Giving Thanks

Just give me a week and a BMW K1600GT.

shadow of rider and her motorcycle

Editor's Note: This story is from Cycle World Travel & Adventure, a special print issue chock-full of features dedicated to two-wheeled touring and adventure travel. Copies are available for purchase here.

Years back, when I’d grow weary on a long, cold ride, I’d stop and dial my mom from a public pay phone. I can still hear the peculiar dial tone common to public phones in the ’80s being interrupted by the clanks and snicks of my coins as they slid through. And then my mother’s voice...concerned, yet heartening, always warmer and more satisfying than a cup of gas-station coffee. I was a motorcycle journalist in my twenties. I couldn’t get enough of being on the bikes, so every chance I got, I rode myself silly.

Today my mom is no longer available for late-night calls, and the once-plentiful pay phones that lined America’s highways, also gone. Still, there is gas-station coffee and cold nights on the road. Tonight is one of them. I’m 300 miles into a 3,000-mile journey and it’s already 9 p.m. The bullshit tasks that come with being in your forties have caused another late departure, but as usual, once the miles begin to add up, my mind calms and introspection takes over.

I chuckle as I remember the Northern California motor cop who’d pulled me over 100 miles back. “So you get paid to ride motorcycles? How ironic, so do I!” As far as highway patrolmen go, he was a delight. “But you get to pack up and ride out of town,” he went on, “while I just ride around in circles.” I tell him I’m headed for Texas, loosely, anyway, that I’m just wandering around, chasing warmer temperatures and putting miles on this testbike. We speculate about whether the K1600GT I’m riding will make its way into the CHP stable, and, then finally, he lets me know I’m in luck because he’s going to cut me a break. After all, it’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and he doesn’t want to ruin the holiday for me.

“Don’t you have a riding partner?” he asks as I buckle my helmet strap. “No, not really.” “Don’t you get lonely out there?” It feels like a weighty question, but I don’t need to think it over. “Nope.”

Of course, in reality, I do have dozens of friends I enjoy dicing with and even a few I don’t mind flanking for days on end. But still, it’s these solo rides that are the cream. Not only do they have a touchstone effect, allowing me to ponder where I’ve been and where I’m going, a long solo ride encourages me to be in the moment—on the motorcycle—and to focus on how simple and good that feels.

Soon it’s after midnight. I should be craving a warm bed, but I just don’t want to stop riding. The K1600GT feels like a good friend I haven’t had a sit-down conversation with in a long time. When I finally bank off the freeway for a rest, I find reassurance in the fact I still have five days to go...and nowhere to be.

BMW K1600GT in front of two way sign

ARIZONA

The entire US is caught in a nasty cold snap, and it’s pushing me southward. I dial up my older brother in Phoenix and say I might be streaking by that evening. He says if I can get there by 5 p.m., his Thanksgiving turkey will be hot out of the oven. I hadn’t planned on doing the “family thing” this season. For 45 years I’d been expected at someone’s table the third Thursday of November, and now, with my mom having passed and my daughter safely dispatched to a university on the East Coast, I’m feeling emancipated.

But I also hadn’t planned on southern Arizona being 47 degrees midday. When you’re slicing through a bitter, windy desert, the thought of warm stuffing and gravy can become extremely seductive. I let out the reins and throttle toward my brother’s house where I sit down and scarf the standard grub. The problem is, I know hardly anyone there, so the experience warms only my belly and not my heart. It also reminds me how distant I’ve grown from my brother over the couple of decades we’ve both been chasing careers and raising families.

We stay up late and try to make sense of the gaps, but there just isn’t enough Scotch tape and rubber bands. He isn’t the same guy who used to take me to the drive-in movies after he’d clock out of his mechanic’s job at the local gas station, and I’m not the same girl who, at 13, “borrowed” a Honda 125 and rode 10 miles in first gear to ask him how to shift it. We are both older and, yeah, wiser but also more affected.

As much as I love him, I can’t wait to get back on the GT and ride away.

