St. Paul, Minnesota

As I slide into my third hour hunched over the table at Burger King, I know what they’re thinking — the employees at the counter who keep glancing up at me, the lady cleaning tables who has to keep going around mine, the mothers who warn their children away: How did a homeless person get a laptop, and what the devil is he using it for?

A few days ago I went for a swim in the Wisconsin River and came out feeling plenty clean. I’ve been spoiled by a lifetime of long scalding showers and scouring soaps — no one really has to be that clean. I soaked my clothes in the river and then tied them to the milk crate on the back of my Kawasaki (washer/drier) and had the sense that I was finally getting the hang of this. It was a hot sunny day and I felt great.

I pulled over at a rest area in Bluff Siding, Wisconsin because my clutch suddenly had a lot of play in it, and I found that the cable was frayed through at the end and just hanging by two tiny strands of wire. I walked into town with my backpack on, my hands full and my saddlebags slung around my neck.

When I walked into The Refuge like this they asked me if I was moving in, so I told my story and asked if I could used their yellow pages to write down some numbers. It was Sunday night of Labor Day weekend so I was resigned to wait until Tuesday before anything opened and I could buy a new cable. It was quiet — of the five people there, one was the owner’s sister, one was the owner’s daughter, and one was the bartender. The bartender, Travis, was on the phone for 20 minutes before I realized what he was doing — calling everybody he knew to ask them if they had any old Kawasaki parts or knew anyone who did or anyone who might have an idea how to fix it. Most people were still away for Labor Day weekend so he had no luck. They let me camp out behind the bar.

The next morning Travis drove me all over town, first to make sure all the bike shops were really closed, then to check the hardware stores in case they might carry motorcycle clutch cables. I told him I’d need a bike shop and I’d just have to wait until Tuesday, but he insisted it was worth a look and he had nothing better to do. No luck, but on the way back he saw an old Caddy outside George’s Bar that he recognized so we went in and talked to Bud. Bud said, sure, he might have one in his shed, and told us to go on up and check it out — if it’d work, I could have it.

The Kawasaki in the shed was a tiny and ancient junker and one end of the cable was hidden behind the shifter housing so I couldn’t see if it was right. The screws in the housing were Hell to get off and we had to drill one of them out, and the cable inside wasn’t right after all.

But it was close. And it worked. Actually, it works great.

The total cost to me was two bucks for the beer. I offered to buy Travis breakfast but he refused. There are some good people out there.

From Iowa to Minnesota to Wisconsin and then back to Minnesota I rode north along the Mississippi. I followed signs for the Great River Road and it was a beautiful ride: high wooded hills and low green marshes, rundown river towns and long lumbering trains. I was only on it for about 150 miles but that tumbled across a couple days, and I was tempted to turn around and ride the river all the way to the gulf. But I wasn’t ready to head south yet — I’ll be forced to soon enough.

In a grassy area on the west bank I cooked up some dinner on my camp stove. Great blue herons, monarchs and seagulls floated by in the cool breeze, and someone nursed a sweet-smelling wood fire just down the shore. Grand old trees stretched above me as I watched the evening sunlight lift off the limestone cliffs on the far shore, which glowed as warmly as the marbles of the Parthenon in a rosy-fingered dawn.

As I lurked outside of Minneapolis yesterday I looked up through a drizzling rain and saw a spectacular double rainbow. The lower arch was vivid and complete, stretching from ground to sky to ground; the outer arch was much fainter and faded out in places, the order of its colors reversed. A moment later the wind kicked up and the tornado alarms started sounding, then the water just dumped out of the sky in waterfall. I happened to be inside when the wind booted my helmet off the seat where I’d left it so it landed upside down on the ground like a bowl. In the next few minutes it filled with two inches of water and cherry pit sized hailstones; my gloves, which I’d tucked inside the helmet to keep them dry, floated in a kind of cold glove soup.