Gentle scarves, kangaroo rats, black leather, the Grand Canyon, enameled mugs, tufa, Heritage Softails, wind, blood & soaring eagles.
Photos by Piotr Redlinski
For now there is only sky. The blue expanse of it. That gorgeous unending sameness. A thin cloud wisps into view like smoke that rings out of a tailpipe. I stare at it, amazed by how it drifts and shifts, changes form and disappears. It is light in its structure and so gentle that I might have imagined it. I’ve heard there is a brotherhood of wind. Am I making contact with that world? Otherwise, I am straddling the border. Not here. Also not there.
Piotr groans, and the weight of his sound drops me into my body. A truck roars by, a car shifts gear. I feel the gravel beneath me and imagine myself crumpled and crushed on the side of the road. A beer bottle in a hundred pieces. The plastic lid from a Big Gulp.
“We’re okay,” he says. I feel him try to sit up. “We’re okay.”
There was something transcendental about being on the bike, how it lifted me out of the irritation of traffic and slow noon travel and at the same time settled me into the sensuality of the moment.
But we’re not. We’re tangled in each other, trapped by the motorcycle. I push against it, trying to get free, but I worry about what I will find underneath. Our legs mangled. Our limbs cracked. Have we been torn apart by the impact?
We are pilgrims, I remind myself. We are on a journey, crossing over.
Blood soaks his shirt. “Look,” he says, ripping it open. “My heart has exploded because of you.”
The gash is a crescent moon, just off center from his heart, and so deep that the fatty tissue curls outward like a flower petal that has been pried open. Yesterday he presented me with water lilies that he had clipped from their jewel-green pads. They were soggy with swamp water, crawling with bugs.
“Don’t you know how sensitive these are?” I’d asked, pushing them away. “If cut from their roots, they die within a day.”
“Well, then,” he’d said, “let’s enjoy them for now.”
Always for now. Always this moment. Piotr says that life should be lived breath to breath.
Now, lying next to him, I am dragged into his ragged inhale, spun out by the uneven exhale.
The guardrail saved us from tumbling down onto the highway, but Piotr’s skin has paid the price. He is marked for good. I knew this was possible—that from the edge no one returns the same—so why am I surprised? After all, I wanted the story as much as he did.
Only later he weeps. Six hundred thirty miles to go. A wrong turn and a bum knee. An empty gas tank and a run-in with the Lord. By then he knows he will complete our journey alone. I am not sorry about the way it ends. I will find my way back to him another way.
W e saw ourselves as white-helmet pioneers, exploring the country on a chrome-and-steel horse. For six weeks we rode a zigzagging path from Oakland, California, back home to Brooklyn, New York, following weather and instinct, hunger and heartache, impulse and the horizon. We traveled through the Sierra Nevada, down into Death Valley, past canyon lands and dusty buttes, around red rocks and juniper forests, over grasslands and between cornfields. With two duffel bags and a tent, a good camera and a durable notebook, plenty of weed and never enough water, we set off with the belief that sustainable love needs novelty, and that novelty can best be found on the road, and that the road reveals stories and that stories fuel relationships.
We would be defined by the motorcycle and what it could and could not do. Where it could take us and to whom. How we moved was as important as where. We trusted that the road would teach us.
At least we agreed on that—that travel and love go together like leather and chrome. Bandanas and boots. A handlebar mustache and a Harley-Davidson. That the road trip—that transcendent and trying subset of travel—can make or break a romance quicker than an eighteen-wheeler can crush a two-wheeled cruiser into dust, no matter how tough it looks on its own.
The trip was a beautiful idea. It could cement our union. Then again, maybe it would kill what needed to end.
Piotr picked me up for our first date on his BMW R 1100 R, that elegant insect of a machine. Just before he arrived, my phone dinged. Bring a gentle neck scarf, he wrote. For the wind.
I ran out the door, scarf in hand, the fabric trailing on the ground, my heart beating quickly when I saw him across the street. He stood next to the bike. He was long and lanky and tan in his rolled-up white pants, slightly off kilter, balanced on one foot like a heron. There was that dark stubble on his chin and the pale-green eyes. His own scarf draped loosely over bare shoulders.
I smiled but kept my distance, remaining rigid on the bike and careful not to make contact. What was I worried about? That my body would reveal something I was not ready to show? Some depth of desire? Those too-big emotions and too-soon hopes?
At the first stoplight, he reached an arm behind him, pulling me closer. “There are reasons I ride,” he yelled as we headed south toward the Far Rockaways.
Piotr wants to push it past EIGHTY, like the speed will make his thoughts vaporize, slam his brain into the back of his head. He said he wouldn’t mind if his brain changed shape.
Immediately I laughed. I leaned in. I let my thin tank top press against his thin tank top. As the sun beat down on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the road heat burned my ankles and the pavement tar singed my nose, but I kept my body steady against his as he guided us past the peeling paint of Red Hook warehouses, the mouth of the East River and the Verrazano Bridge that shone in the late-morning light like a bright line illuminating all that wanted to be.
