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On The Road

Our writing contest winners conquer the west with words

January 21, 2009, 12:00 am

Second Place
Tom Ireland
Horizontal Displacement

A native New Yor
ker, Tom Ireland moved to New Mexico in 1971. After two years at Lama Foundation, he and his former wife traveled by mule in the direction of southeast Utah, but they only made it as far as Durango (snow, fences, renegade mule). They bought land near Ojo Caliente, where his daughter Hannah was born, and raised sheep and goats. Ireland has written four books of nonfiction, including Birds of Sorrow: Notes from a River Junction in Northern New Mexico. After moving to Santa Fe in the ’80s, he began editing books for various academic publishers and has been employed at the Office of Archaeological Studies, a state agency, for 20 years. One of his essays was published in Best American Travel Writing, and two others were cited as “notable” in Best American Essays. He received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Jeffrey E Smith Award in nonfiction.

I was nineteen and, technically speaking, a virgin. I’d heard rumors of a vast continent west of New York City, but the farthest west I’d ever been was Fort Lee, New Jersey, for a wrestling match in high school. My college buddies and I had planned a motorcycle trip to the West Coast to see what we could see, and when they flaked out on me at the last minute, I decided to go alone.

My middle-aged BMW R69S, earnestly saved for over two years of college, had rubber-dampened engine mounts, making the ride exceptionally smooth for a motorcycle, and pistons that went in and out rather than up and down, a design that its Bavarian inventors called “horizontal displacement.” It made the machine into a sort of gyroscope. The faster you went, I argued to my father, who was opposed to motorcycles in general for reasons of safety, the harder it was to lose control.
I was an English major by default, which meant having to read the works of English writers. In my saddlebag when I left New York was a thick hardbound journal, still blank except for the epigraph on page one, a quotation from Book 13 of William Wordsworth’s Prelude: “But much was wanting: therefore did I turn to you, ye pathways, and ye lonely roads.” It was just as well that my friends had abandoned me, I figured, since anyone who aspired to the authentic spirit of Romanticism had to travel the lonely roads alone.

After stopping at my sister’s place in suburban Detroit, I camped at Indiana Dunes State Park, where I met a girl named Sue. A student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she was vacationing with her parents and bored to desperation. She and I walked the dunes of Lake Michigan, observed the floating dead bodies of sea lampreys, watched the sun go down, and made out until after dark (she had an extremely athletic tongue). After her parents went to bed she walked back across the dunes and came uninvited into my tent. I was convinced that the whole trip, maybe even the whole rest of my life, was going to be just that easy.

The next morning, “trailing clouds of glory” (more Wordsworth), I left Sue in the prison of her vacation and headed west. Corn and hog farms. Bugs that were forever destroying themselves on my face shield and had to be wiped off. What I experienced on the road was mostly the road—eighteen-wheelers that nearly blasted the cycle off the pavement in passing; kids in back seats of cars for whom I was a moment’s entertainment in a long, hot, dreary afternoon, and they for me. Days in the saddle sequestered me with my thoughts and forced me to hear them out, along with the wind in my helmet and the tapping of the engine valves, in a way I never had before.

Those clouds on the western horizon in Colorado, a whiteness rising out of brown farmland murk, weren’t clouds at all but mountains with snow on them! When I killed the engine at an elevation of over 10,000 feet and dismounted, my head was spinning so wildly that I could barely keep my feet. Independence Day I climbed Mount Audubon. Who needed trails? I climbed along the fall line, drank from mountain streams, and collapsed at the summit in a little rock shelter. To the east were the plains, and in all other directions, nothing but mountains. If it was true that “the individual Mind” was fitted to “the external World” and vice versa, as Wordsworth wrote in The Excursion, then my mind and those mountains had both found their fit. I resolved that one day I’d return to live in them.

People I met along the way were curious to know what I was doing and why I was doing it alone: Mike Crowley, a Harley salesman on his day off, took me on a tour of the San Fernando Valley while my motorcycle was in the shop (“engine slap,” they said; I didn’t have enough money to get it fixed). A dark-haired girl from San Francisco smiled at me on El Capitan Beach and didn’t call the police when I tracked her down and started a conversation. Phil and Dora Chamberlain, friends of The Mamas and the Papas, had painted the lyrics of “Monday Monday” on the outside of their camper. Being from the East, where suspicion is a way of life, nothing in previous life had prepared me for the warmth of Californians.

In The Dalles, Oregon, I was adopted by a gang of middle-aged bikers, among them Gary Kuppenbender, who made me get my bike steam cleaned and replaced the front tire. They all rode Harleys and had their “mommas” ride along with them in the passenger seat. It wouldn’t do for me to ride alone, not with that crowd, so they requisitioned someone’s daughter to ride with me for a tour of the valley. One of their gang, called Piggy, had lost his nose in a motorcycle wreck; another one showed me a scar on his cheek where a grasshopper had gone clear through it at seventy miles an hour and into his mouth, still kicking.

Having left the coast, all I had on my mind was getting home before my money and my transportation gave out. Montana lasted forever, an immensity that has been known to cause panic attacks in Japanese tourists, just as the confinement of cities frightens people from the West. Waiting for a rainstorm to pass, I drank coffee and listened to truckers talk about Bobby Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa.

All the progress I’d made in the direction of independence—west—was squandered in five days on the ride back east. At the end I was so worn out that even New York looked good. My parents were happy to have me home in one piece, and genuinely sorry when, one month later, the BMW was stolen by two men who snatched it off the street and loaded it into the back of a furniture truck—according to a neighbor who watched from an upstairs window—as if it hardly weighed anything. Without any insurance, I “chalked it up to experience,” my father’s antidote to heartbreak, and settled for a Volkswagen convertible.

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