After my Saturday lost on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I finally pulled into Johnson City, TN just before dark; wet, tired, and hungry. I had used a website to grab a hotel room and the place was a redone 1970’s chain; either a raddison or rodeway or quality inn. Once again, the desk clerk (and the entire staff) was from India and family run. Time after time such low cost redone motels were family run with 3 generation families from India. I still don’t know what to make of it.
When I headed back out for dinner, my trained eye said not all of the rooms were upgraded and in use. Over half were, but some were mothballed, used to store construction supplies or the like. The guests, like me, were placed in front facing the road, to accentuate the buzz of activity. My motel was adjacent to an empty and abandoned shell of what was once a Holiday Inn from the 1970’s, its unmistakable trademark look literally dark and boarded up. Slipshod hand lettered signs from the final owner before bankruptcy still stood out front. But my room in my motel was clean, and comfortable, and cheap with all the amenities. And it was not owned by some hospitality conglomerate.
In the dark night, I found a Saturday night meetup book discussion group at a private home in a nearby neighborhood. I actually scootered the few miles into that neighborhood, then I stopped myself. The humorous novelty of just dropping in on eight strangers talking about a book I had never read faded as I felt the cold fatigue wash over me. I chuckled thinking of them rushing to Meetup, changing their group status to “address revealed only to group members” as I rode instead to dinner. The joke just wasn’t funny enough.
I took a tour of old downtown Johnson City, and saw signs of some attempted economic recovery. My visit was in the middle of reconstruction of storefronts with upstairs living quarters, preserving the historic downtown. Lots of mess, but quiet on a late Saturday night. The construction was very current, making me wonder who approved it, who funded it, what was their goal? And no “New Urbanism” residents to be seen. But progress was coming, even to backwater Johnson City, a couple years after all the other places I was visiting this trip. It will be fun to return next year and see what came of this beehive of activity.
Other than the scaffolds and sawhorses, mostly I saw churches and church related industries: Saint So-and-So, Covenant this and Calvary that with food kitchens, nursing care, schools, and other often public social services seeming to have a church tie. But it was a one and done drive through for me, just my passing impressions.
After riding around I finally skipped dinner and had a warm decaf before riding back to the room. I looked up a local UU congregation, but I already sensed that waiting around for the start, then coffee hour after, would make my Sunday too complex, and it would impact my 3pm dance class which I was not going to miss.
In the morning, I stopped at the motel lobby to get my free cup of coffee while packing the bike. I encountered the Indian family’s Grandfather, the dad to the woman running the night desk (that I met again running the cleaning cart this morning). He was in his 70s, I guess, and of course I engaged him. I asked him about Johnson City and how his family came there from India. He was at first shy about his heavy accent but my enthusiasm for his words empowered him. He started with trial balloons, 90% facts and statistics, and 10% opinions. The major employers were the University and Veterans Hospital. So the motel was most busy on football weekends, parent weekends, and for out of town visitors to the hospital.
After talking 20 minutes about town and his extended family back in India, I asked him to contrast his view of American and Indian culture. I was delighted to learn that instead of some wild notion, he highlighted the universal experience of any male of his age (my age?). Families back in India, he said, had stronger ties, with common dinnertime, respect for elders, and more interaction with extended family. Americans, especially kids and teens these days, were too self-absorbed, neglecting their schooling, disrespectful, with their faces buried in smart phones. The only thing missing was his “I Like Ike” lapel button and pining for his “merry Oldsmobile”. Did parents in India walk to school in the snow as children, too? I held my huge grin and didn’t ask. His daughter, on her third try, shooed me off and him back to work. But it was time to go anyway. I got whatever it was I was looking for from this now happy old man, plucked up and repotted 8,000 miles from home in a land of foreign (to him) sensibilities.
No fooling around with Sunday morning church in Johnson City, or with scenic blue highways today. I hit the freeway and hit full throttle and I didn’t look back. Next stop Roanoke and I already had my hotel reservation. Sunday traffic was light and two lanes opened to three in the cities along the way, back to two in the hilly rural spans. I let Leonard Cohen and my Pandora Beach Boys mix play in my helmet as I sang out Karaoke style. At 70+ mph, nobody was listening and my grin barely fit in my helmet.
