Thursday, August 12, 2010

Reposting by Request

I've had a tremendous number of requests to re-post this blog, so here it is. I've also been asked why I didn't continue it after the 27th. Honestly, I'm only inspired to write when the topic is emotional. I have several stories to tell of the events that transpired the following two weeks on the road. Maybe I'll get the inspiration to write them down.

Pics from the ride can be found here. 

Wanna see Death Valley?  Look here.  Sound on.  Give it a few seconds to start.

Mode videos coming.


I learned many things from my mom over the years. Among them is the sage advice "Never make a promise you can't or don't intend to keep."  I may not have been 100% successful at following that creed, but it has been in my head since I was a child.

My mother has always been many things to many people. As a single parent raising three children, she worked hard to give my sisters and I a sense of stability and to instill confidence and a sense of determination in each of us.  She accomplished these while working full time, earning two college degrees, and eventually becoming a successful entrepreneur. As a kid, I remembered vividly that when mom made a commitment - a promise - she kept it. These attributes undoubtedly contributed to her amassing a collection of loyal friends all over the country.

One of those friends runs a no kill animal shelter in a small town called Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island, Northwest of Seattle, Washington. Mom fell in love with the island and eventually bought a small get away place there.  A retreat such as this offers an abundance of friends when you need them while providing the solitude so many of us crave when it's needed. To her, it was heaven on Earth. She told me once that when she crossed the bridge over Deception Pass into Oak Harbor, she felt like she was home.

As an adult, I can look back and recognize how much mom struggled financially.  Likewise, I can look back and remember not noticing a sense of financial struggle at home.  We had clothes for school, lunch money, and Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny always came.  Only as an adult can I put the pieces together to recognize and appreciate how she struggled.

Despite the financial struggles, she somehow managed to buy me a dirt bike for my 13th birthday and over the years, I became hooked on motorcycling. I rode and raced dirt bikes with my sons and have had my motorcycle license for 32 years. None of the bikes I had were ever made for comfort, much less long distance touring. Finally, I picked up a ride comfortable enough for a long haul. I spent considerable time and money preparing the new bike for a long ride up for two. See, Mom had asked me to take her to Whidbey someday. I now had a way to keep that promise. Mom's birthday is July 26th. I thought it fitting that I would ride across the Deception Pass bridge with her on her birthday.  It's 2,200 miles from Dallas to Oak Harbor.

We leave July 23rd.  Details daily as I ride.

July 23, 3:59am

Fuzzy alarm clock digits faded into view. A moment later, the alarm blasts an AM talk radio replay of a taped interview with some unknown, self absorbed art critic bemoaning government cuts in arts funding. It’s normal for my biological clock to awaken me just before my alarm sounds. In fact, I can usually just tell myself when I need to wake up and an alarm clock isn’t even needed. I do that for work all the time, but today is far more important than work, so I set the alarm. I sprang out of bed like a kid on Christmas morning and slapped the button to silence the alarm.

My plan was to hit the road by five am and I was on track. I’ve always been an early riser. It’s probably hereditary. My mom was often in her office by 5am.  She would no doubt be ready to roll.  After forcing down some vitamins and a breakfast bar, I verified the bike was properly loaded, cargo secured, and otherwise ready to go.

My bike is a 2010 Scarlett red Harley Davidson Road Glide that I aptly named “Hester”. Nathaniel Hawthorne would be proud. I had spent a few months and more than a few dollars installing performance and comfort upgrades on Hester just for this trip. The newly rebuilt seat from Mean City Cycles with memory foam in the driver and passenger sections was far more comfortable than the stock Harley padding. The WheelDock center stand I installed makes loading gear and passengers much easier. I added rear speakers from HogTunes to the tour pack for better rider and passenger music during those long stretches of highway where no one wants to talk; even to themselves.

I had packed almost everything up last night, so once mom was on board, I saddled up for a long days ride and we hit the road. I can usually go 240 miles on a tank of gas, which makes for a comfort/gas stop every few hours or so. This is a pace that should be tolerable at most any age.

