A Journey Through Nothing Surrounding by Nothing

Another post from the "Way Back Machine," first published in August of 2005


 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A middle-aged man wakes up one day and decides he just has to have a motorcycle. I thought so. That was me.

I could fill pages with the run up to this decision, all having to do with my larger journey to find some new sense of self as I approach my 50th birthday. It’s the kind of urge that you either understand and can identify with, or you dismiss as a man’s weak rationalization for an infantile longing to channel his inner Steve McQueen.

Yeah, I bought a motorcycle. Not just any motorcycle, a Ducati: The Italian super bike poster-child for high style, high performance, and super sexuality. That may be a slight overstatement, but let’s face it; you don’t buy a hyper-erotic Italian bat-out-of-hell fashion statement as an exercise in deductive logic. If that were the case, you’d buy a BMW, or maybe just stay home with a good book. Ducati, some buy it for who they already are, some for whom they long to be.

The truth is, it’s not possible to think about motorcycles without immediately heading towards the psychological implications of buying and riding one. There is a certain level risk if not danger, rebel imagery, the whole “put something powerful between your legs” thing, and the fact that your mother, girlfriend and/or wife at some point forbade that you ride one. It’s a regular psychiatrist’s cornucopia.

Prior to buying the Duc I decided to take a motorcycle safety class. This is a good idea. The classroom work is useful and the two weekends spent on a riding range are invaluable. During the odd moments of boredom I found myself wondering about my fellow classmates, and later, about the people I’ve met in motorcycle stores and on the road since. I’ve decided that the motorcycle universe, at least here in the US, can be roughly divided into the following classifications.

The young, hair-on-fire set. These guys just want to go fast and not do something stupid while posing on Alkai Avenue (in West Seattle) or wherever the urban meat market is in your town. They want in the worst way to ride the latest, fastest, usually Japanese built, bullet bike around. They should probably not get their wish.

There are the women riders who appear to come in two general flavors. The first is the Roman Holiday-Audrey Hepburn set. They ride scooters and smaller displacement bikes as a means of stylish, practical transportation. The others have spent time on the back of a Harley and now think they should get their turn up front. They should get their wish.

There are the rebels and rebel wanna-bes. The later are largely middle-aged men who now have the means and the motivation to buy a Harley, a derivative like the Victory, the periodically relaunched Indian, or one of many Japanese aspirants, and all the gear that goes with it. (Depending on your point of view, only the Harley counts.) They spend weekends looking scary and channeling their inner James Dean, Marlon Brando, or Sonny Barger. I’ve met a fair number of these guys over the years and most do really prosaic stuff like mortgage banking, public accounting, work assembly lines, and so on. The former are the real deal. I haven’t met any that I know of and don’t feel a particular need to do anything about that.

There are the grand tourisatas. At some point this was probably just a Harley subset, but over the years has been expanded by various makes and models, most notably the truly titanic Honda Gold Wing. In the world of two wheeled transportation, there is nothing more lavish, more comfortable, or more blatantly excessive. There are cars that weigh less and that have fewer features. I’ve never ridden one and don’t intend to in fear that I might like it.

Finally, there are the euro-fans. These come in many flavors and classifications, each rabidly preferring some brand like BMW (also known as the Rolling Rolex), Ducati, Aprillia, Triumph, Moto Guzzi, MV Agusta, KM, and so on. These are not cheap bikes; not cheap to buy and not cheap to maintain. While you might see someone under the age of 40 riding one, you won’t see many. No, these are mostly statements of middle-aged virility and power, sometimes fleeting and nearly forgotten, but not for those moments of pure, unadulterated two-wheeled affirming excitement.

Like any sweeping generalization, these are gross and crude and leave out many classifications and sub classifications (old bikes, old British bikes, specific kinds of old British bikes, old Harleys, etc.).  If I were writing an authoritative history, I suppose it would matter. What was and is interesting to me is how many middle aged guys decide to buy a motorcycle; either for the first time, or again after the long season of responsible parenting has finally come and gone.

