Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Deep South

"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, where the local time is 9:07AM and the temperature is 31 degrees Fahrenheit...."

I was already wearing long underwear, a thick sweater, and my leather riding jacket with the removable lining in place in anticipation of the cold ride ahead, but I still involuntarily shivered at the flight attendant's announcement shortly after the CRJ-900 touched down at DFW. Cold weather has followed me everywhere I've gone in this trip, which is a touch ironic since the desire to ride around the warm southern states during the long Minnesota winter was the original justification for this 12,000 mile jaunt. I've come to realize that winters down south probably aren't as warm as I've imagined all these years, they are simply less harsh than northern winters and are broken up by occasional warm spells. And really, for doing a ride around the country in wintertime, I've been blessed with remarkably good weather. I haven't seen any snow yet. I went an amazing 5000+ miles and seven months between Portland and Florida without getting rained on. Even temperatures in the low 40s are fairly comfortable on my old BMW, with its famously prodigious output of engine heat.

I write these words of gratitude to the weather gods from a cozy coffee shop, sipping a hot brew and looking out the window at a bright blue winter sky. As I accelerated onto the freeway in Dallas and felt the freezing air slicing like a knife between my jacket and helmet, my thoughts were considerably less charitable. The warmest temperature between California and Texas - indeed, between California and Florida by the time all was said and done - was 49 degrees, in El Paso, and a good part of the time it was in the 20s and 30s, which is cold riding no matter what bike or what gear you have. It's hard to enjoy riding when you're hunched down behind the fairing, shivering madly and pressing your legs hard into the engine and flexing your fingers around the handlebars trying to keep them from going completely numb. It's actually hard to think of much of anything else in the face of such discomfort. Only in retrospect is bone-numbing cold reduced to a mere abstraction, a mere detail of the story rather than its central theme, with the agreeable side effect that the ride becomes more enjoyable with every retelling. Only one week after I left Dallas, I'm not quite sure now whether I was really all that cold for all that much of the ride. Other things linger more strongly in my memory.

This leg of the trip, from Dallas to Miami, featured the least dramatic scenery of the entire trip with the exception of one day crossing the Dakotas back in July and another half-day in West Texas last month. The Montana Rockies, the Northwest, the Pacific Coast, and the Desert Southwest all offered up a feast of breathtaking views and exhilarating riding. Yet, the entire ride thus far had taken place in familiar territory. I know the western states better than any other part of the country, having criss-crossed them many times on childhood family vacations, college road trips, flight training, living in LA and Portland for six years, and flying for Horizon. I'm a west coast guy at heart, and I feel more at home out there than in my native Midwest. A few of the roads along my route were new to me, but the terrain was all familiar, and I rode from one memory to the next for over 6000 miles.

So despite the lack of dramatic mountain scenery or craggy coastlines ahead, I was excited about the coming ride as I headed east from Dallas in the frigid morning air. At last I was exploring unfamiliar territory. The entire sum of my previous travels in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama was crossing all three states on I-10 over the course of one day on a spring break road trip eight years ago, with a short stop of a few hours in pre-Katrina New Orleans. I don't remember any of it other than Bourbon Street. Not wishing to repeat that experience, but under some time pressure - thanks to a huge winter storm hard on my heels - I compromised by high-tailing it to Jackson on I-20 on the first day, and then eschewing interstates the rest of the way. The plan was for Dawn to fly into Tampa or Ft. Myers on Friday night, and we'd ride down the Overseas Highway for a long weekend in Key West, where it was forecast to be a heavenly 70 degrees and sunny.

The first day, Tuesday, was accordingly unremarkable except for the aforementioned cold. I made good time after setting out from Dallas at 11am, riding 430 miles in seven frigid hours, stopping only for a good BBQ lunch in Canton TX and then for gas every 150 miles. There was little traffic, good road surface, and pleasant enough scenery along I-20. East Texas provided relief from the monotonous landscape with rolling hills and pine trees, but I was surprised to find that they ended abruptly at the border. Northern Louisiana might as well have been North Dakota, for all I could tell from the freeway. Once I crossed the Mississippi River into its namesake state, though, the scenery returned. I was surprised at how nice Mississippi was, or at least the part I went through. I'm not sure quite what I expected, but it was probably something along the lines of huge swaths of land cleared for cotton fields farmed by poor sharecroppers and abject poverty at every turn. Instead I got lush rolling hills, evergreen forests, nice roads, and fewer abandoned dilapidated houses than...well, pretty much every city in the country right now. I suspect that I might've seen another picture had I ventured further south, in the part of the state devastated by Katrina, but the little slice of Mississippi I saw from Vicksburg to Waynesboro was surprisingly nice.

