Tales of a Traveling Airbrush

When I write up one of my more memorable masterpieces, or some of my various memories, I will post them here for you to enjoy. Comments are welcome; I'll try to reply.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Montana Bound

The pace was grueling. A long incline stretched for as far as the eye could see and proved to be another relentless uphill facet of an unbearable trek. A fierce and steady head wind caused the heavy seed heads of the endless grasslands to move in undulations that mimicked the ocean on a rough day. No better torture could have been concocted by the most fiendish of enemies than the slow pace of traveling uphill across the length of South Dakota. I sat in my one ton Dodge diesel pulling the fifth wheel living quarters with, hooked on behind, the essential VW microbus. I had left an event in New England to visit the comfort and familiarity of the Midwest, where I grew up, and then head into unknown territory. At the beginning of the trip, surprisingly, I found Iowa to be quite beautiful, but this day the travel had become difficult. Fear set in. What was I doing? I must be out of my mind. The plan was to head for Montana to attend a couple of important motorcycle rallies but being so far from home, too many things could go wrong. I could be… sunk, history, stranded, and worse yet, alone. I did not know what to do. I did not want the horror of my fixation to continue. The mental noise of the obsession merged with the laborious sound of the truck. I was ready to give up. Surrender. So I prayed. Without closing my eyes I asked to be blessed with the ability to let go and be restored to peace. As I went up another grade at 25 miles per hour I waited.
The phone rang. A friend from Sarasota had been touring Montana as a performer with an old fashioned tented circus and the show was set up in Sturgis, South Dakota and there were two shows tonight.
Cheeko asked, “Are you headed this way?”
I spoke into the phone “I’m 200 miles away”
My interest was piqued. I had a reason to live. I had hope. The obsession was gone.
The remainder of the trip improved, the wind softened even though the hills were growing. As I entered the Black Hills, indications were everywhere for the upcoming granddaddy of all bike rallies and that was still a month away. I found the fleet arrows as I entered the outskirts of Sturgis and they led me to the old fairgrounds/rodeo grounds that for today would be the circus grounds. I went around the last curve of the small town streets and there, nestled on a flat space in front of the grandstand, alongside the rodeo arena, stood the striped big top with various circus transport vehicles and RV caravans scattered about. My friend was already in wardrobe and makeup, ready for the show and he greeted me as I pulled on the lot. I drove my long ensemble behind the midway near the picket line for the ponies. I became immediately connected. A flood of countless experiences returned from the time, right out of high school, that I was a musician, performer and an artist with a tented circus long ago.
Colorful sign work on a big red semi flanked the entrance marquee and stood across from the sideshow. Peppy music prompted me to tap my feet as I soaked up the sights. The Culpepper & Merriweather Circus would be starting soon. Cheeko went backstage to get ready. I had better find a seat. I meandered into the crowded tent and found a seat in front of the single ring.
I could not believe my eyes. The first act started in a big cage with four tigers. A tall safari-outfitted trainer guided his charges through sit-ups, jumps through hoops, lay downs and a hind leg walk. These nimble and playful striped felines pleased both the audience and me. While the cage was dismantled, peanuts were distributed. After those tasks were complete, a graceful and beautiful young lady on the high trapeze stole my heart. Cheeko and his funny breakaway bicycle act were next. The show continued with a princess and her birds, then juggling, a balancing Rolla bola act, unicycles and a high wire thriller. The second half started with magic, continued with a girl and her hula-hoops, culminating with the highflying aerial stars.
Stunned, I waited in my seat as the crowd filed out and watched as the workers began preparations for the next show. I recognized the procedures and could appreciate the economy of motion that was the result of completing these tasks every day. I wandered behind the big top to study the rolling stock and appreciate how the poles and seats and rigging were efficiently loaded on various trailers. Pets and props outside of each living trailer provided a unique homey atmosphere and served to validate that this traveling assemblage was indeed home for many families.
The best part of the evening was spent in the accumulating darkness while the dismantling of the circus was going on. A few of the old timers with the show and a local cowboy, stood with Cheeko and me, and the conversation meandered from name dropping horse trainers, trick riders and cowboy greats to recalling performing in different parts of the country, and the rigors of doing so, and the intolerable situations of those days were laughed at. Names such as Bill Bushbaum, Rex Rossi, Bob Grubb, Roberto De Vos Concellos and Dorita Konyot were honored with anecdotes.
