Monday, December 16, 2013

Kindness and Rain - Athens to Milledgeville, GA

When I last wrote I was in Athens, GA preparing to ride southeast toward the coast of Georgia.  Right now as I write, I'm riding an Amtrak train from Savannah GA to New York City.  I completed the whole trip of riding safely and happily!  Okay, that's the spoiler, now you basically know the ending.

I had stayed an extra day (last Sunday) in Athens to try to wait out the rain and cold, but it wasn't totally successful.  Once I got packed up and removed the (tiny tiny) piece of metal from my rear tire - that had caused two flats - it was still in the 30's and so cloudy/humid that it would be a miracle if it didn't rain.  No miracle luck on this day.  Not in that way, at least!

Within 15 minutes I was glad I had already put on my rain covers, and was wearing contact lenses (glasses in the rain gets troublesome).  It was pouring and I wasn't even out if town yet!  But on I pedaled, and I had the relief of knowing that I had a Warmshowers host in 70 short miles (Milledgeville).  But this felt surely like a low moment in the trip.  Having seen Rising Appalachia already, and with no destination for 250 miles, it felt odd to just keep plunging forward, especially in less-than-pleasant weather.

15 or 20 miles into the ride, I stopped in to a gas station for a snack and to warm up. Sometimes stopping is risky when you're cold and wet, because your body temperature stays higher if you keep moving.  But I needed a morale break.  I paced around eating a granola bar, and eventually the cashier offered me a warm beverage on the house.  That was such a lovely gesture! and one that may not happen in the same context up north.  But maybe it would ....

Hot chocolate had me much warmer, and i got back on the bike.  What happened next was possibly the most unexpectedly generous act of kindness to come my way on the trip, and certainly got me through to the end of that day!
It wasn't much above 40 degrees and the rain hadn't let up.  As I biked through a small town, probably with as close to a frown as I am capable of, I heard from the sidewalk, "Hey Sir!"  He had to yell over the rain and cars.  "Hey Sir, do you need anything?!"  He was a tall man in his 30's with thick round black glasses and a long plaid jacket and hat.  Could have stopped out of a Dick Tracey scene.  A little surprised by this stranger reaching out, I told him, in genuine response, that "Nope, I think I've got everything that I could need!"  He said gently, "Well, I saw you riding back there, and just in case ..." and he handed me a folded up $5 bill.  Now I didn't need $5, but i sure needed that unsolicited encouragement at just that moment. Talk about guardian angels.  A bit of money was the tool this fellow needed to express his support of a fellow human being doing something less than ordinary and maybe a bit challenging.  And part of my traveling intention is to humbly accept and receive help and generosity.  It was a perfect exchange of humanity, and I pedaled off smiling with humbled disbelief, and the rain turning salty on my cheeks.

One thing working very much in my favor was that the further south and east I traveled, the flatter the terrain became.  I was starting to make 12 or 13 miles per hour instead of 9 or 10.  About halfway through the day I was passing my chance to turn toward Atlanta and catch a train home.  Spurred on by support from locals, and by the thought of getting to the Hostel in the Forest in Brunswick, I stayed the course.  Talking on the phone to my Warmshowers host Frank, I realized I was coming into a new accent region of the country!  A little slower and deeper southern drawl than in the mountains of Western NC.  When I got within a couple miles of Frank's home, it was getting dark and still raining, and the shoulder was narrowing.  I called, as requested, and he was already on his way to pick me up and save me riding in rush hour traffic at dusk with no safe lane to occupy.  In the time it took me to cross the 4-lane highway to a parking lot, Frank had arrived - we threw my bike in the bed of his pickup and headed to his home.

I think you would be hard-pressed to find a nicer couple than Frank and his wife Susan, and I felt so lucky to have crossed paths with them.  Before we even got in from the garage, Frank was assessing how he could help fix my bike.  Among other things, my pedal had nearly broken off in the last few miles.  He offered his as a replacement, and tried - in vain, as I had in VT - to remove my pedal.  We left the maintenance for later, and I got so thankfully showered and dry.  Did a load of laundry, had a beer.  These things are so exciting and luxurious when you've ridden all day, in the rain especially (and compared to soggy stealth camping ...).

