Backroads (or: being blown sideways down the road less traveled)
©2008 by 'Adrian Leverkuhn'
There's something peculiarly energizing about a road trip, even if, as is most often the case, it's a journey to nowhere in particular. Even if you've been down the same road a hundred times before, there's the hint of something new in the air, some new adventure at hand. The butterflies, the jitters, call them what you like, they always turn up, yet rarely when you expect them to. Hints of the unknown crowd out normal workaday thoughts; the thrill of the unexpected is just around the next bend in the road. At least it always is in the daydreams I've had. Maybe it's just because the whole thing is like life, just all compressed into one brief interlude of beginning, middle, and end. But more than anything else, taking a road trip marks a real break from the ordinary and a confirmation of sorts that we are, in fact, still among the living.
That thought kept running through my mind in the days before I was going to leave; I'd wanted to break away from the 'day to day' of my life for quite a while, and yet, something about making this just another road trip suddenly seemed a little too ordinary. With that thought and all these other expectations coming to a head just a few days before D-Day, I decided it was time to put up or shut up. Load up the Land Rover and go, or do something all too characteristic of my more stupid self and buy a motorcycle. I chose the latter.
In fact, I used to ride the things very chance I got. Ignore the fact for a moment that the last time I'd been on a bike was something like twenty, uh, well, almost thirty years ago; I used to ride a lot, and liked it. Over three years in the early 80s, I'd put almost thirty thousand miles on a little BMW RT, a decent, if somewhat small, touring bike in its day. I'd always kept my license current, and my insurance agent, an old friend from high school, didn't throw too big a fit when I told him what I had in mind. He did mention something about getting my affairs in order. I told him I hadn't gotten laid in three years, let alone had an affair with anyone. His secretary blew half a two liter bottle of Pepsi out her nose with that.
Anyway, I didn't want to deal with used bike bread-downs so headed off to a couple of dealerships. My little 1982 BMW had cost something like four grand way back when; a new touring bike, I found, would require a second mortgage on the house or a four hundred dollar a month payment. Never being a timid sort, which is a roundabout way of saying I've never been particularly intelligent with finances, after falling in love with the second bike I saw I signed on the dotted line and was the proud new owner of a thousand pound two-wheeled motor-home more commonly referred to as a Gold Wing.
No reason to go into the details: it was a nice machine. The Honda wasn't the svelte, lithe BMW of yesterday, but then again, neither was I. In that regard I thought us a perfect match, and that despite the fact that I bought the only one any dealer around had remaining in stock. Therefore I drove out of the dealership on a thousand pound banana; the salesman even threw in a nice brown helmet so that it looked like my banana had a nice coating of hot fudge on top. As I pulled up to a stop light on the way home, I overheard a little girl say something like: "Look, Mommy! Ice cream!" And yes, she was pointing at me.
That was, also, when I was first filled with the pure and total dread of the possibility of dropping this mastodon. As I put my foot down on the hot asphalt that first time, cold fear clutched my belly: if I dropped this mother it would take a tow truck or a platoon of Marines to help me get it back up on two wheels. Maybe the prospect wouldn't have seemed so daunting with a nice gray motorcycle, but suddenly the complexities of owning an almost fluorescent yellow motorcycle took on dramatic new possibilities of ways to humiliate myself in public. When the light turned green I satisfied myself that the beast could accelerate to ninety percent of light speed in a city block. Well, if I couldn't deal with the humiliation, perhaps I could at least outrun it.
After a quick stop at a sporting goods store for a tent (and all the requisite paraphernalia that attends such far-seeing masochism), I headed home by way of the local drive-through hamburger stand. There were, of course, an even half dozen cars ahead of me in the line, which, of course, necessitated duck-waddling along with my legs spread in ways I hadn't done in, well, thirty years.
It started as a little burn, really. A muscle deep in the general vicinity of my testicles began to smolder, then it gave an insistent little quiver before turning into a pulsing inferno. I hopped over to one side, hoping to relieve the spasm; when that didn't do the trick I hopped to the other foot. I shut my eyes and gritted my teeth, sweat began pouring out from under my new fudge-colored helmet, and drivers in the four or five cars behind me began to honk their horns. I wanted to flip them off but I realized I was massaging my groin with both hands; I opened my eyes in time to see a mother hurrying her kids past me while saying something like "it's alright, Jennie-Sue, just don't look at the dirty old man. We're almost to the car!" Just warms the cockles of your heart, you know?
