One 17-Hour Winter Motorcycle Ride

The time I rode across the country in a day

On March 1, 2017, I rode over 750 miles from Chicago, IL to Charlotte, NC, cutting across America’s heartland in 17 hours straight.

I left at 5 am that morning. Chicago’s West Loop was still dark and lifeless — even the meat markets and packing plants two blocks down were silent.

It was upper 20’s and there were flurries drifting in the light from all the street lamps, but the roads were dry. I was thankful for that.

I had winter riding gloves — not the heated kind, but I figured once I got far enough south, they’d be fine — and thermal base layers packed underneath my jeans and my black leather riding jacket — remnants from when I used to ski, back in Colorado.

That was another life altogether.

And over everything, I also had my gray, oversized hoodie, because I was wearing it when I shipped the last box of my stuff out and forgot to take it off and add it.

I zipped my only remaining possessions — my license, credit card, and phone — into my jacket pocket, and went out into the darkness, helmet in hand, to fire him up.

The highway heading south out of Chicago is empty that time of morning, and except for the occasional semi, I was alone.

It was cold. I mean, of course it was cold. It was cold all 17 hours I rode, but the first and last few hours were the coldest.

On a bike, cold settles into you, invasive and all-encompassing. All you can do is just accept it and ride on, wearing the cold as another layer, and the most you can hope for is a quick acclimation.

The sun came up a couple hours into the ride, around the same time I made my first of seven stops for gas. I walked inside and poured myself a styrofoam cup of coffee, and the gas station employee gave it to me at no charge, giving me “that look” that reads equal parts “intrigue” and “pity.”

All riders know that look. But women riders especially.

I thanked her and then lingered just inside the door to drink my coffee and check directions. I still had over 600 miles to go.

The route from Chicago to Charlotte is 12 hours by car, but as any motorcyclist will tell you: everything is longer by bike. You get better fuel mileage, sure, but you end up stopping more — partly because the tanks are tiny, but partly because a lot more has to happen each time you stop.

When you get off the bike, you can barely move. Everything aches — your joints, from being in the same position for hours; your lower back and shoulders, from being crouched forward against — and beaten back by — what is effectively 70+ mph wind. Even your thumbs hurt, from being cocked down and around the handles.

So you stretch. And then you pee — you pee every time, because you also chug a full bottle of water every time, otherwise you get dehydrated (a real risk on a bike.) And you eat, in order to keep your energy levels up (ditto.) And after that, you spend a few minutes memorizing the next 100 miles’ worth of directions and trying your best to get warm again before heading back out.

There are so many moments while riding when you are acutely aware of how vulnerable you are. Not only because there’s more that could go wrong, but because if it did, you’d pretty much be SOL, naked and exposed on the side of the highway until help came.

I’d just bought the bike in November, so we weren’t that well-acquainted. But I’d also just taken it in for the 15,000 mile tune-up and had brand new tires put on, so — all things considered — I figured he was in the best shape he was ever gonna be for this. (And, spoiler alert: he rode perfectly.)

I also had a little credit left to my name — enough to get me a tow truck and a hotel room, if it came to that, but not much more.

I rode knowing these things and being quietly but ever-aware of my aloneness. I can’t really describe the feeling. I’m not sure any rider can. But I’m pretty sure all riders agree.

That vast, vulnerable aloneness is probably how pioneers felt.

And the odd thing about it is: there are no emotions.

I was neither scared nor excited, because there’s no real space for that in a rider’s head — you can’t afford emotional or mental distractions, good or bad.

So I just was. And I was just… going.

I didn’t have a place in Chicago anymore at that point. I lived there for five years, but two weeks prior I’d moved all my stuff back to Denver, where I’m from (but also no longer lived.)

I also didn’t live in Charlotte. And I laughed a little to realize that I was, technically-speaking, homeless.

I was also technically unemployed and technically single.

I would’ve understood if people in my life had been worried. Although my parents never said anything, I would’ve empathized if they’d been concerned. Most parents would be.

But then again: I’ve always been like this.

I had wanted a bike since high school, but not for the normal reasons. I got there by way of compromise: what I really wanted at the time was a horse, but my parents deemed the horse too impractical — after all, how would I get to school?? — and it was perhaps that exact exchange that planted in my head:

Fine. I’ll get a steel one.

