Sunday, June 10, 2001
It was hot. Sweat beaded on my brow as I packed my gear on the bike and secured it with bungee cords. It was nine o’clock, and the air was close and stifling. It was going to be a scorcher, but the bike would offer no solace from the heat. I pulled up my T-shirt and wiped my forehead. I would be riding in shirtsleeves today, safety be damned. I couldn’t imagine stuffing myself into a jacket in that heat. I’d take my chances with road rash.
I walked around the bike and gave it a quick inspection. When I glanced at my front tire, a chill shot through my body, briefly dispelling the heat. The tire was almost bald. The previous day’s high-speed escape on near-molten asphalt had taken a severe toll on my tread. I’d have to keep a close eye on it. My mind flashed back to San Francisco the week before I left. I had brought my bike to the BMW motorcycle dealer to replace the rear tire for the upcoming journey.
The rear tire.
Just the rear.
Why, you ask? Well, I had changed the front tire once already, either due to wear or a puncture, I can’t recall which. But the rear tire was original. Though the front tire was by no means new at the time of my journey, it was in far better shape than the rear. So to save a few bucks, I cheaped out on buying two new tires and only replaced the rear. That decision roared back and slapped my sweaty face.
What an idiot I was.
The day promised at least as much heat as the day before, so I’d have to keep my speed down. I wasn’t sure how many miles that tire had left on it, but I was damn sure there wasn’t a BMW motorcycle dealer or service center in Hayes, Kansas. I’d have to live with it for a while. Besides, it was Sunday, so I wouldn’t be able to find an open service center anywhere to change a tire. The irrational part of my brain (that would be the big part) argued that the tire just might make it all the way to Connecticut.
I swung a leg over and mounted the bike as a nagging worry nestled down in the back of my brain, an unwelcome backseat driver that sapped my enthusiasm. I thumbed the starter, dropped the bike into first gear and made for the highway. God, it was hot.
The stretch of road from Hayes, Kansas to Kansas City, Missouri can best be described as “east.” It was a numbing, flat stretch of asphalt that assaulted the brain and offended the senses with its unrelenting sameness. Mile after identical mile, the fields and prairies of America’s heartland slid by, accompanied by the dull monotonous drone of the bike’s engine and the choppy roar of wind past my helmet.
My helmet. The great protector of brains and life.
That day it felt like a kiln, and my head, a desiccating lump of clay.
The sun climbed towards its zenith, and the journey took on a new tone. Gone were the Sierras with their breezy pines and alpine lakes. Gone were the petroglyphs and deserts of Nevada, a world of ancient wonder and stark beauty. So, too, the switchbacks and aspen forests of the cool Rocky Mountains. That was the journey that beckoned me to the road. That was the perfection in my head. But this…
This was shit.
My mind had created a mythos that this cross-country journey would be nothing but Sierras and Rockies and beauty with pristine campgrounds at the end of each day. I had sold myself a bill of goods. The perfect journey in my head accounted for only one third of this vast country. Whenever my rational brain had tried to confront that truth, it was shouted down by the irrational element that lusted after adventure.
And so there I was, paying the price for that deception and delusion. Stuck on a desolate stretch of Route 70 somewhere in central Kansas with only the roar of wind and engine and the merciless heat as companions.
I cursed the journey.
I cursed the weather.
I cursed that lousy state. How dare it not have hills!
I cursed my stupid front tire.
I cursed myself.
By noon, I was trapped in a miasma of sweat and self pity. I wanted out of Kansas. I wanted out of the Midwest. Dorothy clicked her heels to be transported back there. I wanted to click mine and be warped to the Appalachian Mountains. I clenched my jaw and focused on the heat waves rising from the asphalt in the distance.
Somewhere west of Kansas City, Missouri, I spotted a biker in the distance riding towards me on Route 70. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the highway was empty. He was a mirage, shimmering. I watched him solidify as he drew closer. He rode a Harley Davidson trike – a three-wheeled motorcycle. As he approached, I saw that he was towing a trailer that he must have built himself. It had a base made of scrap wood, and it was surrounded by a six-foot-high cage of chicken wire. Inside that homebrewed trailer were the contents of this man’s life. Clothing and coolers and blankets piled high and pressed against the chicken wire walls. He was almost upon me, though a median separated us.
I turned my attention to the man.
He wore a white tank top, his arms a deep reddish-brown. He was a man of the sun. His long hair whipped behind him in great clumps. He had a mustache that curved down around his mouth, the tips also pushed back by the wind in his face. He rode without a helmet, but he wore dark goggles like and old-time welder might have used. His face was dark like his arms, lined and gaunt. My mind took in all of this in the few seconds we rode towards each other.
There is a brotherhood among bikers. We salute each other with a wave or a gesture when we pass a fellow biker on the road. Each rider has his own salute. I straighten my left arm at a 45 degree angle downwards and stick out my first two fingers. Some wave with one finger, some with five. Some stick their arms out horizontally, and some drop them by their sides before displaying their hand-and-finger salute. The gestures are compact and efficient, meant to acknowledge a kindred soul while still maintaining riding posture.
I wondered if he saw me. Though bikers don’t usually salute on split highways, I felt I should acknowledge him, as we owned the highway right then, this wild man and I. And that is when everything changed.
As I stared at him, my brain cataloging everything in those seconds before we passed, he turned to me. Though his eyes were hidden behind those coal-black lenses, I could feel his stare. He sat upright in his saddle. He took his left hand from the handlebars and turned his torso towards me. I watched, transfixed, as his left arm shot up in the air, and his hand clenched into a fist. He rode towards me like that, rotating his torso to keep himself facing me as we drew even.
We passed each other just then, this enigma towing his life behind him in a chicken cage, black-lensed eyes boring into me, body twisted 90 degrees in the saddle, arm thrust into the most magnificent salute I have ever received or witnessed.
My brother –
Look at you.
Look at us.
The road is open, and WE ARE FREE!
I salute you!
I grinned fiercely beneath my helmet, and all of the negative energy that had been gathering like storm clouds inside of me was dispelled in an instant.
I was riding.
I was free.
What need have I of this, what need have I of that? I am dancing at the feet of my lord. All is bliss. All is bliss. –Auvaiyar
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