On that motorcycle I did not see so much as feel. The road. The air. How we were in this movement together in a way I had never experienced in a car—not with protective windshields and cushy armrests and reclining seats and the altogether different roles that driver and passenger play. There was something transcendental about being on the bike, how it lifted me out of the irritation of traffic and slow noon travel and at the same time settled me into the sensuality of the moment. Time changed shape. Place became a feeling. And that feeling vibrated between us without words.
Later that night, Piotr squeezed aloe onto my sunburn, angry sleeves of red that radiated from strange, out-of-the-way parts of myself: the outer knobs of my ankles, two stripes around my upper thigh, streaks on the backs of my shoulders. My body was marked, and the sensation of it was not quite pain. But close.
Two weeks later, I mailed Piotr a postcard.
Clothed in mystery, I wrote, quoting Zora Neale Hurston. Love ain’t nothing but the easygoing heart disease. Nothing but a journey to the holy land from which no one returns the same.
Will you join me? I added, boldly. Pilgrims traveling together?
He never responded, though I saw the postcard on his desk, half buried by mail. Too much, I thought. Too soon.
I waited, worried that at any moment he would take flight.
A year later, he told me he planned to cross the country on his motorcycle. Like his father once did on a Greyhound bus, back when Piotr was a boy in Poland dreaming of America, years before he would immigrate here as a stunned teenager. He wanted to explore the West. To see if he fit into any kind of tribe. Of countrymen. Of bikers. Of explorers. Or was he a lone wolf as he suspected, comfortable mostly with his own company and that of the sky, those other wild things?
It occurred to me that despite the intimate spaces we curled ourselves into—from the tiny tent to the narrow seat to the oval of light around the campfire—we would never really know what the other had seen.
Then he handed me a package. Inside was a black leather jacket. Buttery soft with shiny snaps and plenty of room beneath the arms so that I could raise them up, wrap them around him.
He studied me as I grinned, spun around, walked this way and that.
“It should be warm enough,” he said, narrowing his eyes, taking me in.
He closed his eyes as if pained that I didn’t know, then opened them.
“Are you asking me to go with you?” I asked carefully, drawing a box around my pleasure, containing it.
“I am asking you to go with me,” he repeated. A little mocking. A little awkward. Also tender.
I threw myself at him, knocking him onto the couch, kissing him breathlessly.
He smiled, kissed me back. “Let’s see you from a distance,” he said, gently pushing me away, toward the mirror.
In the reflection, our gazes met, and I noticed again, as I often did, the green of his eyes. How pale like spring grass. How far-reaching. Like a field with no border. Would I ever truly know this man? Or understand him? Did that even matter?
I remained alert, waiting and watching, seeking signs and reading cues. To be with him, I would learn a new way, follow his lead. One of restraint and patience, measured responses and moderate reactions. Already it was paying off.
A year after our first date, we flew to California, where we had shipped the motorcycle, and on a cool June morning, we roared off into the fog.
Iloved it at 6 a.m. when morning slanted through the tent and Piotr stood outside building a fire. The smoke and the light mixed together to create an antiseptic more powerful than any shadows that clung from yesterday’s ride. Each of us attended to our own waking, the silence like a hygiene practice. I drank coffee from a blue enamel camp mug and recorded in my journal the events and thoughts of the previous day. They felt far enough away already that I thought I understood them.
Day One: We stopped for a French press at Bed, Bath & Beyond, coffee and sugar packets at Starbucks, a laundry bag at Walmart. Life as usual interrupts our ideals. Does that make the mundane details of daily living more fluidly connected to ideals? Or are our ideals just that…impossible visions?
Day Three: I’m realizing that I prefer low speeds — 55 mph on a country highway with sudden views of the Sierra Nevada and plenty of time to take in the view — and Piotr wants to push it past 80, like the speed will make his thoughts vaporize, slam his brain into the back of his head. He said he wouldn’t mind if his brain changed shape. “Maybe the wind will give me a lobotomy,” he joked. I think he was joking.
Day Five: Is there a kinship among motorcycle riders? Some quality they share? And do I belong? As a passenger, I’m not sure. As a woman, I’m also not sure. Blue-eyed Fran from the bar said his wife rides so she could have psychological freedom. “From what?” I asked. Laughing, he said, “From me.”
Piotr watched the flames while I wrote or else he walked about, exploring the area. I rarely knew what he was thinking, but I knew his mind was busy. Later we would have our breakfast, a packet of oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts, and sometimes I read to him from Desert Solitaire. We would look around at vast expanses of sand and rock, trying to feel what Edward Abbey felt. The limitlessness. The freedom. When the heat rose by eight, we packed up, letting the silence return and do its morning ablution.
I shook the sheet from the tent, rolled the sleeping bags into their stuff sacks, let the air out of our sleeping pads. Piotr cleaned the cookware and bungee-corded the duffel bags onto the motorcycle. We folded the tent together, facing one other, gripping our two corners between fingers. Like this, we would walk toward each other, smiling, holding the gaze. I would add my corners to his, let go, fold another, then he would let go and fold the next, and in this wordless choreography we completed our simple routines.
