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Liberal, Kansas, USA - April 14, 2003

Chapter 4 - The Yellow Brick Road

My plans for a camping night in the Smoky Mountains went up in smoke, or fog that is. All the way up and down the mountain slopes it was drizzling and there was a thick fog past a certain elevation. I couldn't see beyond about
The thick fog on the road through the Smoky Mountains. That's how much I could see.
30m and drove real carefully. Luckily there wasn't a lot of traffic. Along the way I met two more bikers who were crazy enough to endure these conditions. Unfortunately I never got their names. We went through the National Park together and then I lost them in Gatlinburg.

Gatlinburg is a tourist town, but the kind I try to stay away from. At least when I'm on my own. It looks too Disney and expensive too me. The next spot, Pigeon Forge, is also a tourist town, but geared to the masses. Even though it has a kitschy appeal, I prefer this to the other more neat place. I didn't stay long though, as I only wanted to shop for some groceries. I was planning to camp. This is also the place I got the cheapest gas so far. 1.29 for a gallon of gas. So far, in the US, the price has been between 1.76 and 1.29, but mostly in the 1.40-1.50 range. This makes it about 40 cents US for each litre of gasoline, which is pretty cheap.

The weather forecast showed a huge rain cloud moving in from the southwest. I was thus expecting rain either in the afternoon or the next day. It was very humid. The kind of weather that produces thunderstorms. In any case, I decided to seek a campground. I found a spot south of I-40 on a lake. It seemed abandoned but for a few trailers. For those who don't know, there are a lot of trailer parks in the US. These are small communities, where each house can basically be moved at any time by truck. The campground wasn't abandoned and I stayed for a night. The only camper there. I got a chance to cook some veggy chilli. A lot of it. I am vegan (basically vegetarian, but also no egg or dairy) and it's very hard here in the US to eat out. It's either too expensive for little food or there is nothing on the menu. So I carry food with me and cook when I can. The only fast-food spot I found is Subways, but it's not a complete meal. In Canada you can get a veggy burger at McDonald's. The other options I took recently were a Thai and Chinese restaurant where I asked for tofu. It wasn't on the menu, but of course they had it.

On my way to Nashville I got rained on. Heavily. Like buckets of rain. The crappy motorcycle suit let in water. It's supposed not to. I got my passport and other documents wet, so from now on I carry no paper in my pockets. In Nashville I met up with Steve Stratz, from the Chaingang website. I had been in touch with him by e-mail before the trip and now I had a chance to finally meet him and his family. He is a very nice guy and his family are really very nice. They let me stay at their place for two nights and it was a relief from the rain and also from solitude.

Steve rides an F650GS Dakar and I think this version of my bike has a better setup for a world trip, but I'll make do with mine. We didn't have a chance to ride together, because I was there during the week and it was also raining. Steve did show me Nashville, and what at first seemed like just another city, became actually quite interesting. I specially liked the architecture of some old homes and the Parthenon. This building is a replica of the Parthenon
The Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee
in Athens. It was built in 1897 for the international fair in Nashville at the time. It was supposed to be temporary, but became permanent and I think that was a great choice. From the outside it's impressive, but not nearly as impressive as what you can see inside. There is a replica of the statue of Athena, just as it would have stood in the real Parthenon in Athens more than 2000 years ago. And it really looks impressive. The statue is over 12m (40 feet) tall and shines brigthly in gold. I felt moved into ancient Greece. Now I have another motive to visit Athens, when I get there.
The statue of Athena inside the Parthenon in Nashville.

When I left Nashville, I dropped my camera on the ground and now the pictures came out either pitch black or with the wrong colours and a black vignette in one corner. Otherwise, it appeared to work, but I only found out that it was broken a bit later. First, I escaped the cold rainy morning and travelled west, where I crossed the Mississipi river in Missouri. The river is quite large and on the west side the terrain appeared flat. Originally I had planned to travel through Missouri, but went to Arkansas instead, as Steve had recommended the Ozark mountains. Unfortunately, because of my camera mishap, there are no digital pictures of this part of the trip.

Once in Arkansas, I found a great motorcycle road north of Jonesboro, which leads to the best campsite I've been so far, Crowley's Ridge State Park. Arkansas looks like another country. The architecture is different and the people also seem a bit different from the east. It's also a state where there is no helmet law, so most bikers have no helmet. I ride with one at any time.

