Priorities

by

Jeff Hughes

 

 

It’s something of an impromptu decision.  I originally had planned on working around the house this morning.  The fence still needs to be cleared of the root from the oak tree which has wrapped around it.  And the late-winter pile of wood still sits in a heap, waiting to be stacked.

But weather.com is forecasting an oppressive day in the mid-nineties, with humidity to match.  It doesn’t take me long to come to a different decision.

Closing the laptop, I’m imbued with a sudden urgency.  It’s already after eight.  I take a final, quick swallow from my cup of coffee, then head to the kitchen to rinse the cup and give Ginny the news of my change in plans.  She’s not surprised.

Swiftly pulling my gear together, I hurry through the packing and airing of my tires.  Even at this early hour, the air has a viscous, heavy feel.  By the time I put the compressor away tiny beads of sweat have broken out on the back of my hands.

Still enveloped in that sense of urgency, my continuing impulse is to just get going.  I start to pull on the Aerostich, only then to pause.  “It’ll only take five minutes,” I tell myself. 

Back inside, I spend those five minutes making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then a half-dozen peanut butter crackers.  Wrapping those in plastic wrap and dropping them into a brown paper bag, I add a couple of Twinkies.  Done.  That’ll be my lunch in a few hours.

Twenty-five minutes after making the decision to go, I’m finally moving.

Tracking south, traffic is light.  I work consciously to detach emotionally from the feeling that I should have planned this better, should have left a couple hours earlier, should already be in the mountains.  I’ve got what I’ve got, I tell myself.  It’ll have to do.  But the hint of irritation hangs there, a gentle reproach.

Ninety minutes later I pull into the gas station at the foot of the mountain.  As soon as I roll to a stop the sweat breaks out under my Aerostitch.  Like flipping a light switch.  I shrug out of the suit and drop it on the seat before reaching for the fuel hose.

Inside, the air conditioning is shocking in its coolness.  I take my time before heading back outside with my liter of water and packet of donuts.  Standing there in the shade next to the door I enjoy my simple breakfast, the white confectioners’ sugar sticking to my fingers.  Gazing at the sky, I note the opaque haze hanging there like a far-flung blanket, reflecting the heat.  There will be thunderstorms in a few hours.  But it doesn’t matter.

Gazing at a knot of sport riders riding past the gas station, heading up the mountain, I’m struck by a desire to hurry, to jump on my bike and catch up with them.  But I fight the urge, forcing myself to remain standing there for another couple of minutes.  When I do finally begin to suit up, I do so with a purposeful deliberateness.

The ascent of the mountain is a joy.  Long, winding, shaded sweepers track up its western flank.  I roll into them hard, eager to get to it.  In five minutes I’m at the top, where I pull off onto the short service road.  At the stop sign I turn right.

The difference is remarkable.  It’s ten degrees cooler up here.  Added to the winding road that now stretches in front of me for miles and miles, it’s clear that this was the exactly right decision.  I allow a self-congratulatory smile.

The next two hours are golden, dropping me into that place where everything falls away, leaving only a singular focus on the road.  The scenery, beautiful as it is, arises in my consciousness only as brief snippets of quick wonder, before merging once again into the ephemera, a hazy backdrop to the black ribbon held in front of me. 

Traffic is lighter than I expected.  Every ten minutes or so I come upon another vehicle, and within a mile or two do a quick double-yellow pass.   But mostly I have the road to myself.

The only detraction from my morning is the mild worry of coming upon a cop.  My pace is clean and crisp, the natural tempo where the bike and I and the road have synched into an effortless partnership.  But regardless of how right the pace feels, it’s still 25mph over the limit – an honest 25mph, according to my Zumo – well into reckless driving territory.  After running the self-debate I always seem to have on these rides of mine - the math of probability and consequence - I decide not to worry about it.

After awhile I come upon two riders pulling out from an overlook in front of me.  Accelerating quickly, their pace first comes up to match mine.  Then, after a couple of miles they begin to slowly add to it.  First a single mph.  Then another couple.  And then shortly a couple more.

It’s a tease, like following a rider on the racetrack who is running a tenth or two second faster laps.  There’s that invisible pull as you sense the ground between the two of you slowly increasing, and the unconscious response where you amp your own effort to keep it from happening.

But it’s only a few more mph, and it’s instantly clear that these are very good riders - and that prompts its own curiosity – and so I accept the gambit.

As I edge towards the boundary of my comfort zone, and the ever-so-slight beginning ripples of disturbance in my riding rhythm that that represents, I see no evidence that the riders in front of me are undergoing any kind of similar transformation.  They continue to move down the road with an unperturbed, swift certainty.  It is a pleasure to run behind them, watching their ballet. 

Shortly after noon I reach my turnoff.  After the pace of the last couple hours, the slow, meandering 20mph speed imposed by the narrow, paved trail leading up the mountain feels strange.  But this is one of my favorite places and I take an odd satisfaction from the snaking crawl up the mountain.

At the top I shut the engine off.  The sudden quiet, leavened only by the soft stirring of the breeze and the lilting music of nearby songbirds, is a palpable pleasure. 

Breaking out my bag lunch and what’s left of my now-only-slightly-cool bottle of water, I settle down beside my bike.  I’m now very glad I took those extra five minutes.

I eat slowly, enjoying the break and the solitude and the still-yet anticipation.  I’m thinking of something.

When I’m done I withdraw the Delorme atlas from my saddlebag.  I already know the page number.  Sitting back down, I study the pattern of squiggles which represent the roads and the topographic etchings which depict the landscape.  I can almost see them in my mind’s eye.  Tracing my forefinger along one road in particular, one I’ve long wondered about, I come to a decision.

It takes me another hour and a half.  Down out of the mountains and west across the valley.  At a featureless crossroads, I’m torn.  If I turn left, the sign indicates it’s eleven miles to Jerome – and I need gas.  But the sky to the west is quickly turning darkly gray, and I’m suddenly reluctant to let this go, to maybe miss it.  So I continue on.

As the mountain rises in front of me, I appraise it the way a man does on first meeting a beautiful woman – with a combination of desire and restraint and wonder.

Then I’m there and the road has hardened, curling into whatever mystery lies ahead.  For a moment I consider a softer approach, simply holding speed through the corners, to conserve my fuel.  But, no, this strange, beautiful road deserves better.  I downshift a gear and then, quickly, another, and the engine spools into the serious part of its powerband.

The next four miles are a delight, with the road twisting into a dance for the ages.

I’m laughing as I crest the summit and begin the descent.  Right into the heart of the dark storm clouds which I’ve ridden so earnestly to get to – and which are now starting to spit drops of rain.  But it doesn’t matter.  I’m glad for this glorious day.  I’m glad for this glorious motorcycle.  And I’m smitten with what the road below may yet hold.

I’m sure I’ll find gas somewhere.

 

© 2010 Jeff Hughes