Signs like this marked pedestrian crossings in Slovakia. The human figures were slightly different but I liked the ones with the little hats the best. For some reason they reminded me of a riff from MST3K.
August 2008: Fleeing the desert heat, I refuel the motorcycle at the Shell station in Gila Bend, Arizona. Interstate 8 is a lonely road across the heat sink between Casa Grande in the east and Yuma to the west and this Gila Bend station is a well-known oasis to us; it’s a truck stop on the edge of town and a good place to stop, guzzle Gatorade, pause in the shade, and stuff your neck bandanna with ice in preparation for the next leg of desert travel.
It’s 102 degrees and rising.
I park the bike in the spotty shade of a palm tree and we put our helmets and riding jackets on one of the three aluminum picnic tables beneath an awning. In the desert, finding shade is the key, especially when you’re on a motorcycle; otherwise, the sun bakes the seat and handlebars and you feel as if you’re climbing into an oven when you saddle up. And you always put your helmet in shade, or, better yet, take it with you into the air-conditioned store. Leave your helmet to bake during a rest stop just once and you’ll never do it again.
Back home, I have photographs taken here from cross-country bike rides that started nine years ago. The place looks about the same; the endless clay pots and figurines lined up for sale outside the building and bottled drinks in frosty cases inside. In the restrooms, the water from both taps is warm. At the store counter, one clerk tells me, “Woman asked me why there’s no cold water. I told her, ‘you want cold water in Gila Bend, you come in December.'”
This station used to be a Texaco, but corporate deals have turned it into a Shell. Lots of vacationers stop here, many recreational vehicles and SUVs, whose occupants spill out of their air-conditioned compartments in search of drinks and bathrooms and look shocked as they’re hit by the heat. There’s no such surprise for a motorcycle rider.
Linda wanders back inside the store and I stay to watch the bike, our gear, and the land beyond. A few miles away, the desert is silent except for the wind; here, the station’s air conditioner rattles and a diesel idles out back.
The relentless heat and remote isolation of Gila Bend never fail to move me. I marvel at how far removed this place is, lost in the desert, and how difficult it must have been for early travelers without gas-powered engines, air conditioning, or ice.
As I sit there, heat-sapped and lost in thought, a rider on black Harley-Davidson touring bike pulls in and shuts down behind my BMW. Motorcycle riders commonly seek each other out at rest stops and such places; it’s a chance to swap stories, compare destinations, and sometimes see if the other guy is suffering as much as you are.
The Harley rider takes off his helmet, revealing thick gray hair, and relaxes a moment on the saddle. “Nice bike,” he says to me, in greeting.
“Thanks,” I say. “Where you headed?”
“San Diego,” he says. “You?”
We just came from there. We’re headed back East to Cleveland, and then home to Washington.”
“Really?” he says. “I live near Cleveland.”
“No kidding?” Cleveland is more than 2,000 miles from here. “My parents live in Bedford Heights,” a suburb.
“I grew up in Bedford,” he says.
“Did you go to Bedford High?” I ask.
“Yes, I did.”
That’s amazing,” I say, and I stand up, offer my hand, and say, “George Petras, class of ’76.”
His hand meets mine and I realize with a shock he looks familiar. “Terry Salvi, class of ’76.”
I have always been mildly disappointed that Kerouac never wrote about riding motorcycles. He was much more interested in cars, probably taking his cue from Neal Cassady, who reportedly stole hundreds of them as a teen in Denver.
To Cassady, cars were great places to make out with girls. In their drives across the country, Kerouac and Cassady would drive all night, blast the radio, and talk. It’s tough to do that on a motorcycle. But Cassady was given to discourse, not self-reflection. You can’t have an audience aboard a bike. Maybe there’s a correlation.
I’m certainly not a Kerouac scholar, but I’ve found only a single reference to motorcycles in Kerouac’s writing; I stumbled across it in his Book of Dreams, a collection of his remembered dreams:
“Joe and I are riding his motorcycle, I’m sitting ass back, heels of my new crepsoles dragging in the Southern town street — I want to ask Joe to slow down so I can turn around but he doesnt hear or care, it’s Rocky Mount or Kinston, we cross the railroad tracks and go out and go speeding over the countryside but suddenly it leaves us and a great gap of nothingness and sand hundredfoot canyon yawns beneath us and all we can do is fall but Joe has that wild crazy hope the wheels’ll stay upright which they more or less do, we ride the saw horse, at the bottom is a dry creek, another climb up sand steep bank like those we tumbled on Lawrence Boulevard nightmarish vast waiting…”
June 12, 2008: After leaving San Diego for the ride home to Washington, we decide to loop north to escape the heat and stop for a while at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which Linda has never seen. It’s a clear day, giving beautiful views of the canyon. We end up staying too long, and I know we’ll be riding in the dark soon.
