1. Clifton: Departure

September 11, 2001

Kirkwood, MO

 

September Cruise* 1.1.a

 

When I came out here to spend a week with Mom at Easter, I intended to relate my travels to an email list of friends. But after I got home, the gardening, yoga classes and other activities kept taking precedence.

 

Now I am back again, much sooner than I thought I’d be, for reasons that are both very sad and also an unanticipated release from extended personal travail.

 

I find the meaning and motivations of this trip are intensely personal, so I am hesitant about how and how much of this to share in an open letter.

 

As a dedicated lifelong traveler – living in a universe that’s fractal and holistic – I know that every journey is a metaphor of something larger. Travel in its conception, preparations, setbacks and surprises, unexpected twists and resolutions always seem fresher and more marvelous than days and weeks spent at home in the same old routine. Also, the self-contained aspect one acquires, living with relatively few things and making do ingeniously along the way, demonstrates again and again how Providence is always standing ready to help us if only we have the faith and courage to step out into the unknown and take life as an adventure.

 

Mom has been my only contact through all of what led up to this, and I’d thought that my brother didn’t want to see me. I learned through Mom that my other brother, John, and my sister, Jean, as well as both of my kids (now married, in their early thirties) had made recent, and in some cases repeated visits to see Tom over the past few months.

 

During the final week of August, unexpectedly, Tom’s wife reached out to me through Mom. Lee and Tom both wanted me to visit. So I began putting a plan together – as is usual for me, with multiple dimensions.

 

For years I’ve been wanting to take an extended bicycle trip during the fall in the Eastern USA. Because I’m jobless and have been collecting a bit of Social Security since June, it seemed feasible to do this now.

 

For years I’ve also been intending to choose a back-country location to settle down and get old in – should I be so fortunate. I see the social order disintegrating, the financial and economic systems veering out of control, environmental stresses intensifying, World War III gathering force and a police state burgeoning here at home. When such a multi-faceted catastrophe goes beyond a certain point, most likely one of the worst places to live will be in a large US metropolitan area – like northeast New Jersey, a dozen miles west of midtown Manhattan.

 

If it were just me, I would have left a long time ago. But Elizabeth’s network of contacts in the extraordinary Polish émigré community of the New York metro area is a powerful asset, and a nexus she is extremely reluctant to leave. Also, I have developed my own network of comforts, interests and amenities around our little place on The Meadow, so I would not leave until I have to, and until a suitable alternative has been established.

 

I have always tended towards self-reliance and self-sufficiency. That’s the bottom line. Of course, these qualities are a matter of degree, not absolutes. But I don’t trust the Social Security system, my only means of support, to deliver for as many years as I’d still like to live. Not even close. And if they do keep paying, I regard it as a virtual certainty that inflation will rather quickly wipe out the purchasing power of my modest allowance.

 

So I would like to develop contingencies for living more or less off the grid. As long as I remain in good health and own a few useful items – clothing, tools and the like – I might have a shot at surviving in genteel poverty.

 

I am looking for areas that are rather lightly populated, at least one gas tank away from any large city, set amidst fairly rugged, out-of-the-way terrain, where clean water is available, where apple trees, berry bushes and potatoes might be made to flourish. Other desirable characteristics are the potential for linking up with a like-minded, decent, competent local community; an absence of resources – like minerals or oil – that would attract invasive outsiders; and minimal intrusions of government, where for instance regulations would not impinge on the kind of dwelling a person of modest means could devise under extreme circumstances.

 

There are three such regions I intend to cycle through on my way back to New Jersey.

 

The Ozark Plateau is the first of these. My dad used to take us fishing and canoeing down there when I was a boy.  I’ve made brief explorations in southern Missouri, by rental car, in my last two visits here. I’ve learned that in the lowest and poorest of these counties, land can be purchased for a thousand dollars an acre off the pavement, taxes are negligible, and once you’re outside the city limits no one cares what you build or how you live. Proximity to government forests and parklands is a plus, because they are a buffer, a potential refuge, and they are likely to remain undisturbed. The Mark Twain National Forest covers large patches of southern Missouri.

