July 31, 2007

The Speed of Slow

Anyone who rides a 49cc scooter from Louisville to the West Coast and back is worth getting to know. Meet Scott Garner: Photo by Melissa MoodyScott Garner, the first guy we know of to blog his way across the United States on a scooterYou must remember to lean. Not in the crotch-rocket, knee skimming the ground sense. No, this requires a more refined, upright shift of weight. It is crucial. Careening down a hill in a more remote sliver of eastern Louisville, seesawing the Oldham County line, Scott Garner drops his shoulders and dips his head through a forest of wind and gnats. He rolls the throttle all the way back under his right hand while the scooter’s odometer pledges its maximum 40 miles an hour. His long-sleeved shirt ripples like shirts do when they come against this thrust. First, his right leg slowly reveals itself, bent like the number seven, from behind the relative calm of the front shield. Then a quick oscillation to check both mirrors, make sure nothing weird is on his tail, like a high-charged Mercedes driver with no time to spare the scooterist a sudden burst of chaos. Lean. It might feel like skydiving at first, but you must trust yourself to lean into the turns. The handlebars swivel for sharp lefts and rights only. A route like this, twirled like a flat noodle, you hardly need to move your arms. This two-lane road is recently repaved, so he is not as uptight about rocks or holes that could suddenly kill his balance. It is dusk, and the thicket enveloping the road blots out the sun just enough to make the sunglasses seem ill advised, except for the packs of arthropods that can really drop a sting on the eyes taken in whole. Seconds later it’s lean left, then back up a hill, carefully past a throng of uniformed cyclists, and suddenly he and his scooter are amid expansive Kentucky fields that quietly testify to a nightfall you only see this far from the city. Garner is retracing, give or take a few turns, the first long ride he took when he got home, in early April. The trip, intended to snap him out of the fog of a bland and unsatisfying lifestyle, took seven months, and rejoined Garner to a pace with which he is more comfortable, more natural. He needed to slow down, simplify, to counterbalance 60 hours a week of full-speed ahead. He needed to find something in himself that disappeared as early as age 10, when his family left behind a farm in Lexington to come here, a place where he had no friends, where there is not much space between houses. Eleven thousand miles and three-fourths of the country, at 35 miles per hour on a 2006, candy apple red, 49cc Yamaha Vino Classic, its design a throwback to earlier European models, with nothing but what he could strap on, and Garner seems fulfilled. Is that too much to ask? He is an unlikely road dog, at barely six feet with a slumping upper body, a faint beard that’s never clean-off and a pate drenched in thick black hair that culminates in a widow’s peak at the bend of his forehead. And the fact that he’s on the red scooter he calls “Fee,” after the Phish song. He is generally without leather.Scott Garner and “Fee,”Other things qualify the 31-year-old for this aesthetic, though. He smokes like a chimney, American Spirit Organic Reds, not a cheap cigarette at all. One often dangles from his lips while he rides; the black spot on the outer heel of his left hiking boot is from snuffing the butts, which then go into a small receptacle inside the scooter’s front shield, because Garner does not litter. He drinks porters and strong ales, maybe six beers a night by his own estimate, but he doesn’t get drunk too often. He seems to thoroughly enjoy enjoying himself.We’ve met during that uncharacteristic mild spell in an otherwise scorching Louisville summer, which explains the long sleeves all the time, coverage for the cool night rides his current job demands. That job is to pick up drunk people from bars and other places, drive them home in their own cars, and then return to base on a 70-pound foldable scooter that he packs in the trunk. He got on with CityScoot over Derby weekend and has worked five nights a week since, living a generally opposite lifestyle: When I called him around 5:30 one evening last week, the dinging cell phone was an early alarm clock. It is the latest in a string of jobs that has kept Garner consumed with things other than the broad thwack of being alive. After high school and a quick, failed attempt at college it was restaurants and a strong desire to move about the country. An avid cook, he spent time behind grills at a