In the end I decided to pull into a parking space and go in.
The next two days moved by at a glacial pace, but that two evening I hurried home and jumped on the Wing and took off for a quick ride around the neighborhood. People I had known for years pointed at the banana and laughed; grown men hid their eyes and small children ran toward me like I was selling ice cream. I began to wonder how quickly a body shop could drop two coats candy apple red on the beast while I pulled back into the garage. I closed the overhead door as quickly as possible, threw a tarp over her and darted into the kitchen, grabbed a beer and went out on the back porch.
"Nice looking bike, Tim," my neighbor said over the fence, his baby girl on his shoulder. "Just what do they call that color, anyway?" Nice smirk, too.
"Baby shit yellow. Like the stuff running down your shirt." Et tu, Brutus.
I went back inside and flipped on the television. It was a Honda commercial, and it was the most beautiful Gold Wing I'd ever seen... kind of a misty metallic bronze, tan saddle, smiling couple in color-matched riding suits and helmets... just gorgeous. Real classic stuff, something you'd be proud to be seen on. I went back out to the garage and peeled back the tarp and looked at my banana. No wonder it was the last one Oregon. Well anyway, she was all mine and after all, I didn't have to look at it. Looking on the bright side, people would be able to spot me from miles off, even in heavy fog.
The anointed day arrived; all gear stowed logically, five CDs loaded into the changer, fuel tank full. I rolled-up my rain gear, strapped it in a stuff sack and lashed it to the rack on top of the trunk, then put on my helmet and clicked the chin-strap in place. Feeling for all the world like Tom Cruise walking along a ramp bristling with Tomcats, I flipped the ignition switch and hit the starter, and the beast turned over, began to purr gently. I paddled backwards out of the garage and turned her around under the last of the night's stars, a charley-horse just hovering in the background ready to pounce unannounced, but I managed to slip her in gear, hit the garage door opener and idle slowly down the drive and into the street, all without falling on my face even once.
It felt good. The air was cool and clear, the moon overhead seemed lazily content, and the eastern horizon looked pink and full of promise. The panel lights glowed comfortably, provided a little radiant cocoon to sit back in and watched the world slip by, and everything just seemed good. All was right with this world.
And the plan was simple: I had none. What I did have was two weeks off, a new motorcycle, and plenty of clean underwear. What else do you need? With free winds at my back I made my way down to the Interstate and paused: north or south, I asked myself, warmer or cooler. North it was, but then I changed my mind and turned east, motored along the Columbia River toward Spokane. The sun rose, the air grew warmer, little gusts swirled down the canyon and shook us from time to time. It felt good to be alive.
The Honda was a silent partner, willing, smooth, and it soon became apparent it would be ridiculously easy to rack up huge mileage on her before developing what I had once euphemistically called bungee-butt, or in less charitable moments, the iron ass blues. The seat had a backrest, GPS showed the way ahead, cruise control took care of the monotonous tyranny of the speedometer, an electrically adjustable windscreen kept bugs out of my teeth and the CB radio would, hopefully, reveal hidden speed traps, so, taking into account the aforementioned CD changer, all the beast really needed was maid service and a mini-bar.
The miles rolled by fluidly; speed seemed of little importance out here on high rolling grasslands and time took on a careless ambivalence. The way turned north and crossed the Columbia and in time the highway crossed into Washington. The air grew marginally warmer, the sun incrementally more prickly; the fuel gauge blinked insistently and an off-ramp loomed ahead, an oasis of gasoline and high fructose corn syrup for high plains drifters.
This was the first full tank burned and the mileage was predictably awful, the cold drinks from the Stop-n-Rob weren't cold at all, and I couldn't wait to get back out on the open road. I looked at the GPS and scrolled around, weighing options against the sun overhead, and looked at a strip of two lane blacktop that swept off through rolling hills.