I was reliant on him to move us from here to there, and because of this dependency I lost my capacity to follow my will, sometimes to even know it.
After that there was just one thing to do: ride. It didn’t matter where we went, but Piotr often had an idea. Wedged between his back and a pile of bags, I let myself be ferried, led toward places I would not go on my own. I squeezed my thighs around his, rested my hands on his hips, and when he turned his head toward me, I patted his leg and that way he knew to begin.
His view was the horizon. Mine angled toward the details racing by on the side of the road. Piotr said he pitied the narrow lens I had behind his back and urged me to try driving. I countered that he had it worse, taking the full brunt of wind in the face; “I see enough back here,” I said. We each held the idea that we had the superior position, the right perspective, and it occurred to me that despite the intimate spaces we curled ourselves into—from the tiny tent to the narrow seat to the oval of light around the campfire—we would never really know what the other had seen, what experiences had been felt. Maybe we weren’t as curious as we liked to believe.
True understanding might not be possible after all. When we travel, we travel alone.
The world was big and we were exposed. What seemed transcendent in Brooklyn was overwhelming and dangerous here. “The Edge,” writes Hunter S. Thompson in his book about the Hell’s Angels. “There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
Every rider offered advice: cover your skin. Take off your helmet. Get a windshield. Buy a facemask. Wear what feels right. Invest in a carbon/Kevlar suit. Carry gallons of water. Don’t weigh yourself down. Use a map. Just follow the weather. We were shown pictures of skin grafts and told about crashes and warned about dehydration. I listened and wrote it all down in my notebook while Piotr remained to the side, snapping pictures.
At night, my mind spun with the stories. When a bartender told us a bear had been seen roaming near our California campsite, I stayed awake past dawn fretting about the sugar packets I’d left in my overalls. Piotr slept soundly beside me. Fires in Arizona, kangaroo rats in Nevada, rattlesnakes in Oklahoma. Heat exhaustion, water shortage, canyon edges, desperate thieves, angry policemen, motorcycle gangs, surprised bobcats, middle-of-the-night coyotes.
There were reasons to drive in cars with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on. There were reasons to rent a hotel room and shut the drapes, lock the door.
Thompson says that the bikers who stayed alive were those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, but then pulled back or slowed down or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose, as he puts it, “between Now and Later.”
But what about when two people sharing one space, one destination, confronting the same edges, define those edges differently? It’s easy to push it or pull back when you have only to think of yourself and your own limitations. But are we willing to respect those of the other? When is it time to guard the boundaries of your lover as if they are your own? When is it time to gently push against them, for their good? And can we truly ever gauge the point of no return for anyone else?
At some point, Piotr and I began to see each other through a lens of differences. He was a glass-half-empty Eastern European with a penchant for sarcasm and withdrawal. I was an optimistic, perpetually smiling Midwesterner with a can-do entitlement and a tendency to play it safe. Piotr acted the contrary curmudgeon while I played the preachy Pollyanna. Neither of us recognized ourselves in the other’s summation. Neither of us was accurate.
“We were once like two eagles,” he finally said. “We soared together.” His wife ignored him.
Five days into our trip, Piotr and I sat on the western edge of Death Valley, drinking mugs of canned soup and eating string cheese. Stars clogged the sky, their brightness more so against all that black space.
“We’re spending too much time together,” I said, breaking a tense silence.
“No,” he said. “We’re having a power struggle.”
I poured us more wine and dipped a Triscuit into the soup.
“You want the control,” he added.
“That’s not it at all,” I countered. “I want to be considered when you make decisions. If I’m cold and tired and we can’t find the hot spring, for example, then I’d like you to consider that. And maybe decide to give up looking for the hot spring.”
“It sounds like you want me to submit to your every wish,” he said. “And anyway you never told me to stop. All you said was you were cold.”
What I had said was, “The spring isn’t here. I’m cold. Let’s move on.”
I gulped more wine, replaying my words, doubting and not doubting my memory. I tried to control my frustration, hoping it would not lead me to cry.
“How much clearer do you need me to be?” I asked.
Piotr shrugged. “It’s hard for you not to be in the driver’s seat.”
“It wouldn’t be if I felt heard.”
He shook his head. “Just stop,” he said, standing up and brushing off the front of his pants. He walked away and smoked while I stayed near the fire and fumed.
This is how it went. Not every day, but many. Something might happen—Piotr irritated at my concern over forest fires, put off that I was urging him to be careful with our campfire; me frustrated that he refused to wear his helmet, insulted when he teased me for wearing mine. Or maybe he kept looking for the perfect campsite when I was exhausted and begging for a rest. Or I kept talking when he wanted to be silent. Likely I was hot or thirsty, cold or wet. I had been up all night itching mosquito bites and listening to the wind. I was trapped, stiff, under-exercised, overexposed, totally bored or too stimulated. I was reliant on him to move us from here to there, and because of this dependency I lost my capacity to follow my will, sometimes to even know it. That internal reality would transpose itself over the external one and suddenly the problem was this person or this situation or where we were or how we were getting there. It was the way we were communicating or it was the subject matter. It was always something that could, should, be altered. Would I have felt these things at home? Or did the road bring them out?
