Lessons Learned from Keeping a 2600-Mile Motorcycle Diary
My alarm clock blares at 5:05 am. I peel off my comforter and rise to my feet. I nearly forget it’s my birthday before my right knee screams under the weight of my body. Youth is fleeting and unfortunately so is cartilage. I am forty-one years old today.
There are some birthdays that stand out more than others regardless of the meaning behind the number. I remember my twenty-sixth birthday but not my twenty-fifth. My twenty-third was eventful but don’t ask me where I was on my twentieth. And all I remember about my twenty-first was how unremarkable I felt after paying for my first legal drink.
But forty-one will be memorable mostly because it involves heavy machinery. A motorcycle to be exact. A year ago, I bought a Triumph Bonneville from a friend of a friend. For years, the bike sat idle in her cramped South San Francisco garage like some caged bird. Its gifts deprived but its beauty still intact.
I’d wanted a motorcycle since I was in my early twenties. Fortunately, practicality and a lack of funds prevailed. I was an actor in New York City ready to take on the world one Broadway stage at a time. But sixteen years and many detours later, I found myself back in the zip code where those dreams were first dreamt. I was ready to move not just my body, but my soul in a way only two wheels can.
I know as much about my bike as I do about my car, which is to say next to nothing. Anything beyond turning it on and pointing it in the right direction and I’m forced to confer. Even worse, my boldness exceeds my skill which is the worst possible combination on a motorcycle. Riding is as dangerous as advertised. You are statistically thirty-nine times more likely to get into an accident whether it’s your fault (it rarely is) or not. Most accidents happen because people don’t see you. It’s the same reason I whisper some nondescript prayer before each ride and why even as a middle-aged man I won’t tell my mom I have one.
Some things are better left unsaid like the tumble I took on a summit in the Berkeley Hills one afternoon. I rounded a corner wide before losing traction on a stack of pine needles. Despite being pinned under a four-hundred pound bike, a broken headlight, and a sprained wrist I walked away intact and a bit wiser. No matter how hard you try good riding can’t be stocked from a previous spin. The graceful turns on windy roads and the skillful art of splitting lanes are nullified each time you lift the kickstand. You’re only as good as your last ride.
On day one my friend and I ride from Oakland to San Miguel, home to a mission of the same name founded in 1797. We take back road after back road passing abandoned homes, rusty bridges, and streets so desolate even the cows stop to stare. The temperature is as fickle as feelings. One minute I can barely curl my fingers around the clutch my hands are so cold, the next I’d be more than willing to lean hard into a cliche just to feel the wind in my hair.
Single stoplight towns seem even more sleepy with COVID. Tumbleweeds roll past like in an old western. We drive past boarded-up storefronts and vacant lots knowing the town, like us, will never return. A glimmer of light still shines in other places. Brushstrokes of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider and Marlon Brando in The Wild One veil the alley wall of a biker bar I don’t have enough testosterone or the right wheels to enter.
Army fatigues, hummers, and fighter air-crafts become reliable fixtures for much of the trip. An F-15 blows past us as we climb out of Death Valley, the lowest point in North America. From the Mojave to Yuma, military signs don’t mince words about where your curiosity will land you in trouble. There’s no bigger playground than the middle of nowhere.
The roads are empty and ours. The world cracks wide open perched above two wheels. Coyotes standing lookout on dirt mounds, rocks as old as time, cacti, Joshua trees, and snowcapped mountains are colored in a frameless masterpiece. You marvel less at how big the world is but rather how small you are — how all this was here long before you and will be long after. It’s a sobering, but mostly inspiring realization. Nature humbles you in a way nothing else can. You suddenly stop clinging to that part of you afraid to embrace reality and are liberated by your insignificance. It’s a beautiful thing, let me tell you.
Saddlebags and backpacks stuffed then tied on the back of a bike pique the interest of more than a few. Motorcycles, like a good meal, bring folks together inviting spirited chatter. Whether in a Starbucks in Visalia or the parking lot of an Albertsons in Tehachapi they all want to know the same thing — “Where you going?” You indulge their curiosity, trade biker stories, and take comfort in knowing you’re not the only one crazy enough to swap four wheels for two.