 

I plan to leave Mom’s place in Kirkwood on Tuesday morning, ride to Lake St. Louis, about 45 miles west of here, for a visit with Tom and Lee. I will probably arrive around eleven in the morning, have something to eat there and stay for about two hours. Then I’ll continue west towards Jefferson City, following a bicycle path that runs close to a hundred miles along the Missouri River.

 

Just before leaving home, I discovered that google maps has an option for bicycle routes. During the last week, in the computer room at Bethesda Gardens, where Mom lives, I’ve planned and printed a route along back streets and bicycle paths all the way from Kirkwood to Lexington, Kentucky, via Jefferson City and Springfield, Missouri; St. Paul and Jonesboro, Arkansas; back north through Missouri to cross the Mississippi at Cape Girardeau; then on through southern Illinois and Kentucky to Lexington.

 

I plan to linger and take side trips in the mountains of northern Arkansas, make good time from Jonesboro to Lexington, then dawdle some more in the Appalachian region to the east of Lexington, Daniel Boone country.

 

Next I want to go up the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, not because I’m interested in it as a rural retreat but because it’s beautiful and historic. I’ve never been there, and the autumn will be a perfect time to visit.

 

The third area I want to have a look at is northern Pennsylvania, less desirable because this is a heavily populated state with way too much government. But in the north there are a lot of forests and mountains that fit my other criteria, and this region has the advantage of being fairly close to New Jersey, where after all, I am presently rooted.

 

Finally, I’ve been stymied in making my annual pilgrimage to the Jersey Shore. I expected to go in August, but week after week I put it off because the weather reports kept forecasting “scattered thunderstorms,” which usually turned out to be an understatement. We had a lot of rain all month.

 

So ideally, I would like to spend a couple nights at my hidden, private campsite in dense bushes on the dunes less than a mile south of the governor’s mansion. (That’s how nice it is out there!) This would leave me one good day’s ride from home, where I aim to arrive, at a leisurely pace, by the end of October.

 

The one important factor is that I not be out be caught out when it gets cold enough for ice to form on the roads.

 

For months my dreams have been weird and foreboding. For the past eight nights at Mom’s in southwest St. Louis County, sleeping with my thermarest and down bag on the floor of her living room, I’ve been haunted by a pervasive, gloomy sadness over what’s happened to Tom, and by a sense of alienation that’s been one of the persistent themes of my entire life.

 

Tom was diagnosed with brain cancer last October and underwent a six-hour operation at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. During this whole ordeal, his family has maintained a dignified privacy about their choice of treatments and how they’re dealing with the whole situation.

 

Mom and I were invited out to Lake St. Louis last Sunday, the day after I got into town. Tom was bloated in his cheeks, temples and belly. We had a lot of time together, just the two of us, at his kitchen table. He seemed to understand what I was saying, but his own speech was not entirely coherent, and occasionally it was impossible to grasp what he was trying to convey. He was very accepting and tender with me. I am so grateful for that, and just for the opportunity to be with him.

 

Today is his 58th birthday, September 11th. He’s four years younger than I am. I understand that all five of his children are in town, and that his wife drove him out to Hermann, MO, for a birthday celebration. I’m not sure why they chose Hermann. Our parents used to own a cabin on the Gasconade River not far from there.

 

Last week Tom and Lee marked their 32nd wedding anniversary. I attended their wedding, just two doors down the street from where they’re living now, at the lakeside home where 8 Lissner children grew up, where Lee’s older brother Chris and his wife Dawn still live. By now, quite a few couples in the Lissner clan have been married there. Lee’s sister Amy and Kevin O’Brien were the first. Kevin actually built the gazebo where all of these vows were taken. Tom and Lee were the second couple, not long after Amy and Kevin.

 

Friday night, Mom and I were invited for dinner to Amy’s and Kevin’s. They have a beautiful home in Kirkwood, perhaps a little over a mile from where Mom lives. Much of the Lissner clan was on tap, gathered on the eve of another wedding.

