Author Archives: crazyshannon

Change of Plans

In travel, planning is quite important, along with its closely related cousin, foresight. But I believe that adaptability trumps planning any day of the week. You can plan your two-month roadtrip for a year or five, but things are going to go wrong at some point, and the ability to adapt will determine whether your trip transforms into an adventure or a disaster. Adaptation is always painful by its very nature: you must give up something you wanted, to get something you need.

The link between planning and adaptation is, of course, preparation.

I haven’t planned any of this trip. I definitely didn’t plan to still be on the road November 5th. I had a vague goal to reach the coast of North Carolina, visit National Parks that I was passing by, and work on my photography and videography skills. That’s my whole trip “plan” right there. And we’ve seen how that lack of planning has hurt me – by not knowing about the danger of venomous snakes in the south, or running into extremely inhospitable winds in the Rocky Mountains. Those were problems that could have been entirely avoided by better research and planning. Snakes in New Orleans? No problem. Wearing my motorcycle gloves, using a stick to look for snails, using a better flashlight than my phone, and my left third fingertip (or fourth if you’re not a cellist) would still have sensation.

I got by anyway. Because: preparation and adaptability. I took the paramedic course. I knew what to do when the snake bit me. I had planned to go through the Rocky Mountains, but I knew how to adapt and change course when the route turned more dangerous than I would prefer.

With my first aid kit, my extensive tool kit, my camping gear, my riding ability, my paramedic’s hands and rudimentary mechanical ability, I am prepared for most things. And I have always been strong in the art of adaptation.

Why am I rambling on about this? Well, it’s related to where I’ve been the last five days.

October 28th, I left Boulder and rode a little ways. I wrote my blog entry in a Dennys, tried to post it, got no internet, so I rode west until I found a closed Starbucks with an open wifi connection. I camped that night behind the starbucks. In the comfort of my tent, I was still close enough to reach the wifi, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of this before. Morning brought hot chocolate and a cream cheese bagel. Note to self: camp at starbucks more often.

After the previous day, I had little patience for more setbacks, or riding in general. Truth be told I dreaded getting onto the bike, but even more I dreaded staying another day bringing myself one step closer to winter. So I packed up my camping gear and had a short conversation with my motorcycle. It went something like this: Dorothy, girl, I can’t ride today. This is all you. Don’t let me down.

She followed the good samaritan’s route, taking the I-70 into the mountains. I watched the elevation rise steadily, and I was afraid. Soon enough I found myself at 10,500 ft.

colorado

While it was windy, it was not overly so; it was nothing I hadn’t ridden in many times before. I waited for the dangerous gusty storm to come in, but it didn’t. A steady bright sun provided moral support through the bitter cold, and my electric vest did the rest. I wore electric glove liners too, purchased back in Missouri when I’d also replaced my rear tire. Under my thin motocross gloves, I couldn’t feel the heat of the liners, but I knew they were working because I could still feel my hands.

I stopped in Glenwood Springs for gas. It was beautiful and my spirit was on the rise. I didn’t dare stop long enough for food however. I had to keep pushing to get out of Colorado. The snow that had been clearly visible on the mountain tops was now present along the side of the road. The sun kept shining on and I pressed westward. Finally I was out of the pass!

My relief was palpable, and I wanted to stop and celebrate with a hot meal, but I kept riding. The leaving-Colorado sign was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

leaving_colorado

The change in Utah was immediate. The land stretched out, with flat cliffs rising on either side. The air was warmer and the environment less treacherous. Even Dorothy was happier in Utah: the big motorcycle seemed to fall into the curves more readily.

Arches National Park was a little over an hour’s ride away, and sunset was approaching quickly. I have been learning landscape photography throughout my trip, and one of the things I’ve learned is that it’s almost always shot during sunrise or sunset. It’s referred to as the Golden Hour. If you pick up a copy of the National Geographic, likely every single landscape picture will be during golden hour … and the photos aren’t of the sunset per se, it’s just that everything looks so much better in the altered sunlight, that it’s pointless to shoot at any other time.

So I put on the gas to make sure my golden hour would happen at Arches. I made it in time to get off a few hurried shots, but without being able to do a location scout, many of my shots missed.

arches_dorothy

No problem, I thought. I would stay there the night, and do my sunrise shots there. This trip I had managed very few sunrises, however: I’m not exactly a morning person.

For dinner I went to a Dennys, taking over a power outlet to charge my burgeoning supply of electronic devices. I soon found myself surrounded by a group of inquisitive youngsters, and by youngsters I mean people around my age. They played with my devices and asked where I was going.

“On my way home now,” I said. “Adventure’s nearly over.” Was that really true?

They were eightfold; seven guys and a single girl, roadtripping across the country, having met as servers working at a restaurant in Yellowstone National Park that summer. They were piled together in a van piloted by a gentle-eyed young man named Sam who reminded me of a purple-haired advrider I’d met back on the Dragon. Sam smiled wistfully toward my motorcycle, explaining that he’d once had a bike and wished he could do a journey like this.

They were a laughing and playful group, drinking alcohol and smoking weed. They’d just reached Moab and were planning on spending a few days there to hike around.

“You can stay with us if you like,” Sam said. “We usually stealth camp, but tonight we’ve got a motel across the road.”

I was rather tempted. Not because I preferred a bed; actually, the first night of my new sleeping pad had been great. But it was so unusual to see a group of young people traveling around the US. It seems like the great national parks of America are reserved for young families and the retired. Solo adults in their twenties and thirties is far more unusual, and I’d never seen a group of eight before. I wanted to hear about road disputes settled and not, hear about their different personalities and their goals and desires. I could try to video it and make a compilation video as I’d done for a group of riders back on the Dragon.

But I shook my head no. I packed up my bike as the last of them trickled out, found a secluded area to camp. I set up my tent slowly, wondering why I hadn’t gone with them. I don’t drink or smoke, but the presence of it doesn’t bother me. I had been curious. Maybe I just wanted to have a quiet night under the Utah’s sky, certain to get a good night’s rest.