Susan made a large and delicious dinner, and we had plenty of delightful conversation.  The two of them, in their 60's or so, are planning for a cross-country cycling tour in March - across the southern tier of the US to San Diego.  Daily training and extensive map planning - not the way I usually do it, but they have all winter to get ready so why not be totally prepared!  They ride a lot but this will be their first long tour.  Very exciting. After dinner we fixed my pedal and Frank helped me clean the  whole bike and chain!  Then I played a couple songs on the banjo and we hung out talking until later than I realized.  Off to bed, because I needed to leave by sunrise to make 100 miles to Vidalia by 4pm.  Sounded daunting, but worth it to have a place to stay in central Georgia where I really don't know the scene enough to confidently pitch a tent in any old piece of woods.  This entry ends here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Time Travel. Georgia. Rising Appalachia.

I'm going to break away from chronology now, so I can write a little more about what's fresh.  I also noticed that 100 people read my last entry, so I really ought to keep up to date and keep posting!!

I am currently in Athens, GA, where I last night saw my truly favorite band, Rising Appalachia.  Before I get into all that though, I'll briefly note what I've been doing and haven't yet written about:

• Rode 4 days from York, PA to Baltimore, MD and D.C. and Leesburg, VA with my cousin Tim - his first ever bike touring!
• Rode through Winchester, VA and the entirety of Skyline Drive (most challenging terrain I had ever done)
• Rode the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping in Waynesboro, Roanoake, and Floyd VA (slightly more challenging than Skyline...), then descended the crest of the mountains - fending off dogs and darkness - to Black Mountain, NC
• Longest day ever, 125 miles
• Lived in Asheville, NC for a couple weeks, after 12 straight days of cycling
• Biked to Franklin, NC, then on to Athens, GA

Caught up!  Probably 1,000-1,500 miles total at this point, but no math done yet.  I'll fill in details on all those things, and I'll put together a photo journal of it once I'm home.

So when I pulled into Athens, GA, it was Friday afternoon.  I did my best to find hopping downtown areas, and scoped out the area for good street singing spots.  Well, first I took advantage of a bike pump outside a shop to keep my rear tire reasonably inflated.  Slow leak I was riding out, rather than fixing.  I finally decided on a corner of a slow street with wide sidewalks and caf├ęs/pubs/shops near the edge of the University of Georgia.  I checked with the store I was in front of (an oft-appreciated gesture), and they were just glad I wasn't drumming.  Within a minute or two of singing, folks were stopping to listen and drop a dollar in the case.  Lots if smiles and words of encouragement, so I sang right through until after dark.  My favorite feedback was from the meter maid-man who enjoyed my upbeat rendition of "For What It's Worth."  As usual, the more lively songs seem to get people more inspired.

When I finally stopped singing, I discovered that my hosts (as of then still strangers) were having a vegan potluck, apparently due to my arrival.  And I was 2 hours late for my own party!  So I rushed over and was warmly received by Jul and Justin, their family, pets, friends, and everyone's children!  There was plenty to eat and good conversation with inspired kind folks.  I feel so lucky to be dropping into such fantastic communities of people everywhere I go.  I hung out and changed my flat tire - someone found the hole in the busted one for me :) - played some banjo and sang, and then excused myself later on to go back downtown because Victor Wooten and his brothers were playing in town!

Once I got to the theater, I realized I had no key for my bike lock, so I couldn't go inside.  And it turned out I wasn't in the mood for the music they were playing anyway!  I went on to a Phish tribute band that was way too loud, and waited out the rain before biking home.  Grateful for a dry warm place to land.

