Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mile 1,482: Let the Good Times Roll

My boots are still wet. Good thing I have more than one pair. The fork bag attached to my handlebars was still soaked this morning, but all it took was some wind and sunshine to air it out. Leave it open, fly down the road, and let the warm sunrise reshape the memories.

The lingering cough is still with me from Monday night, an uncomfortable reminder in caveman terms that says, "Don't forget your rainsuit!" Don't worry; I won't. That aside, the effects of mild hypothermia have waned; and the ride to work this morning was a comfortable reminder that this past weekend was about good times. Let Monday fade away.

Let this morning's sunrise tell the story of a great weekend of riding.

Last Friday, when I rolled into camp at Mandatory, found a place for Rocinante to rest, and settled on a place to pitch my tent, I heard the sounds from an adjacent camp inviting us all to the party. In his unmistakable voice, B.B. King summoned us all: "Let the good times roll!" Over-and-over again he sang the refrain.

"Let the good times roll!"

It is hard to believe that was almost a week ago.

Early this morning, I could still hear B.B. echoing the invitation as I left my housing complex on the way to work. I passed the house near ours where a mother and daughter rescue feral cats. They are currently feeding five kittens, all of which bear the names imagined by a three-year-old girl with curly hair and an unending smile. She names them according to what she sees the most. And since we live in the neighborhood together, it comes as no surprise what she named the black one.


The allure of exploring new lands has to be a part of the general human condition. Some people choose boats. Others airplanes. Still others attach campers to vehicles. And then there's those of us who bungee tents to our fenders and find our way through life on two wheels.

That is what I choose to remember about the past weekend. Seeing members of my chosen family who also explore the world on two wheels... That is what means the most. That and the ride.

The ride.

The zone we hit on the curvy roads of Highway 71.
The desolate beauty of FM 152 where the sheriff stopped to make sure I was okay as I sat with Rocinante on the side of the road just listening to the wind.
Waking up each morning and crawling out of my tent to see my trusty steed waiting there for me with anticipation in her eyes: "Is it time to go?"

Then all those memories meld together, and somehow become a part of this morning's routine ride to work.

Out of the garage.
The sound of the motor roaring to life.
Past a kitten named "Motorcycle."
Running the gauntlet of a busy Houston thoroughfare.
Turning on to the quiet street lined with trees where my office waits.
My parking spot.
And the memory I choose to file from this weekend where the good rides far overshadow the bad one.

And B.B.'s voice continues the refrain.

Let the good times roll.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mile 1,438: Touch of Grey

I did not get worried until the sky in my mirrors turned green. Blackish-green. The foreboding color that would never be reproduced on a car paintjob or the walls of your kitchen.

Your best ride ever or your worst ride ever is usually the one you just finished. Granted, some days are just routine rides to work or the grocery store. Those do not count in this conversation. I am talking about long rides, vacation rides, the kind that involved hundreds of miles. You come home, take a deep breath, and either think, That was my favorite ride ever. Or you come home, take a deep breath, fall backwards onto your luggage, and wonder, Am I really home? Or am I still in the middle of that misery? 

I managed to achieve both within a single four-day weekend.

It started on Friday morning when my chapter and some guests met up on I-10 just west of Houston. We were supposed to meet up at 11:30, but when I arrived just after 10:30, Big Jew, Bill the Cat, and Wango Tango were already there waiting for me. Needless to say, we were all a tad eager to get on the road.

Once our crew assembled, we got on I-10 and fought it all the way to 71. We peeled off away from the endless train of cages and took control of Highway 71, what felt like at times a road all to ourselves.

Roaring up through the small hills and swooping curves of 71 on our way to Austin, none of us realized until we stopped for gas just how much we got into "the zone." Anyone who rides for years knows "the zone." It is that feeling of being so connected with your bike and the road that you think of absolutely nothing else. All the cares of the world fall by the wayside as your thinking goes into a tunnel, and all that matters is the road.

Later that night, Wango Tango would wax eloquently about the awesome ride where Big Jew and I led, and Bill the Cat and him formed in right behind us so that we were rolling down the highway "like four tires on a car." (Wango Tango's words, thank you very much.) The others, of course, were back there as well. But us "tires" had a zone-ride going that was the best ride ever. Pair that truth with the fact that Big Jew and I over the past three years have put down so many thousands of miles handlebar-to-handlebar--(not an exaggeration, by the way)--that for us to put down another couple of hundred that Friday was almost effortless. Natural. We have talked over the years about the uncanny ways that we actually know what the other one is about to do before we do it.

That best ride ever was only interrupted briefly by two construction zones and a handful of weirdos in Austin. But it was no time at all that we broke through to the other side, ready for more stunning Texas Hill Country scenery on our way to Llano.

More zone. More perfect weather. More fast curves.

We arrived at the site of our weekend run, a Memorial Day tradition we in the Gypsy Motorcycle Club call "Mandatory." That annual event has a reputation in the club for usually being a rain-soaked weekend. This one would be no exception.

Some had already arrived early on Thursday night, but others of us showed up on Friday, and even into Saturday morning. That night, the band was rocking, the dancing bordered on goofy at times, and the love of seeing family you do not get to see that often was as apparent as the nice, cool breeze.

One of my favorite people at runs is also one of my wife's favorite people. Her name is Ginger, and she sews on patches night and day under her canopy. When Ginger sews a patch on for me, it means my wife does not have to drag out the sewing machine, which is why Jen likes Ginger. Ginger also gives "quickies." And before you blush, a "quickie" from Ginger involves an old-fashioned back massager that looks like a belt sander that Ginger hoists into both hands and runs up and down your back. A wonderful way to ease the miles.