I’ll admit it, most of us middle-aged guys look mostly silly with our sagging butts and guts swathed in bike brand appropriate protective gear, our thinning and graying hair smooshed all about by our high tech helmets (and you’re an idiot if you don’t wear one). For the record, it’s only a mid-life crisis if you hide behind elaborate rationalizations. If you’re man enough to just say, “Because I wanted one, I had the means, so I bought it,” it’s not a crisis. It’s an affirmation, maybe even a catharsis. You get bonus points if you say something like, “I decided to do something just for me.”

I actually looked at and rode a fair number of bikes before I landed on the doorstep of Seattle Ducati. It’s a classy establishment that only lacks for a couple of tables and chairs and a big espresso machine to be perfect. They had me at “Hi.”

The model I bought is one of the least pretty bikes Ducati makes—a Multistrada 1000DSS—but it’s also the most useable. By way of contrast, bikes like the 916, 999, and the 750ss are stunning to look at and regularly appear in the collections of the MOMA, Guggenheim, etc. But I’m not under the impression you’d want to cover any great distances on any of them.

Truthfully, I felt a bit intimidated when I bought the Multi. It’s not small, not cheap, and it has this legendary name on the side of it. The last time I rode a high performance bike was easily twenty years ago, and before that 1980. Between then and now I’ve ridden scooters a fair amount, but that’s about it.

The difference between a Ducati and anything I’ve ever owned, or anything I rode long ago is hard to describe. Suffice it to say the divide is immense: The difference between an F-16 and a Cessna comes to mind.

Ducati takes great pride in its Multistrada or “all road” bike. It has the lean angle, suspension, and all-around capability to do some serious back road strafing, with the riding position and comfort of a traditional all purpose touring bike. Like any compromise, it gives away performance at the fringes—it’s not as nimble, fast, or aggressive as a true sport bike, nor as comfortable and relaxed as a true touring bike—but by any reasonable standard, the levels of performance in any dimension are astonishingly high.

Insurance companies aren’t big fans of motorcycles in general and high performance bikes in particular. Mine is a liter bike (992cc engine displacement) which qualifies it as a big bike, and depending on the insurance company, the VIN number pops it up as either a MTS1000S or a Monster. It’s not actually the later: A “Monster” is a different bike, but the name doesn’t sound responsible and it gets the underwriters all lathered up.

Here’s the deal. Any motorcycle for sale in the US today can break the national speed limit, and many can break it by a comfortable margin in every gear. The most important difference between a low performance and a high performance bike is truly that the later does everything so much better. And why wouldn’t you want that, particularly if it’s just you, wrapped in a few yards of leather or fabric with some plastic armor on different parts of your body?

In the grand scheme of things, I’m as good a risk as an insurance company is going to find. I don’t have a death wish, I have a family I love, and I have assets to protect. I’ve taken riding safety courses and read everything I can find on the physics of making a motorcycle go, turn, and stop safely. And after recently riding 1500 miles in four days, I’m here to tell you that I love the bike and I can’t imagine why I would want to ride anything with less performance.

So yes, I want a bike that stops RIGHT NOW, goes around corners like it’s on rails, is unflappable in all but the weirdest of conditions, and can get up and go RIGHT NOW. In this case I believe, just like Karl Rove, that the best defense is a good offense. Have the equipment (and training) to put you and the bike where you want it, when you want it.

 

The Big Ride

I spent the first six weeks of ownership getting to know the Duc. Mostly this meant getting up at some stupid-early time every Saturday morning and riding for a couple of hours. I hit the 600 mile break-in reasonably quickly without any untoward event and only a couple of sloppy excursions to the wrong side of the road whilst learning how to get the bike properly leaned over for a sharp turn. My goal in all this, besides the obvious, was to prep for a trip I meant to take with a long time friend named Ron.

It’s actually his doing that I wound up owning a bike. That’s probably unfair. He’s not that hypnotic. But I’ve known Ron a long time and he and I have accompanied each other on more than a view adventures involving motor vehicles over the past 30 or so years. A few months back he began chirping about buying a bike, and, well, it kind of lit a fuse.

The trip we had in mind was to meet in Ontario, Oregon, which is about ten feet from Idaho, and vaguely midway between Seattle where I live and Salt Lake City where he’s from. I say vaguely because it’s closer to Salt Lake, but we both left about the same time and arrived about the same time, having both taken circuitous all back road routes to get there over the previous two days.

