Culvert Gators

A story about the bike ride that was written some time ago.

The rain was so powerful that it was hard to distinguish the drops. Instead of a gentle pitter-patter there was the sound of a river falling straight from Heaven onto Highway 61, amplified by the menacing hum of corporate-issue white pickup trucks from every oil and gas corporation worth mentioning. With standing water covering the majority of the pavement the trucks created enormous rooster tails and side drafts that threatened to blow me off the side of the road and straight into the rapidly-growing culvert-river beside it. There was no shelter or respite, just rain and the vague promise of a place to stay if I could pedal long enough.

At one point I stopped and wrung the water out of my hair, beard, and clothes, having long since abandoned the hope that a rain jacket would help at all. Just ahead on the highway I heard a distinctive interruption in the steady thrum of those heavy-duty truck tires, each and every one of them varying at the same point. When I got back on my bike and pedaled forward I realized that it was what I christened a “Louisiana Speedbump,” a six or seven foot long alligator in his final resting place, perpendicular to traffic and spanning both lanes. After so many miles spent on the shoulder of America’s byways I thought I had seen it all. I also had grown to respect the poor critters, who really weren’t all that different from me. Using the path of least resistance to go about our daily lives, hoping that some indifferent machine wouldn’t render us useless before a predator did the job. At least one way someone would get a nice meal out of the deal.

I realized that there was no way I could move the scaly beast without meeting a similar end so I pedaled on, trying to pay him respect by acting unfazed by the southern monsoon bearing down on me. As a native of the southern plains I am well versed in surprise storms that could float the Ark, but even my pommel slicker heart was growing waterlogged as the hours wore on. The rain was so adamant that looking at a map was out of the question. I trusted my downtrodden optimism that said if it felt like it had been a long time that it had and when I came upon a bend in the road that opened up to a potato peeling plant on one side and a gas station on the other, tears of joy mingled with the drippy grit clinging to my face.

I rolled my bike under the miniscule awning of the filling station and inspected the rear wheel and tire that had already gone flat three times in the past two days, leaving me with no spare tubes and untold dozens of miles to the nearest bike shop in any direction. It was so wet and muddy that this exercise proved futile, exacerbated by the annoying whistling echoing from around the corner of the building. I greedily ate a soggy trail mix bar and cursed the asshole who would stand out here and act like he had something to whistle about.

When I walked around the building to search for some peanuts and the total respite that the great indoors would provide, I was stricken by the culprit. There, in soggy bottom Louisiana, at least forty miles from any city, was an African Congo Grey, the king of parrots. He sat in a large but depressing cage that was generally covered from the downpour, whistling his plaintive captive’s tune. What a splendid bird he was! Even without the numerous feathers that captive boredom had driven him to pluck from his own back, he was a thing of beauty. He looked at me with delight that I multiplied and sent back his way. We stood in this manner for several minutes, silent and splashed by the buckets of water hitting the pavement mere inches away.

I began to wonder a million things at once, all ending in the same conclusion. The parrot needed me, was just waiting for somebody to open the cage and take him away to a better place. I invented a hundred backstories and a thousand possibilities for our future together. He’d ride the rest of the way on my shoulder, a bearded bike pirate and his snarky parrot-on-the-shoulder navigator. I’d write a memoir about my times as a bike marauder, he’d join me on morning talk shows to discuss our adventures. Ex-girlfriends and unrequited love interests would burn themselves on their coffee seeing us sitting with Michael and Kelly.

I’d go through twice as many peanuts and crackers and finally have ears for the unshared thoughts that wash in and out of my mind as the silent miles wear on. I could sleep more soundly at night, knowing that animals are infinitely better at sleeping alertly than our over-domesticated selves ever could be. A watchparrot, a partner in crime, a perfect accessory, a conversation-starter. Where did this exotic avian come from and how did he end up here?

After some shared understanding glances, I bid the parrot a momentary goodbye so I could seek out some snacks and let anyone inside know that the parrot had found a new home. I click-clacked up and down the two aisles in my bike shoes, browsing year-old foods that would likely last another twenty. I settled on a pack of peanuts that I could buy with the change scattered in my saddlebags and filled my bottles with the pungently sulfuric sink water.

When I walked to the counter I was met by a shockingly out of place cashier of Middle Eastern descent. He smiled broadly in spite of the circumstances.

“How are you today?”

“A little wet, man, but not too bad. How ‘bout yourself?”

“Good, good. Will that be all?”

I was mightily tempted to take up day drinking or dipping tobacco, but I nodded instead. “I think so. Say, what’s the story with that bird out there?”

“Ohh yes, that is Reddie. Isn’t he beautiful?”

“So you know his name?”

“That is my bird,” he said with a broad, boastful grin. I could not reconcile Reddie’s thoroughly ravaged plumage with the pride this cashier had in keeping my sidekick locked in a cage outdoors in the miserable rain and humidity.