Ah-yep. That looked just fine, thanks. I pulled out of the station and turned onto the blacktop and rolled on the throttle. The air was hot now, and felt like a blast furnace until the engine heat was ripped away in the slipstream. A highway sign just ahead mentioned that Waitsburg was about ninety miles ahead and that felt about right, too. The road was all long sweeping curves and begged for a little speed and the Honda was only too happy to oblige. The road was perfect, too perfect; I came around a bend and saw that a State Trooper had a group of kids on crotch-rockets pulled over. He and his partner were, I could just guess, having a citation writing contest. The Honda purred along quietly and I waved at the gendarmes as I passed; if the kids could have flipped me the bird they would have. I felt for 'em, I really did. Not one of their bikes was banana yellow, far from it, as a matter of fact, and here I was rolling by scot-free. Life ain't fair sometimes. I did notice a few frowns as I passed.
I dialed back the cruise control and waited. I knew it wouldn't be long.
Sure enough a few minutes passed and I could see the State Trooper's car roaring along to catch up and pace me or hit me with radar. They hung back a while in frustration then closed the gap rapidly. We came to a long clear straight and they made to pass, pulled alongside and the Trooper in the passenger seat rolled down his window. I rolled the speed down a little more.
"Man alive," the Trooper shouted over the road noise, "that sure is one yellow motorcycle!" They were both laughing, so I did too.
I looked down at the bike. "Really? I thought it was green."
"Did you special order it that way?"
"Really, you mean it's yellow? You for real?"
The Troopers laughed and roared off down the road. I changed the CD and leaned back, took the warm soda for one of the fourteen cup holders and took a swig. Nothing worse that warm Coke; it foams and fizzes and wants to run out your nose, and at sixty miles per on a motorcycle that can be real fun. A challenge, even.
A sign ahead put Waitsburg at forty five miles, and the gas gauge showed a little less than half. Now that was interesting, and got my instant and undivided attention, too. I'd been forty seven miles and used more than half a tank. Interesting. I hoped there was good cell coverage out here, because it looked like I might need it. I set the cruise at fifty five and loped along slowly; a few minutes later another group of kids on crotch rockets came flaming by and I wanted to warn them what they were headed for but they were doing their level best to grind their foot-pegs off and were out of sight before I could form a complete thought.
Needless to say, the Troopers were wearing out their ballpoints about three turns on down the road. The gendarmes waved as I passed; one of the kids flipped me the bird. I saw one of the troopers in my mirror smile and get another ticket book out.
A while later the low fuel warning light came on, but I could see the town of Waitsburg ahead and down a long, gentle stretch of road, and sitting beside a wide river I could see a couple of Stop-n-Robs in a sea of trees. Pulled into the first one I came to, too.
Filled up and went in to pay, asked the clerk if there was a good burger to be had around town and he pointed out a little place down the main street a few hundred yards. I saddled up and puttered down the tree-lined street, pulled up in front of a funny looking diner, then took off my helmet and immediately felt the sun beating down on my head. There was a little window box air conditioner struggling off to the side and I walked in, hoping for the best, and took a seat right in front of the window unit.
It was surprisingly nice inside, and empty. Not one soul sitting anywhere except the woman behind the counter; she was reading a tabloid and didn't look up when I came in, and neither did she after I came up to the counter.
"If the sign says so, I guess I am." She had a thick Aussie accent. She seemed totally out of her element, like she'd been stranded here once upon a time, and I wondered what her story was.
"How 'bout a hamburger? Coke? Fries?"
"What you want on it?"
"Everything?" She looked up at me now. "You sure?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess so. Why?"
"Better have a look at the menu, slick."
I pulled a little red vinyl folder out of the little stainless rack along the counter and looked through it. There were about thirty optional toppings for the burgers, everything from all the normal things to really weird ones like jalapenos and anchovies! I'd never seen anything like it in my life.
"Anyone ever put dead fish on their burger?" I was incredulous, flabbergasted.
"Yeah, quite a few actually. Seems to go pretty good with bleu cheese."
"Your shittin' me, right?"
"Okay, well, tell you what. Your choice; make me the best one you can."
"I can do that." She stood, accepted the challenge and went into the kitchen; soon meat was sizzling and fries were bubbling away. She brought out a cold Coke in a glass of crushed ice. Heaven! Pure heaven!
