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Davenport by Jay Ford

Tell us a story Joe…

O.K. let me see, the THC fog is thick as pea soup, my mind has been marinating in an alcohol based concoction,

this was a while back but, as I remember it I’m taking shelter in a midwestern hovel, near H-D’s Juneau plant as luck would have it. It’s early fall in the late ’80’s and I’m stradlin’ a ’47 knucklehead on the return leg of a Davenport run.

Davenport Iowa.

The city hosts one of the finest antique motorcycle swap meets in the area on Labor Day weekend and this part of the country usually features some outstanding early fall weather. Harvest time means combines picking beans and corn in mile long rows, fall colors and smells and the crackle of early morning cool that yields to mid-day heat and cicadas and the area turns into an oven.

The layout at the fairgrounds is a spectacle to behold, old iron on display in all forms and various stages of disassembly and deterioration. The old standards, Harleys and Indians, are in abundance but then I spot a limey looking antique, Alldays and Onions is the brand cast into the crankcase of this ’03.  Ancient Triumphs, Nortons, there’s a Vincent Black Shadow in attendance. The British isle is well represented. Domestic machinery dominates the scene though. You can walk up and inspect the materials and engineering of a Flying Merkel a Reading Standard, there’s Hendersons and a Pope, Excelsior, Ace, Cleveland, one  guy brought a Pierce Arrow! There’s all manner of primitive design and backyard foundry work and they run most of ’em on the dirt track at the south end of the grounds all weekend.

Senior citizens, all wrinkled and rhuemy-eyed from many years in the wind, with monikers like Ralph and Henry and Elmer, names you only see in history books anymore, takin’ up space in the shade of awnings hanging off the side of their RV’s behind tables of old parts, n.o.s. pistons for a ’12 Thor still in the box…forks for a Yale, solo tractor seats with original leather, less for the selling more of an excuse to visit with old friends. If you ask the right questions and show interest and some knowledge you ingratiate yourself and are allowed into the circle and then you’re bench racin’ with the originals. Privy to tales of times long gone. Nostalgia runs deep at this event. I get lost in the stories and figure I was born decades too late.

All too soon Labor day sunrise signals the beginning of the end and sets off a flurry of activity. First the parade with the owners in period regalia riding their antiques then people rolling up their awnings packing parts and pulling out. Me too. I got a photo gig at the H-D factory scheduled and they’re expecting me after the holiday. Back to the grind…take only memories leave only footprints, well, I leave some footprints and some Dunlop rubber on my way out and I’m packin’ some OEM Knuckle parts I bargained down to the point of theft and a small bag of weed from an old timer named Walter.

Anyways the knuckle is runnin’ a little rough and combined with an infestation of tiny airborne annoyances this Mississippi river crossing is gettin’ kind o’ sketchy. Off the bridge the Rock river bottomland takes over along Highway 2. Prime insect habitat. Beetles, bees, flies, fleas, gnats, moths of all shapes and sizes this must be breeding season ’cause the mix is multiplying exponentially. The sky’s gettin’ darker and it’s gettin’ hard to see. Then it starts gettin’ hard to breathe. I spread out my headbandana, cover my nose and mouth but still inhaling the combo of moth dust and bug guts at a 60 MPH splat. I cut the speed in half, this shit’s choking me…me and the carb. The Linkert starts acting up. Bugs clogging the intake. What’s that noise? Is that inside my head or external? these bugs are takin’ on a halucinogenic quality. The colors, the trails man this ain’t cool but it’s sooo cool. Is this a flashback? I shouldn’t have fired that bowl before I crossed the Big Muddy.

I’m chokin’ out here, me and the bike spittin’ and coughin’, I can’t ride through this shit! I kick in the clutch pedal drop her into nuetral and coast to the shoulder. I need a break. This shit’ll pass.

