Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Today I spent three hours under the earth, not even dead, and walked inside it for four miles; still I saw only a tiny fraction of the things I shouldn’t have seen.

Since mooching off my relatives in Ontario worked out so well, I decided to extend the theme and visit my aunt and her family here in Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati. It was wonderful being a part of civilization, but I got soft — being indoors does that. Kind of like Superman, my powers start to fade if I’m not exposed to the sky. A few days ago I set out for Mammoth Cave, only a couple hundred miles away, but I left late, stopped at the mall, then got turned around on some back roads. I rode an hour down the highway and pulled over to take a nap; when I got up I decided what I really wanted was a root beer float so I bought ice cream and root beer and rode back to Villa Hills. It was pathetic.

I was caught in the gravitational well of the clean bed and the hot shower for a whole week and only left two days ago to finally head for the cave, but it was worth it: spending time with relatives and playing with the kids is at least as important as any trip. Eating their food is just a bonus.

Ohio and Indiana are covered with corn. Most of the fields are brown; staked at their edges are colorful signs with mouth-watering names like Pfister Hybrids 3321, Pioneer 33Y18 Elite, Southern Cross Jude 4.0, Croplan Genetics 6598, and AgriGold A6460. Corn is no longer grown by human beings.

Mammoth Cave has 350 miles of passages that they know about, and the pamphlet estimates there may be twice as many more yet undiscovered. I walked along only a few miles of these but it was still very strange to slip into the earth in one place and come out several miles away (Honey, we’re late — should we take Route 259 or the cave?); it isn’t just a cave, it’s a Way. Much of the tour was through grand corridors 15 feet high and 40 feet wide, gently curved — a pipe under the ground. Other segments were much taller and rougher like riverbed with a flat rock ceiling. We filed for several hundred yards through a subterranean slot canyon 3 feet wide and extravagantly curvaceous, a wildly rippling ribbon of air through stone. We rested and walked, rested and walked, as if we were on an epic journey and had to conserve our strength; I watched for Gollum and kept my hand near Sting (my Leatherman) in case the lights failed.

We weren’t the first. People began exploring the cave 4000 years ago by the light of reed torches, and made it not just a hundred yards or a half mile, but many miles under the ground. That’s staggering bravery, and I can only hope they found that passage to the other side that has so far eluded us.

Far underground, we found hidden things, wonders of the earth: a cafeteria, drinking fountains, restrooms.

Most of the passages we travelled through were dry, if haunted by water. Stalactite and stalagmite free, the mighty network of tunnels was cut by dark children of the Green River millions of years ago and then abandoned for deeper levels where they play still. There were white gypsum growths on the rough walls like flowers, tufts of hair, lichens, as if when rock dreams it dreams of life and then extrudes those dreams through a slow stone alchemy.

At the end we did come to a chamber called the Frozen Niagara which was full of the rock icicles and sheets of flowstone that are formed by slowly dripping, oozing water. Some appeared warm woody brown, some closer to white. Looking up at the ceiling was like looking up into the vanes of a madly twisted mushroom cap. I guess if rock is going to dream it’s not surprising if it dreams small dreams of things barely alive; fungus, for its part, seems nostalgic for stony sleep.

As the ranger said, we are creatures of light. Not only are we solar-powered, but our minds are like shuttered lanterns full of light. We have other senses but sight rules over them so that the world we perceive around us and the copy we keep in our heads are both full of pictures. To us, darkness is just the absence of light, like silence is the absence of sound, a temporary condition. But light in this cave is a little like sound in space — it’s just not one of the features. When we turn on the lights to walk through and look at the cave, what we’re looking at is something we invented; we might as well paint the cave blue from end to end because light is just as foreign and unnatural a pigment. We have to go down in our capsule of light, though, to make some sense of the place or else we could barely even tell that it existed, as the little fish and bugs that live down there would come up to the surface world in dark capsules of smell and sound-perception if they ever undertook that journey.

