Interstate 15 and I have a history. Like any historical tale, some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, and some of it is neither good nor bad, but rather is best summed up as: It is what it is. That summation is truly the only conclusion one can arrive at when emotion, bias, self-interest, and expectations are removed from the equation of a “good or bad” situation.
After removing self from a situation, all that’s left is an experience. Once detachment is obtained when analyzing a situation by removing emotion, self-interest, and an expected outcome, then whatever designation was being sought is no longer a moot point regarding a positive or negative label. An experience, when dissected through disassociation, simply leaves a set of facts or an order of events, allowing the term “it is what it is” or “it was what it was” to be applied. Neither of which indicates a good or bad judgement—just an event experienced. Granted, we humans are nearly incapable of emotional separation, especially in Trump’s America.
I have traveled I-15 by hitchhiking, by automobiles, by semitrucks, and by my favorite mode of travel: motorcycles. For some reason unbeknownst to me, the small stretch of I-15 passing through Arizona for just under thirty miles holds the potential for mishap when I’m driving a vehicle with four or more wheels. I have had numerous cars, pickups, and semitrucks break down on that small stretch of highway. (On the other hand, when riding upon that same short-but-winding passageway on a motorcycle, breaking down is the least of my concerns. In that curvy canyon, one false move on a motorbike could easily end in death.)
In late August 2011, I was driving away from North Dakota’s boomtown environments, which were created when oil was discovered in the Bakken Shale Formation; I was headed back to Las Vegas via I-15. I had left North Dakota because I had had enough of the boomtown environment, along with most of the people attracted to its economy. In a boomtown economy, the unemployable elsewhere become not only employable but are actively recruited.
A major impediment in a boomtown environment, wherein the unemployment rate basically becomes nonexistent, is that those who could not obtain employment elsewhere—for a multitude of reasons ranging from lack of skills to physical impairments to psychological issues to emotional damage to psychotic behaviors—get jobs for which they are not only unqualified for but are equally incapable of ever performing.
In a boomtown economy, there is one constant: frenetic activity, not unsimilar to that of a busy beehive but lacking the hive’s unseen orderly process. If one were to look down on a boomtown environment from a low-flying helicopter or airplane, I’d bet my last silver dollar that all the movement below would look like thousands upon thousands of misshaped Super Balls bouncing and ricocheting to and fro aimlessly, without any rhyme or reason, and faster than Ricochet Rabbit but without his intuition—but certainly containing his calamitous comedy. A visit to the Facebook page BakkenFail will confirm my suspicions.
I had had enough of Boomtown USA and needed a break. I needed the open road to do what it does best for me—distract me from my issues by forcing me to focus on driving. As I was leaving Utah, heading south and entering the northern portion of Arizona’s small stretch of I-15, I was free from the petroleum frustrations that had forced me onto the interstate. While driving my pickup on that mild midday, I was envisioning being on my motorcycle, which I soon would be, after my arrival in Las Vegas, Nevada. I was headed there to get my bike and ride out for a cross-country trip. With about 110 miles to go before reaching Las Vegas, and with over seven hundred miles of I-15 behind me, I entered Arizona towing a U-Haul behind my Dodge Ram.
Passengers catching a quick nap on Arizona’s I-15 would be unaware of its designation as “Veterans Memorial Highway,” because it is only 29.43 miles long. Originally that stretch of modern I-15 was part of the old Arrowhead and Spanish Trails passageway. Thirteen and a half miles of Arizona’s share of I-15 passes through the Virgin River Gorge. From the north, the gorge starts at mile marker 22.5, just south of Purgatory Canyon, where it passes over the first of five bridges that span the Virgin River, and ends around mile marker 10, near Desert Springs, a mile or so from Beaver Dam and Littlefield, Arizona. The gorge’s 13.5 miles are breathtakingly beautiful, rugged, isolated, curvy, and treacherous. They have one hell of an elevation drop and are just plain dangerous for the easily distracted. The roadway there is referred to as “The Narrows” because of the sheer limestone cliffs that jet up on both sides of the road, rising as high as five hundred feet.