variety of Louisville spots before making his way to Bend, Ore., where he cooked on a line at a resort. He didn’t expect, like most everybody wouldn’t, that being upside down in a mangled car would be the impetus to come home. Garner and a friend were driving down a rural Bend road one night when a deer ran in front of the black Honda Accord. The driver swerved to miss it, overcorrected and hit a partially submerged rock just off the road, causing the car to flip eight or nine times — Garner doesn’t remember exactly. There is still a small piece of glass in his forehead, under a barely-there starburst scar. He suffered injuries to his neck, back and head. The driver was not hurt.Somehow it was nothing that serious for Garner. It did, however, completely change his life. That’s sort of a theme here. Scott Garner began his growing up on a farm in Lexington, in a tight-knit family with two brothers, a sister, and both parents around. There were typically five cattle there, and a vegetable garden stuffed with standard fare. The kids worked the farm, had to do everything but milk the cows. A cow can jump a fence if motivated, he tells me, shaking his head. The Garners traded at local farmers markets. They made enough money to send the kids to Montessori schools. When Scott was 10 the family came to Louisville so his father, Gordon Garner, could become executive director of the Metropolitan Sewer District. They moved into a Victorian in Old Louisville; Scott didn’t like living in a city. The houses were too close together. Too many people around. The kids at school already had their friends. Nothing could possibly compare to the freedom of growing up on a farm. The sort of childhood imagination that can fill vast, open farm fields is a unique cultural commodity. It wasn’t long before the Garners got a bit more rural, moving to a secluded plot of mostly undeveloped land in Prospect, a small city on the border of Jefferson and Oldham Counties, into a shotgun-style house that remains a work in progress: Joyce Garner, Scott’s mother, has an art studio there, an expansive, high-ceilinged affair with strokes of half-slapped paintings; a Japanese sitting tub is currently being installed in an overhang that juts into the surrounding forest, offering the woods and nearby creek in full, deep green relief. The door to Scott’s room, which along the way has been the room of other siblings as well, is closed. He has lived here since Derby; the first month back in Louisville he crashed with a friend. In fact, these days he prefers dropping into rooms here and there, for only a few weeks at a time, with nothing but what’s on his back. And Fee.[img_assist|nid=5187|title=by Scott Garner, from www.angiereedgarner.com/scottgarner.htm|desc=|link=|align=left|width=200|height=150]“If you don’t have as much stuff, you don’t need as much stuff,” Garner says without the slightest bit of cynicism. When he left he was looking for freedom from a suffocating day job that had him as the archetypal American small business owner, doing the whole deal himself, working seven days a week, eight hours a day minimum. When he came back from his accident, Garner had gotten a job in radon detection; when his boss hung it up for good, Garner borrowed $20,000 and bought all of his equipment and his client list. He spent his days with electronic gas-detection equipment and PVC piping. With no wife or girlfriend, he hardly spared the time for close friends, working out of his early-’90s Ford Explorer. The SUV was a portable office, with the gap left by the passenger seat filled with a handmade wooden box stretching the length of the vehicle, for storing the long piping necessary to plunge through a house’s foundation and route dangerous radon fumes somewhere other than up. He earned about $60,000 a year for the next five years protecting people from radon. He had no employees and “looked forward to the flu” so he could justify more than two days off at a time. With the money Garner did “what you do next.” He paid $26,000 for a Butchertown camelback with four feet of dead roaches and two feet of lives ones in the walls. He gutted the place to the studs, added two bathrooms, hung drywall, remodeled the kitchen, and then decided he didn’t want to own a house. His parents had cosigned on the home loan, and he basically tossed them the keys and said to do whatever with it. He took his furniture, the equipment from his business, his tools and virtually everything else in his house, to the eBay store. Donated the Explorer. Recorded an outgoing message on his business phone. Said he was closed