Spontaneity is the foundation for true exploration. The ability to glide in and out of environments on a whim allows an individual to be just that, an individual in an otherwise convoluted world.
On Saturday morning, around 9:50, I tossed a pair of underwear, socks, and a map of the United States into a bag. Ten minutes later I threw my leg over the BMW R1200RT and looked for the closest on ramp. I had absolutely no idea where I was headed but I had one goal in mind, to put as many miles between myself and New York City as possible. It just so happened I was pointed West. Those first few minutes felt as if the Sun had placed a hand on my back, encouraging my departure. White lines danced beneath my feet as the miles began to tick higher and higher. The sounds of the city gave way to the hum the accompanies life on a motorbike. For those who haven’t spent time on a motorbike, there is an unmistakable hum comprised of unequal parts the wind, the motor, and the road. It’s that hum that allows for a rider to slip into their own conscience and find clarity in their thoughts.
Around lunchtime I found myself downshifting into Scranton, Pennsylvania. The main thoroughfare through the city was blocked off and traffic was being diverted. I tucked my motorbike into a spot and stood beside it for a moment, collecting my thoughts and stretching my legs. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed an elderly couple standing and looking at me. I smiled at the two and the woman, in the sweetest voice possible says, “That there is one of those quiet motorcycles. I’d like to have it.” Her comment opened up the door to a conversation lasting nearly ten minutes about motorcycles, travel, family, and Italian sausage. Before continuing on their way, hand in hand, the couple told me what exactly it was I had stumbled upon: La Festa Italiana. Since 1976 Scranton has put on this festival helping to raise money for local charities. Thousands of people flock to Courthouse Square to enjoy live music and delicious Italian cuisine. I couldn’t imagine a better place to eat, so I indulged in the festivities for an hour before continuing West.
I pulled out of Scranton and really began to think about what a wonderful community the residents had fostered. There was a bubbly atmosphere that seemed to encapsulate the entire city. The city was clean, the citizens were pleasant, and the camaraderie was evident. This wasn’t always the case for Scranton. Post World War II, the city was in rough shape. The coal and rail industries were in decline, driving investment and jobs out of Lackawanna County. In fact, the city experienced economic contraction through the 1980s before capitalizing on the community’s rich history and natural beauty.
That salvation resonated with me as I approached Interstate 80. Surely Scranton wasn’t the only city that experienced stagnation as industry moved overseas. Then I remembered America’s worst kept secret, Detroit. I’ve been reading up on the socioeconomic woes Detroit has been contending with over the past fifty years and almost couldn’t believe it. The United States makes efforts to better Third World counties every year while simultaneously turning its back on a community that helped to shape American ideals.
In that moment I knew where I had to go: the most dangerous city in America.
With a restored direction and purpose, I continued West landing at La Quinta Inn and Suites in Canton, Ohio. It was close to 9:30pm by the time I rolled in. I was ecstatic when they told me they had availability, not only for the relief of having a place to stay, but because I genuinely love La Quinta. To top it off, they allowed me to park my motorbike next to the front door so they could keep an eye on it for me.
They next morning I shoved off made the final push to Motor City. As I rolled over the bridge in Toledo I looked next to me and saw an older man, maybe 55, driving a pristine 1980s Cadillac convertible. His Tommy Bahama shirt flapped violently as he cruised. I desperately wanted to take his picture. He embodied both what it meant to be a Rust Belt retiree and what it meant to be a man. He was proud and I was proud of him. He was the personification of nostalgia surrounded by a harsh reality. Moments later he took an exit and his shimmering Cadillac propelled him down a grey, bleak road.
I passed into Michigan for the first time. My excitement was mounting as I drew closer and closer to my final destination. A short while later I passed the “Detroit City Limit” sign. The first thing I saw glancing off the highway wasn’t a burning junkyard, but a playground overcome with weeds and decorated in graffiti. It was heart breaking.
I took the next exit and was greeted by a number of appliances. Washing machines and dishwashers lined the exit ramp. When I reached the surface streets, garbage rolled around like postindustrial tumbleweeds. I pulled into an empty lot, maybe an old gas station, and parked. In front of me was a charred boat. Behind that, the gas station walls were crumbling to the ground. I peeked around for a minute only to realize a car full of men was stopped and watching me. Their hoods were pulled up and their caps were pulled down. The silent exchange was an intimate reminder that I was an outsider in their world.
I got back on my motorbike and pulled out. I headed under the highway and over some railroad tracks. I tried to imagine freight trains moving supplies around the region. I came to an intersection with out of service lights. There is no need for traffic lights if there’s no traffic. I turned around and headed in the other direction. As I approached, a woman came out of her house and stood on the tree belt as I passed. Her leathery face and grey hair told of a difficult existence. I wonder what our fleeting encounter meant to her.
I came across burned building with precariously positioned masonry. Charred furniture was strewn all over vacant lots. There was silence. I parked my motorcycle in the middle of the road and took a few pictures of what looked to be a general store. Engraved over the door was the date 1944.
I stood there for a moment before the haunting sound of an ice cream truck startled me. I looked behind me and approaching ever so slowly was a yellow ice cream truck, its mechanical lullaby shattered my sense of solitude. As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared back into the destruction.
I continued motoring along and saw a man and woman sitting beside a dilapidated building. I didn’t get a welcoming sense and thought it best to keep moving.
I came to another intersection without lights, and made my way East towards large plants and facilities. I rolled along in silence. I hadn’t seen anyone in what felt like hours. I reached the end of the road and turned off the bike. Standing there in the middle of an intersection I looked at everything that once was. I thought about the facades of the crumpling buildings and the names of past proprietors above the doors- ”Bill’s Tool and Die” and “Jefferson Machining”.