Friday night was fun. Saturday morning was an early morning of gate duty where I met up with Big Jew who had already been at the gate for an hour-and-a-half. (Thanks for the little extra sleep, Brother.)

Nice ride to the showers, mediocre lunch at a barbeque place, quiet afternoon nap in the tent, followed by a wild party at the New Iberia compound where our Louisiana chapters excel in having a good time.

The party was followed by a good night's rest, and a quiet Sunday morning with a handful of people who stuck around for just a little more Mandatory.

By Sunday afternoon, I was ready for a lonesome ride in the Texas Hill Country that found me in Castell, Texas, at a little country store serving homemade half-pound burgers. A few other Gypsys were already there, so we sat down for a couple of hours and enjoyed the afternoon. (More of that story is back at "Mile 1,151: Middle Story #2.")

My plan was to leave Mandatory first thing Monday morning, ride down to Fredricksburg, Kerrville, and Medina, just enjoying the twists and curves on a one-man-one-bike, out-of-the-way long ride home.


Being the weather junkie that I am, I decided late Sunday afternoon to check the radar. And there it sat, like a dragon at the edge of some knight's cave of old. A big green and yellow swath of rain and storms.

In what will go down in my personal history books as one of the stupidest decisions I have ever made, I decided to break camp, load up, ride down to Kerrville, get a hotel, and make the final call on Monday morning where I would go from there. Rain=Get on I-10 and head home; Clear=Deeper into the Hill Country.

The ride to Kerrville was very nice once I got out of Llano. It was barely two minutes after I left Mandatory that the pouring rain began. I pulled into a bank before leaving Llano, rolled into the drive-thru to put on a long sleeve shirt and cover my gear, and then get back on the road. Thankfully, it only rained for a few minutes, and then cleared.

What happened next on the road south could be a story unto itself, but since it happened as one of the many events of this trip, here it goes. If it was a stand-alone essay it would be called, "The Strangest Thing That's Ever Happened to Me on a Motorcycle."

The hills and curves were generous and inviting as I made my way south on Highway 16. Trees and rugged beauty. The sun was beginning to go down, and I was surprised at how cool the air had become. Every time I crested a hill, the air felt a little colder.

And then it happened.

I was flying down one particular hill just outside of Fredricksburg when the air temperature suddenly went up what felt like 10-20 degrees. Seriously. Everything on my bike immediately fogged up. The chrome handlebars, highway bars, the screen covering the speedometer, everything started sweating. It was as though I was riding in a sauna. The windscreen on my full-faced helmet fogged over some, but since I treat it with a defogger regularly, it was nothing that kept me from seeing.

After a few minutes I was worried that my bike was on fire. It had grown so hot that I slowed down enough to crane my head down to the motor. No flames. No warning lights on the display. Nothing. I tried not to worry, but it remained that way for what felt like another five miles.

And then just like that, like a plague of frogs that without notice just stopped falling from the sky, the air went cool and comfortable once again.

I chalked it up to a random peculiarity like something you would see on The Twilight Zone, shrugged, and made my way through the touristy roads and sidewalks of Fredricksburg.

I put the little town in my mirrors, and kept going down the road.

And then it happened again. Same scenario. Same heat. Same fog and sweat. Same sudden hot temperature for a few.

Then gone. Again.

And that's where "The Strangest Thing That's Ever Happened to Me on a Motorcycle" article would come to an end if it were not a part of a much larger best-ride/worst-ride story.

That night in Kerrville, as I kept an eye on the weather, a sudden tornado warning dropped on us from out of the blue. The storm system sped up, and would be here for hours. I tried my hardest to not think about it until the morning, but since the air conditioner in my hotel room sounded like an old Harley every time it came on, it was next to impossible not to think about a motorcycle and a storm.

When I woke up on Monday morning, the system had cleared out a bit, but more of it was headed my way fast. I operated under the delusion that I could beat it east all the way home.

I was wrong.

It was already starting to rain when I entered the ramp up I-10. The giant trucks had their hazard lights on, which was the first harbinger of a bad day.

I am certain that the scenery all around me was breathtaking. But since visibility was next to nothing, I missed it all. That alone is reason enough to call it "the worst ride." The joy of being on a motorcycle is that it puts you in closer touch with the things around you. You see more than you notice from the movie screen of the car windshield. Unfortunately, you have to deal with the rough elements along with the nice scenery. And since the nice scenery was unavailable to me, all that was left was pouring rain and the tail lights of cars and 18-wheelers.

Once I made it almost to San Antonio, I started to feel cautious relief. Did it really just stop raining? Honestly, I could not tell. I really couldn't. But as I made my way through the city, not a drop. I was still soaking wet, but the dark clouds ahead of me were suddenly lifting higher into the sky until I noticed a lighter colored band of clouds on the horizon with only a touch of grey. That meant clear skies ahead.

I pulled into a truck stop, got some gas, took a drink of water from the water bottle in my fork bag, and went inside. On the way to the restroom I noticed corduroy long-sleeve work shirts for eight dollars. Easy choice. Buy the ugly shirt, walk out the bike, peel off the two shirts I'm wearing, grab paper towels from beside the gas pump, and dry off right there in front of the cagers in a vulgar display of post-shower joy.

I am not sure that I have ever put on a more comfortable shirt. It was dry, warm, and thick. Such relief.

I took a deep breath, sighed, put on my helmet and gloves, smiled, started the bike, kicked up the kickstand, put it into first, and rolled to the stoplight. Onto the ramp, onto I-10 headed west towards home, and the comforting band of light grey sky began to widen on the horizon.

