Thursday, May 21, 2015

On Guru's Grace

An elderly relative asked me this question a few weeks back, and I believe a response to it might be illustrative to many others.

The question is, in my own words: If, as per many scriptures, one gets enlightened only with the grace of a Guru, then how and when will that grace happen?  Do we need to do something to be enlightened, or should we just wait?

Let's look at some answers to this question from the big shots of the last century:

Osho:

Grace is not something that happens sometimes and does not happen other times; grace is always happening. It is the very nature of existence. The existence is grace-full. But sometimes you get it and sometimes you miss it. The rain is falling; sometimes you are showered, sometimes not. But the rain is continuously falling, So something has to be searched within you. Sometimes you are sheltered against it. Grace is the very nature of existence. And ego is the shelter. You protect yourself, even against grace. Unknowingly, you create defense measures around you, you create an armour. The grace is available but you become unavailable -- that's why rarely it seems to happen.

J Krishnamurti:

You must understand it, go into it, examine it, give your heart and your mind, with everything that you have, to find out a way of living differently. That depends on you, and not on someone else, because in this there is no teacher, no pupil; there is no leader; there is no guru; there is no Master, no Saviour. You yourself are the teacher and the pupil; you are the Master; you are the guru; you are the leader; you are everything. (Talks by Krishnamurti in U.S.A 1966 p.73)

Ramana Mahrishi:

Divine grace is essential for realization. It leads one to God realization. But such grace is vouchsafed only to him who is a true devotee or a yogi. It is given only to those who have striven hard and ceaselessly on the path towards freedom.

Ramakrishna:

No matter how much sadhana you practise, you will not realize the goal as long as you have desire. But this also is true, that one can realize the goal in a moment through the grace of God, through His kindness. Take the case of a room that has been dark a thousand years. If somebody suddenly brings a lamp into it, the room is lighted in an instant.

...

The quotation by Osho begs the question because enlightenment, the result of grace, is the same as egolessness, which is cited as a condition for achieving enlightenment through the Guru.  Hence we can disregard his verbal acrobatics.

Krishnamurti clearly says that a Guru is not necessary.  But he was being disingenuous.  He was himself a Guru through and through.  He didn't say, "A Guru is not necessary" and proceed to working in a factory or writing some other kind of book.  Throughout his life, he went around the world trying to "teach" and tell others how to meditate and suchlike, and benefiting from his exalted status as a realized man.  He hinted many times that his "presence" was a blessing and only if the listeners let his presence and energy go through them via non-judgmental "listening", they would get a glimpse of "truth".

Ramana states that the grace is only granted to those who deserve it.  But then it's not really grace.  The dictionary meaning of grace is: "unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification ", or "the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings."  Ramana's statement essentially says: Effort -> Grace -> Realization.  But it is not made clear why Grace needs to be mentioned at all.  If grace logically follows ("it is vouchsafed only to him") from effort, then there is no need of agency of God or a Guru to bestow it on the seeker.  Then the statement "Divine Grace is essential for realization" becomes: "Striving hard and ceaselessly is essential for realization."  Grace is guaranteed if that happens and one needn't worry about it.  If, for the sake of argument, Grace is not guaranteed through "hard and ceaseless striving", then on what is it contingent?  Is it a random roll of dice to select the lucky few from all the eligible applicants?

Ramakrishna is being his usual self: confused.  Like Osho, he talks in circles. Since "realization" is the same as absence of desire, his statement that as long as one has desire, one won't achieve the "goal" begs the question: what's the way to be free of desire while being un-realized?  And he claims that instant enlightenment is possible via the Guru, but how the Guru chooses amongst his unrealized-hence-full-of-desires disciples is unclear.

...

Now that we are through with this brief commentary, how is a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, to approach such a question?

The primary question in such investigations must be: how does one know, and what are the means of distinguishing fact from fiction in these mystical subjects?  The epistemological rules must be clarified first.   If one claims that such mystical subjects are not amenable to thoughtful analysis, then the investigation is over and the question should be left as unresolvable.

But I believe that mystical subjects and statements suffer from confabulation, contradiction and confusion, and that they should be, must be, subjected to rigorous analysis.  There are no logical contradictions in the natural world, in mathematics and in the sciences.  If a thesis has a contradiction, it is not mystical, it is nonsense.

