As the deep-throated, bone-jarring, creeping rumble of the Sturgis motorcycle rally dimmed with each mile, we rode south toward Nebraska. My wife, Arlette, a native of France, and I, both 55-year-old “boomers”, were on a ride we had dreamt about for years, the kind of venture many people imagine but never get around to actually do, following not the famed Route 66, but the equally captivating Highway 50 back to our home in Virginia.
We rode matching low-rider motorcycles: classic cruisers, like in the old movies. The week we had just spent at the rally, however, showed how unusual this was; men always had a larger bike than their partner, when she didn’t ride on the back, which was most common. Arlette hates riding on the back. Thanks to untold hours sailing dinghies, her natural reaction back there is to scream and lean the wrong direction in a curve, effectively pulling the bike back upright and straight rather than down and into the turn. Even more, she just doesn’t like being in back. “I don’t like staring,” she says dryly, “at the back of a helmet with nothing to do.”
It was unavoidable. I taught her how to ride on her own, and in the process motivated her almost beyond belief. When she called to let me know that the motorcycle store near our house had a second, matching, motorcycle for sale, I asked if they had the larger 1150cc model. “If you’re going to have an 1150cc bike,” was her acrid response, “so am I.” I bought the 750cc motorcycle.
Heading south from Sturgis we passed through a dry and arid landscape, one that revealed, under a limitless blue sky, the looming mountains to the west and behind, and a vast expanse of seeming nothing to the east and ahead.
Crossing into Nebraska we found real estate that is ultimate cow country. An alternate description might be “giant golfer’s hell”: endless miles of rolling rough dotted with sand traps. Scrawny, grayish grass either stretched out everywhere or bunched up in tufts, the absence of sagebrush indicating that any rain quickly drained away. Every once in a while we rode past a big, saucer-shaped basin, the flat bottom glimmering with the dense, deep green of alfalfa hay. Most had ponds, some big enough to call lakes. We were riding through a region called “Sand Hills” where the Olagalla Aquifer is sometimes no more than 50 feet below the surface, so the lakes were actually at the level of the underground water table. It has been calculated that if the water in the aquifer could be brought to the surface, the whole of Nebraska would be under 75 feet of water. Interesting geography.
That night we hesitated at the door of a restaurant because of the “closed” sign tucked into the little glass window. But the place looked nearly full, and we had nothing to lose, it being the only restaurant we had seen. “Is there any chance we could get some food,” I asked? “Maybe a sandwich, anything will do.” The waitress smiled, waved us in, and seated us at a table near the door while several people turned to look, most nodding a greeting. We could order anything, and we settled on salad, steak, baked potato for Arlette, and French fries for me. Arlette motioned for me to look at a fellow sitting alone in a booth. The cowboy hat pushed back on his head revealed a slice of parchment-white skin, contrasting with his dark, weathered, dirty looking face and neck. His worn shirt was open at the neck, with sleeves rolled up as he tackled his plate heaped with meatloaf and mashed potatoes smothered in dark gravy and a bright yellow pile of canned corn. His jeans looked a bit shabby, his boots worn and comfortable. When he stood at the counter to pay, his jeans clearly showed the shape of the tractor seat where he must have spent the day.
Arlette was fascinated. Restaurants in rural France looked different, a bottle of wine on each table, and bread, lots of bread. Here, you had to ask for bread, but you always got water, first, even before you could order. In France you had to ask for water. While Arlette took in the place and the people, I drew my own comparisons. It must be possible to get that same meatloaf dinner in tens of thousands of small town American restaurants. And that same fellow, or one so like him as not to make a difference, would be there to eat meatloaf on Thursday, country fried chicken on Friday, and whatever the daily special was each evening. These folks, whoever they are, wherever they live, share more than they ever think about, share something you can’t see on television.
The next day, between Grand Island and Lincoln, we rode past the endless miles of nearly flat fields that had been our image of Nebraska. The colors were glorious, but heartbreaking: stretches of corn, earless, half normal height, bleached blond by the sun; soybeans with grey-washed leaves, only a muted hint of green peaking through here or there, their stalks shading to pale yellow near the ground. It was a sober reminder of the hard-scrabble life of a dry land dirt farmer. In eastern Oregon we had years like that, the hot north wind shriveling the wheat before the heads could form, green pea vines turning yellow-brown before they grew much past three or four feet, never even close to bringing forth pods. The banks called the loans “operating capital.” Dad usually managed to pay them off three years out of five, letting him scratch back out of indebtedness enough to carry on.
Still, it was a good life. You were out there every day: sun, rain, wind, dust so thick you couldn’t see beyond the front of the tractor. A participant, a part of nature, watching each day as the crops you had planted emerged, grew, and matured. The physical work was its own reward: tired at the end of each day, but thoroughly satisfied. In the city, although I loved my intellectually rewarding job, I had to run ten or twelve miles to feel that physical accomplishment and satisfaction. Just as vital, if you’d been riding herd, you groomed and fed your horse before you went in to wash up for supper. Parking my bike before going into the motel was hardly the same.
