I guess I’m not really a joiner. I’ve certainly been on a million group rides, mostly as a result of my “work,” which on the best days consists of going on new-bike launches with a sometimes international contingent, and “comparison tests” with close compadres, many of whom I have ridden with for years.
But when it’s my own time to go for a ride, it’s generally just me. Then I can stop when I want to stop, keep going when I want to keep going, and not have to be constantly peering into my mirrors to wonder what happened to you. George Carlin nailed it for me when he observed people who drive slower than you are morons, and ones going faster are maniacs. I’ve ridden with both, but when it comes to long rides, I’m usually the maniac.
Anyway, when I’m flying low across North America, I never really feel alone – just the opposite in fact. It’s only been a mere 160 years or so since the California Gold Rush, and I can picture those crazy adventurers who were too cheap to go by ship trundling along with their oxen and leathery tough women (who probably didn’t start out that way), thinking they’re doing good if they make 10 miles a day and nobody drops dead of smallpox or an arrow.
In the course of history, 160 years is the blink of an eye. But it’s hard to believe I could be from the same species, really, as I wend my way along at about 85 per with the cruise control on, looking for a good radio station and wondering why there’s no onboard fridge to keep my Frappucino chilled. I wonder how big the eyeballs of those pre-combustion immigrants would grow if they suddenly came upon U.S. 60 in New Mexico and saw me rocket past in the opposite direction on my borrowed $30K Victory Cross Country Tour (15th Anniversary Limited Edition, of course), blaring “I Pity the Poor Immigrant Who Wishes He’d Stayed Home” from the four-speaker stereo.
Only a hundred years after them, Route 66 was the way west for all the Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl, once it turned out that rain did not follow the plow after all, and the price of wheat would not be high forever. Heck, I know a couple of those old guys; they were children who actually did ride to California in their Dad’s Model A. Henry Fonda in Grapes of Wrath, anyone? I’m a sucker for a lefty manifesto.
Some historian in a museum in Nebraska told me there are 22 unmarked graves per mile along the Oregon Trail. Well, they’re all ghosts now, but in some strange way I feel like they’re all along for the ride, especially since I-80 is basically right on top of the trail, and right alongside the route of the transcontinental railroad.
At some point when the going was hardest and the dust thickest, every one of those travelers and railroad workers must’ve dreamed about growing wings and floating out above it all, flying on either to the promised land or where they’d come from, at 100 mph: Here I come doing it. Here’s the progress we made, standing on your shoulders, and thanks for the lift. The main difference is I’ve got no particular place to go, no particular persecution or poverty to flee. Probably for many of those people, too, the Gold Rush and manifest destiny were just convenient excuses to go somewhere else.
In Arkansas, there’s the Southwest Trail, which led Stephen Austin and that first group of settlers to Texas before it was Texas. I had not been aware that they came from Missouri. Having spent quite a few winters in Kansas City, I now more fully understand their motivation to brave both angry Mexicans and Comanches; anywhere but here. Wait, that was a cheap shot. The perfect May weekend I spent in KC eating bbq and drinking Boulevard Tank 7 Ale with my people was one of several per year when the place isn’t frozen over or broiling hot. (Meanwhile, my ex contacted me from California to complain it was 106 in Costa Mesa, fires raging, and should I cut my ride short to beat down the flames so Baby can drive home from college in San Diego? No. Have him turn up the A/C.)
It’s easy to dismiss people and places in black and white photos as ancient history. Rolling through Civil War battlefields like Pea Ridge in living springtime color makes you realize those people were every bit as human as we are; their lives were just as important to them. It’s still hard to fathom their devotion to duty and God, slogging around all winter in frozen mud to resolve issues that were more academic in Arkansas and Missouri. Say, here’s an idea, Colonel: Why don’t we barbecue a pig, go on home, and just wait and see how this thing works out back there in Virginia where they started it? No? Everybody likes a good fight, and those who prefer a fine whiskey and a little poetry get dragged in anyway.
Among the rows of graves at Ft. McPherson National Cemetery up there in Nebraska is a monument to the soldiers who died in the “Grattan Massacre” of 1854, the first big fight with the Sioux. It was over a cow. Most of the 29 U.S. soldiers on the stone have Irish names. Maybe one or two of them appreciated the irony of their demise.
It’s traditional, I suppose. The Spaniards brought the horse and disrupted the Native Americans’ agrarian lifestyle. The Milwaukeeans brought the two-wheeled land barge and disrupted mine – and does the fact I was born in Alabama make me a Native American also?
Also in homage to those for whom no clean sheets and hot showers existed, I slept in cheap hotels most nights just because they were cheap and there – and because it’s hard to find a good place to camp; wandering down dirt roads after dark with 900 pounds of motorcycle and stuff is a recipe for disaster for me. Now and then, though, in the middle of a long ride, I might find a quiet place off the road for an hour’s nap – a little trick I picked up from the Iron Butters years ago. Not only did my new Aerostich suit keep me safe and dry, it’s also a convenient sleeping bag you’re already in, and my Shoei’s a good pillow.
On the final day of my little vacation (910 miles from Ouray, CO to Costa Mesa, CA,) I woke up somewhere under a deep blue, puffy-cloud sky in Navajo territory and looked into the eyes of a lizard sitting on my chest, an ancient creature with a remarkably human expression on its face. For the second or two it took me to remember where I was, it might as well have been a thousand years ago. The older I get, the more I believe in religion, all of them, including reincarnation.
Smelling the barn after more than two weeks of travel, I got on I-40 and let the Victory do its thing, enjoying four sunsets in the space of about 45 minutes as the bike eased west of three mountain ranges. Ahhh, it’s sweet to be nomadic, even if it’s only a couple weeks a year.
I saw a weirdly interesting movie a while ago: Synecdoche, New York – starring the newly-deceased Phillip Seymour Hoffman. A big theme of the movie is the blur between fact and fiction, between character and actor. At the end, Hoffman’s character only wants to drive around in his golf cart. It’s a shame the guy never found himself a good motorcycle. Narration at the end:
As the people who adore you stop adoring you; as they die; as they move on; as you shed them; as you shed your beauty; your youth; as the world forgets you; as you recognize your transience; as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one; as you learn there is no-one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving. Not coming from any place; not arriving any place. Just driving, counting off time. Now you are here, at 7:43. Now you are here, at 7:44. Now you are: Gone.
You have to wonder if this Victory motorcycle will be on display in some out-of-the-way museum 100 years from now. A curator will explain, Yes, this was an expensive top-of the-line model, and people will look at it and say, “Those poor saps … what were they thinking?”