ALL MY LIFE, I’ve run from hot weather. Growing up in Texas, I even worked in an ice factory during the summer to escape the heat. So, years later, why in the name of Marlon Brando’s Triumph did I decide to borrow a machine from a major manufacturer and tour Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas in July?
I’m not sure. Maybe it has something to do with a mysterious (and rather plump) siren’s call to come on down and eat lots of fried food. Or, perhaps I had a hidden desire to visit lands where they speak differently and have different customs than here in the Northeast. My passport had expired; obviously I needed to stay domestic on this trip. Where else could I go where my countrymen seemed foreign?
The truth is, I just wanted to take the new(ish) Honda GL1800 Gold Wing on a real-world tour, and I knew I could get my hands on one in Georgia. But what about the heat? This time of year the mercury often tries to climb clean out of the thermometer, and is stopped only by the sheer weight of the humidity. Northern Vermont would have made more sense, climatically speaking.
But I decided I was going to be a Southern Man for a bit, so I snagged a GL1800ABS from Honda’s Rider Education Center in Alpharetta, Georgia. My glorious pearl blue GL was special, too, in that the footpegs (and to a lesser extent the crash bars) had been ground down dramatically thanks to spirited cornering during Honda Hoot activities in Tennessee. I was told the deed was done by a former journalist named “Creaky” or perhaps “Leaky”—I’m not sure—but this modification gave the bike slightly more cornering clearance as well as made me look like a Road Stud before I’d even ridden the bike. A bonus, in my view.
A quick blast down the Interstate into Atlanta emphasized how powerful and lithe the new Wing really is, as I dispatched horrendous traffic with ease and marveled at how, even with the massive fairing in front of me, I was getting enough air circulation that I was actually quite comfortable. Heat, shmeat. I cruised happily into Alabama. What was there to be worried about, anyway?
Well, there was this guy with an inert Kawasaki. Has this ever happened to you? You’re zooming down the highway, almost at your destination, when you see a guy pushing a bike on the side of the road. For a split second, a mental argument starts. Should I stop? I’m in a hurry! Somebody will stop; there’s lots of traffic! Aw, heck….
This scenario occurred just outside of Birmingham, as I was enroute to the Barber Motorsports Museum. I swerved over to the shoulder and nailed the GL’s awesome stoppers. Hey, you gotta stop. He ain’t heavy. He’s your brother.
And a grateful (and fairly hot) brother he was, too. He was in the classic situation where he thought he had enough gas to get home, but he didn’t. I gave him my still cool sports drink that I’d just purchased at a gas stop, and decided to go grab some fuel for him as neither of us had a siphon hose, oil refinery or Dick Cheney’s pager number on us (or a cell phone, for that matter).
Well, here’s where it gets interesting. Though close to Birmingham, it took me 20 minutes to find a damn gas station. When I did, they lent me a small fuel can, so I moved several of my dazzling Southern ensembles from a saddlebag and into my Dry Bag to make room for it. I ushered my new tanker through rush hour traffic just in time to see, from the other side of the highway, the guy get into a pickup truck and drive off just before I got back to him. Oh well.
The Barber Motorsports Museum was superb, and you should go there immediately, by the way. To see why, visit the Rider November 2001 issue. After leaving this wonderful place, the local news told me that somebody’s spitting cobra was loose in the suburbs and people should stay inside. I opted to head south instead, until I encountered salt water (spitting cobras hate the stuff).
Ah, the Southern Ways! Riding along Interstate 59 with occasional blasts down the odd side road to see what I might, I encountered things I rarely see up north. Two-door coupes from the ‘70s with hood scoops and massive slicks out back still roam freely in these parts, and reminded me of my high school days. The Wing danced from side to side on the hot asphalt, deftly avoiding interesting retired mammals such as a nutria and armadillos (that had no doubt escaped from Texas). At a gas station near the Alabama/Mississippi border, they proudly give away a Browning shotgun every month to some lucky diesel fuel customer. They don’t give away as much as a pea shooter in Connecticut, no matter how much fuel you buy.
Also at this venue I was accosted by a van full of youths, who seemed determined to convert me to their religion even though they didn’t ask if I was one of their sect already. I guess they assumed I wasn’t one of them because of the Wing’s California license plate. After all, California is a state populated entirely by heathens, right?
Two hours later they tried it again when I was trying to have lunch at an Arby’s, and I threatened to douse them with horseradish unless they left me alone. It had to be done.
