January, 1999
Chapter 8

A few of the 250 dogs my friend Ernie keeps at her Horse Ranch (Sunnyside Ranch) on the outskirts of Corpus Christi, Texas.
Date: January 5, 1999
Location: Johnson Bayou, Louisiana
Recent Stops: Corpus Christi, Galveston, Gilchrist, Texas
Next Stop: The Big Easy
Mileage so far: 18,528
Notes: Every once in a while, I get very lucky. Looking for a place to camp in Corpus Christi, I met Ernie and her husband, Steve, who own a horse ranch on Saratoga Road, where people rent "little ranchettes" she calls them - a small piece of fenced-in land, on which they can build a shed or stable. (I call them "horse condos.") All day long, people come in and out, care for their horses, ride on the ranch's vast acreage and mingle with each other - it's a neat, little community.

Ernie set me up in a beautiful Eden in the woods near her house for a few days. When the weather turned harsh, she let me (nearly insisted that I) stay in a vacant ranchette with a horse stable and a small house - I hated to leave.

Ernie is one of those people who just cannot stand to see a living creature in need. She has a soft spot for stray dogs and has taken in thousands of them over the years - "my vet bill is $2,500 a month," she says. Ernie has about 250 Fidos in her care. She has organized a charity which survives on grants, donations and her salary as a registered nurse. Running the "no-kill" pound, she takes every dog to the vet to be spayed or neutered, and her greatest challenge is finding responsible people to take them home and care for them. "I love young couples with no kids," she says.

I am, of course, grateful that Ernie took in this stray dog for a few days, And really, I'm thrilled that she didn't take me to the vet.

How's that for a gallon of gas? It made me want to fill up my tank twenty times, here on the coast of Texas.

Bob, onboard a ferry, crossing Calcasieu Pass, into Cameron, Louisiana.
There's something about a boat - Admit it. You like riding on a boat. You're crazy about floating on the water, on something that defies logic, something that wades across the liquid mass and somehow keeps itself above it all, when you know, and gravity knows, that you and this tub should be sitting on the bottom.

Ferrys are utility boats. People don't ride them for pleasure, but to get to work, or to the store or a friend's house. They are very routine and mundane. In that routine, people's lives proceed without event, yet, they are surrounded by the most beautiful element on earth; water.

There is something romantic about boats, and there is something romantic about ferry boats. It's not the same romance you find on a cruise ship - that seems like forced romance, that is romance you buy and pay for and schedule, and you darned well expect before you hit the gangway.

Ferrys are very lonely vessels to ride upon, and, before you can have romance, you must have loneliness. In the cars and trucks and vans and SUVs are people who wish they were somewhere else, with someone else. And somewhere else, there are people who wish they were here with these people. I see a woman talking on her cell phone. I see a man writing a letter. I see a person sitting in a car, staring out onto the water, thinking about a loved one, perhaps, or just wondering how it is, exactly, that we are still afloat.

(See Bob on a ferry near Seattle)

# 58. Kissing the Blues

How can this little freshwater crustacean be so much fun, so delicious and so gawdarned lucky? Has life got you singing the blues? Find out how to kiss them goodbye!
Posted January 11, 1999

Out here on my own

"People, people who need People,
Are the luckiest f- -kers, in the World..."

C'mon Grizz, sing!

When I set out on this marathon trip, I had hoped it would enrich my life, and I've been searching for little nuggets of life's great secret ever since. I met somebody the other day, who, without even trying, taught me a thing or two. It started with an email, a short and terse missive, mysterious, to say the least. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it...

"Give me a collect call...we will talk. - Grizz and Sadie"

That was it (and a phone number.) When you're touring the country on a motorcycle, you feel pretty vulnerable, and this appeared to be an offer I should not refuse. (Grizz?) So I called. It didn't take long to realize that the sender of the message was harmless enough, but he was... well, grizzzly. Each sentence he spoke was a coarse rumble, expelled through a growl of an exhale between labored breaths; each word was hammered out in the lower octaves - it was like listening to a diesel engine at idle.