The ride from Dallas to Denver would be a long one, with very little scenery to note until we approached the Denver area and got into the mountains. I considered various route options, but I was leery of construction delays in Texas that would result in hours in single lane stop-and-go traffic. Riding a motorcycle across Texas in late July heat is a taxing proposition for a rider at any age. Mom had already been through some pretty extreme heat back in March and being from Texas, my blood is relatively thin. I didn’t anticipate any physiological issues as long as gas stops were also hydration stops. Yesterday, I called local Harley dealers in the cities along the route to find out about road construction and conditions and didn’t get any bad news. I took the most scenic route that Texas offers, which is about as scenic as a bar code and every bit as interesting.

This ride gave me an opportunity to test my new helmet comm gear. I’m very happy with the Cardo G4 headset. Bluetooth telephone audio was clear on both ends, even with the face open and shield up on my Shark Evoline helmet. I would normally never be interested in my cell phone when I ride, but traveling 14 hours on pretty much flat land made even work conversations appealing. My GPS downloads my phone's address book and displays the inbound caller’s name and if I accept, it passes the phone Bluetooth audio to the Cardo headset in my helmet. I can dial from the phone book using the large GPS touch screen.

I was at a gas stop in the thriving metropolis of Amarillo, Texas when a yellow bus pulled up the other side of the pump island. It was a short yellow bus, but the passengers were all adults from a home for people with special needs. They were falling all over themselves in excitement over seeing my bike as they poured out of the bus. They gathered around me and I felt like Richard Dryfuss when the bald little aliens surrounded him at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Only these aliens were tall and most of them (men and women) needed a shave. One of them eagerly reached out to shake my hand. As I reached out to him, a female chaperon who looked like the gym teacher Ms. Ballbricker in the move "Porky's" and who had a hair bun pulled so tight it gave her a goatee yelled out “No, Reggie! “Elbows only. ELBOWS REGGIE! He stopped and with a hugely genuine smile, held out his right elbow. Confused but not wanting to show it, I extended my elbow and we did an elbow bump. He laughed and walked back to the bus. I looked over at another rider (who was traveling the opposite direction but just happened to be there gassing up when I was) and shrugged my shoulders. A male chaperon from the bus who resembled Steve Urkel wearing scrubs looked over at me gesturing his semi-closed fist up and down and said, “He masturbates constantly; day and night”. How the hell do you respond to that?  I held up my right elbow, pointed at it, and winked.

The rest of the day was pretty boring compared to that. I got a chance to play with the time lapse feature on my video camera. I'll have fun with that tomorrow in the Rockies. Mama and I caught a little rain in New Mexico, but most of it evaporated before it hit the ground and it made for nice, cool temperatures. We caught steady rain in Colorado and pulled over to suit up in rain gear. Of course, it took longer to don the gear than actually spent riding in the rain. Within minutes, I found myself riding in 100 degree temps with a rubber sweat suit on, so we pulled over again, stuffed the rain gear into my saddle bag, swigged a 5-Hour energy shot,and grabbed a couple of bottles of water to keep them in east reach while riding. Other than catching rush hour traffic in Colorado Springs, the trip was pretty quick paced.  I snaked my way through traffic and rode under the hotel overhang.  Dismounting from Hester was almost as painful as it was relieving.  I unpacked my gear and headed in with mama for a much needed evening of sleep.

July 24th, 2010 - Denver to Boise

The route out of Denver started out to be an amazing ride.  After a hearty breakfast of 5 Hour Energy and some beef jerky (mama was never a breakfast person), I decided to take Hwy 40 across the mountains toward Salt Lake City.  The passage across Park City took us to about 9,800 feet and was breathtaking.  There were plenty of passing lanes on the ascent, so the ride was fast and fun.  The descent was so picturesque that speed wasn’t a concern and it was over all too soon.

We made our way out of Colorado into Utah, crossing what appeared to be a desert mountain range.  Even at 85mph, the distant mountains slowly crept by while the desert tundra next to the highway raced by in a blur.  I was thankful for my iPod, audio books, and satellite radio.  I can’t imagine crossing these passages without audio distractions.