But then a sprinkle. Then a fat drop of rain on my face shield. Then pouring rain. My new shirt was soaked in a split second, and I chewed myself out for a good five minutes for leaving my rainsuit behind on this trip, a mistake I promise you I will never make again.

I did the only thing I knew to do, and on I pushed. Only 160 miles to go.

I did not get worried until the sky in my mirrors turned green. Blackish-green. The foreboding color that would never be reproduced on a car or the walls of your kitchen. This was no way to spend my Gypsy birthday.

It was Memorial Day, the 26th of May. Three years prior, I ate with Raoul, the man who brought me into the club. It was one year to the day later that I patched in. Here I was on my Gypsy birthday, supposed to be riding all over the Texas Hill Country and then home. But instead, I was fighting with all my might just to make another mile.

I was just outside Flatonia, Texas when I began to tremble. My body was going cold, and I could not feel the tips of my fingers. In spite of a good pair of gloves, there is only so much gloves can do. As the middle finger of my right hand brushed the index finger next to it, it felt like my finger was hitting something medal. I was in trouble, and I needed to stop.

Gypsy Motorcycle Club Houston (GMCH) has a habit of stopping in Flatonia for gas at the Shell Station and food at Joel's. I thought I would stop at Shell for gas, and try to come up with a game plan. But as I came down the ramp, there next to the gas station, was "Grumpy's Motor Inn." Should I stop? Get a room? Just as I was about to pass it, I made a split decision, turned into the parking lot, woke up suddenly to a jarring feeling as my bike hit about eight deep inches of water flowing in front of the driveway, at which point I knew that this was the right decision.

I pulled up under the awning, shut everything down, and walked inside. The little Indian lady behind the desk smiled and asked in a thick accent, "How are you?"

"Wet and tired."

"Well we can fix that. Yooo go to room 1-0-4, take off those clothes, and let me put them in the dryer."

"Okay. Thanks so much."

I went to the room, stripped down, put on a towel, and took my clothes to the room just next to mine that happened to be the laundry room. She and her husband were there waiting for me.

"Should I come back and get the clothes in a little while?"

"NO!" the little lady commanded. "He will brink them toooo yoooo!" she said as she pointed to her husband, a hunched over little old man with a few missing teeth. He said nothing, but just smiled and nodded in a grunt of obedience.

"Thank you," I managed while starting to tremble again.

"Uh!" the old man grunted.

I walked back into my room and climbed in the shower. This was no five-star hotel, but it was shelter that I desperately needed.

After what felt like thirty minutes in the warm shower, I got out, dried off, and climbed into bed to call my wife. I was not sure whether I would be there until the morning, or what would happen. I needed to check in, and I needed to rest.

After I called Jen, I put down my phone and looked around the room. The light that hung from the ceiling was a single light bulb hanging from an electrical cord. The desk in the corner was pieced together from what looked like two other desks and a small chest of drawers all from different families. The refrigerator next to the "entertainment center"--(a generous assessment, by the way)--looked like something the old man bought at a garage sale back in the 1970s, not your typical hotel room refrigerator, but a full-sized, dirty white fridge with a missing door handle. I am guessing he bought it as a pair with the old television that only got eight channels. I guess the Discovery Channel and Headline News counts as the "Cable TV" advertised on the marquee.

But again, it was shelter. Warm, comforting shelter.

A knock at the door. The man with my laundry. A "thank you" and a returned nod. I was just about to climb in bed when another knock sounded. I opened the door. One more t-shirt he had left behind. Another "thank you" and one even subtler nod.

And before I knew it, I was asleep.

I awakened gradually, feeling rested and much better. I ate a Clif Bar I stored in my bag for just such emergencies and decided to check the radar. Supposedly it was clearing up a bit between me and Houston, so I decided to make the rest of my way home, the only place in the world that I really wanted to be.

As I stood outside the lobby where I had parked my bike under the awning, the little Indian lady came out, "Vhere are yooo go-eenk?"

"I want to go home. I'll be fine. And thanks for the hospitality." She smiled as I secured my bags to my bike. Loaded down, dry, and ready to be home, back on to I-10 once again to push east.

Ten minutes later, the sky opened up yet again, and I was getting wet once more. The rain was not nearly as bad, just steady. And I made it a whole twenty miles before I had to stop yet again.

Two miles before Schulenberg every set of brake lights in front of me lit up like the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center. The interstate was coming to a dead standstill. It was raining. We were not moving.

It did not take me long to decide to pull a classic biker move and start riding slowly on the shoulder to the exit, which is exactly what I did. I rode down the ramp, turned right on 77, and pulled into an abandoned gas station where a couple of other weary road warriors had already sought shelter.

We stood and talked under the rusting canopy for about 15 minutes when the cars on I-10 finally began to move again. At that point I said my goodbyes, put my helmet and gloves back on, pulled out, and in two seconds noticed that I-10 was creeping back to parking lot status.

Change of plans once again.

Because I have some friends with an old farm in Schulenberg, I know the area well. Thankfully. So I decided to shoot down 77 South to Halletsville, and then catch Alternate 90 East all the way into Houston.

And that's what I did.

It quit raining as I flew south, and I even felt my new old shirt began to dry with every curve out in the Texas pastures that just happen to host a highway.

Turn left in Halletsville east to Eagle Lake. On that road that I have ridden many times before, Eagle Lake always feels like I am almost home.