Maybe I had been wrong that clarity would come. I wanted to read his mind. And I valued the silence he offered. Nothing was true. All of it was.
The road rippled and shifted in the heat, sighing its tarry breath at our feet.
“Get on your bike if your head is on fire,” advised one rider, a Minnesotan grandmother who drove her crippled husband around in a sidecar. We met them at an Arizona rest stop where we drank cappuccinos and ate Indian fry bread. Her husband listened, ripping up the sweet dough piece by piece, looking off to the side.
“We were once like two eagles,” he finally said. He joined his hands and flapped them gracefully. “We had two bikes,” he added. “Two lives. Together and separate.”
She patted his shoulder and said, “He doesn’t love that I have to drive, but it’s the way it is. We’re doing our dream any way we can.”
“We soared together,” he added. His wife ignored him.
“The wind can clear anything up,” she said. “It’s the cheapest therapy around.”
And so we rode, and I remember how the juniper trees smelled one damp morning, the way their wind-bitten scent scrubbed the inside of my mind. I remembered Abbey’s words: “I made contact with that larger world…all that was human melted with the sky and faded out beyond the mountains.”
Without Piotr, and his capacity to follow through on visions I did not understand, we never would have witnessed the sun dripping its early light into the cracked sea-salt bowl of the Mojave Desert, seen the prehistoric spires of tufa poking from Mono Lake like dragon teeth, made love in a marshy lake in the Midwest grasslands, my fear of rattlesnakes replaced by awe as hawks circled in the blue sky overhead and a king rail searched the shore for crayfish.
Maybe my edge needed to be wider, larger, less defined or at least explored. Maybe he was the one to do that for me. Could I also do that for him?
Inhaling the air, swallowing the breeze, I wrapped myself more tightly around him. He squeezed my thigh. We made sweet contact. Day after day, the hours passed in that way.
W hen we saw another biker, we learned to signal our awareness. Some bikers favored a flick of the wrist. Others gave a salute. Many never let go of the handlebars; they just raised two fingers in a peace sign. Piotr’s signature was a side sweep of the hand. The world became smaller and friendlier because of the bike, which was like having automatic entry into a tribe we weren’t sure we wanted to join. Sometimes we were given things because of it: an invitation in Illinois to a skinhead wedding. A bike bell in New Mexico to ward off road danger. Cold chocolate milk in Oklahoma on a ninety-eight-degree morning. A tank of gas and the good news of Jesus Christ in Indiana. Some things we accepted. Others we regretted receiving.
On Route 93, an hour south of the Hoover Dam, the day topped 118 degrees. The road rippled and shifted in the heat, sighing its tarry breath at our feet. Riding against the hot wind felt like facing a firing squad of a hundred hair dryers. Just after noon we made it across the Arizona border, nearly collapsing on the front porch of Rosie’s Den. Tiny spigots attached to the underside of the roof sprayed a perpetual mist of water and we turned our faces upward, drenching our scarves and wrapping our heads in the cool fabric.
An unsmiling couple roared up on their Harley. Helmetless and in T-shirts and black leather pants, they dismounted, smirking at our BMW.
“Hot day,” I said as they approached.
“No shit,” croaked the man.
Piotr stepped aside. “Would you like some mist?”
They ignored us and pushed through the swinging saloon doors. The woman turned back. “Maybe later,” she said.
We took them for sixty-five, but it turned out they were barely forty. Teeth missing. Wind-ravaged faces. Both of them balding.
“The ground is no place for folks like you.”
Over lemonades and a French dip, they admitted that they had done some hard living. We raised our glasses of beer and they nodded, urging us to drink them down, to order more.
“Rick don’t drink due to his sickness,” said Lisa. Rick looked away, choosing not to elaborate.
When we told them what we were up to, that we were working on a story about motorcycle road culture, that we were camping our way across the country and hadn’t slept indoors in two weeks, they looked impressed and then concerned, immediately offering us a couch for the night.
“The ground is no place for folks like you,” said Rick. “I ain’t saying our place is a palace, but it’s right on the Grand Canyon and gets views like…well, like you sure don’t get in the city.”
“And you’ll meet Tony,” Lisa said, excitedly punching Rick on the shoulder. “They gotta meet Tony, right?”
“Tony’s the real deal,” agreed Rick, and before we could respond, he slapped the counter and stood up.
“This is our break!” I whispered as we mounted the bikes and followed them south. “Maybe Tony is the character we’re looking for!”
In the side mirrors, I could see Piotr’s worried face. Next to us, Rick and Lisa flipped us the bird, rode without hands and sped up to 120. Piotr kept pace, grimly.
When we arrived at their trailer on the western rim of the canyon, a man leaned against a Harley.