Motorcyclists, hell-bent on trying to find “The Edge” that Hunter S. Thompson so eloquently wrote about in Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, attack the gorge with reckless—high-speed—abandonment. We lean into the curves until our bikes’ exhaust pipes and/or our knees scrape against the asphalt, all in search of an elusive adrenaline rush . . . which the daily grind lacks.
Survivors who seek The Edge (that place where life and death hang in the balance, as Thompson explained) do not find it. Only the dead know where it is. And if they could tell us, they’d say, “It’s right back there” as they point backward from the other side, never to return. The search for The Edge is heady stuff, and it’s not for the faint of heart. At nearly sixty-one years old, against my better judgment, I still possess the desire deep within to ride off in search of The Edge. If I happen to find it, or if it finds me, rejoice, because I went out doing something that I absolutely love and which makes me feel whole, makes me feel right, makes me feel like I belong. Those feelings of belonging have come from only a few fleeting experiences, like motorcycling or performing for audiences, and both are the best therapy available for this boy. You’ll never see a motorcycle parked outside of a psychologist’s office or psychiatric hospital.
I’m not implying that bikers don’t have issues. We do! More than the general public does, which is why we ride, but if bikers had an appointment at either a psychologist’s office or a psychiatric hospital and we were riding our bike to the appointment, by the time we arrived our problems would be temporarily solved, and we’d just ride on by . . . off to parts unknown for as long as life would allow us to be gone, before beckoning us back to the grind.
As I exited the gorge section of Arizona’s I-15, after navigating its curves and its rapid elevation drop, with just eighty-five miles remaining on my journey to Las Vegas, the rear differential of my pickup exploded or imploded. Either way, it made a hell of a noise. I limped the Ram over to the road’s shoulder and hugged it with the U-Haul trailer in tow . . . with one more mile to go before reaching exit 9.
I knew that at exit 8, two miles south of where the Dodge’s rear differential acted up, was Beaver Dam and Littlefield. Down there would be a gas station, a store, a bar, a restaurant; it’s where life exists and where civilization had taken root at the desert’s edge. It’s where I had stopped many times when I lived in Las Vegas—to buy lottery tickets, to get fuel for my motorbike and fluids for myself after running the gorge and not finding The Edge. Exit 9, at Desert Springs, the exit I was forced to take, was an unknown entity to me. I had never been down it before, but I could not risk having the Dodge give up the ghost on the interstate by trying to make it farther than the next exit. I had to get the Ram to the low way, right away, and onto the road less traveled (as it were).
As I exited onto an access road adjacent to exit 9, my anxiety subsided when I saw a structure that looked like a service garage. My spirits lifted more when I saw people in front of an old, dilapidated, faded building. I pulled into its parking lot with grinding, squelching, squealing, and all sorts of other unworldly noises emanating from the back of my pickup. I parked, slid out of the Ram’s seat, and said to the two guys standing in front of the building: “I need a mechanic.”
To which one of them replied, “Sure sounds like it.”
It was unequivocally clear (the crystal kind) that it was the Ram’s noise and not my verbal communication that he was referencing. Usually I have a retort that slays smart-asses, and I had one readied, locked and loaded right then and there, too, but in un-Hallesque fashion . . . I stifled myself, quashed my touché, and said, “It sure does. Can you help me?”
“Nope,” he said. “Can’t work on rear ends.”
Well, shit, I thought. Then I said, “That sucks. Is it okay if I leave the U-Haul trailer here after I arrange for a tow for the pickup for repairs?”
“Why would you want to do that?” he asked.
Again I sucked it up; I held my tongue. I was at a huge disadvantage. For all I knew “Dueling Banjos” was about to emanate from off in the distance in that enclave where I was stranded, all alone. I was steaming inside because of the terse talk and the Ram’s condition, and my cheeks (the gluteus maximus) were clenched when I leaned in and said “Excuse me!” to the man doing all the talking.
“This guy can fix your pickup’s ass,” he said while smiling at me and pointing his thumb to his right in hitchhiker fashion, fingers curled in, palm facing out.
