harley-and-me-front-cover-v3.inddPrologue

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

—T. S. Eliot

 

The day is finally starting to soften with the onset of evening as a storm assembles to the southeast. The sun has been scorching my retinas all day and is just now starting to dim. I’ve been riding my motorcycle more than eight hours today, winding first through the stunning canyons of Utah, veering into Idaho for a bit, and now entering the spectacular open range of western Wyoming. My forearms are leaden; my shoulders sag. I vaguely remember the tasteless lunch I ate hours ago, but now I’m hungry. The air is hot, even hotter inside the road armor I’m wearing. I am saddlesore and this is only day two.

Rebecca and I are trekking by motorcycle from Los Angeles to Milwaukee and back, a sixteen-day, five-thousand-mile adventure, the first extended road trip for either of us. We originally met in the mommy realm, room parents together at the small, parochial grade school our kids attended. Now, our children are mostly grown and both of us have only recently left long-term marriages. Having fled the cocoon of the suburban world we’d long inhabited, we find ourselves at midlife, crossing the country on motorcycles, unsure of the road ahead but determined to move forward anyhow.

A couple of weeks ago I was crossing a street in Pueblo, Colorado and a young man’s voice called out, “I like your shoes.” I waved the backwards wave that says “I heard what you said, I don’t know who or where you are, it’s cool,” and kept on crossing.

The shoes were Nike Katana racing flats that Stefan got for me back in 2007, when he  was working at an Ann Arbor running store. I didn’t like them, even though they were light, flexible and low-heeled, all traits that my feet like. But the Katanas never felt right, and after I raced in them a couple of times I retired them.

I brought them out of storage for our Western trip. This was partly to show Stefan they were getting some use, and partly because I hoped they’d make good driving shoes.

The next day we headed for St George, Utah on old US 50, crossing the Rockies at Monarch Pass on our way to Grand Junction. Climbing up, I passed a little Chevy Equinox that courteously moved over into the passing lane for my BMW.

Yes, our BMW is part of this story. I had one in the sixties and thought that I’d never have one again, because I had to use a van for my work in the race timing business. And I didn’t see how I’d ever get together enough money for one, by myself.

But when Ruth and her almost-new Subaru Forester came to live in Colden, and when I retired from teaching and shut down the timing business, we sold both our two fairly new vehicles, dug up some cash, and ended up with a 2007 3-series wagon, AWD and Sports Package. Fast, amazing handling, plenty of room for us, excellent in snow but . . . well, it’s a BMW, and that means dealing with how people relate to BMW drivers. Some seem  pissed-off, some envious, some respectful, and some are oblivious. Some want you to pass them so they can try to glue themselves to your tail. Some don’t want you to pass, so they can slow you down.

For my part I can never decide whether to pass with authority, as I always found was the best way back when I was a good-enough foot racer (blowing by your competition usually discourages them, while easing by encourages them them to think they can re-pass) or whether to slide by politely. This assumes I have some choice in the matter, and on two-lane highways like US 50, often there isn’t any. Pass with authority or risk a head-on.

So I went by the Equinox politely. It had Colorado plates and a woman was driving it. She was courteously on my tail for much of the next 60 miles. She was a good driver. I didn’t try to get away from her, but a couple of times the BMW’s acceleration let me pass trucks that she couldn’t get by on the same stretch. But then she’d be back. It seemed companionable to me.

Just at the peak of Monarch – really, literally the top of the pass – three Harleys pulled out in front of me. These were ordinary cruisers, leather bags with fringed covers, open pipes – pretty much the standard Harley setup I see – no, hear – way too many of going along our road in Colden.

Before the Harley riders pulled out, I’d been following an 18-wheeler – not closely, but I could see it. He – I guess it was a he, but I don’t know for sure – was moving right along.

The Harley crowd wasn’t. Three brake lights lit up at every corner and stayed on through it. It was as if they were riding tricycles. Must. Stay. Upright. Didn’t anybody teach them to lean into corners? Use their gears?

