Happy Haulin' on a Harley
A Fantasy Road Ride
Who hasn't ever thought about just climbing on their bike and going, and going, and going?
RAY PHILLIPS inched his way between the lanes of trafic, accelerating where there was space; his big 74 inch Harley passed three or four cars at a time, then slowed and squeezed past several more cars so close that his handlebars almost touched on either side. It was another muggy, clammy, energy-eroding midwest summer afternoon. The bumper-to-bumper traffic was stacked up for several miles. Like it always was at 1:15 when all the day-shift workers funneled onto the roads to hurry someplace for a cold beer, an argument with the wife, a lawn mowing, or a baseball game on the tube.
His shirt was plastered to his back, and in the ninety degree heat he couldn't cool off even on the bike. The familiar grime of the vulcanizing plant was impregnated in his skin. The smell still filled his lungs. He felt impatient with the traffic. Irritated. He supposed he should count his blessings. He had risen to crew chief after four years with the tire company. He was on the day shift with weekends off. Sick pay, annual vacations, retirement. A bowling league in the winter and softball in the summer - both on Wednesday nights.
He had a pleasant-enough wife. Not really pretty, but cute. Not overly intelligent, but not stupid. Alright in bed. A decent cook. A good mother. The typical American wife. A son, David, four. And little Karen, two and a half. A three-bedroom house in a middle class Akron suburb, a VW, a 3-year-old station wagon, and his Harley-Davidson - his first love.
It was the "good life"; the "American dream" realized. And he was sick of it. At twenty-seven he was bored to death. Was this always the way it would be? What was there to look forward to?
Up ahead the left turn lane was jammed. Some dumb old broad had stalled her car right in the middle of the intersection. The hell with it, he thought. I'll just ride on a while. I'm almost out of town now. Soon the traffic will be light. I can always turn around and get home in time for dinner at 5:30.
He headed west toward Interstate 71. The traffic was thinner now. Tract housing surrendered to fertile farm country. As he increased his speed to 60 mph the breeze began to dry his sweat. He felt refreshed. He ought to do this every afternoon.
It was nearly five o'clock when he reached the Interstate. To the south lay Columbus. But riding the interstate wasn't his idea of relaxing. He elected to stay on State Road 224. He had ridden this country road many times. It was as comfortable and familiar as an old pair of shoes. It wandered through the northern Ohio farm towns on its way to another industrial city, Lima.
Traffic was light out here and the warmth of the western sun hitting him in the face was now pleasant. The bugs were a bother - but what the hell, he needed a bath anyway. The big “Hog” loafed along easily at 55. Ray propped his left foot up on the highway peg and laid a well muscled arm across his knee, guiding the bike lightly with his throttle hand. He looked at the fields, the barns, the dairy cows. He felt like they were old friends. He slowed for the little towns - Lodi, Sullivan, Greenwich-smelling their country town smells, absorbing their atmosphere of tranquility. Their peacefulness was a tonic for jangled nerves . . . but he knew that if he lived in one of them he would be bored even more than he was in Akron.
Tiring of the restful pace, he settled back into a conventional riding position, firmed his grip on the bars, and began feeding gas to the motorcycle. He kept his engine in sharp tune and now it rewarded his efforts with a powerful response. He watched the speedometer climb . . . 60 . . . 65 . . . 70 . . . 75 . . . 80 . . . and he held it there. He was alone on the road but he kept an eye out for any sheriff's deputies who might be parked on road crossings to ambush unwary speeders.
He felt more alive, healthier, more alert than he had for a long time. The Harley sang a melodious tune in his brain, reassuring him that, at this time and place, all was right with the world. He was acutely aware of the late afternoon countryside rushing past in a blur of colors. His senses were taking things in, perceiving, registering, using, absorbing, repeating the cycle at a greatly accelerated rate. His exhilaration gradually passed, replaced by a sensation of satiety. He pulled off the road and stopped under a great oak tree.
He sat quietly smoking a cigarette and his senses seemed to go into reverse, so that instead of being flooded with sights and sounds and smells and feelings rushing past, they zeroed in on minute details: the chirping of crickets; a ladybug slowly climbing a fence post; a small colony of ants busily going about their duties; the gentle rustle of a breeze through the field of corn behind him. He looked at his watch. Nearly six. Theresa would be starting to worry. Occasionally he stopped for a couple of beers but he always called her if he was going to be late for supper. He decided to stop at the next town and call. But he wasn't going back. Not yet. He felt like riding. And riding. And riding. All night. And for once in his life he was going to follow his impulse.
It was a quarter to seven when he rode into Findlay. He was watching for a pay phone when he saw the Western Union office. Better. Much better. No explanations; no questions to answer; no threats that she would leave him; no guilty feelings. He wheeled around and stopped in front of the small office. He went in, picked up a pale yellow pad and a stubby pencil and printed his message: Going riding x Don't worry x Will stay in touch x. The clerk assured him that it would be telephoned from the Akron office within an hour.
The smell of frying hamburgers, French fried potatoes and sweet cold root beer from the A&W next door reminded him that it was past his normal dinner time and that he was hungry. But now that the telegram had been sent it was as though the last restraint had been removed and there was nothing to stop him from riding, He was in a hurry to get back on the open road, to recapture the thrill of riding very fast, alone, down a deserted country road.
