The last time I took a solo motorcycle trip of any consequence was in 2013. Things happened that caused me to stop doing solo runs. The magazine for which I wrote about my two-wheeled experiences folded. I had started riding with a pillion companion and since I’m not a particularly good “alone” person, I decided I liked two-up touring better. Sometimes time got tight, sometimes money got tight, and for whatever other reasons, I had stopped even thinking about going off on solo runs.
As the Italians say, i tempi cambiano, which literally translates to the times change. Sometime last fall, my pillion companion went away and within months, a global pandemic ensured that nobody of sound mind would be socializing much for a while. Fortunately for me, the industry in which I work was deemed essential by the state of Illinois, so I never had to stop earning my living. Others have not been so fortunate. Still, socializing, on or off my motorcycle, wasn’t gonna happen. I even took up social drinking online. That took a little getting used to but then so does everything when it comes to change. Oh, things have loosened up some but still, every organized event that I usually attend during the spring and summer months, was cancelled this year. I had taken a few day rides, with my motorcyclist son and/or with friends, but that was the extent of it… until last week.
My son works for a Chicago-based design, fabrication, and print firm called Redbox Workshop, which produces exhibits and environments for a variety of applications across the United States and around the world. He is currently managing a build out in Kansas City and is living and working out there pretty much through the months of August and September. Before he left, we had toyed around with the idea of me riding out to visit him and once he was out there, I decided to have a go at it. After seven years, it was high time for me to get on my bike, alone, and just leave everything behind, if only for a few days.
I was looking at five days, every one of them with daytime temps reaching the upper 90’s and not a drop of rain in the forecast. What could go wrong? As long as I stayed hydrated on the inside and lathered up with sunscreen on the outside, neither of which I was known for doing, I should be fine. So on the bright and sunny morning of Friday, August 21, I set out on Miss Scarlett, my trusty American-made full dresser touring bike. From my home in Plainfield, I ran down Interstate 55, a thoroughly unremarkable (other than the fact that it replaced a portion of historic U.S. 66) stretch of four-and-six-lane divided highway adorned with potholes and deteriorated lane seams. When I got to Springfield, I hung a right onto Interstate 72 and headed toward my intended mid-point lunch break in Hannibal, MO.
Ah, Hannibal! When I was younger, I had a crazy, single aunt who used to throw my sisters and me into the back of her station wagon and take us to all sorts of interesting places across most of the contiguous 48 United States and a good number of Canadian provinces, too. She introduced me to Hannibal, the boyhood home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to most by his pen name Mark Twain. To be honest, my first visit to Hannibal was interesting enough but hadn’t meant much to me. As the years progressed, though, I came to recognize Sam Clemens as an influence on my own writing. I have visited Hannibal many times over the past few decades, plus Florida, Missouri, where Sam was born, Hartford, Connecticut, where Sam built quite a showplace of a home for him and his family to live, and Elmira, New York, where the Clemens family kept a summer home and where they are buried. So you see, stopping in Hannibal that Friday meant more to me than just a lunch stop.
After a quick walk around, I decided to stop at a pleasant-looking storefront diner downtown called Greater Days. I was looking for a nice place to grab a good burger and I wasn’t disappointed. Greater Days is not a fancy joint, not a bar, just a nice little diner run by two very nice people. The decor runs along the sort of thing one might find in any small town America gift shop. Okay, maybe a small town America Christian gift shop, but not overstated in any way, shape, or form. The owners are delightful, a “seasoned” couple originally from Illinois. I found this out because the chef and I compared notes when he stopped by my table to greet me. My lunch, a blue cheese bacon burger on a homemade bun with a side of seasoned, cubed potatoes, was freshly prepared and quite tasty. I was delighted and I said as much before heading out on my way back to my bike.
Right next door to Greater Days is a shop to which I have been two or three times before, Native American Trading Co. If you are into Native American arts, crafts, gifts and goods, you might enjoy stopping here. I always do. The people at this shop are very pleasant and they have an extensive selection of merchandise with something for almost every budget.