I used to ride bikes when I was in college, and I even rode my AJS 500 single from Salt Lake to Denver once, up over and back Berthoud and Rabbit Ears passes, although I have to confess that I was briefly jailed in Craig, Colorado for a muffler violation. All I did was take off the muffler baffle to help with the altitude. It seemed an unfair rap, because it was Big Sky country, and at worst I annoyed some cattle. I don’t know why I didn’t get nailed for having no proof of insurance and riding on an expired Hawai’i license.

The Equinox on my tail, three can’t-ride-for-shit guys on lumbering Hogs in front of me, meant no way to have some fun coming down the pass. No way the Equinox woman wasn’t pissed too.

I loved it when the 18-wheeler literally ran away from the Harleys. Outran them! Two or three corners – including a tight one – and that rig was out of sight. I doubt that those dudes could have passed the 18 wheeler on a long Interstate sweeper. They just couldn’t ride their bikes, not that Hog handling is anything to write home about.

Those three guys kept me and the Equinox at bay for a good twenty miles. Finally I got a clear shot – a decent straight, nothing coming – but of course the assholes hit their throttles because, hey, it was a straight and they were on bad-ass V-twins.

After I shot up over the century and back down again, safely past them, I turned to Ruth and said, “This is why we paid all that money.” She said, “Safe at any speed,” and we laughed.

Pretty soon the Equinox was back behind us, and in the distance, I saw three single headlights. I wish I’d seen her do it. The guys might have talked themselves out of the 18-wheeler problem (no room!), they might have talked themselves out of the BMW problem (everybody knows BMWs are fast!), but the Equinox? Hard to see how they could manage that humiliation. I’m guessing they never talked about it.

At a light in Grand Junction the Equinox pulled up next to me. I rolled down my window and called out “Thanks for the company.” The woman smiled and waved. She had been good company. I don’t know whether she’d been feeling competitive or not, but her smile seemed genuine if a little surprised.

Later that day, on a long downgrade with beautiful sweeping curves, somewhere East of Salina, Utah, I went by a young man in a  blue BMW 335i, the hottest 3-series outside of the M3. Dry, wide road in excellent condition, very little traffic, but he was doing no better than the Harley guys – tentative, lots of braking.

The next day, out of St George, another 335. White. Two 40-something women in it. I went by on an easy curve, doing the speed limit. At the next straight, they went by me at maybe 85. Whoops – next curve, they were down to 60. I went by them. Repeat. Repeat.

On the final straight into Nevada I noticed her Utah plate: O2BME.

So. Harleys, an Equinox, a couple of fearfully-driven Bimmers, one with a genuine vanity plate, me and Ruth in our wagon. And before that, an old guy, not looking too fit, crosses a street in Pueblo, Colorado, wearing Nike Katana racing flats.

There’s no doubt they are strange-looking shoes and no doubt they look even stranger being worn on the street, nowhere near a race. What was the guy saying? Was it “weird shoes, dude,” or was it “what’s an old fart like you doing wearing racing flats?” Or was he saying exactly what he said – that he liked my shoes?

I’ve been pondering that for a while. I thought about it while stuck behind the Harleys, I thought about it when O2BME passed me, and even today, on the treated-lumber deck of a small and exceedingly pleasant little motel in Dubois, Wyoming, perched over the Wind River, I’m still pondering it.

I used to be a pretty fast runner, but those days are over. I can’t run even one mile as fast as I used to run 26.2 of them. But I still have racing shoes. And I even have spikes.

I didn’t get spikes until 2004, because I had no need of them. I did very little track running and no cross-country (XC). But in 2004 I wanted to try “European-style” XC which means woods, mud, water, rocks, hills. A lot of XC races are run in parks and on golf courses, which is fine. If I were organizing a high school meet I’d never put the kids into difficult terrain. I wouldn’t even do it for a college team. But this was a historic all-comers race in a county forest in Boston, NY, which is not far from Colden. It’s known as the “Mud Run,” and is somewhere around 6k. It’s never been measured, and I don’t think anybody cares.

