The Call of the Open Road
Picture a vast, open landscape with towering snow-capped peaks in the distance. In the foreground is a winding two-lane road. You are on that road, which curves left now, and you lean with the road as if carried on a breeze.
You, in this landscape, are not in a car, but riding feet off the road as if on some magic carpet, the pavement rushing by lazily under your feet.
The wind tosses your hair. The sun shines warmly on your face. On either side of you is sage, blue-green and sweet smelling.
You may or may not be smiling, but there is something glowing within you regardless, some deep, elemental satisfaction here.
Here you are in it, this landscape, not just passing through. If you reached out, you could touch that blooming sage which is dotted with bright yellow flowers. In fact, to remind yourself of that, you drop your boots down until they are roughly abraded by the asphalt under you.
Where the road dips the air is cooler, refreshing, a scent of water in it.
Here there are no windows to see through. No windshield between you and what is before you.
You can smell everything, taste it, touch it. This landscape writes itself on your body, mile after mile.
Because you are riding in it on a motorcycle—a machine that is both mechanical miracle and oddity. After all, why would anyone choose to travel unprotected like this, out in the open, when the comforts of a car are available?
Earlier, and for some still, in this dream landscape the rider would be on a horse.
But that is what a motorcycle is, after all, an iron horse, and our bikers cowboys of another age.
We dream of riding, in landscapes and through them. Of adventures. Of mountain heights and desert stretches.
Motorcycles enable us to enter landscapes that are both real and imagined.
If you are an American, or anyone thrilling to the myth of the American frontier, you are astride a Harley-Davidson, the motor an enormous V-twin threading you through this landscape with an accompanying rumble—rolling thunder, enthusiasts call it.
Traveling at a leisurely sixty miles per hour in fifth gear, you drop down to fourth and crack open the throttle.
Now the engine, once loping, surges, vibrating with a certain intoxicating violence.
Seventy, eighty, ninety. One hundred miles per hour. Now the landscape has taken on another quality entirely. Those once gentle sweeping turns are flying at you, you forcing the bike through them, hard left, now hard right, your right foot peg grinding into the pavement, this turn a long sweeper of decreasing radius, forcing you with each second to angle the bike over further, your body tensed.
You can only glide so far to the outside of the turn before you run out of pavement, a consequence of this kind of turn.
Traveling at one hundred miles per hour, the wind is a veritable gale in your face, which you lean into as if some great weight.
Instead of hitting your brakes, and hard, you push your luck.
The sweeper empties into a long straightaway. Victory!
Orienting yourself over the bike as if using a gun sight, hunched over the gas tank, you twist the throttle full open.
Your horse, your scooter, your bike surges, the speedometer still climbing—110, 115, 120 miles per hour.
For a dresser like you are on, this is about the limit.
And it’s plenty. That breeze is a hurricane now, threatening to knock you right off the bike. The bike is vibrating like some demented tuning fork. You can’t see anything in the rearview mirrors, the bike shakes so fiercely. A bug hits you in the face with the force of a bullet. Your heart is clunking away in your chest, your hands shaking as if palsied, something in you needing to engage in this boxing match with the bike, which forces you to hold the 120 just over the upcoming rise in the road, and here you are over it, headed down, and down, and down, nearly weightless, backing off the throttle and that big V-twin engine “compression rapping,” making a pretty staccato sound, the engine slowing the bike as if you’d thrown out an anchor.
And, in seconds, you are again just lazily approaching the mountains rising out of this plain around you, but now with this sweet, satisfied something in you, the residue of your burst of speed. And here in the heat there is a certain joy in knowing you will soon be there, the air so cool you will have to stop the bike and put on your heavier jacket.
In the mountains the air will smell of snowmelt, and fresh, resinous pine, and wet earth.
Stopped along the shoulder, headed into those mountains, you’ll lean against your bike feeling like Brando in The Wild One, Winnebagos, buses, cars going by, kids waving to you and their parents scolding them for drawing your attention to them. You’ll light up a Camel, unfiltered. You don’t smoke, but when you ride the bike you do. It reminds you of being twelve, or fifteen, or twenty, you and your buddies riding dirt bikes, cadging cigarettes from one another, smoking them with a certain bravado.
