Long, grueling hours with legs cramping, hands frozen in a grip shape, wind noise a constant deafening roar in our ears. Waking up before the sun rises to meet fellow bikers at a lonely gas station in hopes of beating any traffic to the twisty roads lest we get stuck behind some frightened Subaru that brakes hard before every 30mph posted curve.
Early morning thoughts tend to be darker, more introspective. I find myself contemplating my family relationships. Thinking about how long it’s been since I visited my dad’s grave site and picturing the stately, venerable, wooded cemetery surrounded by the dirt and grime and noise of Queens, New York.
Are we tilting at windmills?
Do we suffer through the cold and exhaustion in search of an illusion?
First pit-stop. We fill up our tanks and a late companion somehow bends time and space to catch up with us. We warm up with gas station hot chocolate and go over our route. “It’s a snooze for the next 100 miles” I’m told. Fan-fucking-tastic. I moved from the midwest to get away from riding cold straightaways. Oh well. Next time I’ll bow out.
We mount up and start down the back road highway winding through old mine towns. Dilapidated buildings with cardboard over the windows. “For rent” signs awkwardly sit in dirty windows. Who lives in a town like this? How do they make enough money to pay for that rent?
The road becomes interesting. The pace quickens and I’m battling the leftover foggy sleep that is still behind my eyes. This isn’t a “snooze,” in fact it’s quite a rollicking little road full of unexpected curves and corners.
Breakfast in Tuscon is welcome. The temperature is finally comfortable and we begin to shed layers. No longer are the dark thoughts plaguing my mind; instead anticipation of the unknown mountain is dancing in my imagination.
I had a dream the night before about riding a train. In my train car I was frightened and had my eyes shut while crying out loud “I’m scared. I’m scared”. I didn’t know that I wasn’t alone. There was a little boy in the car with me. The train stopped and we deboarded in order to stretch our legs. We hadn’t stepped but a few feet away from the train and it started moving away. It pulled away so quickly we weren’t able to get back on. This little boy and I were stuck in a strange town. A woman came out of her house. I asked where we were. “Summerhaven” she replied. I asked her if I could use her phone and she let us in the house.
We headed to the mountain.
To the locals this ride is nothing; a fun jaunt after coffee. To a girl who has lived in the mid-west for too long, riding mountains is fraught with trepidation and vertigo.
Up we go.
There are many different segments to a long ride; wee early hours filled with anticipation and introspection, hunger, excitement, random musings and observations, boredom…. I often wonder why bikers bother with silly things like Twitter. While on the road the mind entertains itself with fleeting thoughts and brilliant elusive ideas. Immediately, the desire to share these thoughts bubbles up, then whatever was bouncing around inside my head just as quickly flies away with the wind whistling in the helmet. I realize that the important thinks will stick long enough to share at the next pit stop and everything else is superfluous. All the minutiae in one’s head does not need to be shared with anyone but the air breezing by.
I get stuck behind a string of slow cars and I’m okay with that. I want to take my time, get a feel for the rhythm of the road and take in some scenery. It is lovely with rocky outcroppings and up into the piney woods.
When we regroup at the top of the mountain, we are all smiles. The view down the mountain, looking over our curvy roads and out across Tuscon is amazing. We stop long enough for photos and a little clambering around on the rocks, then head back down.
Down! This is my favorite. I’m flying through the corners feeling a new lightness and confidence. Engine braking before the corner, then accelerating through it, using the downward momentum to slingshot me around the curve This is one of those moments when you understand completely why you ride. Achieving this feeling is what we strive for; a comfort and settling in; a syncing with the road, your bike and your body the movements flowing with a natural rhythm side to side to straight twisting the throttle and monitoring your speed.
The only thing that makes my heart flutter are the curves that look as to fling me over the edge of the mountain. Breathe and relax and stay focused; the road hugs the mountain, not the valley below. But a simple low-side could catapult me and my beloved bike over the guard rail and to almost certain death. These thoughts are dangerous and distracting.
I slow down.
We regroup at the bottom-where we began-each of us changed just a fraction.
Hungry, we make our way to lunch and proceed to tell tall tales and spin conversations filled with laughter. Camaraderie is just one of the many reasons we subject ourselves to this strange and often masochistic lifestyle.
The ride back is similar to the pain of the morning. It is no longer cold, but the super-slab is congested and our worn-out bodies are complaining. My thoughts have turned to the comedic and I spend an inordinate amount of time singing Queen and David Bowie songs loudly into my helmet. It’s amazing how good your voice sounds with earplugs and a helmet to help the acoustics.
My hamstrings begin to cramp. Only 84 more miles to go. The green highways signs annoy me. It feels like we’ve been riding for at least half an hour and the green sign announces “Phoenix 81 miles”. We’ve only gone three miles? This is going to take for-e-ver. There is nothing to do on a motorcycle but grin and bear it. Riding is a discipline of willpower and tenacity. Once you are committed, you have to see it through to the end. There is no “honey, will you drive for a while, I’m getting tired.” Once you are going, you grit your teeth and work through the pain. At some point you will reach the destination.
Although, perhaps this is why we keep doing this; we never reach the destination. Some of us seem to be perpetually on the search for something else. This is what keeps us pushing ourselves, it’s what inspires us to take these painful but rewarding journeys. Hunter Thompson once said, “All my life my heart has sought a thing I cannot name.” I don’t know that any of us will every find that thing; perhaps we don’t really want to.
I don’t think I do. What fun would that be?
Instead, I’ll keep tilting at windmills and hopefully keep the rubber side down.
You do that too.