“This guy” turned out to be my saving grace that day. He and his wife located a rear differential for the Ram from a salvage yard back up the gorge, in St. George, Utah, a border town. The couple would go get it the follow morning and install it at their house, and I’d be back on the road by the following dusk with only twenty-four hours lost. They drove me the twelve miles to Mesquite, Nevada—another border town—where I lodged at the CasaBlanca Resort and Casino. They would retrieve me in late afternoon desert heat the following day, post repairs.
Before being dropped off at the casino, I was told that my repair bill would be $1,500. That included parts and labor, the round-trip drive time to Utah and back, the removal of the rear differential from the salvage vehicle, and installation—all-in it would be fifteen hundred bucks flat.
The night that I spent at the CasaBlanca Resort and Casino lightened my financial load the same amount as did the repair bill. That financial setback was caused by a fabulous surf ’n’ turf dinner, fantastic wine, generous pours of twenty-one-year-old Scotch and Irish whiskeys, a flaming dessert prepared tableside, cigars, video poker, craps, slots, blackjack, room charges, taxes, and tips. A good time was had by all.
I figured: What the hell. If I was forced to spend money on repairs to my vehicle, then I ought to spend an equal amount repairing me. With the Ram repaired, and me straightened out from the time spent at the CasaBlanca Resort and Casino, the couple picked me up, their teenage daughter in tow. Through conversation during the ride to Wells Fargo and then to my pickup, they expressed their gratitude to me for the work, and I to them for doing the work. They said that the money from repairing my pickup was right on time because their daughter had been saving up to open a food-service trailer. She was going to be serving snow cones, ice cream, cold beverages, and chips to the heated and parched desert travelers. The repair money accounted for the last dollars she needed. She had been lacking the licensing fee and some opening stock to get going. So I added a tip to the cause, hopped into the Dodge, and headed away into the desert’s fiery red and orangish sunset, grateful to be an American. Grateful to live in a land where a teenage girl, in a desolated desert location, could dream big and enter the entrepreneurial world at such a tender age.
I often think of that incident, of being momentarily waylaid on I-15, and of the encounter with that family that got me going again. What started off as a bad situation turned into a good experience. In the end I guess it was just another experience on a long, strange trip.
I hope that that family is doing okay, doing hunky-dory. That they are having a grand ol’ time out there in the desert, on the edge of civilization, where they have made their stand, living life on their terms, possessing freedom and offering goodwill and a good deal to a traveler who was momentarily waylaid on their exit. I hope that their life away from the hustle and bustle of modern life is fulfilling and that their teenage daughter got to realize all her American dreams. I like to think that all of that happened for them.
I arrived in Las Vegas two hours after departing exit 9 on Arizona’s I-15, where my pickup had been repaired. Darkness was beginning to fall while the lights of Las Vegas were rising, signaling that the night crews were now running things. Within the casinos and on Sin City’s seedy streets, as Dire Straits pointed out, “Most of the taxis, most of the whores, are only taking calls for cash.”
I had made it back to Las Vegas, and it was time to prepare to take a long-and-hard motorcycle trip to extinguish the anguish still within me from my experiences within the Bakken boomtowns. I unpacked the U-Haul at my storage unit, where U-Haul had a location, then quickly fired up my Harley-Davidson Deuce and rode away to find short-term accommodations, because I’d be leaving soon—on my bike—for Key West, Florida, and parts unknown.
Motion begets momentum. Momentum begets motion. Being sedentary stops both motion and momentum cold in their tracks. While I was in motion from North Dakota to Las Vegas, my vision of being a midnight rider on a motorbike was intact; it was in motion and on track; it was moving forward. When I stopped moving after arriving in Las Vegas, I began contemplating the saneness of a cross-country ride, mainly because of its expense.
“You need to be financially responsible.”
Those words were yapping inside of my head as if they were emanating from some angry mutt, or as if they were being spewed forth from the mouth of a bitter girlfriend. I had heard those words too many times before to be free of them. They were usually simple enough to ignore, but on that day they resonated deep within me. After all, not only had I quit a job and was unemployed, but I had also just dropped over $3K on vehicle repairs and fun. Now I was looking at spending many more thousands of dollars on a thirty- to forty-day bike run crisscrossing America.