When we were all hanging out waiting for the women to finish their race, I noticed that the college-age men were wearing spikes, some of the high school and even some of the older guys were, but probably half the runners were in regular shoes. And because I knew that probably three-fourths of the runners were going to beat me, I felt a little ashamed of myself, especially since my spikes were new, and obviously so even though I’d been careful to run in some mud while warming up.

I wasn’t in great shape, so I took it out easy. Since the first quarter mile or so was straight uphill, I could do little else. In the muddy part through the forest at the top I began to realize that, slow as I might be, I’d had years of experience on muddy trails, on Bougainville. I passed a few people. On the first long downhill, which was a dirt-rock combination, I passed a few more. I knew about that kind of surface. And when we got back into the woods and there were roots, rocks, mud, and some sharp drop-offs – I passed more people.

There’s no miraculous ending here. I knew the people I passed were faster runners than I, and they would pass me when the surface improved. Most of them did, but in the end I beat a few people who would have scorched me in a road race. And my time was a lot closer to the winning time that it would have been on the roads.

Because of my spikes? Well, they helped. I loved how they felt on my feet, and I loved the grip they gave me not just going up, but down. And I loved the feeling that I was wearing the right shoes for the job, so that the responsibility for my performance lay with me, not my equipment.

But I think it was mostly like the Equinox versus BMW situation. Although I can’t know, my guess is that the Equinox woman knew the road and knew how to get the most out of her car on it. I blasted by the first truck and the Harley guys because I had a lot of horsepower and a great-handling car, so I could pass anytime it was safe. She couldn’t, but she didn’t have to. She must have known where she could do it with what she had.

Just as the guys in front of me at the Mud Run couldn’t get as far ahead of me as they would have in a road race, where they could have used their superior speed, the Equinox driver hung with me because my superior speed didn’t count for as much on Monarch Pass curves I’d never seen before as it would have on a road neither of us had been on before.

And the Katanas? Well, I think I’ve earned the right to wear them anywhere I want to, but how is anybody – the shouter or anybody else – to know that? If the guy in Pueblo was making fun of me, I only fault him for making fun of somebody he didn’t know, not for reacting to something that might have seemed to him improbable and maybe even disrespectful of his sport.

And it’s the same with our Bimmer and its New York plates out here in the West. Ruth and I are a little defensive about this. We aren’t a couple of old urban farts who happen to have enough money to show off with a BMW, even though it’s easy to see why anybody might think that. They can’t know that we haul rural supplies in it, and plow through heavy snow on difficult roads. And more than once the hatch has been open with 2 by 10 treateds sticking out, red flag and all. They can’t know how and why we got together what it took to buy it. I understand that. Anybody can understand that, I think, but that doesn’t make driving it, or wearing the Katanas, less fraught.

I don’t like feeling as though I have to apologize for what I drive or what I wear, or that footwear or cars define who I am. But like it or not, I – we – live in a world where that can be the case. If those Harley riders were introspective at all (and who am I to say that they weren’t?) maybe they were thinking the same thing. I doubt it – I think they and O2BME were very much alike – but it’s possible.

And so when we get out of the rough country and back onto the Interstates, I’m going to take off my Merrill hikers and slip the Katanas back on. They’ve turned out to be great driving shoes.

I was busy feeling unimpressed by Mt. Rushmore when I noticed the people around me. Four busts over a medium-sized ridge stared deadpan into the clouds as a collective image reproduced so often the original was an inevitable and sorry letdown.

The visitors, though, were something to behold. Among well-dressed Germans, Boy Scouts, sweaty fathers setting up the tripod, earnest tourists listening to the Lakota version of the audio tour as an act of solidarity and even a few Minnesotans, I also noticed bikers.

Every other person at Mt. Rushmore, after I started counting, was clad in bandanas, leather and jeans. Of vehicles in the overflow parking garage, a full two levels teemed with Harleys.

There was a one-word explanation: Sturgis.

After three hellish summers in Madrid, I decided to do something different.

I went back home.

Home is Phillipsburg; Ohio, a suburb of a suburb of Dayton, which is famous for the birthplace of aviation (the Wright brothers grew up here), the Dayton Peace Accords (Serb-Croat conflict) and Guided by Voices.