 

I like Kevin and Amy a lot. To me they represent something that’s sadly gone out of style – a decent, traditional Christian family. On Easter, Mom and I attended their church with them, and it didn’t much appeal to me. But that’s of no importance in light of the quality of people I perceive them to be. They have raised a remarkably wholesome family, including a boy that they adopted from Peru. Kevin heads his own business, Agape Construction. Before the housing bust, he employed a couple dozen workers, now only about half of that. Last year he went through an ordeal, with the Feds harassing him needlessly over minutiae connected with record keeping and their bogus suspicions that he was employing undocumented workers. To me, this is a prime illustration of how the tyrannical powers that be are making war on decent, productive, mainstream American folk.

 

Last night Mom attended the wedding reception of Chris’s daughter in St. Charles. She sat at the table with Tom and Lee. She said that many people came by to speak with Tom. He had to be brought in in a wheelchair, because his legs are too swollen for him to walk. Mom says that his kidneys are failing and that she does not expect to see him alive again. His family is keeping him at home, and they don’t wish to subject him to dialysis.

 

So this accounts for my circumstances, my mood, my impetus, and the direction I’m headed in.

 

I will close with a selection of the pictures I’ve taken with my digital camera. I’m dividing them into four mailings, so they won’t clog up anyone’s mailbox. I am not clever with computer technology, but expect this to be feasible. Someone else might do it better on a website. That’s a trick I still haven’t learned. Maybe one of these days, farther down the road.

 

I apologize for my long-windedness. Concision has never been one of my virtues.

 

No one is obligated to read this report. I’m not even sure why I’m writing it. Just because I want to, I guess.

 

I think my life is interesting – even if few would agree, even if it really isn’t. Sometimes it’s joyful, sometimes poignant, painful, bewildering, innovative or serendipitous. Generally I take it on my own terms, find it worthy of reflecting upon, and at moments like this, of describing.

 

