Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Here is the link to my latest story in Rider Magazine. It ran in the April 2014 issue and features my sidecar riding artist friend Amy Jean Nichols, the toughest rider I know. Check it out and let me know what you think. Also, drop a line to Rider if you're so inclined.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Once again I have to blame being busy for my lack of posts. The heroin project I mentioned a couple of months ago is at 25,000 words and consumes all of my writing time. It has grabbed me big-time and I envision at least 50,000 words before it is ready. Ready for what is the question. The subject is an important one that touches every part of our society. It is all around us. The problem is many of us, me included have lived in blissful ignorance for far too long. I hope my work sheds a bit of light.
In the meantime, Rider Magazine published my story on my friend Amy, the sidecar riding artist. It is on the stands now. Check it out and let me know what you think. I’ll post the link when it goes on their web site. Rider is also going to run a story I did on Bleeding Kansas soon. I’ll post when I know the issue. On the other side of the ledger, they rejected my Missouri ride story: too heavy on the history. I could rework it as I did with the Kansas story, but I kind of like it as is. I may just look for another publication more suited to it. I present it here for your consideration.
The Long Way to Kansas City
The Illinois River faded in the Suzuki’s rearview mirror. Up ahead, an ominous black cloud engulfed the entire state of Missouri. Intermittent drizzle was soon punctuated by brilliant bolts of lightning. As I rolled into Hannibal, the heavens opened up, pounding me with sheets of heavy rain.
Under a big gas station canopy, a couple of locals told me the Mississippi was eight feet above flood stage. They also warned of numerous road closures throughout the Missouri River Valley. This didn’t bode well for the day’s ride, but since I’m not one to hole up, I gulped the last of my coffee, jumped on the bike and pressed on.
Interstate 72 morphs into U.S. 36 at Hannibal, twenty miles out of town U.S. 24 intersects. It angles southwest, winding through some of the best riding the Show Me State has to offer. Soon a sign advised the birthplace of Mark Twain was just seven miles off the highway. Since the rain had let up I figured I’d check it out. The state has constructed a fitting tribute to its most famous son within the confines of Mark Twain State Park. Along with Twain’s life, slavery in Missouri and the Civil War are also featured. The latter was to be a common theme of this ride.
Back on U.S.24, my brief window slammed shut. The rain returned with a vengeance and the roadway took on the appearance of a river. Keytesville Missouri was the end of the line. There a low-lying stretch was completely swamped. The town as it turned out, was important during the Civil War, as it was home to Sterling Price. I decided to spend the night and take in the museum based on his life. A planter and lawyer as a civilian, Price served with distinction as a U.S. Army brigadier general during the Mexican-American War. Later, he did a stint as governor of Missouri. Then, as ominous clouds of war formed, his state called again. He accepted a command in the Missouri State Guard. While initially opposed to secession, Union outrages caused him to cast his lot with the Confederacy as a Major General, serving in numerous campaigns. It is an odd commentary that a man who served his nation and state so willingly died a pauper after the war.
The weather cleared overnight, but the still swollen Mussel Fork continued to block my progress. I knew the V-Strom, with its high-mounted exhaust and air intake would have no trouble dealing with the water still covering the road, but Missouri DOT wouldn’t let me try. Needing to get moving, I backtracked to Missouri 5, and then headed south at Glasgow. There I crossed the Big Muddy at site of the world’s first large all-steel railroad bridge, spanning 1150 feet, it was dedicated in 1879. The original rendition served for several decades until heavier train traffic forced an upgrade. As I watched uprooted trees float by in the swirling brown water, I pondered how it must have been to make the crossing during the war when there was no bridge at all, only a ferry. Then I jumped on the Strom and breezed across on the concrete highway that parallels the modernized rail bridge.
Missouri 240’s smooth pavement twists and turns through rolling pastureland. I had a blast on its perfectly engineered curves and rises. At Marshall I swung west on U.S. 65 which reconnects to U.S. 24 and parallels I-70 a few miles to the south. The relaxed two-lanes are a different world compared to the intense super-slab. But watch out for Waverly, it’s a speed trap. No, I didn’t get a ticket, but I did observe the local constable doing a good business. The town’s other claim-to-fame is a tidy park dedicated to the memory of another citizen-solider: General Joe Shelby. A life-size bronze statue captures him in full battle dress on his trusty steed. A successful Missourian during the antebellum era, he steam boated and operated a hemp mill at Waverly. As with Price, the fortunes of war would greatly impact his life. I would cross paths with Shelby again before this ride was over.