I wake up early so I can cover as much ground as possible. My plan is to jump on Highway 85 and dive down into the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is about as far south as I can go without rolling over the Mexican border. The cold keeps my body tense, but somehow my mind is at ease. The first two days, I’d listened to music for hours, but today, I’m preferring the muffled scream of the wind as it rips around the edges of my bike and helmet. I’ve entered My Happy Place. It’s a space where I begin to feel more comfortable on the bike than I do when I’m stopped. The world feels still when I’m at speed yet moves, dizzyingly, when I’m walking around the gas station. I live for this space. It’s where I begin to know myself.

“Today I’m preferring the muffled scream of the wind as it rips around the edges of my bike and helmet. I’ve entered My Happy Place.

One minute I could be thinking about world economics, the next, about a kiss in high school, but most miles, I end up fingering the knots in my life. Because once the mass has been sorted, we’re left to deal with the tangles.

I think about my boyfriend, and one recent conversation keeps playing through my mind. We were driving on a dark road, and I commented on how bright the stars looked. I pointed out a plane moving slowly across the night sky and said, “Whenever I see a plane like that, I picture being on it. I can hear it, and smell it, and I imagine I’m headed somewhere new.” “What is it you’re always running away from?” he asked in his know-it-all tone. “I don’t think I’m always running away from something,” I snapped. “I’m running to something.”

Most often, I’m flying to get to a motorcycle. It’s all entwined. The suitcase, the airport, the plane, the bike. I’ve been lucky enough to ride motorcycles all over the world. I’m not sure how I got tangled up with a man who doesn’t ride or travel at all. I think of all the male readers who’ve contacted me over the years, complaining that their wives and girlfriends don’t ride, asking me what to do. What I finally understand now that I’m with a non-riding mate is that it’s about more than enjoying bikes together; it’s about having someone appreciate what it means to be a rider. Because riders are what we are, whether we’re on the motorcycle, at the dinner table, or buying paper towels at Costco.

Organ-pipe cacti are a spindly bunch. Some are nearly as tall as the saguaro that famously dot the southern Arizona landscape, yet instead of growing straight up, pipe cacti arrange themselves in great, prickly bouquets. I’m cold, but the weather report on my iPhone assures me everyone else in the country is colder. I point the GT southeast to drop in on Bisbee, Arizona.

Main Street in Bisbee, AZ

It was 25 years ago when I first rode through Bisbee, and I was just beginning to date my now ex-husband. We fell head over heels for the ramshackle ghost town, with its shacks and crumbling storefronts stacked up the sides of a steep canyon. If you squinted just right, it looked like a scene along the Amalfi Coast, only without the ocean. Or any people. Since then, the aged copper mining town has become a haven for sixtysomething artists and other adventurous retirees.

After a bite to eat at the Bisbee Breakfast Club, I swing by the Shady Dell, a motel made up of kitschy, well-kept trailers from the 1950s, and wish I didn’t have so much daylight to burn. I’m fantasizing that I can make it to New Orleans by tomorrow and stay just long enough to enjoy some coffee and beignets at Café du Monde before heading back to California, but when I check the weather, there’s a Arkansas-size wall of cold rain between here and there. I decide to keep flying low and ride to the southwestern tip of Texas to reexplore Big Bend National Park.

TEXAS

While I’d like to be feeding the K1600GT a few more of the twisty roads it’s intended for, the bike is proving itself a viable mount for the full range of touring situations. It still feels sexy, even when you’re straight-lining. So far, I’ve put more than 8,500 miles on this particular unit and haven’t found anything I don’t like to do on it. Well, with the exception of splitting lanes in rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles. It’s a big boy for California-style commuting, but out here in Texas, there’s plenty of room to breathe.

And that’s what I do: breathe. No music, just the wind noise and my thoughts.

I meet a scraggly dog named Bob at a gas station in Redford, Texas, just outside of Big Bend National Park. He stares up at me while I fill the GT’s tank. I know his name is Bob because everyone walking in and out of the small convenience store says hi to him, though he hardly twitches an ear as they go by. He just stares at me with odd anticipation, like he wants to come along.

