Cross-country motorcycle riding is for me a kind of therapy. Bikes have been part of my
life since before I was old enough to drive legally. A Learner’s Permit, available at 15
1/2, was all one needed to legally operate a motorcycle in those days, whereas in a car a
permit-holder needed to have a licensed driver along. And aside from the freedom and
convenience, bikes were “cool” and “tough,” contributing, I hoped, to the image I was
trying hard to cultivate.
My brother Jim shared my passion and quickly surpassed me in ability. Younger, more
coordinated and much more daring, he eventually became an accomplished off-road
(dirt) racer and later segued into a professional flat-track racing career and reached
levels of prowess I always found dazzling and intimidating.
But in spite of Jim’s blasting on ahead, my love of riding never ebbed. Over time the
“tough” part of the image modulated without the bike losing a bit of its attraction, but
“cool” it remains. Today I don’t ride often, preferring to avoid the craziness of crowded
city streets, but I’ve owned motorcycles throughout most of my adult life and in the
early years took trips up into central and northern California as a kind of getaway lark.
The sense of freedom associated with riding one of these machines is difficult to
describe to one not smitten, but it combines the glory of flight, the childhood thrill of
coasting down a wonderful winding road or steep hill, the sensual pleasure of controlling
a machine possessed of enormous power and the romance of the solitary stranger
cruising into a new town, wrapped in mystery, oozing intrigue.
Even after my kids were born, if a few days presented themselves, I wasn’t working and
they were cared for, I’d take off up Hwy. 395 toward Lake Tahoe, maybe scoot up over
Tioga pass and down through Yosemite, or head up the coast to savor the spectacle of
During the MASH years I took a few rides; once finding myself with a couple of
unexpected weeks off I thought about riding my ’67 Triumph Thunderbird up the coast
into the Pacific Northwest. Because there wasn’t enough time to make it all the way up
and back, a friend suggested I fly up, buy a bike and ride it home. Perfect, I realized, and
flew to Seattle, where I bought a used Triumph Trident and breezed all the way down the
coast for the longest ride I’d yet made.
In 1987, when producing “Dominick and Eugene” in Pittsburgh, I had the crew from L.A.
load up my bike, then a 1986 600cc Honda street/dirt combination (meaning simply
that it was equipped to ride off-road while at the same time having the lights, muffler,
license plate and other goodies necessary to make it street legal), on a truck with some
equipment they were bringing so I could use it on weekends to explore some new
country, or occasionally tool out to an interesting location.
When the shoot ended I saw an opportunity, so called Shelley and asked if she’d mind if I
took a couple of extra weeks to ride the bike home. The sweet woman objected not at
all, reminding me that she was going to be in Iowa for part of that time anyway, hosting
the Donna Reed Festival for the Performing Arts, an effort dedicated to the memory of
the woman she revered as her second mother.
So, after wrapping the picture, I saddled up and headed down through West Virginia and
a bit of Maryland, across Kentucky and through Southern Illinois, then over into the
Missouri Ozarks before deciding to head north again and see Shelley in Iowa. After a
one-day, 600 mile trek I was able to surprise her and spend some time in Denison before
taking off west into Nebraska, up to South Dakota, across to the Pine Ridge Reservation,
through the Badlands and into the Big Sky Country of Montana.
Overreaching a bit, I ran out of gas on a lonely stretch of highway in Montana. Bikes get
great mileage, but the Honda tank only carried three or four gallons (depending on the
model) so it pays to be wary. It had a small reserve tank, so when you run out of fuel in
the main tank you switch to reserve and start looking for a station. (Not always an easy
thing to find, as in the moment at hand.) But with the reserve now out (I had switched
to it when the bike first started to sputter) and a lot of empty space around, I decided
to see if there might just be a bit of gas left in the bottom of the primary tank. Hoping,
I laid the bike on its side, made a wish for gravity to do its trick, picked it back up and
kicked the starter. It started! Knowing I was operating on fumes and wouldn’t get far, I
was delighted to spot a ranger station just a couple more miles down the road. The
ranger didn’t have any extra gas, but said it was only two more miles to a small town, so
on I went. Pulling into town a police car was blocking the highway with an officer
dismounted, standing beside it, so of course I stopped. The cop looked at me and said
the ranger had called. “He told me it was you. Damned if it ain’t.” After securing a
promise that I’d stop at headquarters after filling up, he directed me to the nearest gas
station. So, after getting gas I turned myself in, said hello, signed some autographs and
had a few pictures taken before heading further west. Nice folks, all.
After a stop at the Little Big Horn, it was down past a glorious series of terraced lakes in
the Sheridan National Park in Wyoming, through Yellowstone Park, south into Idaho, then
over to Oregon and soon back into the familiar terrain of California and home. My first
true cross-country ride!
In ’91, when my partner, Marvin Minoff, and I did a film in Ogden, Utah, I again had the
bike trucked up to the location. Since I was acting in the film, we agreed I wouldn’t do
any riding until the shooting had been completed, but once it was over I took the long
way home after we wrapped by exploring Utah, a bit of Wyoming and then back up into
Idaho, Oregon and down the California coast.
Later years offered the opportunity for more limited rides, mostly again into the
northwest, but because I had done the California roads so many times I began putting
the bike on the back of my truck and driving to a friend’s place in Ashland, Oregon.
Leaving the truck in his yard I could head on up through Oregon, Washington and into
Canada. The most memorable of those rides was one to the top of Vancouver Island and
onto a ferry that took me north through the Inland Passage. I got off in Prince Rupert
and rode up into southern Alaska, one of the only two states in the U.S. in which I had
not yet set foot. On a dirt road out in the back country of southern Alaska I was
amazed to see a salmon run, literally a river alive with spawning fish, and then thrilled at
the sight of a bald eagle lifting off the road just ahead of me and climbing away in all its
glory. From there I ventured back into British Columbia, out east, down through
Montana and Idaho, back to Oregon and home.
Whetting my appetite with the cross-USA ride, though, kept me thinking of other lands
to conquer. So in the spring of ’97, after “Coach” ended, Shelley and I flew to Hong
Kong, where we spent a wonderful week exploring both sides of the canal and eventually
the fabulous bazaar on the south side of the island. From there we flew to Sydney,
Australia, home of one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. After a week of good
eating, roaming Sydney’s streets and marveling at its red-tile-roofs, Shelley flew home
and I took off down Highway 1, the Prince’s Highway, on a new 660cc Yamaha I had
purchased locally, with the understanding that I could sell it back upon my return.
Curving south and west, the beautiful coast of New South Wales boasts beaches, forests
of Gum (Eucalyptus) Trees and silhouette signs warning one to watch for kangaroos,
koalas and a monster shaped like a rhinoceros. But that’s just the sign. The monster
turns out to be a harmless little thing called a wombat. Probably because of too much
traffic, I saw none of these critters in the first few days’ ride.
