It's been about two years since I last put claw to keyboard to tell of my snowy motorcycle adventure through Eastern Europe to Istanbul; And, as the people of Turkey know all too well, a lot can happen in that span of time. For better or worse, since then, aside from being run down by a Ford,
I've cycled over the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, been detained by the French Gendarme, ridden camels, blitzed the Mountain Mile on the Isle of Man, visited a large percentage of the U.S. National Parks (including having my van raided by gun pointing rangers in Yellowstone, which gave me a terrible fright), and traveled the length of the ALCAN highway, from Washington State to Alaska, during the dead of winter (Brrrrrrr...). I no doubt missed a thing or two, but as you grow older, and I'm 80+, you tend to forget a
thing or two. It's quite forgivable, especially for a long toothed, road weary, mongrel.
300,000 miles, that's what I have traveled over the last two years. Perhaps it's not quite natural. Then again, maybe I'm not particularly normal. This isn't to say that I'm all that special. I'm not so different than the other mutts I shared cells with (my twin sister included) when I was a puppy in the Washington County Animal Shelter. It was circumstance that formed my personality, and set the direction in which my furry snout would follow.
While I was fortunate to have been allowed so much freedom in life, I must admit that occasionally I just want to lounge somewhere soft and warm till it's time to eat. It's a normal desire, I figure. One that has grown stronger with age. However, my partner's plans don't always correspond with my growing laziness. In his defense, he will happily leave me to slumber if I am dreaming of youthful squirrel chases, though I know he likes to have me with him. To be honest, once rested, I quickly grow bored of houses and hotels. They have their place, but they offer no substitute for adventure. And my brush with death has given me new appreciation for extracting every bit of life I can from each new day.
Though I alluded earlier to a number of worthy tails which have transpired over the last year and a half, I only have patience to delineate the specifics of one. Given that there have been only two which I will classify as adventures, I'll take the advice of a wise king and begin at the beginning.
However, given my relatively minuscule attention span, I shall likely stop before the end, thereby excluding details of a later bone-chilling trip to Alaska. There was no snowy terrain along our path during this trip. Instead, rock, dust, and sand comprised the landscape we explored amidst the narrative I now present.
Morocco is an hour's ferry ride from the pleasantries of Europe. Though the climate and topography of Northern Morocco are much like those of Southern Spain, its culture is a world apart. The sharp contrast was clearly displayed after departing the Ferry in Tangier. Customs was quite disorganized and there was information funneled in our direction from a variety of sources. Oftentimes crossing borders in less developed countries there will be a group of fellows to choose an emissary from to deal with the variety of hurdles bureaucrats toss at you. Israel calls them fixers. They are typically well worth the investment. However, here things were different. You were intercepted by a group of official looking lads. Some appeared, judging by dress, to be military/police, and others pencil pushers. We were approached by both sorts and given instructions bearing equal levels authority. We were led away to another guy that took us to another fellow and so on. It became clear that we were being played. What wasn't so certain was which ones had the real authority. We spoke to, and followed, no fewer than 10 men, each one of them getting something. As we finished our needlessly complex trip through customs a couple of the guys we were handled by could be seen exchanging money with other men who's acquaintance we hadn't the pleasure of making. Everybody got a cut! We'd been taken! Oh well, live and learn. Next time things will be different. We found a quiet spot on the edge of Tangier to set our course for Fez.
Founded in the first century, Fez is home to the world's oldest continually attended school and a massive number of opportunistic inhabitants. Though not terribly aggressive, endless soliciting for sight seeing tours, rides, and plain old handouts quickly grew tiresome. Generally a pushover, Israel became testy with a couple of assertive townsfolk as we searched for our hotel. Just a few steps within the wall of the old city we reached the doorway and scurried up rock steps, which had been sloped and rounded by centuries of use, leading to our accommodations. It was also where we would rendezvous with our friend, Hilary.
Of the half dozen or so girls that I've been forced to share Israel's affections with, Hilary has been the longest standing. Much of the last half of my life I've spent in the company of Hilary. Israel met her while we were living in a small camper van in a parking lot, which adjoined two cemeteries, serving the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. It's a rather complex story involving a salsa dancing engagement put on by the foreign language department, where free food was provided. I was hoping he would return with something other than the hotdogs which seemed so readily available at the school functions. Imagine my surprise when he returned with a Spanish professor. I was a somewhat dismayed that there were no tacos, but it was nice to have someone visit the van aside from the campus police (Go to the Hobo Village? I don't think so coppers. He's a student with a parking pass!). She seemed genuinely impressed by our vagabond encampment. Israel would set up a little grill in the gateway between the parking lot and Mizpah Jewish Cemetery for dinner dates and we'd all walk along the paths passing through the headstones. Hilary has an adventurous spirit and treated me better than most anyone I can think of. I was happy to see her after the long day's journey from Europe. She had saved a portion of her dinner for me. What a pal! It was going to be nice to have her leg to rest my chin upon as we traversed Morocco.