Packing for a bike trip is a wholly different proposition than any other kind of travel I’m used to. I can fly and stay gone for weeks with a small shoulder bag and a laptop. Traveling in a car requires about no thought and less art when it comes to kit. You just throw a bunch of stuff into bags, and bags into the boot, and off you go. Touring on a motorcycle is vastly different. You can only carry so much volume and weight before the whole exercise become absurd.

Some advocate in favor of some rain gear, clean socks, and a credit card. Conceptually I get that . . . it’s not a lot different from how I travel for business. But the thought of traipsing across vast stretches of nothing on the way to nowhere stirred me to load my two hard side bags and tank bag and enough clothing, tools kits, and assorted paraphernalia to last me far longer than I intended to be gone, and to cover a wide range of contingencies short of an alien attack (which I figured I would attempt to outrun if one occurred).

I’m not one to anthropomorphize mechanical things (I’ve never named my cars for instance and I don’t routinely assign genders to things) but in the run-up to my departure, I had the very distinct feeling that the bike was giving off an, “Okay, fine, load up whatever you want but let’s get going!” kind of vibe.

 

Day 1

I was determined not to ride on super slab any more than I had to, which by the end of the trip amounted to less than ten miles. As I’ve already said, I rode nearly 1500 miles in four days. That may or may not seem like a lot of driving, but it surely is a lot of riding. The last day I rode 450 miles in an effort to get home by dinner. A week later and my fingertips were still tingling and my backside still a bit sore.

On the recommendation of a good friend, I started the fun part of the trip with a crossing of Chinook Pass which goes up and around the side of Mt. Rainier. That same crossing also figured in my return route home, and both coming and going, the big rock was out in plain view, and a stunning site it was. The route takes you up and through Mt. Rainier Park, alternating between the cool shade of towering trees to dazzling views of mountain and valley as you descend the eastern slope and head into the vast, dry lonesome of eastern Washington.

The crossing officially ends in Naches (at least in my mind it does) where I gassed the Duc and shed several layers of insulation. The Texaco station and assorted related shops seems to draw bikers of all sorts and several of us found ourselves engaged in the pleasantly mindless banter you’d expect from the setting.

“Nice bike.”

“Yeah, yours too.”

“Where are you coming from?”

“Seattle.”

“Where you headed?”

“Walla Walla. You?”

“Just riding around.”

Meaningless to be sure, but oddly comforting. In case you’ve never noticed, people on bikes religiously tip a left hand to each other as they pass going in opposite directions. Sometimes it’s a shrug of the hand, sometimes two fingers off the grip, sometimes a full wave. But it’s always there. Regardless of what you ride, you’re part of the clan when your helmet is on the motor is running. Stopping to take in the scenery will almost always cause passing bikers to slow as they signal to make sure you’re alright. Comforting indeed. I know I’m not like that when I drive a car. My guess is they aren’t either.

When people think about Washington and Oregon they think of big trees and lots of rain. Fair enough. That’s life west of the Cascades. East of the Mountains is another matter, at least until you get to the National Forests over by Idaho. In between is a lot of nothing surrounded by a lot of nothing. Like any good line, it’s true and it’s not true.

Make no mistake about it; there is a lot of wide open territory with very, very little punctuation. And it’s a lot of shades of brown this time of year. But, and this will sound hackneyed, it just looks different on a motorcycle, or at least it looked different to me. I can think of at least two reasons why this is so.

The first is that you’re much more inside the scenery than you are while driving a car. You sit a bit higher, you feel the temperature changes, you smell the smells, you feel the wind come up as the day wears on, you get buffeted by passing trucks. You have to pay way more attention to what’s going on all around you. In all ways, you’re just more involved.

The second is surely a function of the fact that the route I had picked for myself was designed to maximize interesting back roads. So I had an expectation that I would be seeing and experiencing the ride vs. enduring the time it took to get from point A to point B. I suppose this is the trite part: The ride was the whole point. It was about the journey and not the destination. I know, I know. But it’s true.

At Toppenish I hooked south on Route 97 through the Yakima Indian reservation towards Goldendale and from there to Route 14 which hugs the Columbia River gorge on the north side. It’s one of those roads that passes through miles of nothing, except that the nothing is beguiling if you look. Brown becomes subtle shades of gold, brown, yellow, green, and black. The terrain rolls away from you in all directions, tipping up and then swinging out of view as the road arcs this way and then that. Long stretches suck you forward with all the velocity you think prudent and then some. The Duc is stable as a rock at highly extra-legal speeds, the few passings I needed to make came and went with a flick of the throttle.

