The Golden Hour

by

Jeff Hughes

 

 

There’s still an hour of daylight left, but the veil of fatigue that descended over me across the afternoon sits there like a golem, unrepentant.  And so when the road breaks out of the trees into a clearing, with the three white buildings set hard into the woods across the field, I flash to a quick decision.

Rolling out of the throttle, I let the hundred yards to the exit wind down in a slowing cadence.  Turning the BMW onto the small exit road, it’s only a quarter mile to the white buildings.  Pulling up to the single island in front of the restaurant, I dismount with a sense of relief.  My exhaustion is palpable.

Pulling off my helmet, I eye the two pumps, one regular, one mid-grade.  I don’t see a slot for my credit card.  “Pre-pay Only,” the sticker on the pump reads.

Walking inside, the air conditioning is a sudden, sharp contrast to the warmth outside.  I hand a twenty to the pretty young woman behind the counter.  “How much?” she asks.  I shrug.  “Put it all on there.”

Back outside, I lift the nozzle on the 89-octane pump and flip the lever around.  It’s one of those old pumps.  No LCD screen.  No Start button.  Just the old black numbers behind the glass window that spin around in sequence, like those of a slot machine.  Like the odometers on old bikes, where you could walk up and glance down and see how many miles were on them.  As my tank slowly fills I listen to the loud hum from the pump and watch the rolling digits and think about how things change. 

Inside, the girl gives me eight dollars and change.  “Do you have a room?” I ask.  I’m thinking the question is mostly rhetorical, given the dearth of cars at the small, 50’s-era motel next door.  But she dutifully pulls the book out and runs her finger down the page.

“Yep, we do,” she nods.  “It’s fifty-five dollars.”

“That’s fine,” I reply.  I’ll take it.”

“You know there’s no TV or phone?” she asks.

I give her a small smile.  “That’s alright.”

The metal key with the plastic hang tag has a large number ‘3’ written on it.  I walk the fifty feet to the room and unlock the door, having to jiggle the key to make it work.  Light spills into the small, dark room.  Two tired double beds are separated by a small table with a lamp upon it.    At the foot of the beds, right next to the door, is a small bureau, chipped and marked by time.  The tiny bathroom has room only for a toilet, a sink stained with rust, and a 3-foot square shower stall.

I take everything in with a glance.  Despite its obvious struggle against the pull of time, the room is clean and neat.  Fresh towels are hung on the rack.  The beds are made up well, with starched sheets and the bed covers pulled up snug.  And the faded carpet, though worn, is clean.

Just like it was nine years ago.

Leaving the door open, I walk back to the gas pumps and wheel my bike across the gravel parking lot, dropping its side stand in front of the room.  In five minutes I have unpacked my sparse belongings and set them upon the bureau.  And in another five minutes I am back at the small restaurant adjoining the office.

There are only six tables.  I settle in at the one pushed back in the corner.  Another pretty girl takes my order.  And while I wait for my dinner of country-fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and ice tea, a late-middle-aged gentleman sitting on a stool in the other corner entertains me and the three other customers with his banjo.  There’s a pickle jar on the table beside him for tips.

When I’m done I leave a five on the table, walk over and drop another into the pickle jar, and make the few steps to the office.  Extracting a single beer from the cooler, I step to the register and hand the first girl, the one who had checked me in, my check. 

“I had apple pie and ice cream, too,” I offer, pointing out the missing item on the check.

Back at my room, I pull off my boots, retrieve my book, and sit down in the metal chair just outside my door.  The sun has fallen below the trees and there is perhaps thirty minutes of daylight left.  I study my bike, five feet in front of me.  Enjoying the way the soft light edges its shape.

I think back to the last time I was here.  Instead of a book, I brought a bunch of motorcycle magazines on that trip.  Road tests.  Suzuki’s new GSX-R1000 had just been released and I had a thought in mind.

I smile at the memory of that long-ago evening.  Then I pick up my book.

 

 

I awake in the darkness.  Holding my wrist up to catch the faint light from the porch outside, I squint at the watch face.  Five-forty.  I lay there half awake for another ten minutes, then climb out of bed.  After showering I carry my small duffel back to the bike, stowing it in the saddlebag.  It’s still dark as I wipe down the tank with a damp towel.

I had asked the girl last night what time they opened for breakfast.  “Eight o’clock,” she answered.  I don’t want to wait that long and so will have to find my coffee somewhere down the road.

With one last look around, I leave the key and a five on the bedside table, then pull the door closed behind me. 

A handful of cars are now in the parking lot, late night travelers who got in after I went to bed.  I’m conscious of that as I thumb the starter, the sound of the engine embarrassingly loud in the early morning stillness.   I motor slowly across the gravel lot to the road. 

It takes only a few seconds to get back to the Parkway.  At the stop sign I pause for just a moment, enjoying the darkness and the quiet and the whole day that lies in front of me.  And then I turn south, throttling up.

The bike spins up beneath me.  “Fourth gear.  Forty-five mph,” I tell myself.   I’m almost preternaturally aware of the deer out there.  “Just take it easy.”

But even as I tell myself that, the first curves are falling beneath my wheels.  Curling, languid scrolls of the pavement that pull me first left, and then right.  They offer me that mesmerizing gift that has brought me here, that is the reason I do this, but is somehow always better than I remembered.  It always seems so new.  As if last night’s sleep had made me forget the magic that lay here in this moment.  The pull of the bike and the road and the land slides over me in an exhilarating glow, washing everything else away.

The faint tinge of light that smudged the eastern horizon when I left is now leaking into the air around me.  Up ahead, the edges of my headlight beam, the boundary between what I can see and what must be imagined, begins to soften.

The air has the tiniest hint of chill to it, snaking around my neck and through the chin bar on my helmet.  It prompts just a little shiver, just enough to heighten my senses.  As if to emphasize the newness of the day and the perfection of this moment.

Looking down, I realize my speed has crept up, drawn there by something beyond me.  I smile to myself, remind myself of the deer, and bring it back down.

But I know it’s an argument that in the end I can’t win.  The thing that has me here, the thing with its own pull, its own gravity, long ago pulled me into its orbit.

As the quickly brightening landscape unfolds around me, I can see tendrils of mist floating from the ground.  They impart a magical, otherworldly sense to things.  It is a world I have entirely to myself – in twenty miles I have yet to see another soul.

As the orange disk of the sun begins breaking above the horizon the thought crosses my mind to stop and take some pictures.  To pull out my tripod and camera and try and capture some of the extraordinary beauty that surrounds me.

But even as I think that, I know it is for naught.  For to do so would mean setting down, for just a few moments, the sublime, gilded feeling of this motorcycle at speed, on this good road, upon this good land.

And I cannot stop.

 

© 2010 Jeff Hughes