As the light fades, we ride north on U.S. 89 and inquire about motel rooms. But the prices are outrageous, and I decide to push on. It gets darker and chilly and we realize motels are few. We stop at a gas station in Long Valley Junction, Utah, to fuel up and put on more layers.
Under the pump lights, I study the Utah map. Looks like it’s best to take State Route 14 to Cedar City and I-15, with more motels. If we stay on 89, we’ll be riding all night.
The station is closing, the employees clearing out. One stops and asks where we’re from and where we’re going; Linda tells him and says we’re going to Cedar City.
“On this road?” the man says. “Better be careful. Lots of deer out there. ”
Ah, jeez, I think to myself. Deer are unpredictable and dangerous, especially in the dark. I’ve heard way too many stories; just one can take down a motorcycle. Usually they jump out in front of you. 14 is a rural road and almost pitch black and we’ll be on it for about 40 miles before we reach Cedar City.
“I’ll be careful,” I tell Linda as we saddle up.
I’ve upgraded the stock bulbs on the BMW to high-output halogens and added a set of PIAA 510 lights, one on each side. They’re like a pair of small spotlights, but fairly powerful. We start off and I switch on the high beam and the 510s, using every light I’ve got.
The road is two-lane asphalt with gravel on the sides and it quickly turns curvy, wandering in and around hills. I keep our speed down to about 20 mph, the lights fade behind us, darkness moves closer and I start living in the tunnel of light ahead. I’ve put more than 70,000 miles on this bike and I trust her. We’re solid together. We should be okay…then I see a deer ahead, no, two, standing by the side of the road watching us as I throttle down and pass them.
“Did you see that?” I yell back to Linda.
“Yes, two!” she yells, and we’re yelling not only over the engine noise and the full-face helmets but because I’m wearing standard earplugs, which help lessen fatigue on long rides. It’s tough to carry on a conversation, though.
I tell myself we’ll see more and sure enough, brown bodies and bright eyes start appearing on the hillsides and up the road, startled by our running lights. I back off the throttle and count…3,4,5, wait, two more…Jesus! There’s about a dozen. More up ahead. We’re in a herd!
The road twists, turns and straightens for a bit; we’re moving at about 10 mph, passing deer left and right until I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and turn my head to the left and see a large buck galloping alongside us, getting closer. My heart stops and I twist the throttle and the bike surges ahead and away from him.
This is too much, I tell myself, and I realize I’ve left the grille covers on the 510s, which cut down the light they cast. I know I’ll have to stop and remove them. No other way.
Trouble is, there’s no place to stop without being in the road and though we’ve seen no cars, I don’t want to stop on this road in this black night.
But then I see the asphalt widen a bit, a junction with a gravel road. This will have to do. It’ll just take a second, we’ll stop, pull the covers, stow them in a side case, remount, and get the hell out of here.
I stop the bike as far to the right as I can, without straying into slippery gravel. Linda gets off, says, “What’s wrong?” and I say I have to pull the covers, I need more light. I shut off the engine, hit the four-way flashers, and get off to lift the bike onto her centerstand. But something’s wrong, Linda’s gasping, “We’re too close to the edge,” and the bike loses her keel and tilts away from me and I can’t hold it and she crashes into the gravel.
I cuss mightily and try to get her up. Linda helps and we finally get her upright. Linda steadies her as I keep a deathgrip on the handlebars and move around to make sure the sidestand is down and get the bike set.
I’m sweating in my riding suit and waiting to be run down by some drunk guy careening through the Utah night. I try to check the bike for gas or oil leaks with a tiny LED light attached to my jacket but I can’t keep a firm grip on the light and it flashes on and off, like lightning in a bad horror movie. At that moment, a car drives up and stops and the driver asks, “Are you all right?”
I can hardly hear him through the helmet and earplugs. “WE’RE FINE!” I say, trying not to yell but probably yelling anyway. And I realize how ridiculous this is; we’re standing in the dark, on the side of the road, and I can’t see or hear anything.
The driver leaves and I attack the 510 covers and find I can’t get them off. I remember they were loose before and my father and I worked on them in his garage back home in Cleveland; he added an ingenious extra washer which made them fit just right, but harder to remove until I discover how to do it. I stow the covers and look around for Linda. She’s taking pictures. I yell for her to get on the bike and finally we’re moving again.
