I could tell that yesterday was going to be a bad day, because I woke up in the middle of the night with my sleeping pad half-deflated and a puddle underneath me. I blew some air back into the pad, but there was nothing much to do about the puddle.
Morning found me rubbing the sleep from my eyes, hidden in the corner of a rest stop. Camping isn’t typically permitted in such areas, but I had been extremely tired when I pulled in, hadn’t seen any no-camping signs and figured I could deny. I looked for the source of the puddle, but couldn’t find it. It hadn’t rained the night before as far as I could tell. Where did the water come from? I made a mental note to start using my tent’s footprint again. I was hungry and cold after my damp rest, and I wanted some hot soup from my stove, but I’d forgotten to buy gas for it. I asked the groundskeeper for ten cents worth of fuel from his lawnmower’s supply.
“I’ll have to ask my supervisor,” he said.
I knew what that meant. No, sorry, Company Policy.
I hadn’t made very good time since leaving northern Ohio Saturday afternoon; but I was determined to reach Mammoth Cave National Park, in midwestern Kentucky, by nightfall. Getting up late didn’t change my mind much. I rode sixty miles or so into Cincinnati, where my fuel gauge came on, so I stopped at a gas station to get some breakfast and use the free wifi. I lingered there for a couple of hours, surfing around on the net, trying to source a new back tire for my bike – but it wasn’t any use: motorcycle shops are all closed on Sundays. I’d bought a new wide-angle lens to help with the sled, but I’d ordered the wrong mount and now I needed an adapter. Trouble is, ever since I left the pacific coast there’s been a real shortage of true camera shops. I finally found a place called Dodd’s that looked as if they might have it – it was closing in ten minutes, but only five minutes away. I hustled over. They had the adapter. Great.
Next I went to Best Buy to look for another hard drive that I needed to run my editing program. It was supposed to be in stock, but in reality, it wasn’t. Disappointing. Next door there was an outdoors shop, so I bought a ski mask. This would help the increasingly biting wind.
Finally I was out of errands. It was time to get back onto the bike. Mammoth Cave, I instructed the GPS. Dorothy backfired and stalled out in the intersection leading to the interstate. A homeless girl holding a cardboard sign watched me as I shook my head and thumbed the starter button. Dorothy likes to backfire, which I’ve been told is kind of a v-twin thing, but she doesn’t normally stall. I thought it strange and hoped it wasn’t the beginning of some other problem to come.
It was two hundred excruciating miles of interstate ahead of me, but I didn’t bother to look for any side roads. It was too cold to have much fun on the bike, and I just wanted to get to the caves and move on to warmer lands. I was still in Cincinnati when the bike started to bog down. I took a quick look behind me to make sure there wasn’t anyway following close behind, put out my right arm and headed over to the shoulder. Dorothy sputtered and shut off. I looked down for smoke but didn’t see anything. What could it be? I thought back to the stall at the intersection. Maybe the backfiring wasn’t so great. What about if my power commander had become disconnected or jarred and was now doing something weird? It was located just under the seat and got jostled around a fair amount. Or the battery that had just been replaced? But that didn’t make much sense. I tried to start the bike, and it sounded strong, just no catch. When’s the last time these spark plugs were changed?
That’s when I remembered. I’d stopped at the gas station, I ate breakfast and used the wifi, but I forgot to get gas.
I started pushing my 610 lb motorcycle. The GPS told me that the nearest gas station was only a couple of miles away. I figured that wasn’t too bad. I could walk and bring gas back to my bike, but someone might stop and mess with it. I didn’t trust the big american cities too much.
A tow truck was stopped a ways in front of me, securing a broken-down silver sedan. “What’s wrong with it?” he asked me.
“Out of gas,” I said.
“Oh. You need someone to run you to the gas station?”
“I’m okay,” I said. And I did feel okay. The bike was heavy, but the station wasn’t too far. It would take me a long time but I would eventually make it.
“You can’t go further than this. The shoulder ends. You’ll be run off the road.”
I shrugged. How bad could it be?
The road slanted downhill, so I hopped onto the bike and coasted a quarter mile. There the interstate became an overpass and curved gently uphill. I rode Dorothy as far as inertia would take us, then resumed pushing. But even at this modest increase in elevation, it was not long before I was sweating. And the shoulder was indeed about to run out, cut off by the cement wall of the overpass.
So I left my motorcycle behind. She was quite safe on the last of the shoulder, hidden under trees and bush, and unlikely to be tampered with, I thought. My helmet in hand, a gatorade bottle in the other, I started walking up the overpass. This was not going to be especially pleasant, but I thought there was just enough room to avoid getting smacked around by inattentive car drivers.
There was still a bit of shoulder left when a four-door car stopped in front of me. I ran up to it gratefully. In the passenger seat was one of the most beautiful men I have ever seen in my life, with dark puppy-dog eyes and extremely impressive cheekbones.
“My bike’s out of gas,” I said.
He smiled and jerked his head toward the back seat. I got in.