A few miles up the road Lexington was the site of “The Battle of Hemp Bales,” so named for Sterling Price’s innovative tactic of using the ubiquitous farm product as rolling cover, it represented the greatest victory of the Confederacy in 1861.
Missouri 13 passes within a couple of miles of the Confederate Memorial State Historic Site at Higginsville. As I rode into the grounds, I noticed a large gathering at the cemetery. A park ranger told me that the Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies were just wrapping up, but I was welcome to take in the remainder. An annual event, every state of the former Confederacy was represented. Re-enactors wearing period correct uniforms including cap-and-ball revolvers and cavalry swords milled about. Speeches and prayers were offered to honor those who died fighting for a cause they believed in. As I rode away, I couldn’t help but be moved by the sight of dozens of miniature Stars and Bars flapping gently in the breeze as they marked the graves of the fallen.
Back on 13, I continued south, happy to avoid the crush of I-70 in the distance. At U.S. 50, I headed west. Signs soon alerted of another Civil War site, Lone Jack. I exited, but was perplexed as to exactly where the battlefield was located. At a newly constructed quick-mart, I learned I was standing on it. The property long used for reenactments had been sold recently. Only three acres survive. This is a pity, as Americans need to be reminded of the time when our Union almost didn’t endure. The grounds now consist of a visitor’s center operated by the Friends of Lone Jack and a cemetery. There, Union and Confederate dead are buried just a few yards apart, a rarity in Civil War battlegrounds.
Twenty-five miles to the west, U.S. 71 drives into the heart of Kansas City. What is the current metro area played host to fierce fighting during the Battle of Westport. While there is no longer a battlefield per se, an extensive motor tour winds through points of interest. One of the most haunting was at Forest Hills Cemetery, site of Shelby’s Last Stand. The imposing Confederate Monument guards the final resting place of many of his men. The General himself famously fled across the Rio Grande rather than surrender. Upon his death in 1897, he rejoined his compatriots at the scene of their defeat.
Kansas City boasts of another war memorial, albeit one from a different century. The Liberty Tower was dedicated in 1921to honor those who gave all in “the war to end all wars.” Human nature proved those words premature just two decades later. Exhibits in the accompanying world-class museum paint a picture of the chaos that engulfed the globe and our species’ propensity for self-destruction. King Solomon once said there is nothing new under the sun. This ride reminded me just how providential those words were.
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Lest everyone think I’ve been a slug over winter break, I thought I’d better offer a reason for not posting. Since fall classes ended, I’ve been heavy into my spring directed writing class project. It will certainly carry on through the summer and possibly the fall as well. I’ll have to put together a post on what I’m up to soon. But for now, here are a couple of my previous blogs that I combined into my third writing project during the fall semester. What seemed like an easy task turned out to be a lot more complicated than I ever imagined. Both pieces are on writers I admire and have influenced me. I hope you enjoy them.
Save the Trees
I wish I was a faster typist. No, scratch that. What I’d really like to do is actually type. I perform a poor imitation. During the 1970s while serving a four year sentence at Valparaiso High School, my guidance counselor tried repeatedly to get me into typing class. That was what they called it then. They used real typewriters. I always begged off, as it didn’t seem like a “manly” activity. My logic, quite flawed as it turns out, was if I need a typist, I’ll hire one. Well I’m paying for it now.
The word processor is a wonderful innovation. Without it, I’d be responsible for the decimation an entire forests. I’d also need barrels of white-out. But even this crutch has its limitations. Until recently, my brain and fingers pounded the keyboard in sort of a mutual harmony. The thoughts didn’t overwhelm the digits. But now the ideas are coming in frenzy and my clumsy fingers struggle to keep up. And I get frustrated. An aspiring writer should know how to type. A few years ago I took a keyboarding class at the career center at work. The program was called Mavis-Beacon. The contortions required to mimic the virtual keyboard prompts were unnatural and uncomfortable. I’d have had much less trouble when my fingers and mind were more pliable. Like when I was in high school.
Mechanical issues aside, I prefer a creative nonfiction style based on actual events from a first-person perspective. I say based, because to me truth, rather than the straight relating of fact is more important. Jack Kerouac, whose work has been an inspiration, popularized a technique that involved the fictionalization of real events. This is something I’ve also played with. Kerouac incidentally, was a lightning fast typist. His best seller, On the Road: the Original Scroll was fired off during a three-week marathon session. His canvas was a taped together 120-foot-long “scroll” of typing paper.
