She looked pretty miserable, as any sane person would be in these circumstances…
We had pulled over to get gas and to rehydrate, thankful the desert had shown a wee bit of sinister mercy by turning the temp down to a near-polar 106 degrees. Breezy poured water over her head and paced out in the parking lot of the Lake Havasu City AM/PM, which is a lot like every other AM/PM I’ve ever seen. Monty was watching her carefully. If his passenger got dizzy on his motorcycle, he’d be the one to keep her from tipping off and sliding onto the desert highway at speeds unsuitable for human contact. Awhile back the thermometer on my motorcycle had read 111 degrees. That was just before the wicked wind had kicked up dust and the faint smell of sulfur, as if to remind us this was the kind of place that might have given those hunched over, quill-wielding writers variations on a theme for hell.
Highway 97 was a vision of hell, one construction zone after another that sprayed my bike with tar and hammered my spine through the rugged suspension of a 900-pound motorcycle. My first night on the road I dropped from the tree lined Oregon highways into Reno. That bastard child of Las Vegas is not aging well. It was well past dark when I hit her rutted streets and rattled the glass in empty windows. When the drunk in the douche bag, neon bright Hawaiian shirt was so distracted by the screaming he was doing at his girlfriend/wife/stranger that he stumbled into the path of my bike, I decided I had had enough and pulled into the first hotel that appeared.
The room is what you’d expect if you were looking for twenty minutes to eight hours of privacy in Reno, just off The Strip, for less than a pair of twenties. If the walls could sing, it would be verse after verse of vice or worse. I stripped the covers off the bed with as few fingers as possible and stretched out. I was up every couple hours to pull back the tar and nicotine starched curtains and look out the window at my motorcycle, which looked a little annoyed to be stuck outside where the sounds of the streets indicated no one seemed to be having a good night. Morning came soon enough and I was riding east into the rising sun before the smell of the room had faded from the inside of my nostrils enough to where I could eat breakfast.
The desert on a motorcycle is a crazy making thing. There are stretches of untold miles of road with no bends in the midst of opposing horizons hiding even more road. The heat has weight and soul and combines with rapidly morphing clouds to create the kind of mindset that had Hunter S. Thompson seeing bats—with or without the ether binge. You needed to be neither Hunter S. nor on drugs for your mind to succumb to the disharmonious onomatopoeic drone of tires on the hot blacktop, backed up by a chorus of thundering exhaust. The motions a mind goes through to stay awake against all this monotony would scare the hell out of most civilians who never dabbled in hallucinogenics or the writings of Mr. Thompson.
As I watched one traffic sign after another fly by, I imagined if I was a music writer I would name my songs after traffic signs so that people would start humming my tunes every time they saw a traffic sign.
“My heart is an OPEN RANGE, baby. Waiting to bake your pie…,” or
“Your LOW SHOULDERS lower my resistance to you…,” or
“CONSTRUCTION AHEAD for my broken heart….”
Yes, it seemed totally appropriate that road sign music should be of the Country Western genre.
For the most part traffic was so sparse I could stop to take on and let off water (sometimes at the same time) without company intruding from either direction. Even after shutting off the bike, I could still hear the engine turning at the 3200 rpms that had empowered the now still bike to go at 79mph. Usually there was no wind and I found myself turning slowly, trying not to let the sun heat one side of my body over the other. When the water bottle was packed away, I had to sit on the black leather seat sloooowly since it had been collecting sunlight. I always paused for a brief prayer before hitting the starter button, thinking this would be a downright shitty time for the ol’ girl to decide not to start. She always started, though. With the tip of my left boot I pushed the lever that clunks her into first gear and I let the guttural torque of the engine pull the bike to speed.
Phoenix was cars, construction, and smog-spiced heat. Traffic was aggressive, and I had to punch through to the other side. The lines on the road had been repainted so many times that drivers now ignored them; and a person of diminished capacity had randomly lined up traffic cones to divert cars away from the machines that make highways—or so they would have us believe. I was in the middle lane with cars threatening to hump me from both sides when the cones to the right unceremoniously started squeezing that lane into mine. The struggling little econo-box to my right tried to move into me. The guy on the other side of me was making love to his phone, oblivious to the drama unfolding just outside his passenger window.
I rolled on the throttle, which lifted a small plunger that pressurized a fine mist of gasoline into the throat of the carburetor. This mist was drawn into the twin cylinders of the engine where the pistons compressed it against the spark plug, which fired—exciting rabid oxidation of the gaseous mixture and causing it to force those pistons down into the crank shaft, which sped that energy to the Dunlop tire right under my ass. Like a hoggish rocket, my bike fired from between the cars as my space between them vanished like spilled water in the Arizona sun. I don’t take this kind of thing personally any more, but when the econo-box pulled up next to me, I was looking for something to throw to get this idiot away from me. With my best menacing face, I turned and looked at the driver of the car. Instead of a preamble to road rage, she was mouthing out “sorry” with her hand over her heart. I touched the tip of my helmet visor like I was tipping my hat.