Guelph, Ontario

I spent the better part of three days on that road, la Route de la Baie James. It is too long. By the time you reach the end you’ve forgotten where you started, why you’re there, who you are. An hour can pass and not see a single vehicle. It’s not a real road — real roads have buildings on them, people, cities and towns. This is just an idea of a road, an archetype. The wind comes and goes, the rain comes and goes, the sun sets and rises and sets again and you ride and ride and ride.

The road does have a purpose, a destination which isn’t mine. To the east of the road’s northern terminus lie about 500 miles of hydroelectric reservoirs linked end to end to form an almost continuous body of water. According to my map this water feeds seven hydroelectric stations with names like La Grande 1, La Grande 2, La Grande 3. I have no trouble picturing how big this is: it’s equivalent to the length of the road I’ve just been on, plus several hours.

It rained on me as I edged south so I wore my secret lingerie of blue garbage bags. The most effective rain-defense system I have, they at best act like control rods in a reactor by controlling the rate at which I get wet. By the time I got south of Rouyn-Noranda and crossed over into Ontario it was so warm I didn’t even mind the rain, and I rode half the night just because I could.

I love riding at night. Free from the automobile cabin that blots out the sky and the ground and parcels the rest into dim rectangles, on the bike I can see everything. Lights falls off the bike in all directions; not only does the headlight throw enough extra light to cast a glow onto the bushes and trees beside me, but the tail light sprays red behind me. At the center of a sphere of light I fly through a dark world.

In the headlight’s beam I saw the giant dragonfly, like I always do. The old headlight doesn’t cast an even circle or cone of light but rather it projects a varied and intricate structure of light and dark across the world before me. On the road in front of me fall two irregular pools of light to form the head and thorax, then mighty rays of light spill sideways to the left and right to form the wings. The wings sweep 20 or 30 feet in either direction, right off the road and up into the trees; as the uneven night world flits by and the light dances across it, the wings seem to flutter. This isn’t a visual whim like a face in a cloud that might also be a camel or a flower — it really does look like a dragonfly. With the high beam it looks like a bigger dragonfly. Since the head, body and wings fly just ahead of me, that places the long tail directly under me as if I was astride.

Riding my giant dragonfly of light, I almost hit a skunk.

I was a little anxious about visiting my cousins in Guelph. I’d never met them, so even if we shared a smidge more DNA than most people we were still total strangers. Why should they put me up for the night?

They turned out to be some of the nicest and best people in the world and we spent all night in the backyard eating and talking. It was a wonderfully warm, soft night; the crabapples fell with an intermittent patter; the black cat, Evil Roy (a female), prowled. And I marveled at my luck, that even the farthest corners of my family are full of such good people.

Chisasibi — James Bay

James Bay is the thumb that Hudson Bay sticks down into the continent, and Chisasibi is as far north on the water as the road will take me. It’s plenty far enough.

I’ve never had to sign in to use a road before, especially a road 400 miles long, but I did for this one. Just north of Matagami was a gatehouse where they put my name, address, and telephone number into a computer so they could file a report if I never came back.

At about mile 50 north of the gatehouse I saw a monster of some kind. It appeared to be a very tall dog with the head of a cat, but it was far away and loped into the bushes before I could get a better look. It warms my heart to know that such fine medieval creatures still walk the earth.

It was 240 miles from Matagami to the next gas pump. I emptied my main tank twice, then my reserve, and still had to pour my little cannister of stove fuel into my tank to make it the last couple miles. There’s something unsettling about having to carry my own gas — it reminds me of a movie I saw once that took place in the future when there wasn’t any more gasoline for some reason except there was this guy with a Ferrari — maybe Burt Reynolds? — and he found another guy with a whole bunch of gas hidden away so they decided to drive the Ferrari to California where people still had gas and cars… but I don’t think I saw the rest of it, and I’m not sure I’m remembering this part right anyway. But I remember thinking, Geez, imagine having to bring your own gas with you wherever you went? It seemed so… well, apocalyptic. And then there’s that whole Road Warrior thing.

I spent the night close to the gas pump.

The trees here have heads — dense clusters of needles and cones at the top that bobble and wave in the wind. I feel like a mouse in a wheat field. The effect is even more striking when the trees are dead and there’s nothing left but a slender trunk with a dark snarl at the tip, and there are a lot of dead trees; in some places, mile after mile of them.