  • 7490 – On the eve of departure. Bob at home by his desk on The Meadow in Clifton. Note the boxes on the shelf above, from the booze barn just up Bloomfield Avenue, numbered and organized with what’s left of the books I began selling on amazon in July. Elizabeth had long been hassling me because I have too much stuff for our tiny apartment, especially too many books. Two months ago I stumbled on some feng shui books at the Barnes & Nobles on Broadway & 82nd in Manhattan, while waiting to meet a friend. This inspired me to begin the great de-cluttering. I’ve gotten rid of scores of my books, laboriously packaging them one by one, standing in line at the post office, doing the administrative work on amazon’s website and my own parallel MS Word document. Amazon takes their cut, of course. The few hundred bucks I’ve netted has not really been worth the time I’ve put into it. The real payoff is that my worldly load has been lightened significantly (not just in the book department either). Books that had no value on amazon I left by the box-load in midnight runs to the front door of our wonderful, nearby Allwood Branch of the Clifton Library. I disabled my amazon seller’s account just before leaving home and plan to reactivate it on my return. Whatever I can’t sell by the end of the year will wind up on the informal, cut-rate book table in the library’s entranceway. 
  • 7497 – Friday morning, September 2nd. I clocked 25.9 miles from home to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I’ve ridden this way many times. There are three major rivers to cross between Clifton and New York. ß I’ve never seen the Passaic River as swollen as it’s been after Hurricane Irene. It used to be one of the ten most toxic cleanup sites in the USA. It’s still pretty filthy, and especially laden with trash, thanks to the flooding. Note the tire mounted on the tree in the little island, an indication of how high the raging waters had reached. This is the border between Clifton and Garfield, just a couple blocks from where Elizabeth’s employer relocated last month, on Outwater Lane in Garfield, almost five miles from where we live. Both Garfield and Clifton have many Polish-speaking residents. Just south of Garfield, Wallington is at least 80% Polish. Elizabeth’s employer of 14 years, Nowy Dziennik, the largest circulation Polish language daily in the Western Hemisphere, under new ownership, sold its building 4 blocks from Times Square; the enterprise now calls itself Outwater Media Group. 
  • 7505 – Crossing the Hackensack River en route to New York. 
  • 7511 – Bob, T-shirt moist, a bit sweated up by now. Hundreds of feet above the Hudson River, on the Jersey side, looking south towards midtown and lower Manhattan. This is an exhilarating place to hike or jog or cycle. 
  • 7520 – Looking to the west and back up at the George Washington Bridge. 
  • 7522 – There are few pleasures more delightful – after your system has been pumped up a bit and your senses enlivened – than cycling along this recreational parkway on a sunny day at the cusp of summer and fall, with elegant, exciting Manhattan on one hand and the sparkling Hudson River on the other. 
  • 7531 – Traveling by Greyhound is like taking yoga classes. I wouldn’t exactly say it’s fun, and it brings you to the very limit of what you can endure. But it accomplishes a lot, and I’d do it again. This time the experience was even more challenging and replete with glitches than it’s ever been before. It began with Lee’s invitation. At first I thought I would take the train, as I’d done in the spring. But, for whatever reason, in early September a one-way fare was over twice what I’d paid for my round trip in April, and nearly all the seats were sold out. So I settled on the old standby, Greyhound. I waited a few days for transportation to normalize after the disruption caused by Hurricane Irene. I was also unsure of how quickly I could make all the complex preparations for a return trip of up to two thousand miles on my bicycle, camping out along the way as I always do. Buying a ticket online and printing it at home was the cheapest method. However, Greyhound’s website wasn’t working properly. Over and over again, I typed in the necessary data and clicked through a couple of pages, only to meet with the same apology and request that I try again later. I made numerous phone calls, negotiating the standard maze of recorded options by numerical listing, after which I was often cut off, “due to the unusually high volume of callers.” Patiently, occasionally near the end of my patience, I spoke with agents in various foreign countries. Finally, a day before my intended departure, I paid a premium to buy my ticket over the phone from a certain Vanessa in Guatemala City. Vanessa admitted to being young, as I’d suspected, and claimed to have learned her English from music and television. After we finished our business, I asked Vanessa if many of the customers she spoke with exhibited annoyance or irritation – as I had felt, at least, if not displayed too prominently. She answered in the affirmative.It had cost me many hours to research and purchase my one-way ticket from New York to St. Louis, a transaction that should have taken only a few moments. This was hardly my last indication that Greyhound is more sloppily run than it used to be. Disrespect for the public seems to be a hallmark of modern corporate business, as practiced by its invisible higher-ups. When I got to the Greyhound counter at Port Authority, there was one middle-aged black woman on duty. By the way, almost every Greyhound worker I saw was black. I estimated it would take me twenty minutes to get through the line. After about half that time, the attendant announced that she hadn’t had a bathroom break or lunch