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Another Motorcycle Story

Saturday August 30, 2008

I just got back from Elizabeth City, NC.

Strange story: A few weeks back, my seester (girlfriend's sister) and I met a new neighbor on her back stairs back by the garages. He was reserved, maybe even a bit standoffish, but we asked him something about something, and soon we were getting comfortable with talking to complete strangers. There were short silences. I began to ask myself if these were the “awkward” ones. Everything changed when I inevitably touched on the subject of bikes. Warmly, he said, "Yeah, there is a guy who lives around here who has two nice BMW bikes..." Courtney and I glanced at each other and of course, I claimed them.

"That's me."

Quickly, for some odd reason, I supposed he might ride the Vespa scooter that whizzes out in the mornings and returns quietly late at night. He was just as quick to say, “” He pointed into his open garage where I spotted a racing bike that was in complete juxtaposition with his outward icy demeanor. Sitting still in a dark garage, I pictured this highly modified Suzuki GSXR800 screaming up the straightaway of a track at near 200 mph. Its bright blue and yellow melting like crayons in my mind's eye as it takes corners at 100.

Courtney disappeared for like 15 minutes even though she never got up or walked away. Later, in her element, in the living room after dinner with Mom, Dad, boyfriend, sister, and me (the willing laughing stock of the party), she'd tell her version of how I became a wide-eyed maniac at the mere mention of motorcycles.

The new neighbor said all deadpan, "I was thinking of getting a Beemer;" and went on, “I got a danger paycheck coming soon.” We learned he was a Navy Pilot recently back from Haiti, a mission he vaguely surmised as just smoke and stench of death.

I probably consciously dismissed his statement about buying a BMW: Growing up a Squid's-kid in Hampton Roads, the highest concentration of military on Earth, I had 50 thousand reasons to think Squids only bought cheap Japanese bikes.

A few days ago back at the garages, a gorgeous new blue BMW F800ST was shining in the sun, and Fly Boy was tinkering on it, changing and adjusting to make things just right for himself.

I humbly admitted to him what I had assumed. Even more humbled, I became acquainted with what a Navy Pilot earns. Daylight was nearly done and that's when I smelled that Summer was fading too. We talked on about suspensions, hitting clouds of bees in a T-shirt, rain storms, and open roads across the heartland.

This afternoon, Friday, one of the last days of summer before students return to school, I woke from a nap, rode to school for something I forgot what, and was returning empty-handed, still dazed, and wondering how I was to spend my last few hours before being cast back into the Hell of teaching another year.

As I pulled around the building, the new guy was opening his garage wearing leathers. He asked, "Where is there to ride around here?"

A rush of excitement woke me completely as I replied, “Follow me.”

Route 17 (Dominion Blvd) to Elizabeth City opens up to wide expanses with nowhere for a cop to hide and everywhere to open up the bikes to an easy 150 if you want. I didn't see any today, but usually I see Red-tail hawks, Peregrine Falcons, deer, and once, Sean and I saw a huge American Bald Eagle regally perched overlooking a field waiting for lunch to catch its eye. Good road.

As the sky yellowed, we pulled over onto a churchyard grass parking lot on the outskirts of E. City. He made more fine-tune adjustments to his suspension pre-loads while I told him this story that came to mind. Coastal air from Currituck Sound was thickening southwest of us. On the first night I got my first BMW bike, I talked my lady into going for a ride. It had been so many years since I had owned a motorcycle, I was too excited to check the weather. Amy and I got caught in a lightning and torrential rain storm in the Outer Banks just 30 miles East. Learned to keep an eye on Mother Nature. She is beautiful and I love her, but when she gets moody, steer clear.

No decision was verbalized. We started our bikes and were about to head north when I yelled Hey, we are this close, may as well roll down main street along the water. It's quaint. I'd heard. I shuttered at myself using the word quaint. He dismissed the weather, turned South and within minutes we were in the heart of a quaint Southern Main Street. Whitewashed wood houses rested on flat lots of patchwork Bermuda grass and bare sun-bleached Earth under Pine trees that grew dense far from the road then stopped suddenly and blue sky light backlit black treetrunks, so you understood there was water back there that fed the lightning bugs that were coming out to dance this Friday twilight to the song of the cicadas.

Despite their new names with words like Internet, Cellular, and Yoga, these stores, I was pretty sure, all used to have MERCANTILE hand-painted out front.

