I spent a hundred bucks on gas. My pillion pad was empty. I didn’t run into anybody I know. I remembered a couple of guys who didn’t remember me.
I took photographs. I made notes. I got sunburned. I ate fast food. I drank some five dollar beers and a ten dollar glass of wine. Mostly I drank alone. The motel bed made me itch. It was a non-smoking room so I had to go outside to smoke a roach.
I fought the wind all weekend. Every dawn was calm. Every afternoon a twenty mile an hour wind rushed out of the southwest. The gusts blew double that. Some monster off the Baja coast was big enough to reach out and shake me from six or seven hundred miles away.
Sunday night I turned on the news to try to learn if the monster had a name. A weather witch forecast “gusts up to forty” would “begin to develop around noon.” Then she laughed and all the news fools laughed with her. She twitched her hips the way a mare in heat twitches her tail. Then one of the news fools said something I couldn’t understand and the weather witch said, “Oh yeah,” just like a real, drunk, homemade, amateur MILF says “Oh yeah!” I turned to my phone, tapped the weather ap and saw a satellite photo of Charybdis in the Eastern Pacific. Then I went back to staring at the weather witch’s hips.
I knew what to do. This was not my first trip away from home. I set the alarm for six. I was packed and checked out and my tank was full and I was descending the onramp to the Black Canyon Freeway before seven. The sky was the color of an old plastic milk bottle but I was full of the false hope that experience brings. I hoped the ride home would be easy. I hoped a breeze would push gently at my back. I hoped the wind would not buffet me until noon and that when it did it would smell of the sea.
The I-17 in Phoenix was designed so 120,000 cars could travel the 13 miles between Northern Avenue and Interstate 10 each day. Most of those cars were on that freeway all at once that morning and none of us were happy. For one thing, the local police think the most logical and efficient thing to do with a motorcycle in heavy traffic is a crime. And for another, Phoenicians are the worst drivers between Bangkok and Rome. Although to be fair to Phoenix, out of respect for that weather witch’s alluring hips and lewd laugh, not every driver that morning tried to abuse me. A few of them were polite as I white-lined by to their left or right. But, most Phoenicians consider a motorcycle splitting lanes to be a grave insult. The worst of them think traffic is a blood sport. While I was at a dead stop, one driver hit my left side-view mirror with the right side-view mirror of his SUV. I believe he would have run over my front wheel and pinned me to the pickup truck on my right if I hadn’t gunned it and escaped through an impossibly narrow crack.
On I crept, long minute after long minute, ever vigilant for the lunatics making desperate lane changes, squeezing through the gaps left by the fools who feel obliged to stay multiple car lengths behind the vehicle ahead. I put my feet down every two minutes. I cursed the drivers who edged closer to the white line as soon as they saw me coming. I know everybody in Phoenix carries a gun. I cursed them anyway.
After eight or nine miles, which is to say an hour, I began to look for broken glass and blood. Whatever caused this had to be a catastrophe. There had to be ambulances ahead. There might even be a helicopter but the overpasses and the Tundras and Sequoias left me blind. Eventually I spied two mostly plastic cars with gaping holes in what were once bumpers. A mommy and a cubicle slave had been detained by an Arizona Highway Patrolman. He had ordered them to stand in one of the open lanes and they had obeyed. The cop was deliberate, in charge and alone. I believe he had been investigating there for an hour or so. He glared at me as I rode past him and began to accelerate.
A minute later I was finally headed west. In the hour I had been trapped an insistent breeze had risen from somewhere near Baja and a few white tumbleweeds had begun to spin across the sky. I was convinced I would be home by one anyway. A revised itinerary appeared on the head’s up display of my imagination. A half hour after the traffic jam I briefly settled into a constant and sedate 80.
But the wind began to fray just past Tonopah. It became two winds – a headwind and a cross wind blowing left to right. I clenched my legs together to keep my boots on the pegs. I caught a dresser with a patch holder from an Oakland club. Neither one of us could keep a constant speed. The winds changed minute by minute – now out of the west, then the south, then somewhere in between. Sometimes I was going 80 and the Oakland patch fell behind. Sometimes he passed me and he kept going and when I looked down I saw I was only doing 70. Then the patch would get stuck a quarter mile ahead of me. He would slow and I would catch him. Our engines sang together for a few miles before we finally parted ways. I don’t think we ever looked each other in the face.
I really liked that satellite photo of the Charybdis. It made me feel bigger and more in charge of my life. Science is my favorite lie. I like to pretend I understand all the things I cannot control. I am infatuated with the myth that weather is made of great whirlpools of clouds turning left or right. I like to imagine that weather has something to do with the laws of physics because that way I can imagine I know what is going on. That morning I comforted myself with the lie that sooner or later every wind must turn. I imagined these winds would turn when I crossed the California state line. If I could just get through the Saguaro forest, if I could just make the river by ten-thirty I would be home free and I could enjoy the best part of the ride.
Over the years the California deserts have marked me with images. They are marks only I can see: Creosote bushes dancing the hula in gentler winds; ocotillo and mesquite in front of a perfect pastel sky; wary jackasses and bold coyotes; roadrunners and pack rats. The desert is California without the lies. For decades the California desert lost its population as the miners, subsistence ranchers and the economy that supported them moved west into the big bowl of El Lay. Now the desert is filling back up again with campers, trailers and squatters as all the old hopes that once defined California turn to pain. Hundred thousand dollar houses became million dollar houses in an economy that was drying up. Then by some ironic magic the million dollar houses became million dollar debts. Then after the Sheriffs came and evicted them people began to drift east back into the desert of broken dreams, the harsh, angry America politicians dare not see. So now the desert images include 10,000 year old Proto-Amerindian petroglyphs spray painted with angry graffiti. Sometimes I like to pull off onto a side road and stop and stare. If I could make the river by ten-thirty, I promised myself, I would find a place to stop and stare.