I made the goal of riding out my gas tank and after a couple hours I needed fuel. My GPS showed a Shell and McDonalds ahead (no BP, but I could use my gift card). When I circled into the McDonald’s, there were three different Harleys, each parked individually by itself, separated around the lot. This was not a group ride, but individual three guys (plus me) stopping for McMuffins. Weird, but I guess just the Smokeys in July.
I ended up only wanting only a coffee, and noticed a pretty ordinary guy wearing a Daytona Beach “bike week” t-shirt sitting by himself. I looked down and, as luck had it, I happened to be wearing my matching shirt as well. I walked over and casually said “So, did we meet at the Parade?” and he had a good chuckle and warmly pointed for me to sit. We were instant old friends. I retrieved my coffee and noticed him struggling with a horrible line map of the area, the eastern edge of the Smokey mountains that run west from here to the “tail of the dragon” and then all the way to I-75 in mid-Tennessee.
I ran out to my bike to retrieve one of the three spectacular multi-color smokey mountain motorcycle circle tour maps I picked up at IronHorse. I gave him my beat up copy, since he was going to put it to immediate use. I pointed out Johnson City, Bristol, and highlighted some of the different routes I rode just two weeks ago after departing Knoxville. I asked if he was on a solo vacation and, once again, a fellow traveler poured out his heart. It was getting less unsettling but still strange in its newness.
He was from Iowa, and worked as a maintenance supervisor for a hospital, for a college before that. He takes a week off each summer and for years he, his brother and his dad had gone on 3-man motorcycle trips. He reeled off places they went: Canada, the Rockies, back east. He hauled his bike in a huge pick-up truck, which was currently parked in a lot at some motel around here, while he set off solo on the bike, no wasted days driving to and from Iowa.
His dad no longer rode, and his brother (and here was a long pause), had remarried … and his new wife was not fond of these trips. She came along this time as a passenger, but she wanted her husband to herself some. So without ceremony my coffee buddy found himself suddenly alone, in a McDonalds in the middle of Tennessee, and a little lost. If he had been traveling eastbound like me, I would have invited him to share my run to Roanoke. But he was headed west into those beautiful mountains. Headed there by himself.
I could just feel his sadness when he talked about the current situation, and his warm nostalgia when talking about prior years. He was sure this might be the last year for a team ride with his brother. Not on his part, but just how things were working out.
I did my best to replace his ghosts, talking animatedly about my solo adventure and its delights and surprises, and I listed for him the different options; riding with groups or finding new riders. But you could tell by his soft vanilla smile that he was only humoring me and his thoughts were already far down a different trail.
Then the weirdest thing happened. About five minutes previously, there had been a big puff of grey smoke in the kitchen, clearly visible from our seats facing the front counter. While we spoke about our journeys, each of us had been taking turns glancing over our shoulders at increasing noises and activity, as people scampered about the kitchen, stopped taking orders, and were acting out what looked like some kind of drill. Then the first fire engine pulled up, with full flashers but cutting his siren down the street. Firemen tumbled out and walked around cartoonish in the lobby in their oversized helmets, heavy safety uniforms and protective boots like kids dressed up in their dads work clothes. Then the second, and the third trucks showed up as well. It was then the McDonald’s manager asked us to vacate the restaurant.
This was fine for us, as we had really said all that could be said. He had his new map and a general idea for his next couple days. And I had a dance class waiting for me down the road in the opposite direction. We both had a chuckle, shook hands and headed out. Like true bikers I walked first to his Harley, properly oohed and aahed, and he then followed me around to my Bergman and did the same ritual. We shook hands again and shouted “drive safe” and that was that. Well, after I took my selfie in front of the fire truck.
I was rested, a little behind schedule, but stopped for gas, pointed the bike east and hit the freeway, full throttle, pointed to Roanoke.