From American Borders
In 1995 I traveled around the United States on a Russian Ural sidecar motorcycle that was designed in 1938 and built in 1994. While I could have chosen a more conventional and reliable motorcycle, the Ural enticed me with unique qualities from a previous era — the graceful lines, the sidecar, the sound of its engine. I’d ridden many bikes since I learned to ride as a teenager, but I had never actually traveled by motorcycle until I was 28, when I somewhat accidentally ended up alone in Europe. Because a woman traveling alone is an oddity, and doubly so if she is traveling by motorcycle, people often ask, “Aren’t you scared?”
Back then the answer was yes, but today I can honestly answer no. On that first trip, I learned to face my fears, and not let them get in the way of my dreams. So the story of this journey really begins with that first, accidental, solo tour.
I was twenty-four when I married a man who seemed to share my desire to travel, but four long years passed before we made real plans to go. Once the date was set, the arrangements were left to me, as my husband was busy with a big project at work. I rented two Honda 750’s to be picked up in Milan, made lists of gear, bought guidebooks, phrasebooks, and detailed maps to plan our route. But when it came time to book the trip, he backed out.
I was angry and disappointed because we hadn’t taken a real vacation in four years—since our honeymoon. Also, because we had been dreaming of this trip since we had been dating, and it had been delayed too many times.
Of all my emotions, anger won out. I booked my own airline ticket and cancelled his motorcycle, then presented him with the itinerary and motorcycle rental agency information so he could make his own arrangements. He conceded that he might join me for the last two weeks of the trip, if the project was completed. He didn’t try to talk me out of going, or suggest a new date that would be more convenient for him.
I thought he would relent, but when the day came, he drove me to the airport and I boarded the plane alone. Several hours into my flight, panic set in. Until then, anger and disappointment had obscured all other emotions, most notably, fear: fear about the future of my marriage, and fear about traveling alone. I considered turning back once I arrived in Milan, but when the plane landed, I boarded the train, determined to keep my appointment to pick up the motorcycle, which was to be delivered to me at Milan’s Central Station.
The man who rode it there was in a hurry to catch a train back home, so after a quick review of the features of the bike, I was left alone in the midst of people purposefully going about their lives. Trying to match their confidence, I loaded gear from my duffle bag into the panniers, arranged my Milan map in its place on the tank bag, and headed south to a large youth hostel where I had decided to spend the night.
Milan is a large, confusing city built in concentric circles, and no matter what I did, I kept ending up back at Central Station. The street signs, embedded in the stonework of the buildings, were nearly impossible to read in the fading afternoon light, and traffic was unrelentingly aggressive. It was dusk when two cars in front of me collided, stopping traffic. The drivers got out with voices booming and fists clenched. When a young man on a Moto Guzzi pulled up beside me, I took advantage of the delay to ask him for directions. When he realized that I could not understand him, he led me through a maze of side-streets to the hostel’s door. There, I fell into a deep sleep, despite the excited chatter of the young travelers who shared my dormitory.
The next day I took the autostrada to Genoa, then turned west at the coast. I ate lunch standing up in a zinc bar-café crowded with construction workers who were gulping tiny cups of espresso, stopped at a market for supplies, and found a campground on a bluff above San Remo. I pitched my tent, enjoyed the sunset, and slept soundly. In the morning I packed up and, just a few kilometers down the road, crossed the border into France.
By then my anger had subsided and I was alternating between two emotional states: numbness, and extreme self-pity. After all, I was visiting places my husband and I had planned to visit together— the Riviera, the casinos of Monte Carlo, the Roman ruins of Arles. Each evening I set up my tent in a campground filled with couples and families from all over Europe, cooked a quick dinner over my camp stove and washed it down with wine. I went to sleep early so I could rise early for another day of riding, of experiencing all the sights and smells we were supposed to experience together.
The day I was to visit Carcassone—one of Europe’s perfectly preserved medieval villages and the destination I’d looked forward to most—I’d been riding for a week. By then I had called home several times, and my husband had hinted that he might still join me at some point on the trip. Riding up to Carcassone, I saw a telephone booth and stopped, because suddenly, I had to know. Plunking in some coins, I waited for the clicks and silences that meant the call was going through, and the remote, tinny sound of a telephone ringing in California.
