“Well I woke up Sunday morning, with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt. The beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for dessert. Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes, and found my cleanest dirty shirt. I washed my face and combed my hair and stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.” ~ Kris Kristofferson
I wake up Sunday morning and rifle through the saddle bag for my cleanest dirty shirt. I don’t bother with a shower, because the motel bathroom is dirtier than me. I’m quickly dressed and loading Connie for the 434 mile trip to Long Beach, Wash. A friend has offered to let me stay in his vacation home for the night, but first I have to get there.
The streets of Crescent City, Calif. are silent as Connie and I roll slowly out of the motel parking lot. I’m extra careful because thick fog came in off the ocean last night, and now it blankets the town. The fog will go on for miles as I ride north.
But before riding, I need two things — gasoline and coffee. I find both at a filling station right next to the bar I went to with Tim and Jill last night. Part of me wants to look them up when I get home and send an email of thanks, but I won’t. Last night was perfect, and it was finite. Trying to extend it via an email friendship would reduce the power of those moments. Some things need to be left alone.
It’s cold and damp, so I layer up and put my rain gear on while drinking bitter, black coffee under the florescent lights of the gas station’s rain canopy. There isn’t a single car on the road as I roll back onto Hway – 101 northbound. The dense featureless fog is scary to ride through. It plays tricks on me. Vague silhouettes of deer, children, trucks, and buildings appear, disappear and reappear as something else. Traveling faster than 30 mph feels like I’m overrunning my ability to react if something shows up in front of me. Occasionally, a car blasts by in the passing lane. Those metal cages give drivers a false sense of safety. The fog continues for more than 20 miles. I’m all the way across the Oregon state line before it suddenly lifts to reveal a beautiful sunny day.
I wish I could say my trip through Oregon is something other than a long, hard ride broken up only briefly by gasoline and coffee stops, but that’s exactly what it becomes. I’ve run out of time, and now I have to cover a lot of ground. There isn’t much traffic, and the weather is ideal. So, I ride at high speed along Oregon’s Hway – 101. The only evidence of my passing is Connie’s climbing odometer and a string of gasoline purchase receipts.
Almost ten hours after leaving Crescent City, Calif., I’m hurting and tired as I pass through Astoria and cross the Melger Bridge over the mouth of the Columbia River. It’s a warm and sunny evening as I land on Washington soil at the other side of the bridge. Long Beach is just 12 miles to the northwest. I’m shocked by how heavy Sunday evening traffic is when I get to town until I remember it’s Labor Day weekend.
Connie’s kickstand goes down across the street from Morgan’s Long Beach Tavern. It’s one of the town’s busiest watering holes tonight. The dinner crowd is here, and men are engaged in single-warrior combat on the battlefield of pool tables at the back of the bar. One older gentleman at the middle table is emerging as the victor of the day. I’ll see a couple more of his young opponents fall before the night is over.
It feels amazing to not be moving after riding for more than 400 miles. I’m sick of the wind and tired of the constant noise. I can’t find an open seat, but the waitress finds me. My order is so simple she doesn’t bother to write it down; a glass of water and a double whiskey-coke.
I’m not here to drink. I need to get into my cellphone and find the directions to my friend’s cabin. That takes much longer than it should because he sent the directions to his cabin to my company email account, and my password has expired while I’ve been rambling for 14 days. It takes about an hour for me to figure out how to reset my password. Doing so starts an avalanche of more than 900 email deliveries to my cellphone. I’m reading, and deleting messages as fast as they come in. It takes me a couple more jack-n-cokes to get through all that email and find the only one that matters tonight.
I pay my bill and walk out to Connie. I’m repeating the directions over and over in my head as I ride the three miles to the cabin. I find the place, and the keys are right where they’re supposed to be. Once I’m inside, I realize how hungry I am. Digging through the kitchen cupboards provides a single can of pork-n-beans and a root beer. The beans taste good right out of the can, but they only wet my appetite. So, I’m headed back to town in search of food after putting Connie’s saddlebags in the cabin.
Long Beach is much quieter by the time I pass back under the town’s single stop light. I end up at the same bar. I order a big salad and drink another whiskey-coke while waiting for my food. The salad shows up a few minutes later, and I’m face down in a hubcap-sized plate for about 15 minutes.
Eventually, I ease up. My belly is full and the whiskey has me relaxed. That’s when a sad older man, who has had a few too many drinks, sits down and starts talking. He tells me that he, his wife and their granddaughter are here on vacation. They’re from eastern Washington.
“I think it’s thoughtful of you to give your adult child a break from being a parent for a few days,” I say to him.
This man suddenly looks impossibly sad, and he is blinking back tears as he tells me how he came to raise his granddaughter. His daughter had seizures most of her life, and she died a couple years ago during a particularly bad one. The lines around his eyes shine with wetness as he speaks of his daughter and all she went through. Now, I’m thinking of my daughter and trying to imagine the pain of watching her suffer. I’m close to crying when this man changes the subject.
“I see from your helmet that you ride. Is that your motorcycle out at the curb?” he asks while wiping his eyes with his shirt sleeves, “Tell me about it.”
I don’t really know what gets me going. Maybe I’m tired, or feeling emotional that The Ride is almost done, but suddenly I spring a verbal leak and everything I’ve been thinking while riding through Oregon is coming out.
