The Poverty Riders of Tallahassee
Another offering of drivel.....er....travelogue reporting.....this time a report on a unique little affair deep, deep in the woods of Florida/Georgia. Please excuse the two separate parts: the length won't allow it to send past the new Spam filters put in recently.
The clouds like tattered black tablecloths swept across the full, silver moon, casting an eerie light over the deep woods. From place to place in that mournful sky one could see breaks in the cloud's cover, and a few stars peeping. The floor of the forest lay thick with pine needles and leaves, in the distance one could detect a reflection from a small lake, past the tree line, down the hill. Shadows danced and flickered from the moon's pale light. A huge, glowing, ember-filled fire leapt and crackled in a clearing among the tall pines. Columns of sparks soared skyward as log after log was heaped upon the fire's mighty column of fuel by eager attendants, its' glow climbing upward fifty feet or more, disappearing against a broken sky. Deep growls of many voices punctuated the hiss and crackle of the fire, broken from time to time by high, trilling laughter from the assembly. Whether chant or incantation, prayer to the woody Gods, Paean to Pan, the god of drunkenness and music, the assembly swirled and drifted as though in trance. In the far distance, a dog barked in contralto, as though demanding release from the spells casting out from the spell of this dark company.
In the short distance, underneath a bower of pine, surrounded by the woody marge, sits a man, intent upon pages of lore open before him on a dark table. He reads by lantern light, turning occasionally to converse with members of the assembly who pass near to comment of this or that. In the distance, now, one hears a growl, a throb, coming closer, now fading, and growing again. It is no woodland creature, this, but something else, something.......no, it is too far away. A moment more.......ah, there, one can begin to make it out........just. It comes closer and closer, a sound like the tearing of canvas, a high-pitched keening like a soul being lashed by a daemon. The man stops reading, looks off into the distance.
Now a light comes bobbing, weaving, casting long shadows down to the lake. Around the fire, a few heads come up, questing for the sound: what is it?? Closer, closer, now nearly upon them......what kind of beast, this ?? The light is now so bright as to be blinding, the keening noise now punctuated by a rapid beating, deep, like the wings of huge hummingbird. The man at the table shields his eyes, rises slightly from his bench as though to fly. The apparition is nearly upon him now: what is it, this monstrous Golem......a.......a........a..........a K-Bike??
Huh ?? A *K-Bike* ?? This isn't a ghost story?
Naw. This is........................COONBOTTOM !!!!!
When I left Atlanta, I mentioned to someone I know that I was going down to Florida to the Coonbottom get-together. He said, "Oh, I heard of that. That's where they bury all the old coon dogs, isn't it?" I didn't think so, but it does conjure up the image of a kind of "elephant graveyard" of small headstones with names like "Blue" and "Tiger", and "Red Man," and bearded men in camoflage t-shirts and baseball caps standing respectfully, tears streaming down their faces, muttering "Damn it, Ole Blue was the best damn coon dawg I ever had. <sniff> Why did he have to go so soon?" But I was pretty sure that _this_ Coonbottom had nothing to do with coon dogs, or hunting, or anything like that. In fact, Coonbottom is the well-kept secret of the Poverty Riders of Tallahassee, BMW club and general party bunch, and I definitely wasn't going there for the amenities. There's not much in the way of amenities - no benches, showers, flush toilets, pay phones, concessionaires, rally pins, t-shirts, night lights, picnic tables, pull-through sites, country stores, or even organization beyond that of The Crew, which doesn't exactly make this a posh affair, and that adds to the "toughness" of the whole thing. You gotta *want* to be here - conventional, it ain't. T-Mia had mentioned it in a couple posts, and from his apparently inside knowledge, it sounded like as good as anything else in late November. Hell, I was just glad to be doing *anything* on the motorcycle after Halloween, my past eight years in the northeastern states having been pretty vacant of outdoor pursuits in the fall and winter. So, I had loaded up Cosmo with the camping and cooking gear (I had to find it first, among the stuff in the back bedroom still in boxes) and headed south.
The trip down was nice, with temperatures in the low fifties, and the woods simply afire with the colors of fall; reds, golds, and bright yellows, browns and greens of the pine and evergreen, fields now empty that the crops had all been brought in. I took that road west to Andersonville that I had always curioused about, out through the lonesome farmlands of central Georgia; Henderson, Montezuma, Oglethorpe, and so to the National Historic Site at Andersonville. Both a sad and memorable place, a place where thousands of prisoners of the Civil War suffered and died, a place that exists today to commemorate the many thousands more in both that war and others who were captured and either survived or did not, the rigors of POW camps from Andersonville to the Phillipines, to Korea, to Hoa Lo (Hanoi Hilton- Vietnam), and others. A moving place, not the hallowed ground of a Gettysburg or Chickamauga or Antietam, but a place to reflect on the fact that war and politics cannot be for a moment separated (Mao Tse-Tung, "Lectures", 1938). I didn't stay long, but I got the point.