Not all mystical topics or experiences are nonsense.  Science is still trying to figure out the fundamental properties of life and the universe: the origin of life, the structure of space-time, whether there was a big bang, etc.  To wonder about these unanswered questions, and about the universe, can be a mystical experience, and it has no contradiction in it.

Before we even tackle the topic of Grace, we need to be careful about the question. The original question contains many hidden assumptions, which need to be investigated:

1. There is something called enlightenment.
2. I want to be enlightened.  I consider it a valid goal.
3. There are enlightened Gurus.
4. There are scriptures and what they say is the truth.

The fourth is the easiest to dispense with.  Scriptures of various religions contradict each other, just like the Gurus we discussed above.  Hence, scriptural authority is not unquestionable.  But if scriptures are not to be taken on faith, then it is important that one figures out what is true or false in those scriptures through discrimination.

As to the third assumption, that there are enlightened Gurus (either in human form, or in a non-human or non-material form), it is again not clear how one knows this.  Assuming there is something called enlightenment (and we will come to that), how does one identify an enlightened human?  Does an instance exist in today's world?  Krishnamurti, in his criticism of Gurus, was at least right on this count: if one is "un-realized", one has no way of judging someone else to be a "realized" master, hence one will choose a guru as per one's prejudices and he won't be a "true" guru. (The hidden assumption in Krishnamurti's argument is that there are "realized masters", but it is worthless looking for them.)

It is the first and second assumptions which really need a thorough investigation.  Before we even attempt to say anything about grace, we must be clear that there is something called enlightenment, that one understands what it is, and that it is a worthy goal.

It is evident that everybody hears about this state called enlightenment from a book or a scripture, or from someone who has read some books or scriptures.  It might just be a long-standing "urban legend" or myth which has attained the status of a hallowed belief.  It might be an actual state, it might not be.  How does one know?  Has one ever seen an enlightened human being?

What is more interesting is, how does one form a goal of this state?  What is so good about enlightenment that it entices everybody?  The answer is obvious.  In all scriptures, in all lectures and "teachings", spiritual masters and authors dangle the carrot of enlightenment as the end of all suffering, wonderful bliss, no more desires, something better than a thousand orgasms, becoming free from the stresses of the world, some kind of immortality for the "soul" (no more birth or death), etc.  Through subtle and non-subtle hints, the reader or the listener is made to want this state as the ultimate goal which will lead to eternal happiness.

Naturally any sane person would want it.  But a sane person would also be suspicious, because though everybody talks about it, nobody seems to have experienced it.  Unfortunately, sanity goes for a toss once a person becomes a "seeker".

In general, various kinds of maladjustments lead one to seek this other-worldly solution.  Instead of trying to resolve those maladjustments, or to live with them, one starts following this chimera of enlightenment.  One still suffers from those maladjustments, but this "fictional final goal" (as Adler would put it), makes one believe that eventually the problem will be over.  Unfortunately, it is life that gets over.  One dies a maladjusted person.  And that's it.  One does not get re-born (!) as a seeker on a slightly higher plane more likely to be "enlightened".

Hence, the correct response to such questions is: What are the problems or sufferings (and it might be just boredom, or a fear of death or of insignificance) which make you seek the state of enlightenment?

To analyze and understand those problems, and some of them may be unsolvable, is the only valid response.

Seeking enlightenment is to evade the present circumstances and escape into a fantasy quest.

And as for the Guru's grace, it is a fiction on top of a fiction on top of a fiction.  To achieve "enlightenment", you need "grace".  So it is claimed.  And for grace, you need a Guru.

One would be well-advised to avoid this circus altogether.

(The "true" seekers will condemn this essay as the essay of a bitter ex-spiritualist.  May they be blessed with sanity.  My best wishes are with them.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

FAQs

I get some form of these questions every once in a while, via email or in person.

Q: What is the meaning of life?

A: Life forms, including you, have evolved for genetic propagation.  You live and toil so that your kin (your children, your family, or your tribe) might live.  People differ in the breadth of their kinship.  Some include all humans, some include pets and domesticated mammals, some include all life forms ("biodiversity").   If that is unsatisfying, there is no greater meaning.  You can invent and live by certain artificial meanings, but that's obviously up to you and begs the question.

Q: Should I live for pleasure?