“Hello… it’s me.”
“Hey, I’ve missed you!” His enthusiasm thrilled me for a moment.
“I’ve missed you,” I responded automatically. It was true.
“I don’t know why I let you go alone,” he said. Oh no, here was that again. The only way he could stop me from going alone, I’d told him, was by going with me.
“I don’t know, either,” I replied. “But you could still meet me for a couple of weeks.”
There was a moment of silence, then a sigh. “I can’t come,” he said. “I’m really sorry.”
I wanted to be brave and say it was okay, but my heart had just frozen and I said nothing.
I cut him off. “Okay. I just needed to know. Well, I’m out of coins. I have to say goodbye.”
I hung up the phone and stood for a moment in the hot glass telephone booth, sweating in my leather jacket. When I stepped out into the warm breeze, I felt disoriented, but strangely lighter. Toward Carcassone, the smooth black asphalt wound through small villages and farms, past fields dotted with yellow flowers where black and white dairy cows grazed. My map was neatly laid out in its holder on the tank bag, the route precisely highlighted. Ahead, the sky was dark, black clouds gathering, and when my turnoff appeared I surprised myself by veering away toward a sunny blue sky. The road became a series of switchbacks that led up a mountain, and soon deteriorated into a mere path that abruptly ended at an outcropping of rocks and a small medieval village. My wheels thumped across a wooden bridge that was lowered over a moat and I passed under a wide, arched doorway to find that the village had been invaded by a traveling carnival. I parked the Honda in a crowd of motorbikes and scooters and proceeded to explore the town, an anonymous tourist amongst the clowns and the music. Children lined up for carousel rides and others gathered around a puppet show in the village square. I bought a pink cotton candy cone and strolled down some rough-hewn stairs to a wide balcony overlooking the surrounding countryside. Rain was falling on Carcassone, but here it was cloudless and sunny.
When I returned to the Honda, two elderly Frenchmen were circling it, examining the luggage racks and talking excitedly. They wanted to know where I was going, but my French wasn’t good enough to explain so I took my carefully marked map from the tank bag to show them my route. They gave me lots of nods and smiles and, with my limited French, I understood they’d been in World War II and had known some American soldiers. They wished me a bon voyage and, as I left, I tucked the map deep into my pack instead of returning it to its spot on the tank. Heading down the mountain again, I again turned away from the clouds and up the first road that led to a clear blue sky.
I rode aimlessly for long time that day, traveling on country roads, chasing the sun. When the clouds shifted, I shifted with them. I crossed roads I’d crossed before, and even passed through the same village three times. On the third time through I stopped at the marketplace and bought a baguette, some Brie, Nutella, and fresh strawberries, assembling them into a sandwich to eat on a bench in the little town square by the fountain. Villagers passed, wishing me bon appetit. Back on the motorcycle, I circled around again. The clouds lifted. I followed the signs to Carcassone, found a campground on a hill above town, and settled in. Each night until then I had studied my maps obsessively and talked to no one. Each day I had kept strictly to the routes I had planned. That night I squeezed in between a German couple in a tent and an English family in a caravan. I offered them chunks of chocolate I’d bought in the market and was offered a beer in return. The Germans were going to the Algarve, the English family to the Amalfi Coast, both repeat destinations for them. I listened intently as they described the emerald green seas of the Portuguese coast and the charming hill villages of Italy.
That night I slept soundly until I was disturbed by something repeatedly striking my tent. Wondering if I’d camped underneath a nut tree, I unzipped the tent and searched around with my flashlight. A movement on the other side of the campground’s chain-link fence caught my attention and I shone my flashlight onto a man who was masturbating furiously. He grinned lasciviously and didn’t stop. Outraged, I marched to the manager’s house at the campground entrance and banged on the door. The bewildered proprietor answered and I went about the difficult task of attempting to describe the event in my very limited French. Finally, I resorted to miming— a short and embarrassing moment for both of us, but effective, because he suddenly looked at me with understanding and shouted, “Pierre!”
