800 Miles

by

Jeff Hughes

 

He rode north through the gathering darkness, knowing now he would make it home and put a finish on this 800-mile day.  He was only partially glad of that.
           
He rode the interstate now, after 600 miles of the small, curving roads that he delighted in.  Cruising easily at 80, his was very nearly the fastest vehicle on the road, a sleek, faired missile.  Sitting atop the motorcycle he did not usually see that.  But detaching his mind he could see himself as he must appear to those drivers around him and it pleased him.  Whether he was pleased about going home he wasn’t sure.

 

 

He had begun early in the morning, intending to stay out the night.  He headed west, seeking the same thing he always sought.  Just before the mountains he stopped to buy fuel, a liter of water, and a biscuit.  While eating he noted the sun bore down sharply, but the humidity was low.  That meant he would not sweat much in his leathers today.
           
Finishing his breakfast, he went back into the store and bought a small bottle of baby powder.   Sprinkling a little on the seat of the motorcycle, he spread it with his hand.  The powder clung to everything.  He wet a napkin with water from the bottle and swabbed the side panels clean. 
           
Six more miles and the mountain pass lay before him.  He attacked it hard, rolling back and forth through the curling switchbacks.  The powder relieved the tackiness of his leathers, allowing him to move easily from side to side.  The only sounds were the heavy thrumming of the engine, muted through the ear plugs he wore, the rush of wind past his helmet, and the gentle scurrring of the footpegs as they touched down.  He loved this road.  He rode it well this day.
           
He did not stop at the top of the mountain, as he usually did, but continued over the crest to begin the long downward spirals, maintaining his brisk pace.  Halfway down the mountain he finally encountered a slower-moving car, which forced him to check his speed.  He thought about it, but then decided not to double-yellow pass the car.  Too soon.  Too close to home.  There would be plenty of time for that later.
           
The road straightened on the valley floor on the far side of the pass.  Had he the power to conjure the thoughts in his mind, he would have thought only of the road and of riding today.  But as soon as he made the flat of the valley floor the road straightened and thoughts of home intruded.  He wished he could cast them away.  But he had no control over the images that coursed through his head.
           
At the far end of the valley he turned south on the valley road.  He made good time, maintaining his pace at an even 80.  He ran now down the valley, with mountains over both shoulders.  The valley road went directly south, but it was a lazy road and it moved around rather than through the local topography.  For a straight, fast road, it had much character, the man thought.   He could feel himself flowing with the cut and contour of the land, and that made him feel part of it.

 

Her eyes wet with new tears, she looked at him flatly.

“What is it?” he asked, his tone measured, but with a hint of kindness.

“I’m afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” he asked.

“Afraid that you’ll leave.”

Her directness made him feel hollow, and he paused in his reply, finally returning “you know better than that.”  He chose his words carefully so they would not be a lie. 

 

Entering the parkway at Leeds was like a freshening.  It was always like that - any vestiges of fatigue from the two fast hours getting there falling away to new delight in the wondrous road which ran through marvelous country.  He quickly established a rhythm which carried him in a rocking cadence back and forth through the sweeping turns.  He set his speed at 65, but had to work to keep it there.  The smoothness of the road and the engineered consistency of the turns made it possible to go much faster.  But twenty over was already pushing it.  He didn’t need any more points.
 
The low humidity made for a cool morning along the mountain crests over which the road ran.  Over his shoulders lay beautiful vistas into the valleys beyond.  The man knew he should stop before the morning light was gone altogether and take some photographs.  In the tank bag he carried his good camera, the F4, a small tripod, and several lenses.  But he could not make himself stop.  The road mesmerized him, as it usually did, and he continued on. 

Hours later he turned off the parkway.  The road leading down the mountain was crooked and technical in an unpredictable, chaotic fashion.  Its rogue character lay in sharp contrast to the effortless smoothness, the harmonious consistency of the earlier road.  It forced him to work harder, to pay more attention.  A half-dozen miles later, by the time he pulled into the diner in the valley down below, he was wide awake, enervated by the combination of risk and the exultation that came from surmounting it.

Lunch was lazy.  Long after he finished eating he continued to sit there, drawing distractedly from the glass of iced tea while gazing idly out the window at his bike.  Having already come some 400 miles he could feel the first tendrils of fatigue creeping in upon him, the first knots of soreness spreading from his neck into his shoulders.  Yet he was loath to think about an end to the day.  The perfect day, he thought, would be one that went on and on.  Riding a high alpine road that never ended.

Even as he held that thought he recognized it for what it was.  Even without her to remind him, he understood it.

He popped two Ibuprofen tablets as he prepared to leave.  As he climbed back on the bike he wondered what it was about these two-wheeled machines that held such a fascination to him.  Why was it that they exerted such a hold on him?

Returning up the mountain he marveled at how a road can look so different when running in the opposite direction.  The rising elevation and having now a hint of what to expect gave the man an advantage, but that was offset by the mild lethargy that came from also having a full stomach.  Funny how things even out, he thought.

Back on the parkway, he continued south, quickly again being lulled by the sublime rhythm of the road.  An hour later his bladder prompted him to pull into an overlook.  After taking care of that he retrieved the map from his tankbag and spread it across his seat.  He had been considering where to stop for the night and, now, gazing at the map, his eyes turned towards the college town an hour west.  Pulling his eyes back towards the purple line that represented the parkway, the man visually connected several of the faint, smaller squiggles that would get him there.

The next hour and a half was the best of the day.  A rocking, broken, roller coaster of a ride, tracking along a small, shaded trout creek that had him bending towards the task with an intense concentration.  By the time he arrived at the town the man’s face held a satisfied countenance, belying his growing tiredness.

Dropping down into cruise mode, the man motored slowly up the main drag, absorbing the youthful vibrancy that college towns always seem to exude.  He nodded at a couple of flirtatious coeds who smiled at him.

 At the gas station he pondered his options.  Hot supper and a cold beer sure sounded good.  But the glow from that run down out of the mountains still held him.  He was reluctant to let it go.  As he returned the handle of the fuel hose and reset his odometer he did a quick calculation.  He had already come 550 miles.  And there was only an hour of daylight left.  But the road still called.  There wasn’t much south of here.  But there was a terrific road that tracked northwards, back towards the interstate.  Back towards home.  He paused, considering.  He would not get back until late in the night.  And most of it would be on interstate.  But at least he would be riding.

Slowly pulling on his helmet he paused one more time, stepping back to gaze at his bike, the machine that had carried him so far, in so many ways.

Nodding quietly, he climbed back aboard and thumbed the starter.  Then he pulled back onto the road.

 

© 2010 Jeff Hughes