No sooner had Meredith and I left Mendocino, than big, fat drops started careening off our helmets and windshield. Fortunately, I have a strategy for these conditions, which is to ask questions through the intercom: "Honey, do you think we’ll ever be able to retire?" That’s good for about 80 miles. "Sweetie, what would you like for your birthday?" Another 70 miles. Or my personal favorite: "What are the characteristics of an ideal husband?" That one will reliably burn up 120 milesor perhaps an entire time zone, depending on my recent behavior.
With a big enough storehouse of questions, we’d win the Iron Butt Rally.
Truth was, while the previous day had been dazzling and sunny, today’s ride had been the better of the two. Every so often the mist would peel back to reveal vast flourishes of green amid the vineyards, making everything look like the Scottish Highlands. Lovely.
Nonetheless, by 4 p.m., I’d somehow ceased to be a fascinating source of conversation. It was time to call it a day, and we stopped at a supermarket to pick up supplies (read: wine).
Once inside, I noticed everyone was giving us a wide berth. This seemed odd until we walked down the freezer aisle and saw reflected in the floor-to-ceiling windows two apparently homeless people, carrying helmets, in full rain gear, trailing electrical cords and depositing rivulets of dirty water in their paths.
Out in the parking lot, as we strapped our purchases to an already full bike, I noticed a woman getting out of her car and heading our way with grim intent. I braced myself for the inevitable reprimand about the dangers of motorcycling (particularly in the rain), but it wasn’t to be.
"Are you two having fun?" she asked disarmingly.
"Yes," we agreed, relieved to be spared another temperance lecture. "It’s been a great day of riding."
She looked us over for a second, smiling. Unlike the patrons inside, she clearly wasn’t worried about us having any wardrobe malfunctions or brandishing loaded firearms.
"My husband and I used to ride," she said. We both had bikes. "A few years ago we rode across the country and back. Took us three months."
I imagined the two of them, laden with gear, perhaps a little road-worn, pulling into a strange town wearing the grins of happy idiots, like us: homeless waifs of the interstate highway system.
For a second, she seemed to turn the whole experience over in her mind. "It was the greatest thing we ever did."
Now that she had confirmed herself as one of the brethren, I began to ready my list of questions: What bikes did they ride? What roads did they take? But before I could ask, the blood drained from her face and she averted her eyes.
"I lost him two months ago."
I imagined an insidious cancer, the slow ebbing of life; or perhaps a heart attack, ending in chest-pounding desperation, the focal point of her existence gone in a cataclysm of despair and disappointment.
"I’ll never forget that trip," she said, turning away. "You two have a great ride. Enjoy every moment."
Just as quickly, she was gone.
We pulled on our helmets and got back on the bike. The lively banter that had crackled across the intercom for most of the day gave way to silence. But the experience got me thinking: For months, Meredith and I had been contemplating a big tripsomething indulgent and wholly irrational, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure we could ill afford.
Until that moment in the parking lot, the usual litany of excuses had eclipsed the single and now unassailable fact: We should just go. There are times and places for rational thought, such as in the choice of a new dishwasher or in observing the sell-by date on a carton of milk. But motorcycle trips are not in this category. One day, the trip you just took will be your last, living only as a synapse flashing in the recesses of your brain. By then it will be too late.
There is nothing rational about cancer or a heart attack. You never know what’s around the corneron a motorcycle, or in life.
I had just one more question for my saddle-weary wife: "Honey, what do you think about taking that trip to New Zealand?"
It was my best question ever, the answer good for an entire continent.