In the morning, after I slept in past the sunrise, I regretted my introvert’s ways. I folded my tent and went back to the motel. I saw a van with stickers plastered all over it, hippie-style. It must be theirs. I looked in the breakfast room for my new friends, but there was no one. I asked the front desk man if there was a young man named Sam checked in, possibly to two rooms, possibly with a large entourage, possibly having caused commotion the previous night.

“There’s no one like that here,” the front desk man said. He seemed like he wanted to help me.

I went to breakfast and then back to the motel. Still they were gone. It was around 9 or 10am. The van was still there. I wondered if I should leave a note on it.

I decided to go to the gas station, and on the way, outside another motel, I saw two riders suiting up beside an orange KTM and a white Honda XR650L. Their bikes wore luggage and I wondered if they were going down any trails I could possibly follow. Moab is a small town surrounded by national parks and other wild area famous for great hiking and offroad riding. I had seen many other adventure and dual-sport motorcycles since arriving.

I pulled up to the riders, easing Dorothy onto her kickstand. “Hey guys, where are you headed?”

The two men were in their early thirties, with slender builds and pretty serious adventure motorcycle jackets. One of them was messing with a camera on a tripod; as I looked closer I realized it was a Panasonic GH4, which is the successor to my own camera. I’d never seen one in person, they were just released this year. “A GH4! Wow!” I hurried off the bike to get a closer look.

“You know this camera?” the other man said to me, his voice heavily accented. Not Russian, but something similar. Ukranian maybe, I thought. He had dark hear and a dark pointed beard.

“I have the GH3,” I said proudly. Then in a more honest afterthought: “I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

“The GH4 is really nice. We’re shooting in 4K.”

“What are you shooting for?”

“I’m a filmmaker, recording my travels. We came from Turkey, across Mongolia and Russia, to California and are now headed to Vancouver to pick up my main bike which is being shipped overseas. We are traveling around the world.”

My head was close to exploding. “Vancouver! I’m from Vancouver! You’re a filmmaker? Can – can I see your work?”

So he did. And it was beautiful.

“I’m Shannon.”

“I’m Tolga,” said the filmmaker. “This is my cameraman, Calgar. Do you want to come with us Vancouver? You could help us shoot.”

I felt lost. Arches seemed like it might be the most beautiful national park I’d seen yet. I wanted to return that day, and spend the following day in Canyonlands. And this was supposed to be a solo trip. I didn’t want to ride with anyone else. But on the other hand, could I really afford to say no to traveling filmmakers on adventure bikes with the same camera as me?

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

Tracker Jacker

Expectation must colour all of experiences I suppose; and so it was that I came to love Kansas and detest Colorado. From Kansas I expected a flat wasteland, and instead found spartan beauty. From Colorado I expected winding roads and scenic views. I guess I thought it would be another North Carolina or Tennessee, and I expected it to begin right on the state line. But when I left Kansas, the land actually became flatter, and for two hundred miles I crossed a road so straight and so flat as to remind me of the Canadian prairies. But it wasn’t quite flat: over the span of two hundred miles I went from 1600 ft to 5000 ft. The temperature stayed quite moderate throughout, and finally I could make out mountains in the distance. I was approaching my destination, the sixth national park of my trip (seventh if we want to count the Tallgrass National Preserve): the Great Sand Dunes, west of Pueblo and well south of Denver.

It may seem like an unusual choice for me: sand is the natural enemy of motorcycles, photography equipment, and of course slugs. Its abrasive properties damage precision components. It absorbs moisture and makes its home in every nook and crevice. But I’d seen the photographs (from the cameras that managed to make it out alive) and it was stunning. It was also on the way.

dune_sunset

I reached the park just as the sun was setting, and in a flurry I set up my tripod. I rushed around like a mad person. People wanted to ask me about the bike and where I’d been and where I was going, but I paid them no mind. Only once the sun was down did I take the time to chat with two Puerto Rican ladies, sitting on the great dune nearest the parking lot, watching two young children play with sand-tobaggans. They pointed to a cluster of small black dots moving six or seven dunes up past us. “Those are our friends,” one of the women told me. “We’re waiting here for them to come back.”

“How long did it take them to get there?”

“An hour.”

I followed the trickle of tourists back to the parking lot. Signs warned joggers not to hit the trails alone for fear of mountain lions. I camped in a real campsite and had a delightfully long shower. at 630am I rushed to get back to the Dunes for sunrise, having gotten the tip from another photographer that they look best in the morning. The sun rose very slowly, and I missed photo after photo. It was freezing cold, so I wore my new ski mask and gloveliners. Finally I gave up and spent thirty minutes balancing the sled so I could take it through the Dunes. I strapped on my vest and mechanical arm and headed out. My balancing act turned out to be for nothing: the wind, blowing steadily, upset the sled’s stability. Most of my footage missed there too.

After wandering the dunes for an hour with the sled swinging wildly from my waist, I headed toward a handful of photographers hanging out on another dune. I was surprised to recognize a 501 fluid head, and I realized that they were videographers! They were doing a location shoot for a music video. The lead camera guy was shooting raw on a 5D. I hung around them for a couple of hours, listening in on their conversation and trying to piece together what I could. I excitedly recognized videography terms like b-roll and mark and rolling, words I didn’t know just two months ago.

dune_streams

Finally it was time to move on. I made the long half-mile journey through sand, back to Dorothy. I hopped onto the interstate and headed north to Castle Rock, battling a moderate and steady wind north past Denver to the Rocky Mountain National Park. It was past dark as I finally arrived at the mountains. The sky flashed violet and faded yellow. It was unclear to me whether it was lightning or perhaps northern lights. Whatever it was, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen.The road wound around high jagged rock, and I found a place to camp in a dirt clearing a ways off of the highway, fifteen miles south of the official entrance to the park. Dorothy was too heavy to navigate through the area, so I unloaded the bike, moved to the clearing, and then brought in my belongings. I could hear whitewater rushing just beyond. I set up my tent quickly under a heavy and rather cool wind, and heated red pepper soup and rice for dinner.