for good. Fee cost about $2,000; when he left Louisville to travel Route 66 by scooter, on Sept. 4, 2006, it sported 123 miles. With flame-orange saddle bags, courtesy of a whitewater rafting shop, to hold both of his winter and summer clothes (two of everything for Garner’s Ark) and a bag for his laptop and electronic goods, a black bathroom kit, a tent, a sleeping pad and sleeping bag, a small first aid kit, a carefully rolled atlas of the United States, a two-gallon can of gasoline stuffed under the seat, three different locks and a plastic sack full of candy bars and canned beans, Garner began his journey — at the speed of slow. He covered as much as 250 miles a day, staying on the road about eight hours a stretch in good weather. He didn’t encounter much trouble on the road, moving out of the way when two or more cars were backed up behind him. “I didn’t want to keep people from passing me or anything,” he says with a tweaked smile. “I wanted to slow down and see things, not just drive.” Strangely, the only state where people yelled at him or verbally assaulted him in any way was Missouri. It happened more than once there, too. Every time he stopped at a gas station — or anywhere else for that matter — people wondered aloud. Fee was oppressed by gear, about 100 pounds worth. It was a scene. Once he drove 140 miles out of the way to circumnavigate three miles of highway in Utah. To cross the Golden Gate Bridge, which is illegal on a scooter, Garner tucked in behind a semi during a slow point in traffic, pacing the line across the bay. Thunder Basin National Grassland, in southeastern Wyoming, was boring to tears. “It was literally nothing but grass,” he says, pointing to the place on a map. When sunset approached, Garner would follow bike trails, logging roads, basically whatever paths he could find into suitable camping territory. There were days when he stopped at motels, to shower off and sleep in a bed. The cheapest was $21 — only off the highway do those deals still exist. Amazingly, there was little complication — if he got lost, he called his dad, who’d talk him through with the aid of Mapquest.com. Mostly though, he followed a refined instinct for the outdoors, one that took him along railroad tracks, crumbling old state roads and small, flowing waterways in search of non-highway travel. With the exception of one dead battery and one flat tire, Fee performed admirably, save the snowy mountain passes in the Grand Tetons. That was on the way back. “The snow on the side of the road was piled higher than the scooter, eight or nine feet up,” he says. “The roads were clear and dry. Just like two days after I got out of there, all the roads were closed, five feet of new snow. So, yeah, I kinda jumped the gun coming back, but it was nice, 75 degrees in Oregon when I left, and it was sunny and beautiful. I thought, ‘the pass has got to be open.’ I left without even checking, so I got real lucky.”It had taken Garner about six weeks to get to Portland, Ore., where he rented a room and hunkered down to let the winter pass. He had $4,000 in his pocket from the sale of everything that wouldn’t fit on his scooter. With the exception of some odd jobs here and there, he basically hung out. On the road, the black no-frills Toshiba laptop was his strongest lifeline; he posted about every other day on his LiveJournal blog (http://memeselfi.livejournal.com), where around a dozen online friends, family and who knows how many others monitored his progress with comment-dropping intrigue. He snapped photos, quite an astonishing array representing non-highway America, with a point-and-shoot digital camera; 18 of them are on display at Garner-Furnish Studio on Market and Clay streets — co-owned and operated by Joyce and Angie Reed Garner, Scott’s sister — in a show called “The Speed of Slow: Backroads America, Blogged From a Scooter.” To charge his cell phone and computer, Garner brought along a converter that he clipped to Fee’s 12-volt battery. He also had a television antenna adapter for the laptop. “It was weird watching local news out in the woods,” he says. A cheap, yellow set of headphones with a radio antenna provided his soundtrack, mostly NPR and news programs during the day — Garner is a self-professed news junkie. Other than those he met waiting out the winter in Portland, Garner didn’t make friends. About the only talking he did was to his parents, on the phone every few days or by e-mail, not really talking per se, but that was the agreement they’d left with in September. It was the best way his parents could think to cope with such