Around the southern edge of the Great Dividing Range and into the province of Victoria
the forests give way to farmland. Melbourne, Victoria’s capital, is a lovely city with a
much more “old world” feeling than the more modern Sydney - it being often said that
Melbourne is to Sydney as San Francisco is to Los Angeles. There I spent a few days
looking around and doing a couple of TV interviews that had been requested when word
got out I was in the country. Learning of my planned trek, more than one show’s host
warned of the many dangers of Australia, particularly in the western desert area called
The Nullarbor. Interestingly, most of those expressing these sometimes quite passionate
concerns said they’d never actually seen the Nullarbor or been into the Outback.
After a great time in Melbourne I headed south to a ferry across Port Phillip Bay, then
west on the much-touted “Great Ocean Road,” which is quite wonderful. I’d have to say
it doesn’t outshine the beauty of Highway 1 on the California Coast, but sights like the
Twelve Apostles – stunning remnants of land-that-once-was – just offshore in Port
Campbell National Park are striking. From there it was into South Australia and its
capital, Adelaide, a lovely, park-filled city. Next I headed north along the coast of
Spencer Gulf to Port Augusta, where in a little health food shop a man, offering a bad
shoulder as evidence, gave me a stern warning about emu attacks: “they’re crazy and
they hate motorcycles,” he growled.
From Port Augusta it’s a straight shot west across the Nullarbor, the treeless plain
(similar to the Mojave Desert) that stretches for many miles and so intimidates
Australians; “People die out there” I was told more than once. There were many stories
about Japanese tourists on bicycles disappearing into bottomless holes.
Aside from having to stay alert to the constant threat of emu attack, the Nullarbor is a
hot and pretty boring ride, the exception being one spectacular discovery. In the middle
of a hot day’s ride through relentlessly flat, desolate land, apparently the same in every
direction, I whipped past a wooden sign that bore only a picture of a camera and an
arrow pointing off to the left. Intrigued at the idea that there would be something out
here worth a picture, I turned back and pulled down a dirt road for a couple of hundred
yards to a parking area. Just beyond, totally invisible from the road, is a blue horizon
where the sky meets the Southern Australian Ocean. A short walk, on which one is
welcomed by the 17 jillion black flies that swarm over anything that moves in the
Outback, a sheer drop brings an abrupt halt to what up to that point seemed to be an
apparently endless desert. About a hundred feet straight down the rugged cliffs at my
toes, the sea crashes against rocky crags, sending a welcome, cooling spray up to say
“G’day.” It’s a fabulous, beautiful sight, this huge, deep, clear blue body of water, and
the idea that Antarctica lies just out of sight on the other side brings a sudden
awareness of how far I am from home.
After breathing in the beauty for a while I head back to the bike, recharged. As I near it,
two men pull up and step out of their car, looking for the photo op. One puts on a hat
with a full brim, from which dangle what appear to be little fabric balls on strings. As we
exchange greetings he tells me that the hat is designed to keep the flies out of his face
and notes, as I wave some of them out of my own eyes, that I’m doing what is known as
“the Australian salute.”
Later, I find a small room in a small motel, thank heaven, and get a good night’s sleep
before tackling the rest of the Nullarbor.
The next day, having seen more than my share of kangaroos, emus (none of which
attacked), and legions of extraordinarily colorful birds that dot the barren terrain, I pulled
into the Western Australian capital of Perth, a great city thriving on the Indian Ocean,
separated from the rest of the country by miles and miles of largely deserted Outback. I
spent the better part of a week there, much of it with my old friend Brian McErlean and
his young family. An Irish immigrant, Brian has done quite well here as a veterinarian.
On leaving, lacking the time to ride north to Darwin and circle the entire continent, I
decided to cross to Ayers Rock, the Aboriginal holy ground in the nation’s center, see
nearby Alice Springs, then cut north and east from there. But, not anxious to repeat the
rather boring Nullarbor, I arranged to have the bike shipped to Alice by “road train.”
An Australian oddity, road trains are comprised of a semi-tractor like we see home, but
instead of one, these rigs pull many huge trailers – often as many as five or six - and tear
down the road at an astonishing speed, blowing up a hell of a cross-wind if they’re
coming in the opposite direction. As I discovered on the Nullarbor, they make passing
very chancy if you come up behind one (or it behind you).
Assured that the bike would be in Alice to meet me, I flew to Ayers Rock. In the
geographical center of the continent, it’s easy to see why the Rock is considered a holy
place by Aboriginals. It’s huge and red and juts up out of the virtually flat earth around
it and squats there, 1150’ at its top and six miles around at its base, with a kind of
mysterious majesty. The land about it is hot as hell, seems airless, and comes with its
own ready supply of the pesky black flies.
After circling the entire thing in a rented car – having decided to honor the Aboriginals
wish that it not be climbed by tourists - and being stunned by how hard it is to navigate
on the washboard roads (traction is quickly lost and the car vibrates crazily as it slips
from side to side), I ate a good dinner at a nice hotel and, after dark, took an outdoor
tour of the southern sky’s constellations, courtesy of a local astronomer. The next
morning a short flight took me from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs where, as promised, the
bike was waiting, still strapped to its pallet.
In Alice Springs, I was able to find the house of the sister of my friend Patricia, but no
one was home. Since it was school holiday time and I didn’t know if they might be away,
I left a note and headed into town. Alice is a kind of frontier town grown to where it
doesn’t recognize itself. But it does boast a pretty good natural food co-op restaurant.
After a good lunch and a call to Patricia’s sister - again finding no one home - I stopped
at a travel information center to inquire about an interesting road shown on my map.
The road went out through the bush, as they think of it, and thus offered the chance to
see some of the real Outback. My concern was whether I could get gasoline out there
when I needed it (I could only get about 150 miles without a refill). I also wanted to
know if the roads, which I expected to be dirt tracks, were of the washboard variety I
had encountered in the car out at Ayers Rock. If so they’d be damned tough to
negotiate on the bike.
The nice people at the center looked a bit confused when I asked about the availability
of gasoline, but once we got past the semantic difference they finally assured me that
there was one place to buy “petrol” that would be open all night on an Aboriginal
Station. That covered a third of the distance. For the second leg, there was a man who
ran a “cattle station” (Aussie term for ranch) who sometimes would sell petrol to people
in need. I could call him, they offered. As for the washboard roads, they had no idea
what I was talking about.
A call to the rancher, a nice, tersely-spoken fellow named Graham Fulcher, told me he
supposed he could supply me with some petrol, if I needed it. He and his wife
sometimes even put up travelers at their place, he said. Just look for the sign for
Ooratipra Station. “Washboard?” He didn’t know the term. But the road was pretty
good. “Road-trains use it.” Well, hell, I figured, if it’s good enough for road-trains it’ll
certainly work for a motorcycle.
So, I headed up and across the Northern Territories, after a while passing a marker
indicating that I was crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, which I thought was pretty cool.
