Things never turn out the way you think. For months now, I’ve been picturing the first night on the road, but now, sitting at the motel room desk, I realize I was way off. Today’s events, my whereabouts, and my emotional state, are all completely different than I had previously imagined. I miss my wife and my kids and I toy with the idea of surprising them at home tomorrow, but a flood of excitement and pride masks my remorse. I am starting to realize the sheer scale of this journey.
The day started with saying good-bye. The kids gave me a big hug and went to Sunday school. It was especially nice to get a long hug from my eleven-year-old girl. She’s already at an age when you can’t squeeze a good hug out of her. I said goodbye to the neighbors, got on the motorcycle, and my wife followed me in the family van until we reached a gas station near the Tappan Zee Bridge. We spent another hour or so together, hugged, said our goodbyes, and then I left. The moment of departure was so shocking, so unreal, that it was impossible to cry. I’ve never been away from my family for more than a week, and the entire thing just felt like it wasn’t happening.
During the first two hours, an unfamiliar feeling settles in my gut; a bland mix of panic, enthusiasm, regret, curiosity, and worry. It feels like I am the only one who’s lost. Everyone else on the road knows where they’re going. A guy on a yellow Honda Goldwing is going to meet his friends at a coffee shop. A family in a minivan is coming back home from a weekend getaway. A young couple in a red car is going to the city to hang out. I am the only one who doesn’t know where he’s headed. My throat shuts with anxiety, unable to contain the unexpected freedom. In the concrete lanes of I-78, I find myself becoming restless. I fidget in the seat and play with the music’s volume, rushing the motorcycle in the left lane to catch up with the speeding train of my thoughts.
The road goes on, and the hours pass, and I start scanning the road for opportunities: who will I meet today? Where will I eat? Will I join a group of bikers for a while? The possibilities seem endless. Anticipating my first adventure, I follow a sign at the side of the highway and take the next exit to a local restaurant. In the parking lot, there is a group of bikers, getting their bikes ready to go. This is it, I think. I’ll park next to them. They will probably notice the large badge on the back of my jacket saying “Ride of Your Life” and engage me in conversation. Perhaps I’ll join them for the next few hours. I park next to the group, but they pay no attention to me. They continue to speak among themselves and I can’t think of anything to say. For a few moments, I stand next to the motorcycle and pretend to be checking it, hoping they’ll approach me. They don’t. Feeling childish and embarrassed, I get back on the bike and take off, heading again toward the highway.
Later on, I get off the interstate, and the world suddenly changes. On the side of Route 222, I see what I’ve been waiting for: endless corn fields and tall silos, the flatlands of Pennsylvania, a first glance into the real America. It is beautiful. My thoughts finally escape my mind. Everything vanishes apart from the soothing hum of the miles and the rolling pavement underneath my feet. Only fifteen minutes go by before I decide to stop and take pictures.
On the right, opposite a gas station, there’s an office building on a hill. Its parking lot looks like it would have the perfect view, and I turn into the driveway and ride up to it. The view is indeed perfect. Excited, I swing my leg over to get off the motorcycle, only to realize that I forgot to push down the kickstand. It’s too late. The motorcycle already leans left and its weight is pulling down. I hold on to the handlebars and try to pull it back up but to no avail. It continues to go down and falls gently on its side. I try to pick it back up but it is too heavy. I stand and stare at it helplessly, lying on its side, with a little puddle of oil accumulating next to it, like it’s been shot. I try to lift it again, panting and grunting, but it is no use. It is simply too heavy. In a futile attempt to get help, I go down the hill and stand on the side of the road, waving my arms up and down. None of the cars stop or even slow down. After twenty minutes of waving, I finally give up and cross the road to the gas station, not sure what to do. Next to one of the pumps, I spot a big guy with colorful tattoos on his arms. I ask him for help and luckily for me, he agrees. We cross the road together and pull the bike back onto its feet. I push the Kickstand down and thank him. “It’s my first day riding across the country,” I say apologetically. He shrugs and says: “Looks like it’s gonna be a rough ride.” He is the first person I have spoken with since I left home. I check the motorcycle and am relieved to find that there’s no damage except a loose nut holding the right mirror. For the first time ever, I use the toolbox under the seat. I pull out a wrench and tighten the mirror.
I feel proud.
Just before sunset, I come across the Wright’s Ferry Bridge, a ruler-straight beauty crossing the Susquehanna River. My first bridge. On the other side of the river, I find the Riverfront Bar & Lounge, a biker bar taken out of a movie scene. The windows are covered with dark curtains, and the air is filled with clouds of cigarette smoke that hover above poker and pool tables; the real deal. I ask for coffee to keep me awake. The bartender suggests Jello shots instead. I get a Diet Coke, drink it quickly, and leave. Perhaps, not the most exciting experience, but still, a biker bar on the first day. I am probably the nerdiest biker to have ever come here.
Later at night, I stop at the Best Western in York. Exhausted, frazzled, and sweaty, I carry the heavy bags on my shoulders to the room, passing by the hotel luggage cart several times without even noticing it. The buckles on the straps cannot hold the excess weight and they break. The bags fall off my shoulders. I have to make three trips to get them up to the room, carrying each bag in my arms like a baby. When I finish, I go back outside to clean the bike and check it. It’s already dark outside. The receptionist is standing outside the front doors, smoking a cigarette, right next to the sign that says, “thank
you for not smoking.” Her face has the indifferent, robotic expression that people sometimes have at work. Earlier, when I checked in, she was smiling, but the tone of her voice disclosed the emptiness that I now see in her. Is that what happens to you if you get stuck for too long? I walk to the Lyndon
Diner across US-30. The food tastes great and the service is pleasant and easy going. I made it through the first day. Everything’s fine.