My two rescuers were Palestinians, brothers who’d moved to Ohio a dozen years ago. Most of their family now lived in Jordan. They took me to a gas station and watched me fill my gatorade bottle with fifty cents worth of precious fuel.
“Aren’t you lonely? Doing this trip all by yourself?” the driver, Maury, asked me.
“No,” I said. “I prefer solo trips.” I feel like they’re more interactive – had I been traveling in a pack, I probably would never had run out of gas in the first place; if I somehow did, then someone else would have spare fuel; if not, someone would have gone to the gas station for me. By traveling alone, I will at times depend on the kindness of others, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. My obvious vulnerability makes me trustworthy in the eyes of strangers. People want to help me. And I, in turn, do what I can to keep the balance – I stop for broken down motorists, I lend my paramedic’s helping hands where I can.
Dorothy fired up like she’d been drinking gatorade-flavoured gasoline all her life. My detour had only cost me about an hour. I was still on pace to reach Mammoth Cave. I headed south, filling up again sooner than I needed to, just because I wanted to use some wifi. My phone had been very finicky ever since I’d dropped it during the snake bite – it didn’t seem to be able to live longer than an hour or two, and the battery percentage wasn’t reading correctly either. I put it in airplane mode hoping that this would help battery life.
I rode south into Louisville, where I visited the Louisville Slugger Store. I was excited to see that Kentucky had its own shop for slug- and snail enthusiasts. For some reason most of the store was filled with stacks of baseball bats. I assume this is to keep the snakes at bay: Kentucky has two main venomous species, the copperhead and the timber rattlesnake. Cottonmouths are not unheard of either.
I left the slug store, tired but determined to make it to Mammoth Cave. Sixty miles out, I stopped at another wifi spot. I reached into my tankbag to see if the phone had died yet, but it wasn’t there.
It’s the only place I keep it.
I checked my pockets anyway, and the pelican case. Nothing. I opened my laptop and used the phone’s GPS to track its location. This will only work if the phone itself is on, and not in airplane mode. Thankfully, both of these things were true, and I could see my phone on the map. Had I left it at the slug store in Louisville? No, worse. It was back in Cincinnati – at the last gas station.
I was already so tired. Only the prospect of reaching Mammoth Cave had kept my eyelids open. Now, retracing my steps 80 miles backward, the wind growing ever colder, I just … I don’t know how I managed that ride back on the interstate. It was brutal.
When I reached the gas station, the clerk didn’t know anything about my phone. “It’s here,” I said patiently. “I know it is. I can see it on the map.”
She asked around, and it turned up. I hadn’t been concerned about it being stolen – it doesn’t register on anyone’s radar as an expensive iPhone. It looks like a walkman that’s been through a couple of wars, and the newly cracked screen just adds to its character.
Phone safely stowed back in the tankbag, I turned back to the interstate. I bought gas at a truck stop and looked for a place to sleep. I saw train tracks on the map, and headed towards those. Train tracks are often surrounded by wild growth and abandoned areas. I found a gravel path and followed it through a field of neatly planted low crops. I sighed as I drew near a house with the porch light on. This was an inhabited area and not a good place to set up my tent. I turned round, riding through thick wet kentucky grass, my feet sinking, slipping, sliding- then I was back on the path – then there was a small indentation that I’d missed, a deep puddle, the front tire slid, I put my foot down but it slid too — the bike collapsed underneath me in the mud.
It was 2:30am. I tried to pick it up the bike, but it kept sliding. I unpacked the bike: the exposed saddlebag, my tankbag, the camping gear. It was still too heavy.
This was a bad place to camp. Someone was sure to come and yell at me in the morning.
That person could help me pick up the bike.
I set up my tent in front of my fallen steed. I remembered to put down the tent footprint.
I woke up in the night again, rain loud in my ears. My sleeping pad was deflating and the tent floor was wet again. I added some more air and went back to sleep.
In the morning I walked the half-mile to the truck stop, carrying my helmet so I looked more like an adventurous motorcyclist and less like a random vagrant. I scuffed my feet along the side of the road and wondered if today was going to be a good day or a bad day. That’s when I saw it: a small strip of black shine on the pavement. I leaned closer. It was a small field slug. The night’s rain hadn’t been welcome to me, but it added humidity and slicked the ground facilitating ease of movement for the little mollusc. As I continued to the truck stop, more field slugs dotted my path, and I knew that today was going to be a good day.
Two hunters in a pickup truck with a quad and a dead deer in the back shuttled me to the farmer’s field and helped me haul Dorothy out of the mud. I had gasoline for my stove now but I didn’t want to stop to make breakfast. I was two hours north of Mammoth Cave. The tours only ran until a certain time of day, so I needed to get there as fast as I could.
Down the interstate I went; the road turned mildly scenic, the grasses growing long, the farmland thinning out and giving way to forest. I reached Mammoth Cave at 2:30pm, then gained an extra hour with the time change. I booked a 3pm tour – “Domes and Dripstones”, two hours long – and used my extra time to set up my sled.
