The Good Ones You Meet

Day 11-14 – Portland, OR, USA to Seattle, WA – 2,736 km

When we arrived in Seattle in the early afternoon after a drizzly morning slog from Portland on Interstate 5, Tim met us at the 7-Eleven up the block from Megan and Marshall’s condo building.

Tim is a friend of Marshall’s from university days and he lives nearby in the Ballard neighborhood. Megan and Marshall are the couple I met in Belize several years ago during my first motorcycle trip. They were on motorcycles and we – along with Chris whom I had met a few days earlier in Yucatán – went for drinks and rode together over two or three days between San Ignacio, Belize and Tikal, Guatemala. When Jess agreed to do this trip with me, Megan and Marshall were immediately who I thought of and Marshall was the first person I contacted for advice – motorcycle and relationship – during the preparation.

‘Make sure you always have snacks,’ was the first and most important recommendation in Marshall’s email. ‘We realized afterwards that most of our arguments on the road were because we were both just hungry.’

I had contacted Marshall again a few days earlier to see if they were in town for a visit on our way through, knowing that their business has them on the road during half the year. They were on the other side of the country but quite matter-of-factly Marshall suggested that we stay in their place, use the car, and even take his bike out for a spin, and he connected me with Tim who let us in with the spare keys.

‘How long did you know them for on the trip,’ Jess had asked after she read Marshall’s email.

‘Just two or three days,’ I said.

‘Wow, that’s really nice. Say yes!’ she said.

After Tim let us in and showed us around and we had arranged to meet up for dinner one of the next couple evenings, we changed into street clothes and took a walk through the neighborhood. The Ballard is a trendy section of Seattle with lots of nice restaurants, bars, and live music clubs. We got into the scene by going for tapas and wine. Then we took the bikes and met Nick and Katya for a late dinner. Nick is Jessica’s ex whom she hadn’t seen for some years and it was a very nice reunion and not at all awkward, I thought.

‘You never know how these things will go,’ I said as we mounted our bikes after dinner.

View from Megan and Marshall's condo

‘No, because Nick is a really nice guy just like I told you,’ she said.

It was a cold ride back to Megan and Marshall’s and our GPS seemed to take us from one wrong turn to another until we turned it off and navigated by what we remembered from coming into town earlier in the day.

‘It’s like Google Maps is against us,’ Jess said when we were pulled over and deciding to figure it out on our own.

Back at the condo it felt great to have our own private space that was a home and not a motel room. Through the large window in the living room we could see the lights and the dwindling activity across the city.

Seattle Great Wheel and harbor from Pike Place Market

The next day we rode two up on my bike to Pike Place Market, which is near the harbor piers. We visited the first Starbuck’s, which didn’t make much impression on us, and then we strolled through the market. We tasted almost everything there was on offer: jams, cheeses, and such a variety of infused oils until one was practically indistinguishable from another.

‘My taste buds are rubbish,’ I said after the first wave of tasting. ‘I can’t really tell the difference between all these subtle flavors.’

‘I know, love, that’s why I don’t let you get the good things,’ Jess said. ‘My mom does the same to my father. Like how she won’t buy the good juice because he’ll chug it down just the same as the bad juice. It’s the same with you.’

I just love these hanging chili pepper decorations

It was the same when I tried the hot sauces. I could detect that the flavors were different but I had no ability to articulate them or distinguish the flavor’s origin. But I did appreciate the burn they made in my mouth, maybe because the burn is a blunt taste and requires no refined detectors. I tasted the sauces up to the second hottest and, with my dander up, I would have gone all the way but the vendor, who thought he was setting the hook, scared it right out of my mouth.

‘This is the true badass, right here,’ the vendor said pointing to the smallest bottle. ‘It has a Scoville rating of 2 million. That is liquid fire. I mean it doesn’t get any hotter than this. One-sixteenth of drop and you’ll be feeling it for more than an hour.’

At this description my belly went cold. I deferred from the final taste and excused us away from the booth.

On the second pass through the market we bought peppered beef jerky for Jess, who is uncompromisingly carnivore, and various locally grown fruits for me because I had hit my lowest weight in years a few months before in Liberia and have been trying unsuccessfully to get back to it ever since. Later, when Jess saw the Swiss sausages called Landjäger hanging in a display, she was suddenly very excited.

‘We used to eat these all the time when we visited family in Switzerland,’ she said as she fished in her wallet for the dollar-fifty she needed to buy one.

After the market, we went down to the pier and we rode the Seattle Great Wheel to see what the city looks like on a beautiful, clear day. Then we were tired and we walked back to the parking lot to get the bike and ride back to the condo. At the bike we pulled our gloves and helmets on and then mounted and I slowly pulled out of the space. As we inched forward, the bike suddenly seized and then began to pitch uncontrollably to the ground, spitting us off as it keeled. The bike struck the ground on the right side crash bar and the rubberized corner of the pannier so that it was as gentle and nondestructive a fall as there could be. Shocked into action, we were immediately back on our feet and I righted the bike without difficulty. When the immediate jolt had passed, Jess started laughing.

View from the Seattle Great Wheel

I looked up and down the bike feeling very confused and – I don’t know why – thinking that someone had played a joke. Then I remembered that I had put the disc lock on when we had parked and, turning my scan the front wheel I saw that I had never removed it before we started off. A disc lock secures to the disc brake so that any attempt to turn the wheel to which the disc is fastened will eventually collide the lock with the brake caliper and prevent the wheel from turning further. This is meant to make it more difficult for a would-be robber to simply roll the bike away.