Someone told me that Utah was the orange cone capitol of America.  They were right.  I crossed stretches of road where miles and miles would be coned off restricting traffic access to one lane.  As if that wasn’t annoying enough, there appeared to be no work being done, nor was the road damaged in any way.  It was a perfectly clear lane, blocked from all traffic.  I was in a long line of cars stuck behind some clueless tourist pulling a rental camper when I noticed headlights approaching in my left rear view mirror.  A long line of bikers streamed past me in the construction lane as if there were no cones and the lane itself was reserved especially for them.  I decided their reservation had my name on it too and joined them.  In no time, we had passed the lead car and left them in our rear view mirrors.  The large group of bikes broke apart into several smaller groups of two or three.  In no time, I was alone again on the open road with mama and my thoughts.
If Utah is the orange cone capitol of America, the state of Idaho must be competing for the dubious honor.  I’m told there are some beautiful places in Idaho.  I’ll take that for granted, but I never saw any of them.  Idaho was flat, boring, and seemingly entirely under construction.  We spent the last four hours of a fifteen hour ride with the setting sun in my face behind a windshield splattered with bugs that made the sun scatter blinding light across the windscreen.  I was squinting from the sunlight, my butt was burning from hours in the saddle, and every joint was stiff and aching.  Despite all this, it seemed as if mama couldn't have been more comfy in her spot.  It occurred to me that at that particular moment, this was not fun, but I make it a point to not complain about the things I tolerate.  This was my choice.  It had purpose.  We rode on.  My hotel had a Jacuzzi, so I relaxed in it for a few minutes fighting the urge to sleep.  Once back in my room, I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

July 25th, 2010 – Boise to Seattle

This time, the five a.m. wake up call came WAY too early.  I crawled out of bed trying to motivate myself with the thought that today was the arrival day. I realized I needed a better breakfast today than I had yesterday, so I added a can of Monster energy drink to the menu and headed out.

The Boise-to-Oregon leg was no more picturesque than was the Salt Lake City-to-Boise leg, but at least I didn’t have the sun in my face for hours. Once we hit Oregon, the terrain got much more interesting with twists, turns, and elevation changes aplenty. It kept me alert and really helped to make time and the miles fly by.

At a gas stop/butt cheek relief station in Oregon, an old white van with a "clergy" placard on the dash pulled in behind me at the pump. The driver was a thin older man in a black suit and his wife looked like one of those old school fundamentalist submissive women with an ankle length broom skirt, with her hair pulled in a tight bun. At a glance, she looked as if she was a black and white character in a color world. As a couple, they reminded me of the American Gothic painting by Robert Wood of that old farmer and wife.  All he needed was a pitchfork.  As I checked my GPS, I couldn’t help but notice the man staring at me intently. Breaking the ice, I looked up, smiled, and said good morning to them. Without a pause, he pointed at my license plate (INFDEL) and asked me if its puropse was to promote infidelity. I struggled to keep a straight face and responded explaining that the plate was a symbol to certain religious fanatics who despise America, Americans, and Christianity; that I was their enemy and unlike them, I don’t hide. I’m pretty sure neither of them got it, but he changed the subject and asked if I rode all the way up from Texas. I told him I was taking my mom to Seattle for her birthday. Looking at the fully loaded passenger seat, his wife asked “Where is she?” I grinned, leaned my head to the side, rolled my eyes towards the tour pack trunk and said “in there”. They said nothing, looked at each other, got back into the van, and drove off.

With a full tank and an empty bladder, Mama and I headed out. I was alone on this stretch of road. Not another car or bike in sight. I forgot to change the time on my GPS and satellite radio and anyone who saw Easy Rider knows bikers don’t wear watches. It seems like common sense to me that a device like a GPS receiver whose function is to measure latitude, longitude, and TIME would actually know the correct time based on my location and not need my intervention to do it! My point here is I was shocked to be alone on the highway until I realized it wasn’t even seven a.m. yet.