and that she was going to be leaving for a while. I began to make loud noises. Regardless of what anyone thought, I didn’t want to miss my bus, and I was expecting it to be crowded on the eve of a Labor Day weekend. I was directed – fortunately – to one of those ticket dispensers that you swipe with your credit card, like they have at airports. So I hadn’t needed to stand in line after all. Downstairs at Baggage Claim I had another long spell to cool my heels. After dutifully waiting my turn in line, I was directed to speak with a different attendant, who suddenly disappeared. I began making loud noises again – repeatedly. I had to take my bicycle apart and put it in a box, and by now there were only two hours left before my bus was scheduled to leave. The box cost ten dollars. But before I could buy one, they needed to find the janitor, who had the key to where the boxes were kept. Eventually this miracle occurred, assisted perhaps by my loud and shameless wailing. It troubled me to see that the box was about 2/3 as large as the one I’d bought for the same price at Penn Station when I took the train to St. Louis a few days before Easter … and rode my little folding Dahon TR Speed. This time I was riding my much larger Surly Long Haul Trucker. I had to take off the pedals, of course, lower the seat and turn the handlebars around, which I was expecting. But because the box was so tight, I also needed to deflate the tires, remove both wheels, take off the rear fender, rear rack, and unscrew the reflectors at the very front and rear of my bike. Even then, it just barely fit into the box, lengthwise. Next, there was the matter of all my considerable gear, which I’d been expecting to just toss into an amply sized box. Fortunately, I am an artist at packing a lot into a very small space. Finally I was ready. It was about all I could manage to shove this now rather heavy box, lug my duffle bag and tote my 25-pound carry-on to the elevator and over to Gate 69. I had a little over an hour before departure and was about the sixth or seventh person in line. Not bad. I sat there cheerfully reading a book and enjoying the lunch I’d packed. After about half an hour, I happened to learn that I needed to acquire check-in tags from this uniformed (black) worker with a little office and scales for weighing people’s luggage. Luckily, I’d put most of the heavy stuff in the box with my dismantled bicycle. He didn’t weigh the box, and my duffle bag came in under the fifty-pound limit. Unluckily, he wanted forty dollars to ship the box. I let out a howl of pain and grief. He referred me to a couple of his uniformed, black colleagues, standing 30 feet away. Yep, sure enough. Thirty-five, forty dollars, depending on how far you’re going. So I just resigned myself, cheerfully paid up and shoved my baggage back over to the line. I was happy when our bus pulled into its berth, and I could see it was one of the new ones – proudly featured on Greyhound’s website – which have additional leg room, free internet wifi, and electric outlets to recharge your laptop on, or whatever. Wow. This was going to be great. But no, not so fast. I was hasty in this judgment. I settled into a nice, black faux leather seat on the left, two-thirds of the way up – right behind a black lady with a noisily squawking 5-year-old. Just as we were leaving the terminal, our driver announced that there was something wrong with the bus and that he’d have to call for another one. We parked a block or so from the terminal, across from a small Croatian church. They eventually brought us a replacement bus – one of the older models, minus the wifi and two inches of extra legroom. This delay cost us an hour and a half. I was careful to let the woman with the obnoxious brat get on first, pick her seat, and choose my own some distance away. We stopped to take on more passengers in Newark and Camden. Just as we were on the outskirts of Philadelphia, our driver announced that this bus too had something wrong with it. I was thankful that Greyhound doesn’t run an airline, and that I wasn’t flying with them, five miles above the earth. In this case, as far as I could tell, it was only the interior lights that weren’t working right. None of the reading lights came on. (For eventualities like this, I always carry my coal-miner’s style, triple-A battery-operated camper’s headlamp). The dim overhead aisle lights flashed on and off rapidly like the stony illumination at a rock concert. Sure enough, at the Philadelphia station they brought us another bus – another one of those nice new ones. This is where my stubborn traveler’s instinct served me well. As we were boarding our third bus so far, less than 200 miles out of the chute, for some reason it got into my head that I wanted to have a look at my duffle bag and bicycle box. So instead of getting on, I made my way around to the port side of the bus, where the flaps were raised and the underbelly baggage compartments exposed. Sure enough, there was my duffle bag, all pretty and green, with the large sunburst Elizabeth sewed on for me after I bought it, to cover up the logo. (I dislike using or wearing anything with a logo.) But where was the box with my bicycle and half of my gear? I looked over at the adjoining berth, where the bus we’d gotten off of half an hour earlier was still parked. Son of a gun. There it was! Those idiots were going to separate me from half of my stuff! What a headache that would have caused me in St. Louis. How it would have disrupted the plans I’d carefully made to reassemble my rig and make my own way out to Kirkwood – without losing time, waiting dependently, or spending another dime on transportation. So I immediately began making loud and disgraceful wails of protest again, until my piece had been dug