My best motorcycle trip occurred in the summer of 2009. The trip was both my return to long-distance riding and my daughter’s first. She was ten at the time, and given that she’s a different person now, I figure I can tell it here.
We moved to Boulder in 2006. I brought three red Italian motorcycles with me. No sooner did I arrive, then each of them had a catastrophic failure. After non-stop monthly payments for parts and mechanical intervention beyond my limited abilities, I realized that I had been three years in the west, and I hadn’t taken a single significant ride. I sold them off and bought a brand new Harley-Davidson Sportster.
The summer of 2009, Richelle decamped to the British Library, and I became a Harley-riding, soccer dad for for the month of June, ferrying Helen up to horseback riding camp in Berthoud, and then down to art class in Boulder, trying to do a little administration in between. After three weeks of this, I hit the parenting wall and proclaimed that we were going to visit our friends, Amy and Trent in New Orleans.
I bought Helen her own jacket, helmet, and boots. I found a windshield and backrest on eBay for the Sportster. In a moment of inspiration, I bought two large dog collars from PetSmart. I wore one. She wore one. I clipped them together with carabiners. If she fell asleep on the back, I wouldn’t have to worry. We loaded the Sportster up with bits of luggage I had collected over the years. Finally, I rooted up a big Batman decal and slapped it on the back of my helmet.
We left after work. Within ten miles of home, the gas warning light failed (there is no gauge). I switched to reckoning by the odometer, figuring 121 miles per tank, and we soldiered on to Lamar, CO.
It was a hard ride. We had started too late, and the evening was hot and windy, with no charm. We bought McDonalds for dinner, which only made matters worse. I was tired. Helen was miserable.
The next day, Helen confessed she wanted to go home. It wasn’t what she thought it would be. Her stomach hurt. It was too hot and, really, she’d be just as happy going to Elitch’s amusement park as to New Orleans. We struck a bargain: We’d drive as far as breakfast. If breakfast didn’t fix things, we’d be at Elitch’s before sunset.
Secretly, I was crestfallen. The trip had taken some preparation, and I needed a break. More, I wanted Helen to fall in love with the road, with my own romance.
The morning was cooler. 287 became a wide two-lane, bobbing and weaving its way through wind turbines and spiraling cell towers. In Boise City we pulled into the Yellow Horse Eatery. 2008 had hit Boise City pretty hard, and to be honest, the diner was on its back foot. But it was woman run and welcoming. Really, the only thing that mattered was that there were two yellow horses painted on the wall. Helen ate a pancake and was ready to roll.
Gassed up, we hit the road. Within minutes I felt her slump against my back, asleep. After Boise City, 287 flattens out and opens up. A black Chevy Suburban passed me at 95mph, and I tucked in behind, reckoning that I had just enough gas to get us to Amarillo for lunch.
I hadn’t done my reckonings for 95mph.
We rolled to a halt on the shoulder five miles out of Amarillo. I nudged Helen and she clambered off the bike. She pulled off her helmet, groggy from sleep and the heat. Fairly disoriented, she looked around and then up at me.
“Daddy, I’m scared.”
I looked down at her. It was at least 106 degrees out. Traffic was blazing past us, mere feet away. We had no cell coverage. All our belongings were strapped to a five-hundred pound boat anchor. Damn right she was scared: No fool she.
But I didn’t say that, did I?
“Sweetie, sweetie, sweetie,” says I, sweat soaking my shirt, “Don’t be scared. This is MOTORCYCLING. We’re not in a car, where you’re all closed off looking out at the world. We’re out in that world, experiencing it, having a real adventure. This is what it’s really all about!”
She looked up at me. Her expression said, “What a load of shit!” But instead, she simply said, “I’ll carry the helmets.”
We piled our jackets on the backrest and, with me pushing the bike, began to trudge uphill towards Amarillo.
After about fifteen minutes of pushing, I couldn’t see the point. If we really were five miles out of Amarillo, we would never make it. Just as I was about to give up, we heard brakes, and the massive sigh of a huge engine coming to idle behind us. We peered over our shoulders. A semi-trailer was about ten feet behind us.
A guy jumped out of the passenger side: “You run outta gas?”
“Yes sir, we did.”
“Swing around the side, so my boss doesn’t see, and I’ll hook you up.”
“But sir, don’t you run on diesel?”
“Yo! I ain’t going to give you diesel. It’s a GAS truck!
So it was: A gas truck. More gas than a swimming pool. We pushed the bike around side, he clambered up top, connected an enormous hose to the tank, flipped some sort of pressure valve, and gas came showering down on us. I got the Sportster’s gas cap off and caught about a half a gallon. We whipped our helmets on, and thanked him for saving us. I should have paid him, but he never asked.
We pulled into the first gas station I could find. Dehydrated, soaked in sweat, and coming down off an adrenaline rush, I felt sick and my hands shook. Helen leapt off the bike.
“You were right! It is MOTORCYCLING!” She whirled around the bike like Dash from the Incredibles. “That was awesome. That was ADVENTURE!” I sent her inside to get water, and filled the bike up to the top, still shaking.
We made Decatur, TX, that evening and staged a shot of Helen leaping into the motel’s pool, just to assure everybody that everything was great, nothing could be better, this motorcycling business really isn’t risky at all.
The rest of the trip was grand. We hit New Orleans the following day. Trent and Amy hosted a fabulous party. We rode the street car down St Charles and the day after that, Trent took us flying in his plane. Nothing feels like home like New Orleans.
There were other adventures on that trip. The exhaust pipe sheered off in New Orleans, and the bike ended up in a shop, where the mechanics failed to tighten a bolt, and ultimately the Harley’s engine blew up the week after I got home. But that’s a different story for a different time.
I like to think the moral of this story is how much Helen grew during the trip. In that first picture, I see the cherubic face of a ten year old. Mid-trip she’s become something else—seasoned with her own sense of experience, with a story to tell and a confidence in the world. She’s aged a lot more than a day. By the end of the trip, she’s mugging for the camera like a pro. Really, we both grew during the trip. I became a better motorcyclist, and I think a better father.
Whatever the moral, somehow all that gas, and all that heat, indelibly printed my fingers into the Sportster’s gas tank.
Wherever that bike is now, it has my prints all over it.