In one moment many years ago, I was inspired to travel across the United States on a motorcycle. Having never ridden a motorcycle, or known anyone who had one, this idea might have seemed absurd on its face. Perhaps it was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that got the bug in my head. Or the realization, after racing with the BU Cycling team in my freshman year, that I loved the speed and the road and two wheels but could only go so far by pedaling.
Regardless of how I got there, however, I knew in the summer of 2005 that I was going to get a motorcycle. First I signed up for the MSF's riding course in Beverly, MA. I bought motorcycle books and travel diaries and a helmet. I got my license riding a Honda Nighthawk 250, and a few weeks later, by sheer coincidence, I had my very own Honda Nighthawk 750, the big brother of the 250, the '92 model on a line long out of production. (Or maybe it's the big sister model; whether motorcycles are male or female is something I never did figure out, and one of the reasons I never gave mine a name, but it was my only baby til I met Tristyn.)
The first step in my crazy idea to go across the country on a motorcycle thus complete, I set the departure date for the imaginary adventure as the following summer. Then, everything else in life aside, I waited a year.
The idea slowly grew into a plan. A non-plan plan, as I called it: the route and schedule would be decided on the fly. It was set for July in the summer of 2006 and expected to be a month long. The plan began to include many details: things I would need, logistics to arrange, concerns to take into account. The riding season of 2006 came around, the bike came out of storage, got a full tuneup and was running in peak condition. It was D minus three weeks, I had almost everything prepared to leave, had the final shopping spree for gear on my calendar... and then I got hit riding home one night and broke my arm.
My wrist immobilized, a cast for six to eight weeks, surgery, physical therapy: the trip was cancelled. I told myself it was only postponed, but with family visiting in August and classes in September, there was no way it was going to happen that summer. All the imagining and planning had been ruined, I was crushed and my arm wasn't healing fast enough.
Eventually the cast came off, the pins came out and I started to regain strength in my wrist. And then one day it occured to me: why not do it in the fall? I could take a semester off; I was a semester ahead anyway. The weather would be better in September than in July and I would have as much time as I wanted. The new plan floated in my brain for a few days until I realized it was not only feasible, it was a great idea. It was just a matter of working out the logistics, like making sure my scholarship wouldn't disappear when I returned and getting health insurance to replace my school policy.
Then one day, D-Day was there, for real this time. The bike was loaded up with all the gear I thought I would need and the tools to improvise everything else. I had a new digital camera and compact laptop to chronicle the journey and work along the way. With butterflies a-flurry in my stomach and a huge road atlas strapped to the bags, I was off.
The rest, as they say, is history. Or more correctly, it's the contents of this blog. 14,000 miles through 37 states. Weather ranging from desert heat to mountain snow. Amazing days and days when I wondered what the hell I was doing. Moments when I couldn't have felt more alive and moments when I was sure I was going to die. Hours when I thought I could ride by myself forever and hours when I just wanted to be home. Nights when I wanted to sit up all night watching the stars and nights when I was sure I would be eaten by a bear. Mornings when the road and sky beckoned and mornings when the rain made me want to cuddle up all day in bed. Rides when the bike flew like it was built yesterday and rides when I expected the wheels and chain to fly off at any moment.
I saw the most beautiful sunsets and nearly went broke twice. I learned that fear is best when I am aware of it and happy it's there but don't let it overwhelm me. I learned that we really don't need much to live on, but that good toys in their place are wonderful to have. I learned to love this country and its history and the pride of its people. I learned to love the road and appreciate the yearning for home. I learned to love my own company. I learned what's at stake.
Many times, I could not have continued without the kind help of strangers, and they were always there. Many times, less kind people could have stolen my gear or the whole bike, when it was uncovered and in the open, yet nothing was ever stolen.
I learned the importance of good gear. My gloves that kept my hands warm and dry enough to ride in the worst conditions. My sunglasses that, despite cracking and needing to be superglued back together several times, I could not have lived without. My tent, its rain cover and my sleeping bag. My compass. My gasoline-fueled camping stove. And all the other containers, fibers and doohickeys without which I could not have done the trip.
I learned that it's good to have people who worry about you, even if they worry about silly things and call after every rain storm. Like fear, those who fear about me serve a crucial purpose, so thank you to those people.
After all that I have seen, there is still a certain longing for the things I missed: the cities I didn't see, the lakes I didn't swim in, the beers I didn't try and the people I didn't meet. But I could spend a thousand lifetimes exploring my world and still have the world to see. That just means there's always more road to ride. The people who tell me this is a "once in a lifetime experience" befuddle me: it will be very sad indeed if I never do something even bigger and better than this. There will be many more journeys to come. Already this weekend, Tristyn and I loaded up the bike again to go camping in Salisbury Beach. The bike is going into hibernation soon for the long New England winter. Maybe I'll buy a car. Or I could get a pilot's license. But I think the most important thing I learned on this trip is that the journey doesn't have to be out there, miles away, navigated on a map. I am the traveller and the road, and the journey is wherever I go.