I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, "This is what it is to be happy." -Sylvia Plath
When I was young I was afraid of many things. Being lost was at the top of my list. I’m not sure why exactly, but I once made a wrong turn on the way to Staten Island to visit a college friend and ended up in New York City. It petrified me. Somewhere along the way, though, I lost that fear, or perhaps learned there were far worse things to worry about.
When I read the quote above from The Bell Jar, it reminded me of my first long solo motorcycle trip. By that point in my life, I was well past my fear of being lost. I was on my way to visit my sister Marylou and her husband Baris in Raleigh-Durham, NC, from my home in southeastern Pennsylvania via the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, two roads I had read a lot about as I cut my teeth as a motorcyclist.
Marylou and I have always been close. She took me to try sushi for the first time and we went together to see Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, my favorite painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Whenever we’re together, it always seems we focus on the same things: art, music, food, experiences, and not on life’s mundanities. I played her Tom Waits’ Kentucky Avenue and she said he sounded like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street; I let her get away with it, like you only do with those nearest and dearest to you.
The Mountains are Calling
Upon heading into the mountains, I felt exactly what Sylvia Plath wrote about. It felt as though my lungs expanded but my chest didn’t and there wasn’t enough room to contain the air. It almost hurt to try and squeeze it all in. I couldn’t wait for the next turn, the next view, and the next stretch of road. I didn’t have a past; I wasn’t concerned with the future.
There was no sense of anything other than elation and joy and portent. I wanted to keep experiencing the “now.” By the time I’d finally decided to leave the parkway and head east across North Carolina, I realized I still had nearly 100 miles to go. I rode those miles grinning ear to ear. My knees ached from being locked in one position and my hands were swollen from gripping the handlebar all day.
I remember being alone, streaking across the state as the sun set. I was used to everything being open all the time, day or night, the way everything is now; but 20 or so years ago, in North Carolina, nothing seemed to stay open into the night. I felt alone, wonderfully, beautifully alone.
Riding Two Joys
If one thing can be said to have marked my riding joy since then, it’s that feeling of being somewhere I’ve never been before. It doesn’t have to be someplace exotic, unusual, or even hard to reach. It’s always enough that it’s simply new to me.
As I blazed east, the sun setting behind me and the shadows growing long ahead, I started to feel the body aches of 13 or so hours of riding and long for a cold beer, a swim, and a friendly hug and smile—the tiny rewards motorcycling tends to magnify.
Marylou has always been my touchstone. She’s an artist, a traveler, and one of the few people with whom I can be completely honest and discuss things openly. She’s 12 years my junior, but has always been a big sister to me. That first long ride decades ago taught me the ecstasy and joy of getting away, of exploring new roads, and enjoying the time inside my own head; but also, the simple pleasure in coming home.