I saw the bike sitting in some guy’s yard by the river with a cardboard “For Sale” sign on the handlebars. He was motivated to sell, and I was motivated to buy—a match made in Binghamton. It was a 1984 Honda V45 Sabre 750cc motorcycle with a shaft drive and a water cooled engine. I had some concerns; for one, it was heavy. A 750 was about as much bike as I could handle, but still big enough to handle highway riding more comfortably than a smaller bike at higher RPMs. It looked like it needed new tires, but it started right up without any clicking or rattling and had a throaty sound from an exhaust leak, and not too much rust. When I first rode it around the block with the guy on back, I was unable to steer it into a left turn. Fortunately there was a little gravel lot straight across the road, and I went into it and came to a stop.
“It’s counterintuitive,” he told me. “When you’re turning left, you actually push the handlebars slightly to the right and lean into it. Don’t worry, it won’t take long ‘til you get the hang of it.”
With that reassurance from him, and 800 bucks from me, I hopped on and rode away. I had read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and was confident I could overcome all obstacles.
* * * *
“You’re never gonna make it,” Jeff told me. “You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.”
I stretched my arms behind my head and smirked back at him from my seat on the beer-stained, puke-green sofa. This was not the first time Jeff had offered an opinion that I didn’t like, so I didn’t let it get under my skin. A dank odor of beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays hung in the air. Our place was usually party central for Jeff and his buddies, and not living with one’s parents anymore meant you could push the bounds of hygiene and courtesy.
“Oh, really?” I prompted.
“That’s right. You’re gonna get a couple hundred miles out of town, and then that piece of junk motorcycle is gonna break down, and you’ll be calling your Daddy to come and get you.”
I snorted a short burst of air out of my nose. “Well, that is NOT going to happen.”
“You think you’re so smart, you think you can do whatever you want, but you’ll see, when you get out there in the real world, people just wanna fuck you over, you’ll run out of money, that motorcycle will fuck up somehow, and you’ll come crawling back. You’ll be lucky if you get your job back at the Kwik-E Mart.”
Jeff had grown up in this town, but I had only moved to upstate New York from D.C. to live with my Dad after I turned 18. I met Jeff at the Chi-Chi’s restaurant, where he had worked his way to 1st Assistant Chef, and I had been a waiter. I’d lived in this trash-heap-of-a-place for a year now, a stone’s throw from the Kwik-E Mart, and occupied a space in the basement by clearing out room for a bed amidst the landlord’s extensive African insect collection. There were bugs in boxes, mounted in frames, and stacked in labeled jars. Big bugs with the scientific names printed on plastic tape to identify them. I had moved out of Dad and Cheryl’s house into the first place of my own with Jeff, Squid, and Dave. I had gotten a job and gone to school—I had made all the motions to live up to the expectations the world has for a young man. I had tried to develop a vision of my future, but nothing clicked. It was time to try something different.
“Give it a break, dickwad,” Dave’s girlfriend shot back from the chair next to the cracked mirror coffee table. “I think it’s romantic, driving across the country on a motorcycle following the Grateful Dead.” Jeff just stared his blank zombie look and shook his head, mouth agape.
While I appreciated her sentiment, my brain whispered to me, she WOULD think that. Dave’s girlfriend was someone else’s wife, and something of a nymphomaniac. I first met her when I went to go pick her up and bring her over to the apartment for one of our epic parties, and she could not stop feeling me up while she clung to me on the back of the bike. I had only been laid once, but I knew better than to get messed up in that drama. Besides, I wasn’t sure if it was me or the motorcycle that did it for her. I suppose for a horny 19-year-old it shouldn’t make a difference, but I had listened to the blaring warning sirens in my head instead of the throbbing urges in my groin.
My plan was pretty straightforward. I would follow the Dead summer tour from Boston to Rochester to Philadelphia to D.C. in the first leg, then on to Wisconsin and CalExpo in Sacramento. Then, I would establish residency in California and go back to school. I had been going to Dead shows since I was 16, and I knew there was a family of transients who followed them around from place to place, selling grilled cheese sandwiches, burritos, drugs, and tie dyed T-shirts. Squid had been going for even longer, and he was introducing me to plenty of his well-connected buddies. I had raised the money to buy the motorcycle and support the whole venture after Squid and I had hitchhiked to the Dead show in Pittsburgh in the spring. In a stroke of luck I had done rather well for myself there. First, the crowds overwhelmed security and let me in a side door, unfrisked and well-stocked in merchandise for sale. Then afterwards, the guy selling me a quarter pound in the parking lot was so nervous about all the cops running around that he ended up giving me too much – nearly 6 ounces of the stinkiest Humboldt bud I had ever smelled. Between that and losing my virginity to the girl who picked us up hitchhiking, I figured Squid and the Dead were my good luck charms, and my way to get to California.