I did not linger in Hannibal, although I wanted to. Everybody I saw in town seemed to be enjoying the day and some of the street-side pub patios looked very inviting. Still, I had another 230 miles ahead of me before I could stop for the day and it wasn’t getting any cooler out. In hindsight, this would have been an awesome time to reapply sunblock.
As I rode across the state of Missouri on U.S. 36, I found myself wishing I’d had my pillion photographer with me. Between the wooded areas, ridges, bluffs, and rolling farmland, America was all around me. How I wish I had photos of all that to share with you! Every so often, the air would become filled with a new scent. Newly mown grass. Dense woods. A fresh breeze off a small lake. A naturally fertilized cow pasture. As I surveyed the countryside, mile after mile, I thought about the people I’d seen and spoken with so far that day. That’s when it really hit home for me: One cannot truly experience America by scrolling on their electronic devices.
I pulled into my hotel in Overland Park right around supper time, hot, sweaty, a bit sore, and more than a little fatigued, both mentally and physically. I wasn’t used to long runs anymore. Still, I was happy to be alive. Thanks to modern technology driven by a global pandemic, my check-in process was done completely without human contact. Using my Hilton Honors App, I was able to check in a day in advance, enable my phone as my room key, chat with the front desk and eventually, check out. The app was ultra simple and easy to use, and I understand why they developed all these contactless features, yet I have real concerns about the long-term implications for hospitality workers who make their living by interacting with travelers. In all candor, I appreciate that human touch more than I do whiz-bang technological functionality.
My son drove out to pick me up and take me into the city for supper. We went to a delightful Creole place called Jazz Kitchen, where John proceeded to ensure that I would be overfed almost to the point of being in pain. We started with hurricanes and voodoo crawfish tails, then moved on to our main dishes (I had a blackened chicken fettuccine alfredo that was so tasty, I simply could not stop eating it), and finished up with bread pudding plus a plate of beignets, compliments of Toffee, our awesome server who is also a fan of my son. I loved every minute of it.
On Saturday, my son came back and picked me up in time for lunch, along with his roommate and another co-worker. I had told him that I wanted a hamburger from someplace I couldn’t find by staying home. My son did not disappoint. Hayes Hamburgers and Chili is a small place with a big following. Open only for curbside pickup, due to the pandemic situation, they accept no credit cards. We phoned in our order ponied up cash for all the food, and then went across the street, through an apartment complex, and into a municipal park where we sat down outside of a small baseball field and ate out fill. A nice little taste of America — and it was delicious.
We spent all of Saturday afternoon at the National WWI Museum and Memorial following a recommendation from a very good friend of John and me. We were expecting a nice, little collection of exhibits and artifacts. Instead we were overwhelmed by what turned out to be the most comprehensive collection of WWI objects in the world. We viewed exhibits, spoke with volunteers, learned much, and appreciated all of it. We remained through five o’clock, closing time, and had to depart without visiting the gift shop. No worries, we were back the next morning to collect up our mementos and souvenirs. This museum and memorial is a must-see for any war history buff. It’s the sort of place one must experience in order to understand.
After dropping off John’s coworkers Saturday evening, he and I decided that we weren’t hungry enough to eat another full meal. So instead, we went to a place not far from my hotel called Louie’s Wine Dive and Kitchen, where we enjoyed a couple of “small plate” appetizers, drank a fair amount of red wine, and philosophized into the night. Louie’s is a nice enough place but the tab we ran up for one wine flight, one bottle of Zinfandel, and two appetizers was more than I have paid for some good dinners and drinks elsewhere. Still, we enjoyed ourselves immensely.