Quickly he rolled out of town, back to his speed, his solitude, his sanctuary. He had the feeling that the road would stretch on forever, that he had been on it before, that some inner part of him had always been out here on this road. The yellow sun grew larger, slowly at first, then more rapidly, reddening to a majestic vermilion sphere that suddenly melted beneath the horizon so that the summer day was replaced with twilight. The marvel of it was that there had been countless millions of sunsets just like it for eons past, and there would likely be countless more for ages to come, perhaps long after man had passed from the earth, and yet, he had never really seen a sunset before the way he had seen this one, so that it was individual and different from all the rest. He felt at once his own insignificance - as little as any grain of sand - and his greatness at having experienced a sunset as deeply, as completely, as spiritually as any mortal ever had.
Listen to me, he thought, I'm getting to be a real philosopher. But his stomach was disturbing his revelry, bringing him back to more mundane thoughts. He was hungry. He had deliberately been taking little-used roads. He didn't expect to find a truck stop. Perhaps the next town would have a cafe still open. Besides, he needed gasoline. A wide place in the road called Van Wert provided both. It was after nine when he finished eating and gassing up and took to the road again.
The heat of the day began to abate and he felt a chill beginning. When he reached Lima he watched for an all-night drugstore. When he reached the center of town he spotted one, parked and went in. It didn't take him long to spot what he wanted - a display of sweatshirts. He selected an extra large red one, paid the bored clerk and returned to the Harley. Now he was really set to ride all night.
The idea that had been forming in his mind for several hours solidified. He took stock of his resources: forty dollars and change, a Master Charge card, and several oil company credit cards, It was enough. He would just keep right on riding! He might even get all the way to California. And when he was good and ready, he'd go back. If he still had his job, fine. If he didn't, he could always find another.
It seemed pointless to look for back roads now. You couldn't see anything at night anyway. And the traffic on the main roads would be light. Besides, now that he had made his decision, he wanted to get as far west as he could, as quickly as he could. He turned south on Interstate 75, then west on Interstate 70 toward Indianapolis. He was too excited to stop for sleep. He felt as though he were embarking on a great adventure. Early in the morning, with the sun warming his back, he stopped in St. Louis for breakfast.
After breakfast he took off the sweatshirt, folded it, and stuck it under the seat strap. Tie was filled with a sense of well-being, of exhilaration, as he passed the famous St. Louis archway, which was supposed to symbolize the gateway to the West. All day he rode across Kansas prairie, seeing endless wheat fields interspersed only with occasional rows of golden corn or herds of cattle. The sky was a clear, brilliant blue under a brazen sun, dotted with the whitest, puffiest clouds Ray had ever seen. He thought of his friends back at the factory. He knew that the chances were he would spend the better part of his life doing just what they were doing. But that didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was right now. Live for the present – that was it. He thought about the number of guys who would want to do something like this for all their lives, and never would. Then, when they were old men, they'd ask themselves why they hadn't done it. Why they had never made time to have one adventure in life.
The people were friendly in the gas stations and restaurants of the small Kansas towns. They seemed impressed with his out-of-state license plate and asked how far he was going. He couldn't help grinning when he answered California - which seemed to impress them all the more, so that they called to their fellow workers to tell them about this fellow who was going all the way to California on a motorcycle.
By the time he reached Salina he was exhausted. He had been riding continuously for over 24 hours. He found a motel, took a long hot shower, went to bed, and fell into a deep sleep.
In the morning he had his first feelings of guilt. Theresa and the kids would be worried about him. He knew that he at least owed her an explanation. But how could he explain his impulsive action? She would never understand. Neither would his parents. Or his supervisors. He supposed a lot of people would never understand. People with jelly for guts and television sets for imagination.
Still he had to tell her something. Over a leisurely breakfast, he composed a long message on the paper placemat with a pencil he borrowed from the waitress. He would send it night letter or day letter or whatever the hell Western Union called it. It was better than calling. He was afraid to call . . . afraid she would talk him into returning. The message told her he was riding to California, that she should use their savings to get by until he came back, that she should think up some lie to tell his company, and that he would make it up to her someday.
The prairie gradually changed to hills, the hills became mountains, and when he watched the sun set, it was behind the mile high city of Denver. It was his first time to witness mountains. Denver was the only beautiful city he had ever seen, and for the first time in his life he began to consider the possibility of living someplace other than Akron. After checking into a motel, showering, and having a good meal, he decided to see what Denver's night life offered. He asked the cashier when he paid for his meal. Her advice proved to be good - the place she sent him had the greatest Dixieland music he had ever heard. The people were very friendly, and when they found out he was traveling west by motorcycle, he couldn't buy a drink. He stayed until the place closed. He was a little high when he walked out to the parking lot but the brisk night air sobered him up.
The next day he rode slowly, stopping often to drink in the panoramic views. The Rocky Mountain grandeur surpassed everything he had expected. At the Continental Divide, he watched tourists with their Kodak Instamatics. He was happy to oblige when one family asked him to take their picture.
What the hell, he thought as he approached the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park - what's the hurry? I may never pass this way again, so why not stay awhile? California couldn't be prettier than this. Nothing could. He decided to buy a tent and sleeping bag. Maybe some groceries and something to cook with. It would be fantastic to camp here.
I may never go back to work, he thought.
If you like nostalgia, and humor, and espcially if you like motorcycles, you may enjoy my book, OVER THE HANDLEBARS. It is a collection of 24 short stories and articles, most of which were first published in motorcycle magazines in the 1960s. The stories may be old, but I believe they have a timeless quality. They're as true today as when I first wrote them. It is available from Amazon.com. I also have written two other books about motorcycling availalbe from Amazon.com. You can read all 3 of them on your computer for just $2.99 each. Go to motorcyclenostalgia.com.