The roads down in southwest Georgia are sparse and lonely for the most part this time of year. There are fields where cotton grows, and peanuts and other stuff that I don't recognize even when it's there, which this time of year, it generally isn't. Oh, I can tell corn from collard greens, but for the most part, everything else I just call "alfalfa", whether it's beans or turnips or really "alfalfa." There are dairy farms here and there, and the ubitquitous chicken farms, which are basically long, low sheds with fans in the windows. (do they call them "farms" or "ranches"? Doesn't a "chicken ranch" have nothing to do with chickens?)
The towns are small and populated mostly by churches - Cairo has more churches in one mile than any place I've ever seen - maybe ten of them. The names are puzzling: Mt. Carmel, Zion, and Philadelphia are popular names, as are Mt. Sinai, People's Church, Evangelical Whatever and Apostolic Faith Church of Free Will, followed by "AME", "PB," or "MB." There are a variety of names for those who lead the churches, too: Elder, Pastor, Reverend, and Prophet, to name a few. This is the land of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I suppose most of those churches I saw have something to do with that. I guess I'll never understand.
As I came down to the end of south Georgia, it dawned on me that the only directions I had to get to Coonbottom were in a hasty post from Terry Evans, and I had never seen or heard anything to suggest that this was a "formal" rally - no ad in MOA ON, no flyers, no nothing. And on top of it, T-Mia's admonition had been to "get there in daylight....it's kinda hard to find". And I was coming at it from the wrong way, it was getting dark, and the clouds had been building all afternoon. What had I gotten myself into?? The road was lonesome, with almost no traffic. All the stores in the small towns were closed. No one mowed or raked or otherwise seemed to be alive behind the dark windows of the houses and mobile homes that sparsely populated the area.
As I approached the Florida line, there was still no evidence of organized activity: no signs, no banners, no groups of Beemerphiles homing with laser-like precision on the beacon of Sign Up. I was beginning to get concerned, but What The Hell. I've learned that the best trips, the best adventures, are not overly-planned......they "happen." You set a direction, pull the trigger, and go. You make it up as it goes along.
About 5:30, in the area where I believed the rally site to be, I passed another bike, going the other way, and my keen, military, and wine-weakened mind quickly sprang into a furious Logic exercise, culminating in the possibility that *I* could be going *The Wrong Way*. As nimbly as a teen-aged motocrosser on a 125 Yamahonzukawi, I turned Cosmo back to the north, hearing him snort "Sheesh....didn't we just come that way?" Only a mile or so, to my relief, I saw a tiny white sign, about as big as a 3x5 card, with a stylized Roundel, down about 6" off the shoulder grass. Clearly, not a large invitation to the curious, but rather like a secret handshake: a little acknowledgement of inside info. The pavement quickly ended onto Georgia clay, thankfully not wet, and we wound down into the woods, quickly putting the last vestiges of civilization behind us.
I almost missed the next little sign, this time hung up about shoulder height on a bush to the right, like the arrows on an enduro trail. Now we needed to get alert: a two-track, rutted dirt road, brush close-in on both sides. I was glad for Cosmo's GS heritage and capabilities. A few hundred yards farther and a house, the road appearing to end in someone's yard. I had visions of "Deliverance" and men with shotguns lounging on a front porch, banjos twanging in the background, coon dogs leaping to their feet to race yelping across the yard in mock attack, this being one coon they would find too damned bitter to the taste. Thankfully, the trail turned to the side and proceeded down into the woods even deeper. Over a little hill and down, and surprise!! People, orange traffic cones, and lights in the woods. The Gypsy Camp had been found !!
I pulled in behind a bike and trailer, and saw what I had been dreading: Harleys. Oh, no, what am I into here ?? But there were children playing down by the water, and there were lots of tents and Beemers all over. The man at the table clearly was signing people in. It had all the appearances of an actual rally. Maybe Terry was right.
Being a little befuddled at the whole thing, I looked at the bike and trailer and thought, "You know, that looks like Mayor Reed's rig. He's not supposed to be here until tomorrow, though." It took me a minute to realize that it was, indeed, the famous/notorious P.Carwell Reed, Ph.D., raconteur, and teller of tall tales. "Big Daddy!!" I called. Sure enough, a familiar face among the Gypsys.
