Long Ride Home (Part 2 of 3)

By Mitch Traphagen

In Fowler, Indiana (Mitch Traphagen Photo)

“Serendipity” is a beautiful word. The experience of it isn’t always so alluring, however. 

It was serendipitous that I found a brand new 2018 BMW G310R at BMW Motorcycles of Richfield, south of Minneapolis. The bike had never left the dealership. For the man who had bought it many months ago and was ultimately unable to ride, it was not so happy an event. And my moments of happiness faded as I dropped off my wife, Michelle, at the Minneapolis airport to fly home to New Jersey on a cold and wet day in late October. It certainly felt less than serendipitous to make a last drive to my sister’s home, her passing the reason we were in the Twin Cities, which serendipitously resulted in the motorcycle that I would ride the 1,300 miles home. 

Watseka, Illinois, is a great town. People travel by all conveyances — from bicycles to motorized chairs to a guy who travels back and forth across town in a big riding lawnmower (sometimes with a large trailer attached — and sometimes with passengers in that trailer). People waved. People bought lots of wine and beer at the convenience store. They smiled.

One of my sister’s best friends lives in Chicago. As my evil GPS tossed me into the maw of that city, I fled south. I wondered if my sister would have been disappointed that I ran away, but decided she would not. In life, she had no interest in inflicting needless pain. 

Light and nimble, the little BMW proved to be an excellent vehicle for the city, or at least what I’d experienced of it. Since I had no expectation of living to 113, I’m well past middle age, and being on a bike that I didn’t have to wrestle, nor worry about overpowering me and taking a fall on hard pavement, was a relief of immeasurable significance.

The bike was scheduled for its 600-mile service at Tom Wood’s Powersports north of downtown Indianapolis. Alex, the mechanic, took good care of the bike, including cleaning off the road grime that had accumulated in the first 640 miles of it’s road life, while the service manager, Todd, proudly provided a tour of his growing facility. Off the expansive showroom in the store, two young employees took an interest in my GPS woes and offered an incredibly secure mount for my iPhone (and thus Google Maps), which, after a quick inspection of my bike, they assured me would fit perfectly. So with a clean bike, new fluids and the navigation aid of choice, I took off east on two-lane roads, seemingly forever out of Indy and back into the countryside.

People in small towns across Ohio and Indiana apparently like their mayors. And when they don’t, they want you to vote for Pat or Bill or sometimes Mary. The “re-elect” signs significantly outnumber the “elect” signs, which would seem to be bad news for Pat, Bill and Mary, however.

Century-old churches and schools, built during a time of far greater optimism in rural America, are often repurposed into community centers, more rarely standing as elaborate homes. The churches that remain houses of worship are impeccably maintained and beautiful. The new consolidated schools, replacing the old buildings in every small town, often look like prisons; perhaps sending a significant but unfortunate message to the youth of rural America.

The backroads since Minnesota have been impressive and excellent, except when they are neither. Fortunately, the latter proved true only rarely but often spectacularly. Along one rural highway in Indiana, four-foot-wide and ten-foot long pieces of tarmac had been entirely removed in various places along one quiet stretch, leaving a six-inch deep void. Striking those places in even the largest vehicles would have been violently jolting; had I hit them on my motorcycle? I would have gone airborne, certainly landing with bent rims. In those parts of the country, apparently, even the department of transportation is counting on people to be aware, to not be complete idiots. What else could explain the lack of warnings, beyond a “Road Construction Next 8 Miles” sign? They are certainly literal.

But other than that, and also in a few really remote places, the road was fantastic. It seems this country isn’t falling apart so easily after all.

I found myself in the golden light of a late-Autumn Midwestern sunset. The highway was empty, and I came across hairpin curves at 90 degree angles, often with gravel strewn about on the high side. I thought about my lifelong friend, for whom one such curve was his last, gravel possibly playing a role. As I rode on in the quiet of the sparse population, my soul was brightened by the sheer rugged beauty but my heart was heavy with the thoughts of loss that lasts forever. I realized that this was likely the longest I had not heard from my sister in my entire life. And it would only get longer still.

Who knew A&W still existed? Lots of childhood memories… (Mitch Traphagen Photo)

I pulled into a gas station / convenience store in a backroads town that seemingly had no name to fill up and get a snack. After parking, a young guy in a pickup truck next to me asked, “What kind of bike is that?”

“It’s a BMW,” I said.

“Is it a dirt bike?”

“To me, it’s an everything bike.”

“It looks cool.”

A young guy at a convenience store far to the north in Winona, Minnesota, figured it out pretty quickly. He asked me the size of the engine and I told him it was 313ccs. He noted that I was loaded up as if for travel and was then surprised to hear that I was riding to New Jersey. 

“I didn’t know you could do that on a motorcycle that size,” he said.

I told him I have bigger bikes and that this bike could do it just fine and was a lot of fun. When he hit my age, he’d probably understand. 

But he already understood.

“Because you don’t want to wrestle a big motorcycle?”

Exactly.

Pretty soon I would reach a point on the trip when “riding to New Jersey” would no longer illicit surprise, or even disbelief, primarily towards overcoming the weather on a road that leads far beyond what some had ever experienced. For some people in rural America, there has never been a reason sufficient to leave; and places like New Jersey or even Florida… well, those were just words they’d heard on television.

Road food.

The evenings were often the most beautiful but also the most difficult. During these hours I became acutely aware that wherever I happened to be wasn’t where I belonged. People were going home to their families; dinners were cooked, glasses of wine were poured and televisions lit up living rooms. 

Home is calling but I still have some time left in these unfamiliar places with people who look familiar but none whom I know. In the growing darkness I looked around, still far from home, and realized I needed to find a place to stay. That place was just 20 miles up a freeway leading towards Cleveland. Seeing the motel lights in the dusk, seeing a smile behind a motel desk, somehow it felt serendipitous.

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 3

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