“Pierre… il est fou!” he explained, twirling a finger around his ear. A harmless crazy, I understood him to mean and, as I stomped back to bed, the proprietor got dressed and went to deal with Pierre.
At breakfast, my neighbors were astonished and amused by my story, an entertaining tale that I would tell again and again in campgrounds all across France.
When the Germans headed for the Algarve and the English to the Amalfi Coast, I secured my tent and motorcycled the short distance to Carcassone. It was all that I had imagined it to be. A thirteenth century UNESCO World Heritage site, the city had been restored to a pristine state. Walking up stone staircases, worn smooth by so many footsteps before mine, I was humbled by the long sweep of history, compared with the tiny blip my life represented. It put things in perspective and made me realize how truly trivial it was that my marriage had failed.
My marriage had failed.
That afternoon the deal was sealed because who should come rolling into camp but a lanky traveler on a bicycle, eyes wild and blue in a tanned, freckled face. His hair was long and streaked by the sun from nine months traveling in Southern Europe. As he went about a long-practiced routine of setting up camp, I admired the strength of his body from bicycling thousands of miles, the economy of his movements, his competence, independence, and calm demeanor. We made small talk that afternoon but by evening we were making wild love in my tent. It was as if I had summoned him; a pagan god to help me begin my new life.
We stayed in Carcassone for two more days and then he climbed on the back of my motorcycle and we skirted the Pyrenees and headed toward the Atlantic Coast. The motorcycle engine rumbled as his hands lightly held my hips, wandering, searching, making me laugh hysterically. I rode aggressively, taking curves fearlessly, speeding on the highways and bumping down rough roads. We camped wherever we landed, on beaches or woods or outside the walls of ancient villages.
He was a quiet man who busied himself with cleaning the camp stove, meticulously organizing items in their proper places, and carving small shapes from bones he’d found on a Greek beach. He gave me one, a curved ellipse that fit my thumb. I rubbed it like a genie’s lamp. His voice was soft but his words were deliberate, well enunciated, a habit acquired from having to speak slowly and clearly to foreigners for nine months. We did not talk about knowing each other in the future.
He was twenty-four and had already traveled nearly every continent. I was astounded at his certainty and confidence and also at his willingness to spend so much time alone in foreign places. He had many traits that I valued and wanted to cultivate in myself. I had longed to travel since my teens but it had never, ever occurred to me to go alone. I was here now only because I had boarded that plane out of pride and anger, and, maybe, a subconscious realization that my marriage was not going to work. Thanks to this new man, I was no longer mourning.
We lost track of time. One Sunday, because all the shops were closed, we gathered wild strawberries and stole some potatoes from the edge of a garden for our dinner. We camped in a forest and felt like vagabonds.
There was a storm that night with thunder and bolts of lightening that split the sky. We ran naked in the warm rain and slipped in the mud, scraped our backs against the trees, screamed and laughed with abandon in the woods. The ground shook with the power of the thunder, as if the entire earth shared our passion. Finally, we rinsed our shivering bodies in a swollen rushing stream, then curled up in our sleeping bags, exhausted, to get ready for whatever the next day might bring.
When I returned to California I packed up a bare minimum of possessions and moved into a cottage in Santa Cruz. My friends were disapproving, but they gasped when they saw me. “You look great! What happened? You’ve lost weight! You’re so tan! What have you done to your hair?”