As soon as I hit the gravel…whOOM! Like going through a vacuum. Like crossing a line, going through an invisible wall. On the other side there’s no noise, no bugs, just fresh air, blue sky and sunshine! I look back, there ain’t no wall, no bugs, where the what the hell?!

The Knuckle burps and farts and takes on a new life…What the fuck?…I release the clutch and steer back onto the pavement…What the fuck?…there ain’t no pavement! What happened to the road?! It looks more like a wagon trail, ruts and all. Did I miss a turn? I don’t care, I ain’t going back through that shit. The river’s still 1/4 mile to port and the knuck seems unaffected, in fact she seems to ride these ruts like it was fresh pavement so I wind her out. The shift is so smooth, smoother than I ever remember. The acceleration strong and steady man this carb is tuned and tight, fuckin’ amazing! The bike’s runnin’ like brand new! SWEET!

I’ve ridden through bug nightmares before. June bugs’ll leave bruises at speed, moths make a person thirsty, bees’ll fuck you up, frog and nitecrawler infestations make the pavement slick, dodging ‘possums and ‘coons, racing deer, never been through nuthin’ like that though, suffocation was startin’ to set in. It was a rough patch but now I got blue sky and sunny day.

There’s a shack sportin’ a lop-sided beer sign up ahead, several scooters out front. I need a break and I got some questions so I pull up alongside in what appears to be an overgrown cow pasture and scope the machines…geez! This is some vintage tin. I recognize a JD from the ’20’s, an old grey war bike,WWI that is, with a sidecar, an ancient Indian-mid teens I’m guessing, a rusty old Reading Standard leaking oil and sulking in the corner. This is the stuff I spent the weekend admiring in Davenport! Who’s riding this these things?

My Knucklehead noise alerts the patrons and they crowd the doorway trying to exit the shack. It’s funny, they’re gawkin’ at me and mine as intensely as I am them and theirs.

“What the hell is that?!”

“A knucklehead. Where the hell am I?!”

“Illinois.”

Everyones takin’ it all in and now I really need a beer, “Any alcohol in there?”

“Yep, li’l bit, hep yersef.”

Dark and dank, dirt floor, rough cut lengths of local willow make a bar, primitive piney stools, there’s a wood barrel labeled Anhueser Bush propped up in the corner.

Now, I’m from Milwaukee and I’m not a fan of the St. Louis brew but I just been through a lot and my throat’s dry. I grab a canning jar off the shelf and top it off with the syrupy dredges coming out the tap at the bottom of this barrel. It’s warm, it’s dark, it’s thick, it’s flat, it’s ugly but I down a big gulp…GODDAMN! Budweiser should stick to this recipe. This is damn close to the best beer I’ve ever had. I take stock of my surroundings. No lights no jukebox no pool table just a rickety shack with the river out back and an empty barrel in the corner.

The stale air sends me back outside where the crew has moved in for a closer inspection of my hardware. They’re pointin’ and talkin’ and don’t even notice me but I notice them. They’re all geared up in period outfits like the purists at Davenport, old wollen sweaters over white shirts and ties, baggy pants, tall leather boots, goggles and caps. Wierd! Like some kind of cult.

Their rides look mostly stock, some feature home-made repairs with baling wire, crude welding and the like. No duct tape but I do spot half a tin can serving as a float bowl on the war bike’s carb. Saddlebags are deerskin rawhide, rubber is well worn goodyear…again, fuckin’ amazing! They notice me and approach with caution, “Where’d ya come from?”

“Davenport.”

“where’d ya get that?”

“Milwaukee.”

“How come you dress so funny?”

“Cause I’m a biker. Listen, I got some questions too. Where’d you guys get these machines?”

“From the dealer.”

Right.

We go round and round each side getting more incredulous. Everybody’s evading direct answers like a bunch of politicians and I tire of the banter, ” What do I owe you for the beer?”