Within minutes, I took Grizz as being one of those contacts a writer loves to have; born and raised in Louisiana, fought in Vietnam, knows plenty of interesting people... "I got a buddy - earned the Medal of Honor," he says. "He's been kicked out of the Medal of Honor Society twice - once for refusing to shake the President's hand." "I got a buddy who was the number one Navy Seal - he was in when Kennedy started them up - got a dishonorable discharge for punching his C.O."

He tells me he has a small sailboat I can use. "It's not much more than a f- -king fiberglass tent," he tells me. A few days later, I meet the Grizz in person, at his home ("Grizzland") in Baton Rouge, with his wife, Sadie and their three children. On a wall in Grizzland is a photograph of the Grizz of yesteryear, back when he was a clean-cut, U.S. Marine. "That was one exciting, f- -king time," he says. He looks fit and wholesome in his camouflage uniform and eyeglasses - as wholesome as one can look with an eight-foot snake around his neck. I can't pin him down on what he has done in the three decades since Vietnam ("I ran f- -king Central America for eight years.") His card refers to his tour with the Marines as the "University of S. Viet Nam, School of Jungle Warfare" and says he is a "Jungle Fighter, Marksman... Certified Badass."

Listening to Grizz, you would think he has been everywhere and done everything. As a writer, it's good to have contacts who have questionable pasts, who cloak themselves in a fine layer of bull, and who pan the waters at the bottom of the gene pool for you. These days Grizz draws disability - the military says he's "110 percent crazy." I think he has them fooled, because, even though he may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, Grizz is brighter than many government employees I've met. But then, I'm not a psychiatrist, and I sure wouldn't want to catch him on a day when Sadie forgets to give him his handful of meds, and the post-trauma kicks in.

We talk for hours over beers and Boone's Farm Strawberry Wine. Grizz loves to talk, and sometimes it's great fun to listen to him. He has an opinion about everything, and a strong, arrogant way of giving you that opinion, and contemning subjects at will. I am usually bored with such upstaging, but he is pretty entertaining, and through the harsh acerbity, I see some sincerity. By the next day, after he and his friend, Eric, take me out to their boat, I can also see a quality in the Grizz, which apparently, I have fairly ignored for myself.

There are two types of people in this world. I am the independent type, trying to make it through my life sentence on my own two feet, so very careful to balance my reliance on others with my feeling of self-worth. I am single, not because I enjoy it, but because it is natural for me to be alone. I can breathe very well by myself and I have spent my life complacent with having no significant other and only a small circle of friends. I could drop most any of them at any time, and in fact, I pretty much did that, when I bought a motorcycle and took off for a year and a half - on my own. The problem with this attitude, is that it will inevitably lead to a long, cold life of isolation, where ultimately, even life doesn't matter.

Which is why I am struck by Grizz; because he is actually very dependent on the other humans in our race. Throughout the evening and the next day, he talks often about his friends, he talks with his friends and he shows a genuine selflessness that has earned him friendships far more valuable than any congressional medal.

Grizz (I still don't know his real name) needs other people, and he knows that a friendship is a life term. He is the type of guy you could call to get out of any scrape - legal or not - and he'll drop everything. He's the man I would want swinging a barstool in front of me when the mugs start flying, because that big ol' boy will take it in the teeth for a friend.

Grizz had never owned a sailboat before, and (see top photo) he isn't much of a sailor. So why did he buy this sailboat? "I got f- -ked by a great deal," he says. (He actually bought it with a friend, who very much wanted a sailboat.) Before he leaves the marina, he hands me his card and, in two belabored breaths, sums up everything I've been trying to tell you; "Mark, if anyone gives you a hard time about staying here, tell them to call me," he says. "But first, tell them to go f--k themselves, to prepare them, because that's what I'm gonna tell them."

Click on the photo to view my dream boat - thanks to the Grizz!
When I put out the call for nautical quarters, I had high hopes and dreams of somebody saying; "Hey, I have this nice, little ocean-going yacht, just wasting away in a slip somewhere, and it sure would be nice of you to keep an eye on it for a while - tell the captain to restock the bar when you run out..."