It took only minutes to promise to "release, hold blameless, and forever absolve" the organizers, associates, heirs, assigns, dogs, cats, and everybody else connected with the thing of anything that could possibly happen to me while on the premises, and I was in. They gave me a ticket for the prize drawing and didn't even ask me for any money, other than to point out a Donations jar, which I quickly fed. A short time later, Corky and I were setting up on what may well have been the most level place on the site as the light began to fail, and our eyes accustomed to the murk. This was, indeed, down in the "Holler." Coonbottom, indeed.
To say that these are party people is to miss the thing entirely. Now, we aren't talkin' raunchy, dirty, fightin', scratchin' kind of party people, we're talkin' stay-up-all-night-and-talk-to-everybody party people. The kids played in the woods with firecrackers and flashlights, a big shelter had been set up, and a long table was loaded with goodies. A barbeque pit cranked out hot dogs, and a large pile of firewood stood ready to knock back the chill that might not be handled by the various poisons being imbibed. Corky and I looked at each other and said, "Looks like a good time !" Harleys with straight pipes rumbled by, a Duck with carbon fiber canisters throbbed its way carefully among the stumps and piles of leaves to a campsite, and a sidecar came by with at least *six people* in it, Dad driving, little girls with hair flying, boys with flashlights, going around the camp on the trail like a carnival ride.
We parked by the fire to watch the crowd, and decided that this was an *Inter-Disciplinary Group*, indeed. Old and young, men and women, rustic and refined, all mixed in a whirl of conversation. Trim men in fitted leathers chatted with large, bearded men with bandannas on their heads and tattooed arms. The air had a nip in it after the sun went down, and as time passed the clouds cleared and the temperature dropped even farther. The fire got bigger and warmer, and people gathered around. At one point, in a strange demonstration of psychokinetic power, Corky produced a look of concentration and the people standing between the fire and where we sat parted magically, letting the warm glow reach us. I felt like Luke Skywalker in the presence of Yoda, the Jedi master. "Do, or do not: there is no 'try'," as he uses The Force to lift Luke's x-wing fighter from the swamp.
To noone's surprise, T-Mia and John Outland arrived well into the evening, fashionably late, as ever. All the people became a blur - literally. But we won't go into _that_. I recall getting up about four a.m. to answer a call, and there were still people around the fire. The moon shadows and stars at four a.m. are spectacular. The dog that had barked off in the distance earlier was finally quiet.
Saturday morning. Chilly, the woods now clearly seen for the first time since our arrival. That big flat rack I had bought for Cosmo came in really handy as a table on which to set my small stove to make coffee. The gypsy camp awoke slowly, hesitatingly, unwilling, I guess, to forsake the warmth of sleeping bags. I busied myself trying to find all the things I had misplaced the night before. When I asked T-Mia if he'd slept well, he growled "No, not exactly." Seems he'd awakened every fifteen minutes or so, in a ball down in the lower, downhill, corner of the tent, having forgotten the non-slip thingy for the inflatable mattress. When daylight came, he'd awakened staring at the non-slip thingy - on the bottom of the mattress, up at the top corner.
We decided to ride down to St. Marks for lunch, to a place Corky knew of, Posey's, an oyster bar, hangout of the local oystermen and boaters. The clouds had come back, and threatened a dull day, but to my amazement, just as we reached the place, the sky became blue, and we lunched on the dock in the bright sun. Dolphins surfaced for air as they swam up the channel in search of mullet, their dorsal fins breaking the water every half-minute or so. Pelicans perched on the dock pilings, and Larry Murray and his friend tossed french fries out to watch the gulls fight over them. I mused that those might be the only gulls in history to develop hardening of the arteries from too much fried food. Tugs pushed large fuel oil barges down the channel toward the Gulf of Mexico, their cargoes transferred to the bunkers of the power plant upriver. I can't imagine how big the engines in those things are, but I can tell you this: the engines vibrate the docks as the tugs go by, even at three knots, to keep the wake down. As we came into town, we passed a place that had a sign that implied that they do work on the large boats. There was a crankshaft out front, standing on end, that was _at least_ fifteen feet long. The sign was hung on it. I'd bet it weighed a ton.