We continued into Missouri, with the intention of stopping near Kansas City. The sensory, mental and physical experiences were the major attraction of riding, because we were right there, right in the middle of everything with absolutely nothing separating us, the powerful machines between our legs, and the world that was waiting. Riding magnified our awareness and focused attention just as sky diving, ski racing or any sport involving speed and relentless reflex response. Having only two wheels and nothing between us and the asphalt or oncoming vehicles generated a profound feeling of vulnerability that required continuous prediction of the road ahead and what could happen. Vision and hearing became tools for protection, or when things became dicey, for survival. But then, coming over a ridge or around a corner to an astounding vista or the smells of mown hay or a different kind of vegetation, we were rewarded by an intense wonder and deep-seated pleasure. Heightened acuity made everything clearer, sharper, more intense; a sensory experience completely unlike that in an automobile. Add the steady engine rumble, road vibration, and flogging wind and our motorcycle trip became a demanding sport rather than a simple mode of transportation.
We had a routine when we stopped each evening. After getting our room key, Arlette would take the bags that attach magnetically to our gas tanks to the room and go in search of the icemaker. By the time she got back with a wastebasket full of ice, I had brought in the detachable saddlebags which, at the beginning of the trip, had been filled by two dozen piccolo-sized bottles of champagne. While two bottles cooled, I brought in the T-bags that sat on the passenger seat while we drove. A glass of champagne before dinner is Arlette’s singular symbol of success, a comfort that has become a reward in itself. Arlette had seen no reason to give up her glass of champagne just because we were on the road. After toasting each day and relaxing, we could walk to dinner and afterwards, sleep soundly.
The next day we followed Missouri Route 7, through the Ozarks and past Lake Truman and Lake of the Ozarks. They are called mountains, but seemed to me more like hills, all the same height, each separated from the rest by the folds of little valleys. It was a welcome change from the flatland drought, green and lush, long views opening every now and again across repeating rows of ridges. The road, up and down the hills, seemed like a strip of gray ribbon candy twisting through heaps of dark green meringue, disappearing only to appear again climbing yet another spectacular green heap.
Leaving St. Louis the next day, we got lost twice. Once, a road sign showed an exit for US-50 but did not indicate it was West instead of East until after we were already on the ramp. Once, I didn’t pay attention and simply missed a well-marked turn and ended up in a small town, rolling down a typical rural Main Street, two steepled churches separated by a stone City Hall and down-in-the-mouth storefronts, many closed and boarded up. We decided to stop for coffee while we looked at maps and got our bearings.
We entered the only little restaurant, five or six tables with red checked vinyl oilcloth tablecloths, salt and pepper shakers, and a big sugar glass with a silver metal lid and a flap through which you could pour a proper portion of the sweet stuff. A weathered old fellow sat at a corner table, nursing his coffee, his John Deer baseball cap pushed back off his forehead. He nodded a greeting as we sat. From behind the counter, the waitress called out, “good morning, coffee?” “You bet,” I replied, “got any apple pie?”
There used to be restaurants like this in every little village. Farmers and workmen would show up at 5:30 or 6:00 every morning for coffee, eggs, bacon, and gossip. Everyone knew what everyone else did, or at least thought they knew: simultaneously the strong communal support and the stifling social burden of small town life. We stayed for lunch, much longer than we expected.
Back on Highway 50, which ranges from a divided 4-lane highway where everyone roars along at 75 mph to a 2-lane road winding up and down forested hills where 50 mph seems way too fast, we headed toward Cincinnati. We rode past miles and miles of green fields, either they’d had enough rain or they irrigated, and uncountable small towns, some bypassed by the big highway, but the smaller road went through many, their population posted on the welcoming sign.
It started to get dark and scattered rain, some heavy enough to make visibility difficult, slowed us down. The weather reminded us that riding motorcycles is demanding, requiring full concentration. Arlette rode in front, rain fogging her goggles and combining with night-sight deficit to slow our pace to 35 mph. I commented over our two-way radios that at that speed we wouldn’t make it to Cincinnati before midnight, to which Arlette screamed back, “I don’t care. If you make me drive faster, I won’t make it tonight at all!” Fortunately, a car passed, its headlights extending her range of vision, letting her hang on to the car like a mad woman, to use her phrase, and increasing our pace suddenly to 65 mph! Still, it was demanding and extremely intense.
Having lost an hour due to the time-zone change, we didn’t arrive until almost 11 p.m. In the process, however, Arlette had discovered one of the unexpected benefits of our two-way radios: you can turn off the screaming idiot on the other motorcycle by pushing your own “talk” button.
If we were looking for adventure, that day certainly qualified. Eleven hours of riding, interspersed with fifteen minute breaks while stretching and filling our gas tanks, then back out to traffic and curving roads, the last five hours through a downpour so thick you could barely see across the road. Later that night, after we were finally settled in our motel room, Arlette raised her plastic tumbler of champagne and said, “Well, we made it!” In that simple sentence was our joint sense of physical accomplishment, of pride in our endurance and perseverance during a long, miserable slog.