Tonight (January 7, 1998) is a historic night for me, for it is actually the first time in my life that I have spent the night on a boat. (You can't count the ferry to Amsterdam, because I slept - sort of slept - on the stupid floor.) It is hard to believe that, at 38 years old, I've never spent more than a day at a time on the water, because I love boats and, for the longest time, have sorely wanted to live on one - it just never worked out, somehow. Tell me, why do we let life get in the way of our lives?

The King of Cakes

Tis the season to eat heavily-sugared, madly-colored, baby-filled coffee cakes.


It's king cake time! (Notice, it's shaped like a crown.) This traditional Cajun desert is being hawked heavily right now in the New Orleans area by bakeries and supermarkets. Serve a king cake at your next function and one of your lucky guests will get a prize in his piece. If he survives the potential choking hazard, he will rejoice in the discovery of a tiny plastic (buck nekid) baby. The lucky person not only gets bragging rights and the privilege of buying the next king cake, but he enjoys the solemn relief that he dodged aspirating the sucker.

Reports say the tradition started in this area in 1870, with a golden bean, instead of a baby, during a "Twelfth Night" party. The pieces were given to young, single women, and the girl who found the bean was crowned queen. It took about a century for the fad to really catch on and today, millions are sold each year. "Gee, I've only had two this year," says J.P. the librarian who helped me research this tradition. You can get them with cinnamon, cream cheese, strawberry, blueberry, apple or lemon - or even crawfish. The baby doll represents the Christ child.

Click on the cake to see your prize! Oh yeah, gold stands for power, green for faith and purple for justice.

# 59. Coming to Life in New Orleans
Baccus, Zulu, Rex, Cleopatra... When the Mardi Gras parades start rolling through New Orleans, nobody asks where the names came from - they want to know; "who painted these beautiful floats?"
Posted January 22, 1999

The view this morning from my home for the past twelve days. Sure makes for a great start to the day.

Date: January 18, 1999
Location: Mandeville, Louisiana
Recent Stops: Nawlins' and other parts of southern Louisiana
Next Stop: Mississippi and Alabama
Mileage so far: 19,045
Notes: I had a wonderful week aboard Grizz and Eric's boat, and I've decided to live on a boat after this trip. There's something about sitting in the cabin, listening to the wind knock the rigging around, having your entire office bobbing about gently. I remember sitting in my camper, feeling a sense of calm when the winds play with the canvas, gently tugging to get in, asking me to play. On the water, you get that request all day.

I've met interesting people here. My friends Joe Potter and Janet Westerly live on a nice 31 foot sailboat. Their slip has a small building that they use for a kitchen, washer/dryer and sewing room, etc. The "palapa" (some Spanish word, meaning "big shed") gives them the room you need to enjoy living on a boat. In fact, they pretty much live in the palapa, and just sleep on the boat. "It's a big bedroom," Joe says. They even sail it a few times a year.

Bradley and his friend have a beautiful Choy-Lee with a teak deck that keeps them busy. They would love to be on the boat all week, sailing, puttering around and fixing things, but they live and work elsewhere. Chris and Gigi have a beautiful Easterly next to me. Peg and Jerry have a 41 foot Easterly that they bought for only a couple grand - it doesn't have a mast or working engine. "We use it as a camp," says Peg. R.T. lives on a beautiful, 1933 sailboat that is all wood, inside and out. It's a good thing he works on boats for a living, because that thing always needs work. I could go on and on.

# 60. The Spice of Life
She checked that bottle of hot sauce before it went on your table, but there's more to her job than the nine to five.
Posted January 15, 1999

White Bread and Jammin' - Stopped into the Piney Woods school to hear the choir and interview the director, Herbert Jones, for an article. I had hoped to maybe catch an earful of some rafter-shaking gospel music while I was there. Well, the rehearsal started out pretty slow. The choir was great, but they were rehearsing more, well, formal music than I had hoped for. After the first hour, Jones paused the program, looked at me and said; "do you have everything you need?" as if to give me a chance to duck out if I was bored. Well, I stayed right there, and I'm glad I did. They broke out the drum kit and the keyboard and kicked in on some rightous numbers that really put some life in these old bones. The choir was on its feet, and the place was hopping. I had a tremendous urge to show them some of my struttin' stuff, but I had this persistant notion that, if I got my old, white, square body shaking, the whole party would've shut down right there, it would've gotten real quiet and I would have been asked to leave. I'm having a great time traveling through the Mississippi Delta, home of the blues, but I know that I'm just visiting, and you can't just visit the blues, you have to live them.

