Death ain't exactly the most auspicious theme for a motorcycle trip, but it's not like life's really given me a choice. I should have been heading back to Missouri months ago, but no good. A blizzard dropped on me right before a flight. Then I was waiting for a better time for me financially. After a while, I just stopped planning another trip to see my sister, who had been weeks pregnant when I left her last, and is now about ready to pop.
Last night, the environmental engineer from Nashville I met in an Outback Steakhouse bar told me this trip sounded like I was on a vision quest. Not a bad way to put it.
For my whole adult life, I've developed a good technique for dealing with bad situations: I run away. It's real effective. Stressful job? Quit it. Girlfriend upset? Leave her. Save money? Nope. Better to buy a motorcycle, pack up the bags, and hit the road.
I'm not joking about its effectiveness. There's not many problems in life that can't be solved, or escaped, I guess, by flipping the bird and heading out on the road, music as loud as you can get it and sunglasses on so truckers can't tell you're crying inside your helmet. And I've had plenty of shit in my life that I really did need to run away from. Clinically insane parents who mete out every type of abuse if you give them the chance. Bad partners who wanted too much while giving too little. Dickhead, manipulative, infurating jobs. (You know, jobs.) I'm proud that I've learned to run, to give myself time to think, to keep myself at least sort of with it—at least with it enough to not kill myself. Enough to keep going, even if I'm miserable.
But when does it stop? I've got a good woman now who loves me, the kind of person who responds to my white-knuckle whining by kissing me on the forehead and telling me to get on the bike and leave her for two weeks. I've got more heart-explodingly kind friends in New York who care about me and want me to keep it together than I know what to do with. I don't have a job I love yet, but I've got options, and that's a blessing of which I am aware. But sometimes I think I like to keep running, to keep dropping grenades into my life so I can turn off heart, bring the shields up, and curl up in the slag iron basinet of crisis. Every day that has more consequence, more cost. I'm 35 now; not young, not old. I'm getting a reputation for being flakey. The things I want now in life take patience, take the ability to eat a little shit now and then. And I know, even as I can't really conceive it, that I'm going to die.
My sister's husband fell asleep at the wheel eight months ago and that was that. He was on the way home from his shift as a waiter, which is how they kept their three kids fed and paid for improving the tiny farm they'd bought outside Kansas City. One stupid scrap of luck and Tyler was gone. He was a runner like me, ran from a normal, Midwestern life and definitely ran from creditors, except he didn't run from his wife or his kids or the love they all shared. He'd spent a decade doing what he thought was right even when everyone around him told him otherwise.When my sister told me on the phone that the police had found his car, I fell over onto the floor of my apartment and felt everything break. It's been months and I'm still not right. Tyler wasn't supposed to die. He'd broken out of the bad patterns his parents had made with good intentions. He'd saved my sister from the life of insanity that our parents try to impose as our legacy every fucking day. And this piece of shit racket that is being a mortal being on a random, hostile planet took him away and it's just not how it's supposed to work.
Now I'm in a hotel room in Charleston, West Virginia, holed up after a storm blew through while I was eating dinner, kicking down lightning onto the ridges of mountains I'd just ridden through, splotchy green and grey lumps stacked one after another like a titanic hillbilly had plucked turtles out of a muck pond and left them in the sun to dry. I wanted to be in Lexington, Kentucky last night, but I was riding slow, trying to take in the landscape and enjoy myself, but instead just stuck in my thoughts. Not even good thoughts. Just the same old shit, spiraling away and ever down, while I just waited for them to hit some sort of bottom. I had a shrink once tell me I like to make problems where there aren't any because my brain developed in a constant state of crisis. That's where I'm comfortable. He was right, I think, but he could never tell me how to fix it. I wanted pills and he wanted to make me cry. After a while it seemed like neither of us were getting what we wanted.
It's not like I'm giving up. I've spent the last few months trying to hold it together enough to keep my bills paid, to help my sister out a little, to try to be present enough that my girlfriend doesn't feel like she's carrying me all the time. I bought a bunch of herbs—St. John's Wort, Gotu Kola—and started shoving them into my throat twice a day. I think they helped. On the good days, they at least amped me enough that leaving the house felt almost fun, if mild then irritatingly quick-to-dissipate terror can be fun.
We'd had this TV project we'd worked on for over two years at Gizmodo. When it was great, it was among the greatest things I've ever experienced, just a perfect mix of ego tickling and creative excitement and teamwork. But nobody ever quite loved it like we loved it, and it withered before it had time to blossom, and by the time it went on the air I knew that it was probably going to fail. When we got word a couple weeks back that the network had decided to pass, I felt a little snap inside, and I knew that everything I'd been holding back was going to come out. Not just the years of muted hope about the show, but everything else, too. It wasn't quite like anything I'd ever felt before. I was happy to be released from an overlong contract that had screwed up getting some other gigs. (It's hard to get a job when you have to tell potential employers that you might have to leave at any given moment for three months to go shoot a TV show in LA.) This wave of stress that had been lapping at the edge of a dam for two years just started to pour out of me. I could feel it just as much physically as I could in my head. It didn't give me the rush of crisis. It's the same feeling that I imagine is why people say they feel drained. Two years of hoping and scheming and even a little bit of working was going to come its way out of me, inevitable as gravity, and it was going to carry out a lot of other alluvial bullshit with it. I called my girlfriend, we went to get hot wings, and she told me that there was no better time for me to see my sister and no better way to get there than on the bike.
So now it's morning. It's still raining. I've got to get through Kentucky today to try to reclaim a bit of my schedule, while still stopping to do phone meetings and take notes for all the reviews and freelance pieces I took on to justify taking two weeks to do a trip I could have made in one if I'd flown. (I'm writing a piece for Bon Appetit about cooking with engine blocks and exhaust headers; how fucking funny is that?)
I know motorcycles are dangerous. I know they're not practical. But riding the bike is the only thing I do that feels like I'm actually alive, that I'm not just huddling under a sheet and waiting for life to kill me. I really do hope riding doesn't kill me—I am Mr. Fucking Safety, and I look like a huge white penis riding down the road in head to toe armor and I do not give one fuck because I love dressing up like a spaceman and I love that I am trying to take risks but balance them out as much as I can—but if it does it does, and there's a sort of comfort in knowing there's an actual, terrifying bottom there and it's the end of me, and all those stupid spiraling worries fly shrieking from it when they see it looming, and even though death is the worst friend you could ever choose, none of us ever got to make that choice.
I'm going to visit two graves on this trip. And maybe I'll learn something and maybe I won't. But for the first time in a while being on the bike doesn't feel like I'm running away from my problems but instead riding straight into a storm, and it scares the hell out of me, but what else can I do?