Sunday, December 1, 2013

Heading Out

It’s Thanksgiving weekend and the recent snowfall has melted. I’m sitting in bed here in Michigan, remembering details from my trip with Peru Motors last year.

The day before we set out to ride, we all gathered outside in La Gruta’s garden to discuss logistics of our trip.  Lars prepped us about what to expect while traveling. We would awaken early each day to eat, pack up our gear and be on the road by 7:00AM. We’d ride for about 4 hours, stop for lunch and ride again until we reached our hotel around 4:30. Lars explained he’d be leading us on his bike while our second guide, Eduardo, (who proved invaluable for many reasons I’ll get to eventually) followed us in a truck that hauled a trailer, tools, spare tires and our luggage.

Our bikes and back-up vehicle lined up in front of La Gruta the morning of our departure.

Lars finished up our meeting by helping us sort out who would ride which bike. We were able to chose between Honda Falcon 400’s, Kawasaki KLR 650’s and an old Honda XR650 while one person upgraded to a BMW.  After our meeting we took some time to properly outfit our bikes with gadgets and such. I brought along an Airhawk seat cushion and heated jacket for comfort so I hooked up the battery harness and attached the cushion while others secured Go-Pros and rigged up tank bags and secured straps for daypacks.

The remainder of the day was spent exploring Arequipa (pronounced ah-ray-keep-ah).  The hotel was walking distance from town so we gathered up our cameras and and walked into town.  This city, like many of the others we visited, has a “Plaza de Armas”-  a park-like area at the center of town. This one was filled with lush foliage including palm trees, pruned shrubs and specimen trees that surrounded a central fountain. The fountain was bordered by wide walk-ways paved with tiles and lined with park benches.

La Plaza de Armas in the center of Arequipa

The plaza was surrounded by Spanish inspired architecture on three sides and a cathedral on the fourth side. The Basillica Cathedral of Arequipa was so large, it spanned one block, was fitted with three towers and massive arches on either side. (So big, in fact, I couldn't fit the whole thing in one picture!)

The Basillica Cathedra of Arequipa- a cathedral museum.

It, like many of the buildings in the city were made of sillar, a white stone quarried from volcanoes that surround it.  Joe, Lars H. (not our guide, but a fellow rider) and I took a tour of it our first day, the day before everyone else arrived. The cathedral is a museum that showcases stunning artistry inside: larger than life statues of the apostles along the aisles, cavernous domed ceilings, detailed moldings and an ornately carved pulpit. On the wall opposite the altar was an enormous pipe organ that filled the entire wall.

Inside the Basillica Cathedral

Before this, I’d never been in a church as old and elaborate. We toured interior rooms showcasing solid gold scepters and crowns accented with precious gems as well as intricately detailed vestments. We also went to the top of the building where we were able to touch and photograph the bell in the main tower. This gave us a birds eye view of the Plaza de Armas (photo above) and the buildings alongside it.

This building ran alongside La Plaza de Armas and housed many small stores and restaurants. Photo credit: Lars Helgeson
For lunch we had many options to choose from in restaurants along the narrow streets or in the wide, tiled alleys between buildings. There was traditional Peruvian food, wood-fired pizzas and even Chinese food. For ordering, I was glad to have practiced my second language by listening to tapes in the months leading up to the trip. Both Lars and Eduardo spoke English and Spanish so while I was glad for the opportunity to use Spanish, it wasn’t necessary once we left town. Our guides served as translators for details such as menu options and finding bathrooms. But more than that, they were our cultural insiders. They were friendly and knowledgeable about all sorts of interesting tidbits and they enjoyed answering questions and telling us all about what we were seeing.

I’d talked with several folks about the tour before going. One person was insistent that he could get a better and cheaper trip by just loading his bike in a trailer and heading down to Mexico. Here’s the thing- Peru Motors costs are well below the going rate for other tours in South America. They provide the motorcycles, assist in route planning, book the lodging, know the best restaurants and are familiar with the must-see places. They even know where to stop to get the best pictures along the way.  I particularly liked having the back-up vehicle following us so we could stop and for photos without fear of being left behind. But most importantly, they could make small repairs, were equipped to change tires, refill gas tanks or haul a bike to the nearest shop for repair. So for me, the guided tour was a blessing.  At the most basic level, having everything planned out allowed me to really focus on the riding and the experience of being in Peru.

The morning we left La Gruta on our bikes, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. Lars warned us that we’d have to stay close together while riding through the city so we wouldn’t lose each other. All but one of us who went on the trip were accustomed to group riding through our motorcycle club where there were very clear guidelines about how to ride: remaining side-by-side in a staggered formation, moving through stops as one unit, communicating with hand gestures – all to help us ride safely and keep us together. Lars assured us that those skills would not be useful to us in Peru. And he was right. From our first turn onto city streets, we were on our own. Our leader wove in and out of traffic, split lanes and raced through lights. It was clear within minutes that we needed pay attention or we’d get lost in a sea of vehicles - without GPS, cell phone reception or maps. Of course when there was a turn, he’d stop and wait until those in the rear could catch up, then he’d move on through the city. We road like this from light to light, turn by turn, surrounded by vehicles of all types- small cars, motorcycles, bicycle taxi’s and buses.  Our first destination was a gas station. As attendants fueled up our bikes, we took pictures of each other and the volcano sitting at the edge of town overlooking the city.  