A few minutes later the troopers pulled up and parked in front of the door; they waved to me when they came in and took a table in the corner and sat facing the door. Not a minute later the herd of crotch rockets roared into town and they too pulled up to the diner. That, I thought, took balls, but they came thudding in and spilled into a couple of booths, shedding helmets and gloves and unzipping multicolored leather outfits all the while.
"How are you this afternoon, Mary?" one of the troopers, and older fellow, asked the girl in the kitchen.
"Good, Dwayne. How 'bout you? What'll it be?"
"Usual for me. Can't say for sure what the rookie will do. Ain't quite figured him out yet."
"Got any chili back there?" the rookie said, his voice expectant and hungry.
"Are you out of your cotton-pickin' mind, Meathead? It's gonna be over a hundred degrees out there today; tell me you ain't gonna force me to sit in a car all afternoon after you eat a bowl of chili? There are beans in that chili, fool! Come on, say it ain't so!"
The rookie looked down sheepishly. "Guess I'll have a BLT, Mary."
The old trooper looked triumphant; the bikers smirked and chuckled.
"And a bowl of chili too?" the rookie said. That caused a couple of the bikers to laugh loud and hard. The old cop just shook his head and grinned, took his defeat gracefully.
It turned out that Mary cooked the best hamburger west of anywhere, and the fries were fresh too, not frozen, which to me induces a mild state of nirvana. And now, with the place full almost to bursting, the girl was cooking up a storm back there; the little diner was full of sizzles and pops and hissing steam rising and drifting all over everything. It smelled a little bit like heaven in there to me, not at all like the fast food places you find along the Interstate. I began to think I'd made a good choice to turn away from the crowded roadway.
The troopers asked the bikers to take it easy on their way out, and after a while the herd filed out too and mounted their rockets; they roared back up the road they'd just come down, leaving the diner silent but for the air conditioner.
The place was a mess now; it looked like a bomb had gone off in there, and the girl, Mary, came out and looked it over and shook her head. I was still sitting by the air conditioner, map spread out over the table and looking for possible routes into the mountains ahead. I looked at her again; she was maybe thirty, thirty five, her sandy brown hair was short, almost too short, and she looked strong, almost muscular. Not quite feminine, not quite boyish. It seemed to me that she comfortably inhabited the nether regions between two opposites. She looked content, if not exactly happy.
She came over to the table and sat down.
"Where you headed?"
"Nowhere in particular. East, I guess."
She looked out the front window, took on that faraway look that defines the joining of memory. "That your Wing?"
"Yeah. Just got it."
"Love the color," she said, and I could tell she meant it, too. "Kind of like a desert rose." She stared out the glass door at the bike, eyes full of daydreams. "Would be fun again; to just point and go wherever the road leads you. How long you been on the road?"
I looked down at my watch. "About six hours, I guess."
"Like I said, I just got the bike, a couple of days ago. Have some time off; thought I'd ride up to the mountains."
"Stay on 12 and ride along the Snake and keep on to Missoula. Go north to Flathead, then up to Glacier. Take the highway over to St Mary's. Nice ride."
"Done it before?"
"Yeah, couple of times. You campin'?"
"That's the plan."
"Rain comin' this afternoon. Thunderstorms. Might want to find a good place to set up around four or so."
I have no idea why I said what I said next; it kind of caught me off-guard too.
"You want some help cleaning up this mess?"
She turned and looked at me, and it was like the first time she really saw me. A little smile passed across her face, like a cloud across a vast prairie, and her eyes grew soft and warm. "If you want. Sure."
We carried a load into the kitchen and she turned on the water, let it warm up and I bussed loads to her while she washed. We dried and I helped her put stuff away, then we went out and cleaned off the tables. Afterwards I sat at the counter, folded maps and gathered my things and she brought me another Coke.
"On the house," she said.
I smiled. She smiled. I felt a hint of expectation in the air, and she leaned forward, kissed me lightly on the lips. I kissed her back. She liked that, and so did I. She leaned in to me; I took her and wrapped myself around her. She reached down, felt familiar places and sighed through our kiss. Her breath was sweet, her eyes full of mischief and the want of too many nights drifting among songs best left unsung, and I could feel the pulsing need between us growing, filling the air around us with promises that would forever remain unsaid.