Mammoth Cave has a strict no-tripods, no-monopods, no-flash-photography policy. In short, the park despises photographers. I was amused to see a placard boasting of one of the leading inventors of flash photography having perfected their technique in Mammoth Caves.
I showed the ticket agent my sled and asked if it would be permitted; she said no. I asked the info guide if my sled was permitted; he said it was ranger-dependent but highly unlikely. I headed out toward the staging area where my tour bus would be waiting, and a ranger in his late sixties scowled at my camera apparatus. “No tripods allowed,” he said.
“It’s not a tripod,” I said.
“Whatever it is, it’s not allowed,” he said. “Period. Final.”
We glared at each other and I continued walking to my staging area. With any luck he wouldn’t be the ranger assigned to my tour.
Indeed a different ranger waited in my staging area – I’d seen him walk past as I bickered with the older one. He watched as I approached, defeat in my step. Yet I had to try. Today was a good day! “Hi, I’m Shannon,” I said, in my most friendly voice. “I rode here from Vancouver. On a motorcycle. This is my fourth National Park. I also visited Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and Badlands.” I looked at the sled in my hands pointedly. “This is not a tripod. It’s not a monopod. It will never touch the ground. I’m going to hold it in my hands at all times. It won’t damage anything.”
“You’re fine,” he said. He laughed at my relief. “It just depends who you ask.”
Two more rangers tried to confiscate my sled, but the nice ranger was apparently in charge, and stuck up for me.
Our tour group consisted of about twenty-five people. We took a ten-minute bus ride to the cave entrance. As the guide was instructing us on how to go through the airlock, I spied a dark-bodied snail climbing up a moss-covered rock. It was no species that I recognized, so I knew it must be native to Kentucky. I knew today was going to be a good day, I thought as I snapped off a couple of photos. A young boy asked me to step aside so he could photograph the snail too.
Inside the cave, it became quickly apparent why tripods were not permitted – it was incredibly narrow in many spots. The cave was artificially lit; I don’t know why that surprised me, but it did. Cave crickets were large and prevalent. I watched the others cursing their cameras, trying to handhold but missing every shot. I was struggling even with my sled, and did a quick swap from my 14-42mm 3.5 over to my 20mm 1.7 – this isn’t as wide as I’d normally want for the sled but I needed the extra light. I haven’t examined the footage yet at length so I’m not sure of the results, but I do think I have at least one or two usable clips.
At the end of the tour, I packed my bike and went snail-hunting in a nearby forest. I had to try to find that Kentucky species. I searched for an hour but found nothing. I got back on the bike, went to a different location and searched again. Sunset came and went, and I used my phone as a flashlight. Finally, walking along a paved road, there in front of me, I almost stepped on – the beautiful glistening body of a large snail, the same species I’d seen earlier! I picked it up carefully and continued walking. Ten minutes later, along a rocky face, I found a large grey spotted slug. I believe it to be Limax flavus; I know they are fairly common in southern states, but I have never seen one in person before. An invasive species, they are related to leopard slugs and are similar in appearance. This slug however did not behave like any leopard I had ever seen; when picked up it curled into a ball and took minutes to unfurl itself. The tentacles did not extend fully and it seemed quite shy overall.
I continued on, locating another of the snails, this one a juvenile. When snail or slug-hunting it is important to check the surrounding area thoroughly after one has found a specimen. I was doing just that, walking in an ever-widening circle, when I came across a rotted tree stump. Slugs often like to inhabit such things, and I was bending over to see the other end of the stump when – I saw it. Thick coils of striped red, black and white, moved noiselessly under the beam of my phone’s flashlight. Black, red, white. That means venomous, right? Was the head diamond-shaped? I couldn’t see the head. Just the body, those stripes, the bright colour that universally warns creatures everywhere: Stay away. I’m dangerous.
I froze. I didn’t know what to do. My phone in one hand, the snails in the other, and my pocketknife in the left sleeve of my jacket. I was wearing my motorcycle gear this time – gloves and jacket, to go with my tall boots and thick pants. It couldn’t bite me through all that – could it? With the snake in front of me, I didn’t feel so sure anymore. I glanced at my phone. I didn’t have any reception.
You have to take a picture of it, I said to myself. It might not hang out for a photoshoot this time, after it bites you.
I snapped a photo, but my hands were shaking so badly that nothing was visible. I didn’t know what to do. Should I get the knife? Was I within striking distance already? Where was the head?
Stop being so foolish. Snakes don’t bite unless provoked. Even then, they usually prefer to flee. My past had turned me results-oriented. I should know better.
I stared at it some more, embedding the pattern of its hide into my mind. Red, black, white stripes. Two inches wide. Step back. Step back. Step back. The snake did not follow me. I ran back to the road. I checked the snails. They were safe. Today was a good day.
I returned to my motorcycle, walking in the middle of the road where I could easily see any approaching snakes. I found another Limax flavus, and another of the Kentucky snails. I checked my helmet and gloves for snakes or spiders or other critters. Everything was okay. I was safe.
And the snake? I identified it with the help of google. It was a red milk snake. They aren’t dangerous for humans.
But they do eat slugs.