In less than a year, I was offered a technical writing project in France, and I wound up living in Europe for almost two years. When I came home I saw my country with new eyes, and started planning a motorcycle trip around the United States. Wishing to parlay my technical writing and travel experiences into a new career as a travel writer, I contacted an editor I’d met at a travel writing conference to propose a weekly series of dispatches to the Internet. Then I asked Ural if I they might want a test rider for one of their new imports. My timing was perfect and both parties said yes. The importers of the Ural were anxious to see if the motorcycle, newly modified for import to the United States, could successfully complete such a long journey. They knew it was likely to have some problems on American highways at American highway speeds, and they promised to be constantly available by phone to support me, sending parts if necessary, while they addressed the root cause of the problems at the factory. The Internet travelogue was a new concept in reality-based publishing and the editor was thrilled that I was a computer-savvy technical writer; he was having a difficult time finding writers who knew how to connect to email from the road. In 1995 email was a new concept in communication and the Internet was not yet widely known. My proposed route hugged the edges of the continental United States, on backroads following the coastlines and borders, and weaving in and out of Canada and Mexico. It was a long trip—up to ten thousand miles—with a loose estimated time frame of three to six months. With that kind of timeline, I didn’t care that the Ural’s top speed was sixty-five miles-per-hour downhill with the wind at my back. This was going to be a backroads trip and I didn’t want to be rushed. Bob Gerend, the founder and president of Ural America, met me at SeaTac Airport when I flew to Seattle to pick up the bike. As we drove to the Ural factory he told me stories about his trips to Russia. He had experienced gunfire in St. Petersburg and snuck through border checks in Siberia by keeping his fur hat on and his mouth shut. He made deals sealed with handshakes over lots of vodka. It was a new era for that country, which was in its first stages of its move to capitalism.
“They’ve been working under the communist system for so long that it’s difficult for them to get used to the concept of free enterprise and competition,” Bob told me, “but now it’s an employee-owned company, and it’s in their best interest to build a quality product. What we’ve done so far is to make sure that the best of the best parts get shipped to America. But we want to do more.”
The Ural warehouse in Bellevue, Washington was stacked high with wooden crates packed with straw, padding the partially disassembled motorcycles on their journey from Siberia. The place echoed with the clang of metal tools and the soft chug of an air compressor. We made our way around the stacks of machinery to an area set off by workbenches, and there was my Ural, dressed in sleek black paint that seemed poured over the curves of the tank, the fairing, the fenders, and the huge lump of the sidecar. It was everything I’d hoped for… unique and a little crazy.
I was introduced to the Russian mechanics and shook hands with Randy, the warehouse supervisor, who would be my technical contact. Then Bob and I rode to a nearby parking lot so he could teach me how to handle the sidecar. The bike rode more like a sports car than a motorcycle, requiring more upper than lower body action to turn it. On left turns it leaned heavily onto the sidecar wheel and on right turns the sidecar became lighter and could fly up into the air in a maneuver called “flying the chair” that was frightening and thrilling at the same time. It was important to learn how to handle it, he said, in case it happened unexpectedly on a quick turn at high speed.
After my lesson I loaded my gear into the sidecar to start my journey back to Santa Cruz on the Coast Highway. The scenery along this road is fantastic, making up for the fact that it is often foggy and cold, especially in summer. All along the road I returned waves from other motorcyclists, kids in minivans, old ladies, and truckers. It was a pleasant surprise. People loved this bike. It seemed to run nicely, and I quickly got used to its quirks, the way the sidecar pulled, its sounds in different gears, the kick-starter, and the handy reverse gear that would delight so many bikers during the trip. Somewhere near Bandol, I passed a white clapboard church on a neat blanket of grass facing the sea, then pulled into a gas station. The attendant walked out to help me. He was an unkempt man in his forties, with longish gray hair uncombed under his baseball cap. The sewn-on label of his blue-and-white uniform was embroidered with the name Bob, finished off with a Singer sewing-machine flourish. He handed me the nozzle.
“I’ve seen those overseas,” he told me, and then mentioned he was about to leave Oregon for Paris… again. He’d lived there for eleven years. “Can’t get good work here,” he said. “Hate to leave all this for Paris.” He waved his hand toward the ocean, glittering slate-gray under the clouds, then pointed to the soft, green hills. “It’s so peaceful here, but my wife is already there.” We practiced our French, and he surprised me with his accent— a northern, technical French that was fluent, slangy, and easy. He would work as a technician in a big new theater outside of Paris.
All the way back to Santa Cruz, people engaged me in conversation, curious about the bike and about my experience as a woman riding alone. And the same concern was almost always voiced: “Aren’t you scared?”
I tried to explain that my desire to travel was greater than my fear of traveling alone. Some understood, but most shook their heads and said, “You’re braver than I am.”