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June 11, 2024

Stream-of-Consciousness Traveling

“Life doesn’t happen along the Interstate. It is against the law.”

In 1980, a good friend and I decided we wanted to hang out in the Florida Keys for a couple of weeks. We both, for different reasons, needed a long break. My friend was what I called a “Stream-of-Consciousness Adventurer” — as in, the plan could change at any moment. We might be headed for Key West but could just as easily wind up in New York City. It just depended…

This, of course, perfectly balanced my military and prep school upbringing and pulled me out of what could be a boring determination to stick to a plan. That’s the funny thing about the regimens of military service and my old military school: It’s all order and discipline according to protocols, just following orders. But if you study several hundred years of military campaigns, you learn that sticking doggedly to a plan can sometimes get a lot of folks killed. The old adage is, to paraphrase Moltke, “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first shots fired.” Just ask George Armstrong Custer.

Winston Churchill got it when he tapped William Fairbairn, Colin Gubbins and Cecil Clark to form his “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” in WWII, and Bill Hamilton and Richard Marcinko definitely got it with the formation of SEAL Team 6. Keep moving, improvise, and be nimble.

So, stream-of-consciousness traveling works something like, Just let the day unfold and see where it takes you. It is much like stream-of-consciousness writing in the style of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, wherein the reader is exposed to visual, auditory, physical, associative, and subliminal thoughts and feelings in real time as they occur.

Once upon a time in the carefree and prosperous post-WWII years, folks did something called “taking a Sunday drive,” which is a close cousin of stream-of-consciousness traveling.

Conveyance by motorcycle is a wonderful way to experience this type of travel, as you are immersed in smells, sounds, and temperature changes, all of which are detached in the confines of an automobile.

It’s 1972 — a bluebird day in May, the sweet smell of honeysuckle in the air — and along with a couple of friends, we left on our motorcycles with no plan other than to head toward the mountains of East Tennessee. At 16 years old, we were intoxicated by the freedom of it all, having only recently graduated from the “stay in the neighborhood” directive.

Soon the interstate fades away and the mountain roads begin, and the smell of diesel fumes and tires that are too hot are replaced with the scent of Balsam Fir and Spruce and the mossy wet undergrowth of the forest. As we undulate along the increasingly curvy roads, we drop into a dip where the air is colder and then accelerate up to the warmth. Sweeping through the curves, I dream I’m a fighter pilot dodging incoming fire. As the road begins to rise and fall, I’m a surfer.

No one noticed we had crossed into North Carolina and are on U.S. 129. Although now known as the internationally famous “Tail of the Dragon,” it was just a curvy road to us, but as William Least Heat Moon wrote in Blue Highways, it was “a road so crooked it could run for the legislature.”

The day is heating up, and now we are losing elevation and running low on fuel. Rounding the next corner, we see a crystalline lake with sunlight bouncing off in an explosion of a million sparkling diamonds, and we do the only logical thing — stop and take a swim. Swimming wasn’t in the plan, so we swim in our underwear.

Floating on our backs in the sun immersed in the cool water hatches what is the first and only real objective plan of the day. Bruce says, “We’ve got to find gas — I went on reserve about 20 miles ago.” Everyone collectively says, “And food!” We can’t backtrack because there is nothing there. We have no map, so we keep going ahead and are soon in Robbinsville, North Carolina, where we find food and gas at a classic white clapboard “Say, where ya from buddy?” establishment. At least we know where we are.

With the bikes now full of gas and our bellies full of two BBQ sandwiches apiece and the shadows getting longer, we are too broke to buy a gas station map from behind the counter, so I ask the storekeeper, “What’s the best way back to Chattanooga from here?”

He is grizzled, unshaven, has tobacco stains down the front of his overalls, and twisted arthritic hands. His ball cap tells us he likes Red Man chewing tobacco. While pleasant enough — because, after all, this is a “Say, where ya from buddy” establishment in the South — he really doesn’t much care for our long hair or “motorsickles.” He probably never heard Soichiro Honda’s ad campaign, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.” Alas, we are riding Kawasaki motorcycles — three cylinder two strokes, which all make a nearly demonic howl when revved up. He looks at them and pronounces Kawasaki “Wastikis.” But, the rule of this era was, be nice to travelers — even long-haired ones on motorsickles.

He points a permanently curved finger to the east and says, “Go back the way you came and take the first big road on your left. That’ll take you to Tellico Plains. Reckon you can find your way home from there.” I say, “Yeah, I fished Tellico Plains a bunch with my dad when I was a kid.” He says, “You’re still a kid.” In a parting shot as we are walking out, he says, “Ya’ll ain’t gonna make it home before dark.”

We followed his directions and began climbing out of Robbinsville to well over 5,000 feet in elevation. Still damp from the late afternoon swim, the cold is penetrating but helps keeps focus as the road is unfamiliar. Two deer jump out ahead of us, and I nearly hit one as my brakes have faded from my “point and shoot”-style of accelerating hard out of corners and braking hard going in.

Soon we are through Tellico Plains, Etowah, and Athens, and then are back on the interstate headed home. It is dark but warm again, not just the air but the day’s accumulated heat rising from the pavement. We are grouped closely together. A tribe. The three engines periodically go into synchronic harmony as they match revolutions. The smells of the interstate are back and more acrid than the morning. They’ve had all day to work on it. They blend with the odor of a nearby pulpwood plant.

Although planning will, by necessity, enter all of our young lives soon enough, today’s “We have no plan” was glorious.

William Least Heat Moon wrote, “Life doesn’t happen along the Interstate. It is against the law.”

And from Randy Wayne White: “Never forget that bastard Grim Reaper is loose in the room and a moving target is harder to hit.”

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