An ominous hum could be heard no matter where I was in the neighborhood. What made it that much creepier was there was no telling what plant it was emanating from. These rusting behemoths towered all around, and one seemed to be beckoning from beyond the grave.
I backtracked again, heading towards where I thought downtown Detroit was. I motored along and in the distance saw a fellow motorbike rider. I slowed down to a crawl where I saw them turn. When the rider came into view I saw him tearing the seat off and violently rummaging through the contents. He looked up and we locked eyes. Instantly it became clear to me that he wasn’t a fellow rider, but a thief examining his loot. A wave of fear washed over me as I remembered that 70% of murders in Detroit go unsolved.
I rocketed down the road and figured I’d hide out amongst the houses. What I soon noticed was that there aren’t many houses standing, just empty plots of land where homes once stood. The neighborhood almost looks like it is starting from scratch. There are streets, sidewalks, and telephone wires, but no houses. The houses that do stand are either burned out shells or seem barely inhabitable. Every few blocks you see a property that is well maintained. One a couple of occasions I saw older gentlemen mowing the grass on the vacant lots abutting their property. Pride in ownership was still evident amongst this old school demographic.
As I came up to a huge husk of a building, I saw a small street that was overgrown with vegetation. I made the left turn and tried to make my way down it. I was unable to continue, so I hid my motorbike behind some brush and went in on foot. I was walking through this wooded area for a minute or two before it became clear that I was in fact standing in the middle of a parking lot. The tree trunk to my left wasn’t a tree at all, but a lamp-post.
I returned to my motorbike and pulled out of the street. I pulled into the parking lot of a recreation center. The building was reduced to a few dumpster loads of rubble and the pavement was giving way to saplings. In the corner of the property was a playground. Frolicking around the brightly colored playscape was a couple of young girls. It broke my heart to think that this is the environment in which they have to grow up.
I continued deeper into the neighborhood before coming to an intersection with one house standing. Sitting in front and drinking beer was a group of young men. The sleeves were ripped off their shirts, their jeans rode low, and their work boots unlaced. Behind them burned a black, sooty tire fire. As I put my foot down to stop, although I’m not sure why I bothered, these men began to yell things at me. I couldn’t make sense of what they were saying, and instead of sticking around to find out, I left.
Riding a motorbike opens you up to the sights and smells of whatever environment you find yourself in. That sense of wonderment can turn to straight fear should that environment shift.
At this point I was getting ready to venture into downtown Detroit. I was looking around and noticed a red pickup truck a few blocks behind me. Since there isn’t much activity in the area, a single car really stands out. I made a right hand turn and continued to the next intersection. I looked right, and there was the truck, making a left towards me. I pulled out, and made a right back into the neighborhood. As I reached the first intersection, the truck was making a turn onto my block. Given there’s no one else around, it becomes obvious when someone is following you. I squared off a few more blocks with them close in tow. I kept my speed slow since I had no idea where I was. After every turn, I hoped I wouldn’t be met with a blockade of debris further up the road.
After a few minutes I miraculously made my way back to the main drag. I pulled out onto the road and blasted through the gears. I was at the top of 4th gear and 250 yards away before the red truck completed its turn. The road turned, mimicking the curvature of the Detroit River, and the truck disappeared from sight. I rolled up to an operational stop light and sat impatiently in the right lane, my eyes glued to the mirror. Over the crest of the hill appeared the red truck. I was not keen on having a gun shoved in my face, so I made a right turn and shot down the boulevard.
Towering over me was the Ambassador Bridge. I passed under her and made a quick turn onto a service road. I slipped the BMW behind a Jersey barrier and other abandoned road equipment. I was confident I had evaded my pursuers. I sat there for a few minutes looking towards Canada. From what I could see, Canada’s shores were much cleaner, and much more manicured than our own. It was a quintessential ”the grass is always greener” situation, I’m sure. I didn’t want to head downtown under duress, so I walked around the abandoned lots and snapped a few pictures.
I threw my leg back over the motorbike and headed into downtown Detroit. As I motored through, parking meters all blinked “expired”. It was eerie. Stop lights went though their rotations whether or not anyone was present. I parked along the street and didn’t bother to pay the meter for two reasons, first- I’m not sure anyone cares anymore, and second- I’d rather pay the ticket.
I sat across the street from the Ford Building for a few minutes. Not one single American made car was parked out front. As I sat there, I began to agree with everyone else- Detroit is dead. Vandalism, arson, and violence reign supreme. Filth flows through the waterways. Drug addicts slither in and out of condemned buildings. Gangs patrol the streets more thoroughly than any branch of law enforcement. Abandoned homes are all that remain of the American Dream.
All of the sudden, I heard the haunting toot of a horn. The noise echoed off the buildings. I walked down the block trying to investigate. A few short minutes later I found myself surrounded by hundreds of people, maybe even a thousand. The toot of a horn was that of a Jazz musician. I made my way though the crowd and found the main stage of the Detroit Jazz Festival! Finally, after a day of death and destruction new life was breathed into Motor City. Men and women were dressed to the nines, kids ran around laughing and screaming. Musicians floated across the stage playing from the depths of their hearts. Vendors sold hotdogs, hamburgers, and lemonade. Older couples sat in the shade enjoying the sweet tunes while the sun began to dip low in the sky. That tiny ember of creativity burned hotter than any of the smoldering buildings I saw that day.
I got myself a chili dog and found a shady table to sit back and relax. I was nearly moved to tears by the wonderful display of positivity. Temporarily wiped away were the images of despair and hurt. Detroit will not return to its former glory on the backs of laborers alone, no, this rejuvenation will come from a partnership between all walks of life. Entrepreneurs, laborers, creatives, educators, and everyone in between must work together to revive Detroit.