It was a dark and stormy night. No seriously, it was. The wind ripped at my rainfly and I began to see the usefulness of tent stakes even in an occupied tent. The sheer noise of it was wild, like trying to sleep in a washing machine. I got up twice to pee and took those moments to refill my gimp sleeping pad with air.

In the morning I found a dead slug squished under my sleeping pad. I’d brought my creature containers into the tent with me to keep warm. I wasn’t sure how this little one had escaped, but I found another sliming up the side of my tent wall, so I put it back in the enclosure with the others. I wondered how the day was going to go. A dead slug has to be the worst sign possible. Good thing I’m not superstitious.

I stayed in my tent for a long time, reviewing video footage and waiting for the sun to bring in some warmth already. By 9am it was still cold. I put on another shirt and my ski mask and set to beginning the day, taking down the tent. I washed my cooking pot in the river behind me, which turned out to be a tough class IV whitewater section, although the water level was currently too low for any kayak to pass through. I carried fresh water from the river back to my stove, and loaded up Dorothy while I waited for it to boil. Twenty-five minutes later the water was still only warm. I was at 7500 ft. So I ate some lukewarm oatmeal and headed north.

The wind was pretty dodgy, but there was no traffic. The road knitted through the mountainous range, and signs warned of falling rock. I looked down at my GPS to see how far I was from the park entrance – and my tracking device was gone! Shit.

I u-turned on the narrow road. I was only five miles past last night’s campsite. Had I had it when I left? I couldn’t remember. When’s the last time I saw it? I couldn’t remember that either. Yesterday I think I checked the battery. It updates the location automatically, the battery life lasts for five days, it’s waterproof, so most of the time it just sits in its mount on my handlebar, behind the GPS. It doesn’t require much attention. But it’s bulky and bright yellow, so surely I would have noticed it missing — ?

I rode back to the campsite, watching the sides of the road for yellow. I could see nothing. No big deal, I’ll just track its location using my cell phone – but wait, no cell service. Hm-mm.

There were houses alongside the highway; I stopped at one that had a couple of cars out front. A woman with messy dark hair answered. An old dachshund with a missing left eye yapped frantically. I explained my dilemma and asked to use her phone. She handed me a cordless. “Our long distance is all-inclusive, take as much time as you need,” she said warmly.

I called my stepfather, but he wasn’t near a computer and couldn’t look up the tracker’s location. My mother was in a meeting. I called five other american friends, but no one was answering. I was growing increasingly frustrated. It could be anywhere! As I dialed numbers, the dark-haired woman asked where I was headed. “To the national park,” I said absentmindedly.

“Is the road still open? I’d heard it might be closed due to snow,” she said.

I stared blankly. “What’s the … what’s the elevation?”

“Twelve thousand feet at the highest point,” she said.

Shit. Maybe I should be doing better research.

I called my stepfather again. “Look, I’m just going to leave it behind,” I said. “I need to get out of here.”

Back on the bike, I plugged in my vest and consulted the map. No more Rockies, then – where to? Arches? I heard a voice behind me. It was the woman, running down her driveway. Her white pajama pants billowed in the wind. She held her cordless phone in her hand. “It’s your father,” she said, handing me the phone.

“Okay, I have your location,” he said. “Just north of Denver.”

“I need the GPS coordinates,” I said. He recited them to me. The wind caught the phone and I had to have him repeat the numbers several times. I punched them directly into my garmin and pressed Go to direct me to the location. I accidentally hit the reset, and it routed me to a spot round the corner. Damnit. Well, I’d just ride south to Denver until I found wifi, then I’d look up the coordinates again myself.

So I rode ten miles south to the nearest small town, Lyons. The wind was treacherous. The woman had directed me a cafe called the Barking Dog. It had free wifi. I found it and searched for the tracker. It had last been seen … ten miles north of Lyons? Back to where I’d been? I shook my head, confused. The coordinates I’d entered the first time – they’d been right, after all. Well, no trouble. At least now I didn’t have to retrace my steps the hour’s ride to Denver.

Back at the campsite, about a mile past, where the tracker had been sighted. I parked the bike and walked in an expanding circle. I walked down into the ditch in case it had rolled downward. I wasn’t worried about missing it – the thing was almost the size of a brick, and an unnatural yellow. But it was nowhere to be found. I got back on the bike and canvassed the further areas. Nothing.

It was time to give up on it. I went south to Lyons. The wind was awful, blowing me every which way. I reached Lyons and decided to go to Boulder, where I could begin to work my way westward to Utah. I needed to get out of Colorado. The highway to Boulder was a flat wide stretch of fifteen miles. Rolling hills of rock and pale grass rose from either side of the road. I passed by a thousand photo opportunities, but I didn’t have the heart to stop. I doubted my tripod would stay planted anyway. As it was, the wind pushed me sideways and into oncoming traffic. At times I was holding my bike at a thirty degree angle just to keep going straight. It was ridiculous. I had never ridden in anything like it before.

I reached Boulder, and found an REI store. I found a new sleeping pad and another stupid tracking device. The cashier swiped my card. “It’s been declined,” she said politely. “Would you like to try another?”

“It’s probably been flagged for all of my traveling,” I said, taking it from her. “I’ll call them.” I used my american phone to call the number listed on the back of the card. After ten minutes of holds and transfers, I convinced the security department that the real Shannon Zawartka was indeed roaming the countryside making strange purchases. After I hung up, I saw a text message from my stepfather: “Someone found your tracker.”

Well that was lucky. I let the clerk keep the Inreach, and instead just paid for the sleeping pad. I called the number of the guy who’d picked up the tracker. No answer. I called again, no answer. Maybe he was up in the Rockies, with no reception. I used the store’s wifi to check my tracking page to see if the location had been updated – it had! It was in Lyons.

Okay. No problem. I got back on the bike. Back onto the road from hell. Twice the wind pushed me so forcefully to the left that I could feel my tires actually sliding sideways. I wasn’t sure where to be positioning myself in my lane: normally a motorcycle will ride in the left tire track of a two-lane highway. This was a bad spot with the wind however, as it put me too close to the oncoming traffic. Riding in the middle of the lane would put me in the greasy part of the road, where oil and antifreeze is leaked from cars. I opted for the right tire track. The wind might run me clear off the road and into one of the steep ditches, but I knew it was better than the threat of a head-on collision.

