Heat and wildfires dogged us on a 1,500-mile, nine-day, summer car trip from Seattle to Reno that we stretched into 2,233 miles with a meandering route. Also dogging us was the specter at our back: yesteryear’s “us” that used to take such trips on a motorcycle when we were unencumbered by so much as a spare pair of underwear. I noticed every bike that Dopplered past, especially when two bikers passed each other and gave each other The Biker Wave—I was no longer part of the club. I thought about bikes with envy when we drove down a shady, gently curving, lightly travelled lane. I thought about bikes with relief when the thermometer read 108 and we rolled up the windows and punched the A/C, passed the Little Monkey his bag of melted Dollar Tree snacks, and popped in the Lewis & Clark Fiddle Tunes CD that’s the Little Monkey’s favorite—perfect music for an 1804 finding-a-road trip and perfect for a 2014 get-off-the-beaten-path road trip in a cool, quiet VW wagon.
I. His Wife Will be a Widow Cougar
We missed our turnoff at the northeast corner of Mount Rainier. Once we realized our error, we had a quiet discussion (ahem) about whether we should stick with the unintended new route or turn around. The Man I Married, at the helm at the time, slowly and carefully (ahem) turned the car around at the next wide spot in the road, between blind curves; he left plenty of room (ahem) between his back wheels and a minor drop-off of about 4,000 feet. I cheerfully and calmly (ahem) admired the scenery while he seesawed the wagon across both lanes on a major highway. (The Man I Married misses travel by bike because I can’t backseat drive, though I do my best with nonverbal communication; I could teach Braille and ASL.)
MIM backtracked and took the correct turnoff this time, though I gently suggested that he was crossing into the oncoming lane, and he affectionately reassured me that I was perhaps confused.
Just past the turnoff, a herd of 20 or so bikers had pulled off onto the narrow shoulder. Cars and RVs piled up around them.
“A cougar!” LM shouted from the backseat. “Napping in the field!”
A hump of Van Gogh yellow glowed from the alpine meadow snugged at the crook of two highways. This is like The Man I Married managing to nap after a triple espresso while the Little Monkey practices his A-minor scale on the violin.
Also in the meadow: a biker in full leathers, creeping toward the cougar.
Bikers wear leather not just to look cool, but because it protects your skin if you go down. A friend once dumped his bike (a car’s fault; it always is) and body-surfed the pavement on the long downhill curve headed east on the West Seattle Bridge entrance. He suffered not so much as a scratch, because he wore full leathers. But that’s asphalt, not teeth. Cougars bite through leather all the time, though usually when the original owner is still wearing it.
The other thing is: leathers creak. And swish. Like a large woman in pantyhose on an old porch swing. Biker boots aren’t exactly built to be furtive in a dry-grass meadow, either.
We considered pulling over to better see the cougar, but we didn’t think the Little Monkey needed to witness Darwin in action. On that the Man I Married and I were in agreement.
II. How to Stop Traffic
One way to beat the heat is to send your pre-teen on minor errands while you wait in the shade. These gazelle-like creatures are impervious to heat; tweens prance with equal vigor whether in the African savannah-like landscape of Eastern Washington or the misty Redwood forests, as long as you lure them with sugary, carbonated fodder.
Hood River, once a sleepy little town along the Columbia River, now swells with windsurfers, like a snake digesting a hedgehog; the charming town’s having a little trouble ingesting the bloated traffic. Tourists clog the quaint old downtown, which now sports numerous breweries and an upscale, boutique Goodwill. I sent the Little Monster across the well-marked crosswalk at an intersection to load my purchase into the car while I recovered from the effort it took to hand over my charge card for a ridiculous piece of pottery I’ve since regretted; heatstroke is my excuse. Gathering my energy enough to go get a beer, I watched him closely, making sure he didn’t attempt to drive off now that he’d secured the car keys. Traffic crept along at a steady but nonstop 20 mph. It seemed he’d timed his return crossing with the mass exodus of Hood River; the wind must have died down and the surfers were all headed back to their rooms to recover from the exhaustion of extricating themselves from their wetsuits.
A biker on LM’s side of the road saw him waiting to cross and jammed on his brakes, thunking to a stop with almost-over-the-handlebars suddenness. But traffic in the other direction would not stop. The Little Monkey understands crosswalks and travels our suburb with a small degree of freedom, but he won’t step into a street until it’s clear of traffic from here to Argentina. While an adult would have crossed the clear half of the street, signaling drivers coming the other way to stop, the Little Monkey waited. And waited. And waited, his head swiveling from the biker, to the oncoming traffic, to the biker. I expected the biker to lose patience with him before I could peel myself out of my piece of shade to assist. He was a burly dude on a burly bike, not the mom in a minivan you’d expect to be shutting down traffic in one direction, waiting for a kid in a sideways baseball cap to safely cross a street.
The biker finally planted both feet flat on the ground, stood up, and leaned out and over toward the oncoming lane. He stuck his palm out like a school bus swing-arm and shouted, “STOP! Let the kid CROSS!” You bet the next car screeched to a stop. Then he sat and waved LM across. LM trotted across like a homerun hitter loping lazily to home plate.
