I-10, I-20, I-85, I-95, home: October 26- November 6, about 3,500 miles.
Keeping it steady at 60, my odometer becomes a clock. In states where the interstate exits are numbered by their mileage, time, distance, and fast food all become interchangeable, just different manifestations of the same quantity; high on their slender stalks the colorful signs for restaurant and gas station chains are like giant flowers or minutes.
Again and again I don’t realize how cold I am until I get off the bike to refuel and start shaking and can’t stop for ten minutes, twenty, half an hour. When I’m riding I don’t notice because I slip into a cold torpor, the blood supply to my limbs silently restricted to maintain the temperature of my central organs while all of me goes just numb enough to not notice; my hands become unresponsive claws and my legs become weak as a child’s and I don’t even notice until I try to clutch, brake, stop and stand. I wobble and lurch into the bathroom to hold my hands under the faucet. The lights and colors are disorienting and my brain feels sluggish. The hot water sears me like sunlight on a vampire, not because it’s too hot but because my hands are too cold.
Once the pain goes away the warmth feels like liquid joy seeping into my hands, like life animating dead tissue, like happiness running into my lonely blood. I think, desperately: if I could curl up in this handful of hot water, that could be home. I could be home now. I could live out the rest of my days happy and warm in a truckstop bathroom sink.
Haunting me is the knowledge that I’m still only in Texas, still as far south as I can be, and I’m so damn cold. I haven’t even turned north yet, and when I do it’ll only get a thousand miles worse. Lying on the grass at a rest area in east Texas and trying to warm up in the thin sunlight I think long and hard about selling the bike; sell the bike and buy a bus ticket home. Yeah.
But I don’t. When I cross out of Texas and into Louisiana I feel much better; Texas is just a hard state to cross, too big. I enjoy a psychological boost- although a mile is a mile no matter what state I’m in, after spending two nights in Texas I now cross a couple states a day and it feels great. I feel like I’m in the East now, closer to home than not.
I see my grey face in the restroom mirror. I wash it almost every time I stop, but every day it gets a little greyer. Maybe this is my natural coloration now. Finally I realize that the grime isn’t washing off because the dark, oily patina isn’t water soluble. I spend 10 minutes in hard scrub and get my face back.
Stranger still, I look closely at my eyes and see foam. My eyes sting, they sting even when I stop riding and they still sting the next day, and along the edge of my eyelid is a thin line of white foam. It’s not normal eye junk, it looks more like the froth made by waves against a lakeshore; from constant irritation by the wind, maybe, but I can’t just stop.
The universe is a place of cruel but beautiful balance. The colder it is, the harder it is to start my bike and the longer I have to spend pushing it up and down hills, the hotter I get from the exertion. If it’s dropped below freezing when I wake up, then I spend a half hour or 45 minutes struggling behind a cold lump of iron on two worn rubber wheels until I’m gasping, soaked in sweat, and sweltering under my layers when the engine roars good morning. But I never doubt that it will start. It always starts. It may be the greatest bike ever made. Blasting down the onramp I smile ecstatically as the sweat freezes to my body.
I forget who I am from moment to moment. Without the constant reinforcement of social interaction, without being told who I am by those around me, I start to dissolve. I’d like to say I have a strong identity wired to a solid, tempered center, but the truth is I’m a loosely associated set of reactions. On the interstate I’m isolated from both people and land and become little more than a ghost hunched over in forward flight.
The ride up the east coast is a short few days,and the last day is a short ride, only a couple hundred miles across New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts on a warm and beautiful day. It’s barely dark and barely cold when I roll back into Manchester 13,758 miles after I left it.