Cross-country motorcycling - Part 1 (2001)

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

Hwy. 1.

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

luck.

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

a bitch.

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

dance.

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

carry on.

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

doing.

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

conditioning!

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

border.

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

game.

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

Antonio.

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

press on.

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

expecting.

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

park here.”

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

break!

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

assassination).

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

Oswald/Ferrie/Shaw terrain.

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,

diffident.

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

processing plant.

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

poisoning.

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