Grinning ear to ear while fueling up after our first ride through town.

Those first fifteen minutes on the bike were exhilarating; they pointed to all the wondrous things to come! Next Sunday, I'll tell you all about that first day of riding...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Arriving in Peru

When I woke up this morning, fluffy white snowflakes were falling from the sky. I'd rather be on the bike than on skis so this isn't good news but with no accumulation, it's a slow start to Winter and I'm grateful to be easing into it.  This time last year, I was in Peru...

Three of us flew together from West Michigan through to Peru on the day before Thanksgiving. Can you say long travel day?! Grand Rapids to Chicago to Miami to Lima - through customs- ugh!) - and finally to Arequipa. We arrived a few days earlier than we were scheduled to ride so we could acclimate to the altitude.  It worked out well because that gave us two days to recover from our hectic day of flying, check out the city and review our tour plans with the guides. The remainder of our group arrived in the days following.

Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru (by population) but you wouldn’t know it from the airport. As I looked down from the plane I was mesmerized by brightly colored squares – turquoise, magenta and yellow- and flickering silver shapes. As we descended these squares became cubes and were quickly revealed to be metal roofed houses sitting precariously close to the airport.  (This had me wondering if land near an airport is cheap because of all the air traffic!)

Our plane landed near a simple building right out of the 50's.  If it weren’t for the sign above the door (and the airplane we’d just come out of) I wouldn’t have believed it was an airport.  With the view being what it was, the building didn’t really matter though. We exited the plane via large wheeled staircases to find we were surrounded by three mountains. I found out later, during a tour in the city these we actually volcanoes.  One of them can be seen below, right behind the airplane.

View from the tarmac behind the plane we just exited.

Our tour package included transportation to our hotel. We were picked up by two cabs - this is the first of many examples of Peru Motors expertise: they know just how much gear folks bring on these trips.  Between the three of us and our luggage, we completely filled both vehicles. I don't know which view was better- the one of the city or the cab itself. Check out the in fur-lined dash!

The owners of Peru Motors have a hotel in Arequipa called La Gruta. The building was a good introduction of many we encountered on our trip. 

The Gruta- the hotel we started and ended our trip in.
The exterior was modest and simple, which belied what was found inside.  Beyond the front desk was a dining area.  The first floor rooms extended from that down an interior hallway. Each of the rooms exited onto one of two lush outdoor gardens filled with tropical plants.

My room opened onto this outdoor garden.
My first morning there, I sat in the outdoor garden off my room luxuriating in the sun. Lars, one of our guides, stopped in and warned us to be careful as the sun is very low in the sky and you can burn easily. Mind you it was 8:00 in the morning so I never would have thought to put on sunscreen. That was one of many things that made me feel like I was in a different world!

If I were to pick out key phrases from this blog over the years, I’m sure I would find “a different world” a dozen times. It seems to be a theme of mine to refer to this. More than that, though, I think it’s something I both associate with, and look for in riding. In fact, I think that’s why I ride. I want to escape the everyday. I want to flee normalcy. 

I came across a quote recently that really hit home:  

                       “When’s the last time you did something for the first time?”

I don’t particularly like routine, but I tend to fall into it. At about the same time each evening I start getting ready for work the next day- packing a lunch, setting out my clothes. I brush my teeth, do my stretches and head to bed. While the regularity helps me get out of bed in the morning, it also ensures I’m bored. And that’s the thing about Peru. Every single day, I did 800 things for the first time.

You read that right. 800. Now I never actually counted but that’s what it felt like. And instead of getting nervous about forgetting something or anxious that I’d be late, I felt free. I felt wildly and ecstatically free! I woke up around 5:30 each morning without an alarm (never in my life have I done that- this in itself is miraculous) and I was absolutely exhausted by 9:00PM. I didn’t have too many “nights on the town” like some of guys did, but I didn’t miss a thing.  At home I often wish there was someone to get out of the house with. I browse local calendars of events for “something fun to do.” While in Peru, everything was fun. Everything was new. Life had energy and I had zeal. I didn’t have to look for it or manufacture it. 

When I talk about missing Peru, that is what I miss. Everything new.

Of course, when you set yourself on a course for adventure, things don’t always go as planned, and this was no exception. When the 10 of us signed up for this South American tour, we elected to tour 3 different countries- Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Once we got there though, we found out from our tour guide that there were issues with the border crossings. To be fair, we’d been warned there were always issues with border crossings and that travel can be significantly delayed because both people and the bikes have to clear customs. After much discussion and a vote of the majority, it was decided that we forgo Chile (and therefore Bolivia- because we needed to go through one to get to the other) and remain in Peru.  Our guide insisted we would get a far better tour by staying in one country because there was so much to see in such a short distance.  And he was right. Our tour involved the southern part of Peru and included high jungle, snow-filled mountain passes, desert, and the coast. And we were able to add in Machu Picchu, too.