In Lyons, I rode to where the tracker had been sighted: on Main & Broadway. I was pulling up to the curb when I heard my american phone ringing. It was my good samaritan. “You sound frazzled,” a young male voice said. His name was Jacob.

“I’m having a bad day,” I said. “But I think you’re about to make it a whole lot better!” I looked around excitedly, expecting to see Jacob come around the corner any moment, a phone on his ear and my tracker in hand. “Where are you?”

“I’m in my pickup truck,” he said. “I just got into Boulder.”

“Boulder?” I could feel myself choking. I put the phone down, trying to regroup, unsuccessfully “Boulder? You’re in Boulder? I just came from Boulder! I can’t — I can’t do that road again – I’m on a motorcycle – the wind . . .” I was losing it. What little of it I had left, I could feel it getting away from me. Blown away by that awful wind.

“I’m going to dinner, in Boulder,” the voice said calmly. “Firehouse Subs. It’s on Canyon and 28. I’ll wait here for you. I won’t go anywhere.”

“Okay,” I said. “Okay.” It was not okay. I was not okay.

The road back to Boulder . . . you’d think, having run it twice already, it would be easier. It was the toughest pass of all. I was tense the entire time. I felt like I was in a tennis game between two giants, and I was the ball. They batted me back and forth across the road. Sometimes gently, oftentimes not. It didn’t seem to matter if I went slowly or quickly.

I reached the sub shop. My good samaritan was waiting outside. He looked like exactly what I would expect a man from Boulder to look like: slim athletic build, plaid button-down shirt, tawny hipster beard and friendly eyes. I wanted to strangle him. If he would have just let the tracker alone, he would have saved me six hours and 100 miles of pointless searching through an ongoing wind tunnel. He extended the tracker to me with a flourish of his hands. I took it from him, trying to seem grateful. It wasn’t really his fault my day had gone horribly wrong: he’d thought he was doing the right thing. And maybe if he’d left it, someone else would have gotten it – someone of less pure intent, or someone without the tech savviness to be able to operate the thing and send a text message out to my stepfather. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to find it on my own. Who knows.

Jacob identified a new route for me, to the I-70, which would take me out of the horrid windy area, and safely into Utah. “Call me if you have any trouble.”

Some good samaritans just don’t give up.

sunset_strom

Horseface

After Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri interstate, I was ready to find some backroads and scenic routes. I didn’t care that I happened to be in Kansas.

kansas_sunset

I didn’t find any secret windy roads, but I was surprised by the beauty the state offered once I got off the I-70.

kansas_prairie_sunset

Last night I rode a hundred miles through the darkness with the goal of reaching the Tallgrass National Prairie Reserve, in mid-Kansas south of Topeka. I camped there overnight hoping to catch the sunrise. Working on video in the comfort of my small tent, I was startled to feel movement underneath me. Spider? I’m not one to go out of my way to smash insects, but I had gotten word from a friend that the very venomous brown recluse is a fairly common occurrence. I didn’t know if they were the type to be doing push-ups underneath the tents of innocent campers, but I didn’t want to take any chances, so I slapped the moving object with the palm of my hand. And again. And again.

Whatever it was, the thing wouldn’t die. It kept moving around. No spider is that strong, right? Holding my breath, I could hear the familiar sound of small teeth grinding, not just coming from under the tent, but all around me as well. Mice? Prairie dogs? Moles? Whatever they were, they were noisy. I decided to ignore them, figuring they were likely harmless.

I slept through my alarm and missed the sunrise by ten minutes. It turned out to be not such a great disappointment after all: a controlled burn four days earlier had wiped out the entirety of the tallgrass. I was told that this procedure is performed every year to stop the spread of invasive plants.

cottonwood

Populus section Aigeiros, the cottonwood, is the state tree of Kansas. A volunteer at the prairie reserve told me I would likely find snails underneath rocks at the base of cottonwoods. So far I’ve checked about twenty trees. Specimens found: 0. Lay people are really bad at predicting where snails are going to be.

I got some comments from concerned readers apparently disturbed by the seriousness of my last selfie. Here is a less serious picture:

horseface

Trespasser

grasshopper_ride

Anyone paying close attention to my live tracker has to mystified at times as to what exactly is going on. For instance, why did I get off to such a late start Monday? Am I really that lazy?

Well, yes and no. I do like to sleep in – and I do like to ride at night (although I don’t much like deer). But Monday night, after searching for a place to camp for about an hour, I finally found a spot that looked okay. A dirt road leading into a forest offered great cover. The only problem was, the road was blocked by a prominent no-trespassing sign, and a locked chain.

This would normally get a pass from me, but I was completely exhausted and running out of options. It was pitch black and I couldn’t find a way around the chain, so I went under it, stopping and starting the motorcycle, slipping the chain over my luggage. Finally I was through. I rode a ways down the path and set up camp. I could hear a dog barking in the distance. I didn’t think it was an access road to pretty much anything, but I left my bike at the edge of the path, just in case someone needed to get by in the morning.

Inside my tent, I thought it would be nice to have some hot soup, but I was reluctant to step outside again, so instead I snuggled inside my plush sleeping bag and ate powdered cheese crackers. I sifted through the day’s footage on my laptop. The barking sound grew louder, and I could hear leaves crackling and twigs snapping. What the— ?

The barking was louder, louder – it was a large-sized dog, judging by the deep throatiness of its voice. Then the thing was right outside my tent! Barking! What was going on? Was the owner nearby?

