by Gary Charpentier
Zero-dark-thirty, Wednesday morning, and I can’t sleep. Might as well hit the road. I am embarking on a long road trip to pick up a parts bike for my CB500 vintage racer project. It is raining ice outside. Lovely. I scrape the windows, pump the gas a couple of times, turn the key, and “Edgar” awakens with a roar.
The small-block Chevy grumbles through a disintegrating exhaust system. I will need batteries for the boom box, because Edgar has no radio. I know I won’t survive this jaunt with nothing but that loud V-8 bellow in my ears, so my first stop is Walgreens for batteries and stimulants: Mountain Dew, canned-iced-cappuccino, exotic iced tea concoctions, caffeine chewing gum!
Back in the truck, I install the batteries and hit play on the CD. Visibility is near zero, as I enter the freeway. Slap-squeak-slap-squeak-slap. Stop it! Damned wiper blades! I can’t see anything. The defogger wheezes its pitiful hamster breath on the windshield to no effect. I pop a stick of caffeine gum into my mouth. Yuck! But the 50mg of “alertness aid” go to work, and I begin to wake up.
Trucks, trucks, Volvo, more trucks. Since I can’t see the scenery anyway, I decide to save a little gas by slipstreaming a big 18-wheeler. I find one barreling along in the fast lane and attach myself to his wake, an aero-parasite on a Peterbilt host. Time and miles pass. The gas tank and my stomach are well synchronized; they both need filling at the same time. I pull off at one of those exits where they have everything the traveler needs: GasFoodLodging.
I fill the truck first then cross the street to Perkins. Inside, I encounter that peculiar Wisconsin phenomenon&emdash;steel reinforced politeness. Everyone is a little too cheerful for such a crappy day. I wonder, have they begun human cloning experiments in Wisconsin without telling anyone? I’ll have an Everything Omelet with Extra Cheese, please.
Back on the interstate, I can’t find a semi willing to travel at my preferred cruising speed, so I go it alone. Edgar gleefully guzzles 93 octane like a frat-boy guzzles free beer. We bypass Madison, home of the Slimey Crud Motorcycle Gang, writer Peter Egan, and that funky, college town ambiance. I like this place, but I’m on a mission. No time to stop now.
Milwaukee looks like a huge, industrial nightmare from my freeway vantage point. There was a time in my life when this place was sacred, a Mecca for the Harley riding and beer loving pilgrims alike! But those days are behind me now, and so is Milwaukee.
Crossing into Illinois, I am impressed by a complete and utter lack of hospitality. There is no “Illinois Welcomes You” sign, nothing to mark my transition, but a toll gate and the warning: “Pay toll ahead! 40 cents exact change, toll violators subject to arrest and/or $50 fine!” What is this toll used for, anyway? It sure as hell doesn’t pay for road maintenance. Maybe the gas prices are lower here, since they seem to collect road tax on the toll ways? Wrong. The highest gas prices of the trip are right here in Chi-town. And the gas stations? “No, we don’t have a public restroom here, sorry.” Okay, can I use your phone? I have a calling card. “There’s a pay phone right outside there on the wall.” Yeah, in the rain.
I call the bike’s owner at work. I am put on hold for a long time. Barry Manilow sings to his remaining (captive) audience while I wait. “Sorry sir, but he doesn’t answer his page.” He must be on his way home, so I go over to his house. I walk to the door. The lights are on, so I ring the bell. No answer. The un-welcome mat at my feet says, “GO AWAY” (really).
The bike is sitting in the yard with bits of the wire harness hanging out. It’s a forlorn little motorcycle, but the price is right. I light a cigar, and I wait. I get back in the truck, and I wait. When the windows fog up from my breath, I get out and stand under the carport, and I wait. This gets ridiculous, so I head back to the un-friendly gas station and call him on the wet phone again. It’s Neil Diamond this time. He answers my call this time. He will be there in 15 minutes.
We load the bike into the truck. I pay him his money, and he has to go back to work. Normally, I like to spend some time with someone I have driven over 400 miles to see, maybe have dinner, take in some of the local entertainment. But this guy wants to go back to work. I can’t blame him. He’s a development engineer for an Indy Car racing team trying to figure out a way for Michael Andretti to drive even faster. Better go to it then, big guy. I’ll just get the hell out of Illinois now, thank you very much.
Eighty-cents in tolls later, I cross back into “America’s Dairyland.” Wisconsin Welcomes Me! I spend the night at a Super-8 in Kenosha. No cable TV, no mini-fridge, a Mickey Mouse heater. Nothing super about that.
The way back is better, as I can see past the end of my hood. The batteries in the boom box had quietly passed away in the night, so I have one less distraction. I stop at a Mexican joint in Wisconsin Dells, right next to a place advertising “Underwater Go-Karts.” I don’t even ask. I order Fajitas, and my Milwaukee Maiden waitress asks, “Would you like extra cheese with that?” But of course. I am still in Wisconsin, aren’t I? The land that cholesterol forgot? Cheese me up, baby!
I never thought St. Paul could look so inviting. Every other time I’ve come back here, it was always from someplace warmer, wilder, brighter, and better. It is always overcast when I return to St. Paul. Today, however, it looks freshly scrubbed. It’s overcast, but in a mellow, relaxed kind of way. Does that make any sense? I don’t know, but it feels good to be home.