But because we had planned for over a year about what we wanted to do while there, it was pretty disappointing to find out we couldn’t take the trip we’d planned. That first day of riding, we talked about it at several stops. Even the next morning it came up. And one guy decided to cut his losses and head home because he couldn’t let go of the trip he wanted for the one we were getting.

While I wish Bob had been able to adjust to the change the rest of us did, his choice to leave influenced many of us in an unforeseen way: we continued to ask ourselves throughout the trip “what if I had missed this?”  That became a lesson for me, almost a mantra. How many things do I miss in life because I’m so disappointed (or frustrated or angry or sad) about what didn’t happen. I’m the first one to say we need to feel our feelings when they come up, so I’m not talking about pretending everything’s all right when it isn’t. But I began to see how easy it is to get stuck in those difficult places and forget to enjoy the ride.

If there was a second theme to most of these blog posts, that would be it: enjoying the ride. But let’s face it, figuring out how to ride a motorcycle, isn’t the same thing as figuring out how to get through some of what life throws at you. Or is it?

If you've read any of my other posts, I guess the cat's out of the bag; I learn a lot about life through riding. Maybe I won't be spoiling anything by saying that as I review photos and share more about  Peru you're likely to find out a little of what I learned as well as see photos from a spectacular country.  Set your alarm and get ready for the next leg of the adventure with me! 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Remembering Peru

Nearly six weeks ago, I climbed into my truck and haven’t looked back at the bike. I removed her battery, filled up her tank and settled her into the corner of the garage to rest until Spring.  I will miss riding her, miss the trips out of my everyday life into other worlds. But as I sit here reflecting on the past year, I realize I have enough memories of riding to keep me through the Winter. 

Last year at this time, I was packed and ready for my motorcycle trip in Peru. Although I came home, it’s as though I haven’t really returned. It took me a month to look at the pictures we took because I hadn't wanted it to end. The events of those weeks were burned into my mind and yet revisiting them seems painful because I miss it so much.  I’ve not written about the trip or much else since coming home. I know it will be some time before I can take another trip again whether its back to Peru or on to other countries like India or Scotland. I think in some ways, I’ve been holding so tight to those memories to keep them safe, to keep them mine for just a little longer.

A few months after coming home, I met up with members from my motorcycle club for a slide show presentation of about a 100 pictures.  I talked about some of my favorite things but kept the stories and  details to a minimum. I couldn’t figure out how to talk about this trip in a way that captured my experience of it. Still, I’m surprised I haven’t written about it yet. I had even planned to write another article for Rider magazine about it and that hasn't happened.

Last year while unemployed, I received assistance from the government to support myself and got financial help from friends and family.  One of the people who went with me- who I invited along - told me a few days in, how angry he was that I took this help.  His argument was so forceful and so devoid of any compassion that it divided us. I couldn’t understand why his politics were more important than me or our friendship. 

In writing this, I realize that some of my silence about the trip is related to my shame about my financial situation that year and the fact that I needed help. I wanted the support of my friend.  I couldn’t believe I had let someone who was so selfish and mean get so close to me. I was angry I had given him my friendship and that he chose not to support me when I needed it most. We haven’t seen each other since. While there, I had put all those feelings about him aside so I could enjoy the trip. While it was only a small part of what happened while there, I can see now how much it impacted me.

As I sit here typing, I peer outside to see a mail truck door slide open and my carrier reaching inside.  Soon I will hear her footsteps on my porch stairs and the metal latch on my mailbox open as she slips my mail inside.  A year ago, this is what I would have seen and heard. Now, after one year into my nursing job with the Postal Service, I see so much more. I notice she is dressed appropriately for the weather and that her footwear is sturdy and protective. I notice that her satchel is positioned across her body to distribute the weight. I know she has been trained to use it to fend off a dog attack if necessary. She is careful to finger her mail while stationary to avoid tripping.  Her boxy white vehicle is referred to as an LLV (Long-Life Vehicle) and she has parked it strategically to avoid being hit. 

Once, years ago, I ran into this carrier at the grocery store. Although we had waved, I had never spoken to her while she was delivering my mail.  In the store I walked up to her and told her I thought she was my carrier.  She asked for my address and when I told her, she described my house to me! I didn’t know until then how much carriers know about the neighborhoods they work in.

So I have established myself as an Occupational Health Nurse and while I hadn’t forseen my career moving in this direction, I have enjoyed the change. In my office at work I keep framed pictures from Peru nearby.  One is a close-up of the architectural details of a building in Arequipa.  Another picture is a view from a mountain road overlooking the mountains in the distance. 