A: Study the mechanism first.  The neurochemistry of pleasure in your brain is ill-matched to handle the endless availability of inexpensive carefully-designed man-made gratifications in the modern world.  You will wear yourself out and become incapable of deep thought or long-term projects.  Pleasure is short-lived and needs repeated effort with diminishing returns.  Be open to pleasure, but strive to create long-term contentment and fulfillment.  Pleasure is usually an act of consumption for oneself, whereas contentment and fulfillment involves something larger than oneself.

Q: Does God exist?

A: No.  There is no creator, no supernatural justice delivery, no life after death, no past lives, no "enlightenment", no "nirvana", and no "sin".  But to believe in God (or a higher power, or a grand design, or divine justice, or a religious foundation for morality) serves a psychological and communal need in human beings.  It is quite likely that you have that need as well.  You have to live with that need remaining unfulfilled.  There is no substitute for God.  You can start believing in an ideology, and while that might help you communally or direct your actions, that will not provide you with a similar psychological comfort.

Q: How should I live my life in the modern world?

A: Understand yourself and human nature.  Have few needs.  Grow physically stronger and mentally more discriminating.  Resist media influence and distractions.  Add value around yourself.

Q: How should I think?

A: Scientifically, and with self-awareness.  Science, in essence, is thinking with rigor.  Rigor is to be consistent and logical, to steer clear of fallacies, and to be congruent with available evidence.   To be self-aware is to be conscious of one's strengths, limitations, biases and dispositions.

Q: Should I get married?

A: If you're a man living in a modern state: no.  Third-wave feminism, disappearing gender roles, and the rapidly changing legal landscape has made marriage a dangerous legal contract for heterosexual men.  Better stay together if you like each other, without state intervention.  In many jurisdictions, that counts as marriage though.  In those jurisdictions, stay apart while "dating" each other.

Q: Should I have kids?

A: Only if you want to, if you have a friendly, altruistic and harmonious long-term partner who also wants to, and if you two (while not signing a marriage contract) promise to be there for the kids for a long time, and if you two understand the sacrifice, responsibility and expense involved.  Once you have kids, the kids are not for you, they will never be for you, you are for the kids.  Which is how nature intended it.

Q: I am bored.  What should I do?

A: Boredom is a problem of stimulant starvation.  The cure for boredom is to endure it.  Boredom is its own symptom.  The more you endure it, the faster your neurochemistry will adjust to a non-craving state.  Like any addiction, the more you give in to stimulation for a short-term fix, the worse the addiction becomes.

Q: Is our civilization in decline?

A: In material terms: No.  In psychological terms: Yes.  We have the best technology, the longest lifespan, and a more evolved scientific understanding compared to any other time in human history.  On the other hand, more and more people are self-focused, mentally ill, emotionally starved, unhappy, stressed, unable to cohabit with another human being, brainwashed and distracted to death with media, and addicted to one or more things peddled by modern industry.  The momentum of consumption, technology and economy will continue to amplify this state of affairs for the foreseeable future.

Blue Ridge Parkway, all the way (Day 3)

Day 1 and Day 2.

It was the morning of the final day of my journey.  I still had 180 miles of the parkway to look forward to, and another 120 or so miles to get home.

In some ways, this was the best day of the three.

As suggested by the kind owner of the Blue Ridge Motel, I had decided to have breakfast at the nearby historic Mabry Mill.  It was an old mill now converted into a store and a restaurant.  He had told me that it got filled fast.  I checked that the restaurant opened at 8am, and started from the motel at 7.45am.  The restaurant had just opened its doors, and I was among the first to be seated.

There were four people of varying ages at a nearby table discussing the political mistakes of Mao, and an old couple was next to me looking like they had been here many times.  I got the "Long haul" breakfast: pancakes, eggs, sausages and home fries.  The waitress recommended that I try the buckwheat pancake.  Always up for new things, I said sure.  When the food arrived, I noticed that the buckwheat pancake was dark brown in color.  It was slightly bitter in taste but eminently edible - with generous helpings of maple syrup.  I couldn't finish it.  There was too much food (like every other time I eat out).

The hostess personally checked on each table.  She was a genuinely caring person and made sure everybody was having good food and a good time.  Sometimes these little touches go far in making an impression.  I probably won't have an opportunity to eat there again anytime soon, but I will surely recommend it to everybody.  She wished me best of luck on the road, and was concerned that it might rain.  "Fingers crossed!"

With both the tummy and the gas tank full, it was time to hit the road.  There wasn't any rain, but the road was slightly wet.  It was perfect, almost like the roads they show in motorcycle and car ads.  Absolutely no traffic, and a canopy of bright green trees on both sides of the road.  I was in heaven.