Around mile 350 the ground disappeared and was replaced by a dazzling lime-white foam: a vast carpet of bushy lichen about 3 inches thick. The woods were open and easy to walk through but eerie and surreal with such a bright, uniform mat beneath the trees. This alien landscape extended out of sight in all directions, poked through by occasional low bush blueberries and big anthills. Stranger still, the mat was precisely cut by dark lines 20 or 30 feet long — sometimes singly, sometimes forming X’s. The lines were geometrically straight, 3 or 4 inches wide, and through them showed the dark, bare earth. Close inspection revealed rotted wood in the dirt and usually the remains of a stump at one end; these were all that was left of trees that had fallen and decayed right into the ground. They must have been many years dead but the lichen still hadn’t regrown over where the trunks had been; maybe the lichen grows that slowly, or maybe it doesn’t grow on wood. The effect was that of shadows etched on walls by the Bomb, images etched into matter by things no longer there.

The bones of the Shield showed through more the farther north I rode, flat outcroppings of darkened, painstakingly weathered stone. The Canadian Shield is a great big hunk of geology, a massive plate of old hard rock that arcs around Hudson Bay and covers half of Canada, stretching all the way through Labrador in the east. It’s home to some of the world’s most ancient rocks — 3.8 billion years old — which still leaves whole empires and dynasties of previous rocks unaccounted for and probably lost forever. The Shield is so colossal that you can almost see it in a map of Canada, can almost discern its shape, intuit its presence as if it lurked just below the ink. And what is it really? What sort of shield straddles the Earth, cups a giant bay?

Chisasibi is a Cree town and it seems much larger and more interesting than the Hydro town of Radisson. At the moment, though, nobody’s home — they’ve all gone over to Fort George Island, where the town used to be, to celebrate the fact that in 1978 they moved the town to where it is now. I’m not sure what to think, except that they must have really hated living on that island.

James Bay looks like a bastard: brown, churning water and a cold wind. There are a couple dozen very serious looking boats pulled up on the rocky beach, long heavy outboards, Cree boats. This is a working beach. I have trouble getting a sense of where I am; I think I’m missing something.

Where do you go from here — to the north pole, or outer space? At the airport near Radisson I saw a big airplane with Air Inuit painted on the side. Maybe that’s where you go — Nunavut.

But me, I’m going south. I’ve come 1278 miles and there are 640 dollars remaining.

Val-d’Or, Quebec

Rode all day in the rain. I thought I’d outsmarted it — when I was still only mostly wet I pulled over at a sheltered picnic table to wait it out.  I wrung out my socks, made some hot chocolate and warmed myself over the Iliad and my unrequited love for Athena. I waited several hours until the rain lessened and finally stopped. I patted myself on the back for my prudence and patience and rode for about 20 minutes without precipitation, then rode the rest of the day in pouring rain; if they’ve invented gear that can keep you dry in pouring rain at 60 mph, I can’t afford it. The rain was hundreds of miles across — no rain has a right to be that big, and cold.

Another high point was perhaps one million miles of dirt road due to construction.  Muddy and violently potholed where it wasn’t entirely loose, freshly-graded dirt, it was an alternately unpleasant and terrifying ride. It might not have been so bad if I’d been able to see; that’s why I bought a new visor, after all, to replace the old one that was so scratched up that to look through it was to be convinced you were surrounded by clouds. But the new visor is tinted black- it was the only one they had and I thought it might be my last chance to get one for a while (I was wrong), but it turns a perfectly good day into twilight and an overcast day into an oppressive evil darkness. And as I was riding and wiped some water droplets off my new visor with the back of my soft fleecy glove I could see scratches left behind; Lexan, as far as I can tell, scratches upon exposure to air.

I had to get a room and a hot shower.

It’s very different travelling without company. If  Sean was here, we could at least laugh about how miserable we were. Right now I’m not laughing.

I only mention this because any trip worth a damn starts with a misery or an outright disaster, so I’m at least heading in the right direction.