 When I think back to Peru, there are things I hope I never forget.  Like how it felt as though I was riding through a watercolor painting because the beauty of the landscape was so overwhelming. In fact, I often found myself riding along with tears streaming down my face.  There was a simplicity to life in Peru that drew me in.  Our lunch stops were leisurely as we waited for our meals to be prepared - either soup or meat. While riding in the mountains we saw homes with thatched roofs that stood amid fields surrounded with square plots outlined in rocks. 

I saw fields being plowed with oxen and sown by hand.  Once while riding along, I saw a farmer reaching into his sack for a fistful of grain. I watched his arm move back and forth again and again in a rhythmic pattern, the seeds spraying forth from his hand with each swing of his arm.  He had done this a thousand times before.  

Streams flowed down mountains and ran right over the roads; the engineers hadn’t bothered to find another route for the water but instead let it take its natural course. (There is a tiny red dot in the center of the picture- that is Lars on his bike approaching the waterfall.)

I've only described a few of the many moments where I was lost in time, lost in the experience of it all. While I know that reading about it isn't the same as experiencing it, I nevertheless feel an urgency to communicate more about what happened for me while I was in Peru. It’s a siren call pulling me back and encouraging me to bring others along with me, too. The photos I have are a vivid reminder of how much I saw in one day, how many places and people, how many mountains.

At work and at home, I've settled back into ordinary life. Preparing meals, cleaning the house, making phone calls, shuffling paper. I'm grateful for an interesting job and that the difficult choices I made last year allowed me to keep my home. I am still working to pay off some debts but it feels manageable. A few weeks ago, I had the option of signing up to contribute to charities through payroll deduction. The decisions came easy and included one organization that fights homelessness. I have spent the last year continuing to grow in my relationship with Tom, a fellow rider who also came on the trip. We talk often about our time there and plan to visit more places together. Things are good in my life, steady and stable, but there is something missing. I think it's back in Peru.

I have talked about the roads, the landscape, the people and yet still I have not mentioned the feeling of place while there. I could have focused the whole post on this one aspect of Peru. Some directors understand this concept so thoroughly that it becomes a character in their films. While I know of this, I hadn’t experienced it until I was in Peru. The feeling of the land there was as much a part of the trip as anything that happened while I was there. The land itself was like the protagonist in a novel. It was the thing through which all was experienced and around which all things unfolded.

One morning I was riding along a straight stretch of road. Off to my right there was a vast expanse of flatland with herds of vicuna roaming about.  (These are deer like animals). On my left side, a mountain rose up out of the land. My eyes were continually drawn to look upon it. With its jagged and rocky face, it became personified.  Although the mountain was one thing among many in the landscape, its presence was palpable.  The lure of it was so strong that I finally pulled off the road so I could capture it with my camera. It would not be ignored. (And of course the picture does not capture the feeling it imparted to as we rode by it.)

For those of you accustomed to traveling in the Appalachian or the Rocky Mountains, this account might seem strange. Let me assure you, it was strange to me as well. Despite numerous trips through other mountain ranges, I had never had a personal encounter with a single mountain. I’d never felt one reach out and pull me toward it. But that is what happened in Peru. And it wasn’t just this one mountain. They were everywhere.  In fact, you’ve likely seen the most famous one in pictures of Machu Picchu. If you’ve never noticed it before, take a look.

Can you see how the mountain seems to stare down into the grassy "town" below it? This isn’t just the perspective of the photograph- it’s what you feel while standing in front of it. There is an ancestral quality to it. Pure and simple, it’s sacred.

I’m glad I finally took some time to write about this trip. Keeping so much of it to myself for so long must have been necessary on some level.  But I have to come out  from behind my desk at the office and stare into those pictures a little more often.  I can hear these mountains calling out to me. I know they have more to tell me if only I'll listen.  Perhaps you'd like to come along, too? 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On My Way

My bags are packed and sitting next to the door- a backpack and two duffles are filled with gear, goods and my passport. I've been planning for nearly two years and yet I'm still in disbelief that the trip is going forward. Back in March, I lost my job and hoped to launch a writing career. While I've written a lot (and am expecting publication in Rider magazine sometime next year), I've come to realize that writing regularly requires the safety of a steady income. My dream of freelancing is tempered with the reality of supporting myself; maintaing my home and world travel on a motorcycle take an income that writing alone doesn't yet provide. As a result, I've returned to working as a nurse- most recently as an instructor for a nurse aid program. They agreed to my vacation upon hiring me and the supplemental income that provided made the trip feasible after all.

Tomorrow Joe, Lars and I fly out of Grand Rapids to Arequipa, Peru (via Chicago, Miami and Lima). We'll arrive Wednesday and have a few days to adjust to the altitude while taking in the local scene. The rest of the group will be here by Friday and we'll begin riding on Saturday. We plan to  cover about 1800 miles over 15 days through Peru, Bolivia and Chile. One of my favorite things about riding is the new landscapes that I get to explore and this trip promises that with views of the Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca, the Andes, the desert salt flats and active volcanos. With all the cameras and Go-Pro video recorders between us this will be a well-documented trip!

 Despite all the preparation, I can hardly believe I'm going.

