Saturday, December 27, 2008
I just added an engine crash bar, a new wind shield and a rear luggage trunk on the Shadow. For most people this may not be an gargantuan endeavor but I am not all that mechanically inclined. These remedial tasks took many long hours to complete in my non-heated detached garage (it has been rather cold of late). The important thing is that I did the work myself and no one was hurt in the process.
It was June; the early morning sun was warm to the touch and I awoke to a reality of a dream. For a year my motorcycle sat in storage in Golden, Colorado awaiting my triumphant return. My family moved to the east coast from Golden, Colorado and, due to a lack of space, the motorcycle could not join our eastward trek. I attempted to formulate a plan to retrieve my motorcycle and drive it from Colorado to New York. This would be a 1400 mile trip that I have been anticipating for 34 years. As long as I could remember, it was my dream to have a motorcycle and ride for days on end with only the wind, sun and moon as my companions. However, there was always something stopping me. The lack of money for a motorcycle, college, work, family and whatever else kept me off a cycle. In 2004, after serving 14 months in Iraq, I came home and bought a brand new 2003 Honda Shadow 750 ACE. My new bike, in many ways, symbolized who I was. It was simple, dependable and modest yet had a sense of character all its own.
For three years of riding my Honda, it had not once seen a single rain droplet and had only accumulated approximately 4000 miles; most of which were received on short trips up the numerous curvaceous valleys of the Eastern Foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I had exactly zero amount of experience riding long distance, let alone from Denver to New York. In early June of 2007, I left Rochester, New York via a US Airways Flight which was bound for a final destination to Denver, Colorado. Once in Denver it was my plan to pick up my bike and drive it back to New York via an obscure path not yet planned. Rather than a planned route, it was more about heading east and finding my way home.
While in the military I was taught that piss poor planning resulted in piss poor performance. As it turned out they were partially correct. The long sleep that my motorcycle took during its time in storage reeked havoc on its running condition. After a fuel change, oil change, replacement of the fuel filter and battery the bike was ready for the 1400 mile jaunt. This unplanned maintenance took a full day. Fortunately, my plan was to have no plan so there was no real damage to my travel itinerary. With a working cycle, wet weather gear and change of clothing I progressed east on my Shadow towards my home in Rochester, New York.
The first two hours of the trip went well, but then I noticed a few rain drops on my helmet. The scattered drops eventually became a down pour and, for the next two days, the skies did not dry up. Driving through Eastern Colorado and into Nebraska, on the back roads leading east, was like an oasis of views for one’s soul. The openness of the Great Plains is expanded tenfold while on a motorcycle. Not a dry fiber on my body, no windshield to divert the wind, the rain splashing down upon my legs likes mini daggers yet I simply wore a smile. It was a smile bred from being content and upon finding one’s place in the world. Maybe it was mild hyperthermia, but my mind began to drift. I began to ponder actions done in the past and events not yet fulfilled. I became lost in thought while I drove through the prairie. It was like the openness of my surrounding somehow opened my mind to places long lost forgotten.
After my first 10 hours on the road, I decided to find a hotel, get a good meal and dry off a bit. I didn’t have camping gear and decided to just find cheap hotels on the road. It must have been the warmth of the hotel room because I did not know how sore and cold I actually was until I started to dry off. I ended the night with some really bad Mexican Food and a warm shower. Tomorrow was waiting.
The next day, I was a couple of hours into my trip when I found a Motorcycle Store about 45 minutes from the Iowa boarder. Just for a break off of the cycle I went into the place to have a look around. Twenty minutes later I came out with a SpitFire Universal Windshield and a leather jacket. At the time, I did not understand how precious of a commodity these items would be for the rest of my journey east. The little windshield really did not look like much, but it diverted at least 60 percent of the wind and rain away from my body. This protection increased my riding comfort tenfold. The leather jacket was on sale for sixty dollars, but was perfect for the warm summer. I never had any idea what a seventy dollar windshield could accomplish, but I will never again buy a motorcycle, which I plan on taking long trips on, without one. For the rest of the day it poured, but I found out something which was unexpected. A motorcyclist that is soaked, from top to bottom, but who still has a cheerful disposition breeds a curiosity in people. I found that every time I stopped to rest individuals would stop by my bike and ask me questions or make a funny comment about riding in the rain. It was strange. The standard social norms had seemed to be thrown out the window. People would just approach me and start a discussion. Was it because I looked like a drowned rat and they felt sorry for me or could it be that they found it fascinating that someone could be so content while being so bloody wet?