out from underneath the pile where it was buried, and stowed on the vehicle that would eventually take me the rest of the way to St. Louis. Every seat was filled. I was joined by a huge fellow named Ronald, nearly twice my size, a Navajo Indian returning to Arizona from a visit with his brother who worked at a resort on Cape Cod. Fortunately, Ronald had the aisle seat and was able to park most of his legs in the aisle, but a good portion of him still spilled over into my little area, already sufficiently taken up by my skinny six-foot frame and bicycle messenger bag with laptop computer, lunch, water jug, thick novel and other belongings. Ronald told me he only had twenty bucks to get him all the way home. I shared a bit of my dried fruit with him. Later, at a rest stop in Indiana, because Greyhound’s cafeteria was closed and I couldn’t get hot water for tea, I strayed across the street for store-bought coffee and was tempted to invest in a hamburger and fries as well. I felt guilty enjoying this feast as Ronald looked on hungrily. After debarking in St. Louis, I was sorry I hadn’t peeled off ten bucks so the poor guy could get something to eat. I never would have met Ronald at all if he hadn’t treated himself to some beer at an earlier stop … and been disqualified from reboarding because he smelled of alcohol. I did use the wifi. I answered a couple of emails, nosed around a bit on the internet, and even enjoyed the miracle of playing a couple games of go against phantom opponents someplace halfway around the world. In the end, however, I slept a lot, in the same old fetal position I’d practiced on similar, cross-country Greyhound marathons as a youth – with my knees pressing against the seat to the front and the small of my back halfway down where my butt would normally rest. This time I was better prepared than before, with, among much else, bulky items of clothing I could use to prop up my back and pillow my head. In the final analysis, while undoubtedly a marvel, I felt the free Internet wifi was overrated. When you’re going Greyhound, the simple, old-fashioned pleasures of sleeping, reading a good novel, sipping delicious store-bought coffee, and gazing out the window provide plenty of the old magic and are really all that you need. I had a good time watching the other passengers too, and listening to their good-natured exchanges – the Asian woman across from me, with her well-behaved infant, the young blond couple on their way back to California, comparing their tastes in pot with a cheerful, mature workman type, probably in his late thirties, seated directly to my rear. I felt a glorious, undiscriminating patience for all of it. Perhaps my year of yoga classes had actually taught me something. In a conversation not long ago with my Pakistani friend from England, Kam, I was instructed to relax. Even when you are in a difficult posture, trembling, and straining with all your might – just focus on your breathing and relax. I felt that Kam was right about this, as he is about so much else, and I proved to myself that it was so, on the mat, over and over again in my classes during the past couple of months. Yoga was indeed good practice for riding the Greyhound to St. Louis. Picture 7531 shows us still in New York, across from the Croatian church, with our luggage being transferred from one gamey bus to another. 
  • 7533 – 4:15 in the morning, Pittsburgh (I think). Waiting to reboard. One of the more characteristically unforgettable aspects of hardcore, long-distance Greyhound travel is getting rousted in the wee hours of the night, when everyone is slumbering deeply, and disgorged at some cheerless Greyhound terminal, always in the worst part of town, to slink around groggily for an hour while the bus is being cleaned and serviced. Note the black lady in the gray sweater to the left, and the little legs of her now silent and subdued five-year-old. Amazing what the rigors of merely 14 hours on the Greyhound will do to cure a bratty child. Note my trademark green Timbuktu bicycle messenger’s bag on the floor to the right – faithful servant, inseparable companion on sojourns from Szczebrzeszyn, Poland, to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, and points in between; teacher’s U Haul for countless hours of classes at the community college in Paterson, and elsewhere; sturdy grocery bag and New York City tote. Note also the exquisite Polish novel, Stone Upon Stone by Mysliwski, open on the counter beside the now soggy paper cup a young (black) female server in Philadelphia had supplied for my free hot water, saving me the extraction of my beloved tin cup, providing as well the spill protection of its plastic lid. At 62, I can get away with expressing my appreciation for such kindness with a flagrant, “Thank you, dear,” rolling naturally off my tongue, or even occasionally a fearless “sweetheart,” signaling a depth of affection for the odd stranger here and there that takes even me by surprise, and savoring the immunity that my now abundantly gray hair permits. 
  • 7540 – As we cross the Mississippi, cell-phone and all other cameras are out, in honor of the Arch, symbolic Gateway to the West. I remember when it was going up, around 1960, its stainless steel pincers extending skyward till they finally met at the apex. You could see it twelve or fifteen miles away, from the high ground of the playground at my grade school in Warson Woods. 

 

To be continued – on September Cruise 1.1.b


* With apologies to the makers of this thought-provoking documentary, apropos of the date

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6407548186293238834

(Not an endorsement – I’m still agnostic on this point; just something to think about.)

 

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