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.
Emily 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.
Before we left, we faced questions to our sanity and the opposition of loved ones.
“You’re packing heat?” asked Levi, one of the salesmen at Harley-Davidson of Glendale, more a statement than a question.
No, we aren’t packing heat. We are packing Lärabars, ibuprofen, lip balm, and hair scrunchies. We’re two women eager to see the country on motorcycles, aware that we don’t know jack about what we’re doing and that we might need to depend on others along the way. Still, we’re tentatively confident we can navigate what lies ahead.
Day two seems interminable. How could it not yet be nighttime when we’ve been going and going for so long that we are well past all reserves of endurance we thought we possessed? For this early leg of the journey, we’ve joined up with a couple we know from home. Edna and George, both seasoned cross-country riders, take the lead. Their presence emboldened us to leave the main highway earlier today east of Salt Lake and take a more scenic but lightly traveled route to Jackson Hole. We filled our gas tanks thirty minutes ago in a tiny town, a cluster of thickset, adobe buildings that seemed to be holdovers from the late 1800s. Since then, we haven’t encountered a soul.
We’re two women eager to see the country on motorcycles, aware that we don’t know jack about what we’re doing and that we might need to depend on others along the way. Still, we’re tentatively confident we can navigate what lies ahead.We are still an hour and a half out of Jackson. My body gives off a pungent tang of sweat and my hands have lost feeling from grasping the clutch and brake levers all day. I dream of pulling off my stiff road pants, stripping the layers of salt-glazed shirts and underthings, then treating myself to the soothing comfort of a bath. That will be followed by a meal, a real sit-down meal not ordered from a takeout window. We will rest our tired bodies while crunching chips with salsa and waiting for our tamales to be served. Or spoon up spicy Thai goodness. Or chow down on veggie burgers and sweet potato fries. The type of food doesn’t matter, only its promise.
The monotony of the road has become so hypnotic it takes me a moment to realize that Edna has pulled off to the shoulder. Emily slows behind her. George and I turn our bikes and head back to see what’s up. A fringe of prairie June grass forms wispy boundaries on either shoulder of the empty highway. Crows call out and the wind sighs. The magnificent nowhere of Wyoming takes away my breath.
Getting off the motorcycle, little explosions of pain detonate in my hips and back. My joints feel fused by so many hours crouched on the frame of the bike. Twisting the full-faced helmet from my sweat-drenched head is an amazing relief, as is the abrupt lack of vibration and the now-silenced roar of the pipes. Riding all day and then stopping is like stepping off a boat and being instantly aware that the swell of the waves has ceased. I locate my supply of trail mix from the pack strapped to my sissy bar before I go over to investigate.
Emily edges next to me. Edna has a flat, she says. The front tire.
That doesn’t sound so bad. A call to the Auto Club and we’ll be on our way again. But George is already dialing his cell phone and unable to get service. Emily tries hers but the screen shows zero bars.
The situation begins to take on new clarity. Unlike a car, Emily explains, a motorcycle flat is not an easy roadside fix. We obviously aren’t carrying spares, and a tow truck driver will not be carrying one either. Besides, changing a motorcycle tire is like surgery. If repairing a car flat is an outpatient procedure, with a motorcycle, we’re talking organ transplant. There’s no question: Edna’s bike will have to be flatbedded to a town.
That is, if we can get a cell phone signal to call for help.
Meanwhile, the inky clouds to the southeast tumble in our direction; a curtain of rain pelts the low hills in the distance. We all carry rain suits but are not anxious to try them out.George carries a Harley road guide and asks Emily to look for the nearest dealer that can provide motorcycle service while he continues trying to connect with the Auto Club. Soon, she’s shaking her head. There isn’t a single Harley service department within a hundred-mile radius.
Emily, George, Edna, and I sit on the soft, raised shoulder, sharing trail mix. A fence runs parallel to the road, tilting and collapsing in places, breaking down from neglect. It’s obvious no cattle have grazed this plain in ages. The motorcycle pipes and cylinder heads tick as they cool. Shadows from the cotton-white clouds mottle the landscape. Scanning the 360-degree-countryside, it’s all sky and grasslands, everything vast beyond comprehension. Not a car or another soul in sight. I’ve been backpacking to remote peaks in the High Sierra out of reach of cell phone service and any human convenience. But that was by intent. This was not part of the plan.
We consider our options. Emily and I can ride until we get a cell phone signal. Or we can all stay together and hope one of our phones will pick up a signal soon. Meanwhile, the inky clouds to the southeast tumble in our direction; a curtain of rain pelts the low hills in the distance. We all carry rain suits but are not anxious to try them out.
As we debate possibilities, a loud crack splits the silence. It sounds more like the compact, ballistic report of a rifle than the rolling clap of thunder.
We look to George. Was that a gun?
“Could be hunting season,” he speculates, eyebrows lifted. “Or maybe there’s a shooting range nearby.”
Sitting on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere, we watch the storm on a direct path toward us, while each volley of gunshots gets closer and louder.The sharp cracks come more frequently. Multiple shooters. Whoever they are, they seem to be moving closer.
We all go by certain assumptions that we live in a largely civil, law-abiding society. Still, it’s hard not to flash back on the final scenes of Easy Rider with its denouement of casual, explosive violence against the free-spirited, live-and-let-live cross-country riders. But that was only a movie, right?
I glance at Emily for an assuring look that will confirm I’m overreacting. But her widened eyes and the taut set of her jaw tell me she’s frightened, too.
It comes back to me how casually I dismissed Levi at the dealership and his earnest assumption that we were “packing heat.” Did he understand something about the open road we’ve blithely dismissed?
I again turn to Emily. We had agreed we do this trip together. Now what?
The exhaustion has so drained my reserves that I no longer trust my judgment. I am hungry, sore, and running well past empty. Am I crazy to be here in the first place? Sitting on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere, we watch the storm on a direct path toward us, while each volley of gunshots gets closer and louder. How in the world did I get to this place? And why?
* * *
This piece originally appeared in Harley and Me, Counterpoint Press, 2017.
Bernadette Murphy has published four books of narrative nonfiction, most recently Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, hardback 2016, paperback 2017). A hybrid narrative that combines memoir with research into neuroscience and biology, the book explores female risk-taking through the lens of her own experience of learning to ride a motorcycle at age forty-eight, and makes a compelling case for how and why taking risks is a healthy part of an expansive life. She served as weekly book critic for The Los Angeles Times for six years and is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing for the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she heads up the creative nonfiction genre.
Her essays on literature and life have appeared in Salon, The New York Observer, Ms. Magazine, Climbing Magazine, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Newsday, Literary Hub, San Francisco Chronicle, MUTHA, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, and elsewhere. Bernadette is currently at work on a novel that draws on her parents’ hardscrabble childhoods in Ireland, and includes apparitions of the Virgin Mary.