Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
The experience of life can best be summed up as a series of beginnings, middles, and endings. As the years pile up, what changes is that endings begin to outnumber beginnings. Some things are given up simply because we get bored and move on. Others fall by the wayside due to other demands upon our time. This is natural. Time is always in motion; things and people are always changing.
But there are those things we give up because…well, we just can’t do them anymore.
Softball was once my second religion. It was how I spent just about every summer. I can still recall the rising sense of excitement as I walked through the humid Missouri evenings toward the complex of diamonds already lit. I was never a star, but I played hard. The competition was tough and I loved every minute. But as I got older, I grew weaker and slower. Frozen ropes that once leapt off my bat became dying quails. I knew the end was coming, but it wasn’t until I suffered the humiliation of being thrown out at first base by the left fielder that I finally accepted inevitable and hung up my cleats for good.
But there are still times when I can pick up my glove, slip it on, and wait for the aroma of leather, sweat, dirt, and chalk to fill my senses and bring the inevitable flood of memories.
It was in my late 30’s that I discovered motorcycles. In the 20 years since, riding has been my source of joy, freedom, and soul-satisfying inspiration. Although primarily a commuting tool, I’ve done a lot of miles through countless countrysides, mountains, prairies, plains, deserts, and coastlines ranging from 2-hour Sunday jaunts to a 9-day 5,000 mile sojourn through the southwest.
I would tell you that I’m in the middle of this particular activity, but I have to be honest and admit that I can see just over the horizon the sorrowful day when age will force me to lay this aside as well.
I want to make one more long trip while I still can. But a few things will have to happen first.
I have to get a more capable bike. My current ride, a Kawasaki Vulcan 900LT is a great bike for commuting and day excursions. But a lack of luggage capacity and a seat that has all the comfort of a concrete block disqualify this motorcycle for a cross-country tour.
I like the Honda Goldwing, partly because it’s a Honda and therefore will run forever. Mainly though, it’s a known quantity. A few years ago, we rented one and did New England for 6 days. Though relatively gigantic, it was a dream to handle and possessed a perfectly comfortable place to park a tushie for 9 or 10 hours per day.
The passage of many hours contemplating road atlases and gazetteers has resulted in three possible trips.
One of them involves riding up to Glacier National Park on the Canadian border and then riding the continental divide all the way to Douglass, Arizona before turning for home. Another possibility would be to circle all five of the Great Lakes.
But the one that intrigues me the most involves crossing the continent on US Highway 50.
50 starts near Washington DC and actually passes less than 2 miles north of our home in Northern Virginia. Going west, it zigs through the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, then across the eternal prairies of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois before entering Missouri at St. Louis. It traverses the Show Me State through the crenelated hills that mark the northern boundary of the Ozarks. After passing through the southern side of Kansas City, it debouches onto the billiard table that is Kansas and eastern Colorado. It soars into the Colorado Rockies and crosses the lunar scape of Utah.
Once it reaches Nevada, it acquires an identity, the lonliest road in North America. In earlier days, motorists were cautioned against taking this route unless they possessed good survival skills. While not as empty as it was back then, it’s still a daunting journey. Starting at Delta near the western Utah border, it lays like a ribbon through 462 miles of prehistoric desert. There are only five places to get supplies, Ely, Eureka, Austin, Fallon, before ending in Carson City. This kind of isolated pavement calls to me in a way hard to comprehend, let along explain. It’s a challenge, not like the Dragon, but in its own lonely way. The rider needs to know that out there traffic is a rare and beautiful thing, as are cell towers. If you have a breakdown, or are foolish enough to run out of gas, rest assured you’re going to be there for a while.
The road loops around the south shore of glittering Lake Tahoe and crosses into California, crossing the high desert before terminating at the junction with I-80 in West Sacramento.
After that it’s an easy coast to San Francisco and a short jaunt up the Pacific Coast Highway to see the giant Redwoods.
The trip back involves a quicker, if less soulful trek across I-80 and I-70 back home.
The round trip, according to Google Maps, is just under 6,200 miles. Keeping to my self-imposed limit of 400 miles per day (give or take), that’s a good 15 or 16 days on the road. Spacing a few rest days in there (a hard-won lesson from previous trips) takes the trip out to almost three weeks.
That’s a long time in the saddle. And away from work. It’s likely that I’ll be thinking fondly of the relative comfort of my SUV after this trip is done.
But maybe that’s the point. If I have to give up this joy, it’s important that I can face that moment of decision without an ounce of regret.
And that, as I have learned, should be the goal at the end of my journey.