“What’s with the German junk?” he shouted, pointing at our BMW. He had a chrome leg brace over black leather pants, a long braid and a gray waterfall of a beard that sprayed from his upper cheeks down to his chest like the whitewash of a power hose. A muffled laugh came from somewhere behind the hair. I grinned uncertainly.
“Aw, man!” he said, watching Piotr. “Don’t be so sensitive!” He doubled over, coughing and laughing at once, slapping his chrome-free leg.
“That’s Tony,” Rick said. “He’s just fucking with you.”
They insisted we swim in Lake Mead, just a mile down the road, and they all sat on a bench, watching us like indulgent parents.
“This is weird,” Piotr whispered, treading water, trying to pull me behind the cattails. For once I was the one who urged him not to worry.
“We’re doing this for the story,” I said.
That night we sat on the patio and drank Coronas. The dusty sky dimmed as Tony told us how his wife died eight years earlier.
“Just a sweet little ride to the store, going twenty miles an hour,” he said, shaking his head and adding, “We weren’t even running from the law.”
He drained his beer and Rick passed him a joint.
“Someone sideswiped us. Big motherfucking SUV. Bam!” He exhaled and handed the joint to Piotr. “Left her dead and me broken up like a goddam teacup. Every bone in my body fractured except for this fucker.”
“I do have another gal I ride with sometimes,” he said, tapping another cigarette from the pack. “But she ain’t my shot caller.”
Tony bent his elbow and moved his right forearm back and forth like a windshield wiper. Thanks to the orders of his grown daughters, the doctors reconstructed his spine into what he called a Harley curve, his upper back permanently hunched as if over his handlebars.
“All I got left is riding,” he said. In a good year, he puts sixteen thousand miles on his bike, his wife’s ashes nestled into a chrome tube above the license plate.
“I do have another gal I ride with sometimes,” he said, tapping another cigarette from the pack. “But she ain’t my shot caller.”
It was almost dark and the rim of the canyon rose up behind the trailer park, a nondescript plateau that carried none of the charm Rick had insisted it would have. It was beautiful only because we could imagine what lay on the other side. Tony lit a match and I watched him bring the flame close to his beard. I imagined his face engulfed in fire.
“Why do you keep riding?” I asked him.
“Don’t you know? You got wheels.”
“I’m just a passenger.”
“No way,” he said. “No more of this polite European crap. Tomorrow you’re gonna sit your asses on my Harley and tear up that motherfucking blacktop.”
Piotr and I exchanged looks. We’d heard about the people who had touched his bike without his permission, who had dared even glance at it. We’d heard about hospital visits and house arrest, about dust-ups with cops and all those who, as he put it, would love to track him down and repay his multitude of kindnesses.
“Don’t worry,” he said, reading our minds. “That old bastard Tony died way back with my lady.”
“But,” he added, “if you wanna know why I ride, then you need to straddle an American between your legs. That’s the only way you’ll understand.”
Over the course of six weeks we met two BMW GS adventure bikes, one Yamaha Dual Sport, a Honda Goldwing trike and 122 Harley-Davidsons of all varieties: the Road King and the Street Glide, the Heritage Softail and the Softail Slim, the Street Bob and the Low Rider, the Breakout and the Night Rod Special. Some were vintage garage queens, pampered and polished for the day’s ride. Others were beat-up weekend warriors, gritty and reliable. Still more were rentals, favored by French and Scandinavian tourists who sat astride their Sportsters and roared down the length of Route 66 in their stars-and-stripes headbands and leather vests.
Harleys are as American as apple pie, one New Mexican told us, revving the engine of his baby-blue Electra Glide police special. A Norwegian oil-rig operator agreed. He shrugged off his fringed jacket to reveal twin biceps tattoos, inked with the Route 66 road sign and the years he’d completed the tours. “Every ride leaves a mark,” he explained. “This is my way of showing what’s important to me.”
Edward Abbey writes that each thing in its way, when true to its own character, is equally beautiful. Of course he wasn’t referring to machines, but to how receptive human beings may or may not be to the inherent significance of nature. I liked the idea and I wanted to be the kind of person who experienced the world, and others in it, that way. Still, I hadn’t found it in me to apply it to Harleys.
I could see that some were beautiful, in the way of growling wolves, crouching and ready to pounce. But I did not care to get close to them. I was, however, drawn to the steady humming elegance of Piotr’s BMW. They way it held the road. The way it maintained a quiet presence, whether building speed or slowing down, climbing mountains or descending into valleys. It was unobtrusive yet sure, and I was proud to approach it in a biker-bar parking lot populated by Harleys, where Piotr had usually parked it off to the side and under a tree, the seat shaded from the hot sun.
Cars are just an ugly form of insulation. In them you can’t feel the sky. You can’t smell the weather. You don’t know the road.