Just ten minutes into the ride, and heavy fog engulfed the road.  I turned on my blinkers, and the high beam, and continued at a slower speed.  I could only imagine the green valleys around me.  The air was pristine and pure, and the fog only made it more dreamlike.  The fog disappeared as I came to a lower elevation, and reappeared as I climbed back.  Sometimes, the visibility was just 50 feet.  I had to repeatedly wipe my visor with my gloved left hand to see where the road was going.

There was absolutely no one on the road at that hour going in my direction.  None, for the next hour or so.  Where were the parkway bikers?  I was alone, hurtling down the blue ridge, my mind silent and meditative, with no words to express the sheer beauty of the forest.

This went on for two hours.  I crossed the "Smart View" which overlooks the "Fairy Stone State Park".  I crossed Roanoke, without a hint of having passed a large city.

At milepost 86, in Jefferson National Forest, I stopped at the "Peaks of Otter" restaurant for a cup of coffee.  It is a set of three peaks: Sharp Top, Flat Top and Harkening Hill.  From the Wikipedia page:
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that "the mountains of the Blue Ridge, and of these the Peaks of Otter, are thought to be of a greater height, measured from their base, than any others in our country, and perhaps in North America." Of course this later turned out not to be the case, but not before Virginia had sent stones from the peaks to be its part of the Washington Monument.
They had the most delectably soft blueberry muffin I've ever had.  It was a small cafe with just a few tables, but the lady at the counter was extremely warm, welcoming and friendly.  I praised the muffin no end, and she implored me to have another, but everything in moderation, as they say!

I continued further north.  The road went up and down the hills, twisting and turning and it was sheer joy to lean one way and then the other on the motorcycle to take the hundreds of turns.  Once in a while a car would be in front of me, but I would soon overtake it.  I was the fastest thing on that road that morning.

I was reminded of my first few months of motorcycling in the US in 1999, with a group as part of the famed "Doc Wong Riding Clinic".  Dr Wong is a chiropractor in the Bay area, and on weekends takes groups of bikers of all experience levels through the twisties.  Just like there is a famed Skyline Drive in Virginia, there is a Skyline Boulevard in Bay area as well.  And both are huge favorites with motorcyclists.  It was on that road that Doc Wong and others in his group taught me how to lean the motorcycle and turn the corners at high speeds.

Only 80 miles of the parkway were left.  And now the landscape was varied: farmland, forests, pastures, rolling hills, distant views of the Allegheny mountains, ...






I continued leaning, and turning.  Going up a hill and then down, a roller-coaster straight stretch, and then again hills and turns.  At a few points I relaxed a little and had a bit of scare when suddenly a tight corner presented itself and not prepared to lean, I went wide over the double yellow line.  That was scary and I resolved to pay more attention to the road.  There wasn't any traffic, but that wasn't an excuse!  Accidents happen when you take the road and traffic for granted.

I was getting closer to the end of the parkway, and though there was exhilaration at having done it, there was also a mild sadness at having to leave this friendly, beautiful road for the impersonal freeways.

But all good things come to an end.  And so did the parkway.  It then turns into the Skyline Drive and goes through Shenandoah.  But I had rode Skyline last fall.

I parked my motorcycle near the north end of the BRP, and got a few pictures taken...



Goodbye dear BRP.  I hope to ride on you again some day, maybe in autumn, when you are draped in fall colors.

East on I-64, then North on US-29.  Lunch and resting the sore butt at Shadwell, VA.  Then on through to I-66 East.  Corporate buildings, apartment complexes, big business.  Through the Manassas battlefield region, and on VA-28N, the home stretch.

I was home at 7.  Trip meter 1176 miles.  Home sweet home.  Wine!  Chocolates!  Celebrations!

The motorcycle behaved flawlessly through the long ride and didn't as much as sputter once.

A shirt maker from Bombay, with the archaic name Charagh Din, used to have kitschy magazine adverts for its horrendously designed shirts.  But they used to have this memorable tagline in their ads: "Beautiful Great Day.  Beautiful Great Shirt."

At the end of the third day, and at the end of my journey, with some wine in my system, I couldn't stop muttering: "Beautiful Great Experience.  Beautiful Great Ride."

Blue Ridge Parkway, all the way (Day 2)

Day 1.