“How you holding up?” we ask one another. The temperature hovers around thirty-five the first few mornings, but with the windchill, it feels like twenty. Long johns and winter socks don’t stand a chance en route to Lake Isabella or out of Pahrump. The wind is nature’s bully. It prods then pushes before losing interest.
Pesky clouds part as the sun rains warmth on two nomads barreling south. Flanked by cattle ranches and jagged hills, I lift both arms going seventy convinced this is the closest I’ll come to flying. The chatter in my head is hushed, the need to be more abandoned. There is no clinging, no pushing — no fighting life. I release, I rest, I pause. For a moment, my ambition is about nothing more than trusting in the enoughness.
Each new arrival is followed by the flick of a kill switch, the loosening of ratchet straps, and decoding the lockbox to our new abode. We fall into a routine as if we’ve been roaming the earth for years. Bags are unpacked, limbs stretched, the search for a hot meal begins. But the hour before bed is quiet. Weary heads are buried in touchscreens, books, but mostly thoughts. The room is free from the need to fill its silence with mindless chatter earned from a twenty-five-year friendship.
Every morning offers a welcome restlessness to what the day will bring. Destinations are not the point, but rather what truths will be unveiled on the crooked roads you long for. Riding a motorcycle, like life, is an act of faith. It’s more enjoyable when you face the natural unfolding of events and accept that ultimately nothing is in your control. This, I think, is what it means to be free.
“Ever been to the Salton Sea?” my friend asks. “No,” I tell him, which is all he needs to hear. An hour later we’re gazing at something beautiful but deadly, like the sirens in The Odyssey. He tells me before the runoff from nearby farms filled the lake with chemicals and pesticides the Salton Sea was a special place — that the abandoned marina and deserted beach don’t tell the full story of a once vibrant community. He seems heartbroken over a time and place he never knew.
Some days feel longer than others even when they’re not. There are ups and downs but mostly in-betweens. Not every mile is exhilarating, open vistas don’t await you at every turn, wearing bulky gear gets taxing, and sometimes you just want to arrive. To truly love anything is to sometimes hate it. Even the bright lights of New York seem dim when you’re waiting for the subway in the middle of August.
And no matter how far you travel your thoughts remain close like carry-on bags. They’re stored under your seat even when traveling deep into the desert, or motoring along the Pacific. You can’t shake the thoughts of aging parents, old flames, and pay raises even on the windiest roads, or dozing off on jumbo rocks in Joshua Tree. They always find you.
But you ride in spite of your demons, not because of them. The point isn’t to outrun them but to understand them. And more often than not, you ease your troubles by focusing on those of another. This turns out to be the most important role of the journey — to lift your friend’s spirits when they dip, to listen without trying to be a savior.
We race up the coast as a familiar Northern California fog takes hold less than a hundred miles from where the journey began. A light rain starts to fall as mother nature dishes out one final test before bragging rights are earned. “The greater the torment, the greater the glory,” I convince myself while mashing past the less brazen and wiping water from my face shield. My friend falls further behind, slow dancing while I tango. He is sensible, while I must look like a madman.
We ditch State Route 1 and return to our roots — the backroads that offered time and space from an urgent world. We weave through redwoods as night falls on a day that arrived too soon. A sea of red awaits as we inch our way onto a cramped San Mateo Bridge for the final push home. The last leg of our twenty-six hundred mile journey is in danger of being reduced to the grind of a Monday morning commute. Then, a clear runway appears up ahead as we break from the pack like a pair of rogue wolves.
City lights guide us home as we race across the San Francisco Bay before taking the off-ramp for Oakland. Our bikes purr side by side as the glow of red postpones the inevitable. I lift my face shield as my friend follows suit. “Think I’m gonna hop back on the freeway to get home.” He offers a nod as a smile breaks the plain of his lips. There are no “goodbyes,” no “see you laters,” only “thank yous.” The light turns green as I make my way home. I take one final look in my rearview before hitting the on-ramp. My friend is gone. I am alone. Our journey already belongs to the past.