*In 2013, Thunder and I made a transcontinental motorcycle trip around the United States. I built him a little tear drop trailer (complete with windshield, windows, and a memory foam mattress) and welded a hitch to the back of my bike. Some days were better than others, but isn't that the unspoken Truth about travel?
We were back at the campsite. The sun was low in the sky casting long fingery shadow behind every object. I loved it here but I couldn’t bear the loneliness any longer. I decided I would spend another night in the desert before setting off for Salt Lake City the following afternoon.
Another sunset down, and just like that I had made it through another day. Sometimes that’s all you can hope for. Sometimes there are periods of your life that feel like an exhausting war of attrition and all you need to do is make it through each day, one day at a time. And sometimes that is ok. We all have big plans, big dreams of doing things, but sometimes we need to recharge, recollect, and recuperate. I suppose there is nothing wrong with lazy days from time to time if it helps you in the grander scheme of things. At that time, I had no explicit goals. I was fighting my own battles and all I could hope for myself was to make it through each day with the promise that someday the day would come when I didn’t have to worry about making it through the day. And when that day does come, I will be able to move on to bigger things, and the only thing that will matter is that I had been able to make it through each day before that.
The next morning, Thunder and I saddled up early and hit the road. Six hours on a motorcycle feels like 15 hours in a car. The sun ate the day. It wrapped its rays around my eyes and suffocated them. It crawled behind them into the corners of my skull. Each distinct object began to lose its hue and clarity as all transitioned toward the same golden haze. The road became blanche and melted into the mountains ahead. Objects disappeared in the glare and with them my morale began to wane. Strapped with a migraine in the middle of the desert with little water and little will left, I begrudgingly slowed and pulled to the side of the road hoping to find an excuse.
Another pit-stop in the pipe-dream. Derailed by disillusionment and the disconnect between idea and reality. Could this really be what this is all about? This trip? Grand illusions gone stale, capped off with a scorching headache and an irrepressible boredom? The money, the time, the lonely nights all dumped into an investigation of the American Dream which, as far as I could tell, was as elusive as my fulfillment. The American Dream. Was there ever such a thing? If so, how does one find it? Where to look? In a land called America, my supposition was that the Dream would be some sort of ubiquitous ether, barely tangible but thoroughly present and convincingly noticeable. So where is this elusive ether? Here, in the desert behind those harsh mountains? Or maybe right beside me, clutching at the skins of my eyes and searing beneath them until I quit looking for it…
This desert is remote; flat save for the distant bluffs and modest contours approaching them. As I’m preoccupied with thought, Thunder has taken to scouting the nearby area for refuge in shade. Even in his beastly mentality—or maybe especially—shade in the desert is a curtailer of anguish and a promise of relief. For some, this relief allows them to shy on the fairer side of survival—it is the difference between quit and continue. In the desert, shade is scarce and shade is sanctimonious. Developed within the most primordial interworking of every creature’s neural network is a function that hunts for shade—its signaling delicately balanced between demise and survival. Those whose timing delays the slightest can quite realistically find themselves teetering toward the former. This is the landscape of the sidewinder, the Gila monster, the bark scorpion; the land of a few brave pronghorn, javolina, and the ever cunning coyote. And in each of them, somewhere at the crown of their spinal cord, above the foundation of their brainstem, and within the bowels of their medulla is a mechanism as necessary as the signal to breathe, a primordial node dedicated to the animal’s survival, a cry that begs of its courier to seek the sanctum of shade and take refuge in its glorious salvation. There is a maxim by which all desert inhabitants abide; there is a mantra behind their prowess: in the desert, shade is holy.
Right now, we are inhabitants of the desert, and should we neglect the age-old advice of evolution, we chance its bleak odds. Life out here is a gamble, and within a game of chance there are only possibilities and odds; there are no guarantees.
After an idiosyncratic sequence of sniffing and snooping, Thunder has found what I trust is the finest bedding place in a 100 yard radius. He is exasperatedly panting beneath a gnarled Juniper, tongue twice its normal size hanging scarcely above the dust. His eyelids are heavy, and he struggles to keep them open; it’s a losing battle and for a few moments he seems to have fallen asleep while perched up and panting. But soon he capitulates to his heavy exhaustion and rolls lazily to his side.
I was ready to hit the road again. We still had several hours driving ahead of us and at this rate we wouldn’t get into SLC until well after dark. “Thunder!” I called. Begrudgingly, he awoke. He labored his way to the trailer and hopped in.