I explained to Jess why the fall had happened and I told her how very foolish I felt. She tried to console me that it was her fault also for forgetting about the disc lock but that didn’t help because we were riding my bike and right now I was the pilot.

‘The same thing happened to me during my first trip,’ I said as I checked for damage to the disc and the brake caliper once my frustration and embarrassment had subsided somewhat. ‘Only then I was in a crowded plaza in a small town in Mexico and I had started off very fast because I was feeling like a badass for being a foreign gringo – you know – wearing a leather jacket and doing a motorcycle trip and that. I went over just like that only more so and in full view. That bike was much harder to right when it fell because of the way the weight was distributed so there I was like a jackass struggling and struggling and being defeated by it.’

She laughed and laughed and then asked what had happened.

‘Eventually someone came to help me,’ I said. ‘Someone always came to help.’

As we rode back to the condo, Jess pointed from behind me at another motorcycle that was parked.

‘What’s that?’ she shouted over the drumming of the motor and the silencing of the earplugs.

I look to where she pointed and saw a bright neon cord that connected the handlebar to the wheel of the motorcycle.

‘It’s so you don’t forget to remove the disc lock and drive off!’ I shouted in reply, knowing that this would set her off on a new wave of laugher.

As she laughed, I made a show of slinked in my seat as a sign of defeat and then I rebounded and waved her off with a sharp hand gesture as if to say, ‘Ok! Ok! Quite enough of that!’

After the market we visited the REI flagship store but we discovered that we were both completely saturated after all the shopping during the preparation for the trip. We slogged around the enormous store as if going through the motions and then flopped ourselves down on a bench beside the outdoors-inspired jungle gym in the kids play area.

‘This trip has ripped the love of REI out of me!’ I said.

‘I’m sure it’s just temporary,’ Jess said. ‘It’s not as fun when you have everything you need.’

The next day I set out to perform an oil change on Jess’s bike. It was her bike so Jess felt compelled to supervise – my word – or participate – her word – in the process and she was – I can honestly admit in hindsight – actually very patient with me. She helped where she could but mostly she ‘kept company’.

‘Here!’ I said at one frustrated moment, offering her the greasy Allen wrench in my hand, ‘You show me.’

Her face took on an expression of disgust as though the tool that I offered her smelled very foul and she said, ‘No, no, love. You’re doing very well.’

I returned to the task at hand, thinking that I had silenced my commentator at least temporarily, but within moments the observations continued.

‘You know your version of helping and keeping company is not the same as mine,’ I said at length.

‘It was the same when I used to help my father with things,’ she said. ‘But at least my father used to work a lot faster!’

I grunted and she laughed and we continued on as we had for the rest of the afternoon.

In the evening, when I had finished and had cleaned the spills, bottled the used oil, and disposed of the old filter and sundry waste, I realized in hindsight just how easy the process had really been and how pathetically I had second-guessed my way through it. It was the first oil change I had done on either bike because I was not smart enough to do it just for the practice before we started the trip. During my first motorcycle trip, I had pulled apart my Yamaha cruiser – by necessity and far more often than I cared to – without much concern about doing more harm than good or being able to piece it back together. But the few intervening years in Africa had been surprisingly non-mechanical and, more importantly to my mind, this was a brand new BMW and so certainly – I had convinced myself – it was beyond my basic mechanical knowhow. Fortunately, there was plenty of quiet in the parking garage of Megan and Marshall’s condo so that I could struggle and agonize – in the peace and quiet that Jessica allowed me – over each and every step of the process.

In the evening, after we had showered and made friends again, we met Tim and his girlfriend Carey for dinner in the neighborhood. At first Carey seemed decidedly unenthusiastic about being out for dinner with these strangers that were crashing at Megan and Marshall’s place. She explained that it had been a frustrating day of collaborating on a project, but she quickly put work behind her and turned out to be very charming. They are both photojournalists and described very interesting projects that they had been working on. She described one of the projects that had taken her to Papua New Guinea to investigate issues connected to gender based violence. On a whim I asked if she had met my friend Miranda who was there at the same time working for an NGO. It turned out that she knew Miranda quite well and they still kept in touch.

‘Miranda was great,’ Carey said and then hesitated before suggesting, ‘I think she was maybe a bit burned out.’

‘You should see how I am after just a year in a place and she was there for three,’ I said. ‘Also she’s quite dry.’

It was a very engaging dinner conversation, made longer but never dull because of the slow service and because I was the last one to receive my meal.

‘Greg eats so slowly,’ Jess explained quit unnecessarily. ‘He chews each bite fifty times.’

‘She used to count,’ I said, making the best of it now that the unflattering subject was breeched. ‘She would stare at me and I would see her lips moving and when I swallowed she would announce a number. It was like she was dealing roulette.’

After dinner, Tim and Carey pointed us in a direction to see the nightlife in the neighborhood and we said goodbye.

‘Those are the kind of people we could be friends with,’ Jess said. ‘They have interesting things going on and it was better talking to them than most of the people we meet doing aid work.’

‘Yeah, and the good ones you meet are always either coming or going or you’re coming or going.’

I thought about this as we walked.

‘I used to think that I would travel and live in all these places and have friends all over the world. But I’m absolutely rubbish at keeping in touch no matter what I try.’

‘I know. Me too,’ Jess said.

‘So it’s like I go place to place making friends and then losing them,’ I said. ‘What a depressing thought.’

‘We’ll do better,’ she said. ‘We’ll help each other.’

It sounded good the way all vague, sweeping declarations do, and it was even better because she said it with much conviction.

‘Ok, let’s do,’ I said and I decided to feel better about it as we walked into the area where the bars and music clubs and the sidewalks were alive with so many people.

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