Maybe I loved that BMW because I loved Piotr. He and his bike were one entity, fused in their communication and directional power. It didn’t matter where we were—on straight, smooth interstates or winding country roads, rutted trails or high mountain passes, through Sierra Nevada snow or Grand Canyon rain, a desert sandstorm, a Death Valley heat wave—I knew my place as passenger. Wedged between our camping gear and the back of Piotr’s heart, the road flying beneath my feet at seventy-five miles an hour, I had learned to navigate Google maps from my iPhone, take photos with his Canon, adjust his neck scarf to keep it from flapping in my face and DJ a playlist with our shared headphones. I could read his mood from the curve of his shoulders, anticipate his desires from the position of his legs, sense his experience through the contact of our bodies. Driver and passenger, connected through movement and unified in an experience of the road, the wilderness and all of its elements.
We were, for now, a tribe of two, separate from the other bikers, keeping our own company. It felt romantic, this exclusivity.
From time to time Piotr reminded me that we were journalists.
“We pass through the world so we can tell its story,” he would say. “But we never belong anywhere.”
On an early date, Piotr asked me to accompany him on a story assignment to a bait-and-tackle shop. “Pretend you’re the writer,” he instructed. “Take notes, see what you come up with.”
“That’s not the kind of work I do,” I said, but he waved his hand dismissively.
“Just give it a try,” he urged. “It’s all coming from the same source anyway.”
What I came up with was a short story about two people who are falling in love, as curious about one another as they are about the world. She notices the way the man stands when he holds his camera, comparing him to a heron they see on a nearby pontoon. In the background, beyond the bay, she studies the city. The skyline resembles a paper backdrop behind the drama that unfolds, and with a jolt she realizes her task: to find the ending. The writer must always find the ending.
Piotr set the pages aside. “This is not what I had in mind,” he said.
“You don’t like it?” I said.
“It’s fine, but it’s not journalism.”
“But this is what I do.”
“I thought we might be a team,” he said. “Work together, focus on the world, get out of ourselves.”
It was a compelling idea, and I let his vision fit over my own, color my insights and ideas like a light filter. I was impressed with his work, noticed what he saw and was drawn to those things. I asked questions. I took notes. I asked for his edits, took his feedback, though sometimes with a fight. Soon we had one published story, then two and three and so on. My previous work now seemed juvenile and overwrought, too personal, too much. With Piotr, I developed another side of myself, and in doing so, I decided I needed him. Together was the only way I would make a mark on the world. And by “I,” I meant “we.”
“Why do you ride?” I asked the bikers we met.
It didn’t matter what they rode or where they were from, what language they spoke or how old they were. It all came down to the same thing: freedom. Freedom from laws and duties and shoulds and should-nots. Freedom to speed and to feel, to stop and to start whenever the wind or weather dictated.
I began to wonder: Did I feel that freedom as a passenger? Did I feel the release of shackles, the loosening of ties, the burgeoning of joy? Was I happy with this role of sidekick that I had found myself in—no, that I had chosen?
Maybe Piotr was right. Maybe I was fighting for control more than I knew. Maybe that kind of control wasn’t a bad thing.
A Navajo boy in Monument Valley told me the sun lives only for a day. “It’s born brand new in the morning,” he said. “And then it dies each night.”
He was pudgy with engine-grease hair and light eyes. He groomed a horse, teasing him behind the ears and showing off for a few tourists. I watched from the other side of the fence.
“There was a stampede of wild horses outside my tent last night,” I said. “But my boyfriend thinks I imagined it.”
The boy flicked the horse’s tail, still not looking my way.
“I felt the ground shake,” I added.
He raised an eyebrow and gave a half smile. “So you were inside the park?” he asked.
I looked away, squinting in the noonday glare.
“You camped on the grounds?” he asked again.
“My boyfriend doesn’t like rules.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, there are some that roam wild here.”
“Must have been them, then.”
“Thieves, too,” he added. “Most are tame.”
He led the animal toward me and I tangled my fingers in its mane.
“You can ride him if you want,” he said, but before I could answer, he turned toward the hum of a motorcycle.
“That’s my stallion these days,” I said, then quickly corrected myself. “My boyfriend’s.”
The boy sized it up, looking envious. “And you were scared of a few horses outside your tent?”
I laughed. “That’s different.”
“Everything’s different,” he said, shrugging. Then he told me the thing about the sun.
“So what?” I asked.
“We shouldn’t play it safe with our lives,” he said. “It wastes the sun’s time.”
Every windy mile of our trip offered us a new view. Desert geometry created altars of rock. Cinnamon- and turmeric-colored ground bloomed with black bush, cliff rose and sagebrush. Double rainbows ribboned around the rim of the Grand Canyon. The Sierra Nevada rose out of piles of boulders so carefully built and bizarrely spaced we imagined we were near Olympus, that this was the Lego playground of some young ancient god.
“To infinity and beyond!” Piotr said when we reached an overlook. His feet would skim against the edge while I hung ten feet back, even from that distance sensing the free fall that would lead to my death.
As we curled up on the floor of Rick and Lisa’s utility room, it was Piotr who hung back, worried about Tony’s offer to ride his Harley. “I can’t do it,” he whispered.
“We might never get a chance like this again,” I said.
“It’s bad mojo,” he said.