The uncovered 510s give us better light for the rest of the ride, but we find we’re past most of the deer, only a handful by the side of the road. I’m tensed up and I stay that way until we finally reach the lights of Cedar City. We stop at the first decent motel and I’m too tired, too wrung out, to care about the price.
My father’s family came from Slovakia. My grandfather grew up in Drahovce, about an hour’s travel from Bratislava, the capital. He emigrated to the United States for better opportunities when he was 19, before World War I. He left behind his parents and two sisters, the younger of which was the mother of Cyril Kudela, the gentleman you see here.
My grandfather’s departure essentially split the Petráš family in two. He wrote his family but never returned to Slovakia. We knew we had relatives in Slovakia but no one quite knew how many or where. My father’s sister was the only one who maintained a line of communication with the family in Slovakia. I was able to contact them in 2004 and we were able to visit them in 2006. I saw my great-grandfather’s grave during that visit.
Cyril is a few years younger than my father. I don’t know for sure when this picture was taken, but I suspect in the late 1960s. That looks like Cyril’s daughter Iva behind him. The motorcycle is a 125cc Jawa, a bike made in Czechoslovakia.
June 2008: It’s already hot as we leave the hotel in the morning in Ehrenberg, Arizona, and cross the state line into California.
We’re looking for a gas station because the one next to the hotel was packed with cars and some of the pumps weren’t working, which guaranteed sweaty, irritable waits. We’d endured soul-killing heat throughout Arizona and I was too tired to fill up the night before.
The bike has enough fuel to get us into Blythe and we sail across the Colorado River bridge on I-10, getting no relief from the heat even over water. The sun is glaring. I pull into the first station, an Exxon just off the highway. It’s on the edge of agricultural fields that are baking in the heat, dry, dusty acres impossibly kept alive only by irrigation.
It’s about 105 degrees already and the air is still and dry. Even the cement of the road looks bleached. “How could anyone live here?” I wonder.
There is little relief even under the awning over the pumps. Linda gets off the bike and heads for the store. I pull the bike onto its centerstand, put my helmet on top of the gas pump, and fumble for the credit card.
While filling the tank I look around. There’s a small green metal shed with doors standing open that’s filled with old soda and beer cans. A collection point of some kind. A forlorn motel sits next door. The station itself is quiet and nearly deserted, only one other car or two.
I finish refueling and Linda returns. She stays with the bike as I go inside to use the restroom. When I come out, she’s talking with a woman who has seen the bike and wandered over, curious.
She’s deeply tanned and dressed to be looked at, sunglasses, sandals, shredded cut-offs, and a ragged shirt tied up under her breasts, leaving her belly bare. You can’t help but notice her muscular physique, like a female weightlifter, but there’s something wrong, because she looks wasted somehow, as if she’d spent a week in rehab before being kicked out. “She’s going to ask Linda for money,” I think.
But she doesn’t. Instead she’s telling Linda most of her life story, how she was a bodybuilder in California and did pretty well, but then had some sort of medical problem that required brain surgery and a plate in her head.
She and her husband stay at the motel next door after he lost his truck driving permit and they’re collecting cans and she should be taking medication but the medicine doesn’t really work for her so she drinks beer instead, calling it self-medication. Linda gently suggests this may not be a good idea, and the woman says she knows, but…
I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and turn to see a Hispanic man, a little older than me, pulling a kid’s wagon with a makeshift awning on it — four sticks and a towel stretched above. It’s piled with junk and cans and two small dogs are sitting in it, in the shade.
They have to be dying out here, I think, and the man pulls the wagon up to the hose at the station’s side and gives the dogs some water. They drink and he goes inside.
The bodybuilder is telling Linda she knows the man and that he collects cans, and she and her husband look after him. The man comes outside carrying a small bag of ice, which he puts in the wagon.
I search the pockets of my riding suit, looking for cash because I have to give this guy something, anything. And I don’t have a damn thing on me. I used up the last of my cash late last night in Ehrenberg because the truck stop’s credit card machine wasn’t working and we were buying food.
I find only four sad crumpled dollars but take them to the man. I put them in his hands and say “Vaya con Dios, señor,” the only Spanish I know, and in English he says, “in the name of Christ Jesus, amen,” and I walk back to the bike, ashamed of the four dollars, ashamed I can’t change anything for him, ashamed that I’m leaving him and his dogs in the heat.
The bodybuilder says good-bye and we climb back aboard the bike and I watch the Hispanic man leave. Where he is going I can’t imagine but later I will find him, again and again, burned into memory as he pulls the wagon and the dogs sit resigned and the ice bag melts, down the silent bone-white road, in the heat, in the sun, in the heat.