Friday, July 01, 2016


On Thursday, June 23rd, I loaded up my 2014 Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special for a trip that, ultimately, had no destination. The “excuse” for the ride was to attend an old friend’s wedding in Southern California last Saturday, but I didn’t need to be gone a week or log the miles I did to do that. The easiest and, probably, most cost-effective way to meet that end would have been to fly down, spend the night and fly back to Sacramento. It should come as no surprise that “easy” and “cost-effective,” while both noble ends in and of themselves, are not necessarily the stuff of legend. I decided to take the long way around. I decided to take my time. I decided to do something many dream about, but comparatively few ever actually do.  And although my six-state, 3,100 plus mile trek was not record-setting by any means, it is also true that these sorts of things are not competitive. My “opponent” is me, Mother Nature and/or other variables. There is no winning, there is only doing.

Briefly, my ride went from Sacramento south to Pacheco Pass and over to Monterey where I picked up the Pacific Coast Highway and rode it down to Santa Barbara where I spent the night. PCH is one of “those” roads - epic in every respect. This time was no different. Friday morning, I met up with a friend (also no stranger to these sorts of adventures) who served as my local tour guide. She took me through not one, not two, but three different local canyons, including Malibu Canyon and culminating with Topanga Canyon. In Chatsworth, we parted ways. This would be the only day I rode with someone else. For a ride that consisted of very little planning, meeting up and riding together that Friday was one of the few planned events. Saturday was the wedding (different than any other wedding I’ve ever attended or been in, but that’s a different story for a different time) and Sunday I headed down to Anaheim to see my eldest son, daughter-in-law and grandsons. After dinner, I left Anaheim for Blythe, CA. I wanted to ride later in the day because that part of the desert can be unbearably hot this time of year. When I arrived in Blythe well after dark, the temperature was still near 100 degrees. I left early in the morning for Tucson, AZ (again, to avoid the heat) and stayed with a friend in Tucson Monday night.

So far, except for the PCH and the canyons near Malibu, the ride would have to be classified as utilitarian. Good, but nothing to get too excited about. That was about to change. Tuesday I rode north through Arizona, into New Mexico and ended up in Durango, CO. From Anaheim on, this was all new motorcycle territory for me, though I have driven many of those roads in the past. There were some notable exceptions like the Salt River Canyon in Arizona. It was magnificent - even more so on a bike. From Gallup, New Mexico all the way back to Williams, AZ, it was all new for me. From Durango I went north on the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray, CO where I picked up the San Juan Skyway to Placerville and Cortez, CO. Then I went south and west to the Four Corners, the Grand Canyon and into Williams for the night. From Williams I rode through Las Vegas and through the eastern Nevada desert before coming west around Lake Tahoe and home. The last day was about getting home and doing a little “endurance” riding - it could be described as utilitarian, too, but it was more a battle against my own psyche. The last day came in at just more than 740 miles, most if it through the desert.

The prior two paragraphs are only there to very briefly describe where the ride went. It doesn’t even begin to explain what it was. Those two paragraphs were, to be perfectly frank, a chore to write. It doesn’t say what I saw, what I experienced, the elements I faced and both the negative and positive aspects of the solitude involved. Some of that will be told as I continue, but this ride, as much as it is always about the machine and riding it, isn’t even about the ride itself. This was about escape. Escape from what? More like “from whom?” I was escaping from myself and a cycle of negativity that was eating me alive. Indeed, this ride became what it was… this ride became for that very reason. Let me see if I can put that into words.

I mentioned how many would love to do something like what I just did, but few actually have. The ones who don’t are not just day-dreaming out loud, they are not just blowing smoke; I firmly believe they are absolutely sincere and their intention is to do just that. It doesn’t have to be a motorcycle ride (solo or otherwise) it could be any kind of cross-country trek - a major hike, a bicycle ride, sailboat voyage or any number of things that involves some kind of physical long-distance journey. When I was filling up my bike in Tonopah, NV, a gentleman said to me, “someday…” I said, “Don’t wait too long, someday might never come.” He understood. For a split-second I saw in his eyes a determination that probably surprised even him. It is not uncommon when stopping for gas, food, water or for the night to see others see me with a form of envy that is not born of maliciousness. They don’t “want” my bike, they want to experience the world in a certain way and perhaps the most quintessential way is on a Harley. The metaphor, “steel horse,” could not be more appropriate.