This trip is special because unlike other goals, I've put so much time, effort and money into making it happen.  I set up a savings account, listened to Spanish language tapes, and researched health information related to travel. I've visited the Health Department for my immunizations, AAA for my International driving permit, and Walgreens for more over-the-counter medication than I'll probably need. I've purchased merino wool shirts and socks to help regulate my body temperature while travel pants keep my load light and versatile. I researched gear options for months before deciding on rugged waterproof riding jacket, pants and boots. I'm bringing along my heated jacket and gloves to help deal with low temperatures we'll see as a result of early morning rides and high mountain passes. A backpack with a hydration pouch will function as my tank bag loaded with essentials such as earplugs, gloves and aerosol-free faceshield cleaner because cans won't like the altitude fluctuations built into our trip. Guidebooks and Google images have detailed the places we'll be traveling.  Despite all this planning, I've found myself fearing that the trip would get derailed. I think it's because there's so much about this trip I can't really imagine- the lodging, the food, the riding conditions- and what's more, there's nothing else I can plan for. It seems that all my efforts have brought me to this point but now I must let go of all expectation and just see what happens. There's always an element of being out of control on a bike- the road conditions, weather, fatigue- but in this case, being immersed in differing cultures, amid peoples speaking a different language and along routes that often have poor roads (or none) make for a level of uncertainty I've never encountered on the bike.

The seed for the trip was planted when a group of RIDE members went to South America 5 years ago with the same tour company we're using- Peru Motors. I told myself then that if the trip was ever repeated, I would go. I vowed to improve my skills and life circumstances so I could go. When I think of what's come to pass since I made that promise, it's hard to take it all in. So much is different that I hardly recognize my life. I've divorced, had several fascinating jobs, bought a Triumph Bonneville, found new friends, started a blog and ridden- a lot. Despite the uncertainty of so many factors related to this trip, I know that I've already done the unimaginable and come through it with vivid memories, great stories and more confidence in myself. This challenging tour is possible because of what I learned riding my Bonnie. At 32, 584, both the odometer and my life are a clear indicator of just how many miles I've traveled in the last 5 years.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Perspective on the Way Home

On the morning I was to leave Georgia after a week-long visit with my cousin, I awoke to the sound of rain on my tent. I was besieged with the same feelings I usually have when awaking to a rainy motorcycle trip. My mood was as heavy and dark as the storm clouds above. This was in contrast to the previous few days where I had gained a sense of harmony while camping in the woods.  As I turned off the land and rode toward the highway, I was afraid that I’d get so tired by my ride home that I’d lose the peaceful feelings from the weekend. 

I decided to take a direct route home via I-75 with an overnight stop in Cincinnati. I reviewed my maps to determine some intermediate stops and give myself smaller goals to work toward.  I set my sights on Knoxville where I’d enjoy a hot meal and refuel. Despite the rain coming down at a steady drizzle, I rode on.

The same tactic I use in riding is useful for writing; I go toward one goal at a time. In my efforts toward freelance writing I’ve explored what magazines I want to write for and reviewed their editorial guidelines. I’ve researched how to write query letters and come up with a few ideas for articles for motorcycle magazines. One of my stories was published for their blog so I thought I’d try my hand at their print publication. I write and rewrite, sending samples to my writer’s group for suggestions and then I revise. I’ve gotten discouraged by the work but I’m also heartened; I’m doing what I want to do, I’m writing what I want to write.

After a few hours in the rain, and a stop for breakfast, I continued north on the expressway bound for Cincinnati.  My ride-break-ride strategy gave me the freedom to take a step back from my feelings to examine them. This is the second long-distance trip in which I’d found myself riding in the rain. While I wanted to hole myself up in a motel bed and watch movies, my tight schedule demanded I continue. I normally don’t mind the rain, but this time I felt as though I was being punished. Even while I was having these thoughts, I was surprised by them.  It felt like I was gripped by a false sense of reality.

My writing life has been like this, too.  There is incredible freedom in having the time to write, in exploring new themes and finding publications I feel good about supporting. Yet I’m also worried- there is a lot of pressure to write well, to get published and to earn a living. It’s the ideas around writing that have come to the forefront.  The question of “when can I write” has been replaced with a new question: “how do I write?” The worry about writing gripped me just as my feelings about being stuck in the rain did.

My feelings of overwhelm increased as the drizzle turned into such a forceful downpour that cars were pulling to the side of the road. I couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. Semi’s became weapons as their tires shot walls of water that completely covered me when I passed them. And thus my feelings from earlier in the day were confirmed - I was stuck in a blinding downpour so fierce that I couldn’t see a safe way through it. I rode on, though, marching through the wet, determined to break free.

After many miles and a stop to refuel, I found myself looking up to clear skies, with the warm sun driving me to daydream. The worry I’d known in the rain was replaced with a reassuring calm. I recognized the dreaming as fatigue and turned off at the next exit, a remote road, for a nap. A sparse row of houses lined one side and an abandoned development lay on the other.  I pulled my bike into the short dirt entrance, removed my rain gear and settled down on a small hill in the field.  A few minutes later I was fast asleep.

