Old Roads


Jeff Hughes


The last vestiges of daylight are but a narrow smudge of pink on the western horizon. And as I roll down the county parkway even that disappears, leaving everything in darkness save the points of light from the headlights from the cars in the oncoming lanes. The four lanes constitute what I consider a big road – a marked change from the lolling country route which used to run through here - and I struggle to maintain an orientation as to where I am. It’s been a long time since I’ve been back.

Rolling past the new shopping centers and housing developments, I shake my head. It’s amazing how you can live in a place for so many years, to the point where you think you know it as well as you’ll ever know anything – and then the bulldozers come in and in the space of a handful of years they transform everything so utterly that it might as well be on a different planet. Nothing here keys even the remotest recollection and I’m left trying to figure where the turnoff is by dredging a distant calculus of time and distance from the recesses of my memory.

I almost miss it. There’s a traffic light and a church where before there was nothing but a stop sign, but the green road sign catches my eye at the last minute. Hampton Road. Seeing it stirs a moment of cognitive dissonance – in fifteen miles of changed landscape it’s the first thing that has struck a familiar chord.

Quickly downshifting the Suzuki, I turn down the road. Once past the church the blacktop still wends it way through dense woods - another remembered puzzle piece - and within a couple hundred feet the speckled lights and urban sounds of the parkway have disappeared, leaving me in blackness. The halogen light of the motorcycle plays out in front of me, bright white where the road tracks straight, but in another hundred feet the road begins its twisting dance and the headlight beam turns discordant, absorbed by the trees.

At first tentative, a smile slowly breaks out on my face as the first few miles unfold and I realize that this is all pretty much the same. They haven’t changed this yet. Still, I ride with restraint. It’s hard to see in the darkness and the wired certainty of what this road holds, the script that I carried in my head for so many years, is now muted and uncertain. Has it really been that long?

The Gixxer, ever wanting to run, seems disappointed. I can hear the slightly raucous exhaust note even through my ear plugs and the inline-four emits its flow of power with an almost rheostat-like smoothness. I barely touch that well of power, the 1000cc mill needing the merest turn of throttle to accelerate through the corners.

But then there’s the long downhill to the causeway, mostly straight, and I give the bike its head. I must have done that here a thousand times – the goal always the same: get to triple digits before arriving at the water. The GSX-R1000 makes short work of that, crushing its way past the ton in a few quick ticks. By the time I get to the reservoir and roll off I’m a third of the way into the second ton. It makes me start laughing.

The landscape isn’t the only thing that has changed.

From there the road contorts its way for another dozen miles, lending both a remembrance and a lesson. This isn’t in the mountains – there aren’t any in this county – but you’d never know it by the character of the road, the way it twists and turns in a drunken symphony.

By the time I start down the hill into the tiny, little village twenty minutes later I’m struck by how lucky I was. Though I never realized it at the time, the small network of roads around here – probably no more than a hundred miles, all told – were the very best teachers I could have ever asked for.

The village itself seems little changed. As I slow to a stop across the street from the old general store, I have the same feeling that I remember from back then: that I have this all to myself. There are a few lights in the windows of the several houses along the street, but no one other than me is outside. Turning off the key to the Suzuki, it’s suddenly quiet.

The horse railing is gone. The one I used to lean against as I smoked a cigarette and listened to the ticking sound of my cooling engine. But looking around, everything else seems pretty much the same as it was. I find that somehow gratifying.

I haven’t smoked in years, so I don’t have that to occupy me, but the introspective reflection of what this all means remains. Spending a few minutes contemplating what an enchanting thing a fast motorcycle is. And how it is that so few of us are given the gift to understand that.

Mostly, I’m thinking about the roads. How special they were in giving that fast motorcycle a place to live. A place to run. A place to allow us to be free of everything else, if only for a little while.

Even as these roads were my teachers then - all the lessons of our sport you’d ever need written in their infinite variety - they remain still. The young men who challenge them today, if they simply listen, will learn all they need. They can be as lucky as I was.

That strikes me as a comforting thought, a bit of continuity in a world which sometimes seems overly given to improving things, only to find that what was lost was greater than what was gained.

May there always be at least a few such roads as these.

Tossing away my imaginary cigarette, I shrug back into my jacket and mount back up. Thumbing the starter, the bike starts instantly and the sound prompts in me, once again, the feeling that all is well with the world. Slowly over the railroad tracks, then gently spooling the engine as I lean into the right-hander which leads out of town - and with speed the world comes alive.

The night has taken on that velvety smoothness that often comes after a hot summer day and the wind rushing past my face and arms and torso, my half-zipped jacket billowing full, is mesmerizing in its feel.

The preceding miles have given me a touch more confidence in my memory of how the road tracks, so my pace quickens. A mile rolls by across the darkened, rural landscape. Then another.

Almost missed, a quickly-looming shadow on my right marks the intersection with another small road. My mind reaches down it a half-mile, to a double-tap set of 10mph curves, and a long-ago crash. There were lessons aplenty that day.

I think to turn down it, but quickly decide against it. I’ll come back another time for that. I’ve another thought in mind tonight.

Two more miles and the Y-intersection is there, just as I remember it. Taking the left-hand leg, the road curls around in a counterclockwise direction, almost like it was trying to turn back time. The Suzuki feels lithe, alive, wired to the road; its suspension uncannily sorted.

The salutary feeling prompts me to feed in more speed, slowly over the next mile, until finally I’m edging into that place where everything tightens up, where it all becomes taut and focused and purposeful. The good place.

With speed, the darkness that blankets the landscape imparts a floating sensation, as if hurtling through time and space, unhindered by natural laws. As if we - this bike and I – are some kind of meteor of light and energy, anchored to the ground by magic.

And suddenly it’s there, in that nexus of blackness and motion and power, the world wheeling beneath me, that I find the answer I’ve been searching for.

That the world changes, inevitably. Especially those things that we can see and smell and touch - the buildings and the roads and the landscape. All those things that we think about all the time, that seem to be the map of our world. But that there are other things, things that live deeper, that are untouchable. They exist within us, eternal.

As long as we live, they remain.

© 2007 Jeff Hughes