Here, on the Harley, the world opens to you. New again like that.
You have just what you need and no more. A tent and camping gear. Some cash in your pocket: for gas, and for meals, dinner perhaps, at a ramshackle restaurant that looks pretty much as it did in the thirties. Peeling paint. A cockeyed porch, over it a buzzing neon sign, here, in the Rockies, that sign announcing Ruth’s Kitchen (Salt Lake City, Utah), or the Overland Express (Bozeman, Montana), or the Renegade (Rock Springs, Wyoming). You’ll order a steak and baked potato, put the sour cream on the potato—and it won’t be low-fat, it’ll be full-fat, rich, creamy, satisfying. There will be families around the other tables, efficient-looking parents in travel-crumpled clothes, and the kids will give you surreptitious glances, afraid but curious, and the parents will steer them away from looking, you in your leathers, spotted with bits of bugs, oil-stained and wrench-roughened, dangerous.
You’ll smile. It’s a sweet smile, too. It says, If you dare, come on. There’s a life outside the box waiting for you. Think about it, kid.
Most turn away, shy.
Freedom, you know, is dangerous. It may cost you your life. But then, since the motorcycle bug bit you decades earlier, you’ve accepted that.
It’s the price you pay for riding.
But there is this about touring: What you’ve just experienced, getting out there into that mountain landscape (which, incidentally, is the most common dream of motorcycling, is just one kind among tens of kinds of riding)—
No such riding exists.
Real touring is both better and worse than the dream of it. It is something that cannot be fully imagined, has to be experienced. Because riders, most anyway, won’t give you the whole picture.
The flip side.
Here, you leave some major city, yearning for open spaces and to connect with something elemental—visceral, one of my Ivy League colleagues called it, his lip curling with contempt, this colleague someone who wouldn’t so much as think to get on a bike.
Let’s say you want to head to the Rockies as in the Great American Touring Dream you’ve just experienced. You’re in Chicago, down from the Twin Cities to pick up your old friend Rat, who was to go with you and take some of the edge off. Rat, though, has bowed out. Too much work, matters off-kilter at home. So you’re alone, which makes things easier and excites you.
Now, you’re really Bronson, from that starry-eyed early-seventies soft metaphysical show Then Came Bronson, where Bronson, week after week, rode the lonely highways on his Harley, saving distressed maidens in halter tops, calming mayhem, giving displays of his karate skills, and offering profound Zen motorcycle insights like, “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be,” throwing his leg over the saddle and riding off into the sunset unblemished (but for a bruise or two on his hands from throwing those perfectly timed karate chops), his jeans neatly pressed and his hair looking perfect.
But for you, in typical midwest August fashion, the mercury’s been hovering around one hundred, the humidity the same.
It’s been a dry summer, so you’ve reasoned an old rain suit you’ve borrowed will do the trick in a pinch. No need to go out and buy rainproof booties to cover your engineer boots, either, or a vest to put under your jacket if it gets too cold. You can’t even think in terms of rain, much less cold.
You’ve bolted a rack on your bike, strapped a pack to it, in the pack your ground pad, sleeping bag, tent, canteen, cooking gear, and one-burner Coleman stove. You’ve got a radio that operates off your bike, speakers in your helmet. You’ve got all the clothes you need. The lighter clothes and your hiking boots are in your tank bag, and on the top of it, under a clear plastic cover, your map, now Illinois.
All that gear makes your bike handle differently, a bit top heavy.
You kiss the wife, husband, lover, girlfriend, boyfriend good-bye. (Or, here, shake hands with Rat.)
You throw your leg over the saddle and hit the starter button. Boy, is this the bee’s knees, you think!
But you have to get moving, and quick—out in the sun in your black leather you’ll die of heat prostration if you don’t.