The dredges I downed are on the house ’cause the only beer barrel in the bar has gone dry and they don’t expect delivery till Tuesday, “Where’s a good place to camp?” Fuck the factory photos tomorrow I just been through a lot and I need to pull over and take stock.

“I live up the trail and I’m heading home,” guy in the crowd volunteers, “you can spread your bedroll at my place plus I got some home brew.”

“Cool!”

We fire up the rides, his JD starts smooth and idles easy, my knuckle blows his mind. We race down these country ruts, mostly dirt, rich, black, hard-packed prairie dirt, some gravel, the old riverbed is pretty smooth all in all.

The JD runs strong, sounds good, looks good…I want one! I tease him a little with my extra horsepower but mostly I let dude lead ’cause, well, he knows where we’re going. 20 minutes of travel we turn left onto what appears to be a glorified game trail, 3-4 feet wide flanked by some tall-assed prairie grass, lots of flowers and smells, we’re flushing up flocks of all kind of winged migraters. The grass thins and the view opens up on a Rock river flood plain. We ride the trail through a marsh surrounding a half acre of high ground with a 16×20 shack on stilts taking up space in the center and a smoke tendril corkscrewing out the chimney.

We idle in under the structure. A dog pack, 5 deep, comes up to greet. Bunch of river mongrels, I don’t recognize any breeds.

We turn the machines off in time to hear shotgun blasts upriver. “Sounds like dinner  to me,” dude smiles.

The dog pack chases the noise so dude grabs a couple of jelly jars off the deck and taps a double barreled copper tube contraption cooking next to the shack.

This is so cool! This is the stuff those Davenport old-timers were going on about.

A boat, a flat bottom, squared off vessel made of hand hewn logs held together with steel straps and pine sap navigates into a small eddy in front of the shack. The pilot ties off and disembarks with a couple of soaking wet black retriever types and a fist full of dead mallards.

I meet the wife. She’s totin’ a long gun and has blood on her hands…I like her. Fresh duck for dinner and I’m invited. I help dude clean the game riverside while wifey stokes the stove and preps some home grown greens and taters to go with the birds.

Food’s on the fire so we top off our jars and kick back on the deck. There’s no tv, no radio only the sound of fall on midwestern wetlands.

We get to jawin’ and turns out these folks think it’s 1933. Like that Japanese guy on the south pacific island holed up in a cave still fighting WWII in ’53 these guys have lost touch. I try to keep my incredulosity to a minimum and maintain my sense of humor but when I tell them where I’m from I detect similar incredulosity and the same attempt at humor maintenance. Wifey slides closer to her gun.

This shit’s weird…maybe it’s the spirits coming out of that still. I better pack a bowl, “You guys smoke the weed?”

A smirk passes between them and dude looks off to the right, “That’s our patch.”

I didn’t notice the shrubery. 8 feet tall bushed out and turning purple 30 yards upriver they’re growing a good supply.

“Very nice! Where I’m from that’s illegal.”

“Yeah, they’re tryin’ to pull that crap here. We don’t see too much law in these parts though. Could be ’cause everyone’s got a gun, I don’t know…”

“And we live next to a river,” wifey smiles.

I see the logic, “Well I ain’t no cop can we sample some?”

“Pop open that lard can yer settin’ by and pack yer pipe.”

Holy crap! This sucker’s filled to the brim with some fine looking product.

“Pack yer possible sack if you care to travel with a sample. Want some mushrooms on yer duck?”

Not a big fan of food that tastes like dirt, “I’ll pass.” I gotta find a possible sack.

“You’ll be sorry. If you like the smoke you’ll love the garnish.”

The first hit is exploding in my lungs but I manage to choke out, “I changed my mind, I’ll go with the fungus.”

Again with the smirk.

Dude suggests a ride while the birds are baking.

I agree, “Hey, you ride the knuckle, I’ll jump on your JD,” is my call…I think, everything’s pretty hazy at this point, either way we’re on our way in short order and we’re cuttin’ through the marsh on some well worn trails. Sometimes right along the river then winding through cattails and swamp grass neck high to a giraffe.