The next day we wound through small wooded canyons and passed a lake that was completely full, as opposed to showing 10 feet of shoreline like those we had seen further west. About an hour out, I called Arlette on the radio. “Honey, I think I forgot something.” Her voice sounded concerned as she asked me to explain. “I think I forgot to tell you that I love you.” Her response was so palpably warm it could’ve melted something much more substantial than butter. I had always considered talk cheap, that what really mattered in relationship was what you did, not what you said you would do. But in addition to actions, Arlette, like many women, needs to hear, again and again, that she is loved. It has become kind of a ritual for us, where I ask two or three times a day if I remembered to tell her that I love her. Sometimes I call up to say I felt the need to tell her I love her. I don’t understand exactly how, but these simple gestures have become cornerstones of our relationship, familiar, comfortable, reinforcing routines that began that day on a motorcycle ride.
After what seemed like no time at all, only a couple of hours, we started into the Appalachian Mountains, which, like the Ozarks, presented rows of ridges off to the horizon.
The terrain, however, became quite different when we reached West Virginia. The sign said “Welcome to Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.” We agreed with the “wonderful” part, but compared to the Sturgis motorcycle rally, it seemed pretty tame. Given the number of SUVs and pickups in the Church of the Way of Holiness parking lot that Friday evening, the locals probably had a more subdued interpretation of “wild”.
The mountains certainly were different. Instead of neat cornrows of ridges, they looked like a giant sheet of crumpled green tinfoil, jumbled ridges dipping and diving every which direction, the roads also different, big, immaculate 4-lane strips of modernity swept through valleys and over ridges, providing magnificent view after magnificent view. The signs reading “Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway System” hinted as to their origin. It was hard to tell what the locals did except build and maintain highways or service tourists: almost no farming, few cows, even logging was sparse.
Our detour away from Highway 50 down to Elkins, West Virginia kept the best scenery and some of the best riding for the last day-and-a-half: back country, mountain roads that were just right. A perfect motorcycle turn begins with the proper speed into the curve, pressure down on the handlebar on the side of the turn tilts and lowers the motorcycle into the curve, acceleration throughout maintains proper traction on both wheels and helps propel the bike back up as pressure on the outside handlebar brings it upright and straightens it out. That’s why these roads, looking like squiggles on a map, were so much fun. They not only had lots of curves, but the curves and hills were strung together, so that riding became a kind of dance: down, two, three; up, two, three; down, two, three; up, two, three…
We had also kept the most problematic experiences for the end of the ride. The parking lot at our motel in Elkins was on a slope. We generally loaded our saddle bags and the T-bags that sit on the passenger seat with the bikes up on the center-stand, which lifts it straight up and pulls the back wheel off the ground, rather than using the kick-stand, which leaves both wheels on the ground and the bike leaning to the left. After loading up, we drop it back down and put it on the kick-stand before mounting. With the slope, I managed to drop the rear wheel of my bike onto the toe of my boot, at which point I instantly let go and pulled back my foot, which succeeded in freeing my foot but let the bike start to fall downhill. Fortunately, it fell against Arlette’s arm, and she managed to hold it until I could pull it back upright. Our bikes weighed 495 lbs. dry, without gas or luggage, which added at least another 50 lbs. She got a nice little hematoma; quick application of ice prevented any swelling but left a brilliant purple bruise on her arm.
That night, over dinner, I mentioned to Arlette something that I had been mulling over on recent days. “You know,” I said, “I’ve always laughed at the people in those big motor homes. But what would you say if we got one and a trailer for our bikes. We could set up at a campsite in the coach, use our bikes to see everything there is to see within a 50 mile radius, and then move 100 miles down the road and do it all over again.” Arlette got very quiet, as I could see her thinking about it. As a young man, I had imagined that at this stage of my life I would be on a sailboat sailing around the world. Then I met Arlette, and when I learned during some seriously heavy weather on the Mediterranean that Arlette gets seasick, I abandoned that aspiration. I was proposing, and I could see Arlette beginning to absorb, a goal of equivalent appeal.
On the final day of our ride, as we pulled in for gasoline in Romney, WV, Arlette put down her kick-stand and leaned the bike on to it, but the bike kept right on going and started to fall. Stepping nimbly off, she wasn’t caught under it and was able to hold it until I could get around the bike to help. The spring had popped off the kick-stand letting it collapse instead of holding the bike, the only mechanical problem we had the whole 4000 mile trip.
We stayed on Highway 50 until we could turn on residential streets toward our home in Falls Church, Virginia. As we came into Fairfax and began to see familiar sights, Arlette radioed me, “Our dream ride is almost over.”
A dream ride was exactly what it had been, with not only daydreams and nightmares, but the solidification of our relationship and the emergence of a new dream for the future.