People look at you differently when you carry a motorcycle helmet onto an airplane. You're not just another girl, or another guy, or another couple--you're the couple passing the helmet back and forth to each other while arranging items in the overhead bin, careful to find a spot where the helmet won't be crushed or overly jostled. You're a couple with a story, and people look at you that way: open, curious, maybe a little surprised, maybe a little envious. They look at you like they want to know you, to ask you questions, the helmet a conversational totem, a way of finding common ground in the spirit of adventure.
On July 19, Adrian I were meeting a group of five other riders in Spokane, Washington, for the beginning of a 10-day motorcycle ride in Canada. I knew Mark through RTC: I had helped him write his book, Love Loudly: Lessons in Family Crisis, Communication, and Hope, a couple of years ago. Mark is a sergeant with the LA County Sheriff's Department, helping at-risk youth through the Vital Intervention Directional Alternatives (VIDA) program. Mark is a former Marine (if Marines ever consider themselves "former"), gregarious, inclusive, energetic. He is the consummate host, working tirelessly to make sure everyone has a good time, but he is also an expert in cognitive behavior, leadership, and team building. He believes in, as he calls it, "crushing comfort zones." People grow through discomfort, he believes (and I agree). They access little-known parts of themselves, and this is part of the adventure--maybe even the most important part. Mark had planned the ride with his partner, Jeff, also a sergeant with the LA County Sheriff's Department. They work together at VIDA and also hatched the idea of Road Dog Dual Sport Adventures, guided motorcycle adventures for those seeking a reprieve from mundane daily life. I'd met Jeff briefly at RTC's adventure retreat in 2014, which Mark hosted in Joshua Tree with Jeff's help, but I don't remember having a conversation with him there. Also along for the ride were Mark's daughter Megan, Jeff's daughter Valerie, and Debra, who knew Jeff and, peripherally, Mark, through work. Later, we would be meeting Mark's friend Mike and his daughter Ellie, along with three Canadians: Bill, Doug, and Bubba.
The trip was happening largely because Adrian had pushed for it. Two years ago, he went on a trip through California and Oregon with Mark, Jeff, and a couple of others, riding through giant sequoias and ghost towns and the misty Oregon coast, spending the night in random places: the roof of a houseboat, a vineyard in the middle of nowhere that the owner's son called "Mars," a cabin equipped with a foosball table, where they played all night while drinking Jeff's famous spritzers (Franzia blush box wine, mixed with Sprite, over ice). The trip had stayed in his blood. He wanted another one, and so, of course, did everyone else. This one would be different, though. At first, we talked about doing a couples' trip, but eventually it evolved into a father/daughter experience, living Mark's Love Loudly philosophy. (With the exception of Ellie, who is 16, Megan, Valerie, and I are all roughly the same age, give or take a few years.) The trip would also have a photography slant, since Mark, Adrian, Megan, Valerie, and Ellie are all avid photographers.
I knew very little, almost nothing, about where we were going, what our route would be, how much we'd be riding each day--even what the weather would be like. In the weeks leading up to the trip, Adrian meticulously prepared. He got new road tires for his bike, plus a back box for more storage that I'd be able to lean against. He replaced his multiple keys for the boxes with one that would open all of them. He equipped the bike with portable chargers for our electronics, bought a new GoPro, rented a new lens for his camera. He bought sleeping bags and pads, camping towels, a waterproof cover for the tank bag (the one directly in front of him on the bike). He bought himself a new helmet and tinkered with both of ours until the intercom system was reliably in place. (Through bluetooth, we'd each be able to listen to our own music, and with the push of a button, we could talk to each other through our helmets.) Since I had no protective apparel to speak of, except for a helmet and gloves, he went to work researching women's bike gear, showing me photos and reviews of jackets and pants he thought I'd like. We eventually ordered the following: REV'IT Levante Women's Jacket, Dainese New Drake Air Women's Textile Pants, and Icon Sacred Women's Low Boots. My helmet is this badass, Dia-De-Los-Muertos-evoking one from Icon.
We took the gear out for a spin on a ride to Fredericksburg one Sunday. Adrian showed me how to remove the waterproof liner of the jacket and how to adjust the pants for more ventilation, which was needed on that 100-degree day. I felt clunky and awkward in the gear, but to my surprise, I was more comfortable on the bike than I'd ever been. (Plus, a girl at a store in Fredericksburg asked if I was "a biker" and then told me how cute I looked in my new apparel. I won't lie: cuteness was a factor in choosing these items.) Warm air flowed through the jacket and pants, my music played seamlessly, and I didn't have to lean forward to hold Adrian the entire time; instead, I could rest my back against the box behind me and enjoy the scenery. I felt light and at ease and protected. Immediately, I wondered how I'd ever ridden without all this stuff. Shortly after that, Adrian found a shipping company that would transport the bike and boxes to Mark's house in California and back to Texas after the ride. He bought our plane tickets to and from Spokane.