As the day wore on the wind came up. It’s surely noticeable in a car but really gets your attention on a motorcycle. I found myself crouching low over the Duc’s tank, tucking my helmet close to the short sports screen, eyes riveted on the road winding towards me.

The Columbia is a mighty, muscular river swollen by numerous hydro-electric dams along its length. I grew up in another part of the county and tend to associate the idea of rivers (or water for that matter) with green nearby. In this case, there’s nearly none of that, at least not at this time of year. It was dry, hot, brown, and getting windier as I went. I pulled hard on the throttle and headed east as the sun was reaching for the horizon behind me. That night I made it to Walla Walla, home to Washington State’s burgeoning wine industry and the singularly wonderful sweet onions marketed under the town’s name.

 

Day 2

I started the day in Walla Walla and meant to be in Ontario by 6:00 PM. Beyond that, I had only a vague sense of how I would get there which is just how I wanted it.

Unless you look at a map, no part of the routing I took will make sense, and if you’re just intent on getting there, the route makes even less sense. I picked roads that wiggled and waggled out of town, gained altitude (with me stopping repeatedly to add layers), and finally put me in Elgin, Oregon astride Route 82 which makes a big loop from Cascade around and down to Baker City. You could take HWY 84 between the two and get the trip done in about an hour. It took me two days.

From Elgin I continued to rotate east and then south, skirting the edge of the Wallowa Mountains on one side and Hells Canyon on the other. This is a land of extravagant scenery, the road breaking out of the mountain cut roads onto a broad plateau and thence into high Alpine country that is a dead ringer for any number of places in Switzerland, Austria, or France. Stunning.

It wouldn’t be a motorcycle trip if I didn’t get lost at least once. Lost is a pretty conceptual thought when you’re trying hard to find every obscure road you can in order to wring every twist and turn out before day’s end. But I got lost which in this case means I wound up heading south from Imnaha along the river of the same name, bumping along a gravel road at 35 miles per hour for the better part of an hour. The truth is, it is a gloriously beautiful valley, the view curving out of sight mile after slow mile. The problem was, the Duc wasn’t happy waggling along in loose gravel, nor was I. 

I finally made Ontario, Oregon after finding my way back to God’s own asphalt. I never thought I’d be happy to see a stretch of black bisected by a yellow line, but on this day, I was and then some. Ron had arrived at the designated hotel a couple of hours before me. We ended our day at a local brew pub swilling on pints, scarfing on two-fisted burgers, and regaling each other with tales of the ride, children, wives, and the varied and various small and large events we’ve filled our lives with.

Random thought: Why do chipmunks cross the road? A hundred times during the ride, I would be planing along at warp nine making all sorts of racket, and some chipmunk would decide it just had to be on the other side of the road RIGHT NOW. Why then? What’s on the other side of the road that just can’t wait? From my vantage point, both sides look pretty much the same. In some cases, the side they were running to looked a whole lot less hospitable than the side they were coming from. Weird.

 

On Being Butch

I think the biggest treat of the trip might have been meeting Butch. I found him in Wallowa, Oregon, just as I was leaving town. I was about four seconds from cracking open the throttle when a sign to my right caught my eye.

“Hot Dogs.”

Something about that sounded really tasty, and the place did have an undeniable charm, so I circled back, parked my bike and walked up to the window, there to meet Butch.

Butch is a former county cop who grew up and served all around the county I was then sitting in. Not long ago before I met him he decided he’d had enough of wearing a badge and bought a former filling station and garage to house his ambition for a different life. It’s now just about the cutest little espresso, Italian soda, hot dog, Dr. Pepper place you’ll ever see. The latte and hot dog set me back a whole $4.50 and Butch brought it out to me and sat down to talk.

I think Butch is the answer to the question, “Why do people live here?” Well, he grew up around here, served in the military, and came back. Why not? It’s where he’s from and where he wants to be.

One thing led to another and I asked him about the place and that’s when it came out that he was a former cop. So you know where that led.

