Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Cross-Country on a Motorcycle, Revisited

It's a little bit sad to think that a year can pass so quickly. There's been not a day gone by that I haven't stopped to think about the fascinating trip from San Diego to Miami Beach and back that I undertook on June 11 of last year, returning July 15 safe and utterly astonished at what I'd accomplished. It was not only the ride itself; it was the concept that I own comfortable residences on each coast, and made a project of riding a motorcycle from one to the other and back. Now it's just two months short of the first anniversary of starting out, and I feel like I've done so little living in the meantime.

I'm 63 years old. Finally, more because of my own apathy than the aging process, I seem to be slowing down. It's less that I can't do things than that I feel like I've already done just about everything I ever wanted to do. I still bicker regularly by text with my old childhood-sweetheart-become-late-middle-age-flame. She turned 64 a couple of days ago, works way harder than I do, and has little time for romance... which is why we wait until the weekends before pouring out an endless string of messages to each other, mostly about whose fault it is that we failed to make our lifelong dream of being together come true.

That makes things sadder still. We're too old for young people's dreams, and we know each other too well now to idealize. We get along pretty well for short spells... which frankly is good enough for me, but she takes the woman's view that enjoying oneself is never enough. There always has to be "MORE" to a relationship than being happy.

However, it's more than just being well into late middle age and realizing that I'll never really connect with the gal I've thought about for most of my life (to the frustration of both of us). It's the memory of that damned trip. I described it in great detail over two entries awhile back, and understand that it was written primarily as my own personal record rather than to entertain anyone else. Here though, I'd like to get into more of a summary of what was significant about it and why it leaves me feeling so sweet-sad and wistful.

It was, first of all, a collection of destinations I'd thought of visiting for quite a long time, most related to my childhood and early adult memories. Going to Prescott to work on my lot is about as romantic as digging a drainage ditch, but setting out on the rest of the cross-country trip from there is etched in my mind like a video clip. For the past two decades--since I got to know the area by car--I'd thought it would be neat to ride a motorcycle over the hills east of Prescott through Jerome, then up Oak Creek Canyon from Sedona to Flagstaff. Last summer, I did it! Then I continued east, thinking of the old Route 66 song and the Eagles' "Take It Easy" as I passed through Winona and Winslow, cruising like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in my own version of "Easy Rider."

There was Claude, Texas, where the locals thought it kinda cool that I'd made a pilgrimage to the filming location of "Hud," the old Paul Newman movie with Patricia Neal, Brandon DeWilde, and Melvin Douglas. An older lady who maintained a historical museum there took me to the old movie theater where DeWilde and Douglas sang "Clementine" to a bouncing ball. There was the camaraderie on the road, as bikers commiserated about the relentless winds that buffet the area and make the riding anything but easy.

A couple of days later I spent an afternoon in the area around Dealey Plaza, seeing first-hand the long familiar places described in the lore surrounding the Kennedy assassination. There was the long trip through the south, ending up on the Gulf Coast at Mobile and following the western coastline of Florida all the way down to the southern end, visiting cousins along the way in Tampa. There was that moment along Highway 27, where I pulled over at the edge of the Everglades to look at a map and reassure myself that I had--indeed--made it to within 25 miles of my East Coast hideaway!

After five days of resting and soaking in the ocean, there was the return trip over a slightly different route, stopping first in Ocala and telling the young hotel clerk about the Royal Guardsmen--the only Ocala locals I'd ever heard of--and their 1966 hit, "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron." Then it wasn't more than a few days before I was making my way along the Gulf Coast again, passing through bayou country near New Orleans. After that, Galveston, where I played the Ventures version of the name-sake song made famous by Glen Campbell while lying in bed with a 6-pack of Corona.

Next Austin, with a visit to the LBJ Library & Museum, and another get-together with a cousin. The list continues... Roswell and the International UFO Museum, Benson and "The Thing," which is a dumb roadside attraction but another one of those things I'd idly wondered about for the past 50 years. On the day before returning home, there was the Pima Air & Space Museum, full of retired aircraft that were new when I was a kid. On my last night on the road, I finally stayed at the Space Age Lodge in Gila Bend, another long-time wish... and then I was home, exhausted but safe.