I wasn’t alone for long. A car was rapidly approaching me from the rear. I could see the headlights appear and then disappear on the hills behind me. The speed limit was 75 mph, which is fast. Plus, there were no speedy cars to follow behind faster. Thankfully, I wasn’t speeding because the approaching vehicle was a State Trooper who tailed me for a few miles before hitting his lights. We pulled over, I dismounted and mama stayed onboard, but he sat in his car for a good minute or two before getting out and asking me to step away from the bike. He didn’t ask for my license or insurance. He just pointed and asked me what was in my “trunk”. I told him it was mostly provisions to travel from Dallas to Seattle for my mother’s birthday and offered to open it for him. He preferred to open it himself. Of course it was locked, so I offered the key explaining that it was in my pocket and asked if it was ok to reach for it. He looked in the tour pack and didn’t see anything interesting. That was when he noticed my dash and mom’s picture on it. That, combined with the lack of body parts in the “trunk” caused him to laugh out loud saying there must have been a misunderstanding. As I mounted up, he told me to watch it ahead in [whatever] county because the local cops were thick with radar. I never saw the other cops in the next county or even thought about them. I was transfixed wondering what the call to the police from the preacher and his wife must have sounded like.

Sometime thereafter, we passed a sign that read “45th Parallel – Half Way Between the Equator and the North Pole”. Hey, when you’re on hour 33 of a 38 hour ride, most anything is exciting. At least it wasn’t one of the dozens of signs I saw along the way that read “This roadway improvement project was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act”. Those signs got me thinking. Somewhere, there’s a bean counter helping the Obama Administration take credit for all the “new” jobs created to make signs telling us about all the jobs they’re creating. But I digress…

We crossed into Washington and it felt like we were in the home stretch. The ride through Snoqualmie Pass was awesome. I had driven it before when I was in town working a project for T-Mobile, but experiencing it on a bike weaving in and out of traffic, snaking through the mountains thick with dark green forests and snow capped mountain tops was a real rush. Eventually, I made it past downtown Seattle and out towards British Columbia and made the turn onto Highway 20, which leads across the bridge to the island.

Suddenly, we were there. We ran a fast and furious pace all the way from Dallas and now that we were there, I was in no hurry. In some way, I actually dreaded crossing the bridge. I stopped at a parking cut out to collect my thoughts. I was so excited to have finally made it, so why the hell was I choking up and fighting back tears? This was exactly what mom wanted. It was closure time. I began to think that maybe this closure thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

While stopped before the bridge, I took a few photos for other people and asked them to reciprocate. Looking at my photo, I can see elation, exhaustion, and melancholy all rolled into one. I switched on the video camera and headed across the bridge.

The structure is actually two spans, bridging a quarter mile gap 180 feet above the channel between Fidalgo Island and Whidbey Island. It was named for Joseph Whidbey, who in 1792 sailed the narrow passage that is now called Deception Pass and proved that it was not really a small bay as charted by the Spaniards (hence the name "Deception"), but a deep and turbulent channel which separates the mainland from what they at the time believed was a peninsula (actually Fidalgo Island and Whidbey Island).

Wanting to take it all in, I drove us across as slowly as traffic behind me (and the physics of motion and gravity) would allow. Mom had waited a long time to come back here and there was certainly no rush now. We rode on to her friend Mary Anna’s house for a long awaited reunion. Returning tomorrow for her birthday celebration with her friends will be especially moving and sentimental. We spent the evening reminiscing over old stories about mom and her friends.

July 26th, 2010 – Happy Birthday, Mom!

Mary Anna
Mama’s closest friend on the island is Mary Anna.  She and mama worked together in the paramedical industry for years. She moved from Texas to the island after falling in love with the place.  Now, Mary Anna runs a thrift store, the proceeds from which support her true passion, the Whidbey Animal Improvement Foundation (WAIF).  WAIF is a no kill animal shelter for the local four-legged domesticated populace. When I told her back in March about my plans to take mom to Whidbey for her birthday, she was elated and began alerting mom’s friends up there.  We kept in touch over the months as we planned the event.  It had been five years since I was on the island and saw Mary Anna.  The last time mama was up was when she sold her property there back in 2008.