It took me ten years to actually do it. Not because I was procrastinating but because I sort of forgot about it until my mid-twenties, when I broke up with a boyfriend and, for the first time, earned more than I owed on student loans (a big deal, for those who have them.) And then I remembered the bike and thought to myself, with sudden urgency:

Whose permission am I waiting on??

So I bought one.

My first bike was a 1982 Yamaha Maxim with 750cc’s, and I paid $1,350 cash for it. It was older than I was and had a leaky head gasket, but I didn’t care — he was mine. I put 6,000 miles on it that summer, riding north into Canada, west to the Mississippi, and every day to work, rain or shine. I was done for.

Two years years later I bought my second bike: the Ducati Monster. Which is the bike I rode across the US.

Sometimes people assume I got into bikes because of a guy — a boyfriend, or maybe my dad.

It’s such a presumptuous suggestion that I have to laugh because: quite the contrary, I pick boyfriends based on whether they’re into bikes. (And it was me who gave my dad one, not the other way around.)

But the other thing about boys and bikes and why I buy them:

2 for 2, it turns out I get a new bike each time I leave a boy.

And, 2 for 2, each bike leads me to a new one.

Ispent hours of the ride watching for the scenery to transition from gray-washed farmland to walls of green. It finally happened in Knoxville, the surroundings rising up with promise of warmth and summer, and I was so excited I nearly forgot I was only 2/3 of the way — with the hardest few hours of the ride still remaining.

I hit a storm in the Smoky Mountains.

I knew I would, because I’d been checking radar as well as directions like a good little rider does and, given the band of bright green stretched diagonally across the state, there was no way around it.

It was all but a torrential downpour, people’s wipers on full-blast and the semi behind me was at least two trailer-lengths back — presumably for fear of killing me.

I would’ve pulled off but there was no place to do so — there aren’t any exits for a good stretch of that highway, no substantial shoulders, and the only lights were headlights.

By the time I got out of the storm, after riding 14 hours, I was so physically and mentally fatigued I was getting sloppy. I had to stop every 30 minutes or so — to snap out of it and warm up — and the last 130 miles took me three hours.

When I finally rolled into Charlotte a little after 11 pm, I was saturated to the bone and so cold my lips were actually blue.

If you were to ask me how I did it: I have no idea.

I still wonder this myself sometimes, looking back. I’ve been riding for years and being in the cold for more than 10 minutes always feels miserable at any speed, let alone hours on the highway. So I have no idea how I did it.

I just did.

I started my bike that morning, got on, and rode. I rode until I needed to stop, and then I got back on and rode again. There was no other magic beyond that. I just did.

The best answer I have to “how” I rode that long, esp. in those temperatures is:

He was at the other end.

And if you were to ask me “why” I did it…

— well, lol, that’s a much easier question.

The answer, simply, is “love.”

I moved across the country to be with someone I cared about. I have never been this sort of person — more fighter than lover, I was always the one moving away from partners or letting them move without me. With him, though, it’s different. It’s decisive without even having to decide. It’s deliberate without deliberation. The minute it became clear we might have a shot at this, I packed up, shipped out, and did what I needed to do to make it happen.

Idon’t know everything there is to know about love, but I do now know for sure that love is marked by:

  • Conviction. Certainty so strong, aggressive and self-assured that it’s calm.
  • Choosing. Work, action, and taking blows for what you want.

Love isn’t in the feathery, fuzzy parts — it’s in the biting cold and aching joints and anything and everything you endure to have it.

“You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

When you want something badly enough, you take the bad with the good. Which means you endure 17 hours of midwest winter winds by motorcycle — easy — if that’s what it takes.

Love is deciding,

“What sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with.” — Gilbert, Big Magic

And then it’s committing to it, thick and thin, hot, cold, shivering, aching.

As david miranda wrote, it’s commitment that’s submission to the unknown:

“The unknown of what’s ahead, leaving one life to embark on another… the vulnerability of submitting to the heart and being content with either outcome.”

Love is not about about what makes you feel good — it’s about what you’re passionate enough about that you can endure the worst aspects.

If you love and want something enough, you’ll not only eat the “shit sandwich” — you’ll do it happily. If you don’t want the shit sandwich, you don’t want it badly enough.

It’s not about pain. It’s about enduring. It’s about working and making it work.

Love is caring enough to endure. It’s chasing shit down, hardship and all.

April 2017, North Carolina

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