by Steven K. Roberts
December 27, 1987
AUGH!! Slow down, reality (or speed up, fingers). I keep adding to both ends of this story from different cities, scrambling it beyond all recognition, trying in vain to keep some kind of perspective. Impossible. What looms as a major event one day is vague history the next, and so many such cycles have occurred that any attempt to fill the gap between Whiteville and Titusville is doomed to confusion. And so… let confusion reign!
Oh, my. It seems a time warp, a flashback, a vaporous vignette of vague vacations. Florida? Are we really in Florida, lying around naked in a palmetto jungle while surf and laughter thunderflash through the dense foliage like 42nd street through hotel windows on a summer Saturday night?
There’s sand on my skin and the sun flickers through leaves; smells are of last night’s fire and this afternoon’s low tide. Maggie smiles at me, glad I’m finally writing. She’s been worried lately — both A-muse and B-muse have been off on sabbatical, leaving me floundering as the events fly by. And there have been many.
My last tale was of another epoch, way back in North Carolina where a pickup-truck door invaded my personal space and crunched everything from vertebra to Equinox. Since then we’ve pedaled three states, gobbled steamed Belize lobster tails and sandwiches of buttered Swiss chocolate on raisin-studded pumpernickel, played flute duets with a solo transatlantic sailor, clambered about on a Navy frigate fresh from gunning down Caribbean drugrunners, cut a deal with 73 Magazine, heard a dozen hounds referred to as “twelve head o’ dog,” slept in a treehouse, done a clumsy bit of late-December waterskiing near Cape Canaveral, driven a 20-year-old school bus, and been serenaded in Savannah by twenty tonette-tooting tots. The usual.
And the only way to summarize it is with random teases…
McClellanville, South Carolina… a wet time. Baths in the rain, castille soap and candlewax scenting air heavy-laden with Miles Davis and steam. Vines and rust, tea and mustiness. Dripsounds on the tin roof, shoes steaming by the woodstove. The bikes behind a curtain of runoff in the woodshed, a murky Gothic seen through streaked windowpanes across a puddled farmyard of microsplashes.
The South Carolina coast was sodden, Highway 17 a white corridor of mist between miles of identical pines. Trucks unfurling their gray flags of southern winter, clothes clinging heavy to bodies sweatshined and pumping. Surprise bumps lurking under gray puddles, rippled and pockmarked by the storm. Wet, everything wet like a jungle waterfall in the monsoon; even the cotton in my codeine bottle hanging heavy and dejected.
She caught us at the Crab Pot. She took us home, sent me to the ironstained bathtub, spoke of kids and dance, then left. Now we live in a cabin and drive to town in Susan’s rusty old boat of a pickup, steering along rainslicked sandy roads hungover haglike with Spanish moss. Roofleaks splash in old pots; books everywhere of kidstuff, boating, hippiedom, homesteading, poetry, quilting, everything. Chickens out back, Maggie serving them food scraps as I watch heavy-lidded from bed. Puddles like ponds, ponds like lakes, the ocean tickling my nose despite the scrubbing of a billion intervening raindrops.
This is the opposite of Eric’s place. Through 40 miles of the Myrtle Beach “Grand Strand,” an exhaustion of tedious commercial beachfront catering to retirees and generic family vacationers, I chatted on the radio… a dozen hams on turkey day. They’d drive out for an “eyeball,” pull over, wish us luck, and go back to their families, keeping me pleasant verbal company as the clutter rolled by. Finally an invitation! Elderly Eric talked us in at sunset, served us drinks, introduced his fragile wife, and showed us around… then we sat in idle conversation spanning two generations until I thought I’d better confirm the precise extent of his invitation.
“Oh, no, I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” he said with a smile, turning us out into the rain and the dark. “But wait, let me get my camera.” Forced smiles, cold politeness, Maggie’s eyes meeting mine then darting heavenward. They were nice, but couldn’t relate to our position. Though an interesting curiosity, we were much too alien to welcome into a relationship as intimate as spending the night. Back on the highway, helmet lights probing the rainy dark, we promised each other on the radio that we’d never become paranoid and inflexible… even if our heads DO turn blue-white someday.