Now, I am not afraid of dogs. Not even a large, barking dog. But this situation was different. I was trespassing, and dogs can be protective. If this was a guard dog, it might be in a bite-my-face-and-ask-questions-later kind of mode. I wished I had some beef jerky. Somehow I didn’t think my cheese crackers were going to be a significant enough bribe.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I definitely didn’t want to get out of the tent. So I waited, tense, hoping that the owner would call the dog off. But I heard no human voice, and after about a minute the dog ran away. It never returned and I slept peacefully through the rest of the night. Well, aside from waking up to refill my sleeping pad.

crazy_hair

In the morning, I made rice for breakfast and surveyed the situation. On foot I scouted a way out of the forest without having to go under the chain again. All I had to do was turn the bike around on the narrow path: a tricky maneuver. I tried to do the old ten-point turn but the laden motorcycle was heavy and awkward with the high handlebars. I decided to go through a deep mud section and then try to find a better spot to turn around up ahead. When I say deep, know that it wasn’t really deep. Maybe four inches of mud. No problem for a dirtbike. But Dorothy is not a dirtbike.

She was stuck before I was halfway through. I got off the bike. It balanced in the mud without even setting down the kickstand.

I heaved on the headlight assembly, trying to push the thing backward. My boots slid. I turned the key and eased on the throttle, trying to gently guide the bike forward, but the tire spun aimlessly. I cursed. “You are the fattest, ugliest, slowest motorcycle I have ever known,” I said spitefully. This wasn’t altogether true: I have ridden a couple slower bikes. But I figured she wouldn’t know the difference.

I walked down the path, swinging my leg over the no-trespassing chain. My motocross helmet dangled from my right hand. I knew this was the last significant trip I would ever take with Dorothy. Not being able to get my own bike out of a trouble was too much of a dealbreaker. A quarter mile down the road was an auto shop, and I ambled up the steep driveway. A man in his fifties with a mangy St. Bernard at his side watched my slow approach. “You look like you’ve got a motorcycle around here,” he said.

“Yeah.” If you could even call it a motorcycle.

“Run out of gas?”

“No. It’s stuck. In the mud.”

“Where at?”

“In the forest over there. I was camping. I know I’m not supposed to. I was tired.”

“You need a vehicle?”

“No. Just a pair of helping hands.”

He nodded. “I can’t leave the shop right now, there’s no one else here – we’ll get you some help, though.”

I shrugged. “I’m in no rush.”

I stepped inside the shop, wishing I’d thought to bring some water for my little expedition. I didn’t care to intrude on the man anymore by demanding he wait on me. The shop was quite curious, billed as an auto and bicycle shop; the showroom sported a checkered tile floor that looked like it hadn’t been mopped in ten years. Antique bicycles and memorabilia hung on the walls, and a white Road King in touring trim was parked in a corner. I turned from the Harley and was startled to see an African Grey parrot watching me cautiously from the other side of the room. I’d walked right past without noticing, apparently startling it – I could see it trembling from twenty-five feet away.

“Hey there,” I said. It was perched on top of a birdcage, the door wide open. The bird stood on the far side of me, and shuffled uncomfortably as I approached.

“He don’t like new things,” a red-haired woman said, entering the showroom. “He don’t like people, really. I don’t mess with him. He bites me.”

I nodded. “How old is he?”

“Sixteen.”

“He always has the run of the room like this?”

“Sure does.”

“Can he talk?”

“Some days he never shuts up. Tells me to get back to work and stuff.” She left, and I sat down on a bar stool beside the birdcage, my head resting on my helmet.

Ten minutes passed. I clucked my tongue, and heard a low whistle in response. I looked up to see the parrot now standing atop its cage, on the side closest to me. It had stopped trembling as well.

I clucked again, and it whistled back. I realized I had never really communicated with a bird before. I made different sounds, and the parrot chirped back at me.

One of the shop’s mechanics entered in, two slim young men in tow, in their early twenties. “These guys’ll hell you with the bike,” he said.

“Thanks.”

I was glad to have two of them: Dorothy is a big girl. It took some effort for us to haul her out. They followed me down the short path I’d found around the no-trespassing chain. I dropped the bike on a tree, and they helped me pick it up. As they stepped away, I dropped it again.

Dorothy wouldn’t start. Flooded, I suppose. I cranked the motor pointlessly. “I am so sorry,” I said, my face reddening with embarrassment. What was it that advrider had said? Gotta get your head in the game, Shannon. I was so tired, I just wanted to get out of this cursed forest and never leave the pavement again.

We picked up the bike a second time. “Don’t want to be dropping the bike here,” one of the boys said, the one with sunglasses and a skeptical sort of expression permanently etched on his face. He looked down at the ground.

“What is it?” A snake?

“Just a box turtle.”

I signed with relief. We pushed, heaved and shoved my motorcycle the fifteen remaining yards back to the road. I thanked them. They left and I photographed the turtle while I waited for the bike to forgive me for all of the mean things I said.

box_turtle

I rode through Indiana. More interstate through chilly weather. It was freezing cold and very dark by 7pm. I started to look for potential campsites but there was few trees, mostly low cropfields and residential areas. I got off the interstate and wandered down side roads, but couldn’t find anything decent. I got back onto the interstate and finally saw a sign for a state park, so I took the next exit and followed it down a few miles. I didn’t see any park or any sign of a park to come.

So I stopped in a harvested cornfield, and set up my tent in the starlight. It was so cold that I worried about the snails in my saddlebag, so I brought them into the tent with me. If I got up at first light, I could be out of here before the farmer even noticed my presence.

Fat chance.

I woke up to the sound of a beeping horn at 8am.

corn_camping

The cops, I thought. I hope they brought coffee. I stumbled out of my tent in my thin summer undersuit. And my gerbing vest, for added stylishness.

A farmer with plump pink cheeks and greying hair sat in a pickup truck outside my tent. Tension is his face lifted as he registered my sorry appearance. “Oh,” he said. “Sorry to wake you.”

I squinted. “This is your field?”

“It is.”

“Sorry for trespassing.”

“My step-sister saw you setting up last night. She thought I should come see what was going on.”

So much for my stealthy cover-of-darkness approach.

He asked where I was coming from and where I was going.

“You got a gun in there?”

“What? No.” I laughed. “I’m Canadian.”

“You need any money?” He said it like this: Mah-nee.

“I’m alright,” I said.

“Well stay as long as you like. I’m going to go do some work.”