Some distance beyond the marker came the junction for the dirt road shortcut, and once
down this road I was into a major adventure. First, of course, the distance suggested by
the nice people at the information station was off by a considerable degree. Having
gone well beyond what they had estimated and beginning to worry about the amount of
“petrol” I had left, I was relieved to finally come upon a camp with some trailers and a
fire-pit. But no one was around. On down the road a bit, though, I did find a road crew –
a pretty ragged-looking lot – who apparently lived in the camp I had found. They didn’t,
however, have any petrol to spare. And when I told the road boss – a one-eyed
roughneck who looked like a pirate - about the Aboriginal Station I had been led to
believe was out here, he laughed. It’s there, he assured me, some kilometers down the
road yet, but it’d be closed by the time I got there. “No, they said it was open 24
hours,” I assured him (and myself). This time he laughed uproariously and wished me
Racing the weakening sun on down the road, I finally came to a very-closed gas (petrol)
station in a meager Aboriginal town with nary a soul in sight. A fenced-off area (high,
chain-link) held a house and some dogs a short walk west of the station, but I couldn’t
raise anyone there, either. Not anxious to be out on the road after dark and without
enough gas to get back to Alice, I sat and fumed for a while, thought about trying to
break the locks on the pumps and generally frittered away what light was left.
Finally, a car approached the gate to the chain-link fence. The woman driving was very
cautious and not very communicative, but indicated, as she unlocked the gate, moved
the car in and locked it behind her, pointedly leaving me outside, that her husband was
out helping someone and would be back at some point in the evening. Maybe he could
open the office and turn on the pumps, she guessed. She didn’t have the key.
Shit. So I waited. Well after dark the husband came and, understanding my plight,
opened the office, turned on the pumps and filled my tank. He strongly suggested it
was too dark to go on and that I should consider sleeping on the nearby open, cracked,
uneven concrete pad that evidently served as a playground for the Aboriginal kids.
Unsure of what kind of reception I’d get from the locals in the morning – or during the
night, for that matter – I opted instead to call Mr. Fulcher and see if he’d agree to put
me up for the night. If so, I’d move on.
Fulcher agreed, so on I went, into the very dark night. And damn, was it dark! Stars
were out, and there was a moon after a while, but that was it. Ahead, all I could see was
what was in the narrow beam of my headlight, and pretty soon I was faced with an
unexpected choice. Washboard surfaces – increasingly serious washboards, in fact - on
the roadway made forward progress pretty perilous, so I had to slow down. In a car you
can bounce around and lose traction, even get sideways as a result of the uneven
surface without any serious problems. On a bike any loss of traction is a serious
problem, so slowing down and switching the headlight beam down to low in order to get
as much warning as possible of the arrival of the treacherous surface was a necessity.
But the headlight beam on low, while it told me of the road surface directly ahead, did
little to illuminate what was out in front a ways. So, after poking along watching out for
the washboard surface for a while, I felt, or sensed, something go by beside me. I
couldn’t see anything, but then had the same sensation of something passing again, this
time on the other side. I quickly switched my beam to high and discovered that I was in
the midst of a herd of cattle, with some of them – one a particularly large bull – looming
not far in front of me!
Breaking into a sweat I revved the engine, honked my horn and steered my way carefully
through the herd while some animals bolted out of the way as others turned and stared,
probably as shocked to see me as I was them.
Now I tended to switch from high to low beam and back periodically, hoping to avoid any
more such surprises while still trying to keep an eye out for the appearance of the
rugged, ridged surfaces in the roadway. It made for slow and careful riding, thus difficult
headway. Then a reflection ahead slowed me even further and I happened on a car
stopped in the middle of the road, doors open and hood up, with three Aboriginal men
standing around it. Having been warned from time to time about the dangers associated
with encountering hostile or sometimes drunken Aboriginals in out-of-the-way places, I
wasn’t sure just what to think. I stopped and asked if everything was OK and was told
by a surprised man that it was, so moved on. I hadn’t liked hearing those stories of
lurking danger and tended to think of them as the kind of urban legends one gets when
in any new area with a significant minority population, but the combination of events
kind of had me spooked already, so this just added to the tension.
Moving along, I tried to increase speed when the road appeared smooth enough, as it
was getting late. Ooratipra Station was some distance away and at the slower speed it
would take hours to get there. But soon even the smooth-appearing surface betrayed
me as I suddenly found the bike sluing from side to side as though I was in sand. It was
terrifying, as the machine was a bit top-heavy from the gear I had strapped on the back,
and maintaining balance was almost impossible. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the
loose surface was gone and I was back on solid ground. Shaken, I tried to figure out
what it was, as there was no telling when it would come again. And it did. Unlike the
washboard surface, which I could see and compensate for, this stuff was invisible from
my vantage point and I would just suddenly sink into it, my tires going one way or
another, sometimes one going one way and the other going the other, and I’d fight to
stay upright. Once in it I couldn’t stop for fear that I’d not be able to get out, so I
pressed on, trying to spot these sand traps ahead of time, or even outsmart them. I
moved to the edge of the road, for example, thinking the sand, or whatever it was,
would be less likely to be there. Didn’t work.
I fought my way along for what seemed like hours, increasingly frustrated and even more
exhausted, when finally, inevitably, I hit a patch of this crap and went down.
Fortunately, like sand, it was fairly soft, so I wasn’t seriously hurt as best I could tell, but
the bike had landed on my left leg, pinning it, and my ankle hurt like hell. I turned off the
engine but couldn’t pull my leg out from under the bike, so simply lay there for a while,
panting. Though it seemed unlikely anyone would be coming along at this point I realized
it might not be a good idea to just lie there, so dug a channel down the side of my
trapped leg until I hit a rock. Sure, my ankle was caught between the motorcycle and a
rock. Probably the only damned rock in town. Oh, well. I squirmed around and managed
to pull my right leg over to the same side of the bike and heaved until the pressure came
off my left ankle and I could pull it out. I got up gingerly and found that I could sort of
stand, but the ankle didn’t want too much pressure, so I quickly sat back down.
This stuff I was in, I later found out, is an Australian peculiarity called “bull-dust:” a
talcum-power-like silt that develops from loose dirt that gathers in depressions in the
road after rains have filled them and then evaporated. The resulting mud is beaten into
dust and finally into this fine powder by the crushing tires of rampaging road trains. It’s
Well, gotta do something, I figured, so I tried lifting the bike back up, but no go. My
ankle couldn’t take the pressure. Shit. Next, I unstrapped all my gear to lessen the
weight of the bike, gritted my teeth and got it back up on its wheels without screaming.
But damn, that hurt! Then, of course, I had to find a way to keep the bike standing up in
this crap while I pulled all my gear up out of the dirt and strapped it back on. Quite a
dance – if swearing, sweating, bending, balancing all while hopping on one foot is a
Back aboard, I thanked God that the bike had an electric starter (I’d never have been
able to kick it over with the ankle in this shape) and pushed the button. It worked!
Shifting, which one does with the left foot, was not fun and quickly proved to be so
painful it was impossible. The bike would go into first gear but no farther. First gear
was all I needed to get out of this patch of dust, but I couldn’t get much traveling done
if that’s all the gears I had, so I stopped to check out the problem. Turned out the gear
shift lever was bent, so I was able to pull it back into line without too much trouble and
For the next year, at least, I plowed on, coming to new patches of washboard and
alternating pits of dust, trying to hold myself up without putting too much pressure on
the ankle, and generally having a swell time. I got so tired I thought of just pulling over
to the side of the road, putting on my rain gear for whatever protection it would offer,
and lying down and going to sleep in the dirt. But thoughts of road trains, Dingos or
other beasts and the knowledge that the roadside was studded with three- and fourfoot-
high anthills combined to dissuade me.