It was growing dark as I rode into Jackson, and I took a few wrong turns before I found the state park I was intending to camp at. The campground turned out to be closed for flooding from heavy rains over the weekend, but a gregarious park ranger gave me directions to another campground about 15 miles away, on Barnett Reservoir. Most of the campground was full with RVs, but the tent-only portion was wide open. I pitched the tent in the dark, took off my saddlebags, and got back on the bike to go find dinner. Backing the bike down the narrow, uneven asphalt pad from my campsight by foot in near pitch black, I lost my footing and almost dropped the bike. The campground road was only ten feet to my right, across a short patch of grass. I glanced behind me again, thought screw this, turned the handlebars, accelerated into the grass...and immediately bogged down to a halt in deep, runny mud. I goosed the throttle to no avail; the back wheel spun freely, sending mud twenty feet behind. I realized that if I could only get off the bike, I could retrieve a wooden slab normally used with the sidestand from under my seat and put under the rear wheel to gain traction; but getting off the bike at this point would involve laying it in the mud, and it was doubtful whether I'd be able to stand the 600 pound beast up by myself without sure footing. You got yourself in a real pickle this time, I thought.

I stood on the footpegs and gunned the throttle again, then tried it in 2nd and 3rd gear. I jumped up and down on the pegs. I put a boot into the mud and wedged the rear wheel sideways as it spun. Finally, some traction! The bike started forward and as I eased the throttle, the rear wheel finally grabbed. I rode up the embankment to the road and shut the bike down, shaking my head. I had put some huge ruts into my campsite. I walked back and smoothed them over as best as I could, then laughed as I looked my bike over. The wheels were caked in thick mud; it flew in every direction for the first mile on the road to dinner. Given the cold temperatures, there would be no bike wash until a rainstorm in south Florida did the job for me.

I slept poorly that night in the cold; fortunately the campground had a heated restroom I was able to warm up in before setting out on Wednesday morning. I left shortly after 8am, heading southeast from Jackson on US-49. The slower speeds on the highway kept the cold manageable, and by the time I turned east on US-84 at Collins, I was feeling comfortable. I was surprised to see that US-84 was a four-lane divided highway; I was expecting more of a backroad byway. I planned on filling up my gas tank in Waynesboro, but when I saw that there weren't any gas stations close to the highway, I figured I'd continue to the next town, which had been no further than 10 miles apart at this point. Soon after, the road narrowed to two lanes and most signs of civilization vanished. Ten miles past Waynesboro, with 160 miles on a tank that has a nominal range of 175 miles, I stopped and pulled out a map. Sure enough, there were no towns for at least another 20 or 30 miles. Surely there would at least be a gas station in that time? I couldn't risk it; I reluctantly rode back to Waynesboro and found a gas station less than a mile off the highway. The station attendant looked at me like I was crazy for riding a bike and told me they were expecting a good bit of snow the very next day. I thought it was rather pleasant at 41 degrees with high thin clouds.

The Alabama state border was twenty miles past Waynesboro, and again the scenery changed. This was more like I had imagined Mississippi to be: dense, dark forests of brooding moss-covered trees, clearings thick with cotton, dilapidated post-war clapboard bungalows with rusty trucks out front, dark rivers flowing languidly southward. Further east, the forests thinned out and the undulating landscape grew more lush. It was a terrifically nice ride on US-84, which retained its curvaceous two-lane blacktop form through most of the state. Heavy truck traffic was the only downside, evidence of the lack of any other suitable east-west thoroughfare in these parts. I arrived at my destination for the day at only 2:30pm. Enterprise, Alabama, is host to Fort Rucker, home of Army Aviation. I have an old friend who is in the helicopter program there, and my early arrival gave us time to hang out, watch Blackhawks maneuver, see a movie, and go to the surprisingly good local sushi joint in Daleville AL, population 4600. My friend says Daleville boasts equally good Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. I was originally planning on camping just outside of Daleville, but the night was forecast to be cold and the campground/RV park/trailer park was deserted when I rode out there. I reluctantly pried my wallet open and sprung for a $38 room at the Boll Weevil Inn in Enterprise, which was exactly as nice as you'd expect of an establishment named for a crop-devastating beetle (as an aside, the citizens of Enterprise erected a Boll Weevil Monument in 1919, reconsidering the pest as a force of progress that diversified the local economy, no doubt putting the happiest face possible on what had to be a horribly trying situation. The statue still stands in the middle of town and is, according to local historians, the world's only monument honoring an agricultural pest).

