Tuesday, August 19

Vermont--"Green before it was cool"--and "Don't Trash" it!

Note to the reader: (Unfortunately this is not a motorcycle report on riding the sweeping, twisting, rolling roads in Vermont. I was caged for six days, wishing each mile that I was on my bike. Lessons learned: 1) three hours in a car feels like nine hours on a motorcycle; 2) I possess a high threshold for multiple levels of discomfort; 3) I still love Vermont; 4) come hell or high water I'm riding to Vermont next season.)

I first visited Vermont in the late seventies. It was somewhat of a delayed honeymoon trip to Ludlow, Vermont. We stayed in a wilderness community that consisted of trekking our gear along a footpath to climb a lofty tree to our three-sided tree house. I fell in love again--despite the fact that there is relatively little racial diversity in Vermont. Still, I ended up loving the place. I then devised other reasons to visit Vermont, like the time I participated in Professor Charles T. Morrissey's Oral History workshop--one of the best workshops ever offered anywhere. It met in Montpelier, the state capitol. Although there were many workshop highlights, the side trip to Hope Cemetery in Barre, VT was among the most memorable.

On my first trip to Vermont, we bicycled along hilly roads and to this day I can recall my labored breathing and thundering heart from ascending endlessly rolling hills and studying the grandiose Green Mountains. I remember inhaling deeply as if for the first time and the air filling body parts never before filled with such clean air. I remember thinking that inner city children needed this kind of sensory experience to feel just how alive one can be sans the supersensory drain that living in some urban areas exact from their souls.

I recall too not seeing any people who looked like me for many days and when I did eye one, I had to restrain myself from waving and smiling like an idiot. Judging from the double takes I too received, those feelings of relieved recognition were mutual. I remember most Vermont's unequivocal love, respect, and protection of the earth, which was obvious almost everywhere I looked. And today, signs like, "Do not Trash Vermont," still profess that same passionate stance and esteem for the earth we inhabit and too often neglect.

For those who might wonder why diversity matters and what possible relationship it has to motorcycling, my quick response reminds me of the adage: "If I have to explain it, you probably won't understand." But allow me to try to explain. A little experiment might help. Here is a favorite thought experiment to try as it might yield an insight or two into what I'm talking about. (As I write this, I think I have written about this before here. Well, forgive me. It's on my mind again given my trip).

Imagine traveling, not to some foreign land but somewhere in your own country. Now imagine that almost every place you venture--and it must be alone, by the way--every restaurant you enter, every hotel, every fuel station, and 98% of the rest stops, you are the only person who looks like you. If you are a woman, imagine that everywhere you go you are the lone woman--cute and fun for a while--but I'm talking about all the time. Seeing only raised toilet seats and wet spots--from sloppy aim, I guess--on the floor around the base of every toilet. If you are male, imagine that your terrain exists almost exclusively--putting aside some male fantasies--within a female milieu, nary a reflection of you or what is important to you and your kind in sight.

It is easy to respond with, "Such things wouldn't matter to me at all." I'll even concede that this might not matter one or two, perhaps even a dozen times that one finds him or herself in a situation in which they are the only one. Slumming for sport and adventure doesn't count. You might even have convinced yourself that you're above such matters. Up the experiment for a minute. Reduce things down to the issue of race and race alone while recognizing that such reductionism isn't ever fully possible. Still, imagine yourself traveling in circles where you are the one and only. Time and time again. I'm not referring either to the time you were in college or the time you visited that church where they sang the best gospel music and you drank lemonade and talked about broadening the circle, yada, yada.

I'm talking about a deliberate and conscious insertion of one's self in situations where he or she is the visibly distinct one. Sorry, but for this experiment it doesn't count if you're the only German American, for example, among the Irish or the only Irish American among the Polish American--not that those experience aren't relevant. I'm talking about reducing things to visible distinctions. Blending is fine if you can get away with it. If you're the only Asian among the Irish--it counts. I can hear the protest that "We're all American and thinking of ourselves as hyphenated is the problem." I wish it were that simple. I see myself as fully American; it's other people who seem to want to call my otherness to attention.