There are few things in life I enjoy more than riding my Harley.  Still, the thought of not having to ride a long distance today was very appealing.  We were all looking forward to seeing mom’s friends and celebrating her birthday.  We stopped and picked up some yellow and peach colored roses (mom’s favorite) for each of us, plus a few spares.  We left some flowers with Mary Anna and mom’s friends on the shore and headed up the walking path to the bridge.

The bridge had a three foot wide railed walking path on each side.  As our group made our way across on the northwest facing path, I carried with me the maroon velvet bag containing the precious cargo I had so gingerly placed in the Harley tour pack and had tended to the entire trip.  We stopped about half way across to take in the view and wait for other pedestrians to pass.  As the others dropped roses off the bridge, I removed a container from the bag, opened it, and poured the contents from it off the bridge rail and into the Washington wind.

There were discussions aplenty over the legality of scattering ashes in public.  The reality was it was human remains, but they were reduced to calcified deposits, which realistically could be found in the soil most anywhere.  It was suggested that we scatter the ashes at the state park on the north shore where few people would notice, but I didn’t come this far to compromise on the details of the promise I made to mama. 

As the breeze carried the dust cloud away, it seemed to evaporate into the air like a captive spirit finally released to join a realm it was long intended to be a part of.  As I poured from the bridge, mom’s friends down on the north beach were watching from below.  They described the scene for me saying the sunlight reflection from the dust formed rainbow like colors and that an eagle was soaring above us. It was a simple but beautifully sentimental tribute.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t a sad event at all.  In fact, I was somewhat reveling in my accomplishment, having traveled so far in such a short amount of time to keep the promise.  I knew I could handle the emotional toll of the memorial itself.  But honestly, I wasn’t as confident in my ability to endure riding over 850 miles a day in Midwest summer heat for three days straight.

It was done.  The promise was kept and mom’s friends on the island got their chance to say goodbye. Somehow still, after all the hours and dollars spent modifying the bike, planning the routes, and then actually riding the 2,300 miles, the sense of closure I’ve sought since mom’s passing - the same closure I expected to feel after this event - still eludes me.  Since she left us in February, I believed in and waited for some sort of cathartic event to transpire that would finally deliver the emotional closure that we all seek after the loss of a loved one.  I’ve since learned that in my case, that catharsis is actually the realization that closure of this sort never comes.  Acceptance gradually increases and the sadness gradually decreases, but there is no closure.   The rip in my heart has healed, but a life long scar remains.  I feel fortunate to have had a lifetime with a mother to miss.  I know now that my life will have been a success if after I'm gone, even just one person misses me the way I miss mama.

I’ve wondered for years what the draw to Whidbey was for mama.  She was a born and bred Texan with ambition whatsoever to live anywhere else.  Nevertheless, she loved this island, its people, and its culture.  Perhaps this explains it.  This poem is from the book “Take Our Words for Whidbey”; a collection of poems, essays, and stories from the Whidbey Writers Group.

The Pull of Tides
Some of us are borne toward islands
From the moment of our becoming.
From the center of the land
We’re moved, in bits and pieces of our years
Toward salt and waves and rocky shores.
We wrap fog around ourselves
And stand, bent like trees, against the wind.
The swirl of currents, seaweed twining,
The pull of tides takes us

- Rowena Williamson

July 27th - Moving On

As of today, I have no agenda.  I don't have to be back at work till August 9th, and I just might stay gone until the 8th.  OK, probably not, but I like the idea of having a choice.  I haven't taken two weeks off from work since my Air Force days - unless you count times when I was unemployed and those were certainly no vacation.