Thursday morning I was planning on meeting up with my friend again after PT and formation, but a check of the weather showed that the storm had intensified and sped up. If I stuck to my original plan of a short ride to spend the night on the Gulf Coast just east of Panama City, I could expect a rain/snow mix very early on Friday morning. Time for a new plan. I decided to head out early and stick to my original route to Panama City and then eastward on US-98, but continue to the base of the panhandle and then south towards Tampa. I left at 9am and enjoyed the ride south over state roads. As I rode through Panama City, the temperature hit 50 for the first time since San Diego. I was in heaven even though rapidly graying skies signaled that the nice weather wouldn't be lasting long. The route along the Gulf Coast was beautiful, with thick swampy forests right up against the road on one side and white sandy beaches, calm water, and low barrier islands on the other. The road turned inland at Apalachee Bay, then at Perry it expanded to a four-lane divided highway and headed southward. Now I was making very good time. The forecast showed that the further south I got, the later it would rain the next day and the warmer it would be when it did rain. With that in mind, I rode hard without stopping until dark, then stopped for dinner at a pizza pub off US-19 in Spring Hill, where I pulled out my phone and mulled over my sleeping options for the night. I got lucky: I was less than an hour away from Tampa, they have a hostel, the hostel had a bed open, and it was $23. You can't get a campsite for $23 in Florida. I arrived shortly after 8pm and spent four hours drinking beers, chatting with travelers from various corners of the globe - all of whom seemed to ride or have ridden and were quite interested in my trip - and poring over flight loads on the computer. The snowstorm had already started to hit Atlanta, flights were being canceled by the hundreds, and rebooked passengers were filling up all the flights from Minneapolis to Florida for Friday. It wasn't looking good for Dawn.

I slept well in my funky dorm room - decorated to look like a railroad sleep car - and rose at 9am to a dark, foreboding sky that was just starting to sprinkle. The real rain, however, wasn't forecast to arrive until noon. I quietly packed - 9am made me the early riser! - and headed south on I-275. I was intending to go south of the bay and then cut over to take a look at the beaches, but I mistakenly exited too early and spent quite a bit of time transiting the beaches of St. Petersburg before I made it over the Sunshine Skyway and headed down Longboat Key. I stopped for lunch in Sarasota and used the occasion to put on my rain gear. At this point the sky was making it apparent that it was going to rain soon and rain hard. I got on I-75 and headed south towards Fort Myers. I only got 10 miles before the skies let loose. The first rain I rode through since my arrival to Portland in early July was an utter deluge. Visibility was cut down to a few hundred feet, water pooled deeply on the freeway and I was afraid I'd start hydroplaning. Worse, the wind kicked up to gale force, and I was riding sideways through the gusts. I finally rode through the front side of the squall line just in time to exit at Ft. Myers - where it caught up with me again as I rode down the surface streets in search of shelter! I was looking for a fast food joint, someplace that wouldn't mind a bedraggled biker loitering around waiting to dry out and for the rain to pass, but everything I drove past was disgustingly high-class. The rain seemed even fiercer the second time around even though I was riding much slower now. I finally spied a Burger King, parked in front, took off my right-hand saddlebag, put the bike's cover on, and dashed for the door through driving rain. What a sight I must have been! In short order I had dripping gear draped all over a booth. My rain gear did an amazing job, for my clothes were perfectly dry.