Grumbling into the only motel, a Quality Inn 6 miles down the road, we paid a bargain $29 and stowed the bikes… only to be surprised a moment later by the opposite extreme of Thanksgiving Day behavior when the manager’s wife brought two fresh turkey dinners to our room!
Onward. We left Susan’s and aimed ourselves south, looking forward to our Sullivan’s Island hosts… Lenny Greene and his wife Tessa. I pedaled in stiff discomfort, tensely fighting back pain — for the weekend at Susan’s had been a worsening ordeal of accident-related vertebra damage (compression fractures of T5 and T6, I later discovered). I was in a cotton-mouthed haze of codeine leftover from previous incidents, and now pedaled carefully, trying not to turn my head or sneeze or do much of anything but crank out those 350-400 pedal strokes per mile. But the road was as flat and boring as most in this state; by late afternoon we were on Sullivan’s Island, watching Charleston across the water slide golden into dusk while beachwalking with new friends.
The visit was a warm one. I spent most of it in our third-floor bed, groggily struggling down steep steps for meals and conversation. Sullivan’s Island is an 80’s extrapolation of an old east-coast counterculture colony, a sharp contrast with the neighboring Isle of Palms which attracts the devotees of party yachts and expensive golf courses. The week with the Greenes was one of comfort and delight: an oyster feast atop an old door, parties of diverse intellects, a sunset 73 Magazine photo session with his sister Karen on the golden marsh, and no end of playful conversation. By the time my back healed enough to pedal painlessly, new online friends had developed into yet another branch of our extended American family — a wild and diverse clan stretched out along the convoluted 15,000-mile line of my wanderings like a chain of mini-epidemics in every town kissed by our wheels.
A motorized discontinuity. Sawhorses in the sun, sweetgrass and marshland, orange-sticky fingers and smells of fiberglass goo. Before me, moored to a dock, floated a 26-foot shrimper undergoing heavy renovation — an ex- smuggler with a dramatic flair for first-rate carpentry is rebuilding her into a dream of a pleasure craft. Rising from the old hull is a cabin of smoothly sculpted plywood, in the process of being covered over with fiberglass and decked out with maritime accoutrements. It was an inspiring sight, partly because I always delight in creativity at work and partly because it reinforced one of my favorite current fantasies…
The Winneboato. Fatigued with a full-time life on the highway interspersed with an endless quest for temporary office space, I’ve had daydreams of building a “mother ship” for this whole affair (less traffic, no hills, etc.). But my accountant says I’d have to float a loan… and I’d rather do it with Maggie. Maybe a bus instead…
South Carolina’s inland coastal plains are boring — we skirted Charleston to avoid traffic and found ourselves in a massive detour to Savannah… by way of Monck’s Corner. For 180 miles we pedaled in a sort of stupor, distracted only by major appliances in the ditch and waves of greeting from shacks and trailers. Friendly, simple folk through here: survival has less to do with diplomacy than simply staying awake.
Of course, that’s an impression gleaned from passing quickly through and staying only in motels. Hardly the way to get to know a place… but Florida beckoned, its mystique very much alive even though I learned otherwise during my first trip — now a remote but intense memory about to be freshened by book publication. How I remember the growing anticipation, the mental images of bikini-clad beauties arrayed at the state line like the welcoming committee in philanderer’s paradise. Back in 1983 I pedaled south in solo excitement, accepting the sameness of the coastal plains as a sort of cleansing period for the erotic excesses that I knew lay just ahead.
But now I knew better, so simply fought to remain sane.
And so Georgia happened. We slid wetly into Savannah, bound for Wilmington Island and the home of old Louisville friends Tom and Bunny Rouse, battling through afternoon traffic on the shoulderless commute routes. Everywhere, it seems, there is frenzy and frustration as the population outpaces the reasonable physical limits of its origin. Even Savannah, with its languid Old-South image and quiet marshy surroundings, is now crime-ridden and frightening — a complex layer of overdevelopment choking a place once graceful and charming.
But our hosts were a pleasure, and we found ourselves at an energetic private school called St. Andrews on the Marsh, doing the demo/presentation for grades K-12. As always, a few bright exceptions stood out from the crowd — a supernova here, a nebula there, the differences between brains already deeply apparent even in early childhood. For them I had a subliminal message: “If you have a dream, young friend, nurture and develop it… it’s a helluva lot more important than any static curriculum.”