I woke up to repeated cries from a police woman who’d been called to investigate. It was an alarming way to wake up but she treated the situation as a routine stop and I was soon on my way again riding toward the Ohio River basin.

A view of Cincinnati with the Brent Spence Bridge in the foreground
 The city of Cincinnati greeted me with the biggest welcome possible- the Brent Spence Bridge- a double-decker cantilever truss structure that spans 830 feet and affords a spectacular view of the city and the Ohio River.  I turned onto 50 East which follows along the edge of the river before it meanders further north.  I met my friend Chris who lives there. After the 430 mile trip, I was glad to share dinner and conversation with him. Back at his place, I borrowed a bed and settled in for the night.

In the morning I made my final push north to Grand Rapids by continuing along I-75 accompanied by music from my iphone. I let the music lead my thoughts as I considered this leg of the journey. The day before had begun with some fierce emotions as I braved the clouds and battled the rain. But that mood lifted without effort as the clouds cleared.  If I keep moving, the difficulty passes and the path ahead is visible. 

The following day, I was slated to meet with RIDE Motorcycle founders Dick and Jerry to interview them for an article I planned to write for Rider Magazine. The meeting was a milestone. When I joined RIDE, I had just purchased my first bike and was a novice. Nearly eight years later, I was returning from an 1,800 mile solo trip on my second bike, looking for a second career. With the club I’ve learned about the freedom that both riding and writing give me. One informs the other.  I wanted to write an article that would describe RIDE, all the things I’ve come to love about it, and all I’ve learned because of it. I wanted my words to show Dick and Jerry how thankful I am they started the club. It seemed like a big scope for one article though, and I didn’t know where to begin.

I found myself riding amid a sea of wind turbines on Ohio’s 30 near Van Wert . The turbines reached upward, their blades spinning against a blue sky filled with clouds. I’ve heard it said that we can only see what our minds can comprehend. Looking up at these enormous structures that idea was brought to life. I had no concept for understanding these giants- their size, the shape, the way they moved. I was mesmerized. I stopped at a rest area that sits among the turbines so I could get a closer look. 

The base of one turbine with a house and truck nearby for perspective

Standing at the foot of the nearest, I had to crane my neck to look up into its whirling blades. The miniature house and even tinier truck at its base hinted at its true size. It was like the RIDE article ahead of me – the scope of it seemed so big, I couldn’t find a starting place.  But with some perspective I could see it.  It was then I knew I’d talk with Dick and Jerry about what lead them to start the club. I wanted to hear about how they decided to focus the club on safety, education and camaraderie. I knew once I heard them talk, I'd be able to funnel their enthusiasm and nostalgia into a story. As I climbed back on the bike toward home, I felt buoyed up as though the windmills had lifted me into the heavens.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Back to Nature

The second part of my ten-day trip to Georgia involved spending time with my cousin in Atlanta as well as attending a camping festival with him in northwest Georgia. We’d never spent more than an evening together before this so I was a little nervous but also excited. And because we were camping, I looked forward to the time I’d have to reconnect with nature. 

Wednesday afternoon Joseph and I made cakes for the festival with his friend Kate. That night, Joseph and I went to dinner at the “W”, where he works. We rode over on my bike and pulled in front; they have valet only parking but gladly made an exception in our case. I rarely eat at fine dining restaurants and was unnerved by all the attention: staff filled our wine and water glasses after only a few sips, replaced napkins several times and brought new silverware between courses. After a long dinner filled with sumptuous food, we rode around the city. 

Atlanta is large but riding around the streets it didn’t feel like it. It has a relaxed easeful vibe about it. I was taken in by the unique buildings. One of my friends who loves cinema, has a knack for identifying cities in movies. She’d say, “see that building right there? That’s in Seattle!” At the time I was awed by her ability to do this. Now, with all the traveling I’ve done by bike, it seems natural. Each city has its own feel and it’s own shape against the sky. Generally, I’m not a fan of riding on the expressway but on a bike it's different.  I welcome a ride around and then into a city because it provides a distinct vantage point. Riding then, has made me more aware and appreciative of not only mountain views, but city views.

The next day we packed our gear in a friend’s car and took my motorcycle to the farm where the festival was taking place. We jumped on the expressway to get out of the city then slipped off to ride among hills and fields. I rarely ride two-up so it took some getting used to. I don’t adjust my position as readily when there’s another rider on the bike so I got sore more quickly. One thing I’ve never become accustomed to, is how every movement of a passenger makes inputs into the bike that I have to counter.  At each stop sign, I’d look back and give him another instruction: “hug your knees around me when we’re at slow speeds” or “wait to reposition yourself until we’ve stopped and my feet are on the ground.” It felt foreign having another rider along, but also fun to share the experience.