I hung out in the Burger King for several hours, watching the maelstrom blow itself out and reading a book I packed for that very purpose. As it got dark, Dawn and I called back and forth as she arrived at the airport and anxiously reported the melee surrounding the Ft. Myers gate. Long before she called to say she didn't get a seat, and Tampa and Miami went out full too, it was obvious that this was not a good weekend to nonrev to Florida. The best flight for Saturday morning was the first flight to Miami; it was only oversold by 2 seats with four nonrevs. Subsequent flights to Miami and Fort Lauderdale looked worse. I decided to find a place to sleep somewhere south of Ft. Myers for the night, and then ride to Miami in the morning.

None of the campgrounds I checked were actually campgrounds; all were RV parks that didn't allow tent campers. One of the places I phoned finally told me that the only campground that allowed tents was a state park some 15 miles south of Ft. Myers. However, there was no phone number listed. I rode down to the state park to find no rangers present, the front gate closed (but I could ride around it!) - and the few open spots ostensibly reserved for late arrivals that night. I decided against chancing a late-night confrontation. I considered just laying out my sleeping bag on a nearby golf course but the presence of nearby marshes - and presumably, gators - made me think twice of it. I rode south towards Naples, hoping to find a cheap motel of the sort that lined US-41 further north. There were none; every hotel north of Naples was an exclusive resort or upper-end chain, and even the older motels south of town were all full or wanted outrageous sums of money for rooms much like the Boll Weevil Inn's. Now I was getting desperate. I rode through Naples to the beach; there, 40-knot winds whipping sand and crazily pounding surf didn't seem to make a good night's sleep in the offing. The few public parks were too well lit. It was midnight when I realized there was a KOA southeast of town (silly me, I had been searching Google Maps for campgrounds instead of kampgrounds). I made my way out there, found the tent spots completely empty to my great relief, pitched the tent - and then walked over to self-register and found out that tent sites are $60. Yes, per night. It's the most I've ever paid for a campsite. I should have chanced the golf course.

Saturday morning, I took my time rising, cleaning up, and breaking camp. Many RVers stopped by to say hi and express amazement that I tent camped during a night that got down to (gasp) 53 degrees. I didn't tell them it was the most comfortable night of camping so far on a 7500 mile trip. I was on the road by 9am. The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and the Everglades were beautiful. There was little traffic on US-41, leaving me to go as fast or slow as I wanted. At one point I spotted a Great Blue Heron alongside the road ahead, and as I approached he took off and ended up flying directly over me, his massive six-foot wingspan flapping away mere feet from my head as I whisked under.

Halfway between Naples and Miami, I stopped at the Oasis visitor center and walked along their boardwalk, looking at several massive gators in the pond below. It had been a record-breaking cold January in South Florida, and the reptiles were taking advantage of the warm day to sun themselves. After Oasis, I started looking for gators in the ponds alongside the road and ended up seeing at least 20 or 30 of them along the way. Before I left Oasis, I called Dawn and got the disappointing news that she didn't make it onto the first Miami flight. Our Valentine's Day Weekend in the Florida Keys, the weekend I'd planned so carefully, was slipping through my grasp, exactly as the ride I had planned to Ensenada with Dawn did. By the time I got to Miami, it was confirmed: the flight to Fort Lauderdale and the second flight to Miami went out full, and subsequent flights for the day (and the rest of the weekend) were even more overbooked. I decided to cut the trip short and fly home to frigid Minnesota to at least spend Valentine's Day with Dawn.

But first, I had ridden my bike all the way across the continent, and having come from the very shores of the Pacific, it seemed only appropriate to continue to the Atlantic. I rode the last 10 miles east, through downtown Miami and over the MacArthur Causeway to Miami Beach. I cruised Ocean Drive for a few blocks, parked, and walked across the beach to the water's edge. I kicked off my riding boots, unzipped my chaps, rolled up my jeans, and waded in. I made it. It was snowing in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and north Florida, but I'd made it across the continent on a motorcycle in the wintertime. The sense of accomplishment took away some of the sting of disappointment in the ruined weekend. I laid back for a half-hour, closing my eyes and soaking up the sun, then returned to my bike and rode a few miles north for a hearty lunch of Cuban pork chops before heading back to the airport. I parked my bike knowing that we'll be back in a few weeks to have another go at a sun-splashed weekend in the Keys. After that? Well, I have to get the bike up to Atlanta before late April, and then my friend Brad will be joining me for the longest and most adventurous leg yet, riding up the spine of the Appalachians all the way to Maine.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

End of the Line

For the second time in ten years, I was present to witness the death of a storied old name in aviation. On January 31, Northwest Airlines - the airline I referred to here as "RedCo" - ceased to exist after 84 years of continuous service. Overnight, the airwaves at Minneapolis Approach went from being dominated by the Northwest callsign to that of its successor, the equally venerable WidgetCo. Of course, this was only the last step in a process that's been ongoing for more than a year: most airport signage and employee uniforms were changed back in March of last year, nearly all of the fleet has been repainted in Widget livery, and the changeover to Widget manuals and procedures was complete a month ago. "Inventory Cutover" was simply the final step in erasing the Northwest identity.

