(c) 2006 by Kathleen Kemsley, published in Sidecarist magazine, May 2007.
Summer in the South: always oppressive, always miserable. I don’t know what I was thinking, agreeing to attend the national sidecar rally in Arkansas last July. The journey took us eastward into record-breaking heat, wilting humidity, and muggy nights – along with campgrounds populated by thieving raccoons, burrowing armadillos, and shrieking worms. It was, shall we say, an entertaining trip.
Brian and I, along with Dina the Dog, launched from southwest New Mexico riding our two sidecar rigs in searing heat. But, as we desert rats are fond of saying, “It’s a DRY heat.” By the time we reached Sumner Lake I felt like a fried egg on the sidewalk; so I leapt off my bike and jumped into the cool water of the reservoir. Desperately diving into any available cold water source was to prove the theme of the weeklong trip.
Somewhere in the Texas Panhandle, we crossed over the hundredth meridian – the invisible line that divides the arid west from the humid east. The mercury stood at 100 degrees outside the Texas BBQ restaurant in Dalhart, where we stopped for lunch. Peeling off sweaty riding pants and sprawling in a wooden chair beneath the air conditioner, I revived myself with ice water and barbequed pork.
Oklahoma surprised me with its green treed creek beds and fields of crops. I had the idea (probably from reading Grapes of Wrath) that Oklahoma’s was a landscape of dust. A 400 mile day landed us in Boiling Springs, a state park whose springs, boiling or not, had long ago been plowed under, piped away, or otherwise diverted. All they had was some cold showers, but those would have to do. I ran into them fully clothed, thinking I could do laundry and cool off at the same time. The next morning, I discovered that wet clothes don’t necessarily dry out overnight in humid climates.
A strange noise coming from the leaves around trees in the campground caught Brian’s attention. Moving closer, he discovered the source. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t poked it with my own fingers. For on the ground was a fat, bright green worm. Little more than an inch long, it appeared to have no eyes, no feet, no way to propel itself. But when prodded, the worm emitted an ear-splitting metallic buzzing noise and squirmed around in the dead leaves. Very strange was this creature of the heartland.
The next day it was on with the eastern trudge… more heat, more ice water. I eyed clouds floating across the horizon, wishing one of them would move up to cover the sun for a few minutes of relief. The next night’s campground in eastern Oklahoma sat on a heavily treed knoll next to a public swimming pool, which we gladly paid an extra four dollars to use.
Returning to camp after the evening swim, Brian hit the brake when he noticed a shuffling movement off to the left. At the edge of the woods near the road, an armadillo rooted boldly through some dead leaf litter. Laughing, I leaped from the sidecar with my camera. The shy creature saw me coming and burrowed under. In the half mile from the pool back to the campsite, we spotted three more armadillos. “Will they try to get into our tent?” I wondered aloud. Living in New Mexico, I had experience with lizards, scorpions, and rattlesnakes, but no clue about the behavior of armadillos.
As it turned out, armadillos weren’t the creatures we needed to worry about. At dawn we arose to find Brian’s tonneau cover ripped to shreds. Food from one soft-sided ice chest was strewn all over the floor of his sidecar. Raccoons! Missing were a loaf of bread, some nuts, a bag of cereal, and – horror of horrors – the Zenny Butt Muffins.
We always carry some of Brian’s special bran muffins when we travel to keep everything, uh, regular. I was sorry to see them disappear. When I thought about how much sorrier the raccoons were going to be, though, I cheered up. Once, when we were traveling in Mexico, Dina the Dog got into a batch of Zenny Butt Muffins set to cool on a low counter. A couple hours later, she made a poop that looked like a baguette – well formed, cylindrical, and nearly two feet long. The raccoons are probably still talking about their trips to the bathroom that day.
When we reached the rally in Beaver, Arkansas, I entered a short version of the raccoon story in the “hard luck” contest. Someone else had a story more worthy of the prize, but I did manage to win second place. I also won an award for longest distance woman rider. Actually I think it was an award for stupidity. Women in their right minds had stayed in the comfort of their air-conditioned vehicles for the trip, trailering their rigs and showing up cucumber-cool. But not me. I draped the award medals around my neck and clanked through the campground, sweating and showing off my helmet hair.
Sidecar games beneath the blazing sun were a challenge. Someone turned on a lawn sprinkler, where we gathered, panting, while we awaited our turns trying to riding our sidecar rigs blindfolded. In one of the games, Brian sat behind me on my bike, circling my waist with his arms and grasping a pie pan full of water above my lap. The object was to traverse a few ruts and two-by-fours without spilling. Truly that was one of those games, like the song says about Waterloo, that “I feel like I win when I lose.” At that point, I was willing to take cold water any way I could get it.
Temperatures all week long had set new records in Arkansas. Humidity saturated the air. Returning to the campground, I encountered Jim Krautz, a friend from Colorado who was also suffering from too much heat. Even though he hadn’t brought a bathing suit, I talked him into going swimming in his jeans. We waded into Beaver Lake and languished in water up to our necks, ducking heads under periodically for a refresh.
Two other men came over and joined our conversation. We discovered that, with 21 years of marriage, I was the newlywed of the group. I was impressed. What was the common denominator that would explain each person’s ability to stay married? Were we all just old-fashioned? Possessed of high morals? Not likely. Perhaps it was just that folks with sidecars seem to have more patience with complications and more tolerance of the quirky – both desirable qualities for long-term marital harmony.
On the return trip home, we stayed at a “high elevation” campground on the Oklahoma- Arkansas state line. Now, in New Mexico we wouldn’t have even called it a hill, but the campground was near the highest point in the state of Oklahoma: 2,558 feet. An actual cool breeze blew through the holler that evening.
We descended from the campground the next day into a wall of heat. Bob and Cheryl Elder, fellow sidecarists from New Mexico, had warned us at the rally that they saw the mercury hit 110 degrees in Wichita Falls. Lunch was a plunge into Lake Texoma. Even Dina the Dog, who hates water, had to be thrown in to keep from overheating. Riding westward with the sun in my eyes, I lead us into Ardmore, got lost, and forgot to refill my water jug. An hour later, when we stopped for gas, I was so hot and dehydrated that I burst into tears in a C-store.
Faced with a hysterical woman, Brian did the sensible thing: he asked for directions to the nearest water. Fortunately it wasn’t far away. A ten minute ride later, we reached a tidy campground on the shore of a sparkling lake. Once again, I did the Oklahoma shuffle: leap off the rig, shed the clothes, sprint to the water, plunge. Hooray for the Corps of Engineers.
Some time the next afternoon, we celebrated re-crossing the Hundredth Meridian with an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen in Earth, Texas. Moving westward into a stiff wind like a blast furnace, we finally reached Sumner Lake. After the standard swim in the reservoir, I sat with Brian on a sandstone ledge, watching the zigzag flight of a kingfisher patrolling the lake as the sun went down.
“If you ever again see me heading east in the summertime, hit me,” I instructed Brian. “I’m serious. No more summer riding in the South.”
We did enjoy the national sidecar rally, of course, and we might consider riding to it again next year. That is, if they hold it in a place with a climate more temperate. Somewhere, for example, like Fairbanks, Alaska. In January. At night.