That freedom-killing voice of reason that we all have heard too many times started screaming at me, yelling inside of me: “Are you out of your mind?” I was sure that that was a rhetorical question, because, well, as we all know by now, yes, we are all a tad touched. Try as I did, I could not shake the feeling that I was making a big mistake, having a colossal failure of sound judgment. And as the next few days passed, as I prepared for my solo cross-country bike trip, the weight of responsibility and its voice of reason began to drag me down.
What was once a fire in my belly had turned into a millstone around my neck. The time required to plan and pack the necessities needed to ride off into the great unknown for a month or longer was no longer a fun endeavor but had become drudgery. Regardless, I marched on . . . in much the same way, I assume, that a death row inmate walks to the death chamber. Knowing it’s going to happen but still looking for a way out, a last-minute reprieve. I had no governor who was going to intervene on my behalf and stop the bike trip. Nope. It was going to happen, but unabashed joy had vanished, and the horrid voice of reason and responsibility took its place. I was hearing voices from the past, saying, “Think about your future.”
The metaphorical chains that are wrapped around us by others while growing up are very strong, indeed. They have limited us and denied us our birthright—the discovery of self. Instead of self-discovery we persevere to please others, to fulfill their visions of who we ought to be. When those visions for us from others become unobtainable or remain unfulfilled, the psychological chains can become so tight that they not only squeeze the spark out of us but also become tight enough to have caused the death of mightier people than me.
I was straining against the chains with all my might. I was trying to rekindle the fire that had been within me and had driven me onto I-15 and back to Las Vegas, back to my bike for a greatly desired and much-needed motorcycle trip across my big country. But when all the psychological chatter going on within me was reaching a crescendo, something happened that caused the metaphorical chains to snap apart and set me free.
It occurred in the predawn darkness a few hours before my morning departure on the bike trip to the Keys. It happened while I was begrudgingly filling up the Deuce with gasoline, across the street from my bike’s storage unit, wherein I had paced and paced, trying to shake the voice of reason so I could ride away and be free once more.
When a big V-Twin motorbike loaded for a long trip comes roaring onto a location, it grabs everyone’s attention. Likewise, when a big bike is loaded with traveling bags and is leaning on its kickstand, people look. In either situation, there is always a longing in their eyes, in their body language, in their voices, whether they speak to the rider or among themselves. I have witnessed that longing in others’ eyes and voices, and in their body posture many times. That longing exists within people because of the motion and freedom that a bike represents, and which is lacking in their lives. It’s an intoxicating thing to observe, that longing in others. It is even more heady to have it directed at you when getting questions such as “Where are you going?” or “Where have you been?” It makes you feel alive, grateful that you and the bike found each other. It makes you want to ride.
It was around 2:00 a.m. when I was morosely fueling my Deuce for an 8:00 a.m. departure. That’s when it happened. That’s when the chains snapped apart and set me free from the voices of others—from that voice of reason.
An older, banged-up pickup had pulled into the deserted Chevron station where I was fueling the bike. An average-built blue-collar man slid out of the truck, and while he was walking away to prepay for his gas, he glanced over at my bike, which was fully loaded with T-bags containing my road clothes and gear. The sight of my freshly polished black-and-chrome Deuce, loaded for a long ride, glistening under the lights, gave pause to the man, taking his mind elsewhere, down the road to somewhere he longed to go. His eyes raised slowly and briefly fixed with mine. Then his shoulders slumped, his head dropped a little, and he gave me a forlorn wave from across the fuel island, because he knew it was I who was riding off to elsewhere—and not him. Right then and there, at that nanosecond, I knew that I was the luckiest man in the world. Well, that might be an overstatement, but I was the luckiest man at that gas station.
Everything changed within me in that moment, and I was again full of fire, filled with a vision of being a midnight rider. I finished fueling the bike. My heart was pumping resolutely, my spirits were again lifted, and I was once more carefree. Next to the Deuce, I grabbed a few hours of sleep on the storage unit floor. And at 8:00 a.m. sharp, I roared out of Las Vegas like a bat out of hell, realizing that in the end life is just one long experience.
Postscriptum: this piece is dedicated to Peter Fonda, the original easy rider. Godspeed, Peter.
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