Although the land where the festival was held was at a farm, it had no crops, no livestock and no barn.  The owners rent out the property for various events throughout the year. It’s a perfect location because it’s set off the road and situated between hilly meadows and forested areas. It has a stage, a pond, and a pavilion that are all connected by a winding dirt road that runs through it. Alongside the road, are group camping lots and trails that lead back into the trees for wooded campsites.

I’ve been to a few music festival camping weekends but nothing quite like this one. This gathering was organized to celebrate Beltane- a pagan festival centered around the May pole. In the interest of preserving the sanctity of the week, I won’t discuss details of the celebration.  

Approximately 200 people came out to celebrate with music, dancing, a pot-luck and bonfires. Many knew each other from previous festivals. As people arrived, they introduced themselves. Even as our numbers grew, and it was impossible to meet everyone, people made eye contact when passing each other and extended a greeting, treating each other as though they’d met somewhere before.

My tent sat some distance from the pavilion, off a long trail that lead into the forest. It was in a small clearing surrounded by a ring of trees. I collected large branches from the surrounding woods and hung them between the trees. They formed a fence-like structure that encircled my camp. A stump became a chair and several rocks topped with a board, became a ledge for my canteen and knife. I hung my hammock made from orange nylon between two sturdy trees. 

Joseph introduced me as “my cousin Lisa who drove all the way from Michigan on her motorcycle." In his simple introduction, he helped people connect to me. He told them what they were doing was so important that people would come far to experience it.  And he gave them, as one woman described it, “a whole different picture” of me.  Indeed, as the weekend unfolded, I heard again and again, “oh, you’re the one who drove down on your motorcycle!” 

Friday night, I gathered in a circle of women in a pasture lit only by stars. For hours we danced and sang accompanied by drumbeat. Afterward, I felt tired, but also renewed and purposeful.

Saturday afternoon while the women cleaned up camp and prepared food for the evening potluck the men took part in their own gathering. They sang while they worked. Their words reverberated through the camp, lending its potent energy to all we did.

That night we all gathered around the Maypole and sang and danced together to the rhythms of a celtic band. Tea and the cakes Joseph, Kate and I made were passed around to the crowd. Afterward, we shared the potluck meal while another band played for us. The evening wrapped up with a bonfire.  Masterful drummers sat nearby while women danced in small groups at the edge of the fire.

Every day was different but a similar thread ran through each. After some time with others, I returned to my camp. I climbed into the hammock and stared at the canopy of trees above. I reflected on our interactions and the rituals we engaged in. After a time, answers came to questions I didn’t know I’d asked.  They came to me as if carried on the trees that swayed back and forth above me, shaking their leaves at me. 

After this long weekend, of camping, dancing and celebrating I felt renewed and more connected with myself and nature- exactly what I was hoping for. I also felt connected in some mysterious, primal way, to many of the other campers. That was completely unexpected.  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Georgia Bound

In early May I took a ten-day motorcycle trip down to Georgia and back.  While there, I met up with my cousin and we went camping.  This was one of 3 overnight solo trips on the bike.  Each time out I feel more comfortable about how to manage the details.  A motorcycle camping trip to Northern Michigan taught me how to sort and pack essential gear.   My trip to West Virginia taught me to devise a route around ideal roads and spots of interest. Still, each ride has its own story, each area it’s own feel.  This trip feels like three different ones: the ride down, camping and the ride back.

I left a day early because rain was expected all night long and into the next day.  I took 69 south into Indiana before the storm arrived.  Just as with the West Virginia trip, I started out on highway.  I planned to ride expressways until Tennessee and northern Georgia, where I’d ride the sweeping back roads in the mountains. I wanted to break up the monotony of the freeway, by stopping at motorcycle gear stores on the way down. 

After a few hours of riding, I spent the first night at a cheap motel just outside of Fort Wayne.  I woke up early and headed south. The scenery in that part of Indiana is much like Michigan; the road was lined on either side with fields and dotted with barns and farmhouses.  Irrigation equipment stretched across the fields like giant robotic insects, spraying water high into the air.  My bike droned on, a kind of metronome to my thoughts on the ride. 

Once I got into Kentucky, I left the expressway to find the store in Louisville.  I was surrounded by homes that blended into the landscape.  The roads weren’t in a grid pattern but rather wove around linking one section of town with another. Businesses had discreet signs.  Once at the gear store, I didn’t find the 3-season touring gear I was looking for so I jumped back on the bike. I continued east on 64 into the heart of Kentucky under expansive blue skies.  As I neared Lexington, the land around me changed.  Instead of crops, there were grassy fields lined with mile after mile of 3-rail horse fencing.  Stately houses stared out over the land.  There was an aristocratic feel to the place.  Even my mind chatter took on a southern drawl.  One horse nibbled at grasses while another galloped across a field.

I settled that night in London, Kentucky - a few drops of rain on my face shield while unloading my bike promised a wet night. I grabbed a sit-down dinner at the restaurant next door before bed.  The next morning I headed out again to get some miles in before breakfast- a trick I learned from Michael, while preparing for my West Virginia trip.  I took 75 South with plans to stop in Knoxville at another motorcycle gear store. I made quick work of the miles- riding fast toward my destination. This Cycle Gear location had some gloves and boots I tried on for size. I wanted to order them via mail instead of making room on the bike.  I still had a full day of riding on mountain roads so I pushed on, taking 129 South out of the city.    

