Before starting this trip it had been five years since I learned to ride a motorcycle and owned my first bike. That bike was my only bike and I had it for only a week before I was rear-ended waiting at a stoplight and the bike was smashed. I, luckily, escaped with only a couple of bruises and a burn from where I accidentally touched the exhaust pipe. During the five years since the accident, I had ridden a motorcycle on only one occasion and then for only two days when I rented a 125cc street bike for two days in Honduras.
I had never done any serious riding, never done any kind of road trip on a bike, and only once driven a vehicle in a foreign country. I knew next to nothing about service, maintenance, or repairs. I did not even have a motorcycle. Certainly it was ridiculous to consider doing a motorcycle trip into Latin America.
I had a car and that was the only sensible way to do this trip. So I pushed all thoughts of motorcycles aside, or tried to anyway, and began making preparations. Only I could not move forward with the plans. It felt wrong, felt like something important was missing. I decided that if I did not at least get back on a motorcycle before starting this trip, it would never feel right. Sure, the car trip would be an amazing experience, but always in the back of my mind there would be something missing.
I have found that it is seldom the things that we do that we come to regret. Instead it is most often those things that we never do or never try to do that haunt us ever after. Here, now, for a few thousand dollars I could buy a bike, fill it with gas, ride it, and learn to service it. If I did not like it, I could sell it or leave it to sit awhile, and drive off in my Corolla with no regrets. It is so rare that we can buy freedom from regret for so reasonable a price. How could I not take advantage?
So I bought a motorcycle – a 1993 Yamaha Virago 535cc – not thinking about whether it would be right for this trip, which it isn’t, but also not then knowing what would be or would not. I filled it with gas, rode it, and learned how to service it. I was enthralled with riding, completely and totally. It connected as nothing had before: not boxing nor rock climbing nor baseball (sorry, Dad!). I like the physics, the forces in opposition: the engine working against inertia, the brakes against momentum, the friction of rubber on road when leaning hard into a turn. I like how the sun warms your face and the wind cools your sweat; how you smell every smell of the countryside: the earth, the wildflowers, even the manure from the livestock and the exhaust from the car in front of you; feel every sensation: the cooling as you cross a bridge over a river or ride beside a stream, the warming as you descend from a ridge into a valley, the dampness as you pass through a mist or fog.
I rode and I accustomed myself to the weight of the small cruiser and its torque, to being invisible in traffic, and to riding between freeway lanes during rush hour traffic. I rode Mulholland Highway where it snakes through the canyon towards the coast, passing the Rock Store where all the bikers gather but never daring to enter. Learning to lean hard into a turn: arms straight, body vertical, motorcycle laying out beneath you, easing up on the throttle going in and opening it again coming out and then getting ready to do it again only in the opposite direction, thinking about nothing, no worries: not about the things you did not do or the things that you should not have done, or really about anything at all except how you handled the last turn and how to improve on the next one.
Later, when I felt more confident, I packed the bike and rode to Joshua Tree, east beyond Los Angeles and the oasis of Palm Springs where the winds barrel across the barren desert. I learned to lean the bike as a bulwark against a crosswind and to brace and lean harder against the gusts. I felt the hot desert air rush past, entering through open jacket cuffs and an unzipped neckline, cooling but not refreshing, sweat dripping down from your hair and collecting in the white bandana tied loosely around your neck.
I love the desert because it is subtle. It holds great complexity if you choose to look but it does not cry out to be looked at. It is no exhibitionist. Only it says, “Here I am. From here to the horizon in every direction, as far as your poor eyes can see.” Cross me if you dare!
That night I camped beside a tall rock among a garden of Joshua Trees that you would recognize instantly as Joshua Trees if you have ever seen them before and were paying attention to what you saw. In the night I sat upon that tall rock beside my tent and I drank whiskey from a tin cup and tried to find the constellations that appeared in my star chart until the drinking made me too bleary and then only sitting there and looking at the silhouettes of the rocks and the cacti and the Joshua Trees, constellations above and behind, and listening to the subtle sounds of the night all around. Not far in the distance a guitarist strummed beside a campfire but did not sing. He played all the obvious songs, classic rock mostly, that you will hear at any fireside across America if someone has a guitar and knows something of how to use it.
The next day I hated the ride back: sand and rock and tree disappearing beneath gray concrete and black asphalt and gray and black strip malls. Despairing, I thought: Long live Hayduke and the Monkey Wrench Gang! Arriving back into the sprawl that is the San Fernando Valley, imagining how the ghosts of bewildered Chumash must have long since taken up their teepees and their children and all their household goods and departed this place, I was thrilled and terrified and firmly decided that the only way to do this trip was on a motorcycle.