Time has slowed down considerably.

Manchester, New Hampshire

They found a body in the river. That’s a story that’s got to be as old as Cain, but they did, just the other day, right here. The woman’s arms, legs, and head had been removed. She was found in a swimming hole where I’ve swam before. Just an hour before the body was found I walked right over the river above it; I’d dropped my bike off for a tune-up and was just coming back across the bridge. If I’d looked more carefully I might’ve seen it: an abstraction, a dictionary definition of a torso.

It chills my blood, but it isn’t completely surprising. There’s just something about Manchester that says it was only a matter of time. I’ll be glad to be gone.

My bike is an old warhorse: a black 1981 Kawasaki KZ440 LTD- two cylinders, belt drive. It gets no respect. I was talking to a mounty who warned me against taking a particular road because it was gravel and, he said, your friend’s bike might get hurt. Nothing about my bike, but Heaven forbid that anything should happen to Sean’s Vulcan. At another point we were parked next to a guy with a Goldwing who immediately offered Sean some special polish and a soft rag to touch up his bike. It was understood that this offer did not extend to me and mine; his rag might’ve gotten dirty.

It’s a small bike, but it’s all I’ve got. I owe a lot to small bikes anyway: a ’72 Honda 350 4 cylinder that was heavy as lead, a ’76 Honda CB550 that ran and ran, a red MZ 250 that took me farther than I had a right to go. I’ll get a big sprawling cruiser someday, but there’s something to be said for making do with what you have — right now my motorcycle and my laptop combined cost less than $400, and both of them took me to Labrador and back. Every mile from here on out is just a bonus.

I’ve always wanted to go up to Hudson Bay. It’s immense, it dominates any map of North America, but somehow you never hear anything about it. For a long time I wasn’t even sure how to get there- the maps I saw never showed any roads, just train tracks. Finally last summer when I was driving a cab one of my fares told me that he’d not only been there, but he’d been there by motorcycle. Apparently the road doesn’t show up on a lot of maps because it’s actually a private road, hundreds of miles long, owned by Hydro Quebec. At one point there’s a stretch of 230 miles between gas stations; I’ll need to bring extra gas to span that.

A secret route, passed between travelers by word of mouth.

I have a full tank of gas and a bag of food to give me a head start. There are 24,262 miles on my odometer and 751 dollars remaining.

Time Dilation

Although it was a two-week trip, we were only actually in Newfoundland and Labrador for five days. That boggles my mind- those five days seem somehow bigger than the whole previous year. When I try to remember 1998 there are whole months missing — not amnesia, it’s just that when every day is the same there’s nothing to remember. I had a couple jobs but I really only remember a day or two from each — and that day repeated X times, over and over. Even when I look at the calendar to jog my memory all I see are empty spaces, a blank grid signifying idleness and distraction, a wasteland of lost time. I lost almost an entire year and it makes me want to weep.

Of those five days in Newfoundland, though, I remember every minute, from strapping the motorcycles down on the ferry to eating french fries soaked in gravy and cheese. Because everything was constantly changing — the land, the people, the price of gas — every moment was stamped and marked in my memory. It’s got something to do with the way brains work, the way they compress data; if you have a routine, if one day is just like the day before, then the brain says, “Hey, I’ve already got this memory — I don’t need another copy.” That’s how weeks of my life seem to disappear.

Anything different, though, gets remembered. It can be painful to live without a routine, exhausting to make countless small decisions when you don’t have a template to follow, and frightening to not have the reassurance that what you’re doing must be O.K. because it worked yesterday — but times of flux get remembered, so that when you look back in your mind there’s at least something there. This is one of the secret magics of travelling, a kind of time dilation that stretches minutes and hours out until you have to find another way to measure time; with miles, maybe.

So that’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to buy memories. I’m going to get back on my motorcycle and ride until that money is gone and I’ve ridden across 751 dollars’ worth of North America. Instead of watching time erase behind me on a mnemonic whim, I’m going to build a linked chain of places visited and people met and then polish each one in my mind like a jewel.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to stop time. This’ll be a good start.