A few days after he earned his motorcycle certificate, Jim and I headed to a store in San Francisco to buy his bike. He’d been studying motorcycles online for years and knew what he wanted: a Triumph Bonneville — based on the classic design of the one Steve McQueen rode in “The Great Escape.”
Most people, new to the sport, might start off slow, but that wasn’t Jim’s style. Still in the early stages — not only of motorcycle ownership, but love — we entertained the idea of heading across the United States on the bike, two aging vagabonds, re-enacting a cross between “Easy Rider” and “Two for the Road.” But a shred of common sense endured. We settled on Plan B: to ship the Bonneville across the country (cost: $500) and spend the summer riding it through my home state of New Hampshire, with jaunts to Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts.
The trip represented a big departure for us, and not simply of the geographical variety. In Jim’s case, this was the first summer he had taken off work for more than a week since he’d started practicing law. For me — unless you counted a couple of occasions I’d hopped on the back of a friend’s bike for a 15-minute tool around the block — it was the first time I rode on the back of a motorcycle.
My children were dubious. They’d known me long enough to understand I wasn’t a mother content to spend her days knitting by the hearth, but they expressed concern that I’d get hurt. Fond as they had become of Jim, they knew him to be a fast driver — though, less well known to them, a prudent one.
We both owned leather jackets, acquired some years ago for the tamer pursuits of attending rock concerts, but Jim bought gloves, and I brought back into service an old pair of cowboy boots with hand-tooled roses on the sides, purchased on a long-ago trip to Austin. We bought helmets, of course, the safest we could find. (In keeping with the motto of my home state, “Live Free or Die,” New Hampshire does not require a motorcyclist or passenger to wear a helmet. But as much as we would have liked the feeling of the wind in our hair, we liked the idea of intact brains even better.)
We had rented a house on a lake in New Hampshire for a couple of weeks, and a place in Rockport, Me., to stay while Jim attended photography school there. Other than that, we had no plans. The summer stretched ahead of us like a long and open road — the best kind: two-lane.
We decided to have a backup vehicle on hand. On Craigslist in Maine, I spotted a 1992 Chrysler LeBaron convertible — bright red — and bought it, sight unseen, for $1,800. On days when the weather was rough, or when we had more stuff to transport than would fit on the back of the bike, we took the car, but the bike swiftly became our favored mode of transportation.
We took it to Squam Lake in New Hampshire, to a quarry in Vermont, to the Vermont Country Store in Weston, where the sight of a Lanz flannel nightgown of the sort I hadn’t seen since 1977 inspired Jim to extract a promise from me that I would never own one of those. We visited the lovely little town of Shelburne Falls, Mass., to visit the film set of an adaptation of a novel I’d written, and to a gorge called Gulf Hagas, known as the Grand Canyon of Maine.
After our 10-mile Gulf Hagas hike, we stopped to wet our whistles in the very small town of Brownville. We were only part way through our shared bottle of beer when a police car pulled up. Word must have spread that two strangers in black leather jackets had pulled into town.
The officer looked us up and down as we sat on a bench in front of the one store in town. He took in the bike, my rose-decorated cowboy boots, the open container of beer. “Are you two on the run?” he asked. There were many ways to answer this question. (On the run, yes — from the practice of law, from the first 59 years of our lives.) But we shook our heads. No sir, officer.
He made me pour out the beer, but let us go. On the ride back to Rockport that night, every star visible, or so it seemed, a strange, unexplainable disk appeared in the sky and hovered over us. I tapped Jim’s shoulder, our preferred method of communication while riding. He pulled over. We studied the mysterious disk together in silence for a number of minutes until it disappeared. No idea, ever, what it might have been.
And here’s the thing about taking in the world on a motorcycle. You see so much you would have missed in a car. You can smell it even, if you’re lucky enough to be on a road that runs alongside the ocean. It’s true of a bicycle too, of course. In my younger days — meaning my early 50s, not my late ones — I experienced Tuscany that way, and Umbria. But it’s a whole lot easier taking hills on a Bonneville.
The times we rode in the LeBaron, rather than the bike, we had long conversations. We listened to music. Sometimes we sang. None of this is possible on a bike, but over those miles we spent on the motorcycle, I learned to love the silence between us. There was the sound of the engine, of course — more subtle and not as insistent as that of a Harley-Davidson — which would serve as a pretty fair description of Jim, come to think of it.
