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.