Sunday was my last day in the Kansas City area and my last day visiting with my son John. That morning, after John scooped me up in Overland Park and then joined up with three of his coworkers, we descended upon the WWI Museum store, as planned, before going over to the original Q39 Kansas City BBQ Restaurant in midtown. The food was extraordinarily good, with a very pleasant beer selection to pair with it. On a more personal note, I really enjoyed hanging with these young gentlemen for a while. By including me in their conversations about food, drink, work, people, music, and more, they made me feel younger again. You know, like one of them. That was very cool.
This may sound a little nuts but my wife Karen had urged John and me to go find Kansas City’s Central Library Parking Garage. Why? Because of the Community Bookshelf that adorns the south wall of said parking structure. It’s a thing to behold that looks like a giant bookshelf of popular titles. My photos don’t really do the place justice.
As we were looking for a place to park John’s truck in the Library District, we spotted a bronze likeness of Mark Twain sitting on a park bench. My son immediately suggested that given my affinity for the author, we should go capture a quick meetup between Sam Clemens and myself after first shooting the community bookshelf. And so we did.
Alas, by suppertime, we were still so full of barbecue, we opted to skip supper altogether. John dropped me off at my hotel and thus ended our weekend visit. He had to go to work in the morning and I needed to head on to my next stop. Still, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt the familiar pangs of loneliness creeping in that Sunday evening.
By now you might be wondering why I chose to stay in Overland Park when my son and his compadres were being housed on the Missouri side of Kansas City proper and nearly all that we saw and did were on that side. Well, I’ll tell you. While I have ridden my motorcycle in the state of Missouri a number of times now, I had not previously ridden in the state of Kansas. Now I have. Besides, I knew Overland Park to be one of the nicer suburbs of the KC metro and on top of all that, I found an excellent value in the hotel in which I stayed.
I awoke on Monday morning as I often do, with a sense of purpose. The day had promised to be as hot and humid as ever and I was about to cross Missouri again, but not to go home, not just yet. I had a personal mission to fulfill, one that I had put off long enough. But first, I had to get out of the Kansas City metro. And before doing that, I had to have breakfast.
It was not lost on me that Missouri has something wonderful that Illinois utterly lacks: Waffle House locations. Don’t judge. I love Waffle House, at least in part because it’s something I don’t have at home. In fact, I hope they never come to (northern) Illinois because then they wouldn’t be special to me. Like so many others that have come to town from elsewhere, they might then become just another chain.
But there I was, in Waffle House country. There are fifteen Waffle House locations in and around Kansas City and I hit the jackpot at their Lee’s Summit location. Friendliest staff I could ask for, they all seemed to be having a grand old time greeting people, serving up breakfast after breakfast, and otherwise just working their butts off. I sat down at the counter, which had been marked off so that only every other stool was available, and ordered my usual — a pecan waffle, large bacon, and black coffee — along with a big old orange juice to help soothe my sinuses, which had been a little quirky lately. Through a minor mishap on the grill, the crew had ended up with one too many orders of sausage patties and after first offering them to an elderly farmer-type gentleman two stools to my left, my waitress called out to me from up the counter, “How about you, sir, would you like an order of sausage for free?” Now I ask you, what else could I say to such generosity?
“Sure!” And so there I was, chowing down on my usual, plus OJ, plus two nicely prepared sausage patties. But wait, there’s more! Upon finishing, I remasked myself and stepped over to the register to pay my tab. A young, equally masked lady stepped up to the register to assist me and motioning out the window with her head as she worked the register, she asked me, “Is that your motorcycle?”
“Wanna’ come back after work and give me a ride on it?” Who knows, maybe it was be kind to old guys day. I had to smile, even if nobody could see it through my respiratory barrier.
“I would love to, but I’ll be back in Illinois by then,” I replied.
“You riding that all the way?” She seemed incredulous but I had neither the heart nor the time to tell this sweet child just how far Miss Scarlett and I have roamed together, so I just nodded and laughed as I paid my tab. We were all wishing each other well as I left, quite happy and well-fed.