“Why don’t you get a VW bus, man?” Squid asked me, stroking his wispy goatee. “You can carry more stuff, lock it all up, and stay out of the rain.”
“I would,” I replied, “but I haven’t been able to find one anywhere. Besides, the bike is good on gas, and if I run out of money, I can panhandle enough to get to the next town. I don’t want to weigh myself down with too much crap, and I like the idea of feeling each mile slip away beneath me as I leave this place behind.”
“Seems reasonable,” he said. “I might even come with you. But you haven’t even had a motorcycle before. You sure you can handle that thing?”
I considered this for a moment. “Well, I’ve had mini-bikes and ridden mopeds, this is just bigger and heavier. By the time I get to California, I’ll be an expert. I got the book on the thing, so if I need to work on it, I should be OK. And it runs fine. All it needs are new tires, and some way to carry my gear.” Unlike Jeff, Squid admired my glass-half-full approach, and he wanted to go to the shows, too. The plan was coming together.
This last point about carrying gear was one I had thought about for a while, and ultimately I arrived at a solution. I noticed there were bolt holes in the frame just over the rear wheel, and came up with an idea. There was an old guy who did small welding jobs in the neighborhood, and I had him put together these steel plates with steel tubes sticking off of them at an angle that mounted onto the frame. Then I drove galvanized pipe up through the aluminum uprights of a hiking backpack. The backpack would slip into the pipes sticking up like rocket launchers. The result was a spine that served as a backrest for the passenger and a way to lash other gear to the cycle. It looked ghetto as hell, but it worked.
And so before long, we were on our way to Foxboro, Massachusetts to see the first of the shows, with Squid riding behind me in style. As it turned out, with the backpack and the other gear attached, sitting back there was like being in a comfy living room chair, and shielded from the wind by the pilot, you could even smoke a cigarette. Squid was a good traveling companion in that he did not complain and didn’t have much stuff. It was just as well, since he had not secured his bag very well to the pack, and it had come loose within the first few miles of travel. We noticed it pretty quickly, but still had to go to the next exit and circle around to pick up his clothes strewn about in the traffic of the interstate. That was the first important lesson of the journey—make sure everything is tied well to the bike.
By the time we were headed from Rochester to Philadelphia, we had our first real scary episode. We were near Corning, New York, and it had just finished pouring rain as we were getting back onto the highway. The road was slick with oil from where the trucks had to slow down to make the turn onto the ramp, and so I took it very easy as I took the left turn. It didn’t matter that I had mastered the left turning technique in this instance—there was no change in direction. We were hydroplaning directly towards a guardrail with a sharp drop off behind. Thinking quickly, I decided it was better to slide into this guardrail than hurdle over it, and so I put the bike down and smashed into the post with the front fender. Squid had basically just stepped off of the bike, since we were only going 1 mph, and the pack was so well tied together that it slid off in one big chunk and was lying on the road. I peered over the edge of the guardrail at a rushing creek with large rocks jutting out all over the place, and let out a sigh of relief. Someone who had witnessed this came over to see if we were OK, then offered to help make the bike suitable for travel again. They lived not far from there, and fed us lunch while the fender was banged back into shape. None the worse for wear, we set off again with the sun shining.
The Dead show parking lot was an experiment in capitalism unfettered, unless you counted the cops, which became less and less of a concern with experience. In Philadelphia, we were in our tent right next to the entrance to a parking lot, with a cop directing traffic off of the street. Some irate driver started an argument with the cop, and they were yelling back and forth in their thick East Coast city accents, until ultimately the guy was pulled out of his car and arrested. More cops came, and the whole thing was quite the scene. Traffic was rushing past barely a foot from the wall of the tent, red and blue lights were spinning, angry voices and radio squelches fell in spurts from the cops’ utility belts. At first I was worried, but then I realized that they were so enthralled with each other, they were paying no attention to anything else. Their whole show did nothing to stem the tide of steady sales from my tent, right next to them—mostly sticky pot and “white fluff,” which is what they called the particularly clean variety of Owsley-grade LSD I generally had. It was as if the tour heads were in our own little world, untouchable and unbothered by the machinations of the straight world all around us. Another lesson was learned—leave the townies to their own affairs, keep your cool, and act as if everything is normal, and the cops will leave you alone.