But once I made it past Eagle Lake, the rain hit harder than it had been at any time on that fateful day. With very few cars on the road, I slowed to about 40 mph, and just kept going. I feel like I owe my trusty bike, Rocinante, a gift after what I put her through, and what she did for me. It was on that Memorial Day that my bragging about Michelin Commander II tires turned into a now undying loyalty. For all the bad conditions, my bike never once drifted, shifted, or hydroplaned. It was as though the bike had the claws of a big cat climbing a tree.

The sign up ahead read "Rosenberg 15 Richmond 18." Almost home. It was still pouring, but I knew I was going to make it.

Once I jumped on Southwest Freeway, it was a fast ride back into Houston. And since I live on 59, I rushed to the Chimney Rock exit, made the u-turn, and passed the used car dealerships that looked so welcoming after a rough day.

Turn into my neighborhood, notice the flooded streets, pull up to my gate, round the bend in front of my house to an opening garage filled with three people who were obviously listening for my bike, just as desperate for me to be home as I was for myself.

I ride the bike up into my garage, shut down the motor, throw down the kickstand, and then fall backwards onto my luggage. Am I really home?

"That was the worst day of riding ever."

But there was my wife, my son, my daughter. And there was my faithful Rocinante. And my home. And the memories of the weekend that included some of the best rides ever.

To tell you the truth, I would do it all over again.

But not today.

And next time with a rainsuit.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Mile 1,183: Middle Story #2

I have been sitting on the side of FM 152 for a few minutes. Just listening to the birds. Watching the clouds roll by. The breeze is cool. The sun peaks through occasionally offering a little bit of warmth. 

Yellow and red wildflowers are all over the side of the road. Almost no cars are passing me by. It's peaceful.

The old rusted fence next to me looks like something out of one of the Texas paintings of my childhood.

Just before I stopped for a moment to take in the day, I crossed a bridge over a little creek. When I looked to my right, a wild turkey was meandering beside the water.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mile 1,101: Hill Country Sunrise

Steinbeck said he had a hard time writing about something while it was happening. Anytime he kept journals, especially while on the road trip he took that became so famous, he said it was almost impossible for him to record something while it was happening. He needed time for it to germinate. To brew. To grow in his mind until the memory became just as important as the event itself. 

For me, I go back-and-forth. I love to let something simmer in my imagination for a while. But I also enjoy looking at the moment while it is happening, always trying to be ready for what it might teach me.

Yesterday, me and my Houston Brothers rode 200 miles handlebar-to-handlebar swooping through the curves of the Texas Hill Country. Every corner, every vista, even the straightaways, all testified to the beauty of Texas. And going through it on a motorcycle... well... use your imagination.

I put down a lot of miles by myself. I guess it matches my personality. I love being with people, but I also need the alone time to recharge. And though I have always been a loner, I have to admit that yesterday with my brothers was one of the best rides I can remember. 

When I woke up this morning, greeted by a Texas sunrise, all I could think about was the memory of yesterday that took almost no time at all to grow in my imagination, a memory to me that is now downright valuable.

That's all.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Mile 869: Before Today Becomes Yesterday

I pulled over to the side of the road while riding through the Rice University area of Houston for no other reason than to capture a moment. I had ridden down that road a thousand times before today, but since each ride stands on its own, I wanted to remember this one.

Even though I am excited about the long trip this weekend, I wanted to make sure that I did not miss the work and joy before me.

Breakfast with the family.
A ride to the hospital to see my friends, Joe and Ann.
Another ride down Sunset in the warm sunshine, the shade of the trees, and the cool air of a May morning.
Stopping on the side of the road to take a picture.
Sitting at this computer giving thanks.
A project later today with a colleague.
A haircut.
A shower.
My daughter's end-of-middle-school banquet.
Hopefully a good night's rest.

Can't let the excitement for tomorrow get in the way of the right now. I could. But there's too much at stake.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mile 828: Travels with Rocinante

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch." Steinbeck starts Travels with Charley with that sentence, but I may as well have written it. His line speaks for many of us who just cannot sit still.

I have never been good at making friends. I have a sometimes harsh and condescending personality. I have tried to soften it over the years, but there is only so much one can do with a heart of stone. You can scrub it, clean it, paint it a pretty a color. But it's still stone.

Maybe that's why reading Steinbeck again is like traveling with a kindred spirit. He strikes me as a harsh person, a restless soul, a wandering spirit. Something deep within many of us demands that we spend our whole lives looking for something we cannot explain. It is no wonder that those of us who love the solitude of the road find it to be a comforting place. And if I have to explain that truth... well... either you understand it or you don't.

It was 1960 when Steinbeck got on the road with his dog Charley in his camper named after Don Quixote's horse.


And fiftysomething years later, channeling Steinbeck, I'm standing here in my garage looking at Don Quixote's horse... at Steinbeck's trailer... now in the form of a black-and-chrome Harley named "Rocinante." Sometimes you ride a bike home after signing on the dotted line and you already know her name. Sometimes you ride a bike home after signing on the dotted line and it takes years of listening before she speaks. Sometimes she has to develop a few scars, get a little rough around the edges. It reminds me of when Cervantes wrote about Don Quixote struggling to name his horse: "...significant of his condition as a hack before he became what he now was, the first and foremost of all the hacks in the world."

My steel-horse-reincarnation of Rocinante now has almost 24,000 miles that are all mine, or probably more importantly, about 400 hours. That is a lot of time to think, a lot of time to listen. Thankfully, many of those hours have been with friends. Some have moved on, and others I have made along the way, and a very select few have been around since the beginning of that journey, and one very select individual had already been riding with me for almost twenty years prior to the opening of this particular journey.

