“A Long Road Home” pt. 1
A year or so ago, I had an opportunity to take a journey that comes along once in a lifetime and even then, to very few people. During this journey, I learned a great deal about my own resilience as well as my own frailty. Thanks to the tremendous generosity of a friend of mine, I had the chance to ride a motorcycle across the United States from one corner to the other. Thanks to so many more people, (friends, family, and strangers) I survived the journey. I almost froze in the mountains, nearly burned in the desert. I was propositioned with homosexual exchanges across the street from an Alien Museum, questioned by Texas Rangers in a Ghost Town and threatened with arrest for sleeping at a rest stop in Mississippi. If you are willing, I’d like to share what I remember of that trip with you.
The motorcycle was a Suzuki 800 Intruder which was given to me by my friend Mike in Washington with the requirement that I would ride it back to Florida. Having less than 50 miles (80 km) experience riding, I decided to take him up on the 3400-mile (5471 km) challenge. (If you’re thinking that is way more miles than it should be, rest assured there were a few detours and turn arounds that make up the differences with miles to spare.) With very little camping experience but limited funds, I decided I would camp out where ever possible.
I spent nearly a month in Washington State preparing the bike, and myself for the trip. However, that is a story for another time. For now, it’s time to start our journey.
I left Kennewick in the morning and heading South towards and into Oregon. I started the day off filled to the brink with equal measures of fear and anticipation. I felt the need to just point the bike in a direction and go. Only knowing that if I left where I was, I would end up where I was going. I knew that the roads had been traveled many times before, yet not by me. They were as alien to me as the moons of Saturn. I remember thinking back to the aerial views across the United States I had seen on my way out to Washington State. So much space between me and anything I could call familiar. How I would cross that distance, I had not a clue.
The air was crisp through my second skins of cloth and leather. It wasn’t long before the wind on my face and the scenery of the landscape began to smother my fear and anxiety with wonder. So many sights I passed by with no more than a thought of their documentation. I passed a place known as Twin Sisters Rock. A beautiful site even at speed and I took note. My eyes were my camera. My memory, the film on which the images are stored. I could easily pass them by, knowing and yearning for the next sight I knew lay just out of sight, yet still ahead of me. A wanderlust was born, and even on that first day I knew I would spend the rest the trip, balancing between it and my longing for home.
Into Oregon; streaking along beside the Columbia River, fat from the seasons melt water I spied a beaver in thick, lush grass. It laid on its stomach with its hind legs stretched out behind it. It lifted its torso out of the green on its forelimbs and watched as the traffic passed with the quiet reservation of an old man enjoying the mornings first cup of coffee and mountain view from his front porch. It being the first and only beaver I have ever seen in person granted me a pleasure and excitement I cannot describe. I recall clearly yelling out to the wind, “That’s a beaver? That’s a BEAVER!!!” with a smile wide enough to catch a few of mornings first flying insects in my teeth. I didn’t care. I was lost…no, I was found in that moment and I needed to rejoice in it. I was on a journey I will never forget. All in all, I ended up putting down 275 miles (about 442 KM) on that first day.
I spent the late afternoon and early evening unloading and setting up camp in the woods behind a place called Gordy’s Truck Stop, beneath a patchwork of sky and clouds. The earth was a thick matte of pine and fir needles. It was very dry and I didn’t dare start a fire. I ate some granola and jerky I had brought for evening and morning meals just to keep my energy up. In truth, I was too excited to feel very hungry.
I knew it was going to get cold, but I had a tent and several layers of clothes to choose from as well as my road leathers and a $24 sleeping bag I had picked up while in Washington. Besides, it was the first of May and so I felt confident I could remain mostly comfortable throughout the night.
It must have been around 3:00AM when I awoke to a bitter cold cutting through my little sleeping bag. The sky had cleared shortly after sundown and without a layer of moisture to hold the heat to the ground it became cold faster than I had expected. Adding to the situation was an urgent need to urinate. I pulled myself from my little shelter and out into the freezing Oregon night. As I stood in the field beside my tent, heeding natures call, I let my gaze rise into the skies above me. I’ve never seen so many stars, so clearly. I couldn’t distinguish a single constellation. Every pinprick in the inky black shone brighter than what I remembered any of the stars back home shining. A million tiny suns rained down rays of chilling light down upon me. I stood there for what seemed like an hour (probably only a few minutes) just staring, finding new complex constellations. It was the loss of feeling in my feet and hands that finally drove me back into my little tent and below the covers, where I lay until sleep overtook me again and carried me through until the morning sun woke me with its warmth.
