tail is that there are no cross streets in 11 miles, meaning that no one is going to pull out in front of you from a blind side street.

I decided the time had come. A huge smile crossed my face as the Brick burbled to life. I wasn’t properly attired for true sport riding. Normally I would have full leathers and boots, but due to my light packing, I was reduced to just my Arai Helmet, Dainese riding jacket and gloves, Levi’s, and Adidas Sambas. I had to quell my inner Valentino Rossi, which was the right move since my K75C is not really an all out sport bike. I also had the ballast of my saddlebags to prevent me from any really peg scraping leans.

I waited for a window and took off up the Tail with my iPhone mounted and recording the run. I was hesitant at first but after a few turns my confidence sharpened. I was surprised to find that many of the curves were actually banked which allowed me to retain a higher rate of speed than I expected. I certainly wasn’t breaking any records, but the feeling of riding this road reinforced my belief that I am and always will be a motorcyclist. Being out in the wind at speed has no match. I continued along the Tail as my heart raced and my concentration remained at a peak. I saw photographers on the side of the road as I drove by knowing that I would get a few off bike pics, a bonus for the solo traveler. After about 25 minutes I neared the end of the Dragon and stopped at a bridge where many other bikes had also stopped. This was a serious crew, many of them wearing full one-piece racing suits and exotic bikes covered in carbon fiber. I sat on a low, graffiti covered rock wall and talekd to a guy who had a beautiful Ducati 916. We chatted about bikes old and new as we gulped water. He was older than me, well into his 50’s but his love of sport riding never decreased. He has had a stable of bikes over the years and he loved them all. He shared that he also owned a K75 once and said it was the most reliable bike he ever had.

I remounted the brick and drove the last bit of the Tail, but it was not as eventful as there was construction and traffic started to clog. I turned back and rode the twisty pavement backwards towards the start. The feeling was just as good if not better as I was getting a handle on the banked turns. I made it back to the start and pulled into the Dragon’s Den Pub right across from the metal dragon statue. As I parked the Brick, I saw a Ducati 900ss getting ready for a run. I immediately got choked up. Right after my divorce I bought a 1994 900SS SP and restored it while I was on sabbatical from my NYC college job in 2009 – 2010. I loved that bike, not only for the reason that it was my dream bike, but because after my divorce it represented freedom. My wife would never let me get a bike when we were married, so the minute our marriage ended, I did just that. I restored the Duc to near perfect condition but at the end of my sabbatical I was out of money. I put the SS up for sale hoping it wouldn’t sell until the day I needed to return to NYC, but low and behold I got an offer I could not turn down the first week the ad ran. I found out later that the buyer parted out the bike leaving no memory of my work on my dream bike.

I choked back my sadness and entered the pub. I pub is a huge place decorated with rustic pine. I ordered a pork sandwich with slaw and a Bud Light and sat watching rider after rider tear off up the Tail. The food was tasty and I felt among like minds as the room filled with motorcycle conversations all overlapping each other. Many riders come to the Tail and stay at the hotel next door to the pub. They ride the road back and forth for days trying to best yesterday’s time, as to drive their lances in deeper towards the heart of the beast. I admire their competitiveness, but this dragon is not mine to slay. I’ve done amazing things in my life and I have nothing to prove. My simple one time back and forth satiated my ever declining blood lust for speed – a glimpse of a career fork not taken as a motorcycle racer.

After my lunch I took one last look at the metal dragon guarding the road entrance and smiled to myself. An old guy like me can still get some kicks on an ancient horse. As I exited the Tail my iPhone display read “No Service.” I wasn’t worried I knew I just had to head south and eventually service would return. There is really only one way out and I took the road without worry. My phone eventually found a satellite and just as it did, Nicole called. I quickly pulled off the road and answered, her voice breaking up due to the the spotty reception. The call was a serendipitous sign that somebody was out there thinking of me even if I was physically miles from anybody I knew. The call was cut off, but the idea of hope was restored as I fired up the Brick again and took back to the road.

The drive into Woodstock was relaxing. The challenging banked twists of the Tail made normal backroads driving effortless. The weather remained perfect all the way to my brother Tom’s house. I followed the GPS into his subdivision that serves as a suburb of Atlanta. As I pulled into his driveway I was stunned by the enormous beauty of the house. This is the home of my goofy kid brother who used to mock sports commentators by making up fictitious players during our one-on-one Wiffle Ball games? He has done well for himself.

Tom was the last of the 5 children in my family. We are close in age so he followed me from school to school, trailing a couple of grades behind. We have many of the same interests such as guitar, computers, and motorsports. He got into computers early in life and received a Coleco Adam as a starter computer, a pricey gift for our modest family income. I watched Tom grow with computers. He quickly moved from model to model as the processing power fell short of his abilities. He bought an Atari 520ST, an early Macintosh competitor, and I followed suit because it had MIDI connection built in for controlling synthesizers. We used this MIDI connection to network the computers and play MIDI Maze, an early first person shooter. His knowledge of computers quickly outpaced mine and he ended up getting his degree in computer science. Through computers he followed his career path upward into report generating which is a simple way of explaining his current position with a major communications company.

Tom and his wife Georgia met me in the driveway with big smiles. He opened the garage door and next to his car was a color sign he created that read, “Brick Parking Only” complete with the BMW roundel. I laughed with joy at his ingenuity and attention to detail. He put some thought process into my arrival just as my sister Ann did with the bratwurst. I felt welcome.

Touring the house I was further stunned. Their walk-in closet is the size of my NYC apartment and everything is decorated with taste and style. They worked hard to buy this house and then spent time to make it their home. Their three cats roam the luxurious digs with a wonderful laziness that filled me with envy.

We blabbed for a awhile and decided on a seafood restaurant called Goin’ Coastal in nearby Canton. Georgia noticed my many pictures of oysters on facebook and thought I would enjoy some. We were seated only to find that they were out of oysters, even though other diners were enjoying dozens. “We just ran out,” the waitress piped. I wasn’t worried about the meal though, I was just happy to be put with my brother and his wife. After dinner, we walked around the area. The town was quaint with restored buildings and an old theater. Before I left Tampa for NYC in 2000, I toyed with the idea of opening a performance space for bands and cutting edge theater. I often think about what might have happened if I went down that road. We all take our own path. Tom took a career and made money, I followed the arts and struggle to pay my rent. We probably imagine living in each others shoes at times, but given a mulligan we would both make the same choices.

We headed home and I went up to bed. I snickered at the mountainous stack of decorative pillows that Georgia had piled on the bed in the guest room, realizing they would not fit in my apartment. I talked to Nicole for a while on the phone and told her of my day. She was happy I was having such a great time and told me to be careful.  As I dozed off I thought about what an adventure packed day I had lived. I ate like a king. I said goodbye to Ann and Hello to Tom. I road the motorcycle road of a lifetime.

Everyone has their Lottery fantasy planned out. If I ever win, I am going to do what I am doing right now – drive around the country and visit family and friends as I find new firsts. The greatest feeling came to me as I thought about this notion. I am living my lottery fantasy. Tom loves the warm home he created with Georgia. They are living their dream. I believe my home is in the saddle of a 25 year old motorcycle, barreling through the woods down twisty roads towards family, friends, and parts unknown.

 

366 Miles - Boone, NC to Tail of The Dragon to Woodstock, GA

366 Miles – Boone, NC to Tail of The Dragon to Woodstock, GA

Posted in East Coast 2013, Travel | Leave a comment