The JD is a sweet ride and dude is not afraid of the knuckle’s throttle. I try to keep up but he’s on a better bike (smirk) and he knows the route. A half-hour tour and we’re back at the shack cutting into some of the finest chow this side o’ hell. Completely unexpected coming from some dirt poor river rats. These folks are livin’ large.

After the feed we retire to the deck for further festivities. Live music is provided by all things fall wetland. Ducks and swans, owls and geese, egrets, cranes, coyotes and frogs down to crickets and skeeters, nature’s soundtrack surrounding this knob of high ground. Geez! I think I even hear fish swimming. What a symphony! And we have front row seats!

I’m sure the phsycedelics enhance the experience in weird ways but, even strait this would be special. A mostly clear sky turns deeper blue with some puffy clouds catching red off the sunset.

We’re giggling helplessly at anything anyone says ’cause it’s all so ridiculous, far-fetched and impossible and the mushroom garnish exaggerates the hilarity.

I gotta set up camp. I’m in no condition but it’s gotta be done so with the jelly jar topped off I stumble away and attempt to locate my gear on a flat spot.

The headlamp is packed on top of the load and turning it on sparks another round of incredulosity and more hilarity ensues, “Look you guys I can’t figure this shit out if I keep laughin’ like this…where’s that bowl?”

Bugs are light here so I forego the tent but the rainfly gets strung ’cause there’s lots of wet in the air. They freak over the modern fabrics and loose it completely when the therm-a-rest inflates itself. I’m feeling genuis till my down bag fails to impress. It turns out feathers from our dinner don’t go to waste and much of their bedding is hand-made and locally sourced.

Nightime reveals the milkyway like I’ve never seen it, billions of sparkles filthy with stardust. Dark is dark in these parts and the millions of fireflies compete with the multitude of stars for attention.

Birds are gettin’ quiet, my buzz is fadin’ and the home cooked spirits are making me sleepy so after expressing my gratitude for the hospitality I call it a night, “I’m Joe by the way.”

“Walter, nice to meet you,” extending a hand

Whoa,”I get the feeling we’ve met before,” I respond in kind.

He snorts, “I don’t think so,” again with the smirk.

“I’ll see ya later,” this shit just keeps gettin’ wierder. I drift off to river sounds and sleep like a dead fish…

A blaring horn breaks the snooze.

?#!… where’d that come from? I lay still and tune into ambient audio. Too many tires going too fast whine on pavement. Ding ding, someone at the pumps. Many voices…apparently this ain’t Kansas anymore or wherever the fuck I’ve been. The head fog from last night’s festivities clears instantly and I peek out from under the rainfly, “Oh no!”

There’s a 7-11 fifty yards away. I’m camped on a vacant gravel lot surrounded by broken glass and plastic garbage 20 yards from blacktop across from an Exxon-Mobil. Late model cars are streaming by at speed full of people in a hurry. the river’s still 1/4 mile to port but the marsh has been paved over, the knoll levelled for a strip mall, bird songs are silent, game trails it’s ALL FUCKING GONE!!

Apparently I’m back where I’m from and I’m NOT happy about it. The sign I’m camped under reads Pleasant Prairie. Almost makes me puke.

I sit back, grab a smoke and contemplate my new old reality. Was that a sweet dream? It seemed so real. I wouldn’t camp here on purpose. Hell, I can still taste the duck from dinner…I think.

I’m slow to pack. I don’t want to be in this now anymore.

I scan the perimeter, take only memories blah blah. I spot a jelly jar. The sniff test makes me smile and the contents burns my throat, “I’ve tasted this before!” I wonder if it’s possible…the sack, aw I’ll check it when I get back.

I will never again curse bugs in the breeze…the thicker the better!

Cow piss though? well that’s another story.