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Episode 4: Taking long, washed-out roads back home
Motorcycle diaries: From Gainesville to Las Vegas and back
A roadside monument pays tribute to Smokey the Bear who was found as a cub with burned paws after a 17,000 acre forest fire in 1950 on the Capitan Mountains. Smokey passed away in 1976, after living out his life in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. He was later returned to Capitan, N.M., and his gravesite can still be found there, at Smokey Bear Historical Park. - photo by Bill Rezak

Editor's note: Bill Rezak, a retired college president who lives in Gainesville, took a cross-country journey on his motorcycle during the month of May last year. The following, in four parts, is an account of his 5,200-mile journey alone and on "blue roads."

I rode east out of Show Low, Ariz., on the morning of May 16 on U.S. 60.

On this route, I passed the National Radio Astronomy Observatory telescope satellite dish receivers. This massive facility receives images from the NRAO telescope in orbit around the earth.

I proceeded to Socorro, N.M. There I enjoyed a grand lunch at the Socorro Springs Brewery and Restaurant. Unfortunately, I make it a rule never to combine alcohol with riding a motorcycle - wish I'd spent the night in Socorro!

After lunch I rode south on Interstate 25 for about 10 miles and picked up US.. 380/70 east to Carrizozo, N.M. The Smokey the Bear National Forest is in the beautiful, sparsely treed Valley del Sol, where Smokey originated. Between Socorro and Carrizozo is the Trinity Site where the world's first nuclear bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945.

Also on this stretch of road is the Valley of Fires. This amazing geological phenomenon comprises miles of charcoal gray lava flow from ancient volcanoes. It literally looks as though the face of the Earth was scorched with a blow torch. The lava is reputedly 50 feet thick, and there is little vegetation.

I spent the night in Roswell, N.M. The exploits of the famous frontier rancher John Chisum and his fight to protect his holdings from raiding Apaches can occupy you in this beautiful city. I left Roswell on May 17, traveling east.

I quickly crossed the Pecos River, which flows south and into the Rio Grande River in west Texas. The infamous Judge Roy Bean was "the law west of the Pecos" in Vinegaroon County, Texas, back in the late 19th century. It is a beautiful river.

It was a cool (55 degrees), damp day, and I wore rain gear for most of it. I traveled on to Post, Texas. There I had an excellent lunch at George's Restaurant. Charles William Post (of Post Cereals) founded this happy place in 1907 where the headwaters of the Brazos River outline the scenic Caprock Escarpment.

After lunch, I headed southeast on U.S. 84 until it intersected Interstate 20. I rode I-20 east just a few miles to Sweetwater, Texas, where I holed up for the night in a rough motel housing a rough crowd. At the motel bar that evening, a trucker told me that Sweetwater was "the armpit of Texas." I didn't argue with him.

I was not reluctant to leave Sweetwater the next morning. I skirted Abilene to the south and picked up Texas 36, headed southeast. At lunch time, I stopped in Gatesville and tried an excellent buffet at Andy's Restaurant. Gatesville boasts a fully operational, year-round outdoor drive-in movie theater. Check out the "Last Picture Show" on Texas 36.

I rode on to Bryan, Texas - home to Texas A&M - where I spent the night.

I left Bryan on May 20, heading east toward Louisiana. In Beaumont, Texas, I picked up Texas 12 into Louisiana at the Sabine River. I continued east on this flat route with no curves to Eunice, La. There, I had the only really poor meal of the entire trip at the Crispy Cajun Restaurant. Avoid it!

At the Mississippi River, I swung south for a fun ride along the west bank. I took the Interstate 10 bridge across the Mississippi into Baton Rouge. There, I spent two days with my mother-in-law, Eleanor Burroughs. She's perhaps the only person who really understands the loss of my wife and her daughter as well as I do.

I left Baton Rouge (go by the state capitol building to learn about the assassination of Huey Long) on May 22, taking U.S. 190 east out of town.

At Bay St. Louis, Miss., I switched to U.S. 90, heading east, so I could take in the Katrina experience. I have driven this stretch many times when visiting my in-laws in Baton Rouge. It used to be lined with gorgeous old mansions and mature trees sitting on the north side of the divided highway facing the Gulf of Mexico. Not one is still standing!

The devastation is complete - and this was almost two years after the fact! Every mile or two, there is a new motel all by itself in the middle of the rest of the rubble. Only the casinos seem to have survived. It looked like a bulldozer had driven for miles and miles along the waterfront, taking down everything in its path - in essence, that's just what happened.

As I entered Alabama, I picked up Ala. 188 to Bayou Le Batre, Ala. This is a quaint little fishing village with terrific seafood restaurants. There, I had a superb crab omelette for lunch at the Light House Restaurant.

After lunch, I continued on to Dauphin Island, Ala. I boarded the Dauphin Island Ferry for a 20-minute ride across Mobile Bay. From Gulf Shores, I took Ala. 180 east. Check out Florabama, a great little biker bar on the Florida/Alabama state line.

In Pensacola, Fla., I stopped for a delicious lunch at the Crab Shack. I then took U.S. 98 east to Destin, Fla. I spent four days visiting family at a planned reunion in Destin. On May 28 I left the Florida panhandle and traveled northeast into Alabama to Phenix City, where I re-entered Georgia via Columbus. It was Memorial Day, and I had a hard time finding a family-owned local restaurant for lunch. I finally succumbed out of hunger and stopped at a Chili's in Thomaston; not bad.

If you find yourself anywhere near Warm Springs, don't miss Franklin D. Roosevelt's Little White House and the adjacent museum. Dowdell's Knob (one of Roosevelt's favorite drives) affords a spectacular vista of South Georgia. I continued on to McDonough, where I spent the night.

From McDonough on May 29 it was an easy 145-mile jaunt back to Gainesville. In all, I traveled 5,200 miles in 20 days of riding, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat!

As for being alone, I guess I learned that I can travel that way and easily meet people. It is, however, more fun to share new experiences with someone.

Nevertheless, the trip was a huge confidence builder for me. Maybe the upper Midwest the next time ...

Bill Rezak retired in 2003 after 10 years as president of Alfred State College in Alfred, N.Y. Prior to that, he was dean of the School of Technology at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta. He and his wife, Paula, moved to Gainesville, and Paula was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2004. She passed away in late 2006, but not without maximizing her time on her motorcycle.

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