But the absence of all the words that fill so much of one’s days allows for a different kind of close observation. Trees and sky, general stores and unlikely landmarks: a 100-foot-high billboard of a lobster fisherman; a corn maze; the site in Bangor, Me., where the famous tiger tamer, Mabel Stark, was mauled by tigers during a circus performance, and lived to tell the tale.
Jim was the photographer in our twosome, but I was the scout. Many times, over the miles, I’d spot something that would make a good picture, and tap him with the signal to pull over. I took well to my role as the assistant. Tonto, not the Lone Ranger.
For a longtime solo operator like me, there was a singular joy to be had from simply holding on to Jim all those hours. I couldn’t see his face, not even the back of his head, only the helmet protecting it. Still, I did not tire of wrapping my arms around his chest, locking my legs around his, especially when we leaned into a sharp turn.
Once and once only, during the first days of our Bonneville summer, Jim tipped the bike. I wasn’t on it at the time. He was still doing practice runs, to make sure he was ready to handle a passenger, but he was going slow and landed on dirt, not asphalt. Apart from one small ding on the side of the bike, there was no damage done.
He did incur one injury on that trip, on foot, not motorcycle. Hiking along a rocky stretch of coastline in Acadia National Park — as a longtime Californian, he was unaccustomed to that particular kind of slippery rock about which I had warned him 10 seconds before — he slipped and fell, breaking two ribs.
The pain was severe, but we had come to Acadia on the motorcycle, so there was nothing for it but to get back on that bike and ride the 100 or so miles south to the house of friends where we were due to spend the night, at which point Jim upended three shots of whiskey in a row before stumbling off to bed.
When the summer was over, we shipped the bike back home again to Oakland. We were still debating what to do with the LeBaron when, on our final day in New Hampshire, a 19-year-old valet who had just parked it for us said, “That’s the greatest car I ever drove.”
“You want it?” I asked the boy. Jim — who might have questioned the young valet’s assessment of the LeBaron’s excellence in the automotive world, but appreciated his enthusiasm — handed him the keys.
Home again, we still rode the Bonneville now and then, but never again as we did that first summer together. Jim resumed his life as a lawyer; I got to work on another book. “One day,” we told one another, “we’ll ride the bike across the country.”
A year later, on another road trip — the Gold Country of Northern California, in the Boxster, not on the bike — Jim woke up with a stabbing pain in his back. By nightfall it was bad, and we made a doctor’s appointment.
The scan revealed a tumor in my husband’s pancreas. Nineteen months later — following seven rounds of chemotherapy, two of radiation, and 14 hours of surgery to remove the tumor, but not, evidently, every last cancer cell — Jim died, at home in our bed, four days after his 64th birthday.
For a year after his death, the Bonneville sat in the garage with a tarp over it. I didn’t want to look at that bike.
Finally, a couple of weeks after the anniversary of my husband’s death, I placed an ad on Craigslist, and a young man came to buy the Bonneville. I had loved riding on the back, with my arms wrapped around the very part of my husband’s belly where, a few years later, a surgeon would carve him up so extensively that it would no longer be possible to even touch him there.
I used to say, of those rides we took, that I was holding on to Jim for dear life. Dear life, there’s an expression. But as much as I had loved riding with him, I had no desire to drive the Bonneville myself. For that brief period in my decades as a solo operator, I had chosen to be the passenger, not the one in charge. The first time ever, maybe.
I’m back out on the road now, but in a car. (I drove Jim’s Porsche, briefly — until it died on the highway one night, having sat for too long.) After they towed away the Boxster, I was back to the old Honda Civic that I was driving the night I met Jim. Full circle, but not really.
All told — from that first Match.com date to the night, lying beside my husband in our bed, I realized he had taken his last breath — Jim and I had four and a half years together. Too little, by a few decades. But I prefer to measure what we got in miles — none more joyful than the 1,800 or so we put on his bike that Bonneville summer.
And I hold on to my helmet (also my cowboy boots). Because a person should never be so busy, I know too well, to jump on the back of a motorcycle when the spirit moves her.
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