“That’s not a motorcycle. She’s a time machine with saddlebags. She’s a magic carpet with handlebars. She’s a canyon-carving, desert-blasting, dinosaur bones burning bitch that’s carried me 3,400 miles and never faltered.”
The man orders another drink and settles in to listen to my motorcycle monologue.
“On a more subtle level, she is my entree into interesting social settings. There are a couple parts to this.”
First, riding changes a person. Being in constant contact with the raw material of the world fine-tunes your body and your mind. Your thoughts and reactions get tested and refined as does your physical strength and endurance. The result is that you become more purely you as all the crap falls away. I’m much more decisive than usual, and I feel more healthy. Hell, I’ve even lost 10 lbs. in two weeks.”
The bartender bellies up and listens as my voice gets louder.
“Second, being a motorcyclist changes how strangers perceive and react to you. Not being encased in an automobile lets everyone know you’re willing to move with the world instead of simply through it. I believe they understand you’re open to new experiences and maybe a little vulnerable. They get that you aren’t looking for a safe retreat. Maybe subconsciously they understand you accept pain, fatigue and danger as the cost of entry, and they treat you differently because of it. For example, I got invited to a stranger’s birthday party last night because of my motorcycle. I’m pretty sure people at the party would not have accepted me like they did if I’d been cleaner and less road-weary. People just treat you differently when you’re in a motorcycle context.”
This is where I run out of gas and pick up my fork to finish what remains of my dinner.
A few minutes later, the fatigue of the day is starting to settle into me, so I pay my bill at this bar for the second time tonight and wish the sad father / heroic grandfather my best. He offers to buy me another drink. He’s not done, not by a long shot, but I decline his friendly offer. I suggest he go back to his hotel. His wife probably wonders where he’s gotten to. But he sits there, staring past his reflection in the mirror behind the liquor bottles. I think he’s trying to drown his pain one drink at a time.
It’s chilly and the street is deserted when I step out of the tavern. An old truck, a brown Monte Carlo and Connie are the only vehicles parked on the street as a Long Beach cop rolls slowly by in his cruiser. The officer is watching to see if I’ve had too much to drink. I wave in an attempt to show I’m okay, and he keeps rolling right on by. As soon as he’s gone, I climb onto Connie and I’m riding again.
I get to the cabin and put Connie in the garage. Walking around the yard, I sit in the grass. The wind is blowing off the ocean. I can hear the waves crashing on the beach, and it suddenly feels like September. Summer is over, and The Ride is almost done.
My wife and children are just 180 miles to the northeast. Kristi is probably in bed. She might be reading or maybe she’s already turned in. Her days are long and stressful since she accepted a job as a vice-principal. The days of summer aren’t the break they once were for her. The first official day of school is less than 48 hours away. The pressure of being a school administrator will be intense. It’s time to step up my game for her sake. She’s going to need more from me from here on out.
Brady is probably playing Xbox in the living room right now. He starts ninth grade in a couple days, and that means his grades suddenly count toward graduation, and his records will begin to matter for college. Game on, young man. I’m going to need to be there more for him too.
Carly is at a concert in Seattle at this moment. She’ll be starting her sophomore year at the University of Washington later this month. She’ll probably be getting serious about her major this year. That’s going to be more pressure and stress for her. I actually dropped out of college for a little while during my sophomore year. I was getting good grades, but I reached the point where I questioned what I wanted to do with my life. That moment of doubt snowballed, and I became deeply depressed. Those were dark times for me, and I hope to help Carly avoid all that if she’ll let me.
Tomorrow the ride will be done when I pull up into the drive-way of our house in Bothell. I’ll be tired from grinding through Tacoma and Seattle’s Labor Day traffic, but I’ll feel refreshed by the experience of the last 15 days. During that time, I laughed with old friends, reconnected with my brother, and thought a lot about my Dad. It’s the memory of him giving me the gift of motorcycle riding more than three decades ago that causes my emotional breakdown less than two miles from home as I exit the interstate.
I’m rolling at 70 mph when my vision fractures into a thousand pieces. Tears pool in and pour from my eyes. I let go of the throttle and try to maintain a straight line while blinking – desperately trying to clear my vision as cars pass by on my left side. I can’t see anything, and this is quickly getting very dangerous. Ripping open my visor, the wind stings my eyes and pushes the tears onto my cheeks. My vision clears enough for me to exit the freeway and steer onto a side road. I’ve got to get myself together. I don’t want my family to see me like this. So, I find a wide spot in the road to stop. Climbing off Connie, I stand in the appropriately named breakdown lane and talk to the memory of my dad who’s suffering with Alzheimer’s back in Salt Lake City at this very moment.
“We made it Dad. We’re almost home. I thought it was just Connie and me on this ride, but you’ve been here with us the whole time. It was you whispering to me in Zion National Park — telling me to slow down when I was attempting to take those hairpin turns too fast. It was you, telling me to stop for water when I was dehydrated in the desert between Las Vegas and Barstow. It was you telling me when to brake, coast and accelerate during the most difficult sections of California Highway – 1. Thank you for teaching me. I’ll never forget that it was you who took the time to teach me. It was you who trusted me when I was just a boy. It meant a lot back then, and it means the world to me now. Thank you, Dad.”