So even if this self-imposed quest for 10,000 truths is being shared with only a small group of friends, I am glad to have you along for the ride. Something must reside deep down within you that either loves the road, loves searching for truth, or perhaps something altogether else. For those of you who actually put up with me, from the bottom of my heart, I do appreciate it. I am not the easiest person to get along with. But then again, on some days, I'm sure you're no picnic either. (See what I mean about being harsh? Sorry.)

Like Don Quixote, it has taken a few years to settle on a name, because what he names his horse is in many ways what he was naming himself. For the name "Rocinante" has to do with being a tired old horse that has been given a new lease on life. He knew what many of us come to realize as we settle deep into adulthood: That no amount of so-called "maturity" can ever calm what is in reality just a simple a passion to live.

And also like Don Quixote and John Steinbeck, I am standing face-to-face with the realization that this black-and-chrome hack that needs more pampering than a baby, is to me the first and foremost of all the hacks in the world.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mile 773: "Boots and Faded Jeans" State of Mind

A relaxing Saturday morning called for fresh-ground coffee and breakfast tacos from the little taqueria around the corner. The four of us eventually made our way into the kitchen to partake of a rare weekend treat. Soft music. Good salsa. Comfortable chairs.

Through the blinds shone a beautiful clear sky; a soft steel breeze made the trees dance against the blue background .

After going upstairs to clean the shower and then clean me, I put on my boots and faded jeans and grabbed my helmet. (I also put on my shirt and colors, just so you don't get the image of me riding down the highway without a shirt on.)

I cut my way through the perfect morning air to run down to the hospital to see a friend. I pulled into my usual parking spot at Methodist--(free motorcycle parking)--turned off the bike, threw the kickstand down, hopped off, and walked inside.

I felt bad for the nurse in the elevator who looked a little nervous. I assured her with a smile and a "Good morning," which seemed to calm her. When I got to my friend's room, there was no answer at the door. I asked a nurse to go in and check on him, and found out that he was in the shower. No worries. I'll just go park myself in the waiting room for a few minutes and take advantage of a quiet moment.


My desire for a pocket of tranquility was overrulled by a high school girl watching TV and talking to the screen the whole time. Quoting lines, laughing, and telling the characters what to do. Stuff like that used to irritate me, especially on the days when I was keeping up with the Joneses, during the "four-car garage and we're still building on" days. (Never really had a four-car garage, mind you... just quoting a song.)

But I woke up one morning almost ten years ago and realized that I was propping up a lifestyle that I no longer believed in. From what I hear, though, that happens to a lot of us during that final transition into adulthood where the idealism of your youth hits a brick wall. It is a jarring time, but it doesn't have to be debilitating. In fact, it can give you life.

So in an effort to simplify, I gave up the coat and tie that was choking me in exchange for boots and faded jeans.

I decided that if my work was anything other than building up other people and focusing on what was good and noble, I would outright reject it. Then I realized that such a value was not just about work, it was all of life. If I was visiting a friend in the hospital, the trappings of keeping up with the Joneses would have to wait. Just sit and love and be. Just be there.

That doesn't go over well with the people who want you to be the poster child for the institution. If you decide to move to Luckenbach, Texas, know that it comes with a price. (My wife, by the way, calls it "retiring in your mind." She also says that you shouldn't let people "should on you." So there's two morsels of wisdom from her to put in your pocket.)

And if you have to be stuck for a few minutes in a waiting room with a teen girl who's a little off the chain, just laugh with her. Because no matter how we dress it up and polish the world, it's all just boots and faded jeans.

Or at least it should be.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Mile 741: Slow Ride... Take It Easy

I could hear John Lennon's gentle voice this morning as I rode to the office: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." It's a gentle warning.

Since I live so close to work, the ride there and back again is not much. If you do the math on the miles this week, they do not really stack up. And like everyone else in this world, the same route over and over can get boring, dull, routine.

If you let it.

But even the shortest ride has beauty.
The sound of the motor.
A cloudless sky with bright sunshine.
Little kids waving.
The aroma of breakfast burritos coming from the taqueria.
The feel of my leather gloves.

The same old stoplights, the same old roads. But every day is different, and every ride fills me with life, with joy, with gratitude for another day.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mile 720: Middle Story #1

She was a big woman with a pretty, freckled face that was beginning to sunburn. Probably somewhere in her late 20s, with stringy, unnaturally red hair that had obviously recently been Miss Clairoled. I had just rolled up to the back of the left turn line when I saw her. I kicked the bike into neutral, and waited for the light to turn green.

She walked the length of the median, looking directly into each car while holding up her "Anything Helps" sign. Then when it was my turn for the stare-down, she locked eyes with me, arched her back, and rolled on both of her imaginary throttles, hands held high. (Why do non-motorcyclists always have two throttles?)

She then yells at me, "Yew gonna take me for a riiiide on that motorcycle?"

"No." I maintained my typically straight suspicious face.

"I been out here all day," she continued.

"Well you need to be careful out here. This neighborhood's no joke." And it's not. She was on the median at one of the busiest intersections in the country.

As I was finishing my sentence, the light had already turned green, and each car in the line did their turtle-paced start, but it was now time for me to move forward. I already kicked the bike down into first while I gave her that last bit of advice, so I rolled on my single throttle and scooted forward.

But before I made it all the way up the line, the light turned yellow then red while a small car and a ridiculously large Dodge dually pushed through, blocking the oncoming lane's turn to go. That meant I got to be first in line at the red light.

Here she comes.

She perches next to me on the median and starts back up while putting on her sunglasses. "There. Now I'm all pretty. I used to only weigh 160 before I had two kids. But now I weigh 264. Trying to lose weight."

"Well you're at least getting exercise walking up and down this median begging."