It was in my condo in Miami Beach, though, that the trip acquired a soundtrack. Somehow, of all the old songs on my phone, it was The Beatles' "Good Night," which ends the White Album, that stuck most in my head. I've spent a lot of time wondering why. Though Dealey Plaza is an eerie place, the trip was overall a happy experience, and everything--except the fuel pump going out in Prescott on the second day of the trip--went phenomenally smoothly. Still, that rather sad lullaby comes to mind late at night whenever I think about the long ride cross-country.

Now, finally, I think I get it. You have to understand that I'm in my early sixties, have never married, and have no children. In other words, I'm a fairly typical white guy of my generation. I have vivid memories of earlier times, of being a child in the 1960's at the height of the Vietnam War (and the heyday of the Beatles). I own a condo in Miami Beach about a mile south of the site of the old Americana Hotel, where JFK made his last speech before returning to Washington safely for the last time; he headed to Texas three days later. By weird coincidence, it's also a little over a mile north of the Deauville Hotel, where the Beatles stayed--and recorded their second Ed Sullivan Show appearance--during their first American tour... barely three months after the assassination!

The woman I fell in love with during my high school years in San Diego, and wondered about for much of my life after she moved away, lives less than ten miles northwest of my place in Miami Beach now. She went through the marriage/kids/divorce thing, but never really forgot about me either. We got back in touch in 2010, with her kids long grown and her divorce final, but the initial thrill of that is long gone. We don't even get along that great... but we can't seem to get out of each others heads. I sometimes think of us as being somewhat like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who clashed at times, eventually divorced... but loved each other to the end. She's even slightly older than I, though 8 months is nothing like the 7 year difference between Lucy and Desi.

The conundrum is that so much has come and gone, never to return. Unless I live to be 126, my life is more than half over. Still, I remember so many things so clearly, and on this trip I experienced first-hand so much that I'd always read about but never really seen. I also reconnected with relatives I seldom see, both of them from my father's side and both for the first time since he passed away in 2011. I'd seen my cousin Jim briefly when he was in San Diego for his son's graduation from Marine Corps boot camp in 2009, but hadn't seen or heard from Michelle since 1981! Her two kids were small then. It happened to be her husband's birthday when I was passing through, and we all got together for a party. The now middle-aged kids remembered me, and particularly the motorhome I had bought during my last year in the army in Washington, DC and was driving back to San Diego the last time they'd seen me.

The trip, I guess, was a kind of tying together of old things, yet I wouldn't have survived it by being a soft-headed sentimentalist. The road was rough at times, full of strong cross-winds and slippery turns and junk-strewn byways and unfamiliar terrain. I did it, and I'm not sure what to do next.Though the song was in my head before I got to Austin, the visit to the LBJ Library imbedded it there, with the ultimate memorial to the president of my childhood largely dedicated to '60s nostalgia.  Then that evening there was the visit with my cousin, and remembering that the longest time we'd ever hung out was spring break week 1967, when my dad decided to take his family to Texas to visit his brother's family. We don't keep in touch closely, and really barely know each other, but getting together in Austin meant a lot.

Though hardly a highlight, I remember vividly as well the midway point of the trip, collapsing in my condo in Miami Beach and listening to that song before I went to sleep. It gave me a sense that all was well, yet all is ephemeral and temporary. Then a new day comes; you face reality, and be as tough and resilient as you have to be.

Also, I'll always remember the final miles of the trip, telling myself to keep alert and not blow it all at the very end. I didn't, and rode up into the driveway of my West Coast condo complex just as I'd departed it five weeks before, with everything looking pretty much the same. I covered the bike, lugged my backpack inside, pulled off my boots, poured a nice glass of Captain Morgan... and played that song as well as others. After a few more glasses of The Captain, the lyrics to "Taps" came into my head, perhaps as I thought of Dealey Plaza. It made me feel that Somebody Up There had to have been watching over me as I made my way:

Day is done
Gone the sun
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky. 
All is well; safely rest.
God is nigh

God was nigh... throughout that trip. For whatever reason, He wanted me to experience deeply all the lessons that this sentimental journey and at times quite hazardous adventure could offer.

"Good Night," final track of the White Album, by the Beatles:

"Hud," theater scene:

JFK at the Americana Hotel, Nov. 18, 1963:
(one mile north of my place, across from Bal Harbour Shops)

The Beatles at 81st Street, Feb. 13, 1964:
(four blocks south of my place, in the Open Space Park)

Dealey Plaza, while heading east

Cousin Michelle in Brandon (Tampa area)

Bayou country, on the return west

Cousin Jim in Austin