Bob the dog

As I’m hanging up the nozzle he whimpers and fidgets. Then it occurs to me that I have half a sun-heated bacon and egg sandwich riding low in my duffel, and road-wise Bob knows it. I dig it out, tear off the paper, and just as soon as I hand it over, my new best friend trots away.

And that’s about how it goes, right? Sandwiches come and go. Dogs come and go. People come and go.

In the last decade I’ve become disentangled from many people, some on an infinite level, some superficially. Life is such a long process of change. As I ride through the massive emptiness of Big Bend it’s easy to consider the malleability of our tiny human lives. I think about Bisbee and how much the town has changed, which leads me to think about how much I’ve changed since I first visited Bisbee. I’ve been married and divorced, raised a child, lost both parents, traveled around the world. Good and bad, there’s always been change.

Except for the road. This is one of the same highways I traveled in my twenties. The asphalt has been renewed, sure, and the motorcycle I’m piloting is much evolved, but the feeling is exactly the same.

It’s where I feel at home.

It’s always been this way for me, on this road and every road that’s lonely and long. I was just an infant when my family moved from Ohio to California. There were five kids, two adults, and a nervous boxer dog named Sammy all crammed into a Chevy Impala station wagon, creeping across the Great Plains and climbing up and over the Rockies. I was only old enough to stink up the car—I couldn’t even walk—but everyone said I never cried on that trip, at least when the wagon was rolling.

I wander up into Big Bend’s Chisos Mountains at sunset, and miraculously, I find a historic Roosevelt Stone Cottage is available for the night. I snap it up and for far less than I’d pay for some dime-a-dozen room along the interstate. That night I see an email from one of my editors, asking me if I can be in Florida, with full camera gear, the day after tomorrow.

looking out the window at my BMW K1600GT

That means returning to California a day early to get my equipment, which is a bummer. It also means riding the GT for 1,200 miles in one sitting, which isn't so bad. Besides, work is work. When you've freelanced as long as I have, you learn there's nothing more important than coming through. I get up at dawn and hike 6 miles to see "The Window," a massive crack in the Chisos' cauldron-like cliffs. I watch the early morning light play across the complex, colorful desert and wonder when I'll be back here. I wonder if I'll be back. I remember there was a time when I didn't wonder about time.

And then I ride. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles. I pass a relic of a gas station that closed when regular unleaded still went for $1.88 a gallon. I’m pulled over by a Texas ranger who wasn’t as friendly as my California cop. I don’t see any mystery lights outside of Marfa. I drink soda and eat crappy gas-station food. I realize I’m not cold anymore in Arizona. I realize I’m hot in Arizona.

Now I’m cold again crossing into California. It’s 1:30 a.m., and I’ve been on the bike for 16 hours.

CALIFORNIA

I wish for a pay phone, and I wish for a mom to call. Instead, at my gas stop, I crack a Red Bull and, even though I know she’s stone asleep in her dorm on the other side of the country, I dial my 21-year-old daughter on my cell phone. She answers, and, bless her heart, she knows exactly what I need. “Hi, Mom. Where’re you? Wow. That’s such a long ride. Are you tired?”

Hannah used to complain that it wasn’t natural for children to worry about their mothers, something she did regularly. She’d say, “Mothers are supposed to worry about their kids doing dangerous stuff, not the other way around.” She’s grown up. I can hear she’s concerned, but she knows the best thing to do is use her words to wrap me up in a long, warm hug.

The Red Bull and phone call are just what I need to snap out of my high-mileage road daze. I untie my balloon of road-borne epiphanies and let all the assessments and conclusions billow out and rise away into the dark, gritty night. The pocket of lucidity this creates is just what it takes to successfully surf the wicked rush of late-night traffic into downtown LA.

When I arrive, I’m deeply thankful. It’s not relief for having gotten where I’m going; it’s gratitude for being where I’ve just been. Out there, riding aimlessly, I was allowed to remember what’s crucial in my life and, also, what remains constant.

No matter how much life changes, no matter how much I gain, or how much I lose, there always seems to be a motorcycle, a road to take me away, and a warm, loving voice on the phone to guide me back.

That’s all I really need. And for this, I am thankful.

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