My dad experienced a slight change in health, and it signified the time was now for me to see him in his natural habitat. So, I combined a visit with him with the yearly motorcycle epic journey I’m compelled by various mental pathologies to undertake. When you say, “a single-wide in the middle of the desert,” it sounds like something to foreshadow the inevitable punch line of a traveling salesman joke. But, Dad’s natural habitat was mostly a nice deck from which to watch the birds and the sunsets and the storms. There was a mobile home, but also a stick-built cottage among other features of the property that kept it well above the level of “quaint.” I, as one would suspect, in no way intoned Martha Stewart when I rode a bug and tar-splattered Harley Davidson up onto what would be his lawn during the wet season. I had endured vicious road construction down through Oregon, a bad night in Reno, and a ride over the brand new Hoover Dam bypass bridge before crossing Arizona on I-10. My skin had shed its Oregon pale for Arizona earth tone, and my T-shirt had stains where the gallons of water escaped my body via other means. I was, by no means, classing up the place.
The first morning at my dad’s place in the desert I made instant coffee. My PNW coffee snobbery gets shut off when I cross state lines on a bike. I wandered out onto the deck to a symphony of birds performing to a warm morning light. About halfway into my second cup my dad appeared on the deck. He’d been out walking for an hour and was now doing pushups. ‘Perhaps he has his health issue under control after all,’ thinks me, since he seems to be doing better than me at the moment. His mind is fine too, even if it works a lot like mine. I see this in the various appointments around his place that have a kind of Tim Burton elegance meets Rube Goldberg’s whimsy. He had rigged up a barrel with pipes that takes the rainwater from his roofs and pushes it out to the cactus and trees in his front yard. He made his own skunk trap to get the little bastards out from under his house.
Everywhere there was evidence of wind. The bird feeder was wired in place, and the gates had been shimmed against rattling. Days later I would step inside from the deck to get more coffee; and upon returning to my deck chair, the sky would have had clouded up and lightening would be fingering into the hills on the horizon. The wind was familiar. It was the same wind that ripped the face shield off my helmet last year; and just like last year, it came out of nowhere. I caught my coffee cup before it blew off the 4x4 post I’d set it on. The raindrops were huge and coming in at an angle. And in minutes they were gone with the wind and the sun took the moisture back into the sky.
My old friend Monty and his lady Breezy moved to this land of whacky weather this year; so when it came time to return dad to his own devices, we hooked up to get in a few miles together before I left them in Laughlin, NV. Good riding partners are hard to come by, and Monty and I have the years and miles together to make following him down a raised black strip across the barren landscape feel as at home as my own bed and bathroom crossword puzzle. We know when to make miles when the wind is to our backs and when to stop every 30-40 miles to find water when the heat is in our face.
The shade of the rest stop picnic table cover was welcome, though not nearly as effective as we’d hoped. Monty used the safety wire that keeps my GPS from becoming road debris to clean his pipe so he could have a smoke while Breezy filled our water bottles. When she came back she sat across from us and drank the better part of one of the bottles with a smile. Monty’s cherry tobacco smoke pleasantly wafted toward me in the hot breeze. And I didn’t have a single damn to give about anything that had to do with life beyond right then. I knew I didn’t feel this way enough and nudged Monty. “What?” he asked. “Nothing,” I replied. He nodded. Breezy laughed, oddly knowingly. I realized that this moment would be coming with me into whatever happens next. But angels on Ariels in leather and chrome were not swooping down from heaven to take me home quite yet and we had 200 miles to go before we slept. I’m grateful now that I didn’t know then the temp wasn’t going to drop below 100 degrees until hours after sunset. Since she isn’t prone to complaining, asking her how she’s feeling is a useless way to gauge her health. But we all agreed Breezy’s colour was better so it was time to saddle up.
Why did it have to be motorcycling? Why couldn't it be crocheting or collecting daguerreotype types of vintage fetish porn? Instead of staying at home and needling doilies or marveling at sepia toned, "accessorized" couples and their piercings, I have to point the front tire of my tired Harley down a lonely road and ride until the noise of the V-twin replaces the noise in my head with a silence born of cacophony. It is in these moments that the psychic lid gets pulled back a bit and I can see why I'm here-in this dry, treeless place where I am separated from the things that help me get through my day. For it is from this place I can best see changes that are sweeping through who I am. I can see an industry trading celluloid for pixels as less sacrilege and more inevitability. People I love who are flirting with death are really okay, either way. I see relationships that used to be the most important thing in the world to me atrophy into three sentence emails. And I see all things being the way they are, and maybe, just maybe, for this moment, I'm okay with all of that. Because with all this change brings new possibilities, new people to love, and new ideas to explore. I suspect I will be gone long before I exhaust all of these things. But today, I have a full tank of gas, a half tube of sun block, a few quarts of water, and nothing on the road between the horizon and me. My thumb finds the starter switch on the handle bar and...