“The dead wife’s ashes?”
“Not just that,” he sighed. “Tony is not the kind of man you want to owe a favor to.”
“You’re the best driver I know.”
“On my bike.”
I sat up and studied his face. “Since when do you worry about safety?”
“It’s not about safety,” he insisted. “It’s about obligation. About having a debt.”
Piotr pulled the box fan closer. Strands of dog hair blew toward me, sticking to my sweaty neck.
“We could slip away as the sun is coming up,” he said. “Leave a note, and that’ll be that. Just the two of us again.”
I lay back, feeling how contagious doubt is and wondering what he meant by obligation. If I feared the finicky unpredictability of the natural world, it seemed he struggled with intimacy, the inevitable conflicts that accompany human contact.
Hunter S. Thompson says that those who survive The Edge are those who play near it, coming close but never crossing over. But The Edge remains at large. Daring us. Taunting. “It’s Out There,” as he says in Hell’s Angels. Sooner or later, we’ll be drawn to it again, unable to resist. And then what? Are there edges that must be crossed to result in greater evolution? Which fears do we meet head on? From which do we turn away?
The next morning we slept through sunrise, and when we emerged there was Tony, waiting. He held a fresh cigarette in one hand and the keys to his bike in the other. The chrome of his leg brace gleamed, mirroring the metal of his Heritage Softail.
Most bikers told us that cars are just an ugly form of insulation. In them you can’t feel the sky. You can’t smell the weather. You don’t know the road. Cut off from that, you are not in touch with the wider world.
We were several weeks into the trip, and I thought I understood this idea. That to know true freedom one has to travel with minimal protection. That it is this vulnerability that allows for intimacy with a deeper current of life. It is worth the aching knees and the sore tailbone, the wind-wrinkled face and the strangely patterned sunburns.
Edward Abbey wrote about such freedom when he lived alone in the West. “I was invited to contemplate a far larger world,” he mused, “one which extends into a past and into a future without any limits known to humankind.”
The sky can inspire such thoughts. So can the horizon. But there is contemplation, and then there is experience.
Piotr cranked the kickstarter and the growl of the engine nearly split my eardrums. I restrained myself from crying out, trying to play it cool, to smile through it. Piotr gingerly maneuvered the machine out of the driveway, and with the Grand Canyon behind us we motored toward the main road. The last thing I heard was Tony’s voice crying out, “Ride it like you fucking stole it!”
In the deafening roar that followed, I found myself in a paradoxical silence, a place beyond analysis—or maybe it was in the center of it, like the eye of a storm. My flesh vibrated and my vision blurred, the road and sky melting together. The extreme nature of the sensation blotted out past and future. It didn’t matter where we went as long as we moved, disappearing into the movement itself, becoming nothing more than a speck of dust in the hot wind. There was no time to be scared, no moment for conscious breath, no second to linger on what I saw around me—Lake Mead to our left, snaking into view like a serpent, and a gray cloud to our right, obscuring the plateau.
Is this how freedom could be found? Moving so fast and loud that we lose our singular identity and awareness? Do we fuse completely with sensation, or is that a momentary escape?
I thought of a joke my eighty-five-year-old grandmother relayed when I told her my boyfriend rode a motorcycle. In her creaky voice, she asked, “How can you tell a happy biker?” I asked how and she grinned. “Count the bugs in his teeth.”
“You get it!” Tony whooped, helping me off the bike. I laughed, but Piotr shook his head.
“She’ll get it when she actually drives.”
“Maybe,” said Tony. “But not on my bike.”
Piotr and I stood on the road. The motorcycle between us. A quietness punctuated by the chirping of crickets from a nearby drainage ditch. There was a deserted golf course to our right, a horse farm just around the curve, a few neatly maintained trailer homes and Highway 69 just beyond that. This was Middle America, the land of my family, four generations of them having settled here, repeating the traditions of their parents and grandparents, many never leaving, not even to travel.
We had been on the road for four weeks and now this. A pause. A collecting of ourselves. A time to play it safe. But Piotr wanted me to drive.
“It’s too big for me,” I said, hoping logic would help him see that I wasn’t ready to drive. Or at least not his bike. “It’s too heavy,” I added. “Too expensive, and besides,” I pointed out, “it would be illegal.”
“None of that matters to me,” he said.
“But it does to me.”
“I know you’re curious,” he said. “You like to take risks. Otherwise, what do you have to write about?”
A few weeks earlier, while Piotr and I rested against a red rock arch in Utah, he had wondered if our travel experiences would change us in any noticeable way and if this change might be seen on our bodies or communicated through our eyes. I thought of the preface to Leaves of Grass, how Walt Whitman promised that if we lived a certain way our very flesh could become a great poem and that poem would be written in the lines of our lips and faces. But we had to take certain risks. Re-examine all that we had been taught. Walk and travel freely with the young and the strange. Keep company with the irreverent and the uneducated.
The black asphalt was a line of ink and it told a story to which there was no beginning and no end.
