Hard Times


Jeff Hughes


I’m up at 4:30am, the darkness amplifying the mystery of the day to come.  I’m glad for the hours of riding that lie in front of me, for sure.  But the tinge of excitement that normally accompanies an impending trip is missing.  So is the mild sense of urgency that usually prompts a hurried packing of my gear.  I put the pot of coffee on and take a slow, leisurely shower.

Turning on the computer, I spend a few minutes scanning emails and checking responses from the search agents I’ve got working.  Nothing.

After my second cup of coffee I finally rise and head outside.  It doesn’t take long to pack the bike.  And by 6am I’m finally rolling.

The weather gods are smiling.  Sunshine, brightly clear, low humidity, highs near 80.  It looks promising for the boys over at least the next couple of days.  It’s hard to take a 5-day motorcycle trip and not run into some rain, somewhere.  But it’s always nice when at least the first few days are sunny and nice.

It’s a little chilly at the moment – 43 degrees – and my hands are cold even with my Olympia 3-season gloves and the heated grips on the BMW working away.  But I’m fine otherwise.  The heated liner under my Aerostitch is providing its usual magic.

Heading out rt. 211, I try to think of the last time I left early on a morning, with the whole day in front of me.  Seems like it’s been awhile.

Dawn is already well up and as the road slowly rocks back and forth, my shadow dances along in front of me.  What was it I had written years ago?   “…chasing my shadow towards Thornton Gap.”  That’s a really cool way to start the day.

Even with everything else going on – maybe because of it – I’m suddenly glad to be out on the road.  Especially since I almost decided not to.  Something about that 4:30am wake-up call.

There’s a temperature inversion as I roll up the mountain at Thornton Gap, and again crossing the Alleghenies just east of New Market.  Rising on the ascent both times, the chill quickly evaporates, replaced by a suffusing, warm glow.  My hands quickly warm.

An hour and a half later I’m in Staunton.  After gassing up, I roll up to the Comfort Inn to find Mark and Barton already suited up and on the side of the road, waiting for the rest of the group.  Five minutes more and I’d have missed them.  Seeds and some of the others are getting breakfast.  And Earle has already left, leading another group on a circuitous, westward swing through West Virginia.  His ambitious route will encompass over 500 select miles on the way towards Little Switzerland.

After quick greetings – Mark, Barton, Lew, Eric, Andy, Mike, and a friend of Lew’s are in this little contingent – we roll quickly to Afton mountain and the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The morning chill is gone and there is almost no traffic on the Parkway.  Absolutely perfect.  Our pace is normal for our little group – 70-80mph - and few things have ever felt so right.  I just love this road.  And one couldn’t ask for more than this great group of talented riders to enjoy it with.  The pace is just enough to get my blood up a bit, and the devil on my shoulder is nattering at me.  But I hang back in the middle of the pack, as I mostly do anymore, and that helps.

A hundred and fifteen miles later we roll down out of the mountains.  After gassing up, I decide that this will be my turnaround point.  I say my reluctant farewells, and as the group continues on south I turn back north to re-run the Parkway in the other direction.

I’m still in that glow of riding.  That golden place where everything feels just right.  The place where one’s world, for a little while, has no worries.  With the clear skies and low humidity, the scenery along both sides of the mountains is just breathtaking.  I notice it with quick glances as I fly north at a steady 70mph and know that I should stop and take some pictures.  But I don’t.  The place I’m in is a gift, a drug I’m loath to let go of, for even a few moments.  So I keep riding.



That little ride was in the spring of 2002.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was six months into what would eventually turn into a fifteen-month stretch of unemployment.  You like to think that such an experience is an outlier, a statistical footnote you hear about on the news.  Usually it is.

Alas, given the economic turmoil today buffeting the globe, it was an experience which now seems to be increasingly germane to other riders.

Being unemployed sucks.  As the weeks, and then the months, pass by, it raises a whole range of threats to one’s lifestyle, ranging from the starkly financial, to the quietly emotional, to the utterly pragmatic.  It can be a devastating experience.

One of the obvious imperatives the situation forces is the need to reduce expenses; and the corollary need to raise money, however one can.  And since motorcycling is a discretionary activity for most of us, it becomes an obvious target.  A lot of guys, faced with that circumstance, immediately look to sell their bike.

I’m glad I didn’t.

Not that I didn’t think about it – I surely did.  Especially as the months dragged on and my financial situation became more and more dire.  But in the end, it was my bikes that saved me.  They gave me a place to escape to, a place of comfort and sanity, in a world which otherwise seemed to have utterly lost its bearings.

There were changes in my motorcycling world, of course.  I had to put track days on hold.  And I had to cut back on the handful of overnight trips that I usually take every year, as in my little jaunt to meet up with my buddies above.  There was no way I could afford the several-hundred-dollar motel and restaurant charges that such trips inevitably bring.  And even on day-rides I would eschew the cafes or fast-food restaurants which normally are the venue for lunch, instead pulling out the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had packed along.  You save every dime you can.

It doesn’t mean you can’t take trips.  You just have to do them a little differently.  Pull out that old, unused-in-forever tent and sleeping bag and it’s amazing how cheaply one can travel.  Camping has its own unique allure in the best of times.  As a bastion of opportunity for those in strained economic circumstances it holds few equals. I took several multi-day camping trips during that otherwise forgettable time and they provided some of my most memorable motorcycling moments, ever.

Tires were the hardest – I went through seven sets that year.  And it was the tire budget that quickly became the arbiter of how much I could ride.  I found myself carefully calculating tire mileage – how much tread was left on each of my two bikes and when the next set would be needed – and alloting myself so many miles on a given day.  Even with a strict mileage allowance, I spent a lot of money on rubber over the course of that year – seven sets of motorcycle tires aren’t cheap.  It was the sole luxury I allowed myself.

Mostly, it was the few hours I got away on otherwise mundane, average days that made the difference.  I quickly fell into a routine of spending several hours every morning doing the job-hunt thing – and then going for a ride.  As the months dragged on with little in the way of prospects, those mornings became more and more discouraging.   But as dark and depressing as they became, I always had that afternoon ride to bring me back.  Those back-road jaunts never failed to make me feel better.  They let me finish the day with hope.

To those of you who find yourselves in similar circumstances, you have my utmost empathy and respect.  I know how hard it can be, how desperate it can make you feel.  Short of death, divorce, or debilitating illness, it’s probably the hardest thing any of us ever have to deal with.  And although at the end of the day we all have to make the hard choices we think are right for ourselves and our family, I’d encourage you to think long and hard before selling that bike out in the garage.

It might just be part of the answer that you need.


© 2009 Jeff Hughes