The tone of my trip changed here- from rushing ahead, to easing into the ride.  I rode through town, which felt familiar.  I passed the airport where Joe and I had stayed in a hotel on my first trip down in the Spring of 2009.  I recognized a few stores and the Princess Motel, where previous Gap riders had stayed.  Finally, I approached the turn-off for Deal’s Gap and took it.  This road begins the curves that won’t stop until I’m well into Georgia. 

I felt the anticipation building in my body- I hunched forward, my legs hugging the tank, toes up on the pegs.  I used my upper body to help me lean the bike into the corners, angling my chest toward the side mirrors.  The bike was responsive and adjusted with light pressure to the inside peg. Oncoming motorcyclists waved their welcome after my long journey.

I passed a lake surrounded by mountains and crossed a bridge.  I climbed up and around, anticipating the mountain look-off.  Before long, the road twisted around then opened up and I pulled off at the unofficial start of the Gap. I’ve taken pictures here each year I’ve visited with friends.  I stop for another anyway, marking my first solo trip there.

The "unofficial start" of Deal's Gap
The Gap is famous in motorcycle circles for its many curves in a short distance.  People often ride through on sport bikes in full leather, as though they are on a track trying to beat their best time.  I’ve ridden it aggressively but this time I couldn’t muster up the will.  In fact, I had the opposite happen: I felt compelled to ride it slowly, and I became fearful of what lay around each blind corner.  Just a few miles in, a van came around a bend half way in my lane.  It had just enough room to correct its course before I reached the exact spot it had overreached its lane.  My relaxed approached seemed to be divined.  I continued on, watching the road twist back on itself again and again.  I passed two photographers perched at a corner taking photos of vehicles riding by. 

Riding the Gap- thanks to Xtreme Sports Photography
Three mini-coopers raced past me, going in the opposite direction.  Still, my pace was easy.  My mind returned to past trips as I rode through particular curves:  here, where a full dresser rolled off the road into the forest below, and there, were I’d overshot and crossed the center line- a life threatening error in the worse circumstances. I pulled off to grab a picture of these curves, so unlike any I’ve ever traveled.  After two quick shots, I returned the camera to my tank bag.  Just then, a car came around the corner completely occupying my lane- the lane I would have been in, had I not pulled over.  This second miss in just a few miles, seemed to insist that I travel only at posted speeds the rest of the way through the Gap.  

Deal's Gap: notice the blind curves and changing camber of the road 
I passed a sign saying I’d entered North Carolina just before the Deal’s Gap Resort.  I continued on, following signs to the Cherohala.  In years past, I’d taken these sweeping curves at speed, testing myself and my skill.  This time, after riding so furiously on the expressway and the close calls just minutes before, I eased through the curves, enjoying the gentle side-to- side motion as I navigated the roads. 

The landscape is so foreign compared to Michigan with its rocky outcroppings, lush forests and valley views.  I am a traveler in a foreign land there.  The forest when seen from above, becomes a verdant sea of green.  I searched for a break in the trees while riding along, hoping to catch a glimpse. Finally, I pulled off at a roadside stop, and headed for a bench with a promising view. 

The bench is a constructed of a stone so large it is the backrest while a wooden platform wraps around it, serving as the seat.  Brush had been cleared in this corner of the roadside park, affording a view of the valley below. I sat with my back against the cool rock and looked into outward.  Directly in front on me I found a dip in the mountain range.  Staring into this cleft, I felt myself open up inside and become more expansive.  I breathed more deeply and slowly.  I felt myself loosening up and softening.  This is why I ride- to connect with myself and the land around me.

The view from a roadside park along the Cherohala

I got back on the bike and continued on these sweeping curves that wrap themselves around the mountain.  The roads were nearly empty.  Single motorcyclists slipped past me intermittently.  I was a lone wolf.  I continued on 19 heading south into Georgia, toward my cousin’s home in Atlanta.  Mountain views fell away and I found myself riding between large hills, up then down, again and again, past little towns bordered by gas stations and fast food stops.  As I neared Atlanta, I jumped on the expressway.  Six lanes wrap around the city and then turn South into it. 

This trip came about because my cousin Joseph invited me for a visit.  He and I are part of a large extended family and because we grew up in different states, we rarely saw each other and don’t know each other well.  After connecting at our family reunion held last July, we’ve been talking regularly by phone.  It seems strange to be finding the time for a friendship now, with both of us in our forties, but it also feels like a gift.

Before long, I found my cousin’s exit and rode along tentatively, searching for his street.  I turned onto a narrow road, hidden from the city by mature trees that lined the street.  I slip slowly along, the scent of honeysuckle hanging in the air.  After two full days of riding, I finally arrive - a charming bungalow with a purple front door greets me.  The first leg of my trip was complete.