This is the "Old" Florida, the Florida of the Gulf and the panhandle, the Florida that hasn't yet felt the developer's blade. Much here is as it was twenty, thirty years ago. Some places are not much different from a hundred years ago but for the cars, electricity, and air conditioning, which, by the way, was invented not far from St. Marks, by the inventor John Gorrie, for whom there is a museum at Apalachicola. The land is flat and sandy, swampy in many places, and spanish moss hangs in the trees. The bays are rich with shellfish, though not as rich as in years gone by. The waters are better now than a decade ago, thanks to conservation efforts and environmental controls. It is a place that the tourists pass by, undeveloped as it is. Perhaps some things are best left alone.
Our ride back was casual and slow, no hurry, no haste, and we cruised back north late in the afternoon, four-ish, having spent most of the day on "Gulf Time", that pace that eschews clocks in favor of steady pace. On the way back, we met up with Dr. Curve, and spent a delightful hour comparing notes on airhead twins, art, and the politics of university life. Had a chance to see a piece of history, the La Carrera De Mexico Unlimited-class winning one-liter boxer. It sounded like a Nascar V-8. A genuine character and renaissance man, Dr. Curve proved to be nothing less than a gentleman and a scholar, and I was happy to make his acquaintance.
Our supplies refreshed on the way, we found T-Mia at the campground, muttering to himself about the group ride he'd gone on with some of the Poverty Riders. "Intense. like you read about," was his assessment. Ten-tenths riding and nothing held back, where did those guys learn to ride like that? He told of an R100 rider who cooked a 25 mph-posted corner at 70, rode it out over the shoulder, through the ditch, up the berm, and to the top, stopping feet from a tree, and then forgot to put his feet down, fallingover in a pile of leaves and sand, unharmed. All the guy got for the experience was dirt in the fins on one side and a stain in his underwear. Terry said he muttered "Uncle" and reined it in when the pack got far enough ahead to disappear after a fork. And well said, too. Enough of us have gone down, already.
Talk about stamina, buddy, the Poverty Riders have it. The sun was barelygoing down before the fire was going again and the party was on like it hadn't even sputtered. After a blessing and incantation over the Roadkill Stew pot by a local Shaman, and the dispensing of the stuff, there were door prize announcements and such (have you ever seen used tires as door prizes, and people grinning ear-to-ear to win them?), culminating with a swearing-in of new members: "All you who want to apply for membership, come forward." Maybe twenty people shuffle forward, not having any idea what they're getting into. "All right: raise your right hands in the air, and put your left hands on something near and dear to you. Now: you all want to be Poverty riders?" There's a moment's hesitation, and then a chorus of "Yeah". The guy up front says after a long, pregnant pause for effect: "Okay. You're in." That was it, short and sweet. Next, they proceeded with Official Business. First, they voted to double the club dues. Then they voted to suspend the dues for "another year." Finally, they voted to have the next club meeting at somebody's house in Ormond Beach, 250 miles away. Pretty innovative, I'd say. I LIKE these guys !
Well, to make a long story a little shorter, after the Club meeting, the party went on until at least three a.m. T-Mia took a power nap from seven to eight, got up, and proceeded to stay up until well past my bedtime. John Outland smoked a cigar and pronounced the whole thing a good show. Corky and Joe Katz were in some long conversation about some K-bike from ten years ago. I met Jimmy the Marine from Connecticut, seventeen years in the Corps. Michelle the coed was back with her consort. Tonight there were two guys doing duets on the guitar, in a circle of backup singers who hooted and growled their way through everything from "Stairway to Heaven" to "Brown-Eyed Girl." I finally had to give up somewhere around eleventy-midnight, but I could hear them howling at the moon well into the wee hours. In fact, when I got up at seven, I couldn't tell whether the guys around the fire were the last of the Night Shift or the first soldiers of the morning watch. Most of the firewood was gone, and guys were packing up and rolling out. The gypsy camp was disappearing into thin air, like magic.
Magic is what it was, and what it is. I never cease to marvel at these rallies. At noon on Friday, there is a field, or a clearing, or a park, and at sundown there is a Camp of Gypsys, and then by noon on Sunday, there is only a field again. Amazing. For those few hours, there are friendships made and renewed, secrets unmasked, knowledge passed, and tricks demonstrated. The personalities are amazing, the characters incredible, the interplay fantastic. I have learned from people I would not have ever known things that I never would have known, but for the gypsy camps, and I hope I have given back in kind. The photos are in the camera, the gas bills in my wallet, but the most valuable things of all are in my head.
Thank you, Poverty Riders, for an unique and great experience. "Coonbottom" is one that has to be experienced to be understood. Every rally has its "Character" and its "characters", and this one is surely one for the record books.
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