Jimmy Emerson

There was the house with a theme that every town has: that one painted a wild color and/or with 99 birdhouses, rainbow whirlygigs, miniature lighthouses, or all the above and them some.

It was all so completely unfamiliar to me it felt I could be a thousand miles from home. How could it be? Just 50 miles, a 45 minute ride from home was a well-organized town full of people that for all these years I never even knew existed? I loved it. After this trip, I returned regularly to Muddy Waters Coffeehouse (a converted Gas Station/Garage) to get this same feeling or to read for hours or to grade papers with the blessing of knowing no one.

Approaching the main intersection red light, two girls were obviously headed to Friday happy hour. We tracked them as we came to a stop. Feeling a little anachronistic here in Harley Davidson country, I meekly asked the girls where was a good spot to eat.

At the bar, my new neighbor asked the bartender if they had any local/seasonal beers, and I was so very relieved he wasn't a teetotaler. We both ordered salads and seafood, and in the middle of my white ale, it dawned on me.

"Dude... What's your name?"

"Joel. What's yours?" We both did that half-laugh thing guys do that is really just a quick exhale of air and almost no vibrations of any vocal cords. “Hhhm.” He still upheld his cool apprehension, that wary scrutiny that protects us from getting tangled up with freaks or psycho killers. "Man, we are such guys," he said, again with almost no expression. Again, I told a story. When my wife and I were breaking up, she asked what my guy friends thought. I said I didn't know, we didn't talk about feelings. She found this impossible to believe given the amount of time my dude friends and I hung out.

When my son was like 5, at the age when all boys want to do is impress their dads by finding out everything their dads love and love it too, he was learning to identify cars. He pointed at a big black Lincoln SUV...

"Nagivator!" and unable to resist a rare opportunity to be witty, I said, "No Sebastian. Your Mom's a Nagivator."

Impersonating the quintessential nag, I mimic, "Well then, what do you talk about?"

Even though she is nowhere, we both, in unison, answer her question, "Bikes."


The ride home was crazy to me, a longtime city-dweller, before that raised unbeknownst in suburban sprawl. Joel followed his GPS and led us a different way, down twenty miles of "twisties" through thick dark woods.

There is something very alive about surpassing one's comfort-level. Something stupidly thrilling about going a little faster than you should, trying to keep up or compete with people better than you at something. Something absurd, hurtling myself into blackness, praying God not let any animals (other than me) run wild tonight on this road. Something twisted about my romanticizing the demise of bugs, all aglow in bright white, in love with the beam of my headlight, buzzing in space between me and pitch black backdrop of night, in their last instant flying straight to their death in a quiet pop on my headlight, handlebars, and helmet.

When we came out of the woods onto 168, the skyline opened up to where we could see the horizon again. That gathering of moisture from earlier had passed over us while we ate, swelled into a proper Southern late summer storm, and was in cells all around us now. Lightning was popping off a mile and a half away in all directions, but somehow we were running a gauntlet...for now. I wanted nothing to do with a repeat of the experience Amy and I had, so I pointed at the sky, shook my head to him and rode faster.

It was really weird: everyone was courteous tonight and merged right out of our way. It was deep synchrodestiny - a halo - a force. The dude with a badge in the OBX Bypass toll booth could easily call the cops, so when he lifted the barrier, I kept cool, and rode ahead slow waiting for Joel, anyway, to pay his toll. Again, like his choices so far of bikes, girls, beer, salads and seafood, his decision coming out of the gate was exactly what I was thinking. He shot out from under the fluorescent canopy and blasted past me.

I knew the road well: four wide new lanes of divided highway, free of potholes, tight turns, or anything that should cause the tragedy of 45 mph. It was finally time to really let my girl (my bike) do what it was begging to do. I blipped the throttle, dropped back down from third to second gear and cracked open all 1000ccs. Within a second, I was passing the guy who flies airplanes, screaming 7500 RPMs, with my front end lifting off the ground.

Cresting over a hill I saw blue reflective letters on a car we were fast approaching. I throttled back, Joel followed, and we were model citizens of good behavior until the trooper in blue U-turned in the grassy median and we resumed our 80+ pace. Home was 15 minutes. We missed the rain.

It never fails to impress me coming back into Norfolk at night from the Chesapeake side. It's a small city by nearly every metropolite's standards. Sometimes I say it sucks, but I can say that because it's my city. It's home, and the lights on the water always make me feel good. Especially coming in from a great ride.

Photo by SuzieCate, 2014

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