Encounters like these are fairly rare in the parts where I reside. But religion is more up front down here, as I discovered not just from billboards and vans full of cult members, but also when surfing the Wing’s radio (they really need to give you a standard cassette player on this thing). Many, many radio stations are determined to save your soul, and rarely give away Barenaked Ladies concert tickets.
Isolated thunderstorms kept the heat at bay as I motored through the town of Meridian, Mississippi, and over the Chunky River (which local folklore says was named after a popular Choctaw Indian game played on its banks). In Hattiesburg, I jumped on Highway 49 (rolling hills and lots of sleepy little towns) to beeline down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Gulfport is an interesting place, especially if you like beachcombing and gambling. For the former, you have miles of beach awaiting that is easy to access and blissfully free of spitting cobras. The latter is found on floating casinos, as gambling is legal as long as it’s on the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, or one of its tributaries (or tribal land, by the way). A cocktail waitress also told me that strip clubs were only legal on tribal land, too.
“That’s good to know,” I responded. I have no idea why she thought I’d be interested. Like with the religious assault earlier, I must somehow radiate the aura of a sinner. My Eau de Evil cologne could be the culprit.
I did not seek out a gentleman’s club. Instead, I rode along on the beachfront road and soaked up the Gulf’s special salty atmosphere, while admiring all the wind-blown trees that look almost otherworldly.
Speaking of otherworldly, I later blasted through New Orleans on my way west. All I remember is listening to a charming woman named Constance read the paper on Radio for the Blind, while I fought fairly horrendous tourist traffic. The heat and humidity climbed, and now I was roasting. I rescued myself by jumping on Interstate 10 and heading toward Beaumont, Texas, at a sprightly pace. Sufficiently cooled down, I then heated back up by doing some Texas swamp touring (including the Blue Elbow Swamp). During this time I became re-acquainted with the work of Allison, a particularly wild Tropical Storm that passed through weeks before (and managed to flood my brother’s yard in Houston, and days later mine in Connecticut. Now that’s staying power).
Allison really pumped up the water table, and as I headed north to Lumberton water lapped at the bottom of many of the bridges I crossed. I took a few side trips and found wild stuff, including some roads still flooded out along with leaping fish and some pretty amazing insect life. Amazingly big insect life. Massive flying things. Dragonflies that I think were based on actual dragons filled the air. It was downright prehistoric.
From Lumberton I jumped on Highway 96 and headed to Jasper, where I took Route 63 to Burkeville. Jasper was the location of one of the worst hate crimes in U.S. history just a few years ago, which seems hard to believe judging from the friendly, sleepy and religiously grounded feel the town had when I visited. Some things are quite difficult to sort out.
From Burkeville I took Highway 87 north for a trip into the Texas Piney Woods (in this case the Sabine National Forest). This was a great ride: plenty of shade, lots of smooth sweepers and very little traffic. The proximity of the massive Toledo Bend Reservoir is reflected by the availability of bait just about anywhere you can get gas, too.
Several pop-up thunderstorms made for a wild ride. Minutes after nailing me with heavy downpours, I’d ride out of one onto bone-dry pavement (and hot temperatures). I wandered around at a relaxed pace and called on Center, Nacogdoches and Troup, which gave me three unique slices of East Texas living. Nacogdoches is a thriving college town that hosts Stephen F. Austin University, while Center oozes old-Texas charm, especially in the town center, which reminds me more of the 1950s than 2001. Troup’s main drag is becoming deserted, a victim of how towns as we knew them are disappearing and being replaced by more spread-out, strip-center kinds of communities. But sometimes these things go in cycles, and maybe downtown Troup will rebound one of these days. I certainly hope so; small-town Texas is worth preserving.
As I was about to finish this leg of the trip with a visit to some family in Ft. Worth, something wild and wonderful happened just outside of Dallas. I paused on an access road to appreciate a ranch that stretched way to the horizon, when a GL1800 that was identical to mine (right down to the color) pulled in to see if I was OK. They saw a motorcycle not moving, and Bill and Angie Young wanted to make sure that (like that guy I encountered outside of Birmingham) a fellow rider wasn’t stranded. I have two new friends in Texas now, and Bill is in the toy business. He even sent me samples.
Isn’t that cool? Yes it is. After all, here in the South it’s not the heat. It’s the hospitality.
(This article REVERSE Migration: A traveler who should know better heads south for the summer was published in the June 2003 issue of Rider.)