Saturday, I went to the Farmers' Market nearby, had some good agricultural conversation (Osage orange wood, Yacon, peanuts, rosemary, shiitake, etc ...), and went on to an outdoor craft fair also nearby.  Met some fun vendors there including a sweet Brazilian and Peruvian couple selling flutes and jewelry, a young woman making bicycling bags, and a woman selling stingray leather jewelry, among others.  Bought my first ever crystal, a fine piece of Moldavite.

Then I went back to the same busking spot as the day before, but there was a grumpy woman there asking for change who gave me a good long glare and grumble.  I looked around for another spot, but it really was the only one worth spending time at.  Plus I was feeling discouraged by and annoyed with the similarities of busking and panhandling.  So I sat and drank tea.

Finally it was time for the festivities to begin at New Earth Music Hall, in preparation for the Rising Appalachia show.  It began with me wandering in as the band was arriving and setting up.  I felt this amazing sense of being starstruck as I haven't before ... Seeing these talented and wonderful folks who I had only before seen in videos, thinking, "I know you, you're the guy who plays djembe!!  And you, you sing like an earthen angel!  You're real and we're standing on the same ground 10 feet away from each other!"  But I've never been the intrusive type, so I tried to remain cool while I went through the motions of this nice dream.  A group gathered to practice chi gong and yoga, which was a great way to ground, as well as meet some folks there for similar reasons.  Then we moved outside for an anthropological discussion about media, images, neurobiology, and philosophy.  Again, a nice way to see and connect with the gathering crowd - even though I didn't much feel like contributing to the discussion!  And I was admittedly distracted by the soundcheck going on inside.

When the doors opened, I was sure to stake out a spot up front.  The music began with Rahasya, an Athens group that shared kirtan-style chanting, which began very mellow and eased ever-so-slowly into a good long groove.  Perfect warm-up, and ended quickly (half hour?) - but there was a lot of music to come still!  Another local fellow Carl Lindberg took the stage next and kinda tore it up with his killer blues/soul voice, distorted upright bass, and warm heart.  Touring with Rising Appalachia was Theresa Davis, a spoken word artist of the highest level.  She had the audience sipping every syllable as she wound words around education, puberty, women's rights, death, romance, childhood, and parenthood.

With the stage now properly prepared, Rising Appalachia came out to step things up still one notch higher.  I quickly made peace with my ecstatic realization of the moment, and off we went.  They started in with two or three traditional tunes from New Orleans, first a cappella ("Mississippi Song"), then with their essential percussion-driven banjo groove ("St. James Infirmary").  Sisters Chloe and Leah have impeccably uplifting harmonies together, that weave around to sound like often 3 or 4 voices.  And when they're moving together, they're So together ... like a single being making sound from the same breath.  Leah and Chloe pass the banjo back and forth on various songs, Chloe often is playing fiddle or guitar, Leah often has a tambourine ....  Biko was rocking out the djembe, congas, and the inverted bowl drum with a serious bass mic pumping it out.  Completely solid drummer that you could trust your life with, adding just enough invigorating embellishment to get everyone dancing just a little harder.  David went back and forth between acoustic guitar and upright bass.

Now, I wish I could remember the whole set list, especially because I could read it clearly from where I was standing.  But it all whirled into one wave of bliss and dancing.  "Honey Babe Blues" was near the beginning, and so was "Filthy Dirty South" - anthem title track of their latest album.  A pleasant rendition of Buena Vista Social Club's "El Quarto de Tula."  "SuNu" whose lyrics translate into 'dance, beautiful women,' 'everyone dance your butts off' or something to that effect.  "Pretty Lil' Foot."  "Cumberland Gap," another traditional.  By now things were in full swing, Oh what joy!  The band even seemed to forget that most of them apparently had the flu.