Man, it was hot out there! I spent most of that Monday running Interstate 70 toward St. Louis and no matter how hard I tried to stay sunblocked and hydrated, it felt like a losing battle. I drank water at every stop, but released most of it through my pores out on the open road. Reapplying sunblock actually stung my skin every time. But wait, there’s more! About halfway across the state, I became aware of an intense burning sensation on my calves, mainly the right one, which was closest to the engine’s exhaust. After a while, this escalated from annoying discomfort to searing pain.What could I do? I still had many miles to go. Repositioning my legs helped a little but a prior experience piloting Miss Scarlett across Wyoming in a severe crosswind told me that the damage had already been done. I rode on.
I circumvented St. Louis and once on the Illinois side, left the interstates behind for Illinois 3, a nice ribbon of mainly two-lane blacktop that took me farther and farther south. Eventually I came to Illinois 149, which would take me east to Murphysboro, where via highway 13, I continued on to Carbondale, where I would spend my final night on this road trip. These state roads were beautiful motorcycle roads, with easy sweeping curves and pleasant elevation changes, but I was too fatigued to fully appreciate them. Perhaps someday I will return.
I’ll spare you the graphic details but once settled in for the night, I confirmed that I had incurred a substantial second-degree burn to my right calf, a burn from which I am still slowly and painfully recovering as I write this, more than a week later. But let’s talk about Tuesday morning and the reason I’d taken this odd detour to southern Illinois from Kansas City.
I was eighteen year old when I first saw Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows perform. I was a college freshman and the band had been scheduled to play a Friday afternoon “Grill Concert” at Marquette University’s Brooks Memorial Union, which has long since been torn down. I was a regular at those free Friday afternoon concerts but had never heard of this band before. That quickly changed.
At the appointed time, the band came out on the stage and began to play. There was a guitarist, a bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and a two-or-three-piece horns section (I would later discover that some parts of the band evolved over time). Their sound was decidedly R&B with a touch of jazz and this band was tight, very precise in their playing.
After the band’s instrumental opening set, the front man walked out. Big Twist had a certain presence that filled the room — and I’m not just talking about his physical stature. Admittedly, they didn’t call him big for nothing. This guy was tall and… large. He wore a light-colored fedora hat and a silky suit. When he began to sing, his baritone voice complemented that band in ways I will not even attempt to describe. That was Big Twist.
After the concert, deep into my cups but so taken with the music I’d heard, I walked a dozen or so blocks to Radio Doctors, the premier record store of the day in downtown Milwaukee. Sure enough, they had an LP record album by Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows, their first ever, on the independent Flying Fish label. I took the record back to my dorm and played it over and over.
A year later, Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows came to my school to perform again. This time I was expressly there to see them play. I got there early and while the crew was still setting up, Big Twist walked out onto the floor and stood near one corner in front of the stage. People began going up and talking to him. I asked a friend to watch my beer as I did likewise. When my turn came, I extended my hand up and out, saying, “I saw you here last year and I just wanna’ say, I really enjoy your music.”
Twist looked down at me and gave me a warm, sincere smile. Then reaching down and closing a big, meaty fist over my hand (which isn’t small), he said just one word: “Alright!” That made my entire afternoon.
Over the years that followed, I saw the band perform numerous times, up in Milwaukee and at clubs down by my Chicagoland home. I introduced a number of friends, both from school and back home, to the music of Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows by dragging them to the concerts. In my own small way, I had become an evangelist for the band and made a few converts in the process.
It was my mother who broke the news to me of Larry “Big Twist” Nolan’s passing on March 14, 1990. I was not quite 29 years old at the time; he was 52. Bear in mind, this was still a largely analog world. I had no internet access, no smart phone to provide the latest news in near-real time. My dear mother spent a good deal of time in the kitchen, preparing delicious meals and listening to talk radio as she did. That’s why she was the first in our family to know. She told me and the Chicago Tribune confirmed it on March 15. As I understood it, Larry Nolan had died of heart failure, having endured kidney dialysis for over two years. And like many musicians of the day, obtaining health insurance coverage was difficult, even for the number one draw on the nightclub circuit. All I remember is that I felt empty inside. How foolish are we to be repeatedly duped into believing that there will always be a next time?