“I think people will notice,” I had mused, my eyes closed in the warm sun, my body still and soaking up the supercharge of the earth. “But,” I added lazily, hardly knowing what I was saying but liking the sound of it, “we have to take enough chances.”
“Then let’s take all the chances we can,” he had said, grabbing my hand, squeezing it as if by doing so he could cling to this pronouncement, will it into a way of being.
“Ow!” I had laughed, shaking out my hand. Then I smiled, returned my hand to his. “Chances,” I announced, and the word seemed to bounce back to me from the canyon walls. “We will take you!”
Now, back in the familiar world of my childhood, one that I had left with big dreams and what seemed to me like risky ambitions, I was confronted with a primitive need for what was known. I wanted security and safety and things that could be explained. I wanted the comfort of listening to my own still, small voice. I was ashamed of this need. Ashamed to want something that appeared boring or predictable. Scared that saying no would propel me down a path away from Piotr. And yet.
I stood still. The sun burned down. “Take the risk,” said one voice. “This is not the risk worth taking,” said the other.
Could I handle taking control of my own choice? I faltered to think of it. Could I handle taking control of this bike? Piotr thought I could, and when I looked at him, dove into those field-with-no-end eyes, I felt the heady free fall of turning against my better judgment. Piotr was the other half of this tribe of two. Maybe all I needed in this life of chance-taking was his belief. Maybe his belief would outweigh the doubt I had in my own power.
With my small hands I was barely able to grasp the throttle, but I gripped it hard, did not let go. I alternated between squeezing the gas and applying the brake; the bike jolted forward and then moved smoothly. It was steadier than I thought it would be, and I felt a surge of triumph. What had I been so worried about? This machine will drive me, I thought.
“Open it up,” Piotr said. “See what it can do!”
I pushed the gas to thirty. I was sure we were flying.
Piotr laughed and pressed the front of his heart to the back of mine. His presence made me vigilant as we passed the horse farm where I used to feed Honey, the sand pit that we named The Mountain, the white chapel in the woods where my family worshiped in the summers. This was familiar territory and yet I saw the road for the first time, saw it like Piotr must see it. The black asphalt was a line of ink and it told a story to which there was no beginning and no end.
I wanted to go straight forever, but soon I had to turn. In the distance was the small frontage road separated from the highway by a grassy hill, and as it came closer, Piotr patted my leg.
“Slow down!” he called.
I forgot the horizon as I became lost in the details of what I was doing. Which was the throttle? Which was the brake? I pressed them both and my small hands began to ache. The bike felt huge, the weight of Piotr unwieldy, my inexperience enormous.
As we slammed into the guardrail, I thought of Tony. Just a sweet little ride to the store, he had said. I thought of his metal spine and all those pictures of skin grafts and the scar on the head of that Minnesotan grandmother and her husband’s lament of what they had once been: two eagles soaring.
Sometimes we study our scars, the crash written on our bodies revealing our story, if only to us. At times I am crushed with guilt, sure that by not obeying my own voice, I damaged him. Other times I am angry, holding him responsible for pushing me toward an edge I had no business exploring. Mostly, though, I think about what Hurston wrote: “Love ain’t nothing but the easygoing heart disease.” We both took risks. We both survived. No one promised we would be unscathed or in what way our journey would mark us. So we move forward and remember The Edge. How we almost dissolved into that great line between Now and Later. Between Here and Over There.
I wonder if I will come close to it again. Maybe one brush is enough. Then again, how long can this story alone sustain our relationship? If our original philosophy holds true, we will need to dive again toward novelty, seek another, farther boundary. Always, though, there is that possibility of crossing over, being swallowed by the horizon, never to return.
N ot long ago, when I was expecting our son, Piotr bought a car. A black BMW SUV. Steady. Elegant. Quiet. Insulated. He hung the dream catcher from the mirror, but he was not smiling when he drove it home. We don’t talk about how comfortable it feels, how easy it is to travel long distances. I can stretch my legs. I can relax. I even fall asleep.
At times I wonder if I’m playing it too safe, being disloyal to a tribe or giving up on freedom. Then I roll down the windows and smell the clover in the fields. I hear the rain against the pavement and see the sun high in the sky. She taunts me, that bright, high orb challenging me not to waste a minute of her time. I stick one hand out the window to get closer to her, to all that is uncontained, unprotected, wild. I place the other hand on my belly, feeling another kind of wildness within me.
Sometimes Piotr puts his hand there too. Silently, in that way, we drive. Then he returns it to the wheel and gazes forward. I look to the right and watch what passes. Eventually, I roll up the window. It’s that wind. How loud it can be. How forceful. How it keeps me from feeling the warmth of the sun.
Sara Beck is a writer and yoga teacher living in the Catskill Mountains above the yoga studio that she owns. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Normal School, Literary Mama and Shot Glass Journal.
Piotr Redlinski is a photographer and designer living in the Catskill Mountains. His work has been published in The New York Times and he is the recipient of several awards, including Nikon’s Heart of the Image Award and the Society of American Travel Writer’s Award. You can find more of his work at www.redlinski.net.