Then the sultry "Swoon," "Oh, Death" with Theresa Davis' poetry returning to the stage as the three women traded off mics.  And the most wonderful surprise to me- "Sometimes I," which steadied the whole room as soon as the banjo and guitar delicately opened the song.  Green heart light beaming down on the stage, Leah sang first, then Chloe in response, and they traded back and forth most tenderly.  The most introspective song of the evening, and everyone seemed slightly dizzy with some sort of nostalgia or hope or nostalgic hopeful loving amazed contentment.  And then the drums/bass kicked in and the whole song went to a sweet and deep groove that had everyone dancing in a way that you only can when you get there from soul of the beginning of the tune.

From then it all felt like a bonus.  I'm gonna go ahead and cut myself off from further music critic-style gushing.  I also forget what the songs were from then out, just that we kept on moving and getting down properly.  A quick-paced "Scale Down" was the encore, quite fine indeed.

Yes, I'm sure I forgot some things, but oh well.  It was a very full-feeling show, haven't felt anything so sustainably satisfying and grounding.  You know, amazing without being impossible to hold on to.

Afterwards, Kalimba Man took the stage with one thumb piano and began rocking.  So compellingly, in fact, that there formed a fantastic posse of blissful dancers (I among them), now with space to move a bit more!  He was using a loop pedal to layer not only acoustic metal twangs, but also deep whacks to the wooden sides of his instrument, complex drum pad beats, and later on thumb-tapped distortion and synth sounds.  This fellow was so fun that I danced away the period of time in which the band mingles with everyone as they wrap up and leave.  I had at least some vague intention of sharing my gratitude directly with the band, if only briefly.  In a perfect world, I would have had them sign my banjo in gratitude for inspiring me to start playing it, or sign my bicycle for inspiring me to ride through Appalachia, or sign my album for inspiring the creation of my song "Permaculture Saints."  Signatures of course being just silly selfish symbols, but the real medicine being the gratitude I feel for these top-notch performers and entertainers and human beings ....

But I had waited so long to stop dancing that the band was already packed up and congregating at their white touring van to leave.  I powered through my desire to not be a needy pushy fan, and courageously, casually, walked over to the band.  I stumbled awkwardly around, not wanting to interfere with the poignant personal exchanges happening between musicians/poet/managers, found David the guitarist/bassist free for a moment to shake his hand and say thank you - then I succumbed to my desire to not be a needy pushy fan.  And I instead turned into the slightly awkward fan that stands watching from almost too close while the band huddles and does a wonderful little tour-ending celebration jig.  I fought the urge to race back inside, and at least stood somewhat firmly to send the van off with a grateful little bow, a peace sign, a smile, and a hoot.

What could it be that turned this self-confident and steady individual (me) and competent musician into a bumbling fool?  Partially, I'm enamored with the soulful skill and beauty of these musicians; and partially, I feel the strong urge to be part of something so very much like Rising Appalachia - to be on stage playing tight music with a high vibe and message, while people dance and connect to a deep source and community.  What a useful lesson and inspiration!  I won't be ashamed to be the true fanatic that I am, and I will carry this strength in my heart forward and outward.

Bicycled home, after connecting with some new friends.  Slept well, again warm and dry.  Up with the family to discover that it was in fact cold and wet out, and that I ought to wait a day to begin biking again.  So I had a casual day of catching up on things like this blog.  Sat at the food co-op for a while, and got talking with a fellow who stopped to chat the first day i was singing in town.  Lovely guy and he could tell me a lot about old time music and the banjo.  He reminded me that Richie Stearns is kind of a legend, and happens to live in Ithaca, and I ought to see if he's teaching lessons these days!  Soon enough.  Then I went to The Globe, a Public House with an Irish session going on.  And scotch flights.  A pleasant evening.  Home here again, and .. this is what things start to sound like when I blog about the too-recent past.  I'll recount every step I took from living room to kitchen, etc, so ... it's time to call it a night.  Up early for a 70-mile day tomorrow to Milledgeville!  Hoping the pieces of metal falling apart on my bike's rear pannier rack won't be a problem.  And that I can find whatever is causing the slow leak in the new rear tube.  Goodnight!

Travis