 “I left for two reasons, I guess. It got to be all about revenue and all about death.” Isn’t that just it in a nutshell I thought? 

“It used to be that it was about ‘protect and serve.’ It’s still about that, but mostly it’s about writing tickets and collecting revenue. There’s no discretion any more. Sometimes someone has just screwed up or maybe had a spot of bad luck and you just want to help them out and cut them a break. Now, they tell you, ‘times are tough, and if you don’t write tickets, there will be layoffs.’”

I guess I thought that was what was going on, but it sure doesn’t feel right. Not to me and apparently not to Butch. Something is just flat wrong when we turn to things like lotteries, tobacco lawsuits, and speeding tickets to fund what most people would regard as basic services.

It was the death part that seemed particularly poignant. To the extent that I ever think about death, I suppose that I associate it with the pressure and craziness of urban living. It turns out I’m wrong. Butch had seen one too many fatalities out on the road, including the self-inflicted kind (aiming at a guard rail, hitting it hard, and catapulting over the edge and down 400 feet: Butch got to tell her parents that their daughter committed suicide; ugh). Butch had also seen one too many murders, many of people he grew up with by people he grew up with. I guess living in a small town doesn’t remove you from all the pressures and demons of making sense of your own life.

“I started to feel leathery” he said. “Good word,” I thought.

“When I started, I met people who didn’t really care about death any more. It didn’t affect them. I thought it was pretty weird. Later, I realized it was happening to me. That’s when I knew it was over. That’s when I knew I had to get out while there was still something of me left.”

So he bought the former gas station and garage that went with it to see if he could make a different kind of life.

For the record, he makes a great latte and an even better Italian soda. Stop and see him on your way through Wallowa.

 

Day 3

Packed, gassed, and caffeinated, Ron and I headed back into the teeth of the ride I had just finished the day before. Hells Canyon and the surrounding country is positively sublime. The roads twist every which way, the vistas stagger the imagination, and the signs of the might, violence, and raw power of nature are everywhere. It’s the kind of country that makes a man feel mighty small.

I (and we) rode through a lot of small towns on this trip, the kind of towns you just wouldn’t see unless you specifically planned to either go there, or wander through because you were trying hard to take the most obscure routes you could find.

Riding through, each town seemed charming, though I suspect the locals just think of them as “town” or “home” or maybe even something less affectionate. In most cases, my first thought was, “I wonder why people live here?” No doubt many former residents wondered the same thing and that’s why they’re former. But I’m quite certain that others look at places like Seattle and wonder the same thing in reverse. In fact, in particularly tiny Ukiah, Oregon, I met a woman who had just relocated from a lifetime of living in Portland, and this place is only about two miles from absolutely nowhere.

It’s not like you get to see all that much of the towns just riding through. They all seem to have at least one nifty old brick building with the faint outlines of some past advertisement on the side. Some have many. All have a school proudly announcing their mascot (Wolves, Wolverines, Pilots, Pirates, etc.) and the day the kids are expected back for the next school year. All have at least one church, some more than one, and in this part of the country, all are some version of Protestantism.

Our ride took us north along Hells Canyon (deepest river canyon in North America), back through Joseph, Wallowa to see Butch again, and thereafter around the arc of Route 84 to finally land us in Baker City in the early evening.

Passing through Cove, Oregon—a particularly small town on a particularly out of the way route—I began to think, “I wonder who owns the biggest house in this town? I wonder who the richest family is.” You know there is one of each in every small town everywhere in the world. In fact, three are a zillion stories in each town that differ only in detail from the next town: The one about the richest family, the one that left for the big city and made it big, the football star who amounted to nothing, the girl who got pregnant, and  the family that lost everything.

And then we were gone through town and headed across the landscape towards the next, there to wonder the same things all over again.

At least once it occurred to me that the locals might have similar musings about all the people coming through town on the way to somewhere down the road. I stopped in a lot of these towns to get gas (this was the sort of territory where running the tank close to empty felt like a bad idea) and stretch my legs. The folks I did talk with seemed awfully nice and there were often young men who would shout out “nice bike” and maybe even want to stop and talk. Mostly I’m sure that my coming and going (and later our when I was riding with Ron) was cause for about zero comment and less thought. Just another couple of guys on motorcycles, interesting only because we weren’t on the dominant species, harleydavidssonsauraus

Baker City was to be our last night together as we intended to part company and head to our respective homes the next day. Another artery clogging meal and more good conversation about all the same topics as before. There is something about riding motorcycles through God’s own backyard that brings out the philosopher in a fellow.