I went down in that goddamned Bull-dust two more times, once before coming to the
Ooratipra turn-off and once after. I thought I’d go crazy. Each time involved swearing,
taking off the gear, swearing, getting the bike back up, swearing, strapping it all back on,
swearing, praying, swearing, all on one foot, then starting it up and moving on again.
Finally I came to a gate, then the house, and as I stopped the engine and wondered if his
barking dog was my next test, Mr. Fulcher came out with a flashlight, shushed him and
took me inside. They’d been worried, he said. “Me too,” I offered.
Inside, in spite of the fact that I was completely covered with Bull-dust, incomparably
filthy and it was by then the middle of the night, Mrs. Fulcher made me sit in her kitchen
while she made tea and toast and they regaled me with stories of all the problems that
people had run into when traveling out here. “Yeah,” I thought, “I know.” We also
clarified why he hadn’t warned me about the washboard roads; he didn’t know the term.
When I described them he said, “Ah, corrugated…”
They steered me to a bedroom and showed me where the shower was, as I was dirt from
head to foot. And speaking of feet, when I pulled off my boot the ankle ballooned out
into a scary shape and I ended up crawling down the hall to the shower. But God, it felt
good to have clean water running over me.
The next morning, even with the ankle taped and stuffed into my tightly laced boot, I
realized I wasn’t going to be able to deal with a lot more Bull-dust, even in the daylight,
so I asked Mr. Fulcher how much farther to an asphalt road. Again, he didn’t know the
term. We worked out that it’s ‘bitumen’ to them and it was, he figured, about four
hours by truck. God. As I was starting to ask him if I could call someone with a tow
truck to get me out to the ‘bitumen,’ where I figured I’d be OK to ride, he volunteered
that his son, Cameron, would take me in their pickup.
Bless them. The three of us managed to get the bike up on the back of the Fulcher’s
pickup courtesy of a cattle ramp and off Cameron and I went. And then, every time we
hit a patch of Bull dust, as the truck slued back and forth, Cameron said, “How’d you like
to be on your bike in this?” In one nasty slide the bike pitched over in the back of the
truck, so we got out to check it over. Seemed OK. I learned only later that the
kickstand had cracked and bent.
On one stretch of road the damnedest thing happened. The road ahead suddenly was
glittering with reflected light, looking sort of like it was covered with moving water. In a
flash, though, the water rose in front of us, swept down at us, and the windshield of the
truck was pelted with a cloud of huge, shiny grasshoppers. In a few seconds we were
through them and the cloud was behind us, settling back on the road. I’ve never seen
anything like it, before or since.
Some hours later I was happy to be on solid ground again. We unloaded the bike, and,
after checking to see that I was OK to ride with the ankle strapped into the boot, I said
goodbye and thanks to Cameron (a very nice kid) and headed out across the Northern
Territories. In the next three days I rode into Queensland, through The Darling Downs,
where I saw an impossibly large Iguana (or Goanna, as they’re known here) and the last
couple of feet of what appeared to be a Guinness-qualifying snake. Every time I stopped
I had to walk slowly and carefully, but did okay. I had to find a welder at one point to fix
the kickstand after the bike almost went down at one stop, but, other than that, we
managed OK. Finally back into New South Wales and Sydney, I sold back the bike (at a
reduced rate due to the dings from the spills) got my ankle into some ice, arranged a
flight and flew home. Longest and best trip yet. (Once home, at Shelley’s insistence, I
had the ankle X-Rayed to find it was broken. The next six weeks involved crutches and
wearing one of those boot-casts.)
Later that same year, ankle healed, I got the chance again, so flew to Chicago and visited
my friend Joe Giarratano in Joliet Prison. (Joe, an innocent man we’d saved from the
electric chair in 1991, was still fighting for a new trial.) After the visit I had planned to
buy a new version of my Honda for a ride out to look at the Maritimes, the eastern
Canadian provinces I’d not yet visited. However, the Honda shop had a fairly puny
selection and nothing struck my fancy, so I went to a BMW dealership and bought a new,
single-cylinder 650cc dual-sport (on/off road) bike I’d first noticed in L.A.
Heading out in the rain I left Illinois and rode into Indiana, then up through Michigan and
into Canada, where I stopped in Toronto to see my friend Jim Frawley (Jim directed “Sins
of the Mind,” a film Marvin and I produced), who was there directing a picture. After a
brief visit with Jim and his cast, headed by the wonderful Mary Stuart Masterson, I took
off again, heading east through Quebec, down into New Brunswick, and over to see the
beautiful farmland of Prince Edward Island, the home of an old friend who was
instrumental in getting me started in acting. Bud was one of the thousands of hopefuls
who are drawn to Hollywood in search of the answer to their dreams and never find it. A
sweet, lonely, bedeviled man, he was talented, kind, generous to others, hard only on
himself. Last I heard from him, he was working at a camp for troubled kids.
From PEI and thoughts of Bud I ventured into Nova Scotia and from there onto a ferry to
Bar Harbor Maine, completing another quest as Maine was the last U.S. state in which I
had yet to set foot. After crossing beautiful, forested Maine, seeing historic New
Hampshire, glorious Vermont, and upstate New York, I headed back up into Canada and
its capital, Ottawa, to see our friend Catherine McClenahan (one of the great beauties,
Catherine is married to Bill Fagerbakke, who starred with Shelley on “Coach”), who was
there visiting her parents.
After a warm, comfortable stay with Catherine’s family (all gorgeous) it was west across
that vast country, at one point to be stopped dead in my tracks just outside Thunder
Bay, Ontario, stunned by the most vivid rainbow I’ve ever seen. Truly phenomenal!
In Saskatchewan, I spent some time talking to a young guy who was riding a bicycle
across the prairie, towing a wheeled sign calling for world peace. He was headed for the
west coast and then south, intending to circle both North and South America on a
personal campaign to bring people together. Aren’t some folks just amazing? Some
time after we parted I fought a fierce wind into Saskatoon and wondered how he was
In Edmonton, Alberta, I stayed with Catherine McLenahan’s sister and we went to see our
friend Lisa Raggio in a play. (Lisa is married to Ken Kimmins, who also worked with
Shelley on “Coach.”) And then it was west through the Canadian Rockies and riding
bathed in beauty all the way to Vancouver, B.C., before heading back down the west
coast of the U.S. and home. The west coast, Washington, Oregon and California, are
simply phenomenally beautiful, though the final leg of the trip, from San Francisco south,
had to be rushed because Shelley was utterly devastated by the sudden death of
Princess Diana, one of her heroes.
Thoughts of more trips had to be shelved for the next few years due to Shelley’s
increasingly alarming health problems, the most severe being an esophageal bleed that
almost cost her life. That torturous time came to a head when she had a liver transplant
in October of 2000. But having struggled in the relative darkness of confusion through
too many of the preceding years, the diagnosis, her patient and courageous wait for a
donor, the miracle of the surgery itself and her remarkably gutsy recovery allowed us to
begin to take a few deep breaths and consider the future.