Oh, but all that seems vague from here. More time has passed… we’re in Titusville with still more old friends now, sharing the Christmas season, working in the midst of traditional decorations while all the world outside seems sunny and green. Nylon shorts and sweaty T-shirts seem odd garb amidst red and green party napkins, giant felt stockings dangling from the mantelpiece, Santa motifs, and touching seasonal sitcoms on TV. “It’s supposed to be snowy,” dictates my midwestern mythos, so Christmas in Florida seems even more of a bizarre cultural aberration than usual.
But in the recent past are strange and refreshing events — odd occurrences of decadence, humor, or insight against a generally uninteresting backdrop. One of them happened in Brunswick, Georgia.
This was a Holy Grail of sorts — a return visit to the famed Hostel in the Forest that held me for a week during my first journey around the US. Staying there is a special and unique experience… in the guest book, I found a note from a European traveler that read simply: “This place is not like the USA.” Digging further through hundreds of pages of handwritten elegies, rhapsodies, and impassioned commentary, I found my own entry from four years ago:
To the Hostel in the Forest
(To Tom, Sean, and all travelers who give life to this place…)
Pedaling the planet, living on the “Winnebiko,” my 3-bedroom ranch in suburbia drifts hazily into memory. And with it (I thought) fades the notion of “home”—at least until journey’s end, whatever THAT is.
But no! Home materializes in special places, places like this where the fire is not a fire but a hearth, where people who yesterday had never met are today a family. It’s an intriguing notion, this idea of a rapid-turnover home—for it suggest the presence of magic. It can’t be expressed as the simple synthesis of gentle wilderness, supremely appropriate domes, starlight, and chickens. Even the rare spark of Tom Dennard, though obviously the critical catalyst, cannot account fully for this ambience. It IS all of this, but one thing more: the countless echoes of the people who have built upon this foundation with their very presence, forming a living monument to travel, sharing, humanity, peace, and yes, the pure wonder of living. Perhaps this explains it.
Then again, perhaps not. Maybe it’s just magic. But whatever it is, it feels good, and I tap away freely on the bicycle-borne solar-powered word processor with nary a thought for the madness of the outside world. This is the kind of home that can’t be bought. To all who have touched this place, I give my love; to all who ever will, I join with the others in a warm embrace of welcome.
Of this, are legends born.
by Steve Roberts 12/1/83
Maggie and I bedded down in a treehouse that night, drifting off in the dark forest canopy with our ears tickled by windsounds, chitterings, and accents seldom heard anywhere else in Glynn County, Georgia. This Hostel draws people from all over—it’s an oasis of calm intelligence in the vast cultural wasteland of the American southeast. Despite the suspicions of locals who have, over the years, accused the place of harboring devil worshipers, communists, hippies, druggies, and <gasp> even nudists, the Hostel thrives, grows, and—unlike the blight of generic motels across the land—gives to both community and guests more than it takes away.
We had a bit of culture shock in Brunswick, not through encounters with Irish hitchhikers or Japanese cyclists but through ham radio. Crunching softly on a mat of pine needles I bikesat, scanning the 2-meter band while watching Maggie trying to erase her highway tan lines amidst peacocks strutting about in pompous brainlessness. I stumbled casually into conversation about the local ham club Christmas party a few hours off, and, in a quick exchange, found myself invited.
Just as in that old irrational time when I could perceive nothing to lose — back when I would venture out in electric darkness to hop a freight or ride a drawbridge — I made a snap decision. After conjuring a Mexican feast for the international assemblage we hauled our trappings precariously down treehouse steps, packed trailers by teeth-gripped flashlights, and set out through dark, quiet woods on the 13-mile ride to town. Suddenly… A bright Victorian livingroom swirling with humans! Tables of food and presents! We blinked in puzzlement and shifted modes, answering questions, swilling Scotch, and adjusting to society after weeks of woods, motels, rural hosts, and long, long roads. Amazing how easy it was to ease into it… and how hard it was to leave two days later.