She arched her back again, not to twist her imaginary throttles, but to let out a very loud belly-laugh. She took a very deep breath and then yelled, "You a trip, baby!"

"I get that a lot."

She offered a more subdued giggle and smile, and then just stood there for about thirty seconds. I wondered why she didn't start walking back up the line. Maybe she just needed someone to talk to.

"So this bitch was beating me up this morning in front of the library."

"What?" I admit that she caught me off guard with that one.

"Yeah, she started talking all kinds of shit about everything, you know."

"Well, you don't have any bruises or cuts, so hopefully it wasn't too bad." (Me trying to be sympathetic.)

"No, man. It's all good. Beautiful day."

Then the light turned green.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mile 712: The Smell of Napalm in the Morning

I just rolled up next to a guy eating something out of a styrofoam cup. He was "driving" with the windows down, both hands off the steering wheel, doing 75 down Southwest Freeway. You see some crazy stuff on Houston roads.

And you smell some smells.

When I left the house this morning after my typical Monday-day-off-sleep-in, I got on Southwest Freeway to go meet my brother, BIGJEW, for breakfast. I scooted across to the fastlane, eased off the throttle, and settled in. Just ahead was an ominous rain cloud preparing to strike like a sinister villain in an old cartoon rubbing his hands together and twirling his handlebar mustache. I took a deep breath and enjoyed the smell of the impending rain.

In a car, you miss out on a number of things that you notice on a bike. Sudden temperature changes when you ride down a hill into a low spot. The sounds of the tires on a fully-loaded 18-wheeler rolling down the highway. And the smells.

Hands down, what stands out most when you are on a motorcycle. The smells.

After breakfast, I made my way down to M. D. Anderson Hospital to visit my Gypsy brother, Spidermonkey, whose dad is having surgery today. Traffic was rough coming back into the city, so I peeled off the freeway to go up Hillcroft so I could hop on the HOV lane to the Medical Center.

Going up Hillcroft, you have to go through Little India. Lots to see. Lots of people. But when you go through Little India, what you notice the most are all the smells. I imagine it smells a lot like India. Mainly car exhaust, diesel fumes, and powerful whiffs of curry and spices.

Then, up the HOV lane, almost to the West Loop, you have to go right by a garbage collection and recycling center. Oh, the smell.

I get to the motorcycle parking area at Methodist hospital, shut down the bike, take off my helmet, and start walking over to MDA. I see my Gypsy brother, talk for a while, and just enjoy the beautiful morning. Simple as that.

When I left the Medical Center, I decided to make my way back home through the residential neighborhoods around Rice University before getting back on the freeway. No reason. Just because. And I as I rode, I blocked out the sounds of the construction and the big SUVs. I took a deep breath there on the thin roads of West U, and just enjoyed the gentle smells of the oak trees, the flowers, and the freshly cut grass.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mile 677: Something Else

I have friends with names like Spidermonkey, Dirty D, and BIGJEW. Let's just say that I travel with people who do not usually go out for what the regular crowd considers entertaining.

My good brother, Whiskey Tango--(That's whiskey with an "e," boy-o)--put up on facebook last night that he wanted to go for a ride on Sunday afternoon. Now, mind you, I did the whole Mother's Day lunch thing with the wife and kids today, and had a wonderful time. Seriously. Good times and good eats at Torchy's Tacos. Mmm, mmm. good. But I also knew that the afternoon would shortly consist of a house full of women and teenagers getting decorations ready for our end-of-the-year high school awards banquet. And at that prospect, I thought it would be better to do something else.

I feel that way on a lot of holidays to tell you the truth. Mixture of emotions. That while everyone is following the regular path, I would rather be doing something else.

So I call WT: "Hey, Brother, where you wanna ride today?"

WT: "I don't know, we'll figure something out."

And about thirty minutes later, I rolled in to a Valero station at 288 and Hwy 6 just south of Houston.

I stop, fill up the tank with gas, go inside and get a bottle of water, and do the obligatory check of my phone to make sure the world is still spinning. Only a few minutes later, WT rolls up to the pump next to mine, shuts down his bike, greets me, and proceeds to fill up his bagger.

As we stood there taking in the breathtaking scenery of gas stations, a flat side road, and a Jack-in-the-Box, WT starts listing off places we could ride. Bars, restaurants, and so forth. But when he mentions a place down on the Intercoastal Waterway in Freeport that we can sit outside, eat a cheeseburger, and watch the boats go by, that got my vote.

Off we rode.

When you ride with a brother you respect, there is something that happens that only motorcyclists understand. You are on your own machine, but you are together. It is a dynamic that is downright impossible to describe. Some things, you just have to experience.

As we made our way towards the Gulf Coast, the clouds occasionally opened up on us to cool us off with gentle sprinkles of rain. Only once did it really rain--like, rain rain--and that only for a minute. It was just enough to make you wince when the sharp little pellets of unhappiness hit any-and-every inch of exposed skin.

But it was not long before we saw Pier 30 up ahead surrounded by fog rolling from the water. (We were both grateful, by the way, that it was fog and not heavy rain. Because from a distance, we couldn't tell.)

We sat and talked, laughed, talked some more, met up with one of WT's friends. Just a couple of hours of sitting by the water watching the fish jump and the cranes fly by.

Then, when it was time to go, we left. Roared back up 288 until we parted company back at Hwy 6 where we joined up hours earlier.

And that was that.