And all the time I still knew perfectly well that weather is not made by anything I can understand. It is made by inscrutable demons and spirits to suit themselves and I always know that things usually don’t turn out the way I hope they will.
First there was the traffic jam. Then there were the headwinds. Then there were the bees. This was the swarming season of the killer bees. Two or three of them hit me in the face hard enough to raise welts. One of them flew up under the cuff of my flannel and stung me there which was when I realized the clouds of dots were bees. The one that stung me felt like it was trying to chew its way out of my shirt. I pulled over, unbuttoned my cuff, brushed off the bee, and dismounted to stretch my legs. My ears were ringing after less than a hundred miles. I opened some gum and managed to shove it in my mouth before the wind ripped the foil from my hands. One gust staggered me. The bike, leaning left, seemed to rock. I rolled my shoulders and pushed on. I had to constantly steer left in order to go straight.
Twenty-five miles later I stopped in Quartzite for gas. I didn’t need gas. I needed the stop to keep my hopes alive. It was 10:15 in the morning and I was almost to the river. There wasn’t a single bird in the sky. There was a black cloud growing in the southwest. I slowed to sixty as I started down the long hill into the Colorado River Valley. The trucks all slowed too. I didn’t see another motorcycle. The patch on the dresser was somewhere behind.
I stopped again at the agricultural inspection station. The idea that I might be smuggling fruit fly infested oranges into California on a motorcycle has always struck me as absurd but I was happy to stop anyway. Some guy in a brown shirt stared at me and then dismissed me with an official wave. I roared away eager to find the far side of the wind. I hoped it was a few miles up ahead. The more unpredictable the wind became the more convinced I was that I was almost through it.
And each time I glanced to the southwest the dark cloud had grown. Sand started blowing across the road. The little dustups were not terrible but they were bad enough that I did not stop to stare. I already had my image: A black hole was eating the desert sky. I hid in the lee of a truck, slowed to 50 or 55 and crept across the desert as the black stain pushed clouds over my head. The world shrank. The vistas drew closer and the horizon to my left turned yellow.
I finally passed the truck near Indio. Twisting, whirling sand devils danced in the highway. I stopped again and filled up. While I stood there two teenaged girls ran squealing from their car to the minimart. Their squeals were lost in throbbing blasts of wind. I stared at the dancing sand devils as if somebody else was going to have to ride through them. Then I tied a bandanna over my face and pushed on.
The Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway slowed to a crawl when the visibility dropped to a couple hundred feet. The blasts of sand burned my exposed skin. My eyes watered constantly. The bike, my boots and my clothes collected a dull, pale patina. Mile after mile I crawled along in traffic while the darkness in the sky grew and panicked clouds rushed before it.
And, then I dropped the bike. I fell to my left. I don’t know what happened. I was numb and upright one second. Then I was struggling to pull the bike back up but it was already too late. Then I was lying sideways in a freeway in a traffic jam in a sandstorm. My boot was trapped under the primary case and I was embarrassed. I managed to pull my foot out of my boot and scrambled to my feet. I had to try twice to wrestle the bike back upright. I found the kickstand and retrieved my boot. Nobody helped me. As I was shoving my foot back into the boot someone behind me honked. The shift lever was bent. The clutch controls had rotated around the left grip. I didn’t have a tool with me. There was a stain of primary fluid on the road. This was in a place called Whitewater. I fired the black bitch back up and got off at the next exit. I was lucky. I needed a rest between rounds.
I parked the bike at a rest stop. Most of the spaces were taken. All the women ran to the restrooms and back and they all screamed as they ran and as they screamed their hair flew in a dozen directions at once. The air sounded like a waterfall. There was no cell service so I couldn’t even comfort myself with more weather ap lies.
I found two fellow travelers – a couple of long haul truckers on vacation on a couple of touring bikes. We sat at a picnic table partly sheltered by pine trees. We shouted small talk. “I thought that sand was going to blast off all my paint,” one of them said.
“Is there an end to this?”
“Should we push on or stay?” We were mostly silent for almost two hours while a slow parade crept along the freeway.
A Highway Patrol car rolled through the rest stop. I turned my back and ignored him but one of the truckers said, “I’m gonna go find out if that cop knows anything.” When he came back he reported, “The Chippie says all this just stops about five miles up the road. Just past Cabazon.”
“Should we go?”
“What do you think?”
I thought, “I want to sleep in my own bed tonight.”
We split up and three minutes later I was back on the bike. The cop was right. The winds calmed after only a few miles. But as the winds calmed it began to rain. The rain didn’t stop until almost Riverside and then I was in the familiar gladiator traffic of Los Angeles. My back ached from wrestling the handlebars but I no longer had to hope or guess or pretend to believe in science. I was on familiar ground. The bike droned its comforting growl. The black stain in the sky disappeared behind me. The sky became a familiar mix of pale blue, yellow and gray. I once again conquered the hairpin transition from the Ten to the Six-Oh-Five and then onto the One-Oh-Five. Around Paramount a head wind began to buffet me again.
I was diving into the tunnel that leads to San Diego, two miles from the coast when I first smelled the Pacific. I glanced at the watch on my wrist. It was a little past four-thirty.
And, that’s how I spend the best of my days.