January 19, 1999 - Today was one of those days that really makes this trip, and the weather had a lot to do with it. We're having a heat-snap in the middle of January, here in Mississippi. I had almost forgotten what motorcycle riding was supposed to be like, all bundled up in four shirts, two pair of gloves and I'm not telling you how many pairs of underwear. But when you can actually feel the throttle in your hand, and you enjoy the breeze crossing your path, you feel so much better. And you watch the pavement rushing past your legs as something that is thrilling, not as something that can mess you up real bad.

The terrain also has a lot to do with it. I have been riding in the stark, flat states of the southwest for too long. They have their own, stunning beauty, mind you, but it's nice to travel roads with a little curve to them, spending some time near my sidewalls every now and then.

January 21, 1999 - Well folks, I spent the night at the police station last night. You knew it would happen sooner or later - you just can't let a guy like me, with the nerve I have, out on the loose. I have to admit though, it was a comfortable night - I sure felt safe, anyway.

In fact, I am being watched closely right now - at least, my camper is, by a police officer eyeing a surveillence camera aimed right at it. See, it all started yesterday evening, just before sundown. Looking for a place to sleep for the night, I knocked on the door of a very nice house in a small city, just east of Jackson, Mississippi. A pleasant looking woman answered the door and I gave her my pitch.

Now, don't ask me why I do this, or how I expect to get away with it, or how I do get away with it, but I routinely ask people - complete strangers - if I can just sleep in their yards. I look for people with vacant lots next door, more for my own privacy. But I knock on their door, give them my card and ask. And I wait. And usually, I do get away with it. Some people are so fascinated by the project, they would practically sleep in the camper themselves and let me take their bedrooms (I don't allow this.) Somehow, many people are able to muster up a yes answer, while many are so bewildered that they don't know what to say - Would you? Not sure I would either.

Anyway, I knocked on the mayor's door last night. Oh, I didn't tell you, she's the mayor of this city - Richmond. Well, the honorable mayor just didn't know what to make of this man standing in front of her. She suggested I sleep in one of the town's parks, and I told her I preferred private property, for my safety. She said "you want to feel safe? I'll give you safety. Let me call our police department and you can sleep at the station." I stammered. She continued. "You can park right out back. I'll give them a call and let them know you're coming." Heck, she is the mayor and all.

Change of Weather - Well, the good weather couldn't last forever. Today was beautiful, but tonight, in northern Mississippi, all hell is breaking loose, with a lightning storm to beat all. I hear that five inches of water will drop from the sky tonight, and the wind is strong enough to send small animals flying.

Fortunately, I was able to find a pole barn to stay under. This part of Mississippi is filled with them - for storing cotton- and they're all empty this time of year. So, I'm under this pole barn, kind of wishing it were a full barn. The wind is howling, and it's coming from all over. It feels just like somebody has hooked this trailer up to their 4WD and is taking me down a helluva rough road at about twice the speed limit. I expect at any time it will just pick me up, have its way with me, and deposit me in the Mississippi.

# 61. (In) The Hands of Mr. Jones
From central Mississippi, hands reach out to children in troubled neighborhoods around the country, and guide them toward a better life.

Meet choir director Herbert Jones and the Cotton Blossom Singers!

The Jerusalem Baptist Church, just south of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, the "Oldest U.S. all black municipality. Founded by ex-slaves in 1887 - Incorporated in 1898."

