Traveling with Twain

In Search of America's Identity

How it all began: From motorcycle fantasy to road-trip reality

Here’s how this trip began:  Mark Twain and I—he with narrowed blue-green eyes, exploding shock of red hair and white flannel suit, I with black, smoke-lens sunglasses, black helmet and black leather jacket—decided to go, as he said, “gadding around the country.”

We hopped on our Harleys, revved our engines, as 17-year-olds are wont to do, and roared east on US Route 36 from Hannibal, Missouri, Twain’s hometown, weaving past cars and trucks and then, alone on the open road, blasting toward New York City at 90 mph.

Okay, that was my pre-trip dream about how this trip would begin.  I blame the dream on memories of the 1969 movie “Easy Rider,” in which Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) ride America’s roads aboard Harley choppers, and on recent visits to my 43-year-old, Evanston, Illinois, auto mechanic, Jake the Snake Jakofsky, who miraculously keeps our 20-year-old wheezer of a Jeep Cherokee alive.

Jake the Snake

Except for the black, week-old stubble and beard covering his cheeks and chin, Jake doesn’t look like the stereotypical biker.  He is short and slightly pudgy, not mammoth and muscled.  He sports no tattoos.  His tiny, multicolor yarmulke precariously perches atop his Jewfro, which features a foot-long pony tail.  But Jake parks his spotless ’95 black Harley (he also owns a 2010 “Fat Boy” Harley) across the front of his garage, as if to tell you where his heart is.

He rode his first motorcycle at age 10.  He bought his first new one at 15.  When I ogled his Harley with its “Live to ride, ride to live” motto engraved in its spit-shiny silver, he smiled at his motorcycle: “It’s freedom.  It’s flying.  You should get one, it’s never too late.”

Well, it was too late to drive Harleys across America with Twain.  Twain did travel from Hannibal to New York City at age 17, but by stagecoach, train and steamboat in 1853.  He died in 1910.  And on my last birthday, I was not 17, but 70, what Twain called the scriptural statute of limitations.

So this three-month, 9,000-mile trip across Twain’s America will really begin not on a Harley or in a vehicle made for the movies or dreams.  Not in the cherry-red ’68 Cadillac convertible that poet and public radio commentator Andrei Codrescu drove for his book Road Scholar: Coast to Coast Late in the Century (1993).

Not in John Steinbeck’s Rocinante, named after Don Quixote’s horse, the custom pickup truck-camper that starred in Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (1962).  Not in Ken Kesey’s and the Merry Pranksters’ “magic” 1939 school bus—painted psychedelic colors, wired with sound equipment and cameras and outfitted with bunk beds and a fridge full of LSD-laced orange juice—that crossed the country in 1964 to go, as the misseplled word painted on the destination placard said, “furthur.”

No, we will be driving an off-the-shelf, black Dodge Grand Caravan from the Northwestern University motor poolBut we Twainiacs are planning to customize our van, turning it into a Twainmobile.  Headshots of white-haired Twain will soon adorn the side panels.  And on the rear of the van, in large letters, will be a Twain quote.  I first thought of using: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”

But that Twain quote is too long.  So we’re planning to use a pithier one: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

Loren Ghiglione

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One thought on “How it all began: From motorcycle fantasy to road-trip reality

  1. Katherine Jones on said:

    Hi Loren, I’m late to the party! Margie just clued me in, so I’m trying to catch up all in one day. In this post, you didn’t mention the summer long crossing on bicycle by NYT Bruce Webber But I guess it ended after you began.
    Until the next post,