One dream was taking a trip in the next year. The thought was a ride across the
southern U.S. to the East Coast, where Shel would fly to meet me. Then, stowing the
bike and the two of us on a freighter to Europe we would enjoy a leisurely cruise before
disembarking and proceeding to play tag. She’d fly or take a train to whatever city we
chose and I’d ride there to meet her, allowing us to enjoy our particular pleasures
individually and together. (Shelley doesn’t like motorcycles. All the more reason to love
her, though, as she’s so supportive of my romance with them.)
But progress or no, it became clear by early spring that Shel wasn’t yet strong enough
to make the kind of trip we had discussed. In fact, except for the occasional short and
leisurely jaunt, she wasn’t yet up to any real trip, as a flight to Cleveland for her niece’s
wedding demonstrated. But in spite of her own inability to travel she insisted I should do
as much of the trip as possible during my time off from “Providence,” the show I had
then been doing for the preceding three years.
Once assured that she’d be OK alone and that the opportunity for a quiet rest was, in
fact, something to which she looked forward, I began thinking seriously about it.
Greenpeace had asked me to do a tour of “Cancer Alley,” the incredibly polluted strip
between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, in order to bring some attention to
the plight of the mostly poor, mostly black residents of the area who live in the deadly
offal spewed by the oil and chemical refineries that dot the region. That was set for
Saturday, June 9th.
With the show scheduled to start again on July 19th, I could have about five weeks on
the bike if I could get it to New Orleans on my truck and take off from there once the
Greenpeace gig was over. My son Mike has a friend in N.O., so he was thrilled with the
idea of going with me, spending time with his pal and then bringing the truck home.
Finding an international cell phone through which I could stay in touch with Shel pretty
much sealed the deal.
Sweet Shelley had been wanting to buy me a new bike and thought this was the perfect
opportunity, so I traded in the BMW I had gotten in Chicago for a new version of the
same one, this the BMW 650cc ‘Dakar’ model, specially designed to accommodate on-off
road adventures. Some phone calls helped me arrange to ship the bike by air to London,
and myself with it. The dates were set and all I had to do was ride from New Orleans to
Toronto, Canada, and be there by June 14th to check the bike in. (It could be shipped
from the U.S. but I’d been warned that our Customs people can delay shipping for up to
three days, while from Canada it’s only one. I figured I’d rather spend the extra two days
riding to Canada than sitting in Atlanta.) Once in London I could go wherever the spirit
moved me until turning the bike in to Lufthansa at the Frankfurt airport on July 14th for
shipment home. Wow!
Day One – Wednesday, June 6, 2001
With a family obligation in L.A. on the night of Tuesday, June 5th and the need to be in
New Orleans by the evening of Friday, June 8th, we have to make 700 miles per day, so
Mike, having taken the truck home the night before, brings it at 8 AM, the agreed time.
We put the bike aboard and pack our bags, groceries and ice chest in around it. Mike has
packed light, only one suitcase, and I can’t believe all the crap I’m putting back there.
What am I thinking?
Shelley and Patricia had filled the ice chest and three grocery bags with snacks, food,
drinks and goodies for us to enjoy on the way, a particularly thoughtful touch. It’s been
hotter than hell in L.A. and the southwest is reporting scorching temperatures. What a
time to be driving through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in a car without air
Shel cannot have been more loving and supportive about the trip and buzzes around this
morning finding ways to be helpful in getting us moving. Among her more thoughtful
contributions is a batch of audiotapes to enjoy as we drive.
By 9 A.M. we’re out the gate and away, with a tearful yet smiling Shelley standing in the
middle of the street waving us out of sight.
The truck (a ’92 Toyota half-ton pickup I love) is performing well, but with the bike and
all the other stuff it’s quite a load, so I’m careful on corners, feeling it out. The bike
sticks up a couple of feet above the top of the cab, so I’m reminding myself to be aware
of that when pulling into gas stations, garages or anything with a ceiling.
It’s wonderful to have this time with Mike. He’s navigator, so is trying to get a sense of
the various maps I’ve brought. The route is pretty simple: I-10 East, all the way. Simple,
of course, until I’m so involved in conversation with Mike (who knows more about the
JFK assassination, UFOs, martial arts and Eastern philosophy than I’ll ever comprehend)
that I miss the turn from the 210 that’s to take us down to the I-10 E.
No biggie. As the 210 ends we drive through one of the outlying eastern communities,
Cucamonga or something, until we find a likely looking street headed south and fumble
our way down to the I-10E (still known to us old-timers as the San Bernardino Freeway).
It heats up pretty quickly as the day grows, but we’re having too good a time to care.
Hot, but what the hell? We’ve prepared for it as best we can. In the desert I’m
surprised to see the gas gauge looking very low with only 200 miles on the odometer
from the last fill-up. I usually get 250 or more, but figure it’s probably the weight of our
load plus the extra wind resistance from the bike sitting up so high. Anyway, we pull off
at a funky, very dirty station run by a toothless desert rat. Unbelievably lousy
bathrooms. Amazing how far from home you can get in so little time. As we pull away,
Mike is moved to ruminate about why some people choose the lives they do, a discussion
that carries us quite a ways further along.
The desert is like most deserts, bleak and hot. With the back window open we close the
sides to cut the noise and try one of Shel’s tapes. It’s about an English Scotland Yard
detective investigating the death of a young boy at a monastery-type school for
Anglican priests. My God, it is slow moving! Shelley loves these English stories and I
sometimes find them enjoyable, but this one creeps along endlessly.
Lord, is it hot! Sweaty, hard-to-breathe hot. And crossing into Arizona doesn’t make it
any cooler. With an eye toward how many miles we have to cover each day I’m trying
to keep the truck at about 70 or 75 mph, but with the load in back we can’t maintain
that on the upgrades, and upgrades there are, almost as soon as we cross the Arizona
Suddenly the speedometer goes nuts. It’s waving all over the place, unwilling to tell me
how fast we’re going, or, eventually, if we’re going at all. Shit. This is not what we
need. At first, I’m not clear if the odometer is affected as well, but finally it becomes
clear that it’s dead too. So there’s no way to know how many miles we’re making,
except by road signs and maps, and no way to know how fast we’re going, which can be
fun if the highway patrol is around. I’ll have to be careful about refueling as well, since
I’m used to judging by the odometer.
I had noticed that the tachometer showed the engine running at about 3500 rpm at 70
mph, so with the tach still working I figure if we can keep it between 3500 and 4000
rpm we should be OK. We’ve bypassed Phoenix by this time, so decide to stop in
Tucson to see if we can find someone to look at the problem.
Tucson is baking, but we’re able to locate a speedometer shop without a problem. The
guy takes a quick look and says he can’t do anything until tomorrow and it’ll take
perhaps half a day to fix, so we quickly decide a speedometer is not a necessity.
Jesus, it’s hot! Thank God for Shelley and Patricia and the good stuff in the ice chest.
