This is the final part of an eight-part series recounting my first motorcycle trip. It has been a while since we began this journey together, let me remind you how we got started. From part one…
Nature abhors a vacuum almost as much as a teenager. Ask a teenager to vacuum and the vacuum will sit motionless for days, proving the law that states, “A vacuum at rest remains at rest.” I used nature’s disdain for a vacuum to my selfish advantage when I planned my first motorcycle trip. The Plan – if it could be called a “plan” – was dirt simple; strap a just-purchased and hastily packed bag to my Yamaha Raider, buy tie-down straps on the ride north out of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and arrive in Manitowoc, sixty miles away for the summer’s last midnight-sailing of the S.S. Badger to Ludington, Michigan. Above all else this was a motorcycle trip and, in that spirit, detailed plans were avoided. The details, I was confident, would fill themselves in.
If you have been riding with me you already know that, indeed, the details filtered in as needed, resulting in life-long memories. Let's see about getting home safely now, shall we?
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It would have been easy to get on Interstate 794 just blocks from the Lake Express ferry and ride hard and fast for home, so I didn’t. Instead I picked up Wisconsin Highway 32 by chance, though Highway 32 isn’t much of a highway at all as it stutters through urban Milwaukee, tracing pot-holed streets. I knew Highway 32 as a beautiful two-lane highway that clung to Lake Michigan’s shoreline after it crawled through Milwaukee, so I put my trust in it to deliver me safely through Milwaukee’s concrete core.
Energy radiated off the busy sidewalks and streets, penetrating my helmet and clothing. I was near a university and the demographics of the sidewalk bore that out. As I idled forward in traffic a pair of tall heels caught my attention and my eyes traced up bare legs to a long slit in a short skirt arriving, eventually, on a pair of eyes that were returning my gaze. Dressed in red with flowing black curls, her appearance mimicked in female form the bike I was straddling. She was stunning and definitely aware of her sexuality. I was also fully aware of her sexuality. Our eyes remained locked on each other. To her I may have been a fantasy drifter: dressed in black, dangerous, my leather bag holding the few possession a man of that ilk needs. But I knew better, and perhaps that is why I did not stop. Under the black helmet, behind the dark sunglasses, beneath the black leather gloves, black jacket and distressed jeans rode a man called Danger who is never late for work, never takes more than one penny from a “Take a Penny” tray, and tidies up his table for the busboy. With a slight twist of the throttle and a slow release of the clutch I rode in to a future of perpetual regret for not stopping to talk to her.
Highway 32 becomes a boulevard for the well-heeled and healthy as it traces the lake shore northward, out of Milwaukee proper, in to the suburb of Whitefish Bay. Large homes of stone and brick hide behind walls of stone, which hide behind hedges and elaborate landscaping. Still larger homes of stone and brick appear where large homes once stood; there is always someone with more money to one-up the neighbors, raise the property taxes, and chase the old blood from their home of fifty-odd years. The serpentine path alongside the road teamed with runners, walkers and rollerbladers – with and without canine companions. Te road’s edge hummed with bicyclists wearing tight, vibrant Lycra and streamlined helmets, spinning themselves to a personal best with hairless calves. The energy of the city seeped to its very edges, particularly on that night of impeccable weather. One thing about life in the snowbelt, folks (that’s what we call ourselves in the Norman Rockwellesque Midwest in moments of regional pride, folks) know to take advantage of good weather.
The Raider and I escaped Milwaukee’s grasp and rode north into the twilight. My maiden cruise was winding down. Hunger and an increasing chill competed with my sense of satisfaction and my continued enjoyment of the ride. The road curved west and opened up to rolling farmland. As I climbed from the bottom of a wide, shallow valley I was gifted with the sight of a stately oak tree, perfectly silhouetted against an indigo sky perched at the top of the rise. My impulse was to stop and take a photo but I dismissed that idea for lack of a tripod. Those stretching oaks, standing alone in a field of corn, beans or wheat, were an oasis for farmers and their horses, providing relief from the summer's heat. With air conditioned tractors having replaced teams of horses, how long will these trees continue to stand before they are removed for the cash value of the wood and to streamline plowing?
Twenty miles south of Oshkosh I succumbed to the four-lane. It was dark, late, I had a growing pain in my throttle shoulder. There was nothing more I needed to prove to myself. I took advantage of a truck by tucking in close enough behind him to enjoy his windbreak, yet remaining comfortably removed to avoid the turbulent air rolling off the trailer and to have reaction time for potential hazards ahead. But the hazard was not in front of me, it was approaching from behind. The chrome sentinels that stand stoically over each gloved hand, tirelessly watching my back, alerted me to a grouped but disorganized collection of approaching lights. The truck moved left into the passing lane and I remained in the right, puzzling over the lights behind me. Just as my tired, chilled brain determined the lights were from motorcycles, two sport bikes passed on my right – in my lane! – while five others, staggered but bunched, came by on my left. I was an unwilling participant in their melee so I slowed while I watched them cut, dodge, brake and accelerate their way past the truck and the car it was passing. For better or worse the antics of sport bike riders have improved the image of we who ride cruisers. Black boots, leather, and a splayed out posture are no longer the symbols of rebel bikers; they have been replaced by white running shoes or flip-flops, shorts and t-shirts, and hunched riders laying on their fuel tanks.
I was happy to have survived that encounter. I feared for the girlfriends clinging helplessly to their boyfriend's backs while egos and adrenaline were in charge of the decision making. My exit was near, and it was welcome.
As the fiberglass garage door rattled closed behind me, 113 cubic inches of steel cooled and clicked beneath an exposed sixty-watt bulb whose light strained to reach the walls of the garage. I unlocked the back door to my dark, empty house while summing the trip up in my mind. The trip ended like most others; with a sense of satisfaction, a sense of sadness, the feeling I’d been away forever, and the feeling I had never left. There is no profound message to deliver, no stirring conclusion. Tens of thousands have taken motorcycle trips before me, yet billions have not. I took this trip for me, for no other reason or greater purpose. But now I’m one of the tens-of-thousands rather than one of the billions.
In this age of navigating by GPS, finding food and shelter with a smart phone, and meticulously planning each turn with MapQuest, nature and instinct proved they are still reliable travel companions. Companions, I might add, that do not require a power adapter or regular upgrades. They served up great food when needed, presented open roads dotted with scenic towns, provided entertainment when not traveling, and best of all, offered the flexibility to experience the road, rather than just drive it.
As I have come to believe in recent years, and my daughter Alex stated so simply on a quickly-assembled trip we took to North Carolina’s Topsail Island, “If you don’t make a plan, nothing can go wrong.”
Well said, Alex. Well said. Now vacuum your room.