As I rolled back into Houston, I rounded the South Loop making my way home. I crested a little hill by Reliant Stadium as the sun peeked out from behind a cloud on what turned out to be a beautiful evening. Since it is May, Houston (and many other cities I'm sure) are devoting their lighted highway signs to Motorcycle Awareness month with the display, "Share the Road - Watch for Motorcycles." People like me appreciate that more than we can say. People with names like Spidermonkey, Dirty D, BIGJEW, and Whiskey Tango.

The picture frame in my head can still see the highway sign, over which was a giant Texas flag backlit by the evening sunbeams. At that moment, one of these "10,000 Truths" really hit home. Going down the highway on my bike, I thought, I know I could be doing something else right now. But I can't for the life of me imagine what it would be.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Mile 540: Overcast Heart

Emotions are like weather forecasts: sometimes they're true, and other times they lie.

It was a cloudy ride to the office this morning in many senses of the word. I was up 'til midnight last night winding down after speaking at a school board meeting to defend public education funding. I am one of those rare weirdos who love public speaking. But afterwards I cannot for the life of me calm down; it wires me like what I hear cocaine does. (Never tried it, by the way, so don't start rumors.)

The ride to work was after about five hours of sleep, which is close to enough for me. But my head is cloudy for reasons that are probably compounded by a lack of shut-eye.

Blame it on emotions.

I have spent most of my adult life building walls, mastering what the western world says a man should be. In plain speak, we men are expected to be emotionally unavailable. While society may not put it in such crass terms, it's the truth.

Don't cry. Don't show empathy. Pretend to be tough.

I am a biker, but I rarely call myself one. No need. I average thousands of miles a year, and I wear leather because it protects you from the elements. In all seriousness, I do not care how it looks, cool, tough, or otherwise. The roads are littered with weekend motorcycle polishers who wear Sons of Anarchy t-shirts, but that's not a biker. A true biker rides most days and resents every moment in a car. (Except when it's pouring down rain. I don't care if you're the most diehard rider in the world, nobody enjoys riding in a bad storm. Still, it happens.)

Living your life on a motorcycle brings with it an expectation to be the tough guy. And though I can pretend to be as rough and tumble as the rest of them, most of us carry around a lot pain on the inside.

Pain. Like bad weather forecasts, that's life. Maybe you had a rough childhood where one of your collection of stepdads used to whip your bare legs with a belt. You move on, make your way into adulthood, but the scars are still there. Bricks in the wall.

Like the refrain in the movie, Magnolia, keeps repeating, "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."

So we build walls around our scars, but the pain is still there. It is tempting for me at this particular mile on this long journey to try to make sense of the pain, to explain it, to ease it. But that would be wrong. I say we let it have its day. Don't ignore it. Don't soften it. Don't pretend to be tough.

However, I will say this much: If "good" can come of our pain, it comes when we let pain be our teacher. It also does not hurt to look for those everyday things that are beautiful, that fill us with life. The pain may still be there, but it does not have to overshadow the moments that make us smile, that bring us joy.

Joy and pain, sunshine and rain.

It also helps to take a good long ride, even when the skies are cloudy.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mile 531: Texas

More than one way to reach a destination. That's true of most things in life, and it's certainly true of Texas. In a state this big, you can get to where you are going in any number of ways.

Larry McMurtry knew this as he made his career writing about Texas. Same reason ZZ Top sings about Texas instead of Idaho.

We write what we know. 

When I took this photograph yesterday of a tall Texas flag--(pretty cool picture, huh?)--it sent my mind on a journey around the state, much like these coming months will be. (And by the way, the pictures on this journey will be all mine; no stock photography.) 

While some of the rides to come will be up through the country, the majority of them will be in my beloved home state. Some long, some short. Some far and wide, others just around the block. But it's all Texas.

This morning's ride to work was one of those "more-than-one-way-to-reach-a-destination" rides. I live close to my office. But today, I ran a gauntlet that involved major intersections, residential streets, a parking lot, a U-turn, and a small patch of grass. The city has many of the streets torn up doing a major overhaul of the sewage lines in our neighborhood. And while I am tempted to careen off into sewer jokes and observations, allow me to stick to my point.

More than one way to reach a destination.

I am learning on this journey that all paths have something to teach us. On the smooth roads, we give thanks for the peace. On the rough roads that we may not take if we knew they were ahead, we can either begrudge them, or look for lessons, new approaches, or maybe something as simple as admitting that there is more than one way to reach a destination.

And for me, that's Texas. If you pick a point on the map, you can take the direct route, a scenic route, or the long way round. And while I promise not to throw around clich├ęs about roads less travelled, there is something to be said for choosing roads that not everyone chooses.

Texas has no shortage of those kinds of roads. And if we have eyes to see, the same is true of everyday life.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Mile 526: Just Another Road

So I'm rocking along a little backroad that hugs the Gulf Coast when suddenly I have to pee. And I am in the middle of the middle of nowhere. Just open fields and a lonesome road somewhere between Austwell and a tumbling tumbleweed. Miles from a gas station or fast food place.

To the right, on a long stretch of flat, bumpy pavement I see a barn up ahead. I turn on my signal, slow the bike, stop, throw down the kickstand, and run to the barn hoping that some redneck with a shotgun does not assume I'm a motorcycle zombie. Just a man in a desperate situation in need of some "relief."

All's well that ends well.

I left out of Houston earlier that day running down Highway 288. That little road is like a house full of memories for me. I think about my friend Stacey's grandmother. I think about my club riding to Surfside, and a ride with my brother Justin when we got caught in a typical summer cloudburst that lasted just long enough to drench us.

As I chased that highway all alone on a Friday afternoon, so many things were on my mind. Expectations about what the weekend would bring on my ride down to Corpus Christi.