Into New Mexico the day wears down but the heat doesn’t. New Mexican mesas are a
nice alternative to the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. We begin watching the clock
because the first Laker/76ers game is on tonight. Mike is being very sweet by not
hassling me about it. He’s dying to see the game but is aware of my need to make a
certain number of miles before stopping. We’re now in Mountain Time, so I do a quick
calculation and figure I’ll surprise him by finding a place to stop for a while to see the
We pull into a new-looking motel in Lordsburg, New Mexico, and I ask at the desk if they
have the game. The woman doesn’t know, but turns on a TV in a waiting room area and
there it is. She’s very kind and willing to have us watch it right there, but hot, sweaty
and eager to rest in air-conditioned comfort, we take a room. Mike is delighted. As I
park the truck he cautions me about taking care where I put it if we’re not unloading the
gear, then rushes up to the room as I back the truck up against a wall for safety. Air
conditioning is a great invention, as is bed. The game is good, too, but the 76ers are
too scrappy for the Lakers, who, expecting to blow them out easily, can’t seem to get it
going. During half-time Mike runs down to the Denny’s across the parking lot, checks
that the truck is OK and comes back with dinner. God the kid can eat! The game gets
better in the second half but the Lakers can’t put these guys away and, to the surprise
of everyone but the 76ers (and maybe them too), lose.
Rested and cooler, we go down, pay for the room and head east. The woman is a bit
befuddled by our short stay, but very nice all the same. After not having tipped to
anything she surprises me by asking for an autograph. Then we’re off into the now
much cooler New Mexican night. It’s wonderful to spend this time with my son, who
remarks on how beautiful the countryside now seems to be. The game was good, the
sky is full of stars, we’re together and having a good time.
Bushed, we finally grab a motel in Deming, New Mexico, about 100 miles west of El Paso,
for our first night and figure we’ve done well, probably making our 700 miles. This place
has two big beds in a non-smoking room, so I ask Mike if he snores, as I’d rather pay for
two rooms than have a lousy night’s sleep. He says he doesn’t think so and I tell him
Shelley says I do, but if it bothers him to just tell me to roll over and it should stop.
We back the truck up to the door of the room, pull the gear out and fall into bed. Both
of us sleep well, neither hearing a peep from the other, and rise early.
Day Two – Thursday, June 7, 2001
Loading the truck there is a bit of a hubbub as the motel staff gathers at the door
asking for autographs and wanting to take pictures. It’s amazing how, in spite of hiding
under a hat, checking in late and noticing no one paying particular attention, the
exposure from television is so complete that one can’t escape it. As always, these
women are pleasant and it’s not a problem, but it’s a bit of a bump to see the
excitement on their faces and hear it in their voices and get that this is a big deal for
them. The motel manager comes out and brings her son for a picture, as well, saying
she knew who I was all the time but didn’t want to bother us last night.
We decide to wait breakfast until we get to El Paso in the hope of finding a Toyota
dealership where we can get the speedometer fixed, so get back on I-10E before the
heat builds up.
Leaving little Deming brings Mike back to musing about why some people choose to live
in places like this. Having been born and raised in Los Angeles, the energy of the large
city is natural for him; the concept of choosing small town life is not an easy one to
grasp. Crossing into Texas, we talk a bit about different people’s needs, interests and
aspirations as well as the possible advantages of the small canvas and quiet life. After a
couple of hours we come into the outskirts of El Paso and are struck by an appalling area
of slums spilling down the hill beside the highway. Mike is struck by the resemblance of
these living conditions to those of an impoverished area of San Salvador he and Erin
visited with me in 1989, and wonders aloud about how it is that people find themselves
in this situation. We’re looking into Mexico, it turns out, and we learn that Juarez has
grown exponentially with people coming from the interior of Mexico – or further south -
to find work on or across the border. So we realize that most of the people in this area
are new and ponder what conditions must have been like for them where they used to
live in order for them to prefer this life. Clearly, as bad as this is it offers more hope
than they once had. Maybe what we’re seeing is a combination of the human need to
strive for what is better and the promise embodied in the image people have of the U.S.
If so, we agree, there are probably some very disillusioned people right down below us.
In downtown El Paso a cop directs us to a Toyota dealership which we find without too
much difficulty (remembering to check the height of the garage before we go in to make
sure the bike clears it). After a bit of a wait a nice man asks about the trouble and
checks his computer. He doesn’t have the part, if the problem is what he thinks it is,
and, once he understands our route, suggests we try the Toyota dealership in San
We head down the street and spot a vitamin shop where Mike asks if there is a natural
food restaurant in the city. The woman responds, “What a good idea!” She allows that
there is a juice bar, but says it doesn’t have food. The place is east and then south
down Lee Travino Parkway, so the right direction for us. After going quite a distance we
find Lee Travino and turn south. I explain to Mike’s query that Travino is a famous golfer
and must be from around here. Talking of golf makes me think of my brother Jim, who is
now a rabid golfer, and when we get to the corner of Lee Travino Parkway and Sam
Snead Blvd. I think I should probably call Jim and tell him where we are.
God, it’s hot. But maybe not quite as hot as it had been in Arizona.
We find the juice bar and are delighted to discover that the woman was wrong. They do
have sandwiches here as well as juices, so we order a big combination breakfast and
lunch. The owner of the place wants an autograph and tells me that aside from this
business he’s a minister who works with children. A nice man with a great spirit, he says
he’s trying to build an orphanage for some of the city’s impoverished kids.
Heading east out of El Paso the countryside becomes more attractive. It’s been a long
time since I’ve driven across Texas, and I thought it would be more flat and arid. We’re
now in rolling hills and there are a lot of trees around. Scattered clouds ahead make me
wonder if we should cover the gear in the back, but before I can do much more than
consider it we’re caught in a shower. Fortunately it’s of short duration and things in the
back don’t look to be too much the worse for it. Since the clouds aren’t bad ahead, we
Some dry ground, but then more trees surround us. Rivers and the occasional lake
appear. The countryside is actually quite beautiful and not at all the Texas I’d been
It’s a long drive to San Antonio, but not nearly as monotonous as I’d feared. By nightfall
the outskirts of the city are upon us and the array of hotels and motels lining the
highway makes choosing one a bit like picking a card. I do notice, before we jump off
the highway and head back to a string of motels that look promising, something that to
my hopeful eye looks like a big health food store. Note that for the morning.
We’re careful to check the height of the arch over the driveway to make sure we clear it
before driving in, then the motel manager sympathizes with my request for a room with
a place to park directly in front of the door (both for ease of unloading all the gear and
so that we can keep an eye on the bike), but all the spaces seem taken. Surprising us
both, he directs us to park the truck in front of the steps in an area designated as a
walkway. Since it’s only a bit away from the door of our room I happily agree, but feel a
bit squeamish as people who are going up and down the steps give us the fish-eye. Mike
and I both put on our most innocent faces and insist repeatedly, “the manager told us to
Tired and hot, we unload the gear and head inside, confident the bike won’t be stolen
but slightly fearful that we might find the truck with flat tires in the morning. We both
sleep like dead men.