Slug Hunter

kentucky_mushrooms

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.

Duh.

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.

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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.

dorothy_down

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.

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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.

Kentucky Bound

tractor

Hey all,

Sorry for the long delay between updates. I’ve been really caught up working on new video stuff. I got a message today from someone I’d never met who was concerned about me. I’M OKAY! PROMISE. 🙂

I’ve been hanging out at my parents’ place in northern Ohio for the last two weeks. It’s time to head out again. Against my mother’s wishes, I ride south headed for Columbus, then Kentucky, then west to prairie land where Dorothy is just begging to get her picture taken in front of a Kansas sign. I’m still planning on hitting up some national parks in Colorado and Utah, but temperature is going to be of a concern to me as elevations change.

The first video I made was done in iMovie, a free program that ships with every new macbook. My next video will be made in the considerably more sophisticated Final Cut Pro X. Stabilization issues will hopefully be resolved with a new fluid head, and a newly acquired sled. For those not quite in the know, a ‘sled’ is a large heavy stabilization device attached to a camera to allow for smooth flowing movement. Effective use is determined by operator skill demanding a ton of practice. The thing is generally too heavy to hold for any length of time, so the operator wears a vest and mechanical arm. Oh, and no one carries a sled on a cross-country motorcycle tour. It’s heavy, large, awkward, and ridiculous. My plan is to wear the vest underneath my jacket – in a pinch it’ll protect me in a crash, better I expect than any motocross chestplate. The sled, a relatively small model, has found a home amongst the bubble wrap of my pelican top case. The metal mechanical arm folds up and is tied down above the pelican.

But you guys don’t want to hear me talk about video gear, now do you? I know what you want. Finger pictures!

oct_12-ten_days

Here’s what it looked like ten days after the snake bite.

My finger is healing up quite nicely. It’s still warm to the touch, and if I run an object down the length, it tingles in a peculiar and distant sort of way. Input in general is vague, and the heel of my foot now has a higher level of sensitivity than my left ring finger.

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Here’s how it looks now – sixteen days after bite. It’s possible to close my fist entirely, and pulling in the clutch is easy, but more complex movements are not handled well. My mother has a piano, and I could not hit the keys with my finger. I have a cello waiting for me at home, but I doubt our reunion will be particularly pleasing for the ears. Maybe it’s something that will improve over time. If my new friend Brian can ride a motorcycle sans right arm, surely I can play the cello with one gimped finger.

One of the things I got to do in Ohio was visit an AMA Pro Hillclimb event. I received the hot tip about it from a fellow advrider. I’ve never been to a hillclimb, just seen short clips on youtube. I had pictured it as sort of a technical event, where few riders would make it to the top of the hill. It turns out that it is closer to drag-racing than a trials event. The bikes make it to the top in around eight seconds, and I only two wipe out before they made it to the top. They’re dirtbikes with stretched swingarms and chained paddle tires on the back; the fast classes have inline four sportbike motors. I saw a dirtbike with an R1 motor. I had no idea such things were being done.

The event itself was far more populated than any roadrace event I’ve ever been to. It was quite a casual atmosphere. The grass field that served as a parking lot was covered in Harley-Davidsons with the occasional japanese cruiser. I didn’t see any dual-sports.

hillbike

I climbed to the top of the hill. I was wheezing by the time I reached it, lugging my monopod and camera gear. I was surprised at being able to shoot right from the side of the hillclimb. My fellow spectators pressed in around me, spilling milk jugs filled with beer; sometimes the bike venturing up would start to go sideways, and the AMA ref would yell, “Back! Back!” I was always the first to run; at one point I accidentally pushed over a ten-year-old kid who was standing by passively.

The noise of the bikes was just astounding, the smell of the nitrous burning in my nose. I moved freely through the blocked-off pits, with no media pass but my camera slung confidently over my shoulder. When I returned to my bike, I found a note on the tankbag. “Hi Crazy Shannon! I’m here at the hillclimb! Call me!” I called the number provided. It was an advrider! Somehow he’d picked out my black v-strom amongst the sea of choppers and cruisers. We shoot hands and he introduced me to a friend who didn’t believe in solo motorcycle riders who battle snakes and hunt snails.

Returning to Ohio

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My snakebitten finger on Sunday, three days after the bite.

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Today – four days after bite.

My hand feels good – very little pain, I am able to bend my ring finger, although it will be some time before I am capable of complex movement.

My stepfather picked me up from the hospital following my release yesterday, with a pickup truck to carry Dorothy. I will go with him to Ohio to rest at my parents’ place for a few days rest. My path afterward remains uncertain.

I’m already sifting through footage for the next video!

Snake Day

I was in the bayou wildlife refuge park just outside of New Orleans, looking for the rosy wolf snail, indigenous to this area. Snail and slug photography is one of my more innocent interests, if a bit unusual. It’s supposed to be a calm thing to do after motorcycling round the countryside or kayaking down a whitewater rapid. It’s supposed to be a safe thing, like reading or playing the cello.

But all life comes with risk, especially when you’re in unfamiliar territory. Excited by the discovery of some sun-faded wolf shells, I was searching through forest litter on my hands and knees, my cellphone’s flashlight activated. Something stabbed me, and I flung my hand away, sweeping out with the other, dropping my phone and smashing it. In the dim light I could make out a snake on the pathway. I ran after it and photographed it. It was small, a muddy brown colour, and not very intimidating. I was wearing my moto boots and pants, and didn’t fear a second attack. The snake took off. I was a mile from my bike, so I started walking back.

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“911 what is your emergency?”

“I need poison control. I’ve just been bitten by a snake and I’m alone. I would like you to remain on the phone with me until I can verify that I’m not having a reaction. I have a photo of the snake.”

I hoped that the sharp shooting pain in the tip of my left ring finger was a good sign. Often it’s the wounds that hurt the most that prove to be the most superficial, right? But then my finger began to deepen blue and numb. I tried to get more information from poison control. What is the range of time I could have before going into shock? There were no easy answers to that question – everyone is different, the operator told me.