This was the day I would start my journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Having traveled all the way to its southern end via busy freeways, I was looking forward to scenic beauty, unspoilt nature, solitude and a leisurely ride.  The day more than fulfilled its promise.

As I woke up, it was 6.30am.  I had planned to start my ride at 7.  But as I looked outside the window, it was still foggy and cold.  With my jeans and socks still wet from the day before, I was in no mood to ride shivering in the fog.  I decided to wait a while till the sun came up and went back to sleep.  Got up again at 7.45, and the fog was gone and the sky was indeed much lighter.  The weather forecast predicted some rain, and the uncertain weather was going to be part of the adventure.

After a quick shower and pack-up, I started from the motel at 8.15, waving goodbye to the inept reception man.  From Maggie Valley, I had to go west for around 20 miles till I reached the southern end of the parkway at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, and then turn back from there.


As soon as I got on the southbound Parkway, I realized what a beauty it was.  Tunnel after tunnel, vista after vista, lush valleys on both sides so green that it hurt the eyes.  And this was just ten minutes into the ride.  The tunnels were long and dark, and named inventively to be sure: "Big Witch Tunnel" and "Bunches Bald Tunnel" were two of the most memorable.

The longest tunnel is the Pine Mountain tunnel (almost 400m long) at milepost 400.  As one entered the tunnel, one had to remove the dark sunglasses to be able to see where the road was going.  The parkway does not have white lines on the edges (to give it a rural feel, as per a collection of FAQs), and one has to be extra careful not to go off the road in low-light conditions.

So I was at the south end, and the scenic journey had started in earnest.



My breakfast was to be at Pisgah Inn, after 60 miles or two hours (counting the time spent admiring and photograping the views).  I wasn't sure if I would be able to reach the inn before the end of breakfast hours, but never mind!  It was almost 9am.

As I continued up north, there was hardly any other vehicle on the parkway.  I met a fellow motorcyclist who was just doing a ride till Asheville (85 miles).  We both reached the highest point of the parkway together, and I asked him to click a few photographs of me and the bike.



Today I was dressed in layers, and wasn't cold at all.  Everything was just wonderful.  The sky was overcast, and the clouds hung below, over the valley.  It made the view almost unearthly.


I continued through the tunnels and the vistas.  As the day progressed, there were a few more vehicles on the road.  Motorcyclists still outnumbered cars!

At Pisgah Inn at 10.35am, I was told that though the breakfast time was over, they would still serve me from the breakfast menu.  The restaurant was almost empty but had great views.  I sat near a window overlooking the valley, and had a leisurely breakfast with many cups of coffee.


There was no cellphone reception at the restaurant.  I wanted to check on my parents who had just returned from a cruise vacation but that would have to wait.  In the parking lot I chatted with some other visitors who were extremely mellow and friendly.  With one I discussed the evolution of Toyota's RAV4.  She was driving a V6, which Toyota doesn't make anymore.

I was on my way again.  As noon was approaching, the greens of the valleys were becoming even more vivid.



Further north, most traffic disappeared into roads heading toward Asheville.  The road was empty.  At milepost 370 (now almost 100 miles from the start), was the Craggy Gardens visitor center.  The region is so named because of the rock formations, though the region is dotted with shrubs and rhododendrons which bloom spectacularly in June.



I stopped at the visitor center and bought a Blue Ridge Parkway lapel pin for my leather jacket.  After all, I was doing it "raw" on the motorcycle, all the way in two days.  The jacket could do with a memento of the journey.

Even though the speed limit was 45mph, with many curves and turns marked well below that, most vehicles were doing 50-55mph on the straight stretches.  I saw only one police car on the parkway in two days (the radar aimed at oncoming vehicles), but the folklore is that they don't bother one unless one is doing more than 55mph.

Another hour on the pretty parkway, and I was at the amusingly named "little Switzerland".  It was lunchtime.  It was very picturesque, had a few bars where dozens of motorcycles were parked, but there wasn't any gas station.  I hadn't filled up at all today, and I was 160 miles into my 200 miles limit.  I had planned to get gas when I stopped for meals.  So I went westward instead, into the town of Spruce Pine.  It had a weird gas station where there were self-service pumps as well as attendant-served pumps.  And some pumps had 100% gasoline without any ethanol blending, suitable for very old vehicles.  (on a digression, check out the raging controversy about E15 gasoline-ethanol blend)

After a quick lunch, I was on my way again.  I was only halfway done, and was 150 miles away from my stop for the night.  Given that I could do 40 miles per hour on average (with stops factored in), my destination was 4 hours away.  It was already 2pm.  But the days are long in summer, and the ride was fantastic, and I wasn't tired in the least.  The beauty of the parkway was invigorating and rejuvenating.