Thunder and I rumbled well into the night hoping to make Salt Lake City before midnight. Again, I was driving after dark, and again I was lolling over the negligence of that decision in my mind, but of course I trudged onward. Out past Price, as we continued north on Rt. 6, the terrain became treacherous. Neck-straining switchbacks inched us into canyon country and in the subtle moonlight I could see the jagged silhouette of the ridge-line that engulfed us on both sides. The bike creaked up the steep pitches, cursing us in exasperated breaths and coughing on its own exhaust. I could tell by the sound of her that the carburetors were running rich, a symptom, I thought, of the thinner air at the higher altitudes—that and 4000 miles traveled without a real engine tune-up. But on and on and up and up she creaked and groaned and threw a fit but on and on and up and up she went and never quit. The switchbacks were so gruesomely curvy that each turn was blind.
Suddenly I spotted a deer leap into the road just beyond the beam of my headlights. It spooked me as much as I must have spooked it, and as my stomach made a somersault, I grabbed the front brake and gave it a vigorous squeeze, down shifting and letting the clutch out to slow our progress just in time to avoid another crossing deer. I had barely seen them until I was nearly on top of them. It can be terrifying to see 200 pounds of wild animal leaping across your path as you’re driving 50+ mph on a motorcycle, realizing how narrowly you avoided catastrophe. As the initial fright subsided, I let out a shudder, entertaining the thought of colliding with a deer out here in the dark center of nowhere. With the image of Thunder resuscitating me and administering CPR to my crumpled corpse, I eased off the throttle and kept a vigilant eye out for the overpopulated critters.
As I released the throttle, something didn’t feel right. The front brake, after I had grabbed it, seemed stuck like one of the calipers was still pinching the rotor. I racked my brain for an explanation, wondering whether a grain of sand or some pebbles and fallen between the pad and rotor, or maybe in the cylinder sleeve of the caliper. Could it be the brake fluid is old and dirty? Corroded bits of metal built up in the lines causing the piston in the brake caliper to stick? I adjusted the handle and pushed on, noting that my gas mileage would likely be lousy until I could look at it—just another timely reminder of the importance of motorcycle maintenance and the ramifications of its neglect. All things considered, I had been lucky to make it this far without a major hiccup. The rotor still spun relatively unencumbered by the sticky caliper, and as long as the caliper could be cleaned and pushed back into its sleeve, this wouldn’t be anything major either. I refrained from using the front brake when I could for the rest of the ride, fearing it might cause it to seize entirely which could include consequences from inconvenience to possible death.
Finally we crested the plateau we had been steadily climbing since dusk, rolling up on a ridge-line that overlooked a great expanse of city lights that stretched well beyond the visible horizon. We were just outside of Provo, where we would link up with the notorious I15, one of the main veins through Las Vegas and another road well-traveled in past chapters of the adventures of Thunder and Mudcat. This time we would be taking it north into Salt Lake City.
As we wound along the outskirts of Provo, I was amazed at how far the lights seemed to stretch. The immense valley from Provo up to Ogden was densely populated and brilliantly lit for 80 idle miles or so, blurring the distinctions between townships and convincing me we were closer to Salt Lake City than we actually were. In reality, that sprawling sea of lights extended well beyond the borders of Salt Lake City betraying the area as far more populated than I had imagined. Even as we merged onto I15, the lights extended to the east and westward, shimmering across the rolling hills until they were swallowed by the horizon beyond.
It was an enigma: this oasis of civilization sitting in the middle of a vast desert, box houses and power lines, roads and grid systems stretching to the horizon on either side for 80 miles, sucking electricity and water from an unknown source in a place where surely it was scarce. This was the coal-hungry fiend Edward Abbey warned us about. This was the faceless beast harrowing the beautiful landscapes of Utah with manmade fissures and sucking fossil fuels out of the crust of Mother Earth. This was the infamous antagonist of natural processes, for what could be natural about 2 million people living comfortably in a desert climate? Our demand, our expectations, our standard of living multiplied exponentially by a growing population and a global overcrowding crisis—when did we conquer evolution? Of course, what do you expect in a state largely influenced by a religion that used to advocate a dozen children per family?
It was somewhat disheartening to realize we were still several miles of highway away. The temperature had dropped drastically after the sun went down, and after several more hours of driving, the biting cold was starting to erode my will. I just wanted to arrive already. But still we droned on, the engine guzzling gas, a brake caliper out of commission, the wind beating against my chest and psyche, draining me on all fronts mental and physical.
I felt sorry for Thunder, probably bored out of his mind after riding all evening. I wanted to reassure him that it would all be worth it when we finally arrived, that we would be spending the next week exploring the canyons and going climbing. Just one final push and we can rest easy for the next week or so.
Finally we made it. I messaged my friend and he came outside to flag us down and greet us. I groaned as I un-assed the bike, stiff from the cold and the hours on the road. I popped my helmet off and immediately opened Thunder’s trailer, who bounded out with a wildly wagging tail and a big, yawning stretch.