Middle of the Road

Middle of the RoadPat Hahn


The tragic flaw of modern travel is its lack of personality.

    Try soaking up the beautiful sights, smells, and sounds of your world on a coast-to-coast flight. You can stare at the grimy upholstery, or maybe watch the vaguely robotic gestures of the staff. Enjoy the scent of mile-high coffee and steamed food. Breathe the stale air of some old air conditioner. You might try to enjoy the surreal patchwork quilt of farms, fields, and forests through your own double-paned porthole, but airplane windows always seem too small. Watch as your shadow streaks across the ground, darkening a thousand doorsteps in less time than it takes to zip your jacket.

    But flying is efficient: With a credit card and a picture ID, you can disconnect your life and plug it in somewhere completely new in a matter of few hours. Go ahead. You earned it.

    At the opposite end, traveling on foot changes everything. When you lock your front door and set out for a new place, you have no choice but to absorb your world, one step at a time, starting with your own neighborhood. There’s continuity there––you’re leaving a trail. No matter where you end up, you can retrace your steps and find the common ground between what is familiar and what is new. A window box filled with dripping flowers, a riding lawnmower chuffing gasoline and freshcut grass, a friendly dog escorting you safely past his property, kids splashing chlorine-blue water, the popcorn and crickets at a drive-in movie, the oily shadow of a repair shop and the faded cars in the hot sun waiting to be claimed, these are all connected back to your own door through your footsteps.

    But walking requires effort. A traditional journey in Thoreau’s America means you’re burning calories instead of riding the flying tube. Sore feet and sunburn (and the few things you carry) wear you down from the start. Cross-country by foot is a matter of a few months—assuming you don’t get run over by a traveling salesman in a Buick as he wipes ice cream off of his shirt.

    Car travel offers a good alternative to airline travel, yet is still not awash with life. The world flies by, four lanes wide at a steady 65, and you can’t escape the controlled-environment feel and the separation of you from your journey––it’s like you’re trapped inside a television machine. The greasy hair and acne of gas stations, hamburger stands, and hotels are all you get. Four time zones takes a few days.

    Bicycling is high-mileage walking that rewards you with the taste and feel of America, but the adventurer is still burdened heavily by the need for carbohydrates and baggage. You get the wind and the trees and the sun and the hills, but it still exacts a toll on your time and your arms and legs. You’re going to need at least a few weeks.

    There’s only one solution: The gods of travel have given us the motorcycle, and left behind millions of miles of forgotten paths. Atop a modest engine and a couple wheels with some good rubber, the explorer can carry his personality and comforts with him, boring into parallel worlds just past familiar landmarks and alien lands over borders near and far. Pioneers had to tough it out, seeking trails that did not yet exist and living off of the land as they went. Like magic, the paths are already there for us, two lanes wide (or less). Few other travelers clutter them up.

    Like magic, filling a tank with gas stamps a free ticket to an afternoon of adventure and discovery. Like magic, you and your motorcycle soak up landscape like a sponge, wringing beauty from the world through your hands, through your feet, your sore, sore butt, through your eyes, your nose, your ears, and against your skin. Alone in your world, worries are few.

    Like magic, when you’re ready to rest, there’s a campground or a restaurant waiting at the next milestone. And like magic, the unseen road continues to call out, usually mysterious, always unraveling into the distance. Sometimes, a few moments can last a lifetime.

    Like magic, we use our motorcycles to soak up the gifts that the gods have given us.

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