What I'm saying is that I was an extremely passive participant in the planning. In hindsight, I wonder if this is because a part of me doubted the trip would actually happen; maybe a part of me hoped it wouldn't.
That's not an unfamiliar response to the unknown for me--and it had nothing to do with the idea of riding long distances, or camping, or being wet or cold or encountering wild animals. Physical discomfort of this kind doesn't scare me--I actually enjoy it. Instead, I felt the same sense of anxiety, even dread, before the Joshua Tree adventure retreat, and, in fact, before every RTC retreat. I feel it before parties or even dinners with people I don't know very well. It goes back to my old, natural, instinctive shyness. Entering a pre-established group is hard for me. I'm tongue-tied and awkward, can't think of a single thing to say, and often, what I do say comes across as strangely air-headed. I'm not like this one-on-one, and I'm not like this once I feel comfortable in a group, which can happen in as little as an hour or two. But the quiet, unspoken dread of entering that group, that space, can last for days, weeks, months, in advance of the event. Because I know that it always ends up being okay--more than okay--I never let my shyness keep me from doing things I want to do. But I do let other people orchestrate the event so that if it falls through, I can expel an inward sigh of relief and tell myself it just wasn't meant to be.
There was one other thing I was nervous about. I don't talk about it often, but it's important to me, and could be to someone reading this. I have a condition called interstitial cystitis. In a nutshell, it's an incurable disease of unknown cause that results in damage, mostly irreversible, to the lining of the bladder. This lining protects the bladder from the harmful acidic effects of things like soda, coffee, alcohol, citrus fruit, fruit juices, spicy foods, and more. Without it, consuming any of the above is literally like throwing acid on vulnerable flesh. The pain can be, and has been, unbearable. There was a period of a year or two after my diagnosis that I hardly ate at all. I dropped down to 98 pounds and spent hours on IC support sites and message boards, trying to find help. For awhile, I doubted that I would ever be able to have a normal office job, since I was leaving early from mine most days a week. Now, fortunately, I manage my IC mostly through diet--I know what my triggers are, and I stay away from them. It's why I haven't had a glass of red wine in 10 years. I hardly remember what oranges or grapefruits taste like. I also drink 6-8 bottles of water a day (around 130 ounces); I've realized that hydration is key for me. I can drink coffee or white wine, or eat spicy foods or marinara sauce, as long as I'm hydrated. The minute I'm dehydrated, I'll flare up. Anywhere I travel, I take specific pain medication with me, as well as antibiotics. The other thing about IC is that it predisposes you to bladder, kidney, and urinary tract infections. I usually get about six per year.
So I was worried, very worried, that I would either flare up or come down with an infection. That kind of pain, on a bike, in the middle of nowhere . . . the thought was actually terrifying. And best case scenario, if I stayed hydrated enough, I'd be peeing every hour. I didn't want to be the girl making everyone pull over all the time. And what about when there was nowhere to pull over? What would I do then? At some point in the planning period, before plane tickets were bought, I almost told Adrian to go without me. I needed to be realistic, I thought. People with IC don't get to go on these kinds of trips.
But I'm a person who rebels against You can't do this. No one determines what I can't do; not even myself.
So the night before the bike was supposed to be picked up (and nearly a month before the trip itself), I rolled up a few tank tops, a silk thermal layer, a pair of leggings and pair of jeans, my fleece hoodie, a beanie, and some socks, and fit them into a bag the size of Lola. We'd be checking luggage containing our riding gear and camping equipment, and carrying on Adrian's helmet, and I still needed to buy sunglasses and more socks for my riding boots. (Plus, a couple of cute Triumph tees to match Adrian's bike, because #dressthepart, right?) But this would be a good base.
Mark and Jeff met us at the airport in Spokane. Mark was on his bike, as the truck would only seat six, and Jeff was driving the truck with Megan and Debra inside. The truck was towing a large white trailer containing the rest of the bikes, which surprised me. I don't know what I'd been expecting--my limited spatial awareness, I think, made me envision all the bikes in the bed of a pickup truck. Insert eye-rolling emoji here.
We hugged Mark, who immediately declared, "We're doin' it!" which would become a bit of a mantra on the trip. Waiting with him was a petite girl in leggings and dark-rimmed glasses who introduced herself as Valerie, Jeff's daughter. She, too, had just flown in.
Valerie slid into the truck beside Jeff, and Debra sat on the front passenger seat. Jeff was a gruff, commanding presence whose face lit up when he saw Valerie. Debra had curly strawberry blond hair and a sweet voice, the kind of voice I bet is soothing to children. Megan, beside me to my left, munched from a bag of Ruffles. Like me, she had long dark hair and wore a plaid flannel shirt and jeans. I remembered Mark commenting years ago that I reminded him of his oldest daughter, and superficially, I could see why.
