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Southern Rail: Reality check

By Robert Filla

I was in the backyard, washing the Harley, looking forward to a long weekend of riding. No definite plans, no structured route, not even an endpoint in mind. Just a general idea that I wanted to ride west into the setting sun for as long as I could in one day. And then, turn around and figure out a different way back home for the return trip. It seemed like I’d envisioned such escapes most of my life; solo journeys into unknown lands, ramblings through the hinterlands.

As a kid I dreamt of African adventures alongside Tarzan and Cheetah. Of course, I’d be Boy. Later I expanded my quixotic perspective and became Ali, “Number One Boy” to American animal trapper Frank Buck and his Bring ’Em Back Alive expeditions in the Malayan jungles. And with the butter knife I “borrowed” from Mom’s kitchen (and sharpened on the sidewalk), not a python or leopard would be safe. Soon I was cobbling together blowguns and darts, rigging up homemade bows and arrows while trying to brew up a paralyzing nerve poison for the tips. And then I jumped planet earth completely, battling four-armed aliens with John Carter of Mars and the underground-dwelling Morlocks courtesy of H.G. Wells. Any place but home—home was so boring, it was so… home. I’d stay up late after the parents had gone to bed, watching the TeleMundo channel, trying to teach myself Spanish. I painted my trusty bicycle flat black, so my nighttime escapades could be conducted under cover of darkness. And Christmas was always special when Dad let me peruse the aisles of the local army surplus store, wading through colossal piles of musty olive drab, pointing out which ammo belt and canteen I hoped Santa would bring. I’m pretty certain I was the only 10-year-old in town with water purification tablets from World War II. And then, I discovered motorcycles.

Rinsing the suds from the bike and getting ready to destroy yet another of Mom’s favorite towels during the drying process, the back door to the trailer house (they’re called pre-manufactured homes now) opened and my Paw-Paw slowly hobbled outside. He and Grandma were down for a visit. He was old, and had somehow always been old, at least to me. He had a huge farm that I visited on occasion, but despite the opportunities for exploration it probably held, it, too, seemed staid; too much like home, too boring. My grandparents (along with my parents, all my school friends, this entire damn town actually) never went anywhere exciting, never did anything exciting, never had one exciting thought ever pop into their dull existence. I would not suffer their tragic fate. I would break the mold, travel to distant lands, eat bizarre food served by people whose language I could not fathom. I would be the first one in my entire family to actually have a life, and it would be so full that no one would be able to deny my accomplishments.

I was already a seasoned thrill-seeker, having become acquainted with Interstate travel earlier in the summer. Original intentions were for some camping near Austin. But then I met a girl (quite a cute girl) hitchhiking along the way. She quite easily persuaded me into giving her a ride to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, to visit some friends. From there she thought it would be fun to explore Santa Fe and Taos. No problem. I came home two weeks later, tired, broke and oh so wise in the ways of the world and fully versed in the total understanding of the female soul. And I was only 18.

Paw-Paw sat down on the back porch, his old lanky frame leaning heavily on his old, crooked cane. He asked some question about the bike, which opened the door for me to explain the basics of motorcycling, of travel, the passionate thirst of someone such as I who could not be content living in such a small town full of small-minded people of limited vision, nonexistent ambition and spiritless zest. But when I looked at his tired, old face, I knew my words were failing to make an impact. And as much as I loved him, I knew he was everything I did not want to be.

I rambled on about my New Mexico adventure for another half-hour, hinting about my sexual conquest of a total roadside stranger, railing about the star-encrusted skies of the Southwestern desert. But I could tell my talk was wearing him out and soon he stood to retire back inside, to rest his tired, old self.

As he was leaving, he paused for a moment like something had caught his eye, like maybe something had jogged an ancient memory. And then, in almost a whisper, he said, “Well, it sure is a pretty thang. Reminds me of the one I rode back in the ’30s. Gun-metal gray and it went like a bat out of hell. Yep, those were some shining times, back before I met your grandma, before the farm. Some really wild times.” And then he shuffled inside leaving me with my jaw hanging open.

That was the only time I ever heard Paw-Paw utter a cuss word. Talking about riding a Harley and Paw-Paw cussed. He never mentioned motorcycles again, not to me, not even when I asked. So I’ll never know that story, one I truly wished I knew. But I am glad to realize I wasn’t the family’s only adventurer. Not even the first one on a Harley. Just a dumb kid who thought he discovered the world first.

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