Day 3, Friday, June 8th
We’re up early and it’s already hot. As we load the stuff into the back of the truck there
are more people giving us looks when trying to get by with their bags. “The manager
told us to park here” doesn’t cut it any better this morning, so we just keep humping
the gear. Before pulling out I ask about a health food store and the one we’re directed
to turns out to be the one I had spotted from the freeway last night, so Mike is very
impressed. It’s a big supermarket-type place with a lunch counter, so I get a drink and
roam around while Mike eats a monster sandwich. God, can that kid put it away!
We pick up a few things in the store and head out of San Antonio with Mike at the wheel
and me navigating. Aware that we have to get all the way to New Orleans tonight and
still somehow manage to catch the second Lakers/76ers game in the process, we’ve put
off the idea of fixing the speedometer. Maybe Mike can take care of it in New Orleans.
There are big rain clouds ahead of us and news of a huge storm flooding New Orleans
and causing devastation south of Houston is not particularly welcome. Worried about
the gear in back we keep an eye out for a hardware store where we can pick up a tarp.
Stopping for gas in Fort Stockton, Texas, Mike learns of a Walmart in town and suggests
we look there. I’m dumb about Walmarts, except to know they’re a blight on the
country, pay little and offer no benefits to employees. But being in need we quickly
learn that they actually do carry nearly everything in creation, so begin to understand
how seductive they can be to those more interested in a bargain than the welfare of the
workers or the continued existence of mom and pop stores in the community. I find two
tarps and a rope while Mike looks over their selection of books.
Throwing the stuff in back, we head out of town only to be caught in a sudden
downpour, so pull under an overpass and rig the tarp over the gear as best we can. I
don’t want to cover the bike because it sits up so high the wind will either pull the tarp
off or push the bike over, so we bunch the bags, cover them, secure the rope around
everything and head into the rain. Of course, once we’ve gone to this much trouble the
rain doesn’t last long. The good part is that we’re knocked out by the beauty of the
countryside around us. Rolling hills, lakes, rivers and vast groves of more and bigger
trees greet us, a Texas I’d somehow not known existed.
Entering Houston the traffic comes to a virtual halt. It’s the L.A. freeways at peak
traffic time without alternate routes. Grinding our way slowly along we find no cause for
the jam other than too many cars trying to get too many places with too few options.
We finally struggle our way through and out the other side and breathe a sigh of relief as
we head into bayou country toward the Louisiana border.
Signs advertising Cajun cooking are looking good to Mike, who doesn’t seem to ever be
not hungry. One sign tells us of the Frog City Café, which sounds too good to pass up,
so when the exit appears we hop off. Unbelievably, there’s a drive-through set-up at the
Frog City Café, so Mike can eat and we don’t have to lose time. Into the drive-through
slot we go. Of course, Mike’s order is so big that they ask us to pull forward and wait,
but it’s still faster than sitting down inside. He goes in and gets the food, runs out and
we’re off. As we pull out, Mike looks over and says, “Oh, God!” “What?” I ask, jamming
on the brakes. He points to the roofing over the drive-through lane and says, “We must
have just barely cleared that.” “Oh, Jesus,” I say, unable to believe my eyes. I hadn’t
even noticed it as we drove in and it’s so low I can’t imagine how we didn’t crunch
something. I actually get out to check, but the bike is sitting up there pretty as you
please, without a scratch. Thinking too much about what might have happened would
make me break out in a sweat if I wasn’t already sweating. What an incredibly lucky
Heading into Louisiana we begin to pass waterways and more bayous, so Mike and I talk
about all the alligators his sister Erin and I saw on a drive across Florida a few years ago.
He keeps his eyes peeled, because you never know. Coming into Lake Charles we pull off
for gas just as the traffic ahead of us comes to a dead stop. As far ahead as I can see
from the exit there is no movement at all. Not good. In the station the woman tells us
there’s a truck on its side and a major oil spill that has to be cleaned up before anyone is
going anywhere. Thanking our lucky stars that we needed gas, we ask about a route
through the city that might take us past the spill. The woman describes the necessary
turns and we jump back in the truck and take off through an incredibly shabby, povertystricken
section of Lake Charles. A couple of quick turns and some sneaky passes along
the edge of a muddy road take us across town and onto a highway that seems headed in
the right direction. Sure enough, we quickly connect to I-10E past the oil spill and we’re
on our way again.
The question now is, can we get to New Orleans in time for the game or will we have to
stop again? Racing along, we pass through Lafayette and suddenly find ourselves in a
natural wonderland. The Atchafalaya Swamp is mile after mile, literally scores of miles,
of cypress groves and swampland that serves as a natural spill basin for the Mississippi
River when it floods. This section of Highway I-10E is as outstanding a piece of
engineering as I can remember seeing. It is an elevated, divided highway standing
perhaps 40 or 50’ above the swamp, built on huge concrete posts that are themselves
stuck, at angles, I can’t tell how deeply, into the dark waters of the swamp. I can’t quit
exclaiming, as we race along, at the ingenuity involved in designing and building this
marvel. I truly can’t imagine how they did it.
The swamp itself is mysterious, as swamps tend to be. Miles wide and extending God
knows how far north and south, it promises strange creatures – and doubtless isolated
settlements – that tug at the imagination.
About as soon as we’re back onto solid ground (the highway over the Atchafalaya really
knocked me out) we’re up onto a huge bridge over the Mississippi and into Baton Rouge.
A sweeping turn south and we’re on the road to New Orleans. It’s beginning to rain, but
we’ve been making great time and it now looks as though we’ll make it to New Orleans in
plenty of time to cheer on the Lakers.
This leg of the highway parallels the “Cancer Alley” we’re here to investigate, but from
this vantage-point all we can see are trees and beautiful, well-tended growth bordering
the road. Deep forests of what I assume are Cypress trees line the highway and appear
to go back (west) quite a distance. I guess we’ll find out later…
We sail along nicely in spite of the rain and about 15 minutes before game time we head
out over Lake Ponchartrain (Mike can’t believe its size), across and into New Orleans.
Mike navigates us right to our exit and we leave good old I-10E and head into downtown.
Crossing Camp St. and on to Magazine Street really gets Mike going as this is Lee Harvey
Oswald/David Ferrie/Clay Shaw/Jim Garrison territory. I used to know a lot about the
JFK assassination, but Mike is a self-taught expert and continues to amaze me with his
understanding of it and his ability to decipher, retain and assess the disparate facts,
claims and counter-claims.
It turns out our hotel, the Marriott Residence Inn on St. Joseph Street, is only a couple of
blocks from the square where Oswald got into a scuffle while passing out Pro-Castro
leaflets (thought to be a ruse to establish phony left-wing credentials prior to the
Pulling in, we’re greeted by Damu Smith, the Greenpeace staffer who is the coordinator
of this effort. He’s full of enthusiasm about the turnout, but I’m sorry to hear that Alfre
Woodard wasn’t able to make it. I was looking forward to having this time with her. I am
delighted, though, to learn that the author Alice Walker is here and will be with us.