Date: January 24, 1999
Location: Clarksdale, Mississippi
Recent Stops:
Next Stop: Memphis
Mileage so far: 19,703
Notes: Stopped into a church this morning, hoping to catch a service. I'm not religious, but churches are a big part of the south, and I wanted to get close to one. I picked the Jerusalem Baptist Church, near Mound Bayou, Mississippi, because it looked simple and true. It looked like a place where, when the roof is repaired, it doesn't show up as a budget item, but it is a weekend project for the congregation, supported by a pot-luck dinner.

I walked in as things were in progress, and sat in the back row. It was a nice church, with padded, hardwood pews, walls painted white and purple, with purple accents everywhere, and the windows covered with stained glass decals. A women waved me forward, so I moved up a couple of rows. She pointed to a group of men sitting up front. It occured to me that this was not a service, and that the men were on one side and the women on the other - about 20 people altogether.

I sat with the men, and I took off my jacket and gloves and put them on the pew. The preacher came over and gave me a thin paperback book. He didn't explain much, just opened the book and pointed. "We're right here," he said.

I later learned that I was in a Sunday School class, for adults, 35 and over. These people were taking this class very seriously, and today's study was about forgiveness. They were analysing the lesson like a math equation, taking in every sentence and every word, and men were having revelations throughout the class. I could sense easily that this stuff was really sinking in - even I took note of the message.

I wish I had taken a group photo of them on the steps of the church - man, were they dressed up! - but I felt so out of place. I know I looked like a drifter in my ragged clothes, and I didn't want them to have to suspect my motives. But then, who cares about motives when you go to church?

Thanks to Marie Ragsdale, of Marigold, Mississippi (I love typing that state name). I stayed in her side yard last night, and this morning when I poked my head out, she asked if I would like some breakfast. She's 84 years old, and she lost her husband, a rice farmer, 30 years ago. It was just her nature not to let me go without a warm meal in me, and she whipped up a delicious breakfast. "I hope you don't think I'm being too forward," she said. "No ma'am," I said. Yesterday, I was treated to a great lunch by Molly Shaman, who's husband I interviewed for an upcoming story, and two days ago, Sherry Lucas, a reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger took me to breakfast. I'm having a great week!

# 62. Waking in Memphis

Did you know my father? I think I do.
Posted January 29, 1999

Who's driving this scooter? Fluffy!
Date: January 31, 1999
Location: Fisher Hunting Camp, Crockett's Bluff, Arkansas
Recent Stops: Clinton and Beebe, Arkansas
Next Stop: Mississippi again ("Re-Miss?")
Mileage so far: 20,425
Notes: Stopped into a Taco Bell the other day and bumped into a new friend. Ronnie Huey is a retired sheriff for nearby Cross County and he's one big ol' boy with a big ol' heart. He was sitting at a table, arresting two Burrito Supremes when he saw me and nearly ordered me to have a seat. After a few minutes of introductions and questions, which felt like an interrogation ("where you coming from? Who are you staying with?") he invited me to stay at his hunting camp. I declined the offer until I realized I could get a story out of it, and I am lucky I changed my mind. He put me up in a cozy cabin during some nasty weather. He and his son, Lance, fed me well, with; Duck 'n Sauce, Deer Chili, Fried Rabbit, steaks and whatever I wanted. He was a tremendous host, and Cross County just couldn't have a nicer Sheriff.

Huey had no idea what I was up to when he stopped me, as I didn't have my trailer with the True America URL with me. I guess he just wanted to talk about my bike. "Love to hear those Harleys," he said. "I had a '47 - used to take it on the bridge over the White River all night long, just to hear it run. I'd ride back and forth and back and forth, listening to those pipes - there's nothing like the sound of a Harley going over a concrete bridge at two in the morning."

Thanks to: Randy and Pansy, in Marianna, Arkansas, and Lisa, Otto, Travis and Monica Laster of Heber Springs, for loaning me their acreage, and more. I can't refuse this Arkansas hospitality. No, I mean, I can't refuse it - they won't have it. Pansy fried me a whole chicken and two loaves of pumpkin bread - I'm still riding with them in my saddlebag.

True America Tip

The collection of True America CD photo albums is available from the main page. Here is one:

Click on the Teton Mountains to view the
True America Wyoming photo album,

to December, 1998 ..... to February, 1999.

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