After you've executed your experiment tell me the results. Is the movement of your feet along this earth as certain? Tell me if your dinner on the restaurant's patio feels as carefree or if your hike through the deep, dense thicket of a secluded woods is the worry and stress-free respite you've saved your hard earn dollars to enjoy. If you're honest, you'll admit that your striking appearance in a sea of others presents some interesting multi-level challenges for your travels, which by the way, should never prevent one from going where s/he pleases. After all, it is adventure we ultimately seek, right?

As I traveled through Vermont this past week, I was reminded of what it takes me to get mentally ready to go, to just get on my motorcycle and go. I don't want to make it sound like some loathsome process each time I leave. Still, there is an intense mental, physical, and mechanical preparation that is requisite and each must be in place before I feel the call of the road, so to speak. This may also be why I ride alone. For me, the answer to "When is it time to go?," evolves over time and is rarely instant. What group wants to wait around until the feeling is right for one of its members? Weirdness in any one of those prep areas is evidence that I need to reconsider my plans and deal with the inner stuff before heading out. I envy those who do the normal planning and then leave. I need to take the time to disentangle what is pressing on me. Is it the normal nerves that one can encounter before any trip? Or, given my history and daily realities, is there something deeper lurking beneath the norm preps? What do I ignore/silence and what do I pay close attention to? Most often I prefer to ignore or silence the clues I mysteriously receive through my antenna (that I am convinced stem from centuries of lived realities now etched on my DNA, or so it seems). These hints can scream at me to "DO NOT GO THERE!." When I distrust that, I always regret it.

I've only received good vibes from Vermont. So, no matter who is or is not in Vermont, it is a place I feel as whole as one can. In some ways, Vermont reminds me of how I feel whenever I visit Canada. I'm not naive. I know that neither place is perfect. I would be foolish if I didn't prepare along those same multiple dimensions I mentioned for every trip no matter the destination. Still, my trips to Vermont--so far--are journeys where I feel almost home, that place they say folks are supposed to always take you in.

Thus, despite being caged for nearly a week and envying every motorcyclists I spotted, I had a great re-visit to Vermont. Had I the time, I would add a two wheel fall trip to Vermont to see the colors that are already showing evidence of change. Sadly, I'll need to wait until next season.

After being told about the sign, I finally saw it in a store window: "Vermont was Green long before it was cool." It's really true. I swear, I think they invented recycling! Vermont isn't just a haven for artists, flower-children, environmentalists and nature lovers, it is an all-around great place for anyone wanting to inhale and exhale deeply. Sorry if it sounds like too much romanticizing of a place. This is my outsider's experience, admittedly myopic and filtered through the lens of gender, race, age, experience and SES, etc. Still, I love Vermont.

Perspective is everything. When I returned into Illinois, I rode my motorcycle in from the south suburbs. A man seeing my gear said, "You're brave to ride a motorcycle in Chicago." I've heard that before. It doesn't take bravery to ride in Chicago. This is home and for me and as such, it is the most normal thing to do. A while back, another man told me that he got rid of his motorcycle when he moved to Chicago. That made me sad for him. But I understood it from his perspective. He didn't grow up here. That was his outsider's viewpoint. I did grow up here. It's my comfort zone and reference point. It's when I stretch beyond the narrow confines of my universe that I grow. That's where motorcycling enters and that is what motorcycling allows me to experience.

For me to go where I'm not naturally inclined to venture, is probably the only brave thing that I do. Next season on that definite trip to Nova Scotia is now added a definite side trip to Vermont. Or, should I say, on my trip to Vermont, I'm making a side trip to Nova Scotia. Either way. I'm going!


bobskoot said...