“What is your location?”

“The Bayou Wildlife Refuge Park.”

“I don’t know where that is.”

The park is the size of New Orleans, adjacent to New Orleans. “I can give you my GPS coordinates.”

“M’am I have no way to use GPS coordinates.”

The hell kind of EMS service is this? “I’ll find a hospital on my bike then,” I said.

“No, you have to stay where you are!”

But no one was coming. Besides, I was wary of ambulance fees. It was thirteen miles to the nearest hospital. I soon discovered that I could not pull in the clutch with my left hand. The pain was excruciating; even the wind flowing over my swelling hand was unbearable, and so I held it behind the windshield.

I reached the hospital, parking my bike on the sidewalk outside the ER. The triage nurse was consulting another patient, and I tried to regain my composure as I stood in front of the little glass window. I was shaking with the relief of reaching the hospital, with pain and uncertainty about my condition. The nurse after two minutes turned to assess me. She asked my name and told me to stop playing with my phone. “I have a picture of the snake that bit me,” I said through tears. She told me she wasn’t interested in seeing it. She asked for my name but I couldn’t tell her. I was dizzy and confused. My last name is so hard to spell, I would have to spell it out for her with my canadian accent and my tears and I was having trouble remembering how to spell it myself and if I handed her my ID she might snap at me like she did with the phone. I kept crying and she kept getting more impatient. It was hard to breathe in the stuffy ER room. I went outside and cried beside my motorcycle. I googled venomous Louisiana snakes, but I couldn’t find mine. I called poison control and asked what could happen if I didn’t seek treatment. “Your arm could fall off,” the operator said. She was impatient too. “Why are you sitting outside the hospital instead of going inside and getting treatment? Have you been drinking?”

“No,” I said. “The triage nurse couldn’t understand what I was saying. I kept crying. I just want someone to look at the snake picture. Maybe it’s not a big deal.”

“Okay, you’re the expert,” the operator said. “This phone call is recorded, by the way.”

I didn’t understand why they were so clipped. I wasn’t refusing treatment. I’d gone to so much effort just to get to the hospital. It was hard to think clearly, but that didn’t seem to concern anyone.

After running every red light just to get to the hospital in a timely manner, I sat on the sidewalk staring at the sky and my bitten finger, leaning against Dorothy. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like going to sleep and I closed my eyes. Then I called a friend. He told me to go back inside and hand the phone to the triage nurse whilst he stayed on the line.

I went inside and handed my phone to the nurse, but she wouldn’t take it. “Please, he can give you my information,” I said

“I can only take it from you,” she said. “What is the problem exactly?”

“I’ve been bitten by a – a – sn-sn-snake!”

“Yes I know. What is your name?”

“Sh-sh-shannon.”

“That’s your last name?”

“No, my last name is –” I fumbled and handed her my ID. She took it.

I was led into an ER room directly. The tone changed. Many questions were asked of my past medical history. People were interested in seeing my snake photo. After a time I was given hydromorphone, a strong injected painkiller that hurt my sinuses but relieved the pain of the bite. Blood and urine samples were collected. Many came to see the bite, curious. Despite the area apparently well occupied by various kinds of venomous snakes, bites are pretty uncommon, the snakes being fairly non-aggressive. I had to explain my strange snail fascination to a motley of medical personnel. No one had ever heard of the rosy wolf snail.

Louisiana’s lead toxicology physician, who teaches tox at LSU, rarely works in the ER of the hospital where I found myself, but he just so happened to be there that night. Many commented on my good fortune to have him present. He was kind to me, as were the rest of the staff.

A police officer came in, self identifying as a snake enthusiast. He showed me pictures of snakes until I found mine – a pit viper by the name of cottonhead water moccasin. Their bites are venomous – extremely painful, slightly behind a rattlesnake bite and well ahead of a copperhead’s. They are also north american’s sole venomous water snake.

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My bite, about 1.5 hrs after exposure.

One of the ER nurses was a motorcyclist. He was concerned about Dorothy on the sidewalk, and so he brought my luggage in for me and personally rode my motorcycle over to where he parked his own bike.

The nurses and physicians seemed llgenuinely concerned about my pain levels, constantly monitoring how I was doing. Every five minutes or less someone was attending to me, checking the swelling, checking my vitals, checking antivenom being introduced to my system. They explained their processes and constantly asked if I had any questions. I was eventually handed off to ICU. My old nurse was protective of me, reminding me not to let anyone do blood pressures or IVs on my left arm. “I’m sure they won’t, but just in case.” I was sad to see him leaving, along with the rest of the ER staff. We watched my trip video on my laptop together.

My new ICU nurse turned out to be just as gentle and attentive. Somewhere in the middle of the night, my pain levels went skyrocketing, around the same time when I badly had to pee and also wanted to vomit. There was no washroom in my private ICU room and no time to get the commode. He somehow managed to get a bedpan just in the nick of time, giving me medicine for the nausea and pain as well. It turns out that using a bedpan isn’t particularly embarrassing when you’re with a sensitive nurse. Being in agony helps too.

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6 hours after exposure.

In the morning I was still being given antivenom. The swelling hadn’t worsened, but hadn’t improved a great deal either. I was nearing the end of the typical four-dose treatment; my condition was still poor enough to warrant continued antivenom.

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12 hours after exposure.

In the evening the tox guru returned. He had not been scheduled to work but came in just to see me. “The danger zone is behind us now,” he said, holding my swollen hand in his own. He explained to me that snake venom escalates quickly and shows itself right away. He said that the finger changing colour even as I was walking back to my motorcycle was a very bad sign. “I think this was an extremely bad bite that saw medical attention just in time,” he said. “People don’t often die from cottonmouth bites, but it could have happened here.”

“I don’t understand, the snake was so small, compared to what I read as sizing for an average adult.”

“It is thought that the smaller snakes can be more dangerous, because they haven’t learned to control their venom and may end up injecting more than a larger snake would.

And all I have to show for it is the worn shell of a long dead wolf snail.