Mary Anna told me about Forks and La Push, Washington.  Anyone with a teen daughter, or anyone who knows a teen daughter knows about Forks and La Push.  Of course I didn't. As it turns out, Forks and La Push Beach are the setting for the Twilight series of books and films. My niece Elyssa and my daughter in-law Jenny are major Twilight fans.  Elyssa lived with us full time from about six weeks till she was almost four years old.  She's the daughter we never had.  Jenny is the light of my son's life, the mother of my grand daughter, and in some ways is the daughter we do have now.  I had thought of skipping the Washington leg of the coastal 101 highway and planned to hit the coast in Oregon.  But for a few more miles, I could be Elyssa's hero for maybe one more day and maybe improve my father in-law image as well.  So I headed out from Mary Anna's place in Oak Harbor to the Coupeville ferry terminal, crossed to Port Townsend, and headed west on the famous 101.

The east to west terrain across the top of Washington wasn't much to look at.  At least the weather was nice.  Forks was everything one would expect from a town that was completely unknown and was suddenly thrust into international fame.  Everything about the place had some Twilight reference.  There were a dozen Twilight souvenir stores within a few blocks of each other.  You could even get your photo taken with an Edward look alike.  I really had no idea who Edward was or what the "Team Edward/Team Jacob titles meant.  Honestly, I'm still not totally clear on it.  As I understand it, one is a vampire and the other is a werewolf and both are hot for some chick named Bella.  Judging from the life-size cardboard stand-ups, Bella is hot.  Makes me wonder why no regular guys fell for her.  I really don't get the fascination with these two "monsters".  When I was a kid, vampires were mean, ugly, ruthless creatures who only went out at night and wound up with a stake in their heart in the end.  They weren't pasty, sensitive, girly boys with hair that looked as if someone spent hours trying to make it look like they spent no time on it at all.  Barnabas Collins was a man's vampire.  As for the werewolf, when I think of a teen werewolf, I think of Michael J. Fox.  I suppose it's a generational thing.  La Push was the next stop on the Twilight sight seeing side trip.  Apparently, the beach at La Push is in many of the movies' scenes.  If that's the case, La Push really missed the cashing-in-on-publicity boat.  It was basically a poor native American community with a few beach cabins and some signs at a bar with references that only a Twilight fan could relate.

I'd had so much Twilight that I was beginning to sparkle (get it?), so it was time to head south.  Highway 101 turned south and drifted toward the west coast of Washington.  The scenery was fantastic.  The road would wind so close to the water that I could actually feel the temperature change and it was so clear that I could see Hester's shadow in the sand beneath the light rippling waves on the water's surface.

I know at the beginning I said I had no agenda.  Well, I lied.  I had an unofficial agenda in my head for covering a given amount of miles in a given amount of time.  Truth is, I had quickly given up on maintaining it.  I suppose the only time they can get any construction done in the region is during the summer, so the occasional one-direction-at-a-time stretch of road was to be expected and it didn't annoy me much.  What did annoy me were all the clueless camper trailer drivers who think the left lane is there to provide a better view and who have no sense of consideration for people behind them who are trying to stick to their nonexistent travel agenda.

If I was taken by the scenery, I was equally taken by the temperature.  It was cold out there! Hester's dash thermometer read 45 degrees and all I had was a long sleeve t-shirt. 45 degrees standing still isn't terribly cold.  45 degrees at 60 mph sucks.  Add some moist foggy air and you have a recipe for...for something cold and wet.  I donned my rain jacket at the first gas stop.  My old school leather work gloves were soaked by the humidity.  I found a nice source of intense 96 cubic inch heat between my legs.  Get your mind out of the gutter.  Hester's engine is 96 cubic inches.  I don't have even 9.6 inches of heat.

The stops in Forks and La Push added more time to this leg of my trip than I expected.  Good thing I had no agenda.  I had originally thought of riding to Cannon Beach, Oregon today, but the fog and cold took its toll on me and I decided to stop in Aberdeen, Washington instead.  Aberdeen is one of those towns that makes you wonder just what inspired people to settle there in the first place.  I didn't plan to stick around to find out.  After all, I had an agenda to not follow.  A short nap at "Aberdeen's Finest" motel which featured "color televisions" and "touch dial phones" would set me up for a ride further south into Oregon tomorrow.