Once the information age had come around, sooner or later I began looking for more information about Big Twist and where he had been buried. There was none to be found but every so many years, I would try again. The gravesite super site, findagrave.com, had nothing, at least not at the time. I contacted his last recording label, Alligator Records. Somebody there thought he’d been buried where he’d been born, in Terre Haute, Indiana. At some point, I tried emailing Pete Special, the band’s co-founder, director, and guitarist. No reply. Only recently, I discovered that Pete had died in 2014 and it’s entirely possible that I sent the email after that. I even asked my eldest sister Maria, a career librarian, to see what she could find. She conducted a right and proper search but still found no information about where Twist might be buried.
I let the matter go for a while but never forgot. Then a few years ago, perhaps with the sharing of some resurfaced video on social media, I lamented my failed attempts to find that burial place. Lo and behold, a Facebook friend named Lori, who has sewn many patches onto my motorcycle vest, responded with a link to the information I had been seeking for years. As it turns out, she had dated the band’s trumpet player at one time. I was elated, to say the least, and vowed to visit that grave, located in the southern Illinois town of Murphysboro. Perhaps during a future run to Memphis.
More years passed and still I hadn’t made that trip. Then last month, while planning my solo run to Kansas City, it occurred to me that if on my way back, I veered southeast instead of east, I wouldn’t be that far from Murphysboro. And so I planned my detour.
I used Google Maps to survey the Tower Grove Cemetery. It was bigger than I’d hoped it would be, with no apparent directory or contact information available. How would I find this grave? I reached out to a total stranger named Paul Hoyt, who had put Larry Nolan’s grave on FindAGrave back in 2013. Perhaps he would recall the location.
Well, he did more than that. On a Sunday evening, this total stranger and his wife returned to Tower Grove, located the grave, took additional photos, and made them available to me, along with the latitude and longitude coordinates. Then, as an additional gesture of kindness, Paul transferred the FindAGrave record over to me because he sensed I had a stronger connection to Larry Nolan than did he as a cemetery photographer hobbyist. I will forever remember this act of kindness.
When I left Carbondale on Tuesday morning, the day promised to be as hot and humid as ever. I took the twenty-minute ride to the cemetery and had to smile as I passed the sign that reads, “Murphysboro, Ripe With Possibilties!” My personal mantra for decades was been, “Imagine the possibilities,” and I took that colorful sign as an indication that this one possibility, which I had envisioned for three decades, was about to come to fruition.
The Tower Grove Cemetery can be found on Murphysboro Lake Road, just north of Illinois Highway 149, one of the roads I had taken to get to Carbondale the night before. I was a little concerned about riding Miss Scarlett down into the cemetery, the drives of which appeared to consist of narrow two-track (it turned out to be badly deteriorated asphalt), so I parked around the corner at Mi Patio, a local Mexican restaurant, and walked into the cemetery.
I found the marker easily, thanks to the information Paul had provided. I sat by the grave for a short while, contemplating all that had transpired in order for me to be there. Sweat was pouring from my face as I shot a quick video for my Facebook friends. Then, after turning and thanking Larry “Big Twist” Nolan for all the joy he’d brought me, I walked back to my motorcycle, mounted up, and headed for home.
Seven or so hours later, I arrived at home, once again hot, sore, burnt, and spent yet in my mind, I was was already reviewing and preparing all that I would share with you here. In all, I’d run just over 1,200 miles and even though I’d been gone for five days, Miss Scarlett and I had covered those miles in three of them (I did no riding while visiting in Kansas City), so roughly 400 miles per day.
If you are still reading this, I am grateful to you for having come along all this way. You are the reason I wrote this. Thanks for hanging with me.