Shelley and I had just seen her interviewed on television and were struck by her
simplicity, sweetness, clarity and pure heart. She’s quite a lovely woman. Yvonne
Scruggs-Leftwich, who heads a national organization, is on the tour as well, and I’m glad
to hear that Congresswoman Maxine Waters will be joining us for part of it. Haki
Mahdbuti, a Chicago poet and writing teacher, is also with us.
Checking in I’m troubled to learn that since the hotel has no garage cars are kept in a lot
nearby. The truck will be fine but I’m a bit concerned about the bike until I learn the lot
is fenced and has a staff person watching things 24 hours a day. Can’t do much about it
now anyway, as we have to race up to our rooms to see the game.
This is more like it. The Lakers are in charge throughout the game and we’re on the way
to another championship – if they don’t get overconfident. The 76ers aren’t going away
in a hurry.
The rooms are nice, really more like small apartments, complete with their own kitchens.
Mike calls his friend Rio and arranges to go out with him tonight, so we wander down
after the game to put the car in the lot and wait for him. Mike is really excited about
spending some time here with Rio and I know he’s thrilled to get a chance to go over the
Nice to see Rio again (they’re old high-school buddies), but I beg off the invitation to go
bar-hopping with them (Rio owns a club here) and head up to bed.
Day 4 – Saturday, June 9th
In spite of carousing with Rio last night Mike is up and ready for the not-very-impressive
breakfast at 7:30 and we’re headed out to the bus by 8:15. Rick Hind, an old friend who
has been with Greenpeace for years, is a happy sight. Not happy is the article he shows
us from a local paper about a huge fire a couple of weeks back at a refinery in one of the
communities we’re visiting. Evidently the result of a lightning strike, a vat of toxic waste
burned out of control for days, sending fumes, toxic particles and God knows what-all
into the surrounding community. Residents were told to stay closed in their houses day
and night and to definitely NOT use their air conditioning. This in June in Louisiana!
There’s a huge crowd going on this tour. Two buses and 70-plus people in all, I’m told.
The “delegates,” apparently those who give it some news value, are introduced before
getting aboard. Photos and intros are short because it’s raining. Toxics experts, a
couple of doctors, some scientists, a great number of people from Greenpeace and
others from a couple of local environmental groups climb aboard with us. Alice Walker
and her friend, a smiling, very pleasant Asian man, come on last, and though they sit in
the seats directly in front us, there isn’t a chance for an introduction before we’re off.
She seems just as she appeared in the documentary Shel and I saw – quiet, unassuming,
A local activist is our tour guide and gives a running commentary about the history of
the city and the problems attendant to the fact that much of it is at or below sea level.
Cemeteries are full of crypts because bodies can’t be buried below the ground. A series
of channels and a hugely complicated pumping system keep the entire place from
reverting to the swamp that is evidently its natural state.
Driving back north on the good old I-10 (now W as opposed to E) he shows areas that
are flood basins used when the Mississippi gets high and tells how water is diverted into
Lake Ponchartrain. Soon we’re off and west of the I-10, into the countryside west of the
Cypress groves Mike and I discussed last night. Here our guide and Damu point out the
beginning of the string of refineries that run from here to Baton Rouge (the first is Shell
Oil) and are wreaking such havoc on the poor, mostly black communities on which
they’ve imposed themselves.
We’re told that there will be a delay in getting to our first stop because the State Police
have closed the best road to it. Flooding. There is some grumbling that suggests the
police may be simply making our visit difficult, but that seems a bit of a stretch to me.
A long detour takes us past fields of sugar cane and then we pull to a stop at Elle
Plantation, a very small community made up of a row of run-down houses on one lane
surrounded by cane fields. Behind one of the fields, too close for comfort, sits a huge
The people of the community, black and white, clearly poor, have gathered in their lane
and welcome us as we pile off the bus. Some press is here to meet us, some have come
on the bus with us and some trail behind in cars. And here, as we’re climbing down to
meet with this group, we’re joined by a car bearing Congresswoman Maxine Waters, her
husband and some staff.
As we gather in a rough semi-circle in the road, Damu points out each of the ‘notables’
in our group, after which members of the community are introduced and take turns
speaking to us on a bull-horn provided by Greenpeace. One woman, who seems to be the
appointed spokesperson for the community, shows a list of family and neighbors who
have died of cancer, liver and kidney disease and other less-clear causes. Among other
insults, she talks of being victimized by “mustard gas,” which is later explained to me as
a chemical reaction resulting from a process used by the company to clean old
equipment. The gas had seeped out into and across their community. The residents
claim the company has responsibility for the medical problems that have resulted from
this and other such incidents; the company denies it and will not help.
These complaints, from people who are clearly forgotten, ill-educated and miserable,
touch the heart, primarily because they show such obvious appreciation for our coming
and attach such a sense of hope to our presence. We have made them, for a brief
moment, visible, and while I’m happy to let them know that someone cares, I’m fearful
that they are being set up, once again, only to be terribly disappointed.
The last to speak over the bull-horn are three small children who simply repeat a litany,
“Please help us!” Rehearsed or not, it’s tough to see them in this situation and
impossible not be moved.
The people in Elle Plantation (the existence of which predates the company’s refinery)
want the company to move them as, we learn, it has done with another nearby
community that experienced the same types of problems. In fact, just up the road we’re
later shown the site from which the other community was moved. We’re then
astonished to find that said community had been relocated a scant couple of miles
farther down the same road, clearly remaining within range of any serious toxic
Boarding the bus to head for our next meeting, Mike and I introduce ourselves to Alice
Walker and I get to tell her how much Shelley and I enjoyed the television interview.
After a gracious thanks, she notes that one of the stories from Elle Plantation had very
much moved her. In a simple observation about the effects of the chemical pollutants
on the community, she recalled, someone said that the pecan trees, though still looking
healthy, now gave nuts that were crumbling and mealy. The eyes and ears of a poet, I
thought, get connections that others may miss.
Our next stop, in Myrtle Grove, is frustrating. We’re late because of the road having
been flooded earlier; there’s a snafu with communication and the bus has trouble getting
into the area. Once there, the people are warm, thrilled to see us and enormously
appreciative of our presence, late or not. The meeting is in the Myrtle Grove Community
Church, with a mostly black congregation, and it is hot and loud and wonderful. It is
essentially a revival meeting, complete with great gospel singing, powerful preaching and
testimony from a community spokesperson. Alice Walker is asked to speak and tells of
her youth and her love of the clean and healthy forests near her home, then talks of the
mealy, crumbling pecans in the shells of healthy-appearing trees at Elle Plantation and
gracefully makes the connection to the suffering of the people in these communities.
It’s a robust event, full of high spirits and determination and it’s frustrating to have to
leave before the meeting is over because of our need to play catch-up.
Because we leave before hearing everyone, a woman from Myrtle Grove rides with us to
supply the details of chemical odors, bad water, illnesses permeating the community and
uncaring officials from the offending company (another of the string that runs through
the “Alley”) who deny responsibility, claim any pollutants that may exist are contained
on site and accuse locals of trying to extort money by exaggerating their problems.
Next stop is on the campus of Southern University in Baton Rouge, a black college in a
beautiful setting on the banks of the Mississippi River. Here we’re treated to a nice lunch