Highway 1, the beginning

Mark arrived from England about a week ago, in preparation for our two month road trip of the western United States on his old BMW motorcycle, heretofore sitting idle in my garage. Given a full service last summer, it is ready to go with just a bath and a fill-up. Before leaving town, I take a last walk with Jenn and wee Declan, keenly aware that when I return they will be in the process of beginning to move away from here. Our walking days, long easy chats, impromptu and spontaneous visits between our abodes – a mere 4 blocks away – will soon be over, probably forever. I hug her tight when we say goodbye but blink back my tears. I have conditioned myself these last years to think of everything as temporary. I remind myself of this when I’m tempted to cling to her, to say please don’t go. Who am I to say don’t go, when I am always going? (And how could I anyway, even if I weren’t?) Later on I stop by Neighbor Jim’s house to give him my keys, and confirm that he’ll be checking my mail and watering my houseplants once a week or so. He walks outside with me and when I hug him goodbye he says quietly, “You’re my best friend now, you know that?” I say I suppose I do, and I suppose he is mine too. He’s 86 years old.

We leave at midday and quickly find ourselves on Highway 1, with the intention to take it as far north as it will go, which happens to be Leggett, before picking up 101. We ride to San Simeon where we stretch our legs and have a snack. The last time I was here, there was an enormous bull elephant seal sunning himself on the beach just off the pier. Today the beach is empty save for birds and a gaggle of school children, presumably on a field trip of sorts. We stop again for fuel, then for coffee at Big Sur Lodge, and once or twice more besides just to stretch for about five minutes. Though they aren’t long, I find these brief intermissions necessary, otherwise my hips and knees are screaming bloody murder by the end of a day’s ride. As it is, I stumble stiffly off the bike when we arrive at our destination for the night in a forested enclave just southeast of Santa Cruz. 

Mark has found this place, a big house surrounded by redwoods, through a motorcycle forum, and our host Paul proves to be graciously hospitable, showing us to a guest room and bath and serving us cold beer followed by dinner when we come downstairs. He has prepared an aromatic Thai fish curry stew over rice with fish he caught in Mexico last fall (wahu fish?) and steamed artichoke. It’s lovely, not too spicy, and helps to warm me up after our windy ride up the coast. A recently retired fire fighter and wood worker in his free time, Paul is well traveled, both by motorcycle and by bicycle, and it soon becomes apparent he and Mark (also an avid cyclist), have been to many of the same countries. They have much to discuss. I’m happy to watch and listen, pitching in an observation or two now and then, but grateful to Mark again as I was in India for gifting me the guise of coupledom in the event that the conversation turns personal. If and when questions arise such as “Do you have children?”, I can allow him to answer “No,” and not feel compelled to explain my situation, or to lie and in so doing, dishonor Jackson’s memory, which is what it feels like to me. The evening passes pleasantly, and I can’t quite believe our luck: a delicious dinner, hot shower, warm bed for the night, interesting conversation, even breakfast in the morning.

The next day we ride through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge and I’m downright flabbergasted to discover that once we get out of the city, there is almost no traffic on Highway 1. Up to Stinson Beach and beyond, all the way to Point Reyes National Seashore, we pass only a handful of travelers (one a lone female cyclist), in either direction. We’d been dubious about our chances of finding a campsite without a reservation but had set our sights on Sonoma Coastal State Park, and we greet the empty road with hope. We pull up to the entrance gate at Bodega Dunes Campground with fingers crossed and are given our choice of almost 50 sites. The campground is only half full. We drive around all three loops, one with an ocean view at one or two places. The sites are all similar, each containing a picnic table, a fire ring, and a wooden food pantry (new to me, what a great idea). We select one that has few neighbors, grass and dirt as opposed to sand, and is heavily treed. We set up the tent and ride back down the road a few miles to a grocery store for pre-made salads and instant soup. By the time we’ve eaten and cleaned up, it’s approaching dusk so we crawl inside the tent. Mark puts his earphones in almost immediately and soon falls asleep, audiobook forgotten. I write for awhile then read, then put my tablet away. I lay there and listen to the quiet, all human noises extinct now, only a few seals barking in the near distance and a gentle breeze rustling the tent flaps. It’s the kind of quiet I yearn for most of the time and cherish when I’m in it. It is one of the sweetest sounds I know.

I’m tired and expect to fall asleep quickly, but several hours later I’m still awake. My mattress isn’t placed on the flat surface I thought it was and I feel like I’m sliding down an incline. I spend most of the night trying not to slide into Mark, who is sleeping soundly with his usual ease beside me – god I hate him for that – failing a time or two, my muscles tense in the effort toward rigidly holding my ground. I drift off toward dawn and wake up when Mark is trying to get out of the tent. He shakes my shoulder and says, “Can you move up please?” I have somehow contrived to wiggle or slip all the way down to the other end of the tent. 

An hour or so later the sun is up and Mark speaks to me again from outside the tent. “Ready for coffee?” I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to ignore him but he persists. “Okay,” I croak. I crawl out of the tent and stagger to the bathroom, aching and stiff. I feel every bit of my 54 years, 9 and a half months this morning. I drink my coffee and wonder, Did I miss my window? Don’t most people ride motorcycles and go camping in their twenties and thirties? Am I too old for this? I wonder if there are people in their 80s who sleep on the ground and ride motorcycles. What will I be doing at 80? Will I still be alive? Some days I have my doubts I’ll make it to sixty. The only thing I know for certain is that tomorrow is guaranteed for nobody. 

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