In Iowa, on the second day of my trip, I stopped at a Truck Stop and Diner. As I walked into the place I left puddles in my path. I picked a booth near a window so that I could keep an eye on my ride and ordered a BLT. I saw an elderly gentleman, obviously retired, walk across the restaurant and take a seat in the booth adjacent to me. At this point he asked me a few questions regarding my journey across country on a motorcycle. Those few questions transformed into a two hour conversation. John ended up owning the Truck Stop, but had relinquished operational control of it to his two sons. He was a teenager during the Great Depression, a World War II Combat Veteran, crop pilot, over-the-road trucker, farmer, Truck Stop Restaurant owner and family man. Throughout our conversation, I found that he lived a life filled with adventure, loss, joy, hardship, sorrow, fear and hard work. Also, I realized that he did not observe life as a spectator, he lived it.
I wish I could tell you the names of the roads that I traveled or the hotels in which I stayed, but I cannot. I kind of just drove east hoping to not run out of gas like I almost did so many times. Another lesson that I learned while on the road is that if you’re going to drive across country it’s a good idea to have a large gas tank. My gas reserve warning light would go off at approximately 120 miles and I would need to look for a gas station. In the city this is not such an issue, but in the middle of Iowa it could be a problem. Luckily I never did run out of gas. If I had, it would have been just another interesting situation.
Somewhere near the Iowa/Illinois boarder I began to ponder memories long hidden. In 2003 I was part of the invasion force into Iraq from Kuwait. The memories of the invasion often bring me night tremors and, at times, sullen depression. The thought of the war would strike at random times and would often be triggered by loud noises, smells but mostly by large crowds. It is actually pretty tough for me to even write about this, but I have figured out that if one speaks of the ills of his past that he will less likely be suffocated by the negative memories of yesterday. On the ride, I began to ponder the war and the part I played in it. The difference is that I thought of these issues on my terms and in my own way. For the first time in since I got back from Iraq, I found that I had control of the past and not vise versa. By no means am I saying that this motorcycle ride cured me of my past recollections and skeletons, but I can say, without a doubt, that I was able to get in a place that I felt like I could handle those memories and put them to rest. Do I still get a nervous twitch when I hear a loud noise? Well, yes but I am able to deal with it and continually move forward. For me, the trick is to vent these negative emotions, with a person who cares when the time is needed and not become consumed and transfixed by what occurred. With all experiences in life, one must progress forward along his or her chosen path and hope to learn and gain wisdom along the way.
The sun decided to show its’ fullness on the third day of my trip. I was content riding in the rain, but the sun brought a new perspective on riding. Instead of the people in the cars looking at me thinking, “How could he be on a motorcycle in the rain”; I was thinking, “How could these people be in a car on a beautiful day such as this.” Everything seemed perfect. By this time I was heading southeast towards Indianapolis. I remember getting lost a few times along the way. However, “lost” is a term that I use loosely because if one has no plan than where ever one ends up is exactly where he’s supposed to be. I approached the Indiana/Ohio boarder on my 3rd day. I found another mom and pop hotel to rest for the night.
Waking up on the 4th day I found that riding in the sun brings with it a nasty burn if precautions are not taken. The burn was not as bad as it could have been given the clothing I was wearing and the full face shield on my helmet, but I knew some sun block was needed. So I pulled into this gas station to fill up my tank and get some SPF 40 sun block. It was really early in the morning and I did not pull away from the gas pumps when I was putting on my protective lotion. Well, to make a long story short, while I was rubbing it onto my neck and face about ten mutant motorcyclists surrounded the gas pump. I looked up, with white lotion all over my face, neck and hands, and saw every one of those bikers staring at me. One guy, who looked like Andre the Giant, say’s to me, “We need to fill up, move your bike”. A personal pet peeve of mine is when someone doesn’t move away from the pump promptly after getting gas. So, I understood the situation from my large friend’s point of view and moved along. I spent six straight days on my motorcycle during my trip and this was the only negative experience that I witnessed and ironically it came from a fellow motorcyclist.
The next day of my trip brought me running north towards Cleveland, Ohio. I can tell you that I must have been deep in thought because, once again, I found that I was just about out of gas. It was around 8pm and it was a Sunday night. I was in a rural area and approached 4 different gas stations; each of them closed. During my quest for a gas station, I passed several different horse and buggy carts and was quite certain that I was deep into Amish Country. Though the scenery was great, I was really concerned that I was going to run out of gas. I eventually passed a couple of kids playing in one of the horse and buggy carts and I stopped and asked them for some directions. They gave me a perfect route to the only open gas station in the area. Once filled up, I thought of how ironic it was to be asking for directions for gas from a couple of kids who may never have been in a gas combustion automobile in their lives. That night I could not sleep all that well. I knew it was the last night on my dream ride.
The sixth day brought me home to Rochester, New York. My dream ride was better than I thought possible. I learned a lot about being a motorcyclist and about long distance riding. In some ways, I was able to learn about myself. Before returning home, I began planning my next long distance bike trip. Next time I will hopefully take my wife as well as some camping equipment and forgo the cheap hotels. For me, I really think it was the lack of a travel itinerary and the vastness of the Midwest that made my adventure so terrific. For some a perfect place may be in Aruba or a cabin in the Alps, but I feel most comfortable, on my motorcycle, facing the open road.