The following morning we wandered around Fez searching out supplies for our trip over the Atlas Mountains. According to Israel the first order of business was to procure a map. Oh boy, I pondered, this could be dangerous. Israel is always willing to engage in risky behavior, but maps detailing undeveloped areas embolden his, already stern, impracticality. In all but the most dire of circumstances, attempting to express concern to him is an exercise in futility, so neither Hilary or I bothered. When the last order of business was to find a fuel can, I knew we were in for it.
Our range extended to almost 400 miles, we left the pavement after
Israel found what must surely have been the most difficult possible route to Marrakesh, and Hilary's flight back to Madrid. These paths weren't intended for motorized vehicles Hilary and I thought. The lack of people and the prevalence of goats didn't seem to impede my determined friend in his quest to get us to the middle of nowhere. Grade after precipitous grade, we snaked further into the mountains. If remote, at least the lofty passes were relatively moist and cool. There were plenty of large trees and rapidly flowing creeks to greet us as we passed along towards the clouds. The path would almost, but not quite, disappear among some of the steepest slopes.
Several hours passed before we saw another human. A rather perplexed Shepard was hanging out nearby a small stream flowing down the mountainside. Though communication was a bit labored, our wandering friend was a quick study with a camera. We got a picture, and though I'm not sure the photographer had any interest in them, Israel gave him a Snickers bar and a bag of chips. Unfortunately, I wasn't given a thing. With a Merci and parting waves we continued on our crooked path to Marrakesh.
After a few more miles of vacuum-like solitude we stopped among a cropping of large cedar trees guarding over the banks of a friendly creek. Hilary and I shared her lunch as Israel rode off by himself. As I dined on salty potato chips Hilary patted my head and I realized how much I'd missed her. We'd been pretty close. While he was in school Israel was rather boring, and Hilary filled in while he was in the economics lab. She treated me like the dignified lady I am. I was always well cared for, if not outright spoiled. After graduating Israel and I left Chattanooga for the road, which primarily consisted of long hours in a van dreaming of trees. Our time with Hilary became slim as the miles piled up. At this point in the Atlas mountains, graduation was three and a half human years in the rear view mirror, and Israel and I had cumulatively been outside of the U.S. for over half that time, living off motorcycles and out of vans. I was accustomed to the rough life, but it was quite the treat to see Hilary and be pampered. Israel is exciting to be with, but the subtleties of sweetness are foreign to him. We finished up our lunch and I walked with Hilary as she snapped pictures. We could hear the moto in the distance, our reckless friend no doubt popping wheelies for the goats. I was happy to find upon his return that Israel had kept the duocycle in good order and we finished our rest along the creek before once again taking to our dusty Southwestern path.
Shortly after our break among the cedar trees we were reunited with a stretch of pavement which was just long enough to be graced by road signs. Imilchile was our goal for the day's ride, but the hour was growing late. Further complicating our plight was the mountainous road. Consistent asphalt had once graced this portion of our route, but, as we were to find, rains and poor drainage had washed more away than what remained. A multitude of water-crossing provided some additional adversity to our afternoon, if rather wet for my determined chauffeur,
|He only left me a little|
We made Imilchile around sunset and after finding a place to stay I entertained some of the town's children with my frisbee snatching abilities as the innkeeper prepared our dinner. Following a meal of Moroccan stew we retired to our cozy room, draped with wet socks from the day's multiple water crossings, and slept like the dead.
As one might expect, the following morning brought with it bright African sunshine, and, given that we were well into the
Atlas Mountains, an agreeably mild summer temperature. I made a couple of new friends as Hilary and Israel packed the moto, and then we quickly departed in search of lofty heights, washed out bridges, and a crooked mountain road.
This day's ride wasn't as solemn as the last. Though we strode through the mountains at a higher altitude there were more people about, waving at us or just tending to business. Generally the roads were in better condition as well, however, there were still a couple of occasions where Israel was forced to take the bike through water or over rocky, washed out, roads. Around midday our merry, Honda mounted, crew arrived at the physical high point of our journey.
The Tizi n'Aguerd n'Zegzaoun Pass reaches precisely 2,639 meters, or 8,658 feet. This dog has reached loftier heights, but getting here was quite a challenge. The duocycle seldom found asphalt, and it was a crumbling mess when it had. In some areas the road was washed away altogether. We were well out in it. Make no mistake, this was an adventure. We dismounted and breathed in the clear Atlas Mountain air in peace.