Kerouac also turned out some fine nonfiction. His tale Lonesome Traveler: Alone on a Mountaintop, relates of working as a firewatcher in the Cascade Mountains. A favorite of mine, the piece chronicles his manning of an isolated mountaintop outpost. Having once visited a fire watch installation in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, I have no problem relating to how the experience must have felt. The firewatcher’s main responsibility, I was told by the tour guide, involved scanning for forest fires from the 100 foot-tall steel tower. The coordinates would then be radioed to dispatch for appropriate action. Fires often emanate from lightning strikes. The prospect of becoming a human lightning rod isn’t too appealing for most people. Writing being the solitary endeavor it is along with the lure of ample time to read, must have made the risk one worth taking for Kerouac. Nowadays, satellites do the watching; not nearly as romantic, but much safer.
As for gathering material, I favor living it, then telling it. Kerouac spent years on the road, something I’d love to do. But for the time being, I’ll be lucky to scrape together a couple months away. Some observers credit chemical over-indulgences that snuffed Jack’s life at age forty-nine as the basis of his creativity. I often ponder the question, but nevertheless don’t plan to take that particular path. After all, successful as he was, he’s still dead. And I definitely won’t attempt to mimic his use of the scroll. I’ll just stick with the word processor and save some trees.
A Little Piece of Dirt
Recently, I reread Hunter Thompson’s breakout best-seller, Hell’s Angels. The story centers on his experiences as he rode and partied with the notorious Southern California 1% Club. In the end, he barely escaped with his life after suffering a severe beating know in Angel vernacular as a “stomping.” The reason is lost to time, but may have had to do with the sharing of potential book profits. The Angels felt, and not without justification, that there would be no story without them. Beware when your subject matter includes outlaw biker gangs; they play by their own rules. Normal people would have just hired a lawyer. Subject compensation however, is something a writer needs to think about. It will doubtless come up in a project I’m currently contemplating. Lucky for me though, a stomping shouldn’t be part of the payback.
Thompson was gifted with a brilliant mind and vivid imagination. An incredibly caustic wit was part of the package. He was also eccentric and controversial. He helped popularize the sixties’ innovation of new journalism, a deviation from the simple straight reporting of facts. HST’s version was dubbed Gonzo, in which he became a central character and integral part of the narrative. The impetus was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Thompson was in town as a news correspondent. Riots ensued and he discovered much to his shock, the press credentials he carried provided little protection. He was soon swept into melee and became part of his own story courtesy of a Chicago Police Department night stick.
Thompson’s commentary on life and politics in America is still remarkably fresh and relevant. But what fascinates me most is our common interests. Hunter, for example, was a gun enthusiast and devout 2nd Amendment advocate. He had an extensive collection of firearms that he loved to practice with at his Colorado estate, Owl Farm. This property was purchased in part with the advance from Hell’s Angels. The down payment was $10,000; chump change now, was big money in 1968. There he also engaged in another of my passions, riding dirt bikes. He didn’t buy quite enough land though, since later in life numerous complaints were lodged about his bizarre antics, such as blazing away with various weapons into the wee hours. In the end, the Aspen area where he lived saw the millionaires pushed out by the billionaires.
Thompson’s career accomplishments included twelve books, many of which were best-sellers, along with hundreds of magazine articles. Many of these were commissioned by Rolling Stone. He also did a piece for Cycle World Magazine. That same publication presented me with my first rejection slip. To reel Hunter in, the editor enticed him with a brand new Ducati to review. I should be so lucky. Hunter being Hunter, the resulting story, Song of the Sausage Creature had to be cleaned up so as to be presentable in a family format. Many authors look down their noses at the literary relevance of magazine articles, but I disagree. They are a good foundation and venue for floating ideas that may one day grow into larger works. I think Hunter would concur.
Thompson had trouble separating the wild and crazy in-print persona he had created from the real-life one. They increasingly became one and the same. Like Jack Kerouac, he was tormented by substance-fueled demons. They killed him in in the form of a self-inflicted bullet to-the-head at 67-years-old. Chalk up another victory for drugs and alcohol.
A life-long dream of mine is to own property where I can do much the same as Hunter, that is ride dirt bikes and shoot guns. Presently, I don’t have a big advance to back me up, or even a little one. But I am heartened by Rider Magazine’s purchase and publication of three of my stories. I hope to cultivate a long-term relationship with them. And maybe if I keep at it, I can one day move onto bigger things and earn enough to buy my own little piece of dirt.