So you head out onto the Lincoln Expressway just after seven, and some crazed commuter bored with his job decides he’ll spice up his morning by seeing how close he can get the bumper of his Hummer to your rear tire. (Or it’s some retro Gen Xer in a lavender Pacer trying to shake off last night’s ketamine high, glued off your rear, eyes wide as saucers.)
You grit your teeth and bear it. Chicagoans, for some demented reason, will tailgate anything—get ten inches right off the bumper of a Mack truck and stay there, hurtling along blind at eighty and trusting to providence. Maybe they’re drafting—saving a few cents on gas that way?
Most cities have their challenges: In Pittsburgh, for example, you are often lost, as they skimp on road signs. In San Francisco, you have hills so steep you can’t see over the crests. In L.A. the speed limit signs are fictions, as everything there seems to be.
But those Chicago tailgaters: If they’ll do it with trucks they can’t see around, how much closer will they get to a motorcycle?
You blip the throttle and get the kid off your rear, but a girl veers in now, a ’57 Dodge, fins. Purple hair.
If that girl’s bumper hits your rear tire, you’re dead in this traffic, which makes this length of your ride more than a little tense, especially when you see, in your rearview mirror, that she’s got a whole wad of Juicy Fruit in her mouth and is painting her toenails and having a fist-shaking chat on her cell phone. She must be steering with her knee, you think.
Thirty minutes go by, navigating traffic in a greasy sweat. You have never been so focused.
When you can take it no longer, these tailgaters, you crack open the throttle, cut between lanes, racing ahead, and where there’s a space in the lane to your right, you zoom back in. Now some dead ringer for Richard Nixon wearing an overly dark toupee and driving a car with the license plate 1BG DCK is tailgating you.
You hunch lower over your bike, switch on the radio: some inane talk show couple discussing the freak clouds that just blew in.
You scan the road to the west, and, sure enough, it’s socked in by heavy gray clouds all the way to the horizon, Hurricane Katrina dark.
But here is your exit to those two-laners William Least Heat Moon had you yearning for in Blue Highways.
You happily exit, and for a full twenty minutes you weave ecstatically left, right, left, reminding yourself why you love motorcycles.
They’re just . . . intoxicating to ride. And the very moment you’re back in the swing of riding—God, but you’re having fun!—that’s when the skies open up.
On this little road in Illinois farming country you’re doing just sixty or so. But the raindrops, if you’re sitting upright, strike you in the face like nails from one of those pneumatic guns carpenters use.
And they are cold! Colder than you could possibly have imagined. They strike your face at fifty degrees or so, but immediately, with the wind, and the effect of evaporation, cut the temperature to just over freezing.
You stop alongside the road and tug on your rain suit.
Then, back on the bike, you discover to your dismay that your rain suit is poorly made, that water runs down your neck from your helmet. And up your sleeves, and down your legs. In fact, in thirty minutes, not a square inch of you is dry. And now the center of the road is greased watermelon slick where the oil from most cars and trucks drips down. And there’s a car behind you, his lights boring into your back, so you stay in the right or left rut, off the greased crown of your lane, but in the ruts there’s water, and now you are getting a bit of a wobbly hydroplaning feel if you ride over sixty.
Which, feel, you don’t have much of in your hands anymore.
Leather gloves, no matter what color, make great sponges, you’ve discovered.
And your feet? What feet? Your legs, encased in soggy denim and black leather, are like two logs resting on your foot pegs. When you reach for the rear brake (right side in front of the foot peg), it is as if your entire leg has fallen asleep.
You’ve been on the bike three hours. Your butt’s complaining, your ears picking up engine sounds you never wanted to hear. Clashing, gnashing, grating sounds, and there is this general hum that has numbed you over all.
You hope the ping! that you think you really probably didn’t hear came from something other than your bike.
Your radio you turned off long ago, about the time you heard the tenth advertisement for Albert Hobbernockin’s Super Labor Day Twenty-Four-Hour Monster Truck Sale-a-thon!