After introductions, the truck fell into silence as we distanced ourselves from the airport. We had a two-hour drive to Sandpoint, Idaho, where we would be leaving the trailer, loading the bikes, and staying for the night. Megan input an address into Apple Maps on her phone, but her phone was dying, and Debra plugged it in for her up front. There was a brief, awkward discussion about whether Megan wanted the phone back or was comfortable with it staying up front. Megan didn't mind, she said, but Debra struggled with the short cord to pass it back to her, and Megan tucked it into the seat pocket in front of her, where it hung precariously by a corner. Within minutes, Mark was out of sight on his bike and we were taking wrong turn after wrong turn.
Usually, when you're lost with a group of people you know, there's teasing and arguing, multiple people inputting addresses into multiple map apps on multiple phones, vying to be the loudest voice. Here, everyone was vaguely, quietly annoyed, inserting the occasional polite comment about where they thought we should be going. Valerie fiddled with the radio, finding a country station. Once we were on the right track, the radio was the only sound.
I felt myself about to get the giggles, so instead I threw out, "So, what route will be we taking, exactly?"
Jeff gestured to the dashboard. "Will you give her one of those maps?" he asked Debra. "We're heading west to Sandpoint, then up north through Glacier in Montana, we'll spend the night there, then--"
I was struggling to unfold the large map without elbowing Adrian or Megan. The backseat was hot already, but I prickled with embarrassed sweat. I couldn't even focus on the tiny lettering. "Am I holding this backwards?" I asked, flipping it around. "Yep, good. No, this is backwards now. You know what? Forget it. I trust you." Flustered, I folded the map back up as everyone laughed. There she was, the airhead that emerges in those shy first moments, but at the same time, I was glad to have broken the ice. I tried for a joke. "Now you know why Adrian brought me along," I said. "I'll be our navigational expert on this trip." They laughed again, and I handed the map back to Debra, flushed. I rolled my eyes at Adrian.
Silence fell again. After a few minutes, Adrian leaned toward me and murmured in my ear, "This is going to be a riveting trip."
I giggled, shushing him.
I didn't mind the quiet. On the plane, I had just finished reading Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward. The story takes place over the 12 days preceding Hurricane Katrina, told from the eyes of pregnant 14-year-old Esch as she and her three brothers, plus their alcoholic father, prepare as best they can despite their rural poverty. (Read this book!) I'd wept for the last 20 pages, and I had yet to leave the world of the story. So as we drove in silence, I looked out the windows, disoriented by the tall pines and placid lakes, the bucolic countryside and blond drivers and pedestrians. Where was the rubble? The "world unmade" of Hurricane Katrina? I was haunted still by the image of beloved pit bull China fighting the floodwaters, her white head shining. I thought of what the author said in her interview at the end of the book, how she was outraged by how quickly Katrina and her devastation faded from public consciousness, and I felt outraged, too, at the beautiful, untouched world around us. I remembered interning at People magazine when Katrina hit, hearing the stories roll, the call for reporters to go out there, the momentary wild notion that I should be one of them. I remembered being glued to the news at our college duplex, weeping at the hopeless bafflement on survivors' faces, and how this great loss brought out the best and worst of humanity. I thought about Black Lives Matter and the great racial divide in this country and I wanted to put Salvage the Bones in the hands of anyone who has ever felt that we are not all the same beneath our skin. Don't you recognize yourself? I would ask. Don't you recognize us all?
In Sandpoint, we pulled up to our destination, the house of an old friend of Mark's. The friend, Dave, was still at work, but his wife, Angie, and daughter, Mackenzie, came out to greet us. They were lovely and earnest, excited for our trip and generous with their house and yard. The men unloaded the bikes, and we all got set transferring and re-packing things into the bike panniers, pulling on our riding gear to save space. At one point, Mark and I were chatting, and he said conspiratorially, "It usually takes three days for the group to find a rhythm." I nodded, having found that to be true on every retreat I'd been on. I couldn't help wondering who we'd all be to one another by the end, what we'd reveal, what we'd learn.
We thanked Angie and headed out on our bikes to check in to our first night's accommodation and then find a place for dinner. On the way back to our motel, the wind rushed through my helmet and I grinned helplessly at the mountains in the distance, the sun gleaming off a lake. There was a moment when Adrian and I pointed to the same thing at the same time, and I caught a glimpse of both our smiles in the side view mirror, and he reached back to put a hand on my thigh and I leaned forward to wrap one arm around his waist, and everything faded, condensed, expanded, to right here, right now. And that was the soaring promise of this trip . . .
This series will be continued, with stories from the trip and featuring Adrian's photos.