The welded and rusty rodeo arena fence became prominent in the moonlight as the big top came to the ground. Overhead, Venus was the first star to appear as the sky faded from its sunset colors. Silhouettes of the loaded equipment and various trucks and trailers were all that was left of the circus for this night. The crew had completed their task in record time. The no longer needed generator was turned off and the few remaining work lights dimmed in unison to the incoming silence. Darkness rose from the rugged surrounding territory and the almost full moon seemed to race Venus across the sky.
The nocturnal conversation moved right along as we discussed the role of the baggage horse on the old railroad circus, the Showman’s Rest Cemetery in Hugo, Oklahoma and effective zebra training techniques. Our local friend shared some interesting regional history with us. On this same fairgrounds, years ago, the Jack Pine Gypsies, a motorcycle club, started the motorcycle rally that has grown over the decades into the largest biker gathering of them all.
There, in the darkness I paused to appreciate what I had just learned and then experienced a sense of wonder, admiration and peace. What were the odds of this mixture - an old time circus – standing on this revered biker location - at this exact moment? I got the message. All is okay, and that God is not only watching over me but this interesting sequence is part of a perfect plan for me.
At dawn the next morning, I joined the procession off the lot that threaded its way through the streets of the sleeping town. Yet, as the rest of the show headed east for Minnesota, I turned and continued my trip west.
Soon I was in Wyoming and the terrain kept changing. Angular rock formations and stone escarpments occasionally penetrated the hilly and grassy Wyoming prairie. I had plenty of miles to cover today so I better settle in and enjoy the sights.
The grades aren’t any more graceful, the wind any less relentless but this day, I am whistling. I have vigor. Good thing. Sections of the road in front of me are steeper as I enter Montana and the experience, like the terrain, is sure to have no resemblance to any part of my past, yet I go with a new found expectancy on this adventure. I am grateful.
Finally over the Pryor Mountain range, civilization seems to be somewhere up ahead. Oilrigs, industrial depots and housing sprout up along the route. I stop at Billings for fuel and to review the map for rest of the trip to Bozeman. One hundred and fifty miles, I should be at my destination by dark.
Peace prevailed as the highway ran west, parallel to the meanderings of the Yellowstone river with its grand quiet water surrounded by majestic cottonwood trees, rushing white water and great bottom land areas of agriculture that spread all the way up to the feet of the far off mountains that surrounded us.
The pace along the Yellowstone river valley was refreshing. The engine had found a sweet spot to purr out a long song. The higher altitudes of the grass-covered mountains were filled with jack pine and spruce trees. The lower lush areas surrounding the rushing river have a few tall, sturdy ash tree hammocks sharing the bottomland with the mighty cottonwood. Clumps of aspen populated hilly areas both high and low. The vast stretches of prairie grass were interrupted with light dusty blue puffs of foliage growing among the tall grass that undulated in the breeze. The trek next to the river was beautiful, flat and effortless yet I could see huge mountains looming in the distance ahead.
A hundred miles of this healthy pace helped me forget the fear of the previous day. As I enjoyed this river valley, occasionally in the distance I caught glimpses of peaks with snow on them beyond the ranges that flanked this valley. As my trek continued, a mountain range seemed to grow across my path. I began to hope that the road would go around the presence that loomed larger with every mile.
A railroad track appeared alongside the highway. Surely the train had found a level place for its roadbed. An occasional hill would hide the meandering tracks that had found a path to incline. The highway started to ascend. Signs that said, “chain up area ahead” were the only indication of the severity of the upcoming mountain pass. As the climb began, I had to grab a gear, and… then another. A long line of railroad cars full of coal were going up the tracks along side the highway and three engines were pushing at a pace even slower than mine.
I could not see where the incline was going at times, but around each curve of the mountain appendage I would once again meet the train that occasionally went over or under my roadbed. The climb took on another degree of incline and I had to shift all the way down to the granny gear. Fear returned. I had heard of instances where the power of the vehicle had become bested by the load on a steep incline. I wanted to turn around and go home but as I glanced over the corrugated metal guard rails on either side of the road and at the ever so slowly passing scenery, I found no place to do so. I wanted my mommy. I wanted anything but to get stranded on this mountainside that was twenty miles from my destination. As I reviewed my limited options, an epiphany was forced upon me. I had no choice. The only option was to keep sitting in the drivers seat with my foot firmly planted on the accelerator pedal and continue to go forward albeit slowly. Perhaps a life turned over to a higher power is like that. My responsibility remains simple; go forward.
At the crest of the Bridger mountain range, I pulled over where another sign announced the chain removal area and took a breather. The engine wasn’t hot. All seemed well.