III. Bikers and Bicyclists
We spent a night in Redding, California, en route to visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park. But, because of a wildfire, a town along our planned route spent the night evacuating their nursing homes and care facilities to the hospital across the street from our motel. In general, this is a good indicator to change plans. We followed this same philosophy two nights earlier, when a caravan of support vehicles for firefighters pulled into the campground where we were about to pitch a tent; we left and found an air-conditioned motel. It seemed the entire west coast was burning in our wake.
I broke out the crinkly, ripped map, which I can’t imagine ever giving up in favor of a smart phone. Highlighters complete the visceral mapping experience, like a cigarette after sex. I came up with Plan B.
We headed east toward Reno on a different highway, frankly relieved at missing out on the volcanic park. Touring lava formations in plus-100 temps sounded as appealing as eating a piping hot bowl of beef stew in a hot tub. The straight, nearly flat Highway 36 was also something of a relief after all of the narrow, twisting, mountain roads we’d navigated over the past week. If you’ve seen one gorgeous mountain pass, you’ve seen ‘em all. Still, there’s something to be said for enjoying the drive, so, even though we’d come to suspect all Scenic Pulloff and Historic Marker signs were pointers to Epitome of Disappointment, I pulled off at a rest stop that used the word “lake” in its name, though this was the only time on the entire trip that I didn’t need to use the loo, seeing as the dry heat had sucked all the moisture out of my body, like that salt-sucking she-monster on Star Trek. (“The pain! The pain!” Spock’s wincing expression was about the state of my shriveled bladder.) Lo and behold, there was an actual lake in the midst of this arid country, and it was indeed scenic! What better place to torture the Little Monster by making him practice his violin? Generally we liked to rouse campground RVers in the morning with his sawing away at the two-octave, A-minor scale, but we hadn’t attempted this version of dawn Taps at the Thunderbird Motel in Redding, next to an already active bar, lest we be served an Egg McKnuckle Breakfast Sandwich.
A large group of spandexed bicyclists with van support had also pulled over at the rest stop. They clattered between the picnic tables and the restrooms in their cleats. Before breaking out the fiddle, LM engaged in Solo Frisbee, which takes real talent. A young woman bicyclist took pity on him and offered to play. Soon another bicyclist joined them and started teaching them throws like The Hammer and The Scoober. Turned out he’d played for the University of Arkansas Ultimate Frisbee team. LM still talks about this guy, as if he’d met Russell Wilson himself.
The bicyclists were part of a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser, pedaling from South Carolina to Santa Cruz. Participants had raised $4,000 each and had to be between 18 and 28 years old. They returned to their lunches, and LM and MIM broke out their fiddle and banjo. A gnarly crew of bikers in vests embroidered with patches pulled up and took their time to cut their rumbling engines (kind of liking peeing on bushes, to mark your presence). Once their mufflers quieted and the bikers dismounted, The Irish Washerwoman filled the air. “I want to dance!” cried a woman biker who rode her own Harley. She linked elbows with another leather-clad biker and began to inexpertly square dance. Two of the spandexed bicyclists joined them, executing a complicated folk dance where they tapped opposite cleat-heels together. At a bathroom stop in the middle of nowhere, rebellious bikers and idealistic bicyclists linked arms and do-se-do’d.
Later, nearing Reno, we passed a school bus marked Fire Bus, headed north toward the fires. Rain began to fall, and I’m sure all those firefighters breathed a sigh of relief, though the bikers and bicyclists didn’t.
IV. Sober Return
Nearly north back home a few days later, we approached the mess that is now the Highway 99 viaduct entrance near the Seattle stadiums. The lack of southbound traffic puzzled us, until we slowed with traffic as we passed the complete road closure on the southbound lanes.
A bus. A mangled sportsbike. A biker on the ground, hidden behind a banner held up by policemen, to give him privacy and to keep northbound traffic moving with less to gawk at. A gurney, waiting to load him into an ambulance that was in no hurry, because nothing could be done for him.
MIM, in the passenger seat, made a pronouncement about young men doing stupid things on sports bikes. Ninety percent of sports bikes are totaled before they make 4,000 miles on the odometer, and almost all of them are ridden by inexperienced young men. Not long before this, we’d seen a biker—old enough to know better—standing up on his bike on the freeway. Not just a quick up and down stretch, but standing for a long, long time. Going 70. He could not have reacted quickly enough if he needed to—if something was in the road or if a car changed lanes without seeing him. For over 2,000 miles now, we’d seen countless young men on crotch rockets weaving in and out of high-speed traffic, having left their common sense at home and taking risks around car drivers who might not see them.
But this biker would be putting no more miles on his odometer. And it turned out that he was 61.
Heading north with our windows rolled up and the A/C on, MIM and I held hands over the console. We said nothing, as if we were riding a bike together, each with our own somber thoughts inside our helmets.