In 2001, I was an intern at Trans World Airlines when their purchase by American took place. In retrospect, that merger turned out to be pretty tragic. All of the flight attendants, most of the ground staff, and many of the pilots lost their jobs. One of my coworkers in Training Systems Development committed suicide shortly after the department was shut down. The formerly busy St Louis Airport is eerily quiet today; it's barely a focus city for American. The neighborhood surrounding my old crashpad was razed to make way for a now ironically unnecessary runway, and the old TWA training center now sits forlornly in the middle of the airport. TWA's demise was all the more poignant for its rich history shaped by aviation giants like Charles Lindbergh, Jack Frye, and Howard Hughes, as well as the pathos of its decline at the hands of corporate raider Carl Icahn and subsequent struggle for survival only to suffer the tragedy of Flight 800.

Time will tell the wisdom of the Northwest-WidgetCo merger, but for now the results seem to be much more positive than the American-TWA debacle. The route structure is fairly complimentary, reducing the amount of overlapping flying on the chopping block. Both airlines were relatively financially strong going into the merger, and are already seeing some fairly impressive returns from merger synergies which should only grow as the airlines are further integrated. The merger has been marked by a notable lack of acrimony between the pilot groups, and by playing ball they have been able to recoup a significant portion of what they lost in bankruptcy, putting them in a good position for contract negotiations two years from now. The negative impact on employees has been mostly limited to management and some outstations' ground personnel. Eighteen months ago, I fully expected to be out of a job by now as NewCo was inundated by WidgetCo flowdowns. Instead, there's talk of limited pilot hiring at Widget in the next year despite the horrible economy.

I have mixed feelings about seeing the Northwest name disappear. Growing up in Minnesota, Northwest was the hometown airline; through its presence, the Twin Cities derived a greater amount of prestige and connectedness to the world than a small metropolis on the frozen prairies of the upper Midwest would normally command. Northwest had a long rich history of technical excellence; they prided themselves in running a smooth operation connecting the far corners of the globe despite operating in some of the harshest environments on earth. They were long gifted with shrewd management that refused to chase after fancy, shiny new toys, preferring to keep debt low with reliable, paid-for equipment.

That said, Northwest had the most reliably anti-labor management in the industry over the last 30 years. It permeated every level of management, from the various CEOs down to base administrators. They seemed to thrive on conflict, forcing unnecessary showdowns with outrageous demands during negotiations, and regularly going after individual employees with their army of lawyers at other times. The employee groups, for their part, responded with unchecked militancy; the pilots were known throughout the industry as "cobras" (because "they'd strike at anything"). This only hardened management attitudes, creating a vicious cycle. Widget management has a long history of good employee relations, with an industry reputation for doing the right thing by their employees. This has served to keep most of the employee groups except the pilots non-unionized, and the relationship with ALPA has been relatively congenial. Despite the large number of ex-Northwest managers in WidgetCo's new leadership, the CEO has unequivocally stated that he expects this part of Northwest's legacy to die with the merger. I certainly hope that's the case.

For NewCo, the changes brought about by the merger have been pretty small so far. That will likely change this year. Widget has big plans for New York City, and it appears that we figure heavily in their increased domestic flying out of LaGuardia. Our management just announced that our Memphis base is closing later this year. It's also widely rumored that the Minneapolis base will also be shrinking as more airplanes go to the LGA operation over the summer. A New York crew base, however, is not a foregone conclusion; one widely-discussed alternative is a Chicago base with NewCo taking over all the MDW-LGA flying and shuttling crews in and out that way. We'll see what happens. The only inevitability in this industry is constant change, and I'm incredibly fortunate to have personally escaped the turmoil of the last two years thus far.