Up ahead is a glowing sign: EAT. You pull off the road, rev your bike to get up the poorly paved driveway to this diner, the rear tire breaking loose the dirt at the top. When the tire cuts down to pavement, it nearly propels the bike, and you on it, broadside into the front door, a fate you avoid through the most adroit use of your brakes.
You park under the carport, alongside an orange Ford Festiva.
Walking to the door, you study the waitress in the front window. Framed there in her white apron, she’s sizing you up. You’re moving like some somnambulant or drunk—or like a biker who’s been out in the rain, glued to his ride, half frozen. In August.
You don’t know if that waitress is going to go for the twelve-gauge Winchester below your line of sight, like Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, or open the door.
But it’s the door.
Inside you doff your helmet. It’s blessed quiet, and some golden oldie is playing in the kitchen.
“Getcha something?” the waitress says. While you stand there, too dazed to think, she’ll get you a bowl of soup, which makes way for a hamburger, a piece of pie, à la mode, and about half a gallon of coffee. You’ve never been so hungry.
You watch it rain outside.
You have just had the best bowl of soup in your whole life, and the burger wasn’t far behind. What amazes you is that the soup was Campbell’s, and the burger some frozen patty.
Your sense of smell is incredible. New lumber. Pepper, from the shaker in front of you. Pickle, which you removed from your burger, but nibble on now. Cinnamon from the donuts in the counter case.
Wiping his hands on a towel, the fry cook comes out, stands off the end of your table.
“Hey,” you say.
“How far you ride?”
“Just from Chicago,” you tell him.
“How far you goin’?”
“Montana,” you say, savoring the word. “Colorado—Estes Park, Rocky Mountains, then back through Wyoming. Right now, though, up to the Twin Cities.”
This fry cook, no doubt the waitress’s husband, will look out the windows of the restaurant with terrible longing. Which you feel again now, down to your very boots, as you did before you left Chicago.
“Always wanted to do that. Buy a bike and just . . .”
“Ride off into the sunset,” you finish for him. A cliché that is both an embarrassment and reality.
For that’s the odd thing—here, early on in your touring career and poorly prepared—even given the tailgaters on the expressway, that patch of greasy road that nearly put you in the ditch, and the rain and mild hypothermia, something in you wants to get back on that motorcycle and just go.
Even down to . . . Patagonia. Don’t they ride llamas down there? Or herd them, those South American cowboys? Gauchos? And things have gotten mighty complicated at your home, too, not just your friend’s.
You could do it. Just . . . keep . . . going.
Your pants are filthy and covered with wet dirt. You’ve sweated something awful, guiding the bike along on those treacherously slick spots.
But you experienced it all: touched, smelled, saw, heard. The rain on your face was real rain. Here, in Illinois, the landscape is nothing spectacular, but even here, you already know, there is something . . . addictive about this motorcycle touring.
Riding, you’re not waiting to get somewhere. Not waiting for something to happen. Not waiting for some one or some thing.
You’re having an adventure, right now, right here.
Every mile is written on you, from your first, shocking hours’ long stretch, this motorcycling business dirtier, rougher, less comfortable, and more dangerous than you thought.
And, almost perversely, you love it all the more for it.
The riding itself—roaring up hills, gauging how fast to enter unmarked turns, navigating traffic, staying focused and sharp—is all reward in itself.
Being on the bike is a thing unto itself. Which creates this love of the bike—if your bike is a good one, and you can trust it, it comes to be wedded to you and to your adventures.
If you race, a bike comes to be an extension of your very body.
And when you return from that first tour over a month later, countless adventures under your belt, and someone says with a starry look in his or her eyes, “I’ve always wanted to do that, just . . . take off and ride,” you’ll want to tell them, “That kind of riding you’re thinking of doesn’t exist.” All that clean, Then Came Bronson nonsense. But you’ll want to add, too, “No, that’s all a load of dreaming. But what riding is really like is so much better, you can’t imagine.”
Motorcycling is intoxicating.
It should be, as bikes are the stuff of dreams, and their creators meant them to be just that.
© 2010 Wayne Johnson