I'd have never thought that there would be anyone other than us up here. It had been several miles since we'd seen anyone. However, after a few moments alone, seemingly materializing from the rocks and sand, a young Moroccan fellow mysteriously appeared while we weren't paying attention. We looked up, and there he was. He looked more surprised to see us than we were to see him. Quite an inquisitive
chap, he asked lots of questions and posed for several pictures. I'm not quite sure if he fit the scenery well, or if the landscape emulated him. We managed to communicate with him well enough, though neither Hilary or Israel knew any French or Arabic. His eyes were expressive enough that a common language was unnecessary. Our new friend's countenance changed several times in the half hour we spent with him, from surprise to curiosity, from curiosity to joy, from joy to sorrow. It was one of those rare occasions in life where the presence of another being added to, rather than detracted from, moments of solitude. Our encounter atop the high pass came to an end with my counterparts handing over chips and a candy bar to the new friend. We waved goodbye, and departed down the winding road toward Marrakesh.
|Yeah, yeah. I know all about those|
|I bet you didn't know I was a photographer|
The Tiz-n-Tichka Pass, which climbs (or in our case descended) the Dades Gorges, in the southern foothills of the Atlas Mountains, helped set our itinerary due to its twisty, photogenic, qualities. Though not quite Wrigley Field, I found it to be pretty nice. I particularly liked the stew served at the restaurant overlooking the serpentine stretch of tarmac. Israel, of course, wished to document our arrival at the pass with pictures and video. I wasn't quite so keen to comply, the stew smelled good and my butt was a bit stiff, but Israel was insistent and we took our obligatory trip through the slippery serpentine path. Corrugated, and well oiled with all manner of geriatric Mercedes excretions, the road wasn't ideal for fleet cycles.
Unconcerned with circumstances, my focused companion slid down, and then back up, the greasy rippled asphalt. I decided it was best to put my head down. Mercifully, rather that taking a precipitous plunge from the perilous pass, we found our way back to the top of the gorge. Thank God, there was stew awaiting us upon our return. After partially satisfying my appetite we all climbed aboard the duocycle for a much slower ride back down the gorge. The last of our decent from the Atlas Mountains coincided with an early evening breeze and a lethargic sunset that stretched for well over an hour, illuminating the long western path towards Marrakesh with a blood red sky. The cool dry air and our comfortably rapid pace tickled the fur of my swept back ears and I could smell the contents of a dozen unseen Mercedes sedans. I was at peace. It was one of the most pleasant rides of my life.
|This is the lif|
|That's the spot|
I couldn't quite put my claw on it, but as Israel slowly stowed our bedding away, and Hilary snapped pictures, there was a certain sadness that hadn't existed the night before. Sure, we were parting company that day, but that was nothing new. We left each other all the time, and yet on this day something was different. Their smiles that morning hid sadness, and the remainder of the trip to Marrakesh lacked the jovial wonder of the day before. It only took a couple of hours to reach the airport, but somehow the brief trip seemed to drag on forever. It was perhaps the only time we've ever arrived at an airport with time to spare, and we quietly sat together in the shade of awnings and palm trees. Hilary's departure time finally arrived, she hugged me and told me to be careful. After Israel walked her to the door of the airport, I could see him wiping at his eyes as he returned to the moto. He donned his helmet, and we left Marrakesh much more quickly than we'd arrived. We traveled on to the coast but the adventure was over. There was still one last sprint across Europe to make, but I'd lost count of the number of times we'd made that trip over the previous 18 months. Barcelona, Spain may as well have been Phoenix, Arizona. Many of life's mysteries no longer exist for Israel and I. Travel is perverse like that. We have exchanged a great number of opportunities and relationships in life for adventure that is never the quite as good the second time around. And yet, there is no closing Pandora's box once it has been opened. Life on a motorcycle or out of a van changes you. Israel and I no longer really fit into polite society, and even our most understanding friends can be critical of our attitudes and behaviors. This causes a great deal of grief for us, in particular while we're back home in Tennessee. Israel's lack of human companionship looks to be problematic. Hilary, though always seemingly ready for an adventure, has decided to take a more traditional path forward in life and will be getting married next month. News of of her engagement was difficult for Israel and I. Though you could feel the difficult sentiments between them in the dry Moroccan air that day out front of the airport in Marrakesh, we weren't really prepared for the loss of our friend to a different world. For all intents and purposes we now ride through life alone. However, in the shadows of our minds, memories keep us company.
You can perhaps imagine my friend's concern as he carried me into the animal hospital way back where our tail began. "Take good care of her", he said, "she's my best friend". Though I looked pathetic that night, and I was sore for a couple of weeks, I made a full recovery. Israel and I wasted no time getting back on the road, crossing Europe yet again. Plans of an adventure of a lifetime are in the works. What is there to do but continue moving forward? We are what we are. Sub Sahara Africa here we come.