“Yeah, he’s great.” I set all the change I had grabbed from my bags on the counter to cover the seventy nine cent peanuts and any tax that may have applied. “Have a good one.”

I walked outside, gazed reverentially at Reddie, snuck him some peanuts, and carefully walked in my bike cleats through the newly-formed river in the convenience store parking lot. I poured what was remaining of the six ounces of the old, salty nuts straight into my mouth and placed the crumpled package in my shirt, too miffed to seek out a trashcan. The rain continued to fall at an alarming rate. I clumsily clicked my shoes back into the pedals and set out for Baton Rouge, spirits and socks dampened.

I pedaled forward with a clumsy cadence, pushing the bike forward with stubborn resolve more than any sort of smooth mechanical motion. Though rolling on round wheels, I could almost feel the individual footsteps associated with each pedal stroke. I had let a ridiculous fantasy crack my resolve. I couldn’t decide whether I was more upset at my imagination or the neglective owner of Reddie, whose eyes contained more emotion than many people I’ve met. As with every thought and bodily sensation, I hoped that more gritty forward progress would numb whatever frustration was creeping into my stoic soul.

The miles slowly piled on and the pickups passed at well over the speed limit even as the road was nearly swallowed by the bayous on every side. With such thick cloud cover there was no sense of sunshine or passage of time, sevens A.M. and P.M. equally plausible guesses for what a watch might read. The world was overwhelmingly wet but just warm enough to render this more of a fact than a fundamental discomfort. Far worse than being wet was fearing that my few but dear belongings were being irreversibly soaked to their bones. And the standing water on the highway gave all ground borne debris a more effective vehicle for ending up in my eyes and bicycle chain. Still, I pedaled and the miles came and went as I let my innermost being take control over all petty aspirations of comfort and ease. Without indulging our spoiled side, humans are encouragingly tough creatures. I allowed my mouth to hang open sucking in air as water carved ravines and waterfalls in my beard. I allowed my ego a moment to realize that in the context of modern society, I was quite a badass. Of course, there’s little to being a rebel without a cause.

I had almost forgotten about Reddie and unrequited love when my bike began to get that sickening squirm that can only mean a tire is rapidly losing air. Feeling far too primal to curse or despair, I stopped the bike as cautiously as possible and let it fall to the ground. I was out of spare tubes. I stood for a few minutes reveling in the rain and grand-scheme absurdity of my predicament. Then I took off my socks and shoes and stuck them on my handlebars and began to walk the bike. With all of my gear strapped to the heavy duty frame, there was no less than sixty pounds of stubborn mass rolling on a very flat rear tire. I walked in this manner for no more than two miles before letting the bike fall to the ground again.

I stood and stared into the woods and the culvert on my right. It was swelling and mixing with the bayous that snaked between the stands of green trees and I wondered why I hadn’t traded my bike for a canoe. In my decidedly skewed world, I waited for a length of time that could have been three minutes or three hours and let my focus wax and wane as it saw fit. A log in the middle of the water suddenly began to drift against the current. It stopped again. I squinted and it blinked. The two bumps that were protruding from the water suggested a head at least as big as my broken rear wheel, the rain-slick water offering no evidence of the body it was attached to. I stuck out my right arm with a thumb pointing north or west, hoping that one of the anonymous white pickups flying by might have a human inside of it.

1 Comment

  1. OH JOHN I HATE AND LOVE THIS PIECE. I BELIEVE I READ THIS A WHILE BACK WHEN I GOT THROUGH 30 PAGES OR SO OF YOUR ODYSSEY. YOU ARE SUCH A GOOD WRITER. SO WELL SAID, EASY TO READ AND I MIGHT HAVE SAID THIS TO YOU BEFORE BUT I FELT AS IF I WAS ON THAT ROAD, FEELING THE RAIN AND FOR ME LONELINESS. LITTERALY, I WAS WITH YOU. POOR DENUDED REDDIE TUGGED AT MY HEART STRINGS AND YOU KNOW FULL WELL I AM NOT A BIG CREATURE PERSON. “SEEING YOU” THERE ON THAT TREK IS THE PART I HATE. TOO VULNERABLE, TOO ALONE, TOO WET. BROUGHT BACK WHERE MY HEAD WAS ALL THAT TIME YOU WERE RIDING YOUR ASS OFF CROSS COUNTRY.

    YOUR WORDS CREATED YOUR STORY IN MY HEAD AND HEART. I DID INDEED SEE YOU. THAT MAKES FOR ME, GREAT READING.

    I WAS BORED, BIT DOWN SO I WENT TO SEE ST. VINCENT. AM AVAILABLE TO GO AGAIN. TERRIFIC MOVIE. LOVE MEEMS

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