That morning I found an unused power plug in a light pole of the truck stop and while I packed up my things from the night before I set my phone and other electronics to charge for a bit while I bought a cup of coffee and ate some of the trail mix and granola I had packed for the trip. All packed up I took a deep breath of the scenery and double checked my route. I strapped on my helmet, goggles and gloves. I knelt before my motorcycle, told her I loved her and asked her not to kill me today. I rose, straddled the seat. She started right up as if I wasn’t the only one itching to see what the road held around the bend.
I continued through Oregon on a path I had decided on the night before. I would head east when I could to avoid California, and south as needed, to stay away from Idaho and the northern roads. The research I had done before setting out and the brutal chill from the night before told me that even in May those roads were likely to hold onto winter for as long as they could and I wasn’t at all prepared for high icy roads or nights camping in the snow. The roads I chose led me through mountains and National Parks. The trees in those mountains were simply amazing. I rode the sides of the mountains over whitewater rapids. The chilly wind was a constant reminder to stay on guard. I was alone on the road for most of the day but that only told me that if I lost control in these mountains there would be no rescue. Just a wreck at the bottom of a gorge with a broken pile of bone before anyone even knew I had gone off the road. My alertness only heightened the beauty of the scene I was passing through. I found a restroom off to the side of the road and thought perhaps I might spend the night right there. The mountain forest was thick and lush with new growth and inviting like a sirens song. I pulled out my phone to check in with my friend in Washington and my folks back home. It was then I realized the cheapest phone provider may not be the safest bet for a backwoods journey across the country. I was in a dead zone, and would be for a couple days from what I could tell from the route I was on. Recognizing that my lack of contact was likely to cause a bit of concern, and the fact I had decided to veer east of my proposed route, I thought it would be best to push on a little further. Checking the time told me I had a few good hours of travel yet before the sun started to recede. I decided to use them and pushing to the end of the National Park I was traveling through brought me to what my maps had led me to believe was a town called Adel.
Adel is not a town. At least not any sort of town that I could call such without blushing. Adel is a gas station, next to a highway maintenance checkpoint, in front of a few trailers that lay at the end of a long river valley.
Entering the Station felt like opening an old book…
I checked my phone and noticed that it was completely void of service. I spoke with the keeper of the Gas Station about the road ahead and was informed I had well over a hundred miles before I would find another place to fill my tank. Knowing from the little time I had spent traveling that my motorcycle would only put down maybe 120 miles before running out of gas I decided to buy a one-gallon tank, fill it up there and put it in my saddlebag.
After telling the owner about my situation he offered me his phone to make a phone call to let the world back home know I was still alive, well, and in the middle of nowhere.
With the fuel and communication situations handled as best as I could manage, I asked the man if it would be alright if I set a tent in the field next to the station to rest my bones and bike for the night. He looked me over and told me he didn’t see a problem with it if I kept quietly to myself and made sure I kept my bike and tent as close to the tree in the center of the field as I could. “Truckers sometimes pull in there late at night to sleep off the road. So being out in the open might not be too smart and I don’t want it on my head if you get run over while you’re sleeping,” he explained with a frankness that can only be attained with age and hardship. I thanked him for the advice, purchased a cup of coffee and set up camp for the night.
I tucked my tent in up underneath the branches of the small tree in the center of the field. I parked my bike directly in front of the tent so that I could keep an eye on it throughout the night and have it be the first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning.
I ate a few rations of granola and jerky. I double checked my maps and route for the next day, took a few notes in the journal I had brought and made a little video journal to document my day. After the ride of the day I was dog tired and fell into slumber with the setting sun.
The peace of sleep wouldn’t last long as anyone who as camped at the end of a long mountain cannon might tell you. When the sun goes down the winds pick up. Barreling down the mountains came icy blast after icy blast. I woke to the sound of the mountain moaning in the darkness. The sound had apparently scared the hell out my tent because it had picked up its stakes on the windward side and was currently trying to roll itself through the tree we were under and over the final hill that lead from the cannon out into the high desert. I was sure if I didn’t try something to secure the side of the tent where the spikes came loose, the wind would either shift me out around the tree or destroy the tent entirely.
To weigh down the loose side of the tent, I kicked all my gear over to the unsecured side and curled up on top of the pile. With my back pressed up against the skin of the tent the wind cut through my sleeping bag and clothes like a knife. I laid shivering in anticipation. Imagining myself being hurled, tent and all like a giant tumbleweed out into the desert, never be heard from again. These were the thoughts that ran through my head as exhaustion once again took hold and I drifted off to sleep.
To Be Continued…