OK. Some big changes are happening. Florida hit fast and furious, with a rapid succession of entertaining events…
The Lormands in Fernandina Beach — he soloed across the Atlantic in a wisp of a sailboat and joined his wife in writing a book about it. Now he teaches music in Atlanta and vacations on the coast, and we tossed about nearly identical impressions of the wandering spirit in an oddly delightful encounter of parallel differences… punctuated by a bit of shared Handel and Bach on our flutes.
The Fahrneys in Jacksonville Beach — he’s a Navy officer with a rare spark of unmilitary humor; she’s lovely, Swiss, and possessed of exquisite tastes in food. My mouth still tingles at the memory of chocolate, cheeses, pepper jellies, wines, and Kirsch-filled wonders of gustatory bliss that could never appear on the American market (they’re illegal here, as well as too delicious to emerge from the cost-cutting food mills that compete for space on supermarket shelves).
The Greiffs in Daytona Beach — cyclists, bear collectors, jacuzzi-loungers — a night of insights into the culture of this place so strongly associated with summer and pursuit of the opposite sex. The general community verdict surprised me: The spring break crowd is the most obnoxious, consisting largely of drunken teenagers who thrive on grossness and destruction. The race crowd is next, largely redneck. The preferred guests are those who flock to motorcycle week, believe it or not — for beneath all the leather and grime are weekend bikers who tip well and keep themselves pretty much under control. I was glad we missed all three, however, for holiday traffic was quite relentless enough.
So far, all this sounds more or less like my usual attempt to catch up after failing to write for a month. But here comes a shocker…
It’s the weekend after Christmas, 85 degrees and mostly sunny. I’ve been out floundering happily through my first attempt at water-skiing, a pursuit that can make a beginner feel as weak and incompetent as being chosen as the dummy in a beginner’s Judo class. Now I’m reclining in the bus with a cup of coffee, listening to Schubert, and pausing in my keytapping every now and then to ponder the unfamiliar problem of efficiently utilizing 1,260 cubic feet of space.
OK, here’s the scam. I’m sure you’ve detected from my ramblings over the last year or so that I am tiring — burning out, if you will. Over 5 million pedal strokes, 500 different beds, 25 flat tires, and a quarter-million questions. 1.2 million calories. 7 mountain passes, 26 states, a few minor wrecks, and the too-close whooshes of God-knows-how-many cars. I think I’ve tempted the Road Demons long enough, and find myself groaning at the thought of more headwinds, more traffic, more hills, more teeth-clattering roads, more places I’ve already been, more narrow motel room doors, more after-dark quests for a place to sleep, more sudden honks of unknown intent, more sore knees, more sweat. But there’s one problem: I don’t want to settle down, and have no idea where I would if I did. Besides, I still love the Winnebiko and so does everyone who sees it… and my book comes out next month. This is no time to deed it over to the Smithsonian.
So now what?
Well, I’ve been tempted off and on by RV’s over the years, but have always stopped short because of the RV culture — which is not the most stimulating social setting for a hedonistic technoid nomadic literary generalist and his sensual lifestyle-maintenance and sensory-enhancement manager. It would seem a sort of death, lined up with all the other Elkhart rigs in the boring end of a campground, smelling Onans and perfume and charcoal grilles, trying to glimpse the stars through the 60 Hertz flicker of video phosphor and the glaring overkill of Coleman lanterns. “Howdy neighbor! Quite a rig ya got there… say, isn’t that a Kwikee electric step? Ya know, the wife and I were thinkin’ about installin’ one of those… mind if I have a look?”
The other problem with RV’s is that they are made for the usual needs — which are about as appealing as a furnished apartment to one who needs a computer room, electronics lab, darkroom, shop, and general frolicking area. Where would we stash bikes, computers, telescopes, book inventory, lasers, and other random toys?
So a motorhome won’t do it. But consider this: we need to do a media tour for the book and wander all over the place to make speaking engagements, trade shows, flea markets, hamfests, and (for all I know) an evening at your house. So, assuming all goes well this week, I’m buying a 1968 semi-converted school bus, installing office, kitchen, storage, and bike garage, and hitting the road with a mother ship. I’m glad I designed the Winnebiko II control system with a bus architecture in mind…
I’ve learned not to predict too much in print, so I’ll leave it at that for now. My next posting should have a completely different flavor. Cheers, and another happy new year to ya!