It takes a lot of factors coming together to make something like this happen. As much as people can envision themselves heading out on the open road (or open whatever), more than just a couple of planets have to align. I own a motorcycle and I have for many years; I know what is involved in terms of physical, psychic and financial determination. Yet, this is just the third time I’ve taken such an adventure and the first time I’ve done it solo. I remember very clearly the first time six years ago. I rode with a friend to Butte, MT on an 11-day odyssey. It wasn’t going to be just the two of us - a larger group of friends all started to plan the ride months earlier, but as the date grew closer everyone else dropped out. I came close to dropping out myself. I kept thinking about how far it was, all the things that could go wrong, who would mind things at home - planets, all of them, that I was pushing out of alignment. At one point I realized that I was in the process of sabotaging my own “someday.” If I did not go then, I never would have.

More people have the tangible resources than they do the intangibles. Imagining oneself out on the open highway or being taken in by a canopy of trees lining the road or feeling the spray of the ocean while riding along the coast is the easy part. Those imaginational renderings never include the sweating butt, the twinge in the shoulder blade, the cramps in the hands or the miles of abject nothingness riding through the desert or across the salt flats. All of these terrain and geographic features are magical, but that magic can fade after 100, 200 or 500 miles. And if not a solo ride (if the vehicle of choice is a motorcycle, all rides are solo to some extent), what about the committee decisions? Where to eat, stop, sleep, and when to pee? These things are not what comes to mind when envisioning the romantic “open road.” Committees of one are the easiest, every decision is necessarily unanimous. But the solitude does have its downside, and many do not factor that into the romantic vision, either. This last trip was very intentionally a solo ride. I did not “invite” anyone, I didn’t want anyone else to go.

All of the friends who wanted to go both six years ago and last year all have their own motorcycles. All are part of the “biker” lifestyle (not to be confused with what is portrayed on TV - that is not what we are about). They all had planets that fell out of alignment. For some it was the time. For others it was the money. For still others it was family or work obligations. It doesn’t take much to throw a monkey wrench into something like this. And while I cannot say for sure, it is also possible that some were subconsciously pushing planets out of alignment. It is a much larger commitment than just a vacation. When envisioning how great it would be, those little details need not be entertained. When the departure date is looming, however, those details can become all-consuming.

Some say I am “living the dream.” This means different things to different people. It means different things to me depending on where my head is at the time. A little more than a week ago, my head could not see any dream. It was wrapped much too tightly around a notion that has haunted me my entire life - justice. When I was a kid, it was much more localized as fairness. As I grew and became more aware of the world I live in, I was able to see justice or, more often injustice, in people and places that were not directly tied to me. Bad things were happening to good or innocent people so much that I grew numb to it. It was a form of accepting that the world is not fair. Okay. Got it. But when good things happen to bad people (defined in numerous ways, it doesn’t have to be serial-killer bad)? That is a much more difficult concept to accept, for whatever reason. But it comes and goes. And when it touches my life in a very direct way it has a very direct effect on my serenity. In those times, I am living no dreams. In those times I am again five years-old and it is once again “no fair!”

It is exceeding rare that I am not in a profound state of gratitude for all I have. Whether it is by grace, by work or by luck, I am almost always in amazement at the life I get to live. In some respects, one could say I paid the price, but the truth is that I am one lucky SOB, too. The problem is that where I have worked hard to get much of what I have (luck and grace, while not a direct function of effort, are still affected by it), others seem to get what they want by doing little to nothing. I know, life is not fair, but when it hits very close to home, it devalues not the stuff I have, but what it took to get there. In other words, it diminishes the intangibles. And that - that - is on me. I should not and, in fact, do not need anyone to place any value on the things I know are good and true about me. The bottom line is simple enough, no none else can make me happy and, much more importantly, no one else can make me unhappy. And life isn’t fair. It’s not supposed to be.

Eight days, 3,130-ish miles though the desert, the heat, the rain, the dust and the mountains riding some of the most magnificent roads this nation has to offer gave me that. A sense of peace. I encourage anyone who intends to make a similar journey to stop intending and do it. Push the planets back into alignment and go. It is romantic, just not like you think it is.


Unknown said...

There is no "Like" button here

Michael K. Althouse said...

Nope, but I do get email notifications. Can I put you down for a "like?"