As I proceeded further north, the parkway was closed for repairs at two places.  The first closure (and detour) was at milepost 276.  This was a short detour and very pretty.  I passed through farmlands and pastures which were picture-perfect with their gentle slopes and rolls of hay.  The second detour, at milepost 243, was much longer.  The detour took me through a town named Sparta.  I guess if I asked one of its inhabitants (especially his wife) to give me some water, they would launch into this speech:



The detour unfortunately made me miss riding alongside the famous "Stone Mountain State Park".  Here is a photo of this park from Wikipedia:


Soon after the two detours, I stopped on an overlook to call my parents.  A few bikers were hanging around as well.  They were somewhat miffed with the "f'ing detour".  "It took us all the way through Sparta, huff huff."  I nodded in sympathy.

Continuing through Cumberland Knob, and the Groundhog Mountain, I reached the tenderly named "Meadows of Dan".  The "Blue Ridge motel" that I was to stay at was supposed to be close by, but I had no cell reception.

I had realized the day before that it saved time to do the errands and have dinner before checking into the hotel for the night.  The town had 5-6 motels, a few restaurants and a couple of gas stations.  The gas station people were the friendliest ever!  The gas stations were across the road from each other, with a price difference of 1 cent per gallon.  I filled up on gas for the next day, found out where the motel was, and had a "southern" dinner of ribs and corn bread and mashed potatoes.  It was too much food, but the ribs were great.

The motel was hardly a quarter mile away.  The check-in person was a rather jovial and friendly old man who had interestingly lived and worked in Herndon, my home town at present.  I asked for recommendations on where to have breakfast in the morning, and he secretively told me to go eat at the Mabry Mill a mile up the parkway ("but don't tell my neighbors I sent you there!").  I shook his hand, wished him good night, and called it a day.

Thankfully, the room on this day was much more "standard".  It even had WiFi.  I checked the history of the Mabry Mill where I was to dine tomorrow morning, and drifted off to blissful sleep.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Blue Ridge Parkway, all the way (Day 1, continued)

Previous post.

From the map, it was clear that after I entered Tennessee (at Johnson City), the tedium of riding on a busy freeway will be a thing of the past, and I will be traveling through forests and hills.

But Johnson City was another 140 miles on I-81south.  By now my butt was getting a little sore.  I had been riding for more than 6 hours, after all.  I wondered about the IronButt association's honors for relentless riding, some of which are:
  1. SaddleSore and BunBurner: 1000 miles in 24 hours, or 1500 miles in 36 hours.
  2. SS2000: 2000 miles in 48 hours or less.
  3. 50CC: Coast to coast on a motorcycle in 50 hours.
When I was around eight, my dad took my sister and me on his scooter from Patiala to Dehradun and Rishikesh.  It was "only" 200km, but since a scooter could only average 35kmph or so on the tricky Indian roads, we were on the saddle for 5-6 hours on day one.  After about 3 hours of riding, my sister and I were jumping up and down on the scooter seat to relieve some pressure on our butt, even if momentarily.  That annoyed my dad, since the scooter wobbled out of balance every time we did it.

In a rare prank, he dropped us both near a river bridge, and rode off.  My sister and I both started crying.  In a few minutes we saw him coming back toward us.  I don't know if we loved him or hated him at that instant.  After that incident, we merely tried to wiggle our butts without leaving the seat.  But it was mighty uncomfortable.  It was our mini-BunBurner ride.

But this time it was only me on the motorcycle, so I had full freedom to wiggle, to lift my butt for a few moments, and do other amusing manouvers.  They helped somewhat, but I realized I needed to take rest stops every couple of hours.  I stopped for gas after an hour or riding at a village aptly called "Rural Retreat", and had another stop for sipping some iced tea another hour later in Bristol.

I finally exited I-81S onto 26-East, and it was a welcome change.  Now the scenery was lush forests on both sides of the road, with ominous clouds looming low.  The air was cool and moist, and smelled of damp soil and grass.  Up ahead on the horizon the clouds were dark and I wondered if I would be able to continue to ride without getting wet.  About twenty miles in there was a "vista point", and I stopped for a few minutes to admire the view.  Here's a photograph of the motorcycle from the top of the vista point:

It was a beautiful spot, but as you can see, the storm was gathering up ahead.  I climbed down and was back on the highway.