The remaining few miles into Bozeman and on to neighboring Belgrade was effortless. I arrived at Yellowstone Harley-Davidson at dusk, found a place to park and caught a glimpse of Venus racing the near full moon across the sky as I readied for bed. The next morning was set-up day for the state HOG rally. In the AM, I assembled my booth in front of the Harley-Davidson store and as soon as that task was complete, customers arrived, saw my display, brought me their bikes and the striping began.
The next four days were filled with meeting folks from the four corners of this country and half of Canada that enjoyed converging on this spectacular destination as the epitome for a place to ride. A wide variety of bikes were decorated, touring bikes received the graceful lines that accent their curves and bobbers and custom bikes received old school lines that gave them an attitude.
The vigor around the store was refreshing. The partners at this dealership had created a destination. High-energy dedication to customer service, fun, cooperation and lots of personal integrity from the staff prevailed, just like at Lazydays back home. The rally was a huge success and the folks at Yellowstone want Letterfly back again next year.
Parting is such sweet sorrow. With the rally over, the time had arrived to return to Billings and prepare for Wing Ding; the national gathering of Honda Gold Wing touring bikes. As I drove the trip back along the Yellowstone river valley I adopted the strategy to have a horsepower boost kit installed on my Cummings engine during the rally. Arriving at the MetraPark fairgrounds I found the RV sites full of motor homes and trailers all waiting for the event to begin. After parking my rig, I sought out my situation in the convention center building.
Setting up my display of various examples of pinstripe designs for touring bikes alongside eight other top shelf motorcycle artists from all four corners of the country, has become an almost sacred annual event. The camaraderie amongst like-minded and talented artists is unlike any other fellowship. We all relate on a creative level and communicate about the nuance of various techniques used to achieve our painted goals. We easily relate as we talk about the feeling and responsiveness of certain brushes and a variety of tricks to achieve certain effects. Tips and techniques galore are shared and with the embrace of each artist’s style, a door is opened. During the busy event, an unspoken appreciation is radiated as we look up from our projects and gaze of the works of art that are being spontaneously created around us during the four days of painting as many bikes as we can. During the few breathers between projects, I would internally reflect on the privilege it is to be part of this stable of artists; all top notch.
In the evening we shared stories of how the innocent and necessary initial questions from potential clients are sometimes anecdotal and other times flotsam. The reality we share is that creating hand painted art is a way of life. My role as an artist expands during this event in another way. Instead of just being of service to my customer; Ma and Pa USA, my service extends to my colleagues with a brush.
Wing Ding was a success. Seventeen thousand bikes were in attendance from all over North America. No better place existed to reside during the unusual hundred degree heat than inside of the air-conditioned convention center creating beautiful designs for nice people.
While in Billings, as a result of meeting some local businessmen, I have extended my stay in Montana with several high profile projects. Beetle’s Body shop is restoring two 1934 Knucklehead Harleys and authentic retro pinstriping is just part of the tedious procedure to complete these museum masterpieces. City Towing is not happy with the way computer generated vinyl prints look on their fleet of wreckers and are elated that Letterfly has the ability to extend his stay in Billings and tackle airbrushing a custom flags and flames paint job on three trucks in his fleet. Dave Albrecht has the goal of winning the “tow truck of the year” award.
Now the RV is parked next to a big shop building on the outskirts of town, next to a babbling brook that meanders under cottonwood trees, scrub ash, Russian olive trees, cattails and tall prairie grass. This will be home for a while, providing an ample situation for creativity to continue. The horsepower boost kit has transformed the Dodge Ram, the weather has leveled off at the mid seventies and I can enjoy a less frenzied pace of work and enjoy evenings of quiet leisure and renewed connections all over the country via e-mail and calls from friends back home.
Why do I fear? The birds that live in the wild do not worry about where their next morsel will come from and when they go forward, without a worry, they fly! Fear must be an illusion. All I have to do is review my interesting career and I find evidence of an endless stream of opportunities to excel, wherever I am. The sequence of events in my life, learning how to travel, accumulating painting skills, becoming a highly regarded artist, the lessons of life continue all along the way, and merge to prepare me for the next echelon. As I look back, I wonder who am I to judge the long trip, as being something to fear. Wouldn’t the projection of joy qualify as a healthy upgrade? I am truly blessed. Montana has proven to be yet another place where I may live, create, grow, serve, love, laugh and prosper. I like it here in “Big Sky” country. I’m glad I came.