a weird, inspired thing as this. At first, it seemed Scott might fulfill his lust for road freedom at the cost of his parents’ nerves. Gordon kept a desk-sized map sprawled across the dining room table the whole time his son was gone, logging his movements as precisely as he could, based on phone conversations and Scott’s blogging. Joyce remained worried. “It takes a long time to come around to the fact that your adult children have to do what they need to do for their lives, and to get on board with that,” she says. “Eventually that’s where we ended up, but it’s hard.”Angie, who lives in northern Illinois, was also anxious. “And as the trip unfolded, I learned I was basically scared about the right things,” she wrote in a recent e-mail. “He was cold, too cold at times. It was hard for him to find services on the back roads — the infrastructure isn’t exactly there in terms of parts and service.”It was Gordon’s idea to accompany Scott for the final week of his trip home, and once he’d mentioned the idea to Joyce, it wasn’t long before they were planning the thing out, dropping the cash for two scooters, Yamaha C3s, one blue and the other silver. Will, the youngest Garner and a fencing coach, drove his parents and their scooters to northern Illinois, where they met Scott for the final leg. The first day was idyllic: temperature in the 70s, not much wind, all sun and blue skies. Then rain. Then a cold front caught them. Hail. Wind like hypodermic needles on the knuckles. Ten miles at a time, then you cup your hands around the exhaust pipe for instant heat. Still, both are philosophical about the trip. “It’s more of a vacation away from life than I have ever had,” Joyce says. “It’s just a different place for your mind to be.” Gordon enjoyed seeing a strange side of America, the non-interstate backroads America. He took lots of photographs. “It’s like being in kind of a time warp,” he says of the places unplugged from modern culture.Their scooters figure prominently into the way Gordon and Joyce get around now. “If we’re doing it, it’s going to occur to other people,” he says. “To my friends who have bought Priuses and those kinds of things, oh, that’s nice you get 50 miles a gallon. Well, I get 113!” He laughs. “The experience of it is, even if you didn’t get 113 miles to a gallon, there’s a different experience in the way you relate to your environment.”Fee is the only way Scott gets around, and he has no plans to change that. “I’d like to never again own more than I can put on that scooter,” he says. His next trip will be to the South, then possibly up the East Coast and back to Louisville. He will again go alone, as a dot smaller than what could be seen on a map; unless, of course, that map is on the Garners’ kitchen table. On those roads, he is apart from traffic, yet he is also a willing participant in it. This is indicative of the way Garner sees his country and his place in it. In many ways, he is an interloper along for a good ride, trying to own only what he can fit on his scooter, and trying to see everything for what it really is, maybe through the lens provided by backroads America, in many ways an altogether different universe than modern America. He has slowed down to notice things, and you don’t notice jack shit speeding down highway such-and-such with the radio talking at you and the cell phone resting conspicuously on the console. But if you feel the hail hit the back of your neck at 35 miles an hour driving sideways and unvarnished at Nature, and the only way you’re going to sleep is to find a flat, grassy place to unveil a tent the size of a modest coffin, you will take notice. You will see things you forgot existed, and people who don’t care about what you think you care about. You will meet people who television has overlooked, who the Internet has moved beyond, and you will feel a strange sense of calm blend into your nerves as mud flicks onto your face and you hang to the right, your 15-inch tire tiptoeing the white line so a pack of Harleys or an 18-wheeler can pass safely to the left. The signs look different, and if you blink you won’t miss them. You will know exactly where they are, even though you might forget where you are, if only for a bit.  “The Speed of Slow: Backroads America, Blogged from a Scooter” is a show featuring 18 photographs and text by Scott Garner of Louisville, who rode to and from Portland, Ore., on a 49cc scooter. The show will be open on this Friday’s Gallery Hop, which runs from 5-11 p.m. and is free. The exhibit is at Garner/Furnish Studio, 642 E. Market St.
, 594-2039. Prints are $60.