by Gary Charpentier
I was really excited about going to the first Central Roadracing Association event of the season. I am not racing this year, but a lot of my friends are, and I couldn’t wait to get up to Brainerd and be a part of that scene again. Much like a little kid, I wasn’t really thinking of the journey, I just wanted to get there as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, I had to work on Saturday. But as soon as I had put in my time at the office, I packed a small bag with only the bare essentials and hit the road. By the time I entered the freeway, however, I realized that this trip was going to be different.
In the past, whenever I had a long trip ahead of me and wanted to get there quickly, I would call on my trusty time-space manipulation device. I would grasp this device in my right hand and give it a twist, and the horizon would begin to reel in as if attached to a large, powerful winch. The scenery on both sides would blur into insignificance, and the distance between myself and my destination would rapidly diminish. As long as I remained alert, concentrated on holding my course and avoiding collisions with fellow travelers and other road hazards, I would always arrive quickly, full of energy and ready for a good time.
I must admit, however, that it is highly illegal in most places on this planet to travel in such a manner, and the authorities have resorted to all sorts of tactical and technical trickery to discourage this kind of warp-speed wandering. Having been intercepted one too many times, I have shifted to a different strategy.
The tires on my current mount are dual-purpose knobbies. When I reach cruising speed on the highway, they resonate with the thumping of the single cylinder to make a sound rather like the never quite synchronized engines on an old B-17 bomber. When you listen to this sound for awhile, it has a calming effect, and you begin to just sort of float along in a bubble of groovy oneness with the machine. Since I am heading north, there are cars out there whose drivers are very anxious to get where they are going, and they pass by me on the left. I am in the right lane, and in the right frame of mind to simply enjoy the ride.
As the miles pass slowly beneath my wheels, I begin to look around at the scenery which I have always ignored in the past. Sitting up straight, not in my usual aerodynamic crouch, I can take it all in without straining my neck muscles. Minnesota has an awful lot of pine trees. The air is filled with their scent. When I am not looking at trees, I am seeing huge expanses of freshly plowed soil, the orderly rectangles of our agricultural legacy. At this point, what I am smelling is quite a bit stronger than pine.
You can really tell the difference between the family owned operations and the corporate farms. The family farms have character, and each reflects the history of the generations of hard working folk who have made their living from the earth. Here and there I see a barn roof sagging in the middle, only the merest hint of red paint left on the dry rotted planking. Signs of a long hard struggle, tragically lost to the elements and the predatory nature of an increasingly competitive market place dominated by huge, high tech corporations. Vanishing America, I am thinking…but my gathering depression is relieved as I enter the first of several small towns.
Dairy Queen has been an icon of happiness to me for as long as I can remember. All but erased from the urban centers, you still find them on the outskirts of large cities. Almost every small town with two lane blacktop running through the middle will have one within easy reach of the traveler. Nothing fancy for me–no banana split or dilly-blizzard concoction. Just a simple, large vanilla cone, with a tower of cold extruded ice milk topped by that distinctive curly-cue. If they don’t get that part right, I make them do it over!
I savor this treat at a picnic table within sight of my motorcycle. But in my mind I see a 20″ Stingray bicycle, with a banana seat and ape-hanger handlebars. I am ten years old again, for as long as it takes me to get down to the crunchy part.
Back on the road, I slowly roll through town. Along the highway, there are the usual get-it-and-go nationwide franchises, be it for gas or food or whatever. But as I turn down the main street of the business district, here we have the heart of Americana! Nora’s Diner, Ralph’s Shoe Sales and Repair, Johnson’s Hardware Store, and a Phillips 66 Service Station, with full serve gas at no extra charge and a garage where they can actually fix your car!
Now, don’t go wracking your brain trying to figure out exactly which town I am talking about, I am merely giving you a composite impression of the several towns I passed through on my way to the races. Call it Artistic License. The point is, so much of our modern world is all about push-button convenience, where you stop quickly, do your business anonymously, and get back out there on your way to somewhere else as fast as you can. The real super highways are becoming too much like the Internet, where you can get whatever you need without ever having to “interface” with a real human being. Oh, that guy behind the counter at the last SuperShellExxon station, you spoke to him, didn’t you? No? You paid at the pump with your credit card. You didn’t even get close enough to read his name tag. Is this really what we all want?
The sky begins to darken as I continue north. I start to feel tired, and a bit drained from the physical and philosophical demands of this expedition. I have taken a two hour road trip and turned it into a six hour odyssey, and I am only half way there! I chose this road less traveled because I wanted to see if there is any America left in Minnesota. Trust me, there is. The art-deco sheen has faded some, and the neon sign is almost burnt out. But the coffee is still hot, and the waitress is still as ornery as ever.
I find a small hotel with a surplus of vacancy, I am the only customer this Saturday night. I sleep in a room full of the buzz of a tired air conditioner, the musty smell of long disuse, and the voices of the ghosts of travelers past. Brainerd will still be there in the morning.