Not ten minutes had passed that drops of rain started hitting my helmet visor.  It was just a drizzle, and I felt confident that I could ride on.  Oh but soon the drizzle turned into a downpour, and I was getting soaked.  The leather jacket and the helmet were protecting my upper body, but the raindrops hitting my legs (at 60mph) felt like darts.  It was so bad that I wondered if there was hail and not raindrops.

Thankfully there was an underpass up ahead, and I exited the highway to shelter under it.  I must have been there for almost three quarters of an hour.  But it was fantastic to see the torrent come down.  It was almost 5pm and those who lived nearby were going back home from their places of work.  Every few minutes a car would pass me while I was just standing around watching the rain.  It was Friday evening, and I imagined that these people must be looking forward to the evening and the weekend.

Twice it happened that a woman driver passed by me and slowed down to take a better look.  One of them even missed the stop sign and had to reverse her car.  I allowed myself to think of a poetic and romantic turn of events befitting a Wong Kar Wai film.  I imagined a woman stopping to ask me if I was fine, and inviting me to her abode for a cup of hot chocolate.  And then, we would part ways and think of what could have been, never to see each other again.


Suddenly there was a cacophony of sirens.  Three, four and then five emergency vehicles went by me on to the eastbound highway.  I was alarmed that an accident must have happened due to the rain and the slippery road surface.

Soon the rain slowed down and the sky became a little lighter and some birds came out.  It was time to be on the road again.

To be sure, a few miles down the road there was a bad accident involving two cars, one of which had gone off the road into the median.  There were ambulances and fire engines and I hoped nobody was injured too badly.  Just a mile from there another car had gone off the road about thirty feet down into the grass valley.  I tightened my grip on the handlebars (but not too tight, as the motorcycle safety foundation will tell you!) and became even more alert and cautious.

But the raindrops were again increasing in intensity.  At that speed, the front wheel of the motorcycle was throwing back the water on the road on to my lower legs and my feet were soaking wet in the squishy socks.  The road was good, and the traffic was fortunately light.  After about ten miles the dark clouds gave way to a lighter sky.  I was in Asheville.

Another hour or riding, and I was off the highway onto country roads.  I had rode such a long distance, that it was perplexing to me when an expected exit wouldn't come, and I had to check my GPS a few times to make sure I was going in the right direction and on the right road.  Finally I saw Lake Junaluska and "Maggie Valley" on the signboards, and heaved a sigh of relief.  The lake was not too big but it was pretty, and here's a picture of it:



I reached the quaint "Clarketon motel" at around 6.30pm.  The man at the reception desk had no clue how to handle a check-in (he was filling in for his sister).  He forgot to give me the room key.  He allocated me the room right next to the road, and when I asked for a better, quieter room, he said there was a better room which cost $15 more, but I could just pay him $5 cash if I wanted it.  In the first room, he asked me not to sit on the bed or anything.  I complied.  I was shivering with the cold and with my feet still soaking wet, and as soon as I entered the "more expensive" room, I turned on the heat and changed into dry clothes.

The room was, um, interesting.  The ceiling was around seven feet high, and it had a kitchen sink instead of a washroom sink.  Well, never mind.  The heating was working and the bed was king-sized.  I went out for dinner, got soaked again, filled up the gas tank for tomorrow's great ride, came back, closed the curtains, and went off to sleep.

Outside, the motorcycle's trip-meter showed 525 miles traveled that day.

The day wasn't over yet.  I woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to check the time.  The room had no clock, so I had to go get my phone which was getting charged.  The room was dark, pitch dark.  As I gingerly and groggily trudged toward the phone, suddenly I hit something metallic, and hit it hard, near my right eye.  I winced in pain and crouched on the bed, cursing silently and not understanding what I had hit.  I switched on the light, and it was a badly positioned TV stand at eye level, with metal edges jutting out.  It could have taken out my eye had I been walking an inch to the right.  I inspected the injury in the mirror and it wasn't bleeding, but it was swollen.

Cursing the room, but grateful for my still intact eyes, I went back to sleep.  But before I did so, I made sure the curtains were open just a little, to let in some light.

What a day!