I was again the only camper on the campsite, which has the advantage that I have the shower all to myself and there is complete silence, which can also be boring. But I have so many things to do, that I don't really get bored. At night in the tent, I usually tune into the BBC or Deutsche Welle. This is how I have been getting most of the news around the world. Even the war in Iraq. The most visible sign here in the US are the yellow ribbons at people's houses. They symbolize a family member or friend who is in the war and that people pray for their return. Other than that, I notice nothing different. Maybe less people camping.

When I went through the Ozarks, I miscalculated the time I would need to get through all those winding roads. As a result, I found myself kind of stranded at 6pm in the middle of nowhere and I couldn't find any campsite signs. Around here almost everything is private, but my map showed an area that was a national forest, so I figured that it wouldn't hurt to camp there. I took a side road and just put up my tent. There was noone for miles, I guess. I had lots of blackflies annoying me and I had to ration my water supply. During the night it was very cold. The next morning, around 6am I heard voices a few metres away. I think they were hunters, but they didn't stop. Maybe they didn't notice the bike and tent. In any case, I packed up and left.

When I was about to leave Arkansas, I finally spotted an internet café in a town called Fort Smith. I checked my e-mail and got in touch with family and friends. By now, it was getting hotter each day. My thermometer on the bike showed me 40°C, but I think it always shows at least 5° more. In Oklahoma I camped again, but this time the campground sucked. The shower was miles away, so I skipped that, and the facilities were very minimal. I was also getting frustrated with the camera and other things that don't work like planned. I'm also going too fast, but if I stay longer than I'll run into a potential budget problem.

Oklahoma is actually more interesting than I thought. For one thing, the Native American presence can be felt everywhere, which is why I want to see the West. The scenery is also interesting, at least in the west. And the people are also a surprise. Almost everyone waves at me, even from cars. Or maybe they're all trying to tell me my headlights are on.

Just northeast of Tulsa I met a really nice guy, Joe Merritt. I was on the road when he stopped by my side on his Honda Shadow. After knowing that I was going to Argentina, he invited me for lunch. This was totally unexpected and very generous of his. He's an airline mechanic for American Airlines and has a farm with horses. I would have a picture of us here, but the only one I got is on film and not digital.

On my way west, I battled a furious wind from the south, meaning that I was being pushed to my right and had compensate by leaning left. Eventually this lead to some serious cupping in the front and rear tires. Because the road is basically straight, there isn't a lot I can do, but I managed to find a way to entertain myself. I imagined skiing down a hill and carving through snow and doing the same with the bike. I would draw long S-lines in the straight road. Motorists either thought I was nuts or that the wind must be a Tornado to do that to me. In any case, I would stop carving up the road whenever a car came near.

Hurray! I finally fixed my camera this morning, after a battle of more than five hours. I bought some precision screwdrivers to get the inside open and get to the optical mechanism, where I thought the problem would be. I opened and closed the camera more than 5 times, until I finally found the problem. The shutter mechanism for the camera is controlled by two tiny wings. Both have tiny relays attached to them to open or close them. As it turns out, one of the relays had come off its fixed setting and that caused it to malfunction. Once I snapped it back in, the camera started working just like new and I got to take pictures for the website again. What also almost freaked me out yesterday was that the laptop appeared broken. Or at least the software was acting weird. I removed the ethernet card and retightened the memory cards and it worked again.
On the Yellow Brick Road in Kansas.

I decided to leave Oklahoma and go through parts of southern Kansas. I also knew I wanted to visit two sites I had circled on the map, but only know that one might be Dorothy's house (a replica from the Wizard of Oz). In Kansas, the scenery looks even more flat than Oklahoma and the roads are straight for miles and miles. Boring, but I like the rolling red hills I saw, and the green grass.

I stopped in Meade to visit the Dalton brothers' hideout. The Dalton brothers were a gang of outlaws that robbed banks. They're not as funny as portrayed by Goscinny (?) in Lucky Luke (this is comic book series, very popular in Europe), and what I really wanted to see was Dorothy's house. I probably watched the Wizard of Oz over ten times and I think it's one of the best movies of all times. I found the Yellow Brick Road in Liberal, Kansas, but the site was closed for Mondays. I may try tomorrow.
Dorothy's house and The Yellow Brick Road in Liberal, Kansas.

They do have a replica of the house and a Yellow Brick Road. Maybe they have some of the magic as well. I'll probably need it for the days ahead.

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