Baker City is a swell place for sure, billing itself as “The Premier Rural Living Experience in the Pacific Northwest.” That’s really what they say. I wouldn’t recommend staying over night there unless you can get a room in the Geiser Grand Hotel. The other alternatives are the grimmest sort of American roadside motel around, but the GG is a true gem, an Italianate, Victorian extravaganza that is steeped in history, historical firsts, and millions of dollars of dearly spent renovation dollars. I don’t know that it’s worth going to B-City just to stay at the Geiser, but it might be.

 

Day 4

Day four was to be a big one. My route home took me up the spine of the Wallowa -Whitman National Forest, out across the high desert of eastern Oregon and then north to hook up with the Columbia river at Umatilla, and thereafter to retrace my route along route 14, north at Alderdale to Mabton, and then west to Naches, the Chinook Pass, and home.

I found a website that says that “the Wallowa -Whitman National Forest contains 2.3 million acres ranging in elevation from 875 feet in Hells Canyon (North America's deepest river gorge), to 9845 feet in the Eagle Cap Wilderness . . . The Forest ranges from the Blue Mountains and rugged Wallowa Mountains down to the spectacular canyon country of the Snake River on the Idaho border. It is the largest National Forest administrative unit in the Pacific Northwest Region.” Good to know.

I’ve been a lot of places, usually thinking to go to some far off place when it comes to vacationing. I’ve been to the Alps, the far reaches of Scotland, the English Lake District, the South African cape, the Great Barrier Reef, and the forests of Tasmania just to name a couple of pretty special places. Yes, I realize that leaves off great huge swaths of fabulous things to see at all points of the compass, but having just ridden 1500 miles through eastern Washington and Oregon (and a bit of Idaho), I don’t recall any of them trumping the American West for breathtaking scenery.

The American west is stunning in a grand, sweeping way. Even in 90+ heat in what really felt like the middle of nowhere, I couldn’t help but feeling humbled. Us humans stride the earth, plow the earth, torture the earth, and often make a perfect hash of the earth, but we are truly little more than pilot fish in the cosmic scheme of things. In the stillness inside my helmet (I wear ear plugs), watching the span of forest, river, mountain, plain, and desert unfold before and around me, alone on a 450 pound motorcycle, it was easy to feel pretty insignificant in a profound, awe-inspiring, comforting way.

I found that as I rode, the visual/photographer in me argued with the motorcycle rider in me. I would see something I liked and think, “I should stop and take a picture.”

“Why?”

“Well, because that’s what I do?”

“Why?”

“So I can show it to people?”

“Why?”

“To prove that I was there.”

“Why does that matter?”

And so it went.

Later in the ride I had a similar dialog with myself. I was riding alone through some particularly breathtaking stretch of forest, going along at a pretty good clip when I began to think, “You should slow down and enjoy the scenery. You may never be back this way again.”

And immediately following, “So what’s wrong with just feeling the place? Why does standing and looking at something seem more valid that flowing through it and just taking it in?”

For someone who so greatly prizes his intellect and ability to think things through, the part about just feeling the scenery, the bike, the road felt profound to me. To say that riding through a stretch of country (regardless of what it looks like) is different from driving through in a car is like saying that driving through it is different than flying over it in a plane. Duh. It’s not even close.

Descending through the Mt. Rainier Forest, less than two hours from home I once again found myself riding through some of the most achingly beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. I also found myself grumping about the fact that a couple or screws had fallen out of my fairing a couple of days previous. Not a critical thing as I was able to stick things back together with some duct tape. But there I was, carving through the forests of the western Cascades with nobody around imaging conversations I would be having with the nice people back at the Ducati dealer about two 35 cent screws. What a dope.

Of course when I went to the dealer it went nothing like I imagined. The good news is I caught myself mentally polluting one of the finest days I can remember experiencing. The bad news is I probably won’t remember the lesson nearly long enough now that I’m back in the real world.

 

Kevin Hoffberg