I too am from a visible minority. I experienced prejudice when I was younger but things seem to have stabilized in recent memory. It's only the poorly educated that seem to be the problem but now there is greater acceptance . I actually find that there is extreme prejudice amount riders of 2 wheeled machines between cruisers, sport bikes and scooterists, although we are cut from the same thread, have to take the same courses to earn our motorcycle endorsement, subject to the same dangers on the road . . . (but that's another topic)
The world is not perfect but we can't let these things stop us from enjoying life and the things we like to do, like Ride.


Jack Riepe said...

Dear Sharon --

This is an abbreviated note. I sent the whole one to you elsewhere.

Ride your BMW like Sidney Poitier rode Rod Steiger in “The Heat of the Night.” Always keep your mouth moist enough to spit in the eye of stupidity and intimidation.

I have had a remarkable experience with unbelievable, pure hatred. Racial bigotry’s finest hour, in fact. I have been in a situation where white people have made a science and a passion out of hating other white people. I was the guest of a Catholic family (hardly strange as I am Roman Catholic) in a suburb of Belfast, in Northern Ireland.

Imagine driving down a street in a major international city and passing a billboard on which six hooded characters, holding assault weapons, proclaimed unity and liberty through the efforts of the Londonderry Brigade or the Ulster Rifles. I saw four variations of this same nonsense in a ten-block area. It was exactly as if I had seen a billboard for the clan or for Nazi skinheads.

Imagine what I thought when I offered to go to the butcher shop to pick up something for dinner, and my host directed me to a particular one that was for “our kind.” (Did you know that white people had “a kind?” I didn’t. I thought it was the same club.) Early the next day, I ventured back into town and bought some pastries in a bakery that was not for “our kind.” It was for the other kind of white people... The whiter white people. There were two kindly-looking old ladies behind the counter and four other customers chatting away when I entered.

Catholics must have a secret unpleasant aroma. All six looked at me like I had just stolen something. My perfect melodic, US, Jersey City accent bought me some courtesy. I was served first, in silence, and shown the door.

I was made to feel exactly as you are most often afraid you will be made to feel. I remember thinking, “Stay cool, Jack-O. You’ll be outside in a minute, imagining how these fine folks would look kissing your fat derriere.”

I cannot believe you drove past here and made no attempt to contact me. I would have introduced you to our local club. You could have stayed here. For free.

Fondest regards,

Sojourner rides said...

Hi Bob, Thanks for stopping by. I think no matter how imperfect the world is, we can't afford to lose sight of the good parts. I really do believe (most times, at least) that they outweigh the bad...

Sojourner rides said...

Jack, your note is so meaningful and special to me--that's a powerful story of your experiences in Northern Ireland. Yeah, if people can treat folks who look like them in these awful ways, imagine how "easy" it must be for some to marginalize those who appear really different. Humans are an interesting bunch! I will always remember now to ride my bike like Sidney rode Rod Steiger in one of my favorite movies, "The Heat of the Night." That slap scene in the greenhouse still makes my hair stand at attention.

BTW, had I not been traveling with my family with whom I had to negotiate stops and sights, I would have been freer to make decisions about where we went and where we stopped. I appreciate your generous offer, which I've made note of for the future! Thanks.

Your #1fan!

Earl Thomas said...

I understand what you mean about Vermont. Twenty years ago, when I lived in the Saratoga area of Upstate New York, almost to the point of ritual, I would ride to Vermont and spend the day there.

I didn't need a sign telling me when I had crossed the state line, there was something special about Vermont that would casually remind me the instant that I wasn't in New York anymore; there is a difference.

I am glad that my online wandering has found me to your site, I look forward to returning and reading more your posts.


Sojourner rides said...

Earl, I too am glad that your wandering led you here. Thanks for dropping by and wanting to return. I didn't think I was the only one for whom VT has a special appeal. You're lucky to live close enough to take in a piece of it when the desire strikes. Ride smart.