Learning to Listen


Jeff Hughes



The man awakens to the sound of rain.  He is disappointed, but not surprised after the darkening clouds he rode through yesterday afternoon.  He turned in last night hoping against hope.

It prompts in him now a lassitude, a less pressing desire to get going.  After showering, he dresses slowly, considering his options.  By the time he has retrieved a cup of coffee from the store a hundred feet away he concludes that it is here to stay.  The sky is a solid mass of gray and the rain, though not heavy, falls with a steady patter that suggests it is not going away any time soon.  The handful of other bikes in the parking lot sit there quietly, with no indication that their owners are yet astir.

Shrugging into his Aerostich, the man inserts his earplugs and dons his helmet and cinches up his gloves before stepping outside the room.  Pulling the door closed behind him, he steps off the porch into the wetness.  The sense of immersion, of being thrust into an unwelcome environment, is immediate.  Years from now he’ll see rain in a very different way.  But on this morning he hates it.

Brushing aside the puddle of water that has pooled on the seat with the back of his glove, the man swings his leg across and thumbs the starter.  Pushing through the enveloping thrum of the rain, the sound of the engine adds a sudden richness.  Even through his irritation at the weather, the man can’t help but smile.

Motoring slowly down the parking lot of the motel, the man turns up the slight incline to the road.  Under the sign that says “Crossroads of Time,” he pauses for a moment, then turns west.

From the store, the road into Deals Gap lifts for the first two hundred feet.  On weekends it’s the canvass upon which riders frequently launch wheelies and other demonstrations of prowess for the benefit of those hanging out at the store.

But the man is not inclined towards such shenanigans – and anyway there is no one outside on this wet weekday morning.  He accelerates slowly up the hill, mindful that wet roads and cold tires are a combination rich with unhappy endings.

At the top, the trees close in, providing a canopy over the road.  Even on a socked-in day like today, the diminishment in light is noticeable.  In the last of his idle thoughts, the man makes note of this.  Then the first curve breaks in front of him and suddenly he has time for nothing else.

Yesterday evening’s run to The Punkin Center had been dry.  Even with that benefit he had struggled to find its rhythm.  Following the long day on the Blue Ridge Parkway, with its smooth, even gradients, Deals Gap was a challenge.  His first run through had been ragged.  The return trip back to the motel was better, but still not great.

Now, the wet road impels a tortured caution.  Even as the first couple of miles pass and the man knows his tires have built some heat, he is aware that the swiftly arriving transitions and the abrupt nature of the turns hold a special danger.  He rides with great care.

It’s with a sense of mild relief when he finally drops down out of the gap and the road straightens.  Ten miles on, when the sign for The Home Place emerges out of the gloom, he’s glad to get off the bike.

He takes his time with breakfast.  After eating, he sits there with a cup of coffee, warming his still-cold hands and thinking about the contrast between yesterday’s lovely 600-mile ride and today’s less-than-promising start.  He thinks especially of that fellow he met.

It was mid-afternoon, as the sun began giving away to broken cloud cover, that he had passed the overlook.  The flash of red as he rolled by and then the unmistakable look of the front-end in his mirrors as the bike pulled in behind him made his heart skip a beat.  A Ducati 916.

Suddenly nervous in the presence of such august company, the man at first had a hard time concentrating on the curves ahead.  But after a bit he settled down and for thirty minutes he and the Ducati rolled in lockstep down the Parkway.  Every step he made, including the frequent double-yellow passes as he came upon slower traffic, was matched instantly by the rider behind him.

After awhile the Ducati passed him.  A slow, rolling pass on a straightaway, with the black-leather-clad rider nodding and lifting his hand as he came around.  After settling in front, the Ducati slowly began bumping the pace.  Already running 25mph over the limit – well into reckless driving territory - the man wasn’t entirely comfortable with that.  But he moved to stay with him anyway.

For another thirty minutes they continued, a flying rush across the mountains.  The man marveled at the smooth grace of the rider in front of him.  There was an almost uncanny fluidity to his movements.  And although he himself was riding at the very edge of his comfort zone, the Ducati rider gave no indication of being the least bit discomfited.  When the Ducati finally slowed and pulled into an overlook, the man followed.

Dismounting and pulling off their helmets, the man was shocked by the sudden appearance of white hair and a grizzled countenance in his erstwhile riding partner.  Far from the young hotshoe he had expected – this guy had to be every bit of seventy.  But the fellow’s face quickly crinkled into an easy smile.

“Nice day, huh?”

“Indeed it is,” the man nodded, recovering from his surprise.  “And that sure is a beautiful bike you’ve got there.”

“Yeah, it does pretty well,” the old guy offered. 

They ended up standing there, chatting amiably for awhile.  Until the old fellow began getting ready to leave. 

Just before he pulled his helmet on, the old rider looked back at the man, as if intuiting the question that had hung there since they pulled in.

Tipping his head to where the two bikes sat side by side, the tiniest hint of a smile touched his face.  “You have to listen to them.  If you can do that, they’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

And then he was gone, the bass sound of the Desmodromic twin receding in the distance.

Suddenly eager to get going, the man swallows the rest of his coffee and pays his tab.  Outside, the rain has lightened into a broken sprinkle.  Maybe it won’t be such a bad day, after all.

The ride to Tellico Plains is easy.  Traffic is light and the man is happy for the cocoon-like dryness under his Aerostich.  In spite of himself, he finds himself grudgingly beginning to enjoy the ride. 
He makes a brief stop for gas in town, but otherwise doesn’t tarry.  The road ahead hangs in his thoughts.

The Cherohala Skyway is only 40-odd miles long, but is one of the man’s favorite routes.  More open than Deals Gap, it allows for greater speeds and gentler transitions.  He reasons that the latter, especially, will be a welcome quality on a day like today. 

It starts soft and easy, gentle swirls at the bottom.  But as the road climbs in elevation the topography hardens.  The man holds his speed, concentrating on being smooth through the turns.  He quickly finds a cadence that works. 

There are patches of fog as he approaches Stratton Gap, where the road peaks.  But past that, into the descent, the air clears.

It’s harder now - the turns are serious and going downhill it’s more difficult to stay off the brakes.  The man struggles to hold the pace. 

Pondering, he thinks back to what the old guy had said.

Through his earplugs he can hear the engine and the rush of wind past his helmet.  And beyond those, softer, more subtle, he can hear the rain and the whine of his tires against the wet road.

But instinctively he knows these are not what the old fellow had meant.

Another handful of miles passes as he toys with the question.  And then it comes to him.

Down deep there is a murmur.  Not of a sound reaching his ears.  But rather a stream of soft stories coming to him through his seat and his hands and his feet and his thighs and his fingertips.  Every place he touches the motorcycle is speaking to him.  He is amazed he never quite got that before.

And so he begins to listen.


© 2010 Jeff Hughes