Expectations are funny things. You go in to almost everything with an idea of how something is going to look or how it will turn out. But rarely does it go according to our expectations. It's not that it's bad or good or anything. Usually it's just... well... different.

That little truth came to light many times in a little over 24 hours and almost 500 miles.

Other than the emergency stop to pee, the ride down was about as close to perfect as it could be. Long stretches of highway encourage quiet reflection. Soon I would see friends, people I love to be around.

Just before I arrived I stopped and parked next to an off-white brick building. I needed to make a phone call, check some email before putting my little communication device away for the night, and just stretch my legs. Across the parking lot was a state trooper searching a car while the woman stood there with her baby. They put her in handcuffs as they searched her Mercedes. I thought about how many stories are out there every day that we just do not know. We make assumptions about people. We fill in blanks to the parts of the stories we do not know. But the truth is that I witnessed something and then moved on. I don't know what brought them to that point, or what came after. But in many ways, that's life.

The park where we camped for the night was a beautiful collection of trees on some of the sandiest ground in South Texas. The more friends showed up, and the darker the sky grew, the happier people were to see each other. We talked about motorcycles and our upcoming Mandatory run. We talked about friends and family who were sick and in need of support and love. But most of all we were together, which I continue to believe is the most important thing of all.

On Saturday morning, we all emerged from our tents in search of coffee. A few groups of us made our way up the road to a typical South-Texas-mom-and-pop-Mexican place for breakfast. I sat with three good friends and ate good food and had good conversation, especially about our upcoming trip to South Dakota.

But like most Saturday mornings after breakfast, the road just would not let me sit still. I had to ride.

I decided to take a long way home by another route. I thought it might be fun to run the length of Port Aransas and ride along the ocean. Remember when I said expectations are usually different than reality? This was one case where your expectations set up an image that turned out to be a huge letdown.

I rode the ferry across to Port Aransas. One of the workers on the ferry came over to me and said, "Where you from?" I replied, "Houston." She nodded her head in firm affirmation. "Well welcome to South Texas," she said, and then continued, "I know a lot of Gypsys. I'm a musician, and a bunch of them come in to bars where I play. One of 'em yells, 'What time is it?' and all others yell, 'Party time!' And then when they yell it again later, everybody in the place yells along with them." To which I said, "Yep. We like to carry on."

I maneuvered my bike off the ferry, and began my journey down Port Aransas. The first few miles down, I could not see the ocean. The view was obscured by huge sandy/grassy dunes. I thought that I would just keep riding, eventually the view would open up, and I would ride along the coast with the pounding waves.

But it never happened. The length of Port Aransas is nothing like the seawall in Galveston. Sure, the water was bluer, and the ocean was a little clearer. But I was sad that I rode the length of the pretty water without getting to take it all in. Other than one access point where I stopped to listen to the waves and breathe in the air, it was just another road.

But the truth is, depending upon how you look at life, they're all "just another road."

The beauty of all these rides is not dependent upon what the scenery has to offer me; it's what I choose to see. Can I see the beauty in sandy dunes? Can I enjoy what's right in front of me without having to worry about what I'm not seeing?

So I rode back into Corpus Christi surrounded by lots of water that makes up the Intercoastal Waterway. Rode over a ridiculously tall bridge that just about took my breath away, especially coming down it where to my right was an enormous aircraft carrier covered with jets. Way cool.

And as I made my way out of Corpus into the flat mesquite fields around Taft and Sinton, I saw next to nothing. But it was everything. Every giant, white, three-propped windmill... every car... every truck... every gas station. They all have stories. They all have meaning. I may not know what brought them there, and I may not know where they will go. But they all have value if we just have eyes to see.

A couple of hours from home, I stopped at a rest area to just walk around a bit. The miles and the sun were making me tired, and I just felt like stopping for a while. So I stopped. Simple as that.

Shade was hard to come by in the parking lot, but I managed to find a tiny patch just big enough to suit my needs. I stood there and drank a bottle of water thinking about the stories of the people in the cars that flew by. And I thought about the people I encountered. And all their stories. 

And I don't dare call it "just another road."

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Mile 1: In the Beginning

I was 17 when I got my first taste of the open road. I was the proud owner of a beat-up Pontiac Sunbird with no air conditioning. The driver's seat upholstery was shredded. I "fixed" it with a stolen carpet square that I sat on for the four years I owned the car until its last day when I drove it limping and surrounded by billows of smoke into the parking lot of a dealership in Abilene. I even think the trunk was smoking.

However, on that "first-taste-of-the-open-road" drive, I felt like I had the lead role in a road trip movie. I had been on long trips before; just never by myself. On that summer day in July in the late 1980s, I-35 belonged to me. Back then, the stretch from Dallas to San Marcos was not nearly as trafficked as it is today. Open road. One taste was all it took. Oh, the feeling. It has only grown stronger.

That original call of the open road (in many ways) is inspiring this little five-month writing project that begins today. I have been thinking about (and anticipating) this day for the past couple of weeks since my mysterious muse paid me a visit. What would I say? Where would I begin?

Then it occurred to me that to plan what I would say would go against the whole point of the project. Sure, I have plans for these five months. But don't overthink it. Just throw a leg over the saddle, fasten your helmet, hit the starter, and go. Just go.

And that's what I did this morning.

Nothing fancy. Certainly no "open roads" in urban Houston on the way to work. But the sun was shining, the air was cool, and my bike and I shared some time together. That's all.

I have places to go today, and people to see. The weather is perfect, and my journeys today and this weekend I hope will be smooth. But whatever comes, I am keeping my eyes peeled to make sure I don't miss what is right in front of me. Namely, today. This moment.

This is just the beginning.