Southern Hospitality

I’m interested in macro photography, so I tend to notice the insects of the world everywhere I go. Some of them hitch rides on my camping gear after I pack up, and thus I have become a traveling caravan for creatures wishing to relocate to the next state. Every area seemed to have its own bug. In Idaho, it was earwigs (ew). Earwigs everywhere, packing little earwig-bags and following me into Montana. In Iowa, it was grasshoppers. In North Carolina I found two snails on my tent one foggy morning at 4000 ft on the Blue Ridge Parkway. In Georgia, there were the fat black caterpillars – aka oakworms, a serious and destructive pest in that region.

caterpillar

I met this hairy little dude in Alabama.

In Mississippi, it was fireflies. I haven’t seen them since I was a kid. It happened mainly by accident, stopped on the over-groomed Natchez Trace Parkway during sunset, trying to find something to photograph. I set up my tripod but the road wasn’t looking right. Discouraged and staring off into the weeds, I noticed that some of the weeds were winking at me. I approached and could see small insects hovering, their bodies lighting up dazzling neon-yellow. I felt like I’d stumbled across a stash of pixie dust.

In Louisiana, it was mosquitos. I searched for a place to camp before Baton Rouge, but I went past it and halfway to New Orleans before I found an abandoned lot quite close to Hwy 61. There was an occupied residence just 200 yards back, and normally I wouldn’t park so close to someone’s home, but it was the best spot I’d seen in a hundred miles. I set up my tent and heated up some frozen etouffe I’d purchased earlier at a local store. In the time it took to warm the chunks of crawfish, I was beset by more mosquito bites than I’d picked up the entire week I spent on the dock at the Dragon. For the first time, I sprayed myself down with insect repellant, but a few determined Louisiana mosquitoes would continue to bite me. I ate the crawfish soup inside the protective walls of my tent, and wore earplugs to block to sound of the very nearby highway.

In the morning I was awoken at 8:30AM by the sound of a hand rustling my fabric walls. “Hello,” I said in my high girlish voice. It was probably past due that I got some kind of flack from all the trespassing I’ve been doing in the last few weeks. I unzipped the tent and poked my head out the flap. The situation was much worse than I had hoped: it was a cop, his car parked on the shoulder of the highway.

“Sorry to wake you,” he said. “Got some calls about someone here, wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“I’m fine,” I said, trying to look extremely innocent as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. “My headlights died last night and I was afraid to keep going.” There was some truth behind that story: my taped down pass-light had come unstuck a couple of times, leaving me in complete blackout riding at 70mph at least twice. It was not an especially fun experience. “Then I couldn’t find my campground.” This was definitely an outright lie. I haven’t seen a campground in weeks, let alone slept in one. Yesterday I washed my hair at a rest-stop washroom on the Natchez Trace.

“Not much camping round here,” he said, watching me remove the rainfly of my tent. “You don’t have to pack up just yet, you’re fine here.”

“Thanks,” I said, surprised at how well this was going.

“Where’re you coming from?”

“Vancouver, Canada.” It used to be Vancouver BC, but ever since I hit Virginia, people have stopped being familiar with Canadian western geography.

“Wow, and where are you headed to?”

“New Orleans.”

“Any place in particular?”

“No, just tourist stuff. French Quarter. I’ve never been.”

“Cool, I’m originally from New Orleans. You just take your time. Can I get you anything, maybe some coffee?”

I froze, halfway through rolling up the rainfly, glancing back toward the parked police car. Had I set up my tent too close to the road after all? Maybe some sleepy semi had run me over and I was now caught in a bizarre afterlife where cops waited on me. “I – I’m fine, thanks,” I said.

“Suit yourself.” He strolled back to the car, looking over his shoulder. “You’re in Louisiana now. People gonna offer you things.”

I packed half my camping gear. Three hours from noon and it was already blazing hot. The last of my water was gone and I was messing with video footage back in my tent when the squad car returned. The friendly officer stepped out, a large styrofoam cup in his hand. “Here’s some coffee,” he said, holding it out to me. I took it. “I wouldn’t be much of a Christian if I didn’t bring this out to you.”

He left and I rode to New Orleans. It is peculiar looking city, with narrow streets and old weather-worn buildings. There is a lot of foot traffic, and the amount of tourists surprises me, as does the demographic: it seems like mainly families and retired couples. Everywhere I look, people are smiling, and they speak openly on the street. It is a bit of a culture shock to me, coming from Vancouver, notorious for its polite but standoffish citizens.

I was consulting my GPS on the street when two city workers paused to comment on my laden motorcycle. “I’m looking for a pizza place,” I said.

“What kind of pizza? Dominos?” one asked, a heavyset woman with her hair tied back.

“New Orleans pizza,” I said. When I was a kid, my favourite pizza place was a small chain called New Orleans Pizza. I figured I’d get the real thing here.

“We don’t have our own pizza,” the woman said. “You want Chicago pizza. Or New York pizza.”

“Oh. Well, I want New Orleans food then.”

“There’s a good Mexican place up the street,” the other worker told me. “Felipe’s. Two blocks ahead, turn left.”

“No, I want New Orleans food.”

“This is an international city,” he told me. “No one’s really from here and we don’t have our own food.”

So I went to Felipe’s and ate this chimichanga, which could have come from Jupiter and I wouldn’t care because it was completely delicious.

chimichanga

Later I looked for a camera shop. As I have decided to try to shoot more video, I needed some equipment upgrades to help with camera stabilization. It turns out that New Orleans, along with not having its own food, doesn’t have a real camera shop either. I did manage to find an inexpensive fluid head, so my plan is to shoot with that and perhaps ship a glidecam off the Net. For that I’ll need a mailing address, either in Louisiana or southern Texas where I’m headed next … any volunteers?

First video

So after a bit of research, I found that the fastest free internet available is at Starbucks, who has freshly teamed up with Google. In Jackson Mississippi, I ate gumbo and a po-boy sandwich, and uploaded this video in about five minutes. It shows my trip from Vancouver to North Carolina. I find the off-bike footage to be a bit more interesting than the on-bike, and I intend to try to shoot more of that for the next video. What do you want to see more of?