It seemed like it was no time before the first leg of the trip was through and we were ready for the D.C. show at RFK Stadium. This is where I had seen my first Dead show with my whole posse of high school friends, and now they were excited that I was back in town, even if only for a while. By this time, Squid had got himself another ride, and so my old crew had me all to themselves. Will and I had been friends since the 8th grade, and even though we ended up going to different high schools, we had remained best friends. I had met him and his brother, Coleman, just after they had moved to the U.S. from England, and we had been thick as thieves. We all took tae kwon do together and, dressed all in black with various exotic weapons, prowled around the woods at Jones Point at night terrifying older teenagers. Coleman had shot an arrow into one guy’s door as they fled, leaving their beer behind. The brothers had always taken to fighting more seriously than I had, and served as my protectors in our various shenanigans. I had left suddenly right after my 18th birthday to move with my Dad, so there was a sense that we hadn’t had a chance to settle our affairs adequately.
“Are you sure you can handle that thing alright?” Will inquired cautiously.
“I’ve made it this far, haven’t I?”
“Yes, I suppose you have, by some miracle of luck. I’m thinking I’d like to come with you for the rest of the way—whaddaya think?”
“You got any money?”
“Yeah, I got a few hundred bucks. You need someone to help split the riding anyway. It’s a long haul across the country from Wisconsin, you know.”
“Alright then, you’re on.”
* * * *
Will and I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, after the Alpine Meadows shows somewhat bedraggled and in need of a recharge. This venue had been different from the others we were used to; more rural, more woodsy. It had rained the last two days, and the final morning I had wakened to my head in a puddle, and everything we owned soaking wet. Our friends had creatively redeployed the tent into a canopy to make more room, and the result was pools of water dripping through the canvas onto the ground, with little rivulets running through here and there. Sales had been slow, but we had figured out a new angle. Will had his military I.D., and we had bought Camels and Marlboros from a nearby Base Exchange for $8 per carton, selling packs for $2.00 apiece. Reselling cigarettes was illegal, but in contrast to our normal routine, we felt pretty confident. That, and the cheaper food, had kept us in the black. We were staying with our friend Andrew’s mom for a day or two before taking off on the cross country trip, and figured we’d go see what was swinging at the University that night. The air had that clean, green smell from after the rain, and the place was abuzz with young people, many like us, tasting freedom for the first time, though maybe not as free as we were. Our only responsibility was to be in Sacramento in a week to hang out with the Grateful Dead and sell drugs.
A duet with two women on acoustic guitars were just starting their performance in a gazebo-like open air stage, with people gathered casually in anticipation. From the edge of my awareness, I heard a voice.
I turned towards the voice and saw Meaghan walking up to me, just as beautiful as I remembered. As improbable as it was, she had spotted me in the crowd. Improbable not only because we never would have guessed to meet each other in this setting, but also because I’m sure I looked very different. I had long hair now, pulled back in a ponytail with little errant curls dancing around my face, and had taken to wearing my brother’s army jacket instead of the preppie stuff I used to wear. I had the biggest crush on her in high school, but never had an opportunity to pursue anything more with her than sneaking out of guitar class to smoke cigarettes. And now, here she was, glowing with excitement and rushing up to me to grasp me in her soft embrace. Her eyes were dancing with questions, and I was very pleased to share my story.
“What happened to you? What are you doing? Where are you going? What are you doing here? Where are you staying?” She riddled me with questions so fast, I had to calm her down to start at the beginning.
As the music played, we chatted about our exploits. I basked in her magnificence and imagined myself exuding manly poise and confidence. “Will and I are leaving tomorrow to ride across the country on my motorcycle to see the Grateful Dead in California,” I told her. I was the coolest guy in the world, and whatever sogginess had permeated my being the day before was replaced with a light ease and sense of being in control. As the duet finished up, they thanked the crowd.
“We’re the Indigo Girls, goodnight!”
I remember thinking they were pretty good, and I hoped that they would go places.
The following morning, Will and I packed everything up on the bike. We had dried everything out now, and our chance meeting with Meaghan and a night’s sleep in a real bed had gone a long way towards renewing our optimism. California was only four days away. We didn’t know where we were going to stay, how far we could go each day, or what awaited us on the road ahead. But we had our wits about us, a little cash in our pockets, and a destination firmly in place. As we were getting ready to hop on the bike, Andrew’s mom had us pose for a picture. I think I’d give just about anything to look at those two young men standing next to that bike, the world barely aware of what we were prepared to unleash upon it.