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Southern Rail: Sacred ground

By Robert Filla

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I was a sickly kid growing up, plagued from birth with acute bronchitis. Hasty visits to late-night emergency rooms resulted in confinement to an oxygen tent on an almost-monthly basis (before steroids and breathing treatments). Confined to bed and often absent from school, I grew up in the company of many books, hot-rod magazines and Rat Fink model car kits. I eventually outgrew my affliction only to be infected with a secondary illness that lasted into adulthood lingering even until this day—Refined Hydrocarbon Dependency.

Shortly after ditching my vaporizer I gravitated to my dad’s work shed, unearthing a treasure trove of bent screwdrivers, mismatched sockets and the holy grail of tools: an adjustable crescent wrench. I then figured out how to open the hood on a 40’s-era panel wagon Dad had hauled into the empty lot across the street and gazed in wonder at a flathead V-8. Someone had removed the air cleaner and filled the carburetor with pebbles. Even at six years old, I knew that couldn’t be right so I immediately went to work removing and then, dismantling the entire carb. When Dad found me, everything that could be taken apart had been taken apart, with each component occupying its own divided section of a cardboard Velveeta box—float and needle valve in one compartment, butterfly and throttle shaft in another. Plus I had filled my notebook with sketches that I had drawn during disassembly, just in case my memory got foggy. Dad looked at me shaking his head as he tossed a few old rags my way along with a toothbrush and a can of gasoline with instructions to clean it up and put it back together. I knew he meant it as a punishment but what Dad didn’t realize yet (neither had I) was that I was once again sick, this time with RHD and well on my way to becoming a total gearhead—no cure, no 12 steps, only a future of greasy fingernails, battery acid-damaged clothing and WD-40 cologne.

To this day I love the smell of carb cleaner in the morning and the aroma of a slightly rich exhaust is almost erotic. Consequently, due to my advanced RHD I have a problem with ethanol gasoline, electric motorcycles and stricter EPA regulations. Most environmentalists would label me a gas-guzzling, fossil-fuel junkie. Fossil-fuel junkie, yes—gas guzzling not so much since huge chunks of my life have included using motorcycles as my sole means of transport. And I mean huge chunks. Like 10- and 15-year chunks without a car or truck. And since most of my bikes got in the neighborhood of 50 mpg or better, I think I’ve done more than my fair share of saving the world. And while I never set out to be a tree-hugging conservationist, I’m quite proud of the minimal carbon footprint I’ve left on this precious world. Because despite my severe Refined Hydrocarbon Dependency, as much as I love motorcycles and burning fuel and jamming the highway, the smell of nature is just as sweet.

My first extended bike ride was a two-week journey that took me to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, down past the Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas and a camping stint in Big Bend. All three of those locations are National Parks. And 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Parks Service.

In 1916, America had already established 14 national parks, the oldest being Yellowstone protected by federal law in 1872 and becoming the first national park in the world. And although this was a great beginning, there was no one agency with the power to manage and defend what had been established. Congress felt it important enough an issue that they passed an act (yep, they used to actually do such work) and President Woodrow Wilson signed into creation the National Park Service operating under the Department of the Interior. Since that time the NPS has grown to include more than 400 protected areas that include national seashores, monuments, parkways, rivers and historic sites.

These areas are a gift to the American people established generations ago when such places were recognized for their importance to reinvigorate the soul. (Unfortunately that importance seems to be falling to the wayside with a mere 10 percent of teens reportedly spending time outside every day.) But bikers seem to have a special passion for these parks with one of the best examples being Sturgis where thousands flock each year to ride and soak up as much of the Black Hills as they can carry home.

And while I’ve only visited a handful of the National Parks, the Badlands in South Dakota, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, I’m blessed to have visited each aboard a motorcycle—blending my passion for fossil fuels with my love for those places that still be wild. So 2016 would seem an excellent time to celebrate the gift of 100 years of the National Park Service by visiting as many as possible. Just be sure to celebrate while aboard a motorcycle—and clean those dang fingernails.

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